Sunday, December 24, 2006

NEW TESTAMENT APOCRYPHA WATCH: In the Sunday Times, Peter Stanford has some mostly sensible observations on the New Testamet Apocrypha, largely in response to Robert Beckford's BBC4 program The Secret Family of Jesus. (I haven't seen this show yet, but Grant Macaskill has lent me a video of it and I hope to get to it during the break.) Excerpt:
So, the alternative versions really have the capacity to set pulses racing only if the Gospels in the New Testament are labelled as gospel truth. The church certainly used to label them as such. When I was growing up Catholic in the 1970s, children were strongly dissuaded from reading the Bible. We needed, we were told, a priest to interpret it for us. Just in case we came across awkward elements such as Mary’s other children.

But the reality today, as even a Jesuit professor from the Vatican’s Bible Institute admits on screen in The Secret Family of Jesus, is that the church long ago ceased to claim that every word and detail in the New Testament is sacrosanct. If you want to dispute almost any item of church teaching or dogma, you can find plenty of evidence in the Gospels we already have in the Bible to back you up. Christianity, for instance, is infamously uptight about sex, but Jesus utters scarcely a word about it in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

This is not to say that the Apocrypha are not fascinating, tantalising and useful for building a more accurate picture about the circumstances and the factions that surrounded Jesus and the movement that turned his memory into a global force. But we need to be more precise about what they are and what they aren’t. What irks about Beckford’s presentation, therefore, is the underlying claim that, because more gospels have suddenly turned up, we can bin the ones we’ve already got. That is as manipulative of the truth as the early church fathers. Or even Dan Brown.
This is more or less what I've been saying and what any specialist in Christian origins will tell you: the New Testament Apocrypha generally tell us nothing about the time of Jesus, but are full of fascinating information about notions and controversies in early Christianity from about the second century on. The possible exception is the Gospel of Thomas, which may contain some early and useful information about the sayings of Jesus, but even this is contested.

One other point is worth a comment:
When David Jenkins, the erstwhile Bishop of Durham, caused headlines back in 1984 by questioning the literal truth of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus, it was pointed out that he was only saying publicly what had been discussed in the common rooms of theological colleges for decades, some of it influenced by the Gnostic gospels, which often make no mention of Jesus rising from the dead.
I'm not sure which specific texts Stafford has in mind, but there aren't any apocryphal gospels that teach that Jesus was just a good man who died and that was the end of it.

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