New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week One

This past Tuesday I began the latest incarnation of my course "The New Testament Apocrypha" (syllabus posted on my parent site (HERE). As in previous years, I am posting weekly reflections on the week's lecture, in part to encourage pedagogical discussion on how to teach this material (and I won't always do it well), and to provide a forum for my students to offer their thoughts on the course (and thereby gain additional participation marks).

This first class dealt with concepts and methodology: we looked at certain important terms (apocrypha, canon, orthodoxy, heresy), read a chapter or two of Walter Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, and read some canon lists. In previous years I provided a lightning-quick overview of first-century Christianity (Jesus, Paul, the gospels, other NT texts). And that’s how all the classes were structured: we looked at both canonical and non-canonical texts and considered how the non-canonical work with earlier traditions (assuming, as in most cases, that apocryphal texts post-date the canonical texts). I decided not to do that this year. Instead I have encouraged the students to gain some knowledge of the New Testament texts on their own, so that we have more time to look at more apocryphal texts. 

New this year also is the adoption of my book Secret Scriptures Revealed as the course's textbook (with Bart Ehrman's Lost Scriptures used for primary texts). The course has been restructured to work with the text. I am trying something else new this year: starting each evening with some reading from the assigned primary texts. Last night it was the Muratorian Fragment. We went through this canon list slowly and tried to tease some nuances out of it. I think it gave the students some sense of how closely to read the texts and the kind of critical questions to ask of them.

As mentioned above, we looked also at the Bauer Thesis. Bauer's book is a beloved piece of scholarship among “liberal” scholars (like Bart Ehrman and me). It argues for an early plurality of thought in the early centuries, with various “heretical” forms of Christianity being dominant (and therefore “orthodox”) in some areas, and only one of these becomes the dominant form of Christianity in the fourth century and beyond. It is a relativistic look at the development of Christianity that rankles conservative scholars who have worked hard to discredit the book. Some of their concerns are legitimate (discoveries of new texts, like the Nag Hammadi Library, are damaging to some of Bauer’s points), but Bauer’s larger argument remains valid, at least for some areas, particularly Edessa. It is important for the students to understand Bauer and his impact as they will be writing a review of Köstenberger and Kruger’s, The Heresy of Orthodoxy later in the course. I find critics of the Bauer Thesis do not treat Bauer and his legacy fairly. I hope the students see that also.

We finished the class with an exercise that I tried also in the last incarnation of the course. It was created by Bryan Whitfield and is found in Roncare and Gray’s Teaching the Bible volume (from SBL). The exercise asks the students to choose the three most significant movies they have seen. They then partner with another student and the two of them must reach a consensus on the significance of four of their six choices. Then they join another group and pick six from the eight. When finished we discuss the process by which they reached that consensus and link this to canon formation. I think the students enjoyed the process; it certainly led to some animated discussion. We didn't have enough time to discuss the implications of the exercise in detail but I hope they understand from it that various interests and backgrounds and needs dictated the choices made to establish the New Testament. 

Next week we begin our look at apocryphal texts that focus on the life of Jesus. We will read several infancy gospels, including (in my view) the queen of all Christian Apocrypha: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

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3 Responses to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week One

  1. barbara Siskos says:

    I am especially excited about this class! I am eager to learn more about the apocryphal literature. I really did not have any idea, as a Christian that these letters exist. it is with great curiosity that i await to learn more. moreoveer, the activity that we participated as a group during our last class was very effective. this is how it must have been back then for the people of the centuries to decifer what literature stays, what goes.

  2. Peter Head says:

    I tend to agree on the critique of Bauer, especially in the book you mention. Cf. my review

  3. Amira Hamour says:

    According to the readings, the heretics viewed the orthodox as ‘false believers’. However, the heretics might have formed the majority of Christians. Orthodoxy is the generally accepted doctrine. Who decides whether the heretics or the orthodox are the true Christian believers? Could there be a new selection process to include some Apocryphal texts into the accepted Canon of Scripture?

    As seen by the differences in the Synoptic Gospels and Gospel of John, the canonical scripture can sometimes contradict itself. How do Christians decide which Gospel to believe and follow?

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