2017 International SBL Christian Apocrypha Sessions Report

This year’s International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature took place August 7-11 at Humboldt University in Berlin, an auspicious location since Berlin is the hub of Christian Apocrypha Studies in German, and Humboldt in particular is where Christoph Markschies, co-editor of the “new Hennecke,” teaches. I was able to attend the first three of four Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha sessions and will provide here some comments on the papers and discussions; Bradley Rice graciously agreed to pass along some comments on the fourth.

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

The first session began with the paper I previewed on Apocryphicity co-written with Slavomír Céplö (Univerzita Karlova v Praze) entitled “‘Arabic’ Infancy Gospel No More: The Challenges of Reconstructing the Original Gospel of the Infancy.” The paper was an overview of the sources for the Gospel of the Infancy in both Syriac and Arabic and posed some questions about how to present that evidence in a new translation to be included in a future volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. One of the other presenters in the session, Mari Mamyan, was absent, leaving much time for discussion of how the growth of Digital Humanities impacts the construction of critical editions. Christoph Markschies, who was present at the session, remarked that the publisher of his multi-volume compendium Antike christliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung has stated that the current edition will be the last one they publish, because the audience has changed so much over the years—scholars interested in the material are increasingly working online and the wider public want inexpensive and easily-digestible popular market books.

Tony Burke and Slavomír Céplö

In response, Slavomír made some positive comments about how electronic critical editions could be constructed, and a promise was made by the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha Section chairs to continue discussion at the Annual Meeting in Boston and next year’s International Meeting with some thoughts to establishing electronic publishing standards that could be adopted for future critical editions. Julia Snyder noted also that each venue for a text has its own expectations—e.g., a popular market book need not be extensive in its use of manuscript variants, and could simply present one manuscript as a sample of the text. I mentioned in this regard a publication of the West Syriac Life of Mary made in Holland for devotional reading that does precisely that; similar editions exist in Arabic and Greek, though they often escape the notice of scholars working on the texts. The translations we prepare for MNTA (and that Markschies includes in his volumes) try to steer a line down the middle, essentially presenting a complete (where possible) overview of the sources for a given text and a translation that is detailed enough to accompany a critical edition, but without providing the text in its original language(s). As far as I’m concerned, I see the scholar’s role as to adjudicate between variants and provide a text that can be situated at a particular time and place, whether the text’s time of composition or a stage along the way. Electronic editions that allow the user to create their own editions by picking and choosing their own variants are useful tools but if they do not present an argument, they are not really scholarship. Keep in mind this comes from a guy who just spent much of the last ten year’s working on a “conventional” print critical edition!

Janet Spittler responds to Justin Mihoc

The other paper in the session (unfortunately eclipsed by the discussion of critical editions) was “Mary-Temple in the Protevangelium of James” by Justin A. Mihoc (University of Durham). Mihoc focused on the symbolism in the text of the church as mother, seen also, for example, in the Shepherd of Hermas with its depiction of the church as an aged woman who becomes a young virgin. In Prot. Jas., Mary functions in a similar way: a model of the church as pure, virginal, etc. Mihoc also noted the parallels in the text between Mary and Eve that evoke an image of Mary as embodying a restored Eden. Included in this discussion was a series of evocations of creation: the suspension of time at Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ conception through the word of God, the annunciations to Joseph and Mary taking place outside gardens, and others. In the discussion that followed, Dennis MacDonald drew attention to Prot. Jas.’s “transgressive” use of Matthew and Luke—e.g., the author omits the conception and birth of John the Baptist. Mihoc agreed that the author freely used her sources, suggesting a time of composition before Matthew and Luke became authoritative. I would agree that the text is certainly early (a late second-century terminus ante quem is established by Clement of Alexandria’s knowledge of the text) but orthodox writers continued to play around with the New Testament Gospels and construct new texts long after the establishment of the canon.

Independent scholar Kwang Meng Low opened the second session with his paper “Text of Subversion: Gospel of Judas and Carnivalesque.” Kwang’s interpretive lens is a methodology developed by Mikhail Bakhtin. I must confess that I have an utter lack of interest in post-modern literary criticism and found the paper difficult to follow. He was certainly correct that the Gospel of Judas is a subversive text that, in his words, “aimed to mock the institutionalized (‘orthodox’) church,” but that interpretation is not new. Another “new reading” of a text was promised by Eric Beck (University of Edinburgh) in his paper “Hell in Context: A New Reading of the Apocalypse of Peter.” Beck took issue with the common view that Apoc. Pet., like other Tour of Hell apocalypses, was intended to be monitory—i.e., its depiction of various punishments for sins is intended to warn sinners away from such behavior. Beck argued instead that the readers of the text are meant to feel compassion for those outside of the faith, not inside, who are punished for their unbelief. As proof, Beck presented a new translation of ch. 3 of the text where Peter and Jesus weep for the sinners who have been separated from the righteous. When asked why the text’s author wanted his readers to feel compassion for those being punished, Beck answered that she was encouraging such behavior between believers and nonbelievers in the present, not at the eschaton. Determining the original intentions of Apoc. Pet.’s author is difficult, particularly where one has to rely on the later Ethiopic sources for the text; however, Beck said the same theme is observable in the Greek fragments of the text. 

The session concluded with a paper from Bradley Rice (McGill University): “The Story of Joseph of Arimathea and the Inventio of Icons in Christian Apocrypha.” Like Slavomír and I, Rice was previewing material that will be included in a future volume of MNTA. The text is extant only in Georgian and is included in a list of “inventio” texts discussed in works by Paul Dilley. The first portion details Joseph’s role in the burial and resurrection of Jesus, drawing upon material from the more widely known Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea. The second portion shifts the action to the city of Lydda where Joseph is sent by Jesus to preach and where Joseph converts a synagogue into a church, which leads to a conflict with the Jewish community that is settled when an image of the Virgin Mary appears in the building. Similar contests occur in other inventio texts, but Rice’s interest is in the role icons play in several of them and he suggested that they are used to champion a particular form of Christianity, in this case one particularly interested in the veneration of Mary. He noted also that some inventio texts were created after the Christianization of the empire, when the delineation of Christian and Jewish space was no longer an issue; so something more most be going on in these texts.

Jonathan Henry

After a two-day break, the second pair of Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha sessions returned to the topic of “what is a text?” with Jonathan Henry’s (Princeton University) paper “Theories and Methods for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature.” Henry works on the Acts of Thomas and dazzled a crowd at the 2016 SBL meeting in San Antonio with a presentation on the “material philology” of manuscripts and images related to the text. He drew on some of that work in Berlin but widened the discussion to include musings on what is lost when a manuscript is used to create a critical edition. Close study of a manuscript shows us how a text was valued and used at a particular moment (moments, really, since it may move around over the course of its lifetime) in history; critical editions focus on the original text, not how, where, and why the particular witnesses to it were used. Henry brought into the discussion similar methodology in use in both medieval and rabbinic studies, noting particularly work on Hekhalot literature by Peter Shäfer that demonstrates that there is no authoritative, fixed text of the material until it appeared in print form, and Hugo Lundhaug’s essay on the Nag Hammadi Codices in Snapshots of Evolving Traditions. Also noted was Michael Meerson and Peter Shäfer’s study of the Toledot Yeshu and Bill Adler’s translations of On the Priesthood of Jesus (from MNTA vol. 1) both of which present multiple texts, each with their own interests and histories, rather than an attempt to recover a single original. The discussion that followed Henry’s paper debated the merits of the “new philology” Henry has embraced and the need to balance it with traditional methods. Janet Spittler again brought up the subject of digital editions and Henry responded that these need to be embraces and that scholars need to “get creative.”

The following two papers moved discussion away from Christian Apocrypha to Jewish Apocrypha. Francis Borchardt (Lutheran Theological Seminary, Hong Kong) examined 2 Maccabees and the additions to Daniel in “The Limits of the ‘Book’ when Studying Ancient Writings.” The problem addressed by Borchardt was somewhat different: the first two chapters of 2 Macc are widely believed to be not original to the text and are usually set aside when interpreting it, despite the fact that it never circulated without them. A similar issue exists in New Testament Studies, as Dennis MacDonald pointed out, with the Signs Source of John or Q, though there are plenty of examples of apocryphal texts with similar concerns, such as the various theories over the original form of the Gospel of Thomas. Borchardt argued for examining 2 Macc as it exists in the manuscript tradition, not what scholars want it to be. As for Daniel, Borchardt pointed out that we commonly read the additions separately from the rest of Daniel, out of their literary context. Borchardt concluded that scholars need to stop thinking of books and authors in a modern sense. In response, Eric Beck argued that modern scholars are not that different from the copyists and transmitters of the texts—we all try to establish a text as we want to see it. Borchardt agreed.

The final paper was presented by James D. Moore (Brandeis University): “Calling all Cards a Spade?: Reflections on the Story of Ahiqar and the Different Editions of the Tale that Go by the Same Name.” Ahiqar appears in dozens of manuscripts and a dozen languages, with considerable variation among them. As Moore wrote in his abstract for the paper, “Some manuscripts contain an autobiographical narrative with a single collection of maxims, others an expanded narrative with two collections of maxims, while some editions have completely recast the narrative into a different period and setting or have changed the narrative style from autobiography to biography.” When dealing with this amount of variation, the questions becomes, what do we consider the Story of Ahiqar to be? Moore likened the process of answering this question to work on myth by Levi Strauss. In reconstructing an original myth Strauss said one must look at all versions and include those versions that “felt” the same. As an example of the depth of the problem, Moore looked at the Syriac tradition of the text which is extant in 10 recensions with distinctly different structures. In scholarship these recensions are often condensed into a “Syriac” text that does a disservice to the evidence. As a cap on the discussion, Dennis MacDonald cautioned that the new philology should not prevent scholars from theorizing about parent texts (hypothetical branches in the tradition that gave rise to later copies). “Philology,” he said, “also includes the imaginative.”

After Moore’s paper I had to rush out to catch a plane home; fortunately, Bradley Rice stuck around and passed along some comments about the final session.

In his paper, “The ‘Novel’ or Letter from Clement of Rome to James of Jerusalem,” Dominique Côté (Université d’Ottawa – University of Ottawa) considered the question of genre in the Pseudo-Clementines. Côté first offers a brief introduction to this corpus of writings, which is extant in two main versions, the Recognitions and the Homilies. Côté then drew our attention to the several literary genres attested by the corpus, including “romance,” “dialogue,” and “epistle,” and wondered if these genres are perhaps intentionally linked with various apostles, such as Peter with dialogue or James with the epistle, and considered what such a connection would mean for readers of the Pseudo-Clementines. Drawing on some of the usual suspects of postmodern biblical criticism, like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, Côté asked just how we should conceive of the author of a corpus like the Pseudo-Clementines. Finally, Côté tentatively concluded that the author(s) of the Pseudo-Clementines deliberately employed specific literary genres in order to, as he put it, “take a stand in defining the true version of prophecy.”

In “Textual Fluidity in Coptic Apocrypha,” Ivan Miroshnikov (University of Helsinki) attempted to show just how unstable and fluid the texts of various Coptic apocrypha actually were. He argued that in those cases where the text of a given apocryphon is quite fluid, it is essentially futile to create a critical edition or attempt to establish the “original text.” Miroshnikov demonstrated that whereas it may make good sense to create a critical edition of the Coptic Bible, in the case of certain apocrypha—he gave the examples of the Preaching of Bartholomew (CANT 261) and the Preaching of Philip (CANT 252)—it is virtually impossible to establish the original form of the text. Miroshnikov further showed that some apocrypha change their genre, such as the Martyrdom of Matthew (CANT 269), which is also found as the Preaching of Matthew; still other apocrypha change their protagonist, such as the Acts of Peter and Andrew (CANT 237), a form of which is found in the Preaching of Thaddaeus. After providing several other examples of textual fluidity, Miroshnikov offered the following conclusions: First, unlike the Coptic Bible but like Coptic hagiographica, Coptic apocrypha are subject to considerable textual fluidity; second, this fluidity may be seen in apocryphal texts composed in Coptic as well as in those translated from Greek; third, it is impossible to produce a critical edition of a Coptic apocryphon—each textual witness should be understood as an “idiosyncratic performance of the source text”; fourth, this textual fluidity should not preclude us from theorizing about the principal recensions of a given apocryphon.

And finally, section co-chair Janet Spittler (University of Virginia) asked “What do we mean when we say ‘Acts of John’?” Spittler asked the important question of just what it is we are referring to when we speak of the “Acts of John,” for this title has been used for quite a number of works connected with the apostle John. The Acts of John as we know it today simply did not exist in the early church. Spittler offered an excellent survey of the various texts that have been identified as the “Acts of John” in various editions from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These include Thilo’s fragments from the Council of Nicea, Tischendorf’s “Acts of John in Rome,” and Zahn’s “Acts of John by Prochorus.” The Acts of John as we know it today is found in the now standard CCSA edition by Junod and Kaestli. According to Spittler, the multiple text forms of the Acts of John show that it was an open text, a fluid text, a “moving piece of literature.” She drew our attention to the “new philology” of medievalists and the shift from the “original” text to the text as we have it, citing Bernard Cequiglini’s dictum that “medieval literature does not have variance, it is variance.” Spittler applied the new philology to the Acts of John, and observed that Rémi Gounelle has applied a similar approach to the Acts of Pilate literature. Finally, Spittler posed a number of important questions concerning how scholars of Christian apocrypha should move forward in the years to come, such as: What problematic practices are there in the presentation of the various texts comprising the “Acts of John”? What is gained or lost when the original text is prioritized? What is the ideal presentation of a fluid text?

With those questions, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha sessions came to a close. Anyone interested in pursuing these investigations further should consider presenting at next year’s meeting in Helsinki. Watch for the call for papers early in the new year.


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