on 15 December 2009
Paul Foster has done a great service in putting together this excellent entry into the Very Short Introduction series.
He takes as his subject "The Apocryphal Gospels", something he admits takes a good deal of defining. Essentially, what it means is those ancient texts that were written about Jesus' deeds or words (mostly in the 2nd and 3rd century AD) but which didn't make it into the Bible itself (whereas Mark, Matthew, Luke and John did.)
In total he gives attention to 12 particular texts: the infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Protevangelium of James, The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Peter, Papyrus Oxyrhyncus 840, Papyrus Egerton 2 (not a particularly sexy name!), the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Ebionites and the Gospel of the Nazareans, The Gospel of Judas (recently published with some sensation in National Geographic) and the Gospel of Mary.
He gives a brief description of what the surviving manuscript looks like (sometimes with photos), what it says, why it may say it, and also the adventures that it took to bring each text to publication, a world as much to do with Indiana Jones-style antiques dealing in Egypt as with professional scholarship, and a potentially rich source of conspiracy theories.
Yet Foster has no time for unnecessary conspiracy or sensation. He does deal with key details: e.g. Mary kissing Jesus on the lips in the Gospel of Philip, Jesus' favouring of Judas in the Gospel of Judas, and examines what exactly is said, where translations seem a bit dodgy and in most cases sweeps aside the exaggerrated claims made on these texts' behalf.
As he puts it on p23, "The problems that beset the project of recovering an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus from the cononical gospels are well known. These difficulties become no less acute in relation to non-canonical texts. In fact, in man ways tey are exacerbated by greater historical distance..."
At the same time, he's not an obsessive defender of the canon: he notes that the Jesus seminar found 3 sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas that they deemed indubitably authentic, compared with just 1 in Mark and 0 in John. There is some historical value here.
Still, he argues that the real value of these texts is not that they present a truer picture of 'the real Jesus', untainted by the Church's bias. Rather, "these texts defend the perspectives of their authors and of the communities that read them, but not by presenting a more historically reliable version of the life and teachings of Jesus. Instead, for ideological purposes they create a new way of thinking about salvation, the universe and the indiviuals' personal search for completeness."
And as he unfolds all these perspectives (frequently influenced by what we now call "Gnosticism"), there is a real challenge to belief here.
What is it to be a Christian? Before the Council of Chalcedon, what was it to be a heretic? And what is it to be a heretic now? What counts as a Christian revelation? And what are we to make of the eventual triumph of one 'orthodoxy' when there were so many possible orthodoxies existing within the Christian communities of the early centuries AD?
Of course, these questions have been asked before, but they come back with renewed urgency upon reading this.
Foster's grasp of the material is excellent, whether it's to do with the text, the translation, the historical context or the textual transmission. He also writes with a sense of entertainment, which helps.
This is a really excellent introduction to the subject.
Over the last ten years or so there has been a flurry of interest into the apocryphal gospels and all forms of early non-orthodox Christian thought and practice. Much of this is due to the fact that many of these early non-orthodox sources were for the first time in almost two thousand years available in their original form, thanks to the remarkable set of archeological discoveries that commenced in the late nineteenth century and continue to present day. It became exciting to see these ancient texts in their original form, unmediated to us through the prism of their opponents or detractors. For the better or for worse, some of the interest in these texts stemmed from the desire for sensational and mysterious, and many of those texts became the source of ever more exaggerated claims. To the opponents of Christianity, or at least its more orthodox form, these texts gave a hope of discovering more "authentic" Christianity that was not corrupted by the "power-hungry churches" over the course of history. This interest has been additionally fueled by all sorts of books of varying level of credibility that purported to reveal the conspiracies at the heart of Christianity. However, the more sober and scholarly assessment of these non-canonical text paints a much more subdued picture. For a start, the term "gospel" has been used widely for many of these texts that vary widely from the canonical gospels and amongst themselves. Most of these apocryphal gospels are available to us only as fragments, and there is very scant evidence that even in their original form they had been anything but very short texts. Furthermore, far from being earlier than the canonical gospels these extra-canonical texts are by and large later in origin and depend heavily on the canonical gospels for the kernel of their narrative. In the instances where they deviate from those narratives, they tend to be very fanciful, mysterious or downright bizarre. Most of these apocryphal gospels were a Gnostic reaction to orthodox Christianity, and were written in order to bolster the Gnostics' theological claims. Overall, the scholarly consensus is that they shed very little light on the "real" historical Jesus. Their primary value is in giving us more informed view of the diversity and growth of early Christianity.
This very short introduction introduces the reader to the most important and famous of the apocryphal gospels. It gives ample quotations and references to those works, and makes a critical assessment of their value. It is written with a general reader in mind, and for the most part stays clear of any theological or doctrinal biases. This is a very useful introduction to the apocryphal gospels.
on 10 June 2010
I shall not repeat a summary of the contents of this very interesting and very short book. This has been carefully done in the review by R S Stanier.
First of all, a word of warning. In order to get the most value from this book, one needs to have read in full at least some of the texts with which Paul Foster deals here. Even a reader very familiar with the New Testament may be quite unaware of the topic of the apocryphal New Testament literature, and even the frequent (but necessarily limited) quotations such as Foster provides are not enough to give the true flavour of these apocryphal `books' or to give any sense of the true difference that exists between them and the canonical New Testament. Readers must wrestle with the possible meanings of `gospel, canonical, non-canonical, apocryphal, and Gnostic', concepts which Foster keeps trying to clarify as he goes along.
The most complete English translation of the apocryphal New Testament literature (including the `gospels' with which Foster is dealing) is listed in Foster's bibliography: "The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation", by J.K. Elliott, paperback, 2006. Unfortunately, it costs about £25. Some of these apocryphal writings are however sometimes quoted in more detail, or even given in full, in learned commentaries on the New Testament.
Foster's book does repeatedly correctly emphasize that these apocryphal gospels, which are Christian writings which are not included in the New Testament, are all later than the New Testament writings. These apocrypha date from the second to the fourth centuries, and frequently rehash or `fictitiously' expand what is already to be found in the New Testament witness to Christ and Christianity. Lurid media headlines, claiming that the study of these apocryphal texts overthrows Christianity and the traditional view of Christ, are to be treated with scepticism. These non-biblical writings give us information about how some Christians of those later centuries thought and lived, but they do not destroy the authenticity of the New Testament itself, which contains the very earliest accounts of the life of Christ and the foundation and spread of the Church.
And so to my next, associated point. Although Foster's book had to be short, he needed to deal explicitly with two questions which he fails to consider: the relation of the canonical (New Testament) and non-canonical (Apocryphal) writings to the Old Testament, and the question of Church. Both of these are key considerations for deciding why the apocryphal writings eventually fell by the wayside while the canonical writings of the New Testament survived.
First of all, although the New Testament writings themselves exhibit a developed theological view (and not merely a `reportage' view) of the Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and of the founding and spread of the Church, scholarly examination of the New Testament texts shows, almost for every verse, and often many times for a single verse or passage, a rooting and sourcing in the Old Testament (and also in non-biblical `Intertestamental' Jewish writings, notably in the Dead Sea Scrolls). This sourcing in and fulfilment of the Old Testament in the New Testament is not to be found with anything approaching the same conviction in the apocryphal literature.
Secondly, the New Testament writings show a developed sense that Jesus of Nazareth founded a Church to preserve and spread his teachings. This Church was to be a fount of discipline and of orthodoxy and of orthopraxy for every human being. This is clear already in the writings of Paul from 50 AD onwards (also already incorporating even earlier hymnic and catechetical material), in Acts, Hebrews, Peter and other writings, and in the perceived commands of Jesus as given in Matthew, in his founding of his Church, Community, Assembly, on Peter; and in his final mission statement: "All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth. Going, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you all days, even to the end of time". The word `all' is found all four times in the Greek original.
A treatment like Foster's needs to consider the universal teaching of the New Testament, as found for example in Ephesians (1.9,10): "[H]e (God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ) has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fulness of time, to gather up [anakephalaiosasthai] all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (NRSV). Messiah has come. And he founded a Church, which is the Roman Catholic Church.
The only Messiah is the Jesus Christ of the New Testament, who `was with God and was God'. There was no other Messiah or Mediator or Demiurge such as the apocryphal gospels describe. Nor was there a Messiah 30 years before Jesus, as Israel Knohl thinks (see his book `The Messiah Before Jesus'), nor yet another different 'First Messiah' 70 years earlier still (see `The First Messiah' by Michael O Wise) It is Jesus alone who fulfils the prophecies and functions which Knohl and Wise correctly identify as essential for the expected Messiah, but which these authors then most unconvincingly seek to attribute to their respective candidates.
Foster concludes (p. 137) that `orthodox', mainstream Christianity emerged victorious over `non-canonical' Christianity "whether this is piously seen as being due to divine providence, or rather more pragmatically as being due to the vagaries of history", and, as the victor, `orthodoxy' wrote the Christ story as it wanted. I do not accept Foster's alternatives. The scholarly examination of history massively supports the view that the `pious' belief in the intervention of divine Providence is at the same time (in the Person and work of Jesus Christ) the most 'pragmatic' thing about history. Foster's 'vagaries of history' suggestion simply does not provide an explanation for the Person and work of Jesus Christ and Christianity.