New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week 4

I said at the conclusion to the post for week three that this week’s class should be lighter since we would be looking at only two gospels: the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. Well, I forgot that we would be examining also the Letter of Lentulus and the Abgar Correspondence. Very quickly the lecture went from a leisurely stroll to a sprint as I tried in vain to fit everything in everything I wanted to say about the texts.

We began by reading the Letter of Lentulus, a letter attributed to a Roman official at the time of Jesus and which contains a detailed description of Jesus. I asked the students to consider as we read evidence from the text that indicates it is a medieval (not ancient) composition—e.g., Lentulus’s use of Jewish terminology he is unlikely to have known (“prophet,” “Nazarene,” the quotation from Psalm 45:2), and the Aryan (rather than Palestinian) looking Jesus he describes. I noted that many scholars of Christian Apocrypha would label this text “inauthentic” or a “forgery” and asked the class to consider why a later apocryphal text should be valued differently from ancient apocrypha. To my mind, there really is no difference. They are all fictional representations of figures from early Christianity and all worthy of study for what they can tell us about the interests of the writer and his/her time period.

For the Abgar Correspondence we discussed H.J.W. Drijvers’ theory that the letters were created to obscure the history of Manichean evangelization in Edessa (e.g., Mani’s apostle Addai preached in Syria, the Correspondence and its sequel the Doctrine of Addai replaces Mani’s disciple with a Christian missionary of the same name). We watched also an excerpt from the video Letters of Faith, a short (35 min.) docu-drama about the Abgar Correspondence. The film was released in 2007 by the Newington-Cropsey Foundation and ordering information is available HERE. It is quite melodramatic at times and plays fast and loose with the source material (Eusebius and the Doctrine of Addai) but it is fun to watch and a rare treat—a devotional film about an apocryphal text! One of the students pointed out that I seem to delight in criticizing the documentaries we watch in class. I do it, in part, to encourage the students to watch with a critical eye. Though the scholars appear in these documentaries with the honest goal of informing viewers about the texts, the filmmakers often twist what they say through careless (or is it intentional?) editing so that they can tell the story they want to tell.

Our examination of the Gospel of Thomas began with another video from one of my colleagues—this time, it was Charlie Hedrick. Charlie discussed his early roles as a probation officer and a Baptist church pastor and then his exposure to apocryphal literature with the Coptic Project at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School. Charlie has been involved with the study of so many apocryphal texts that he had little time in the video to discuss the Gospel of Thomas! But he did touch on some of the topics from my subsequent lecture on the text, including the various theories of origin, from those who see it as early and independent of the New Testament gospels (Crossan, Koester), to those who see it as late and dependent (Goodacre, Perrin), and those who see it as both early and late (Pearson, DeConick). I was hoping we could view a few scenes from Stigmata, a 1999 thriller that features the Gospel of Thomas prominently in its plot, but we ran out of time.

We finished up with a very quick look at the Gospel of Philip. I will be including the text in my companion course on Gnosticism in the Winter term, so I simply wanted to discuss the text in connection to its use by Dan Brown in his novel The Da Vinci Code (specifically, 63.32-64.5 on Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ “companion”). We watched a scene from the adaptation of the novel and mentioned that the text’s use of the term “companion” likely was not intended to mean “spouse.” Finally, we segued to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife as a (probably) modern apocryphon inspired by the interest in Jesus’ marital status that came partly as a result of Brown’s novel. Which brought us back to the Letter of Lentulus, because even if the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a modern text, it is still valid for scholars to study it as an expression of the Christianity of its time.

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2 Responses to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week 4

  1. barbara Siskos says:

    The letter of Lentulus, actually gave me an opportunity to hone in on my skill that allows me the perspective of deciphering between apocryphal and canonical text. in other words, this skillset requires one to question certain criteria when analyzing a text. for instance, is the text dated?, Is there any mention of prominent figures in the text, that would aide in the dating identification? The discussion generated on the letter, and its authenticity alone, was invaluable to me. Great Lecture Tony!

  2. Carmela Mete says:

    It was entertaining to watch the clip from The Da Vinci Code because it shows how much of an impact a fiction story has amongst its believers. I find that Dan Brown touches upon important factors like the fall of Matriarchy and the rise of Patriarchy. However, although the film and its story is fiction what it shows is how just like the apocryphal texts that to question these stories in a logical manner is more upsetting then it being a forgery. It was very interesting to listen in class about the Gospel of Phillip and how many questions arise from the term “companion” that was mentioned in the text. I had also watched this documentary that spoke about the Gospel of Philip and when discussing the part where it is assumed that Jesus kisses Mary on the mouth that it could be interpreted as a intimate relationship or a way of transferring spiritual knowledge from one person to another. So it just shows how diverse an interpretation could be.

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