The “Response Book”: A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon (Skinner)

How God Became JesusOver the past few days my social media feeds have been inundated with various posts about two recent books: Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God  and a multi-author “response” volume entitled, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. Various memes have even been created to promote one side or the other (see here and here). The latter book boasts an international lineup of evangelical luminaries, including Simon Gathercole, Craig Evans, Michael Bird, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling. The book has also received endorsements from academic heavyweights like Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. Many of the comments in my Twitter and Facebook feeds have offered words of praise for the “response book” while suggesting that Ehrman’s book is self-serving and part of the “same old story” he continues to tell. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know several of the individuals involved in these projects, I respect all of them, and have benefited from some of their past work. That said, I wanted to take a moment to offer a few (perhaps unpopular) reflections on the things that come to my mind when I see yet another evangelical publication aimed at responding to or refuting the work of some scholar outside the evangelical fold. For the record, I have not yet read either book in this debate (both are on the way to my office), so I can’t yet speak to the substance of this particular “response book.” The following reflections are more about the culture that continually feels compelled to produce such responses:

(1) I remember sitting in my first theology course (at an evangelical institution) and hearing my professor lament that many in the evangelical world were too interested in reacting or responding to the arguments of non-evangelicals, with the result that they rarely, if ever, engaged in projects that were genuinely creative or constructive. Sadly, I have found this to be true over the past 15 years. Reacting to those with whom you disagree appears to be a critical part of the warp and woof of evangelical life. So many of the positive comments about the second volume that I have read to this point use descriptors like “brilliant defense” and “cogent response,” which at least gives the impression that those who are reading the book believe this is why the “response book” exists. This general impression makes me sad and a little uneasy, especially since I hold the conversation partners in this debate in high regard, as scholars and as individuals.

(2) To my mind there is an interesting irony in the “response” to Ehrman: the very faction that wants to strip him of his credbility unwittingly contributes to his acclaim. They end up giving him more attention when they really want people to stop reading him. Further, they also unwittingly give the impression that it takes five or six evangelicals to counter one non-evangelical scholar. Evangelicals can’t wait to read a book written by “some of the most learned and faithful scholars within evangelicalism” (an actual quote I read), but the wider, non-evangeical public often views this scenario as an army at war with an individual…which brings me to my next thought. 

(3) One word: Fear. Projects like this one give many non-evangelicals the impression that evangelicals are afraid of the arguments that contradict their own. Whether this is true or not is debatable.

(4) I know many gifted and creative scholars working both within and outside of evangelical circles. Those who get the most attention are not necessarily those who propagate a non-evangelical narrative or even a non-Christian narrative, though I often hear this critique. Generally speaking, those who get wide attention do so because of the quality of the work they put forward. Yes, Bart Ehrman gets a lot of publicity. Much of this is related to his ability to write compellingly for non-specialist audiences. He communicates, both on television and in print, in a creative and original way. You may not be thrilled with his narrative, but you can’t doubt his ability to connect with the wider public. When the evangelical faction as a rule begins to do truly interesting, creative, and constructive work, they may begin getting the same attention. However, this might also require a re-thinking of the evangelical narrative in which greater nuance is applied and ground is ceded to those with better, more compelling, and more convincing arguments.

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Simon Gathercole on the Gospels of Thomas and Judas

Many thanks to Mike Grondin of the Gospel of Thomas e-list for pointing out this interview with Dr. Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas.

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

RistoHere’s the final installment of my interview with Professor Uro. For those interested in dissertation topics, he suggests three areas he’d like to see investigated:

(CWS) 7. Are you currently planning to undertake more research on the Gospel of Thomas? If so, what other projects do you currently have planned (or in the works)?

(RU) I am currently working on a project titled “Ritual and Christian Beginnings.” Part of the project is also to analyze the transmission of the Jesus traditions from the perspective of ritual and memory. Materials from Thomas will certainly play a role in the analysis.

(CWS) 8. To your mind, what area(s) of Thomas research is/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? (If you are currently supervising doctoral students in Thomasine studies, can you share a little about what these students are pursuing?)

(RU) I would like to list the following three areas/topics:

  • Thomas and memory studies
  • Thomas in light of the Hellenistic philosophies (I did some comparison with Stoicism in my 2003 book, but much more could be done)
  • The social setting of Thomas in light of other “school” settings in early Christianity (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Valentinian Christianity)

There are some hopes that we could have a doctoral student work on one or some of these topics.

Thanks again to Professor Uro for participating. In the early fall I *hope* to post an interview with Professor Marvin Meyer of Chapman University. He has agreed to be interviewed in this forum but his schedule has not yet opened up enough to participate.

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. . . .

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas (Part V)

The second Paul-Thomas parallel I want to look at is Gos. Thom. 17 and 1 Cor 2:9:

Gos. Thom. 17

1 Cor 2:9

Jesus said, ‘I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.’ But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’

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The similarities between 1 Cor 2:9 and Gos. Thom. 17 are evident right away though questions about the sharing of tradition prove difficult to answer. To begin with, the proverb appears to draw upon elements of Isa 52:15, 64:3-4, and/or 65:16, though no part of the saying represents a direct quotation of any OT passage. This was no doubt an important proverb in the early church as different versions appear in 1 Cor 2:9, Gos. Thom. 17, 1 Clem 34:8, 2 Clem 11:7, Dial Sav 57, Acts Thom 36, Acts Pet 39, Protrepticus 10.94.4 (an exhortation of Clement of Alexandria to the Greeks), and the Turfan Fragment M 789. Similarities are also present in 1 John 1:1, though the context and situation addressed by the Johannine epistles may suggest its independence from the tradition shared by these other texts. The widespread appeal of this proverb makes tracing its transmission history a complex endeavor.

If we exclude 1 John 1:1, it is clear that Thomas and Paul represent the two earliest extant versions of this proverb. Therefore the first question to explore is, which version preceded the other? Scholars are split on this question. April DeConick includes Gos. Thom. 17 in her list of earliest Thomas sayings, arguing that it reflects the eschatological views of the earliest Thomasine Christians (see Recovering, 97, 113, 118, 129). Stephen Patterson, who also regards logion 17 as pre-Pauline, offers the following unqualified assertion about Paul:

[I]n 1 Corinthians 2 he uses the wisdom style of these opponents to compose his own ‘wisdom speech’ (2:6-16), only to correct their views with a few well-placed Pauline twists. Interestingly, in the midst of this speech Paul quotes a saying from the Gospel of Thomas. . . .The version of the saying quoted here by Paul is not paralleled word-for-word in Thomas, but reflects the sort of differences one would expect to have resulted from oral transmission (from “Paul and the Jesus Tradition,” Harvard Theological Review 84 [1991] 36-37).

Thinking along the lines of those who argue that the communities of John and Thomas were embroiled in a theological conflict, Plisch suggests that Thomas may have altered the saying in response to 1 John 1:1, which would mean that Thomas’s version is later than Paul’s. Gathercole argues that Gos. Thom. 17 has a number of secondary features, indicating it emerged later than Paul’s version. There seem to be as many opinions on this parallel as there are scholars who take a position.

Several features of Gos. Thom. 17 suggest that it is later than 1 Cor 2:9. First, Thomas includes a reference to “what no hand has touched.” This does not appear in the Pauline version and would seem to be an ‘improvement’ as it provides greater parallelism in the saying. Second, Thomas’s attribution of this saying to Jesus is surely to be regarded as secondary. Most later versions of the proverb preserve it as a saying of the Lord where Paul does not. All of this would suggest Paul’s version is earlier.

It appears that the Thomas logion emerged later than Paul’s version of the proverb, but demonstrating that it is earlier than Paul is not the same as demonstrating its dependence upon Paul. In our next post we will ask the question, “Is there any compelling evidence that Gos. Thom. 17 used 1 Cor 2:9?

Patterson reviews DeConick

I’ll be back soon with post #4 on Paul’s relationship to the Gospel of Thomas. For now, check out Stephen Patterson’s review of April DeConick’s The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation: With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel over at RBL.

Interview with Ismo Dunderberg on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

400000000000000090356_s4Here’s part two of my dialogue with Professor Dunderberg. I especially appreciate his lengthy answer to my question about prospects for future study on the Gospel of Thomas. Thanks again, Professor Dunderberg!

(CWS) 4. I know that you regard yourself as more of a Johannine scholar, but do you anticipate any further research on the Gospel of Thomas? If so, could you tell us about it? I also know that you recently had an opportunity to examine Codex Tchacos up close (Gospel of Judas). Did you pursue this research in preparation for a book? Are you planning to do more research into similar ancient Christian texts?

 (ID) I’m not working on Thomas any longer, but I am presently working on the Gospel of Judas. My article on this text and ancient theories of “anger management” was recently published in a collection of articles edited by April DeConick. And I’m presently working on an edition and commentary on the Gospel of Judas. For this purpose, I spent a week in Geneva this past December inspecting some of the pages of Codex Tchachos. I’m sorry to tell I had no great new discoveries; the present edition by Wurst and others seems very accurate!

 As I’m now moving back to New Testament studies “proper” from Thomasine and Valentinian studies, I’m now and then asked to give papers on the reception of New Testament texts in the second century. I haven’t done much of this so far but  it seems I should do more in the future.

(CWS) 5. Another research interest that I have and one that I hope to promote on this blog is the historical Jesus. To your mind, what implications for historical Jesus research does the Gospel of Thomas have (if any)? You argue that there is material in Thomas old enough to be illuminating about the life of the historical Jesus. How do these two research interests coalesce in your own scholarship?

(ID) I haven’t conducted any independent research on the historical Jesus thus far; perhaps I’m too much aware of the problem of circularity which is particularly vexing in this field of study? I think there are sayings in Thomas which may “sound like Jesus,” or may stand closer to him than the synoptic versions, but I hardly have anything original to say about that matter–except that I was surprised to see that the Jesus seminar found so little in the non-synoptic material of Thomas that could go back to 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?

(ID) First of all, I should mention my two Finnish colleagues, Antti Marjanen and Risto Uro. Not only have I spent hours and hours with them discussing the Gospel of Thomas, but they have also painstakingly read and commented on everything I’ve written about this topic, and have opened with their own work many important perspectives to it, both in methodological issues and in detailed analysis. Riley and DeConick have been very important discussion partners, of course. I’ve always found Elaine Pagels’ research and discussions with her most inspiring for my work (both on Thomas and Valentinians). I should also mention Stephen Patterson, whose work has prevented me from thinking that Thomas was simply put together from bits and pieces derived from the synoptic gospels; Philip Sellew, whose work always opens new perspectives for understanding Thomas in a broader context of antiquity; and Stevan Davies, who has such a keen eye especially on what binds John and Thomas theologically together and on their background in Jewish wisdom theology. Finally, I should mention Tjitze Baarda, whose detailed presentations at SBL and articles warned against any kind of generalizations and false security as to our conclusions about Thomas.

(CWS) 7. To your mind, what area(s) of Thomas research is/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?

(ID) There are of course many areas where further investigation might be necessary. One promising path is the increased interest in how the Gospel of Thomas might have been understood in Egypt in the fourth century. What was it in this text that attracted attention among early Christians of this period? Why was it translated, by whom, and to whom? There’ve been initial attempts to analyze the individual Nag Hammadi codices as collections, and such analyses may shed light on this questions. The demolition of strict boundaries between “orthodoxy” and “heresy”, for which many have argued, may help us see affinities between Thomas and monastic literature more clearly than before.

Another big problem, that still needs further clarification, is the genre of Thomas. It is, of course, a collection of sayings of Jesus, but what are hermeneutical ramifications of this genre? Should we continue to try to find a unified theology in, or behind, it? Or should it be approached as a random collection of oracles, as Davies proposed some years ago?

 Due to my interest in the school of Valentinus, I’ve also developed a fancy for interactions of early Christian texts with philosophical traditions. I’ve been one of the editors of a book dealing with this topic, where there are chapters on gospels, Paul, Sethians, and Valentinians–but strikingly, none on Thomas! Risto Uro made some very promising remarks about this issue in his book Thomas (2003). In light of them, it would be worthwhile to explore more systematically whether the Gospel of Thomas was written (or could be placed) in dialogue with philosophers, like Paul or the author of John may have been.