2016 CSBS/CSPS Christian Apocrypha Report, Part 1

The 2016 Annual Meetings of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies and the Canadian Society of Patristic Studies took place this past weekend at the University of Calgary. The two groups are small but mighty and the members are always friendly and gracious. Since 2013 I have been organizing, along with Timothy Pettipiece, a joint session for the two societies on Christian Apocrypha. This year we planned a book review panel for the forthcoming collection New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, edited by me (Tony Burke) and Brent Landau, and several members also contributed proposals for papers. Alas we did not have enough papers for a second session but it is a good sign for Christian Apocrypha Studies in Canada to get so much involvement (yes SBL has four Christian Apocrypha sessions and a multitude of other papers besides, but like I said: small but mighty). Unfortunately, I arrived in Calgary too late to catch two of the papers on the morning of day one (“Mary Magdalene: The Companion of Jesus” by Emily Laflèche, University of Ottawa, and “Hidden Words – Re-parsing What Thomas Overheard” by Bill Richards, College of Emmanuel & St Chad) and another two papers focusing on Marcion (The Priority of Marcion? The Text of Marcion’s Gospel and the Resurrected Jesus of Luke 24” by Daniel A. Smith, Huron University College, and Apples and Dragons: Q, Marcion and the Decontextualization of Divine Wisdom” by Glen J. Fairen, University of Alberta) that were scheduled at the same time as the MNTA book panel. Nevertheless, I will offer some comments on the MNTA panel (I was at that one!).

But first I will report on the CSPS book review panel dedicated to Christian Oxyrhynchus: Texts, Documents, and Sources (Second through Fourth Centuries) by Lincoln Blumell and Thomas A. Wayment. I was asked to offer a response/review of the book and I was pleased to do so given that so much of our early Christian Apocrypha manuscripts come from Oxyrhynchus. I have reproduced my response below. The authors were present at the session and they, in turn, responded to me. So, keep reading to see what they had to say about my comments.


Christian OxyI was very happy to be asked to contribute to this panel, because I really wanted a copy of this book! One of my scholarly pursuits is text-criticism, not only of the Bible (canonical texts) but also noncanonical texts, and Oxyrhynchus is a source of numerous biblical and apocryphal papyri. As the authors tell us, 42% of NT papyri come from Oxyrhynchus, and about the same can be said for manuscripts of apocryphal texts from before 400 CE.

The book is an excellent single-source for editions and manuscript-descriptions found otherwise scattered in the 80 volumes-and-counting of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, a series of Italian volumes, as well as journal articles, essays, etc. It also updates some of the early editions, not all of which were done with rigour, adds translations in English for some not translated, and allows for cross-references between papyri not possible with earlier published material. There is much here worthy of praise. But if that’s all I had to say, this session wouldn’t be very interesting.

Given my area of expertise, I’d like to focus on the section of the volume covering apocryphal texts, and then make some comments on the categorization of the materials, first as canonical vs. noncanonical and then as Christian (as opposed to Jewish or pagan).

The section on “extracanonical texts” covers 26 texts, about half as many as the New Testament section. Included here are the three fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, two on the Gospel of Mary, two that may be the Gospel of Peter, 11 of Hermas, the Didache, Acts of John, Acts of Peter, the Sophia Jesus Christ, and 4 unidentified texts. To be clear, Hermas and the Didache are not typically considered “apocryphal” texts since they do not fit the basic definition of the category: “non-biblical Christian literature that features tales of Jesus, his family and his immediate followers.” Nevertheless, they were often considered as candidates for inclusion in the NT and appear in some biblical codices. The category used here, “extracanonical texts,” is certainly more appropriate for the material covered in the section.

All of these papyri appear also in Thomas Wayment’s volume The Text of the New Testament Apocrypha (100-400 CE) published a few years ago by Bloomsbury. That volume also includes colour photographs of all the manuscripts, but the descriptions are more brief and there are no translations. I suspect Wayment is the primary contributor to this section of the book, so Lincoln can sit back and dismiss any criticisms by saying “that wasn’t me.” Incidentally, the section on letters owes much to Lincoln’s earlier work, his published thesis, Lettered Christians. Here he established criteria which he used to distinguish which letters were Christian; the earlier work did not contain editions and translations of the letters, so Christian Oxyrhynchus functions as a source book or companion to his Lettered Christians.

The discussion of the extracanonical texts is distinguished from the canonical in several ways. First, the texts are accompanied with some description of their contents and scholars’ views about their origins. For example, on the Gospel of Peter, the authors state, “it is now rather widely assumed that the Gospel of Peter is dependent upon the canonical gospels for some of its material” (p. 202); on the Acts of Peter, they say, “The Acts of Peter are clearly legendary and have no arguable affiliation with the apostle of that name in the first century, but they may have served the purpose of pious fiction rather than offering a semiformal statement of gnostic beliefs and practices” (p. 259); and the unidentified text of P. Oxy. 1224 is accompanied by the comment “it is perhaps best to withhold sweeping claims regarding this text and any supposed connections to gnostic Christianity” (p. 272). I think it is a service to the reader to offer some description of the texts (it is not necessary for the NT, and the same is done for patristic literature), but the comments strike me as apologetic—as if it is necessary to distance them in some way from canonical literature, particularly in the mention of gnostic Christianity, which neither of the texts have any connection to (and that is what is stated here, but there is no reason to even make the point). There is no statement about the papyri of the Gospel of John dismissing arguments for gnostic connections, nor for the deutero-Pauline epistles that a majority of scholars consider them pseudepigraphical; so why make such comments about the apocryphal texts?

The second way that the extracanonical texts are presented differently is the inclusion of translations. readers are not expected to have their own translations of these texts like they are with the canonical texts (and to be fair, not all apocrypha collections feature these texts, and sometimes when they do, they are not clearly differentiated from other witnesses to the texts). That said, the texts are not all treated equally: the Hermas fragments are not translated, and a few texts are so fragmentary that a translation would be too speculative (P. Oxy. 2949, 210, but not 1224, which is translated but lacks mention of NT parallels). Some texts have sections that harmonize canonical texts—such as a portion of P. Oxy 4009, which may be a witness to the Gospel of Peter—and this material is also not translated.

As an aside, there are a few texts in the Patristic section (no. 85 a Christian apology, no. 96 liturgical fragments, and 105 a theological work), that also are not translated, though all others in the section are.

When texts are fully translated, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary, emendations, surprisingly, often are not signaled—either with ellipses or square brackets—thus giving the illusion that the contents of the text are more certain than they are. My point, then, is that it would have been more helpful to treat all of these texts consistently—translate all portions, indicate significant parallels, and clearly mark emendations.

The differences in presentation of extracanonical texts from the canonical brings me to the broader topic of categorization. Many of the manuscripts in the volume were produced before efforts in the fourth century to impose a rigid canon of Christian scripture. Even in Eusebius’ day there was still some equivocation over the status of Revelation and the Catholic letters. So I wonder if clearly separating “New Testament Texts” from “Extracanonical Texts” is helpful; indeed, it is questionable that the people who created and valued these manuscripts saw that distinction—or more precisely, they may have made different distinctions in each of the centuries covered here: second, third, fourth.  Consider in this regard the manuscript of Hebrews (no. 33) which may have been written by the same scribe as the Acts of John (no. 70); if so, this scribe appears not to have made a canonical/noncanonical distinction between the texts, so why should we? And one of the Gospel of Thomas fragments was found next to one of Matthew (indeed, these two manuscripts were the first to be pulled from the soil).

It is noteworthy also, though not mentioned by the authors, that some New Testament texts are absent: Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, the pastorals, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John (many of which are texts that were contested). Mark appears only in an amulet (no. 92). So the New testament texts are not all treated equally by the scribes of Oxyrhynchus: some are present more than others, some have been written with more care than others, some seem to have been regarded with more esteem than others, and some are entirely absent.

To illustrate this point further, let me bring your attention to a paper by Thomas Wayment presented at last year’s SBL meeting: “The Interaction between Apocrypha and Canon: A Case Study of Oxyrhynchus.” In the paper, Wayment compared canonical and noncanonical manuscripts found at Oxyrhynchus; he discovered that the canonical manuscripts bear the marks of use in liturgy but the noncanonical ones seem to have been created for personal and perhaps missionary or instructional use. I wasn’t convinced by Wayment’s argument, but I did not have the evidence on hand to properly evaluate it. But now I do. I was struck by the variety of presentation in the manuscripts for both categories of texts; so much that I found it hard to see the distinction that Wayment noted.

Some NT manuscripts are written with a skilled hand (1, 2, 11, 14, 23, 40, 41, 42), with fairly standard use of nomina sacra. Others are more amateurishly produced (using repurposed rolls, or in a documentary hand); 1 John (no. 47) is filled with errors; a manuscript of Matthew (48) has no nomina sacra; one of Romans is perhaps a school exercise (51). Manuscript size varies; a few are miniatures, a few are scraps used in amulets. Similar variety is observable in the extracanonical texts: some were made by professionals (58, 63), some by amateurs (61); some on recycled materials (60, 64); and again, a few are miniatures (71, 78). There seems to be no material difference between the two categories of texts,  though there may be more significant relationships between individual texts within the two corpora—perhaps the Hermas manuscripts are more consistently formal than the others, or perhaps the NT texts debated into the fourth-century  (such as 1 John) are more consistently informal than other NT texts. My point is, the rigid distinction between canonical and extracanonical texts is obscuring possible material relationships that cross these boundaries. I’m not alone in this view; after Wayment’s SBL paper, Larry Hurtado urged Wayment to avoid the use of the categories “canonical” and “noncanonical” for evidence from the first few centuries (a statement that drew some applause from the audience).

Incidentally, Lincoln offhandedly makes a similar distinction between canonical and noncanonical texts in Lettered Christians—he mentions that common use of miniatures in noncanonical texts suggests private reading or personal use (p. 168-69)—but again, I think the categories should be rethought and that the NT materials show considerable variation, including the use of miniatures.

The issue of categories can be extended to the collection as a whole. The authors state that the book contains “every text from Oxyrhynchus—regardless of medium or language—that meaningfully relates to Christianity up to the end of the fourth century” (p. 8). But viewing only these texts would give us an incomplete picture of life for Christians at Oxyrhynchus. For one, Christians did not exist in their own world within the city; wider knowledge of life in Oxyrhynchus would be essential for understanding the lives of Christians in the city. But, of course, the entire Oxyrhynchus corpus is available for anyone who wants to cast their net wider. Second, account needs to be made of evidence from Oxhryhyncus that may be Christian but is not clearly identified as Christian. This is particularly the case for Septuagint manuscripts—which the authors say are excluded because it is difficult to tell whether they are Christian or Jewish. Fortunately, these manuscripts are not entirely absent from the volume—they are provided in a table (p. 14). Notable in this regard is item no. 141, a letter in which the author requests an exchange of scripture (Little Genesis and Ezra); some previous scholars have suggested that this letter is Jewish or Jewish-Christian. Presumably the editors consider it Christian because of the use of the nomen sacrum of kurios in the greeting (“greetings in the Lord”), but there are some rare cases of Jewish writers using nomen sacrum, and these are alluded to in the introduction. Which brings me to my third, and final, point, over-reliance on the nomina sacra may have led to the inclusion of some epistolary manuscripts that are not Christian at all. They could be Jewish, particularly if the only evidence for Christian composition is the nomen sacrum in the phrase “greetings in the Lord” (e.g., 138, 140, 143). And I think no. 148, the letter from a sick woman, who writes “I write to you in sickness, being terribly ill, unable even to rise from my bed because I am terribly ill” sounds an awful lot like a Jewish mother to me.

Incidentally, again, Lincoln’s first book treats this topic in much more detail, and a reading of it may convince readers that the phrase “in the Lord” is distinctively Christian. This underscores the fact that Christian Oxyrhynchus should be read side-by-side with Lettered Christians so that the methodology that has led to identifying which letters are Christian can be taken into account. One letter in particular P. Oxy.  3314 discussed in detail in ch. 2, but not included in Christian Oxyrhynchus, has been the object of much debate. It is written by a certain Judas and scholars are divided over whether it is Christian or Jewish. Also noteworthy is the late third-century archive of Ploutogenia. This corpus includes eight letters, which sometimes begin with the formulaic prayer “to the Lord God” and periodically refers to God in the singular; but one letter has a prayer “before all the gods.” So one must certainly take care in identifying a text as Christian, and Lincoln has done the work on this and should be praised for his restraint in focusing only on those he believes are undoubtedly Christian. Lettered Christians (p. 84-85) also mentions the case of a letter by a certain Leonides. This letter contains Christian markers, but another letter by the same writer, does not; this demonstrates that Christians do not always include markers in their writings. Lincoln cautions also that over time Christians included more markers in their letters as their self-identity emerged; earlier letters from Oxyrhynchus, therefore, may be Christian even if they do not appear to be so.

There’s no getting around the fact that decisions had to be made about what to include in this already weighty volume, and better to cast one’s net wide and include inappropriate texts than risk leaving something out. But my larger point here is that removing a body of literature from a larger corpus of evidence and presenting it as the evidence for Christianity in Oxyrhynchus may lead readers to think that this is all they need to know about Christian presence in the city. And returning to my earlier argument, further dividing that material into canonical and extracanonical texts imposes later categories onto the literature and obscures how the Christians in ancient Oxyrhynchus read, transmitted, and cared for these texts.



Lincoln Blumell

Lincoln Blumell’s response began with some background on Oxyrhynchus and the discovery of the papyri. Regarding the exclusion of Septuagint manuscripts, he mentioned that he and Wayment promised the publisher that the book would be 500 pages, then it was 600, then 700, and finally they arrived at 800. So, clearly some materials had to be cut. As for determining which letters were Christian, he discussed P. Oxy. 3057 from the late first/early second century, which some scholars have identified as Christian because of its use of fictive kinship language (“brother”), but this letter was not included in the volume because “it did not seem Christian enough.” In this connection Blumell mentioned also the use of nomina sacra as a marker for Christian composition—he acceded that there is some evidence for nomina sacra in Jewish texts, but very little, and Thomas Wayment later noted that we must consider that producers of manuscripts are not necessarily their users (thinking particularly in this regard of the scribes hired to writer letters or the copyists of Septuagint manuscripts).


Thomas Wayment

Thomas Wayment responded more directly to my comments on the Christian Apocrypha section of the book. His statements about some texts having or not having connections to Gnosticism, he said, were a result of his efforts to draw out the discussions of previous studies on these papyri. The division of the literary texts into canonical and extracanonical categories, he said, was because these are commonly used terms; they may be anachronistic, but they are recognizable to readers (and here he cheekily projected an image of the cover of MNTA which also uses the category “noncanonical”). As for the choice to translate or not translate the texts, this was again due to space issues, and if readers could be expected to follow along with an easily-accessible edition, then the text was left untranslated. Wayment also speculated on the absence of certain NT texts in the papyri, suggesting that some texts on the outer limits of the codices (say, Revelation) may have decomposed (of course this assumes that the codices bear a shape similar to the standard canon but complete Bible codices are rare even after the upper time limit of the materials covered in the volume).

Wayment and Lincoln hinted that there may be a sequel to Christian Oxyrhynchus, incorporating perhaps the Septuagint manuscripts, fifth/sixth-century Hebrew manuscripts (suggesting a “Hebrew revival” of sorts at Oxyrhynchus), and the as-yet-unpublished Coptic manuscripts. Finally, Wayment expressed surprise at the near absence of Mark among the materials; given the roughness of the language apparent in the Christian letters, he thought that Mark in particular would be popular there.

Some group discussion followed, essentially continuing the discussion of Blumell and Wayment’s responses. It was a pleasure serving on the panel and taking part in the conversation. It gave me an opportunity to read the book (and for free!) and to meet Thomas Wayment, whose previous work, The Text of the New Testament Apocrypha (100-400 CE), I heartily recommend (short review HERE).

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