2014 SBL Diary Day One: Writing Christian Apocrypha for Popular Audiences

I realize the internet and blogging is all about immediacy, but intermittent Wifi access at the SBL sites, my own desire to extend my trip to San Diego, and end-of-term teaching obligations has meant a lengthy delay in posting anything about my conference activities at SBL this year. Hopefully you’ll agree that reading this account late is better than not at all.

Day 1: November 22

When I left Toronto Friday night, the temperature was around -5 C, up from -15 the day before. For the entire week in San Diego the weather was fabulous: sunny and 20-26 C. My wife Laura kept remarking “Can you believe this?!” I had trouble getting her to board the flight home. I vote to have SBL at San Diego every year (or at least somewhere on equal latitude). We stayed at the Marriott Marquis & Marina, and looked out at a panoramic view of the San Diego Bay (Laura: “Can you believe this view?!”). The last time I was in San Diego, for SBL 2007, I shared a room with three other guys. My fortunes have certainly improved over the years.

I rose early to chair the first of our four Christian Apocrypha sessions: “‘Canonical/Apocryphal’ and Other Troublesome Binaries.” The first paper was delivered by Matthew Crawford (University of Durham): “The Diatessaron, Canonical or Non-canonical? Rereading the Dura Fragment.” Crawford, who has written previously on the Diatessaron (e.g., “Diatessaron: A Misnomer? The Evidence of Ephrem’s Commentary,” Early Christianity 4.3 [2013]: 362-85), advocates looking at the Dura Fragment (and the Diatessaron on-the-whole) not simply as a woodenly-constructed harmony but as a gospel unto itself (indeed, Tatian called his work simply “the gospel”), with its own theological and Christological concerns and rhetorical features. The third-century fragment, which may not even be from the Diatessaron, covers a portion of the Passion account drawing elements from all four of the NT gospels. Crawford noted what aspects of the NT accounts are included in the fragment, what is excluded, and considered what motivations lay behind these decisions. Crawford stated also that it is difficult to recover the text of the Diatessaron because it was vulgatized in its transmission. Only rarely is the Dura fragment included in CA collections, but I agree with Crawford that it should be part of the discussion of Christian Apocrypha.

Christian Apocrypha preserved in Georgian was the focus of Cornelia Horn’s (Catholic University of America) paper, “Christian Apocrypha in Georgian on Jesus and Mary: Questions of Canonicity, Liturgical Usage, and Social Settings.” Horn focused on two manuscripts that combine canonical and noncanonical texts for liturgical usage: one of the Protevangelium of James in a 7th-century liturgical book, and the other a tenth-century copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (the only Georgian source we have for the text). The bulk of Horn’s paper focused on the Infancy Thomas manuscript, about which she provided a great amount of detail, including that it was once owned by a monastery for women and was later purchased by a 17th-century queen named Mary. Abraham Terian, translator of the Armenian Infancy Gospel for Oxford University Press, in the audience at the session, suggested the manuscript may have been used for readings preceding feast days for the Virgin Mary.

Next, Richard Pervo spoke on the Gospel of Matthew as “Canonical Apocrypha.” He listed six elements in the text that many scholars see as characteristics of apocryphal texts: imaginary history, exotic people and places, uncritical acceptance of magic and/or astrology, symbolism vincit omnia, unseemly miracles “for their own sake,” and crude apologetic. Pervo’s argument was that those who denigrate apocryphal texts for their use of these elements should look more closely at some of the canonical gospels. I have called for the same reflection in my own work, particularly as a corrective to those who say that the CA are full of weird and wacky stories, yet the NT gospels also contain some pretty bizarre narratives.

Pervo was followed by Shaily Shashikant Patel of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her paper, “Magical Miracles and Miraculous Magic: Discourse of the Supernatural in the Acts of Peter,” compared the various miracles performed by Peter to the “magic tricks” of Simon Magus and to similar activities described in magical papyri. Patel argued that Simon is needed in the Acts of Peter to demonstrate that Peter’s feats, though they look very much like magic, are presented positively in the text in light of Simon’s failings. She compared the two characters’ activities along three indices: agency (Simon’s are demonic, Peter’s are divine), quality (Simon’s are temporary/disastrous, Peter’s are permanent and effective), and effect (Simon’s seduce Christians away from the faith, Peter’s bring them back). The final paper of the session was Brad F. King’s (University of Texas at Austin) “Reframing the Apocryphon of John: ‘Christianizing’ Revisions in the Long Recension.” King noted that the long recension of the text contains several “normalizations” bringing the text into harmony with NT texts (e.g., the title of the longer version is similar to the opening of Revelation); he cautioned, however, that the text is still very unorthodox and these “Christianizations” merely reflect the normalizing influence of the NT, now fairly established by the time of the creation of the longer Ap. John.

After lunch I appeared on the panel “Presenting the Christian Apocrypha to Non-Scholarly Audiences.” Brent Landau (my co-chair of the Christian Apocrypha Section) and I were really happy with the formation of this panel. It was an excellent lineup of scholars and professionals, each of whom had something unique to offer. Bart Ehrman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is well-known for his prodigious output of popular market books, including the apocrypha-focused Lost Christianities and his collection The Other Gospels. Nicola Denzey Lewis (Brown University) discussed her new textbook Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Robert Cargill (University of Iowa) recounted his work on the History Channel’s documentary series Bible Secrets Revealed. Roger Freet, Executive Editor at HarperOne, offered his reflections on the wider public’s interest in Christian Apocrypha. Hal Taussig (Union Theological Seminary) revealed how the texts were selected for his collection A New New Testament. And then there was me, hoping throughout the session not to be asked about The Lost Gospel.

We each had fifteen minutes to discuss our projects, then some time to ask each other questions before opening discussion up to the audience. Ehrman began with an anecdote about being reluctant to write on the Christian Apocrypha until the advance offered for Lost Christianities became too lucrative to resist. Alas, the book did not sell well at first but then he was interviewed for a Time Magazine cover story. However, before the issue finished going through the presses, Saddam Hussein was found and Ehrman’s story appeared on only a third of the covers (he showed both versions to the audience). Ehrman cautioned those wanting to write for popular audiences that there are many types of books and you can only please one type of audience at a time—there is no such thing as a “popular book useful to scholars.” He advised prospective writers to figure out what is interesting to a popular audience (and there is plenty that is interesting in the Christian Apocrypha); once you have drawn the readers in, he said, then you can discuss what is interesting to scholars. It is tricky is to be a good communicator and scholar at the same time (“you have to be entertaining but not a sensationalist”).

Nicola Denzey Lewis described the writing of her Gnosticism textbook as a labour of love. The book was crafted over time while teaching her Gnosticism course; she noted the questions asked about the texts by students (different from her own), and had her students critique drafts. Denzey Lewis revealed that her work on the book has not been taken seriously as “real scholarship” by her department, despite the fact, she said, that it is “the most peer-reviewed thing I’ve ever done.”

Robert Cargill opened his talk with an indictment of what he called “pseudo-scholarship”—i.e., writers who present “ridiculous claims” as “scholarly research” and thus distract the public and students and “give the field a bad name.” Cargill mentioned his involvement in a 2009 conference at which this “pseudo-scholarship” was discussed and some solutions were reached by those involved on how to deal with the media, including engaging the public more directly through the media (and thus choke out pseudo-scholars), though this is best done by working with reporters who have a record of responsible journalism, and urging scholars to participate in the creation of “good, responsible programs.” And this is how Bible Secrets Revealed was created, which Cargill called “responsible scholarship,” aimed at informing viewers rather than just making money.

Roger Freet contributed a publisher’s view of the creation and reception of popular scholarship. He mentioned how sales are generated by public interest, citing the example of the sudden increase in sales of Marvin Meyer’s book on the Gospel of Thomas side after the release of the film Stigmata. He suggested to prospective writers to exercise their skills by blogging—writing for blogs has a similar conversational tone as popular books and reading the comments to your posts, which can be unkind, gives you a sense of public reaction to your ideas.

Hal Tausig’s story of the creation of A New New Testament generated a lot of interest from the panel members. The collection includes the 27 books of the Western canon along with an additional ten texts (Gospel Mary, Thunder: Perfect Mind, Gospel of Thomas, Odes of Solomon, Prayer of Thanksgiving, Paul and Thecla, Gospel of Truth, Prayer of Paul, Letter of Peter to Philip, Apocryphon of John) chosen in consultation with 19 national spiritual leaders. The publisher told Tausig he could add as many texts as he wanted “as long as they are meaningful to readers.” The panel was surprised that certain texts, such as the Protevangelium of James, which have been so important in shaping Christian doctrine and liturgy were not included—indeed, in voting, Prot. Jas. came in nineteenth.

Certain aspects of the panel discussion stand out to me in retrospect. Cargill was fairly transparent in his efforts to use the panel as an opportunity to criticize Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson’s The Lost Gospel (though he did publicly compliment the translation I contributed to the book). He contrasted their “pseudo-scholarship” with the true scholarship represented on the panel. This strikes me as an artificial distinction. Most of the panelists have made compromises in presenting their work to popular audiences. Ehrman, for example, has been heavily criticized for being sensationalist, particularly in his discussion of text criticism in Misquoting Jesus. And Cargill’s Bible Secrets Revealed (reviewed HERE and HERE), produced by the same company as the popular series Ancient Aliens (on which Cargill has appeared, though only to debunk the theories), is the least sophisticated of all the Christian Apocrypha documentaries produced to date—indeed, one of its recruited “experts” is a fiction writer known for a series of novels about the marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. I think we all believe in the concept of the public intellectual, that we want to get our work across to a wide audience, and that some concessions have to be made to do so—whether this is by risking simplification, courting controversy, or, in the case of documentaries, surrendering ourselves to the whims of the director.

What does this mean for the boundary between pseudo-scholars and “real” scholars? Barrie Wilson is a professor emeritus of York University and an award-winning author. Simcha Jacobovici is an award-winning filmmaker. I don’t think it’s fair to label their work pseudo-scholarship—though that doesn’t mean it’s immune to criticism—nor to expect them to play by the rules of scholarship and have their work go through peer-review before its dissemination. Cargill’s comments strike me also as an effort to limit the voices in public discussion of religion and history; choking out those we label “pseudo-scholars” suggests that some people are unworthy of a seat at the table. I think such exclusion is detrimental to our efforts to engage the public; afterall, the topics raised by popularizers reflect what people want to explore. We would do well to follow their lead.

My final task of the day was to sit on a panel hosted by the Student Advisory Board on “The Prospects and Pitfalls of Students Participating in Academic Conferences.” Ironically, only one student showed up to the session. It was a painful reminder of my days as a musician, playing “Battle of the Bands” events in which the only audience members were the guys in the other bands.

After dinner I attended the reception in memory of François Bovon and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken. I had a number of interactions with François over the years (see my eulogy HERE) but I did not know Ellen well. I was quite moved by her students’ and colleagues’ memories of her; it was evident that she had done much in particular to nurture women scholars.

Tomorrow (hopefully!): Day two.

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One Response to 2014 SBL Diary Day One: Writing Christian Apocrypha for Popular Audiences

  1. Excellent recap, Tony.
    In terms of pseudo-scholarship, perhaps the best recent example is a so-called review of The Lost Gospel a day before the book was available. This represents the best feat of magic since Simon Magus….and in the same league. Just as professional as a “review” by a restaurant critic who hasn’t eaten at the establishment under discussion. Very sad state of scholarship.

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