New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Nine

The class began this week on a bit of a tangent. We discussed Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson’s controversial book The Lost Gospel, which had been mentioned in the news since the previous morning. It was somewhat appropriate for us to spend some time on the book given that the claim of the authors is that the pseudepigraphicon Joseph and Aseneth is a Christian text, making it one of a subset of Christian Apocrypha that utilizes Hebrew Bible figures. And my involvement with the publication, as the translator of the Syriac text that forms the basis of their interpretation, allowed me to bring a unique perspective to the publication. One student expressed the views of much of the internet discussion that has taken place over this past week: he questioned the academic value of the book and accused the authors of writing it simply to make money. I countered that sometimes these sensational works are useful for bringing topics and texts back into scholars’ consciousness (as well as the public’s). I mentioned how Jacobovici’s work on the Tomb of Jesus reopened discussion of the site and led to the mounting of a conference and the publication of an essay collection (The Tomb of Jesus and His Family, edited by James Charlesworth). Perhaps The Lost Gospel will invigorate study of Jewish Pseudepigrapha and expand discussion of Joseph and Aseneth, Christian Jewish Apocrypha, and other topics. And that’s not bad.

We turned next to the Acts of Peter. Only two-thirds of this text now survives and the bulk of it is found in a Latin translation in the Codex Vercellenses. We discussed Matthew Baldwin’s theory (see Whose Acts of Peter? Text and Historical Context of the Actus Vercellenses, 2005) that the Latin translation transformed the original text by introducing the theme of repentance and forgiveness, perhaps due to debate in the church over what to do about lapsi. It is suspicious that the theme of asceticism, so common in the other early apocryphal acts, is absent, except in the Greek manuscripts of the martyrdom. Another source for Acts of Peter that we discussed is a manuscript from the Angelic Library in Rome (Angelicus graecus 108) which features a brief text called “From the Acts of the Holy Apostle Peter.” The manuscript was edited by Francois Bovon and Bertrand Bouvier in 2006 (see “Un fragment grec inédit des Actes de Pierre?” Apocrypha 17: 9-54)  but seems not to have made much impact on scholarship on the the text. We finished the Acts of Peter with two film clips. The first was a scene from Quo Vadis (1951), based on the 1896 novel by Polish writer Henryk Sinkiewicz. The title is Latin for “Where are you going, Lord?” and is an allusion to an episode from the Acts of Peter 35. The second clip (a combination of clips actually) was from The Silver Chalice (1954) based on the 1952 novel by Thomas B. Costain. Here Simon Magus, played by Jack Palance, is presented as a magician used by the Sanhedrin to produce doubt about the miracles of Jesus—if Simon can duplicate the miracles through trickery, then Jesus cannot be the Messiah. Things go awry when Simon starts to believe he does have magic powers. In the Petrine apocrypha, the two compete several times, both in Rome and Palestine, but in The Silver Chalice, Peter and Simon never meet because, Peter says, the Lord had not instructed him to do so. Peter believes Simon will defeat himself. And he does. Recalling Acts of Peter 32, Simon launches himself from a tower to demonstrate his ability to fly, but instead falls to his death.

After the break we turned to examining the Pseudo-Clementine Romance. Though a very interesting text, its lengthy size and the complexities of the manuscript tradition have discouraged many scholars (including me) from examining it in much detail. Also, it has not been translated into English in over a century; so, many people do not have ready access to the text. I had to confess that I do not have a good grasp of the material. Thankfully I was helped in this regard by this week’s video from Annette Yoshiko Reed, who has worked extensively with the text. Annette’s video is the last one I have lined up for the course. I took the opportunity this week to ask the students what they thought of the videos. On the whole they valued the ones that best spoke to them on their level—i.e., this is a third-year course in which we examine a large number of texts, few with any particular depth; if the speaker was too detailed and too technical, the video failed to keep their interest. The students also were not very keen on why the scholars became interested in the texts, though this is something I want to hear about.

Very little of the text is provided in Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures: only the Letter of Peter to James and some excerpts from the Homilies—really only enough to get a sense of the Jewish-Christian nature of the text and of its antipathy toward the apostle Paul. We managed to squeeze in some discussion of Recognitions 1.27-71, which has been identified as an early Jewish-Christian telling of salvation history from the patriarchs to Jesus written around the middle of the second-century. After class I spoke to one of the students about the Homilies‘ concept of syzygies: i.e., that salvation history is revealed in inverted pairs, with the inferior of the pair appearing first, followed by the superior (e.g., the unrighteous Cain before the righteous Abel; Simon [i.e., Paul] before Peter). This is an interesting way to present orthodoxy and heresy; typically the church’s view of “truth” is expressed as right faith appearing first and later corrupted by outside influences. I certainly want to devote more time to studying the Pseudo-Clementines and I hope to be able to include it in a future volume of the collection New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures.

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

  1. barbara siskos says:

    The Pseudo Clementines were a rather difficult read for me, as I realized early on , that it was basically a constant reiteration of information. Basically, good vs evil, and the hope of salvation with the former. i did write an analysis on this text, and found that I was sort of grasping for further analytical thought. In any case, certainly a text that ties in with the rest of the apocryphals that we have discussed thus far, as it speaks to the theory of thought is ultimate salvation, and the criteria for it.

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