Elaine Pagels (again) on the Gospels of John and Thomas

Many thanks to Mike Grondin over at the Gospel of Thomas online discussion group for pointing out this lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School featuring Elaine Pagels. Pagels begins by recounting the Nag Hammadi discoveries and from there, proceeds to outline her understanding of the relationship between the Gospels of John of Thomas. Her work on this question is well-known and served the basis of her 2003 bestseller, Beyond Belief. Pagels was (along with April DeConick and Gregory Riley) one of three primary conversation partners with whom I interacted during my doctoral research. While I happen to disagree with her conclusions, I find her scholarship compelling. If you have two hours free (and who doesn’t?), you should consider checking it out.

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What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas?

My forthcoming book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas (Paulist Press) is scheduled to be published in late 2011 or early 2012. Today, they were kind enough to send me the cover art. It looks better than I anticipated. The book traces contemporary discussions of Thomas‘ date, relationship to the canonical gospels, and theological outlook. There’s a final brief chapter where I discuss the use of Thomas in recent historical Jesus studies. Make sure to put it on your Christmas list! (BTW, I’m also helping Nick Perrin with the second installment of his Currents in Biblical Research study on trends in Thomas studies. We’re hoping to be done with that soon as well.)

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 I) (Repost)

What follows was the first post in the intended series. I’m reposting it here and then I’ll move forward from there.

A few weeks back I mentioned that I would be “thinking out loud” in a series of posts on the theological outlook of the Gospel of Thomas. Four theological categories seem to be most prominent among scholars: Gnosticism, Wisdom, Asceticism, and Mysticism. These categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive and I will try to make this clear when discussing them. Today I want to begin by looking at the idea that Thomas is a gnostic text.

Most early scholars working on the Gospel of Thomas assumed it was a gnostic text. Initially, there were at least three reasons for this conclusion:

First, Thomas was found among a group of other supposedly gnostic documents. In truth, this conclusion amounts to “guilt by association,” and offers no real proof for Thomas‘s gnostic outlook.  Not every text found at Nag Hammadi is gnostic, as evidenced by the inclusion of the Sentences of Sextus and Plato’s Republic in the NHL.

Second, there are *some* gnostic ideas in Thomas (or, at the very least, ideas that would have been attractive to gnostics). Again, this constitutes no real proof for Thomas‘s supposed gnosticism. After all, the Fourth Gospel is not a gnostic document though it contains ideas attractive to early gnostics. In fact, the first known commentary on the Gospel of John was written by the second century gnostic, Heracleon (ca 150 – 180 CE).

Third, a certain circularity attended most early discussions of Thomas‘s date/provenance, relation to the canonical gospels, and theological outlook. Thomas was assumed by many to be gnostic, dependent upon the synoptic gospels, and later than the canonical tradition. These three related premises were often discussed in connection with each other without any substantive proof being offered.

In recent scholarship, previous conclusions about Thomas‘s gnostic outlook have been questioned. In the next post I want to look at several recent scholars who identify Thomas as a gnostic text.

Gnosticism, Wisdom, Asceticism, & Mysticism: Four Views on the Gospel of Thomas (Repost)

Back in May, before my move to North Carolina, I wrote the following:

Awhile back I mentioned that I am finishing a book about current scholarly opinion on the Gospel of Thomas. The book focuses on three critical questions: (1) when was Thomas written? (2) what is Thomas‘s relationship to the canonical gospels? and (3) what theological outlook does Thomas present to the reader? I am currently working on the third question and I thought a series of posts might be a good way to flesh out some of what I’ve been reading/writing in recent weeks. I will be focusing on four schools of thought:  Thomas as a gnostic document, Thomas as an example of Jewish or Christian wisdom, Thomas as an ascetic work (likely reflecting the ethos of early Syrian Christianity), and Thomas as an example of Christian mysticism.

Now that I finally have some time to devote to this subject, I figured now would be as good a time as any to return to it. I posted one entry on the subject and then I was forced to stop. I hope to repost the first installment later today and begin again from there. Hopefully no major life transition will get in the way this time.

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.