Secret Scriptures Revealed! Thoughts on Writing for Non-specialists, part 2

This is the second in a series of posts on my efforts to write a book on the Christian Apocrypha for non-specialists. The book is entitled Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha and will be published by SPCK some time in the near future (I have to finish writing the thing first!). I welcome any feedback you might have on the writing process and what is essential to include in a book of this kind.

The second chapter of Secret Scriptures Revealed covers additional introductory matter intended to form the basis for contextualizing the discussions of individual Christian Apocrypha texts that follow. The challenge here was to determine what new readers of these texts need to know to fully understand the texts, but again to do so in an economy of words. I considered what was confusing to me when I began my interest in the texts. Some of the scholarship on the CA assumes readers are knowledgeable in certain areas (the content of biblical texts, the lives of various Christian figures and writers, etc.), but that is not always the case. And since this is a book for non-specialists, I can assume nothing about their background. So I begin the chapter with a description of the various languages of the texts (focusing on Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Slavonic) and how these languages relate to one another. With this information readers can understand how a text can move from, say, Greek to Ethiopian, and what this might say about the value of our sources for reconstructing the original text.

The next section provides a sketch of where our sources come from: archeological sites, happenstance discoveries in tombs, and monastic libraries. I then pause to discuss how these sources are used to create critical editions. It was important to me to include this discussion, in part because much of scholarship on the texts (particularly in the CA collections) is littered with text-critical jargon—including arcane references to manuscripts, such as “Vat. Pal. Gr. 156” or “Paris, Bib. nat. 1133.” But I also wanted readers to understand that our reconstructed texts are tentative, that new discoveries can lead to better versions of the texts which can completely transform our interpretations of the authors’ intentions. I hope also that my brief introduction to text criticism makes an impact on how readers view the shape of canonical texts, which also are reconstructions that can change with new discoveries. I worry a little that the editors at SPCK will consider this section too technical for the book’s projected audience, but I’m prepared to fight to keep it in.

The chapter continues with a look at the CA’s impact on art, drama, and literature. Included in this is mention of lives of saints (particularly the Golden Legend) and chronicles and homilies that draw upon apocryphal texts. I emphasize again, as in chapter one, that many Christians prior to the fifteenth century were unconcerned about, or completely unaware of, the distinction between canonical and non-canonical traditions. Their churches were decorated with apocryphal images and they heard or read stories drawn from apocryphal texts.

I finish the chapter with a brief overview of CA scholarship. I focus on the major collections and series and endeavour to include all the important resources for further study (bibliographies, helpful web sites, etc.). Along the way I mention incunabula, early printed copies of CA texts published before the beginning of rigorous scholarship. These form a bridge between manuscripts and scholarly editions. Incunabula have been examined very little by CA scholars, but attention to them shows how the CA were not “lost” and then rediscovered in the Renaissance. The apocrypha have always been with us and were always valued by Christians of various backgrounds despite their censorship by the church.

Chapter three of Secret Scriptures Revealed is near completion. It is the first of three chapters summarizing a variety of CA texts. For these I asked myself: how many texts can I cram in here?

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