This week marked our final look at Christian-authored apocrypha; our final class, in two weeks, focuses on anti-Christian apocrypha (the Toledot Yeshu and the Gospel of Barnabas) and modern anti-Christian apocrypha apologetic writers. But this week we looked at tales of Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ wife Mary Magdalene (just joking).
As a lead-in to the Marian apocrypha we discussed Stephen Shoemaker’s paper, “Rethinking the ‘Gnostic Mary’: Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala in Early Christian Tradition” (JECS 9.4 : 555-95), in which he argues that there is much assimilation and confusion of the various Marys in apocryphal Christian traditions. Shoemaker focuses on two of these Marys, but we discussed also Mary of Bethany and the “other Mary” (=Mary, mother of James?) at the tomb, all of which are combined in various ways in the text. This is demonstrated in the Life of Mary Magdalene, a late-antique text from an unpublished Greek manuscript and in a Latin form incorporated in the Golden Legend. Here Mary Magdalene is identified as Mary of Bethany and Luke’s sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50); Martha, surprisingly, is said to be the woman with a hemorrhage (Mark 5:21-43 par.).
After a survey of the Life of Mary and a few other Marian texts (Epiphanius’ suspicious descriptions of the Questions of Mary and the Genna Marias), we turned our focus to the Dormition of Mary. The students were assigned the late fifth-century version of the text attributed to St. John the Theologian, which, though not representative of the earliest traditions (the Syriac and the Ethiopic) was nevertheless very popular and is much more accessible (lamentably, the Dormition texts are not included in any of the English apocrypha collections). We viewed a segment from a Greek Orthodox sermon on the feast of the assumption to show how the text is an integral part of Christian teaching about Mary despite the fact that it is not found in the New Testament. The students remarked that the Dormition was useful for bringing a sense of closure about the fate of Mary, who is not mentioned in the NT at all after Acts 1:14. They could see, however, that some Christians throughout the centuries may have felt that the text elevated Mary to an uncomfortable level—equal almost to Jesus in that she could heal and, in a way, rose from death after three days. They were shocked by the Dormition’s depictions of Jewish antagonists, who sought to burn Mary’s body but were instead consumed by fire.
The third text of the night was the History of Joseph the Carpenter. I had to confess to the class that my knowledge of the text was somewhat small—it is not a text that many of us study in much detail, though Coptic scholars have devoted some attention to it. Alin Suciu places it among his Pseudo-apostolic memoirs—it lacks the homiletic framework but includes the familiar motif of discovery of the text in a library in Jerusalem. The students were struck by its emotional verisimilitude; whereas Mary of the Dormition welcomes death and receives great honours on her deathbed, here Jesus weeps for his dying adoptive father and Joseph fears the approach of the angel of death. To demonstrate the affective relationship between Jesus and Joseph emphasized in the text, I showed the class a short clip from the death scene from the 1998 Jesus television miniseries starring Jeremy Sisto (one of my favorite Jesus films because of its use and invention of apocryphal traditions). I also spent a few minutes discussing the Investiture of Abbaton, another Coptic text from the same genre of literature. It tells the story of how the angel Muriel becomes the Angel of Death.
The final hour of the class was spent on John the Baptist traditions. I quickly ran through all of the apocryphal texts that feature John, whether as the main protagonist or only in cameo, from the Gospel of Thomas and the Jewish-Christian gospels through the various martyrdoms of John to the Mandaean literature. We then looked at some of the more interesting features of the Life of John the Baptist by Serapion, which contains the remarkable story of John’s flying head. The Life of John is one of my favourite texts; unfortunately, we were left with little time to discuss it in any great detail. I did get the chance to remark on how the text weaves together canonical and noncanonical traditions (including material from the Protevangelium of James and stories invented perhaps by the author) without any concern for the boundary between them. As we demonstrated with the Dormition, many Christians did not care about this distinction.
There is no class next week as I will be in San Diego for the SBL Annual Meeting. I will blog and tweet over the course of the conference about the papers that examine apocryphal texts.