Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Some Quotes to Consider

Professor Tony Chartrand-Burke from York University has posted a stunning review of Craig Evans' book, Fabricating Jesus. He is right on target with the review, highlighting that Christian apologetics and canonicity has come into play in Evans' evaluations, reflected in certain truth claims that are not the "facts" he presents them as.

I have had Evans' book sitting on my desk for a couple of months and had intended to post soon some eyebrow-raising quotes from it, as well as some from other recent authors. So I will do so now.

Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus, page 7
"FACT: The Gospel of Thomas - in comparison with the New Testament Gospels - is late, not early; secondary, not authentic...The evidence is compelling that the New Testament Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - are our best sources for understanding the historical Jesus. The New Testament Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony and truthfully and accurately relate the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus."

This is NOT a FACT, it is an opinion based partly on old scholarly work on the Gospel of Thomas, and partly on a Christian apologetic about the reliability and accuracy of the canonical gospels. Research over the last thirty years on the Gospel of Thomas has demonstrated that it is an "authentic" early Christian Gospel. The best scholarly consensus is that it was written (in its final form) around 120, and is contemporary with the composition of the New Testament Pastorals. My own contribution to the study of the Gospel of Thomas (Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas, 2005/2006) has recovered within this text an early version of the Gospel - I call it the Kernel - which predates Quelle. So the best critical analysis is that it contains some old sayings alongside some newer ones. I will have more to say in a future post about "eyewitness testimony." So stay tuned.

Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels, page 204
"The Gospels we have in the fourfold collection have a line of connection to the earliest days and figures of the Christian faith that the alternative texts do not possess."

This statement is a modern version of the argument created by Irenaeus to bolster his traditions while denying credibility to those he did not like - that apostolic succession determines authenticity and legitimacy.

Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels, page 207
Referring to the ideas that formed the "core" of early Christianity, Professor Bock writes: "The core can be viewed as this: There was one Creator God. Jesus was both human and divine; He truly suffered and was raised bodily. He also is worthy to receive worship. Salvation was about the liberation from hostile forces, but it also was about sin and forgiveness - the need to fix a flaw in humanity that made each person culpable before the Creator. This salvation was the realization of promises that God made to the world and to Israel through Israel's Law and Prophets. The one person, Jesus Christ, brought this salvation not only by revealing the way to God and making reconciliation but also by providing for that way through His death for sin. Resurrection into a new exalted life involves salvation of the entire person - spirit, soul, and body. Faith in this work of God through Jesus saves and brings on a spiritual life that will never end."

At worst, an apologetic Protestant retrojection of the Nicene Creed passed off as historical. At best, an apologetic Protestant rewording of the early patristic creeds or "canon" created to destroy alternative forms of early Christianity. The creeds don't represent the way it was, they represented the way some of the bishops wanted Christianity to be.

Bart Erhman, Lost Christianities, chapter 3
Chapter Title: "The Discovery of an Ancient Forgery: The Coptic Gospel of Thomas"

Professor Erhman's use of the word "forgery" is very troubling in my opinion, since it evokes historically false attributions like fake, counterfeit, illegal, sham, and phony. As scholars writing for general audiences, our choice of words matters.

All this brings me back to my original post on this blog - that whether we consider ourselves conservative scholars or liberal scholars, the field we work in is framed by theology and apology. It is so insidious, often we don't even notice it. But if we are ever to build a true historical picture of the early Christian period, we need to become conscious of it.


Phil Snider said...

I think one of the issues here is that one has to keep circling back to what we think the early church was like before we can unpack the relationship of the CA and the canon. I haven't read the Evans book, but I have read Bock. On the whole, I agree with his vision, but find the critiques which you level at him interesting. I am simply not learned enough about the CA to make a decision either way, but I know the dates for many of the CA are disputed.

My wife's reaction to Bock was interesting in the light of this. She liked him, thought he was right, but also noted that he wouldn't convince anyone who wasn't already convinced. I think she's right because the apologetic tone is so uncompromising that you really have to buy into his vision of orthodox Christianity to accept what he is saying. Even then, you might quibble with details.

Now, the question comes: how do we deal with apologetics? Are they a valid genre, especially in the light of polemical works like that of Ehrmann and others?


Unknown said...

Besides the Nag Hammadi manuscript and the fragments found at Oxyrhynchus have any other versions of the Gospel of Thomas been found?

BCLandau said...

No, Alan, those are the only two, and it seems that the Coptic represents a later stage of transmission than the Greek fragments (in any case, the wording is not identical), though April may have other thoughts on that.

April DeConick said...


We have a full Coptic manuscript from Nag Hammadi, and three Greek fragments from Oxyrhynchos, Egypt (P.Oxy 1, 654, 655). Indeed, the Greek fragments are at least 100 years older than the Coptic. I am fairly convinced at this point in my study of the Gospel of Thomas that the Greek was not its original language. It looks to me like the Greek has been tranlated from a Semitic "original" because there are some translation errors in the Greek and Coptic that suggest this.

April DeConick said...


Yes I think that apologetics is a valid genre. But it is for theological purposes. What concerns me is when the claim is made that the apology is historically factual. In the case of Ehrman, I don't think he is being apologetic. I am concerned in his case that word choices such as attaching "forgery" to the Gospel of Thomas is weakening its image as a document of historical value. One might argue that it is a forgery because the apostle Thomas did not write it. Okay. But then we must say the same about the NT gospels since Matthew did not write the Gospel of Matthew and so forth. It is important for us to think about the words we are using to describe these old documents, and why we are choosing these words and not others? What interpretations of the text are we giving just by the labels we use?

Jim Deardorff said...


I do think we need to say the same about the canonical Gospels. In your main post you wrote: "...the field we work in is framed by theology and apology. It is so insidious, often we don't even notice it." Indeed. We hardly notice that the writer of Matthew is customarily referred to as Matthew, etc., presumably for convenience amongst scholars. However, theology & apology are also involved. To avoid apologizing for those attributed to the Gospels not having authored them, the two are equated. This is more convenient in getting books published by Christian publishers, and in not offending laymen (and many ministers) who do not know better.

You've said that "words matter." I agree. However, theology trumps this!

Phil Snider said...

First, I should say that one of the things I enjoy about your blog is that you are even handed. Even if I have reservations about your hermeneutic starting point, I have to give you that you are fair in your assessments.

Yes, I think Ehrman isn't exactly apologetic so much as he is polemical. That, I think, explains strong language such as forgery and other examples I'm sure we could both find.

I agree with your caution about language and about the use of history in apologetics. Frankly, it isn't even good apologetics to get your history wrong, so sloppiness in history for the sake of one's apologetic stance actually winds up hurting your position in the long run because your authoratative voice is badly run down if your opponents can say one's history is wrong. Disputes and differences of interpretation will happen, but outright mistakes and misconceptions just won't fly even in apologetics.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your answer April. So the Gospel of Thomas, so frequently compared as an equal to the canonical gospels, survives in only two versions (and one of those used for jotting paper according to Wikipedia) – yet the latter exist in their thousands. Is that right? if so this seems completely out of balance to me.

BCLandau said...

Canonization is what accounts for the imbalance you note. For about the first two hundred years that manuscripts of Christian works exist (from ca. 125-325 CE/AD), the contents of this relatively small number of manuscripts are roughly half canonical and half non-canonical. But it's only from about 325 CE onward that there begins to be widespread agreement on the precise number of works in the NT. And, because it's at this time that Christianity first begins to have the full power of the Roman state behind it, the number of manuscripts of the NT begins to skyrocket. By the Middle Ages, you have manuscripts numbering in the thousands.

But if a work ended up not being considered canonical (like the Gospel of Thomas, though we don't really know why it was left out of the NT) because some influential church leaders had problems either with its content or with the people who were reading it, then there was much less motive to copy it (and remember, the number of people who could write at this time was pretty small) and more of a motive to destroy any existing copies. The fact that Christian leaders often destroyed books that they didn't like probably explains why the Nag Hammadi copy of the Gospel of Thomas was buried in the sand--to keep it safe.

The importance of the canon explains why we have so many manuscripts of the NT and far fewer of other Christian works. This situation didn't just affect the transmission of "heretical" works like the Gospel of Thomas. For example, the Didache, the earliest surviving church order, exists in only one manuscript for its original language of Greek. And for Irenaeus, known for his polemics against Christians whom he calls "Gnostics," the best manuscript tradition is Latin, not Greek, in which he wrote his works.

BobGriffin said...

"These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded."
"naei ne'nShadje eTmp'enta IS etonh Djoou auO afsha'isou 'nChi didymos ioudas TOmas"
where O=Omega
IS =abbreviation Iota Samma, for Jesus
and ' refers to the Djinkm
There is no attribution within 'the gospel according to Matthew', nor that 'according to Mark', nor that 'acoording to Luke'. The first person attribution in Luke has no name attached, nor is one attached in Acts. 'The gospel according to John' is apparently attributed internally to 'the disciple whom Jesus loved', but again no name is given.
I would prefer the term 'pseudepigraphon' to 'forgery' for the GoT, as it already has an old and honorable usage in reference to various intertestamental pseudepigrapha. If necessary, one could say 'Pseudo-Thomas', in the same way we write 'Pseudo-Zoroaster', etc.

I would only be comfortable with the term 'forgery' if it can be shown that that author or redactor who wrote the attribution had reasons to believe that Thomas would not have agreed with what was written. I would group Crossan's use of the term 'magician' with Ehrman's use of 'forgery'. Both are intended as provocatory.

I think it is best to attempt to avoid apologetics when attempting scholarly work. It's not necessarily very easy, for we humans have a tendency to notice those things which support our biases.

Be Well,
Bob Griffin