New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Eight

I began our first class on the apocryphal acts with a statement that the material typically does not excite students. Jesus appears very little in the texts and, let’s face it, the apocryphal acts are rather long and tedious. That said, our sourcebook for the course (Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures) reduces the texts well to their more interesting components. And hey, who can resist tales of necrophilia and severed genitals?

We started by reading the story of Drusiana from Acts of John 63-64 as a lead in to discussion of some typical features (asceticism, prominent female characters) of the apocryphal acts. Then we backtracked a little to provide a little context to the texts with a discussion of the canonical Acts, noting, among other things, the text’s depiction of Simon Magus (in anticipation of our class on the Acts of Peter next week) and its abrupt ending with Paul in Rome. This led to a brief look at two modern apocrypha: the 29th Chapter of Acts and the Long-lost Second Book of Acts. Both continue Paul’s missionary work, either in Britain or in Palestine, and give the authors’ opportunity to expound their views on nineteenth-century topics of interest.

Returning to the apocryphal acts, I provided some background on the five earliest texts— the Acts of Thomas, Andrew, Peter, Paul, and John—with particular attention to Stevan Davies’ theory that the acts were written and transmitted by a community of Christian women (the “widows” discussed in some NT texts). The theory was an effective lead-in to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which its female protagonist escapes execution for failing to fulfill her community’s command for her to marry and, after baptizing herself(!), goes on to become a wandering Christian preacher. The scholars interviewed for our clip on Thecla in the Banned from the Bible documentary called the text “feminist.” Perhaps, as critics of Davies’ position have stated, it is too much to expect this ancient Christian text to be so progressive, that in the end the women of the apocryphal acts still function as property to be fought over by the apostles of the text, but it is helpful to consider in this regard Tertullian’s condemnation of the text from On Baptism: he objected to its use by some Christians as support for women preaching and baptizing. So there was some real-world impact of the depiction of women in these texts.

Given our time limits, we had only a little time (made even shorter by finicky classroom technology) to go over some other Pauline apocrypha, including 3 Corinthians and Paul and Seneca. Paul Eastman contributed the first of two scholar’s videos for this week’s class; he delivered an interesting, sometimes humorous, discussion of his work on Pauline martyrdom accounts. Then Philip Tite, joined on camera by one of his kitties, gave an overview of scholarship on the Epistle to the Laodiceans. I have to remember next week to ask the students what they think of these videos. I like that they allow students to engage, in some respects, with some of the scholars in the field, to become acquainted in an informal way with the people who work on this literature, and see how vibrant the field is. And they give me a break from lecturing for a few minutes.

The class finished with a return to the Acts of John. We ran through a few of the stories, highlighting its advocacy of asceticism, its heretical christology (particularly in John’s Hymn of Jesus), and its articulation of the substitution theory (that Christ did not suffer on the cross). One student asked why the text needed to be so vulgar in articulating its interest in asceticism, citing in this regard the story of Drusiana, who dies out of concern for tempting Callimachus with her beauty only for Callimachus, undaunted, to violate her tomb in order to have sex with her corpse. I mentioned in response that readers of Greco-Roman novels, the closest literary analogue to the apocryphal acts, were used to such “vulgarity.” In Daphnis and Chloe, written in the second century by Longus, Daphnis is educated on love-making by a woman named Lycaenion, but is scared to test his skills on Chloe, because Lycaenion tells him Chloe “will scream and cry and lie bleeding heavily [as if murdered].” Chloe is courted by suitors who try to abduct her and, at one point, Is very nearly raped by pirates. The Golden Ass by Lucius features a scene in which the protagonist, transformed by magic into a donkey, has sex with a woman who becomes enamoured with him. Despite all of these crude features, the novels (Acts of John included) seek to edify as much as entertain—i.e., they direct their readers to higher spiritual or moral lessons. The stories may have their objectionable qualities but, to use a modern proverb, these were the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. And it works: one student remarked that he would like to make Acts of John into a play.

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One Response to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Eight

  1. barbara siskos says:

    I particularly enjoyed this lecture, as it set off a perverbial light for me that speaks to the idea of feminism during those times. Davies’ theory that the acts were wriiten by women (widows) represent a paramount understanding of the role of women then. I personally value this insightful contribution of scholary thought, as it allows me to further consolidate my learning of the dynamics of the patriarchal driven community vs the submissive female cohort of the time.

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