I have just finished writing a sympathetic review of the recent volume, The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse (BIS 115; Leiden: Brill, 2013) , written by Douglas Estes. Estes provides two valuable services in the book: first, he demonstrates how the Western intellectual tradition has largely overlooked the value of questions, preferring propositions as the locus of meaning; second he shows how this has also been done in Johannine scholarship. He argues (I think) correctly, that much Johannine research overlooks Jesus’ questions and treats them as implicit propositions. I know that I have been guilty of this very offense in my own teaching. After dealing with the way questions work, Estes identifies five types of questions (open, reflective, decisive, responsive, and coercive) which he further subdivides into seventeen categories. He uses these categories as a springboard to discuss specific questions posed by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. If you are interested in the Gospel of John, specifically Johannine discourse, this is a book you will want to consult.
Over the past few weeks I have noticed several reviews of Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, the recent book edited by Scot McKnight and Joe Modica. I had the privilege of contributing chapter 5 to the book (see “John’s Gospel and and the Roman Imperial Context: An Evaluation of Recent Proposals,” pp. 116-29), and I am pleased to see the book getting attention from several different segments of the blogosphere. I received my copies a little over a week ago and I have just begun reading each chapter carefully. I am not finished with the book yet, but in the course of my reading I have recognized what several reviewers have pointed out–that the overall tone of the book is quite negative toward empire criticism. Since I have had a few people ask me, I figured I would provide a few clarifying remarks about the book, and specifically about my role.
(1) First, the invitation to participate in this book came with no assumptions about the individual authors and their specific views on empire criticism. In fact, the proposal basically said, (I’m paraphrasing), “investigate this and then write what you see.” In other words, there was no proviso which specified, “You must disagree with empire studies.”
(2) My essay on the Fourth Gospel renders what is essentially a negative judgment on the prospects of finding much of Rome in the text. I don’t think my conclusions are particularly scandalous, and I would go so far as to say that I am probably in the majority when it comes to my conclusions about Rome vis-a-vis the Gospel of John. Even in the realm of empire studies, the Gospel of John has almost been overlooked. As I recall, an essay on the Fourth Gospel was not even a part of the original book proposal. The Fourth Gospel simply hasn’t been a big player on the scene of empire studies (especially when one considers how much has been written about the role Rome plays in the writings of Paul, Revelation, and Matthew’s Gospel).
(3) As I commented on Nijay Gupta’s blog just a few days ago, I don’t want my negative conclusions in a book that is characterized by negative conclusions about empire criticism to make me “guilty by association.” In fact, I find it quite helpful to discuss Rome when introducing my students to Paul’s letters and the Apocalypse. Every semester I teach a New Testament Introduction in which I deal with the Roman context of the NT. I don’t deny Rome’s presence throughout the NT, but I don’t find much value in claims that Rome is a major point of emphasis for John. As I say in the essay, “[in John] Rome is present mostly in signs and shadows, not on a neon billboard (p. 122).”
In the end, I am glad to be a part of the conversation and I hope the book causes those on all sides to pay much greater attention to the nuances of debate.
It’s been awhile since my blogging has graced the web with its presence, but now that I have finished all of the grading for my five spring courses I will have more time to return to the blogosphere. I have already shared this news with friends but have not had an opportunity to share with readers of my blog. I just completed my third year as Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at Mount Olive College. Earlier in the semester I was allowed to apply early for promotion and have been informed that, as of August 1, 2013, I will be serving in the department as Associate Professor. I am, of course, thrilled by the early promotion and glad that I am able to serve at this institution.
My book, Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John arrived today and is now available in the UK (order here). Apparently the e-book is also available. I’m sure you will want to pick up several copies to give out as Easter gifts. What better gift could your child find in his/her Easter basket on that joyous morn?
Here’s the table of contents:
1. Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John: Reflections on the Status Quaestionis – Christopher W. Skinner
Part One: Methods and Models for Reading Johannine Character
2. A Narrative Critical Approach to the Fourth Gospel – James L. Resseguie
3. The Weave of the Tapestry: Character and Theme in John – R. Alan Culpepper
4. A Comprehensive Approach to Understanding Character in the Gospel of John – Cornelis Bennema
5. Eyewitness Testimony and the Characters in the Fourth Gospel – Judith Christine Single Redman
6. ‘Who Are You?’ Comparison/Contrast and Fourth Gospel Characterization – Raymond F. Collins
7. Three Ambiguities: Historical Context, Implied Reader, and the Nature of Faith – Susan E. Hylen
8. Misunderstanding, Christology, and Johannine Characterization: Reading John’s Characters Through the Lens of the Prologue – Christopher W. Skinner
Part Two: Johannine Character Studies
9. The Fourth Gospel’s Characterization of God: A Rhetorical Perspective – Stan Harstine
10. John the Baptist: Witness and Embodiment of the Prologue in the Gospel of John – Sherri Brown
11. Theological Complexity and the Characterization of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel – Craig R. Koester
12. The Woman of Samaria: Her Characterization, Narrative and Theological Significance – Mary L. Coloe
13. Martha and Mary: Levels of Characterization in Luke and John – Dorothy A. Lee
14. ‘Whom Jesus Loved’: Anonymity and Identity. Belief and Witness in the Fourth Gospel – David R. Beck
15. The Character of Pilate in the Gospel of John – Cornelis Bennema
I think that’s a pretty good lineup (if I do say so myself).
Here is the second installment of my interview with Prof. Mark Goodacre on the Gospel of Thomas (see part one here):
(CWS) 4. Awhile back on your blog, you provided a list from your index of the most cited scholars in your book. You also indicated that the frequency of a given scholar’s appearance in the book is unrelated to your extent of agreement with him/her. What scholars have you found to be the most helpful for your own Thomas research and why?
(MG) I really like the work of Stephen Patterson. He is a clear thinker and a clear writer. Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, he analyzes the evidence with fairness and clarity. And in general I like scholars who lay out their case clearly. I am less keen on what I think of as “shifting sands” scholarship, where you simply cannot be sure how the case overall is panning out. You shouldn’t have to re-read a scholar’s work multiple times in order to work out what they are saying.
For my case on Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptics, I found myself frequently in agreement with Christopher Tuckett and Klyne Snodgrass, both of whom write with clarity and force. Given that I had disagreed with Tuckett in my Q book, it was nice on this occasion to be joining him in battle. And now too I find that I agree with Simon Gathercole’s views on Thomas to a major extent. Although we wrote our books independently of one another, like Matthew and Luke on the Two-Source Theory, it turns out that we agree on most of the issues.
(CWS) 5. I know you have a forthcoming article in which you discuss the Nag Hammadi discoveries. Other than that, are you planning any future projects on the Gospel of Thomas?
(MG) The Nag Hammadi article arose out of my research on Thomas. I wanted to write about the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices but when I researched the topic, I found that there is not one version of the story but several. And the more I looked at the different versions, the more worried I became about how much we can really know about the circumstances of the discovery. The article, “How reliable is the story of the Nag Hammadi discovery?” should come out later this year in JSNT.
I don’t have anything else currently planned on the Gospel of Thomas but I have a piece on the Gospel of Peter that I hope to get published before too long, and I am also doing some work on the Gospel of Mary and related texts.
(CWS) 6. You are one of the most outspoken opponents of the “Q” hypothesis. Many scholars see “Q” and Thomas as early examples of the wisdom genre applied to Jesus’ sayings. Obviously, since you reject the notion of Q, you would also reject this line of thinking. To your mind, what theological outlook do we find in the Gospel of Thomas and why?
(MG) I think the comparison between Q and Thomas has been pretty damaging and in several ways it has thrown us off the scent. The comparison is largely an accident of our own social location. Q was one of the biggest and most successful hypotheses in twentieth century research on Christian origins, but its hypothetical nature always caused scholars some residual anxiety. One way of dealing with the anxiety was to align the hypothetical Q with the newly discovered Thomas. Coptic Thomas was discovered in 1945, but only began to seep into scholarly consciousness in the seventies and eighties, at the same time that Q was taking on a life of its own.
The difficulty for those who want to align Q and Thomas is that these works are only superficially comparable. Anyone who has done any actual research on either realizes that the differences are far more striking than the similarities. I have argued that reflection on the differences helps us to see how the true Sayings Gospel (Thomas) differs from the hybrid scholarly reconstruction (Q). The latter makes much better sense as a scholarly extraction of parallel material from Matthew and Luke, not as a discrete work.
Moreover, and to get to the heart of your question, Thomas’s theological outlook could hardly be more different than Q’s. To take two really obvious examples, Thomas differs from Q on the Old Testament and on eschatology. Thomas disdains the Old Testament – it only refers to Adam, it never explicitly quotes the Old Testament, and it thinks of the prophets as “the dead”. Q, on the other hand, loves the Old Testament, cites its heroes, and quotes many key texts. Similarly, Thomas and Q differ on eschatology. Thomas has a protology rather than an eschatology, and is looking to get back to Eden, to the singular human being before the fall. But Q is driven-through with eschatology at every turn, and repeatedly talks about the kingdom, the future, and the Son of Man.
I do not, of course, accept the existence of Q, but I point out these contrasts in order to show how some of the clear problems with making them representatives of the same trajectory in early Christianity. To put it another way, Thomas is a “sayings gospel” because it really believes that salvation lies in interpreting Jesus’s words, whereas Q is only a “sayings gospel” insofar as it represents scholarly efforts to extract and over-emphasize some of the sayings material in the Synoptics.
(CWS) 7. Another interest that I have, and one that I hope to promote on this blog, is research on the historical Jesus. In your opinion, is there anything in the Gospel of Thomas that goes back to the historical Jesus? If yes, what? If no, explain why not.
(MG) I share your interest in the Historical Jesus and I suppose to some extent this also comes back to your first question about one’s initial interest in Thomas. I began by hoping that perhaps it could provide us with some extra material on the historical Jesus, and I was disappointed when I found otherwise. I do think that there are likely to be historical Jesus traditions in Thomas, but I think that they are found in the Synoptic parallels that make up half of Thomas rather than the new material that makes up the other half of Thomas. I don’t rule out the possibility that historical Jesus traditions occur in the newer, unparalleled materials, but I find it unlikely. Bear in mind that even the Jesus Seminar, which tended to favour Thomas as a source for historical Jesus research, struggled to find much historical Jesus material in the unique material. Broadly speaking, they were using Thomas as a means of corroborating parallel Synoptic traditions about Jesus.
My reading of the earliest materials persuades me that the Historical Jesus is likely to have been a Jewish eschatological prophet who valued the Hebrew Scriptures, quite unlike the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, who disdains eschatology and the Hebrew Bible.
Many thanks to Prof. Goodacre for taking the time to answer our questions!
This morning I am pleased to post the first part of an interview I conducted with Prof. Mark Goodacre in which we explore his views on the Gospel of Thomas. Prof. Goodacre presently serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Duke University. Anyone paying attention will recognize that Prof. Goodacre is quite well-known around the web, not only for his scholarship, but also for how he makes NT scholarship accessible to so many. Along with the very useful website, NT Gateway, and his blog, Mark provides regular reflections on various subjects through his podcast, the NT Pod. He has recently written a book entitled, Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’ Familiarity with the Gospels. I have already given this book my strong endorsement, as have others across the blogosphere (see here, here, here, here). I will say it here again: the book is very good and deserves the attention it is getting. No one interested in the subject matter can afford to ignore this book–even those who disagree. I hope you enjoy this first half of our interview.
(CWS) 1. I have asked this question of every scholar I have interviewed on this blog: What initially sparked your interest in studying the Gospel of Thomas?
(MG) Well, I have always been really interested in the Synoptic Problem and I have spent a lot of time investigating the double tradition and the hypothetical “Q” source. My skepticism over the existence of Q often led people to ask the question, “But what about the Gospel of Thomas?” After all, scholars have often paired Q and Thomas, making them early witnesses to a trajectory within early Christianity that specially emphasized Jesus’ sayings, and which was not very interested in Jesus’ death. So my interest in Thomas proceeded in part from my interest in Q.
I found also that there are many fascinating Synoptic-type questions to be explored in the study of Thomas. Indeed, quite often Thomas has been discussed in ignorance of detailed knowledge of the Synopsis and the Synoptic Problem. I suppose that I felt that I could see a few things that others were missing when they were looking at Thomas.
Having begun there, I then found that I greatly enjoyed where Thomas was taking me – into the world of second and third century Gospels with which I had been unfamiliar. I used to fall victim to canonical bias in my teaching and focused almost exclusively on the New Testament. Now I find that some of my favourite teaching is in Non-canonical Gospels, including Thomas but also many other works.
(CWS) 2. I have had an opportunity to work through your recent book, Thomas and the Gospels. In the book you make a sustained (and quite compelling) case for Thomas’s familiarity with the Synoptic tradition. Can you provide here a sketch of your view(s) on Thomas’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels?
(MG) The case begins by asking a key question that is almost universally missed in studies of Thomas’s relationship to the Synoptics: how similar are they? Is there sufficient verbatim agreement between Thomas and the Synoptics to suggest that there is a direct link? I argue that the verbatim agreement in several parallels between the Synoptics and Thomas is so striking as to make a direct link highly likely.
Where one has this kind of agreement, one next needs to ask whether the characteristic features of one work show up in the other. I call these “diagnostic shards”, borrowing a term from archaeology, and I suggest that there are good, strong cases of Matthew’s and Luke’s redaction that show up in Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, uses Matthew’s favourite term “kingdom of the heavens”. And it has parallels to places where Matthew and Luke are clearly redacting Mark. On one occasion (Thomas 79), Thomas has such clear parallels to Luke’s distinctive setting, language, imagery and theology, that it becomes unlikely that Thomas is not using Luke.
(CWS) 3. As you know, some scholars have written at length about the supposed relationship between Thomas and the Gospel of John. (This question is of particular interest to me, since I wrote an entire dissertation on the subject!). To your mind, what, if any, is the connection between John and Thomas? Please explain.
(MG) I must admit to feeling a little guilty about writing a book called Thomas and the Gospels and then dealing so little with John! As it happens, I think it’s one of the most fascinating things about Thomas that it has at times a kind of Johannine feel, with Johannine echoes, and yet it does not feature the same kind of verbatim agreement that you see between Thomas and the Synoptics. I think it is possible that Thomas knows John but it is difficult to establish. I wonder whether it is in part a question of timing. If I am right about the date of Thomas (I argue for a date in the 130s, Chapter 9), then John may not yet have the same degree of authority as the Synoptics have, and so its author is less inclined to look to its sayings to lend the account legitimacy.
I have very much enjoyed the work of several scholars, including yourself, on the relationship between John and Thomas. I always introduce students to Elaine Pagels’s and Gregory Riley’s work on the relationship, not least because it provides such good intellectual stimulation on these important early Christian texts. It’s an issue I want to think about some more in due course.
This morning John Byron shared the sad news of Ralph P. Martin’s passing. This is another huge loss within the field of NT studies. Over the past eight months or so, we have experienced the loss of several prominent NT scholars (including Abraham Malherbe and Paul Achtemeier). Martin was a prolific author and editor who taught at multiple institutions both in the US and UK.