New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 3

This week’s New Testament Apocrypha course featured only one class (thank you Queen Victoria). We focused on the family of Jesus—i.e., a discussion of traditions about the brothers and sisters of Jesus and an examination of texts about the final days of his parents (the Assumption/Dormition of Mary and the History of Joseph the Carpenter). We also took a look at the Abgar Correspondence.

Of principle interest to me, as usual, is the issue of the categories of orthodoxy and heresy. The Abgar Correspondence can be considered, once again, orthodox apocrypha: it is a text created by orthodoxy to validate their presence in Syria. Creating apocrypha is not just a pursuit of “heretics”; and such a leading figure of orthodoxy as Eusebius was gullible enough to believe this text authentic (or knew it was not authentic and used it anyway). And he makes this determination not because he has conducted the proper investigations to determine its authenticity (Do the early church writers mention it? no. Does it have apostolic credentials? no. Is it widely used in the churches? no) but because it fits the agenda of orthodox Christianity. It makes one wonder how much the selection of the NT texts was determined by the same motive.

We supplemented our discussion of Abgar with Letters of Faith, a short (35 min.) docu-drama about the Abgar Correspondence. The film was released in 2007 by the Newington-Cropsey Foundation and ordering information is available HERE. It is quite melodramatic at times and plays fast and loose with the source material (Eusebius and the Doctrine of Addai) but it is fun to watch and a rare treat—a devotional film about an apocryphal text!

The fine line between orthodoxy and heresy is breached also in the Mary and Joseph texts. We discussed in class the interplay between the Dormition and doctrines about Mary’s death—what came first, the notion that Mary was assumed into heaven at her death (or some such variation)? or the text which established this idea? Is the doctrine dependent on the text or the text on the doctrine? The same problem occurs with the parents of Mary in the Proto-Gospel of James: was there a tradition established about Anna and Joachim before James, or was James the originator of the tradition? Unfortunately, it’s not possible to answer these questions but I think we can be certain that developing doctrines and apocryphal texts interacted with one another over the centuries, with the texts supporting and widely-disseminating new doctrines before they became official teachings of the church. And that can take a considerable amount of time; only in 1950 did the Catholic church completely accept the doctrine of the assumption of Mary.

In previous incarnations of the class I have discussed the theory of James Tabor (The Jesus Dynasty) regarding the confusion of the Marys in early Christian tradition. He focuses particularly on the Marys at the tomb of Jesus and then goes on to mention the implications of identifying these Marys for our knowledge of Jesus’ brothers. Here are the basic points of his theory:

The “other Mary” (mother of James and Joses/Joseph) at the tomb in Mark and Matthew is Jesus’ mother.

John mentions a Mary, the wife of Clopas, at the cross with Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene. Eusebius tells us that this Clopas was the brother of Joseph and he had a son named Simon. This means that both Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary the wife of Clopas have three sons named James, Joses, and Simon. Therefore, Tabor thinks the two Marys are the same woman and that Mary remarried after the death of Joseph. According to Jewish custom, she married her late husband’s brother. The brothers and sisters of Jesus are all the progeny of Mary and Clopas. In short, then: Mary of Nazareth=Mary mother of James and Joses=Mary wife of Clopas.

The “James, Jude and Simon” listed among the twelve disciples are actually Jesus’ brothers.

James becomes the successor of Jesus until his death in 62 CE. Simon succeeded James (presumably because he too was of the “Jesus Dynasty”). Eusebius and Epiphanius report that Jude succeeded Simon at Simon’s death in 106. The Apostolic Constitutions (from the 4th cent.) says this Jude was a brother of Jesus. This makes four of Jesus’ brothers succeeding him as leaders of the group.

Eusebius mentions two grandsons (possibly sons) of Jude who were questioned and released by Domitian (r. 81-96). After this the family of Jesus fades into history.

The predominance of the letters of Paul in the NT, and the Pauline book of Acts, obscures the history of Jewish Christianity (Gentile Christianity tended to minimize its connections to Judaism because of the trouble the Jewish people were giving Rome). The witnesses we have to this form of Christianity are found in Q, James, and Jude. Tabor says these texts “stand as witness to an original version of the Christian faith that takes us back to Jesus himself.”

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2 Responses to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 3

  1. Stephanie Semple says:

    The short film to go along with the Abgar Correspondence was very useful in clarifying some of the details of the text.
    In regards to the Dormition of Mary, there are so many versions out, I can see how it might easily be misinterpreted or room for confusion. It also strikes me as interesting that such a significant event, Mary’s ascention, would not be mentioned in the Bible. Even more, that it took the Catholic church until 1950 to accept the doctrine.
    Also, the clarification of the different Marys was quite helpful.

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