Book Review: The Apocryphal Gospels
translated and edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Plese
As London-born theological popularizer Roderic Dunkerley points out in his slim 1957 primer Beyond the Gospels, “apocryphal” is generally taken to mean one of three things: either secret, spurious, or secondary. The disparate body of writings we’ve come to know as the Christian Apocrypha has at one point or another in its two thousand year history been all three of those things and are so still today, depending on who’s doing the talking about them.
These are ancient Christian accounts – infancy narratives, ministry gospels, fragments, Passion gospels, collections of sayings – that most denominations of the Christian church have, over the millennia, excluded from the list of works they consider divinely-inspired canonical literature. In 2011, Oxford University Press issued a remarkably impressive document overseen by biblical scholars Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, a hefty tome featuring a large selection of these non-canonical works – The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel according to Mary, The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Judas, numerous papyri fragments (and a generous selection of the ‘Pontius Pilate’ literature that began widespread dissemination in the second century), plus a great deal more, each category given its own introduction and notes, and all of it given fresh new translations from the original Greek, Latin, and Coptic right alongside the facing-page originals (the total number of readers who require none of the English translations in this volume could probably fit in a standard-issue bathtub together, perhaps even with sloshing-around room).
It’s a thoroughly well-done job, as satisfying a scholarly version of this material as has appeared for the general public in well over a century, and like all the products of spirited genuine scholarship (Gareth Schmeling’s recent A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius being another perfect example), it makes for utterly fascinating reading. This is the library of a tradition that never quite happened, the fan fiction of Christology, and reading it provokes a dizzying combination of familiarity and disorientation.
That ‘well over a century’ mention brings us inevitably to Constantine von Tischendorf, the frenetically energetic German scholar whose work on the Apocrypha in the mid-19th century formed an unavoidable landmark for all future scholars. Ehrman and Plese bring up Tischendorf right away, writing in their Preface that his scholarship was “a remarkable accomplishment in its time, but inadequate for the needs of scholars today.” This is putting things politely, since the Teutonic romanticism that drips all over Tischendorf’s work like melted honig tends at every stage to transform a wild and sometimes inhospitable textual wilderness into a well-tended storybook forest out of Thomas Kinkade. And yet Ehrman and Plese end up finding the man indispensable, writing only a few pages later:
With no critical edition [of the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas”] available, most translators have continued to use Tischendorf’s Greek A text. Some scholars have argued that this is a counsel of despair, and that this form of the text should be abandoned for something more closely approximating the original. This quest for the “original” form of the text, however, is not self-evidently the best way to proceed in the study of the apocrypha, for there is no reason to privilege the earlier form of the text over other forms.
Oh, how the decades have flown by. Once upon a time – certainly in Tischendorf’s time – the reason to privilege earlier forms of a variant text over later ones would have been self-evident. But it’s a minor quibble – and a doomed one, considering how omnipresent Tischendorf is throughout this volume. Fortunately, Ehrman and Plese are fiercely intelligent guides no matter whose Greek they’re relying on (Ehrman’s After the New Testament is a masterpiece that should be read by every person who’s ever wondered how Christianity took its present shape).
There are over forty gospels and text fragments included in this volume, starting with the relatively famous aforementioned Infancy Gospel of Thomas in which the young child Jesus uses His superpowers to shrivel up other boys, strike dead offending adults (teachers, mostly) and, among other things, bring His mud-sculptures to life – incendiary stuff even in gauche 2012. These glimpses of a more capricious, petulant Jesus hardly align well with the peacenik savior of the modern Church, although our editors are right to point out that such behavior would have been seen very differently by most earlier Christian ages, who tended to take more pride in the Redeemer’s angry glory than in His compassion.
Readers will naturally conjure with the possibilities evoked by some of the might-have-been scenarios here, and the mind can only boggle thinking of how TV evangelists would use and mis-use such lines from the Agrapha as “Those who are with me have not understood me” or “The weak will be saved through the strong.” They – and in fact all hypocrites – would do well to recall a line from elsewhere in the same text: “In whatever circumstances I overtake you, in those I will also judge you.”
And there are many very touching moments scattered throughout these pages, as when Jesus Himself is narrating the History of Joseph the Carpenter, standing over his human father’s dead body:
And I laid my hands upon his body saying, ‘No bad smell of death shall rule over you, nor shall your ears be foul-smelling; no waste shall ever flow forth from your body, and neither shall your shroud rot in the earth nor indeed your flesh, with which I have clothed you, but it shall stay in your body until the day of the thousand-year feast. The hair of your head, which I held in my hands so many times, shall not wither, my beloved father Joseph. And all will be well with you.
This collection is of course not complete. But its inclusions are all complete in themselves, and its critical apparatus is superb. The translations are admirably clear and smooth (especially those from the Greek), and the whole production is filled with a verve that even neophyte scriptural readers will perceive and appreciate. The book rather inexplicably didn’t get the press it warranted when it appeared in 2011, but it deserves a spot in the library of every student of early Christianity.