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

bb3b04f8-4202-4f1e-b20b-fa017a589b6aMy series of interviews with Thomas scholars continues. Today I am posting the first part of my interview with Ismo Dunderberg, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki. Professor Dunderberg is the author of The Beloved Disciple in Conflict: Revisiting the Gospels of John and Thomas , as well as numerous articles and  several books dealing with Gnosticism, early Christian conflict, and John’s relationship to the Synoptics. I would like to thank Professor Dunderberg for taking time out of his busy schedule to respond to my questions.

(CWS) 1. I have posed this question at the outset of each interview I’ve conducted on the Gospel of Thomas. 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?

(ID) As I was writing my dissertation on John and the Synoptics in 1990s, I attended an introductory Coptic course taught by Antti Marjanen. He and Risto Uro were both interested in the Gospel of Thomas, and, after having published the Finnish translation of it in 1992, they started to plan a research project on this text. Because Greg Riley had reopened the question of the relationship between John and Thomas, they wanted to have a Johannine specialist in the team. I happened to be pretty much the only person available, and had some Coptic under my belt, so they invited me to the project, for which we then applied and got funding from the Academy of Finland.

(CWS) 2. Your work on the John-Thomas question represents the first attempt to challenge what I have called “the community-conflict hypothesis.” In fact, your series of articles (which subsequently became the basis for your book, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict) largely served as the impetus for my own work in that area. Could you briefly summarize your views on the relationship between John and Thomas and on the theory that John was written in response to Thomas?

 (ID) Perhaps I should start by saying that although I was invited to the project, I wasn’t asked to defend or rebut any particular view of John and Thomas!

 I agree with Riley and DeConick that John and Thomas are close to each other in spirit, and I find their work important because they brought that issue under discussion. Yet I found problematic the steps they took from the narrative world of John to the social world behind it. The methodological problems seemed similar to what other scholars (e.g., Joachim Kügler whose carefully articulated studies I read when writing my dissertation) had detected Louis Martyn’s reading of John as “a two-level drama.”

 My own view is that John and Thomas both share common ground and disagree on a number of issues but the disagreements aren’t specific enough to show that there was a mutual conflict between them. Different views, yes, a real-life conflict, no. (These are two different things, really.) If John was written to combat the Gospel of Thomas, or more broadly Thomasine traditions, and if this was one of the author’s main objectives, one could easily imagine clearer ways for expressing this than what we now have in John. It doesn’t even seem to me that Thomas is utterly badly treated as a character in John 20, if we compare his figure to the way the other followers of Jesus are depicted in John.

(CWS) 3. In your book, The Beloved Disciple in Conflict, you focused on social and religious issues, specifically looking at the paradigmatic “beloved disciple” figure behind the Gospels of John and Thomas. For readers of my blog who may not be familiar with your work, would you provide a brief description of your thesis.

The basic problem related to the Beloved Disciple is that, among the New Testament gospels, he is only mentioned in John, yet in John he appears in stories which have parallels in other gospels. From this, most scholars reason that the Beloved Disciple was a leader of the Johannine community who was secondarily inserted into the gospel story. I argue, against the usual consensus, that we have little evidence–much less than you would imagine in reading scholarly literature!–for the Beloved Disciple’s leadership in the Johannine community.

I also point out that similar figures gradually emerge in other early Christian texts to lend them authenticity. Hence my suggestion that the Beloved Disciple was invented for the same purpose. The crucial difference I saw (but many disagree) between John and other early Christian texts featuring beloved disciples is that the Beloved Disciple in John isn’t characterized as being the most perceptive of all disciples.

I also argued that one special reason to introduce the Beloved Disciple in John was to offer a replacement for the brothers of Jesus (cf. John 19:25-27), who in John 7 are portrayed as unbelievers.

 More to come. . . .

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Learning through disagreement

One of the things that continues to amaze me is how much I learn from scholars with whom I ultimately disagree. This has been the case with my recent Thomas research. In recent months I have been gaining a tremendous amount of insight from the works of Stephen Patterson (Eden Theological Seminary) and April DeConick (Rice University). I ultimately find many of their views unconvincing but I cannot seem to put down their books. I always talk to my students about interpretive humility but usually I am talking about the biblical text. However, it pays to exercise that same interpretive humility when interacting with the views of other scholars.