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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.

Epistles

  • 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.

Apocalypses

  • 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.

 

Bockmuehl, Markus. Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017. 344 pp.; Hb.; $40.00  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 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). In fact, he concludes that on 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.

In the first chapter Bockmuehl provides some orientation to how Gospels were read in the early church. He acknowledges some plurality in the early church, but 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) as well as 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 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 found 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 and were once considered to be examples of Gnostic texts from the library of the nearby St. Pachomius monastery and discarded in the graveyard as canonical boundaries were established in the fourth century. Bockmuehl points out there are several improbabilities with 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 which might be considered to be an apocryphal gospel (ie. having something to do with Jesus), Bockmuehl suggest 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 gospels especially among 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, but Bockmuehl is more cautious based on the lack of evidence for the circulation of the fragments (108-09). After surveying the contents of a number of 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 originally discovered in 1887 as part of a parchment codex dated between the sixth and ninth century (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 popularity of the book in antiquity. After surveying some of the scholarly debate about the book, Bockmuehl suggestions the Gospel of Peter represents “an appropriation and relecture of 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 certainly went on to become so (178).

The Gospel of Philip is equal in importance 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 stands in contrast to 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 about 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 useful introduction to apocryphal gospels which avoids the kind of sensationalism which often accompanies books on non-canonical documents. The glossary of technical terms and extensive bibliography makes 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

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.

Can we know anything about the situation of the Corinthian church after the time of Paul?   There is an apocryphal letter of Third Corinthians which is know from Armenian manuscripts of the New Testament, some Latin fragments, and a 3rd century Greek copy in the Bodmer Papyri.  Both the Syriac and Armenian churches accepted the letter as authentic, but with the discovery of a Coptic version in 1894, it has been shown that the letter is actually part of the apocryphal Acts of Paul.  It is absolutely certain that the letter is a forgery.  About A. D. 200 Tertullian reported author of the Acts of Paul was a presbyter in Asia Minor who confessed that he forged the book “out of love for Paul” (de Baptismo 17).

In the letter of Third Corinthians Paul writes to two men, Simon and Cleobius.  They have recently arrived in Corinth and “pervert the faith of many with pernicious words.”  The letter then lists these pernicious doctrines:  God is not all powerful, he did not create humans or even this world.  Jesus did not come in the flesh nor was he born from Mary.  All this strikes me as Gnostic theology, indicating a much later date than the mid-first century.

The only element of this apocryphal letter which seems related to the problems of the authentic Corinthian letters is a denial of the resurrection.  The writer alludes to Jonah and the men raised by the bones of Elisha as examples of resurrection from the scripture.  If God can raise people just as Jonah, so too could he raise Jesus from the dead.  The forger of the letter did not bother  include any ethical issues drawn from the book, there is no allusion to any of the social problems found in the canonical books.

To me, this makes it a fairly poor forgery and probably why the man was found out so quickly!

It would be interesting to take this letter apart line by line in order to show what texts the author used to create this apocryphal letter.  There are lines which are clearly drawn from Paul, but in several cases there are allusions to the words of Jesus (“O ye of little faith” and calling the false teachers a “generation of vipers,” for example.)

Since the letter has little to do with the actual church at Corinth, there is little here which informs us of the situation in Corinth.

Bibliography:  

Dana Andrew Thomason, “Corinthians, Third Epistle To The,” in ABD 1:1153.
W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 2:213-237 for the introduction to the “Acts of Paul,” 2:254-257 for the text of 3 Corinthians.

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