New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week 11

My New Testament Apocrypha course finished up a few weeks ago with a class focusing on two aims: a look at anti-gospels (i.e., texts written by non-Christians for non-Christians to either lampoon or criticize Christianity, or to recast Jesus for a new religious system) and a discussion of Kruger and Köstenberger’s The Heresy of Orthodoxy, which the students had to read for their book review assignment.

As a lead-in to the anti-gospels, I delivered a short lecture on Christian-Jewish conflict in the first few centuries. We looked at Mark’s apocalyptic discourse warning of being “handed over to councils and beaten in the synagogues” (13:9-13), John’s parents of the blind man who worried about being cast out of the synagogue for confessing Jesus as the Christ (9:22-23), arrests and executions of apostles in Acts, Paul’s issues with Judaizers, and several sections of Matthew (his genealogy which seems to anticipate criticism of Jesus’ conception, the slander of the disciples stealing the body of Jesus [28:11-15], and the declaration “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” [27:25]). These led into a discussion of Celsus’ The True Word and of possible references to Jesus in the Talmud.

Finally we arrived at the Toledoth Yeshu (the Life of Jesus) and we looked at some of its peculiar statements about Jesus: he was the son of “Joseph Pandera,” his miraculous abilities came from having stolen the Ineffable Name of God, his midair “defiling” battle with Judas, and Simon Kepha (identified also as Paul) as a double-agent of the Jews appointed to introduce Gentile practices into Christianity.

Then, after a brief look at Jesus in the Qur’an, we turned to the Gospel of Barnabas, a 15th-century retelling of the Gospels but with Jesus presented as a prophet and forerunner of Mohammad. I brought into the discussion the leather manuscript recovered from Turkish smugglers that has been in the news recently. The initial reports claimed it was a 1500-year-old Syriac Bible (National Turk), but some have speculated that it is actually the Gospel of Barnabas (Vatican Insider). Instead it appears to be a Syriac copy of the Gospel of Matthew from around 1500. The first report continues to circulate on social media, so it was worthwhile discussing it in class, even though the text is not truly the Gospel of Barnabas. Also, it is a window into how the text is promoted by Muslims (it has been speculated that the reporting of the find was written by Muslims “infiltrating” the news media).

Leaving the anti-gospels behind, we turned our attention to The Heresy of Orthodoxy. I typically assign a book by confessional authors in my courses—for example, in my New Testament course this year I have the students read Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God and then hand in a review of the rebuttal, How God Became Jesus, edited by Michael Bird. I find it useful for students to have something to balance the otherwise “liberal” scholarship appealed to in the bulk of the readings and lectures, though I do expect them to read the confessional material with a critical eye. The Heresy of Orthodoxy is essentially a refutation of the Bauer thesis—the view that in some parts of the Christian world, heresy preceded orthodoxy. This view has received much support in North America (particularly in the work of Bart Ehrman), though now it is used more broadly to demonstrate that early Christianity began as a plurality not a unity (Christianities, not Christianity). I reviewed The Heresy of Orthodoxy on Apocryphicity a few years ago (in four parts, beginning HERE).

I wanted the students to recognize that The Heresy of Orthodoxy is a transparently apologetic work (indeed, they admit as much when they say “It is our sincere hope that this volume will make a small contribution toward a defense of the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’ in our generation,” p. 19). Though the book looks very scholarly—with copious notes demonstrating a command of both primary and secondary literature—it is really a work of theology that does not engage Bauer and his supporters using the same historical-critical methodology. For example, where most scholars discuss the human efforts and motives for the construction of the canon, K&K appeal to supernatural forces: “The function of the apostolate was to make sure that the message of Christ was firmly and accurately preserved for future generations, through the help of the Holy Spirit, whether written by its members directly or through a close follower of theirs” (117); and, “Theologians have historically affirmed that the critical link between the covenant books and the covenant community is the work of the Holy Spirit” (122). Furthermore, they see the relativism in scholarship of early Christianity as “driven by forces that seek to discredit the biblical message about Jesus, the Lord and Messiah and Son of God, and the absolute truth claims of Christianity” (18). In our discussion, I did praise K&K and their peers for correcting some of the more speculative claims of liberal scholarship but emphasized that they are really only preaching to the converted—that is, the only people (besides us) reading the book don’t really need convincing.

Reading the students’ reviews, I am happy to see that some agree that the K&K and their perceived opponents are talking past each other; others, however, praise the book for the strength of its rebuttal. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me in the value of the Bauer thesis, but I at least wanted them to identify the different assumptions held by those on both sides of this discussion. Perhaps next year I will spend more time in the course on Bauer’s book, assigning weekly readings from it early in the course, rather than just a few chapters. This may prepare the students better for the review.

And that’s a wrap for New Testament Apocrypha for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts and I want to thank the students for adding their thoughts in the comments. It was a great group of students this year; I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the course.

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3 Responses to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week 11

  1. Hi Tony

    What’s the source of the information regarding the Syriac Gospel According to Matthew in Turkey?

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