More Interviews on the Gospel of Thomas

One of things I have tried to do since starting this blog is provide something of a clearinghouse of scholarly views on the Gospel of Thomas. While I have other scholarly interests (the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, narrative criticism, etc.), many of these are well-covered across the web and throughout the blogosphere. When I started this blog, I wanted to turn my attention to an area that did not have as much web coverage as some others in biblical and early Christian studies. Since I was in the process of researching and writing on the Gospel of Thomas, I thought it might be helpful to those looking for good information to have a place to go. Based upon my blog traffic, I was right that web surfers would return to a site that had a storehouse of information on the Gospel of Thomas. The interviews have proven to be the most visited posts on this blog.

Thus far I have conducted interviews with a good number of the most important figures working in contemporary Thomas research: Stephen J. Patterson, Nicholas Perrin, Stevan Davies, Risto Uro, Marvin Meyer, Ismo Dunderberg, to name a few. Over the next few months, both Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre have books coming out on the Gospel of Thomas. In the coming weeks will be interviewing each of them about their books and their views on important questions in Thomas research. Stay tuned. . . .

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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.

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

wchss_a-night-with-judas-80I am in the middle of a series of posts where I explore scholarly views on Thomas’ theological outlook but I am going to interrupt it to post my interview with Marvin Meyer. I’ve been waiting for some time to hear from Professor Meyer, and now that he has responded it only seems right to post his interview.

Prof. Marvin Meyer is Griset Professor of Bible and Christian Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Chapman University in Orange, California. He is also Director of Chapman University’s Albert Schweitzer Institute. He has authored a number of books on Thomas, Gnosticism, and Gnostic texts and is well-known for his participation in the Jesus Seminar. I would like to extend my thanks for Prof. Meyer for participating in this interview.

(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?

(MM) When I entered the Ph.D. program at Claremont Graduate School years ago, one of the first courses I took was an introduction to the Coptic language. We used an informal textbook based on the Coptic of the Gospel of Thomas – and I was hooked on both Coptic and the Gospel of Thomas.

(CWS) 2. Several of your books concern the Gospel of Thomas and contain the word “gnostic” in the title. However, in a recent book you have written that Thomas “does not fit the definition of gnosticism” as you see it. In your opinion, what theological outlook is present in the Gospel of Thomas and what is Thomas’s relationship to Gnosticism in the late first and early second centuries?

(MM) I consider the Gospel of Thomas to be a wisdom gospel with what might be called a gnosticizing perspective. I realize that such language is pretty slippery, but the fact is that the Gospel of Thomas seems to share perspectives with some gnostic literature (Sethian and Valentinian, for example) without showing specific features of gnostic mythology, cosmology, and theology. All of this simply illustrates the uncertainties of taxonomy and the classification of religious texts and traditions, and the challenges that we face in the use of terms like “gnostic.”

(CWS) 3. Two part question: (a) Would you outline your understanding of Thomas’s relationship to the synoptic gospels? (b) To your mind, what is the relationship, if any, between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John?

(MM) In The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus (Harper) I wrote that “an excellent case can be made for the position that the Gospel of Thomas is not fundamentally dependent upon the New Testament gospels, but that it preserves sayings that at times appear to be more original than the New Testament parallels. . . . The value of the Gospel of Thomas as a primary source for the Jesus tradition is underscored by the presence within Thomas of sayings of Jesus not included in the New Testament and sometimes totally unknown prior to the discovery of this gospel.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Still, the Thomas parallels with the synoptic gospels and Q are impressive.

Scholars have also explored the relationship between Thomas and John, including the shared preoccupation with but widely differing interpretation of the figure of Judas Thomas himself. A helpful way of assessing the Gospel of Thomas and related texts may make use of an intertextual approach that posits a complex series of literary interactions and connections between Thomas and other texts about Jesus and his sayings.

Part two of my interview with Professor Meyer is forthcoming. Stay tuned. . . .

Four Views on Thomas: Thomas as Gnostic Text (Part II)

Despite the trend in understanding Thomas as something other than gnostic, a handful of scholars still regard Thomas as such. In his revised dissertation, Das Thomasevangelium: Einleitung, Kommentar, und Systematik, Michael Fieger (1991) includes an 11-page introduction that rehearses many of the standard issues, including date, provenance, and theological outlook. Fieger argues that Thomas is a second-century gnostic gospel that is largely dependent upon both the Synoptics and gnostic traditions available to the community in which it was composed. Fieger identifies two types of material in Thomas: synoptic-like sayings and gnostic sayings, the latter of which provides the interpretive grid through which the entire gospel can be understood (cf. pp. 3-6).

The process by which Fieger approaches Thomas is somewhat circular. Fieger reads every logion in Thomas through the lens of gnosticism, resulting in gnostic interpretations that further reinforce his premise that Thomas is gnostic. In his review of Fieger’s monograph, Stephen J. Patterson (JBL 111 [1992]: 361-63) criticizes the book’s approach, suggesting that a large number of Fieger’s gnostic readings are not demanded by the text but are imposed by the gnostic grid with which he begins. Patterson’s critique echoes an assertion that is commonly voiced by scholars today—for one to interpret Thomas as a gnostic text, one must import gnosticism into the text. Patterson also points out Fieger’s failure to recognize the presence of sapiential material in Thomas. How, he asks, have both wisdom traditions and gnostic traditions come to exist side-by-side in Thomas? Fieger’s gnostic model fails to address this question.

William Arnal also sees both sapiential and gnostic material in the Gospel of Thomas, though unlike Patterson he does regard some of the material in Thomas as genuinely rather than incipiently gnostic (cf. “The Rhetoric of Marginality: Apocalypticism, Gnosticism, and Sayings Gospels,” HTR 88: 471–94). Arnal argues that gnostic themes are part of a secondary redaction to the original, wisdom-oriented gospel. Through the introduction of gnostic material, a gnostic interpreter has co-opted the original and pressed it into the service of gnosticism.

The terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” have also appeared in the titles of several books by Marvin Meyer, and in one volume, Meyer’s translation of Thomas is accompanied by a gnostic interpretation of each logion (with Harold Bloom, 1992). More recently Meyer has taken a more nuanced stand, acknowledging that “[w]hile the Gospel of Thomas has some features in common with gnostic gospels, it does not seem to fit the definition of Gnosticism. . . .to a significant extent. Thus I prefer to consider the Gospel of Thomas to be a gospel with an incipient gnostic perspective” (The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, 2005). With this comment Meyer affirms what a growing number of scholars are recognizing. The use of Thomas by later gnostics is not enough for scholars to consider it a full-blown gnostic text.

Overall, recent scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas appears to be moving away from the supposition that Thomas is a gnostic text, while remaining aware of the interest Thomas held for later gnostic interpreters.

In our next few posts we will look at the view that Thomas is an example of Christian wisdom literature.

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. . . .