Review: Markus Bockmuehl’s Ancient Apocryphal Gospels

Bockmuehl, Markus. Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2017.

I am typically leery of studies of Christian apocrypha that come from conservative or Evangelical perspectives (I have written about such works in SBL Forum and her eon this blog). Scholars with faith commitments typically do not treat the texts objectively and sympathetically as expressions of Christian belief that are equally as valid as canonical texts; they frequently disparage the contents of apocryphal texts and spend much of their time lauding and defending the canonical texts against some perceived liberal-scholar pro-apocrypha bogeyman. But I was pleasantly surprised by Bockmuehl’s introduction. Granted, it is not empty of conservative rhetoric (the series is subtitled “Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church” after all), but the book is nevertheless a worthy and up-to-the-minute survey of the texts that draws upon and points readers toward a deep base of Christian apocrypha scholarship.

Bockmuehl confesses that he when asked to write Ancient Apocryphal Gospels back in 2008, he was not receptive to the request. “While this seemed a fine objective in its own right,” he writes, “its intellectual impetus was not mine—nor could I pretend to either passion or expertise in the subject matter” (p. ix). Bockmuehl is perhaps too modest here, as he does have experience with some of the literature, particularly the Protevangelium of James and the Gospel of Peter. Still, I wonder why the series editors did not seek out a contributor who did have “passion” and “expertise.”

The book follows a fairly typical structure for Christian apocrypha surveys. The first chapter covers introductory matters such as defining key terms (gospel, apocryphal, canon, Gnosticism), tracing the pathways toward canon formation, and noting the sources for the texts (though only Nag Hammadi and Oxyrhynchus are mentioned). Chapters 2–5 offer summaries of the texts, divided into four categories: Infancy Gospels, Ministry Gospels, Passion Gospels, and Post-Resurrection Discourse Gospels. The final chapter focuses on “How to Read Apocryphal Gospels.” The volume concludes with a glossary (pp. 239–42) and an extensive bibliography (pp. 243–90).

Bockmuehl provides his readers with a list of the five emphases that govern the volume: 1. “to provide an introduction that is both accessible and nonsenationalist while offering a sympathetic account of these writings in relation to what became the New Testament” (p. 29); 2. to demonstrate that one can read the texts alongside the canonical and indeed that is how they were written, standing in “epiphenomenal and supplementary” position to canonical texts (p. 29); 3. that none of the texts offer an alternative narrative account of the kind provided in the four canonical texts (p. 30); 4. that instead of trying to show relationships of direct dependence between texts, “it seems in many cases preferable to think in terms of antecedence and influence” (pp. 30–31); 5. and to illustrate how the texts reflect the social memory of the community—i.e., the “social, cultural, ritual, and religious dimensions” of the communities who wrote them (p. 31). These are worthy pursuits, though item 3 is striking and indicates that Bockmuehl has a an axe to grind in this volume.

In his discussions of the individual texts, Bockmuehl provides a description of each text’s contents, origin and setting, interpretation, and transmission and influence. The focus is on the major, early texts. For example, his chapter on infancy gospels looks in detail at the Protevangelium of James, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas but only cursorily at other texts, such as P. Cairo 10735 and later derivative infancy texts (such as the Arabic Infancy Gospel and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew). Each chapter ends with a brief list of titles for further reading. Bockmuehl’s knowledge of the field is very current—for example, he includes a discussion of the recent re-evaluation of the Nag Hammadi library discovery stories (by Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Blount, p. 17) and a brief examination of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (p. 187).

There are a few infelicities in his survey of the text. He includes the Dormition of the Virgin in the Infancy Gospels section, though it is unclear why, and he only mentions the Egyptian tradition (p. 83). His comment that “In the West, the document only achieved a certain influence on piety about the Holy Family after about the fifteenth century” obscures how significant this text has been in churches of the East. The chapter on Passion Gospels includes the Gospel of the Savior (also called the Berlin-Strasbourg Apocryphon) only because early scholarship on the text tried to make connections between it and the Gospel of Peter; but, more importantly, Bockmuehl here neglects the important work on recontextualizing the text by Alin Suciu and Joost Hagen. The chapter also deals quite summarily with the Pilate Cycle literature, affording this large body of literature only three pages of discussion (pp. 156–58); this neglect is due to the fact that the Acts of Pilate was not renamed the Gospel of Nicodemus, Bockmuehl says, until the thirteenth century and thus “does not fall under the present volume’s rubric of ancient noncanonical gospels” (p. 158). Yet, titles are largely irrelevant for determining genre and Bockmuehl looks at plenty of other texts that are not explicitly titled “gospels.”

Bockmuehl spends much of his introduction and conclusion defending the primacy of the canonical gospels. In his introduction he states that “known portions of one or more of the subsequently canonical gospels were known and cited as ‘the gospel’ before any of the extant noncanonical gospels were composed” (6) and “no ancient author refers to any identifiable version of a noncanonical text like Thomas or Q as ‘the gospel’” (6). It seems to me that there are too many gaps in our knowledge of the first and early second century to make such arguments. What evidence we do have for early use of noncanonical texts is also notably absent—i.e., 2 Clement includes material that could derive from oral traditions but it has parallels also in the Gospel of Thomas and Jewish-Christian gospels.

In his efforts to show that the noncanonical texts were not valued as highly as the canonical, Bockmuehl comments that in the Oxyrhynchus papyri “canonical and noncanonical gospels are not found together within the same manuscripts” (24), but the materials are so fragmentary that it is not possible to determine the full extent of the manuscripts. He later states that even after canonization we do not get canonical and noncanonical texts bound together (26); however, he neglects here the fourth-century Bodmer Miscellaneous Codex, which features the Protevangelium of James along with 1 and 2 Peter and Jude. Mention could be made also of Codex Sinaiticus (with Ep. Barn. and Hermas) and Codex Alexandrinus (with 1 and 2 Clem.) and the numerous Latin biblical manuscripts that contain the Epistle to the Laodiceans. Of course these examples are not manuscripts with extra gospels; nevertheless, Bockmuehl’s discussion could benefit from acknowledgment of the fluidity of the canon, even after the fourth century.

Bockmuehl further emphasizes the popularity of the canonical four by noting that they are more widely used by early orthodox writers (and there are no early commentaries on noncanonical gospels, pp. 10–11) and extant early papyri demonstrate that they were more widely disseminated (he directs readers to recent lists of the evidence that refute earlier discussions by Robert Funk and Helmut Koester that indicate the number of canonical and non-canonical gospels are balanced in the papyri, pp. 25–27). Bockmuehl adds also that none of the alternative gospels “ever achieved a comparable catholicity that might place them in competition with the four gospels, whether individually or as a fourfold whole” (p. 13) and that no canonical gospel ever became apocryphal, that no apocryphal gospel is included in a canon list, etc.

Inevitably, the Bauer Thesis is brought into the discussion. Its proponents are mischaracterized as believing “the gnostic gospels in particular offered access to the authentic original genius of the Christian message” (p. 23). On the Bauer school’s early dating of noncanonical texts, Bockmuehl concludes, rather quizzically, that “while scholars from time to time postulate the existence of primitive texts like Q or early sources of Thomas, no extant alternative gospel forms or attestations predate the New Testament four” (p. 23). In arguing against the notion that noncanonical gospels were widely suppressed, Bockmuehl throws in a jab against Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson’s The Lost Gospel (which argues that Joseph and Asenath is a coded history of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene) calling it “historical nonsense on stilts”  (p. 21). On a side note, Bockmuehl offers another cheeky comment about sensationalism in his discussion of the Gospel of Judas: “the necessarily painstaking and lengthy process of critical sifting, assessment, and reassessment was repeatedly short-circuited by the Gospel of Judas’s release into the giddy world of instant Internet punditry that leaves no fleeting thought unblogged” (p. 205).

Bockmuehl is not wrong that the noncanonical gospels on the whole were not as popular as the canonical, but I’m not sure why the argument has to be made so strongly and persistently. Relative popularity does not strike me as particularly significant, unless Bockmuehl feels his audience has been particularly swayed or irritated by the sensationalist claims he lists as one of the targets of his five emphases. Certainly sensationalism should be addressed but I fear Bockmuehl is so fueled by this goal that he obscures the evidence. His tendency is to minimize the exceptions to his arguments—for example, none of the apocryphal gospels were particularly popular, well, except for the Pilate texts and Prot. Jas. (and one could add here Ps.-Mt. and Dorm. Vir.) (p. 27); and no noncanonical gospel before 300 CE is extant in more than one copy, well, except for Gos. Thom. and Gos. Mary (p. 11). In addition, his repeated comments that no apocryphal gospel gives a complete birth to death account of Jesus’ life obscures, again, the fact that the Gospel of Peter, though now known only in fragments, likely did, as did, it seems, at least one of the Jewish-Christian gospels. The gaps in our evidence should not be presented as a lack of evidence.

Bockmuehl returns to these arguments in the final chapter of the book, How to Read Apocryphal Gospels. Here he enumerates five theses: 1.“the canonical gospels appear to be unique and distinctive” (no other gospel-like text was a contender for the canon; nor was doubt cast on any of the four); 2. “Noncanonical gospels did not ‘become apocryphal’ and were not ‘suppressed’ from the canon” (secretive protest-texts, like Gos. Thom., were not intended to be canonical); 3. “The apocryphal gospels are epiphenomenal to the gospel tradition that became canonical” (they presuppose the contents of the canonical gospels); 4. “only a minority of the apocryphal gospels seem to intend explicit subversion or displacement of the fourfold gospel”; and 5. “The apocryphal gospels illustrate the diversity of early Christianity’s cultural and religious engagement with the memory of Jesus.” I have no argument against these statements, though several again have an air of polemic to them—why is it so important in a book on apocryphal gospels to defend the primacy of the canonical texts? Why is this given so much emphasis? Should the reader still not be convinced of the superiority of the canonical four, Bockmuehl concludes the book by driving this point home: “To read the apocryphal gospels in this way alongside the New Testament is at the same time to open one’s eyes to the uniqueness and remarkably fine-grained particularity of the four canonical accounts of Jesus” (p. 236). Thankfully his final sentence is more irenic: “And yet, perhaps both the Four and the many that so diversely reflect them express a desire above all to encounter and embrace through their words the compelling person of Jesus Christ” (p. 237).

There is much to recommend Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. Bockmuehl may not have begun as an expert on the literature but he certainly demonstrates sufficient mastery of it to inform his readers about the contributions these texts make to scholarship and to Christian thought and practice. Certainly other Christian apocrypha introductions accomplish much the same thing, and without the distracting apologetics, but they may not appeal to the audience that this book is intended for. That said, scholarly investigation of any subject should not include as its goal the affirmation of deeply held religious convictions; history is messy and its study can be unsettling. Readers of the Interpretation series would benefit from being challenged in their views on this literature instead of being comforted and coddled to the point that they may feel justified in dispensing with it as derivative, insignificant, and irrelevant.

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