In response to Tony Burke’s criticism that conservative scholars’ characterization of Gospel of Thomas 114 ignored mainstream scholarship on Thomas, I had quoted from Elaine Pagels, Antti Marjanen, Stephen Patterson, and Marvin Meyer, all of whom generally agreed with the characterization that Burke disputed. In his reply, Burke asserted that “Pagels, Patterson, and Meyer…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 expressed some amazement at this statement and asked which scholars Burke thought should be consulted on the subject. In his most recent reply, Burke chose not to name one, and defended his comment by saying:

My point, however, was not that they were not accomplished scholars, but that the works that Bowman was appealing to (some of them, that is, particularly Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels) do not present a range of opinions on the topic. And my objection to the apologists’ comments on Gos. Thom. 114 is that they state only that it is misogynist, as if there are no other ways to interpret the saying. So, by “lack of depth” I simply meant that some of these other works (by Pagels, etc.) also only present one interpretation of the saying. Bowman is right, however, to object to my generalization of all four of the scholars as writing for popular audiences; Marjanen’s contribution is certainly not in the same vein.

Although I’m glad Burke acknowledges that his generalization did not apply to Marjanen, it really doesn’t apply to the other scholars either. To be fair to Pagels (imagine that, coming from this conservative!), when she wrote The Gnostic Gospels very little had yet been written about the saying. Meyer certainly wasn’t writing for popular audiences when he wrote two articles on the saying for academic periodicals (they were later included in a book). I quoted Meyer in my post explicitly commenting on two very different interpretations of the saying, contrary to what Burke says. Patterson’s discussion is briefer than Meyer’s but his book was also not written for popular consumption. All in all, Burke’s generalization is too far wide of the mark to be defensible.

I should also point out that Burke is wrong when he claims that “the apologists” (there he goes again) “state only that it is misogynist.” As I have already pointed out, only one of the scholars he criticizes uses that term (Witherington), and that is not the only thing he says about it.

Burke writes:

Bowman remarks that they do so to counter “the mistaken notion being peddled by some popularizers that the Gnostic writings represent an egalitarian or even feminist variety of Christianity.” It seems I should be forgiving of conservative simplification if it counters liberal simplification.

Of course, that was not my point at all. My point was that Burke does the very thing he criticizes “the apologists” for doing: cherry-picking what he thinks are the most egregious comments from their works and ignoring the substantive position they are seeking to develop:

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.

This isn’t that hard.

According to Burke, some of the conservative writers “denigrate” the Infancy Gospel of Thomas “and others for no apparent reason other than to ridicule them. For example, Komoszewski et al (Reinventing Jesus) discuss the infancy gospels in a chapter intended to describe what ‘other gospels’ were ‘really like’ and why they didn’t ‘make the cut’ (p. 152).” Burke’s criticism here is baffling. He claims that some of these writers criticize these apocryphal works “for no apparent reason other than to ridicule them” and then cites Reinventing Jesus, which he quotes as saying that their purpose was to explain why these books didn’t make it into the NT canon (“make the cut”). So he has just answered his own objection: their purpose was not merely to ridicule the books, but to explain why the early church did not include them in the NT canon.

How hard is that?

Burke complains:

Again, he is missing my point: I am not championing any particular interpretation of the saying, whether “female-friendly” or misogynist; I simply expect a good scholar to acknowledge the range of possible interpretations before presenting his argument to his or her audience.

In his October 22 post, though, Burke had written:

It is unfair, I think, to label Gos. Thom. 114 “misogynistic.”

And on November 7, he wrote:

All I am suggesting is that an offhanded comment taking one saying out of 114 and using it to label a text “misogynist” is not being fair to the text.

Twice, Burke claimed that labeling the saying as “misogynist” was unfair to the text. Now he claims that he was not defending any interpretation of the text, whether misogynist or not. Apparently, it is now okay with Burke if Witherington calls the saying misogynist as long as he acknowledges “the range of possible interpretations” (including those offered by so far unnamed scholars whose work on the subject is superior to that of Pagels or Meyer) before expressing that judgment.

Finally, in what he says is a response to my post, Burke writes:

I have been charged again and again with bias, that my “liberal” bias is just as bad as the “conservative” bias I identify in the works I criticize. None of my critics are able to cite an example from my own scholarship of such a bias (well, probably because no-one reads my scholarship), but worse than that they occupy their time on the minutiae of the article and ignore the final paragraph….

I have not used the terms “bias” or “liberal” even once to describe Burke’s article or posts. Perhaps at this point Burke is speaking in generalities about other “critics” and not attributing these criticisms to me. On the other hand, I have argued that he reads the conservative Christian literature on the apocryphal gospels with the very sort of jaundiced method of which he accuses those conservative Christian writers. And I definitely have cited some examples to support this assessment.

As for Burke’s conclusion, I have not “ignored” it but have been methodically dealing with the substance of his argument that precedes his conclusion before commenting on that conclusion.

What’s wrong with that?

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 at 1:28 am and is filed under apocrypha, apologetics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Burke vs. Bowman: Christian Apocrypha & Apologetics « Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth    Nov 26 2008 / 7am:

    […] More on Tony Burke and Conservative Views of the Christian Apocrypha (VII) (Bowman) […]

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