Book Review: Markus Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels

Bockmuehl, Markus. Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017. 344 pp.; Hb.; $50.00  Link to Westminster

This new contribution to the Interpretation Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Early Church limits itself to apocryphal Gospels. Bockmuehl states in his introductory chapter his approach is both accessible and nonsensational (29), in contrast to other recent books which describe this literature as suppressed by the establishment and containing secrets threatening the very fabric of institutionalized Christianity. As Bockmuehl states, it is remarkable that none of these Gospel-like texts provide an alternative narrative to the canonical Gospels. Nor were they suppressed from the canon; they were never part of any canon in the first place (228). He concludes that a minority of the texts surveyed in this introduction intended to explicitly subvert or displace the fourfold canonical Gospels (233), and they do not appear to have been widely read (235). This is a reasonable and judicious assessment of the apocryphal gospels.

Apocryphal GospelsIn the first chapter, Bockmuehl explains how the Gospels were read in the early church. He acknowledges some plurality in the early church. Still, he asserts this did not detract “from the surprisingly early appearance of a widely acknowledged core of the fourfold gospel narrative in both the East and West” (14). Evidence for this early acceptance is the cross-referencing within the Gospels themselves (and I would add the many potential allusions to Jesus tradition in the epistles) and the early citation of the canonical gospels alongside the Old Testament as Scripture before A.D. 100.

Bockmuehl resists the temptation to label these documents as Gnostic since “Gnosticism is a potentially misleading modern analytic construct” (20). Nor does Bockmuehl think there was a widespread suppression of these documents by increasingly orthodox Christianity seeking to limit access to potentially heretical and secret writings. Certainly, some church writers sought to blacklist non-canonical gospels, but Bockmuehl points out this did very little, and it was not until well after the sixth century the church had the power to make these apocryphal texts go away (27).

What is an apocryphal gospel? Some of these gospels were found among the many thousands of documents at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. This massive collection included the Gospel of Thomas and fragments of the gospels of Mary, Peter, and James. Other apocryphal gospels were found as part of the Nag Hammadi collection. Thirteen leather-bound books were discovered in Egypt in 1945. They were once considered examples of Gnostic texts from the nearby St. Pachomius monastery library and discarded in the graveyard as canonical boundaries were established in the fourth century. Bockmuehl points out several improbabilities of this popular theory and suggests the manuscripts were an “eclectic collection of privately commissioned copies buried as part of the owner’s grave goods” (17).

After cataloging the many texts that might be considered an apocryphal gospel (i.e., having something to do with Jesus), Bockmuehl suggests four categories: infancy, ministry, passion, and resurrection.

Chapter two discusses the two infancy Gospels of James and Thomas, summarizing the content of each and offering a section on the influence of each of these sources on the Christmas story. The Infancy Gospel of James has had a great influence on how the church thinks about the birth of Jesus, although few Protestants are aware of this. In addition to the two well-known infancy gospels, Bockmuehl catalogs another eight lesser-known texts known from translations (for example, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, known from two Arabic and three Syriac manuscripts). The existence of these infancy gospels indicates the church began to emphasize the role of Mary very early and fill in some gaps in the canonical gospels.

In chapter three, Bockmuehl covers what he calls “fragmentary ministry gospels.” Beginning with Q, he outlines the development of sayings in the gospels, especially in early Jewish Christianity. Some of these narrative gospels are lost, such as the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Nazoreans, and the Gospel according to the Ebionites. Although these gospels were known to ancient writers, nothing has been preserved. This chapter also includes Marcion’s edited gospel (which he claimed to be a recovery of the true gospel) and Tatian’s Diatessaron, an early harmony of the four canonical Gospels.

More promising is the Papyrus Egerton 2. This manuscript dates to about A.D. 200 and was discovered in 1935. It contains five non-canonical episodes from the life of Jesus, including encounters between Jesus and Jewish opponents. For some scholars, this gospel represents an early, more Jewish form of Christianity in the Johannine tradition. Still, Bockmuehl is more cautious based on the lack of evidence for the circulation of the fragments (108-09). After surveying the contents of several other papyri fragments, Bockmuehl briefly discusses the Secret Gospel of Mark (a highly questionable text which may in fact be a forgery) and the Abgar Legend.

Chapter four reviews several passion gospels, with pride of place going to the Gospel of Peter. Crossan and others have argued the Gospel of Peter predates the New Testament and contributed to the shape of the canonical gospels, but this view has fallen into disfavor (140). The book was initially discovered in 1887 as part of a parchment codex dated between the sixth and ninth centuries (the Akhmim Codex). Although photographed in 1981, the manuscript is not missing from the Cairo museum (138). The Gospel of Peter contains some striking imagery of the cross and resurrection, perhaps accounting for the book’s popularity in antiquity. After surveying some of the scholarly debate about the book, Bockmuehl suggests the Gospel of Peter represents “an appropriation and relecture of the protocanonical synoptic tradition, not necessarily in written form” (144), placed into the mouth of Peter perhaps as a stamp of authority (146).

The fifth chapter collects what Bockmuehl calls “post-resurrection discourse gospels,” including the gospels of Thomas, Philip, Mary, Judas, Bartholomew, and the Epistle of the Apostles. Of these, the 114 sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are by far the most significant because many are similar to the canonical Gospels, although with significant differences. This has led to a “booming industry” for critical studies of the Gospel of Thomas (170). Bockmuehl discusses two important questions, first, “is it a gospel” (Bockmuehl says it is a gospel but not a bios), and second, is it Gnostic? Here Bockmuehl concludes the book is not “properly Gnostic,” but it indeed went on to become so (178).

The Gospel of Philip is equally important to the Gospel of Thomas but has received less attention. The document is sometimes described as a “tract about rituals,” including baptism and anointing (188), even if it contrasts emerging Christian orthodoxy. Bockmuehl suggests the Gospel of Philip represents the “excerpted summary of the teachings of a gnostic preacher or catechist” (189).

This chapter also includes sections on the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas, two texts which have been the subject of headlines in recent years. With respect to the first, Bockmuehl says, “we can safely conclude the Gospel of Mary tells us nothing about the closeted sexual life of Jesus or a primitive radical feminist message suppressed by the later catholic church” (203). With respect to the Gospel of Judas, Bockmuehl cites Foster approvingly: the book is a “bitter satire of apostolic Christianity” (209).

Conclusion. Bockmuehl contributes a valuable introduction to apocryphal gospels, which avoids the sensationalism often accompanying books on non-canonical documents. The glossary of technical terms and extensive bibliography make this an excellent introduction to the apocryphal gospels.

The Westminster John Knox Press website has a 53-page sample PDF which includes the front matter and the entire first chapter of the book.

NB: Thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work. Updated March 9, 2023

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Markus Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels

  1. it was the sixteenth century
    it was the greatest crisis the church would face
    they decided to go with jerome
    all they had to do is figure out what jerome went with
    today jerome is still with us

  2. Thanks for such a meaty review! Good to know a bit more of what is being published in this area, and from a relatively “traditional” (for lack of a better term) perspective. Tho I consider the lit. and issues he’s covering important and fascinating, I don’t have time to continue pursuing them now.

    A couple comments on specifics: You say he “… acknowledges some plurality in the early church…” Maybe unfair to critique Bockmuehl himself re. this, espec. in that I’ve not read the book, but in general, I virtually never see any “orthodox”/believing scholars give this “plurality” issue more than a passing nod, not taking seriously the clear picture, even WITHIN the canonical NT that wide, significant differences and lots of contention, competition, etc., existed from the time of “early” Paul right through the latest epistles (whether pre or post 100… I lean strongly to the latter).

    Mindsets toward the NT canonical and non-canonical texts of the same general time period (some non-canonical definitely as early as some of the canonical and many not tightly determinate) matter! I’ve studied these issues extensively, and at least a few of the non-canonical texts themselves a bit, and come up here: I cannot see (since my many-years of lightly-informed acceptance) any clear warrant for treating the canonical texts significantly differently from the non-canonical, in general. Sure, with time, the seriously “mythical” (conveying important truths) yielded to the purely fantastical, but not with clear demarcation lines or dates. Does Bockmuehl take on and deal adequately with this issue, or is it outside his scope or objective?

    And does he deal (as I’ve literally never seen) with the sensible extrapolation backward which would lead one to think this?… That even with “early” dating of the Gospels, both the canonical and non-canonical ones (and Acts, in a slightly different way) are of the same general genre which was novel to that era. And within that genre, there is little one can know about the actual historicity of things “reported”. Some historical foundation, surely (contra the “mythicists”), but very hard to pin down just how much.

    I’d also be curious if he does a reasonable/credible job of relating the “sayings” documents (of the Thomas type, and perhaps much of “Q”), which may well be as much precursors as sequels to narrative gospels, to the canonical gospel-form?

    • As always, thanks for the response. You mention the passing nod towards plurality int he earliest church. This is not exactly the topic of Bockmuehl’s book, so you can fairly describe this as “a passing nod.” I do think there is more recognition of diversity (James Dunn leads the way here), although there is often a fear appearing to be overly dramatic and conspiratorial (as in many non-scholarly treatments on the shelves at Barnes and Nobel). Bockmuehl states more than once that many of these gospels were not widely read but they were not particularly suppressed. Honestly, suppressing a book just makes it more tempting.

      As for your second question, “Does Bockmuehl take on and deal adequately with this issue, or is it outside his scope or objective?” He addresses this by starting with the premise that the four-fold canonical gospel was the standard by which everything would be judged from a very early date. He observes several times that there is not attempt in the non-canonical gospels to create an alternate story line and even the supplementary narrative material is not all that creative (mostly the birth narratives). There are expansions on teaching (long post-resurrection dialogues, for example).

      Another factor is the scholarly ignorance of this material until relatively recently. The Nag Hammadi literature was lost until after 1948, and even then it was not published and studies for another 20+ years.

      As for Q/Thomas, this was a little disappointing in this book, but only because his treatment is part of a single chapter on sayings gospels. There are far more detailed monographs on Q and Thomas, Bockmuehl must deal with all that scholarship in a few pages.

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