18 May 2008

Hermeneutics, history and scripture

Chapter 6 of my work in progress delves into the process of reading scripture, with a special focus on one example, the Gospel of Thomas. For the purpose of outlining the historical context from which this Gospel emerged, my chapter draws upon April DeConick's book The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (2007). However, my way of reading this (or any) scripture is quite different from DeConick's in some respects. The crucial difference is that my way of reading is dialogic: the role of the reader is to search for possible ways in which the text may express her own primary experience, which thus constitutes a common ground for author and reader.

DeConick's approach, by contrast, is quite strictly that of a historian: the ancient text is taken as evidence of what other people believed at some other time, and the possibility that it may connect with the reader's own primary experience is irrelevant. This way of reading is certainly useful as an aid to critical thinking, which is needed in order to avoid indulging in excessively subjective readings. However, it lends itself to indulging in the opposite tendency, which is to treat every ancient text as a museum piece. The historical specialist, relieved of any responsibility to relate the text to primary experience, tends to cut its meaning to fit some Procrustean framework, asking only how to label this particular exhibit. We study the text to learn about it, or to fill in some details in our picture of a fossilized past—never considering that we might learn something from a scripture that could affect our own path into the future. But according to the gnoxic way of reading, that very possibility defines scripture as such.

The purely historical approach is so anxious to avoid bending the text to the reader's beliefs that it sometimes uses extremely strained logic to rationalize a more conventional reading, one that bends the text to suit the historian's habitual category structures. One example is the reading of Saying 13 in Thomas, which is among those examined in my Chapter 6. Here is DeConick's own translation as given in her book on Thomas (p. 83):
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Speculate about me. Tell me, who am I like?’
Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous angel.’
Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a sage, a temperate person.’
Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth cannot attempt to say whom you are like.’
Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. After you drank, you became intoxicated from the bubbling fount which I had measured out.’
And he took him and retreated. He told him three words.
Then when Thomas returned to his friends, they asked him, ‘What did Jesus say to you?’
Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you one of the words which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me. Then fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.’

DeConick guesses that the ‘words’ spoken privately to Thomas by Jesus include the ‘unpronouncable [sic] Name of God’; and, based on some rather oblique references in another text called the Acts of Thomas, she claims that this would by implication reveal his own ‘true Name’ as ‘Jesus the Messiah’ (p. 85). She continues as follows: ‘This Christology is quite cogent with that expressed in the Gospel of John, especially 10.30-39 …’

To me it seems quite odd to speak of ‘Christology’ in reference to the Gospel of Thomas, a book which never once uses the term ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’. My chapter also draws a conclusion opposed to DeConick's concerning the relationship between the Gospels of Thomas and John. As Elaine Pagels does in Beyond Belief (2003), i stress the contrast between the two—though she does not frame it in quite the same way i do, as the way of inquiry vs. the way of belief.

DeConick returns to the subject in her more recent book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle, 2007). Here again she is referring to Thomas 13:
Thomas' confession is quite remarkable in that it overrides two of the confessions of the other disciples (Peter and Matthew), who understand Jesus in terms of angels and sages. Since stoning is the punishment for blasphemy in early Judaism, it is quite certain that the secret words Jesus confided to Thomas included the pronunciation of the unutterable divine Name of God, Yahweh. So Thomas' confession places Jesus on the level of God, bearer of his great Name. This is quite consistent with the opinion of the author of the Gospel of John.
— DeConick (2007b, 97)

I think any reader who tries to follow this reasoning step by step will see how illogical it is. It seems to me a dubious rationalization of an eisegesis, or reading of DeConick's own (highly specialized) idea into the text—in this case an idea which is not explicitly expressed anywhere in the Gospel of Thomas. The way of inquiry, on the other hand, could hardly be more explicit in Thomas, as i try to show in my chapter.

I am arguing here that DeConick's historical approach to the reading of scripture does not necessarily produce a more reasonable understanding than other approaches. I am not saying that DeConick's approach is without value—on the contrary, i consider her work to be essential reading for anyone deeply interested in the Gospel of Thomas or other texts from that era. My point is that a sound reading of scripture must be grounded in both one's own primary experience and the historical facts about the culture which generated the text, as gleaned from the work of specialists such as DeConick (and Pagels and many others).

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