New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week Four

This week’s New Testament Apocrypha class focused on John and his Opponents. Taking a page from Gregory Riley and Helmut Koester, we looked at the possibility that characters in John are intended to represent other Christian groups with which John’s community was in conflict. Doubting Thomas, therefore, represents the group behind the Gospel of Thomas (which too seems to “doubt” physical resurrection) and Mary Magdalene represents the group behind the Gospel of Mary (which seems to portray Mary as a visionary). I’m not entirely convinced by the Riley-Koester argument but I do think it’s worth considering (everything is “worth considering,” especially when I don’t feel compelled to take a stand).

Our orthodoxy/heresy discussion focused on two aspects of John. The first is John’s sources. As many scholars maintain, John was constructed in layers with the primary layer being a “Signs Gospel.” Like Q, this text no longer exists and is not included in the NT and therefore is non-canonical, but it is preserved in a sense through John’s use of it, which makes it canonical. Another source for John is the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery. This story is not original to the text, and even shows up in the Gospel of Luke (and, incidentally, according to a note in one manuscript of John, it ultimately derives from a “Gospel of Thomas”). Technically, this is a non-canonical story—text critics should argue for its removal from John (like Romans 16:24, which can be tricky to find in many Bibles)—but it is a treasured story so it remains canonical.

The other aspect of John related to orthodoxy and heresy deals with John’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels. I had the students read an article by D. Moody Smith (“The Problem of John and the Synoptics”). In the article, Smith discusses the assumptions made about apocryphal gospels—they are late, derivative of canonical texts, and contain bizarre embroideries and expansions of canonical texts. By such a definition, John looks like an apocryphal gospel. Matthew and Luke seem to consider Mark “scriptural”—it is clearly an authority for them and they follow its structure and style. But John does not. Also John is not featured as prominently as the Synoptics in the Apostolic Fathers, and its esteem among non-proto-orthodox groups made orthodox writers suspicious (the Muratorian Canon features a lengthy justification for its inclusion in the list; Hippolytus wrote a defense of John against Gaius who wanted it eliminated because it disagreed with the Synoptics). In essence, Smith is saying that John is apocryphal because it does not follow Mark, but its inclusion in the NT makes it canonical. We finished our John discussion with a quick look at the late medieval apocryphon The Dialogue of the Paralytic with Christ (text available HERE) which spins out of the story in John 5:1-15.

Our discussions of Thomas and Mary were fairly standard fare (overview of sources, theories of origin, etc.). We focused more on the use of the characters of Mary and Thomas and possible parallels between the texts and John than on each text’s particular theology or christology (we discuss those issues in the Gnosticism course). I like to spend time on both liberal and conservative arguments for the value and utility of these texts. This time we looked at Nicholas Perrin’s argument for Syriac composition of the Gospel of Thomas (in Thomas and Tatian. Atlanta 2002). Another scholar, Craig Evans, relies on Perrin’s arguments in his book Fabricating Jesus and mentions also signs of Lukan redaction in Thomas. Neither of the arguments I find the least bit compelling and seem to me just attempts to date Thomas as late as possible (the late second century). When pressed by a student about my position on dating Thomas I remarked that it is both early and late. This may seem impossible but the differences between the Greek fragments of the gospel and the complete Coptic manuscript demonstrate that the text has developed from the second to fourth centuries. Indications that the text was composed after the canonical gospels (and other Christian texts) may be additions to the gospel. This would explain why, form-critically, some of the material seems to be in an earlier form than its parallels in the NT gospels, yet other sayings hint at second-century theology and practice.


Only two weeks remain in the course. Next week we move on to non-Christian anti-gospels (Gospel of Barnabas and Toledoth Yeshu)and the Apocryphal Acts.

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