Preaching Apocrypha: Postscript

[This post is part 3 in a series of reflections about my book, Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England (order here); read part 1 here and part 2 here.]

Preaching_Apocrypha_CoverAs discussed in my previous posts about Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England, I’ve been thinking about the project that has become this book for over 9 years. In that time, my ideas and the project have clearly morphed substantially. In the past few years, and especially over the past several months, I’ve begun to see how this project also points forward.

In this post, I want to present some ideas about the significance of my work beyond what I say (explicitly) in the book, and how these ideas might be pushed further in my future work on apocrypha.

One of the clarifying moments for me toward the beginning of writing my dissertation (thanks to Sherri Olson) was realizing that one of my major aims in exploring biblical apocrypha is to oppose toxic ideologies upheld by contemporary conservative evangelicals, by presenting the idea that Christianity is not, and never has been, monolithic. If all scholarship is autobiographical, this aspect of my work is personal and political.

Like any other time in history since the first century, both medieval and modern Christianities are defined more by diversity than a single approach to beliefs and practices. This notion has been a part of scholarship on the history of early Christianity since the early twentieth century, notably fueled by the work of Walter Bauer in his book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (first published in German in 1934 as Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum, translated into English in 1971). I hope to add to the larger picture of that idea and complicate modern assumptions with a focus on the early medieval period.

As in the past, Christianity in our own time is not practiced with one single approach. There are belief systems other than the oppressive ideologies of sexist, homophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted, dogmatic, conservative Christians. The demonstration of Christian diversity in the service of a more polemical point, although never explicitly stated, is one thread that courses its way through my book at its core, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about since the beginning.

Looking back now, with the vantage-point of hindsight for the project, I see other ways that my book in particular and the issues I pose in it more generally may be leveraged to address other contemporary cultural concerns. Obviously diversity is a key idea for this potential–as it applies not only to Christianity but also to culture more broadly.

What underlies much of my book, and what I want to make more explicit as I push my current work on apocrypha further, are concepts of medieval cultural diversity that push back on geographical borders, “insularity” in a pejorative sense, xenophobia, and nationalism. In doing so, I want to open up the ways that these ideas help to situate my book in dialogue with current discourse about the global Middle Ages.

Apocrypha, it turns out, are particularly good cases for considering cross-cultural intersections in the global Middle Ages. I hope to pursue this line of thinking in my future work, but I offer a few thoughts here.

Sacramentary of Robert Jumieges-Nativity (32v)As a point for entry into situating apocrypha within the global medieval world, and for thinking about moving outward from England, it is worth noting that none of the major apocryphal works I examine in my book originate in the British Isles. To name just a few, we might consider the Martyrdom of Peter and Paul (chapter 2) or the larger collection of apostolic acts known as the Virtutes apostolorum (chapter 3); the Legend of the Holy Rood and associated traditions about the Cross (chapter 3); the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Gospel of Nicodemus, and Harrowing of Hell tradition (chapter 4); the Antichrist legend and other apocalyptic texts (chapter 5). In fact, many of these apocrypha have their origins outside of Western Europe.

The point just made, with the examples just enumerated, might be easily overlooked (and it often seems to be) from a certain point of view. These are fairly basic facts. Yet the implications are much more important.

Like the canonical Bible, many apocrypha originated in the Near East, and they anchored medieval imaginations in that setting. Because of their widespread popularity across geotemporal boundaries, biblical apocrypha also participate in multi-cultural networks–crossing boundaries, moving between languages, and defying national(ist) literary histories.

I hint at some of these issues in chapter 1 of Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England, in which I examine both English and Continental preaching collections containing extra-biblical texts. As I argue, understanding Old English sermons based on apocrypha means looking to models and connections on the Continent. But the connections go much farther abroad, even beyond Western Europe.

A specific example helps to demonstrate these wider connections. One of the most popular apocryphal works I discuss in my book–and one central to my research over the past few years–is the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which relates the life of the Virgin Mary. This apocryphon has ties to works like its source, the Greek Protevangelium of James, as well as narrative parallels in a number of Near Eastern works like the Dormition of Mary, Legend of Aphroditianus, the Arabic Infancy Gospel (translated from the East Syriac History of the Virgin), the Armenian Infancy Gospel, the Vision of Theophilus, and the Qur’an. As may be gleaned from just the information in these titles, such multi-cultural connections certainly complicate ideas about cultural exchange and medieval world literature.

We might consider a seventeenth-century Ethiopian folding book, Walters Art Museum, Manuscript 36.10. This particular type of medium is sometimes called a “chain manuscript,” or a “sensul,” and is notable for its material form. For my purposes, however, the content is just as fascinating. The manuscript depicts the life of Mary, based on the same types of apocryphal sources as the Latin Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.


The Life of Mary depicted in a seventeenth-century Ethiopian folding book (sensul), Walters Art Museum, Manuscript 36.10.

Indeed, we find a direct common link between Pseudo-Matthew and this depiction since the details about Mary’s parents, birth, and childhood for both originate in the Protevangelium.

Considering the Latin Pseudo-Matthew, the Greek Protevangelium, various other related apocrypha, and this Ethiopian manuscript, we encounter a widespread network that reaches across the global Middle Ages. Six degrees of separation in myriad ways multiply the possibilities for finding associations between such far-flung media.

All of this globalizes the literary history of early England and provides serious implications the field of modern Anglo-Saxon studies to consider.

Biblical apocryphal literature, like the inhabitants of early England who used them, are immigrants from foreign cultures. While I argue in my book that these apocrypha became deeply rooted in mainstream Christianity in medieval England, they were not natives.

Biblical apocrypha were brought by Christianity, along with many other Latin Christian sources of Anglo-Saxon literary culture, and changed the literary ecology. They helped to diversify the early English canon of Anglo-Saxon literature. They helped to connect that literary history to global medieval currents far beyond the borders of England. But that diversity and those links to the wider global Middle Ages has been relatively overlooked.

Even more, many of these apocrypha were written by those who medieval and modern people might consider to be non-white. As already indicated, the sources of apocryphal literature in Anglo-Saxon England come from the Near East, Middle East, and North Africa–ethnically different from the Europeans who later received and used these works. But, again, ignoring these facts elides important ways of embracing diversity, dangerously white-washes medieval cultures, and perpetuates whiteness in Anglo-Saxon studies with horrifying connections to white supremacy.

Perhaps it’s because of the “otherness,” the “foreignness,” the non-native character of apocrypha that scholars have often and for so long looked askance at them, representing them as existing only on the margins of culture, deeming them “heterodox,” “unorthodox,” and even “heretical,” often echoing a few normative medieval voices, without seeking to understand their prevalence and central role in early medieval cultures.

There might be something to be said about the overwhelming amount of scholarship about the Old English poem Beowulf–heralded by many for its so-called “Germanic spirit”–juxtaposed with the much smaller body of scholarship and pejorative judgments about apocryphal literature with origins outside of Western Europe.

As Paolo Borsa, Christian Høgel, Lars Boje Mortensen, and Elizabeth Tyler have claimed, “Modern politics do inevitably inform the accounts we give of the Middle Ages and their literary and linguistic heritage” (15). Anyone who believes that they are free from modern political biases is willfully ignorant. Instead, we must lean into the engagements with the past that emerge from exploring such connections.

Those who focus on England (and not only medievalists) need to acknowledge that England has never been an island unto itself. It was part of a much wider network in the global medieval world. There are major implications for acknowledging these issues and embracing what they mean for Anglo-Saxon studies–and for medieval studies more generally. We need to be intentional about diversifying our field.

Biblical apocrypha and their roles in medieval cultures open new ways of thinking that challenge our approaches to the past and the present. These are necessary challenges. What we find from genuinely engaging with these works is surprising, complex, and invigorating: a wider network of literary connections across a capacious global Middle Ages. These texts speak to us from the medieval past, helping us to engage with the complexities of history and our own culture. I, for one, am happy to lean into these complexities.


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