Secret Scriptures Revealed! Thoughts on Writing for Non-Specialists, part 3
This is the third in a series of reflections on the writing of my latest project, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha. The book, to be published later this year by SPCK, is intended for a popular readership. To read the two previous posts see HERE and HERE.
Chapters three to five of Secret Scriptures Revealed contain summaries of a wide variety of texts from the Christian Apocrypha. I intentionally wanted to broaden the scope of texts from what are typically found in surveys of the literature. These surveys normally focus on gospels, and primarily gospels dated to the first three centuries. My views of the field have been influenced by recent attempts at redefining “Christian Apocrypha” that call for abandoning the terminology “New Testament Apocrypha,” terminology which narrows the scope of inquiry to texts composed before the formation of the western canon and that are similar in form to New Testament texts. My survey, then, aims to include as broad a range of texts as possible, in particular to bring some attention to texts that have received little attention in the past.
This is easier said than done. Restricted to 55,000 words, I have little space for that kind of breadth. I need to keep my discussion to three chapters of 10,000 words each. But how do I divide the literature? By genre—gospels, acts/letters, and apocalypses? By theology—orthodox, Jewish-Christian, and gnostic? The first option again follows New Testament categories, and the second is problematic because of the difficulties of defining the categories and assigning texts to those categories. I have opted instead to work through the materials chronologically, from texts on the birth of Jesus, through his ministry, his passion and resurrection, and finally to the activities of the church after Jesus’ death.
Chapter one opens with infancy gospels, then follows agrapha, ministry gospels, and finally letters. The infancy gospels section focuses on James and Thomas, but includes brief mentions of the Revelation of the Magi and infancy gospel compilations (primarily Pseudo-Matthew and the Arabic Infancy Gospel). Within ministry gospels I include fragmentary texts like the Egerton Gospel, the Gospel of Peter, Secret Mark, and the Gospel of the Savior, as well as Jewish-Christian gospels, and two complete texts: the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip (though Philip is included only to discuss the sayings of Jesus that it contains). For letters, I discuss only the Abgar Correspondence and the Letter of Lentulus. One of the challenges of the chapter was keeping the discussion to only 10,000 words. Many texts had to be omitted, including On the Priesthood of Jesus, the Legend of Aphroditianus, and the Vision of Theophilus, all of which were in my much-longer first draft.
Chapter two comprises Passion and Resurrection gospels. A large portion of the chapter is taken up by the Pilate Cycle, but included also are the little-known Book of the Cock, the Coptic Revelation of Peter (which deals with the crucifixion) and the Gospel of Judas (which is set during the Last Supper). Notably absent is the Gospel of Peter, which is typically categorized as a Passion Gospel, but this is because only the Passion and resurrection portions of the text have survived. It seems more appropriate to me to consider it a fragmentary ministry gospel. The chapter continues with a look at the Descent to Hell traditions (Acts of Pilate B, the Questions of Bartholomew, and the Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle). The chapter concludes with a range of post-resurrection texts, including the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Mary, the Epistle of the Apostles, and a few tour-of-Hell apocalypses like the Greek/Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter. This is an unconventional grouping, but I think it useful for avoiding the issue of defining the precise theology of the texts, though I certainly can’t avoid discussing gnostic thought, particularly when covering the Apocryphon of John. It also allows for a better discussion of texts like the Epistle of the Apostles, which is situated well as a post-resurrection dialogue but one that is directed against gnostics, who often make use of the same genre. Inevitably, some texts had to be left out of the chapter, including a number of texts from the Pilate Cycle, several of the Nag Hammadi dialogues, and a few apocalypses.
Finally, chapter five is entitled “After Jesus: Legends of the Early Church.” It features several acts of the apostles (only John, Peter, and Paul made the cut, along with mentions of Paul’s apocryphal letters and the Pseudo-Clementine Romance), two texts about Judas (the Life of Judas and the Legend of the Thirty Silver Pieces), the Dormition of Mary, the Life of Joseph the Carpenter, the Life of John the Baptist, and two texts on Mary Magdalene (the Life of Mary Magdalene and the Encomium). The difficulty of the chapter was, once again, keeping it brief, so numerous early and late apocryphal acts could not be included. This may be to the reader’s benefit, however, as the texts can be tedious, even to experts. Still, I regret having to cut the story of Andrew and the cannibals, as well as the Acts of Thomas and the little-studied Acts of Philip. Also eliminated were a few additional texts on John the Baptist.
In the end I think I achieved a good balance of well-known and little-known texts. I am curious what readers think of how I arranged the material. As for the content of my discussions on the texts, I tried to focus on issues that would be of most interest to my audience (the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, re-interpretations of the crucifixion and resurrection, and a variety of peculiar happenings, such as the flying head of John the Baptist), but also needed to show what is important about them for the history of Christian thought and practice. To my surprise, my editor has not asked me to reduce the references to the intricacies of reconstructing the texts from the available manuscripts, an aspect of the study of these texts that I really wanted to highlight. And I managed to do it all this with a healthy dose of whimsy to keep people reading. At least I hope so.
Next, the final chapter: Myths, Misconceptions, and Misinformation.