Reflections on “Erasure History”

This past weekend I participated in John Marshall’s Erasure History workshop at the University of Toronto. The event featured papers by some fine scholars—including John Gager, Eldon Epp, Nicola Denzey Lewis, John Kloppenborg, and Mark Goodacre—which led to eye-opening discussion about the reception and perception of some of the ancient texts that are near and dear to our hearts.

First, what is “Erasure History”? The workshop program defines it as: “the effort to think through significant historical problems as if a crucial surviving source were instead among the lost. This endeavour of programmatically holding data in abeyance is meant to illuminate the conditions under which we actually labour and to facilitate fresh consideration of, and renewed humility before, the generative problems of Western historical scholarship. “ It may seem an odd exercise; as Mark Goodacre said in his presentation, perhaps our efforts are best put to examining the texts that we do have. But he concluded that the exercise does lead to some insights about how we approach lost, found, and rediscovered texts from antiquity.

I’m going to limit my comments to insights related to apocryphal texts (though this is due in part to missing several of the papers thanks to traffic problems; don’t get me started). The first paper to touch on the apocrypha was Mark Goodacre’s “A World Without Mark” (Mark likely will discuss the paper on his own blog within the next few days; check NT Blog). Mark approached his task in three ways: imagining that the Gospel of Mark became lost (not a big stretch considering that Luke and Matthew seem to be writing in order to replace Mark), that it was never written at all, and that it was lost but then found in the mid-twentieth century. This last view is interesting for our purposes because Mark compared this new find to the rediscovery of the Egerton Gospel or the Gospel of Peter. To a scholarly world used to the story as we find it in the other three canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mark would look quite peculiar with its raw, cantankerous Jesus, its harsh portrayal of the apostles, and its absent resurrection story. Scholars who claim that lost, apocryphal gospels are earlier than the canonical gospels are rarely taken very seriously—Mark cited Crossan’s views on the Gospel of Peter in this regard—in part, at least, to resistance to the very idea that apocryphal texts could be superior in any way to the canonical. The Gospel of Mark, in this alternate universe of Mark Goodacre’s design, would be received as a mere curiosity. I have written on this prejudice before—the a priori view that apocryphal texts must be secondary—but I’d like to think that the evidence that the Gospel of Mark presents would be convincing to scholars in ways that the evidence for the Gospel of Peter and others have not. Otherwise, our theory of Markan Priority is not as strong as we believe.

Another paper that touched on apocryphal texts is Nicola Denzey Lewis’ “Gnosticism without Heresiology.” As the title makes clear, this paper imagines how we would evaluate the Nag Hammadi Library and other Gnostic texts without the need to correlate them with descriptions of Gnostics in works by Irenaeus, Ephipanius, and other so-called Heresy Hunters. The heresiologists obsessively categorized heretics into groups such as Sethians, Ophites, Barbeloites, etc. and scholars of Gnosticism have followed this practice despite the absence of such identifiers in the texts. Nicola believes without the heresiologists scholars would still strive to categorize the texts, but perhaps in much more meaningful ways (by “school”—Johannine, Pauline, etc.—or by approach to Hebrew scripture, etc.). Such endeavours have been attempted by Michael A. Williams (What is Gnosticism?) and others, which leads me to wonder how much an influence the heresiologists have on scholars today—most, not all, of us know better than to trust these writers. However, as Nicola pointed out, when the Gospel of Judas was rediscovered, scholars rushed to Irenaeus to situate the text both temporally and theologically, and doing so has muddied the waters in determining how Judas is portrayed in the text. Nicola pointed out also that we appreciate the heresiologists for preserving some texts and ideas that are no longer available to us (including the complete text of the Epistle to Flora).

Finally, I come to Jame Corke-Webster’s paper, “History without the Historian: Removing Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History from the Archive,” which I was invited to respond to. Eusebius is best remembered as a compiler of sources for the first three centuries of Christian history, some of which are preserved only in the Ecclesiastical History. James mentioned some of these otherwise lost sources but focused his paper on how Eusebius uses these sources to tell a narrative of persecution—namely, that the persecution experienced in Eusebius’ own time was part of a consistent relationship between Christianity and the state since the beginning of the faith. He noted that scholars tend to evaluate sources for first and early-second century persecution in light of Eusebius’ presentation of the events. For example,  the untitled 1 Clement is identified as a letter of Clement, and its description of hardships as persecution under Domitian, because of Eusebius; Revelation is situated in Domitian’s reign because of Eusebius; and Flavia Domitilla is identified as a Christian martyr (rather, more likely, than a Jewish proselyte or sympathizer) because of Eusebius. Without Eusebius, then, Domitian’s persecution of the church is reduced to the mistreatment of “certain elite individuals.”

James presented an excellent argument for bias in Eusebius and for scholarships’ reliance on the Ecclesiastical History for some aspects of Christian History, particularly the first two centuries. But in my response, I questioned how much modern scholarship continues to be influenced by Eusebius’ interpretation of the events he reports. As with Nicola’s discussion of the heresiologists, do not most (some?) of us know better than to blindly trust the testimony of ancient historians (or modern historians for that matter)? Also, James showed that Eusebius appears to rely heavily for his “persecution narrative” on Tertullian’s Apology; so, without Eusebius, Christianity would have continued to propagate the view that Domitian targeted Christians. I ended my response with a list of some of the sources that would be lost to us without Eusebius, and several of these are related to apocryphal texts:

  • Eusebius’s quotations from The Sayings of the Lord Explained by Papias (EH 3.39.3-4) would be missed by those interested in the origins of the gospels (particularly those who argue for Matthean Priority); also, his statement about the enduring value of oral traditions in the early second century is cited often in discussions of the development of early Christian literature. Along with Papias we would lose Eusebius’ own interpretation of Papias’ identification of the two Johns as the authors of the gospel and letters on the one hand and Revelation on the other.
  • We would lose Eusebius’ apparent reference to the Woman caught in Adultery as a story not from the Gospel of John, but the Gospel of the Hebrews (3.39.15)
  • Eusebius’ sources for first-century traditions would be sorely missed given the lack of information we have from this time period; these include Hegesippus on the Jerusalem church (including an account of the death of James), Gaius (in his Dialogue with Proclus) and Dionysius of Corinth on the deaths of Peter and Paul (2.25); Gaius on the deaths of Philip and his daughters (3.31);  references to Philips’ daughters and to John in a lost Letter of Polycrates of Ephesus to Victor, Bishop of Rome (3.31); Dionysius’ discussion of the heretic Cerinthus (3.28); and traditions about Simon Magus (2.14).
  • Without Eusebius we also lose any reason to consider the Gospel of Peter to be docetic; the extant fragment does not support this, but Eusebius quotes Serapion’s The So-Called Gospel of Peter (6.12) which cautions readers at Rhossus about docetic additions to the text. Of course, we do not know for sure that our Gospel of Peter is the same text known to Serapion.
  • We lose also Eusebius’ witness to the Abgar Correspondence (believed to be earlier than that found in the Doctrina Addai) and with it some of the information on the beginnings of Christianity in Edessa that Bauer sought to refute in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity. Incidentally, Eusebius is usually held up as the source for the view of Christianity that Bauer was trying to counter—i.e., that Christianity began as orthodox and heresy entered into it in an attempt to corrupt the faith; but Eusebius is not the only one to hold that viewpoint, and even without Eusebius, that outlook would still need to be challenged.
  • Finally, Eusebius also tells us much about the status of the NT canon in his time (3.25), including the still-disputed status of several NT texts (James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Revelation of John, Gospel of the Hebrews).

All-in-all, it was a thought-provoking workshop and it went off without a hitch (or any hitches were not obvious to those who attended). My thanks to John Marshall for inviting me to participate.

This entry was posted in Erasure History 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *