Thursday, December 16, 2010

Book Note: Voices of Gnosticism (Miguel Connor)

The end of the semester has been so busy. The good news is that I finally finished a draft of my book Sex and the Serpent: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts of the Early Church Still Matter. This was such a relief for me since I have been working on it off and on for two years. I am happy with the result, and look forward to moving it into print with Continuum.

In the midst of all this Miguel Connor's book, Voices of Gnosticism, has been released. It contains a wonderful collection of interviews Miguel conducted over the years for his radio show. It is so much fun to read these interviews side-by-side. Who's inside? Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, Bruce Chilton, Stevan Davies, Birger Pearson, John Turner, Einar Thomassen, Jason BeDuhn, Karen King, Marvin Meyer, Jane Schaberg, and me.

Congratulations Miguel on a remarkable collection of interviews!

You can purchase the book from Amazon for 19.95 HERE.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Note: Die Gnosis (Johanna Brankaer)

Johanna Brankaer has recently published a compact book in German that introduces readers to ancient Gnosis. The title: Die Gnosis: Texte und Kommentar (Wiesbaden: Marix, 2010). She wrestles with the questions: Was there a Gnostic religion? What was the role of women in ancient Gnosis? What was the relationship of Gnosis, Christianity, and philosophy?

The book is divided into sections that cover ancient Gnostic mythology, Gnostic thinkers, Sethianism as classic Gnosis, A Gnostic church?, Gnosis as a Christian experiment, Women in Gnostic traditions, and then a small commentary section which covers some of the basic primary literature: Ptolemy's Letter to Flora, Rheginus, Ap John, Hypostasis of Archons, Trimorphic Protennoia, Letter of Petter to Philip, Gos Mary, Exegesis on the Soul, Gos of Thom, Gos Egy, Three Steles, Allogenes (NHC), Apoc Peter, Gos Jud (CT3).

It is not meant to be an exhaustive overview of the field with a thousand footnotes (for which I am thankful!). Rather it is a valuable pocket book, presenting Brankaer's own perspective on the literature and the questions of ancient Gnosis. A fine contribution to the field. As an addendum, it contains her German translation of the Gospel of Judas.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Petition to help the Mandaeans: A letter from Dr. Wisam Breegi

Dear Friends,

We are pressing the United States government to take the Mandaean plight seriously and bare the historic, moral and legal responsibility to save the Mandaeans from total annihilation by scattering them around the world. We are seeking your support to write your local congressman and your organizations to resettle the 5000+ Mandaeans from Syria, Jordan and Iraq in the United States of America.

Please sign and circulate the online petition HERE. For more information, please contact Wisam Breegi (781) 258-5297 or at

Thank you, Dr. Wisam Breegi, Mandaean Association of Massachusetts

For full article about the current plight of the Mandaeans, see the AP release HERE.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 9: Whose reality is real?

This week we took an excursion into the development of American metaphysical religions. I am particularly interested in the ways in which scholars have tried to tell the story of the creation of the modern New Age. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend a couple of books that provide very good historical overviews. The first is The Western Esoteric Traditions by Nicholas Goodricke-Clarke. Not only is the picture on its cover one of my very favorite woodcuts from the Renaissance, but the book carries the reader through all the esoteric streams in an historical journey. The other book, which I found stunningly well-researched and written is by Catherine Albanese (pictured here), A Republic of Mind and Spirit. So I have chosen to share some of the insights I brought away from her work.

What Albanese does methodologically is fascinating. What she appears to me to be doing is creating a sweeping picture of each century by laying out the vast networks of ideas and information and practices happening simultaneously. She suggests that the traditions she is investigating are interacting within each other rather than with each other, so that she comes to understand the modern New Age as expansive and combinative, a religious phenomenon that is an amalgamation of any number of esoteric trajectories, including Hermeticism, Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, Christian Science, New Thought, Theosophy, Asian religions, Native American religion, and Quantum physics. She characterizes the New Age as a vast cultural sponge that absorbed whatever spiritual moisture was available. So it represents a grand ecumenicity. The New Age represents a fluid form of community available through networks and networking. This results in different levels of affiliation and commitment from fully-engaged service providers and strong followers who show up a workshops and other events to serious part-timers and causal part-timers or nightstand followers who read occasional books, and attend infrequent lectures. Members have often crossovered from traditional religions, seeking experiences considered by them to be more spiritually engaged.

She describes the themes of the New Age, and other metaphysical traditions, as emphasizing the power of the mind, a worldview of correspondence and connection between the spiritual world (the real world) and the physical (a transitory world), a preoccupation with summoning energy from on high to 'save' the human situation, and healing what was humanly amiss. These are the core beliefs and practices.

After reading her book, I am convinced that American metaphysical religion is one of three forces in American religion from the beginning, along with the mainstream traditions and evangelicalism. I am also convinced that the ancient Gnostics I study weren't so different from modern New Agers, with the exception that they did not get good press behind them like the New Age movement did. Remember Shirley MacClaine, her movie and books?

The New Age movement, with the hungry media behind them, was able to make exoteric what had previously been esoteric. And it has had a lasting impact on American culture. Yoga has become mainstream, along with beliefs in reincarnation and discussions of karma. ESP and UFO are abbreviations we all share, whatever our convictions about them might be. Psychics are consulted to assist police investigations, astrology made it into the Whitehouse, alternative medicine is practiced alongside traditional western medicine, all without too much discomfort. Ecology and healthfood is now mainstream. How many of us have yogurt in our lunchboxes?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 8: Whose history?

The seminar examined New Historicism for the past two weeks. Contrary to its title, New Historicism is not a method created by historians writing histories. It emerged from literary criticism among professors of Renaissance literature who were trying to illuminate literature with reference to historical sources and intertextuality investigating what Greenblatt (the originator of the approach and pictured here) calls Cultural Poetics. This approach developed in critic of New Criticism, not old-school German Historicism and Positivism. New Criticism is the common approach to literature with reads it ahistorically, focusing on single texts as enclosed units of narrative and imagery.

New Historicism or Cultural Poetics tries to examine the text in its context, while also asking how the text enforces the cultural practices that it depends on for its own production and dissemination. In this way, these critics draw attention to the processes being employed by contemporary power structures, like the chuch, state, and academy, to disseminate knowledge. They explore a text's historical context and its political implications, and then through a close textual analysis they note the dominant hegemonic position. New Historicism or Cultural Poetics is a politicized form of literary criticism with an eye toward historical contextuality. It is grounded in the critical theory of Foucault, the work of the Cultural Materialists, and anthropology of the variety espoused by Clifford Geertz who advocated writing "thick descriptions" of culture that explains human behavior within particular contexts rather than merely as part of symbolic systems.

After reading deeply into this scholarship, I really feel that New Historicism has a political mission. These critics are all about critiquing capitalism and market relations, and in my mind, retrofitting that critique back onto historical sources. So what they write often appears anachronistic, that is, bringing our contemporary values to play in the past. To their credit, they are aware of this, and so are willing to admit it in their analyses.

To do this, they read all literature and artifacts side-by-side with no distinction, mining what they call the cracks, slippages, fault lines and absences in the traditional historical narratives. While their willingness to eliminate canonical boundaries is to be applauded, I am less thrilled that they do not generally evaluate the differences in the media they examine. Various forms of materials were created with difference purposes and different intent, and what any of it can tell us about anything must be weighed carefully. A letter fragment and a gospel, for instance, are not the same thing. A masterpiece painting and a magical drawing in a recipe book are interesting, but they are not giving us similar information. What either might tell us needs discussion.

While I found much of their work stimulating, I was left a bit puzzled. How "new" is any of this? Historians have been dealing with cultural context, artifacts, and multiple texts for, well, forever. In religious studies, we have been dealing with breaking down canonical boundaries for over fifty years, and we have been discussing power relations and political agendas for at least as long. The differences are that historians are interested in getting at the meanings of the literature they are examining, and we want to investigate the politics of the time of the texts. New Historians are interested in exploring the various discourses that inform the literature they read, and are more motivated by contemporary politics which they think is somehow reflected in these discourses (in ways similar to the ideas of queer theorists or feminist theologians).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gospel of Judas Update: Published news about the OHIO fragments

I just received offprints of an article published in the first volume of Mohr Siebeck's new journal Early Christianity (link HERE). The article is a preliminary report written by Herbert Krosney, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst about the status of the OHIO fragments of the Gospel of Judas. In the first part of the article, Krosney explains the court battle over the OHIO fragments and their photographs which were analyzed by Gregor Wurst who recognized that they contained the balance of the Gospel of Judas, allowing us to read 90-95% of it.

According to Krosney's account, the fragments have made their way to Egypt in April 2010 and are under the care of Dr. Zahi Hawass who did not want the fragments to go to Switzerland for conservation first. The rest of the Tchacos Codex remains in Switzerland in the hands of the Maecenas Foundation who is now in a financial battle with Mrs. Frieda Nussberger.

The rest of the article is a sketch of the contents of the fragments and a preliminary transcription and translation based on photographs of the fragments possessed by Nussberger. There has been no distribution of the photographs to scholars other than Meyer and Wurst as far as I know. There is mention that Wurst and Meyer are consulting with the administration in Egypt in order to discover how to proceed in the critical publication of the fragments.

Monday, October 25, 2010

British Museum Exhibition on Book of the Dead

A rare treat. The British Museum is putting on an exhibition of the Book of the Dead. I want to go! How perfect does this exhibit coincide with my Mellon Seminar: Mapping Death?!

Here is the LINK to the exhibition page which I found via Deirdre Good's blog. The minute video is a teaser. But no REAL information posted. I wonder if their will be a book? I hope so.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

In Memory of John Kevin Coyle

From: Professor Pierluigi Piovanelli
Date: Ottawa, October 22, 2010

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

I am extremely saddened to announce that Professor John Kevin Coyle, of St. Paul University, has suddenly passed away in the night of Wednesday, October 20.

Those who have known Kevin will remember him not only as a great scholar – he had just published in 2009 the volume Manichaeism and Its Legacy, a collection of his articles on Manichaeism in Brill’s prestigious series Nag Hammadi and Manichean Studies – but also and especially as a warm and generous person, a true gentleman. This is a terrible loss for all of us.

I am sure that his soul is presently climbing the column of glory and is not too far from her final destination in the paradise of light, where she will enjoy the company of Augustine and Mani.

May peace be upon him!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 7: Is knowledge a commodity?

Post-modernism and Post-colonialism were the subjects of the theory discussion this week. We characterized Post-modernism as "the collapse of the Grand Narrative" and Post-colonialism as "the writing of the 'Other'". One book that we reviewed was Lyotard (pictured), The Post-Modern Condition (1979) where the term was coined, 'post-modernism', to refer to the incredulity of the meta-narratives constructed by societies (how we can know everything through science; that we make progress in history; that there is absolute freedom; etc.). He points out how inadequate our big stories are, because they do not encompass us all. He is particularly critical of our commonly held narrative that knowledge must be efficient in order to be valuable. Thus if we can't prove that a certain type of knowledge is efficient or useful, it is pushed aside and we feel terror.

We highlighted the discourse of the Humanities in this light. The Humanities, because it does not offer efficient or useful knowledge, has lost its voice in the discourse of knowledge that pervades our society, particularly the scientific discourse. The discourse of knowledge that we are familiar with today is no longer a discussion of "is it true?" but "is it useful?" and "is it saleable?" Knowledge has become a commodity.

I keep thinking about our public education system and how much this discourse of knowledge has negatively impacted it. We now want teachers to give knowledge to the students like it is a commodity or good that can be exchanged, and make the student learn it. We judge whether or not this exchange has occurred by testing students and then tying teachers' jobs and salaries to their students' academic performance. The problem is that all knowledge is not a commodity, nor is all knowledge useable. And learning is not a contractual business exchange. While teachers have a responsibility to teach well, students and families have the responsibility to commit to learning even non-usable or non-applicable knowledge. Students' are responsible actors too. They are participants of power in their education.

Lyotard and other philosophers highlight two main discourses of knowledge: 1. the scientific discourse (efficient knowledge); 2. Narrative (non-efficient) knowledge. Lyotard also acknowledges the "sublime" which is knowledge at the edges of conceptualization, that can not be formulated via faith, imagination, or reason.

The post-modernists suggest that we set aside the metanarratives and focus on the fragmented stories or micro-narratives; that we live with a series of mini-narratives that are contemporary and relative. While truth doesn't disappear, it must be recognized as fragmentary. They call this fragmented truth "difference" so that knowledge becomes "difference". They do not want to understand difference as negative, as in "what it is not" (a cat is a cat because it is not a dog). What they want to say is that we are the ones who assign similitude to things; in reality there are just differences (a cat is a cat and a dog is a dog and they are different).

All of this raises a series of questions for me. While I am delighted to work on fragmented stories of the past, as a historian of 'heretics', I also must construct and operate from a larger narrative that makes sense of that past. I do not see unity as the enemy, nor do I see difference as the saint. We as human creatures are wired for narrative. Our brains work in such a way that we constantly construct unity from our own life's fragments, as we also construct differences. I would characterize humans as "comparativists" who understand unity and difference in relationship to each other. Narratives are necessary, even Grand ones, or life would be chaos for us all. So while the different must be embraced by the historian (and not judged negatively), the discussion of unity is still necessary. Any unity that is constructed must be reasonable and fair, one that accounts for the micro-narratives while also accounting for the practical course of history and the relationships between people and groups.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New blog look

Hope you like it!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Gnostic 3 now available

Just an alert that the new journal The Gnostic is available in its third volume, which features Jung and The Red Book (see my recent Mellon Seminar blog post on Jung). Support this fledgling journal if you can. It's easy to buy on Amazon HERE and only cost $13.50 which is what, two or three coffees at Starbucks?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 6: Does memory make history unrecoverable?

Our theoretical topic this week has been Social Memory Theory, which developed out of the 1925 work of Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory. Halbwachs was not interested in social memory (the memory shared by a group or society) but rather was arguing that the individual's memory was shaped by society, and he wanted to know how. Decades later, in the 1970s, his idea that memory and society are bound up was applied substantially to historiography and the study of modern social memory began to flourish in intellectual circles.

The foundational premises of social memory theory are:
1. Memories are products of the present and not the preservation of the past.
2. Memories are ignited and limited by social frameworks.
3. Memory distortion is the difference between the memory of the past and the past actuality.
4. All memory is distorted or refracted.

This knowledge makes the work of the historian interesting. There are a range of opinions among social memory theorists regarding whether or not it is possible to recover the past actuality from memories, and if so, how much. My own work as a historian has been deeply affected by social memory theory which I openly embrace. It has shifted my self-understanding as a historian. I no longer worry about recovering the undistorted past because I am not convinced I can do this with the sources I have to work with. The questions I try to answer have dramatically shifted. What I want to know now is how and why particular groups remember their past in certain ways, and how and why counter-memories of the same event develop. I am particularly interested in what I call "iconic" or "memorial" representations of individual and events, as providing insights into the group's self-understanding. Studying these allows me to reconstruct the earliest memories of the individual or event, and come to some understanding of how and why groups developed in the directions they did.

This doesn't mean that the memories don't point back to some past actuality. It just means that recovering the past actuality is nigh impossible. What I am better at doing is recovering a scenario of historical plausibility based on the memory sets available for study. I am convinced from my work in memory and how groups handle their past, that historians are actually assisted in this task by three dynamics of memory:
1. Although invention or fabrication is possible (as in the case of new governments trying to legitimize themselves), social memory is largely a subconscious or unconscious operation. It functions by selecting something important from the environment and putting it within the mental frameworks that exist in our minds and then relocalizes them within our present experience. Schwartz has noted in his work on Lincoln again and again that many of our heroes today are selected to be heroes because there was something that they did that made us see them as heroic in the first place.

2. Memory (whether individual or social) is limited by society. What is remembered has to be plausible and make sense to the group and what it already knows about its past. In other words, it is conservative even by society's standards, and builds incrementally and with continuity between the past and the present.

3. What we can see in our sources are the effects of the what actually happened, so by studying the effects, it is possible to create scenarios of historical plausibility that would best explain them. Here I am convinced that counter-memories are very significant (thus my intense work on the marginalized or forbidden memories): both the counter-memories created within the group and among different groups. We can not just study the similarities. It is the differences that reveal the full story!
There are many great books on social memory application. If you are interested in how social memory theory might be applied to the quest for the historical Jesus, I recommend Anthony Le Donne's recent book, The Historiographical Jesus and now his trade book on the subject, The Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it? which will be released in January. Great reading!

Friday, October 1, 2010

A new Coptic grammar by Johanna Brankaer

I have been meaning to alert you to a new Coptic grammar that has just been published. It is written by Johanna Brankaer, Coptic: A Learning Grammar (Sahidic) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz). The book is structured in five parts: the first three are concerned with learning Coptic grammar. Part four is exercises that apply what has been learned in the grammatical chapters. Part five includes a selection of texts to translate. A great feature is that the exercises and the texts have cross-references to the grammatical chapters.

Her organization and pedagogy is simple: Part 1 contains all the elements of Coptic language (pronouns; nouns; numerals; prepositions; adverbs; verbs); Part 2 addresses Coptic sentence structures (nominal articulation; nominal sentences; durative sentences; etc); Part 3 covers complex sentences (main clauses; subordinate clauses; relative clauses; cleft sentences). I really like the way the grammar is laid out like this because it shows you, even in the table of contents, what the language looks like as a system. So it approaches Coptic from a holistic perspective rather than presenting it as a series of disassociated grammar and syntax points. I think it might be possible to teach the basics of Coptic in one semester using this grammar.

Brankaer uses the terminology established by Bentley Layton in his Coptic Grammar, although she has a glossary where equivalent terms found in other grammars are explained.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 5: Who are the cannibals?

This week we spent reading classic anthropological ethnographic studies on death. I was assigned Consuming Grief by Beth Conklin. It is about the Amazonian Wari' and their pre-contact funerary rituals which centered around eating the body of the deceased. Conklin wanted to know why they practiced funerary cannibalism and so she spent years among the Wari' recording family histories of all of them. Since funerary cannibalism is no longer practiced, she had to rely on memories of the Wari'. Apparently this is a 'no-no' in anthropological method, because she was not able to observe the ceremonies directly herself, so she wasn't able to draw her own conclusions from those observations.

This made me laugh aloud since all I do is work from secondary materials, having no direct contact with any early Christian (and I am completely jealous of Conklin who could talk to people who were there!). What disturbs me about the anthropological method is the fact that anthropologists seem to think that their own observations and interpretations of the materials are in some way superior to what the people they study remember and tell them. Conklin was trying to swim upstream, making the very fundamental argument that we have to start listening to the people we study. Maybe they know what they are talking about. She finds it essential to take seriously what the Wari' themselves say about their cannibalism. She writes: "The problem with limiting analysis to the level of ideas and symbols, as many anthropological studies have tended to do, is that this leaves out the very aspects that Wari' themselves emphasize: cannibalism's relation to subjective experiences of grief and social processes of mourning."

Why did the Wari' cannibalize their deceased? Because it helped the deceased transition into the spirit world to join the realm of the animal spirits who dwelled there, and it aided the grieving family disassociate from the deceased and forget them. It was part of the blotting out of their memory that also involved burning the home and property of the deceased, and never using their name again. One of the elders said to her, "Why are you always asking about eating the ones who died? You talk about me eating; Denise [Merieles, a Brazilian ethnographer] came here and asked me about eating. The missionaries and the priests always used to say, 'Why did you eat people? Why did you eat? Eating, eating eating! Eating was not all that we did! We cried, we sang, we burned the house, we burned all their things. Write about all of this, not just the eating!" (p. xxii).

I won't spoil the book for those of you who want to read it, but I want to end this post with an observation. Since the 1960s after contact with outsiders, the Wari' no longer cannibalize their dead. With contact brought infectious diseases that decimated their population. The missionaries, desperate to get them to alter their funerary ritual, told them that if they continued to eat the dead bodies, they would become infected with the disease. So the Wari' began to bury their dead as the missionaries wanted them to, even though they considered the ground to be filthy and polluted and cold, and still complain about their loved ones having to rot in the cold earth.

But all of this has me thinking about Christianity and those missionaries and us today whose central religious ritual is the killing and cannibalization of Jesus' body on an altar. The ancient Romans, in fact, accused the early Christians of just this crime. For Catholics, the bread and wine are transmuted into the body and blood of Jesus and are shared and ingested communally. For Protestants, the cannibalization is more symbolic, but nonetheless present.

Are we dealing with a matter of perspective? Who are the cannibals?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In Memory of Esther de Boer

I have just learned of the untimely death of Esther de Boer, at the age of 51. According to the information I received, she died on July 6th, 2010. So I write this with sadness, still in shock that Esther has passed on. But I write to remember her and to recall what we have learned from her work, work which will survive her death.

She was a well-respected Dutch scholar who devoted herself to understanding and writing about Mary Magdalene. Her books include The Gospel of Mary Listening to the Beloved Disciple (1980). Mary Magdalene Beyond the Myth (1997 English translation) and Mary Magdalene Cover-Up: The Sources Behind the Myth (2007).

A summary of her most recent book reads:
Mary Magdalene has always been the subject of both popular and scholarly intrigue. Was she the wife of Jesus, his complete initiate, a Goddess or a priestess? Did the Church dramatically alter her image to deny her importance? These questions have inspired representations of her in art, film and literature, from "Caravaggio" to "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Da Vinci Code". The "Mary Magdalene Cover-Up" is the first book to bring the original sources that have informed our current day view of Mary to a wider audience. Esther de Boer has brought together an impressive array of texts from the first century, when Mary Magdalene was alive, to the sixth century, when her image as a penitent sinner was invented. Each text is accompanied by an informed and lively commentary by the author placing it in its historical context. This combination of original texts and commentary enables the reader to draw their own conclusions about this most enigmatic of first-century women.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 4: Was Jung a Mystic?

In seminar this week we discussed Religion and Psychology, the Psychology of Religion, and Psychology in Dialogue with Religion. And of course Jung was prominent. One of the readings was his book Aion, which is an unbelievable ride through Jung's mind and ancient Gnostic sources (quoted from the original Latin and Greek patristic sources). Unlike Freud, Jung thought that the human psyche is by nature religious and that the journey of the transformation of the self (a process he calls individuation) is at the "mystical heart of all religions." He felt that life has a spiritual purpose, a meaning beyond material gain and goals. He writes, "Our main task is to discover and fulfill our deep innate potential, much as the acorn contains the potential to become the oak."

This transformative process involves the integration of the person's consciousness with the unconscious in order to stave off unhealthy psychic tendencies such as repression, projection, etc. Jung talked about this process in terms of the union of opposites, including the ego-personality with its shadow. He was particularly fond of the Gnostic mythology which proved to him the accuracy of his theories, for erupting in their mythology was the religious equivalent of his psychological descriptions. For instance, the Gnostic myth of a Father without quality of being who is unknowable, is the unconsciousness. He quotes Epiphanius: "In the beginning the Autopater contained in himself everything that is, in a state of unconsciousness." This manifests or becomes conscious through the generation of the Christ who represents for Jung the perfect human self.

The book reads as a set of psychological sermons filled with esoteric references from ancient sources. Although Jung tries again and again to suggest that "psychology is not metaphysics", it is hard to believe him when faced with a volume this saturated with Christian ideas that are attempting to explain a three-year period when Jung believed he encountered the unconsciousness and lived to tell about it.

I am not sure that psychological models are going to assist me in my own historical work, except that Jung may be a very interesting figure to investigate as a mystic in his own someone who took his personal experiences and the ancient Gnostic mythology and rewrote them as a modern psychological theory. Especially now that The Red Book is published.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 3: Is the author dead?

This week we studied some of the structuralists and post-structuralists. One of the effects of these 'movements' is the promotion of the claim that the author of the text is of little or no consequence. Roland Barthes called this "the death of the author." He and others located the meaning of the text in the audience or reader, and thought that the quest for authorial intent was at best secondary, but in fact useless.

Being the pragmatist that I am, and an author myself, I find this proposal (as 'sexy' as it is) to be untenable. There are authors, and authors have intent, they write for multiple reasons, and they each have very specific cultural and historical contexts which are all over the things they write. It is possible to retrieve this information, although it must be done critically and carefully.

That said, I also want to say that it is equally true that meaning becomes the possession of the possessor. The text, once 'published' takes on a life of its own, and interpretations develop that may or may not have anything to do with authorial intent. These ways of reconceiving the text over and over in historical time belong to communities of people, and their view of the text reflects their own culture, history, memory, and crises. They also reflect interactions with others who are using the same text, although with differences of opinion about what it might actually mean.

I also want to emphasize that there is not necessarily a disjuncture between authorial intent and the first interpretations of the text that might exist. For some reason we have assumed that there is, seeing the early interpretations of the text as 'late' when compared to the author, and therefore of no consequence to our understanding of the composition of the text itself. Being a writer myself, I really question this. When I write something it is being written as part of a conversation that already is in play. So I am not originating the discourse. I am participating in it and am hoping to influence it. So instead of assuming a complete rupture between what is written and the first interpretations of it, perhaps we need to explore the earliest conversation about the text and investigate how what is written fits into it?

I know. This is different, very different. It is different from the usual approach which has attempted to give meaning to the text as modern people read and impose that meaning, so we have ended up with mainstream accepted interpretations of Paul or Mark or John that are nothing more than reflections of post-reformation theology. And these are posited as the author's intent. And the ancient conversation about the text is ignored as secondary and irrelevant. What is backwards here?

Even though I don't agree that the author is dead or secondary in the field of meaning and interpretation, I close with a quotation from Barthes which impressed me as gorgeous in its acknowledgment of the reader's power, a fact we must integrate into our new historicism (for which I yet have no name).
"We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single 'theological' meaning...but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture...In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a person without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only the someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Early Christian Women

I am working on the research for my final main chapter of my book, Sex and the Serpent: Why the Gender Conflicts of the Early Church Still Matter. I ran across a very intriguing passage written by Tertullian that appears to reflect the social realities of Christian women in the late second century. I'm not sure what to completely make of it yet. At first glance, it appears that Christian women were not abiding by the traditional Roman societal roles. And this is confirmed by the accusations against them by the Romans, of lewdness and promiscuity. But then later on in the same text, Tertullian says that the Christian married couple do these things together. In other words, the marriage seems to allow the woman to operate in public because she is escorted by her husband. Is Tertullian using Christian marriage to curtail these accusations?

In Tertullian's treatise to his wife, he exhorts her to remain a widow if he dies first. Part of the treatise deals with the problem of remarriage to a pagan. Tertullian insists that it is impossible for her to serve two lords who have different values and standards of conduct: God and a pagan husband. Here is what he says about the pagan husband:
“Who (aka, what pagan) would allow his wife to run around the streets to the houses of strangers and even to the poorest hovels in order to visit the faithful? Who would willingly let his wife be taken from his side for nightly meetings, if it be necessary? Who, then, would tolerate without some anxiety her spending the entire night at the paschal solemnities? Who would have no suspicions about letting her attend the Lord's supper, when it has such a bad reputation? Who would endure her creeping into prison to kiss the chains of the martyrs? Or even to greet any of the brothers with a kiss? Or to wash the feet of the saints. To desire this? Even to think about it? If a Christian traveling on a journey should arrive, what hospitality will he find in the house of a stranger? If anyone needs assistance, the granary and pantry are closed” (4)...What a bond is this: two believers who share one hope, one desire, one discipline, the same service! The two are brother and sister, fellow servants...side by side, in the church of God and at the banquet of God, side by side in difficulties, in times of persecution, and in times of consolation...They freely visit the sick and sustain the needy. They give alms without anxiety, attend the sacrifice without scruple, perform their daily duties unobstructed..." (8).

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 2: Is there a connection between myth and ritual?

The topic for the second discussion in the mellon seminar was Ritual Theory. The readings were numerous, and it was fascinating for me to spend a week going over the history of the discussion of ritual and myth. I realized even more than I had before how much the question of the relationship of ritual and myth has defined the field of religious studies. I'm not so sure it ought to have, but we are stuck with the fact that it did. If you are looking for a very well-written detailed overview of the history of ritual theory, I recommend the first three chapters of Catherine Bell's book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions.

I am not going to go into detail here about the history of ritual theory. What I am going to do is reflect on my own understanding of ritual. It is not an understanding that came out of studying ritual theory, nor trying to negotiate the Myth and Ritual School or the views of Durkheim or Freud. My reflections come straight from my work as an historian who has immersed herself in ancient texts for the last twenty-five years of my life. I have discovered that I tend to be very pragmatic in my approach.

1. Ritual and myth have a symbiotic relationship. There is a connection between the community's ritual and myth, although these connections are not stable. Both ritual and myth shift in their performance and narrative over time and for various reasons, some conscious and some not. It may not be possible to determine whether the ritual or the myth came first in the formation of the movement. For me this is not even the interesting question. The interesting question is how and why the ritual and myth shape and reshape each other in peculiar ways.

2. There is a community of real people involved in the ritual and the myth. The texts I study are about practices and ideas that involved real people in real life situations. The category "intertextuality" is something that was made up so that the problem of real communities and their shape or historical boundaries can be ignored.

3. Ritual and myth are culturally-determined and historically bound. We might be able to find some psychological or cognitive feature in humans that predisposes us to create rituals that involve stages of separation and reintegration, but the quest for 'a universal myth' or 'a universal ur-ritual' behind all myths and rituals is not tenable, at least from the perspective of a historian.

4. There are different types of rituals and myths, and therefore different functions. Rituals and myths of initiation may not have the same function as rituals and myths of matrimony, birth, or purging. While the main function of one ritual might be to foster social cohesion, another might be to relieve personal guilt or anxiety. So a careful mapping must be put into place and universalism avoided.

5. Rituals and myths build and support relationships of power within the community. They provide divine sanction and legitimacy for the dominance of some and the subordination of others.

6. When the ritual and myth of the dominant group does not answer all the questions or is contradictory, supplementary and alternative rituals and myths are developed, sometimes clandestinely. And here lies the origin of the concept of orthodoxy and heresy.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 1: What are T/traditions?

One of the goals of my Mellon Seminar this year is to develop further conceptual language to talk about T/traditions and how we critically understand them and their transmission. There has been a move in scholarship away from the discussion of T/tradition(s) in favor of the language of communities of discourse and discursive fields. These are defined by the conversations or communications among those of various identities. There are many reasons for this move, one being the distaste to speak about things "traditional," the association of the "traditional" with the normative (and therefore "orthodox"), and the (incorrect) view that traditions develop in a linear sense (which they don't).

I am not ready to give up the concept of the T/tradition. In fact, I find it necessary to maintain in order to do justice to historical memory. There are Traditions with a capital "T" that become normative and then norm. There are traditions with a little "t" that are not necessarily normative, or the property of the dominant communities that are norming. These traditions are often forgotten or lost or so marginalized that they become invisible to our histories. Yet they were there. Along the way, people began selecting some of these traditions as 'worthy' to remember while others not so much, even up to the modern day. These particular traditions become known as legitimate "sources" to reconstruct our past, while the others are ignored or framed as unimportant.

We can see this with the field of Christian Origins. The 'orthodox' traditions are understood to be the normative and their traces (the four NT gospels, certain letters of Paul, etc) are perceived to be legitimate sources for our reconstruction of early Christian history, while the rest of early Christian literature is relegated to 'interesting in its own right, but of no significant value to the study of early Christianity'. In fact, the normative materials are given a 'historical' pedigree that is not granted any other early Christian text.

Clearly this needs to be rethought in a major way. What if we choose to examine the traces of the traditions that have been ignored and delegitimized? What if they became sources for our understanding of the early history of Christianity and Christian thought? This is one of my BIG questions as a scholar. Being attuned to it means that I have opened myself up to see things differently.

So I think that T/tradition(s) are important to study, and that we need to maintain the word because it gets at the very problem of historical reconstructions, normation, and our process of selecting certain traces of Tradition to be our historical sources, while not recognizing traces of other traditions as worthy of such status.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mellon Seminar

The semester is a week advanced and this year I am facilitating a Mellon Seminar. The topic? Mapping Death: Religious Preparations for the Afterlife Journey. The Seminar consists of myself, five graduate students from various departments (Religious Studies, French Studies, and Anthropology) and a webmaster. We are in the process of developing a webpage for the Seminar, so if you are interested you can track our progress.

Each student has an individual research project to work on, and then we are collaborating in terms of method and theory, sharing our approaches with each other. It is an exciting seminar and I am so pleased to be part of it. My own individual research project involves mapping ancient Gnostic metaphysics and praxis.

Here is a short description of the seminar:
This is a collaborative research seminar consisting of fellows working on cross-culturally mapping death journeys and religious preparations for them in order to investigate the relationship between the anticipated afterlife journey and the group's metaphysics and praxis. The fellows will be engaged in the creation and cultivation of a rich interdisciplinary approach to the comparative study of traditions, a 'new' history-of-traditions approach that is conscious of the historical contexture of traditions, their referentiality, confluence, communal generation and conveyance, responsiveness, changeability, accumulative nature, and variability in transmission. Members will be working on individual research projects related to the seminar's mission and their dissertations. At the end of the year, they will present their final projects in a roundtable symposium that also will feature invited papers from three external scholars who will visit the seminar at various sessions during the Spring semester. The papers from the symposium will be edited for publication in a volume.

Friday, August 27, 2010

What the new year has brought me

The trip to Bangor was wonderful. I had a good exchange with those in attendance and am inspired to continue my work on the Gospel of John. When I came home, I went on a family vacation for most of August to a place where the internet and cable TV don't exist (my sister's). My Blackberry was acting up (and still is: email and internet keep going down; what's the problem?) and so I didn't post a thing, not that much academic thinking was happening anyway.

Then when I got home, I returned to the aftermath of a flooded house. No not a hurricane. Not a tropical storm. But a broken pipe under my kitchen sink. So my place is a disaster. We are living in two upstairs bedrooms, hoping to get some contractors in soon to get started on the demo and rebuild. The floors are ruined. I have holes in my drywall. Base boards torn out. Painted surfaces destroyed.

And two days later, school started. So here I am. I will try to post more frequently, but amidst this mess I feel like it is good that I even make it to drop off my son at his school and show up at mine.

Oh, and Wade has started a new career this week as a high school science teacher...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bangor and the Gospel of John

I am headed over to Wales today for a conference on the Gospel of John and Apocalypticism at the University of Bangor. I am speaking on the topic "Why are the heavens closed? The Revelation of the Father in the Gospel of John." I am looking forward to the discussions and will be back posting next week when I return home.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Larry Hurtado's Blog

In case you haven't noticed yet, Larry Hurtado has put up a blog now. He is a colleague of mine working in Edinburgh on early Christian devotion to Jesus. Welcome to the blogger world Larry!

Monday, June 28, 2010

SBL and AAR remarry

I can not tell you how thrilled I was today to receive a letter from Kent Richards announcing the reintegration of SBL and AAR from 2011 and beyond. This is such a big relief to me. I was one of the members that opposed the original divorce, and I have been unhappy with our separate meetings since they began two years ago. I wish to THANK Kent Richards and everyone behind the scenes for making our remerger a reality!

Here is the letter I received:

Dear Member,

We are pleased to announce that on June 10, 2010, the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion signed a Letter of Intent that outlines an agreement to hold concurrent Annual Meetings beginning in San Francisco in the fall of 2011. These meetings will

Occur in the same city—though the venue will change from year to year;
Occur at the same time—the weekend before the US Thanksgiving holiday;
Feature a single, jointly managed Publishers/Software/Book Exhibit;
Feature a single, jointly managed Employment Center;
Feature distinct and separate AAR and SBL programs planned with open communication between the organizations;
Encourage the organizations’ members to attend each other’s programs and events at no additional cost;
Allow the organizations to pursue their unique, if sometimes overlapping, missions;
Enhance cooperation, not competition, between the organizations.

The advertising for these conventions will use the city name, the year, and will identify the SBL and AAR as hosts. For example, the first of these meetings will be known as “Annual Meetings 2011 San Francisco, hosted by the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.” This name will appear on the registration gateway, on signage at the meetings, on promotional materials, and on other common elements.

A Conventions Management Committee, consisting of the Executive Directors and staff members from each organization, is developing operating policies and procedures that expand on the considerable detail that already exists in the Letter of Intent. Each year the Committee will review the most recent meetings with an eye toward making improvements in subsequent gatherings. Nine concurrent meetings are being planned for 2011 through 2019. Beginning in 2013 the organizations will begin operating on a seven-year planning horizon that includes a mechanism by which the organizations can, on an annual basis, extend the seven-year agreement for an additional year. Dates and venues of the first three concurrent Annual Meetings are as follows:

November 19-22, 2011 San Francisco
November 17-20, 2012 Chicago
November 23-26, 2013 Baltimore

We believe that concurrent meetings will serve the interests of our members, will help to advance the many disciplines and areas of study we represent, and will maintain and advance the critical inquiry that characterizes the work of our societies. We invite you to join us in building this exciting new future.


Jack Fitzmier Kent Richards American Academy of Religion Society of Biblical Literature

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thecla Catacomb gets a laser treatment

I meant to post this yesterday when I saw it in the morning paper, but the day escaped me.

Lasers help restore Thecla Catacomb paintings and uncover our earliest representations of Peter and Paul...and John and Andrew as young men. The technology is astonishing! Just like laser surgery removing the top layer of skin, the years of calcium build-up (5 inches worth!) were removed to reveal these beautiful fourth century paintings in the tomb of a Roman woman and dedicated to Thecla (!) and the (other) apostles...

If you haven't seen pictures yet, check out these posted on NPR's website.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Is marriage salvation?

That is the title of chapter 6 of the manuscript I am preparing for publication: Sex and the Serpent. I begin the chapter with this observation:
But renunciation of marriage and procreation was not the only lifestyle embraced by Gnostic groups. The double-feature theology raised serious questions for some Gnostics. How could the spirit be saved if its incarnation was stopped? How could the spirit be returned to the transcomic realm if it was never birthed in a child? If procreation and birth ceased, the spirit would never be exposed to the secret rituals and the holy gnosis that was necessary for its release from the lesser god's dominion.

The Gnostics who asked these sorts of questions found themselves in a precarious position, posed on a razor's edge. How could they justify procreation and birthing children so that the spirit could be incarnated and receive instruction when the sex act itself was an act of corruption and trickery instituted by an arrogant god they desired to defy?
So this morning I have been outlining the chapter and going back through the primary sources and having a blast doing so. I am still not sure about Epiphanius' account of "The Gnostics" in book 26 of Panarion - how much of this is genuine and how much of it is politically motivated and how much of it is just mixed up by Epiphanius. I imagine there is a little of all three operating in that chapter. I find myself hesitant to accept Epiphanius' accounts since he mixed up the Cainites with the Gospel of Judas in such a bad way. He has become less trustworthy in my eyes. Whenever I compare his accounts to Irenaeus, which was one of his sources, I find that he gets some things accurately, but others not so much. He tends to misread Irenaeus in places, and dump together sources that really are unrelated.

In terms of chapter 26, his story is associated with something that happened to him in his youth which he explains as the seduction of Gnostic women who wanted to have sex with him to collect his seed and save the spirit in it from the demiurge. I can't imagine that he was the innocent bystander he claims, not with all the information he appears to know from their books and lessons. He was deeply involved in this group for a time. The fact that he turns in eighty people from the Gnostic community to the church authorities to be punished tells me that his story is slanted and exaggerated to his own benefit. He brought down eighty Gnostics with what appears to me to be sexual slander. I hope as I write this section of the chapter that I will be able to reflect on this and "solve" it for myself.

The other piece I want to solve is the testimony about Carpocrates. I'm not sure what was going on in this community because the testimony from the church fathers about their behaviors do not mesh with their testimonies about Jesus and his behavior. I am wondering if there was a shift in this community's behaviors when Epiphanes became prominent, something which shifted the behavior for a new reason to be more libertine than what I think Carpocrates may have taught.

So there are a lot of questions I am trying to resolve for myself as I write this chapter, many mysteries to 'unsecret'.

After a day's reflection, my chapter subtitles look this this right now:
  • Sacred Sex
  • The Law has passed away
  • Spirit Collectors
  • You will be pardoned
  • The Lover Mary

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Congratulations to James McGrath!

Check THIS out: the Mandaean Book of John will be translated into English!

Mary in Encratic traditions

So I'm almost done with chapter 5 "Is Marriage a Sin?" Today I am putting the finishing touches on the last section which deals with portraits of Mary Magdalene in encratic literature. Not surprisingly the prominent image of Mary in the encratic literature is the "male" Mary who is the Apostle to the Apostles.

Photo: St. Albans Psalter; Mary Magdalene as Apostle to the Apostles

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


So today I am thinking and writing about encratism, a severe form of asceticism that did not even allow for marriage since it was conceived to be a state of sin. It is a strange phenomenon in the early church, and it looks to me like it was there from as early as we can track the church because the Corinthian correspondence lends me to believe that Paul was addressing these issues already. I hope to explore Tatian today.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Summer writing

I can't believe it, but I have cleared my desk of those lingering commitments that have diverted so much of my time and energy this past year. The lesson I have learned from this is to start saying "no" to projects that cannot be accommodated within my own research agenda. Otherwise what I research and write about begins to be what everyone else wants me to write about and not necessarily what I want to write about.

So this summer I return to my own research and writing schedule. First on my agenda is to finish Sex and the Serpent: Why the Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter.

Second is to turn my attention to my Mellon Seminar which I will be leading the next academic year. It is called Mapping Death: Religious Preparations for the Afterlife Journey. I plan to study the Gnostic movements from the perspective of initiatory cults in the ancient world, and see what happens. I have five students working with me, each preparing his or her own project. I want to build a web page for the seminar with abstracts of each of our projects. So watch for that as September nears.

Third, I want to organize my thoughts and develop my book on the Gospel of John. I have tentatively named it John Interrupted: Reconceptualizing the Origins of Christianity and Gnosticism.

So that is my summer...and my next year.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Thinking about creativity

I am reflecting on the creative process today, my own as well as others. We each have a creative process - all of us - although we might not recognize it as creativity or a process. The older I get, the more my creative process has been unleashed in my life. I don't know why, but it seems that the more I write and teach (all aspects of the creative process), the more need I have to engage in art itself (another form of the creative process). I find that my intellectual creativity is nurtured by my right-brain creativity, and my right-brain creativity by my intellect. Why is this? Do any of you know the psychology or neurology here?

Yesterday I came across this u-tube video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about her own creative process. She says that she has found it helpful to think about the process as overseen by an attendant spirit, a daemon or genius, as the ancient people taught. She goes on to describe an encounter she had with the poet Ruth Stone who described her own process as "poem catching". When she was young and working in the fields, she said that the poem would come to her rumbling across the earth, shaking it. As the poem approached, she would race to her house and grab a paper and pencil to catch the poem before it stormed through her and past her. The poem would be intact.

This might seem odd to some people, and we might dismiss this as Stone's metaphor. But I'm not so sure because last year I had a very similar experience. As I was walking from my home to my office, I was overcome with a poem. Its echo was thunderous and it was all I could do to run all the way to my office and grab a pen and paper and write it down before it was gone. It came to me intact. This is what I wrote down:
the garden

out of the darkness
living eve
lush pomegranates
ripe figs
ready for tasting
heavy upon the branches

what is it that is secreted away, ruah?
sheltered, spiritus?
stolen, sophia?

sweet fruit in your hands
gnosis in the bite
juice on the chin

hide away eve
the nemesis of god is upon you
Have any of you ever experienced poem catching before or know of someone who has? I'm curious now that I realize my experience is not an isolated event. I'm not sure that I would say that it is the result of a muse, or a paranormal event as Gilbert suggests. But whatever happened was overwhelming and there was no option not to run and write it down. I find that once the creative process is really engaged on a regular basis, that it takes on a life of its own, almost pushing me to bring to life whatever it is I am working on, a book, an article, a painting, a textile piece, a poem.

Here is the u-tube video in case you are interested:

Friday, May 7, 2010

What is the Bible?

I begin my Introduction to New Testament Studies course by asking the class to give serious consideration to the question "What is the Bible?" and determine some type of class definition as a starting point. The consensus was that it is a book written that contains history and is the basis of faith for certain religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam).

I just finished grading the final exams. One of the questions on the exam asked the students to reflect upon the original question and discuss their understandings of the bible in light of the knowledge that they gained in the course.

One student's response leapt out this year and I want to share it:

"In the beginning of the course, the bible seemed easy. I really thought I understood what it was and where it came from. In my opinion, it was a book with largely fictitious stories that formed the basis of faith for various religions, in particular Christianity. Now knowing the complex history of how the bible was created and all the nuances of how it is interpreted have changed my opinion. The bible is not a simple matter as I previously thought. Now I believe the bible to be a living and breathing text which is constantly being changed to reflect the values and beliefs of those who read it. The text has survived and found relevancy for thousands of years. What does a modern person have in common with an ancient Roman Christian? Really, absolutely nothing. But the bible was/is found relevant to both. The bible is transformed to suit the beliefs of its users...Particularly interesting was how the bible can be interpreted to encourage certain beliefs. Amazing how it is used to support suppression of women and even to support slavery."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

New book on Slavonic Pseudepigrapha

Andrei Orlov has edited a brilliant collection of essays on the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha from articles he had published previously in journals that are not readily accessible to most readers.

He examines theophanic patterns found in 2 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and the Ladder of Jacob. He investigates divine body KAVOD traditions (measure; corporeality; bodily ascent; pillar of the world; eschatology; divine face; heavenly counterpart; resurrection) and divine name SHEM traditions (aural mysticism; liturgy; angelology; iconoclasm; fallen angels).

Andrei Orlov, Divine Manifestations in the Slavonic Pseudepigrapha, Orientalia Judaica Christiana 2 (Piscataway: Gorgias, 2009).

Orlov has posted his introduction HERE.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thinking more about Traditions and traditions

When I think about my scholarship and my teaching, I am realizing that I am a tradition-critic in every sense of the word. Yes I am fascinated at tracking and explaining the emergence and transmission of traditions, but I am also involved in understanding the development of The Christian Tradition, as it is reflected and safeguarded by the normative churches. So I am involved in both aspects of the study of (T)(t)radition.

This has led me to reflect upon another aspect of what my scholarship is about. Being in two religious studies departments over the last fifteen years, rather than theology or biblical departments, has made a difference for me. It has allowed me to grow in my critical examination and evaluation of The Tradition, rather than become immersed in a type of scholarship whose purpose (whether intentional or not) is to shore up and support The Tradition, to use biblical approaches to legitimate again the old normative story.

The more I reflect upon this, the more I realize that this is at the heart of the problem I see in biblical scholarship - whether or not we are willing to question The Tradition and its power of normation, whether we are willing or not to work the materials from the 'other' side, to see what is there and how what is there bears on the normative narrative and exegetical tradition that is centuries old.

My work is more than the retrieval of the 'other' side. It is an attempt to integrate the 'other' side into the story before and as the process of normation was underway. To do so means to cut into the story that The Tradition created, to see how it was put together in the fashion it was, and why. It has never been my experience that The Tradition is left intact. Yet, I have never felt that we are left with nothing. There is a new wholeness that emerges, although one that The Tradition may not (want) to recognize.

Monday, April 26, 2010

John Kutsko is appointed the Executive Director of SBL

This just came through to me via SBL, and I have to say that I am thrilled! John Kutsko and I trained at the University of Michigan together in the 1980s, before Peter Machinist took a position at Harvard. He is a person of scholarly integrity and collegiality, and I look forward to his leadership in our society. Congratulations John!

Kutsko to Become SBL Executive Director on 1 July 2010

Bruce Birch, chair of the SBL Council, has announced that John F. Kutsko has been named the new Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, effective 1 July 2010. After an extensive international search chaired by Fernando Segovia, Birch reported that the search committee’s unanimous and enthusiastic support of Kutsko was affirmed by Council at its April meeting. Birch said, “Strong and insightful leadership has always been a quality valued by SBL whether in our publications, congresses, or programs for professional development. We are looking forward to Kutsko’s leadership of an organization committed to core values of ‘responsiveness to change, scholarly integrity, inclusiveness, collegiality, collaboration, and accountability.’”

Kutsko began his graduate work in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East at the University of Michigan and completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1997 under the mentorship of Peter Machinist. His revised dissertation was published as Between Heaven and Earth: Divine Presence and Absence in the Book of Ezekiel. He has been active in the SBL publishing program (contributing editor of The SBL Handbook of Style) and the Symposium series, as well as the Career Center Advisory Group, the SBL Forum, and the Ezekiel Seminar. And he has been a faculty mentor for fellows at The Fund for Theological Education, where he has taught a dissertation-writing and publishing workshop for over a decade.

In addition to his academic contributions, John has over twenty years of publishing, leadership, and executive experience. He has worked on projects such as the The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday) and Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (Scribner’s Sons), and he was Associate Editorial Director at Hendrickson Publishers until 2003.

“I am thrilled to serve the members and mission of SBL. I join a gifted and dedicated staff. I look forward to collaborating with and giving leadership to a scholarly community in ways that enhance and further its teaching and research. I am grateful to follow the remarkable accomplishments of Kent Richards, who is very much the founder of the modern SBL. Kent has digitized, internationalized, and broadened SBL. I’ll bring all my energy to expanding these accomplishments and fostering the future of biblical scholarship.”

He joins SBL from Abingdon Press, the main imprint of The United Methodist Publishing House, where he served as Associate Publisher and began as Director of Academic and Professional Resources in 2003. At Abingdon he directed such projects as The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and The Wesley Study Bible, and led a digital publishing initiative.

“I believe that the skills and experience I have from my rather non-traditional academic c.v. will help guide SBL’s members through the challenges and opportunities the discipline faces in the scholarly academy and higher education today. I am grateful to SBL for allowing the second half of my career to integrate this level of professional experience.”

Friday, April 23, 2010


Today is the last day of classes at Rice. Will be ending my Introduction to New Testament Studies talking about androcentricism. Consider for a moment how male-centrism may have affected the memory of the early Christian traditions and their transmission. Leave me one idea in the comments (please limit to serious comments on the stated subject). Let's collect as many consequences as we can muster.

I'll start: women and their participation are marginalized and forgotten, like the woman in Mark who anointed Jesus' head...whose name the traditions no longer remembers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thinking about Tradition v. tradition

Professor Kocku von Stuckrad from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands has been stranded in Houston due to the eruption of the volcano and the cancellation of his flight home after the Hidden God conference. So today he joined my seminar and discussed the methodology which he has been developing to analyze the history of Western Esotericism and published a few weeks ago in his new book Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

It was a pleasure to hear him discuss how he approaches the problem of pluralism in the ancient world and his constructive views. What struck me about our conversation was the difference in our usage of words. I don't know if this is because he was trained in Europe and I in the States, but it has caused me to pause again and consider again that even though we may be using the same words in our analyses, we do not necessarily mean the same thing.

Part of our discussion centered on the word 'tradition' which von Stuckrad has set aside in favor of another concept, 'discursive field'. He does so because 'tradition' means for him 'the' centrist religions and is not able to handle the material 'outside' 'the' tradition except on 'the' tradition's own terms. Discursive field, however, allows him to talk about any field of knowledge (like 'journeys to heaven') without being bound to 'the' tradition's perspective of it.

I identify as a tradition-critic. But my understanding and use of the word 'tradition' is not the same as von Stuckrad's. I don't use it to mean 'the' tradition or the Tradition, as a referent to the centrist religion and its normation. I use it in the sense of 'tradition' with a little 't': as those ideological holdings and practices belonging to a group and transmitted by them over time. I think that I am using the term 'tradition' in the same way that von Stuckrad is using 'discursive field'.

So this afternoon was enlightening for me, reminding me how careful I need to be to define the terms I am using in my academic writing, and never to assume that my colleagues, especially across the Atlantic, are using them in the same manner.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What a successful conference!

What an awesome conference!

I want to thank all who participated or attended for making it a truly successful event. I learned an enormous amount from my colleagues and from the students who all gave papers.

Here is our company in front of the reflecting pool at the Rothko Chapel.

From left to right: back row: Enoch Olujide Gbadegesin; Kocku von Stuckrad; Andrei Orlov; Jeff Kripal; John Turner; Claire Fanger; Grant Adamson; Bill Parsons; Justin. Front row: Stephen Finley; April DeConick; Marcia Brennan; Bernard McGinn; Chad Pevateaux; Shira Lander. Not present for photo: Ata Anzali; Dustin Atlas; Benjamin Brochstein; Kelley Coblentz Bautch; David Cook; Jonathan Garb; Margarita Simon Guillory; Greg Kaplan; Anne Carolyn Klein; David Porreca; John Stroup; Franklin Trammell; Claire Villarreal; Betul Yavuz.

Edited volume: Histories of the Hidden come.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hidden God, Hidden Histories Schedule

Today is the day! This afternoon at 3:15 the Hidden God, Hidden Histories Rockwell Symposium convenes.

HERE is a link to the poster and the detailed schedule. Scroll down the page and the first hyperlink will bring up our beautiful poster. The second hyperlink will bring up the detailed schedule.

There is no registration fee. The conference is open to the public. Please join us for any or all of the sessions if you are in the area and looking for something to do.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Praying in Her Own Voice

Two showings of the documentary film by Yael Katzir in Houston! This is not one to miss.

Praying in Her Own Voice
The Struggle of Women of the Wall for Freedom of Worship in Israel



Monday, April 12th, 7:30 pm, Rice University Cinema, 6100 Main Street, Houston FREE
Thursday, April 18th, 7 pm, Temple Sinai, 13875 Brimhurst Drive, Houston

Producer Ravit Markus will attend both screenings and be available for Q&A after the screening.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Apocryphote of the Day: Meditation on Easter

"He dwells either in this world or in the resurrection or in the middle place. God forbid that I be found there! In this world there is good and evil. Its good things are not good, and its evil things not evil. But there is evil after this world which is truly evil, what is called 'the middle'. It is death. While we are in this world it is fitting for us to acquire the resurrection, so that when we strip off the flesh we may be found in rest and not walk in the middle. For many go astray on the way. For it is good to come forth from the world before one has sinned."

Gos. Phil. 66.8-24 (sec. century Valentinian text)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Eyewitness Testimony

Judy Redman has a dynamite article in the newest edition of Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 177-197. "How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research." I am thrilled to see it finally in print!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Passover among Christians

I read with interest a newspaper article this morning which described a growing practice among liberal Christian churches in Houston, of celebrating the Passover as well as Easter. It is celebrated with a Christian interpretation of the lamb, with Jesus' passion at its heart. Some of the local Jewish communities are concerned that their festival is being usurped by the Christians, stating that the Christians are taking their holiday and symbols and investing them with meanings foreign to them. They are not happy with this new Christian tradition. One rabbi said that he doesn't mind having other groups celebrate Passover as long as it is celebrated as Jews would do.

Being a historian of early Christian, my first reaction to this is well, what is new? This is the exact conversation (with the same complaints) that the early Christians and the early Jews were having in the first and second centuries. Most Christians in this period celebrated Passover as a Christian holiday altering all the symbols so that they pointed to Christ. Our earliest homily is by Melito and it is the homily he preached at Passover. It has this classic reinterpretation, which also ends up being very anti-semitic in its orientation as you might well imagine. Easter isn't mentioned in any documents as far as I know until the fourth century (Nicaea, 325). When it is mentioned by Socrates Scholasticus (380), it is recognized as a local custom that was not biblical (that is Jesus and his apostles didn't command it) but had developed in the catholic churches as a way to celebrate the resurrection.

UPDATE: Link to Melito's sermon

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Poster Art

Here is the poster artwork for the approaching conference, Hidden God, Hidden Histories. I think it is stunning and look forward to the conference. It is open to the public, so if you are in the area, stop by for a session or two. I'll post a final schedule soon.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

About Patterson's review

I have been asked by some of my blog readers to respond to Stephen Patterson's recent RBL review of my book, The Original Gospel of Thomas In Translation. It is a review, and normally authors don't respond to them. It represents one scholar's opinion of another's work. There is not much more to say than that. Some scholars have highly praised my works. Others do not. Patterson is among the latter.

Why the difference in scholarly assessment? When reading reviews of books, I always try to keep in mind that every scholar comes from a particular position, and that position likely has impacted how he or she reviews a book. In the case of Professor Patterson, he is a strong supporter and member of the Jesus Seminar and its new project on Christian Origins. Central to that project is the position that the earliest Christians were non-eschatological wisdom folk, as was Jesus. They use their earliest literary stratification of Quelle, and the Gospel of Thomas to demonstrate this thesis.

Where do I differ from Patterson? I argue that the Gospel of Thomas does not all come from the same period. And if we make a full literary-critical analysis of the gospel that we will see that the oldest materials in the Gospel of Thomas are eschatological, and these have been softened over time to focus on more mystical traditions as the gospel grows and develops within a church setting.

Patterson wrongly calls my method "form-critical". It is not. A form-critical approach, as we all know, is an approach whereby variant readings of a saying are compared and through this comparison a primary oral originating version is projected. I never do such a thing in my book. I am not comparing versions of sayings to come up with an oral originating version of the sayings or of the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, I think that the form critical project is defunct. I have included an entire three chapters on my method in Recovering, which I call a new tradition-historical method, and include within it a strong critique of form criticism in light of studies in orality and rhetoric.

What do I do? I begin with an observation that the form critics make and with which I do agree. The form critics have successfully demonstrated that the sayings tradition has been reworked with communal interests in mind. In other words, it has been secondarily developed. One of the places where we can see this development most prominently is in the passages where sayings have been worked into dialogues between Jesus and the disciples, especially when those dialogues are about issues that were concerns for the church, but likely not concerns for Jesus' followers during his lifetime. This is my starting point to identify material in the Gospel of Thomas that has been secondarily developed by the church.

There are a number of such dialogues we can identify in the Gospel of Thomas. And the issues raised in them are post-resurrection concerns. The disciples are asking Jesus when they are going to see him again, when the new world is going to come, what diet they should follow, whether or not they should be circumcised, and so forth. All of these issues are easily traced to issues that were facing the church in its formative years.

My method proceeds by analyzing these dialogues, their themes and their vocabulary. From there I continue a structured literary analysis of the rest of the sayings, identifying those which contain similar themes and vocabulary.

After making this analysis, I examine what sayings are left, and what I discovered is that the sayings left have an imminent eschatological outlook and a christological outlook that is remarkably similar to the first Christianity that was associated with Jerusalem and the tradition of James. I also noticed that the sayings I could identify as secondary were of another variety altogether, focused on encratic and mystical traditions that were readjusting, tempering, taming, whatever you want to call it, the earlier eschatological perspective.

The long and short of it is that Professor Patterson and I are never going to see eye to eye on the Gospel of Thomas. So Patterson's review should come as no surprise to any of my readers. It certainly does not come as a surprise to me. My thesis does not fit the Jesus Seminar model, and in fact, if taken seriously by the Jesus Seminar, would uproot it. I am never going to support the program of the Jesus Seminar which has a particular version of Jesus and the early church which it wishes to promote even when the evidence points in another direction as is the case with the Gospel of Thomas, and also in my opinion Q.

The questions that one should ask of Patterson is why a literary-critical analysis (and even form-critical if one wanted to) is possible and successful for the synoptics and Quelle, but not for Thomas? Why is it possible to make a full literary-critical analysis of a text we don't even possess, and yet not so with the Gospel of Thomas? Thomas is exactly the kind of text that Bultmann would have loved. It is as close to an "oral" text as we are going to get. We have the brains and the tools to do this as I have demonstrated in my book, and yet it is resisted. Why? Is it because we will see that the early tradition was eschatological? That Bultmann was right after all?!

I continue to object to being read as someone who wants to "stratify" the Gospel of Thomas. This is Patterson's model and language not mine. I am not identifying layers, something I repeatedly state in my work. I see the text as a rolling text, as shifting in its contents gradually as it was performed and copied. I hope if I repeat myself enough perhaps I will soon be quoted properly on this subject and that the secondary literature that will be written in the future will speak about my position accurately.

I also want my readers to know that my two volume work was originally a single volume and the publisher broke them up because of the length. So they really are companion volumes written together. This means that the second volume, the commentary, was written as an appendix to support my arguments in the first volume. It is like an extensive footnote system for my own analysis of the Gospel of Thomas (see p. xi Recovering; p. ix Original). The commentary was never intended to be a full commentary representing all material that was ever written on each and every saying. I write in the introduction that I am not including in my commentary references to the Gnostic hermeneutic but instead have focused on an alternative hermeneutic which sees the Gospel as an example of Syrian religiosity, which is the argument I am making in Recovering.