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SBL Paper

Thomas Whitley

Back in May I gave my word that I would post about my Society of Biblical Literature paper. The annual joint meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion will be in Baltimore at the end of the month and I'll be there with 10,000 of my closest friends . . . or something like that. I am excited to catch up with some friends and former professors most of all, and am quite interested in the conversations regarding the state of higher education, the humanities, religion, etc. and to attempt to garner a bit more information about what my job prospects may soon be. I will also be presenting a paper. My paper is a part of the SBL Rhetoric and the New Testament Section and is titled, "Docetism, Gnosis, and Laughter: The Rhetorical Reception of the Passion Narrative at Nag Hammadi." Here is my abstract:

There can be no denying that the death of Jesus was a watershed moment for Christianity. For some early Christians, the death - and subsequent resurrection - of Jesus was a sign that he had defeated death and could bring salvation to his followers. For other early Christians, however, the idea that Jesus, being fully God, could die was a heresy above all heresies. This paper examines the reception of the Passion of Jesus at Nag Hammadi, specifically in the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter and the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and analyzes the rhetorical strategies employed by these authors in their retelling of the Passion story. These two texts have been chosen for the prominence they give to the laughter of Jesus, and it is this element of the text that provides insight into the rhetorical work being done by these texts. A thorough examination of these texts reveals that their use of a laughing Jesus serves rhetorical and polemical purposes. I will highlight three rhetorical strategies at work in these texts in regard to this laughter.

First, the laughter of Jesus emphasizes his full and utter detachment, reinforcing the generally docetic ideas found elsewhere in these texts and in broader gnostic literature. In Apoc. Pet., for example, Jesus is seen above the cross, “glad and laughing” (81.15-18). The “living Jesus” is fully detached from the material world in this retelling of the passion narrative. Thus, he can sufficiently mock the circumstances through his laughter. Second, Jesus’ laughter, by being continuously and systematically linked to the ignorance of others, reinforces the central gnostic tenet that the true followers of Christ possess a certain gnosis, without which salvation is impossible. Third, a Jesus who is able to laugh during these iterations of the Passion scene is discursively engaged in identity-formation by providing a means for the authors of the texts to deride and mock their opponents, rhetorically polemicizing the Other. In Treat. Seth Jesus calls multiple champions of the faith (Adam, Abraham, David, etc.) a “laughingstock” (60-63). This move reinforces that these characters do not possess adequate knowledge and thereby works polemically - by othering those who have followed in their tradition - to push back against the real or perceived threat to the identity that this author is working to construct and validate. Thus, these texts from Nag Hammadi, in their reception and recasting of the passion narrative, engage in real rhetorical work in attempt to accomplish specific theological and social goals.

So, you now have something to do in Baltimore at 9am on November 24.