Tony Burke is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada, and author of Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha.
This is the first in a two-part series of guest posts from Burke on EerdWord this week. Part two will be published tomorrow morning.
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Even those who have a little knowledge of the Christian Apocrypha are aware that there is an incredible range of these texts now available to readers. J. K. Elliott’s collection (The Apocryphal New Testament), for one, contains 750 pages of material — and that’s really only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
One of my goals in writing Secret Scriptures Revealed was to introduce readers to an even wider assortment of apocryphal texts, while at the same time placing all of these texts within the context of Christian history, from antiquity to today. And I wanted to do it all in less than 200 pages. Not an easy task.
The book opens with a discussion of how Dan Brown’s infamous novel The Da Vinci Code and recent discoveries, such as the Gospel of Judas, have led to a renaissance of interest in the Christian Apocrypha. Some scholars have responded to this interest with popular-market books demonstrating how early Christian thought was varied, and explaining that Christian orthodoxy as we have it today was once only one among a number of equally-valid early forms of Christianity. Other scholars have countered these arguments by stating how the early orthodox church fathers were right in censuring apocryphal texts because they are harmful to Christian faith. Champions of the first view often cite Walter Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity as evidence that, in some areas of the ancient world, so-called heretical groups were the majority and the first to call themselves Christians.
Bauer’s influence is evident in my definitions of certain key concepts: apocrypha, canon, orthodoxy/heresy/proto-orthodoxy, and Gnosticism. Each of these terms needs to be treated with care, however. “Canon,” for example, changes over time and space; it is too simplistic to state that the 27-book New Testament canon was settled in the fourth century. Differences continued for centuries, and some remain today; note particularly the Ethiopian church with its broad canon which includes several additional texts. Also, for many Christians, the line between canonical and non-canonical traditions was always a thin one, as they often were (and continue to be) exposed to both categories of material in liturgy, iconography, art, and literature.
The second chapter of the book covers additional introductory matter intended to help contextualize g the discussions of individual Christian Apocrypha texts that follow. I begin with a description of the various languages of the manuscripts containing the texts (focusing on Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Slavonic) and then provide a sketch of where these manuscripts come from: archaeological sites, happenstance discoveries in tombs, and monastic libraries. I then pause to discuss how these sources are used to create critical editions. In supplying this information, I wanted readers to understand that our reconstructed texts are tentative, that new discoveries can lead to better versions of the texts — versions that can completely transform our interpretations of the original authors’ intentions. Included also is a look at the Christian Apocrypha’s impact on art, drama, and literature.
Chapters three to five contain summaries of a wide variety of texts from the Christian Apocrypha. I work through the materials chronologically, from texts on the birth and childhood of Jesus (e.g., the infancy gospels of James and Thomas, the Revelation of the Magi), through his ministry (the Gospel of Thomas, Jewish-Christian gospels, the Abgar Correspondence), his passion and resurrection (the Pilate Cycle, the Book of the Cock, the Apocryphon of John), and finally to the activities of the church after Jesus’ death (the various acts of the apostles, and stories of figures of the early church, such as the Dormition of Mary, the Life of John the Baptist, and the Life of Mary Magdalene).
The difficulty for me in assembling this material was in keeping the discussions brief enough to include as many texts as possible. Even so, numerous early and late apocryphal texts that I had wanted to include did not ultimately make the cut. These include several infancy accounts (e.g., the Legend of Aphroditianus and the Vision of Theophilus), the story of Andrew’s encounter with cannibals from the Acts of Andrew, and the recently reconstructed Acts of Philip.
As for the content of my discussions on the texts I did manage to fit in, I tried to focus on issues that would be of most interest to my audience — the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, re-interpretations of the crucifixion and resurrection, and a variety of peculiar happenings, such as the flying head of John the Baptist — but I also wanted to show why each of the texts is important in the history of Christian thought and practice.