Christian Apocrypha at SBL 2017

The program for the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature is now available. Here, as usual, is my rundown of presentations focusing on Christian Apocrypha. Among the highlights this year are the book review panel for New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, and the mysterious new text being announced by Brent Landau and Geoffrey Smith in the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism session. See you in Boston.

Christian Apocrypha Section sessions:

S18-118 Christian Apocrypha (9:00 AM to 11:30 AM)
Theme: Apocryphal Letters, Legends, and Sayings
Brent Landau, University of Texas at Austin, Presiding
Kimberly Bauser, Boston College: “Put on Your James Face: Pseudonymous Prosopopoeia and Epistolary Fiction in the Apocryphon of James
Phillip Fackler, University of Pennsylvania: “Survival of the Most Banal: Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans and the Correspondence with Seneca
David P. Griffin, University of Virginia: “Psalm-Quotations in the Epistle of the Apostles and the state of Christian Psalmody in the Second Century”
Adam Carter McCollum, Notre Dame: “East of the Magi: An Old Uyghur (Turkic) Text on their Visit to the Young Jesus”
Jeremiah Bailey, Baylor University: “Male Angels, Resurrection Marriage, and Manly Mary: A Possible Connection Between GTh114 and the Synoptics”
Rick Brannan, Faithlife: “Sounding Biblical: The Use of Stock Phrases in Christian Apocrypha”

S19-330 Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism; Christian Apocrypha (Joint Session; 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM)
Theme: Coptic Apocrypha at Nag Hammadi and Beyond
Adeline Harrington, University of Texas at Austin, Presiding
Sarah Parkhouse, University of Durham: “Why Write a Post-Resurrection Dialogue?”
Janet Timbie, Catholic University of America: “Quoting the Prophet in the Epistle of the Apostles
Alin Suciu, Göttingen Academy: “‘There are many matters which the gospels passed by’: Apocryphal Texts in Coptic Monasticism”
Hugo Lundhaug, Universitetet i Oslo: “Textual Fluidity and Exegetical Creativity in the Investiture of Michael the Archangel
Lance Jenott, Princeton University: “Charity, Rewards, and Punishments in The Investiture of the Archangel Gabriel
Lloyd G Abercrombie, University of Oslo: “The Mysteries of John: The Content and Context of a Manuscript from Early Islamic Egypt”

S20-111 Christian Apocrypha (9:00 AM to 11:30 AM)
Theme: Panel Review of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (Eds. Tony Burke and Brent Landau; Eerdmans, 2016)
Lily Vuong, Central Washington University, Presiding
Panelists: David Brakke (Ohio State University), Philip Jenkins (Baylor University), Valentina Calzolari Bouvier (University of Geneva), Julia Snyder (Universität Regensburg), J. Gregory Given (Harvard University), Judith Hartenstein (Universität Koblenz – Landau), Christoph Markschies (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – Humboldt University of Berlin)
Respondents: Tony Burke (York University), Brent Landau (University of Texas at Austin)

Additional Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism papers:

S18-330 Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism (4:00 PM to 6:30 PM)
Tuomas Rasimus, Helsingin Yliopisto – Helsingfors Universitet, Presiding
Carl Johan Berglund, Uppsala University: “Discerning Quotations from Heracleon in Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John”
Forrest A.B. Kentwell, University of Groningen: “Re-envisioning ‘Light’ and ‘Death’ in the Gospel of Thomas: A Demiurgical Myth?”
Kristine Toft Rosland, University of Agder: “Reading the Apocryphon of John through the frame narrative”
Austin Busch, College at Brockport: “Greek Philosophical Circles and Gnostic Scriptural Interpretation”
Eric Crégheur, Université d’Ottawa – University of Ottawa: “The Celestial Topography of the ‘Untitled Text’ of the Bruce Codex”
Geoffrey Smith, University of Texas at Austin and Brent C. Landau, University of Texas at Austin: “Nag Hammadi at Oxyrhynchus: Introducing a New Discovery”

And there are a variety of additional papers on apocryphal texts in other sessions:

S18-112 Archaeology of Religion in the Roman World (9:00 AM to 11:30 AM)
Paula Tutty, University of Oslo: “Monks, materiality and manuscripts: putting early Coptic codices into their social context”

S18-133 Letters of James, Peter, and Jude (9:00 AM to 11:30 AM)
Rebecca Skaggs, Patten University and John Skaggs, Patten University: “Christ’s Visit to Hades or the Harrowing of Hell: The Effects of 1 Peter 3: 18-22 on Theology, Culture, Literature and Art”

S19-114 Corpus Hellenisticum Novi Testamenti (9:00 AM to 11:30 AM)
Janet Spittler, University of Virginia: “Joking and Play in the Acts of John

S19-155 Wisdom and Apocalypticism; Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism (9:00 AM to 11:30 AM)
René Falkenberg, Aarhus Universitet: “Wisdom Speculation from Wisdom of Solomon to Wisdom of Jesus Christ

S19-203 Ancient Fiction and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (1:00 PM to 3:30 PM)
Eric M. Vanden Eykel, Ferrum College: “‘Then Suddenly, Everything Resumed Its Course’: The Suspension of Time in the Protevangelium of James Reconsidered”

S19-324 Jewish Christianity / Christian Judaism (4:00 PM to 6:30 PM)
Benjamin M. De Vos, Universiteit Gent: “Paganism and Jewish-Christian identity in the Pseudo-Clementines: An Analysis of the Disputes between Appion and Clement”
Stanley Jones, California State University – Long Beach: “The Dispute with Appion in Recent Research”

S20-223 Johannine Literature (1:00 PM to 3:30 PM)
Karen L. King, Harvard University: “The Gospel of Mary reads the Gospel of John”

S18-145 Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity (9:00 AM to 11:30 AM)
Sheila E. McGinn, John Carroll University: “Gender and Virginity in the Acts of Paul and Thecla
Lily Vuong, Central Washington University: “The Testing of Mary: Virginity and Gender in the Protevangelium of James

S18-309 Children in the Biblical World (4:00 PM to 6:30 PM)
Anna Rebecca Solevåg, VID Specialized University: “Absence and Presence of Children in the Apocryphal Acts”

S19-308 Book History and Biblical Literatures (4:00 PM to 6:30 PM)
Gregory Fewster, University of Toronto: “3 Corinthians among the Pauline Textual Tradition: Ancient Manuscripts, Modern Publishing, and the Demands of Textual Materiality”

S19-335 Redescribing Early Christianity (4:00 PM to 6:30 PM)
Mark Letteney, Princeton University: “Authoritative Forgeries and Authentic Apocrypha in Late Antiquity”
Anna Cwikla, University of Toronto: “The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter as a Pseudepigraphon”

S20-206 Bible and Visual Art (1:00 PM to 3:30 PM)
Geert Van Oyen, Université catholique de Louvain: “The Pictorial Representation of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk (ca. 1340)”
Rebecca Skaggs, Patten University and John Skaggs, Patten University: “The Harrowing of Hell (1 Peter 3:18-22): Theological Observations from the Consideration of its Reception History in Art”

S20-321 Greco-Roman Religions (4:00 PM to 6:30 PM)
Travis Proctor, Northland College: Of Landscapes and Legacies: “The Reconfiguration of Cultic Space in the Acts of John

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Addenda to Syriac Tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas: A Neglected Edition of the Life of Mary and a Forgotten Palimpsest

In the short time between when I submitted the manuscript of my new book, The Syriac Tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, to its publisher and when it was printed, two additional sources for the text came to my attention. This was to be expected, particularly for the rather robust Sw recension, in which Inf. Gos. Thom. appears as the fourth of five books in a sprawling Life of Mary collection. It was a big surprise, however, to discover a fifth/sixth-century manuscript belonging to the Sa recension (the best witness to the early form of the text), and that this manuscript had been mentioned in scholarship over a century ago! I promised in the preface to the book that I would publish updates (chiefly via the e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha entries for the three recensions), but I didn’t think I would be doing it so soon!

I will cover the Sw manuscript first. It is an uncatalogued and unnumbered manuscript belonging to the Monastery of St. Ephrem in Holland. It was published in a devotional edition prepared by Julius Y. Çiçek (Die heilige Meryem/Tad’itho d’yoldath aloho Maryam. Holland: Bar Hebraeus Verlag, 2001) that came to my attention via Grigory Kessel. These kind of editions are fairly common in places like Cairo and the monasteries of Greece and essentially entail a transcription of a single manuscript, sometimes with translation. Çiçek’s edition is significant not only for its use of a previously unknown manuscript but also because it is the first ever publication of the entire West Syriac Life of Mary compendium, which includes the Protevangelium of James, the Vision of Theophilus, Inf. Gos. Thom., and the Six-Books Dormition of the Virgin. My volume includes an edition and translation of only the Inf. Gos. Thom. portion of the collection. The edition draws from 20 manuscripts, and I discuss another six that lack Inf. Gos. Thom., and note 14 extant in Garšuni; Charles Naffah is working on a proper scholarly edition of the full corpus.

Çiçek’s edition is slightly different from other devotional publications in that it relies on two manuscripts: the one on hand at the monastery and another from the Mingana collection (Syr. 560; assigned the siglum C in my edition and dated 1491). The Holland manuscript is dated 1567 and was produced in Gargar, near the Turkish city of Adiyaman. It is complete, which is helpful given that many of the Life of Mary manuscripts lack at least portions of book one. An untitled image presumably of the manuscript appears in the edition; surprisingly, the script is East Syriac, rather than the western Serto that one would expect.

A portion of the Holland manuscript

As interesting as Çiçek’s edition is, the Sa manuscript is a much more exciting find, though takes a little more time to explain. The story begins with the publication of a famous palimpsest manuscript found at Sinai (St. Catherine’s Monastery, syr. 30) in 1892 by Agnes Smith Lewis and her sister Margaret Gibson. It is an eighth-century collection of lives of female saints written over pages taken from multiple codices, including a fifth/sixth-century copy of the Old Syriac Gospels (the first fourteen quires, comprising 142 leaves), the Acts of Thomas (quires 15, 16, and 17), four leaves of the Gospel of John in Greek from the fourth century (quire 15), and part of 6 Bks. Dorm. (quire 16). The gospels were published as Robert L. Bensly, J. Rendell Harris, and F. Crawford Burkitt, with an introduction by Agnes Smith Lewis, The Four Gospels in Syriac Transcribed from the Sinaitic Palimpsest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1894). The overwriting was published as Agnes Smith Lewis, Select Narratives of Holy Women from the Syro-Antiochene or Sinai Palimpsest as Written above the Old Syriac Gospels by John the Stylite, of Beth-Mari-Qanûn in A.D. 778 (Studia Sinaitica 9–10; London: C.J. Clay and Sons, 1900), with the Acts of Thomas (text, translation, and notes) in an appendix by Burkitt (pp. 23–44) and the Greek Gospel of John in another (pp. 45–46).

At the time, Smith Lewis believed that another Sinai manuscript (St. Catherine’s Monastery, ar. 588) used additional leaves from the same palimpsest (Four Gospels, p. xvii), based in part on “the coincidence of the contents.” The manuscript is comprised of 69 folios; the overwriting is a ninth/tenth-century Prophetologion (Old Testament lectionary used in the Byzantine tradition), and the underwriting is from two Syriac manuscripts and a few fragments in early Arabic and Christian Palestinian Aramaic. The Syriac portions are significant parts of 6 Bks. Dorm. (excerpt given in Four Gospels, p. xvii), Prot. Jas., and Inf. Gos. Thom. (excerpt with explicit of Prot. Jas. and beginning of Inf. Gos. Thom. in Four Gospels, pp. xviii–xix). In 1902, Smith Lewis returned to the topic of this palimpsest in her introduction to Apocrypha Syriaca. The Protevangelium Jacobi and Transitus Mariae with Texts from the Septuagint, the Corân, the Peshitta, and from a Syriac Hymn in a Syro-Arabic Palimpsest of the fifth and other centuries (Studia Sinaitica 11; London: C. J. Clay, 1902). She mentions here ar. 588 and ar. 514 as witnesses to Prot. Jas. and 6 Bks. Dorm., though they differ so negligibly from the manuscript published in Apocrypha Syriaca—yet another Sinai palimpsest, later catalogued as Cambridge University Library, Or. 1287—that she did not include readings from them in her edition. No mention is made of ar. 588 also including Inf. Gos. Thom. (and why it escaped not only my attention but also the attention of every other Inf. Gos. Thom. scholar of the last 100 years!). Most importantly she states that she was wrong about ar. 588’s relationship to syr. 30: the two do not re-use the same manuscript after all, since portions of their Dorm. Vir. materials overlap in content (Apocrypha Syriaca, p. v).

Schøyen MS 579

As for Sinai ar. 514, it is a ninth/tenth-century Arabic collection of patristic works translated from Syriac. It comprises 175 folios culled from more than ten different Syriac manuscripts containing a range of materials, including Old Testament texts, a herbal treatise, and a sixth-century copy of, once again, Prot. Jas. and Dorm. Vir. Four folios of this manuscript now reside in the Schøyen collection (as MS 579; detailed description at the Schøyen Collection web site); they were published by Stephen  Shoemaker as “New Syriac Dormition Fragments from Palimpsests in the Schøyen Collection and British Library,” Le Muséon 124.3-4 (2011): 259–78. The 6 Bks. Dorm. portions of two of the palimpsests have re-examined recently in Sebastian. P. Brock and Grigory Kessel, “The ‘Departure of Mary’ in Two Palimpsests at the Monastery of St. Catherine (Sinai Syr. 30 and Sinai Arabic 514),” Khristiansky Vostok 8 (2017): 115–52.

There are plans now to digitize the Sinai palimpsests and make them freely available on the web site of the Sinai Palimpsests Project. Kessel, who is working for the project, presented some  preliminary findings on ar. 514 and ar. 588 at this summer’s Réunion de l’AELAC. His handout, circulated to AELAC members, reveals that the Inf. Gos. Thom. material in ar. 588 is comprised of the following:

fol. 67r–67v=IGT 1–6
fol. 62r–62v=IGT 6–7
fol. 52v=IGT 7–13
fol. 52r=IGT 13–16
fol. 66r–66v=no exact correspondences

For this list, Kessel compared ar. 588 to Wright’s edition of British Library Add. 14484, which lacks portions of chs. 6, 7 and 15; it is possible that fol. 66 contains some of this material, or that it corresponds to the final chapter (19 in the traditional numbering), which is the only portion of the British Library manuscript not included in Kessel’s list.

Excerpt from Sinai ar. 588

Until the Sinai Palimpsests Project posts their images, the only knowledge we have of the text of Inf. Gos. Thom. from ar. 588 is Smith Lewis’s excerpt, which agrees sometimes with Wright’s manuscript and sometimes with the other fifth/sixth-century manuscript of the text: Göttingen Syr. 10 (originally from Sinai, and indeed a few additional pages from the manuscript were found among the “new finds” discovered in 1975). I am excited at the prospect of seeing the full manuscript and hope that the images will be posted soon. The palimpsests are also very important for work on the other two texts in these “Life of Mary” collections; together they amount to five witnesses to this combination of texts, and all but one of them derive from the same location (the exception is British Library Add. 14484, which has been traced to tenth-century Baghdad, though it certainly could have been produced at St. Catherine’s). It’s amazing that ar. 588 so completely escaped scholars’ attention, due simply because the only mention of Inf. Gos. Thom.’s presence in it was made in a completely unrelated book. Were it not for Kessel and the Palimpsests Project it would have remained forgotten.

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2017 International SBL Christian Apocrypha Sessions Report

This year’s International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature took place August 7-11 at Humboldt University in Berlin, an auspicious location since Berlin is the hub of Christian Apocrypha Studies in German, and Humboldt in particular is where Christoph Markschies, co-editor of the “new Hennecke,” teaches. I was able to attend the first three of four Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha sessions and will provide here some comments on the papers and discussions; Bradley Rice graciously agreed to pass along some comments on the fourth.

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

The first session began with the paper I previewed on Apocryphicity co-written with Slavomír Céplö (Univerzita Karlova v Praze) entitled “‘Arabic’ Infancy Gospel No More: The Challenges of Reconstructing the Original Gospel of the Infancy.” The paper was an overview of the sources for the Gospel of the Infancy in both Syriac and Arabic and posed some questions about how to present that evidence in a new translation to be included in a future volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. One of the other presenters in the session, Mari Mamyan, was absent, leaving much time for discussion of how the growth of Digital Humanities impacts the construction of critical editions. Christoph Markschies, who was present at the session, remarked that the publisher of his multi-volume compendium Antike christliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung has stated that the current edition will be the last one they publish, because the audience has changed so much over the years—scholars interested in the material are increasingly working online and the wider public want inexpensive and easily-digestible popular market books.

Tony Burke and Slavomír Céplö

In response, Slavomír made some positive comments about how electronic critical editions could be constructed, and a promise was made by the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha Section chairs to continue discussion at the Annual Meeting in Boston and next year’s International Meeting with some thoughts to establishing electronic publishing standards that could be adopted for future critical editions. Julia Snyder noted also that each venue for a text has its own expectations—e.g., a popular market book need not be extensive in its use of manuscript variants, and could simply present one manuscript as a sample of the text. I mentioned in this regard a publication of the West Syriac Life of Mary made in Holland for devotional reading that does precisely that; similar editions exist in Arabic and Greek, though they often escape the notice of scholars working on the texts. The translations we prepare for MNTA (and that Markschies includes in his volumes) try to steer a line down the middle, essentially presenting a complete (where possible) overview of the sources for a given text and a translation that is detailed enough to accompany a critical edition, but without providing the text in its original language(s). As far as I’m concerned, I see the scholar’s role as to adjudicate between variants and provide a text that can be situated at a particular time and place, whether the text’s time of composition or a stage along the way. Electronic editions that allow the user to create their own editions by picking and choosing their own variants are useful tools but if they do not present an argument, they are not really scholarship. Keep in mind this comes from a guy who just spent much of the last ten year’s working on a “conventional” print critical edition!

Janet Spittler responds to Justin Mihoc

The other paper in the session (unfortunately eclipsed by the discussion of critical editions) was “Mary-Temple in the Protevangelium of James” by Justin A. Mihoc (University of Durham). Mihoc focused on the symbolism in the text of the church as mother, seen also, for example, in the Shepherd of Hermas with its depiction of the church as an aged woman who becomes a young virgin. In Prot. Jas., Mary functions in a similar way: a model of the church as pure, virginal, etc. Mihoc also noted the parallels in the text between Mary and Eve that evoke an image of Mary as embodying a restored Eden. Included in this discussion was a series of evocations of creation: the suspension of time at Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ conception through the word of God, the annunciations to Joseph and Mary taking place outside gardens, and others. In the discussion that followed, Dennis MacDonald drew attention to Prot. Jas.’s “transgressive” use of Matthew and Luke—e.g., the author omits the conception and birth of John the Baptist. Mihoc agreed that the author freely used her sources, suggesting a time of composition before Matthew and Luke became authoritative. I would agree that the text is certainly early (a late second-century terminus ante quem is established by Clement of Alexandria’s knowledge of the text) but orthodox writers continued to play around with the New Testament Gospels and construct new texts long after the establishment of the canon.

Independent scholar Kwang Meng Low opened the second session with his paper “Text of Subversion: Gospel of Judas and Carnivalesque.” Kwang’s interpretive lens is a methodology developed by Mikhail Bakhtin. I must confess that I have an utter lack of interest in post-modern literary criticism and found the paper difficult to follow. He was certainly correct that the Gospel of Judas is a subversive text that, in his words, “aimed to mock the institutionalized (‘orthodox’) church,” but that interpretation is not new. Another “new reading” of a text was promised by Eric Beck (University of Edinburgh) in his paper “Hell in Context: A New Reading of the Apocalypse of Peter.” Beck took issue with the common view that Apoc. Pet., like other Tour of Hell apocalypses, was intended to be monitory—i.e., its depiction of various punishments for sins is intended to warn sinners away from such behavior. Beck argued instead that the readers of the text are meant to feel compassion for those outside of the faith, not inside, who are punished for their unbelief. As proof, Beck presented a new translation of ch. 3 of the text where Peter and Jesus weep for the sinners who have been separated from the righteous. When asked why the text’s author wanted his readers to feel compassion for those being punished, Beck answered that she was encouraging such behavior between believers and nonbelievers in the present, not at the eschaton. Determining the original intentions of Apoc. Pet.’s author is difficult, particularly where one has to rely on the later Ethiopic sources for the text; however, Beck said the same theme is observable in the Greek fragments of the text. 

The session concluded with a paper from Bradley Rice (McGill University): “The Story of Joseph of Arimathea and the Inventio of Icons in Christian Apocrypha.” Like Slavomír and I, Rice was previewing material that will be included in a future volume of MNTA. The text is extant only in Georgian and is included in a list of “inventio” texts discussed in works by Paul Dilley. The first portion details Joseph’s role in the burial and resurrection of Jesus, drawing upon material from the more widely known Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea. The second portion shifts the action to the city of Lydda where Joseph is sent by Jesus to preach and where Joseph converts a synagogue into a church, which leads to a conflict with the Jewish community that is settled when an image of the Virgin Mary appears in the building. Similar contests occur in other inventio texts, but Rice’s interest is in the role icons play in several of them and he suggested that they are used to champion a particular form of Christianity, in this case one particularly interested in the veneration of Mary. He noted also that some inventio texts were created after the Christianization of the empire, when the delineation of Christian and Jewish space was no longer an issue; so something more most be going on in these texts.

Jonathan Henry

After a two-day break, the second pair of Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha sessions returned to the topic of “what is a text?” with Jonathan Henry’s (Princeton University) paper “Theories and Methods for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature.” Henry works on the Acts of Thomas and dazzled a crowd at the 2016 SBL meeting in San Antonio with a presentation on the “material philology” of manuscripts and images related to the text. He drew on some of that work in Berlin but widened the discussion to include musings on what is lost when a manuscript is used to create a critical edition. Close study of a manuscript shows us how a text was valued and used at a particular moment (moments, really, since it may move around over the course of its lifetime) in history; critical editions focus on the original text, not how, where, and why the particular witnesses to it were used. Henry brought into the discussion similar methodology in use in both medieval and rabbinic studies, noting particularly work on Hekhalot literature by Peter Shäfer that demonstrates that there is no authoritative, fixed text of the material until it appeared in print form, and Hugo Lundhaug’s essay on the Nag Hammadi Codices in Snapshots of Evolving Traditions. Also noted was Michael Meerson and Peter Shäfer’s study of the Toledot Yeshu and Bill Adler’s translations of On the Priesthood of Jesus (from MNTA vol. 1) both of which present multiple texts, each with their own interests and histories, rather than an attempt to recover a single original. The discussion that followed Henry’s paper debated the merits of the “new philology” Henry has embraced and the need to balance it with traditional methods. Janet Spittler again brought up the subject of digital editions and Henry responded that these need to be embraces and that scholars need to “get creative.”

The following two papers moved discussion away from Christian Apocrypha to Jewish Apocrypha. Francis Borchardt (Lutheran Theological Seminary, Hong Kong) examined 2 Maccabees and the additions to Daniel in “The Limits of the ‘Book’ when Studying Ancient Writings.” The problem addressed by Borchardt was somewhat different: the first two chapters of 2 Macc are widely believed to be not original to the text and are usually set aside when interpreting it, despite the fact that it never circulated without them. A similar issue exists in New Testament Studies, as Dennis MacDonald pointed out, with the Signs Source of John or Q, though there are plenty of examples of apocryphal texts with similar concerns, such as the various theories over the original form of the Gospel of Thomas. Borchardt argued for examining 2 Macc as it exists in the manuscript tradition, not what scholars want it to be. As for Daniel, Borchardt pointed out that we commonly read the additions separately from the rest of Daniel, out of their literary context. Borchardt concluded that scholars need to stop thinking of books and authors in a modern sense. In response, Eric Beck argued that modern scholars are not that different from the copyists and transmitters of the texts—we all try to establish a text as we want to see it. Borchardt agreed.

The final paper was presented by James D. Moore (Brandeis University): “Calling all Cards a Spade?: Reflections on the Story of Ahiqar and the Different Editions of the Tale that Go by the Same Name.” Ahiqar appears in dozens of manuscripts and a dozen languages, with considerable variation among them. As Moore wrote in his abstract for the paper, “Some manuscripts contain an autobiographical narrative with a single collection of maxims, others an expanded narrative with two collections of maxims, while some editions have completely recast the narrative into a different period and setting or have changed the narrative style from autobiography to biography.” When dealing with this amount of variation, the questions becomes, what do we consider the Story of Ahiqar to be? Moore likened the process of answering this question to work on myth by Levi Strauss. In reconstructing an original myth Strauss said one must look at all versions and include those versions that “felt” the same. As an example of the depth of the problem, Moore looked at the Syriac tradition of the text which is extant in 10 recensions with distinctly different structures. In scholarship these recensions are often condensed into a “Syriac” text that does a disservice to the evidence. As a cap on the discussion, Dennis MacDonald cautioned that the new philology should not prevent scholars from theorizing about parent texts (hypothetical branches in the tradition that gave rise to later copies). “Philology,” he said, “also includes the imaginative.”

After Moore’s paper I had to rush out to catch a plane home; fortunately, Bradley Rice stuck around and passed along some comments about the final session.

In his paper, “The ‘Novel’ or Letter from Clement of Rome to James of Jerusalem,” Dominique Côté (Université d’Ottawa – University of Ottawa) considered the question of genre in the Pseudo-Clementines. Côté first offers a brief introduction to this corpus of writings, which is extant in two main versions, the Recognitions and the Homilies. Côté then drew our attention to the several literary genres attested by the corpus, including “romance,” “dialogue,” and “epistle,” and wondered if these genres are perhaps intentionally linked with various apostles, such as Peter with dialogue or James with the epistle, and considered what such a connection would mean for readers of the Pseudo-Clementines. Drawing on some of the usual suspects of postmodern biblical criticism, like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, Côté asked just how we should conceive of the author of a corpus like the Pseudo-Clementines. Finally, Côté tentatively concluded that the author(s) of the Pseudo-Clementines deliberately employed specific literary genres in order to, as he put it, “take a stand in defining the true version of prophecy.”

In “Textual Fluidity in Coptic Apocrypha,” Ivan Miroshnikov (University of Helsinki) attempted to show just how unstable and fluid the texts of various Coptic apocrypha actually were. He argued that in those cases where the text of a given apocryphon is quite fluid, it is essentially futile to create a critical edition or attempt to establish the “original text.” Miroshnikov demonstrated that whereas it may make good sense to create a critical edition of the Coptic Bible, in the case of certain apocrypha—he gave the examples of the Preaching of Bartholomew (CANT 261) and the Preaching of Philip (CANT 252)—it is virtually impossible to establish the original form of the text. Miroshnikov further showed that some apocrypha change their genre, such as the Martyrdom of Matthew (CANT 269), which is also found as the Preaching of Matthew; still other apocrypha change their protagonist, such as the Acts of Peter and Andrew (CANT 237), a form of which is found in the Preaching of Thaddaeus. After providing several other examples of textual fluidity, Miroshnikov offered the following conclusions: First, unlike the Coptic Bible but like Coptic hagiographica, Coptic apocrypha are subject to considerable textual fluidity; second, this fluidity may be seen in apocryphal texts composed in Coptic as well as in those translated from Greek; third, it is impossible to produce a critical edition of a Coptic apocryphon—each textual witness should be understood as an “idiosyncratic performance of the source text”; fourth, this textual fluidity should not preclude us from theorizing about the principal recensions of a given apocryphon.

And finally, section co-chair Janet Spittler (University of Virginia) asked “What do we mean when we say ‘Acts of John’?” Spittler asked the important question of just what it is we are referring to when we speak of the “Acts of John,” for this title has been used for quite a number of works connected with the apostle John. The Acts of John as we know it today simply did not exist in the early church. Spittler offered an excellent survey of the various texts that have been identified as the “Acts of John” in various editions from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These include Thilo’s fragments from the Council of Nicea, Tischendorf’s “Acts of John in Rome,” and Zahn’s “Acts of John by Prochorus.” The Acts of John as we know it today is found in the now standard CCSA edition by Junod and Kaestli. According to Spittler, the multiple text forms of the Acts of John show that it was an open text, a fluid text, a “moving piece of literature.” She drew our attention to the “new philology” of medievalists and the shift from the “original” text to the text as we have it, citing Bernard Cequiglini’s dictum that “medieval literature does not have variance, it is variance.” Spittler applied the new philology to the Acts of John, and observed that Rémi Gounelle has applied a similar approach to the Acts of Pilate literature. Finally, Spittler posed a number of important questions concerning how scholars of Christian apocrypha should move forward in the years to come, such as: What problematic practices are there in the presentation of the various texts comprising the “Acts of John”? What is gained or lost when the original text is prioritized? What is the ideal presentation of a fluid text?

With those questions, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha sessions came to a close. Anyone interested in pursuing these investigations further should consider presenting at next year’s meeting in Helsinki. Watch for the call for papers early in the new year.


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2017 ISBL Preview: “‘Arabic’ Infancy Gospel No More”

Laurenziana 387, fol. 5r

I am about to depart for the 2017 International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Berlin. Slavomír Céplö and I will be presenting at the first of four Christian Apocrypha sessions; for a full listing of the Christian Apocrypha papers at this year’s ISBL see this post. The paper, entitled “‘Arabic’ Infancy Gospel No More: The Challenges of Reconstructing the Original Gospel of the Infancy,” has two aims: to present the current status of our work on the Arabic Infancy Gospel (aka Gospel of the Infancy), and to interact with the session’s theme of “Is this a ‘text’?” (questioning practices of how we title texts and if these titles capture the dynamic, fluid natures of verbal communication). Here is the abstract for the paper:

The Arabic Infancy Gospel (Arab. Gos. Inf.) was first published by Henry Sike in 1697, long before many of the apocryphal texts that now dominate the study of Christian Apocrypha. Only one other edition of the text has appeared in the intervening centuries: from a much-different and likely-superior manuscript at the Biblioteca Laurenziana. Additional manuscripts exist but no one, as yet, has evaluated these witnesses. Nor has there been much effort to integrate into the study of this text the East Syriac History of the Virgin, which shares a large portion of material with Arab. Gos. Inf. This paper presents the results of careful analysis of the manuscript sources for both texts and offers some preliminary observations about how best to present the evidence in a new critical edition. As with many other apocryphal texts, scholars are burdened with and restricted by Arab. Gos. Inf.’s editio princeps, which  bestowed upon the text an inadequate title that marginalizes the text in Christian Apocrypha scholarship as a product of a community far beyond the traditional centres of Christianity in the Latin West and the Greek East (though this core is increasingly broadening to include Syriac and Coptic Christianity). The influence of the editio princeps is felt also in determinations of the earliest recoverable form of the text, for the parallel material in the Syriac History of the Virgin certainly preceded the Arabic version, but the Arabic perhaps reflects better the original extent of the text. What must be avoided, however, is the reconstruction of a “Syriac Infancy Gospel” that no longer exists, nor may have ever existed.

Work on the Syriac sources for the text was completed as part of my newly-released book The Infancy Gospel of Thomas in the Syriac Tradition, which contains a comprehensive overview of the East Syriac History of the Virgin manuscripts, both those that contain Infancy Thomas and those that do not. The Arabic sources were more of a challenge. To date only two manuscripts of the text—named Gospel of the Infancy in their incipits and explicits—have been published: one by Heinrich Sike way back in 1697 (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodl. Or. 350)  and one by Mario Provera in 1973 (Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, codex orientalis 387). Georg Graf listed about 13 more in the first volume of his Geschichte der christlichen Arabischen Literatur (1944). No-one, it seems, has returned to this list to see what the manuscripts contain. Well, until now.

Bodl. Or. 350, fol. 1r

Slavomír and I have obtained copies of almost all of the manuscripts in Graf’s list, not an easy task given that some are described incorrectly or inadequately, and we were able to add to it five more (see pp. 113–15 of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas in the Syriac Tradition for this provisional list). As it turns out, not all of the manuscripts contain Arab. Gos. Inf. after all. In the end, there are at least six manuscripts in the form edited by Sike (Recension S, a shorter text that includes Infancy Thomas), only one in the form edited by Provera (Recension L, which lacks Infancy Thomas but continues past the childhood to include a number of chapters summarizing canonical stories from Jesus’ adulthood), and two in a form that is unpublished (Recension P, which lacks both Infancy Thomas and the adulthood stories). A further five are pending evaluation, either because we are still waiting for copies or, in the case of one of them, it’s too bloody difficult to read! Four of the manuscripts we gathered actually contain the Apocryphal Gospel of John, and one other curious manuscript features a text by the name of “some of what was explained from the gospel of the infancy which we find said in some of the Syriac manuscripts.”

Our initial goal in working with this material was to contribute a new English translation of the “Gospel of the Infancy” to the next volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. But we are still unsure of how to proceed. Do we favor the Syriac text, essentially extracting the infancy material from the larger History of the Virgin that is paralleled in Arab. Gos. Inf.? That solution assumes that Hist. Vir. and Arab. Gos. Inf. are two independent witnesses to a Syriac infancy gospel. What if, instead, Arab. Gos. Inf. is an extraction from Hist. Vir.? If so,  there never was a Syriac infancy gospel. There are other problems also, not the least of which is that Hist. Vir.’s parallels to the Protevangelium of James are far more expansive than those in Arab. Gos. Inf. Does this mean that Hist. Vir. expanded the original infancy gospel with further material from Prot. Jas., or that Arab. Gos. Inf. reduced it? And what do we call the text? Arab. Gos. Inf. has become the standard title, but it is misleading and has contributed to the neglect of the Syriac text. If we call it Gospel of the Infancy, do we risk it being accidentally overlooked by subsequent scholars and bibliographers?

These concerns are not unique to the Gospel of the Infancy. Scholarship in our field is littered with nomenclature that has long outlived its suitability (consider the case of Prot. Jas. which has been given a title that is not found in any of the manuscripts and was adopted to reflect its first editor’s view that it predated and was a source of the canonical infancy narratives) . We hope that our paper will start a robust discussion about how other scholars can address similar problems in their own work.

For more information on the Arabic Infancy Gospel and the East Syriac History of the Virgin, look them up on e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha.


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2017 CSBS Christian Apocrypha Session Report

Last weekend (May 27-29) I attended the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. For several years now I have organized an ad hoc Christian apocrypha panel—essentially, if enough papers are submitted, I cajole the program director to put them all together into one session. This year we had four papers, and these were paired with two papers that did not fit into other sessions.

Ian Brown

The first presentation was by University of Toronto student Ian Phillip Brown: “Where Indeed was the Gospel of Thomas Written?: Thomas as a Product of Alexandrian Intellectual Culture.” Brown argued against the notion that Gos. Thom. was composed in Edessa, a position dominant in discussions of the text, indeed to the point that some scholars romanticize a “school of Thomas” situated in Syria. This idea has spilled over also to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, leading early scholars of the text to assume it too was composed in Syria, and even posit a Syriac origin to the text (a view that I have taken great pains to refute). But, as Brown said, the popularity of a text in a given area is not proof for origin, nor should later texts, in this case the Acts of Thomas, be used to date and situate earlier texts. Brown considers Alexandria a much more likely location for the writing of Thomas as it fits in well with the Jewish exegetical traditions of Genesis practiced there by Philo and others. Brown took time also to note arguments for the presence of Semitisms in the text and Simon Gathercole’s efforts to show that this phenomenon can be explained without recourse to a Syriac or Aramaic original. The conversation after Brown’s paper was lively. He was asked how origin in Alexandria affected source critical arguments for the text—e.g., its (perhaps) early origins, its relationship to Tatian, etc. Another question came up about how to interpret the esteem held for James in logion 12, which some scholars have seen as evidence for an early Jewish-Christian stratum for the text. I mentioned also that our earliest physical evidence for Gos. Thom. is the Greek fragments from Oxyrhynchus and the earliest testimonies are from writers in Alexandria (Clement and Origen).

Amelia Porter

The second presentation came from another student at the University of Toronto, Amelia Porter, with her paper “New Paideia?: The Construction of Social Identity in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Porter’s supervisor, John Kloppenborg, had mentioned Porter to me a few days earlier because of my work on the text, and likely I will be added to her supervisory committee. Porter’s paper focused on the three teacher stories in the text. She sees these as efforts to replace Roman paideia (which, Porter argued, is not just learning to read and write, but also the acquisition of Roman culture) with a Christian paideia, where knowledge of Jesus is considered superior to all other learning. This is observable in the first teacher story (ch. 6), in which Zacchaeus seeks to teach the unruly child, “so that he may learn to love those his own age, honour old age and revere elders, so that he may acquire a desire to be among children, also teaching them in return” (6:2). The teaching begins with the alphabet, but Jesus refuses to repeat it back to the teacher, and instead instructs Zacchaeus on the esoteric qualities of the Alpha. Zacchaeus is humbled by this display of knowledge. A second teacher (ch. 14) is killed by Jesus after striking Jesus on the head for refusing to repeat the alphabet to him. And finally, in the third story (ch. 15), another teacher worships Jesus after witnessing him open a book and, instead of reading from it, he speaks “in the spirit.” Porter concluded that the gospel’s teacher episodes “illustrate a move by Roman/Gentile Christians toward separation and differentiation from the reigning cultural paradigm. In its place, IGT is constructing an identity based on access to ‘true’ knowledge, embodied in the text by the child Jesus, and illustrated via his superiority to both the teachers of the ‘old school’ and the cultural systems they represent.” There was little time for discussion after the paper, but Porter and I spoke at the break and I made a few suggestions to her. First, in the text, Jesus naturally is taught by Jewish teachers, and Jacob Neusner, perhaps the first scholar to look seriously at these stories for what they might say about the text’s origins, suggested that Jesus is shown here to be superior to Jewish, not Roman culture, specifically the rabbinic school being formulated by Zacchaeus’s namesake Johanan ben Zakkai around the same time as Inf. Gos. Thom.’s composition. Mind you, it is unlikely that the gospel’s writer and readers are Jewish, and Jesus’ conflict with Jewish learning can work just as effectively as an analogy for Roman or Greek culture, but the thoughtworld of the text should be acknowledged. I also suggested she broaden the narrative ark of the teacher stories to include the gospel’s climax in the story of Jesus in the temple borrowed from Luke; hereJesus amazes the teachers with his knowledge of “the main points of the law and the riddles and the parables of the prophets.” Of course, here Jesus is shown as having mastered Jewish learning, not rejected it.

The next two papers in the session—Robert Revington (McMaster University), “Name Repetition in Narrative Units in the New Testament and Other Literature” and Chiaen (Joshua) Liu (McMaster Divinity College), “Peter’s Sermon on Christological Prophecy: A Register Analysis on Acts 3:12-26”—did not examine apocryphal texts, so I will not comment on them, except to say that the pop culture references in Revington’s presentation would have put Mark Goodacre to shame (the best was his mention of the two Marthas of Superman v. Batman).

Robert Edwards

We returned to Christian apocrypha with Robert Edwards’ (University of Notre Dame) paper “The Deposition and Christology in the Gospel of Peter.” Edwards challenged the common assessment of Gos. Pet.’s Christology as “unsophisticated” in relation to the canonical Gospels, a rather unfair characterization given that we only have a few fragments of the text. For some time, scholars tried to find evidence of docetic Christology in the text, a search occasioned by Eusebius’ discussion of its use among docetics in the church of Serapion. Scholars eventually abandoned that view but have not replaced it with anything else. Edwards looked at the deposition account in the gospel, a section mostly without parallel in the NT Gospels, and noted some interesting features: the earthquake occurs when Jesus is placed on the ground (affirming the sacredness of Jesus’ body, Edwards said, rather than an eschatological event as in Matthew), Jesus is called “Lord” throughout the text, even after his death (the NT Gospels tend to have “Jesus’ body”), and the giant Jesus who exits the tomb, with his head stretching to heaven, forms a bridge between heaven and earth, the spiritual and the physical. All of these phenomena suggest to Edwards that Gos. Pet. affirms the materiality of Jesus, with his body and soul united throughout the text. In the discussion that followed, questions were asked about the meaning of Jesus’ final words (“My power, my power, you have forsaken me”) and the possible connection between the two figures who take Jesus out of the tomb with Moses and Elijah from the Transfiguration scene.

Tony Burke

The final paper in the session was mine: “Christian Apocrypha in Ancient Libraries.” This paper was supposed to be presented at the 2009 SBL Annual Meeting. François Bovon, well-known for his scholarship on the Christian apocrypha, was slated to offer a response. As it turned out, I had to cancel my appearance at SBL that year when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. François too died of cancer just a few years ago. I was asked to contribute something to a memorial volume for François and thought it would be appropriate to resurrect this paper and finish it at last. The idea of discovering lost Christian gospels in a musty old library is a familiar motif, found often in fiction, film, and in the discovery stories of modern forgeries; the discovery site ranges from the vaults of the Vatican, to a remote monastery, to a cave; of course, there is good reason to use this motif—we do often find lost and forgotten apocrypha in such locations. Apocrypha were present in ancient libraries also; the evidence indicates that they sat upon shelves near or next to canonical texts and non-Christian literature; this goes against the common notion that once banned in the canon selection process, apocryphal texts were cast aside, or destroyed; but where else would heresy hunters get the source material they needed for their polemics, and how would church councils know which texts to ban and which writers to anethamatize? The paper draws together the evidence of apocrypha in ancient libraries from the church writers of the first four centuries, from caches of codices discovered in Egypt, and from references to libraries in apocryphal texts, to see what we can learn about how apocrypha were read, stored, and exchanged in the early Christian library network as it developed just prior to and shortly after the Christian triumph brought by Constantine the Great. Along the way I look at works used in Alexandria by Clement, Origen, and Didymus the Blind, in Caesarea by Eusebius, in Jerusalem by Jerome and Epiphanius, in Rome by Hippolytus, and texts believed to have come from Pachomian monasteries (the Nag Hammadi Codices, the Dishna papers, and the Chester Beatty Papyri). It is a sweeping paper sorely in need of reduction to a manageable size—even the presentation version of it went a little long despite a fast-paced read. But in the five minutes of discussion that followed I received some very useful feedback that will improve the paper considerably (including taking a look at Lucian’s Ignorant Book Collector, adding some nuance to my discussion of private vs. public libraries, and considering the mischievous appeal of owning banned books, even for orthodox writers).

And that brings another CSBS Christian apocrypha session to a close. If you are interested in presenting a paper next year, please get in contact with me. The CSBS is a relatively small gathering (around 80 papers presented on average), but its size is its strength. Participants routinely praise it as much for its cordiality as the quality of the work presented. This is Canada, after all.

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Christian Apocrypha at the 2017 SBL International Meeting

The 2017 Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting will take place August 7-11 in Berlin Germany. There are five Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha panels at this year’s event, with three of them focusing on Christian Apocrypha. The program book is available online but the complete list of presentations on Christian Apocrypha from all sessions is provided below.

8-2 Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (9:00 AM to 10:30 AM)
Tony Burke, York University and Slavomír Céplö, Univerzita Karlova v Praze: “Arabic” Infancy Gospel No More: The Challenges of Reconstructing the Original Gospel of the Infancy
Justin A. Mihoc, University of Durham: Mary-Temple in the Protevangelium of James
Mari Mamyan, Yerevan State University: The “Armenian Gospel of the Infancy”: The Ambiguous Fate of the Armenian Apocryphon in the Later Middle Ages

8-25 Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (11:00 AM to 12:30 PM)
Kwang Meng Low, Independent: Text of Subversion: Gospel of Judas and Carnivalesque
Eric J Beck, University of Edinburgh: Hell in Context: A New Reading of the Apocalypse of Peter
Bradley N. Rice, McGill University: The Story of Joseph of Arimathea and the Inventio of Icons in Christian Apocrypha

11-3 Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (9:00 AM to 10:30 AM)
Jonathan Henry, Princeton University: Theories and Methods for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature
Francis Borchardt, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Hong Kong: The Limits of the “Book” when Studying Ancient Writings
James D. Moore, Brandeis University: Calling all Cards a Spade?: Reflections on the Story of Ahiqar and the Different Editions of the Tale that Go by the Same Name

11-27 Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (11:00 AM to 12:30 PM)
Dominique Cote, Université d’Ottawa – University of Ottawa: The “Novel” or Letter from Clement of Rome to James of Jerusalem
Ivan Miroshnikov, University of Helsinki: Textual Fluidity in Coptic Apocrypha
Janet Spittler, University of Virginia: What do we mean when we say “Acts of John”?

8-12 Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism (9:00 AM to 10:30 AM)
Simeon R Burke, University of Edinburgh: The Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics: Thomas’ Representation of the Scribes and Pharisees as Further Evidence of its Second Century Dating
Petru Moldovan, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen: The Gospel of Thomas within the Egyptian Milieu: An Artifact Between Conventions and Promises

8-47 The Language of Colour in the Bible: From Word to Image (EABS) (11:00 AM to 12:30 PM)
Evangeline Kozitza, University of Oxford: The Annunciation in Color: The Visuality of the Temple Curtain and Mary’s Spinning in the Protevangelium of James

8-72 Slavonic Parabiblical Traditions (EABS) (2:00 PM to 3:30 PM)
Iva Trifonova, Cyrillo-Methodian Research Center, BAS: NARRATIO APHRODITIANI in Medieval Orthodox Culture
Florentina Badalanova Geller, Freie Universität Berlin: Apocryphal Apocalypses Reconsidered: Transmission of Judaeo–Christian Parabiblical Traditions in the Indigenous Visionary Narratives of Slavia Orthodoxa

9-29 Families and Children in the Ancient World (11:00 AM to 12:30 PM)
Common Lung-pun Chan, Chinese University of Hong Kong: Right to Life Against Infanticide in Apocalyptic Texts

8-91 The Language of Colour in the Bible: From Word to Image (EABS) (4:00 PM to 5:45 PM)
Emanuela Valeriani, Université de Genève: The use of colors in the Sibylline Oracles

9-49 Apostolic Fathers and Related Early Christian Literature (2:00 PM to 3:30 PM)
Simeon R. Burke, University of Edinburgh: The Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics: Thomas’ Representation of the Scribes and Pharisees as Further Evidence of its Second Century Dating

9-73 Apocalyptic Literature (4:00 PM to 5:45 PM)
Vicente Dobroruka, Universidade de Brasília: The Final Updating of a Conversion Tool: Hagiographies, Martyrologies and the Apocalyptic Tradition of the Sibylline Oracles

9-91,Rethinking Biblical Written Tradition through Slavonic Interpretations (4:00 PM to 5:00 PM)
Cornelia Horn, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg: Linking Slavonic and Oriental Christian Apocrypha in the Digital Realm

9-94 The Bible and Its Reception in Eastern Europe Scholarship (4:00 PM to 5:30 PM)
William Adler, North Carolina State University: The text-critical value of the Slavonic version of the Palaea Historica
Florentina Geller, Freie Universität Berlin: Slavonic Folk Bible

10-34 Slavonic Apocrypha (EABS) (11:00 AM to 12:30 PM)
Anissava Miltenova, Institute for Literature Bulgarian Academy of Sciences: Symbiosis between Apocryphon and Nomocanon: Apocalypsis Johannis quarta
Amber Ivanova, Universiteit Gent: The Apocryphal Origin of the Martyr Act of Saint Thekla in the Medieval Slavonic Tradition

11-4 Bible and Syriac Studies in Context (9:00 AM to 10:30 AM)
TODA Satoshi, Hokkaido University: The So-Called Hebrew Urmatthäus and Syriac Gospel Tradition

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Review: Markus Bockmuehl’s Ancient Apocryphal Gospels

Bockmuehl, Markus. Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2017.

I am typically leery of studies of Christian apocrypha that come from conservative or Evangelical perspectives (I have written about such works in SBL Forum and her eon this blog). Scholars with faith commitments typically do not treat the texts objectively and sympathetically as expressions of Christian belief that are equally as valid as canonical texts; they frequently disparage the contents of apocryphal texts and spend much of their time lauding and defending the canonical texts against some perceived liberal-scholar pro-apocrypha bogeyman. But I was pleasantly surprised by Bockmuehl’s introduction. Granted, it is not empty of conservative rhetoric (the series is subtitled “Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church” after all), but the book is nevertheless a worthy and up-to-the-minute survey of the texts that draws upon and points readers toward a deep base of Christian apocrypha scholarship.

Bockmuehl confesses that he when asked to write Ancient Apocryphal Gospels back in 2008, he was not receptive to the request. “While this seemed a fine objective in its own right,” he writes, “its intellectual impetus was not mine—nor could I pretend to either passion or expertise in the subject matter” (p. ix). Bockmuehl is perhaps too modest here, as he does have experience with some of the literature, particularly the Protevangelium of James and the Gospel of Peter. Still, I wonder why the series editors did not seek out a contributor who did have “passion” and “expertise.”

The book follows a fairly typical structure for Christian apocrypha surveys. The first chapter covers introductory matters such as defining key terms (gospel, apocryphal, canon, Gnosticism), tracing the pathways toward canon formation, and noting the sources for the texts (though only Nag Hammadi and Oxyrhynchus are mentioned). Chapters 2–5 offer summaries of the texts, divided into four categories: Infancy Gospels, Ministry Gospels, Passion Gospels, and Post-Resurrection Discourse Gospels. The final chapter focuses on “How to Read Apocryphal Gospels.” The volume concludes with a glossary (pp. 239–42) and an extensive bibliography (pp. 243–90).

Bockmuehl provides his readers with a list of the five emphases that govern the volume: 1. “to provide an introduction that is both accessible and nonsenationalist while offering a sympathetic account of these writings in relation to what became the New Testament” (p. 29); 2. to demonstrate that one can read the texts alongside the canonical and indeed that is how they were written, standing in “epiphenomenal and supplementary” position to canonical texts (p. 29); 3. that none of the texts offer an alternative narrative account of the kind provided in the four canonical texts (p. 30); 4. that instead of trying to show relationships of direct dependence between texts, “it seems in many cases preferable to think in terms of antecedence and influence” (pp. 30–31); 5. and to illustrate how the texts reflect the social memory of the community—i.e., the “social, cultural, ritual, and religious dimensions” of the communities who wrote them (p. 31). These are worthy pursuits, though item 3 is striking and indicates that Bockmuehl has a an axe to grind in this volume.

In his discussions of the individual texts, Bockmuehl provides a description of each text’s contents, origin and setting, interpretation, and transmission and influence. The focus is on the major, early texts. For example, his chapter on infancy gospels looks in detail at the Protevangelium of James, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas but only cursorily at other texts, such as P. Cairo 10735 and later derivative infancy texts (such as the Arabic Infancy Gospel and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew). Each chapter ends with a brief list of titles for further reading. Bockmuehl’s knowledge of the field is very current—for example, he includes a discussion of the recent re-evaluation of the Nag Hammadi library discovery stories (by Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Blount, p. 17) and a brief examination of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (p. 187).

There are a few infelicities in his survey of the text. He includes the Dormition of the Virgin in the Infancy Gospels section, though it is unclear why, and he only mentions the Egyptian tradition (p. 83). His comment that “In the West, the document only achieved a certain influence on piety about the Holy Family after about the fifteenth century” obscures how significant this text has been in churches of the East. The chapter on Passion Gospels includes the Gospel of the Savior (also called the Berlin-Strasbourg Apocryphon) only because early scholarship on the text tried to make connections between it and the Gospel of Peter; but, more importantly, Bockmuehl here neglects the important work on recontextualizing the text by Alin Suciu and Joost Hagen. The chapter also deals quite summarily with the Pilate Cycle literature, affording this large body of literature only three pages of discussion (pp. 156–58); this neglect is due to the fact that the Acts of Pilate was not renamed the Gospel of Nicodemus, Bockmuehl says, until the thirteenth century and thus “does not fall under the present volume’s rubric of ancient noncanonical gospels” (p. 158). Yet, titles are largely irrelevant for determining genre and Bockmuehl looks at plenty of other texts that are not explicitly titled “gospels.”

Bockmuehl spends much of his introduction and conclusion defending the primacy of the canonical gospels. In his introduction he states that “known portions of one or more of the subsequently canonical gospels were known and cited as ‘the gospel’ before any of the extant noncanonical gospels were composed” (6) and “no ancient author refers to any identifiable version of a noncanonical text like Thomas or Q as ‘the gospel’” (6). It seems to me that there are too many gaps in our knowledge of the first and early second century to make such arguments. What evidence we do have for early use of noncanonical texts is also notably absent—i.e., 2 Clement includes material that could derive from oral traditions but it has parallels also in the Gospel of Thomas and Jewish-Christian gospels.

In his efforts to show that the noncanonical texts were not valued as highly as the canonical, Bockmuehl comments that in the Oxyrhynchus papyri “canonical and noncanonical gospels are not found together within the same manuscripts” (24), but the materials are so fragmentary that it is not possible to determine the full extent of the manuscripts. He later states that even after canonization we do not get canonical and noncanonical texts bound together (26); however, he neglects here the fourth-century Bodmer Miscellaneous Codex, which features the Protevangelium of James along with 1 and 2 Peter and Jude. Mention could be made also of Codex Sinaiticus (with Ep. Barn. and Hermas) and Codex Alexandrinus (with 1 and 2 Clem.) and the numerous Latin biblical manuscripts that contain the Epistle to the Laodiceans. Of course these examples are not manuscripts with extra gospels; nevertheless, Bockmuehl’s discussion could benefit from acknowledgment of the fluidity of the canon, even after the fourth century.

Bockmuehl further emphasizes the popularity of the canonical four by noting that they are more widely used by early orthodox writers (and there are no early commentaries on noncanonical gospels, pp. 10–11) and extant early papyri demonstrate that they were more widely disseminated (he directs readers to recent lists of the evidence that refute earlier discussions by Robert Funk and Helmut Koester that indicate the number of canonical and non-canonical gospels are balanced in the papyri, pp. 25–27). Bockmuehl adds also that none of the alternative gospels “ever achieved a comparable catholicity that might place them in competition with the four gospels, whether individually or as a fourfold whole” (p. 13) and that no canonical gospel ever became apocryphal, that no apocryphal gospel is included in a canon list, etc.

Inevitably, the Bauer Thesis is brought into the discussion. Its proponents are mischaracterized as believing “the gnostic gospels in particular offered access to the authentic original genius of the Christian message” (p. 23). On the Bauer school’s early dating of noncanonical texts, Bockmuehl concludes, rather quizzically, that “while scholars from time to time postulate the existence of primitive texts like Q or early sources of Thomas, no extant alternative gospel forms or attestations predate the New Testament four” (p. 23). In arguing against the notion that noncanonical gospels were widely suppressed, Bockmuehl throws in a jab against Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson’s The Lost Gospel (which argues that Joseph and Asenath is a coded history of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene) calling it “historical nonsense on stilts”  (p. 21). On a side note, Bockmuehl offers another cheeky comment about sensationalism in his discussion of the Gospel of Judas: “the necessarily painstaking and lengthy process of critical sifting, assessment, and reassessment was repeatedly short-circuited by the Gospel of Judas’s release into the giddy world of instant Internet punditry that leaves no fleeting thought unblogged” (p. 205).

Bockmuehl is not wrong that the noncanonical gospels on the whole were not as popular as the canonical, but I’m not sure why the argument has to be made so strongly and persistently. Relative popularity does not strike me as particularly significant, unless Bockmuehl feels his audience has been particularly swayed or irritated by the sensationalist claims he lists as one of the targets of his five emphases. Certainly sensationalism should be addressed but I fear Bockmuehl is so fueled by this goal that he obscures the evidence. His tendency is to minimize the exceptions to his arguments—for example, none of the apocryphal gospels were particularly popular, well, except for the Pilate texts and Prot. Jas. (and one could add here Ps.-Mt. and Dorm. Vir.) (p. 27); and no noncanonical gospel before 300 CE is extant in more than one copy, well, except for Gos. Thom. and Gos. Mary (p. 11). In addition, his repeated comments that no apocryphal gospel gives a complete birth to death account of Jesus’ life obscures, again, the fact that the Gospel of Peter, though now known only in fragments, likely did, as did, it seems, at least one of the Jewish-Christian gospels. The gaps in our evidence should not be presented as a lack of evidence.

Bockmuehl returns to these arguments in the final chapter of the book, How to Read Apocryphal Gospels. Here he enumerates five theses: 1.“the canonical gospels appear to be unique and distinctive” (no other gospel-like text was a contender for the canon; nor was doubt cast on any of the four); 2. “Noncanonical gospels did not ‘become apocryphal’ and were not ‘suppressed’ from the canon” (secretive protest-texts, like Gos. Thom., were not intended to be canonical); 3. “The apocryphal gospels are epiphenomenal to the gospel tradition that became canonical” (they presuppose the contents of the canonical gospels); 4. “only a minority of the apocryphal gospels seem to intend explicit subversion or displacement of the fourfold gospel”; and 5. “The apocryphal gospels illustrate the diversity of early Christianity’s cultural and religious engagement with the memory of Jesus.” I have no argument against these statements, though several again have an air of polemic to them—why is it so important in a book on apocryphal gospels to defend the primacy of the canonical texts? Why is this given so much emphasis? Should the reader still not be convinced of the superiority of the canonical four, Bockmuehl concludes the book by driving this point home: “To read the apocryphal gospels in this way alongside the New Testament is at the same time to open one’s eyes to the uniqueness and remarkably fine-grained particularity of the four canonical accounts of Jesus” (p. 236). Thankfully his final sentence is more irenic: “And yet, perhaps both the Four and the many that so diversely reflect them express a desire above all to encounter and embrace through their words the compelling person of Jesus Christ” (p. 237).

There is much to recommend Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. Bockmuehl may not have begun as an expert on the literature but he certainly demonstrates sufficient mastery of it to inform his readers about the contributions these texts make to scholarship and to Christian thought and practice. Certainly other Christian apocrypha introductions accomplish much the same thing, and without the distracting apologetics, but they may not appeal to the audience that this book is intended for. That said, scholarly investigation of any subject should not include as its goal the affirmation of deeply held religious convictions; history is messy and its study can be unsettling. Readers of the Interpretation series would benefit from being challenged in their views on this literature instead of being comforted and coddled to the point that they may feel justified in dispensing with it as derivative, insignificant, and irrelevant.

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2017 Réunion de l’AELAC

The annual meeting of the Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne (AELAC) will take place this year June 30 to July 2 at the Centre Jean Bosco in Lyon. The program has been posted to the AELAC web site and is reproduced below.

Friday, June 30

Réunion du comité de l’AELAC avec les responsables des différents projets éditoriaux.

20:15 Présentations.

20:30 Isabel Iribarren (Université de Strasbourg), Utilisations et fonctions des écrits apocryphes dans l’œuvre de Jean Gerson.

Saturday, July 1

9:00 Anne-Catherine Baudoin (ENS Paris) – Zbigniew Izydorczyk (University of Winnipeg), The Latin Versions of the Evangelium Nicodemi.

10:45 Brent Landau (The University of Texas at Austin), A Summary of Research on the Revelation of the Magi in Anticipation of the Forthcoming CCSA Edition.

14:45 Échange d’informations et discussion sur les projets en cours dans le domaine des littératures apocryphes.

15:30 Grigory Kessel (Austrian Academy of Sciences), Sinai Palimpsest Witnesses of the New Testament Apocrypha.

16:45 Paul-Hubert Poirier (Université Laval), Le témoignage du manuscrit de Trichur sur les Actes syriaques de Thomas.

18:00 Zbigniew Izydorczyk (University of Winnipeg), Evangelium Nicodemi : A Comprehensive Database of Latin Manuscripts.

20:30 Assemblée générale de l’AELAC.

Sunday, July 2

9:00 Caitríona Ó Dochartaigh (University College Cork), Recherches sur le Saltair na Rann.

10:45 Stephen J. Shoemaker (University of Oregon), The Coptic Homily on the Theotokos attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem: An Aberrant and Apologetic ‘Life’ of the Virgin from Late Antiquity.

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Christian Apocrypha at the 2017 CSBS Annual Meeting

For several years now I have been organizing a Christian Apocrypha panel at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, which takes place this year at Ryerson University, May 27-29. Here is the program for the session.

Monday, May 29 8:30-11:45 ~ New Testament and Apocryphal Studies

Presided by: Callie Callon (Queen’s University)

8:30-9:00 Ian Phillip Brown (University of Toronto), “Where Indeed was The Gospel of Thomas Written?: Thomas as a Product of Alexandrian Intellectual Culture”
First century Alexandria represents a significant location at which Hellenistic culture, the Roman Empire, and Jewish intellectual culture converged. Alexandria was a cosmopolitan centre wherein the pinnacle of Hellenistic cultural attainment (paideia) was manifest in rhetorical schools, philosophical schools, among its sophists, and in the writings of Philo. In my paper I argue that the Gospel of Thomas, a first or second century collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, is best understood as an example of Alexandrian Judaism that brings together the Hellenistic desire for paideia with Jewish Genesis exegesis in the form of a wisdom teacher, Jesus.

9:00-9:30 Amelia Porter (University of Toronto), “New Paideia?: The Construction of Social Identity in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas”
The concept of paideia plays a significant role in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The text is constructed around three ‘teacher episodes,’ which are characterized by conflict between the child Jesus and his prospective teachers (IGT 6.1-8.2, 13.1-3, 14.1-4). The inherent connection between paideia and social identity suggests that these episodes speak to a larger process of identity formation, particularly as it pertains to a smaller group within a dominant culture. When viewed through the lens of social identity theory (SIT), the Jesus of IGT can be understood as a symbolic leader, or ‘group prototype,’ whose rejection of traditional models of cultural identity is representative of a similar process occurring within the larger context of the group. By positioning Jesus in direct conflict with paideia, IGT’s teacher episodes illustrate a move by Roman/Gentile Christians toward separation and differentiation from the reigning cultural paradigm. In its place, IGT is constructing an identity based on access to ‘true’ knowledge, embodied in the text by the child Jesus, and illustrated via his superiority to both the teachers of the ‘old school’ and the cultural systems they represent.

9:30-10:00 Robert Revington (McMaster University), “Name Repetition in Narrative Units in the New Testament and Other Literature”
Using examples from antiquity to modern literature, this paper will examine whether the repetition of a particular name within a narrative is evidence of historical authenticity. It may be argued that, in a “fictional” creation, (a) giving two characters the same name in close proximity demonstrates a lack of creativity on the part of the author, and (b) reusing a name is counterintuitive to the creative process. Applying these assumptions to different narrative contexts, this analysis will argue that those underlying assumptions are not helpful in all situations in the New Testament. In certain cases, however, these observations can support the historicity of a given text—with particular emphasis on the named women in the burial and empty tomb traditions.

10:00-10:15 Break

10:15-10:45 Chiaen (Joshua) Liu (McMaster Divinity College), “Peter’s Sermon on  Christological Prophecy: A Register Analysis on Acts 3:12-26”
This paper analyzes the register in Acts 3:12–26 to understand the context of situation regarding what the text is about, who is participating in, and how the author expresses. Therefore, this paper will argue that God’s prophecy and action are the foundation for Peter to encourage the audience to repent, to be converted, and to respond. Peter asks listeners to repent and be converted on the basis of the core of the prophecy which is brought by Christ so that their sins may be blotted out, while God is the backstage driving force for foretelling and fulfilling the prophecy.

10:45-11:15 Robert Edwards (University of Notre Dame), “The Deposition and Christology in the Gospel of Peter”
Jesus’ removal from the cross is hardly mentioned in the canonical Gospels, and is very sparsely received prior to the middle ages (then labelled ‘the deposition’). This paper examines the narration of the deposition in the Gospel of Peter – one of the few early expansions thereof – in relation to the canonical Gospel accounts that it receives. It then argues, on the basis of this comparison and the narrative context, that the Gospel’s christology is neither docetic nor theologically unsophisticated; instead, the Gospel of Peter works to maintain the intimacy of the human and the divine in the person of Jesus, even – as the expansion of the deposition shows – in his death.

11:15-11:45 Tony Burke (York University), “Christian Apocrypha in Ancient Libraries”
Several of the most prominent literary discoveries of the past century have been the contents of ancient libraries—i.e., collection of texts, rather than single texts or single codices. Many of these libraries include Christian apocryphal literature. The Bodmer Papyri (aka the Dishna Papers), for example, which may have belonged to a monastery library, include the Infancy Gospel of James and 3 Corinthians. And, the most well-known collection of Christian apocrypha, the Nag Hammadi Library, which may have originated at a nearby Pachomian monastery, features numerous apocryphal texts including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. This paper reviews the manuscript evidence of the apocryphal texts from these libraries to get a sense of how the texts were regarded by those who collected them. The paper includes also a discussion of allusions in early Christian literature to other ancient Christian libraries that contained apocryphal texts.

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The Acts of Thomas in CNN’s Finding Jesus

Season 2 of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, and Forgery had far fewer references to Christian apocrypha than season 1, and so there has been little reason to mention the series here (click HERE for reviews of last season). Episode six, however, is devoted to the apostle Thomas and features an extended discussion of the Acts of Thomas.

The episode traces the origins of the Thomas Christians who live in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India. They believe their church was established through evangelization by Thomas in the first century. Along with appealing to the Acts of Thomas as a (partly) historical document, the episode attempts to verify the Thomas Christians’ claim by examining a relic of Thomas now residing in Italy.

The episode opens with a re-enactment and discussion of the story of “doubting Thomas” from John 20:24-29. The re-enactments this season have been liberally embroidered, and this one is no exception. Here Peter asks Thomas where he was. “Away,” Thomas answers. Then Peter says, “Thomas. So little faith.” Thomas sullenly responds with, “It’s over.” The panel of scholars then speculate about Thomas’s doubt and absence from the group , with Candida Moss suggesting, “Perhaps he felt they should break up. Perhaps he decided to grieve privately.” Of course, the text is silent. John simply says he “was not with them when Jesus came.” He could have been fetching bread and wine. The scene continues with the apostles performing the Eucharist meal. Then Jesus appears in a blinding light but only Thomas sees him. In the Gospel, however, Jesus seems to appear to everybody in the room (it says only “Jesus came and stood among them”). My point here is not to fault the filmmakers—they simply want to make the scene come alive for the audience. What is interesting is that their re-enactment has become an apocryphal telling of the Thomas story, with expansions and interpretations just as we see in ancient apocrypha.

Ben Witherington and Mark Goodacre remark that, after the appearance of Jesus in the room, Thomas vanishes from the New Testament. Unless, of course, one counts the letter attributed to Jude, “the brother of James,” and presumably, the brother of Jesus mentioned in Mark 6:3 and Matt 12:55-56. But that identification is only possible through the tradition that Thomas’s true name is Judas, as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, the Book of Thomas, and the Syriac translation of John 14:22. Nevertheless, the scholars are correct that the New Testament does not report anything about Thomas’s evangelizing activities. But they are documented in great detail in the Acts of Thomas.

Nicola Denzey Lewis examines the British Library manuscript.

The episode cuts to Nicola Denzey Lewis in the British Library examining a Syriac manuscript of the text, presumably BM Add. 14645 copied in 936 CE. An earlier copy exists, a palimpsest at Sinai (Codex 30) from the fifth or sixth century, but this one is certainly less accessible than the British Library manuscript. Of this copy, Denzey Lewis says, “The text is written in Syriac and that’s significant because it’s very closely related to Aramaic and Aramaic is the language that Jesus spoke to his disciples.” The suggestion is that the text thus has a claim to authenticity, more than, presumably, a text in Greek or Latin. Indeed, likely the Acts of Thomas was written in Syriac—a rare case of early Syriac composition for an apocryphal text, or any Christian text for that matter. But the language of composition, particularly for a late second or early third century text, doesn’t have any impact on the authenticity of what the text reports.

The episode continues with a re-enactment of the Great Commission in which the apostles draw lots to determine where they will evangelize. This event is reported in Acts of Thomas 1, but it is a widespread tradition that appears in several other texts, including Origen’s Commentary on Genesis: “The holy apostles and disciples of our Savior were scattered over the whole world. Thomas, tradition tells us, was chosen for Parthia, Andrew for Scythia, John for Asia, where he remained till his death at Ephesus. Peter seems to have preached in Pontus, Galatia and Bithynia, Cappadocia and Asia, to the Jews of the Dispersion. Finally he came to Rome where he was crucified, head downwards at his own request. What need be said of Paul, who from Jerusalem as far as Illyricum preached in all its fullness the gospel of Christ, and later was martyred in Rome under Nero?” (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.1). In the Acts of Thomas, Thomas draws India and initially refuses to go, fearing that the Indians would not understand him. The narrator says, “After a night of prayer, Thomas accepts his lot.” Then Thomas tells a radiant Jesus, “I’ll go wherever you wish.” The episode leaves out a key component of the story. After Thomas’s refusal, Jesus sells Thomas as a slave to a merchant from India named Chaban (Acts Thomas 2). Thomas does pray on the following night, but his statement to Jesus is more an acquiescence to his fate than an acceptance of the results of the lot.

When Thomas arrives in India he makes contact with the King Gundafar and we are told by the filmmakers that this element of the story has some historical verisimilitude. Denzey Lewis is once again depicted in London, this time at the British Museum examining a coin of Gundafar discovered in the 19th century. Mind you, Gundafar ruled over Parthia, the location of Thomas’s missionary activities according to Origen, not India.

The arm of Thomas in Bari, Italy.

In the final re-enactment, Thomas is killed by a group of soldiers. According to the Acts of Thomas, the apostle’s body is placed in a tomb “ where the kings of old used to be buried” (168), but is later taken “to the western regions” (169). Ephrem (d. 377) and Gregory of Tours (583-594) both place Thomas’s remains in Edessa. From there they were apparently taken in 1258 to Ortona in Italy, where they now reside in the Basilia di San Tommaso. At this point in Finding Jesus, the investigation turns to Georges Kazan and Tom Higham, a team from Oxford who travel the world to examine relics and determine their origins and movement over time. They take another Thomas relic, an arm bone of the apostle housed in Bari, Italy, and submit it to radio carbon tests. The goal, Kazan says, is to see what it can tell us about the legends of Thomas: “A first-century date will potentially open the door towards validating that Jesus went to India.” Of course, no amount of scientific testing can do that much; at best, it can prove that the bone is from a man, any man, who lived in the first century. As it turns out, it cannot even prove that. The relic dates from 130-330 which, Higham says, “is still incredibly old” and “seems to cover the period where we find the first historical references to his remains coming back from India.” Presumably, Higham is referring here to Ephrem and is suggesting that the remains of Thomas known to Ephrem were instead of someone close to his own time

Despite these speculations, embroideries, and infelicities, the episode draws the viewers’ attention to a text that is little known by the wider public. There are now many, many documentaries that feature explorations of apocryphal texts, but only one other focuses on the Acts of Thomas: National Geographic’s Deadly Journeys of the Apostles episode 4 (watch it HERE), which covers much of the same ground as the CNN documentary, but without the dodgy interest in relics. Finding Jesus is a welcome addition to the pedagogical resources available to those of us who teach about Christian apocrypha, Syriac Christianity, and late antiquity.

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Manuscripta apocryphorum: Online Christian Apocrypha Manuscripts

P. Heidelberg 300, a 6th-century copy of the Acts of Paul in Coptic

Each entry for the e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha, the online Christian Apocrypha clavis constructed and maintained by members of NASSCAL (North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature), contains branch pages for manuscripts that contain the text of the entry. The pages feature links to online images (where available) and other databases, along with such information as physical description, provenance, date of composition, contents, and catalogs.

All of these branch pages can be accessed via the Manuscripta apocryphorum page. At present pages have been created for 45 manuscripts and there are many, many more to come. Libraries throughout the world are releasing images of their manuscripts online; unfortunately, manuscripts of apocryphal texts seem to be low on their priorities. Nevertheless, they are appearing ever-so-slowly and Manuscripta apocryphorum is a helpful resource to consult when looking to see what materials are available.

e-Clavis is always looking for volunteers to contribute entries for unassigned texts. Contact members of the editorial board for more information.

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Book Note: The Book of Mary by Michael P. Closs

Michael P. Closs. The Book of Mary: A Commentary on the Protevangelium of James. Victoria, BC: Friesen Press, 2016.

This self-published commentary by retired University of Ottawa professor Michael Closs is a welcome tool for study of Prot. Jas., as there are few other commentaries available on the text—indeed, there are few available on any apocryphal texts!  It is presented as a refutation of Émile Amann’s classic study, Le Protévangile de Jacques et ses remaniements latins: Introduction, textes, traduction et commentaire (1910). Closs opens page 1 with the statement: “This commentary will show that Amann’s work is seriously flawed and that later assessments of the Protevangelium  are equally incorrect. The Protevangelium is a very different type of document than has been envisaged and its contents shed light on the earliest theological developments in marian dogma.” Closs claims instead that, “the intent of the author is to write a theological narrative with the goal of understanding Mary in relationship to her son. Its purpose is not so much to defend Mary as to reveal who she is, given that she is the mother of Jesus” (8).

The study works through the text chapter-by-chapter in English, providing along the way a paraphrase of Amann’s commentary with critique and additional comments, and his own explanatory notes. The book’s layout is a model of clarity, with HB/OT parallels in yellow callouts, NT in pink, patristic authors in green, rabbinic texts in orange, and large quotations from scholars in blue. Closs’s notes at times delve deeply into the text, with much attention paid to key issues such as the possible existence of temple virgins who weaved the temple veil (as Mary does in Prot. Jas. 10). It is unfortunate, however, that the text is presented, and interpreted, only in English translation. In constructing his text, Closs has drawn upon four previous translations: Amann, Walker, and Elliott (all translations of Tischendorf’s edition), and Hock (a translation of Emile de Strycker’s edition of Papyrus Bodmer V). This is an odd strategy, made necessary, I assume because Closs does not have facility with Greek.

The book concludes with five short studies presented as appendices: Attributes of the Author (of Jewish descent and priestly lineage, and perhaps even a woman), the Theology of the Narrative, Dating the Manuscript (i.e., the composition of the text), On Revelation 11:19-12:5, and Liturgical Connections.

The Book of Mary can be ordered from Friesen Press, and is available in hardcover, paperback, and as an e-book for only $10.99. The following abstract is from the publisher’s web site:

This commentary provides a new paradigm for understanding the Protevanglium of James, an early Christian manuscript that was marginalized in the West in the late 4th century but continued to be highly valued in the East.

The Protevangelium has long been recognized as the single most important manuscript associated with the development of marian dogma in early Christianity. The theology of the manuscript and the interpretation of its contents, however, have been woefully misunderstood for almost two thousand years. The present work reveals that the Protevangelium is a theological presentation of Mary in the same genre as the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The story of Mary in the Protevangelium tells of a Jewish maiden whose unique vocation was to be the mother of the holy one, the Son of the Most High. The christological awareness in Gospel times was sufficient to single out Mary’s place in salvation history. However, it was her role as a holy of holies of the divine presence—a role that can only be understood within the holiness tradition of the Jewish people—that first engendered her veneration among early Christians.


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Cursing in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles

I will be presenting a paper at the Spring 2017 meeting of the Westar Institute next week (March 22-25) in sunny Santa Rosa, California (further information HERE). The paper, “Cursing and the Apostle: The Fight for Authority in Early Christianity,” will be read during the Christianity Seminar (papers available online HERE). It features a lengthy introduction on cursing in the ancient world, including the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The final section covers cursing in the canonical Acts and Paul’s letters and then turns to the apocryphal acts. For those interested in Christian Apocrypha (and why else would you be here?), I have excerpted here, with some changes, the portion of the paper focusing on Acts and apocryphal acts.

The canonical book of Acts is a treasure trove of curse stories. Several of these are perpetrated by God: the fatal punishment of Judas (Acts 1:15–20), the death of Herod Agrippa (12:20–23;  cf. Josephus, Ant. 19.8.2, where Agrippa’s death is also seen as divine retribution), and the blinding of Paul (9:3–9). In two other curse stories, an apostle is given an active role. The first of these is the story of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1–11; influenced perhaps by the story of Achan who misappropriated what had been dedicated to God and was killed along with his family; see Josh 7:1–26). As the story goes, the community in Jerusalem shares its resources so that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). Members of the group sold their land and houses and gave the proceeds to the apostles who “distributed to each as any had need” (4:35). Two members of the community, however, had not given all they owned.

Ananias and Sapphira

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things. (5:1–11)

It is not clear who exactly is the instrument of doom in the tale, God or Peter. While God is certainly the power behind the curse, Peter has the ability to know that Ananias is lying and Ananias dies after Peter’s declaration of the falsehood. The same formula is followed for Sapphira, though by now Peter certainly knows what fate will befall her if she lies. The story is a frightening warning to those who dare to cheat or lie to the community. Readers of the text, or hearers of the tale, would feel some hesitation in doing the same. They may also have felt that the successors of Peter would have the same ability to curse those who disobey the church’s commands and justifiably worry if they are called before their superiors.

The second apostolic curse story in Acts is Paul’s encounter with Bar-Jesus, also known as Elymas (13:6–11). Paul and Barnabas have traveled to Cyprus and meet the proconsul of Paphas who is accompanied by “a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus” (13:6). When Elymas tries to prevent Paul and Barnabas from speaking to the proconsul about Jesus, Paul curses him: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun” (13:10–11). And, as one might expect, Elymas is blinded. It is not revealed to the reader how long the blindness lasts—perhaps for his entire life. As for the proconsul, “when [he] saw what happened, he believed” (13:12). Miracles are often depicted in the canonical Gospels and Acts as effective ways to attract people to the faith and encourage belief; they are an entryway, an attention-getter for the teacher, who then follows up the miracles with teachings. But this story demonstrates that a curse can be just as effective, particularly when encountering rival wonderworkers. It is a classic case of my god is bigger and better than your god.

The same conflict between apostles and rival wonderworkers is observable in the curse stories of the apocryphal acts. The apocryphal acts are similar to the canonical Acts—they feature stories of apostles travelling to various locations, performing miracles, converting people to the faith, and encountering persecution and martyrdom—but focus on individual apostles, each of whom is appointed a corner of the world to evangelize. Every apostle, as well as several secondary figures, such as Cornelius the Centurion and Mark the Evangelist, gets his own text, but five of these stand out in scholarship as the earliest: Andrew, Peter, Paul, John, and Thomas, all composed in either the late second or early third century. Christian institutions and theologians have not looked favorably upon these texts. Uneasy about the somewhat unorthodox preaching and ascetic practices of the apostles in the apocryphal acts, orthodox revisers removed the martyrdom accounts and discarded the rest. Due to the efforts of Christian apocrypha scholars, portions of the discarded material have been recovered but even today, only the Acts of Thomas is available in its entirety. The material that is available for study features a number of curse stories, but the texts may once have featured more.

Several of the stories focus on encounters between the apostle and minor characters who offend the apostle or interfere in his mission. Both Paul and Thomas encounter unworthy people who attempt to take part in the Eucharist. In one story, “a certain youth who had wrought an abominable deed” (he killed a woman who spurned his advances) cannot not put the Eucharist in his mouth because his hands had withered up (Acts Thom. 51). The apostle says that the Eucharist had detected his lie, though presumably the punishment came directly from God. In the other story, the apostle is more active in the curse. A woman named Rufina approaches Paul to receive the Eucharist but he stops her and says, “Rufina, you are not coming to the altar of God like a true (worshipper), rising from beside (one who is) not your husband but an adulterer, yet you seek to receive the Eucharist of God. For behold Satan shall trouble break your body and cast you down in the sight of all that believe in the Lord, so that they may see and believe, and know that it is the living God who examines (men’s) hearts. But if you repent of your action, he is faithful, so that he can wipe away your sins (and) deliver you from this sin. But if you do not repent while you are still in the body, the consuming fire and the outer darkness shall receive you forever” (Acts Pet. 2). Rufina falls down, paralyzed on the left side of her body. The onlookers worry now that God will not forgive their own former sins, a concern that reflects the overarching theme of the text, that apostates during times of persecution should be welcomed back to the community if they repent. Rufina, for her part, is not repentant of her sin and is punished as a result.

Another tale of Paul features the common punishment of blindness. A man in Myra named Hermocrates is cured by Paul of dropsy. This angers his son Hermippus because he wanted his father to die so that he could inherit his property. Hermippus comes at Paul with a sword but after Paul prays to God to “look down upon their counsel and let me not be brought to nought by them,” Hermippus is struck blind (Acts Paul 4). Attacking an apostle brings misery also when a cupbearer at a wedding strikes Thomas. The apostle says to him, “My God will forgive you for this wrong in the world to come, but in this world he will show his wonders, and I shall soon see that hand that struck me dragged along by dogs” (Acts Thom. 6). And indeed, the cupbearer is later killed by a lion and a black dog takes his hand and brings it back to the wedding (Acts Thom. 8). Andrew also meets resistance and is twice saved from death by curses from God. In the first story, a noble youth named Exoos comes to Andrew without his parents’ consent. The parents lead a mob to the house where Andrew is staying, but before any harm can come to him, God blinds the mob. “All were converted,” the text reports, “except the youth’s parents, who cursed him and went home again, leaving all their money to public uses. Fifty days after they suddenly died, and the citizens, who loved the youth, returned the property to him” (Acts Andr. 12). In the second story, a proconsul sends Andrew into a pit of wild animals, but God intervenes and a fierce bull spares Andrew, killing instead its two handlers; then a fierce leopard enters the pit but it “left every one alone but seized and strangled the proconsul’s son” (Acts Andr. 18).

Giotto, Raising of Drusiana, Peruzzi Chapel (14th. cent.)

The final example of cursing opponents is the infamous tale of the attempted necrophilia of Callimachus from the Acts of John (70–86). Callimachus and Fortunatus enter the tomb of Drusiana but before they can defile her body, a snake comes out of nowhere and kills Fortunatus. Then an angel appears. He covers Drusiana and says to Callimachus, “die, that you may live” (76). And Callimachus is bitten by the snake. John comes to the tomb, dismisses the snake and raises Callimachus to life so that he can reveal what happened. Now repentant of his attempted crime, Callimachus is  accepted into the apostle’s group. Drusiana is then restored to life and in turn she raises Fortunatus, who flees from the tomb. Later John receives a revelation that Fortunatus will die of blood-poisoning from the bite, and he dispatches one of his followers to determine if he is indeed dead. When they discover it is true, John says, “You have your child, devil!” (86) and they all rejoice.

Another apostolic curse story deserves separate mention, because one of the victims in the account is not a sinner, but someone who was cursed in order to prevent sin. The story is the sole episode in the Act of Peter from Berlin Coptic Papyrus 8502. A crowd comes to Peter in search of healing. One person in the group asks him about his daughter: “why haven’t you helped your virgin daughter, who has grown up to be beautiful and has believed in the name of God? For look, she is completely paralyzed on one side and lies there in the corner, helpless. We see people you have healed, but your own daughter you have neglected” (128,15–129,8). Peter responds that it is indeed within God’s power to heal her and Peter does so, “so that your soul may be convinced and those here may increase their faith” (129,17–19). The crowd rejoices and Peter declares, “Look, your hearts are convinced that God is not powerless regarding what we ask of him” (130,12–16). Then Peter says to his daughter, “Now go back to your place, lie down, and become an invalid again, for this is better for both of us” (131,2–5). The crowd begs him to heal her again but Peter refuses, saying the Lord told him on the day she was born, “this girl will harm many souls if her body stays healthy” (132,1–4). He then relates a story of a man named Ptolemy who was tempted by the girl when she was only ten years old. The text is damaged at this point, but it seems that Ptolemy attempted to “defile” her and was prevented when God paralyzed the girl and blinded her attacker. Ptolemy repented and his sight was restored, though he died shortly after. Ptolemy’s story is not unlike those of Hermippus, Callimachus and Fortunatus, and the parents of Exoos, all of whom were cursed for their attacks on believers. But the curse on Peter’s daughter is different, because she never sinned. She was paralyzed largely to avert another man’s sin and remains that way to prevent others from doing the same. The story is a shocking example of victim blaming of a girl who was never even given a name.

A second set of curse stories in the apocryphal acts were written to demonstrate to the reader that the Christian God is mightier than other gods. The tales involve the destruction of pagan temples, and sometimes the temple officials along with them. In a lengthy account from the Acts of John 37–47, John enters the temple of Artemis in Ephesus dressed in black. The worshippers, all dressed in white, are insulted and try to kill him. John evades the crowds and issues a challenge: “Behold, here I stand. You all assert that Artemis is powerful. Pray to her, that I alone die! Or if you cannot accomplish this, I alone will call upon my own God to kill you all because of your unbelief” (39). Those who had witnessed his previous miracles realize their danger and plead for their lives. The apostle prays for God’s mercy on them. In response, half of the temple falls down, the idols and altar are smashed, and the priest is crushed by the roof. Again, the people cry out for mercy and then destroy the rest of the temple themselves and declare, “We know that the God of John is the only one, and henceforth  we worship him, since we have obtained mercy from him” (44). Later, one of the priest’s family takes his body and lays it at the gate of the house where John is staying. Impressed by the man’s  faith, John tells him to raise the priest to life using the words, “The servant of God, John, says to you, Arise!” The priest is restored to life and follows John. A similar story is told of Paul (Acts Paul 5), who is imprisoned along with two companions in the temple of Apollo in Sidon. He prays for liberation and half of the temple falls. There is no mention of loss of life but the text is too fragmentary at this point to know for sure. In its present form, the episode is more of a “liberation miracle” in the same vein as Acts 12:1–19. Destruction of temples occurs also in later apocryphal acts, though no one is hurt in the accounts. In the Acts of Cornelius the converted centurion visits Skepsis and prays for the temple of Zeus to fall, temporarily trapping the governor’s wife and son (2:10—3:4), and in the Acts of Titus a temple under construction falls after Titus walks by and “utters a deep groan” (9:1–2). The outcome of both miracles, as usual, is the conversion of onlookers.

Bennozzo Gozzoli, Fall of Simon Magus (1461)

The final category of curses in the apocryphal acts are those invoked against religious rivals. The high priest of Artemis killed in the Acts of John could be placed also in this category, but far more illustrative of the competition for followers is the fall of Simon Magus in the Acts of Peter. The two figures are established as rivals in the canonical acts, though their encounter ends rather peacefully with Simon repenting of his attempt to buy the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9–24), and thus prevents Peter’s curse (“May your silver perish with you, because you though you could obtain God’s gifts with money,” 8:20) come coming to fruition. The pair compete more aggressively in Peter’s solo adventures, not only in the Acts of Peter but also the Pseudo-Clementine Romance and several derivative texts. But it is the martyrdom portion of the Acts of Peter that features the final contest between the two wonderworkers (ch. 32). In a final attempt to demonstrate his greater power, Simon climbs up on a high place in the city of Rome and there appears to be flying. Worried that many would turn from God and worship Simon, Peter prays to Jesus for assistance, saying, “Make haste, O Lord, show your mercy and let him fall down and become crippled but not die; let him be disabled and break his leg in three places.” As expected, Simon does fall and is crippled. To add insult to injury, the crowds stone him and “from that time” they believed in Peter. Simon is carried off by his remaining supporters to Africa where he is operated on and dies shortly thereafter. Simon’s end is relatively tame compared to those who oppose Philip in the fourth-century Acts of Philip. In one story (ch. 2), Philip is opposed by a Jewish delegation to Athens led by the high priest Ananias, who is possessed by the demon Mansemat. Ananias comes to the apostle with 500 men and accuses him of sorcery. After Philip gives a spirited defense of his mission, Ananias runs at the apostle to whip him but his hand withers and his eyes are blinded. Then the 500 are blinded also (2:12). The 500 repent and eventually regain their sight, but Ananias remains stubborn and refuses to believe, even after Jesus himself descends from heaven in glory and lightning. The apostle restores the high priest’s sight but utters a spell in Hebrew and the earth swallows him up, first to his knees, then his waist, then his neck. Finally, with Ananias still unrepentant, Philip becomes angry and says, “A curse on you! Depart now entirely into the abyss in front of all these people” (2:23).  And Ananias descends alive into Hades. Philip’s anger eventually becomes his undoing. In the final act of the text, Philip is crucified upside down. He is told by Christ not to prevent his martyrdom, but he is incensed by the treatment of his companion John and declares, “I will no longer hold myself back, but I will bring my full indignation upon them and destroy them all” (15:25). Again he cries out to God in Hebrew and the proconsul, the temple and its priests, and 7000 men are swallowed up by the abyss. Fortunately for the townspeople, Jesus appears again and punishes Philip for disobeying his rule to “not return evil for evil” by preventing his entry into paradise for forty days (15:29–31). Philip struggles to understand the reason for this punishment—he asks, “Why are you angry with me, Lord, that I called down curses on my enemies? Indeed, why do you not strike them down since they still live in the abyss?” (15:30)—but relents and accepts his fate. Jesus saves the townspeople from the abyss by transforming his cross into a ladder (15:32). What is most surprising in this final story is that Philip can curse without the consent of God; the power is entirely the apostle’s.

The apocryphal acts, as with other noncanonical texts, tend to be disparaged for their abundant use of wonders and prodigies, the principal aim of which is to entertain their readers while at the same time demonstrating that the apostles’ miracles are mightier than the magic of their rivals and that their God is the only god. The apocryphal acts look garish, they say, in comparison to the more sober canonical acts. Yet, when it comes to curse stories (the most offensive element of the acts for many readers), the canonical Acts has the apocryphal acts beat: there are far more punitive miracles per page in Acts than in the longer individual acts. And the curses largely function the same way: to demonstrate the might of the apostles over their opponents and thereby elicit belief from onlookers. There is little that separates Philip’s blinding of the high priest Ananias and his men from Paul’s blinding of Elymas, nor God’s murder of Judas, Agrippa, and Ananias and Sapphira from the killing and maiming of Fortunatus, the parents of Exoos, and the priest of Artemis.

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“On the Funeral of Jesus”: Apocryphal Passion Traditions from a Fifteenth-Century Manuscript

Opening page of On the Funeral of Jesus

Opening page of On the Funeral of Jesus

The latest volume of Le Muséon (129: 251-78) features my article “Two New Witnesses to the Acta Pilati Tradition.” I first came across the two texts while working on my dissertation (way back in 2000!). The catalog for one of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas manuscripts (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. hist. gr. 91, 14/15th cent.) lists the first as a fragment of On the Passion, for the Preparation Day, a sermon attributed to Eusebius of Alexandria. The second appears under the title “Anonyme. Fragment über die Bestattung Jesu Christi.” It is a curious mix of canonical and noncanonical traditions: the burial of Jesus is derived mostly from the Gospel of John, and then much of the post-burial material has parallels in the Acts of Pilate and the Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea, though there is some never-before-seen material in the text also. The article took an awfully long time to see publication. I presented the text at a conference in Winnipeg in 2010 and for one reason or another it was turned down for publication by a few journals before finding a home at Le Muséon. For more information on the text, see the entry in e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha. The abstract is reproduced below:

A 14th/15th-century Greek manuscript in Vienna (Cod. hist. gr. 91) contains two fragmentary texts relating to the Acta Pilati corpus of the Christian Apocrypha. The first is a fragment of On the Passion, for the Preparation Day, a sermon attributed to Eusebius of Alexandria drawing upon the Descensus ad inferos, found appended to several versions of the Acts of Pilate. The paper includes a transcription and translation of the fragment along with an overview of the publication history of the sermon. The second text is an unpublished, untitled excerpt from an unknown homily dealing with the burial of Jesus and the imprisonment of Joseph of Arimathea. This paper presents a diplomatic edition of the text with an English translation along with a discussion of its relationship to the Acts of Pilate and the related Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea.

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Book Notice: Biblical Pseudepigraphy in Slavonic Traditions

Alexander Kulik and Sergey Minov, Biblical Pseudepigraphy in Slavonic Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

From the Oxford University Press catalog page:

slavonicEarly Slavonic writings have preserved a unique corpus of compositions that develop biblical themes. These extracanonical, parabiblical narratives are known as pseudepigrapha, and they preserve many ancient traditions neglected by the canonical scriptures. They feature tales of paradise and hell, angels and Satan, the antediluvian fathers and biblical patriarchs, kings, and prophets. These writings address diverse questions ranging from artistically presented questions of theology and morals to esoteric subjects such as cosmology, demonology, messianic expectations, and eschatology.

Although these Slavonic texts themselves date from a relatively late period, they are translations or reworkings of far earlier texts and traditions, many of them arguably going back to late biblical or early postbiblical times. The material in these works can contribute significantly to a better understanding of the roots of postbiblical mysticism, rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, ancient and medieval dualistic movements, as well as the beginnings of the Slavonic literary tradition.

The volume provides a collection of the minor biblical pseudepigrapha preserved solely in Slavonic; at the same time, it is also the first collection of Slavonic pseudepigrapha translated into a western European language. It includes the original texts, their translations, and commentaries focusing on the history of motifs and based on the study of parallel material in ancient and medieval Jewish and Christian literature.

The aim of the volume is to to bridge the gap between the textual study of this corpus and its contextualization in early Jewish, early Christian, rabbinic, Byzantine, and other traditions, as well as to introduce these texts into the interdisciplinary discussion of the intercultural transmission of ideas and motifs.

Table of Contents:

1. About All Creation
2. The Creation of Adam
3. Adam’s Contract with Satan
4. The Tale about the Tree of the Cross
5. The Appeal of Adam to Lazarus
6. The Sea of Tiberias
7. About the Ark
8. The Ladder of Jacob

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