Tony Burke, ed. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2: More Noncanonical Scriptures

Burke, Tony, ed. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2: More Noncanonical Scriptures. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 655 pp. Hb; $75.   Link to Eerdmans

In the introduction to the second volume of New Testament Apocrypha, Tony Burke observes the number of documents that can be called “Christian Apocrypha” is quite high. In 1992 Clavis apocryphorum Novi Testameni listed 346 texts, but there were omissions and new discoveries increase that number. This volume includes twenty-nine translations of non-canonical Christian writings with introductions and notes.

More New Testament ApocryphaPrior to the first volume in this series the standard collection of Christian noncanonical Christian literature was 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). This volume collected many the major noncanonical works, including some Gnostic literature. New Testament Apocrypha volume 2 continues the project of collecting texts not already found in Schneemelcher.

The introduction for each document in the collection begins with a summary of the contents followed by a list of available manuscripts, versions and editions. Most introductions have a few paragraphs on genre and structure as well as original language, date and provenance. Some introductions place the document into a historical context or comment on potential literary sources. Finally, each introduction includes translation notes and bibliography.

Part one gathers gospels and related traditions of New Testament figures. Traditionally any document concerning Jesus, or the plot of the gospels is called a “gospel.” The titles given to these new apocryphal stories resist that temptation. Thankfully, The Adoration of the Magi is not given the title, “The Gospel of the Magi.”

  • The Adoration of the Magi, Adam Carter Bremer-McCollum
  • The Rebellion of Dimas, Mark G. Bilby
  • A Homily on the Life of Jesus and His Love for the Apostles, Timothy Pettipiece
  • A Homily on the Passion and Resurrection, by Pseudo-Evodius, Dylan M. Burns
  • The Book of Bartholomew, Christian H. Bull and Alexandros Tsakos
  • The Healing of Tiberius, Zbigniew Izydorczyk
  • The Legend of the Holy Rood Tree, Stephen C. E. Hopkins
  • The Story of Joseph of Arimathea, Bradley N. Rice
  • A Homily on the Building of the First Church of the Virgin, Paul C. Dilley
  • The Life of Judas, Brandon W. Hawk and Mari Mamyan
  • The Life of Mary Magdalene, Christine Luckritz-Marquis

There are several highlights here. The Adoration of the Magi is only extant in a form of Old Turkic known as Old Uyghur, discovered in Turfan, brought to Berlin, moved to Moscow after World War II and subsequently lost. A clear copy was made of the four pages which make up this short story. The infant Jesus speaks to the magi when they offer their gifts and breaks off a chunk of stone from his cradle “like breaking off bread” and gives it to them. The stone is too heavy for them to carry, and their horse is unable to carried either. The manage to throw the stone in a well, and a great sign appeared in the sky. They realize the stone was a jewel. but they were not worthy. At this point, an angel appears, and they do not return to King Herod. The text breaks off after Herod kills the priest Zechariah (cf. Prot. James 23-24) and realizes the Magi have left.

There are two accounts of intriguing persons in the Gospels, The Life of Judas and The Life of Mary Magdalene. The Life of Judas is a medieval Latin text, although also extant in Greek and Armenian. Translations of the Latin and Armenian texts appear in this volume. Judas’s father was warned in a dream his son would eventually kill him, so when Judas was born, his father pierced the child’s legs and threw him in some bushes. He was rescued by some shepherds and raised by a woman named Scariot. As an adult Judas served king Herod, and when to a field to gather fruit for the king. Judas kills owner of the field in order to take his fruit, naturally this is Judas’s father. Herod protects him from revenge and the king counsels him to marry the dead man’s wife. So Judas killed his father and marries his mother. His mother sees the scars on his legs and realizes Judas is her son, both realize they have committed a great wickedness.

The Life of Mary Magdalene is a Byzantine text which describes Mary as a beautiful, wealthy woman prior to meeting Jesus rather than a prostitute. According to this tale, she is the woman was troubled by seven demons until Jesus cast them out. She is the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet in Luke 7:38 and the first witness to the resurrection (John 20). After the ascension, Mary travels to Rome and accuses Pilate before the Emperor. Pilate is summoned to Rome, interrogated and jailed. While in jail outside of Rome, the emperor was hunting. He shot an arrow at a deer, missed, and struck Pilate in the heart. Mary then makes an evangelistic trip to Marseille, converts the town of idolaters and establishes a church there. She died in Ephesus, but her remains were transferred by Leo VI to Constantinople to the Monastery of Holy Lazarus.

Part two collects apocryphal Acts and related traditions. Traditionally Apocryphal Acts books are stories about the apostles or the apostolic circle.

  • The Acts of Nereus and Achilleus, Richard I. Pervo
  • The Act of Peter in Azotus, Cambry G. Pardee
  • The Exhortation of Peter, J. Edward Walters
  • The Travels of Peter, J. Edward Walters
  • The History of Philip, Robert A. Kitchen
  • The Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin, Jonathan Holste and Janet E. Spittler

The Acts of Peter in Azotus describes Peter’s encounter with the devil and a group of demons in Azotus, a location mentioned in Acts 8:40 in association with Philip the Evangelist. The devil appears as an archangel, but Peter sees through the disguise. The devil makes the sign of the cross and cries of to Christ. The devil confess is who he is in each of the seven demons introduce themselves. They are the demons of deception, sexual immorality, falsehood, adultery, avarice, and slander. The seventh is not associated with the vice, Syracuse is Peter and humans in general of sin. Peter binds the devil in the demons for seven days, during which time there was no sin on earth.

The most unusual story is The Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin. The story concerns the apostle Thomas is missionary work in India and provides two stories that are not found in the longer Acts of Thomas. The Greek text was originally edited by M. R. James in 1897 from a single British library manuscript.  In1903 three additional manuscripts were discovered. The text is also extended Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and church Slavonic. The translation published in this volume is from Tamilia, first appearing in 1903. Peter and Matthew accompany Thomas to India, where they speak to a man named Olbanus who is looking to buy a slave. Jesus suddenly appears and sells Thomas as a slave and he is eventually put to work building a palace for the king of India. He preaches the gospel to his master’s wife Arsinoë and she becomes a believer and destroys her idols. The devil enters the heart of husband Leucius and he tortures Thomas and flays him. Arsinoë is so upset by this she dies, but Thomas takes his skin, lays it over her dead body and she rises from the dead. His skin is involved in several other miracles before the Lord glues the skin back on Thomas’s body and he ascends to heaven to be gathered to the other apostles, Mary and Paul.

There is only one example of an epistle in part three of the volume, The Epistle of Pelagia, translated by Slavomír Čéplö. As Burke comments in the introduction to the volume, this is an epistle in name only since it was associated with the Acts of Paul when it was first published in 1904. The Epistle of Pelagia alludes to Thecla and includes the story of Paul baptizing a lion (ch. 2). This lion appears in chapter 6 when Paul is sent to the arena. After Paul and the lion pray and worship together, they are released. Pelagia is a daughter of a king who converts after hearing Paul’s preaching, divorces her husband and narrowly avoids martyrdom.

Part four follows the traditional practice of calling anything with Revelation-like visions an “apocalypse.”

  • The Dialogue of the Revealer and John, Philip Tite
  • 1 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, Rick Brannan
  • 2 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, Rebecca Draughon, Jeannie Sellick, and Janet E. Spittler
  • 3 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, Chance Bonar, Tony Burke, and Slavomír Čéplö
  • The Questions of James to John, Katherine Gibbons
  • The Mysteries of John, Hugo Lundhaug and Lloyd Abercrombie
  • The Investiture of the Archangel Michael, Hugo Lundhaug
  • Appendix: John of Parallos, Homily Against Heretical Books, Christian H. Bull and Lance Jenott
  • The Investiture of the Archangel Gabriel, Lance Jenott
  • The Apocalypse of Thomas, Matthias Geigenfeind

Some of these are very brief: The Dialogue of the Revealer and John is barely two pages with extensive notes (but with twenty pages of introduction). Both second and third Apocryphal Apocalypse of John are presented to parallel columns comparing two often divergent traditions. For the third Apocryphal Apocalypse of John a third translation of the Church Slavonic version is included. In all three Apocryphal Apocalypse of John there is less apocalyptic that expected, they are mostly questions and answers on church life and practice.

In The Mysteries of John, John is taken from the Mount of Olives on a heavenly journey hosted by a cherub. John asks questions about what he sees *(the Garden of Eden, etc.) and the cherub gives an explanation. The book covers such diverse topics as agriculture and stars, to why humans have fingernails.

The Apocalypse of Thomas is known from Latin texts in three forms (long, short and abbreviated). Matthias Geigenfeind suggests the text may have developed in the context of Priscillian, an ascetic bishop from Avila (380-385). The longer form of the book includes thinly veiled predictions such as “Suddenly, near the last time a king will arise, a lover of the law. He will not rule for long. He will leave two sons. The first is named after the first letter, the second after the eighth. And the first will die before the second.” A footnote suggestions “Likely the king and his two sons are Theodosius I and the princes Arcadius and Honorius.” The text has a series of apocalyptic signs over eight days, culminating in the rapture-like deliverance of the elect: “Then that angel will be revealed who has power over the holy angels, and all the angels will go forth with him, sitting upon chariots of the clouds of my holy Father, rejoicing and flying in the air under heaven to deliver the elect who have believed in me.”

Finally, part five is entitled “Apostolic Orders,” a new category of New Testament Apocrypha. In his introduction to his new translation of The Teaching of the Apostles, Witold Witakowski suggests the work is apocryphal since it has a narrative framework based on biblical characters. The apostles gather in the upper room and lay out twenty-seven disciplinary and liturgical rules. Following these rules is a sketch of the spread of the Gospel and a list of locations the apostles and others traveled to preach. This list includes non-biblical characters like Addai who evangelized Edessa as well as biblical names such as Priscilla and Aquila, who received the writings of Luke the evangelist and followed Luke until his death. The twenty-seven canons decree Sunday worship as well as Wednesday services and prayers at the ninth hour on Friday. Presbyters are like Aaron’s priesthood and deacons are like the Levites. They declare the birth of Jesus should be celebrated on January 6, a forty day fast before the passion, and a feast for the ascension fifty days after the resurrection.

Conclusion.  As Burke observes in his introduction to the volume, Christian apocrypha provides an insight into the diversity of early Christian beliefs. Some of this literature is Christian interpretation of canonical documents, some seek to associate current practice with the earliest apostolic community. This second volume of “More Noncanonical Scriptures” is a window into how the early church developed both in practice and in theology. New Testament Apocrypha series will continue to serve scholarship for years to come. I look forward to volume 3!

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

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