FJCO Fellowship for Thomas Research

Posted: April 20, 2016 in General

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Prof. James H. Charlesworth is the first scholar who inspired me to write a book on Apostle Thomas with an eastern perspective. After my fruitful time with him in Princeton Theological Seminary (as a ThM student; 2004-2005), at École biblique archéologique française de Jérusalem to plan my Thomas project (June 2013), and during the SBL/AAR meetings in Atlanta, Georgia (November 2015), I was fortunate to receive a Fellowship from Foundation on Judaism and Christian Origins (FJCO) to have a further consultation with him at Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey, and other scholars in Boston University and Harvard Divinity School in Massachusetts. I was granted a Fellowship for the period of April 1-24, 2016, to fulfill the research requirements before my departure to India. The book entitled “Didymus Judas Thomas: New Testament, Apocrypha, and Historical Traditions” shall be published by T & T Clark (Bloomsbury) with a Foreword chapter of Prof. James H. Charlesworth. I press hard to finish the project by the end of 2016. The following are the highlights of my time in Princeton, Boston, Harvard, and other areas in New England and Tri-state areas of the United States of America.

On April 5, 2016, an appointment was scheduled with Prof. Dana L. Robert, Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission and Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University, Massachusetts. Her suggestion to connect Thomas of the earlier traditions (i.e., Thomas of the biblical history and historical traditions) with the twenty-first century Thomas communities (especially the Diaspora Indian communities) was helpful to bypass the odds of the Middle Ages. I appreciate her view that as “Children of Thomas” we need to trace back to our earlier history rooted in the person and work of Thomas.

On April 6, 2016, I was invited by Prof. Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity, as a resource person at Harvard Divinity School. I was interviewed by her and the whole section was filmed at the Harvard EdX studio in Harvard Square. It was scheduled for the course “World Religions [Christianity] Through Their Scriptures.” It was done on the topic “Thomas Christianity in India.” An edited version of the interview shall appear on the site of Harvard University shortly. I also had good interactions with Prof. Francis X. Clooney, S. J. (Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions) and Prof. Charles M. Stang (Professor of Early Christian Thought) at the university. The suggestions by Karen L. King, Francis X. Clooney, and Charles M. Stang were significant toward the progress of my research.

The following were the three questions posed by Prof. Karen L. King during the interview: first, I understand that Christianity came to the Malabar Coast of India very early, at least within the first few centuries after the death of Jesus.  Please tell us more about the early history of Christianity in India; second, would you say more about what Thomas Christianity is like?  [i.e., how would you characterize its core character and distinctive features to our global audience?  You might choose to talk about early tradition or your own contemporary tradition.  Perhaps an anecdote that conveys this sense?]; and third, as I understand it, there are more than 70 million Christians in India today. What would you say is the most important issue these Christians are facing? I had twenty-five to thirty minutes to answer these questions.

My stay in closer proximity with Prof. James H. Charlesworth helped me to develop my research with a lot of insights from him. His reflections from historical, literary, and archaeological insights shall definitely strengthen my arguments during the course of my writing. With that intention I stayed at the Erdman Center of Princeton Theological Seminary another time as a “Thomas Researcher.” Meanwhile, I was fortunate to meet other scholars of the seminary. On April 12, 2016, an appointment was scheduled with Prof. Dale C. Allison Jr., Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament at PTS. We had a detailed interaction about St. Thomas from the New Testament, Apocryphal, and Historical perspectives.

On the same day afternoon, I met with Prof. George L. Parsenios, Associate Professor of New Testament at PTS. We could discuss the poem of Romanos the Melodis (6th century) about Thomas. The prelude of the poem progresses as follows: “With his meddling right hand, Thomas explored your life-giving side, Christ God; for the doors being shut when you entered, he cried out with the rest of the apostles, ‘You are our Lord and our God.’” Also we discussed Bentley Layton’s “The Gnostic Scriptures: Ancient Wisdom for the New Age.” Part Four of the book, i.e., “The School of St. Thomas,” was insightful.

On the same day evening, it was my pleasant surprise that I was invited by Prof. James H. Charlesworth to attend the PhD seminar on “Early Judaism (NT5050): Jesus Tradition and the Dead Sea Scrolls.” After the presentation of the student, Prof. Charlesworth presented his own paper entitled “Why Are the Dead Sea Scrolls Significant for Understanding Jesus and His Message?” He concluded the presentation with the following punch-line: “Jesus was no Essene, but he was influenced negatively and positively by them. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal to us the intellectual landscape of Jesus’ mind.” At the outset of the class I was given time to present my book project (i.e., “Didymus Judas Thomas: New Testament, Apocrypha, and Historical Traditions”) to the class. Thereafter there was question-and-answer session between myself and the whole class. Also Prof. Charlesworth scheduled students of the class to dine with me at different times in McKay Campus Center.

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On April 13, 2016, I had an amazing interaction with Prof. Clifton C. Black, Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology at PTS. I had about one and half hours to discuss with him the following topics from the Indian point of view: Christianity in general and St. Thomas Christianity in particular, persecution and religious harmony in the multi-religious context, and the relevance of biblical theology. Thanks to him for the free gift of his own book The Rhetoric of the Gospel (Second Edition; Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013). He wrote the following as a compliment: “To Johnson Thomaskutty, friend, colleague, and brother in Christ.” After referring my publications especially the one by E.J. Brill, Prof. Clifton Black suggested my name as a “Distinguished Alumnus” to the Department of Communication at PTS.

April 14 was an accomplished day with Prof. James H. Charleswoth (Princeton): first, attended his seminar on “What Is Love?” (NT3232), where he presented a phenomenal lecture on “The Personification of Love: The Theology of Sports”; second, where I gave a lecture on the topic “Love in India: How I Perceive It?” third, visited this distinguished professor’s archives in 313 Lenox House; fourth, discussed my exegeses of the Thomas Project; and fifth, had a wonderful dinner with him. We had a total of five and half hours to complete all these. The time I spent with him was worth as he challenged me with a lot of insights both from the scripture and historical traditions concerning the person and work of Thomas. I owe him so much for his word-by-word reading and editing of my exegetical analysis of Thomas in the Gospel of John.

I had opportunities in different contexts to interact with scholars such as Dr. Jesudas Athyal and Dr. Thomas Idicula in Boston, Dr. Jayakiran Sebastian and Dr. K.G. Jose in Philadelphia, and Dr. Anand Veeraraj in New Jersey. I also acknowledge the moral and spiritual support of my friends such as Rev. M.G. Johnson, Rev. Samuel John, and Rev. Varughese Mathew (New York), Rev. Renjen Philip Cherian and Rev. Freddy Thomas (Philadelphia), and Rev. James Varughese, Mr. Anish, and Mr. Binoy (New Jersey) during my stay in this part of the USA.

Once again I acknowledge my deep gratitude and love toward Prof. James H. Charlesworth and Foundation on Judaism and Christian Origins (FJCO) for the Fellowship and the insightful and meaningful time toward my scholarly pursuit. The following things were motivational during this Fellowship period: first, Prof. Charlesworth’s encouragements to explore further on the Thomasine Christianity and its growth through the centuries; second, his inspiration to explore the early eastern connections of Christianity; third, he posed a very significant question that lies at the root of the research: “Are the Thomas traditions in the Gospel of John, in the apocryphal Thomas compositions, and the early Thomas Traditions in Southwest India purely legendary (as biblical scholars have assumed) or do they preserve unexamined historical traditions intermittently (as the Thomas Christians in India have assumed)?”; fourth, his encouragement to adopt an interdisciplinary approach which explores written traditions and historical facts, oral traditions, archaeological evidences, and other areas of research broadens the perspective of the study; and fifth, our constant interaction since 2004 enlarges my understanding about the person and work of Thomas. Thanking him for all the inputs in my scholarly endeavors.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, FJCO Research Scholar, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

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