Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Thinking about the Gospel of Judas

This morning I continue to write my book on the Gospel of Judas for a general audience. I have provisionally entitled it Judas the Apostate: What the Gospel of Judas REALLY Says.

When I first read the text in Coptic, it really took me aback. Its language is heated and polemical. Jesus is a Jesus who mocks everyone in the story. I didn't really like the text that much and didn't think it had much to add to our knowledge of Gnosticism and Christianity in the second century.

But as I have come to work on it so intensely, the text has come to change my mind. It is an extremely sophisticated text (and argument - yes there is an argument in it) and it is an extremely important early Gnostic text (and not for any of the reasons that scholars have published so far). I hope to finish my analysis this month.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Some Successes to Report about the Mandaean Emergency Campaign

Dr. Nashi, the leader of the Mandaean Society of America, has written me about what has happened in Washington, D.C. last week when he went to lobby for the Mandaeans with the State Department, UNHCR, the US Refugee Council, and those on the Hill.

He reports that the State Department and UNHCR are resistant to the recommendation that the Mandaeans be considered as a group for refugee status. So cases will still be handled on an individual by individual basis.

However, three positive steps have been achieved from his visit and lobby:

First, some of the most vulnerable cases will be considered immediately, those cases involving Mandaean women, children and victims of torture.

Second, the State Department is willing to consider some cases involving reuniting families with members already in the US. This will benefit a small number of Mandaeans, but it still is a step forward.

Third, some senators agreed to sign a joint letter to Dr. Rice about the Mandaeans.

Please, if you haven't already, I urge you to send letters to Washington. Click here to be taken to an earlier post with information on addresses and a template letter.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Third Principle of Historical Hermeneutics

I wish to return to our discussion of what a true historical hermeneutic for biblical studies should look like. I have already discussed the first principle in a previous post:
If we are to advance in our knowledge of the beginnings of Christianity, the Academy must throw off the common apologetic position strangling us - that the study of non-canonical documents cannot teach us anything worthwhile (or: new) about early Christianity while the New Testament can. This position must be replaced with the first principle of a truly uncompromising historical hermeneutic, that the historian cannot privilege one set of texts over another, or one position over another.
I have also written about the second principle:
In addition to not privileging the canonical texts and the canonical story they relate, in all our texts we must distinguish between history and theological interpretation of events, between fact and fiction. This is the second principle of historical hermeneutics.
I find this second principle particularly timely to what is going on in the world of archaeology this week. Has Jesus' Family Tomb been found? If so, do we have the bodily remains of Jesus, his brothers, his father and mother? Who is the other Mary in the tomb, the one whose DNA does not match the other family members? Who is Judas son of Jesus? Before we go crazy saying, "no way!", as historians we have to swift through all the possibilities and the evidence, we have to weigh them without apology for the Christian theological tradition. I don't know how it will all be sorted out eventually, but we must not simply give in to Christian apology in our dealings with this evidence. Nor should we succumb to the sensationalism this news is already provoking, and I am truly not looking forward to "Dan-Brown-All-Over-Again."
So let's keep on as historical skeptics, examine the evidence without apology for Christian theology, and see where that leads us.

The third principle of historical hermeneutics is empathy for the ancient Jews and Christians. The historian of religion has a particularly grueling job most comparable I think to the anthropologists who study peoples and cultures. We must beware of ethnocentrism, treating the ancient people as "primitive," "crazy," "backwards," and so on. We also must beware of imposing modernity on the ancient world in such a way that we assume the ancient people operated on the same assumptions that we do, saw their bodies the same as we do, their environment the same as we do, their universe the same as we do. Empathy means that we must try to see the world through their eyes in order to understand what they were saying in their literature and doing in their practices, without judging it or accepting it as historically accurate. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy.

I always tell my students, if you think something you are reading in the literature is "weird" or "crazy," then you don't understand yet the assumptions the ancient Jews or Christians were making. Figure out their assumptions, figure out their worldview, figure out the bigger dialogue, and you will figure out the reference that is troubling you. It only looks "weird" or "crazy" to us because we are unfamiliar with the meta-story it belongs to, because we are trying to understand it as modern people.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Jesus Family Tomb?

Professor Tabor has just posted a note about breaking news regarding the Jesus Family Tomb. He says that a press conference will be held on Monday and a book released discussing findings from scientists and scholars who have been scrutinizing the remains. Check out his post. He has updated this with his own analysis of possibilities.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Sexism and the Christian Meta-Narrative

I'd like to address an issue that Phil S. raised in a comment to my recent post, A Meditation on Post-Modernity.

Phil S. wrote in response:

What many Christians are doing (including me) is to use the post-modern critique of modernism to show it to be just another meta-narrative and that its claims to universality are either greatly exaggerated or, worse, intended to submerge other meta-narratives by taking the high ground.
I am aware that many Christian theologians are now attempting to make this claim, and that is the entire reason for my original post, because I find this type of claim to be a real stretch. Post-modern philosophy when pushed to its extreme like this appears to me to break down.

Yes, we all have meta-narratives, but as human beings NO ONE can live without them. We might spend the majority of our lives unconscious of our meta-narratives, and unaware of their orientations of power, but we would live in utter chaos and dissociative states without them. For scholars to try to erase them from our reconstructive histories, or we from our persons, borders on the impossible. What would be the practical purpose anyway?

I think that we are stuck with meta-narratives and all the ugliness (and beauty) they bring with them. We can never have a narrative that is completely inclusive of the world. Nor we can ever escape their power, although I would like to think that we might be able to transcend the abuses of that power.

Saying this however does not mean that all meta-narratives bring with them the same abuse of power, or the same "universality." Most of our meta-narratives don't even attempt to apply to our common experience as human beings, an experience that transcends the views of any of our religions, social systems, or politics. The humanist or modernist meta-narrative came into being largely to escape the religious meta-narratives and their stranglehold on truth, their abuse of the power that their narratives fed (and still feed) them. In my opinion, the humanist or modernist meta-narrative is not "just another meta-narrative." Not all meta-narratives are "equal." It is the "higher ground," not for reasons of power or superiority or submersion of the "other", but because it is a narrative that allows for us to reflect critically as autonomous individuals and form more inclusive narratives of our world. For me this meta-narrative is essential to adopt as a historian of religion, because it allows me to operate critically, autonomously, and without religious prejudice or preferencing, creating a reconstuction of history far closer to what "happened" than any theological reconstruction might lend us.

Religious meta-narratives are particularly dangerous because they legitimate the oppression and violence as a divine ordinance, or a divine will, or a divine retribution.

Let me use an example that I personally experience: sexism and misogyny. The subjugation of women is woven throughout the Christian meta-narrative and its biblical texts beginning with chapter 2 of Genesis. The biblical passages have been used by mainstream Christians in our not-so-distance-past to keep women from having the voting rights of full citizens of the U.S. The Catholic Church still tells us that women cannot be priests because Jesus only selected male disciples and because women do not have male bodies necessary to represent Jesus as male priests do. Protestant denominations (and here I am not even thinking about marginal sects of Christianity, but the Southern Baptist Convention and other mainline Christian groups) recently revoked ministerial positions for women, or continue to exclude them from these leadership roles based on scriptural passages from Paul and the Pastoral letters. Women continue to be taught in mainstream denominations that God gave them "equal" but "different" roles from men, and that they should be satisfied with this because it is his will. Women continue to be taught in mainstream denominations that their voices should be silent, that their manner submissive to the men in their lives because Eve ate of the fruit not Adam (a reference that is made to 1 Timothy).

Certainly I am not naive enough to think that sexism in our society is completely to blame on Christianity, but Christianity's meta-narrative is the main meta-narrative in our society today that fosters and continues to feed the sexism as divinely sanctioned. And this is dangerous and morally bankrupt. It also holds the potential of becoming a "handmaid's tale" given the right social and political environment. And to me, a woman, this is utterly horrific to ponder.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What About Saying 71?

I want to address the presence of saying 71 in the Kernel Thomas (=the earliest written form of the Gospel of Thomas that I think can reasonably be recovered using historical-literary critical methodology). I'd like to draw attention to the fact that my understanding of the development of the Gospel of Thomas is within a rhetorical environment, in which a written text moves freely in and out of its literary format. This environment fosters a compositional platform that includes oral reperformance and continual reinterpretation, as well as occasional rescribings of the text for storage purposes.

Saying 71
Jesus said, "I will destroy [this] temple, and no one will build it [...8-9 letter spaces...]."

Isn't this a late reference, post-70 CE? If it is present in the Kernel, why do I date the Kernel to 50 CE (or earlier)?

The date of the Kernel was determined upon examination of the eschatology and the christology of the speeches, which reveals pre-Quelle traditions matching those that can be reasonably reconstructed and are indicative of the early Jerusalem church. The eschatology is such that the End is inaugurated and urgent with no sense yet of a delay. The christology is that of prophet and exalted angelic judge prior to the introduction of the title Son of Man. All of this is reconfigured (and rewritten) in the Gospel of Thomas over the ensuing decades, as the delay becomes realized and retrospective thinking about Jesus blossoms.

Saying 71 has always appeared to me to be a straightforward reference to the fate of the Temple at the End of time. The opinion that such a saying could only be explained in a post-Jewish war context is nonsense, and does not take into consideration the rich Jewish expectations about the Temple at the End of time - its destruction, either temporary or permanent.

Saying 71 is ticky though because we simply do not know how it ended because of the fragmentary nature of the manuscript at this point. All attempts so far at possible reconstructions have been for naught. It is impossible to know how it ended, although rebuilding it in three days cannot fit the letter space.

I see no reason, however, to think that a "prophetic" saying of this type could not have originated with Jesus himself, given the political and religious climate of the time and the "known" fate of the Temple during turbulent periods. I never like to speculate about Jesus' own words, but the "authenticity" of this particular saying is about as good as it gets. Bear in mind how Matthew, Mark, and John labor to revise it in light of Jesus' death, suggesting that the saying referred to Jesus' body, its entombment in the earth for three days, and its resurrection on the third day, NOT the actual destruction of the Temple.

I think that the canonical reference to rebuilding the Temple in three days smacks of Christian theological revision of a saying that either embarrassed the Christians or was unpopular. Since the Temple did indeed fall, the account that Jesus predicted its fall certainly would not have been embarrassing, but it very well could have been unpopular. Although the Jews and Christians toyed with the possibility that the Eschaton might bring the destruction of the Temple with no hope of restoration, this idea was not the favored expectation. It remains even within contemporary Judaism and some forms of Christianity that the destroyed Temple will be rebuilt.

So it may be that the Gospel of Thomas is preserving the oldest, harshest, and least popular remembrance of this saying, that the Temple would be destroyed unconditionally. The antiquity of its unconditional destruction appears to me to have been known to Luke too, who refers to the tradition twice but does not quote the saying itself (Luke 21:5-6; Acts 6:14).

These reflections can be found on pages 226-227 of The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, the commentary created as supporting documentation for Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How Was the Gospel of Thomas Written?

There is an interesting discussion going on among the members of the Thomas Yahoo list. I am not a member of that list, so I am weighing in on the discussion here.

Why does the literary dependence appeal NOT work?

1. Thomas has general parallels with Synoptic material.
This assumes that the only place Thomas could have derived his version of the saying is from the canonical gospels.
2. Thomas contains parallels that have Synoptic "redactional traces."
This assumes that our sources (Quelle, Matthew, Luke, Mark) were fixed texts, and that they are the same copies that we have reconstructed as our eclectic Greek manuscript (NTG) from our late physical witnesses, none of which agree. This position does not allow for source variation and a lengthy complicated process of development of our sources, and scribing of our sources. Are we sure that the "redactional trace" is from Matthew or Luke? Or is it from a source(s) relied upon by Matthew or Luke? Or is it from an orator who reperformed the saying in light of his memory of a Synoptic version? Or is it from the hand of a later scribe harmonizing an older version of the saying to his memory of the Synoptic version?
3. The entire compositional process of a Thomasine author sitting down one day with canonical texts and cutting and pasting a word here and a word there into his own gospel of sayings does NOT fit what we know about ancient compositional practices.
On this point, the Academy is about 100 years behind in its understanding of ancient compositional practices. I still cannot believe that we are operating with unmodified Form and Redaction Criticism models of production, when they don't work beyond schoolhouse exercises. The ancient world was a rhetorical culture wholly dominated by an oral consciousness. Scholars in the Academy must start learning about orality from sociologists and anthropologists. The studies are there. But they do not jive with what biblical scholars in our field keep saying and want to keep saying. Read Professor Ong, read Professor Foley, read Professor Lord, read Professor Kelber. We must stop looking at the ancient people through our own literate lens.
4. The literary dependence appeal has never been able to account for the differences in the versions of Thomas' sayings and the Synoptics.
I mean this seriously. We have spent so much time looking for "same" words, have we really looked at the differences and tried to account for them? Has anyone noticed (other than me) that the exact verbal agreement, lengthy sequences of words, and secondary features shared between the Triple Tradition and the Quelle versions FAR exceeds anything we find paralleled between the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics?
Why does the independence appeal NOT work?

1. The Thomas sayings don't follow the same sequence as the sayings in the Synoptics.
Most of the time. There are a few clusters that are the same.
2. The Thomas parables are not allegorized like their Synoptic counterparts.
There is at least one parable that is allegorized and several more interpreted. There is plenty of secondary material in the Gospel of Thomas, old sayings rewritten in new interpretative contexts.
3. Thomas contains much material unparalleled in the Synoptics.
True, but so do Matthew and Luke - they contain material unparalleled in Mark their major source.
4. There is an absence of redactional activity traceable to Synoptic hands.
If you examine the sayings using traditional form and redactional analysis, there is evidence for Lukan dependence in 5/6, 31, 39, 45, and 79.
Where does this leave us?

I hope it dislodges us from continuing to argue for direct literary dependence OR complete independence. If we keep slogging away at these same appeals, we will keep answering them with the same objections, and we will stay in the box.

I suggest moving out of the box. What we should be doing is talking in terms of what kinds of dependence, and how we can distinguish these in our written sources.
  • Are we seeing an "original" independent multiform, an example of pre-Synoptic performance variants?
  • Are we seeing secondary orality, an example of an orator's memory influenced by his memory of the Synoptic tradition?
  • Are we seeing secondary scribal adaptation, an example of the influence of a scribe's memory on what he is either translating or copying?
  • Are we seeing direct literary dependence, an example of one author copying a text from another text?
I think that the only way we are going to find answers to these questions is to turn to interdisciplinary studies, particularly in psychology, sociology, and anthropology. And we have to start running controlled experiments on the subject ourselves. That is far afield of Thomas, I know, but if we don't do it, we will stay inside our comfortable box, and never really know.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Meditation on Post-Modernity

In an earlier post, I mentioned one of my concerns about "post-modernism," that it has been used by scholars to justify their theological reconstructions as "historical," so that any number of truth claims about Jesus and early Christianity are being made now in the Academy, with little to no reasoned critical justification. Have post-modern observations been pushed beyond their intent, to conclusions a post-modern philosopher might find offensive?

Post-modernity is not really a separate thought-world from modernity - it is its extension I think. One of the fashionable "ideas" associated with post-modern thought is that all subjects are biased with regard to their observations. Now this is an idea that modernists certainly knew about, and it is one of the reasons that critical thinking and the scientific method came into being - to create a space for reasoned thinking that was not under the influence of theology. Post-modernism has taken this in a self-reflective sense, suggesting to us that this critical alternative is, in itself, not without its biases. This has led to a relativism and the observation that "truth" is a function of power and a function of the perspective of the observer. It is not an accurate description of an external "objective" reality.

I don't think I'm alone in my opinion that when this degrades to complete relativisim, the philosophy falls apart, becoming exceedingly superficial. It leaves us floating in a sea of nonsense, vagueness, even nihilism, especially in terms of ethics, but also in terms of "doing history." Just because all observers are biased, does not mean that all reconstructions of history are of equal worth historically, as some are trying to conclude. I think that this perspective is an unfortunate application of the post-modern observation to serve the needs and desires of some in the theological community who have felt their "histories" marginalized by modernists.

The historian's position is not without biases. But what should those biases be? To be as impartial as possible (and recognize when we aren't), to provide a reconstruction of history whose goal is to be as self-consistent with the general experience of humanity as possible, to be guided by critical thought processes and reason, and to be as fair and consistent with the sources as she can. It is these biases that I own as my own. It is from these that I operate. And it is my hope that more biblical scholars will self-reflect, and push themselves to become uncompromising in their historicism.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Mandaean Emergency Campaign Update

Dr. Suhaib Nashi, the spokesperson for the Mandaean Society of America, has sent me a copy of the report produced in January 2007 by the Mandaean Human Rights Group recounting the annihilation facing the Mandaeans in Iraq. The report is 31 pages long, providing documentation of the genocide occuring (sadly still even as I write this entry). The Mandaean Associations Union has an archive of related materials.

I also am providing a link to Dr. Paula Dobriansky's video report (Feb. 14, 2007) about displaced Iraqis and Iraq refugees and the urgent need to provide solutions for their resettlement and assistance, especially for those who need assylum. To view on the report, click the story label "Outlining a Strategy for Helping Iraqi Refugees."

Dr. Nashi encourages a letter campaign. In an earlier blog entry, I posted a template letter. He says that we should send our letters requesting that they treat the Mandaean cases not as individual cases but as a collective group threatened with annihilation to:
1. our representatives in Congress and the Senate
2. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, State Department, 2201 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20520
3. Dr. Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, State Department, 2201 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20520
4. Ellen Sauerbrey, Assistant Secretary for the US Government's Refugee Operations, State Department, 2201 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20520

Announcement: Exciting New Agenda for the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism SBL Section

As I'm putting together the SBL program agenda for the New Testament Mysticism Project or NTMP, I'm also thinking about the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Section which birthed the NTMP.

I imagine that some of my blog readers will be surprised to learn that my main interest in early Christian studies is recovering its pre-Nicene forms of mysticism and religious experience. What I really want to understand as a scholar are the mystical and esoteric traditions within (and even foundational to) early Christianity. So I have gotten many laughs out of the blogsphere's characterization of me as "atheistic," "anti-Christian," "anti-faith," "secular," and "anti-religious" because of my uncompromising historicism.

What is very exciting regarding the study of early mysticism is the new agenda that the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Section has set for the next ten years. The group has just finished a decade of collaborative work that was published in November 2006 jointly by E.J. Brill and the Society of Biblical Literature. The book, Paradise Now, is an introduction to the major aspects of the mystical tradition within early Judaism and Christianity. It is a book that defines a field of study largely neglected by scholars until now - pre-Nicene forms of mystical traditions and praxis in early Judaism and Christianity.

Now the EJCM's agenda is renewing in terms of possible provenances of early mysticism. The agenda will operate in rough chronological order, beginning with forms of mysticism in the Ancient Near East. The group wishes to create a forum to discuss how, why, and in what forms mysticism emerges at various times, locations, and communities prior to 500 CE. The papers presented in the SBL sessions will be collected for inclusion in a new series of volumes called, After Paradise Now: Essays Exploring the Provenances of Mysticism in Early Judaism and Christianity.

The EJCM group is inviting papers for the San Diego SBL from scholars with expertise in the Ancient Near East, examining forms of mysticism that emerge in this particular provenance. If you are interested in proposing a paper, the link is here to submit it.

In 2008, the group will be studying forms of mysticism in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Enochic literature. If you are interested in proposing a paper in either of these 2008 sessions, please contact the Chair of the group directly, Professor Kevin Sullivan at

Oxyrhynchus Papyri Using Multispectral Imaging: Can it help us with Saying 30 in the Gospel of Thomas?

It looks like our knowledge of the canonical and non-canonical gospels may benefit from the research that is being conducted by professors Roger Macfarlane, Stephen Bay and Thomas Wayment of Brigham Young University. Stephen Carlson posted a link to a newpaper article describing this exciting research. Multispectral imaging is a new technology developed to see through dirt and stains on papyri in order to reveal the writing beneath. They are now working on reading the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, at least the pieces housed at Oxford. Some of the pieces include an unknown gospel fragment, another "new" ending to Mark, a different recension of two verses in Philemon, and a missing portion of Luke 22:43-44.

Should they ever decide to use their technology to reexamine P. Oxy. 1, I would be particularly interested in what it might tell us about P. Oxy. 1.23-30, the lines that make up saying 30.1-2 of the Gospel of Thomas. My own physical examination of the manuscript under natural and ultraviolet light revealed a very eroded line (24) that was very difficult to manage. The standard critical reading by Harold Attridge is "e[isi]n atheoi" (they are godless). But my examination makes this reconstruction doubtful, if not impossible. The theta is clear. In the letter space left of the theta are traces of ink in a distinct pattern. Visible traces move from the top left corner diagonally to the lower right corner. There is a dot of ink in the lower left corner and what appears to be a trace in the upper right corner. When the ink traces are connected, the only letters they could be according to the hand of the scribe are chi or nun. To the left of this letter, in the center of the letter space, is a strong vertical stroke that fills almost half the vertical space. This letter must be either tau or iota. The letter space to the left of this letter is extremely eroded and fragile, but the space is indicative of two letters, not three as Attridge's reconstruction has it.

What reconstruction does this leave? Only one, and one consistent with the Coptic manuscript: "e[is]in theoi" (they are gods). This suggests that the P.Oxy. Greek fragments read, "Where there are three, they are gods." Like the Coptic, it is nonsense. Even the Coptic scribe was confused by it, since he tries to make some sense by interpreting "three" as a specific reference to the "gods." So he adds "gods" after "three."

How can we explain the weird Greek? It appears to me to be a mistranslation of a Semitic plural form of "Elohim," since it is a name for God in Judaism, at the same time as the plural form of El, "gods." This saying is one of those that signals to me that Greek was not the original language of the Gospel of Thomas, but Aramaic and/or Syriac, its eastern dialectical sister. The original saying 30 can be reconstructed: "Jesus said, Where there are three people, God (=Elohim) is there. And where there is one alone, I say that I am with him." Such a reconstruction has full parallels in the Jewish literature (see Mekilta Bahodesh 11; Pirke Aboth 3.2, 6-7; b. Berkakoth 6a).

I don't know if multispectral imaging would help us deal with the erosed ink on P.Oxy. 1.24, but I am curious to find out.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Book Note: Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, eds.)

I wish to draw attention to an edited volume that I think is dealing with an extremely important subject, but one that has been largely neglected in biblical studies - social memory theory, what I have come to call "communal memory" in my own writings. The book contains a very good introduction to social memory theory and a number of specific studies applying the theory to biblical and extra-biblical texts. Sociologists and anthropologists who have studied social memory for decades now have shown us that communities as well as individuals create and commemorate their pasts in terms of their present experiences and social realities - that no history is a record of what actually happened, but a reimagining of what the community wishes to remember happened. The articles in this book provide a significant challenge to many of the assumptions we have made as scholars in biblical studies, including the very items we have been discussing on this blog. What kind of history do our gospels relate? Why did the early Christian literature emerge? Ritual? Ethics? Can we ever know the historical Jesus?

Memory studies are highly significant, so much so that I think the field of biblical studies cannot move forward honestly without embracing this large body of social scientific research and making it part of our baseline operation. I plan to post soon a more comprehensive discussion of communal memory theory and its implications for our period and literature with a starting bibliography, highlighting significant research from social scientific journals and books. But for now, I recommend Memory, Tradition and Text as a quick plunge into this material and its application to biblical studies.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Welcome, Matteo Grosso

I'd like to welcome Matteo Grosso to Rice University and Houston. Mr. Grosso has traveled from Italy as a visiting student. He is preparing a dissertation at the University of Turino on the reception history of the Gospel of Thomas. I met Mr. Grosso last autumn at the Sorbonne in Paris during the first international conference on the Gospel of Judas. He spoke to me about his research, and now has come to Rice to write a portion of his dissertation. I am delighted to have this opportunity to work with him on a project that I think will be a very significant contribution to the interpretative history of the Thomasine sayings. He will be here until the end of March, and we are hopeful to accomplish great things on our favorite early Christian gospel during his stay.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Mandaean Emergency Campaign

Since my last post on the international crisis that the Mandaeans face, I have been in contact with Professor Jorunn Buckley (Bowdoin) and Professor Charles Häberl (Rutgers) who have been tirelessly working for years as activists on behalf of the Mandaean community. I have also been in touch with the leader of the Mandaean Society of America, Dr. Suhaib Nashi. All welcome and encourage our help. Dr. Nashi says that the situation is dire. Mandaeans by the thousands have fled Iraq to Syria and Jordan. Most are in hiding for fear of their lives. Professor John Bolender (Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey) is forming a group, the Mandaean Crisis International, which will assist in the campaign to save the Mandaeans.

I would like to ask you to help. How?

1. Link or copy this post and the previous one to your own internet resources.

2. Copy the letter below and send it immediately to your congress representatives and senators. All the addresses can be found here. If you don't want to deal with snail mail, then send it by e-mail. But I can tell you that letters are taken more seriously if they are on letterhead and are hard copies. What we need is NUMBERS.

3. If you have connections to a Media department (universities all have them), send this letter to them or write one of your own. If you can, draw their attention to any local communities of Mandaeans living in your area. Do what you can to get the media in your town publishing articles about this state of emergency.

4. If you are teaching, talk to your students about this. Tell them who the Mandaeans are and what they are facing as a persecuted religious minority in Iraq. Get the word out.

5. Here are weblinks that might serve as resources for you about the Mandaeans.



RE: Mandaean Emergency Campaign


The Houston Chronicle published a syndicated AP article on Saturday, February 10, 2007, that reported some startling statistics I hope to bring to your immediate attention. In the early 1990s, there were 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq. Today, the estimates range from 5,000 to 7,000. This special religious population is facing extermination.

Who are the Mandaeans? They are a persecuted religious minority whose homelands are Iraq and Iran. The Mandaeans are the only surviving Gnostic religion from antiquity. Mandaeans esteem John the Baptist as one of their greatest teachers. They practice multiple baptisms in rivers in order to journey to the world of light which they consider to be a better place than earth. Their books are very old, written in Mandaic, a Semitic dialect.

Many Mandaeans are trying to flee Iraq as they are targeted by Islamic extremists. They are being killed, raped, and forced to convert to Islam. Their properties are being confiscated by these extremists, according to a report released last week by the Mandaean Society of America in Trenton, New Jersey. Many Mandaeans are convinced that very soon there will be no Mandaeans alive in Iraq if we do not help them immediately.

There is a lobby working in Washington, D.C. to get the Mandaeans out of Iraq, as well as Jordan and Syria where many have fled, but still suffer abuse. They have no easy way to escape to countries like the US where they would be safe. On January 17, 2007 congressional testimony by Assistant Secretary Ellen Sauerbrey said that the department has been expanding the ability of the US to bring in more Iraqi refugees, including the special populations of religious minorities. Dr. Suhaib Nashi, the leader of the Mandaean Society of America, will be sending a letter to Capital Hill in the next few days, with details about the crisis that his community faces.

I would like to draw your attention to the genocide that is occurring among this special population, and ask you to do whatever is in your power to help bring into the US these refugees. There are already established Mandaean communities in cities like Houston and Detroit. The Mandaeans who live in the US and are established in professions and businesses, are willing to assist fleeing families from abroad, if only we can get those families here.

For further information, you may contact:
  • Professor Jorunn Buckley, Bowdoin College, 7300 College Station, Brunswick, ME 04011;; 207-725-3687.
  • Professor Charles Häberl, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 54 Joyce Kilmer Avenue, Piscataway, New Jersey 08854;; 732- 445-8444 Ext. 17.
  • Professor April DeConick, Rice University, MS 15, Houston, Texas 77251;; 713-348-4995.
This is an extremely urgent matter, and I ask that you give it your immediate attention.



Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Second Principle of Historical Hermeneutics

Professor Tabor has recently posted on the Jesus Dynasty blog a discussion of my blog from February 3rd on the assumed reliability and accuracy of the New Testament documents for historical study. I enjoyed reading his comments and was particularly pleased that he highlighted the main point of my posting, to get us thinking about the assumptions that we have made about the literature in the New Testament as compared to that outside.

Professor Tabor writes
"I think many might think her statements are too extreme, and that surely the material in the N.T. is of infinitely more value historically than a slightly “whacko” book like Thomas (a description of one of my students on an exam last semester). But this would be to miss her very valuable point. A critical reading and historical examination of the kinds of non-canonical texts she mentions, and others as well, in fact offer us the chance to construct a much fuller portrait of the movement that John, Jesus, and James inaugurated. If Acts and Eusebius are not “the story,” as I have recently written, then we have a lot of hard work before us."

I couldn't agree more. As Professor Tabor has said, Acts and Eusebius are not "the story." Indeed, we have a lot of hard (but fun!) work ahead of us.

So I want to push us further as we think about an uncompromising historical hermeneutic. In addition to not privileging the canonical texts and the canonical story they relate (the First Principle of an Historical Hermeneutic),
in all our texts we must distinguish between history and theological interpretation of events, between fact and fiction. This is the second principle of historical hermeneutics.

If a scholar argues that he or she can prove from the texts that Jesus actually rose from the dead or performed miracles or was born from a virgin, we need to think twice. Is this fact or is this theology wanting to be history? If we have any questions about these types of issues, simply change the god, or change the man. In other words, if a scholar of Abraham Lincoln were to write that good old Abe rose from the dead because a letter from a soldier reported that he saw Lincoln rise from the dead, well, what would we think? What we would think if Buddhist scholars told us that the Buddha was born from a virgin, and this was historically true? Why when it comes to Jesus are we willing to suspend what we know to be true about our world? As soon as we do this, we become apologists and theologians. We leave history behind.

If we don't keep this point always in mind, our personal theology will creep into our historical reconstructions.
Marcus Borg's book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (2001), is one that I have found useful in my Introduction to the New Testament course because it takes seriously the historical method and its results, while providing Christians with a metaphorical way to interpret scriptures that does not compromise the results of the historical method. Almost. In Borg's discussion of miracles (he prefers the word "spectacular") - whether a particular historical event lies behind stories that "go beyond what we commonly think to be possible" - is he really applying an uncompromising historical method? Or is there slippage?

Borg writes:

"I think that Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to" (page 47).

Are stories like Jesus' resurrection story useful to a historian? Absolutely. What it tells me is that some of Jesus' followers had visions of Jesus after his death, a psychological phenomenon not unusual. I had vivid dreams, what I would call "visions," of my mother after she died, all suggesting that she was really alive but hidden away by the doctors. It took a couple of years for this to subside. In the ancient Jewish culture, visions of the dead could be interpreted in a couple of ways. The person has seen the deceased "spirit" or "ghost," an interpretation that some of Jesus' followers made of their visions of Jesus according to Luke 24:37. Or the person has witnessed someone's resurrected body, the theological interpretation that became the standard interpretation in the memory of the community. This interpretation was so important that it launched a series of christological questions and formulations, and ultimately led to Jesus becoming God. But how that happened is the subject of another post.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Book Note: Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History (Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli)

I came across this 2-volume set last spring and was thoroughly pleased to see such an even treatment of canonical and non-canonical material. Applause!

The volumes were published in 2005 by Hendrickson Publishers. The first volume covers early Christian literature from Paul to the Age of Constantine. The second, from the Nicea to the beginning of the Medieval period. The books generally are up-to-date on scholarship, providing tight narrative outlines of the literature followed by very brief bibliographies. The coverage is comparable to what might be found on certain subjects in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.

However, because of the overview nature of the "entries," not even a nod is made to a comprehensive treatment of the given topics. Rather, the work is written through the personal digest of Moreschini and Norelli, representing their understanding of the material. So these books are good places to go to get a quick overview of a subject, but should not be regarded as comprehensively representing the field on any given topic. This is not a criticism as much as a caution to readers.

I love the set up of volume 1 which is of most interest to me because of its coverage of the pre-Nicene period. It is set up chronologically beginning with the letters of Paul and the Pauline "pseudepigraphical" letters. The Gospels follow with Quelle, synoptics, Acts, Jewish-Christian, Egyptians, Fragmentary gospels, Thomas, Peter, John. The Apocalypses follow with John, Isaiah, and Peter. Then the Non-Pauline letters. And so forth. Fair language and even treatment of the literature is seen throughout the book.

The only sad remark I have to make, is where is the Coptic literature (besides the Gospel of Thomas which is included because it has greek fragments?)? I understand that the title of the book would have to be changed, but the missing Coptic material creates a silence, an emptiness of the Gnostic and (and later, monastic) voices.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

How Can We Help the Mandaeans Survive?

I continue to be very worried and afraid for the Mandaeans, especially those trying to live in Iraq. The Mandaeans or "Knowers" are the only surviving Gnostic religion from antiquity. Their homelands primarily are Iraq and Iran. Mandaeans esteem John the Baptist as one of their heros. They practice multiple baptisms in rivers in order to journey to the world of light which they consider to be a better place than earth. These soul journeys are meant to prepare them for death, so that when the soul is released from the body it will know the way home and not become lost in purgatories along the way. Their books are very old, written in Mandaic, a Semitic dialect.

The Houston Chronicle today published an article that reported some startling statistics. In the early 1990s, there were 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq. Today, the estimates range from 5,000 to 7,000. Many are trying to flee Iraq as they are a targeted by Islamic extremists. They are being killed, raped, and forced to convert to Islam. Their properties are being confiscated by these extremists, according to a report released last week by the Mandaean Society of America in Trenton, New Jersey. Many Mandaeans are convinced that very soon there will be no Mandaeans alive in Iraq.

Mandaeans leaders say that they are being scattered around the world now. They are becoming a diaspora community for the first time in almost two thousand years. There is a lot of concern about the survival of this Gnostic religion, not only because the Mandaeans are being killed, but also because of the consequences of the diaspora. They are beginning to marry outside the faith. Their spouses and children can never be Mandaeans since one must be born Mandaean to claim the religion. They have no mechanism (yet?) to bring children from mixed marriages into the fold. The few dozen Mandaean priests left are reluctant to agree on a mechanism for this.

There is a lobby working in Washington, D.C. to get the Mandaeans out of Iraq, as well as Jordan and Syria where many have fled, but still suffer abuse. They have no easy way to escape to countries like the US where they would be safe. It is not a powerful lobby because their numbers are so few. On January 17, congressional testimony by Assistant Secretary Ellen Sauerbrey said that the department has been expanding the ability of the US to bring in more Iraqi refugees, including the special populations of religious minorities.

How can we help them? Practical suggestions are encouraged.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Tips for Graduate Students writing Statements of Purpose

As a professor who reviews graduate applications, I have discovered that the weakest part of the application is usually the statement of purpose because students don't seem to know what to include or how to write this genre. So, for what it is worth, here are my suggestions for writing more successful personal statements.

The statement of purpose is NOT
  • an autobiography about how you became interested in religious studies or biblical studies
  • a lengthy rehearsal of everything you have done in college (or: everything you have done out of college)
  • a vague discussion about what you think you are interested in studying further
The statement of purpose should
  • begin with a strong paragraph of specifics introducing yourself and your professional goals (i.e. to become a professor, minister, editor, so on)
  • move on to state what program you are applying to and why you want to be admitted to that particular program (i.e. program's resources, specific professors you'd like to study with, areas of study available in the program, and so on)
  • go on to explain specifically what you intend to study and what research area(s) you wish to pursue for your thesis work (do not be vague; you can always shift topics later if you change your mind)
  • include a short paragraph about the qualifications you bring to the program (i.e., languages, fellowships, publications, previous study) and why you should be admitted
  • this should all be accomplished in under two organized pages

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Reading History out of Theology

The biblical historian has a very difficult task, more difficult than the task of historians of other subjects I think, because the biblical scholar works with theological documents to try to reconstruct history. Is this possible, to use theological texts to discover history?

I think so. Although I must emphasize that it is not easy and we should not take the task lightly. What I mean is that we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of becoming lazy, accepting what the texts tell us as a record of what actually happened. We must develop a hermeneutic of suspicion as second nature. Reading against the grain must be embraced as our best friend.

If we have one, we must be conscious of our own faith perspective, be willing to set it aside so that our historical task does not become a servant to own theological beliefs.

Likewise, we must acknowledge the ways in which the canon has dominated the field, and all the assumptions that this has brought with it - including the assumption that the canonical texts are reliable and accurate representations of Jesus and early Christianity.

We must also revive the old historical methods but within a contemporary academic context, revising them with theory from the cognitive and social sciences as well as from philosophy and literature. Even though they must be improved, I truly feel that nothing can replace the old methods, and we should be teaching them to our students, undergraduates and graduates alike.

I think it is important for us to distinguish what kinds of history we are after and what kinds of history are possible to recover from the early Christian documents. I am very comfortable, for instance, reconstructing the traditions of the people who created and recorded the document. These theological texts reveal quite a bit of information about what the early Christians were thinking and practicing whether it be from the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, and so on. The diversity of thought and practice is staggering. And I imagine that I will spend my entire career trying to sort this all out.

The documents I am most thankful that have survived are the letters of Paul. Without them I don't think we would have a chance to reconstruct early Christian history. We would be completely lost trying to recover anything of value in Acts. But the letters of Paul are autobiographical, and with them we can begin to see glimpses of Jesus' family running a church in Jerusalem, and so forth.

The type of history I am least sure about recovering from these theological texts is actual events in the life of Jesus and actual words that he said. I am scared of the historical Jesus. It is so easy to invent Jesus in our own image, and to create a methodology to support that endeavor. On top of that, the texts are intentionally portraying him as they do by authors who believe him to be God. So whenever I think about trying to write about the historical Jesus, I tremble and put down my pen. It is still beyond me how I go about this as a historian.

Post from Matthew Collins about Future of SBL

I asked Matthew Collins, the Director of Congresses and Professions of the Society of Biblical Literature, if he would be willing to respond to some of the AAR/SBL issues raised this week on my blog. He has been kind enough to allow me to post his response. This is not an "official" set of policy pronouncements, but represents his understanding of the current situation. Many thanks, Mr. Collins.

Matthew Collins writes:
"The concerns expressed in this blog about the departure of the AAR from the Annual Meeting with the SBL appear to express concerns in three areas: 1) the split of the meeting itself and the reasoning behind the split; 2) the nature of the two organizations, including disciplinary foci and receptiveness to various parts of the religiously oriented spectrum; 3) the perception of theological and religious studies approaches in academia. I do have some insight into the first two of these concerns.

Regarding the split of the Annual Meeting, the decision to hold separate Annual Meetings was made unilaterally by the AAR in the Spring of 2003. The rationale for this decision was initially articulated as a need for more program and meeting space because the meeting was so large. The rationale has shifted several times since the initial announcement, from the space issue to the desire to de-emphasize the Bible in light of the rest of religious studies. In reality the space issue is a non-issue. The combined meetings have never lacked meeting rooms to hold the sessions the two organizations wanted to hold at the times they wanted to hold them. As for the size of the meeting, having 5,000 or 10,000 participants at a meeting only reduces the number of hotels used. The hallways and meeting rooms will still appear as crowded (or not) as they do now. It will still be hard to find lunch in a timely manner. To illustrate this point, for those who attended the 2006 meeting - could you tell that we had 1,200 attendees more than the previous year? I have been attending meetings since 1990, when the meeting was half the size, and notice no appreciable difference in the hallways, exhibits, or restaurants near the hotels. As for the "real" reason for the separation, if such a reason exists, it is quite likely that it had more to do with the personalities involved and their particular interests, with the consequent need for political correctness and avoidance of confrontation in a board meeting, than any business or academic rationale. But I was not at the AAR board meeting and have only exegeted the public announcements to arrive at this conclusion.

As for the nature of the two organizations, any simple summary that divides them between theological studies and religious studies approaches is a caricature at best and completely wrong at worst. My understanding of the SBL, based on working on the Annual Meeting and International Meeting programs full-time for the last eight years, is that it is a diverse group without any generalized overall theological or religious orientation. The Society's members cover the broad spectrum from left to right, if you will, and from my perspective no one place on this spectrum has a majority. The SBL has programs units at both meetings where those using religious studies approaches and those using theological studies approaches can find acceptance and a place to present their work. From what I can tell, there are as many using one approach as the other. The composition of the various committees of the organization may appear at any given point to be dominated by one or another perspective, but over the course of time one finds a balance that favors neither. The Society also covers an incredibly broad range of topics, including a significant number working outside the canons of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. For example, I am currently re-reading Klauck's "Apocryphal Gospels" and I am struck by the fact that in all of the bibliographic references for the various texts, nearly all of the scholars Klauck cites are SBL members and most have participated in our meetings in the last eight years. The work on the Nag Hammadi texts, in particular, is carried out by scholars who are active SBL members.

The future of the Society and the Annual Meetings, for the time being, does not include meeting with the AAR. The Society has been preparing for this eventuality for the last four years. The SBL has added 60 new program units in the last three years in an effort to provide a place for all of our members to present their work, whether this work is currently represented on the AAR side of the program or not. The Society is working with many other organizations with overlapping members to encourage these organizations to join our program as affiliates. The SBL's mission, to foster biblical scholarship, is interpreted by the board, staff, and committees to mean that as a Society, we need to support the academic work of our members regardless of which field it belongs to at present. The SBL is pushing and challenging disciplinary boundaries with the result that the Annual Meeting will begin to look a bit different, cover a wider area, and become a more stimulating place to gather - regardless of whether one using a religious studies or theological studies approach. As a result, if any of the bloggers or respondents in this forum have ideas for programs or program units they want to pursue, I can assure you that the SBL is a welcoming place for those programs. Contact me and we can pursue your ideas."

If you wish to contact him directly, he can be reached through e-mail (

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.

More Discussion about the Future of AAR and SBL

James Crossley and Brent Landau gave me permission to move their responses to my original post to the main blog page. I wonder, how pervasive are the concerns raised in these last few posts?

James Crossley's Response

"I've experienced the same thing: AAR members wanting to distance themselves because of the faith/theological slant (perceived or otherwise). I've also experienced the problem outsideAAR/SBL here in the UK. When I was associated with a university theology department some people doing sociology were open in the fact that they thought theology should not be a university discipline. I remember surprise when I said that some of us do sociology/anthropology of religion, and historical approaches to (e.g.) Christian origins or Islam but the perception that it was a faith based theological discipline was a serious problem (not helped by the departmental name, granted).

My big worry about the AAR/SBL split is what will happen to those of us who aren't really into theological/confessional approaches. The mixture of AAR/SBL provided an important overlap not only for critical study of the Bible and its historical contexts but also for the religous studies people esp. given the role of the Bible in contemporary politics and culture. I worry that SBL could lose some very good people to AAR, esp. from outside the States where in most cases only one conference can be chosen. If this happens confessional approaches or theological approaches could dominate even more, esp. in terms of sheer numbers.

In case anyone wants to tell me off, let me qualify the above by saying that I am making no judgment like 'one approach is better or worse': just thinking about who will dominate the scene."

Brent Landau's Response

"I'm glad you posted this, April, and I also appreciated James' thoughtful response. As a graduate student, I often feel a bit "out of the loop" as to what the long-term plans of the AAR and SBL are. But, a couple thoughts/questions for my own clarification, if nothing else.

Is there any sense of how the AAR plans to account for the loss of the ancient Christianity/Judaism people? Common sense would seem to dictate that they don't intend this to be a permanent "doughnut-hole" in their sessions. Is there any talk of creating less theologically-oriented sessions for these areas of specialty in order to allow those scholars who see themselves as "religious studies" types to migrate from the SBL to the AAR? If so, what sorts of problems could arise from this approach? Being squeezed into a much smaller number of sections? Logistical difficulties in attending two annual meetings? Isolating those who resist an easy classification into either "confessional" or "historical"? Lots of other thoughts on my mind about this, but I'll leave it there for the moment."

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

AAR/SBL Conversation Continued

I have received some very thoughtful feedback that I want to post on the main page of the blog because it appears to me that many have had similar reactions to the AAR/SBL split. I would very much like to continue the conversation to see where it might go. Here is a response from a person who e-mailed me. This person has given me permission to publish the response anonymously.

"I don't belong to SBL, partly because I haven't got around to it, but partly because I wasn't really sure how much 'use' it would be to me. I guess the name 'Biblical Literature' speaks to me of literature that made it into the Christian canon (and possibly the deuterocanonical books). My only real contact has been through a few papers from SBL conference proceedings and through the SBL fonts email list.

Logic suggests that an organisation that is working on such a wide range of fonts can't be devoted solely to Christian canonical and deuterocanonical material, but I think the title is unfortunate for those who are working either outside the canon or from outside a faith perspective. I've visited the website several times and looked at what the benefits of membership are and decided that they're probably not all that great for me. As a Christian minister working on Nag Hammadi texts, I obviously don't find a particularly large group of colleagues within my own denomination, but the SBL website doesn't actually convince me that I'd find many more within its ranks.

This is quite possibly a very unfair jugdment of SBL, but I suspect that this is possibly the kind of thing SBL is working against. And archaelologists are wary of theologians and biblical scholars.

I couldn't work out for several years why one of the archaelogists at my university avoided me even though we shared several common interests, until we needed to work together on a particular project. After that, he decided that I wasn't going to shove the Bible down his throat at every turn. We now spar gently in public forums when his rampant atheism gets too much for me, and get on quite well in private, but I could understand why people like him would vote against joining SBL."

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Future of AAR and SBL?

This morning the future of the AAR and SBL is on my mind as I begin preparing the sessions for the New Testament Mysticism Project. Why AAR severed our joint meeting has been a topic of conversation between many of us, but one issue is always brought up when I talk to my AAR colleagues - that the American Academy of Religion wishes to distance itself from the bible-centered study of religion that dominates the Society of Biblical Literature. Many of my colleagues in AAR are glad to see the "theologians" (their word) go. Then I think of ASOR, who just voted not to join with us again. Why? Could it be that the archaeologists don't want to deal with the biblical scholars because they perceive us to be "theologians" too? I don't know the answer to this because I have not spoken with members of ASOR yet.

I think those of us who are historians in the Society of Biblical Literature, if we haven't already should be concerned about the perceptions of our colleagues in related societies. What does it mean that we are perceived as "theologians" and not historians? As an historian, I am particularly worried for us. Will we become increasingly isolated in the Society? What will it mean to the study of Religion that the AAR will have lost along with the "theologians," the historians of ancient Israel, the Second Temple Period, and early Christianity?

I have worked very hard in the Society of Biblical Literature to develop programming that takes a hard line on the historical method, one that does not favor canonical texts at the expense of non-canonical, nor modern Christian theology (the group membership contains people of all faiths). Ten years ago when I started the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group, I did so largely because my historical interests in Second Temple Literature (across the canon and across Judaism and Christianity) was so marginal within the Society at the time that I felt isolated. Last year, some of the members of this group gathered to begin writing a commentary on New Testament Mysticism in order to bring the full range of ancient Jewish and Christian materials we have been studying together to bear on the New Testament texts and their mystical interests.

I have to say that these "across-canonical/across-faith" groups in the Society have been extremely successful. I encourage members in the Society of Biblical Literature to grow other similar groups so that we can create forums of exchange with people who are "other" than ourselves, working on texts "other" than those we are most familiar with. This type of group helps to safeguard the historical method from priviledging our own faith positions I think. And it is a way for us to continue learning.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Accuracy and Reliability of the New Testament Gospels?

Why do so many scholars hold so strongly that the New Testament Gospels, particularly the Mark, Matthew and Luke, are more accurate and reliable for reconstructing history than the non-canonical when it was proven by Professor Wrede in 1902 (The Messianic Secret) that the author of Mark was a theologian not an historian? The New Testament Gospels (and the apocryphal Gospels) are not histories, nor are they even historiographies. They are theological treatises whose main interests are Christological.

The New Testament texts don't have anymore intrinsic reliability for reconstructing the "historical" Jesus and Christian origins, than early non-canonical texts. The virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke are no less legendary and fanciful than the account found in the Infancy Gospel of James. The miracle stories of Jesus in the four New Testament Gospels are no less fantastic than those performed by the child Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The passion narratives in the New Testament are no less contrived in order to "prove" that Jesus' suffering and death had fulfilled the Scripture than the crucifixion narrative in the Gospel of Peter. The account of the pre-existence of Jesus in the first chapter of John is no less mythical than the accounts of his pre-existence in the Gospel of Truth. The reports of the miraculous deeds of Peter, Paul and Philip in the New Testament Acts are no more reliable than their deeds recorded in the apocryphal Acts which bear their names. The wild apocalyptic story in Revelation is no more an account of the end of our world than equally wild descriptions found in the visions of the Pastor Hermas or the Apocalypse of Peter. The sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are no more the verbatim words of Jesus than those recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior, or the Secret Book of James. They are just more familiar to us because they have been part of the Christian tradition for so long. Has familiarity been mistaken for historicity?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Is the Gospel of Thomas Dependent on the Synoptics?

Michael Grondin, the moderator of the Gospel of Thomas Yahoo list serve, has asked me to comment on the question of dependence of saying 79 on Luke. Professor Mark Goodacre has kindly provided the list serve with a paper that he has written on the subject. He is absolutely correct. If there is a case to be made for dependence, saying 79 is one of them. The others are sayings 5/6, 31, 39, 45, and 104. All are Lukan parallels. The arguments in all cases are based on the presence of words that some scholars regard as traditionally redactional, that is words that are thought to be from the Lukan hand. This has been recognized for some time, going back to the work by Professor Schürmann, "Das Thomasevangelium und das lukanische Sondergut," BZ (1963), and Professor Schrage, Das Verhältnis des Thomas-Evangeliums zur synoptischen Tradition (1964). Professor John Sieber, who makes a case for the independence of the Gospel of Thomas, allows for the possibility of dependence in these cases too in his often-quoted unpublished dissertation, A Redactional Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels with regard to the Question of the Sources of the Gospel According to Thomas (Claremont, 1966).

What these parallels mean exactly is the real story in my opinion. If you want these parallels to support a case for an either/or scenario - either Thomas is dependent or independent - you probably won't like what I have to say. I have a full discussion of this on pages 15-24 of The Original Gospel of Thomas In Translation, 2006. The issue is very complex, and suggests a little of both. I think the most likely scenario (that makes sense of all the evidence) is that as time went on, versions of the older, independent sayings came to be influenced by memories of the sayings in other gospels, particularly Luke. Also it is quite likely that there were later sayings added to the Gospel of Thomas as it developed as a text, accretions based on the gospels as I think may be the case with sayings 3 and 113 (//Luke 17:20-21). Was Luke a favorite gospel in eastern Syria? I had a private conversation with Professor Vernon Robbins at the SBL meeting in Washington, D.C., and he is working on this question right now. I am really looking forward to reading about his findings because, from what he told me, I think they will go a long way to help us sort this question out.

Another factor we have to take into consideration is that the ancient world functioned within the parameters of an oral consciousness. This means that written texts weren't actually read by all that many people. People would hear things and then rely on their memories in order to pass on the information that they had heard. So this suggests that issues like dependence and independence become very complicated. The notion that we have a fixed synoptic tradition at this time just cannot be supported by the evidence. The sources of these gospels (if not the gospels themselves) developed within an oral environment, so what we have traditionally earmarked "redactional traces" might instead be evidence of source variation. What if the Gospel of Thomas and Luke were familiar with certain locale variants of some of the sayings of Jesus and are preserving those independently? So we have to be cautious about the redactional argument.

The big question for me is how do we distinguish between independent oral variants, and variants influenced by secondary orality (where an old independent version is adapted to the memory of another version of the saying), and secondary scribal adaptation (where an old independent version is modified by a scribe to fit his memory of the saying in another gospel or liturgy), and direct literary dependence (where Thomas took it directly from another written gospel). If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them. I have run a pilot experiment within a controlled environment to try and determine whether there are certain markers or indicators or patterns characteristic of different modes of transmission (from oral to oral; from oral to written; from written to oral; from written to written). This semester I've put together a team of my students to collate the data and hope to be writing the results this summer. The experiment was occasioned by my observation that the parallels between Thomas and the synoptics are far far less verbatim than those we find in the triple or double tradition in the synoptics (see the appendix, "Verbal Similarities Between Thomas and the Synoptics" in The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, 2006). I'll report back on this as the data comes in.

So it's complicated, but I hope by moving the discussion away from an either/or literary dependence argument, we might actually make some progress on the problem.