Monday, September 14, 2009

The origins of the Gospel of John (and Thomas)

Another attempt to unravel the relationship between the gospels of John and Thomas is at hand. Christopher Skinner has been interviewed by Andrew Bernhard and Michael Grondin about his new book John and Thomas - Gospels in Conflict? which can be read HERE. According to this interview, Skinner uses a narratalogical approach favored by Culpepper. He concludes that because other disciples are characterized negatively in the fourth gospel, the author of John is doing this as a narratological choice, and, therefore, his negative portrayal of Thomas does not suggest polemics against Thomasine Christianity.

My response to this interview:
1. Just because the author of the gospel of John has negative things to say about disciples other than Thomas does not lead to the conclusion that there is (or can be) no polemic against Thomasine traditions in this text.

2. The fact that Riley, Pagels and myself point out differing topics for those polemics (resurrection; genesis exegesis; soteriology) does not suggest that the conflict we see is "speculative" in some negative unsubstantiated way as Skinner implies. All of scholarship is speculative. This is not a bad thing as long as it is based on the evidence and reasoned well. The development of models have to be based on reasoned speculation from our sources. Because three academic studies don't emerge with a consensus opinion on the nature of the Johannine polemic, does not support the conclusion that there is no polemic. The three positions need not be mutually exclusive. These three positions may in fact be pointing to three pieces of the puzzle, and strengthen the argument for a polemical relationship between the Johannine and Thomasine traditions rather than weaken it. In fact, I wrote in my introductory chapter, "I would like to note that this monograph is only investigating one stratum layer among many that influenced the composition of the Gospel of John and its precursors. This investigation offers one more piece of the complicated puzzle of Johannine origins and should be read in addition to previous theories about John's origins rather than as a replacement for them" (p. 33).

3. I am concerned by Skinner's suggestion that because Riley, Pagels and myself do not come to the same conclusions regarding the topic of the polemic, that we are making the details fit our own theories. This type of criticism has nothing to do with scholarly argumentation. It is an attempt to dismiss the evidence without dealing with it. In fact, my hypothesis developed out of my careful exegetical reading of these texts, as did Riley's and Pagel's. I did not have some sweeping theory in place before I started my research, and from the conversations I have had in the past with both Riley and Pagels, neither did they.

4. I want to say a few words in response to Skinner's statement, "One of the first things I found problematic in the approach (which I, for purposes of brevity, have designated the 'community-conflict hypothesis') was that these scholars were all making a great deal about an entirely speculative 'conflict' while doing very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel." I did "very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel"? Are you kidding me? I have two entire chapters of exegesis of the Fourth Gospel in my book Voices of the Mystics (as well as a entire chapter exegeting the gospel of Thomas, and another entire chapter exegeting Syrian texts with associated traditions). This is not "little" in my eyes.
I want to reiterate my position, so that it doesn't get too muddled in the internet and future publications.
1. My position has been and continues to be that our narratives are communal narratives that reflect the discussions that have engaged the people responsible for developing those particular traditions before the composition of the narratives themselves. They are not written to be nice stories about Jesus. One of the biggest concerns of the authors, it to write to correct and provide the right information to the intended audience. If you are at all in doubt of this, go and reread Luke 1:1-4, who knows other written accounts and wishes to write the orderly one for Theophilius so that he can be truthfully informed. Or chapter 24 of the same gospel in which Jesus has to correct the resurrection beliefs of those who were saying that his suffering meant that he was not the Messiah (esp. vv. 25-27).

2. My position has been and continues to be that the author of the gospel of John is aware of the type of vision and ascent mysticism that came to be associated with the Thomasine traditions in Syria, and he is polemicizing against them. I have not and do not maintain that the author of the gospel of John knew or read the gospel of Thomas. In fact, the entire first chapter of my book Voices of the Mystics is devoted to discussing the concept of developing TRADITIONS that eventually get embedded in our gospels. The competition is between the Johannine and Thomasine traditions and the communities who "owned" these traditions. It is not a competition between their gospels as literary compositions. If I have read Pagels correctly, she too argues that the author of John knew and thoroughly disagreed with the type of exegesis of the Genesis story offered in the gospel of Thomas, that he was engaged in a clash of traditions and polemics against the specific patterns of exegesis preserved in the gospel of Thomas, not the gospel of Thomas itself (Beyond Belief, p. 479).

3. I don't perceive of these communities as some isolated churches somewhere in the ancient world. The use of Johannine and Thomasine community language is chosen in order to indicate the communal nature of these developing traditions, not a church that had a sign on the front lawn that said "The Church of John" or "The Church of Thomas". In fact, I think that the Thomasine community was the very early apostolic tradition in eastern Syria. In other words, Christianity in Syria early on would have appeared very much along the lines of the theology we find in the gospel of Thomas. As for John, it represents at least two types of Christianity - a pre-final-redactor Christianity and a post-final-redactor Christianity - a form of Christianity as it was being practiced in Alexandria and another form of Christianity as it was being practiced in, I think, western Syria and perhaps Asia Minor. I'm still working this aspect out.

4. The origins of the Fourth Gospel has not been satisfactorily worked out, although we are a fingernail away. It is a gospel containing many polemics, much of which has already been mapped by a number of previous scholars. The author is particularly hard on the twelve (one of them was a devil!, another was a traitor!, and another a doubter!), especially in the pre-final-redactor version (before c. 21 was added; and perhaps the resurrection stories fiddled with). The heroes of this earlier version of the gospel are not among the twelve, but are the outsider disciples: the beloved disciple (who is Lazarus by narratological reading of the gospel), Joseph of Arimathea, and Mary Magdalene. This gospel legitimatizes itself on authorities alternative to the Twelve and the Petrine tradition, Thomas among them and the particular brand of mystical Christianity that appears to have become associated with his name in Syria. It isn't until the gospel is redacted into the form we have with c. 21 that the Petrine is fully embraced. The polemics in this gospel are far-reaching. The Johannine author is like the author of the Testimony of Truth, who is unhappy with everyone except his very own.


Liam Madden said...

This post was most welcome. You may recall that several months ago (after your radio interview about the "Gnostic Gospel of John" or such like), I asked about your views on John's origins, provenance, and multi-layered aspect. It still represents a mystery, the provenance being far-flung (Alexandria and Asia Minor), yet you hint at a missing piece (or pieces) of the puzzle near at hand. When will you share your additional thoughts on this? I look forward to it.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. I consider John to be one of the most beautiful of religious writings, as well as one of the most controversial. In John we see a continuation of the "parrable of the sheep" from the Book of Enoch and many of the other seeds that would come later to be known as the Antithesis.

Miles Fowler said...

I wrote about the idea that the Beloved Disciple is actually Lazarus over 15 years ago and am glad to see this interpretation championed by an academic. (I'm a rank amateur.) I am also gratified that someone else thinks Thomas was developed from something that originated before the year 50. (Why else does saying 13 suggest going to James the brother of Jesus for advice?) And Thomas only ends up in the forms we have because it kept being changed by its editors and translators. I have resisted the assumption that the differences between some content in Greek Thomas and Coptic Thomas necessarily mean that the Greek version came before the Coptic version. Both versions-and others-could existed simultaneously. (One and two become three versus one and two gods become three gods.) I am planning to read your book (I just learned of your existence from Ehrman's book "Did Jesus Exist?") and am eager to find out more about what you think about Thomas' origin and development.

Miles Fowler said...

Am now reading A. DeConick's books on Gosp Th. Very interesting. Am eager to learn how saying 12 (which I misidentified in my previous comment as 13) came to be added during a leadership crisis--long after James had died. DeConick also has an explanation for and new translation of the one and two saying.

Anonymous said...

I really like your two book on the gospel of Thomas