Monday, December 27, 2010

My PhD Proposal, take one

For any student at Durham taking the MA in hopes of continuing on to the PhD, the single most important thing they can do (other than getting decent grades) is to articulate a provisional PhD topic that is interesting to your hoped-for advisor and has the potential to contribute (in even the smallest way) to current scholarly debate. I came to Durham with the hopes of studying under Professor Francis Watson (for a list of his books, click here). He has written extensively both in the field of hermeneutics (how to interpret texts) and Pauline Studies. The latter has won him wide acclaim and a reputation of being a creative, independent thinker. Upon reading his books on Paul, it was/is my hope to apply his hermeneutical approach to a study of the Gospels. I am glad to report that my few meetings with Professor Watson have been both helpful and fun. More importantly, he seems very interested in my PhD proposal.

So what is this proposal? Let me first say that this is a very rough beginning and the exact topic will not be determined for quite a while. At this point, I know the direction I am heading, but do not know where it will lead.


Within the field of current Jesus studies there is a widespread agreement that Jesus was a Jew, yet surprisingly there is little consensus as to how it is Jesus relates to his context. With each new historical reconstruction of second temple Judaism a new portrait of Jesus emerges. Jesus is a sage, a revolutionary, eschatological prophet, the restorer of the nation in exile, etc.

My goal is to investigate the question of how Jesus relates to aspects of his Jewish context as portrayed by the various perspectives of the canonical gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. In other words, how do Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas think Jesus relates to his Jewish context? What answer do they provide? Each gospel will be examined first in its own right as each represents its understanding of Jesus. This will illustrate the specific theologies of the evangelists as they has been received through tradition and interpreted through writing. This isn't all that straightforward. For example, Matthew is known for his citation of OT texts and the endorsement of many Jewish practices like prayer and giving alms, yet he also includes the chilling indictment "Let the dead bury their own dead", or the "antithesis" of Chapter 5, not to mention Matthew 23! I include Thomas in my discussion because it represents an early Christian tradition that, in its own way, interprets the Jesus history. To exclude it on the basis of canonical authority seems premature and artificial, and its inclusion could ultimately illuminate the inner-logic of the canonical selection.

Secondarily, I hope to compare and contrast each portrayal alongside the others within a common field of interpretive possibilities. This creates a metaphorical conversation between texts as they each articulate an answer to the common concern of how Jesus relates to his Judaism. The hope is that by comparing each author with each other will demonstrate the different ways that Jesus could have been understood in the early Church. If Matthew appears hostile to Jewish practice, this qualification must be tempered in comparison to Thomas' rejection of all things Jewish.

Sooo, that's what I have so far! We'll see where it leads...

(A final point of clarification: on the surface this proposal seems to ascribe to the writers of the Gospels a high degree of creativity that would seem to detach the Gospels from history in a 'false,' legendary way. This impression is only partially true. The evangelists are foremost the recipients of an oral and written traditions about Jesus; but to receive knowledge is simultaneously to interpret it. There is no such thing as a pure, unmediated historical knowledge. That said, if you cannot separate interpretations from history (i.e.. fact from value), then interpretations must positively correspond to history. Interpretation does not obscure the meaning of history, rather it can enrich it. All that to say: don't worry, I don't think the Gospels are making it up as they go along, or making up teachings of Jesus to suit their own purposes).


  1. Todd,
    I like where this is going! It is very encouraging to read such thoughtful discourse coming out of our generation. Thank you for dedicating your time to such important work.

    Bill O'Meara

  2. Hey Bill, thanks for the encouragement! It's good to hear - especially in the uncertain, beginning stages of research.

  3. Hey Todd — Sounds interesting and useful. And more than that it sounds as though it's going to be fun to do this work under Watson's mentorship. By the way, find out how long it took him to get his PhD, because you aren't going to get yours any sooner than it took your advisor.

    This is a joke. But it's funny only because it's true!

    God bless from Dawn and me.