New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Five

Our first of two classes on Passion and resurrection gospels began and ended with the Gospel of Mary. We read the conclusion to Gos. Mary as a group and I had the class consider who the Mary of the text is (the Marys tend to blur in apocryphal traditions), why the apostles doubt her vision (did the author anticipate resistance to the text’s “strange teachings”?), and what to make of the interplay between Peter and Mary (a microcosm of orthodox and “heretical” group conflicts?).

We carried this discussion of orthodoxy and heresy into our discussion of the next text examined this week: the Revelation of Peter. As a Nag Hammadi text, Rev. Peter is not usually discussed among Passion gospels, but it is set during the crucifixion of Jesus. Its docetic Christology—i.e., the divine Christ only “seemed” to be human, and departed the body of Jesus of Nazareth at the crucifixion—makes Rev. Peter one of the most controversial texts among the Christian Apocrypha and elicited much discussion from the class. We followed up Rev. Peter with a look at other texts that share the crucifixion-substitution motif, including Irenaeus’s description of the teaching of Basilides, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, the Acts of John, the Qur’an (Sura 4.157), and the Gospel of Barnabas. To supplement this survey of literature we looked also at a segment from the documentary Secret Lives of Jesus focusing on Basilides and Rev. Peter.

The Gospel of Barnabas’s use of Judas as the substitute for Jesus led into a brief look at the Gospel of Judas. I will be focusing on Gos. Judas in the Gnosticism course starting in January, so I did not want to spend too much time on the text this week. We simply examined the text’s polemic against orthodox Christianity from 38,1-39,5: “Some sacrifice their own children, others their wives, while praising and blaming each other. Some have sex with men. Some perform acts of murder,” etc. One student commented that the text can serve just as well as an indictment of the modern church. Indeed.

The most well-known apocryphal Passion narrative, the Acts of Pilate, is a text that I have always struggled to master. There are far too many manuscripts (500!), in a great variety of languages (not only Greek, Latin, and Syriac but also Armaic, Armenian, Georgian, and vernaculars), and with way too many variants. And then there are all the other texts of the Pilate Cycle, and the medieval homilies that incorporate them. Oy. To my surprise, our primary text reader (Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures) does not contain Acts Pilate. So, after viewing a segment on the text from Banned from the Bible, I went through the contents of the Greek A version with the class, noting some of its more interesting features (its treatment of Jewish complicity in the trial of Jesus, its added biographical details to some of the characters from the canonical Gospels). This was followed by a quick discussion of the Descent to Hell tradition of the Greek B text, supplemented with a minor detour into the Barnabas texts (Questions of Barnabas, Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew) that also preserve this tradition. We could not spend any time on the other Pilate Cycle texts, but if students are interested enough, they can select one of these (the Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea or the Vengeance of the Savior) to examine in their major paper.

I did manage to squeeze in some brief descriptions of two lesser-known Passion accounts: the Book of the Cock and the recently-published On the Life and the Passion of Christ attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem. They both contain some curious features. In Bk. Cock, Paul participates in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus (he even places the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head). And in the Ps.-Cyril text, Judas needs to identify Jesus with a kiss because Jesus can take on many forms, and Pilate offers to sacrifice his own son in Jesus’ place.

The only resurrection text we covered this week was the Gospel of Mary. The course text (my Secret Scriptures Revealed) provides a summary of the Apocryphon of John and a list of the various dialogue gospels, but again, further examination of these texts will wait for the Gnosticism course. In our last half hour we returned to Gos. Mary for a discussion of Mary Magdalene in canonical and noncanonical traditions. I noted that her role as a representative of forms of Christianity with more opportunities for women is given support by evidence outside the text, including Tertullian’s indictment of Christian groups who allow women to lead, preach, and baptize, and the female recipient of Ptolemy’s Epistle to Flora. We finished with a few scenes from the 2005 film Mary, starring Juliette Binoche as an actress playing Mary Magdalene in a film within the film. Three scenes are based on Gos. Mary (incorporating roughly half of the text from 10,1-18,10), and others show Mary interacting with Jesus and the male apostles. Other scenes show Theodore Younger (played by Forest Whitaker) viewing footage of Elaine Pagels and other scholars discussing the text.

The next class features a workshop on research skills as preparation for the students’ major paper. Then, in two weeks, we return to the texts to examine apocryphal apocalypses.

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6 Responses to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Five

  1. barbara siskos says:

    In order for Christianity to expand, and evolve the way that it did , Jesus must have been persecuted, in order for him to rise, for salvation. The idea that Jesus was a fraud, is simply not possible, as it would have been acknowledged by a plethora of people, and as a consequence it would not have branched to the extent of Christianity that it has. To suggest that Simon took the place of Jesus on the crucifix, is merely an apocryphal tale, in my opinion.

  2. Francis Owusu says:

    The lectures was very interesting and challenging. We realized that the Mary in question was not Jesus’ mother but Mary (Magdalene) whom Jesus healed. She later became the person Jesus loved most even over His disciples. Mary told the disciples about what Jesus revealed to her alone in a vision. The disciples were jealous about Mary for taking their position.

  3. Francis Owusu says:

    Later part of the lecture was very emotional. Pilate realized that Jesus was not guilty of any of the charges against him so he tried all that he could to set him free but the people refused to agree to that. Eventually, he has to listen to the voice of the people and did what they asked for unwillingly. What astonished me is that, if he is the chief priest and has the power to do everything why didn’t he do what was right to his heart and knowledge? Listening to the lectures and watching the video about The Gospel of Mary gave me the clear picture and helped me to understand the lectures very well.

  4. Carmela Mete says:

    I would definitely have to agree with Barbara but thats also because I do have a strong belief in Jesus. To claim that Jesus was a fraud and that Simon replaced him on the crucifix just sounds foolish to not only myself but most likely to every believer in Jesus Christ.

    Yet, what about the non-believers? Wouldn’t they thrive on this possibility to use this apocryphal text to persuade others that Jesus is in fact a fraud? I’m sure many Jews would see this claim as their only hope to conform to this change. However, religion itself would change completely if Jesus was proven to be a fraud, it would have a rippling effect not only within Christianity but also within Islam as well, since they consider Jesus as a prophet. Overall, I guess you could neither prove that he is a fraud or that he is not.

    I just find this apocryphal text very invalid especially since there are other apocryphal texts that do claim Jesus was the one who was crucified.

  5. Tony says:

    Carmela, the texts we surveyed do not claim Jesus is a fraud, just that he did not die on the cross in the way that orthodox Christianity claimed. There are modern apocryphal texts that claim Jesus was crucified but was revived and lived for a while. But even these were written by Christians with different views of Jesus, not non-believers hostile to Christianity.

  6. Carmela Mete says:

    Oh yes thats right my mistake! I re read the texts and realized I got a little caught up and just jumped to assumptions… Thanks for clearing that up.

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