Wired magazine recently published an excellent essay that overtly said next to nothing about religion. Even so, it made me think about the vast range of alternative and apocryphal gospels written through two millennia, and how we read them. Among other things, it raises the intriguing question of when we refer to a work as apocryphal as opposed to a forgery, or even a novel. Where do we draw lines?
The provocative Wired piece was titled “We Can Be Heroes: How the Nerds Are Reinventing Pop Culture,” by Laurie Penny, who discusses how “Harry Potter–loving, TV-debating, fanfic-writing enthusiasts have emerged from the underground to dominate – and shape – the mainstream.” She argues, convincingly, that a generation of nerdy enthusiasts wrote extensive volumes of self-generated fan fiction, and in the process created the modern multi-billion dollar worlds of cinema, science fiction, and fantasy. As Penny says,
Fan fiction is, in a way, as old as literature itself. Paradise Lost was biblical fanfic; Dante’s Inferno may well be the first self-insert fan story to make it into the Western canon. The Baker Street Irregulars, the original Sherlock Holmes fan society, was established in New York 85 years ago. The first real ‘slash fiction’—the frenzied cult of homoerotic Kirk/Spock smut—emerged from Star Trek fandom in the 1960s and ’70s, decades before the launch of those janky, sputtering fanfic websites I pulled up in the back room. I was drawn, like so many others, to writers who added subversive or outlandish plots and romantic pairings to traditional published works, where they were rarely on offer.
If readers want something that they can’t find in the approved text, they write it themselves. Sometimes, those unapproved writings take on a powerful life of their own.
Popular culture regularly produces figures or works that seize the imagination, heroes like James Bond or Batman, mythological worlds like Star Trek or Star Wars. Initially the works stand alone, but their respective worlds soon expand to include spin-offs and sequels, prequels and origin stories. Perhaps these offshoots develop the principal character and supply more information on his or her deeds, or else minor figures expand to become central to new works and series. Individual characters might even migrate into other genres and mythologies. Beyond expanding the original tales, such addenda often take the mythologies in new forms of media – perhaps from books to films and games, comic strips or comic books and, most recently, on the Internet. Those later manifestations in turn generate new books. All become part of the expanding universe of that particular set of tales and legends, which is endlessly flexible. It might be updated to accommodate new public trends or interests, or to respond to major events in the wider world. Comic book characters might find themselves drafted to fight in a current war or international crisis.
Such add-ons might stem from the original creators, but often they are carried on by other hands. In a modern context, the capacity to create such additional works is strictly limited by copyright law, but even that constraint does not prevent ordinary people generating their own efforts, in the form of fan fiction. If people are not offered the story lines and outcomes they want to see or read, then they generate their own. Readers abhor a vacuum. Over time, the boundaries between “core” texts and apocryphal creations fade to near insignificance.
Such a secular account tells us much about the enduring popularity and prevalence of alternative gospels and scriptures, in any era. It helps explain why such alternative texts were composed, whether in the first century or the twenty-first, and why they continue to be composed.
I am not the first person to suggest these fan fiction parallels! See for instance thoughtful pieces here and here. The latter post has a valuable list of common features and threads uniting different kinds of fan fiction.
At any point in history, believers have always felt the need to justify their ideas and practices by scriptures, so that the generation of new would-be gospels is an inevitable and even healthy part of evolving belief. Scholars know about the enormous literature devoted to the Acts of the various apostles, or alternate lives of the Virgin Mary, Just from the past two centuries, multiple examples have appeared – the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, or the alleged revelations of Jesus’s doings in India – but the production of such works has been a steady process over two millennia. To borrow a perfect phrase from Averil Cameron, apocrypha in any religious tradition can be defined as “stories people want.” In earlier eras, like today, such writings and legends take the form of “spin-offs and sequels, prequels and origin stories.”
Fan fiction analogies have their limitations, not least in terms of technology, and the speed of cultural change. Influences and adaptations that today take months might in earlier eras have spanned decades. But then and now, successful and beloved stories inevitably generated complex apocryphal universes, which span different types of media.
Christians have always produced and edited neo-gospels and pseudo-scriptures, because that is how literate people have so often chosen to explore their faith. People interested in Christianity, whether as friends or enemies, have done the same. In a faith based on “gospel truth,” it has always been natural to build on or adapt the canonical text—to fill in holes, to make the scriptures more relevant to contemporary interests, or to explore what might have been if the words had been slightly different. In earlier generations, writers were happy to feature Christ, Mary, and the patriarchs as major characters for invented narratives, far more so than would later generations. That creative urge has been more in evidence in some historical periods than others, but at no point has it altogether dried up, and that is a critical fact in Christian history.
Those literary efforts continued into the Middle Ages, long after the end of Christian antiquity, and because of their relatively late date, we tend not to place such works in the same context as the ancient alternative gospels. About 1420, German mystic Thomas à Kempis wrote the Imitation of Christ, which has few peers in terms of its impact on Christian history. Apart from the Bible itself, no book has been translated into more languages. Yet part of the text is a spiritual dialogue between the disciple and the Risen Christ, a point that emerges differently according to the predilections of various editors and translators. As such, the Imitation follows a format that would have been perfectly recognizable a thousand years before. Although it is strictly orthodox in its content, it would have caused little surprise if such a text had been found together with a collection of Gnostic gospels from the fourth or fifth centuries.
Christians, in any and all eras, write neo-gospels, and in so doing they produce kaleidoscopically diverse images of Jesus, a figure with so many faces. That was true in the early church, the era of the famous “Gnostic Gospels”; it was true in the Middle Ages, when so many other gospels and anti-gospels circulated; and it is true today. Before remarking that a particular era had many massively diverse images of Jesus—a point often made about the early church—we should ask when that has not been true. When was the Christian world ever monolithic in such matters? No such historical moment ever existed. Jesuses abound, and always have. So do gospels.
Often, writers believe that a special revelation has authorized them to create such new contributions. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans alone produced a whole library of new scriptures and gospels, including Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel, the Book of Mormon, the OAHSPE Bible, and The Occult Life of Jesus of Nazareth. In the 1880s, the Archko Volume purported to reveal a trove of documents describing Christ’s trial and death, including letters supposedly penned by Pontius Pilate himself. The urge to know how Pilate might have reported his encounter was far from new, and had in ancient times inspired the very influential Acts of Pilate. In 1931, Edgar Goodspeed published a wonderful collection of such strictly modern contributions—from the avowedly inspired to the grotesquely fraudulent.
Just in the present century, publishers have produced such updated literary and fictional treatments of the Jesus story as Colm Tóibín’s novel (and play) The Testament of Mary (2012), Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord trilogy (2005, 2008, and still in progress), and Deepak Chopra’s Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment (2008). Films include Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), Son of God (2014), and Mary Magdalene (2018). I am intrigued by what I hear about Terrence Malick’s forthcoming Christ film The Last Planet, with its parable-based structure. Although the motives for literary creativity might have been different in earlier ages—and the risks of deviations from orthodoxy more lethal—the impulse to adapt and expand was as common in 200 AD as in 600, or 1900, or as it is today.
That fact puts into context the claims that regularly surface about newly discovered ancient pseudo-gospels. Every few years, the media are full of sensational claims concerning some early document, such as the Gospel of Judas. The implication is that, because such texts date from the early Christian centuries, they must therefore contain authentic insights on the life and times of Jesus himself. Seemingly, both authenticity and significance are confirmed by the fact that the mainstream church thought fit to conceal their subversive truths.
Conceivably, some document might someday come to light that could reveal new information about Jesus’s life or teaching, which is the ultimate goal of such speculations. Perhaps we might indeed find a true alternative gospel, or an early draft of a gospel that we have in some other form. But however much this point contradicts common media assumptions, no such worthwhile historical evidence can possibly be found from works written in the third or fourth centuries, at least two hundred years after Jesus’s death. Works like the Gospel of Judas have precisely no independent historical value for Jesus’s time, and responsible scholars acknowledge this. Like Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel, they tell us much about the times and circumstances in which they were written, but nothing about the era they are purporting to describe.
No, Jesus did not share an esoteric Gnostic message with Judas, any more than he spent time with Mencius in Tibet. If in fact an early date implied a special link to Jesus’s time, then scholars should be working to find a core of historical truth in mid-second-century works like the Protevangelium and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which they very sensibly are not. Such works are fictional – arguably, they are classic fan fiction.
Popular media tend to assume that there is an ancient era in which gospels were produced abundantly, presumably because the authors had some special knowledge or perception to share. In fact, such production carried on in high volume for much longer than this model suggests, at least through the sixth and seventh centuries, with many later contributions. At no point in history—say, around 400—did churches suddenly cease recording what they believed to be Christ’s authentic message, and certainly they did not do so because of the edicts of some all-powerful hierarchy. The Christian story is one of organic growth and development, from early times, through medieval, to modern, and beyond.
So here is a question. In recent years, the study of apocryphal and alternative Christian (and Jewish) texts has been a thriving field that has produced some really exemplary scholarship. But at what date do we stop referring to alternative or imaginative accounts of Jesus’s life and times as “apocrypha”? If they were published before 600AD? 1500AD? When? And who gets to decide?
So let me propose this: fan fiction is actually a very useful category for understanding apocryphal and alternative writing in any tradition, and especially Christianity.