Interview with Marvin Meyer on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

marvmeyer_lgHere’s part two of my interview with Professor Meyer:

(CWS) 4. Another research interest that I have and one that I hope to promote on this blog is the historical Jesus. You are known for your work in the Jesus Seminar and your interest in early Jesus traditions. To your mind, what implications for historical Jesus research does the Gospel of Thomas have? Is there anything in Thomas that is old enough to be potentially illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus? If so, what?

(MM) The early sayings traditions in the Gospel of Thomas may be as useful as Q materials for providing insights into the teachings of the historical Jesus. Personally, I find that the overall presentation of Jesus in Thomas as a Jewish wisdom teacher and storyteller who employs parables, typically without allegorical interpretations, and utilizes an interactive pedagogy, is more compelling than any of the New Testament gospel accounts, which have been shaped by a dominant concern for the salvific nature of the crucifixion and resurrection. Additionally, I find the lack of apocalyptic (or even the opposition to apocalyptic) in Thomas coheres with what I consider very likely to be characteristic of the historical Jesus: he appears to have been a Jewish sage who used witty aphorisms and stories to encourage people to think about and seek after the reign of God.

In The Gospel of Thomas I wrote, “In contrast to the way in which he is portrayed in other gospels, particularly New Testament gospels, Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas performs no physical miracles, reveals no fulfillment of prophecy, announces no apocalyptic kingdom about to disrupt the world order, and dies for no one’s sins.” To this I might add that Jesus in Thomas does not rise from the dead on the third day. In all these respects the Gospel of Thomas may bypass the emerging theological and soteriological issues in the New Testament gospel portraits of Jesus as son of God and savior, and as a result Thomas may bring us a step closer to the historical Jesus.

(CWS) 5. What scholars pursuing research on the Gospel of Thomas (and/or Christian Origins) have you found most helpful for your own work on the Gospel of Thomas?

(MM) In general, for the texts of the Nag Hammadi library and Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502, including the Gospel of Thomas, I appreciate the collective contributions of the three international teams that have worked more or less simultaneously on the texts: the Berliner Arbeitskreis für koptisch-gnostische Schriften (compare their two-volume work, Nag Hammadi Deutsch [De Gruyter]), the French-language team centered at the Université Laval in Québec (compare their Écrits gnostiques [Gallimard]), and the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, California (compare The Nag Hammadi Library in English and The Nag Hammadi Scriptures [Harper]). I also appreciate the publications of Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas [Random House]), and these days the work of Stephen Patterson on Thomas is proving to be exciting and innovative (compare The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus [Polebridge], and subsequent articles and presentations).

(CWS) 6. Are you currently planning to undertake more research on the Gospel of Thomas? If so, what other projects do you have planned (or in the works)?

 (MM) Currently I am awaiting the publication of a new poetic translation of the Gospel of Thomas I have produced with my friend and colleague, Willis Barnstone, in Essential Gnostic Scriptures (Shambhala), to appear soon.

(CWS) 7. To your mind, what areas of Thomas research are in need of further investigation? If you were going to supervise Ph.D. students in this area, what avenues of study would you suggest?

(MM) Among other areas of research on the Gospel of Thomas, I suggest studies of individual themes, sayings, and groups of sayings in Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas, after all, is a diverse assemblage of sayings gathered in a “looseleaf” collection that was copied, as we know from the varied presentations in the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus fragments and the citations in Hippolytus of Rome, in versions that differed in wording and the order of sayings. As a paradigm of such a study (which began as a dissertation), I refer to Howard Jackson, The Lion Becomes Man: The Gnostic Leontomorphic Creator and the Platonic Tradition (Scholars Press).

I would like to thank Prof. Meyer for interacting with my questions in this forum. In the coming days I will return to my series of posts that focus on scholarly views of Thomas‘s theological outlook.

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Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

9780567086075Here’s part two of my interview with Professor Uro:

(CWS) 4. To your mind, what is the relationship, if any, between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John?

(RU) I agree with Ismo Dunderberg that the attempts to reconstruct a conflict between John’s and Thomas’ communities are on a shaky ground. I also find helpful his idea that both the figure of the beloved disciple in John and the apostle Thomas in the Gospel of Thomas should be seen in the context of other figures of authentication that abound in early Christian literature. There are interesting points of contact, though, and both gospels seem to roughly derive from same stage of the Christian movement as 1Timothy, Hebrews, and some of the Apostolic Fathers.

(CWS) 5. Another research interest that I have and one that I hope to promote on this blog is the historical Jesus. What implications for historical Jesus research does the Gospel of Thomas have? In your opinion is there anything in Thomas that is old enough to be potentially illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus? If so, what?

(RU) I think the most important contribution of Thomasine studies to historical Jesus research is methodological. As I explained above, one of my first interests was to use Thomas’ materials to understand the tradition process in light of orality and literacy studies. Now the field is often called orality-scribality-memory studies. The results of such studies may not be as direct or dramatic as tracing some “authentic” traditions in Thomas, but I have been influenced by E.P. Sanders too much to take the sayings tradition as a point of departure in the study of the historical Jesus.

(CWS) 6. What scholars pursuing research on the Gospel of Thomas (and/or Christian Origins) have you found most helpful for your own work on the Gospel of Thomas?

(RU) As to the scholars, I cannot overstate the influence of the “original” Thomas project team in Helsinki (Dunderberg, Marjanen and Uro). We worked together intensively musing over Thomas and other Nag Hammadi writings on countless occasions for a period of several years. Moreover, my post-doctoral studies in Claremont brought me under the influence of the so-called Koester-Robinson school. I haven’t been a very obedient member of the school, but I always think with appreciation of what these great scholars have done to promote the study of Nag Hammadi and extra-canonical writings.

In terms of books, I have already mentioned Davies’ The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom and Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel. Steve Patterson’s The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus was on my desk constantly while working on Thomas.

Interview with Risto Uro on the Gospel of Thomas (Part I)

iso-uroAfter a short hiatus I am back and ready to post the first part of my interview with Finnish Thomas scholar, Risto Uro. Professor Uro is Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has been a prominent voice in the so-called “Finnish school” of Thomas studies. I would like to extend my thanks to Professor Uro for his willingness to be interviewed in this forum.

(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of each Thomas scholar I have interviewed thus far. Before I interact with your work on the Gospel of Thomas I would like to begin by asking what got you interested in studying the Gospel of Thomas in the first place?

(RU) I wrote my dissertation on Q and after I had completed my doctoral studies I was invited to Claremont (The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity) by James Robinson, who was gathering a large international research team to produce a Critical Edition of the Q Gospel. During my stay in California, I also took an elementary course in Coptic taught by Dick Smith. In the atmosphere of Claremont it was almost impossible not to get interested and somehow involved in Thomasine studies.  Besides, my curiosity had already been awakened by Stevan Davies’s thought-provoking book I had read earlier (I have told that part of the story in the prologue of my 2003 book on Thomas). In Claremont (where I was two times, in 1989 and in 1992) I made the acquaintance of many scholars (e.g., Jon Asgeirsson, Marv Meyer, and Greg Riley) who were enthusiastic about Thomas and enthusiasm is contagious. After my return to Finland, I met Antti Marjanen, who had studied in Switzerland and learned Coptic there. We translated the Gospel of Thomas into Finnish, applied funding for a larger research project on Thomas (a young promising scholar Ismo Dunderberg had joined us), and—hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant—the rest is history.

(CWS) 2. In your work you have argued that Thomas shows evidence of “secondary orality” (specifically, Thomas shows dependence upon Matthew and Q through oral tradition). Could you briefly explain how you arrived at this conclusion?

(RU) Originally I made this suggestion in a paper that was published in 1993 (Foundations & Facets Forum 9:3-4), one of my earliest works on Thomas. I got interested in orality and literacy studies, which by that time seemed to provide a fresh perspective to the timeworn issue of literary dependence.   Werner Kelber had published a pioneering study on orality and the gospel tradition in 1983.  Kelber’s study was insightful and seminal, but he emphasized the Great Divide view, the idea that there is a deep-going hermeneutic difference between the oral and written modes of transmission.  I wanted to modify Kelber’s ideas toward a model that would allow more interplay and interaction between orality and literacy in the tradition process, a view that actually became a dominant in later scholarship. Also Kelber has admitted that his initial thesis was too much on the side of Great Divide theory.  I picked up the term “secondary orality” from Klyne Snodgrass’ 1989 article, which argued that the author of Thomas drew on free oral traditions and interpretations of the Synoptic Gospels as used in the Gnostic circles. But I never meant that “secondary orality” be taken as a magic bullet that explains the relationship between Thomas and the Synopticts in the whole. The issue is much more complicated than that. For me “secondary orality” was one concrete example of the interplay between orality and textuality, which could possibly be identified in some sayings of Thomas. Recent studies on (social and cognitive) memory and the “sociology of reading” in antiquity have shown that orality and literacy were intertwined with each other in manifold ways. Some impressive steps of progress have been taken with regard to these questions recently. I hope to be able to return to the issue from the perspective of my ritual project in near future.

(CWS) 3. In one essay from your edited volume, Thomas at the Crossroads, you ask the question, “Is Thomas an Encratite Gospel?” Could you share what conclusions you reach on this question and whether or not you regard Thomas as Gnostic?

My argument that Thomas is not really “encratite” was a reaction against the view dominant in the earlier scholarship according to which Thomas represents an extreme form of sexual asceticism. If we consider the gospel in the context of the Christian world at the turn of the second century, there is nothing extreme in Thomas’ relationship to marriage and sexuality.  Ascetic ideals were common in early Christianity and can be found already in Paul and in later first-century writings, such as the Gospel of Luke and Revelation. On the scale of ascetic emphasis, Thomas can be situated somewhere between Luke and the Apocryphal Acts, Thomas the Contender etc.

As to the question of whether Thomas is Gnostic or not, in my 2003 book I argued that Thomas represents a similar cosmological view as the Dialogue of Savior. They both share a view of the divine origin of humanity and fail to give any signs of demiurgical traditions.  If you define Gnosticism so that it must embrace both cosmological views (divine origin of humanity and the Demiurge), Thomas obviously isn’t Gnostic. But this is a matter of how you define Gnostic and Gnosticism. In Finland and perhaps elsewhere in Europe, the terms are not as ideologically-laden as they are in North America, and consequently the stakes in deciding the issue are not as high.

Stay tuned for part two. . . .