03 January 2008

Gospel seeds

I've always been a lover (and collector) of aphorisms. The pithy one-liner is my favorite literary form. I sowed my Seednet before i even dreamed of writing a book. So when it came to choosing an exemplar of scripture for that book, the Gospel of Thomas was a natural choice, being made up almost entirely of seed-sayings well worth pondering.

The great advantage of an aphorism is its portability. Its compact length makes it easy to remember, re-use and recycle in varying situations, without having to carry a book around. Every new context adds breadth to its meaning, though the context of living experience is the primal source of its depth. It behooves the reader of such a scripture to learn something about the cultural context in which it originated—not so much to recover the ‘original meaning’ of the text, but to split and recombine the atoms of meaning, as it were, to reveal the continuity of the semiosis articulated by the text.

I have therefore been looking into the cultural milieu which produced the Gospel of Thomas, using the resources listed on my Sourcenet page. The most recently acquired of these is The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, by April D. DeConick, who has stirred things up somewhat in this field of scholarship with her work on Thomas and with The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says. I won't go into detail about these here, but instead recommend her Forbidden Gospels blog and the links you will find there.

One point she makes about G. Thomas puts the aphoristic nature of it in a new perspective (for me anyway). If she is right about its development process, this ‘book’ circulated orally long before it was written down. It follows that unlike a text written before circulation, the ‘original’ Gospel of Thomas probably included variant versions of the sayings included in it, and there is no way to specify an ‘original’ version with the kind of precision we expect of a book composed in writing. Jesus himself was not a writer, and out of all the things he might have said, it was only the most memorable and meaningful that lasted long enough to be written down. And by that time, those who had been using them to ‘reach’ others would remember the sayings which had most often proved useful for that purpose, and the form in which they remembered them would vary somewhat to suit this variety of uses. Lacking an authoritative text to consult, they would also be likely to add some new sayings and forget some old ones. DeConick identifies some sayings as belonging to the oldest ‘kernel’ of the gospel, and others (about half) as later ‘accretions’.

When this (or any) gospel came to be written down, it would naturally take the form that the writer found most appropriate for the situation(s) in which the book was intended to be used. The Coptic version of G. Thomas found in the Nag Hammadi library—the only complete copy we have—is probably a translation of a Greek translation of a Syriac translation of an Aramaic ‘original’ which only existed in people's memories. All of the Gospels are reconstructions in that respect. It seems likely that G. Thomas gives the sayings that circulated among first-century Christians in the most concentrated form available to us; but we also have to assume that the specific form of this gospel—what it includes, what it leaves out, and the terms it uses—made sense in the specific situation of whoever wrote it down. If you are looking to find out what Jesus actually said, you won't get an authoritative answer from this book or any other, including the canonical gospels. But what's the difference? The bottom line, for you, is what you mean by this (or any) scripture.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gary,

First, happy new year! :)

Now, what I wanted to ask... You say "But what's the difference? The bottom line, for you, is what you mean by this (or any) scripture.".

But surely there is a difference if Jesus had access to a wisdom that one as an ordinary person can have problems accessing.

Or maybe I am missing something?

gnox said...

Happy New Year to you too, Tanas!

I see on your blog that the holiday season took a toll on you, but you seem to be recovering. :-)

Now to your question: Let's say that Jesus does have access to extraordinary wisdom, AND (since we're talking about scripture) that such wisdom is expressed, encoded or triggered by the text.

"What you mean by it" is simply another way of saying "what it means to you".

If the ordinary person has access to this wisdom through the text, then that wisdom is what the text means to that reader. (The access may not be easy, but nobody said it was! In fact the Gospel of Thomas says right at the beginning that it takes some effort.)

On the other hand, if the reader is unable to gain access to this wisdom, then that wisdom is not what the text means to him. At best, he would have to take the word of others that it means something wise, without really knowing what they are talking about.

So, either way, the bottom line for you as reader is what you mean by the scripture. If it means nothing despite your best efforts to embody the ideal reader, then that text makes no difference to you. If it means something wise, then that wisdom is now part of your own understanding (though it may still take awhile to sink in).

I think this is all straightforward logic, no?

Here's an appropriate tagline:

Divine revelation is always human at the point of delivery. [Anthony Freeman]

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation.

I was having on mind two different scenarios (in both of which Jesus has access to extraordinary wisdom).

In the first scenario, Jesus expressed that wisdom, and his words were written.
In the other scenario, Jesus expressed that wisdom, but through a process as you described, his words got changed, some things were removed and some other added.

It seems to me, that (of course depending on the amount of the changes), the expressed wisdom of the original words can be lost. So, to say, the text is not just WHAT IT MEANS to me, but what it CAN mean to me.

Because as you say, the access may not be easy! But, if we are speaking of the extraordinary wisdom, the access to that wisdom not just that it won't be easy, but might be impossible (not at all helped by the text) given enough changes to the original words.

(Like some written mathematical proof of some theorem, might be totally lost given that enough changes are done to the text where the proof was written)