More Christian Apocrypha Updates 3: The Hospitality of Dysmas

[This is the third in a series of posts on texts to be featured in New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures edited by Brent Landau and I. The material here is incorporated also into the information on the texts provided on my More Christian Apocrypha page].

Some of the texts included in the MNTA volume are free-floating stories incorporated into variations of previously-published texts. The tales of the "Good Thief" are prime examples of this phenomenon. This "Good Thief" is the bandit promised salvation by Jesus on the cross in Luke 23:40-43. Christian imagination provided additional information about this bandit in a number of stories in which the bandit meets Jesus and his family during their sojourn in Egypt. The most well-known of these tales is found in the Birth of the Savior 111-25 (M.R. James's Latin Infancy Gospel), re-published recently in the Ehrman-Pleše Apocrypal Gospels collection (p. 146-55). The story included in MNTA vol. 1 is a variant of this tale incorporated in certain manuscripts of the Acts of Pilate.

The story takes place during the Holy Family's journey to Egypt. There they meet a bandit named Dysmas. Taken by Mary's beauty and proclaiming her the Mother of God, Dysmas brings the family to his home. The bandit leaves to hunt wild game. In the meantime, his wife draws a bath for Jesus. Dysmas's child, leprous and colicky, is cured by bathing in the same water. When Dysmas returns, the miracle is revealed to him and he pledges himself to be Mary's protector during her stay in Egypt. After guiding the family safely through the land, he is rewarded with a blessing, which the author reveals to be his martyrdom with Christ on the cross and his subsequent entry into Paradise.

Mark Glen Bilby has done extensive work on the various traditions about the "Good Thief." This work includes his monograph—As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23:39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation (Cahiers de Biblia Patristica 13; Strasbourg: University of Strasbourg; Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), an essay in the forthcoming proceedings from the 2013 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium, and, of course, his introduction and translation of Hosp. Dysmas for MNTA. This introduction describes and carefully differentiates between all of the "Good Thief" tales—all nine of them! Of particular interest in the story is the motif of the healing qualities of the bathwater of Jesus, a motif used throughout the Egypt tales in the Arabic Infancy Gospel (known in Syriac as the History of the Virgin). It's surprising to see such sharing of motifs in relatively late Eastern and Western traditions.

The isolated tales found in manuscripts of apocryphal texts (and sometimes canonical texts!) tend to get lost in the process of establishing the earliest possible form of the text in which they are contained. But these transformations and expansions of the texts tell us much about medieval piety and should be given the attention that is their due.

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