Archive for July, 2007

New Film on Jesus’ “Missing Years”

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
The Halo Effect promises to tell the story of Jesus’ life between the ages of 12 and 30, a stage in his life about which even the Christian Apocrypha are mostly silent. You can read about the film HERE but I excerpt the article below:

North Shore Pictures Entertainment, a production company based in Hollywood has optioned Peter Kahalani's screenplay, "The Halo Effect." The script covers the missing years of 12-30, before Christ begins his ministry.

The film has intrigue, murder, plot twists, deception, a new world order, the discovery of hidden manuscripts and an unlikely hero that shows the world that Satan has been in control for many thousands of years masquerading under one of the worlds top formable religions.

"The film never points a finger at any given religion but points to a way to a higher consciousness and a discovery not seen by many of the worlds population," says Kahalani. It is slated for production to begin in May of 2008 in Asia and released worldwide Christmas 2008.

Vatican Library To Be Closed for Renovations

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
I just learned that the Vatican Library will be closed until 2010 for much-needed renovations. This article from BBC News describes how scholars are scrambling to finish their research before the Vatican Reading Room closes. The article states also that scholars can still obtain microfilm copies of manuscripts during the renovations. Good news as I have a standing order for five microfilms (the Vatican have never been very quick filling orders, mind you, so I still may have to wait until 2010 for my material).

But there is another option. According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, St. Louis University has copies of “nearly half of the medieval and Renaissance manuscripts” from the Vatican archives. The University has been stockpiling the material (on microfilm) since the 1950s; the collection even includes a copy of the Codex Vaticanus. I wonder: perhaps a microfilm order from SLU would arrive far quicker than from the Vatican.

“Top Ten Faulty Arguments” Revisited

Monday, July 16th, 2007
Several readers have added comments to my previous post on five “Faulty Arguments” about the Christian Apocrypha advanced by Christian apologists. Before I continue the discussion by adding the next five arguments, I’d like to offer a response to the comments thus far.

First, Timothy Paul Jones points out a typographical error. I wrote: “First, even if we grant that full-blown Gnostic Christianity is a late second century phenomenon (well, mid-first century really if we include Valentinus and Marcion)” but should have written “well, mid-second century…”). Oops.

Bryan L. asked for my opinion on why the non-canonical gospels fell out of use. Was there a concerted effort to suppress the texts? It would seem so from reading the canon lists and Athaniasius’ 39th Festal Letter. But such limitations on the canon can only be enforced in areas where the Western church had power and influence. As that power and influence grew, the Western canon became enforced. That said I agree that certain texts seem to have been more popular in certain areas and this popularity would have a natural effect on shaping the canon (though were they popular because the people liked them or because their preachers/bishops, etc. liked them and chose to read no other texts?). Gnostic texts, of course, had a limited audience (average readers/listeners would find them hard to understand and the texts’ views on asceticism unattractive).

Peter Head wrote: “For me most of these are only problematic when absolutised and generalised. Try using ’some’ for 1 and 4; and ‘many’ for 2 and 3. Then I’d (probably) have to agree with them (as you probably would too).” Peter is correct—I would agree with these arguments if the qualifiers were attached. But the problem with these arguments is precisely that they are absolutized and generalized, and are so because they rest on apologetically-motivated assumptions. That is what makes them faulty arguments.

Danny Zacharias has asked for citations for each of the faulty arguments. I will include complete citations when my work on this material is transformed into a formal paper. For now, I offer these select examples: 

1. All non-canonical texts are Gnostic. See the discussion of the Gospel of Peter by Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, p. 69-70 (he considers the lack of pain experienced by Jesus on the cross and the text’s anti-Jewishness as signs of Gnosticism) and the discussion of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in Komoszewski et al, Reinventing Jesus, p. 154 (“Although we are distinguishing the infancy gospels from the ‘Gnostic’ gospels, in many cases the former belong to the latter category”).

2. Canonical texts are early compositions and non-canonical texts are late. Craig Evans (Fabricating Jesus) dates the composition of the Gospel of Thomas to ca. 175 or 180 (rather close to the date assigned to the extant Greek papyri). He does so for several reasons (see pp. 67-68): because of the gospel’s apparent awareness of many of the NT writings, because it contains Gospel materials that scholars regard as late (i.e., M, L and John), because it reproduces Matthean and Lukan redaction, and because it shows familiarity with traditions distinctive to East Syrian Christianity, which did not emerge before the middle of the second century. All of these reasons are debatable but looking at the dating question purely by the material evidence, Evans’ position would be akin to dating Mark to ca. 150 because the earliest manuscript evidence is believed to be from 175 CE (P45). Peter Head commented that this manuscript should be dated to the mid third century. If so, this makes the physical evidence for Mark even bleaker (though Head states that we know Mark was in existence certainly by Irenaeus’ time, for the bishop mentions all four canonical gospels; mind you one could always make the argument that we don’t really know that Irenaeus is referring to canonical Mark—a similar argument is made by Evans about whether or not our manuscript evidence for the Gospel of Peter is truly the “Gospel of Peter” mentioned by Serapion [in office 199-211 CE])

3. The Non-canonical gospels are not “gospels.” See Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, ch. 4. The canonical gospels are “primarily narrative, with teaching interspersed within an overall storyline reaching a definite climax, while the latter (such as “Thomas”) consist simply of a collection of sayings, arranged as much for the purposes of meditation or memorization as for any thematic sequence or continuity…though the Gnostic documents do sometimes call themselves ‘gospels,’ they manifestly belong to a different genre” (p. 67).

4. The writers and readers of non-canonical texts were hostile to the canonical texts. See Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, p. 81 (and Komoszewski et al, Reinventing Jesus, p. 152-153). Here he takes issue with Elaine Pagels’ view that ancient Christians could read the canonical and Gnostic gospels side-by-side, with the canonical for public worship and the Gnostic for advanced-level teaching. Wright admits that this is what Valentinians did but still criticizes Pagels for the view: “it could only be sustained by a systematic and sustained rereading, and in fact radical misreading, of the canonical gospels themselves” (p. 81). Whether the Valentinians and others were right or wise to do so is not important, only the fact that they did.

5. Extant versions of non-canonical texts are identical to their autographs. See, for example, the discussion of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas by Komoszewski et al, Reinventing Jesus, which is based on the Greek A recension of the text by Tischendorf, now shown to be a late, expanded version of the gospel. I find this approach to the texts particularly problematic in the scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas for it routinely neglects the Greek fragments of the text which, though incomplete, are better witnesses to the original text as they predate the Coptic by two centuries and are likely in the text’s original language.

Top Ten Faulty Arguments in anti-Apocrypha Apologetics (Part 1)

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007
There has been talk lately on various blogs about certain conservative scholars (specifically, N. T. Wright) and the biases that influence their positions on events in the life of Jesus (specifically, the resurrection). I, too, have come again into contact with Wright’s work—his Judas and the Gospel of Jesus is an expression of conservative polemic against the Christian Apocrypha—and found myself frustrated by his approach. But Wright is not the only scholar who allows his presuppositions about the CA affect his positions on these texts; indeed, I have read many works by such scholars lately and, frankly, their arguments are becoming tiresome (and repetitive). I offer, then, this list of “pet peeves” of anti-CA apologetic and my responses to them.

1. All non-canonical texts are Gnostic. Since when was the Gospel of Peter a Gnostic text? What about the Infancy Gospel of Thomas? Such identifications belong in scholarship of the nineteenth-century (when we knew less about Gnosticism) not the twenty-first century. Either the modern apologists know nothing of recent scholarship on the texts (which is likely) or they intentionally call all non-canonical texts Gnostic in order to heap scorn upon them (which is also likely)—i.e., Gnosticism is bad, all non-canonical texts are Gnostic; therefore, all non-canonical texts are bad.

2. Canonical texts are early compositions and non-canonical texts are late. The late dating of non-canonical texts is due to two factors: because Gnosticism is a late second-century phenomenon, and because the physical evidence for Gnostic texts is no earlier than the mid to late second century. These arguments tend to swirl around the dating of the Gospel of Thomas, so I will respond specifically to arguments about that text. First, even if we grant that full-blown Gnostic Christianity is a late second century phenomenon (well, mid-second century really if we include Valentinus and Marcion), it is not entirely secure that Thomas and a few other “Gnostic” texts are truly Gnostic. Thomas, for one, seems to have been Gnosticized somewhat between the time of its origins (reflected better in the Greek fragments) and the version found at Nag Hammadi. If anything, Thomas is “proto-Gnostic” which could fit into the milieu of at least the pastoral epistles and the Johannine epistles, texts that criticize groups who have Gnostic features (liberal scholars would date these two sets of texts to the late first/early second century while conservatives would date them to the mid-first century which, by their own admission, would make “proto-Gnosticism” very early indeed). As for the second argument, the physical evidence for non-canonical texts is just as good as, if not better than, canonical texts—i.e., there is very little evidence (canonical or non-canonical) that dates before the mid-second century. The conservative writers would never say that Mark is late second-century based on the earliest manuscript (P45 dated ca. 175), so why do they do that for Thomas?

3. The Non-canonical gospels are not “gospels.” The argument goes that the NT gospels are biographies whereas the non-canonical gospels are, for the most part, sayings collections or dialogues (a few exceptions are sometimes noted—e.g., Gospel of Peter, Infancy Gospel of Thomas—but are not allowed to affect the argument); therefore, the non-canonical gospels are not truly “gospels.” Yet it is not clear that “gospel” was used in antiquity to designate a genre of literature; even today the term connotes more the message of a text than its form. Also, evidence indicates that the NT gospels and at least some of the early non-canonical texts did not originally bear titles (e.g., the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is more accurately called “The Childhood of Jesus”; the Infancy Gospel of James was probably originally “The Birth of Mary”). Even if the full range of the texts were originally termed “gospels,” to identify a genre of literature by selecting four similar texts from the group is like taking knock-knock jokes and declaring all other forms of jokes not jokes at all.

4. The writers and readers of non-canonical texts were hostile to the canonical texts. The conservative writers want to make Gnostics out to be villains opposing orthodoxy and thus the non-canonical texts are said to be written in order to replace or refute the established canonical texts. But the non-canonical writers often acknowledge their debt to earlier writers and expect their readers to be knowledgeable about these texts. The CA writers have a particular interpretation of the canonical texts which they employ but rarely do they seek to refute or replace them. The conservative writers seem to have trouble thinking that anyone could possibly read Gnostic ideas into or out of canonical texts, but that is precisely what they did—e.g., docetists saw their christology reflected in Mark and John, the Treatise on the Resurrection cites Paul’s letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, etc.

5. Extant versions of non-canonical texts are identical to their autographs. To be fair, many liberal scholars are guilty of this same error. They neglect to take into consideration that non-canonical texts change considerably over time, with stories embroidered, added, and removed depending on the copyist’s sensibilities. One must be very careful, therefore, to argue for a particular writer’s viewpoints by using a form of the text based on much later manuscripts.

(more to come…) 

Do Non-canonical Gospels Make You “Uneasy”?

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007
April DeConick has begun a discussion on her Forbidden Gospels blog asking “Why do noncanonical texts make us uneasy?” (begin HERE). Of course this “us” would not include April and myself and at least some of our readers. We are not “uneasy” about this literature at all. Perhaps I can add to this discussion, however, by stating instead why I am attracted to it.

My introduction to the Christian Apocrypha, as for many people, came in undergraduate Bible classes. I was raised as a Catholic (albeit with a small “c”) and was surprised to learn of the existence of this literature; I felt I had been misled or intentionally misinformed by the church. This was also a time in my life when I was intensely interested in journalism and its attendant passion for intellectual freedoms. The church’s obfuscation of the CA seemed to me yet another example of censorship. As my interest in journalism waned and my interest in biblical studies waxed, I turned my attention to learning more about the CA and, eventually, to bring awareness to it.

Now a seasoned (well, lightly-seasoned) professor, I have left my initial bitterness about the church (and my faith in toto) behind. I remain interested in the literature, but only as a window into the variety of Christian thought and literary expression in antiquity. I believe the CA are essential for understanding the development and growth of Christianity, including how Christian thought has penetrated into the arts (e.g., the influence of the Apocalypse of Peter on Dante and Milton).

My approach to the CA in my research and teaching is guided by several principles:

  • All Christian literature, canonical and noncanonical, are created equal—i.e., they are all expressions of Christian thought of one flavour or another. Whether the group that values the text is in the majority or the minority at any given time is irrelevant.
  • All Christian literature, canonical and noncanonical, and all Christian groups, orthodox or heretical, are similarly equal. As scholars and historians we should not favor one or the other simply because we find their theology, practices, etc. attractive to us.
  • All Christian literature, canonical and noncanonical, are the products of authors who felt no hesitation in altering the facts (or better: their sources) to suit their needs (be they theological, christological, social, or political). A text’s canonical status is no guarantee of historical accuracy.
  • All that said, Christian texts do not have the same utility. The Synoptic Gospels and the letters of Paul remain our best sources for the Historical Jesus and the emerging Jesus movement. Simply put, they are earlier and closer in perspective to the Palestinian Jewish milieu from which the group emerged. Certain later texts may contain echoes of the interests of first century groups (e.g., Ps.-Clement and the Ebionites) but one must use these with caution when trying to reconstruct the views of their ancestors.

I suspect these principles are not particularly radical. Nevertheless, they might be a useful corrective to the portrayal of CA scholars by Christian apologetic writers. In their view we are all modern Gnostics attempting to replace canonical gospels with noncanonical texts, texts that we all believe to be earlier and better than the “Big Four.” Some even say we are influenced by the “powers of darkness.” The apologists may find such invective useful for warning naïve Christians away from the CA, but it has no place in scholarly debate.