David Brakke appeared on the 2017 SBL review panel for New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. I really enjoyed his paper and asked him to allow me to publish it here.
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I have decided, after investigating everything carefully from the first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
So the author of the Gospel of Luke explained his decision to write a story that many had already written. His account would be carefully investigated and orderly and so give the truth.
1900 years later José Saramago placed these words as the epitaph to his novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and so signaled his own audacity and anxiety about telling a story that had been told countless times before. Saramago’s specific challenge of rewriting what has already been written about Jesus becomes in the novel emblematic both of any human being’s inability to rewrite the story that has been written for him or her and also of the Western novelist’s predicament at the end of modernity: How can one write when so many words have gone before, or tell a new story when all the great stories have been told, or perhaps resist the divinely ordained closure for which the Christian narrative yearns?
It seems that many Christian writers of late antiquity and the Middle Ages did not share Saramago’s anxiety, but of course even he overcame it to write his own story of Jesus, which is characterized by gentle irony and real suspense over whether even Jesus can write his own story. Tony Burke and Brent Landau, the learned and generous editors of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, devote much of their introduction to situating their collection in a history of those who have gone before. They make clear in what ways many have undertaken to set down an orderly collection of early Christian apocrypha, they explain and justify their own careful investigations, and they even recruited one of those many, J. K. Elliott, to write the foreword. But if Tony and Brent had any anxiety about their project, they should not have. It’s a triumph in every way, a precious gift to biblical scholars, historians of Christianity, and any other curious reader. They and their colleagues adhere to the highest scholarly standards and yet also have made their texts and their scholarship accessible to a wide range of readers. Most of the texts will be new even to the most erudite of apocryphalists. For all of this we owe the editors and their team immense gratitude.
I suspect that I was invited to join this distinguished panel of reviewers because I have spent some time with Athanasius of Alexandria’s 39th Festal Letter of 367. Like Saramago, Athanasius used the first lines of Luke to mark the audacity of his project, in this case, listing the Scriptures, which it seemed no one had done before:
As I begin to mention these things, in order to commend my audacity, I will employ the example of Luke the evangelist and say myself: Inasmuch as certain people have attempted to set in order for themselves the so-called apocryphal books and to mix these with the divinely inspired Scripture, about which we are convinced it is just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and assistants of the Word handed down to our ancestors, it seemed good to me, because I have been urged by genuine brothers and sisters and instructed from the beginning, to set forth in order the books that are canonized, transmitted, and believed to be divine, so that those who have been deceived might condemn the persons who led them astray, and those who have remained pure might rejoice to be reminded (of these things).
As Tony and Brent note, here we find the terms “canonical” and “apocryphal” juxtaposed, complete with a list of precisely the standard 27 canonical books of the New Testament. The new volume inspires me to make three observations about Athanasius’s letter. First, it provides evidence for the positive use of the term “apocrypha” in Egypt in the 360s. That is, Athanasius does not use the term to label books excluded from his canon or to designate spurious books. Instead, he denies the very existence of a category of apocryphal books, which he calls an invention of heretics. That’s because Egyptian Christians were using “apocrypha” to identify books attributed to such Old Testament figures as Moses and Enoch as special because they had been lost but now were found or were reserved for a special in-group – an echo of the positive use of the term in the second century. Athanasius simply denies that, say, Moses wrote any apocryphal books.
Second, note that Athanasius mentions only apocryphal books attributed to figures of the Old Testament: Moses, Enoch, Isaiah. He does not mention any works that we would include in a collection of New Testament or Christian apocrypha. Most likely he would not have endorsed any of them either: after all, as he says, only the canonical books form “the springs of salvation” in which the word of truth can be found. Nonetheless, if a letter to virgins preserved in Syriac and Armenian and attributed to Athanasius is authentic – and I believe that it is – he did offer Thecla as a model to virgins, and he cited specific incidents and characters from what we know as the Acts of Paul and Thecla.
Third, although Athanasius presented his list of the books of the Old and New Testaments as closed – “let no one add to or subtract from it!” – he could not help but make another list, a list of books to be read by catechumens, which includes such works as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. Even the closed list generated a new list – and, as I shall argue, a late ancient age of lists.
Today we live in an age of lists, generated above all by the need for clickbait on the internet. As I surf the web, I could study the “12 Best Opening Themes to 1980s Sitcoms” or the “7 Styling Things Men Do That Women Hate.” The New York Times recently offered me, among other lists, “10 Tips for Fascinating Table Talk at Your Next Dinner Party” and “52 Places to Go in 2017.” Academics have joined the listing craze. On vox.com the historian Kyle Harper lists “6 Ways Climate Change and Disease Helped Topple the Roman Empire,” and here at this meeting you could have attended yesterday a session entitled “Six Things about Late Antiquity.” What is it about the number 6? As for books, we can soon anticipate the Times’s list of the ten best books of the year, always carefully divided into five fiction and five non-fiction, as well as lists of movies, plays, albums, and so on. But none of these lists will be definitive. They will all be supplemented by additional lists of also-rans, honorable mentions, editors’ choices, and the like. Readers will be encouraged to list their own favorites.
So too Tony and Brent conclude their introduction with a list, what they call “the current list of texts to be included in volume two.” But they’re not sure when they will stop: there may be volume three or even four because there are still plenty of candidates for inclusion. This list is definitely not closed.
That’s the problem with lists, as Umberto Eco notes in his book The Infinity of Lists. Even when a list is not numbered, enumeration provides the organizing principle of listing, which in its form highlights uniformity and sequence. And enumeration has no natural end. You can always add one more, despite what Athanasius says. Are there really only 52 places to go in 2017, no more and no fewer? Do women really hate only 7 styling things we men do? Eco suggests that there is a specific kind of list, the practical list, which is exhaustive and finite – the shopping list of all the things I need at the grocery store, the guests at a party, the library catalogue. But who has not stood in aisle 8 of Kroger and wondered, Is this really everything that should be on the list? Who here thinks that their library catalogue should be considered finite? Or, as J. K. Elliott asks in his preface to our volume, “When is Enough Enough?” Never, I think. No wonder men like Philo and Irenaeus must spend time so much energy naturalizing numbers: Why seven days of creation? Why four gospels? After all, four could just as easily have been three, and four could easily become five. Irenaeus must turn to nature – four winds and so on – to find reasons why four is the natural end to that list.
Not only do lists, even when they purport to be complete, always suggest the possibility of addition, but they also inspire new lists. Should we not know which 7 styling things women do that men hate? And why only sitcoms of the 1980s? We need a list for the 1990s. And although it seems obvious that what’s not on a particular list is what’s not on the list, it’s hard to resist listing what’s not on the list – what one could have put on the list, but did not.
The late fourth century inaugurated a late ancient age of lists. Athanasius may have claimed to have composed the definitive list of canonical books, but as we have seen, that just generated another list of his own. Canon lists began to proliferate, and so did supplementary lists. Jerome provided a list of whom he called “illustrious men,” authors of the New Testament and related works, which found its end in Jerome himself, but of course Gennadius and Isidore of Seville expanded that list. Augustine listed his own works, and an anonymous monk in Upper Egypt did the same with the works of Shenoute after his death. Epiphanius listed heresies as well as gemstones of the Bible. Evagrius of Pontus listed demons – just seven – and then listed 498 biblical passages to fight the thoughts inspired by those demons. Consular diptychs, lists in an attractive visual format, became trendy among politicians, and more churches employed liturgical diptychs, with all the drama of adding and removing names from those lists. In the world of canon and apocrypha, this late ancient proclivity for listing reached its climax with works like the Decretum Gelasianum, the stichometry of Nicephorus, and the so-called Catalogue of 60 Books, which has a neat list of precisely 25 apocryphal books. Only 25, Tony and Brent!
All this is to say that the strategy of closing the canon by listing books inevitably generated new lists and therefore new collections. Jerome’s list of famous men is the ancestor of the elaborate lists we call patrologies and the origin of a canon of early Christian literature iconically embodied in the volumes of Migne. And although it seems obvious that what’s not in the canon is what’s not on the canon list, it proved impossible to resist listing what’s not on the list. After all, theoretically any early Christian book could have been on the list of the New Testament, but in fact this was not the case: not every book was a possible candidate, and thus one needed to list books that are not on the list but could have been but really, really most certainly should not be! In addition, even the open-ended list, like that of the Christian apocrypha, invites discussion of where it should end, for deciding when a list should end, what should not be on it, is an important way to figure out what you’re listing in the first place. That is, even if we think that the production of Christian apocrypha is endless, a discussion of what should not be considered apocrypha might be a good way to figure what the apocrypha are.
The failure of listing to end – its inevitable generation of supplementation through ever more listing – mirrors the failure of the Christian narrative to end – its inevitable generation of supplementation through ever more narrative. By starting with the creation of this world in Genesis and ending with its transformation, indeed replacement, in Revelation, the Bible seems to offer a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But that plot has too many gaps, and its end has not arrived. It appears to be the single divine Word, definitive and closed, but it continues to generate new words. Every effort to define the Word, to produce the final Christian story, whether through lists, collections, creeds, systematic theologies, or whatever, has failed, as actual Christians live that story, explore its ambiguities, elaborate on its characters, place themselves in it, fill in its gaps, and imagine its end, without ever reaching it. They strain against the claim that what has been written is all there is to be written.
In Saramago’s novel, Jesus tries to rewrite his story, to change the script that the divine author has written for him. As theologians from Augustine to Calvin to Barth would insist, Jesus fails. What God has written, God has written. But even the failed effort to rewrite an already written story generates a story. The abundant, never-ending Christian apocrypha, which no list can contain, testifies to the generative power of a Logos whose claim to finality generates abundant novelty.
We must thank Tony Burke, Brent Landau, and their collaborators for helping us to see that power more clearly.