Thursday, May 24, 2007

Nick Perrin responds to April DeConick

I have previously mentioned Nick Perrin's book Thomas, the Other Gospel as something I'm hoping to read in the next fortnite (alas there are essays to be marked first). But the blogosphere is buzzing with responses and reflections to Perrin's book. Mark Goodacre has offered the first of his rolling responses to Perrin's book. Over at the Forbidden Gospels blog, April DeConick (Rice University) has offered her critique of Perrin's work, particularly as it relates to Perrin's representation of her position (See Cautionary Note 1: Nick Perrin, Thomas, The Other Gospel, Cautionary Note 2: DeConick on Orality and Literacy, Cautionary Note 3: DeConick on the Historical Jesus, Cautionary Note 4: DeConick on Accretions). In light of this I have invited Nick Perrin to respond to some of the criticisms made by April DeConick so as to enable him to have a voice in a discussion that is essentially about him and his book. His response is below:


Dear April (if I may),

I must confess, when my attention was drawn to your comments on my recent book (Thomas, The Other Gospel) in your blog, I was at first a bit stunned. You seem to feel strongly that I have grossly misrepresented your work. I was quite surprised and am truly sorry you feel that way. In the world of academia few things are more troubling than the sense that one’s reviewer has missed the boat. However, after reading your blog, and having now just given your book yet one more read, I feel that I must stick my guns: I feel I have portrayed the thrust of your thesis accurately. I hope and trust that our coming into sharp disagreement with each other (I think you went first in Recovering, pp. 48-49) will not prevent us from having a lively, collegial and good-spirited interchange on your important work – or mine for that matter.

Since you are taking issue with how I take issue with you in piecemeal fashion, I shall try to work in that framework. The first item of business on your docket, it seems, is the whole oral versus scribal interplay. For now, let me stick to that, explain why I think it matters, and then make a few miscellaneous responses.

To be honest, while at points you are very clear in your writing, it is in your first chapter on methodology that you seem to be saying many things – sometimes contradictory things -- at once. If I may, let me provide an example. Toward describing how you see Thomas coming together on pp. 26-28 you (1) cite Fraade approvingly on ancient oral performance as ‘an orality that is grounded in a textuality that remains orally fluid’ (26), (2) state that ‘in such cultures there is reliance on memory with little to no dependence on external sources of information’ [presumably including texts?], even if the contents of that performance are ‘sometimes captured in our texts’ (27), and (3) draw on Lord and Ong to describe a procedure of performance that makes implies little if any use of texts (27-29). So, my question is this: which is it? Are oral performances (1) grounded in texts? (2) Only preserved in texts, but averse to using texts as a basis for performance? Or (3) virtually text-less? Your citing both Fraade and Ong with unmitigated approval seems a bit like wanting your cake and eating it too. In my view, you can apply Fraade’s comments to early Christianity, but I think it would wrong to apply Ong.

As for the mode of transmission before ‘rescribing,’ you say ‘the community will exercise control over how the traditions are passed on and reshaped’ (29) and, on the other, texts were used as aids for memory (32, 35). If the community did really control the content of the performance, as you suggest, then the texts could not have been much more than the ancient equivalent of sticky notes. Since you are unhappy with me on my p. 62 (I’m not sure which part), let me repeat a sentence from the same page: ‘ It seems to me that one cannot both emphasize Thomas’s oral constitution to the degree DeConick does and give any real place to Hermetical influence.’ I might also add a fortiori ‘ … and/or to early Christianity.’ I am aware that you see points of ‘rescribing’ at crucial, as those times when ‘old traditions were refreshed and the old ideas kept current’ (36) (btw, would not keeping old ideas current be more likely in the moment of performance?), but I fear you may be missing the point of my critique.

Christianity, like Judaism, was a religion of the book (see Bart Ehrman’s fine chapter on this in Misquoting Jesus). The Torah and the words of Jesus, inflexible hermeneutical anchors for succeeding generations of flexible interpretation, were held in highest authority in earliest Christianity. This stability was not an afterthought or established retrospectively, as you suggest, when ‘the traditions finally reached the stage that they were considered the “ancient” or “authoritative” record of the community’ (36). The resurrection event was the seed of Christianity and the basis for hermeneutical authority. In my view, your reconstruction of Thomas flounders because – with or without your notion of rescribing -- it does not fit with what we know about the early Christian’s inflexible reverence for Jesus and the book, nor does it fit with scribal Hermeticism.

Now for a few miscellania…

Elsewhere on your blog you write as follows:

Perrin (p. 65): "according to DeConick, the Thomas community orally perpetuated its memory of Jesus for a century or so" but no citation. This is not my position which is clearly laid out several times in Recovering. So I will state it again. Thomas began as a written Kernel, a notebook of speeches. This text was used by orators to preach and instruct, and so it moved into the oral environment where it was adapted each time it was performed. It was a text that moved in and out of oral and written environments. I write (pp. 62-63):

"We can imagine that the developing traditions were rescribed at crucial moments in the history of the community when members feared the loss of their traditions or when pressure within the group demanded significant reinterpretation." This process lasted for 60 to 70 years.

But on your chart (97-98) you show four successive periods of accretions (I’m sorry, April, I know you object to calling these ‘stages’, but I don’t know what else to call them) ranging from 30-120 CE. That’s 90 years, or ‘a century or so.’ I don’t think ‘orally perpetuated’ is incompatible with ‘in and out of oral and written environments.’

In regards to Papias, my pg. 59 and your pg. 57, thank you. Your comments are clarifying. If that’s what you mean, I’m good with that.

As for the rest of the comments, I think I’ll save them for my next entry when I come back to you on this historical Jesus, where they seem to fit better.

For now, here’s to continued fruitful interchange. Hopefully, we will both arise from this as better scholars. Michael, I’m grateful for your willingness to host the discussion.

All best wishes,
Nick Perrin


gdelassu said...

In my view, your reconstruction of Thomas flounders because –with or without your notion of rescribing -- it does fit with what we know about the early Christian’s inflexible reverence for Jesus... - emphasis my own

Does Perrin here mean to say that Dr DeConick's reconstruction does not fit?

April DeConick said...
This comment has been removed by the author. said...

How early was the 'early Christian's reverence for Jesus'? All the "Jesus said's" in the Gospel of Thomas look to me like unnecessary overdone interpolations without precedent. Whatever the writer/s of the extant Gospel of Judas was/were working from, it would seem that the kernal/source information did not refer to Jesus.