Category Archives: Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism”

“Gnosticism” as a scholarly category and the study of the diversity of Christianity (NT Apocrypha 15)

Early Christian writings can be used as a window into the various worldviews and practices of specific Christian authors (and sometimes provide glimpses into the groups to which a particular author belonged). One of the things we’ve been trying to do in our study of the early Christian Apocrypha and Nag Hammadi documents is to shed off any preconceived notion of what to expect (concerning the form of Christianity reflected therein) and instead begin by approaching the worldview within each writing, as best we can, on its own terms. We try to begin with a blank slate, so to speak, and we can’t assume that the key to interpreting one Nag Hammadi (“gnostic”) document, for instance, will fill in the gaps in another. Overall, we should expect that answers to our questions will not always be forthcoming due to the nature of the evidence, rather than plugging in information from some other writing to substitute for this lack of knowledge.

Some scholars (including those that introduce the writings in the Schneemelcher edition of the New Testament Apocrypha) too readily jump to the conclusion that some document is “gnostic” and then too readily assume a whole set of beliefs (and related practices) to be characteristic of that writing without any clear evidence of such within the writing itself. This does not facilitate understanding the variety of “Christianities” in writings that are traditionally categorized as “gnostic” (including some of the Apocryphal Acts and Gospels). One of the things that scholars like Michael Allen Williams and Karen L. King have now (thankfully) engrained in us is the problem with the category of “gnosticism” / “gnostic” itself, at least as it is now used. The term has come to be applied to so many writings and movements that its application often acts as a hindrance to understanding the specifics of a particular author’s worldview (and the practices implied by that worldview). It seems that application of the term sometimes acts as a substitute for trying to understand the specific and individual characteristics of a writing and the form of Christianity it may reflect. Categorizing a writing as “gnostic” and then assuming the set of beliefs and practices that have, over the years, been attached to that category may make things a lot easier, but it will not do in assessing the diversity of early Christianity (-ies). If we do continue to use the term “gnosticism” at all, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the above situation and not let the term distract us from careful analysis of the evidence we have.

Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Michael Allen Williams. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

The Fall of the temple of Artemis according to the Acts of John (NT Apocrypha 14)

Troels’ discussions of Greek temples being converted or rededicated for use by Christians (go here) got me thinking of the portrayal of “pagan” temples in the Apocrypha. Among the more exciting is the story told in the Acts of John (about which I have posted before in connection with bed-bugs).

The apostle John is portrayed as very frustrated by the Ephesians’ refusal to convert despite the numerous miracles that were performed before their eyes. He is so frustrated that he goes to the temple of Artemis (photo of goddess here) during her festival and threatens that his God will kill them all if their goddess (demon) could not kill John (the good old test of whose god is more powerful): “You say that you have Artemis as your goddess. . . pray to her, then, that I, and I alone, may die; or if you cannot do this, then I alone will call upon my own God and because of your unbelief I will put you all to death” (39). The unbelieving crowd believes that at least this is possible and is a bit worried. To sway them further, John then prays to God, with the following results:

the altar of Artemis split into many pieces, and all the offerings laid up in the temple suddenly fell to the floor and its glory was shattered, and so were more than seven images; and half the temple fell down, so that the priest was killed at one stroke as the pillar came down. Then the assembled Ephesians cried out, ‘There is but one God, the God of John!. . . We are converted, now that we have seen your marvellous works!. . . And the people rising from the ground went running and threw down the rest of the idol temple, crying out, ‘The God of John is the only God we know; from now on we worship him, since he has had mercy upon us!'” (42-43; trans. Schneemelcher, with adaptations).

This story of the Ephesians abandoning their patron deity, Artemis (a “demon” in the perspective of this author), and assisting God in destroying their own temple in honour of the deity contrasts somewhat to another story related by the author of Acts. There the guild of silversmiths responds to Paul’s preaching that “gods made with hands are not gods” by chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” in the theatre for several hours (Acts 19:23-41 — you can read about that account of the silversmiths’ riot at Ephesus here). No mass conversion or destruction of temples this time.

Photo above (by Phil): Remains of the Ephesian Temple of Artemis today.

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas and an interesting online debate (NT Apocrypha 13)

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas (available online here), not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (see my earlier post) or the Acts of Thomas, is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus without any narrative framework (just sayings), many of which have parallels in the canonical gospels. It seems quite clear, however, that The Gospel of Thomas is independent of these other gospels in the forms of the sayings it preserves, including the following version of the banquet parable which offers little interpretation and differs from the spin that other gospels have Jesus put on this parable:

“Jesus said: Someone was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. 2The slave went to the first and said, “My master invites you.” The first replied, 3″Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.” 4 The slave went to another and said, “My master has invited you.” 5The second said to the slave, “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.” 6 The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 7The third said to the slave, “My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.” 8The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 9The fourth said to the slave, “I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.” 10The slave returned and said to his master, “Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.” 11The master said to his slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner. 12Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father (Gospel of Thomas 64 trans by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer, as linked below; see the parallels in Matthew 22 and Luke 14, both depending on the so-called Q-source).

There is an interesting discussion of the early dating and gnostic or non-gnostic nature of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas here (re-presented on Davies’ site; this originally took place back in 1996 on the Ioudaios list, so opinions may well have changed). Bill Arnal (U. of Regina) and Stevan Davies (College Misericordia), two experts (who both argue for an early date but with differing opinions on method) engage one another in a lively and somewhat spontaneous manner that is not characteristic of journal articles, for instance. The same site hosts the “scholars” translation of Thomas by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer (cited above). Stevan Davies also runs the Gospel of Thomas homepage.

“Forgery” (deceit) or “pseudonymity” (admiration): Ehrman’s take (NT Apocrypha 12)

View other posts in the New Testament Apocrypha series.

One of the issues that has been raised in discussing Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is his free use of the term “forgery” in reference to early Christian literature (especially apocryphal literature; e.g. pp. 29-32 or thereabouts). Nor is he adverse to using accompanying notions of active “deceit” as well. He claims that ancient authors just about unanimously agreed in condemning the practice of presenting one’s own work as though by another respected figure (citing only the physician Galen, who had come across someone selling a work falsely in his name during his life-time). Certainly concepts such as forgery, deceit or related notions of conspiracy make for exciting reading, and Ehrman’s book is indeed intended for broad audiences (and still would have been exciting without these terms). Yet there is also a sense in which this take on writings that claim to be authored by some important figure of the past (apocryphal Gospels and Acts) is quite misleading.

More appropriate, I would suggest, is a recognition that, although moderns may see such practices of pseudonymity (“false-name” authorship) as improper or even criminal (I take plagiarism by students as a crime!), the ancients had very different cultural concepts when it comes to attributed authorship and the free use of figures (and their authority) from the past. The fact that the practice of attributing a work to some respected figure of the past was widespread in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, and that the ones doing this almost always liked or respected the figure whose identity they were “borrowing”, suggests that something other than deliberate deception and forgery was going on. Ehrman is far more on track when he briefly mentions, but does not explore in any detail, the fact that philosophers (neo-Pythagoreans) frequently produced writings in Pythagoras’ name with intentions involving (primarily) admiration and respect. Namely, they wished not only to give a hearing to their writings by calling on Pythagoras’ authority, but also to show just how well they (imagined they) could continue to express what Pythagoras would say if he were still around. They “forged” for the love of Pythagoras, so to speak, and their intentions were focussed on inspiring similar respect or honour for this philosopher on the part of their readers or hearers. This is, in large part, what was going on in the case of most early Christian apocryphal writings attributed to apostles or other respected figures. We are better off steering away from value-loaded terms in the study of religion and in avoiding misconceptions about active deceit or underhanded dealings in relation to writings of the past, even if the language of conspiracy would make things seem far more exciting.

(Excuse the lack of references to page numbers in Ehrman here [except the one section whose page numbers I remembered, hopefully], since I do not have the work with me at the moment. I had to express myself when it came to me nonetheless).

UPDATE: Definitely see the ongoing discussions in the comments section. Some time ago (1999) Edgar M. Krentz presented a “Pseudepigraphy Bibliography” on the b-greek discussion list, which may guide you to some important discussions of the pseudonymity or pseudepigraphy phenonenon.

CLARIFICATION (Mon, Sept 19): Just to clarify what I am or am not saying here (also see comments): I am saying that Ehrman’s blanket use of “forgery” to describe a variety of different writings is likely to obscure a variety of things that were actually going on, especially in terms of motivations behind writing a document in the name of someone else. In some, perhaps many, cases using the term “forgery” to describe apocryphal writings would give a false impression to the modern reader, especially implying negative motivations of deceit on the part of ancient authors in question. Motivations are very difficult to determine (even among contemporaries let alone someone living over a thousand years ago in a different culture), but in engaging in historical study we are better off not assuming negative motivations (on the part of our historical subjects) unless there is actual evidence of such. In other words, we need to approach writings that claim authorship by an important figure on a case by case basis, attempting to assess what is going on (and what motivations may be involved) in a particular case. There is a sense in which my objections to Ehrman’s approach arise more from historiographical concerns (from how I approach history) than they do from any specific concerns or positions about the pseudonymity issue. Hope this clarifies things even though there are so many more issues to deal with that will never be sufficiently solved.

I just pulled out my marked up version of Bruce M. Metzger’s classic article (“Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 [1972] 3-24), which does begin to try to sort through the variety of motivations that may have been involved in pseudepigraphy (e.g. financial gain, malice and defamation, respect, modesty, practicing one’s rhetorical abilities, etc, etc), as well as the differing receptions of such writings. It is worth a read, if you’re interested.

(Sept 28): Now see Loren Rosson‘s ongoing discussion of lying and deceit, which includes a post on ancient pseudepigraphy (bouncing off of my post here). We’ll likely continue to disagree, but it’s certainly an interesting issue to explore.

(Oct 1): Stephen Carlson now weighs in on the debate with the view that “forgery” is the appropriate term (in contrast to my position). I disagree with his interpretation of the Serapion v. the Gospel of Peter case. The position of Rosson, Carlson, and Ehrman makes it very difficult to make sense of how it was that so many (educated) authors DID attribute their work to a respected figure of the past. Are we to imagine that, in an environment where (as they argue) almost everyone rejected the idea of pseudonymity, that so many authors (of the Enoch literature, of Daniel, of a lot of apocryphal literature, etc, etc) were doing so and would be very self-conscious that they were doing something “deceitful” or “bad” (which everyone else rejected–but not all the rest of the authors that were doing so, presumably–confused). This is just a minor, but important, problem with that position.

By the way, my position arose not from the Metzger article (which I had forgotten about and had read years ago [my memory is not that great;] and only dug out in hindsight to see what he said, and with which I disagree on important points). My position, as I have stated, arises from my problems with Ehrman’s position based on his interpretation of particular evidence (e.g. the Thecla case) and from my overall approach to history, which avoids imagining I can understand the motivations or intentions (whether “deceitful” or otherwise) of a large number of different persons in antiquity (see above and comments). The term forgery entails active and self-conscious deceit, with the implication that it is a “crime” (in my Webster’s dictionary and in popular usage, at least). This is not an appropriate blanket term to use in reference to writings in the name of a respected figure in antiquity, though there may be a few cases where it’s closer to the mark than some other terms.

Jesus said: Let the children. . . get lost? (NT Apocrypha 11)

Several early gospels portray a Jesus who has a positive view of children and who even uses the analogy of the child to explain what qualities are necessary to enter God’s kingdom:

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:13-16 [NIV]; compare Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17; Gospel of Thomas 22).

Quite different is the apocryphal Acts of Thomas‘ take on what Jesus might say about having children at all (available online here). Many of the second and third century Acts, which relate stories about the disciples of Jesus, emphasize the need to maintain an ascetic lifestyle in order to follow Jesus in an ideal way. This includes the need to avoid bodily things, especially sex, whether in marriage or not. In the Acts of Thomas, Jesus’ supposed twin brother, Thomas, makes his journey to India in order to preach the gospel of continence, and he happens to attend a wedding of the local king’s daughter. Following the wedding, the new husband enters into the bridal-chamber to consummate the marriage only to find what appears to be Thomas, but is really his twin brother, Jesus (down from heaven), lecturing the man’s new wife. Both then listen as Jesus teaches them about sex and children:

“Remember. . . what my brother [Thomas] said to you. . . that if you abandon this filthy intercourse you become holy temples, pure and free from afflictions and pains both manifest and hidden, and you will not be weighed down by cares for life and for children, the end of which is destruction” (12; trans. from Schneemelcher with adaptations).

Is it be like children or have no children?

UPDATE: Now see the interesting debates that are going on in the comments section of this post. Also, Tyler Williams has a fun response to my rhetorical question in jest: “Since I have three kids (and I enjoyed the process of contributing to their conception), I guess I’ll stick with the biblical Jesus!” Now I know what the font with the delete line through it is for;)

Troels on Syrian Antioch, and a Gospel of Peter near Antioch (NT Apocrypha 10)

Other posts in the New Testament Apocrypha series.

Troels has an interesting post on the archeology of Syrian Antioch (Antakya) and provides a couple of photos, including a mosaic of Soteria (Salvation), as well as links to his photo gallery on Stoa. He promises more to come on this important city, which was also an important centre of early Christianity.

Among the New Testament Apocrypha associated with, or in use around, Antioch is the so-called Gospel of Peter, which Serapion, bishop of Antioch (from 199 CE), at first thought harmless before giving it a more thorough read (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History book 6, chapter 12). He found that it played down the humanity of Jesus in what he considered a docetic manner: Christ only “seemed” (from dokeo) to be human. This is perhaps, though not certainly, the same Gospel of Peter — with the walking, talking cross and reference to a descent into hell (see History of Satan sub-category)– to be found in collections of NT Apocrypha (online here). There is a forthcoming article by Paul Foster (Edinburgh U.), to appear in New Testament Studies, that challenges the basis of the identification of Serapion’s Gospel of Peter with the partial Gospel we now have (I won’t go into details since it is not yet published–he was nice enough to provide me with an earlier version).

Of course, we also have the writings of another, earlier, bishop of Antioch. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a series of letters to the congregations in Asia Minor as he made his way as a prisoner to Rome. He, too, criticizes other followers of Jesus who, in his view, downplayed the humanity of Jesus. You can read his letters online here.

Online resources for the study of the Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism” (NT Apocrypha 9)





(Thanks to Tony Chartrand-Burke [Atkinson College, York U.] for sharing with me the links he had already found in connection with his course on gnosticism).

The Diversity of Early Christianity course: Early Christian Apocrypha (NT Apocrypha 1.1)

Welcome to ongoing discussions about the “Diversity of Early Christianity” which will take place on this blog in connection with a graduate course on the New Testament Apocrypha and “Gnostic” writings (course outline here). (The course is on Wednesday evenings, by the way).

Although my brief blog entries on this topic will arise from what we are learning in the class, I will consciously write with both students and other regular or occasional readers of this blog in mind. Writing for this diverse audience will be a task well worth undertaking, I believe. Always feel free to post your questions or comments! (In order to leave comments, you will need to sign up with blogger, which is easy. Why not do it now by clicking on “comment” at the end of this entry. You can always just say “hello” on the initial sign up to make sure it works). I may also bring your comments or questions to the fore in subsequent blog entries (with the permission of the students in question, of course).

Today we will begin to get a general sense of the difficulties in approaching the various forms of early Christianity as well as the various theories, both ancient and scholarly, which have arisen to deal with issues of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” (including those of Eusebius, Baur, and Bauer as I discussed here). How to approach this topic from an historical viewpoint and what categories are most or least useful will be ongoing occupations as we read through writings in the early Christian Apocrypha (literally “hidden writings”). Bart Ehrman’s work on Lost Christianities will get us thinking early on and we will have an initial discussion of the entire work next week.

Throughout the course, we will focus our attention on two main things:

  1. We will be concerned with the types or genres of literature produced by Christians and in assessing the common characteristics of these genres, placing our discussion within the Jewish and Greco-Roman literary contexts.
  2. We will focus our attention on discussing and comparing the various forms of Christian belief and practice reflected in the writings.

I have already made several brief posts on the New Testament Apocrypha in the past few weeks as I was preparing for the course. You can read the earlier posts in the Apocrypha series by clicking here (the present entry is 1a).
Also feel free to browse some of the other entries here which deal with social and religious life in the ancient Mediterranean, as well as the cultural history of Christianity (the reformations of the early modern era are another ongoing topic this term in connection with another course).

Come again!

The brilliant student and the humiliated teacher again: Smart young Apollonius of Tyana (NT Apocrypha 8)

In previous posts I discussed stories of the birth and childhood of Jesus, including the story of little Jesus zapping his less-than-brilliant teacher dead in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (go here). This was, in a sense, an expansion and embellishment of Luke’s story of the wise young (12 year-old) Jesus amazing even the teachers of the law in the Temple at Jerusalem (Luke 2:39-51). In each case, the childhood brilliance is a sign of things to come in the figure’s adulthood.

Christian authors were not alone in relating stories of the childhood feats and miraculous doings of important persons, including stories of the child’s education. Philostratus wrote a biography of the first-century Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, in about 220 CE. Included is the following story, reminiscent of Jesus’ school-days mentioned above:

“On reaching the age when children are taught their letters, he showed great strength of memory and power of application. . . [Apollonius had some good teachers who recognized his abilities.] However, his teacher of the Pythagorean system was not a very serious person, nor one who practised in his conduct the philosophy he taught. For he was the slave of his belly and appetites, and modelled himself upon Epicurus. And this man was Euxenus from the town of Heraclea in Pontus, and he knew the principles of Pythagoras just as birds know what they learn from men. For the birds will wish you ‘farewell,’ and say “hello” or “Zeus help you,” and such like, without understanding what they say and without any real sympathy for humankind, merely because they have been trained to move their tongue in a certain manner. Apollonius, however, was like the young eagles who, as long as they are not fully fledged, fly alongside of their parents and are trained by them in flight, but who, as soon as they are able to rise in the air, outsoar the parent birds” (1.7; trans. by F.C. Conybeare in Loeb Classical Library, with adaptations). Apollonius nonetheless is nice to this poor, ineffective teacher, says Philostratus.

This is not the sort of reputation a teacher wants, but it’s better than being zapped dead.

(The bird in the story reminds me of when I was twelve, in Indonesia for a year or so. No, I wasn’t brilliantly out-smarting any teachers. But I did like to stop by a local pet cockatoo on my way home from school who was known to say “Satu, dua, tiga, that’s ok, that’s ok.” Beats “hello”. I’ll let you figure out what satu, dua, tiga is, or go here).

“Are we. . . to listen to her?”: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (NT Apocrypha 7)

There is a tendency among modern scholars and theologians to find in the ancient sources sentiments and views which accord with their own. This is especially the case when it comes to issues of gender and the evaluation of women’s place within certain varieties of Christianity. Thus, for instance, Dennis MacDonald’s study of the Acts of Paul and Thecla tends to cast Thecla in terms familiar from modern feminism (The Legend and the Apostle) . Yet a closer analysis of details in the story provides a more complex picture of how the author of that document viewed what we would call issues of gender. While there is no doubt that the Christians who used the story of Thecla were advocates of women’s leadership (Thecla is charged to go and preach the word of God by Paul, after all), there are also other elements such as the clear hints of Thecla becoming man, so to speak, in order to achieve her mission, as when she cuts her hair (25) and when she donnes a man’s cloak (40). This manly requirement is something other than what moderns consider women’s liberation.

There is a sense in which this is echoed, though in a different way, in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas‘s saying 114, in which Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) is addressed by Jesus as follows: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven” (trans. by H. Koester in J.M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library. Revised ed. SanFrancisco: HarperCollins, 1990).

A very different sentiment (in terms of gender issues) and portrayal of Mary’s relation to Jesus is presented in the Gospel of Mary (of Magdala), a dialogue gospel written sometime in the second or early third century. There Mary is presented as the recipient of secret teachings from Jesus to which she and no other disciple was privy. After Jesus makes a final appearance to his disciples, teaches them about the coming dissolution of matter, and that the means to overcome matter was within them, he calls on them to go and preach the good news of the kingdom (8:20). Then as the disciples are in distress at the Saviour’s departure, Mary takes a leading role in comforting them and in sharing with them the secret teachings that she alone had received from the Saviour. The content of the message focuses on the ascent of the soul, which needs to overcome the Powers of the material realm in order to reach its proper home in the spiritual kingdom. The disciples’ response is less than receptive, as Thomas complains that these are awfully “strange” teachings (17:10-15). Peter goes further in jealously dismissing the whole thing based on gender: “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” (17:15-20).

Mary’s reaction is great disappointment, and Levi chimes in appropriately calling Peter a hot-head. Levi says, “if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?” (18:10). The result is that they do go out and preach, evidently accepting Mary’s revelation. The male disciples learning from Mary the true revelation of salvation is quite different than requiring that Mary be a man in order “to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

There is now a very useful and popularly accesible study of the Gospel of Mary: Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2003. This will give you a more balanced look at Mary Magdalene in myth and reality than something like the DaVinci Code, as you might imagine.

Early Christian Apocrypha and the historiography of early Christianity (NT Apocrypha 6)

Before approaching the study of the diversity of Christianity reflected in writings such as the early Christian Apocrypha, it is important to be familiar with some of the main historical theories that have been put forward regarding the nature and varieties of early Christianity (especially with respect to notions of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”). Historiography (the study of how history is written and what “spin” historians put on their materials) is very important. Here I have chosen to simplify the discussion by briefly outlining three historians’ viewpoints in terms of unity (Eusebius), duality (F.C. Baur), and diversity (Walter Bauer, with an “e”). For a proper understanding you will need to study these and other works for yourself, as well as the ancient documents that these historians use to build their theories.

  1. Eusebius and Unity (Ecclesiatical History, c. 311-323 CE): The traditional view of early Christianity emphasized the unity of early Christians and downplayed any tensions or struggles among them. Truth, unity and orthodoxy (right belief) came first and were strong; error or heresy came later and was always in the minority. The emphasis on unity can already be seen in the Acts of the Apostles’ history of the early church, but this came to expression in a more comprehensive historical theory with the first major church historian, Eusebius (who built upon what many anti-heresy writers had been saying for a while). This theory posits that from the beginning all Christians agreed and got along: the church was a “pure and uncorrupted virgin” (3.32.7-8; some relevant passages from Eusebius are now available here on this website). But, subsequently, through the work of the devil, errors or heresies were introduced (usually pictured as beginning in the second century). These errors were readily recognized as such and successfully battled by representatives of “the universal and only true church” (such as Hegesippus), who “held to the same points in the same way, and radiated forth to all. . . the sobriety and purity of the divine teaching. . . [O]ur doctrine remained as the only one which had power among all” (see 4.7.1-14). Orthodoxy came first and was in the majority, heresies later and in the minority. Many, though not all, of the writings we call the New Testament Apocrypha would be considered heretical by Eusebius.
  2. F.C. Baur and Duality (mid-late-1800s): The theory of F.C. Baur and the so-called Tübingen school is quite thorough-going, but its main contours can be simplified thus: Early Christianity was characterized by a fundamental conflict between a particularistic Jewish form (Peter) and a universalistic Gentile form (Paul). The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was very important here. This thesis (Jewish-Petrine Christianity) and antithesis (Gentile-Pauline Christianity) finally settled into a synthesis (catholic Christianity) in the second and subsequent centuries (F.C. was influenced by the dialectical philosophy of Hegel). Most early Christian writings and Christian groups, including writings in the Apocrypha, can be understood and categorized based on this struggle. On the one hand, the Acts of the Apostles reflects an attempt to hide and smooth over the battle. On the other, a writing such as the Pseudo-Clementines (in the Apocrypha), which has Peter battling Simon Magus (a cipher for Paul), shows that the battle really continued beyond the time of the canonical Acts (which F.C. dated to the second century). Baur would tend to trust the apocryphal Pseudo-Clementines over the canonical Acts of the Apostles (in terms of its reflection of historical reality). Although there is certainly truth in observing a tension between Pauline and other Jewish forms of Christianity (read Galatians!), most scholars now see a problem with this oversimplified picture of just two main camps in early Christianity, with just about everything fit into this dual framework.
  3. Walter Bauer and Diversity (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 1932, translated into English in the 1970s): Walter Bauer wrote what can be considered among the most influential works in the study of early Christianity. Turning the traditional theory of Eusebius on its head, Walter argued that heresy came first, orthodoxy later. Not only that, but the various forms of Christianity often called “heresies” were, in fact, in the majority. When orthodoxy began to emerge in the second and subsequent centuries, it continued as the minority for some time until the church at Rome increased its hold on Christianity elsewhere. Walter continued to use the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” despite the fact that his own theory began to deconstruct these very notions. Most who study early Christianity now recognize that, although Walter’s theory clearly has its problems, Walter was at least correct in emphasizing that various forms of Christianity existed from early on, and that “orthodoxy” only developed later in an attempt to get the diversity under some control. He was also correct in deconstructing the Eusebian view of the orthodox, united church threatened by later heresies, which does not accurately reflect what actually went on in the first centuries of Christianity.

As I said, this is certainly a simplification of the matter, but a basic acknowledgement of the diversity of early Christianity will be essential as we discuss the Apocrypha further and as we attempt to see what specific Christians in particular places were thinking, doing, and writing about. Certainly we will observe some common denominators among followers of Jesus (at least they followed Jesus [as each understood that]!), but there were also important differences that we need to attend to in mapping out early Christianity.

Acts of John: Be thou like the bed-bugs (NT Apocrypha 5)

Scholarly debates continue regarding what genre (type) of literature were the apocryphal Acts, with the Greek novel often being considered a close relative of these Acts by most. Certainly both the apocryphal Acts, which relate the miraculous deeds of the followers of Jesus, and the novels share in common the aim of entertaining (alongside teaching and admonishing certain values or behaviours).

In the Acts of John, the disciple John is depicted on his journeys to demonstrate the power of God (dating sometime in the second or early third century; available online here). Among these demonstrations or signs are the repeated resurrections of various characters in the story, from bad guys like the priest of Artemis to good guys like the permanently sexually-abstinent Drusiana. Resurrection of the dead is John’s favourite miracle, so to speak. Just about everyone converts as a result of these miracles, including the aforementioned bad guys, so there is a purpose to it all.

One of the “miracles” of John that stands out, however, involves bed-bugs. While staying in an inn at Ephesus, John is trying to catch some wink-eye while other of his followers talk quietly in the background. The bed-bugs are driving John nuts, and so he commands, “I tell you, you bugs, to behave yourselves, one and all; you must leave your home for tonight and be quiet in one place and keep your distance from the servants of God!” (60).

That we, the readers, are meant to be entertained and to laugh is suggested by the fact that John’s followers do laugh, and think that John is just joking (he’s not really commanding bugs, is he?). To these followers’ surprise, they find a mass of bugs waiting just outside the door in the morning, and John says that since the bugs have behaved themselves, they can go back home to bed. But even in this humorous story there is a lesson. Be thou like the bed-bugs, who quietly listen and obey: “This creature listened to a man’s voice and kept to itself and was quiet and obedient; but we who hear the voice of God disobey his commandments and are irresponsible; how long will this go on?”, queries John (61). (All translations, again, are from Schneemelcher).

UPDATE: Once again Ken Penner is on top of things and, in the comments, points to a passage that involves commanding worms in the Testament of Job (of the OT Pseudepigrapha, translation available online here, Greek text here). Job is once again facing the torments which God allows Satan to send upon him, and he shows a particularly heightened ability to withstand and, in what you could call an ascetic spirit (or perhaps just an attempt to ensure that God’s will is done to its completion), even further the torture:

“In great trouble and distress I left the city, and I sat on a dung heap worm-ridden in body. Discharges from my body wet the ground with moisture. Many worms were in my body, and if a worm ever sprang off, I would take it up and return it to its original place, saying, ‘Stay in the same place where you were put until you are directed otherwise by your commander” (Testament of Job 20:7-9; trans by R.P. Spittler in Charlesworth, OTP).

This story is less funny than John’s;)

Peter (in the Pseudo-Clementines) on “false” passages in scripture (NT Apocrypha 4)

From the beginning, Christians and Jews have taken a variety of approaches to passages in scripture which they find difficult to interpret or troubling in some other way. One common approach taken by an adherent of a religion is to cite the passages the interpreter likes, and to ignore or at least avoid the passages the interpreter finds problematic. In a sense, it is not uncommon to develop a canon (authoritative writing) within the canon, so to speak.

Many among the highly educated in Roman times found descriptions of God which rang of human emotions and physical daily behaviour (anthropomorphic passages) particularly distasteful. This is due in part, to the influence of Platonic philosophy, which emphasized the transcendence of God (in contrast to the very anthropomorphic deities of the Greeks generally). In other words, God was as far away as possible from the imperfect world around us, including the emotions and daily behaviours of humans (the “passions”). For Jews and Christians who adopted similar notions, several passages in the Hebrew Bible became very problematic (any that had God showing human emotions such as anger, or God changing his mind, or God seemly not foreseeing all), and there were different strategies for solving the conundrum.

One interpretive technique was allegorizing. Namely, you read a passage and explained a deeper, almost hidden meaning beyond the literal (thereby avoiding the literal in many cases). Philo of Alexandria is most known for this approach, but he is certainly not the only one.

Another very interesting approach is taken by the Jewish-Christian author of the so-called Pseudo-Clementine writings, which purport to be the autobiography (so to speak) of Clement, the bishop that succeeded Peter at Rome (dating to the fourth century but reflecting earlier materials). Here “Clement” presents Peter in a debate with Simon Magus, both of whom make use of scripture to support their points. Simon points to passages in the bible which speak of “gods” plural and then goes on to expound the view that the creator god is in mind in those passages of the Bible which speak of that god’s “dubious passions” and inability to know exactly what is going on in a situation (H III 38:1-3). But, argues Simon (in a “gnostic” manner), there is indeed another god not mentioned in scripture who is transcendent, who “foresees the future and is perfect, without needs, good and free from all dubious passions” (38:3). Peter’s refutation of Simon is quite fascinating: “Those statements of the Holy Scriptures which are in keeping with the creation wrought by God must be counted as genuine and those which contradict them as false” (42:3). In essence, Peter’s approach here is to take away his opponent’s passages: “All these passages. . . are shown to be false and are overturned by others which assert the opposite” (43:3). Further on in the so-called “preachings of Peter” (Kerygmata Petrou) section, the author explains that it was in the process of the Law being written down and subsequently passed on and copied that “false pericopes” (false passages) were introduced. And the author considers among the false passages those which portray God acting much like a human in lying, being ignorant, grieving, mocking, and craving after offerings and sacrifices (H III 48-52; H II 43-44).

Saying that there are false passages that have been inserted into the bible is not an approach often taken within most of Christianity today (the canon within the canon is the favourite, so to speak), but it was among the options in antiquity. However, there may be affinities here with some moderns who do pick and choose what they consider true or false in the Bible, but they are usually not imagining interpolation conspiracy. More about the Pseudo-Clemetines later.

Jesus’ descent into hell and Satan’s conversation with Hades (NT Apocrypha 3)

The notion that Jesus, after his death, descended into the realm of the dead in order to achieve some aim has a somewhat long and complicated history, of which I will only touch on some points. By the time 1 Peter is written (late first century), the author can refer to the fleshly death and spiritual resurrection of Jesus and to the fact that “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (1Peter 3:18-20). The Gospel of Peter (perhaps 2nd century but maybe later) makes brief reference to a descent at the point of Jesus’ emergence from the tomb in having a voice from heaven ask Jesus, his two angelic escorts, and the walking cross, “Have you preached to them that sleep?” (10:41). The cross answers in the affirmative. The Apostles Creed of later centuries includes the descent into hell, without further clarification, among Jesus’ deeds.

Somewhat different than this preaching to the sinful people of Noah’s generation or to the sinful in hell is the very important story preserved in The Gospel of Nicodemus (aka Acts of Pilate) which reflects more detailed thinking and elaboration about this descent (available online here). In The Gospel of Nicodemus, three (Symeon and his two sons) of those who were raised from the grave (Sheol = Hades) testify to the Jewish council about what they witnessed.

According to this story, it is all of those who went to the grave (all of the dead, both good and bad) that were imprisoned under the rulership of Hades, god of the underworld. Jesus’ action in descending is what allows the righteous, including Adam, Seth, Abraham, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and others to make their way out of these chains and into paradise. In other words, without Jesus’ resurrection, the righteous would have remained in Hades (Sheol). In fact, when Jesus breaks through the gates of Hades, “all the dead who were bound were loosed from their chains” (21:3). In essence, the tree of knowledge brought death (through Adam), and the tree of the cross brought life (through Christ; 23-24).

Also fascinating in this gospel is the portrayal of the grave personified, namely Hades, and Satan as separate figures who debate what to do about this Jesus figure. Satan is nearly begging Hades to do something and take action against this Jesus, the “common enemy”. Hades is a bit concerned about about losing his sustenance of dead bodies, and remembers that “a certain dead man named Lazarus. . . [was] snatched . . . up forcibly from my entrails” (20:3). But, despite the stomache ache, in the end Hades turns out to be a little more realistic and rational about the (im)possibilities: “And if [Jesus] is of such power, are you able to withstand him? It seems to me that no one will be able to withstand such as he is” (20.2).

In an interesting convergence of my teaching preparations, John Calvin gave considerable attention to assessing what he thought was valuable or true in notions of Christ’s descent to hell. He clearly steers away from ideas that are also reflected in the Gospel of Nicodemus, but nonetheless sees Christ’s descent as an essential part of the story of salvation in “God’s Word” (it’s in 1 Peter and the Apostles’ Creed, after all). You can read this in section 8 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion online here.

For a couple of artistic depictions of Christ’s descent into hell, go here and here (and click on the images to enlarge).

The Little Drummer Boy and Protevangelium of James (NT Apocrypha 2)

One exercize that can be useful in introducing students to the academic study of the New Testament is to have them study independently the birth stories about Jesus in the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, and to consider each of these birth narratives within the continuing story of each gospel. For those familiar with the Christmas stories, these two narratives tend to blend together inseparably, as in the claymation version of the Little Drummer Boy which has both the shepherds (from Luke–at Jesus birth) and the three “wise men” (from Matthew–placed a couple years after the birth) in a stable at Jesus’ birth. (This is not to knock the show, which I’ve enjoyed since little, along with all the other claymation ones. I have to admit that the one with the Heat-miser tops my list, however).

In historically studying early Christian gospels (or Paul’s letters for that matter or any other ancient document), it is important not to blend everything together into one big lump, thereby losing the distinctive characteristics and aims of the individual narratives (stories) or writings (and the specific audiences involved).

This process of blending the originally independent birth narratives in Matthew and Luke began quite early, as attested in the Protevangelium of James, for instance (late second century CE; available online here). This writing in the New Testament Apocrypha expands on the origins of Jesus in the canonical gospels not by telling the childhood deeds of Jesus (as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in a previous post), but by going back further to the origins of Mary herself. This story of the miraculous birth of Mary to the infertile Anna and Joachim, followed by Mary’s Samuel-like dedication in the temple, came to heavily influence the cult of Mary in the middle ages, of course. It is also worth noting that Mary took her first steps at the early age of 6 months (6:1), according to this story (beats my little Nathaniel, who is always ahead according to my biased opinion).

But for present purposes what is especially noteworthy is the way in which the Protevangelium tells and considerably expands the story of Jesus’ birth. The author (supposedly James, the brother of Jesus from an earlier marriage) weaves together detailed threads from both Matthew and Luke in a way that creates a new story different from each. The author also considerably expands the story along the way, as when the priestly authorities of the temple have Mary and Joseph take a “truth serum” (“the water of the conviction of the Lord”) to see if they are lying about Mary’s virginity (15:1-2), or when the midwife double-checks Mary’s virginal status after birth (19:2).

Although such blending of stories might be expected in religious (church) and popular (TV) settings, it is important to take a different approach within the academic study of religion.

The Cursing Infant Jesus: Ancient vs. modern sensibilities (NT Apocrypha 1.2)

I have just been speaking about the ancient fascination with “marvels” (in connection with paradoxography), and there are plenty of these in Christian literature as well. One of the struggles faced by a modern reader in approaching ancient literature and religion is the cultural gap that exists between us and the ancients, in many respects. Thus, to modern ears, a cursing Jesus would be a less than favourable Jesus. But the fact is that a cursing Jesus WAS popular, at least in certain circles. It is difficult to know precisely why, however.

I am referring to the very popular Infancy Gospel of Thomas (in the sense of multiple manuscripts and multiple translations from Greek into Syriac, Latin, Georgian, and Slavonic). This story, which fills in the gaps in Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy stories, was most likely written in its original version in the second century CE. It is one among the writings that are called New Testament Apocrypha (or, quite literally, New Testament “Hidden Writings”) by scholars.

In this gospel, Jesus’ adventures from 5 to 12 years are related in an exciting and somewhat over-the-top manner. In essence, in a fashion typical of well-known and miraculous figures in antiquity, Jesus is portrayed in a way that “foreshadows” all that he is to accomplish as an adult (as recorded in the canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, for instance).

But this foreshadowing of power includes the ability to knock you down dead. On several occasions in this gospel, the actions of the wee boy Jesus result in the death (or near death) of other characters in the story. A boy (son of a scribe, by the way) who messes up the pool of water that Jesus miraculously formed literally whithers up as a result and Jesus doesn’t hold back words in calling the boy an “insolent, godless dunderhead” (3:1-3). Those who suffer as a result of the cursing pretty well beg Joseph to teach Jesus to bless rather than to curse after the death of another boy (4:2). When a child runs through town and bumps into the Jesus, Jesus says, “‘You shall not go further on your way’, and the child immediately fell down and died” (trans from Schneelmelcher, ed., 1991-1992, full citation below). Jesus’ first teacher, Zacchaeus, is quite lucky in only being shamed by the high intelligence of the boy. His second teacher is “cursed” after striking the (what we might call) smart alec Jesus (who makes fun of his teacher’s lack of wisdom) and immediately the teacher falls down dead (14.1-2). Death is not the only negative result of Jesus’ curses, as, for example, those who oppose him are struck blind (5:1).

Thankfully (for modern sensibilities, at least) Jesus is also portrayed helping others, as when he raises a little boy from the dead after his fall from the roof while playing (9:1-3). Another young man is saved from bleeding to death after an axe accident by Jesus as well (10:1-2). And at least one of the guys he strikes dead (the teacher) is also raised from the dead when a subsequent teacher (a good friend of Jesus’ father) behaves in a pleasing manner in Jesus’ eyes (15.4). When a little sick child died in the neighbourhood, Jesus responds to the mother’s great mourning by raising him: “I say to you, do not die but live and be with your mother” (17:1). And this is not the only person Jesus raises from the dead (18:1)–premonitions of the Lazarus and resurrection story, so to speak.

For the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (and presumably for his readers and hearers), both what we would call positive (blessing) and what we would call negative (cursing) activities of Jesus are equally indicative of the great powers he possessses and point to the need to worship him (cf. 9:3; 10:2). They are a sign of what is to come in Jesus’ adulthood.

This is the first in what will be numerous posts on the Apocrypha in connection with a graduate course I will be teaching in the Fall. All translations here and in the future, unless otherwise noted, are from: Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed. New Testament Apocrypha. Translated by R.M. Wilson. 2 volumes. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991-92. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Thomas) is also available online in various translations here. (Here I have been using the shorter Greek recension A as a basis for the discussion.)