Secret Scriptures Revealed! Thoughts on Writing for Non-Specialists, part 1

I have been asked by SPCK Publishing to write a book for non-specialists on the Christian Apocrypha. After some deliberation, we settled on the title, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha. I think it has some flash, but avoids sensationalism (apocrypha, by definition are “secret” books, after all), and pulls away from the term “New Testament Apocrypha,” which places too many limits on the material (temporally and generically). The manuscript is due in September and I am relatively close to completion. I thought I would post an entry on the blog as I finish each chapter, offering some thoughts about the pains and pleasures involved in the writing process. I welcome any feedback.

First, because the book is aimed at a wide audience, it is relatively small (a limit of 55,000 words—around 200 pages, I think) and very inexpensive ($20). Unfortunately, this does not allow me a lot of space to discuss the texts. Other brief introductions to the CA limit themselves to gospels; but I wanted to discuss also letters, acts, apocalypses, and other types of literature. I also have a soft spot for texts that have been neglected in CA collections. So, if I want to cover a large number of texts, the introductory matter must be concise.

The first chapter sets the tone of the book with a whimsical interaction with Athanasius and his views on apocryphal texts (he says, “There should be no mention at all of apocryphal books created by heretics, who write them whenever they want but try to bestow favor on them by assigning them dates, that by setting them forth as ancient, they can be, on false grounds, used to deceive the simple minded”). Though I have particular views on the value of studying the CA, I want to keep the discussion relatively neutral, avoiding idiosyncratic theories and instead presenting, essentially, consensus views on each text. My overall perspective owes much to the work of Walter Bauer, whose Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity argues that, in some areas of the ancient world, so-called heretical groups were the majority and the first to call themselves Christians. Some scholars have taken issue with Bauer’s thesis, but I (and others) feel some aspects of it remain persuasive.  

Bauer’s thesis comes into play in the remainder of the first chapter where I provide some key concepts as a basis for discussion in the rest of the book. These are: apocrypha, canon, orthodoxy/heresy/proto-orthodoxy, and Gnosticism. Each of these terms needs to be treated with care. Canon, for example, changes over time and space; it is too simplistic to state that the 27-book canon was settled with Athanasius in the fourth century. Differences continued for centuries, and some remain today, particularly the Ethiopian church with its broad canon. Also, for many Christians, the line between canonical and non-canonical was always a thin one, with both traditions mixing in liturgy, iconography, art, and literature. Defining Gnosticism is also problematic. As are heresy and orthodoxy, categories which depend entirely on the point-of-view of whoever uses the terms.

The challenge in this first chapter, then, was to communicate the depth of scholarly discussion on these concepts with an economy of words and in a way that is reader-friendly. It is easy to see how simplistic views of Gnosticism, canon, etc. become entrenched—it’s tempting to keep the discussion shallow. Nevertheless, I feel a responsibility to my audience to provide depth, and a desire to appear knowledgeable to my peers who also may read the book. This is the greatest challenge I have encountered so far in writing for a non-scholarly audience.

Next: do non-specialists care about text-criticism?

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One Response to Secret Scriptures Revealed! Thoughts on Writing for Non-Specialists, part 1

  1. peter long says:

    i am doing similar work on the abc/a-z of the pseudepigrapha of the ot,dss and ot apocrypha-exactly the same issues have to be faced.

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