SBL 2015 Diary: Days 3 and 4

The morning of day 3 began with a meeting with some fine folks from Polebridge Press, the publishing wing of the Westar Institute. My friend and York colleague Phil Harland has recently become involved with Westar, best known (perhaps infamously) as the organization behind the Jesus Seminar. Our conversations led to discussions about the possibility of NASSCAL partnering with Polebridge for some publishing projects. Stay tuned for more on these projects, and if you haven’t joined NASSCAL yet, what’s keeping you? Sheesh.

The afternoon was spent at the third of four Christian Apocrypha sessions, this one on “‘Lived Contexts’ of Christian Apocrypha.” The session featured four papers and finished with a prepared response from me. Up first was Alexander Kocar with “Saints, Sinners, and Apostates: Moral, Salvific, and Anthropological Difference in the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocryphon of John.” Alex’s paper looked at two early Christian texts that construct “a salvific middle ground”—with saints at the top, the damned at the bottom, and repentant sinners in the middle. The question being addressed in the texts is whether one can sin after baptism and receive redemption and, perhaps by extension, retain a position within the community. The two texts are rarely discussed together, “due in large part, “ Alex said, “to the anachronistic, artificial, and misleading divide between orthodoxy and heresy.” And both have their own particular difficulties of interpretation: Hermas is incredibly long, repetitive, and relentless, and at times its discussion of repentance is contradictory in its details, whereas Apoc. John is esoteric and oblique overall. In the end, I found that the texts had much in common, more even than Alex found!

The second paper was Meghan Henning’s “Substitutes in Hell: Schemes of Atonement in the Ezra Apocalypses.” To some people it might seem strange to look at Ezra apocalypses in a Christian Apocrypha session, but there is increasing attention paid now to the Christian origins of some Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and there has been a change in recent decades to the definition of Christian apocrypha to include Christian-authored OTP. Meghan’s paper looked at several schemes of atonement in the Ezra apocalypses that can operate at the same time without being in competition with one another: expiatory suffering, cosmic battles, expiatory prayer and sacrifices. It was interesting to me to see the parallels between the Latin Vision of Ezra/Greek Apocalypse of Ezra (the principle text of Meghan’s paper) and the apocalypses of Paul, the Virgin, and Sedrach. I wonder what was happening in Christian communities of the time that led to such anxiety over the fate of sinners, something we don’t observe in earlier texts like Apoc. Peter and Hermas (Apoc. Peter has no plea for mercy; Hermas is concerned about redemption but not the suffering of those who are not redeemed). Also interesting about the Ezra text is its emphasis on celebrating the visionary; it is promised that everyone who buys and copies the book, and celebrates a feast in his memory, “all his sins are remitted.” These activities correspond to actions demanded in a number of post-Constantinian texts from the East and the West that were composed to institute and support the creation of churches and festivals. This seems to be the “lived context” of these Ezra texts.

Next up was Andrew Mark Henry with “Apotropaic Autographs: Evaluating the Epigraphical and Magical Tradition of the Abgar Correspondence.” Andrew’s paper fits well the theme of lived contexts for apocryphal texts. The Abgar Correspondence appears in numerous contexts: in literary contexts such as part of church chronicles (as in Eusebius), incorporated in other apocryphal texts (most notably its expansion in the Doctrine of Addai, but also in a number of other Syriac texts), and as a standalone text in manuscripts. Andrew’s focus, however, was on apotropaic contexts, such as amulets, ostraca, and inscriptions. Andrew wanted to bring attention particularly to inscriptions, to “put the Abgar inscriptions ‘back on their buildings’” and highlight the performative aspect of this text. His paper was a welcome reminder of how this text was used in antiquity, and how prominently, even despite its non-canonical status. There are six Abgar inscriptions in evidence, but only two (from Ephesus and Philippi) are documented adequately. Most interesting is the Ephesus inscription, which appears on a door lintel but written on the bottom of the lintel, so that the reader needs to stand beneath it and look up. Likely, the inscription had a power that was not dependent on it being read—simply being a part of the building was enough to bestow upon it the protection of Christ.

Finally, Mark Glen Bilby contributed the fourth paper of the session: “Holy Places, Holy Fragrances: The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea as Sensory Pilgrimage Map.” Nar. Jos. has been sorely neglected in scholarship. Only one critical edition has ever been made, and this is over 150 years old. Scholars do not know where to situate it in time and space—usually all that is said is that it dates between the 4th and 12th centuries. Mark argued that it is a cultic pilgrimage map from Christian Palestine in the 4th or 5th century. The text places importance on certain times of day, on certain geographical locations (Jericho, Galilee, the courtyard of Caiaphas), and the characters deliver speeches at key points in the narrative. I wasn’t wholly convinced by Mark’s paper, but perhaps more attention to the Jerusalem pilgrimage itineraries will bring in more evidence to support the argument. The strongest argument Mark made for the dating of Nar. Jos. was his discussion of the emergence of the cult of Demas and the interest shown in the text toward relics (including a mysterious artifact associated with Solomon that Mark suspects is the ring featured in the Testament of Solomon).

After a second tour of the book display I ran to the “Function of Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings in Early Judaism and Early Christianity” session to see the one Infancy Gospel of Thomas paper in this year’s program: “Canon and Scripture Development in Light of the Infancy Gospels” by Allyson Presswood Nance and Katie Unsworth, students of Bill Warren at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The paper came out of a class by Warren on canon and scripture development. It basically noted the use of New Testament and Old Testament materials in the canonical infancy narratives and select non-canonical infancy gospels (James, Thomas, and Pseudo-Matthew). No substantive conclusions were reached about the texts’ use of the earlier materials, but I cautioned the presenters to be careful about declaring that the authors used “the New Testament” given that no “New Testament” was in existence when James and Thomas were composed and even if it was, neither of the texts use the entire roster of NT texts. After the session Bradley Rice and I had dinner and drinks and then I headed back to the hotel for a quiet night spent working and watching television.

That leaves us with day four and the final session of the conference—the fourth Christian Apocrypha session: “Ancient Texts, New Questions: New Directions in Christian Apocrypha Studies.” Attendance was a little sparse (the dreaded Tuesday morning time slot!), but the papers were engaging. Bradley Rice looked at “Collecting Christian Apocrypha in Eastern Europe.” Early in the planning of the Christian Apocrypha sessions, we put out a call for papers on collecting Christian Apocrypha; alas, only Brad answered that call. He looked at two eastern-European collections: the Polish Aporkyfy Nowego Testamentu by Marek Starowieyski (first ed. 1980, rev. in three vols. 2003-2008) and the Czech Novozakonni Apokryfy (2003-2007). Both collections are impressively expansive, with texts passed over even by the Italian, German, and French compilations (including a few I’d like to add to the MNTA volumes).

Cambry Pardee’s paper “The Levi Defender Tradition: From Joseph and Aseneth to the Gospel of Mary” was the other highlight of the session. He compared the portrayals of the patriarch Levi in Hellenistic Jewish literature—a defender of women, an avenging warrior, and a prophet—to how Levi (an apostle?) is used in the Gospel of Mary. Pardee argued that Gos. Mary drew this composite Levi from Joseph and Aseneth as only there are all three of the attributes of the patriarch employed. It is a compelling argument, particularly given that Levi’s presence in Gos. Mary is rather mysterious.

And that brings an end to SBL 2015. Watch for the call for papers for 2016, both here and on the SBL Christian Apocrypha Facebook group (and join that too!). See you in San Antonio.

This entry was posted in SBL Christian Apocrypha Section. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *