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.

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.

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."

What good is Form Criticism?

John Shuck asked me in the comment section of the last post, if we can't know Jesus' authentic words by using form criticism, can we at least learn about earlier material?

My response, "Perhaps."

The reason for my ambiguous answer is that the application of form criticism and other assumptions are going to make this determination. Certainly form criticism identifies the literary type of the block of material (although this tells us next to nothing about its oral performance). If there are enough variants, it might even show us how earlier material becomes secondarily developed, such as variants placed in different literary contexts, reinterpreted with the addition of a secondary clause or phrase or introductory question, or developed into fictitious literary dialogues.

But once we leave these parameters, the going becomes rougher since ALL the materials we have about Jesus were remembered and written by and for the early Christians, including his parables and sayings. This means that the parables and sayings are no less "church material" than the miracle stories or apothegms or passion narrative. So trying to sort out some of this material as "less-churchy" than the rest is very problematic. The sayings of Jesus, especially the parables, are considered most authentic of the materials, as if they were preserved in his own diary untouched by the memories and needs of the early Christians.

Form critics seem to have realized this and so ventured to put into use the dissimilarity principle (and the principle of coherence) in order to determine which of the sayings were authentic and which represented the voice of the church. Jesus material is eliminated if there are parallels in early Judaism or early Christianity.

Of course this leads to a serious distortion of any historical Jesus recovered. And it is a way that the difficult apocalyptic materials have been removed from Jesus' mouth, even generating the argument that they are later additions made by the early Christians to the non-apocalyptic message of Jesus. Circular reasoning at its height.

What we end up with is a Jesus that doesn't look anything like anyone around him!

In my opinion, the application of this principle has been theologically-motivated from the start, and in some cases bordering on anti-Semitic. It allows the interpreter to control Jesus to the point that Jesus becomes a man against Judaism and other Jews around him, a man who has no self-consciousness as a Prophet or Messiah, and a man who is unlike all other first-century Jews. Jesus is unique.

This principle can tell us nothing about the historical Jesus, in fact it outright distorts him beyond recognition. It is a principle that we should never have applied in the way we have done. And it is time for it to go.

Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus Fails or "On Using the Wrong Tool"

Judy Redman, who is here from Australia writing a portion of her dissertation on the Kingdom parables in the Gospel of Thomas, dug out an old article from 1972 written by M.D. Hooker ("On Using the Wrong Tool," Theology 75: 570-581) and passed it on to me because she thought I might like it. Wow. Judy was right! This article reads like my course on Jesus and the Gospels.

If you wonder what is wrong with biblical methods, this article is a nice salute, but one that doesn't appear to have been heeded by too many scholars. Like these 2 paragraphs (page 581), which appears to me almost prophetic :
Neither must he (the biblical scholar) use them (tools like form criticism) negatively - to blackball a saying. The critic who tries with his knife to carve away the thick layers of the Church's theology and give us the bare skeleton of the Jesus of history will no doubt shudder at my unscientific analogy, but it seems to me that all his criteria can only give us results like those which appear in the tables of the magazine Which?. The more blobs in the column, the more confidence one may have in that particular product, and the better buy it is. So with our gospel sayings. The saying which is found in all the Synoptic strata, which has no known parallel outside the gospels, which is Aramaic in structure, will perhaps rate more blobs than one which has none of these features. But I am not suggesting that we should assume that those which score so many blobs as authentic, and those at the bottom of the table are not. We are moving here only from the more to the less probable.

For in the end, the answers which the New Testament scholar gives are not the result of applying objective tests and using precision tools; they are very largely the result of his own presuppositions and prejudices...Too many hypotheses have been regarded as proved, and have become accepted as dogmas. Of course one must have working hypotheses; but it should never be forgotten that these are only hypotheses, and that they must constantly be re-examined. Perhaps every NT scholar should have before him on his desk, as he writes, as a constant reminder of the dangers of dogmatism, the words of R.H. Lightfoot: "We do not know."
There is more in her article that I will post on (hopefully over the weekend), but I leave you with this comment, one that I always make to my students at the end of the Jesus and the Gospels course. Whatever else we might think we can do, creating a red-letter edition is not one of them. Given the oral and scribal environments of creation and transmission, given the origin of all of our materials in the Christian communities, and given the charismatic nature of early Christianity, the quest for the authentic or original words of Jesus is bound to end in failure. The number of white marbles or pink marbles or black marbles in the bag is not going to make it so.

Update 4-30-07: some discussion on other blogs
Judy Redman

Why the Jewish Jesus is Essential (and Dangerous)

I had prepared another post on my own reconstruction of the historical Jesus, but I have decided to hold off on it and pick up a thread today from the comments I have been seeing on my last post, the poll on the historical Jesus (which I encourage people to continue to reply to if you haven't already - I am sincerely interested in your opinion about this difficult question).

As I look back over the long history of the Jesus quest (and its popularized sidekick, Jesus in cinema), I continued to be struck (and I admit ashamed) that Jesus rarely appears as a Jew. There have been occasional voices over the last century that have demanded we remember that Jesus was Jewish, but these have been occasional and against the communal representations of Jesus that were developing in those eras.

And sadly this includes the Third Quest which largely has been trying to get around the fact that Jesus was Jewish by creating categories for Jesus as a Hellenized person living in Palestine or Galilee, but a person that doesn't look like any other Jew we know of who lived in Palestine or Galilee. As Rebecca Lesses noted in her comment, the Cynic Jesus is "bizarre." And it is our methods that have allowed us to feel "good" about our bizarre reconstructions, particularly the dissimilarity principle, which is nothing more than a way for us to create a "unique" and non-Jewish Jesus that will sit better in the Christian cradle.

Now there are a whole lot of reasons why scholars - particularly Jewish scholars and Christian scholars - don't want to talk about Jesus as a Jew. Since my own heritage is Christian, I can speak to that most directly. To be frank, the Jewish Jesus is completely irrevelant to Christianity today. He does not make sense, because all that he stood for that was Jewish, he no longer stands for in Christianity. What would Christians do if they really took seriously that Jesus was kosher, that he demanded his followers observe the Jewish Law in a way quite similar to Rabbi Hillel, that he believed his mission was to Israel, that his holidays were Jewish, that is Sabbath was Jewish, and that the eschatological Kingdom he was talking about never came?

It has only been in the last eight or ten years, as far as I can tell, that scholars as a collective voice have been reacting to this problem in their publications on the historical Jesus, demanding that we take seriously the obvious - that Jesus was Jewish. Jesus as a Jew is not just another agenda-driven "construct" as some have been suggesting (this really is a hyper-post-Modern stance). Being Jewish was Jesus' self-identity, and it has taken us two thousand years to admit it and talk about what it means. No amount of pressing the button on the "diversity" and/or Hellenization of early Judaism is going to erase the fact that for Jesus the Torah and prophets were his scriptures, the Temple his cult, Yahweh his god, and the coming of God's Kingdom his hope. Jesus as Jewish is probably the most essential (and dangerous) idea that I can think of.

Update 4-14-07: some interesting responses on other people's blogs
Rebecca Lesses
Mark Goodacre1
Mark Goodacre2
Loren Rosson
Jeff Garcia1
Jeff Garcia2

The Fourth Quest for the Historical Jesus?

I am teaching "Jesus and the Gospels" this semester, and on Tuesday I was discussing the Third Quest with my students. As I spoke, I realized that we have really entered the Fourth Quest, which I think can be defined as a reaction to the Third Quest, particularly the notion that Jesus can be from first century Palestine but look nothing (or very little) like other Jews from his era.

So I am beginning to bundle the Third Quest in terms of the 1980s and 1990s, dominated by the work of Crossan, Borg, Patterson, Funk, Mack, Downing and the Jesus Seminar, but also including Horsley, Kaylor, Witherington, Meier, and so forth.

The Fourth Quest appears to me to be reactionary and pushes several items to the forefront.
  • Jesus is a Jew
  • there is an apocalyptic dimension to Jesus' teaching (as in, the world is coming to a quick end) that cannot be dismissed
  • there are serious problems with the dissimilarity principle and it should be replaced with or corrected by a criterion of historical plausibility or incremental change - that there must be connections between Jesus and Judaism and between Jesus and the early Church
  • there is an experiential aspect to Jesus' mission that we must address
  • the historical Jesus cannot continue to look like or sound like a hippy from the 1960s or a college professor
  • we have to take seriously studies in orality
There is no clean line to the beginning of the Fourth Quest. Some scholars like Alan Segal, Maurice Casey, E. P. Sanders, and Jimmy Dunn already were sounding some of these warnings in their writings before 2000. But I see a real movement now in scholarship (thank goodness) to address these issues as a community of scholars. So I think we are in a Fourth Quest with the work of Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen, A.J. Levine, Jimmy Dunn (I'm thinking particularly of his book, Jesus Remembered) and Gerd Theissen (I'm thinking particularly of his book co-authored with Dagmar Winter, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus). I would also put N.T. Wright in this category, although his work is too apologetic for me.