Saturday, June 30, 2007

Unearthing Texts: Biblical Archaeology Seminar Coming to San Antonio

Biblical Archaeology Society has asked Professor James Tabor (Chair of Religious Studies at UNC, and author of The Jesus Dynasty book and blog) and I to hold a 2-day seminar in October. It is called Unearthed Texts: Do recently discovered manuscripts tell us anything new about Jesus and Early Christianity?

The seminar will take place at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, October 19-20, 2007. If you are interested in attending, here is the link to the Biblical Archaeology Society website.

I have been part of this seminar series for a few years now, and it has been a great time each time. This seminar is meant to provide a public forum to talk about the new discoveries, how the media covers them (or not), and whether they honestly make any difference to what we can and can't know about Jesus and early Christianity.

So here is a short description of the goals of the Unearthed Texts seminar:
What can we learn from Christian communities that did not survive and from texts that did not become a part of the New Testament canon? Do recently publicized manuscripts shed light on these issues or are they a case of media hype? Have some of these manuscripts been misinterpreted? Can we recover early Christian voices that have been long lost or were silenced, voices that were often those of women and the disenfranchised? These and other fascinating issues will be explored.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Graduate Student Poster Session for Codex Judas Congress

We will be organizing a poster session for graduate students who wished to be officially involved in the Codex Judas Congress taking place March 13-16, 2008, at Rice University. I have uploaded an application form to the web here. Deadline for applications is January 7, 2008.

I am working with a local hotel (within walking distance of the university) to offer conference rates for lodging. I will post that information as soon as it is finalized. Watch the official webpage for the Codex Judas Congress.

As for the scholars participating, they include Nicola Denzey, Ismo Dunderberg, Niclas Förster, Majella Franzmann, Wolf-Peter Funk, Simon Gathercole, Matteo Grosso, Karen King, Alastair Logan, Antti Marjanen, Marvin Meyer, Johannes van Oort, Bas van Os, Elaine Pagels, Louis Painchaud, Birger A. Pearson, James Robinson, Rimer Roukema, Kevin Sullivan, Madeleine Scopello, Einar Thomassen, John Turner, Michael A. Williams, and Gregor Wurst.

The artwork shown here is the logo for the conference. Since it is original artwork, please do not copy it without permission from me, unless you are using it to advertise or announce the CJC on your own blog or website, then you already have my permission to use it. If at all possible, I wish to keep the picture associated with the CJC.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Mandaean Press Release

The press release supporting Bill 2265 is beginning to circulate on the web. Here is another version on the web. If you have been directed to this website to find out more information about the Mandaeans and the situation of genocide that they face, please click here for earlier posts and here for access to my webpage. Please do what you can to support this important bill. It is the matter of life or death for many suffering people.

The Laughing Jesus in the Gospel of Judas

On Jim Davila's JUDAS WATCH, he has tracked two recent reviews of Pagels-King, Reading Judas. On June 24, Stephen Prothero's review appeared in the New York Times here. On June 27, Bruce Chilton reviewed their book in the New York Sun here. Neither reviewer appears very convinced that this new take on Judas - the good Judas - is going to take us anywhere or go anywhere. And Stephen Prothero's review is particularly insightful, when he questions how meaningful Judas' Jesus is when he laughs so much at the disciples.
Although Pagels and King attend with care to the ironies of a text that both attacks Christian martyrdom and sets Judas up as the first Christian martyr, they are less effective in dealing with the most disturbing feature of this gospel: Jesus’ sarcastic laughter. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus laughs no fewer than four times. He laughs not with his disciples but at them — for worshiping incorrectly and for misunderstanding his teachings. “Teacher, why are you laughing at us?” Judas asks. Good question. Pagels and King devote scant attention to it, responding simply that this laughter is intended to spur Jesus’ disciples on to “higher spiritual vision.” To me, however, it just sounds mean-spirited, turning Jesus into the sort of person you wouldn’t like, much less worship.
My response to Prothero's concern is that Jesus' laugh is mean-spirited, directed at the disciples, including Judas, who are trapped in a fate they can't escape. They all worship Ialdabaoth, including Judas, who is as evil as ever. We must keep in mind that this gospel is not a historical representation of what happened between Jesus and his disciples, but is a historical representation of the opinion of the Sethian Gnostics about the apostolic Christians whom they associated with the twelve disciples and a demonic cursed Judas. The Sethian Gnostics are laughing at the apostolic Christians whom they think are ignorant. Why is it shocking to us, so disturbing? Because we are used to hearing only the mean-spirited voices of the apostolic Christians like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius who say equally nasty things about the Gnostics. What this text does for us is engage the other side from the perspective of the other side. This is invaluable as we try to sort out how the normative traditions emerged as they did!

At any rate, these issues I take up in much detail in The Thirteenth Apostle which will be released in Europe in October and the States at SBL in November.

The specific issue of Jesus' laughter is one that I am discussing in a presentation that I will be delivering at the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego. Here is a synopsis of my talk.
The Subversive Gospel of Judas and Sethian Humor
to be presented by April DeConick
Society of Biblical Literature
Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Session
San Diego 2007
This paper will explore the subversive textures of the Gospel of Judas, particularly in terms of its employment of reverse exegesis to critique mainstream Christianity. Traditional genres and stories are subverted in order to expose their hidden meanings, meanings that support Sethian perspectives while berating the mainstream Christian, in particular the confession of the Church, its tradition of apostolic authority, and its coveted atonement theology. The result is Sethian humor that mocks the "ignorance" of mainstream Christianity in, what I think, are frighteningly profound ways. In the end, I will attempt to expose a Sethian reading of this gospel, whose “hero” Judas is really an “anti-hero,” an evil man associated with the demon Ialdabaoth. His tragedy is used to comment on the ignorance of mainstream Christians, who do nothing more than worship Ialdabaoth and curse the very man who made possible their atonement. The Sethian author(s) argues very logically and profoundly given his premises, if Judas was a demon working for the demons that rule this world, than the evil sacrifice he made of Jesus’ body was to the archons who rule this world, not the supreme God. This means that the eucharist is ineffective in terms of redemption, because it serves only to worship and give power to the god of this world who has entrapped us, not the supreme God who liberates us. Everything in this gospel, from the traditional confession story to the traditional betrayal story, is turned upside down and inside out to poke fun at those who do not share Gnosis.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Book Note: Not by Paul Alone (David Nienhuis)

You wouldn't guess it from the title, but a new book on James has just been released by Baylor University Press. It is written by David R. Nienhuis (Assistant Professor at Seattle Pacific University), Not By Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon (2007). The book is about the Catholic Epistles - James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude - as a canonical collection, rather than as individual letters or tracts. The hope is that by studying them as a collection, we can learn something about when the epistle of James was written and for what purpose(s).

Thus the book includes hefty and informative coverage of the patristic literature in reference to the history of the catholic epistles, including some very helpful charts organizing the reception history of the epistles within the patristic literature of the Syrian church, the Eastern church, the Western church, and the manuscript traditions through the fifth century.

The rest of the book takes up the problem of James - as a letter and as the leader of the Jerusalem church - and describes the first and second century references to him even in gnostic sources. It is too bad that Nienhuis did not know about the Tchacos Codex which contains another version of the 1 Apocalypse of James with significant variations from the Nag Hammadi version. One such variation is the story of James' martyrdom, which is rehearsed at the end of the Tchacos version. This is not preserved in the NH version. Another is an explanation for his epithet "the Just", an epithet which was given to him because he was serving the Demiurge, God the Just, before Jesus intervened and brought him gnosis.

Nienhuis finds it odd that no trace, allusion, or reference to the epistle of James can be located in any of these materials. This leads him to consider the letter of James to be pseudonymous and late. So then he must find a reason for its writing. This reason he thinks can be found in the collection itself - that the author of the collection was creating a "Pillars" of the church collection. Because we would expect "some kind of deliberate engagement with the Pauline witness," one that represented the "Catholic" position, James was written (pp. 160-161).
Excerpt: "The letter of James was probably written sometime in the middle of the second century, possibly by someone associated with the church in Jerusalem, given that church's keen interest in maintaining James' authority...The letter was born out of the same broader anti-Marcionite logic that fueled the composition of 2 Peter and the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian. It was written to forge together a Jerusalem Pillars letter collection to balance the emphases of the Pauline collection, defend the authority of the Jewish scriptures, and uphold the continuation of the covenants - in short, to protect against the theological distortions that tended to arise whenever readers championed Paul alone."
If you are interested in issues of canon development or the study of James, this book offers a lot for you. If you are a scholar who thinks that the letter of James is old and written by James, this thesis has much to answer to (if it doesn't persuade you to Nienhuis' position). It did occur to me when reading the book that the reasons that Nienhuis outlines for its pseudonymous creation, may in fact be reasons that an old letter that no longer supported the apostolic church doctrinally (especially its position on the Torah and its disinterest in christology) was dug out of the archives and refreshed, taking on new relevance at a new time in the church's history.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

RBL Review of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas

It was very nice to come into my office this morning and open my e-mail to find the newest installment of RBL, and on it a review praising my book.

Professor Eric Noffke (Facoltà Valdese di Teologia, Rome, Italy) has written and published a very complimentary review of my book Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas. It can be accessed at RBL here. I am very flattered that he sees it as a "great book" that "sets the stage for a new chapter in this field of research."

Perhaps the most meaningful part of his review to me personally though is that he felt in my writing my conviction that the Gospel of Thomas is one of our most significant early Christian texts, not because it is a sensational thing to say, but because this is where my "serious scientific research" has led me. He writes:
To date, the Gospel of Thomas has been valued mainly by those scholars who wished to picture the historical Jesus as a teacher of wisdom and self-consciously a popular preacher, a wise man whose image was changed by his disciples after his death into that of an apocalyptic prophet of judgment and doom. A well known and effective popular writer of this line of scholarship is, for instance, Elaine Pagels. But many other scholars reject this approach both because it forces the historical data we have on Jesus and because it is founded on a debatable interpretation of the Gospel of Thomas that, above all, decontextualizes the historical Jesus. That is why most scholars see this apocryphal Gospel as suspect but also with the uneasy feeling that somehow "something good" is hiding in it. DeConick's book will free the Gospel of Thomas from these suspicions and bring it back to the center of the research on the historical Jesus and of Christian origins.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Article Note: "The Generative Force of Memory" (Werner Kelber)

I am knee-deep in memory studies again as I push forward with the analysis of the memory experiments I conducted a year ago with four groups of students. I just finished reading a brief but hefty article recently published by Werner Kelber in Biblical Theology Bulletin 36 (2006) 15-22. As usual, his discussions coincide with my own work and progressive thinking about the transmission of the Jesus traditions among the early Christians. It is an honor in so many ways that I am his successor at Rice, not the least being that we think alike on many issues. He was a pioneer that has opened so many windows for us to now peer through.

These are some highlights from this article:
It is deplorable that biblical studies has remained in the dark about the study of memory and the study of orality-scribality, especially when these are highly developed fields of study that have become completely integrated in other disciplines including history, anthropology, medieval studies, literary criticism, sociology, ethnic studies, philosophy, and so forth.

Memory in the gospel tradition is not cold memory, or passive memorizing. Rather it represents a (re)constructive remembering, with two purposes - to maintain the past but to make sense of the present. This is the function of social memory [what I call communal memory in my own publications like Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas] and explains the living traditioning within early Christianity.

The scribal evidence points away from the theory that there was an original text that became variant. The variability means that it is impossible to differentiate between primary and secondary recordings of a text. We must become comfortable with the polyphonic nature of the traditions and the fact that the recovery of a single original saying of Jesus is probably impossible.
So here you can see a number of items we have been discussing on this blog in the last couple of months come together in Kelber's article. This is a great summary of where our field is right now, or at least what some of the main ideas are that are fermenting in many of our publications and teaching. I have to say that I think we are witnessing the beginning of a revolution that, if pushed forward successfully, will completely overhaul our field both in terms of approach and content.

More Judas Information

Mr. Grant Wesley kindly provided the following information about the Gospel of Judas in a recent comment to one of my posts. I was not aware of the BYU publications and thought it important to bring that piece of history to bear in this blog. Thank you Grant.

Grant Wesley said:
I just came across The Lost Gospel of Judas: Separating Fact from Fiction (Eerdmans, 2007) by Stanley E. Porter and Gordon L Heath, and couldn't remember whether it's already on your list.

Also, in several cases comparable to the Finlay article but written by a few LDS (Mormon) scholars is a group of articles that were orignaly part of a panel discussion on the Gospel of Judas at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) in April 2006 and later published in BYU Studies (vol.45 n.2 [2006] 5-53). As far as I know e-copies are not available; hard copies of the issue can be ordered at

The audience for the panel was LDS non-specialists and this is reflected in many of the articles.

Perhaps most useful for academic purposes is S. Kent Brown's statement that

"Twenty-five years ago, another BYU facutly member and I became aware of the aggregate of documents described briefly by Kasser. I was able to identify the James text in the Codex Tchacos from a very blurry Polaroid photogrpah, which showed the manuscript to be in better shape than it is now" (19).

This would have been about 1981, possibly before "Hanna" recovered the stolen codices, and before Emmel et al. saw them in Geneva. Brown goes on to derscribe a subsequent trip to N.Y. (the precise date he cannot recall) where he and "Mr. Bernard Rosenthal, a rare-books dealer from San Francisco," in person examined

"a few damaged leaves from a very early Greek copy of the book of Exodus, two letters of the Apostle Paul in Coptic translation, and a Greek mathematical treatise, [which] were then in very bad shape, having been wrapped in an Arabic newspaper and placed into a small box. When the owner and his agent opened first the box and then the newspaper, Mr. Rosenthal and I gazed upon a mass of documents that were dissintegrating before our eyes [i.e., Codex Tchacos?], with tiny fragments lining the newspaper craddle" (20).

Apparently Rosenthal told the sellers that it would take two years to conserve the texts, and Brown writes that

"Mr. Rosenthal's estimate of the value of these texts, only a small fraction of the announced selling price, minus the costs of hiring a conservator for two years, must have provided the moment that Kasser points to wherein the owner [i.e., 'Hanna' in ?] came to understand that his 'asking price was too high'" (20).

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Book Note: The Judas Brief (Greenberg)

There are a number of tradebooks on Judas that are now appearing, and I will try to keep track of them (in addition to the academic books and articles) on my blog. If you hear of any appearing that you don't see me posting about, please let me know so that I can add them to my blog. Thanks in advance.

One tradebook that I have just heard about is Mr. Greenberg's book on Judas in the gospels and whether or not he really betrayed Jesus. Mr. Greenberg says no. His book has just been released and is called The Judas Brief. Mr. Greenberg is an attorney in NY city, but also a popular author who has written several controversial books on biblical topics. In his newest book on Judas and who really killed Jesus, he argues that "the Jewish authorities did not seek to have Jesus put to death and furthermore acted to save him and his followers and other innocent Jews from a crushing military assault by Roman soldiers. The true villain in all of this," says Greenberg, "was Herod Antipas, the Roman ruler of Galilee."

On his blog, he has posted his own reviews of Pagels-King and Kasser-Meyer-Wurst here and has a posting on the Gospel of Judas and its relationship with the Gospel of Mark here. He rightly notes that the Gospel of Judas is somehow connected to Mark.

I also discuss the connection between the Gospel of Judas and Mark in The Thirteenth Apostle. It is clear to me that the author of the Gospel of Judas knew and used the storyline from the Gospel of Mark as his basic story, particularly in terms of Mark's portrayal of the disciples of Jesus.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Book Note: Reinventing Jesus

If you haven't seen it already, Tony has a very detailed posting reviewing the book Reinventing Jesus. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment except to say that Tony's analysis places it squarely in that camp of books that tries to use bits and pieces of scholarship to support an apology for the historicity of the canonical materials and the inauthenticity of the apocryphal materials. I must say this rhetoric is getting tiresome to me, although at the same time it is disconcerting how selective reading of scholarship and theories is producing this sort of apologetic work with an edge. Thanks to Tony for posting on this.

New Blog on Iconic Books

Professor Watts from Syracuse has been building a blog called Iconic Books this year. It is full of fantastic pictures of sacred books and objects, and appears to be part of a bigger project to inventory iconic books and their uses called the Iconic Book Project. Professor Watts says:
The project's collecting and cataloguing activities aim to do basic research, but its study of iconic books has implications for understanding phenomena as diverse as the marketing of e-books, political ceremonies, legal conflicts over religion, artistic and media depictions of books, the reproduction of scriptures, the architecture of libraries and museums, radical religious uses of media images, the relationship between image and text, the role of religion in law, and the historical influence of “book religions.”
It looks like the posts on his blog are fairly regular and of interest not only to biblical scholars, but all religious studies scholars. Some of the books shown are quite phenomenal simply from the perspective of artwork, let alone religious significance and performance.

Label System

I have started a label system that functions as an index for my blog postings, and also as a convenient way to read together some of my distant posts on the same subject. If you are interested, scroll down the sidebar to the labels section. Click any of the labels and voila, you have before you all my posts on that subject. My categories so far are:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Breaking News about the Critical Edition for Judas

Gregor Wurst kindly e-mailed me this afternoon, to tell me that (hooray!) the critical edition of the Tchacos Codex is published. Here is the link to Amazon if you want to purchase it as a very discounted price. The book is called The Gospel of Judas, Critical Edition: Together with the Letter of Peter to Phillip, James, and a Book of Allogenes from Codex Tchacos. Finally the photos are published.

Book Description from Amazon
For the first time in a single volume, discover the complete text of Codex Tchacos—the remarkable ancient papyrus book that contains the Gospel of Judas. Hidden for 1,600 years in an Egyptian cave, only to be found, traded, and all but destroyed before its restoration began in 2001, Codex Tchacos contains four texts that shed important light on the ancient world and the emergence of Christianity.

Featuring beautifully rendered, full-color photographs of the original papyrus pages alongside the Coptic text and its English translation, this critical edition provides everything needed for a full examination of the Codex. The Letter of Peter to Philip provides a mystical, Gnostic picture of Jesus; the text entitled James presents Jesus discussing the meaning of life and death with his brother James; the Gospel of Judas casts a new light on Judas' betrayal; and the previously unknown book of Allogenes, though fragmentary, portrays Jesus as a stranger who brings light to a world of darkness. Ideal for the scholar and layperson alike, these texts are published here by an international team of scholars and supplemented by insightful introductions, indices, and other revealing, explanatory essays.

Association for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature

Tony on Apocryphicity posted the announcement of the summer conference (in Dole, France) for the Association for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature (L'Association pour l'étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne). Matteo Grosso mentioned this meeting to me today in a personal e-mail. For those of you unfamiliar with this association, it is a French association started in 1981. The members of the group are preparing volumes and publishing them in a series called Series apocryphorum of Corpus christianorum.

Short Article on Gospel of Judas

Professor Tim Finlay (Azusa Pacific University) has just published a brief but detailed article on the Gospel of Judas in The Plain Truth. Most of his analysis is fairly accurate in terms of the text's most valuable contribution being to the study of Sethianism (thanks!), but I have to dissent on his conclusion that the Gospel of Judas "confirms that Irenaeus and the early Church were right in what they said about the non-canonical Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John remain peerless from both theological and historical perspectives."

Why do these conclusions continue to be drawn by biblical scholars, as if the canonical gospels are any more accurate (or "peerless") theologies and histories than the non-canonical gospels? All these texts are theologies, and whether or not they are "peerless" depends upon where you are standing. None of our texts are histories, let alone accurate histories. And how much historical information we can actually reap out of any of them, and the procedures for doing so, are questions more problematic than not.

As for the accuracy of the Church Fathers' descriptions. Their accuracy is not how I frame any discussion of a normative debate. The Church Fathers passed on false information, ill-informed interpretations, and fabricated stories in their struggle against those forms of Christianity that they hated. As the old saying goes, "All is fair in love and war."

As scholars, it is our job to stop buying into the normative rhetoric, and figure out what was really going on on the ground. The Gospel of Judas helps us tremendously in this venture. We can see that it was not connected with Cain or the Cainites as some of the Church Father testimony suggests. It is written by Sethians, for whom Cain was an evil Archon! The evidence from the Gospel of Judas leads me to conclude that the Cainites were a fantasy of the Church Fathers, a result of their war to become the dominant form of Christianity.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New Website for Wipf and Stock

I just received notification by blanket e-mail that Wipf and Stock has a new fancy website ( Not only do I mention this because I think this is a great book company with tons of classic reprints, but this is the only place you can buy a new copy of Crum's Coptic Dictionary. I know that we need a new Coptic dictionary built in light of Nag Hammadi, Tchacos Codex, and monastic literature, but since I don't see that happening any time soon, if you want to translate Coptic, Crum is IT.

Proofs for Thirteenth Apostle

The first set of proofs for The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says has arrived on my desk. So I will be busy correcting it for the next while. It is always such a moment of anticipation and elation when I open the package from the editor, and see in print a manuscript I have put my heart and soul into.

It has been a wonderful experience working on this project with Continuum's biblical studies editor, Mr. Haaris Naqvi. Among other substantive things, he is the one who found the artwork for the cover, and insisted upon the name of the book, both of which I love.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Welcome Jared Calaway

Wade just sent me a link to a new blog that has been started by a former student of mine (back when I was teaching at IWU). From the undergraduate Religion Department at IWU, he went on into the PhD program at Columbia in "Religions in Antiquity," where he has studied with many great professors including Alan Segal. Jared has just achieved candidacy - Congratulations! - and is now starting a blog, he says, to keep in touch with the outside world as he begins dissertating. Keep track of his blog. Knowing Jared, it is sure to be fascinating. Even its name is wonderful: Antiquitopia.

Why Orality Matters

I have set aside my Valentinian study for a while, to turn to my research on memory and orality. As I am reading and inspired today by a version of an article by Werner Kelber (pre-publication, my thanks to him), I am struck by the beauty of the emerging paradigm in orality-scribality studies, and I will rejoice when/if it replaces the old post-Gutenberg mentality that has such a stranglehold on our field. Here are some questions that I'm facing as I read. These are questions that I do not face alone, but that I think are facing our field. Whether our field will face up to them is another question!
  • What does it mean to our field that the ancient written texts lived and were experienced as vocalized and memorial texts?
  • What does it mean that there was no authoritative written version of any scripture?
  • What does it mean that scribal activity was not the simple copying of texts, but was intertwined with memorization and recitation? That the scribal interiorization of the traditions allowed the scribe to rewrite the tradition without any need of a physical text?
  • What does it mean that the function of writing a text is unlike that of our own today?
  • What does it mean that a sacred text was read or recited and then orally explained in a communal setting? That it was a living text of ongoing revelation?
By fate or providence, Werner Kelber just dropped by my office. So as I return to finish this post, I am refreshed by our conversation. We talked about the questions I just raised in this post and we came to a couple of conclusions.
  • The literate model is engrained in us, so deeply that it is a struggle to break out of it. We are trained to think in terms of literary production, editing, redacting, manuscripts, recensions, variants in ways discordant with the actual living activities of the ancient oral-scribal realities.
  • The Synoptic Problem is not a literary problem (at least as we have imagined it). It is a more complex problem that needs to be reassessed from the living reality of oral-scribal culture.
  • This is too heavy. It's time for lunch.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Jesus Project according to CSER

In the second issue of the new review CSER (The Review of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion 1:2 [2006/2007]), The Jesus Project is officially announced. It is a Project spear headed by R. Joseph Hoffmann and Paul Kurtz. It will run for five years, with open meetings twice a year beginning in December 2007. The Project is limited to fifty invited scholars with credentials in biblical studies and cognate disciplines. The goal is to figure out if Jesus' life served as a basis for the beginning of Christianity, or if his story is a myth that led to the propagation of the religion.

I have had some initial involvement in this since I presented a paper on "Apocryphal Christianity" at the Scripture and Skepticism conference that launched this Project, but I must admit I have mixed feelings about the Project even though I am listed as a "Fellow." First it is a question that has aired before, and I'm not sure what "new" can be contributed to its rehearsal. Second, even though I am in favor of writing a history of early Christianity without a theological agenda or apologetic frames, I wonder if we are going to end up again with nothing more than a tradition so deconstructed as to be meaningless, like the 20 or so sayings the Jesus Seminar left us with. Can this Project become something more than just another exercise in our own skepticism?

At any rate, the proposal for the Project states: "The emphasis of the new project is to examine the shreds of tradition which bear on the historicity - the historical existence - of Jesus of Nazareth." The Jesus Project "is not an attempt to disprove the historical Jesus,...but rather to assess the nature and weight of the evidence itself...The proliferation of new theories of the nonhistoricity of Jesus, whatever their merits, and defenses of the historical Jesus, whatever their weaknesses, make this an important area of investigation in the new millennium." In one of the articles in CSER, James Robinson says, "The Jesus Project is not to launch into endless new, but ultimately unconvincing, arguments that Jesus never lived, but to understand better that oldest layer of tradition and how it can be made into a more influential force in our society today."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Announcing ""

I apologize for not posting on the blog very often this week. But I have been taking the time to put together a professional website so that I can move some of the sidebar material off the blog and onto a permanent site. Parts of the website,, are still under construction. I have much more I plan to add to the Gospel of Thomas page, and the page on Internet Resources is being built so don't bother with it for another few weeks. I'm open for ideas, if there are pages or information you would like to see on my website that isn't - please let me know.

Friday, June 15, 2007

For More Information about the Mandaeans

I have just noticed that a press release about Bill 2265 is referring people to my site for more information about the Mandaeans. I have many posts over the past few months which I copy here for you. Just click each link and you will be taken to the earlier post.

Template Letter and Addresses
How Can We Help the Mandaeans Survive?
What is the Mandaean Emergency Campaign?
Some Successes to Report
Professor Bolender starts "Mandaean Crisis International
Help for the Mandaeans
Mandaeans and the Sixth Stage of Genocide
Bill 2265 Letter
Noam Chomsky Supports Bill 2265

For general information about the Mandaeans, these are good online resources:

The Mandaeans (April DeConick)
Mandaean Associations Union
Mandaean Scriptures and Fragments
Mandaean Societies
Mandaic Alphabet
Mandaic and Neo-Mandaic Texts and Resources
Mandaic Language

Announcement of Ninth International Congress of Coptic Studies

I received today the preliminary notice for the Ninth International Congress of Coptic Studies. It is scheduled later in the year than I had expected. It will take place in Cairo (wow!) September 15-19, 2008. Morning sessions will be held for papers in these selected subfields:
Coptic literature
Coptic Bible
Coptic liturgy
Coptic history
Gnosticism and Manichaeism in Egypt
History of Coptic studies
Coptic art
History of the Coptic Museum
Coptic archaeology
Christian Nubia
Coptic documentary papyrology
Copto-Arabic studies
Egyptian monasticism
Coptic linguistics
On Sunday the 14th, they are planning an all-day public event at the Coptic Patriarchate, with lectures and discussions for all Congress members. This sounds to me like it is going to be a thrilling Congress. If you are interested in attending, check out the International Association for Coptic Studies (IACS) website.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Book Note: The Gnostics: Identifying an Early Christian Cult (Alastair Logan)

A student of mine has just returned Alastair Logan's book, The Gnostics, to my library. She had borrowed it from me a while ago when I had first received it in the mail, and before I had a chance to read it. So now I am doing so with great pleasure.

I highly recommend Logan's book, which in part is a response to many North American scholars who have been attempting to purge the Academy of the Gnostics, at least as a category.

Although I think that the North Americans have made a good point - that Gnosticism was not a religion, but is a modern category - I have chosen myself to continue to talk about Gnostics and their diversity. As I explain in several of my articles, and again in my book The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says, the Valentinian Gnostics were a group that was within the apostolic church system. Although they met privately in some type of lodge or school setting, they also attended the apostolic churches, joined in their rituals, and interpreted scriptures in similar fashion. The Sethian Gnostics (who wrote the Gospel of Judas among many other books that we have preserved at Nag Hammadi), however, defined themselves outside and even against the apostolic churches. They met privately, had their own rituals, and engaged in reverse exegesis, reading scripture in opposite ways of the apostolic Christians.

So for me, Gnostic is a very useful term, as long as we don't lump everyone in the same pot. This means that I am really glad to now be reading Logan's take, which appears to have many overlaps with my own.

Logan uses sociological theories to distinguish between cults and sects, and argues that the Valentinians were a schismatic movement or a sectarian movement within Christianity, while the Gnostics (=Sethians?) were a cult functioning outside the Christian Church. I am not convinced that the origins of the Gnostics (=Sethians?) was in Antioch at the end of the first century. Against this proposal of Logan, I would trace their origins even earlier and to Alexandria. The last chapter is very intriguing, since Logan wonders aloud whether or not the Hypogeum of the Aurelii in Rome is a Gnostic burial site.

If you haven't seen this book, but are interested in all things Gnostic (as I am), this is a must-read summer book for your list. It is short - only 150 pages - but engaging in so many of the right ways.

Update 6-17-07: Judy Redman posts on Thomas and Gnosticism in relation to Logan

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ban on Religious Books in Prisons

Now this tops my list of ridiculous legislative activities this week. Associated Press has reported that a ban on religious books is now in effect in prisons. Why? To curb terrorism. So hundreds of books on religion have been removed from prison libraries.

Do our government representatives really believe that terrorism is the result of prisoners reading religion books while incarcerated?

Friday, June 8, 2007

Paradise Now in Hardback

A surprise arrived in the mail for me today. Paradise Now, which was released in paperback by the Society of Biblical Literature last fall, just came in a package to me from Brill, now published in hardback.

So if you want to spend triple the money, but have a hardback copy, here's the link for the Brill purchase.

All kidding aside, the hardback presentation is meant for institutional libraries. I must say though that Brill does do an outstanding job with their binding, paper, and overall presentation. I have always loved to see my books put out in Brill cloth, especially when they used to use gold embossed lettering. This new book is done in ochre linen with burgundy embossing, so it is lovely too.

Handy Introduction to Using the Critical Apparatus

This just in. Mr. Brent Nongbri is a PhD candidate in the department of Religious Studies at Yale University. He wrote me the following about this wonderful write up he has created for his classroom, showing his students how to use the critical apparatus. He was kind enough to allow me to post a link to it for my readers to use. This link will take you to his website, scroll down and click short introduction to the apparatus. Thank you for sharing this with all of us!
Brent Nongbri wrote:
I have been teaching the introductory course in "biblical" Greek at Yale Divinity School for the past couple years. Generally I think students interested in reading Koine Greek are better served taking classical Greek at the university. On the other hand, one thing that makes "New Testament Greek" unique and a bit challenging is the abundance of (often conflicting) manuscript evidence (classicists never have to deal with such a complex critical apparatus); so I think that teaching people how to read the "Greek New Testament" means, in addition to teaching them Greek grammar, teaching them how to access these manuscripts through the apparatus. I found that there was no convenient and concise introduction to this material for students, so I decided to write up this handout.

Since the introduction in the Nestle-Aland itself can be intimidating (and, at times, overly confident about having really produced "the original" Greek of the New Testament), I tried to condense that info. down to the barest essentials and remove some of the Alands spin (replacing it, no doubt, with some spin of my own). After the class finishes the introductory grammar, I give them this handout to the students before we start reading out of the Nestle-Aland in order to get them into the habit of glancing down at the apparatus every time they see a symbol in the text. It's great practice for an intro class because the variants often improve on the Greek style of the printed text, and the students can see the different options for expressing a thought in Greek at the same time they get a sense for the extent and variety of manuscript differences. After a few weeks, I quiz them on the symbols and abbreviations in the handout. The students seem to enjoy this aspect of the class, and they have a leg up on many of their peers when they move into more advanced exegesis courses.

Giving the Torah at Sinai Conference

Here is another summer conference that Andrei Orlov passed on to post. It is at the University of Durham in July. Some good paper topics on extra-canonical materials are going to be offered, including one on 2 Baruch, which my colleague here at Rice, Matthias Henze, will present.

Enoch Seminar 2007

I'm not sure if other bloggers have posted on this or not since I have not been keeping track of the blogs very well this week, but Andrei Orlov sent me this link to post for the upcoming Enoch Seminar in Camaldoli. Look's like a fantastic lineup.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Today I'm with Valentinus (I wish)

I'm thinking about that perennial question, if you could travel back in time, where would you go, and who would you most want to meet?

For me, there is one answer to that question. I would want to go back to the second century and meet Valentinus and his students, spending some time in their lecture halls, listening to them and asking questions. The Valentinian system is truly remarkable. It is the first representative of a complete systematic Christian theology, a system that began developing in the 110s. And we are only now beginning to piece it back together and see the major impact it had on the development of apostolic or mainstream Christianity.

At any rate, I'm immersed in these voices now, as I prepare an article for the conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church on the Christian sacramental system. And there are several questions I need to ask Valentinus or one of his students. Why is it that old papyri always is broken in just the spot where your answer lies?

What is your time travel dream?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Let's get "real" about the Synoptic Poll

I must respond to Mark Goodacre's interpretation of the Synoptic Poll blog. He writes:

"Brandon's poll provides a nice snapshot of what some people think about the Synoptic Problem at the moment, and several comments on the poll provide interesting perspectives on some current thinking about the question...the poll reflects some movement away from the confidence in the Two-Source Theory that characterized previous generations of scholarship."
It does?

Let's get real about this poll. It is not a scientific poll. Any introduction to psychology or sociology book or class tells us that for a poll to mean anything it must be carefully controlled and executed.

Brandon's poll is neither.

The audience is who? What percent of people who took the poll even knew what all the different answers were? How many just guessed for the fun of it? What percent of people who took the poll were even in the Academy? How many people voted more than once? How many people who voted have taken a course in Biblical Studies, exposing them to all the alternatives? I could go on and on.

What external factors influenced voters? Perhaps Mark's comment at the beginning of the voting process that everyone should vote for the Farrer hypothesis influenced more than a few voters? Perhaps the fact that the voters could view the tallies before they voted influenced their votes - the bandwagon effect? Perhaps those who didn't know what Q is, but saw Augustine's name, thought, hey, I know he is saint, so he must have been right? Perhaps the ordering of the alternatives influenced voters? I could go on and on.

So I take back my earlier remark that this poll can tell us what bloggers think. This poll can't tell us anything because it was not done in a controlled environment with a specific audience and question in mind. If you want to know what the Academy thinks about this, you have to poll the Academy with a controlled poll. If you want to know what Bibliobloggers think, then you have to poll them and only them with a controlled poll. If you want to know what any bloggers think, then you have to poll only that group with a controlled poll.

So counter what Mark Goodacre says, this poll says nothing about advances in the Academy in terms of less confidence in the Q hypothesis. I reiterate that Q is still the reigning hypothesis in the Academy, and I don't see it going away any time soon.

Books questioning Q have been published since its postulation over a century ago, and recently again as a critique of the Q project and its enormous critical edition. But this doesn't suggest that Q is on the decline. It suggests only that scholars are continuing to work on the Synoptic Problem, as well we should.

Update 6-6-07
See Mark Goodacre's response
Jim West's reaction
Loren Rossen's view

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Lost Christianities DVD

Some of you have written to me about this new DVD. I didn't realize that it was available yet. It is a series of lectures that Charlie Hedrick, James Tabor and myself gave at a seminar last fall for the Biblical Archaeology Society.

The lectures in this seminar covered the texts of forgotten gospels, the mysteries of Gnostic beliefs, and some of the most important people in Jesus' life and mission.

A sampling of the lectures includes:

• HEDRICK's What's the Flap About the Gospel of Judas?

• DE CONICK's The Road Not Taken: The Mystical Gospel of Thomas

• TABOR's James and the Boys: The Mostly Forgotten Family/Dynasty of

Friday, June 1, 2007

Noam Chomsky Supports Bill 2265

Professors John Bolender of Mandaean Crisis International and Noam Chomsky asked me to post this statement in support of Bill 2265. If you wish to leave your own endorsement, please leave your name and city of residence (and any additional words) in the comments. If you wish to write directly to Congress in support of this bill's passage, please do so immediately since it is in committee right now. This link will take you to a template letter.

Professor Chomsky writes:
"I would like to express my strong support for HR 2265, the very least we can do for the people of Iraq who are suffering so bitterly from the consequences of the US-UK invasion and earlier actions, including their strong support for Saddam Hussein through his worst atrocities and well beyond. I hope particularly that the Mandaeans will be high on the priority list for rescue, in the light of the suffering they have endured and their highly vulnerable situation."
Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at MIT. He revolutionized the study of language, and of mind generally, with his arguments for the role of transformations of mental representations in generating syntactic structures, in contrast to the earlier view that
language is fundamentally, perhaps even wholly, behavioral and cultural. He has also written prodigiously on the unfairness of many power structures in society, the use of the newsmedia as propaganda tools for maintaining those structures, and the sometimes negative effects of U.S. foreign policy.

Comments on New Testament Manuscripts

I want to make more visible some of the information that different people left in the comments on the New Testament manuscript post. I am hearing from you that this is a problem that is beginning to surface in our field, and no one yet has figured out how to handle it on a large scale.

I'm wondering if we should put together a group of people to discuss the problem, like a think tank? Maybe there are scholars who would have the expertise and interest to create a manuscript synopsis of the New Testament? I'm not thinking every manuscript, but those that are early and quality witnesses of the texts in various families or geographical locations. To provide a transcription of these witnesses along with English translations of them I think would be great advance for scholarship.

To follow up on Matteo Grosso's comment. Has anyone already written or is anyone willing to write an informative article or booklet on how to use the critical apparatus? This would be a valuable tool for scholars across the world.

Comments copied below from previous manuscript post.

Stephen Carlson:
In one sense, the "Alexandria text" and the "Western text" are scholarly constructs just as artificial as the original text, currently based on eclectic principles. Ironically, with the exception of the Byzantine archetype, it may even be more difficult to reconstruct their archetypal texts (assuming it even exists) than the original. Moreover, even if we did reconstruct these text, they may only be valid for the third and fourth centuries because the usual text-types seem to dissolve when we go back to the second century into what Kurt Aland calls strict and free texts.

A less artificial approach can be found in Reuben Swanson's series of New Testament Greek Manuscripts (so far from Matthew through Galatians), which presents the text of about 30 or so of the earliest and/or most important manuscripts. His format is very easy to use and it has the theoretical benefit of presenting actual texts in use. Unfortunately, most of them are too late for the early Christianity and some textual criticism would be required to peer back into the earliest Christian periods.
Michael Bird:
April, this issue has been raised over at the website "Evangelical Textual Criticism". Many commentators have reached the point that they are unsure about writing commentaries based on electic texts, since they are writing a commentary on a text that does not physically exist, at least not in manuscript form. The approach being undertaken in the Septuagint Commentary Series (eds. Stan Porter and Richard Hess [Brill]) is for commentators to use a single text like Vaticanus as the text for their commentary (see David A. deSilva's fine study on 4 Maccabees).
Patrick McCullough:
I think a synopsis would be grand. Logos Bible software accomplishes this a little bit with their tool to compare parallel Bible versions along with Comfort & Barrett's Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. You can check out their blog post about it here. I'm guessing a lot of Logos stuff, particularly on their blog, might be a little too chummy with the church for you, but it seems like a good tool nonetheless. I don't know if any other Bible programs have something similar. I'd be interested in hearing from others what flaws there may be in this tool.
Rebecca Lesses:

In a rather different area of ancient religious literature, the Hekhalot literature, Peter Schafer and his colleagues produced a synopsis of 7 important manuscripts of the Hekhalot texts - representing the medieval European textual tradition. His claim was that it is impossible to make a critical edition of the Hekhalot texts because there was no authority to impose a final redactional form on them. James Davila, on the other hand, argues that it is possible to create a critical edition of these texts, in particular of Hekhalot Rabbati, using normal text-critical methods.

Matteo Grosso:
I am very concerned about the issue you rose. I think that to solve this fustrating problem it would require first of all an intensive training for historians about the right significance and the correct use of a NT critical edition. That would be already a step forward. Then a synopsis (at least including the most important manuscripts) would be very welcome by all us! In its absence we can take advantage of the Swanson's series of NT Greek Manuscripts, as prof. Carlson said.
Peter Head:
Good question!
For one attempt see J.K. Elliott, C. Amphoux & J.-C. Haelewyck, ‘The Marc multilingue Project’ Fil. Neot. 15 (2002)3-17.
Summary: Problems of Markan text require a new approach: not a critical edition, but an edition that reproduces the texts of the major manuscripts and ‘text-forms’ objectively (but in their proposed order of development); e.g. six versions of Mark 1.40-45: D, W, Q, ), B, A. No reconstructed ‘original text’; but the earliest witnesses to Mark set out in full. Each language will have a volume of their own (ten volumes in all: Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Gothic, Georgian, Arabic, Christian-Palestinian Aramaic, Slavic).