2016 CSBS/CSPS More New Testament Apocrypha Panel (Part 2)

Part 2 of my report on the More New Testament Apocrypha book review panel. See part 1 HERE.

I divided my response to the panelists into three sections: the origins of the project (why more apocrypha?), the decisions behind selecting the volume’s contents (which more apocrypha?), and issues around defining “Christian Apocrypha” and other issues of categorization (what more apocrypha?). The MNTA project began at a gathering of North American Christian Apocrypha scholars in Ottawa in 2006. Jim Davila and Richard Bauckham’s MOTP series was still in its planning stages (Jim discussed the series at the event) and the group were thinking about a project that could represent the work of North American scholars. The idea of a project similar to Davila’s focusing on Christian texts was brought up but not pursued until 2010 when I considered taking it on myself. I asked Brent Landau of the University of Texas to partner with me on the project so that we could have leadership from both Canada and the U.S. Canadians are ever-vigilant about being overshadowed by our neighbours to the south, and while there are far fewer Christian Apocrypha scholars in Canada than the U.S., we ended up with a split of 5 Canadian, 17 American, and 5 international contributors (and more Canadians are involved in vol. 2 including panelists Tim Pettipiece and Robert Kitchen).

http://www.eerdmans.com/Content/Site146/ProductImages/9780802827395.jpgAs noted by the panelists MNTA is modeled chiefly on Davila and Bauckham’s MOTP volume—i.e., they supplement Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha compendia, imitating even the layout of the pages, with scripture citations in the margins (a real challenge for the publisher!). We follow the look of MOTP but our aim is to supplement J. Keith Elliott’s Apocryphal New Testament—i.e., we do not duplicate any of the texts in his volume unless necessitated by significant new discoveries. Just as MOTP includes a foreword by Charlesworth, we asked Elliott to contribute one for our volume. Pettipiece objected to Elliott’s “awkward and negative tone,” but when Brent and I first read the foreword we were surprised more at his comments on Secret Mark, which he called “an elaborate and clever hoax perpetrated by Morton Smith” (he’s entitled to his view on the text but it may seem odd given my own views on it and the work of the 2011 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium), and his negativity toward modern apocrypha, of which he said “all such modern forgeries are superfluous to the normal concerns of a serious academic study of Christian apocrypha” (again, somewhat discordant given the more irenic approach to these texts evident in the papers from the 2015 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium). Brent and I decided to let Elliott be Elliott and readers of MOTP will notice also that Charlesworth’s views are different in much the same ways from those of the MOTP editors.

As for the selection of texts (which more apocrypha?), as mentioned we aimed to avoid duplication of texts that are well-represented elsewhere. The only exceptions to that rule, as pointed out by the reviewers, are the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (though here presented in its rarely seen Syriac form) and the Revelation of the Magi (presented only in summary; another text, the lengthy Armenian Infancy Gospel, was also set to appear in summary but the contributor did not complete the work). We looked at texts included in the expansive French and Italian volumes and sought out scholars who could contribute chapters on such texts as the Dialogue of the Paralytic and Jesus and On the Priesthood of Jesus. Some texts were selected because of the interests of the editors (I contributed the Acts of Cornelius, the Legend of the Thirty Silver Pieces, and the Syriac Infancy Gospel of Thomas; Brent contributed Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 210 and the Revelation of the Magi), and others came as a result of suggestions from the contributors themselves (e.g., David Eastman, known for his work on martyrdoms of Paul, worked on the related Life and Conduct of Xanthippe and Polyxena and the Letter of Pseudo-Dionyisus to Timothy, and Alin Suciu, who had just completed his thesis on the Berlin-Strasbourg Apocryphon, worked on that text and the Investiture of Abbaton, another of the Coptic “pseudo-apostolic memoirs”). Looking back, there is a certain North American flavour to the collection, as several of the texts (e.g., Revelation of the Magi, the Berlin-Strasbourg Apocryphon) enjoy more popularity here than in Europe, and some have never appeared in any other apocrypha collection (e.g., Hospitality of Dysmas, Life of John the Baptist by Serapion, and several others).

The reviewers praised the uniformity of the entries, but there is some eclecticism to them, with a few introductions being lengthier than others, and a few texts with more variants indicated than others. Some maverick writers were a little reluctant to cohere with the guidelines, but we managed to convince them to conform and I think the collection is stronger for it.

Regarding Batten’s suggestion to broaden our scope to include Islamic texts, there is more material to be found in Islamic literature on Jesus outside of the Qur’an, and those who study this literature have noted the parallels with Christian Apocrypha (and certainly we should pay it more attention). Some of our contributors incorporated this research into their entries—namely, Slavomír Céplö’s discussion of the Life of John the Baptist by Serapion and Alin Suciu’s entry for the Investiture of Abbaton. Despite our mandate to focus on texts from the first ten centuries, I am tempted to follow Batten’s suggestion to incorporate Gospel of Barnabas to a future volume, as well as some medieval gnostic texts of the sort mentioned in the Cheese and the Worms (specifically the Secret Supper, known also as the Book of John the Evangelist).


François Bovon

Finally, what does MNTA tell us about the nature of North American Christian Apocrypha scholarship? (or, what more apocrypha?). To many people, we are most well-known for the approach of the Jesus Seminar, which tends to focus on certain apocrypha that they like to date early (in some cases earlier than the canonical texts) and therefore would be valuable for studying the historical Jesus. Of the Seminar participants, Helmut Koester is perhaps the most influential, particularly for championing the Bauer hypothesis. But there is a second strand in North American scholarship based on the influence of François Bovon, who, along with his partners in the AELAC, advocates examining apocrypha, particularly later apocrypha, not for what they may or may not say about Jesus, but for what they say about the Christians who created and valued them. The AELAC scholars value also manuscript research and produce a well-regarded series of critical editions of apocryphal texts (the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum). A number of our contributors are former students of Bovon (including Brent) and a few of us have published or are planning to publish in the CCSA series (my volume on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was the first in the series by a North American scholar).

The scholars of the AELAC have been instrumental also in the recent redefinition of Christian Apocrypha, broadening its scope to post-New Testament texts (including what Schneemelcher would call hagiographical literature) and to Christian-authored Old Testament pseudepigrapha (funny enough, there has been some discussion with Davila and Bauckham about who gets to publish some of these texts, and there has already been some overlap: MOTP includes a section of the Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum which summarizes the Revelation of the Magi, and a version of the Tiburtine Sybil). The title of our volume may seem like a throwback to the earlier, restrictive definition, but that again is to make clear that the project is meant as a supplement to Elliott (and it mirrors effectively the title of the MOTP volumes). As for the term “apocrypha” and its pejorative nature, we’re stuck with it and must use it, though certainly with caveats. A similar problem occurs with some of our texts, which are burdened with the titles they were given when they were first published (e.g., the Infancy Gospel of Thomas originally went by the name of the Childhood Deeds of the Lord).  Getting back to Batten’s question, I think North American scholarship is just now coming into its own, thanks to the influence of Koester and Bovon but also of people like James Robinson, Karen King, and Elaine Pagels, and we are eager to show the world what we have to offer.

After my response to the reviewers, we had about 30 minutes for discussion. The bulk of that time was spent on the question of what constitutes an apocryphal text. I offered my own definition (from Secret Scriptures Revealed and also quoted in the introduction to MNTA): “non-biblical Christian literature that features tales of Jesus, his family and his immediate followers.” A suggestion was made that the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite  should apply since he is a Christian figure from the first century (he is mentioned in Acts 17:34). I countered that the content of the texts should also reflect the first-century context—e.g., we include Pseudo-Dionysius’s Letter to Timothy because it discusses the deaths of Peter and Paul, but not the other texts which are mystical and Neoplatonic. Someone noted that the Pseudo-Dionysius material is also widely available anyway. I mentioned in the same context the Epistle of Barnabas, which is credited to a first-century figure, but does not touch on first-century events (and in this context, I uttered the f-bomb I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter; I slipped and said “New Testament events” and had to correct myself). Another challenge to the definition that I struggled to remember at the time are apocryphal texts that began their life in a different genre and only later became apocrypha—an example of this is the Ethiopian text, the Story of the Passion of Christ, mentioned in Pierluigi’s essay in the 2013 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium papers (“Scriptural Trajectories Through Early Christianity, Late Antiquity, and Beyond: Christian Memorial Traditions and the longue durée”). This began its life as a revelation to three European visionary saints (St. Brigit of Sweden, St. Mathilde of Hackeborn, and St. Elisabeth, Queen of Hungary) but later these characters were changed to New Testament figures (Sarah, Salome, and Mary of Magdala) and the text thus became an apocryphon. What should be done about such texts?

The remainder of the discussion is now all a blur, in part because I am the world’s slowest blogger, but also because I felt some anxiety about having to run to catch a plane home. I express once again my thanks to the participants in the CSBS/CSPS Apocrypha Session for agreeing to mount the panel, to the reviewers for reading the book and offering their comments, and to everyone who attended the session.

2 responses to “2016 CSBS/CSPS More New Testament Apocrypha Panel (Part 2)

  1. Thanks for all this, Tony. In response to the concern raised about the wide availability of the pseudo-Dionysian corpus, it can also be pointed out that the author of the letter to Timothy is NOT the same as the author of the Neoplatonic works published in the name of Dionysius. This is a very different “pseudo-Dionysius.”

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