Review: Infancy Gospel Synopsis

As visitors to my main web site know, my principle area of study is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT). So it was with some excitement that I heard of J.K. Elliott’s A Synopsis of Apocryphal Nativity and Infancy Narratives (New Testament Tools and Studies 34; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2006). Even today, relatively little attention has been paid to IGT, so any new work on the text is appreciated. And the synopsis promised to be a helpful tool. I ordered the book immediately (despite the high price: $159 US) and eagerly awaited its delivery.

Unfortunately, the book does not meet my expectations. In brief: the selection of texts is limited, the synopsis is awkward, and the scholarship is not always up-to-date. This is not the kind of quality I expected from Elliott, who is well-known for his books The Apocryphal New Testament and Art and the Christian Apocrypha (with David Cartlidge), and frequently contributes to the SBL Apocrypha section.

The texts featured in the synopsis include the “usual suspects” – Protoevangelium of James, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Pseudo-Matthew, M.R. James’ Latin Infancy Gospel (Arundel 404), Birth of Mary, and Arabic Infancy Gospel. Included also are History of Joseph the Carpenter, the fragmentary Pap. Cairensis 10735, and the Irish texts Leabhar Breac and Liber Flavus  Fergusiorum. Elliott lists several other texts that could have been included—(e.g., Armenian Infancy Gospel and the Syriac Life of Mary) – but does not explain why he neglects them (p. xix). He primarily draws upon published English translations, many of them rather old—e.g., he uses older translations of the Irish material and the Arundel gospel despite the recent publication of new translations in McNamara’s volume for CCSA. To be fair, this decision may be based more on publisher’s proprietary interests than scholarly usefulness.

The synopsis is presented vertically, with each parallel printed after the next, rather than horizontally. The reason given is because “in many cases there are too many texts to have made parallel vertical columns practicable” (p. x). Nevertheless, the vertical layout reduces the synopsis’ utility. At times the Arundel and Irish texts are represented only by citations, presumably because the material is little different from the excerpts printed from the earlier texts. The stories appear in chronological order (running form the conception of Mary to Jesus at the age of 12) and include the tales from the canonical infancy narratives. On one occasion Elliott breaks from pattern to include a parallel from the Koran (Jesus animates the birds from Surah 3:49). While it is valuable for readers to observe this parallel, it makes one wonder why other parallels are not included—for example, the allusion to the same story in the Gospel of Bartholomew 2:11. Another peculiarity in the synopsis is the decision to print the three teacher stories from IGT 6, 14 and 15 one after the other, suggesting that Elliott believes them to be variants of the same story rather than tales with their own particular themes and concerns.

The synopsis is preceded with a brief discussion of the texts and select bibliographies. The IGT bibliography has some striking omissions: it neglects work on some important Syriac witnesses (Vat. syr. 159 discussed by P. Peeters in 1914, and Göttingen Syr. 10 published by W. Baars and J. Heldermann in 1993/1994), T. Rosén’s 1997 critical edition of the Slavonic  text, and my own 2001 Ph. D. dissertation on the Greek tradition (and Elliott is certainly aware of it). For his text of IGT Elliott relies on the translations he made of Tischendorf’s old and inadequate texts (Greek A, Greek B, and the prologue to the Latin version). The least Elliott could have done was to translate A. Delatte’s Greek D text, the source of Tischendorf’s Latin version. In addition, Elliott makes some erroneous remarks about the IGT material: referring to Ps. Matt. 26-42, a section added to late manuscripts of Ps. Matt. from an early Latin translation of IGT, he says “These chapters are what Tischendorf called the Pars Altera. They are found in later forms of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (p. 132 n. 1); and he states that the story of Jesus sowing a field (IGT 12) is not found in all manuscripts of the text when, in fact, it is. The synopsis fails to include also the story of Jesus Rides a Sunbeam which is found in several infancy gospel witnesses, including the Ethiopic version of IGT and some manuscripts of Ps. Matt.

Other texts in the Synopsis also rely on out-dated text-critical work: the translations of History of Joseph the Carpenter and Arabic Infancy Gospel are from 1870 and work on these texts by contributors to the Pléiade volumes appears neglected.

To its credit, Elliott’s synopsis presents the infancy stories in a nice, tidy volume and should bring attention to the little-known Irish traditions. It is unfortunate, however, that the book is not the tool that it could be and it will be some time before another attempt is made at such a project.


Posted in Infancy Gospels, Protoevangelium of James | 1 Comment

The Gospel of Mary and Ferrara’s Mary

Why should Jesus be the subject of all the movies? Director Abel Ferrara has done for Mary what Denys Arcand did for Jesus in Jesus of Montreal in his film-within-a-film about Mary Magdalene. The Toronto Film Festival synopsis describes the film as:

"A sharply observed rejoinder to those who cynically exploit faith in God for money, power and fame, Mary finds Abel Ferrara on familiar and fruitful turf. Although unspoken and oblique in the film, the controversy around Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has clearly irked the infamous director and the impressive cast surrounding him on this project. The result is a spare, angry work of cinema that forces us into difficult thinking about the thorny role of Christianity in mass media. It is easily Ferrara's best film since Bad Lieutenant, amplifying its complex conception of faith in exciting new ways."

Trailers for the film are available here and here.

What is interesting for our purposes is the film’s apparent use of the Gospel of Mary. According to Matt Page of the Bible Films Blog, the film’s protagonist Marie Palese (played by Juliette Binoche) is “an actress who is inspired by her role playing Mary Magdalene in a Jesus movie and so heads to Jerusalem in search of spiritual enlightenment.” Not much of this film-within-a-film is shown but Page offers this tantalizing comment:

"At best, only five scenes from the movie are included – and two of these may simply be in Marie Palese's, mind. Of the other three, two are taken solely from the non-canonical, Gospel of Mary. Thus, the only scene from the film that definitely is taken from the gospels is that of Jesus washing the disciples' feet. And the sound accompanying this clip is not even from Childress's fictional movie, but from an academic explaining how this act demonstrated Jesus's message of love."

Can anyone tell us more about the film? What scenes are taken from the Gospel of Mary?

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The Nativity Story: A Modern Apocryphon?

The Catholic News Service has posted a review (with a detailed synopsis) of The Nativity Story. It is striking that, despite the many changes made here to the canonical versions of the story (including a number of references that foreshadow events in Jesus’ adult life), the author of the review still feels it is “faithful to scripture.” In his own words:

“Though the New Testament is sparse on details about Mary and Joseph, the thoughtful screenplay of Mike Rich, a practicing Christian, manages to flesh them out while remaining faithful to Scripture, beautifully suggesting the humanity beneath the halos.”

Like The Passion of the Christ, The Nativity Story appears to be an excellent example of modern Christian Apocrypha—i.e., like the ancient CA, these films take well-known traditions, add other material (other early traditions, their own inventions and interpretations) and shake. To the reviewer (and likely many viewers) the result is a version of the tale that seems appropriate (and viewers of The Passion felt the same, despite scholars’ assertions that it was more than a simple harmony of the canonical gospels).

Perhaps we can learn something from this. Maybe writers of the early CA operated like these filmmakers (naively believing they were telling the story appropriately, and not intentionally manipulating the texts as CA critics claim) and their audiences received their works in the same way as modern pious Christian filmgoers.

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Apocrypha at SBL 2006

As I write this some of our colleagues are enjoying themselves in Washington for the 2006 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Why am I not with them? I have skipped the SBL for several years now under the pretense that I want to devote my energies to my book. Usually that means I miss SBL and continue to avoid the book but this year I am actually busy at work.

For those who cannot attend SBL but are curious about the papers being presented this year, I offer the following list:

November 18 (morning): Apostle as Conveyor of Authority

Edward Dixon, Yale Divinity School: “A Hope for Status Inversion in the Acts of Thomas”

Simon S. Lee, Harvard University: “Peter and the Transfiguration Event in 2 Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter

Catherine Playoust, Harvard University: “James and Peter in the Apocryphon of James

Glenn E. Snyder, Harvard University: “Third Corinthians: An Orthodox Production of Scripture”

November 18, 2006 (afternoon): Mary Magdalene and Apostolic Authority  

Judith Hartenstein, Philipps Universität, Marburg: “Mary Magdalene the Apostle: A Re-interpretation of Literary Traditions?”

Jane D. Schaberg, University of Detroit Mercy: “Magdalene Christianity: A Collection of Fragments, or an Actual Reality in Early Communities?”

Esther A. de Boer, Theological University of Kampen, the Netherlands: “‘Surely, He Has Not Spoken to a Woman’”Responses from Elaine Pagels, Christopher Matthews, Philip Sellew, and Ann Graham Brock.

November 20, 2006: Open Session

Janet Elizabeth Spittler, University of Chicago: “Tuna Redivivus: Dried Fish Returned to life in Herodotus, the Alexander Romance and the Acts of Peter

Nicholas Perrin, Wheaton College: “The Thomasine Community and a Case of Double Identity”

Matthew Burgess, Yale Divinity School: “‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ James ‘the Lord’s brother’ as a Source of Authority in Early Christianity”

Jeremy W. Barrier, Texas Christian University: “Tertullian and the Acts of Thecla or Paul? Readership of the Ancient Christian Novel and the Invocation of Thecline and Pauline Authority”

Mariko Yakiyama, Claremont Graduate University: “The Christian Ideal of Marriage in the Apocryphal Acts of Andrew and the Writings of Clement of Alexandria”

Also of interest:

November 19: Pseudepigrapha~The Pitfalls of Categorization: A Panel Discussion of James R. Davila, The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other?

Pierluigi Piovanelli, University of Ottawa: “In Praise of ‘The Default Position,’ or Reassessing the Christian Reception of the Jewish Pseudepigraphic Heritage

Chad Day, University of North Carolina, Charlotte: “‘The Way Forward’ or Two Steps Back? Assessing Davila’s ‘The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha’”

Magnar Kartveit, School of Mission & Theology, Misjonshogskolen i Stavanger, Norway: “The Jewish source in the Ascension of Isaiah

John C. Reeves, University of North Carolina, Charlotte: ‘“A Demonstrably Jewish Text’? Reconsidering the Similitudes of Enoch

And in the joint session for the Social History of Formative Christianity and Judaism Section and Archeology of Religion in the Roman World Section (November 21):

Reidar Aasgard, University of Oslo: “The First Rural Christians: Excavating the Milieu of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.”

Ans in the Synoptic Gospels Section (November 21):

Michael F. Bird, Highland Theological College: “Sectarian Gospels for Sectarian Communities?: The Non-canonical Gospels and Bauckham’s ‘Gospel for All Christians’”

Phew! I think that’s all of them. If you were able to attend any or all of these sessions and would like to offer a report, please send an e-mail to me or post a comment.

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Blog Problems

Ah, the joys and frustrations of blogging. As those of you who have been attempting to add comments to posts on Apocryphicity already know, the blog has been experiencing some technical difficulties. These problems should now be resolved.

I have been holding off on recent posts while the blog was under repair, but now I have no excuse for being so quiet. Look for new posts and updates to within the next few days.

Posted in Conferences | 2 Comments

Another Apocrypha Blog

From Phil Harland's Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean Blog:

Phil S. of hyperekperisou is proposing and starting up an ongoing blog carnival on patristics (the Church Fathers) and other aspects of Christianity in the second, third, and following centuries (including the Christian Apocrypha). Go there to see his proposal, to volunteer involvement, and to make any of your suggestions.


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Secret Gospel of Mark: The Forgery Debate Continues

Stephen Carlson on his blog Hypotyposeis has noted two recent printed works on the Secret Gospel of Mark. The first is a review of Carlson’s book by Bruce Chilton for the New York Sun. The second is an article from the Daily Princetonian about another book The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, this one by Princeton music professor Peter Jeffery, supporting Carlson’s position on the text.

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New Gospel of Judas book

The Charlotte Observer interviews Bart Ehrman on his new book (released just this last week), The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed at

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Art and the Christian Apocrypha

Still sifting through the old news…

Read an article from the National Catholic Reporter called “Art Draws on Gospels the Church Rejects” at

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The Nativity Story

This may be old news to many but…December 1 marks the release date of The Nativity Story, a film about…well, you know.

What is of interest to CA scholars about the film is its use of traditions that can be found in apocryphal stories of Mary—namely, details absent from the canonical gospels such as the names of Mary’s parents. This information, though accepted as historical by most mainstream Christians, was disseminated over the centuries in the Protoevangelium of James and derivative texts (such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and the various versions of the Life of Mary) which expand the story.

Several years ago The Passion of the Christ drew the public’s attention to Historical Jesus scholarship; The Nativity Story may do the same for the CA. Or, more likely, reporters will call up the usual suspects (John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman) or the local priest. For more information about the film, visit the official web site or read a preview article.


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A Tale of Two Conferences Redux

A few days ago I posted a brief summary of two events I attended in September and October. Looking back at what I wrote, it seemed to me that some clarification about the events was in order.

First, they are not “conferences”—one was a workshop attended by a small group of invited scholars, one was a colloquium open to the public. Both had their attractions for me: the workshop featured scholars whose work I respect and focused on texts that I find fascinating (indeed, don’t we all?); the colloquium brought together scholars from a number of different disciplines (Patristics, Rabbinic Judaism, Gnosticism, OT and NT Apocrypha) to share their work and to honour the work of Dr. Charles Kannengeiser. Two very different events with very different goals.

My discussion of the events may have come across as an unfair comparison. Of course, the post was not intended as a “review” of the events, but merely an offering of comments about my experiences as a participant. The Montréal colloquium was of interest to me because of the diversity of the fields represented; but I did feel somewhat out of my element during the papers from outside of my own discipline, and assumed others might have felt the same (though such feelings may reflect only my own inadequacies). I commented in the post how it would be useful to see scholars of such diversity approach a more specific topic so that they could all benefit from working more closely together. Of course, that was not the goal of the colloquium, but it would be a worthy goal of any scholarly project.

More to come on the colloquium/workshop papers in the days ahead…


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The Demiurge Wears Prada

Phil Harland of York University (and administrator of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean blog) passed along this link to a Prada perfume ad which includes a recitation of the Gnostic writing “Thunder Perfect Mind”:


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On-Line CA Dissertations

Peter Dunn suggested at the Ottawa Conference that it would be helpful to have a database of links to on-line doctoral dissertations on the CA. In response, I have dedicated a section of my web site to such a database (see here). If you would like to see this list grow, please submit a link to your own dissertation or other known on-line dissertations. Include also a three or four-line summary of the work.


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A Tale of Two Conferences

In September and October I had the pleasure and the privilege of attending two CA-related conferences. The first, a workshop at the University of Ottawa dedicated solely to the CA and attended by prominent North American CA scholars, has been discussed elsewhere (particularly by Jim Davila; see the post here) but deserves mention in this forum. The second, a Patristics conference at Concordia University in Montréal, is also noteworthy for CA studies and, again, deserves mention.

Ottawa, September 30-October 1, 2006: Pierluigi Piovanelli of the University of Ottawa hosted a workshop titled Christian Apocrypha for the New Millennium: Achievements, Prospects and Challenges. Invited were some of North America’s best and brightest, including (among others) François Bovon, F. Stanley Jones, Dennis R. MacDonald, Ann Graham Brock (though Ann was, ultimately, unable to attend), Cornelia Horn, Stephen Shoemaker, Paul-Hubert Poirier, Craig Evans, Annette Reed, and (ahem) me. With the kind permission of the organizer, the complete list of papers is featured below:

Lorenzo DiTommaso (Concordia University), “Jewish Pseudepigrapha and Christian Apocrypha: Definitions, Boundaries, and Points of Contact”
Timothy Beech (St. Paul University), “Unraveling the Complexity of the Oracula Sibyllina: The Value of a Socio-Rhetorical Approach in the Study of the Sibylline Oracles”
Michael Kaler (McMaster University), “Gnostic Irony and the Adaptation of the Apocalyptic Genre”
Robert R. Phenix, Jr. (Saint Louis University), “The Problem of the Source of Balai’s Sermons on Joseph and the Nachleben of Pseudepigraphical Joseph Material”
James R. Davila (University of St. Andrews), “More Christian Apocryphal Texts”
Louis Painchaud (Université Laval), “À propos de la redécouverte de l’Évangile de Judas”
F. Stanley Jones (California State University), “Jewish Tradition on the Sadducees in the Pseudo-Clementines”
Annette Y. Reed (McMaster University), “New Light on ‘Jewish-Christian’ Apocrypha and the History of Jewish/Christian Relations”
Dominique Côté (University of Ottawa), “Orphic Theogony and the Context of the Clementines”
Nicole Kelley (Florida State University), “Pseudo-Clementine Polemics against Sacrifice: A Window onto Religious Life in the Fourth Century?”
Timothy Pettipiece (University of Ottawa), “Manichaean ‘Apocrypha’? From Mani to Manichaeism”
Theodore De Bruyn (University of Ottawa), “The Power of Apocryphal Narratives in Late Antiquity: The Testimony of Amulets”
Tony Burke (University of York), “Researching the New Testament Apocrypha in the Twenty-First Century”
Peter W. Dunn (Faculté de Théologie Evangélique de Bangui), “The Acts of Paul as an Experimental Control for the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles”
François Bovon (Harvard University), “The Revelation of Stephen or the Invention of Stephen’s Relics (Sinaiticus graecus 493)”
Dennis R. MacDonald (Claremont Graduate University), “The Gospel of Nicodemus (or, the Acta Pilati) as a Christian Iliad and Odyssey”
Cornelia Horn (Saint Louis University), “From Model Virgin to Maternal Intercessor: Mary, Children, and Family Problems in Late Antique Infancy Gospel Traditions”
Stephen J. Shoemaker (University of Oregon), “Mary in Early Christian Apocrypha: Virgin Territory”
Craig A. Evans (Acadia Divinity College), “The Apocryphal Jesus: Assessing the Possibilities and Problems”
Ian Henderson (McGill University), “The Usefulness of Christian Apocryphal Texts in the Research on the Historical Jesus”
Adriana Bara (Université de Montréal), “The Convergence between Canonical Gospels, Apocryphal Writings and Liturgical Texts in Nativity and Resurrection Icons in Eastern Churches”
Paul-Hubert Poirier (Université Laval), “La Prôtennoia trimorphe (NH XIII,1), le Livre des secrets de Jean et le Prologue johannique”
Pierluigi Piovanelli (University of Ottawa), “Using Labels and Categories in a Responsible Way: The Making and Evolution of Early Christian Apocryphal Texts with the Gospel of Mary as a Test Case”


I will comment on some of the papers in future posts. For now, I’ll make some comments about the workshop on the whole. Pierluigi should be applauded for taking the initiative to assemble these scholars. At present there is no association of North American CA scholars—l’AELAC primarily caters to European scholars and, while the SBL has a Christian Apocrypha Section, scholars who contribute from year to year do not meet with any regularity. Pierluigi has begun what is hoped will be a regular event. There was discussion also of putting the energies and experiences of the participants into a publishing project. Some (myself included) registered their discontent over the lack of awareness of current CA scholarship by non-specialists in the English-speaking world. English CA collections, for example, are woefully out-of-date and are limited in scope. The publishing project, whatever form it might take, should correct such oversights.


It seems so un-Canadian to take on a project such as this—the major studies of the CA have come out of England (M. R. James’ collection and the update by J. K. Elliott), France/Switzerland (the l’AELAC projects, including the new two-volume Pléiade CA collection), Germany (Hennecke-Schneemelcher’s volumes and the forthcoming update by Christophe Markschies), and even the US (Robert Funk’s Polebridge Press titles). But Canada has its experts on particular CA texts (including Pierluigi on the Book of the Cock, Scott Brown on Secret Mark, Zbigniew Izydorczyk on the Gospel of Nicodemus, etc.) and so too does the US (Jones on the Pseudo-Clementines, MacDonald on Acts of Andrew, Shoemaker on the Dormition of Mary, etc.). A Canadian/American CA project is not so absurd at all.


Montréal, October 11-13, 2006: Lorenzo DiTommaso and Lucian Turcescu of Concordia University hosted a conference on The Reception and Interpretation of the Bible in Late Antiquity. In part, the event was designed to honour the publication of Dr. Charles Kannengeiser’s Handbook of Patristic Exegesis. But the spirit behind the conference was somewhat novel: to bring together not just Patristics scholars but also scholars of Rabbinics, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Gnosticism, and the CA. The complete program is available here, but the CA papers are as follows:

Annete Yoshiko Reed (McMaster University): “Pseudepigraphy, Authority, and Biblical Interpretation.”
Pierluigi Piovanelli (University of Ottawa): “The Reception of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in Late-Antique Apocryphal Texts.”
Tony Burke (York University): “Completing the Gospel: The Infancy Gospel of Thomas as a Supplement to the Gospel of Luke.”


Lorenzo and Lucian should be commended for attempting to bring scholars of such disparate disciplines together. It was hard not to feel out-of-place, however, particularly after participating in the more focused Ottawa conference. Participants from the other groups (Rabbinics, Gnosticism, etc.) probably felt the same. Perhaps, if an event such as this were to take place again, the various scholars could be asked to contribute to a more tightly-focused topic, so that the different perspectives would be more apparent and more constructive dialogue could take place.

If any of the topics of the papers are of interest to you, take heart: both conferences will have their proceedings published in 2007. There is much still to say about the papers and the discussions among participating scholars at both events. But that will have to wait for future posts.

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Does the world need another blog? Apparently yes, it does, because this is the first and only blog devoted to the study of the Christian apocrypha.

The genesis of Apocryphicity occurred at a conference on the Christian apocrypha in Ottawa back in September (more on this conference later). In a conversation with Jim Davilla of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (and administrator of the paleo-Judaica blog) about the apocrypha on the internet, I mentioned that there were no blogs focusing on Christian apocrypha. It was suggested at the time that someone should create one. I guess that someone is me.

As the blurb to the left states I see the objectives of this blog as to inform scholars and non-scholars about developments in the study of this literature and to aid those interested in particular texts or projects to share their knowledge with others. The value of the blog depends on how much energy is put into it by participants—that would be you. I will endeavour to post information as I encounter it but the blog will be stronger the more informed I am. So, don’t be shy: e-mail me if you are aware of news on the apocrypha (discoveries, major studies, popular media, etc.) that I have missed, or if you are working on a project and seek input from others.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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