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.