Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part Two (Skinner)

Arnal 2Here’s the second installment of my interview with Bill Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas. Those who are both interested in and skeptical of “Q” will be interested in what he has to say here. Enjoy.

(CWS) 3. You are widely recognized for your work on Q. As you well know, there is a strand within North American scholarship that sees Q and Thomas as the earliest strata of the Jesus-sayings tradition. However, opposition to Q has been growing in recent years (largely due to the work of Mark Goodacre) and much of the recent work on Thomas insists that Thomas was familiar with the Synoptic tradition (viz., Gathercole, Goodacre, Meier). I am interested in hearing your reflections on and responses to these two currents within Q and Thomas studies.

(WA) I have a very hard time taking Q denial seriously. It’s easy to poke holes and find weaknesses in any source-critical theory whatsoever; to find this exception, that problem, and so on. What’s harder is to find an alternative theory that doesn’t suffer from just as compelling problems (or worse problems). And there’s a reason for this: the actual process of composing Mark, Matthew, and Luke (and Thomas) was necessarily and undoubtedly more complicated than any useful source hypothesis will reflect – source theories are maps, not territories, and they do not and should not include or encompass all of the literary details of the texts they discuss. But this means that there will always be material that a source theory does not quite grasp, and thus that any source theory can be criticized from this perspective. How to deal with this problem? By assessing source theories in terms of their overall persuasiveness, and in terms of broad patterns, rather than in terms of individual and isolated problems. Does a hypothesis offer a compelling and realistic overarching explanation of the general shape of things, or does it force us to rely on ad hoc explanations that appeal to facts not in evidence?

Since Q denial has mainly taken the form of simply throwing criticisms at the Q hypothesis (many of which turn out to be wrong [Q’s genre is unattested], or not logically sound [“Q is hypothetical!”], or are easily accounted for [many of the “minor agreements”]), without developing a strong alternative hypothesis, it strikes me that Q denial, in the long run, doesn’t have legs. Yes, of course, the main contender (but not the only one!) for an alternative hypothesis these days is FG [=Farrer-Goulder], but the real question must be: is FG a strong and better-evidenced hypothesis than 2DH [= Two Document Hypothesis]? Does it raise fewer problems than Q? And the short answer is no. Indeed, FG multiplies the problems we have understanding synoptic relationships. As just one simple example, it defers the problem Q is invoked to solve: if Mark was the first gospel, where did Matthew get his additional (i.e., the stuff we currently regard as M and as double-tradition) information from? We’re still forced to hypothesize some sort of non-extant source for Matthew (even if it’s just oral tradition). And we’re left with Luke’s use of Matthew as a source, which per FG requires us to imagine that Luke treated his two sources (Mark and Matthew) in completely different ways, and for no persuasive reason. The 2DH is the more compact and economical of the two hypotheses: it explains where double tradition (and maybe a very small amount of M and L stuff) comes from, and it imagines that Matthew and Luke are consistent in their treatment of sources. Aside from that, the 2DH, and specifically the postulation of Q, has an astonishing degree of what I like to call experimental validation. That is to say, we posit Q on the basis of the double tradition. Then we subsequently discover, independently of the grounds for hypothesizing it in the first place, that this material hangs together, that it has a coherent ideological perspective, that it consistently lacks certain types of concerns or vocabulary, that it has coherent reasons for lacking those concerns and consistent alternative vocabularies, that it represents a known ancient literary genre, and so on. Meanwhile, Q scholarship continues to produce interesting work on, especially, Q’s social context, including important forthcoming books on Q and peasant societies by Sarah Rollens, and on Q and scribal ideologies by Giovanni Bazzana.

In the case of Thomas, things are more complicated. We are dealing here – and everyone agrees, even if they don’t put it that way – with a redacted document. So we need to achieve some clarity on what is at issue here: is it that our manuscripts of Thomas show knowledge of the synoptics? Or that the final form of Thomas (insofar as we can accurately reconstruct it, given our dismal MS evidence) depends on the synoptics, and does so globally and exclusively? Or that our final text was influenced by the synoptics, but without global or detailed dependence? Or that, perhaps, an initial collection of chreiai were independent of the written synoptics, and later redacted from a synoptic perspective? Or that some initial chreia collection was dependent on the synoptics, and redacted from a non-synoptic perspective? And then there is the question – a question of importance no matter what one thinks of the sources for Thomas’s synoptic-like material – where did all the other stuff come from? The simplistic either-or approach to the question of sources strikes me as evidence that both sides are guilty of making thinly-disguised value judgments. What really seems at stake is whether Thomas is good (= early and independent) or bad (= late, dependent, Gnostic). Of course none of this follows: we recognize the canonical Gospel of Luke to be late, dependent on the synoptic(s), and agenda-driven, but no one takes this to mean that Luke isn’t worth studying, or is easily dismissible, or the like.

A more serious source-criticism of Thomas would not peck through the document looking for strings of synoptic-like wording, or, conversely, strings of wording that (somehow) couldn’t be synoptic; it would look at overall patterns, and try to understand what kind of constellation of sources, and what kinds of uses of those sources, best account for such patterns. After all, even if we could show that Thomas knew (one or more of) the synoptic gospels, that hardly proves that they were his only sources, even for material paralleled in the synoptics. Indeed, a clear case for dependency would raise a whole of fascinating ancillary questions about Thomas’s literary techniques, about his other sources, and about the dissemination and circulation of synoptic tradition in the late first or second centuries. In this sense, I think that John Kloppenborg’s rejoinder to Gathercole and Goodacre in the recent JSNT is exemplary. It identifies, among other things, many of the weaknesses in their arguments. But more importantly, it suggests an alternative that is productive, socially grounded, and sophisticated. Given the complexity of Thomas’s traditions, and the complexity of their relationship with their synoptic parallels, Kloppenborg suggests a context for Thomas drawing on a fairly extensive commentary tradition on the sayings of Jesus. This suggestion allows for the possibility of some synoptic influence on Thomas (as we have it), but at the same time recognizes that many of (I would say, the vast majority of) Thomas’s versions of this material do not appear to be drawn from the synoptics, and that there is a host of material on Thomas that cannot come from the synoptics (because it has no synoptic parallels). Whether he’s right or not, this argument has the virtue of taking Thomas seriously as a historical and textual datum, rather than either dismissing it or valorizing it.

But in the end, I don’t think these kinds of questions matter as much as people think they do. Yes, the idea of Q, and of an early Thomas, are mutually reinforcing; but neither requires the other. If you get rid of Q, it has no direct bearing on Thomas. And if you say that Thomas is a late document, and/or that it used the synoptics as sources, we are still left with a real document that both requires explanation, and that provides us with a host of new data for antiquity.

(CWS) 4. Not too long ago, you reviewed my book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? (JAAR 4 [2012]: 1113-1116), and along with your comments about the book, you also spent an entire paragraph lamenting the current state of Thomas research. Specifically, you suggested that scholars have been spinning in circles for years, asking the same questions over and over. To your mind, what areas are most in need of further research and what questions need to be raised that aren’t being asked by scholars? What are the most interesting or substantive areas currently being investigated, and in what other directions would you like to see Thomas research move?

(WA) Off the top of my head, there are two questions being addressed in current scholarship that are of serious interest, and that I would like to see pursued further. One of them is the interest in Thomas and middle Platonism – and especially Jewish traditions informed by Middle Platonism – which has in the past been flagged, inter alia, by Elaine Pagels, Arthur Droge, and others. Steve Patterson is currently investing a lot of energy in this question. Such an investigation will shed light not simply on the ideology and philosophical presuppositions undergirding Thomas, including insight into its treatment of Adam, androgyny, and the material world (none of which can be accounted for via synoptic parallels); but will also illuminate Thomas’s parallels with Paul and with the Gospel of John; and will allow Thomas to serve as additional evidence for the impact of Middle Platonism on Jewish mythological speculations. This in turn can help illustrate the cultural cross-fertilization between Greek materials and indigenous ANE traditions in places like Judea, Egypt, and Syria.

A second area of interesting research is basically into the social conditions of possibility for a text like Thomas. We have here a document whose genre is strongly associated with teaching, and with the inculcation of morals, a document packed with proverbial wisdom, and governed by an insistence on transformation, a document that contains at least one extensive elaboration of a saying (21), extensive glosses on others (45), and clusters of proverbs (e.g., 31-36). It is a literate document, and, more than this, a literary document, i.e., one that assumes proficiency in both reading texts and in interpreting them. So the most straightforward supposition is that Thomas is an ancient school product. The implications of this social setting for understanding Thomas, and for comparing it to other ancient social practices, is especially being pursued right now by Ian Brown, one of John Kloppenborg’s doctoral students. I think there is tremendous potential here for making sense of Thomas.

And then there are other areas that I wish received more attention than they do. For instance, the circulation and transmission of Thomas merits serious attention. The text is quite widely attested, so it is definitely worth trying to determine just who was interested in this document, and why. I also think that the parallels we find in Thomas with materials in Philo, in Paul, and in the Mishnah, among others, suggest that Thomas was participating in a conversation that some Jews were having in the first or second centuries. It would be very intriguing to try to work out the nature of this conversation, albeit without invoking a putative Aramaic or Syriac Thomas for which there is little evidence (on which point I am thoroughly persuaded by Gathercole).

Of even more importance, to my mind, is the esoteric character of Thomas. We need to understand this much better than we currently do. The document’s esotericism is quite obviously artificial and manufactured by the redaction of the text. “A man cannot mount two horses” is quite clearly not a mystical saying, and requires no great insight to make sense, nor does it seem to have any metaphysical ramifications. So it’s not the inclusion of stuff like this that makes Thomas esoteric. Thomas’s opening, of course, imposes an esotericizing framework on all the material that follows, but the actual substance of that following material reinforces the sense that this teaching is all mysterious, metaphysical, and in need of fairly serious interpretive skills. How does Thomas accomplish this? This is something that I think is a sine qua non of making sense of Thomas as a document, and that I’ve tried to contribute to in more recent work, including my contribution to Stowers’ FS, where I look at a variety of ways Thomas imposes an esoteric sensibility on his material, and so shapes both the document as a whole and its constituent units. This in turn raises the issue of, again, the economic, social, and cultural conditions of possibility for a text like Thomas. We can contextualize it in terms of both the social circumstances of ancient schools, and the production and the treatment of esoteric texts in antiquity, thus placing Thomas within a range of relatively ordinary ancient practices and wider human doings than is afforded by the very restricted comparisons available to “Christian theology.” To a considerable degree, I think Thomas was as popular as it was simply because it made possession of a fairly basic knowledge of Middle Platonic tropes feel like a big deal. It thus addressed the social aspirations of the recently- or modestly-literate.

There’s another piece I published some years ago, that I don’t think gets nearly the attention it deserves. It’s called “The Rhetoric of Social Construction” (in Rhetoric and Reality in Early Christianities, 2005), and in it I argue – I would say, I show – a literary feature of Thomas that does not seem to be widely recognized. Thomas uses metaphors copiously, and he uses them in loaded ways: that is, a given notion, say, “poverty,” has a particular negative or positive connotation. What several analysts of Thomas have noted is that sometimes, these metaphors are applied in contradictory ways. The clearest example I can think of is Thomas’s use of “drunkenness.” In saying 13, being drunk is a positive metaphor for having the capacity to grasp Jesus’ teaching, whereas in saying 28, it’s a negative metaphor for lacking the capacity to receive Jesus’ words. This kind of thing is sometimes held up as evidence of Thomas’s incoherence, or of layers of tradition. But it turns out that this inconsistency is thoroughly consistent across the Gospel of Thomas: nearly every single metaphor used in the text is used multiple times and with opposite valences. This is true, for instance, of: drunkenness, poverty, wealth, merchants, usury, duplicity, thieves, maleness, and others besides. The inconsistency of Thomas is so extraordinarily consistent that it indicates a very clear redactional perspective that unifies the document across a wide range of sayings. This article has been cited a couple times, but to the best of my knowledge, no one has engaged it directly, or indicated whether they find my explanation of the phenomenon to be adequate or not. But what I think is especially interesting here and perhaps fodder for additional strands of research, is how this literary feature of Thomas plays in connection to theories about Thomas’s sources, or stratification hypotheses. It seems to me that this phenomenon of opposing metaphors could be used to confirm, or disconfirm, those hypotheses by seeing how this feature is distributed across the putative sources or layers of the text. Take April DeConick’s stratification of Thomas, for instance. We actually have a means to test this thesis: do one set of metaphors appear consistently in her kernel, and the opposing metaphors in a particular accretion layer? Or perhaps all of them stem from one set of accretions? Or at least, does positive usage of a specific metaphor consistently dominate one accretion layer, with a negative use dominating the other? Such observations would tend to confirm DeConick’s thesis. Or again, take the stratification I proposed in 1995: same questions. And if the metaphors do not line up by strata, or appear to stem from one stratum in particular, this would tend to disconfirm my thesis. The same kind of thing applies to source theories: does the pattern of conflicting metaphors mesh somehow with the shape of the putative sources, or not? So I would really like to see someone run with this, although I have no plans to do so myself.

Again, I really appreciate the substantive and detailed way Bill has answered these questions. Stay tuned for part three!

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Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part One (Skinner)

Bill ArnalFor the past several years, while blogging over at PEJE IESOUS, I’ve been interviewing scholars who have done important work on the Gospel of Thomas. Today I am posting the first installment of my interview with Dr. William Arnal, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Regina. I am extremely pleased that Bill has taken so much time to answer my questions in such great detail. This means that I will most likely be forced to break up the interview into three posts. Enjoy!

(CWS) 1. I have posed this question to every scholar I have interviewed thus far: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?

(WA) I’m hesitant to admit it, because of what I’m going to say in response to some of your other questions, but the truth is that as an undergrad as I was absolutely fascinated by the development of the sayings-tradition, and especially by what might be called “form criticism” or, better, “tradition-history.” This was in my second year as an undergrad, and I had a wonderful teacher named Michel Desjardins (at the time at University of Toronto, now at nearby Wilfrid Laurier University) who made this material come alive, mostly by really effectively demystifying it all. And I just thought it was fascinating the way you can actually see presentations of Jesus’s teaching being changed before your eyes, whether (most clearly) by the evangelists themselves, or (less clearly but even more intriguingly) in seams and breaks and strange connections within given sayings or among variant versions of sayings. It’s this set of interests that initially got me into Q. But Michel was no respecter of canon, and had done his dissertation on Valentinian Christianity, so he was quite comfortable throwing the Gospel of Thomas into the synoptic mix. And it just blew my mind. Here was exactly what someone interested in tradition-history would have asked from a fairy-godmother: a whole, new (from my perspective, that is) list of over a hundred ancient variant versions of sayings of Jesus, with an obviously independent perspective on the character of those sayings. Basically, Thomas was a fourth synoptic gospel. For someone fascinated by the patterns of agreement and disagreement among the synoptics, Thomas is simply a wonderful text, adding data and complexifying the problems. So I’ve basically been struggling to understand it and make sense of it ever since Michel first introduced me to it way back in 1987. (Incidentally, while I learned Greek as an undergrad, I didn’t have the chance to learn Coptic until grad school, whereupon I took introductory Coptic from the amazing Egyptologist Donald Redford. The class only had two students: me and Nicola Denzey.)

(CWS) 2. You have well-formed (and well-known) opinions about Thomas’s genre and theological outlook. Would you articulate these views to our readers and provide a rationale for why you argue as you do?

(WA) In terms of genre, Thomas conforms perfectly to a known, and common, type of ancient writing, the chreia collection. If you read it side by side with something like Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, especially the material on Diogenes of Sinope (VI.20-81), the similarities are too striking to ignore. While Thomas lacks the biographical and bibliographical skeletons provided by Diogenes Laertius, the “meat” of the life of Diogenes, especially, is simply of list of scattered quotations introduced by “he used to say,” or “in response to such-and-such person saying x, he said,” and the like. And it’s not alone. There’s a ton of this stuff in Plutarch, including “sayings [apophthegms] of kings and commanders,” “sayings of Romans,” “sayings of Spartan women,” and others besides. There’s Lucian’s Demonax. Among Jewish writings, there’s Mishnah’s tractate Aboth. And Quintillian describes and defines the chreia, and indicates grammatical exercises that students can be asked to perform on chreiai. So Thomas exemplifies a known, and quite common, ancient literary genre. Moreover, the content of Thomas’s chreiai often conform to proverbial wisdom: “if a blind man leads a blind man, they will both fall into a pit”; “it is impossible for a person to mount two horses”; and so on. But alongside these chreiai with proverbial wisdom sayings, we also have chreiai whose content is more developed, elaborated, and metaphysical: “Adam came from a great wealth and a great power”; etc. In any case, Thomas is clearly a form of what is sometimes called wisdom literature, and, very specifically, a chreia collection.

As for the theology of Thomas, I have argued in the past that it developed over (at least) two stages: an initial stage marked by aphoristic wisdom, and a redaction of that initial collection marked by – as I describe it in a 1995 HTR article – a reorientation of the wisdom material in a more “Gnostic” direction, mainly as a rationalizing effort. But that was an argument I made a almost twenty years ago. I still do think that Thomas offers us at least two stages of literary development: a stage in which fairly traditional, proverbial Jesus-aphorisms were collected; and a second stage in which these sayings were embedded in a larger literary framework that presented the aphorisms as having a “secret” meaning with a more metaphysical point of reference. Or to put it differently, and perhaps more plausibly: Thomas in its current form has an authorial perspective, and it has source material that it has shaped to conform to that perspective. This view stands whether one regards Thomas as dependent or independent of the synoptic gospels. If you think Thomas drew from the synoptics, then they are the pre-Thomas source of the aphoristic wisdom, subsequently redacted to conform to Thomas’s perspective. If you think that Thomas is independent of the synoptics, then their parallel materials (at least) must be accounted for by some common source (including perhaps oral tradition), and it is that common source that Thomas redacted. I also note that such a process would hardly be unusual within the synoptic tradition: it’s what we posit for Matthew and Luke as well (i.e., they are redactions of Mark with additional material thrown in).

Where my opinion on Thomas now differs from that earlier perspective is in how I would describe the document’s redactional perspective. I have been thoroughly convinced by Michael Allen Williams and by Karen King, among others, that we need to be more careful and self-conscious about how we use the term “Gnostic,” if we use it at all. I certainly no longer think there are any demiurgical references in Thomas. Steve Davies and I went around on that years ago, and in retrospect it’s clear to me that he had the better part of the argument. In any case, throwing such a loaded label on Thomas’s ideological agenda is not helpful at all. So while I maintain that Thomas is redacted from a more or less mystical and metaphysical perspective, I’d want to characterize that perspective today, with Stephen Patterson (and Elaine Pagels, and Arthur Droge, etc.), as Middle Platonic, and as esoteric. Not everything with esoteric pretensions needs to be viewed as “Gnostic.”

And anyway, it’s funny, once you have Thomas’s generic parallels in view, talk of seeking after Thomas’s theology begins to sound a little weird, and perhaps a tad over-specific. Do we really want to know the theology of Demonax, or even of Aboth? When confronted with these documents, instead, what springs to mind are much more ordinary questions: why did people write documents of this sort? What sorts of techniques, agenda, literary sources, etc. were used in their construction? What were these texts used for? What kinds of people read them? Some of my more recent work on Thomas has tried to address precisely these questions. Unfortunately, it’s been published in collections that have little to do with Thomas (one in a book on ancient rhetoric, another in the Festschrift for Stan Stowers [The One who Sows Bountifully, 2014]), so it’s easy to overlook. But my point is that speaking of Thomas’s “theology” really directs our attention to very specific questions, and to a considerable degree also pre-determines the answers to those questions. Worse, it directs our attention away from questions like the text’s function and use, and from questions about the base capacities, that is, the cultural, physical, and economic resources, needed to produce or to make sense of a writing like this.

In the next installment, Bill talks about Q and interesting prospects for future research on Thomas.

A Few Thoughts on Q (Skinner)

Last week there was some discussion about Q over at the Jesus Blog (here, here, and here), including a poll where readers could vote on the existence of Q. (Maybe those guys are more influenced by the Jesus Seminar than they want to admit!)  🙂  I was already thinking about Q as I was in the middle of discussing it in my class on Jesus and the Gospels, but their reflections got me thinking about it a little more.

I have been reading Benedict Viviano’s little volume, What Are They Saying About Q? (Mahwah, NJ: WATSA QPaulist, 2013), which I picked up at SBL back in November. It provides a pretty decent coverage and focuses on the reception of Q along geographic lines (Germany, Britain, North America) and among Roman Catholic and Protestant interpreters of the NT. When you’re in the middle of academic discussions that have become second nature to you, you can occasionally become desensitized to some of the oddities in our profession. While I no longer give it a second thought, my students were astonished to find that the study of a hypothetical document could have its own label (viz., “Q studies”) and generate not only books like Viviano’s but numerous volumes claiming to provide us with a definitive look into the earliest Christian proclamation. (See here, here, and here, for just a few examples.) Those who study in our field realize that the study of Q is its own cottage industry, but when I stepped away for a moment and tried to see things through the eyes of my students I was able to understand how strange it seems that so much scholarly energy is devoted to performing redaction-critical maneuvers on a purely hypothetical text. Against that backdrop my students do seem to have a point.

Several other thoughts about Q emerged this week as a result of our an earlier class session. On Monday of this week my class had the privilege of hearing from Dr. Mark Goodacre via video conference on the subject of Q skepticism. It was a treat for all of us. Mark is probably the most well-known skeptic of Q at the moment, and though my class had read his articles and listened to his podcasts on the subject, it was good for them to hear from him directly. Two things in particular stood out for me. One was an argument Mark made toward the end of the session–one I hadn’t heard him make previously. The last point on his handout argued that “agreement between Matthew and Luke is too close for Q.” In other words, the double tradition material is often so close (upwards of 20 words verbatim in some cases!) to have been generated by a shared work. Apparently he will be expanding on this observation in a forthcoming article. I look forward to reading his detailed argument.

The second thing that stood out to me from that class session came as a result of a question one of my students asked (I’m paraphrasing): “Why can’t we say, Mark, then Luke, then Matthew?” Mark’s answer, as best I remember, was that, at least in print, this position had not been advocated as seriously as other positions. My reaction was, “Really? Is there still ground to cover in the search for Synoptic origins? Are there really avenues that haven’t been thoroughly explored?”

For the record, I have, up until recently, been an advocate of some form of Q, but I have become more and more skeptical over the past two years. And….full disclosure: I voted “no” in the Jesus Blog poll.

Interview with Mark Goodacre (Part II)

goodacre-2Here is the second installment of my interview with Prof. Mark Goodacre on the Gospel of Thomas (see part one here):

(CWS) 4. Awhile back on your blog, you provided a list from your index of the most cited scholars in your book. You also indicated that the frequency of a given scholar’s appearance in the book is unrelated to your extent of agreement with him/her. What scholars have you found to be the most helpful for your own Thomas research and why?

(MG) I really like the work of Stephen Patterson.  He is a clear thinker and a clear writer. Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, he analyzes the evidence with fairness and clarity. And in general I like scholars who lay out their case clearly. I am less keen on what I think of as “shifting sands” scholarship, where you simply cannot be sure how the case overall is panning out. You shouldn’t have to re-read a scholar’s work multiple times in order to work out what they are saying.

For my case on Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics, I found myself frequently in agreement with Christopher Tuckett and Klyne Snodgrass, both of whom write with clarity and force. Given that I had disagreed with Tuckett in my Q book, it was nice on this occasion to be joining him in battle. And now too I find that I agree with Simon Gathercole’s views on Thomas to a major extent. Although we wrote our books independently of one another, like Matthew and Luke on the Two-Source Theory, it turns out that we agree on most of the issues.

(CWS) 5. I know you have a forthcoming article in which you discuss the Nag Hammadi discoveries. Other than that, are you planning any future projects on the Gospel of Thomas?

(MG) The Nag Hammadi article arose out of my research on Thomas. I wanted to write about the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices but when I researched the topic, I found that there is not one version of the story but several. And the more I looked at the different versions, the more worried I became about how much we can really know about the circumstances of the discovery.  The article, “How reliable is the story of the Nag Hammadi discovery?” should come out later this year in JSNT.

I don’t have anything else currently planned on the Gospel of Thomas but I have a piece on the Gospel of Peter that I hope to get published before too long, and I am also doing some work on the Gospel of Mary and related texts.

(CWS) 6. You are one of the most outspoken opponents of the “Q” hypothesis. Many scholars see “Q” and Thomas as early examples of the wisdom genre applied to Jesus’ sayings. Obviously, since you reject the notion of Q, you would also reject this line of thinking. To your mind, what theological outlook do we find in the Gospel of Thomas and why?

(MG) I think the comparison between Q and Thomas has been pretty damaging and in several ways it has thrown us off the scent. The comparison is largely an accident of our own social location.  Q was one of the biggest and most successful hypotheses in twentieth century research on Christian origins, but its hypothetical nature always caused scholars some residual anxiety. One way of dealing with the anxiety was to align the hypothetical Q with the newly discovered Thomas. Coptic Thomas was discovered in 1945, but only began to seep into scholarly consciousness in the seventies and eighties, at the same time that Q was taking on a life of its own.

The difficulty for those who want to align Q and Thomas is that these works are only superficially comparable. Anyone who has done any actual research on either realizes that the differences are far more striking than the similarities. I have argued that reflection on the differences helps us to see how the true Sayings Gospel (Thomas) differs from the hybrid scholarly reconstruction (Q).  The latter makes much better sense as a scholarly extraction of parallel material from Matthew and Luke, not as a discrete work.

Moreover, and to get to the heart of your question, Thomas’s theological outlook could hardly be more different than Q’s. To take two really obvious examples, Thomas differs from Q on the Old Testament and on eschatology.  Thomas disdains the Old Testament – it only refers to Adam, it never explicitly quotes the Old Testament, and it thinks of the prophets as “the dead”. Q, on the other hand, loves the Old Testament, cites its heroes, and quotes many key texts.  Similarly, Thomas and Q differ on eschatology. Thomas has a protology rather than an eschatology, and is looking to get back to Eden, to the singular human being before the fall. But Q is driven-through with eschatology at every turn, and repeatedly talks about the kingdom, the future, and the Son of Man.

I do not, of course, accept the existence of Q, but I point out these contrasts in order to show how some of the clear problems with making them representatives of the same trajectory in early Christianity.  To put it another way, Thomas is a “sayings gospel” because it really believes that salvation lies in interpreting Jesus’s words, whereas Q is only a “sayings gospel” insofar as it represents scholarly efforts to extract and over-emphasize some of the sayings material in the Synoptics.

(CWS) 7. Another interest that I have, and one that I hope to promote on this blog, is research on the historical Jesus. In your opinion, is there anything in the Gospel of Thomas that goes back to the historical Jesus? If yes, what? If no, explain why not.

(MG) I share your interest in the Historical Jesus and I suppose to some extent this also comes back to your first question about one’s initial interest in Thomas. I began by hoping that perhaps it could provide us with some extra material on the historical Jesus, and I was disappointed when I found otherwise. I do think that there are likely to be historical Jesus traditions in Thomas, but I think that they are found in the Synoptic parallels that make up half of Thomas rather than the new material that makes up the other half of Thomas. I don’t rule out the possibility that historical Jesus traditions occur in the newer, unparalleled materials, but I find it unlikely. Bear in mind that even the Jesus Seminar, which tended to favour Thomas as a source for historical Jesus research, struggled to find much historical Jesus material in the unique material. Broadly speaking, they were using Thomas as a means of corroborating parallel Synoptic traditions about Jesus.

My reading of the earliest materials persuades me that the Historical Jesus is likely to have been a Jewish eschatological prophet who valued the Hebrew Scriptures, quite unlike the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, who disdains eschatology and the Hebrew Bible.

Many thanks to Prof. Goodacre for taking the time to answer our questions!

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. . . .