New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 2

My course on the New Testament Apocrypha focused this week on “Mark and Related Apocrypha,” including fragmentary gospels (PEgerton, POxy 840, Gospel  of Peter, Secret Mark) and agrapha, and “Matthew and Luke and Related Apocrypha”—namely, Jewish-Christian gospels and infancy gospels.

For the first class on Mark, students handed in their first assignment—a discussion of the Gospel of Peter and its use of canonical traditions (focusing only on Mark, for those students who have not taken a Biblical Studies course previously). In hindsight, this was not the best choice for the first assignment, given Peter’s use of other canonical traditions. Next time, we’ll use Secret Mark, especially because students seem to take a keen interest in that text and it is a good springboard to discussion of last year’s symposium on the text at York. Our discussion of Secret Mark was aided by video from Morton Smith (taken from Channel 4's Jesus the Evidence) and an interview with Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ and several sequels. For his recent book The Case for the Real Jesus, Strobel interviewed Craig Evans on Secret Mark, and Evans essentially repeated the case for forgery/hoax advanced by Stephen Carlson. So the clip was useful for presenting Carlson’s arguments. I am no fan of Strobel, of course. If you want to read a biting criticism of his work see “The Case Against Lee Strobel” on the Evaluating Christianity Blog.

Wednesday’s class on Matthew and Luke allowed us to look at a wider variety of texts. The Jewish-Christian gospels are important texts, not least because their very Jewishness suggests that they may be early—Jesus was Jewish, his followers were Jewish; so, perhaps these texts record Jesus’ teachings and mission more faithfully than the more Gentile gospels of the NT. I have mentioned several times that New Testament scholars, particularly in North America, are interested in using select apocryphal texts for the pursuit of the Historical Jesus. But this shouldn’t supersede the goal of simply studying these texts—early or recent—for their own sake.

For the infancy gospels, we looked in some depth at the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Thomas allowed me to discuss my work on the text and introduce the students to some of the manuscripts used for my critical edition. Images of manuscripts with big, nasty holes in them helps for understanding how difficult it can be sometimes to reconstruct the texts. The students also read Thomas in a version closer to its original form (available HERE) rather than the oft-published 19-chapter form. This too, illustrates that our knowledge of these texts depends on which manuscripts we use to reconstruct them. Finally, we took a quick look at some other infancy traditions: the Syriac Life of Mary (with parallel material in the Arabic Infancy Gospel, the Revelation of the Magi, and On the Priesthood of Jesus.

Of these, the Priesthood is perhaps the least well-known. The text is extant in a number of forms and languages, including Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, and Georgian, and is incorporated in an eleventh-century Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda. It is an example of an embedded apocryphon—meaning, the framing story of the text, a dispute between Jews and Christians in the reign of the emperor Justinian I (527–565), introduces readers to an account recorded in an old codex in Tiberius saved from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It is unlikely that this old account actually existed apart from the larger work. This account reveals that, early in the career of Jesus, a position became vacant in the 22-member priesthood. Jesus is put forward as a candidate but the priests must establish that he is a descendant of one of the priestly families. Since Joseph is deceased, they summon his mother, who claims that Joseph was not Jesus’ earthly father but that she is descended from the families of Aaron and Judah. As proof of her claim, the priests summon midwives to see if she is still a virgin. Her post partum virginity is established and Jesus is considered worthy of the priesthood. The Priesthood is a peculiar text in many ways, but worthy of further study. Unfortunately, it is usually omitted from the apocrypha collections, and a proper critical edition of the text is sorely needed. For more information, see my More Christian Apocrypha page.

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2 Responses to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 2

  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Tony. It’s a great idea to blog through the course in this way. I may try something similar next fall when I teach my Noncanonical Gospels course. It sounds like you got through tons of stuff this week.

    Minor correction — Jesus The Evidence was on Channel 4 and not BBC. (It was the early days of Channel 4, and they were very much attempting to be iconoclastic — literally in the case of this documentary when the blew up a statue of Jesus!).

    Also your HERE doesn’t link to anything.

  2. Tony says:

    Thanks for the comments, Mark, and for pointing out the problems. All fixed.

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