Why I Study the Christian Apocrypha

I have been working recently on an introduction to a book on the Christian Apocrypha aimed at a popular audience. The introduction contains a short autobiographical section on what attracted me to study the Christian Apocrypha. I thought it might be of some interest to readers of Apocryphicity.

Why am I such an advocate for the Christian Apocrypha? Have I been “burned…by orthodox Christianity” as Ben Witherington suggests (in The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci [Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004], p. 172-174, and What Have They Done With Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006], p. 4-5)? Am I trying to prove I am a “good critical scholar” by “discrediting” the New Testament? Or have I been “misled…by the powers of darkness”? I hope the answer to all of these questions is no. But the answer is connected to faith—or more rightly, a reaction to a faith once held.

I grew up in England in a Roman Catholic home, though my family was not particularly devout. My father was greatly interested in religious questions—Who was Jesus? What happens when we die? Did Marian apparitions truly occur? When will the apocalypse happen?—but not overly concerned with religious practice; indeed, we rarely attended church. But I did believe. I believed the gospels were written by the apostles of Jesus, I believed I had to be good if I wanted to avoid eternal damnation, and I worried intensely about signs of the endtime indicated by the escalation of Cold War tensions.

These beliefs stayed with me into my years at university in Canada. My curiosity and anxiety about religious questions led me to select a major, along with English Literature, in Religious Studies. My first course was “Apocalypticism”—a study of primarily Jewish texts that, on the surface at least, predict a cataclysmic endtime when God will intervene in history, bringing rewards for the faithful and punishment for the wicked. That single course changed my entire perspective on the Bible. I saw how the troubling imagery and dire warnings of the Christian Apocalypse of John (also known as the Book of Revelation) were a first-century development of literary and theological motifs found in the earlier apocalyptic texts; they were not the product of an ecstatic vision of the future, but were incorporated into a carefully composed and finely crafted example of a genre of literature completely understandable to ancient audiences but somewhat mysterious to modern Christians. Reading these texts in their original contexts tamed the horror of them for me. I learned then that even a small amount of biblical literacy could go a long way toward reducing the anxiety brought on by my Catholic upbringing. The course also introduced me to apocalypses that are not found in the Bible—texts like 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. I had no idea that there were other ancient Jewish and Christian books outside of the Bible. Which left me with the question: why didn’t the church or my schools ever mention this material?

While at university I became involved in student journalism, rising up the ranks in a few years from an entertainment writer to editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. It was in this environment that I was initiated into a new belief system: freedom of the press. The staff railed against censorship in any form—whether it was a university administration seeking to cover up stories harmful to its image, or other student papers facing discipline for publishing Gay and Lesbian supplements, or a local bookstore facing pressure about stocking a controversial novel.

By the time I entered graduate school, these two interests—non-canonical literature and censorship—combined into a passion for exploring the Christian Apocrypha. One text in particular commanded my attention: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This text, with its stories of a precocious and often maleficent young Jesus murdering and maiming those around him, seemed to me to have been seriously misunderstood by scholars. They uniformly disparaged the text—calling it “ridiculous,” “immoral,” and “utterly worthless.” However, I was convinced that whoever wrote it, and those who originally read or heard it, must have felt that its portrayal of the young Jesus was consistent with how they viewed the adult Jesus; modern readers may find it crude and offensive, but surely ancient readers felt differently—why else write such a text? And why else has it been copied and translated into numerous languages over the centuries? This sympathetic view of the literature has stayed with me to today, continually informing how I read the texts. It has led also to pulling away from the notion that any one religious text—whether canonical or non-canonical, Christian or non-Christian—is any better than another. That doesn’t discount that a text might get historical events more correct—for example, the synoptic gospels are still probably the best sources for the life of Jesus—but when it comes to religious truth, all texts are equal because they all speak to their adherents’ spiritual needs. And all religious texts tell us something about the past—each was written in a particular time and place by a particular author for a particular reason, and all of these elements are important to know if we have an interest in history.

My views on censorship have led me also to become an advocate for apocryphal texts. This is literature that Christian orthodoxy did not, and indeed still does not, want us to read. We can debate the validity of this position—the process of selecting a canon of sacred texts is a common phenomenon and is, in some ways, necessary for the survival of the faith—but part of me still thinks it wrong. Texts should be available to all, ideas should flow freely, and to censor them is nothing but cowardice. This is particularly so today. For the church to censor texts in the fourth century, and many centuries thereafter, may be understandable given the times, but for Christian groups and Christian writers to advocate doing so now is unconscionable. Of course, in an age of the free flow of information, censoring the texts is no longer an option, but actively discouraging others from reading literature, sometimes by distorting their contents to instill fear in the potential reader, is just as insidious.

It is remarkable that any of the Christian Apocrypha have survived. Thanks to the efforts of scholars, archeologists, thieves, and middle men, we are able to read these texts today. And they contain many delights for those with an appetite for knowledge and amusement.

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7 Responses to Why I Study the Christian Apocrypha

  1. bulbul says:

    Interesting indeed, thank you for sharing.

    And I worried intensely about signs of the endtime indicated by the escalation of Cold War tensions.
    Funny, that sounds more evangelical than Catholic, if you don’t mind mine saying so.
    I guess it was different for us on the other side of the Iron Curtain – we worried, too (I particularly remember a persistent batch of rumors of an impending war circulating in August and September ’89), but overall, we were hopeful knowing the regime couldn’t last forever. And so we (Catholics, Uniats and Calvinists alike, we’re a big family) read a lot of Exodus and especially Daniel, including Bel and the Dragon. My memory of those days is vague, but I seem to recall a samizdat containing a particularly innovative interpretation of either Bel and the Dragon or one of the passages from the Book of Revelation with Gorbachev assuming a central role.

    Why didn’t the church or my schools ever mention this material?
    One interesting side-effect of Communism was the compulsory teaching of atheism. So not only were there atheism classes in schools and entire book series devoted to the study of “scientific atheism”, but even in popular works on history, authors were encouraged to add anything that could cast doubt on the fundamentals of Christianity, no matter how tangential to the actual subject. Thus for example in a very popular work on Egyptian antiquities, the reader was treated to 10-20 pages on Nag Hammadi and gnosticism with the usual commentary how it disproves one thing or another about Christianity. In this environment, I learned about this material pretty soon and so did everyone else, including our priests and lay leaders, who, naturally, had to deal with it. And what astonishes me, at least in retrospect, is the approach they took: far from condemning it, they all but encouraged reading apocrypha and related literature. Not for the spiritual value, mind you, there the teachings of the Church were the only Truth and there never was any doubt about it, but for their historical and cultural value. The apocrypha were considered literature, not inspired, but nevertheless useful for teaching us about Jesus’ world and its people. And as you speak of censorship in this context, I’m starting to think that there may have been another aspect to this: perhaps the Catholics and Uniats and Lutherans and Calvinist living under an oppressive regime that could tolerate no other ideology but its own recognized apocrypha for what they were – samizdats of their time.
    Alas, all of that went down the toilet with whatever it is that happened to Catholics around here post-1990.

  2. Derek Leman says:

    “led also to pulling away from the notion that any one religious text—whether canonical or non-canonical, Christian or non-Christian—is any better than another”

    Not to discount everything you say here (and I look forward to reading more of you going forward) but . . .

    Really, you think Twilight was up there with Lord of the Rings?

    Just checkin’ what you mean by no text is better than another.

  3. Jim Davila says:

    Good post, Tony, but I want to take issue with you on one point:

    “I saw how the troubling imagery and dire warnings of the Christian Apocalypse of John (also known as the Book of Revelation) were a first-century development of literary and theological motifs found in the earlier apocalyptic texts; they were not the product of an ecstatic vision of the future, but were incorporated into a carefully composed and finely crafted example of a genre of literature completely understandable to ancient audiences but somewhat mysterious to modern Christians.”

    What you correctly affirm is by no means mutually exclusive with what you deny. Ecstatic visions (whether of the future or otherwise) can be sophisticated and highly structured and can also be passed down in carefully composed literary form. I see no reason to disbelieve John’s claim that the book is based on a visionary experience that he himself had.

    I’m not sure that the ancient audience would have *completely* understood the book. I have a feeling that John would have wanted them to feel at least a little overwhelmed. But your point is sound, if perhaps a little overstated.

  4. Tony Burke says:

    Derek,

    Is Twilight better than Lord of the Rings? Ask my twelve-year-old daughter. The point is that “better” is relative–depending on one’s perspective and the context (or criteria) for a text’s use. From a historian’s perspective all Christian literature is useful, though some may be “better” for particular reasons (for reconstructing the historical Jesus, for example).

  5. Tony Burke says:

    Jim,

    Your point is well-taken that I may be overstating things a bit, though I am skeptical about ecstatic visions, particularly if they are in literary form. Why does John’s “vision” cohere so well with literary conventions? If he truly had a vision, surely it is barely the kernel for this very elaborate text.

  6. Derek Leman says:

    Tony:

    Alright. But I wonder how far this relativism might go in your thinking. Nahum vs. Isaiah? Mein Kampf vs. King’s A Testament of Hope?

    I’d certainly agree with something like, “Judith deserves to be studied on its own right.” Sorry to quibble and looking forward to reading more at Apocryphicity.

    And, of course, I attribute to LOTR the highest level of literary excellence 🙂

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