Archive for February, 2008

New Developments in the Syriac Tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas II

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Several months ago I posted an item here on the start of my investigation into the Syriac tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (available HERE). Since then I have made significant progress in obtaining manuscripts and have begun collating them against previously published editions. Inspired by Roger Pearse’s posts on Thoughts on Antiquity (the latest is available HERE) relating to his work on the Onomasticon by Eusebius (edit: the text he is studying is actually Quaestiones ad Stephanum et Marinum or “Gospel problems and solutions”), I thought I would offer this progress report on the project.

I began the project, as many do, with lists of unpublished manuscripts. These were provided long ago by Anton Baumstark (Geschichte der syrischen Literatur mit Ausschluss der christlich-palästinensischen Texte. Bonn: A. Marcus & E. Webers Verlag, 1922, p. 69 n. 12 and 99 n. 4) and more recently by S. C. Mimouni (“Les Vies de la Vierge; État de la question,” Apocrypha 5 [1994]: 239-243). The two lists were subsequently reproduced (and thus came to my attention) by Cornelia Horn in a paper she delivered at the Ottawa Apocrypha Conference in 2006 (“From Model Virgin to Maternal Intercessor: Mary, Children, and Family Problems in Late Antique Infancy Gospel Traditions”). Such lists are provisional; they are based on the bare information provided in catalogues, and some items come from word-of-mouth reports by colleagues. So, it is to be expected that the lists will contain some errors, which can lead to challenges obtaining the manuscripts.

But the first task was to get copies of those manuscripts already published: London, British Library, Add. 14484 of the sixth century published by W. Wright in 1865, and Göttingen, Universitätsbibliothek, Syr. 10 of the fifth or sixth century collated against the first by W. Baars and J. Heldermann in 1993/1994. These were obtained without incident. The British Library has an on-line order form on their web site, and I requested the Göttingen library by e-mail. The manuscripts arrived quickly.  My preference is to order microfilms; I then scan these so that I can print them out on a high-quality printer, and also can have them at hand electronically when I need them. Wright’s collation ended up being quite accurate, but I found a few minor collation errors in Baars’ and Heldermann’s work.

The next order of business was to obtain copies of the unpublished material. Orders were dispatched to the Vatican, Cambridge, the Königlichen Bibliothek in Berlin, the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Mingana Collection in Birmingham, and the Columbia University Library in New York. The Mingana manuscripts were the easiest to get; they came through Interlibrary Loan (and thus were free). The Berlin manuscript was listed incorrectly by Baumstark and Mimouni; so I now have a fiche of an Arabic manuscript that I do not need. The library was helpful in discovering the proper shelf number and dispatched me a copy without delay. The Vatican order took a very long time. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Vatican mailed it incorrectly (orders are faxed and the address was either garbled in transmission or just transcribed wrong). I still await one manuscript from them and fear that order may have been lost. A similar problem occurred with a second manuscript from the British Library. An e-mail was apparently send to inform me that the manuscript was not available on microfilm and I would have to settle for scans. I never got the e-mail so they canceled the order. Cambridge was slow but the order arrived without incident. The Harvard manuscripts involved some extra work on the library’s part because some of them had never been photographed; thus I had to pay for their own microfilms and then copies for myself. The order from Columbia University started off well; again, the wrong shelf number was reported by Mimouni, but the librarian helped to find the correct information and promised speedy delivery. But, almost a year later I still do not have the manuscript and the library is not answering my e-mails. One has to be very patient with the manuscript departments of libraries. They are often understaffed, and delays can occur perhaps simply because their one staff member allocated to filling orders is ill.

Despite these problems, the manuscripts held in European or North American libraries are easy to obtain. Those from the East (Turkey and Iran) are considerably more difficult. Some of these collections have been destroyed due to war, some were moved but their destination is not clear. In a few cases, personal copies of the manuscripts were made by the scholars who discovered them; these copies can be used in their stead.

Another part of the process is to consult the catalogues relating to the manuscripts. When doing so, it is wise to leaf through the entire catalogue. Often you can find additional manuscripts that have gone unnoticed by previous scholars. This was the case for the Vatican Library and for Harvard. In browsing through Syriac catalogues, I also found a listing for a manuscript held at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Our list of manuscripts of the text is now expanded from what was reported by Baumstark, Mimouni, and Horn.

And what are the results thus far? The Syriac tradition is of three types: IGT found in manuscripts along with the Protevangelium of James and the Assumption of the Virgin, IGT as the fourth book in a Jacobite Life of Mary compilation, and IGT incorporated into a Nestorian Life of Mary compilation.

1.The “Early” Version: this type is found in the earliest manuscripts from London and Göttingen. These are fragmentary—i.e., large sections believed to be original to the text are not contained in the manuscripts (London is missing sections of chs. 6, 7 and 15; Göttingen is missing sections of chs. 4, 5, 7, 19 and all of chs. 14 and 15). A third witness of this type is found in the unpublished Vatican, Syr. 159 (dated1622/1623) of which chs. 5-8 were published (but only in French) by P. Peeters (Évangiles apocryphes, vol. 2 [Textes et documents pour l’étude historique du Christianisme 18], Paris 1914, p. 304-308). IGT is here appended to (but not incorporated into) Nestorian Life of Mary material in Garshuni. This manuscript is more complete than the previous two and seems to be our best source for the gospel in Syriac. I plan to present a collation and discussion of this text at this year’s l’AELAC conference.

2.The Jacobite Life of Mary: this compilation features the Protevangelium of James, the Vision of Theophilus, IGT, and the Assumption of the Virgin. Only the Vision section of this text has been published to date. The manuscripts of this type include: Mingana Syr. 48 (1906, but copied in part from a manuscript of 1757); Mingana Syr. 5 (1790); Vatican, Borgia Syr. 128 (1720), Vatican, Syr. 537 (16th cent.); Vatican, Syr. 561 (1683; fragmentary); and Paris, Bib. nat. 377 (1854/1855). It is not always clear from the catalogue descriptions whether a given manuscript contains this text or the Nestorian text (and Baumstark and Mimouni may be wrong in their assessments). The following likely contain the Jacobite text (but have yet to be evaluated): Cambridge, Add. 2001 (1480-1481); London, Brit. Libr. Or 4526 (1726-1727); the Harvard manuscripts (Houghton Library, Syr. 168 [18th cent], Syr. 35 [16/17th cent.], Syr. 36 [16/17th cent.], Syr. 59 [19th cent.], Syr. 82 [17/18th cent.], Syr. 129 [17th cent.], and Syr. 39 [19th cent.]); and Columbia University, Butler Library X893.4 B47. The Jacobite text is also extant in two Garshuni manuscripts (Syr. 39 [from 1773] and the more recent Syr. 114) which I have yet to examine. I plan to present a collation and discussion of this text at this year’s SBL conference.

3. The Nestorian Life of Mary: this compilation includes the Protevangelium of James, material incorporated also in the Arabic Infancy Gospel, IGT, episodes from the canonical gospels, the Assumption of the Virgin, and other miracles. The entire text was published from two manuscripts by E. A. Wallis Budge in 1899, though the IGT material was extant in only one of the manuscripts (a personal copy commissioned by Budge but based on a 13/14th century original). The IGT material has been shuffled around in the text; it consists of chs. 4, 6, 7, 11-16. Several of the manuscripts of this type are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. The following are believed to contain the Nestorian text: Berlin, OrOct 1130 (1814/1815); Cambridge, Add. 2020 (1697); Union Theological Seminary, Syr. 32 (18th cent.); Vatican, Syr. 587 (1917); Vatican, Syr. 597 (17th cent.); Notre-Dame de Sémances 97 (1689/90); Mardin 80 (1728-1731); Diyarbakir 99 (undated); Séert 82 (16th cent.; a copy of this is available from the H. Hyvernat collection at the Catholic University of America); Teheran, Issayi 18 (1741/42 based on an original from 1243/44), and three manuscripts (probably now lost) from Urmia (43 [1813] perhaps identical to Cambridge, Or 1341 [1863] and a manuscript at Princeton’s Speer Library [Clemons 346]; 38 [1885]; and 47 [1885]. I am still in the process of obtaining many of these manuscripts.

So, that is the state of research on the Syriac tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Already some advances have been made: the published manuscripts have been re-examined, several unpublished manuscripts have been evaluated and their contents clarified, and the list of known sources has been expanded. There is much work yet to be done, but come June at least one very important witness will be available to those interested in the text.

Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism III: Valentinianism

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Despite my interest in Gnosticism and all things apocryphal, I must confess that I find reading one Gnostic cosmogogical myth after another rather tedious. I have speculated before that perhaps other young religious systems went through a similar process of crafting such myths before an official one (or two) became standard. For Christian and non-Christian Gnosticism we get to see mythmaking in process—in all its joys and pains.

So, I struggled a little this week to find something in our discussion of Valentinianism that would excite me, and therefore excite the class. We ambled through the lecture material—an overview of sources, a tour of Ptolemy’s myth, a catalogue of sacraments, and a peak here-and-there into some of the texts (including the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip, and the extant fragments of Valentinus’ works). Then we were left with an hour to do…something.

I decided to try our hand at Valentinian exegesis. I selected three pericopae from the gospels to examine: the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Unjust Judge, and the Woman with a Hemorrhage. The selection was somewhat random; I figured that we’d get more out of the endeavour if they were not obvious (the Johannine Prologue, for example, invites Gnostic exegesis and would be too easy). So the class was broken into groups and asked to do an allegorical reading of the pericopae—put more specifically, they were to read Valentinian cosmology and anthropology into (or is that out of?) the texts.

The exercise went surprisingly well. The class came up with ideas that I did not consider. There was some concern about extraneous material (for example, in the Parable of the Sower, there are four groups of seeds mentioned, when three would best suit Valentinian thought), but I just assured the class that allegorical interpretation allows for simply dropping the elements that don’t completely fit. There are several lessons I hoped they would take from this; chief among them is that, as strange as Gnostic thought might seem, the Christian Gnostics could see their views reflected in the canonical texts, and were just as legitimate to read the texts this way as Orthodox Christians (such as Origen) or Jews (Philo) who also practiced allegorical interpretation. Hopefully this exercise helps with the goal of sympathizing with the ancient Gnostics—i.e., of trying to see the world through their eyes and not simply dismissing their views as weird and “utterly incomprehensible.”

Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism II: The Gospel of Judas

Monday, February 18th, 2008

The first assignment due in my current Gnosticism course is a translation comparison. The goal of the assignment is for students to see how much work is involved in putting together an edition of a text and how the editor’s decisions can greatly affect how one reads or understand the text. This is particularly so with fragmentary texts. In previous years I have used the translations of the Apocalypse of Adam in Layton’s Gnostic Scriptures and Robinson’s Nag Hammadi Library.

This year I opted for the Gospel of Judas by Marvin Meyer (The Nag Hammadi Scriptures) and April DeConick (The Thirteenth Apostle). I chose this text for three reasons: it is well-known to (though not well-read by) the wider public, the assignment would force the students to read the gospel very carefully and thus lead (hopefully) to a rewarding discussion of the text, and the interpretation of the text is highly contentious.

Meyer and DeConick have been in conflict over their particular interpretations of the text; their positions are available for all to read in an article on Meyer’s site (see HERE) and a series of responses on DeConick’s blog (see HERE). But I hoped the students would not see this exchange before writing the paper; it is preferred that they find the major contentious passages themselves and thereby avoid trying to understand why each scholar arrived at his/her position but focus purely on the general issue of the choices involved in the editorial/translation process (the temptation is to label DeConick “conservative” for seeing the traditional Judas in the gospel, and Meyer as “liberal” when, in reality, they are both “liberal”).

I suggested to the students to focus on three areas when presenting their findings: presentation (e.g., use of headings, footnotes, line numbering, punctuation, etc.), approach to damage in the manuscript (i.e., are gaps filled in with emendations? Or left indicated with ellipses?), and major readings that dramatically affect the interpretation of the text (e.g., Judas as a “demon” or “spirit”).

The majority of the class seemed to favour DeConick’s translation. They appreciated her clear presentation of the manuscript evidence—she presents the text line-by-line, with damaged sections clearly marked; she hesitates to fill in the missing material, and tends toward a literal translation. But Meyer was praised for being more readable and less leading in his subheadings and translation choices (though his choices are contentious, at least his notes present other options).

In the course of our discussion several readings came up that left the class wondering about the actual content of the manuscript. If anyone out there who reads Coptic would like to provide solutions to these questions (are you there, April?), we would certainly be appreciative.

1. At 39, 24 DeConick has “And the animals that were brought for sacrifice” while Meyer has “And the cattle brought in are the offerings you have seen.” Is the Coptic “animals” or “cattle”?

2. At 52, 4-6 DeConick has “The first [is Ath]eth, the one who is called the ‘Good One,’” while Meyer has “The first is [Se]th, who is called Christ.” Again, what is the Coptic?

3. At 33, 19-21 DeConick has “Often he did not appear to his disciples, but when necessary, you would find him in their midst,” while Meyer has “Many a time he does not appear as himself to his disciples, but you find him as a child among them.” Both editors note the difficulties in translating this passage. One student thought the key to the solution might be in the words translated “as himself”—if this is present in the manuscript, he asked, then “as a child” might be the superior reading. So, what is in the manuscript?

4. In 40, 5-6 DeConick has “and generations of the impious will remain faithful to him,” while Meyer has “and generations of pious people will cling to him.” So, what is it: pious or impious?

UPDATE: April DeConick graciously answered these concerns in a post on her blog (read it HERE). Thanks April.

Manuscripts from the Deir al-Surian Monastery

Monday, February 18th, 2008

A story is making the rounds of the blogging world of a manuscript discovery from the Deir al-Surian monastery in Egypt. The story (found HERE) focuses on the recovery of a missing page of a codex housed at the British Library. The missing page, a list of Christian martyrs from Edessa in 411, was recently found beneath a floor in the monastery. But what is most interesting about the story (to me, at least) is the following:

The fragments were among hundreds discovered beneath a floor in the Deir al-Surian, which is itself a treasure trove of ancient books. Dr Brock and his colleague, Dr Lucas Van Rompay of Duke University in North Carolina, are now working on the first catalogue of the many manuscripts that are more than 1,000 years old.

Let’s hope some apocryphal texts will be found among the manuscripts.

Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism I: The Syllabus

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

In 2007 I used the Apocryphicity blog as a host for some musings on the weekly classes of my course on the New Testament Apocrypha. I am now teaching the counterpart to that course: Gnosticism. Though a little late into the semester now, there’s no reason to let that prevent me from posting some thoughts on the course to date. We’ll begin with a discussion of the course syllabus (available HERE).

1. Course Texts. This is the third incarnation of the Gnosticism course. The first two versions were constructed around Kurt Rudolph’s Gnosis. I found Rudolph’s book useful but occasionally had to teach against it as some of his assertions about the origins of Gnosticism and of Mandaeism are now out-of-date. So I thought I’d try out Birger Pearson’s new book, Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. So far I am not very happy with it. While I like how he divides his discussion into the various groups (Sethianism, Valentinianism, etc.), much of what Pearson does is summarize the material. He also makes numerous assertions about the origins of the texts without offering support (leaving the reader somewhat bewildered at how he arrives at the dates he provides). I will play out the year with the book but I do not think I will use it again. This is the first year also for Meyer et al’s new Nag Hammadi Library volume. In previous years I used Bentley Layton’s Gnostic Scriptures, which, alas is currently out-of-print. But I like Meyer’s volume as it provides much more readable translations (including footnotes and subheadings) than Robinson’s and includes a few ancillary texts (e.g., Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary) and essays on the various Gnostic subgroups.

2. Assignments. The first assignment, a translation comparison, I will discuss in a second post. The other two—a book review of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, and a book analysis of Michael Williams’ Rethinking “Gnosticism” —worked well in the second incarnation of the course, so I am trying them again. Pagels’ book is a classic in the field and deserves to be read and discussed (for all its strengths and weaknesses). The Williams book caps off the course and challenges the students to think about the category of Gnosticism—a bit alarming for them after spending twelve weeks discussing Gnosticism as a category.Readings. I have intentionally minimized the number of “Gnostic” texts students will read this year. I think it works better to read, say two Sethian texts rather than ten. This keeps them from being overwhelmed by the material and also prevents them from becoming bored with the repetition of the myths that form the basis of much of the literature. I have had to provide a few additional texts in pdfs because they are not in Meyer’s collection; that was the beauty of Layton’s Gnostic Scriptures: it’s texts were not restricted to the Nag Hammadi Library.

3. Lecture Schedule: I have dedicated a class to the Da Vinci Code. There are two reasons for doing so. For one, many of the students were attracted to the class because of the popularity of the novel; so it seems wise to spend some time discussing it and refuting it. Unfortunately, I tend to discuss DVC in all my classes; so, many of my repeat students may be quite sick of it by now (I know I am). The second reason is to build into the schedule a “light” class in the middle of the final month of classes. This class can also be used to catch up on any topics that I did not have time to cover in previous classes. I also have dedicated a class to Gnosticism and Modern Film. This allows time for the class to apply their knowledge of Gnosticism to searching for allusions. There are many films to choose from for such an occasion (and anyone interested can consult Eric G. Wilson’s Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film or the web site of the Gnostic Friends Network). Last time out we watched The Truman Show. This time, I may use Blade Runner (which will give me an excuse to watch the new director’s cut).

For a few other ways of teaching Gnosticism check out the syllabi by Michel Desjardins (Wilfrid Laurier University) and Patricia Miller (Syracuse University), both of which are available via the AAR’s Syllabus Project web site. In recent years Michel has used food in his lectures to illustrate concepts (e.g., students snack on triple-layered Nanaimo bars while Michel discusses the three-part anthropology of spark, psyche, and body). You can read about his experiments in his article for Teaching Theology and Religion.

Christian Apocrypha Session SBL 2008

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

The deadline is fast approaching for proposals for the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. The meeting takes place in Boston, November 21-25. Anyone interested in submitting a proposal to the Christian Apocrypha Section (really, the only section that truly matters) can find details at THIS LINK. Proposals must be in by March 1. I will be there once again this year, this time presenting on my ongoing work on the Syriac Jacobite tradition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.