Book Review: Tony Burke, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha

Burke, Tony. Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 170 pages; Pb. $18.00   Link to Eerdmans

Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed is one of the few books to introduce the Christian Apocrypha to the general reader without engaging in sensational claims or overly emphasizing Gnosticism suppressed competitor to early Christianity. Burke has been blogging on the Christian Apocrypha at Apocryphicity since 2006. His site has a wealth of information on this literature, but this short introduction provides the background the average needs to read this diverse literature properly.

978-0-8028-7131-2_Burke_Secret Scriptures Revealed_cov.inddThe Christian Apocrypha is not really a collection in the same sense that the Old Testament Apocrypha is. There is no set “canon” for the Christian Apocrypha. Even the titles of these books are not official, since anything concerning Jesus is a “gospel” and the most prominent apostle gets his name attached. Books like Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip are not gospels in the same sense that Matthew is a gospel, nor is there a claim to have been written by Thomas or Philip. Burke includes some documents that seem to come from more orthodox Christian writers as well as documents from Gnostic writers that are clearly heterodox. Since most non-scholars only have only heard about this literature through highly sensationalized media reports on The Da Vinci Code or the Gospel of Judas, many have the impression that this literature was actively suppressed by the church. In some cases that was true, but all of these books were preserved and copied by Christians for centuries.

Some of the books were known only by name until several significant discoveries in the twentieth century. A full copy of the Gospel of Thomas, for example, was discovered in Egypt in 1945. Perhaps it is better to describe some of these books as “not very popular” rather than “suppressed” or “secret.” Many of the texts Burke discusses were found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Some have only recently been published.

A “Christian Apocrypha” would include texts that are not only post-apostolic (although Burke suggestions some of the books may originate in the late first century), but also outside of what is usually described as the “church fathers.” The Apostolic Fathers is a fairly set collection, although that collection seems more dependent on the Loeb Library volumes. The oft-reprinted ante-Nicene, Nicene and post-Nicene collections edited by Philip Schaff represent more or less orthodox theology and traditions. The books Burke is describing are not going to be found in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture published by InterVarsity Press!

After two chapters explaining issues of canon and the origin of the books usually included the Christian Apocrypha collections, Burke examines apocryphal gospels. Chapter three concerns various lives of Jesus. This chapter covers infancy gospels—books that claim to tell the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood. Under “Ministry Gospels” he covers the agrapha, approximately two-hundred sayings of Jesus that do not appear in the canonical Gospels. There are also a number of fragmentary gospels were discovered at Oxyrhynchus. Burke briefly discusses the controversial Secret Gospel of Mark, leaving the question of authenticity open.

Chapter four examines passion and resurrection gospels. Here Burke briefly discusses the Gospel of Judas and the Pilate Cycle as well as a series of smaller fragments describing Jesus’ descent into Hell. The latter was highly influential in the development of the church teaching on the “harrowing of hell.” Chapter five surveys the many apocryphal books that develop legends about the early church. The Acts of John, Acts of Peter and Acts of Paul are the most important books Burke surveys, but he also includes a number of other stories about Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene. Stories about Mary obviously were important to developing devotion to Mary in the medieval period.

In a final full chapter Burke attempts to dispel misconceptions about this apocryphal material. Some of these are directed at popular scholars like Bart Ehrman or Elaine Pagels who make too much of this material. This material was not violently suppressed by the (male) establishment. These books were not forgeries written to undermine the true gospels. In fact, not all of this material can be described as Gnostic or heretical. Burke is clear that the Christian Apocrypha (as he describes it) is not as dangerous as the apologists claim, nor is it forbidden source for the real, original teaching of the church that Dan Brown makes it out to be.

This book intends to be a brief overview of the most important post-apostolic texts. Since it is an introduction, Burke does not include a chapter on Christian apocalypses. He places his four pages on Christian apocalypses in his chapter on resurrection stories. Perhaps texts such as the Christian Sibylline Oracles, the additions to 4 Ezra, and the Ascension of Isaiah were omitted because they are Christian editions of earlier Jewish books. Burke includes the Apocalypse of Peter, but there are apocalypses of Paul and Thomas as well. This criticism really falls under the category of “this is not the book I would have written.”

Burke does not include lengthy readings from the books he discusses. This appears to be a decision to make the book more readable to a broad audience. He occasionally quotes a few lines to illustrate a point, but for the most part he simply summarizes the original text. On the one hand this streamlines the book and makes it an easier read for the popular audience. But there are several times I would have liked more primary material embedded in the book itself. The readier can look the texts up in various collections if they are interested.

One feature that the non-professional will appreciate about the book is that Burke does not use footnotes. At the end of each section of a chapter is a box of “further reading” on topics covered in the section. There is a four page “for further study” appendix and a five pages bibliography provides the interested reader with full details for these more technical works. While I personally prefer full footnotes, these quasi-endnotes make the book much easier to read.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend this book to people wanting to know more about non-canonical Christian texts. Burke’s introduction is accessible to laymen and accurate in its presentation of the facts. I am very pleased that the book does not engage in sensationalism (aside from the title) in order to attract attention.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Tony Burke, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha

Leave a Reply