New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 6

The final week of this year's New Testament Apocrypha course comprised two classes: one on Paul, and one on art and film. For the Paul class we examined such texts as the Acts of Paul, Acts of Thecla, 3 Corinthians, Paul and Seneca, the Epistle to the Laodiceans, and portions of the Pseudo-Clementines. The Pauline literature is a prime example of the phenomenon of early Christian groups coalescing around certain figures and using their chosen persona to present their Christological and theological viewpoints in conflict with other groups. Indeed, we see this phenomenon already in the New Testament in the Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral Epistles.

We began with an overview of Paul’s life and letters from the NT, with emphasis on signs within these texts of intra-Christian conflict (Galatians and Acts on the Jerusalem Council, Paul’s problems with Judaizers). The pseudepigraphical Pauline literature within the NT were discussed also to make it clear that both canonical and non-canonical texts make claims for apostolic authorship, and both sets of claims are potentially authentic (though extremely unlikely for non-canonical works) and spurious (surprisingly common in canonical works). We finished off the canonical Paul by looking at how the Pastoral Epistles develop Paul’s thought in the direction of supporting the institution of the household and introducing a hierarchical organization into the church.

The Acts of Paul (particularly Paul and Thecla) were presented as an example of the parallel development of Paul’s ascetic ideas. Here I was influenced by Dennis R. MacDonald’s classic The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon (1983), which makes the claim that the Pastorals were written in response to the radical asceticism and proto-feminism of the Acts of Paul. We then zoomed through the remaining Pauline apocrypha, noting particularly the orthodoxy of the Epistle to the Laodiceans (composed perhaps as a rival to another composed by Marcionites?) and 3 Corinthians (used by orthodox Christians in Syria to bolster their position there over heretical groups).

Finally, the class concluded with a look at anti-Paulinism in the Pseudo-Clementines, with a brief discussion also of Cerinthus, the Elchasites, and the Book of the Rolls. In the Ps. Clementines Simon Magus, a thinly-veiled Paul, battles Peter in a miracle and teaching contest, with Peter characterizing Simon/Paul’s views as “a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy” and whose authority is based only on visions of Jesus (to which Peter responds, “can anyone be made competent to teach through a vision?”). It is interesting to see in this text the descendents of the opponents of Paul from the first century fight back against the power of the thoroughly-Pauline church of the 4/5th centuries. By this time the Jewish-Christianity of the author/community behind the Ps.-Clementines has been declared a heresy and will shortly die out completely. Only a few centuries earlier it was Gentile Christians who were the minority and Paul who faced persecution for his views. But who has the rightful claim as heir to the message and mission of Jesus? A new edition to the class this year was a screening of a scene from the Silver Chalice (1954), with Simon Magus played by a young Jack Palance.

The final class featured a short discussion of apocryphal traditions in art and manuscript illumination through the centuries and several clips from modern film and television shows. We ran through the "usual suspects": The DaVinci Code, Stigmata, the Passion of the Christ (for the scenes of Jesus as a child and of Veronica), an X-Files episode ("Hollywood AD," featuring a forgery of a Gospel of Mary), and a few films that feature stories that are neither biblical nor based on apocryphal texts (Mary: the Mother of Jesus, Close to Jesus).

And that's it for the New Testament Apocrypha for this year. All that's left is the marking of papers. Thank you to my students for coming to class when they'd rather be out in the sun and thank you for reading along.

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