Friday, August 26, 2005

My News

I interrupt my habitual neglect of my long-dormant blog to make two announcements.

First, as anyone who reads biblioblogs probably knows already, Mark Goodacre, who has been my doctoral supervisor here in Birmingham for the last year, is leaving to take a post at Duke University. I am pleased to announce that I will be going too. While the folks in Birmingham have been very good to me and I will miss them a lot, I am also looking forward to returning to the US where you can get good barbecue. Or just barbecue at all. And I’m especially looking forward to going to Duke, which has a top-notch religion department, a very impressive library, and, of course, the famous Duke Blue Devils basketball team.

Second, before leaving for Duke I will be presenting a paper at the British New Testament Conference in Liverpool on 3 September. The title is “You Who Would Destroy the Temple: Dramatic Irony and the Setting of Mark’s Gospel”. The thesis is that Mark’s Gospel employs dramatic irony and that that fact can be used to help determine its setting.

Maybe I’ll have that critique of Gary Goldberg’s theory on the relationship between the Testimonium and Luke’s Emmaus story done sometime soon.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

How Luke Was Written

I’m working on a response to Richard Anderson’s question about Gary J. Goldberg’s theory that Luke’s Emmaus’ story and the Testimonium share a common source and also a response to Stephen Carlson’s argument that Tacitus knew at least some version of the Testimonium. As you might guess, I think they’re both wrong. But I suppose I’ll have to say more than that.

In the meantime, the University of Maryland has made my MA Thesis, “How Luke Was Written”, available online in pdf format. The title is borrowed from E. W. Lummis’ 1915 book. Lummis was a pre-Farrer advocate of the theory that Matthew used Mark and Luke used Mark and Matthew, though Lummis introduced some unnecessary complications to the theory.

The thesis is a slightly longer version of my article, “Unpicking on the Farrer Theory”, from Questioning Q, edited by Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin. Now, I want to encourage everyone to go ahead and buy Questioning Q. It’s a fine book, with many good contributions from Q critics both inside and outside the Farrer camp. And it’s available pretty cheap from Amazon. But for those who want some anti-Q material to read while they’re waiting for it to be delivered, you can find the abstract of my thesis and download the pdf here:

Friday, April 01, 2005

Top 10 Reasons to Accept the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as Historically Reliable

Links to various translations of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas may be found on Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings site:

(1) Any narrative which purports, on the face of it, to be telling about events that actually happened deserves to be treated as true unless it can be demonstrated not to be. Thus, there is an initial presumption of historicity for The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Many skeptics, however, apply an unwarranted and unreasonable skepticism to it. If we read all ancient historians the way skeptics read the Thomas, we would have to throw out nearly all of ancient history. Some skeptics claim that the work is not intended to be read as history of actual events that really happened, but some of these same skeptics also claim that the gospel is meant to show Jesus’ omnipotence. How would this purpose be served if the events in it were known by the author or his readers not to have happened? Thus the argument the author is making requires that he and his audience believe what he is saying.

(2) Others are skeptical of Thomas because it tells about miraculous events in the life of Jesus. But rejection of miracles or supernatural events is based on philosophical or ideological, not historical grounds. All of the gospels agree that Jesus was capable of working miracles, and if Jesus was the incarnation of God, as the Christian faith claims, then he had the power to do these things.

3) The narrative lacks fantastic details and theological comment and development. Thus, the restrained manner in which the narrative is told favors historicity. For instance, in one story Jesus speaks and a boy dies. No elaborate description of the death is given. The narrator simply says the boy died and does not comment on how this shows Jesus’ power or anything of the sort. Similarly, in the story of Jesus raising the boy who fell from the roof from, the narrative is simple and unadorned. The boy does not give an account of death or the afterlife as a fantasy might be expected to do. The stories in Thomas have the tone of a simple report of fact. They “ring true.”

(4) Many of the stories in the gospel fulfill what is known as the criterion of embarrassment. The early Christians proclaimed a Jesus who was forgiving and just. They would not have invented stories that might make Jesus appear vengeful or capricious as he might seem to be in some of the stories in the gospel. Thus, these stories must be firmly rooted in early tradition, though suppressed by the canonical gospels.

(5) Several of the stories in the gospel exhibit a level of psychological realism that is not found in ancient biography. Ancient biography had a static conception of character and incidents from childhood were used to show how the child at an early age already had the characteristics of the adult he would become. But Thomas shows Jesus as a child who is not yet in command of himself and his powers and seems to act “childish.” This shows an awareness of human development well beyond the narrative abilities of ancient writers of fiction; to posit such is to posit the unique and unexampled.

(6) The Infancy Gospel of Thomas shows no indication of late date, nor any sign of dependence on the canonical gospels. Thomas is addressing non-Jewish brethren, probably in the 40’s. Despite the fact that Jesus goes to the temple and teaches better than the elders there, there is no allusion to the temple’s destruction. Only the last story in Thomas is paralleled in the canonical gospels. But unless we were to claim that that Luke made up the story of the child Jesus in the temple, there is no reason to posit dependence. While our manuscripts of Thomas may be fairly late, this is no indication that the work was actually composed at a late date. No one would date Tacitus or Homer by the date of their manuscripts. Some of the traditions in IGT are attested in the second century. The fact that Thomas has so little material parallel to the canonical gospels shows that he was not copying them.

(7) Many of the details of Thomas’ narrative are extraneous to his alleged theological purposes, yet fit well with a Palestinian provenance and fail to show signs of later development. For instance, scholars and Pharisees are presented as having a favorable reaction to Jesus, yet these are groups that would have been denigrated by Christian authors writing at a later time. Also, when quoting, the narrator uses the more commonly Jewish term “Spirit of God”, but when narrating in his own voice he uses the more common contemporary Christian term “Holy Spirit.” Thus, he is careful to preserve the actual words spoken and not to substitute the terms he and his audience would normally use.

(8) Some would doubt the historicity of the events recorded by Thomas simply because they are not also recorded in other sources. Of course, the story of Jesus in the temple is also told by Luke and thus enjoys multiple attestation. Further, this shows that where Thomas can be checked against other sources, he is accurate. The fact that there are other places where Thomas cannot be checked against the canonical gospels by no means counts against his accuracy. That would simply be an argument from silence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The testimony of one witness is surely more important than the silence of four. The canonical gospels largely pass over the period covered by Thomas, and John specifically admits that he is presenting only a selection of Jesus’ miracles. To insist on outside support for all the stories is to require from Thomas a standard that is not required of other texts.

(9) The author identifies himself simply as, “Thomas the Israelite.” He does not need to identify himself further. Who, in the early church, could have called himself simply “Thomas” without further qualification? A later pseudonymous writer would have made a point of explicitly claiming to be the Thomas who was an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. In the IGT, this identification is simply understood and was presumably known by his audience. The frequent mentions of Jesus’ mother Mary and the notes that “she kept to herself what she had seen him do” suggests that she was the source Thomas relied on for much of his material in The Infancy Gospel.

(10) There is no known precedent among Jews or Christians of the period for creating miracle stories out of scripture and claiming them to be recent history. The gospel is not a midrash on the Old Testament, nor on the canonical gospels, nor on any other known text. Skeptics will no doubt suggest that some of the stories in Thomas, such as the viper story or the tree story, are creative expansions of stories found in the New Testament. But this fails to take into account the vast differences between the stories. And even if the stories in Thomas were told in a similar way to other stories in the pre-canonical tradition, this would not by any means show that the incidents related by Thomas were untrue or did not happen.

We may not yet have enough evidence to “prove” everything in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is true, but it would be dangerous and premature to convict Thomas of falsehood

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Kicking off: The Testimonium et al.

I’m intending to use this blog to discuss several issues having to do with New Testament scholarship and Christian origins in general. My particular area of interest is in source criticism, a field which I interpret fairly broadly to include things like external witnesses to early Christianity, especially Tacitus and Josephus; the Synoptic Problem, where I favor the theory that Matthew used Mark and Luke used Mark and Matthew (i.e., the “Farrer Theory” or “Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis”); the relationship of John and the apocryphal gospels to the synoptics; the sources of Acts, and the issue of what Paul knew or believed about Jesus. Blogging is a new medium for me and I expect the blog will develop in unexpected directions.

I’ve written a good deal on the subject of The Testimonium Flavianum, the paragraph-length synopsis about Jesus found in our manuscripts of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews at 18.63-64 (or 18.3.3 in the English text). As this is also the subject of the doctoral dissertation I’m currently working on at the University of Birmingham, it will also be a major focus of this blog. One of the purposes of this blog is to try to keep as much of my on-line writing on the TF as possible in the same place. I hold that the version of the TF found in our manuscripts of the Antiquities is the work of Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century and there is no good evidence for the existence of an earlier “Josephan” version underlying the version that has come down to us.

A good bit of what I’ve written on the subject is available online, including these:

I. There is the paper I published in CBQ [K. A. Olson, “Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61.2 (1999) 305-322]. It is currently available online at:

II. There is a fairly long essay I posted to the Crosstalk2 e-list on July, 29, 2000 with the title “Eusebian fabrications: the testimonium Flavianum” archived as post #4869

III. There is a series of posts I sent to Crosstalk2 in Spring-Summer of 2004. Anyone interested in the specific issues relating to the TF addressed in these posts may also wish to look at the other posts in the threads in which they occur. I would recommend especially the posts of Stephen Carlson.

(1) “Josephus”; a few developments of my thinking on the TF since writing the CBQ article; 4/4/4 post#15682

(2) “Josephus”, a brief response to some criticisms of my CBQ article made by James N. Carleton-Paget in The Journal of Theological Studies 52 (2001) 539-624; 5/22/4 #16045

(3) “The Argument of the TF”; what the author of the TF is saying; 7/27/4 #16158

(4) “Agapius’ Testimonium”; traces the genealogy of the 10th century Arabic version of the TF; 7/29/4 #16163

(5) “Who Said Jesus Was A Wise Man?”; 7/29/4 #16164

(6) “Jerome’s Testimonium”; 7/30/4 #16167

(7) “Pseudo-Hegesippus’ Testimonium”; 7/31/4 #16170

Finally, Stephen Carlson has posted on the subject of the Testimonium several times on his blog Hypotyposeis. The most recent post, with links to the earlier posts in it, is available at:

I expect to be addressing Carlson’s theory that Tacitus is a witness to a pre-Eusebian form of the Testimonium on this blog fairly soon.

Comments are welcome, or at least grudgingly tolerated, as long as they are non-abusive, academic or historical-critical in nature, and reasonably brief. Further definition of the policy on responses will follow.

Best Wishes,

Ken Olson 3/31/5