Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Review of Burke and Landau (eds.), New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1 (part 1)

Tony Burke and Brent Landau, New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, volume 1 (Eerdmans, 2016).
Hereafter "MNTA1." I am very pleased to have the opportunity to publish an extended review of this excellent volume at PaleoJudaica. I am grateful to Eerdmans for providing me with a review copy.

Time permits me to review very few books, but this one is a special case. Regular readers are aware of my longstanding interest in noncanonical scriptures, especially those associated with the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. This interest has led to many publications, the most notable of which for the purpose of this review is Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, volume 1 (Eerdmans, 2013), which I co-edited with Richard Bauckham and Alexander Panayotov. (Hereafter MOTP1.) Volume 2 is currently in progress.

The similarity in the titles of that book and the one under review is no coincidence. As the editors note in the Introduction (p. xxxix), their More New Testament Apocrypha Project (MNTA) was inspired by our More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project (MOTP) and the two have a similar structure and similar aims. Both have so far published a volume of texts, with more to come. The two projects proceed independently, although we keep in touch with each other. Between them, they are putting the study of noncanonical biblical literature on a new footing.

I am dividing this review into four sections and will post each separately. Today’s post deals with the Introduction to the book and the various critical and theoretical issues it raises. The second post will survey the apocryphal gospels translated in the volume. The third post will do the same for the apocryphal acts and related texts, the apocryphal epistles, and the apocryphal apocalypses. I will say more about some texts than others, but I will say something about each text in the volume. The fourth and final post will evaluate the book and make some concluding observations.

The volume under review opens, very appropriately, with a lively and informative Foreword by J. K. Elliott. Elliott is the editor of The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford Clarendon, 1993). That volume is the most comprehensive and authoritative collection of New Testament Apocrypha in English. He wryly notes of it that “[a]ll the word in the title ‘The Apocryphal New Testament’ are wrong” (p. xi).

The Introduction was written by the two editors. It opens with a discussion of the title of the volume, defending “New Testament Apocrypha” as imperfect, but the clearest option available. It goes on to consider the two vexed terms “apocrypha” and “canon.” It traces the etymology and early history of “apocrypha,” noting that modern scholars prefer the term “Christian Apocrypha” for noncanonical scriptures composed by Christians in the first three centuries of the era. Thus, “New Testament Apocrypha” implies a somewhat wider period of composition.

After noting the etymology and early use of “canon,” the editors make five observations about the concept. First, we know much less than we would like about the process of the canonization of the New Testament. Second, this process cannot be simplified to a “power-play” (p. xxv) by a faction in the early church. Third, neither the Council of Nicea nor Athanasias’s festal letter provided the defining moment in the canonization of the New Testament. That was a long, organic process and there was no such defining moment. Indeed, fourth, a strict division between canonical and noncanonical texts was not characteristic of the early church. Fifth, many noncanonical scriptures continued to be highly influential in widespread church communities for many centuries.

The Introduction continues with a survey of the transmission and continued composition of New Testament Apocrypha into the modern era. The advent of the printing press brought incunabla, essentially chapbook publication of such texts. The work of Johann Albert Fabricius in the early eighteenth century set the field of scholarly study of the New Testament Apocrypha on a firm foundation. (His 1713 edition of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha did the same for those texts.) The twentieth century saw numerous collections of New Testament Apocrypha in translation in European languages. The works of M. R. James and Elliott are especially notable in English. The Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne (AELAC) produced an important two-volume collection in French just on either side of the turn of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, New Testament Apocrypha continued to be composed even in the twentieth century and scholarly publications also have continued apace to the present. Dan Brown’s novel and movie, The Da Vinci Code, despite its flaws, did much to draw popular attention to ancient noncanonical scriptures.

The editors chose the thirty texts translated in this volume using five criteria. These are to a significant degree inspired by the criteria developed for MOTP. First, the volume builds on the collection of New Testament Apocrypha published by James in 1924, to which Elliott added only a few texts. Second, the editors extended the chronological range of the texts to the rise of Islam in the seventh century, with some later texts included because they were of special interest. One text may have been composed as early as the late first century and another as late as the fourteenth century, with most of the rest dating in their earliest forms to the second to seventh centuries. Third, the texts in this volume are not restricted to genres found in the New Testament. Fourth, a few works published in earlier English collections are republished to take into account new manuscripts or advances in scholarship. Fifth, this volume does not include New Testament Apocrypha that are already available in up-to-date English translations (e.g., the Nag Hammadi texts).

The editors offer five contributions that the New Testament Apocrypha make to scholarship. First, they show the wide range of beliefs that early Christians held about Jesus. Second, they provide much evidence for how early Christians interpreted the Bible. Third, they are intrinsically interesting as imaginative literature. Fourth, they even made notable contributions to ancient and medieval Christian doctrine and theology. Fifth, a lateral reading of the texts offers us otherwise unavailable information about the history of Christianity.

The editors also propose five contributions that this particular volume makes. First, this is the first such anthology produced from North America. Second, a majority of its texts are translated into a modern language for the first time. Third, the texts come from a broad chronological range. Fourth, it includes texts composed later than the third century, underlining the inherent worthiness of later texts for scholarly study. And fifth, some of these texts were very popular, notwithstanding their noncanonical status, and some of them represent genres not found in the New Testament.

The Introduction closes with the promise of at least one more MNTA volume and a list of texts to be included in it.

In the next two posts I will survey the individual texts translated in the volume. I will begin with the gospels and related traditions.

UPDATE (15 June): Philip Tite comments here.