Tony Burke has posted on his blog a response to my recent post on women in Gospel of Thomas 114. Burke begins his response as follows:
Just to recap the discussion, I stated previously that assessments of the logion as “misogynist” were anachronistic and showed a lack of awareness of scholarship on the text. In response, Bowman excerpted a number of non-conservative scholars (including Pagels, Patterson, and Meyer) who agree that the saying is indeed misogynist. These may not be the best scholars to appeal to in this debate, however, as they write often for popular audiences and their comments on the texts may suffer from the same lack of depth as the apologists I criticize.
I expect to be at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in a couple of weeks, and I would love to get Burke in a room together with Pagels, Patterson, and Meyer to hear him defend this statement. Pagels, Patterson, and Meyer are without a doubt three of the top mainstream scholars working on the Gospel of Thomas. I also cited Antti Marjanen, whose publications that I cited cannot possibly be described as intended for popular audiences. Burke says nothing about Marjanen, perhaps for this reason. But his statement about Pagels, Patterson, and Meyer is indefensible. Still, I am awfully glad he said it. His claim that conservative scholars’ writings on the “Christian apocrypha” (CA) are inadequate has forced him into a corner where he has felt it necessary to attribute the same inadequacies to the writings of the most renowned non-conservative scholars writing on the apocryphal gospels today. Henceforth, if anyone is inclined to criticize the depth of scholarship of such conservatives as Darrell Bock, we may tell them that according to Tony Burke, their scholarship is in this respect no worse than that of Pagels, Patterson, and Meyer! I trust we will soon see a follow-up article from Burke in the SBL Forum decrying the superficiality of the work of Pagels, Meyer, et. al. in this field of research.
You may be wondering just what scholars Burke thinks do the Gospel of Thomas justice. He doesn’t say. What sort of response is this, carping at my citation of three of the most published elite scholars on the Gospel of Thomas as perhaps “not the best scholars” on the subject, while neglecting to cite even one whose work would supposedly be acceptable to him? Burke even denies that he would fit the bill: “Mind you, I’m no expert on this text, so I hesitate to say too much about it.” Well then, excuse me, but why should we listen to him? If the views of Pagels and Meyer (each with multiple publications by major elite academic publishing houses and multiple peer-reviewed periodical articles on the Gospel of Thomas) are unworthy of citation in this discussion, and if, as Burke admits, he is no expert either, then why would he expect anyone to take his opinion on the matter seriously?
Let’s move on to Burke’s enumerated points of response to my post. He writes:
1. I don’t think Rob can argue that the apologists say little about the logion besides labeling it misogynist.
Burke cited only one conservative scholar (Witherington) who labeled the saying “misogynist.” He chose to seize on this isolated pejorative description as grist for his thesis that conservative scholarship on the CA is superficial. At the same time, Burke simply ignored the substance of what Witherington and other conservative scholars have all said about Thomas 114—that it undermines the mistaken notion being peddled by some popularizers that the Gnostic writings represent an egalitarian or even feminist variety of Christianity. In short, Burke is guilty of the very thing of which he accuses the conservative scholars—cherry-picking isolated elements from their writings, while making no effort to understand them sympathetically or even fairly, in order to caricature them. Nor is this an isolated occurrence in Burke’s article; as I argued in the first installment of this series, Burke’s critique in general ignores the actual arguments of the scholars he critiques. Now Burke says (if I understand him correctly) that I can hardly deny that these scholars “say little about the logion besides labeling it misogynist.” Well, what “little” they say about it, Burke is still ignoring.
Rob simply supports their conclusion with the views of other scholars. My concern was with the neglect of other scholarship which would more rightly put the saying in its context.
If Burke is so concerned that conservatives not neglect this “other scholarship,” why doesn’t he specify which scholarship this is? I assumed that the best response to an article claiming that a particular comment about the Gospel of Thomas was contradicted by the best scholarship was to look at what the best scholars on the subject actually say. Again, I am delighted that Burke has had to concede that the view he criticizes is supported by the likes of Pagels and Meyer.
Put simply, it looks misogynist to us, but to the author and audience, it may not. That’s what I mean by anachronistic. Far too often these texts are evaluated through modern eyes. The same care that we see being employed with Paul’s “misogyny” in 1 Cor. (i.e., evaluating his comments in the context of life in Corinth, or being careful to consider them in the context of his letter or letters as a whole, or considering the possibility of interpolations, etc.) should be applied also to CA texts.
I agree entirely with Burke’s last sentence in the above quotation, and I can even agree that labeling a statement like Thomas 114 as “misogynist” reflects a modern perspective. Of course! The conservative scholars with whom Burke takes issue are all making the point that the recent popularizers who tout the Gnostic gospels as egalitarian (from a modern point of view) are mistaken. Is there really something wrong with this? Southern plantation owners in the early nineteenth century did not think their treatment of slaves unjust; does this mean it would be “anachronistic” for us in the twenty-first century to say so?
2. The logion should not be taken too literally. Making a female male can have a range of possible interpretations, including encratism (celibacy and a refusal to bear children). Therefore, Jesus’ statement that he will “make her male” is not hatred of women.
From the existence of “a range of possible interpretations,” some of which would not imply any misogyny, it does not follow that the statement “is” not misogynist. One must first demonstrate that one of these more female-friendly interpretations is correct. Not only does Burke not do this, he goes on to endorse an interpretation of another saying in the Gospel of Thomas that undermines those politically correct interpretations:
3. Again, it is important to read a given section of a text in the context of the whole. When discussing log. 114 in my classes I direct the students also to log. 22 in which it states: “And when you make the male and the female into a single being, with the result that the male is not male nor the female female.” This appears to reflect the text’s theology of returning to a state of the primordial, androgynous, undivided human. Perhaps this is the key to understanding log. 114.
This understanding of Thomas 22 does nothing to exonerate Thomas 114 of presupposing a dim view of women. As several Thomas scholars have argued, it is likely that the two sayings reflect a two-stage transformation of women into spirits: first, the woman must become male; and then second, having become male, she can move on to become the “androgynous” spirit of which Burke speaks. In other words, the two sayings taken together probably reflect the belief that males are closer to the ideal than females are, which is why females must first become males before they can qualify for the divine life. If this (or any similar) understanding of the Gospel of Thomas is correct, Thomas 114 cannot be explained away as referring merely to women foregoing childbearing (or dressing in men’s clothing, which is another explanation sometimes proffered).
Burke also points out:
Also, keep in mind that the text is arguing against the statement of Peter here that “women do not deserve life,” not supporting it. If we are to see the various apostles in Christian literature as representing different forms of Christianity, then Thomas is portraying Peter as a spokesperson (likely) for orthodoxy. So, who is “misogynist” now?
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Thomas 114 portrays Peter as representing orthodoxy, the saying clearly would be impugning orthodoxy for an exclusionary stance toward women. That may very well have been the perspective of the author of the saying. (If so, this would confirm what is clear on other grounds, namely, that Thomas represents a different stream of religious belief that was at odds with the orthodox Christian tradition.) On the other hand, the text may simply be using Peter as a convenient foil for the introduction of the idea that a female could become male and thus be fit for life in the kingdom of heaven. Even orthodox writings (such as the New Testament Gospels!) sometimes present Peter as something of a slow learner in Jesus’ school.
Finally, Burke points out that some scholars think Thomas 114 may have been a later addition to the Gospel of Thomas. He says that it “may be a late addition to the gospel and therefore not a good reflection of the author/community’s theology.” I am not aware of any evidence that saying 114 was a later addition, but for the sake of argument, I do not think it makes much difference. Granted, if we knew that a later hand added saying 114, we could not attribute it to the author or authors of the earlier sayings. Still, the “community” that accepted the Gospel of Thomas, passed it down to later generations, and augmented it with this and perhaps other sayings, apparently felt that it was “a good reflection” of their theology.