Burke, Tony and Brent Landau eds. New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1: More Noncanonical Scriptures. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 635 pp. Hb; $75. Link to Eerdmans
In his forward to this new collection of Christian apocrypha, J. K. Elliott asks “When is enough, enough?” Well he may ask, since he edited the seven hundred page The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1994). To quote Jordan Belfort from Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, “More is never enough.” This new collection edited by Burke and Landau is the first volume of a new series of non-canonical writings which promises to greatly expand the number of apocryphal texts available to students of the early church. Volume one collects thirty texts newly translated with introductions by experts in this literature. A second volume is planned and Burke hopes the project can be expanded to include a third and fourth volume.
Students of Christian noncanonical Christian literature know this material from the venerable The New Testament Apocrypha edited by M. R. James in 1924, updated as Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha (Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings; Vol. 2: Writings Relating to the Apostles Apocalypses). The revised edition was edited by R. Mcl. Wilson and published 1991 by Westminster John Knox based on the sixth German edition. This standard volume collected many the major noncanonical works, including some Gnostic literature.
As implied by the sub-title of the book, “More Noncanonical Scriptures” this new volume attempts to collect texts not already found in Schneemelcher or Elliott. There are a few, but they are included because additional ancient texts have been discovered since the initial publication. For example The Infancy Gospel of Thomas published in Elliot did not take into account the Syriac version. Several texts in this collection were only recently published (P.Oxy 5072, for example). Previous collections focused on the first three centuries of Christian history. Following the lead of More Canonical Old Testament Texts (edited by Bauckham, Davila and Panayotov, Eerdmans 2013), this new volume looks at texts before the age of Islam.
Christian apocrypha is usually divided into three categories. Texts dealing with Jesus are called “gospels” whether they have the features of a New Testament gospel or not. Texts which concern the apostles are called “Acts” and texts which are prophetic are usually labeled “Apocalypses.” This collection includes two Epistles, although they are not quite like the New Testament epistles. For an overview of New Testament apocrypha, see Markus Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels (Westminster John Knox, 2017) and Tony Burke, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (Eerdmans, 2014). This volume had loosened the definition of Christian apocrypha to include martyr texts and Coptic pseudo-apostolic memoirs, or even Jewish satire (Tolodot Yeshu).
Gospels and Related Traditions
- The Legend of Aphroditanus (Katharina Heyden)
- The Revelation of the Magi (Summary only, Brent Landau)
- The Hospitality of Dysmas (Mark Bilby)
- The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Syriac) (Tony Burke)
- On the Priesthood of Jesus (Bill Adler)
- Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 210 (Brent Landau)
- Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 5072 (Ross P. Ponder)
- The Dialogue of the Paralytic with Christ (Bradley N. Rice)
- The Toledot Yeshu (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 of John the Baptist by Serapion (Slavomír Céplö)
- Life and Martyrdom of John the Baptist (Andrew Bernhard)
- The Legend of the Thirty Silver Pieces (Tony Burke and Slavomír Céplö)
- The Death of Judas according to Papias (Geoffrey S. Smith)
These texts are not gospels in the canonical sense, but works which are about Jesus. A few “filling the gaps” of canonical stories. In The Legend of Aphroditanus, for example, explains how Persian wise men interpreted the star and came to worship Jesus. The Hospitality of Dysmas concerns a bandit (Dysmas) who invites Mary and Joseph to stay in his home. After washing Jesus, Mary washes the leprous son of Dysmas who is not only healed, but ceases from crying. Other material in this section is extremely fragmentary (P.Oxy 210 and 5072, The Berlin-Strasbourg Apocryphon). The three texts on John the Baptist are slight expansions on the biblical text (including more teaching from John, for example). The whereabouts of John’s head seems to be a main concern for The Life of John the Baptist by Serapion. The brief The Death of Judas according to Papias is a disturbing and graphic depiction of the torture Judas endured because of his impiety.
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 (Stanley Jones)
- The Acts of Timothy (Cavan Concannon)
- The Acts of Titus (Richard Pervo)
- The Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena (David Eastman)
These works pick up on several characters in Acts (Barnabas, Cornelius, Timothy and Titus) as well as several expansions on Acts. A converted pagan priest named John remembers his encounter with Barnabas on Cyprus. Although a companion of Paul and Barnabas, Paul was upset with him because he left parchments behind in Pamphylia. This short book contains the martyrdom of Barnabas and his ascension to heaven. The Acts of Cornelius expands the canonical story by introduction a governor Demetrius, “a philosopher and fearful in heathen matters” who interrogates Cornelius and tries to force him to sacrifice to a god. Cornelius survives this persecution and Demetrius eventually converts.
In The Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena is much like a Greek romance novel describing the Paul’s conversion of Xanthippe in Spain and the adventures of Polyxena, a young woman who meets several apostles and is eventually baptized by Andrew. Typical of Greek romances, Polyxena is abducted, thrown to the lions, but eventually preserved (and her tormentors are converted). In The Acts of Titus, Titus is descended from Minos the Cretan and came to faith after reading the Book of Hebrews and Isaiah. He became Paul’s companion in Antioch and eventually did ministry in the island of Crete. After his death, his tomb was able to help those with unclear spirits.
- The Epistle of Christ from Heaven (Calogero A. Miceli)
- The Letter of Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite to Timothy on the Death of Peter and Paul (David Eastman)
The first of these two epistles claims to be a letter written by Christ and sent to Rome where it was discovered suspended in the air about the altar in the basilica. The letter itself encourages Sunday worship. The Letter of Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite is an apocryphal account of the deaths of Peter and Paul.
- The (Latin) Revelation of John about Antichrist (Charles Wright)
- The Apocalypse of the Virgin (Stephen Shoemaker)
- The Tiburtine Sibyl (Stephen Shoemaker)
- The Investiture of Abbaton (Alin Suciu and Ibrahim Saweros)
In The (Latin) Revelation of John, Christ describes the antichrist:
He will be born to a woman, a harlot from the tribe of Dan in Israel, having 600 cubits in the length of his body and 400 in width. And he will have one eye in his forehead, one ear in his head, (and his) lip hanging down to his chest. He will have no upper teeth or knees; the soles of his feet (will be) round like the wheels of a cart. One rib will be visible in his left side without others. The hairs of his head will be black and terrible. A threefold fume will go out through his nose like a sulfurous ﬂame reaching up to heaven. He will be raised in Chorazin; after that he will dwell in the city of Bethsaida, but only for a few days.
The rest of this apocalypse concerns the tribulation which characterizes the time of the antichrist, much of which is drawn on the Olivet Discourse and Revelation.
In The Apocalypse of the Virgin Michael appears to Mary while praying in the Mount of Olives and they travel through Hades. When Mary prays for the souls in torment, the Lord grants this a yearly break from Easter until Pentecost. According to Shoemaker, The Tiburtine Sibyl had a greater influence on western eschatology than canonical Apocalypse (515). The sibyl comes to Rome to interpret a senator’s dream of a series of nine suns. Like many historicist approaches to Revelation, the series culminates in Constantine.
Conclusion. What is the value of studying this literature? As Burke observes in his introduction to the volume, Christian apocrypha provides an insight into the diversity of early Christian beliefs. In fact, much of this literature could be describe as Christian interpretation of canonical documents. For example, the Revelation of the Magi reflects an early Christian interest in the Jesus’s first visitors in Matthew Gospel. It is likely a book such as the Acts of Titus was produced by Christians on Crete and reflects their traditions on the origin of their community. The Acts of Cornelius in part explains the presence of a painting of Cornelius in Caesarea.
This collection of “More Noncanonical Scriptures” offers students of the early church a rich collection of texts. New Testament Apocrypha series will continue to serve scholarship for years to come.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.