Gospel of Thomas Episode [further reading]

gospel-of-thomasOne of my earliest videos—”What did Gnostic Christians Believe?”—continues to garner the most views out of all of my videos. My other top performers? The videos on the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas. Something about Gnosticism really interests people on YouTube! Check out my Gospel of Thomas video below:

This video coincided well with a new commentary on the Gospel of Thomas by Simon Gathercole published in 2015. It is probably the most exhaustive commentary on the Gospel of Thomas that I’ve seen, and he takes several moderate positions (ie. his dating of Thomas, his thoughts on whether Thomas contains any original sayings of Jesus). I highly recommend this text as the jumping off point for any further research on the Gospel of Thomas. Gathercole’s bibliography is extensive. I also relied on April DeConick’s research on the Gospel of Thomas. She argues that the Gospel of Thomas started as a kernel of Aramaic Jesus Sayings that went through several processes of compilation and re-writing into what we have today.

The question, “Why is it not in the Bible” is a rather silly question for those who know how complicated the process of canonization was…but it is the question I hear ALL THE TIME from people interested in the topic. Some have even crafted complicated conspiracy theories about how the Church stifled certain books, barring them from the Bible. In these situations, I always try to downplay the power of any centralized ecclesiastical authorities during this time. There is not much evidence for a concerted effort by Church authorities to ban the Gospel of Thomas. Sure, some church authorities didn’t like it, but it was obviously being copied and read by some people. However, its popularity apparently wasn’t enough. By the time the canon started to take shape, the 4 Gospel that we are most familiar with already had a huge fan base, and it was hard to break into that exclusive club.

Bibliography:

April DeConick. Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and Its Growth. 2005.

Simon Gathercole. The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary. 2015

 

Gospel of Judas Bibliography

caf_image_630_420f_wnThis was a very difficult video to produce simply because of how much research is out there. The academic discipline of ancient history moves VERY SLOWLY. So when new data appears on the scene, scholars immediately jump on it.

 

I’ll make it easy for all of you and provide the monographs and articles I relied on to research this video. For those that are curious, I got the sense that more scholars agree with April DeConick that “daimon” should be translated as “demon” in the Gospel of Judas. Notably one of the premier scholars of Gnosticism, David Brakke, translates it as “demon,” while Marvin Meyer, the original translator for National Geographic, stood by his translation “spirit.”

Bibliography:

Brakke, David. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity, (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2010).

DeConick, April. The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says, (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Ehrman, Bart. The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Jenott, Lance. The Gospel of Judas: Coptic Text, Translation, and Historical Interpretation of the ‘Betrayer’s Gospel,’ (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

Pagels, Elaine and Karen King. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, (New York: Penguin Group, 2007).

Meyer, Marvin. “The Thirteenth Daimon: Judas and Sophia in the Gospel of Judas,” article on Meyer’s website: http://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/religious-studies/_files/marv-meyer/13th_daimon_final-11408.pdf

Did Emperor Decius Specifically Target Christians? [bibliography]

Emperor_Traianus_Decius_(Mary_Harrsch)Because Christian persecution is such a volatile topic, I approached this video with a measure of trepidation. Tempers can flare when you try to vet the historicity of martyrdom accounts. Dr. Candida Moss, for example, received huge amounts of hate mail for her book The Myth of Persecution back in 2013 for applying the historical critical method to these stories, and I’m not eager to experience that for myself.

The whole point of this video, though, was to try to get into the mind of Decius and the Romans in general. Why would Decius decree such an odd edict? And why would the Romans react in violence to the Christians who refused to sacrifice? As I said in the video, the mainstream scholarly consensus is that Decius was out to bolster the strength of the empire through a massive show of piety. He probably didn’t have Christians in mind. Scholars from earlier in the 20th century viewed it as a piece of anti-Christian legislation, but the discovery and analysis of the Decian certificates from Egypt cast some doubt on these conclusions.

Having said that, I do find the timing in the middle of the 3rd century as Christianity was starting to grow in numbers as a bit suspicious. So I allow myself a certain measure of skepticism to account for the possibility of an anti-Christian bias. The complete lack of references to Christianity in the papyrological evidence, though, has me pretty well convinced. I highly recommend that you read through the documents themselves to see for yourself.

As far as secondary literature, my research for this video came mainly from the scholars I mention: Allen Brent, Candida Moss, and J.B. Rives. Both Brent and Rives engage the earlier scholarship on this topic, so if you want actual names and titles for these older scholars, please check out their work.

Bibliography:

Brent, Allen. Cyprian and Roman Carthage. 2010

Knipfing, John. “The Libelli of the Decian Persecution,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol 16, No 4 (Oct 1923), 345-390.

Moss, Candida. Myth of Persecution. 2013.

Rives, J.B. “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies, Vol 89 (1999), 135-154.

What Did Marcion Believe? [video bibliography]

Researching for my Marcion video was actually pretty tough. Not because of the scarcity of sources, but because of the huge glut of scholarship on the topic. Marcion is pretty popular among scholars, and I needed to distill all of their research into a 10 minute video.

Coincidentally, I had just read a recent monograph on the topic: Dieter Roth’s The Text of Marcion’s Gospel. Roth’s book is so interesting because he tries to reconstruct Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke. If you remember from the video, Marcion is famous for “corrupting” the Gospel of Luke (or some other text that his detractors called a corruption of Luke). By mining the writings of authors like Epiphanius and Tertullian, Roth offers a plausible reconstruction of that Gospel. The book is quite technical and really requires an understanding of Latin and Greek, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the so-called “Marcionite Canon.”

Bibliography:

Lieu, Judith. Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the 2nd Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Roth, Dieter. The Text of Marcion’s Gospel, Leiden: Brill, 2015.

 

Eavesdropping on a Historical Areopagus Sermon

View from the Areopagus.

View from the Areopagus.

Early some Sunday morning in June, I dragged myself out of my bed in Athens and hiked up to the Areopagus to shoot my latest video blog episode on Paul’s famous Areopagus speech.

Though I had hoped to avoid the inevitable glut of tourists, several Christian groups had already congregated around the hill for Sunday morning worship. An American pastor (who you see featured at 00:42 in the video) was preaching a sermon on Paul’s speech to one of these groups. Standing at an awkward distance to eavesdrop, I overheard the pastor echoing my own thesis: Paul emulates Greek apologists–especially Socrates–in his speech.

The pastor’s conclusion?: Acts 17 proves that the historical figure of Paul was well-versed in Greek apologetics and that he deployed these skills to tailor his message for his Athenian audience.

As benign as this may sound, this pastor highlights the toughest obstacle I encountered when writing this vlog, namely, acknowledging the disconnect between the traditional and scholarly interpretations of this Biblical passage in a way that was both fair and accurate. 

For most Christians, this pastor included, Acts 17 is an accurate representation of a historical speech that Paul gave on the Areopagus sometime in the mid-1st century CE.

For most scholars, Acts 17 reflects how the author of Acts wanted to portray Paul as well-versed in Greek apologetics.

Notice the difference.

The former assumes the historicity of the event, the latter recognizes that the event is filtered through the lens of an author. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the historicity of the event, but it DOES return agency to the author who has a vested interest in crafting a positive image of their main protagonist Paul.

Of course, some scholars unequivocally assert that the event is spurious. From their perspective the author of Acts is obviously a Pauline fan-boy who composed this speech from whole-cloth in an attempt to prove Paul’s intellectual prowess. But other scholars strike a more moderate tone, conceding that Paul may have given a speech in Athens which the author of Acts then embellishes.

Since it’s difficult to prove a negative (i.e Paul didn’t give this speech) by historical means, I side with the moderate position that Paul may have given a speech in Athens that more or less follows the trajectory described in Acts. However, as an educator in ancient religion, I would be remiss to gloss over the complexity of this passage. Paul possibly did not give this speech, and if he did, it might not have sounded exactly like how the author of Acts records it.

Historical criticism such as this is disconcerting for many people of faith and may invite opprobrium both in the classroom and in blog comments, but I’m a firm believer that engaging and appreciating this complexity can not only benefit one’s own beliefs, but it is also a vital component of religious literacy. 

Yes, historical and archaeological interpretation, especially within biblical studies, is a messy business, and scholarly conclusions don’t always tell us what we want to hear. But the whole point of religious literacy is to become a more informed and empathetic individual in the 21st century. It is to discover how to thrive in a diverse secular society, not hiding from viewpoints that challenge our opinions but rather engaging them honestly with an open mind.

 

 

Reflecting on Forgery: Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Revisited

NTS61_03In April 2014, Harvard Theological Review published a barrage of articles on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife…the controversial scrap of papyri that early Christian expert Karen King brought to light back in 2012. Although the edition was chock full of scientific studies dating the papyri and ink, by the time they hit the public, the academic community had already concluded that the writing was a modern forgery.

Since then we haven’t heard much about the fragment. As a “closed case,” academic bloggers didn’t really feel a need to talk about it (despite many among the public still viewing it as an authentic document…something i try to combat in my video blog over on YouTube).

Thankfully the academic journal New Testament Studies has provided the “autopsy” we’ve been needing that reflects on the hype surrounding the fragment. The tenor of this edition differs a lot from the HTS publication since all of these articles come from the understanding that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is indeed a forgery. So rather than slogging through dense chemical analyses, we get some interesting pieces on the context of forgery and how the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife gained “viral status” online.

Even better…all of these articles are open-access, so I highly recommend you check them out here.

What do you think? Why did the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife generate so much hype?

 

What is Gnosticism? [vlog]

Depending on who you ask, the Gnostics were either evil heretics or enlightened sages plumbing the depths of divine knowledge. This latter romanticized view cropped up in the weeks following the publication of the Gospel of Judas back in 2006. For a public still basking in the afterglow of Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, a fanclub quickly formed around the Gospel of Judas, attracted to the idea that Judas and Jesus were actually in league with each other unbeknownst to the rest of the disciples.

Though the hype from 2006 has since dwindled, misconceptions about the Gnostics still abound. Even among scholars, Gnostics escape easy classification. Were they overly-Hellenized Christians? Neoplatonists obsessed with the Christ myth? Manichees or Zoroastrians who had crept into Christian communities? The answer is of course none of these, but scholars have trotted out theories like these over the past 100 years, leaving scholarship on Gnosticism a somewhat confusing mess.

I purposely choose video blog topics that engage these messy situations. Although many may feel that they have a good handle on what Gnosticism is, I’m here to say it is never as simple as it seems. So check out my latest episode and let me know what you think! Can we actually define Gnosticism? Should we jettison the term entirely?

Where Did Ancient Christians Meet? [Vlog]

Corinth

Seconds before an attendant told me I can’t film on site.

Bibliography:

Balch, David and Carolyn Osiek. Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Eerdmans Publishing: 2003.

Billings, Bradley S. 2011. “From House Church to Tenement Church: Domestic Space and the Development of Early Urban Christianity—The Example of Ephesus. Journal of Theological Studies. 62:541-569.

Meeks, Wayne. The First Urban Christians.

Stern, Karen. “Tagging Sacred Space in the Dura-Europos Synagogue.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 25: 2012

Urman, D., and Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher. 1998. Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery. BRILL.

Christianity Without a Canon

Athanasius, the first guy to say the NT only has 27 books.

Athanasius, the first guy to say the NT only has 27 books.

Many people today struggle to imagine a world without the New Testament. For good reason too. These 27 books have, almost universally, served as the primary source and authority on Christian traditions, rituals, and theology throughout most of its history.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. The Mediterranean is vast…and without efficient transportation or printing technology, it was impossible to ensure a uniform dissemination of Christian texts in the few centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion. This means we must imagine an early Christian community that may have only had a single copy of Mark…or maybe a few of Paul’s letters…or maybe nothing but the oral traditions of Jesus committed to memory. The Christian textual tradition, though vibrant, was a lot less concrete than what we are accustomed to today.

In my latest video blog episode, I tackle the misconceptions floating around about the formation of the New Testament canon. Though it pains me to engage a topic so vast in a mere 7 minutes, I like to think it only takes that long to problematize them.

The misconceptions

1: The NT canon developed early and without any real debate. This is what I’d call a “teleological” argument. One that, often stemming from theological concerns, likes to conceive the process of canonization as guaranteed (perhaps due to divine direction). My problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t give real weight to the debates that canonization sparked. The idea that the Revelation of John honestly almost failed to make the cut or that Sunday Schools everywhere would be teaching the Shepherd of Hermas instead are not given serious enough thought.

2: The NT canon was the product of overbearing authorities stipulating what should and shouldn’t be read. This makes the clergy out to be ancient book-burners. Some conspiracy theories even persist in popular thought that Emperor Constantine had a hand in shaping the canon. This simply doesn’t cohere with our historical evidence. As I said above, in a world without printing press technology or efficient communication, the clergy were simply unable to marshal such a uniform enterprise (though I’d imagine they would have liked this).

These are, of course, extremes…and I may even be guilty of setting up two straw-men. Nevertheless, I have seen iterations of these two misconceptions cropping up in a variety of contexts, and I think it is worth our time to recognize a more historical explanation for canonization.

I posit a “middle-ground approach” that I’m calling an “organic” understanding of canonization. In short, the canon developed out of a sort of popularity contest. Certain books won huge fan bases due to a variety of reasons (perceived historicity, early authorship, or famous authorship), and therefore were copied and disseminated more readily.

This process directs attention away from overbearing authorities or intangible ideas of destiny to the down-to-earth sociological process of simple copying and publishing. Literacy was rare and copying was hard…so scribes would only copy books that they thought were worth it or had a ready audience. Christians already had a respect for texts considering their adoption of the Septuagint Bible, so it is easy to imagine this vibrant textual tradition taking off.

Of course, even this is an oversimplification, but I think it is important because it emphasizes the dynamic and unpredictable path that canonization took in the first few hundred years after Jesus.  The New Testament, as we have it today, was never guaranteed and formed only after a long and messy process.

I’d like to direct you to some further reading. These are all scholarly books that go into considerable depth, and I’d encourage you to skim through them:

Kim Haines-Eitzen’s short chapter “Textual Communities in Late Antique Christianity” in A Companion to Late Antiquity edited by Rousseau.

Harry Gamble (1985): “Christianity: Scripture and Canon,” in Denny and Taylor (1985) The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective

Harry Gamble (1995): Books and Readers in the Early Church

 

 

 

Staring into the Abyss (Why I Study Ancient Christian Magic Pt. 2)

IMG_0795

Ancient sarcophagi in downtown Athens.

This is my second post in a 3 part series. See “Part I” here

I’m the first to admit that I started researching magical ritual in Late Antiquity because it was weird. For an undergraduate who had primarily subsisted on a sanitized diet of Homer, Plato, and Cicero, I was equally shocked and excited to discover that the ancients deployed curse spells calling for a victim’s utter destruction and fashioned amulets to ward off sexual advances from demons. Not only did these texts controvert my romantic view of antiquity, but they were bizarre and exciting—perfect for a student who struggled to feign interest in dense philosophical or theological texts (I’m looking at you Plotinus).

But as I continued in my studies, the novelty faded, replaced by the realization that I had taken a morbid fascination in the suffering of long-dead men and women. Most ancient spells aim to ameliorate physical ailments, loneliness, or poverty, and although these strategies strike us as outlandish, the underlying motivations are all too familiar. Indeed, death and disease were more readily visible to the ancients, but try as we might to mitigate and manage them in the present, we still stare into the same abyss.  

Our own mortality resonates with this sort of research. Magic is a deeply existential activity motivated by, in the words of scholar Catherine Bell, a necessity of doing something rather than nothing. In magical ritual, we engage the world with our own body, emotions, and words in an effort to regain agency in a fragmented and uncertain reality—not out of some hubristic sense of mastery over the world but precisely because we recognize that the universe cannot be compelled.

Magical ritual evokes a hypothetical reality “as it should be” rather than the stark, brutal reality “as it is.” This is not to imply that magic is some illusory mentality known only to “primitive” people. Indeed, the gap between ancient irrationality and our modern sensibility disappears when we consider that all humans seek any strategy to gain mastery over their material realities. “Mortality” embodies this struggle because it is ultimately awareness of our eventual demise that spurs us so strongly to augment our own agency.

This is why I have continued researching ancient magic…to empathize with the ancients through our shared existential condition and to learn something about ourselves in the process. Though we may scoff at the obvious inefficacy of ancient magic, we ironically battle the same demons with the equally inefficacious weapons of wealth, sex, or power.