Friday, June 09, 2017

Review of Burke and Landau (eds.), New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1 (part 2)

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

Gospels and Related Traditions of New Testament Figures

I discuss the gospels (etc.) in roughly the order of their dates of composition, but also with some attention to thematic similarities.

A number of the gospels and gospel fragments are relatively old — from as early as the second or even the late first century.

Potentially the earliest text is The Death of Judas according to Papias (pp. 309-313, ed. Geoffrey S. Smith). I suspect it was included more for the sake of completeness than for any sense that it is anything like an early “gospel.” Papias wrote in Greek and flourished in the late first and early second centuries. He was acquainted with oral traditions that went back to the first generation of Jesus' followers. His work survives only in quotations. Two rather different versions of this one are extant. Smith translates both. Whatever knowledge Papias may have had of the time of Jesus, this account is merely a crass tall tale.

There are two very fragmentary texts among the Oxyrhynchus papyri. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 210 (pp. 109-124, ed. Brent Landau and Stanley E. Porter) is a single leaf from a third-century Greek codex. It is very badly damaged and little can be said confidently about it except that it involves an angel, Jesus, and God. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 5072 (pp. 125-139, ed. Ross D. Ponder) is a Greek page dated to within fifty years on either side of 200. If the dating is correct, it may not be much, if any, later than Papyrus Egerton 2, the earliest surviving apocryphal gospel fragment. One side narrates an exorcism which has affinities with exorcism accounts in the Synoptic Gospels. The other side deals with discipleship and Jesus is perhaps the speaker. The name Jesus does not actually survive in the extant text of P. Oxy. 5072.

The editors prudently provide double translations of both papyri. The first translation includes only the words that can be read or confidently reconstructed on the papyrus. The second attempts to fill out the scant surviving text with reasonably cautious but conjectural reconstructions of the missing text.

The Revelation of the Magi (pp. 19-38, ed. Brent Landau) survives complete only in a Syriac translation embedded in the eighth-century Chronicle of Zuqnin (Zūqnīn). Landau regards Syriac to be its original language and he dates its composition to the late second or early third century. A much shorter version of the story survives in a fifth-century Latin text. It was translated as “The Apocryphon of Seth” by Alexander Toepel in MOTP1, 33-39. The Revelation of the Magi is arguably the earliest surviving apocryphon that deals with the magi of Matthew’s infancy narrative and it is in any case the longest and most detailed ancient work about them. It appears to place their home in China. Jesus is the star of Bethlehem and he can appear in a multiplicity of other forms. The text is also remarkably tolerant toward other religions. Due to copyright concerns, this volume publishes only a summary of the text, but it still takes up most of nine pages.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (pp. 52-68, ed. Tony Burke) was probably composed in Greek in the second century, but the best text is a Syriac translation. Burke has recently published a new edition of the Greek and he is working on one of the Syriac. He translates the Syriac here.

Scholars assumed that this gospel was the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas mentioned by patristic writers, which caused some confusion. The discovery of the Coptic version of the Gnostic (?) Gospel of Thomas in the Nag Hammadi Library set matters right. The Infancy Gospel tells entertaining and sometimes disturbing stories about the miraculous deeds of Jesus as a child. The earliest version shows the characters of those around Jesus developing as they realize he must be a god or angel. But the bloodthirsty child Jesus does not change. Later versions try to tone down the bloodthirsty aspects and portray Jesus with some character development.

Some of the gospels in this volume were composed roughly in late antiquity (that is, the third to the sixth centuries).

The Legend of Aphroditianus (pp. 3-18, ed. Katharina Heyden) was probably composed in Greek in the third century at Hierapolis in Syria. It survives only embedded in later works or in versions excerpted from those works. It seems to be a Christian appropriation of the ancient Syrian Atargatis cult and it also has parallels with the third-century apocryphal correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus. It consists of Hellenic oracles and a retelling of the infancy story of Christ which shows considerable interest in the magi.

The Toledot Yeshu (pp. 158-164, ed. F. Stanley Jones) is a remarkable case of a Jewish parodic anti-gospel that was probably composed in Aramaic in Palestine in the third or fourth century. It survives in many translations and three main recensions, the Herod-group, the Helen-group, and the Pilate-group. Each is named after a character who is distinctive in that group. The translation is of an Aramaic fragment from the Herod-group. It arguably preserves material from the earliest surviving version of the story. This volume was published too late for the editor to make use of the recent edition of the Toledot Yeshu, edited by Meerson and Schäfer et al. Perhaps the MNTA series editors will want to consider returning to it in a future volume.

The Berlin-Strasbourg Apocryphon (pp. 165-183, ed. Alin Suciu) came to the attention of the world in the late 1990s under the title The Gospel of the Savior. It survives in three fragmentary Coptic manuscripts. Suciu has re-named it and concluded that it is not a gospel. Rather it belongs to the genre of “pseudo-apostolic memoirs” composed in Coptic no earlier than the fifth century. The surviving material mostly involves a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles, although Jesus also ascends to the seventh heaven and later they all perform two hymnic dances of the cross.

Some apocryphal gospel-related works retell the story of John the Baptist. One such work is The Life and Martyrdom of John the Baptist (pp. 247-67, ed. Andrew Bernhard). It was probably composed in Greek in the late fifth century, perhaps in Syria. It survives in multiple recensions. It purges all hints of conflict between Jesus and John or their disciples which appear in the four canonical gospels. Bernhard translates what he judges to be the earliest surviving text.

This volume translates two other works about John. An Encomium on John the Baptist (pp. 217-246, Philip L. Tite) is a Coptic text whose Greek original could have been composed anywhere between the late fourth and the tenth centuries, with later in the range being more likely. The Life of John the Baptist by Serapion (pp. 268-292, ed. by Slavomír Čéplö) survives only in Arabic (Garshuni) manuscripts and was likely composed in Egypt in the fourteenth century, with parts perhaps translated from Coptic.

An Encomium on Mary Magdalene (pp. 197-216, ed. Christine Luckritz Marquis) is another gospel-related work whose protagonist is someone other than Jesus. It is actually another example of the genre of the pseudo-apostolic memoir. It survives in Coptic fragments and seems to have been composed in the mid-fifth or early sixth century.

Finally, some of the gospels in this volume were composed as late as the Middle Ages.

On the Priesthood of Jesus (pp. 69-108, ed. William Adler) was composed in Greek, probably in the seventh or eighth century and perhaps by a Jewish-Christian author. It is notable for preserving a tradition that Jesus (through his mother) had both a Davidic and a Levitical ancestry, and thus was qualified to serve in the priesthood. Already in the second century CE, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs placed Jesus in both roles, so the idea is very old. We should resist efforts to emend the Testaments when they give Jesus a dual Judahite-Levitical lineage. This apocryphal gospel is one piece of evidence that some Christians accepted it. This gospel had some cultural influence in the Eastern Church. It survives in three recensions. Alder regards the long recension to be the earliest. He translates four manuscripts of the work and an early summary of it to present the full range of textual variation. The long recension displays a benign attitude toward Judaism for the era, but later versions became more hostile.

The Dialogue of the Paralytic with Christ (pp. 140-151, ed. Bradley N. Rice) is preserved in Armenian and Georgian versions in manuscripts from the thirteenth century on. Arguably, however, these were translated from an Arabic version written as early as the ninth century. This work is something of a “dark comedy” (p. 140) which features a dialogue between a faithful and pious paralytic with an infuriatingly doubting Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus heals the paralytic in the end. Despite the provocative nature of this work, its transmission persisted in the Caucusus into the twentieth century.

The Hospitality of Dysmas (pp. 39-51, ed. Mark Glen Bilby) is an addition to some manuscripts of the Acts of Pilate. It narrates the fanciful prehistory of the good thief who was crucified with Christ according to Luke 23. Dysmas renders aid to the holy family at the time of Jesus’ birth. This leads to the healing of his own leprous child and earns him the honor of his later martyrdom with Christ. The work shows considerable interest in Mary and her beauty. It was composed and transmitted in Greek. It is one of many versions of the story. Some of these downplay or eliminate the idea that the protagonist was a thief. It was probably composed in the twelfth or thirteenth century.

The Legend of the Thirty Pieces of Silver (pp. 293-308, ed. Tony Burke and Slavomír Čéplö) recounts the fictional prehistory of the coins Judas used to betray Jesus. It survives in a Western version in Latin and an Eastern version in Syriac and Armenian. It can be traced back to the twelfth century. Its was composed sometime before that, but exactly when is unclear. This volume translates both the Eastern version and the Western version.

In the next post I will survey the rest of the texts translated in the volume: the apocryphal acts and related traditions, the epistles, and the apocalypses.

UPDATE (15 June): Philip Tite comments on parts 2 and 3 of this review here. He is the translator of the Encomium on John the Baptist (see above) and he clarifies his view about its original language.