New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Three

My course on the New Testament Apocrypha focused this week on part one of a two-part discussion of “Ministry Gospels”—i.e., texts focusing on Jesus’ adult life, between the infancy gospels and the passion narratives. For this first part we looked at agrapha and fragmentary texts, the latter group including Jewish-Christian gospels, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Savior, and the Secret Gospel of Mark. Our next class is dedicated to complete Ministry Gospels, namely the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.

We started, as usual, by closely reading a text—this time, the first fragment of Secret Mark. I gave the students opportunity to ask questions of the text (e.g., why does it say the young man was naked except for the linen cloth?) but wanted to save answers for later in the class. I also tried to make connections between the other texts in the class and the content and/or scholarship on Secret Mark. For example, in our discussion of agrapha (sayings of Jesus not found in the canonical Gospels), I included Paul Coleman-Norton’s “amusing agraphon.” This is the expansion of Matthew 24:51 in which Jesus says those without teeth will be provided them in hell so that they can gnash their teeth. Coleman-Norton claims to have found this agraphon in a book in a North African mosque but now it is widely believed that his “discovery” was a hoax.

I began my discussion of the Gospel of the Savior by stating that everything I say about the text in my Secret Scriptures Revealed book I no longer believe (and it’s only a year old!). This is due to becoming acquainted with Alin Suciu’s work on the text. The text’s first editors, Charlie Hedrick and Paul Mirecki, believed it was a narrative gospel translated from Greek and originally the around the length of the Gospel of Matthew. Suciu places it instead firmly within Coptic Christianity, specifically in a genre of texts called “Pseudo-Apostolic Memoirs”—homilies attributed to famous church leaders with embedded apocryphal texts purported to have been found in Jerusalem. Alin graciously accepted my invitation to prepare a ten-minute video for the class describing his work. I showed a similar video of Brent Landau last week; I hope the students like these windows into the lives and personalities of the scholars of the texts. They are certainly a break from listening to me (now I just need to get enough of them that I can put my feet up for the entire class!).

We sped quickly through the Gospel of Peter so that we had enough time to finish up our look at Secret Mark. I began with a video of Morton Smith describing his discovery (taken from Channel 4’s Jesus the Evidence) but had to skip my other video: an interview with Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ and several sequels. For his latest book The Case for the Real Jesus, Strobel interviewed Craig Evans on Secret Mark, and Evans essentially repeated the case for forgery/hoax advanced by Stephen Carlson. I listed off Carlson’s evidence myself (with a brief mention of Peter Jeffrey’s perceived euphemisms) and then countered it with arguments against his claims advanced by Allan Pantuck, Scott Brown, and Roger Viklund. I was asked what my position was; I am fully convinced by Allan Pantuck that Smith did not forge the text but I remain agnostic about whether Clement’s letter describing the text is truly ancient, or even truly by Clement.

After cramming so many texts into the last two classes, I am looking forward to focusing next week only on the remaining two Ministry Gospel texts. The Gospel of Thomas, for one, demands a lot of attention and the students are bound to enjoy working through it.

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2 Responses to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Three

  1. barbara Siskos says:

    I love the opportunities to “windows into the lives and personalities of the scholars of the texts.“ this is an excellent way to consolidate student learning. I most found fascinating was the “linen cloth, under a naked body“ storyline. This fragment of literature, certainly sparked a debate within some of us in class. Was Jesus really part of a homo-erotic plot? some peers certainly did elude to this during class. I am in the belief that this is a horrific thought. In any case, apocryphal literature does allow for diverse thinking, and thus diverse conclusions.

  2. Carmela Mete says:

    I find that reading apocryphal texts provide more insights to the canonical ones. I feel that they are responses to the authors own experience within Religion and their texts depicts their opinion on events, so why not cause controversy in order to be heard? Also, I too found the discussion in class about the “linen cloth, under a naked body“ to be fascinating for how a short sentence can be understood in so many different ways and pose numerous questions with contrasting answers.

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