More New Testament Apocrypha and Medieval Studies

A little more than a week ago, the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature was held in Boston (November 18-21), and I’ve seen several posts in the last week about it. I’ve never been to the SBL, but I follow the conference and hope to attend at some point because of my continued work on the transmission and reception of biblical and apocryphal media in the medieval period. This year, I had hoped to attend a reception by the Enoch Seminar for the release of a Festschrift in honor of Michael Stone since I have an article in the volume, but even that proved too difficult.

I am glad to see that more people are beginning to write reflections after the event. Like live-tweeting at conferences, post-conference write-ups allow others (like me) to feel more connected with the field. In this post, I want to respond to a few of the pieces that I’ve seen concerning the study of what I want to call “biblical apocrypha.”

For me, the most compelling post-SBL write-ups are David Brakke’s guest post on Tony Burke’s site; Burke’s final post in his 2017 SBL Diary (day 1, day 2, day 3); and Philip Jenkins’s related post on his Patheos blog. All three of these come out of a review panel for a publication edited by Burke and Brent Landau, New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2016). This is the first in the More New Testament Apocrypha series (MNTA), with more to follow in the coming years. These post-SBL remarks are valuable, provocative reflections on the subject that have sparked my own thinking about issues I’ve been mulling for years.[*]

While I won’t respond to everything Burke, Brakke, and Jenkins say, and certainly not systematically, there are a few points worth noting first. All three authors discuss both the terminology and scope of the field and their relevance to an anthology like Burke and Landau’s. For example, what do we call non-canonical, extra-biblical texts about biblical subjects? How does the standard terminology of the field perpetuate problematic views? What is the chronological range of texts included in this corpus? How are the pursuits of such texts related to early Christianity, the history of Christianity, or even larger aims? Each author offers some tentative answers, and here I want to consider some others, from my own perspective as a medievalist.

The term “biblical apocrypha” is a fraught one, and it’s my own deliberate choice to use it as broadly encompassing. The same subject has been subsumed under similar but different and interrelated terms like “Jewish pseudepigrapha” and “Christian apocrypha,” “Old Testament pseudepigrapha” and “New Testament apocrypha,” or, as in Jenkins’s view, “Alternative [Jewish and/or Christian] Scriptures.”

None of these terms are neutral, and all of them are fraught with ideology. Here, I want to clarify that I use the term “biblical apocrypha” to encompass the wide variety of non-canonical texts written about or purported to be written by figures of the Bible, about biblical subjects, or biblical-adjacent in their content. Such apocryphal works are those outside of the Bible as an authoritative collection, however a specific community defines that. Of course, definitions of the biblical canon and apocrypha are, at the start, necessarily fluid, as different textual communities include different texts anyway.

It’s my hope that a less restrictive, definitive, or categorical term like “biblical apocrypha” helps to elide some of the distinctions that are often imposed on such literature. For example, in scholarship and the posts I’ve already referred to, it’s obvious that any clear splits between “Old Testament pseudepigraph” and “New Testament apocrypha” or “Jewish” and “Christian” are modern, problematic, and wholly constructed. Many Jewish texts are transmitted in Christianized forms, and many Christian texts are certainly bound up with Judaism. Indeed, the earliest Christian authors (Paul and others) identified as Jewish themselves, and surely that’s the case for certain authors of apocrypha.

The distinction or elision of terminology is made all the more pronounced for medievalists. After all, medieval authors often didn’t distinguish or create new terminology. The term “apocrypha” was used widely to mean any text related to the Bible but clearly (from that specific author’s perspective) outside of the boundaries of the canon. In this sense, there were no distinctions between origins in Judaism or Christianity (mainly knowable from modern textual criticism), notions like “pseudepigrapha” and “apocrypha,” or content related to the so-called “Old Testament” or “New Testament.” These sub-categories and their assumptions arose only in modern scholarship, for good or ill.

That last point brings up another distinction that I find significant: I write all of this as a medievalist, not as a scholar of the early Judaism or early Christianity. While I have had a fair share of training in biblical studies and the field of late antiquity, I do not share the same perspective as scholars of early Judaism and early Christianity. Arguably, many scholars within these sub-fields also do not share the same perspectives.

My own scope of work is focused more on the Middle Ages than the late antique world. And I believe that there is value in how medieval studies can speak back to other scholars of apocrypha.

I’m personally glad that more scholars of apocrypha (on various sides of the modern, disciplinary OT/NT divisions) are opening their embrace of medieval texts. This is true of Burke and Landau in the MNTA volumes, other scholars I’ve worked with, like Lorenzo DiTommaso, and the North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature more generally. And, of course, Jenkins himself is no stranger to medieval apocrypha, as he discusses them in his book The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

One example I might pose for some useful reflections is a text that I’ve translated as a contribution to volume 2 of the MNTA series, a medieval Latin text known as the Life of Judas. This text relates a brief, moralized biography for Judas leading up to his role as a disciple: in an Oedipal twist of fate based on his parents’ knowledge of a dark prophecy for his life, Judas is orphaned, unknowingly kills his father, marries his mother, and flees in penance after he discovers these sins.

Life of Judas MS

The earliest version of the Latin Life of Judas, in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 14489 (ca.1160–ca.1170), fols. 109v-110r. Image courtesy of Gallica.

The Life of Judas survives in a handful of versions, both prose and poetry, but the earliest, simplest version is likely from the twelfth century. While there is no other, earlier text like this, a handful of Greek versions in late (16th/17th-century) manuscripts show affinities to the Latin versions, although the relationships are far from clear. Which came first, the Latin or the Greek? Pursuing the question likely brings as many headaches as chickens and eggs.

This particular Judas apocryphon is instructive, however, for demonstrating the issues of scope that scholars of apocrypha often face. While it doesn’t shed any light on early Christian belief, it does reveal intriguing notions about medieval Christians. For instance, it seems likely (as I argue in a forthcoming article) that it has close connections to contemporary preaching collections with exempla. Preaching and apocrypha during the medieval period especially have a longer history of interconnectedness, especially in England. The case of the Life of Judas seems to be one more part to fit into more general historical trends.

As Brakke, Burke, and Jenkins all note, there is much value to considering such cases as we more fully develop a better sense of the history of Christianity over time. All three authors also, in their own ways, ask: How much is “more”? The Middle Ages has even more to offer beyond what might be known, even to medievalists. I say bring on the “more.”

The Life of Judas is just one example of many medieval apocrypha that I might pose. Another example I’ve personally worked on is the Fifteen Signs before Doomsday, probably from the ninth or tenth century. This list of wonders on the fifteen days leading up to the Last Judgment is in many versions purported to have been found by Jerome in Jewish chronicles. Yet, despite the claims to antiquity and a connection to Judaism, there is nothing to substantiate them. It is, in fact, a thoroughly Christian eschatological text. Still, it does bear the influence of many apocalyptica, from the biblical prophets to early Jewish, early Christian, and medieval apocalypses.

I propose that medieval apocrypha are useful not only because they extend the field of study from late antiquity forward but also because they further challenge issues at the heart of the study of apocrypha. Medieval apocrypha muddy the waters and complicate our understandings. And scholars love complication. Even when they prove frustrating, such complexities drive us to reconsider our subjects in new ways that push knowledge beyond comfortable expectations.

I suggest that expanding our definitions, scope, and examinations reveal whole new ways of pursuing the study of biblical apocrypha. Surely medieval media can only add to the growing storehouse of subjects and scholarship on biblical apocrypha.

[*] A side-note that should be more than a note, but here it is nonetheless: I am aware that we’re all four white men (Brakke, Burke, Jenkins, and I), and the field of biblical and apocryphal studies (broadly defined) tends to be a pretty traditional field, so I want to pause here to acknowledge these issues, especially in light of recent, important discussions about gender, race, and diversity in medieval studies, classical studies, and biblical studies–among other fields. For those interested, I highly recommend the cluster of essays regarding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife recently published in Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions: Writing Ancient and Modern Christian Apocrypha, Proceedings from the 2015 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium, ed. Tony Burke (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), especially the contributions by Caroline T. Schroeder (here’s a pre-publication draft) and Janet E. Spittler.

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