Christian Apocrypha and Alternative Scriptures

At the recent meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston, I spoke on a panel that reviewed the major new collection edited by Tony Burke and Brent Landau, New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2016). These were my remarks.

 

I make two statements that might sound contradictory.

First, the praise. This book is a wonderful treasure house. Despite all the difficulties of coordinating and marshaling so many different contributions, it maintains a ferociously high scholarly standard throughout. Many of the stories recorded are instructive, or even entertaining, in their own right, and it is an intellectual delight observing the processes by which the various authors determined the date, setting and origin of the specific works. This is an exemplary work, an impeccable work of scholarship, and I learned so much from it.

Second, the book raises major questions about the whole purpose and value of books on the New Testament Apocrypha. Perhaps no more should appear?

Let me explain the seeming discrepancy.

1.Not Just the Early Church

Why do we study this literature in the first place? At a simplistic level, many read such alternative texts in the hope of finding additional insights about the earliest church, and even about the period covered by New Testament itself. In that sense, they look for hidden gems of authenticity, sometimes with the assumption that works that have been concealed are more likely to contain long-suppressed truths. Let’s find what the church has been trying to hide.

More realistically, others realize that a text will chiefly shed light on the era and culture in which it is written, rather than the events it purports to describe. In that sense, a late work like The Hospitality of Dysmas tells us nothing at all about the first century, but a great deal about devotional life in the Byzantine era. That in itself makes studying the text a worthwhile (or indeed, essential) scholarly project. The same comment applies to other conspicuously later works such as The Epistle of Christ from Heaven, The Apocalypse of the Virgin, The Dialogue of the Paralytic with Christ, or The Investiture of Abbaton.

Apart from their intrinsic importance as texts, they also provide vital information about key developments in Christian devotion, especially the veneration of the Virgin Mary. Nor should we underestimate their significance in shaping Christian thought and practice, as reflected in their very wide dissemination. As Calogero Miceli justly remarks, the Epistle of Christ From Heaven survives in “a dizzying number of ancient and modern languages,” and it was still spawning new variants across the West in the last century. Who knows but that its era of greatest impact may be yet to come?

One key lesson that the present book teaches is the absolute impossibility of drawing sharp lines between the “early church” and the medieval period, or indeed later epochs. Consciously or otherwise, we often tend to pay far more respect to the “early church” than to the supposedly more superstitious Middle Ages, but where do the divisions lie? Commonly, we have a text in several late medieval forms, but on examination, we find that the original was written in (say) the fourth or fifth centuries, drawing on ideas and legends that can be traced back to much more primitive times. Repeatedly, we can trace these really long arcs of continuity.

Partly, this strong preference of the “early church” reflects Protestant assumptions about the early corruption of the faith, but it is also a distinctively Western prejudice. From the point of view of Eastern churches, Christian history and culture really experience no chasms between the early centuries and Late Antiquity, and the real caesura comes with the rise of Islam in the seventh century – if then.

2.How Late Should We Go?

“Late” apocrypha, then, are eminently worth studying. But pursuing that logic does raise some interesting questions about the proper chronological scope of the study of Christian apocrypha, a question to which Burke and Landau address thoughtful remarks in their introduction (xxxvii-xxxix). At what date must a hidden work, an apocryphon, be published for it to lose all value to the scholar of Christian history and literature? In his foreword, Professor Elliott raises the example of the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark discussed by Morton Smith. Different people hold different opinions about this text, but assume for the sake of argument that this is a modern forgery, composed around 1960. But even in that case, it is still a valid witness for changing ideas about Christian origins, exactly as much so as The Hospitality of Dysmas. Why should 1960 be less valid a topic of study than 960?

If that statement is not correct, then just what is the cutoff composition date at which writings about Jesus’s life and times cease to be apocrypha, and morph into mere novels, or forgeries, or indeed visionary fantasies? Is it 500 AD? 1000? The Reformation? The Enlightenment?

I think it was Fr. Richard McBrien who said that Catholics should be strictly guided by the models and examples of the Early Church – say, its first twenty thousand years or so.

Here is a specific example. Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ drew heavily on the reported visions of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a mystic who died in 1824. She reported on the Crucifixion as she had personally witnessed it, or at least in her visions. Those books on the Passion and the Life of Christ have been immensely influential in conservative Catholic circles. So are they apocrypha? If not, why not?

Actually, that is a doubly interesting example. Sister Anne Catherine had her reported visions. These were then transcribed and revealed to the world by her secretary, the Romantic writer Clemens Brentano, who published after her death, and it is those books that have been so influential. Since the 190s, research has strongly suggested that many or most of the visions were largely invented or at least improved by Brentano himself, creating a double degree of apocryphicity. The sister had her apocryphal visions, but those were then transformed by another person. I wonder if we might find other examples of this kind if only knew more about the detailed history of some ancient writings.

In 1946, Robert Graves published the novel King Jesus, a fictional reconstruction of the life of Jesus. It was notionally written by one Agabus the Decapolitan in Alexandria, in the 90s. Is that Christian apocrypha? Is it a pseudo-gospel?

At what point in history does a religious writing cease to be a scripture, or even a Scripture? Do we have to know the author’s intent before we can make such a determination?

Is a work excluded from the apocrypha category because it is based on deep reading of earlier sources, including other apocrypha? Because it is based on alleged visionary experiences? Because it is a deliberate forgery intended to divert Christian teaching into some eccentric path? If any of those criteria apply, then that would surely remove from consideration most if not all works that we presently think of as Christian apocrypha. All we are left with as a firm criterion would seem to be that of date. If so, then a great deal of Christian apocrypha still remains to be written.

It would be quite legitimate to expand the apocrypha category to include any and all texts purporting to expand the original New Testament sources and characters, regardless of date – all the mashups and meditations, all the riffs and variations. But in that case, surely we are losing one of the great benefits of the whole study of apocrypha, namely that it really can tell us something about the life and thought of the early church – or at least, the Late Antique/early medieval church. That period is privileged because so many aspects of it are obscure or poorly recorded, in a way that is not true (for instance) for the Catholic Church in Germany in the time of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, about 1800.

3.Why Are The Pseudo-Old Testament Writings Different?

But let us pursue that argument. Assume that the purpose of studying apocrypha and non-canonical scriptures is indeed shedding light on early (and Late Antique) Christianity, and its larger context. Why, in that case, do we draw any lines between the scholarly category of New Testament Apocrypha and that of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha? Both are currently extremely lively fields of research and publication, and the present book sits on my shelves next to collections like Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel, and Lawrence H. Schiffman, eds., Outside the Bible, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013); and Richard Bauckham, James R. Davila, and Alex Panayotov, eds., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013–?). Eerdmans is publishing those latter volumes in parallel with the present book, and Burke and Landau aptly call it the “sister project” (xxxix).

But again, where are the dividing lines between the two literatures, those on the margins of the Old Testament and the New? I am here preaching to the converted, but assume a non-specialist seeking enlightenment about the alternative literatures of early Christianity, and tracking down books. Well, you easily find books labeled New Testament apocrypha, of course. But the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha are at least as critical to understanding the early Jesus movement, the early church, and (arguably) the New Testament itself.

Large sections of Pseudepigrapha have in fact been adapted for Christian purposes, and were preserved in Christian forms, or were actually written by Christians. That is obviously true of much of the Adam and Eve literature, with such awe-inspiring classics as the Cave of Treasures. (In conversation, I have often been surprised to find how many solid scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity seem not to know the Cave of Treasures). Similarly, any study of Christian apocalyptic has to incorporate visions attributed to multiple Old Testament figures, that is, pseudepigrapha. The Apocalypse of Daniel continued to influence Orthodox thought, and even Russian foreign policy, right up to the time of the First World War. You can make a case that it helped start that war.

So much other literature stands on debatable ground, and we genuinely don’t know whether it is Jewish or Christian in origin. Some still argue, for instance, about the Odes of Solomon.

What we can say confidently is that a large proportion of that Old Testament Pseudepigrapha was composed in the first two centuries or so of the Common Era, and as such, it is precious evidence for the setting of early Christianity, no less than the Christian apocrypha.

We actually spend so much time debating the meaning of the term “apocrypha” that we might make a mistake in taking for granted the label “New Testament.” The Muratorian Canon actually lists the Wisdom of Solomon as a New Testament book, located between the Catholic Epistles and the Revelations of John and Peter.

I don’t know for certain exactly what the Nag Hammadi collection was, whether an individual or a community loved and cherished those books, whether they were saving the texts in order to denounce or refute them, or even whether it was a dealer’s inventory for sale. What we can reasonably say is that a person or group regarded all these works as in some ways worthy of their attention, regardless of whether these were what we would today call New Testament Apocrypha, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (writings credited to Shem, Seth and others), or miscellaneous treatises of likely pagan origin. Plausibly, though, all were studied and venerated within a broadly Christian context.

Just on a personal note, on my computer I classify material in folders, and I used to have separate for “Bible: Old Testament” and “Bible: New Testament.” Those categories became ever more problematic precisely because of what I was including about works like the Cave of Treasures or the Adam literature. A few years ago, I gave up – I almost said caved in – and have now consolidated everything into one mega-folder called “Bible.”

Conclusion

To return to my original paradox. Obviously, I would love to see more works of the quality of this exemplary present collection, or indeed of the comparably splendid Old Testament Pseudepigrapha that I referred to earlier. I am just not sure whether, or how, they should be labeled differently. I don’t really have an alternative to offer, beyond perhaps Alternative itself – Alternative Jewish and Christian Scriptures. It’s not ideal, but we need some way of presenting these texts so that non-specialists can understand why they all contribute to one common endeavor.

 

Just as an addendum here.

I won’t try to summarize the excellent discussion that ensued at this panel, covering a wide range of topics, but I will raise one point pertinent to my own remarks that did surface. As was often pointed out, probably the most popular standard phrase for the kind of literature we are discussing here is simply “Christian Apocrypha,” regardless of date, and whether it would otherwise be “New Testament Apocrypha,” or “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.”

But as was also said, Christian Apocrypha (CA) is not without its own problems. For one thing, we often don’t know the exact authorship of many pieces, and whether the original intent was Christian, or Jewish, or Manichean, or other. In some cases, an originally Jewish writing has been converted to Christian purposes. So is that Christian Apocrypha? In other cases, we don’t know the precise date of a work’s original composition, so that it might actually be pre-Christian, even though it was then Christianized decades or centuries afterwards.

What about a writing that purports to tell the Jesus story, but which is actually virulently anti-Christian, like the Toledot Yeshu? (That actually is included in the present volume of New Testament Apocrypha). Or the Gospel of Barnabas, which might have begun as a Christian alternative gospel, but at some point was converted to make Jesus a spokesman for the coming of Muhammad and the truth of Islam? Regardless of their origins, some writings have been used by Christians and Jews alike, for their own particular purposes.

So in this context, what exactly do we mean by Christian? Again, do we have to know the intent of the author or editor?

Generally, then, I favor the term Christian Apocrypha, but that’s not perfect either.

 

Finally, for reference, here is a list of the works included in the present (first) volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures:

FOREWORD: The Endurance Of The Christian Apocrypha / J. K. Elliott –

I.Gospels and related traditions of New Testament figures.

The legend of Aphroditianus / Katharina Heyden

The revelation of the Magi / Brent Landau

The hospitality of Dysmas / Mark Glen Bilby

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Syriac) / Tony Burke

On the priesthood of Jesus / William Adler

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 210 / Brent Landau and Stanley E. Porter

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 5072 / Ross P. Ponder

The dialogue of the paralytic with Christ / Bradley N. Rice

The Toledot Yeshu (Aramaic Fragment) / F. Stanley Jones

The Berlin-Strasbourg apocryphon / Alin Suciu

The discourse of the Savior and the dance of the Savior / Paul C. Dilley

An encomium on Mary Magdalene / Christine Luckritz Marquis

An encomium on John the Baptist / Philip L. Tite

The life and martyrdom of John the Baptist / Andrew Bernhard

The life of John the Baptist by Serapion / Slavomír C̆éplö

The legend of the thirty pieces of silver / Tony Burke and Slavomír C̆éplö

The death of Judas according to Papias / Geoffrey S. Smith

II.Apocryphal acts and related traditions.

The acts of Barnabas / Glenn E. Snyder

The acts of Cornelius the centurion / Tony Burke and Witold Witakowski

John and the robber / Rick Brannan

The history of Simon Cephas, the chief of the Apostles / F. Stanley Jones

The acts of Timothy / Cavan W. Concannon

The acts of Titus / Richard I. Pervo

The life and conduct of the holy women Xanthippe, Polyxena, and Rebecca / David L. Eastman

III. Epistles.

The epistle of Christ in Heaven / Calogero A. Miceli

The epistle of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite to Timothy concerning the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul / David L. Eastman

Apocalypses.

The (Latin) revelation of John about antichrist / Charles D. Wright

The apocalypse of the virgin / Stephen J. Shoemaker

The Tiburtine sibyl / Stephen J. Shoemaker

The investiture of Abbaton, the Angel of Death / Alin Suciu with Ibrahim Saweros

 

 

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