New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 5

The first class of the week (Monday) focused on “anti-gospels,” specifically the Toledoth Yeshu (and related Jewish anti-Christian material from the Talmud) and the Gospel of Barnabas (a 14th-century Muslim text). These texts are rarely discussed in the context of Christian Apocrypha, though the Toledoth Yeshu, at least, was featured in some of the earliest CA collections before other discoveries edged it out. Both texts are discussed in Klauck’s Apocryphal Gospels (the textbook used in previous incarnations of the course), which inspired me to discuss them in class. And there is merit in doing so. For one, the polemics we find in the Talmud and Toledoth Yeshu are valuable for discussion of Jewish and Christian conflict, conflict that is evident in some of the standard CA texts (including Gospel of Nicodemus). And a discussion of the Gospel of Barnabas allows us to break out of the typical temporal constraints placed on the study of the CA (the fourth century) and brings in apocryphal traditions found in Muslim literature including the Qur’an.

One of the more interesting aspects of these two texts is the value accorded therein to the story of the Animation of the Birds (known primarily from Infancy Thomas ch. 2). This story is found in the Toledoth Yeshu and in the Qur’an. Its presence in the Toledoth Yeshu testifies to its popularity—if the TY seeks to lampoon the Jesus biography, then this story must have been considered cherished by Christians in the author’s orbit. The same can be said of the Christians known to Muhammad. Incidentally, in the Qur’an we see non-canonical traditions of Jesus and Mary becoming canonical for another religion. All of these points are further evidence for the fallacy of the canonical/non-canonical dichotomy.

The final half hour of class was dedicated to a discussion of Darrell Bock’s The Missing Gospels. The students had to complete a review of the book, principally so we could balance some of the “liberal” scholarship common to the study of the NTA with a conservative response to this scholarship. From what I gathered from the discussion, the students on-the-whole were not favourable toward the book. Perhaps this is due to being bombarded by primarily liberal points-of-view on the texts over the past month; perhaps they hope to do well on the review if they adopt what they expect me to say about it; perhaps they are all just really bright.

The principal objection was towards Bock’s bias. They see the book as aimed at a believing audience who want Bock to provide them comfort, to prove for them that the Jesus of the “alternative gospels” is not the true Jesus. They identified certain rhetorical strategies used by Bock to show the superiority of the “traditional Jesus” (i.e., the Jesus of the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers), primarily because these texts are considered the earliest sources and also because Bock believes the traditional views of authorship of the texts are genuine. The students would have preferred it if Bock made this bias more transparent at the beginning of his book.

For those interested in reading more about Bock’s book and my response to it, you can read the short version of my paper “Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium” published in the on-line SBL Forum HERE. The longer version of the paper was published in the print journal Studies in Religion vol. 41. There have been a number of responses to the paper (and these can be accessed by clicking on the “Anti-CA Apologetic” tab to the right of this post). The most interesting of these is by Darrell Bock himself (and can be accessed HERE).

Wednesday’s class was a tour of the Apocryphal Acts. We began with a look at the canonical Acts, focusing on some aspects of the text important for the discussion of orthodoxy and heresy—namely, Luke’s interest in bringing certain (not all) Christian groups into accord (note his silence on Alexandria and Syria), and the significance of James (and sometimes Peter) for Jewish-Christianity. We also read the spurious “lost ending” of Acts created in the 19th century (you can read it HERE). This is a text rarely discussed in our field because it is a modern (or pre-modern) apocryphon, but really the only difference between this text and what we call New Testament Apocrypha (and indeed some canonical texts) is the date (well, that and ancient apocrypha are ancient texts that claim to be by ancient Christian writers, whereas Acts 29 is a modern text that claims to be by an ancient Christian writer).

The Apocryphal Acts are an excellent resource for discussing the nuances in the distinction between canonical and non-canonical literature. These texts were declared heretical by the Roman Church but the narratives and the martyrdoms were retained and transmitted in a variety of forms (individual stories, summaries), including their incorporation into collections of Lives of Saints. Many elements in the texts are cemented in Christian tradition.

We looked at excerpts from three texts: the Acts of Peter, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Thomas. The students were struck, as could be expected, by the radical asceticism in the texts, particularly in some of the more outlandish stories from John (or was that just me?). The doceticism in the texts is also quite surprising, and certainly brings the Acts into the orbit of Gnostic Christology (in the sense that Gnostics also saw Jesus as not human, not that the Acts are necessarily Gnostic).

It is unfortunate that the Apocryphal Acts are such lengthy and, frankly, ponderous texts. This is not helped by the difficulties involved in reading through the introductory scholarship on them—thinking here particularly of Schneemelcher’s discussion in New Testament Apocrypha vol. 2. Seriously, try reading the entry on the Pseudo-Clementines and the summaries of the later Apocryphal Acts—totally incomprehensible. Klauck’s The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (Baylor, 2008) is much better but its brevity on some of the texts still leads to some confusion. I am presently working on an online bibliography of the Apocryphal Acts for Oxford University Press and I find it difficult to get a sense of much of the later material. But it’s coming together.

An item I neglected to mention in class is the recent volume (March 2012) of National Geographic magazine that features a cover story on the traditions about the apostles. The story promotes also a National Geographic program called “The Journey of the Apostles,” which I have yet to see. Hopefully it will be available on DVD soon. For more information, see HERE.

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