Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review of Burke and Landau (eds.), New Testament Apocrypha (part 4)

Tony Burke and Brent Landau, New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, volume 1 (Eerdmans, 2016).
Part One is here.
Part Two is here.
Part Three is here.

Final Comments

This volume is a major contribution to more than one field. The texts are well chosen, the translations flow smoothly, the introductions cover the important matters and evaluate the evidence judiciously. The volume is well edited and carefully proofread. One could debate this or that conclusion or interpretation, but the positions taken by the contributors are consistently well and cautiously argued. The one or two errors I noticed were trivial (e.g., on p. 437 at n. e., "cherubim" should read "seraphim"). I can think of very little to criticize. A little more attention to questions of genre in the introductions to the individual works would be welcome. There is no specific section for genre in the outline template, although sometimes one is added. Some contributors cover the issue well, while others could have said more.

Potential readers should keep in mind that this volume is a supplement to earlier collections of New Testament Apocrypha in English, especially those by James and Elliott. The volume includes a few relatively early texts (i.e., from the third century or earlier). These are of interest to specialists in early Christianity. Most of the texts are from the fourth century and later. They are of particular interest to specialists in late-antique and medieval popular Christianity. The volume contains a vast wealth of stories, scriptural exegesis, and informal theology which entertained and informed lay audiences for many centuries. But do be aware that it belongs on the bookshelf next to Elliot’s work, not as a replacement for it.

The volume demonstrates compellingly that the composition and use of New Testament Apocrypha continued into the Middle Ages and beyond, and that some of these works were vastly popular and influential. The Dialogue of the Paralytic with Christ is not the first work a modern reader would turn to for spiritual inspiration. Nevertheless, it survives in many manuscripts and was copied into the twentieth century. The Apocalypse of the Virgin is ubiquitous in the Greek manuscript tradition and it too was copied into the twentieth century. The Tiburtine Sibyl was more influential in the West than the canonical Book of Revelation.

The texts in the volume come in the genres we know from the New Testament, but not exclusively. Several texts are “pseudo-apostolic memoirs,” a genre developed in Coptic-speaking circles in the fifth century. But even the genres we know are developed creatively. The genre of “gospel” is stretched well beyond what counts as a gospel in the New Testament. Some of the “acts” include elements of hagiography, martyrdom, and romance novel. The volume classifies The Tiburtine Sibyl as an apocalypse, but it lacks an angelic interpreter and adopts the poetic canons of pagan Sibylline oracles. The Epistle of Christ from Heaven is an ancient chain letter attributed to Jesus.

These texts also expand the range of what we might think of — at least based on the New Testament — as normal subject matter for scripture. The classic example is The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, whose boy Jesus comes across to a modern reader as frighteningly powerful and impulsive, rather like Anthony Fremont in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.” But the new texts provide additional examples. There is Papias’s debased story of the death of Judas. The Dialogue of the Paralytic with Christ presents an incognito Jesus who mercilessly torments a paralytic to test his faith before he heals him. And then there is that ancient chain letter again.

A number of the texts read like ancient and medieval fanfic about John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, Cornelius the Centurion, and so on. Several of the texts have women as the main characters: Mary Magdalene; Xanthippie, her sister Polyxena, and her sister’s companion Rebecca; the pagan Sibyl; and, of course, the Virgin Mary.

The high level of textual variation in the manuscripts of many, if not most, of these texts challenges the traditional scholarly understanding of what a text is. The scribes who transmitted these texts seem often to be as concerned with retelling an entertaining or edifying story as copying a fixed text. Canonical works with fixed texts are probably the exception, while the variform texts in this volume are more representative of ancient and medieval literature.

In conclusion, this volume is an excellent supplement to Elliot’s collection of New Testament Apocrypha. It makes many new texts available in translation. It expands the range of what we have thought of as New Testament Apocrypha, mainly by including texts from late antiquity and the Middle Ages. I look forward to the second volume.

I recommend this book highly. Make sure your research library has a copy. It is inexpensive enough (especially through Amazon) that your local public library should be willing to buy one as well. And if you have any interest in the subject of New Testament Apocrypha, then buy a copy for yourself.

UPDATE (15 June): Philip Tite comments here.

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