More Christian Apocrypha Updates 12: Gospel Fragments

[This is the latest 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].

Gospel fragments are an ubiquitous feature of Christian Apocrypha collections. These untitled, often mystifying fragmentary manuscripts tease the possibility of lost known or unknown gospels, but they can instead be extracts from harmonies or homilies, or evidence for the phenomenon of secondary orality (canonical gospel stories remembered from oral performance before secondarily attaining written form). The fragments included in MNTA rarely appear in Christian Apocrypha collections.

The first of these fragments is Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 210, a single leaf from a third-century papyrus codex. One side of the leaf contains what appears to be an infancy story in which Joseph receives instructions about Mary from an angel. The other side appears to contain at least two episodes, one with similarities to the saying of Jesus on good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bad fruit (Matt 7:17-18//Luke 6:43-44), and the other has Jesus begin a Johannine “I am” statement with the declaration “I am an image [of his goodness].” A reconstruction and analysis of P. Oxy. 210 has been provided to us by Brent Landau and Stanley Porter. Porter previously wrote on the text for the Markschies-Schröter German collection. The fragment also appears, in Greek (without English translation) and in photographs, in Thomas A. Wayment’s The Text of the New Testament Apocrypha (100-400 CE) (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). The text may be too damaged to say anything definitive about its contents but it is a valuable addition to the corpus of apocryphal gospel fragments.

The second fragment in the collection is Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 5072, prepared for us by Ross Ponder. Like P. Oxy 210, this manuscript constitutes one leaf from a late second/early third century papyrus codex. One side of the leaf preserves an exorcism account with similarities to the story of the Gerasene/Gadarene demoniac. The other side includes a dialogue, likely between Jesus and another individual, about the meaning of discipleship. P. Oxy. 5072 is the newest apocryphal gospel fragment to be published; the editio princeps appeared only in 2011. Since then it has appeared only in Rick Brannans’ Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments and Agrapha: Introductions and Translations (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).

The third and final fragment is another single page, this one of the Toledot Yeshu in Aramaic, translated for us by F. Stanley Jones. The manuscript—Cairo Genizah, Taylor-Schechter Misc. 35.88—was first published in 1928-1929 by Louis Ginzberg but, until now, it has not been translated into English. The text has affinities with the “Pilate group” of the Toledot Yeshu tradition. It begins with an account of the arrest of Jesus “the wicked” and John the Baptist. John is executed but Jesus escapes through flight like a bird to the cave of Elijah, which he seals by using the divine name. Jesus is found by Rabbi Jehuda and recaptured (in the form of a bird) and executed. Then his body is buried under a stream by Jehuda. When Jesus’ followers arrive the next day, they do not see Jesus’ body and thus declare that he has ascended to heaven. The text ends with the beginning of an account of the excavation and display of the corpse to refute the claim of ascension. It may seem odd to include the Toledot Yeshu in a Christian Apocrypha collection, but MNTA would not be the first to do so: Richard Clemens translated two versions of the text in vol. 5 of Die geheimgehaltenen oder sogenannten apokryphischen Evangelien (Stuttgart: J. Scheible, 1850), two versions are summarized in Sabine Baring-Gould, The Lost and Hostile Gospels: An Essay on the Toledoth Jeschu, and the Petrine and Pauline Gospels of the First Three Centuries of Which Fragments Remain (London: Williams & Norgate, 1874); and Hans-Jonas Klauck includes the text in his discussion of “anti-gospels” in Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction (London: T&T Clark International, 2004).

The MNTA entries on the Oxyrhynchus gospel fragments differ considerably from those for other texts in the volume. The introductions include extensive papyrological analyses and discussions of various reconstructions of the content of the texts. These features are necessary for the proper discussion of the texts and add considerably to the still-limited scholarship on the fragments.




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