Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nick Perrin responds to Judy Redman

Judy Redman is reading Nick Perrin's Thomas, the Other Gospel and offering some thoughts, comments, and reviews of the book as she works through it. Her posts so far focus on belief in Jesus in Thomas and speeches of Jesus and the canon in relation to Perrin and Perrin's interaction with April DeConick. Doug Chaplin chimes in with a response to Judy and Judy responds to Doug.

Here is Nick Perrin's response to the discussion:

This morning I was reading with interest Judy Redman’s blog comments about my book, Thomas: The Other Gospel (for which I am grateful), even as, earlier in the same morning I had just finished E. E. Popkes’s Das Menschenbild des Thomasevangeliums (WUNT 2007), which I am reviewing for CBQ. What a contrast. Indeed, it is hard to believe that how two students of Thomas can have such different takes. Redman seems impressed by April DeConick’s argument which traces Thomas’ sayings back to Jesus: Popkes is much less impressed. Tipping his hand in his introductory chapter, the latter writes: ‘Even if it is possible for the individual logia to have contained early stages of tradition, it would hardly be methodologically feasible to reconstruct the original text-from of Thomas’ (14-15). In fact, given the collection’s patent non-Jewish – even anti-Jewish – tenor, alongside its substantive dissimilarity to Q, ‘Thomas could not be employed as a plank in the reconstruction of an independently developing line of early Christianity’ (15). Popkes in fact goes on to argue for a basic unity of the Coptic text, its close ties to the Apocryphon of John, and its witness to a Gnosticism emerging no later than the second half of the second century. In terms of timeframe he ends up more or less where I end up, second half of second century, although the route by which he gets there is completely different. (I may finally be convinced by Popkes’s argument that Thomas is a Gnostic text after all.)

My point here is in not so much the proper dating of Thomas, but the reasons why Popkes and I tend to minimize the possibility of Thomas being a repository of the historical Jesus’ words – all in answer to Judy Redman’s question about my criticism of DeConick’s reconstruction of the Jesus tradition. Popkes’s entrée into the discussion is to point out that the un-Jewish and even anti-Jewish nature of Thomas makes it a priori unlikely that its sayings go back to Jesus or a very Jewish early Christianity. For Popkes, it isn’t just the well-known anti-Jewish logia in Thomas, it’s the individualizing tendency which permeates the collection and overwrites (on a redactional level) Jewish piety as a whole. He has a strong point here.

This is in some ways analogous to the point I want to make about Jesus’ immediate followers and the high likelihood of their commitment to correlating Jesus’ words and deeds. I take on board Redman’s point that Jesus’ likely gave the same stump speech multiple times. That Jesus had much of the Sermon on the Mount on file is quite possible – fair enough. But a good bit of the sayings materials in the canonical gospels is not presented as merely free-standing sermonic material. A good bit is presented as being issued in the context of historical situations.

Now DeConick seems to argue – like the first form critics of a hundred years ago -- that as a rule Jesus’ earliest followers were quite willing to sit loose to the historical context of Jesus’ sayings. However, given the current state of Jesus scholarship, this is a problematic stance. If the historical Jesus is to be understood in a Jewish context (which now just about every Jesus scholar writing today says we must do), then we have at least grounds for presuming that Jesus was not a sage espousing abstract, universally-valid truths but a Jewish-style prophet who issued his teachings in response to a particular context and with reference to specific addressees (the disciples, the priesthood, the crowds, etc.). He also presumably expected his closest followers to understand the relevance of context to his utterances. Such a prophet, I would offer, would also normally expect to have his words interpreted within his historically-specific context. That Jesus’ followers were eager (in their re-presentation of Jesus) to abstract Jesus’ words from his deeds means either that the Third Quest is simply wrong or that the disciples fundamentally betrayed their master. Neither of these paths seems very helpful.

I am happy with the possibility (although it is merely a speculative possibility – Thomas offers us nothing more than very speculative evidence here) that a free-floating collection of Jesus sayings circulated with the Jesus’ backstory fully in mind. Presumably, this backstory could be communicated alongside the sayings of Jesus. I am not willing to make the historically indefensible move of saying that Jesus’ earliest followers transmitted the words of Jesus without giving a darn about the context/backstory. That’s the move Bultmann made; that’s what DeConick seems to want to do. If this is also the move Judy Redman wants to make, then I think she too is running up the pretty steep hill of current Jesus scholarship consensus. It is eminently un-Jewish to separate a prophet’s words from his deeds; in the Jewish scriptures, the two are always mutually reinforcing.


Christopher W. Skinner said...


Thanks for this. I linked to this on my blog. This is a helpful discussion and I'm glad Nick is game to answer Judy's critique.


Chris Skinner

Judy Redman said...

Mike, thank you for posting/hosting this response from Nick, which I really appreciate. I am finding his book interesting and intend to spend some time today providing an overview in which I indicate the bits I don't disagree with. :-)

I went to bed last night without noting here that I have responded to this (or some of it) on my own blog here: http://judyredman.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/perrin-on-context-of-jesus-speeches/ Sorry - I think it's rude to hijack someone else's blog with long comments, but equally rude to respond without indicating and your blog doesn't seem to record pingbacks.