The final chapter of SSR is titled “Myths, Misconceptions, and Misinformation about the Christian Apocrypha.” It is a distillation of my previous work on the conflict between liberal scholarship on the Christian Apocrypha and its apologetic critics, a conflict occasioned by the publication of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and news of several subsequent discoveries of apocryphal texts (the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, and the recent surge of interest in Secret Mark). But liberal scholars have propagated their own “myths, misconceptions, and misinformation,” and I spend time responding to these also. The discussion is arranged as responses to ten statements:
1. The Christian Apocrypha were all written after the texts of the New Testament, or
2. The Christian Apocrypha were all written before the texts of the New Testament.
3. The Christian Apocrypha are “forgeries,” written in the name of apostles.
4. The Christian Apocrypha were written by Gnostics.
5. The Christian Apocrypha claim that Jesus was not divine.
6. The Christian Apocrypha are bizarre and fanciful compared to the canonical gospels.
7. The Christian Apocrypha were written to undermine or replace the canonical texts.
8. The Christian Apocrypha were enormously popular before their suppression by a powerful minority in the Church.
9. The Christian Apocrypha are being used to rewrite Christian history.
10. Reading the Christian Apocrypha is harmful to one’s faith.
Many of these statements have been addressed in previous blog posts (begin HERE) from the time I was preparing my essay “Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium” (published in Studies in Religion/ Sciences Religieuses 39 : 405-420 and in a shorter form in SBL Forum, available online HERE). Essentially I try to show that all of the statements require nuanced discussion—e.g., not all Christian Apocrypha are early or late, indeed some can be both, with early portions incorporated into later texts; not all Christian Apocrypha are written by Gnostics, etc. While certainly a handful of so-called “liberal” scholars arguably have exaggerated the importance of some non-canonical texts (e.g., John Dominic Crossan on the Gospel of Peter), their arguments often are not engaged fairly in the apologetic literature. I suppose it is the nature of apologetics to simplify arguments and, alas, demonize their opponents. It is important, therefore, particularly in popular discourse where both liberal scholarship and its conservative responses are well-represented, to demonstrate that views like Crossan’s are not representative of the field (we don’t all try to date apocryphal texts early) and that dismissing Crossan’s arguments does not mean that all liberal scholarship is in error.
SPCK expressly asked me to address the issue of the effect reading the Christian Apocrypha might have on one’s faith. I struggled with this particular section. To admit that the CA could be harmful to faith means acceding that the ancient heresy hunters and the modern apologists are right, that Christianity can be damaged by these texts. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that teaching and writing about the CA would lead my audiences to abandon Christianity. The issue, again, requires a nuanced response. I have seen in my students that one’s reaction to these texts is much like one’s reaction to biblical scholarship in general. Students from conservative Christian backgrounds, where the authorship of the gospels, or the historical veracity of traditions about Jesus are never questioned, tend to feel cheated, misled, and manipulated by their church leaders when they encounter the challenges posed by (liberal) biblical scholarship. But students from Christian communities that are more open to discussing the results of scholarly inquiry feel much less anxiety in Biblical Studies classrooms. Their beliefs and experience of Jesus are less tangled in texts and tradition and more connected to Jesus the man. From this perspective, non-canonical gospels can be considered sympathetically as additional interpretations of Jesus, though perhaps more distant from their subject in time and place than the canonical texts.
The harm, then, is not so much to Christianity as to Christian orthodoxy—i.e., to Christianity that propagates a very narrow definition of “truth” and encourages the eradication, or at least the repression, of contrary viewpoints. Christian faith can be built on both canonical and non-canonical traditions. Indeed, it has been throughout the history of Christianity, where stories and images from both categories of texts met regularly in homilies, popular literature, art, drama, and iconography.
The publication of Secret Scriptures Revealed is only a few months away now. I hope that it is a fair representation of the field (difficult to achieve in such a short book!) and that it informs and entertains readers as much as the texts themselves have informed and entertained me over the years.