Thursday, May 31, 2007

Nick Perrin: Response to April DeConick on the Historical Jesus

Dear April,
To continue with my surrejoinder and building on my previous post, I thought I would turn my attention to the issue of the historical Jesus.

In Thomas, the Other Gospel I state that your approach to Thomas “necessitates the assumption that those who preserved Jesus' memory, while duly impressed with at least some of his words, found nothing about his life or actions worth remembering.” By saying that this assumption is “necessitated,” I do not mean “logically entailed,” but rather what in my mind is the best inference given your position. In other words, if the Thomas community only preserved Jesus’ words in performance, underwritten at points by texts, but did not carry out any corresponding activity in regards to the actions of Jesus, this suggests to me that this same Thomas community didn’t find anything about Jesus’ life worth remembering. Things that are worth remembering over a span of generations are passed down either orally or textually. Since neither the Thomas’s community’s oral re-performances of the Jesus tradition nor its crisis-driven rescribing of those traditions seem to include his deeds, we must surmise that there was no community-wide interest in passing down Jesus’ story. Therefore, as far as the Thomas community was concerned, the Jesus story was not worth remembering.

A separate but connected issue comes to fore in the relationship between the Thomas traditions and the synoptic tradition. Since in your book you leave this issue virtually untouched, the reader is left on his/her own to follow through with the implications of your thesis for our understanding of the rise of the synoptic tradition. In your rejoinder you begin to connect a few of the dots I wish you would have – perhaps even should have -- connected in your monograph:

Perrin (p. 61): "She [DeConick] does not clarify how and why such speeches eventually gave rise to the narrative gospels." I cannot clarify something that I do not address in my book. Recovering is not a book about how speech gospels became narrative gospels. It is a book attempting to understand a particular case - the compositional history of the Gospel of Thomas. For what it might be worth, in fact, I don't think that speech gospels turned into narrative gospels at all. I think that speech gospels rose alongside oral narrative cycles, cycles that evidently led to Mark. Speech gospels like the Kernel or Q later were incorporated into the narrative gospels, as is the case with Matthew and Luke. But the speech gospel did not generate the narrative gospel as Perrin leads his readers to think is my position.

But this clarification still does not seem very satisfactory. Very little of Q is embedded in narrative – John the Baptist’s preaching and the temptation being notable exceptions, so it is fairly easy to image Q’s assimilation into Matthew and Luke. But where Mark parallels Thomas, the spoken material is often deeply rooted in the narrative of an apophthegmatic scene (e.g. Marcan parallels to GT 44 [Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit], 100 [Giving to Caesar]). How are we to explain the interrelationship between the narratively-embedded sayings in the Marcan tradition and those same sayings in the Thomasine tradition? It seems you really have two options: either Mark inherited the punch line (apophthegm) and then built the story around it (Bultmann), or that Mark fairly accurately preserved pre-Marcan cycles that held story and punch line together as a whole. If you forego the former option (which you appear to do in your rejoinder) and pursue the latter, this means that Thomas ingested the tradition (action + speech together), spit out the actions/narrative setting, while the synoptics – even if later than Thomas -- preserved the prior tradition with a fair degree of integrity. Mark would at any rate be shown as being more interested in preserving the context of Jesus’ words (as passed down) than Thomas, who counts on the audience’s frame of reference. Would you not then conclude that Mark’s sensitivity to the historical context of Jesus’ sayings puts him as a historical document a notch or two above Thomas? And if this is so, then we not only learn something about Jesus from the synoptic tradition, but in order to be historically and source-critically responsible we also must put Thomas in conversation with the synoptics. While there are several major aspects of Recovering that have won both my agreement and admiration, points which I do mention in my book and will do so again in closing here, your monograph seems to suggest (I know you don’t actually think this way) as if in first-century Jerusalem there was no Christianity but Thomas Christianity. In some ways, by avoiding much mention of these other Christianities, other gospels and their sources, you are avoiding a huge X-factor that complicates your thesis considerably.

Finally, a few words about the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. You say in your rejoinder that Thomas Christianity, like “most practicing Christians today,” do not distinguish the two categories, that Thomas community could hear Jesus the Prophet as he was spiritually present to them. “There is,” you write, “no disjuncture between Jesus the Prophet and the living presence of his spirit. There is no disregard for what Jesus actually said, as Perrin appears to want his readers to believe is my position.”

Frankly, I remain puzzled. Allow me to quote your words. As you see it, the early Christian author “does not simply ‘reproduce’ the communal icons, the text may in fact be written to modify or destroy them” (11). Early Christian traditions are a “group’s ‘remembered history,’ the ‘recollections of the past that are determined and shaped by a group’ in the present’ … So the formation of communal memory is not a retrieval of past traditions and history.” (12). “To retain memory, it is necessary for us to … ‘revise personal components to fit the collectively remembered past’ so that we ‘gradually cease to distinguish them.” (14). “The community will ultimately transform its traditions” (15). While no one would disagree that early Christians shaped the Jesus tradition as per their need, this is not the same as saying what you seem to be saying: that the early Christians willy-nilly added to, subtracted from, and radically transformed their memory of Jesus. Again, if I understand you right, you are saying that what Jesus said and did was merely grist for the mill, but the grist could certainly be discarded or transmuted beyond recognition. If so, this seems not only to impose a (post)modern, Halbwachsian understanding of history on the first-century world but also, in the final analysis, to show “disregard for what Jesus actually said” -- just as I suggest it in my treatment of your book. Christians then and Christians now do distinguish what the historical Jesus said and did from what people, inspired or not, say he said and did.

Because second-century Thomas Christianity was more indebted to Greek idealism than Jewish interest in history, their Thomasine sayings collection cares very little whether or not Jesus really said what is ascribed to him. But first-century Christianity, still deeply Jewish and serious about historical events, bank on the historicity of what they preached, including Jesus’ words and deeds.

In your final cautionary notes (4 and 5), you defend your sifting of Thomasine materials. I’m not sure even the most patient blogwatcher would endure me interacting with your comments on the necessary level of detail. Instead, I will simply refer the reader to your initial discussion in your book and my response to it in mine.

Finally, thank you for advancing the conversation of Thomas studies. While as you know I have doubts about your particular reconstruction of Thomas, I think you hit the nail squarely on the head by giving fresh emphasis to the Syriac, Hermetic setting. (When that Syriac, Hermetic setting occurs is another question!) All the same, your creativity, wide-ranging research and energetic writing schedule stands as an example to us all.

In the meantime, April, congratulations on your new book on Judas. Wishing you the best and hoping we can one day continue our interchange in person.

All good wishes,
Nick Perrin

2 comments:

Judy Redman said...

Nicholas,

You say:
"How are we to explain the interrelationship between the narratively-embedded sayings in the Marcan tradition and those same sayings in the Thomasine tradition? It seems you really have two options: either Mark inherited the punch line (apophthegm) and then built the story around it (Bultmann), or that Mark fairly accurately preserved pre-Marcan cycles that held story and punch line together as a whole. If you forego the former option (which you appear to do in your rejoinder) and pursue the latter, this means that Thomas ingested the tradition (action + speech together), spit out the actions/narrative setting, while the synoptics – even if later than Thomas -- preserved the prior tradition with a fair degree of integrity."

This (and what follows) seems to me to assume that there was only one tradition in circulation at the time, or that Thomas and Mark are both dependent on the same source, both of which seem unlikely to me. To only have one version would require a very deliberate attempt very early on to produce an agreed standard version for use by all early Christian communities. It seems to me more likely that there were a number of traditions in circulation, formed around the accounts of different eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry. For Thomas and Mark to be dependent on the same source would require a higher level of verbatim agreement than I see between the two.

In addition, to say that this shows that for the Thomas community, Jesus' life was not worth remembering is to assume that the synoptics and Thomas were written for the same purposes. I don't think we can take this for granted. Thomas quite clearly records the sayings of Jesus which lead to eternal life for whoever can find their interpretations. Matthew and Mark do not tell us why they are writing. Luke says it is so Theophilus will know the truth about the things about which he has been instructed. I think we can safely say that for whatever purpose Thomas was written, the life of Jesus was considered non-essential, but if Thomas was an upper-level text for those who had got past Paul's "milk" and onto "meat", they would already know the life-story.

Elizabeth Mary said...

Perhaps I'm dim, but when you say Thomas community, does that mean the actual Christians Thomas evangelized in India, where he was martyred (Syro-Malankar), or a fictional-hypothetical Thomas community elsewhere surrounding a rejected "gospel"?

And if the latter, how do the real Thomas Christians (in India) feel about this use of the Thomas community concept? Doesn't it usurp their position in history and the living community of faith? And in that, isn't it a bit heavy handed, first world, white, imperialistic?

Jes' sayin'.