Assessing BBC2′s The Bible Hunters

March 9th, 2014

The two-part BBC2 documentary “The Bible Hunters” has generated some discussion among bloggers recently, due particularly to participating-scholar Larry Hurtado’s criticisms of the show. I was finally able to watch the series over the last few days (it has not yet aired in North America) and thought I would make some comments, particularly about the second episode in the series, “The Search for Lost Gospels.”

Jeff Rose surveys the Akhmim cemetary

“The Bible Hunters” is hosted by Jeff Rose, described in his  profile as “an archaeologist and anthropologist specializing in the prehistory, palaeoenvironments, genetics, and religious traditions of the Middle East.” Throughout the series he visits (on foot, by boat, by camel, and by motorcycle) a number of Middle Eastern sites related to important biblical and non-biblical manuscript discoveries—including St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, Akhmim, and the White Monastery in Sohag. In each location he interviews scholars and monks about the manuscripts, and then places the discoveries into the context of 19th/20th-century debates about the authenticity of the Bible. A number of British scholars help Rose elucidate the discoveries and their impact, including David Gange (University of Birmingham), Edward Adams (King’s College, London), and Michael Ledger-Lomas (King’s College, London); American Kent Clark (Trinity Western University) also makes an appearance. The deficit of women’s voices is apparent—Janet Soskice is the exception, included to comment on the Smith sisters, whose careers are documented in Soskice’s book The Sisters of Sinai (discussed HERE).

The first episode, “The Search for Bible Truth,” follows the exploits of such “Bible Hunters” as Constantin von Tischendorf (known for his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus), the Smith sisters (Codex Syriacus), and Charles Freer (the Washington Codex). The narrative that guides the episode—that these intrepid scholars and collectors were seeking manuscripts to demonstrate the accuracy of the Bible—has been criticized by Hurtado (HERE); in reality, they were trying to find manuscripts to reconstruct a better Bible. The narrative is simplified further with its focus on the troublesome ending of Mark—shortened in Sinaiticus and Syriacus, but uniquely expanded in the Washington Codex. Nevertheless, this simplification provides useful focus to the documentary, one easily digestible to its lay audience.

The second episode, “The Search for Lost Gospels,” is presented much like the first, with Rose making his way south through Egypt, stopping at sites related to the discovery of apocryphal texts. Rose begins at Oxyrhynchus, with the discovery of the “sayings of Jesus” papyri that were later identified as pieces of the Gospel of Thomas. The discussion of the find is accompanied by on-site video, recent high-quality photographs of the manuscripts, and nineteenth-century photographs of the excavations. The discovery is put in context by Charles Freeman, author of A New History of Early Christianity; he focuses on the traditions of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and how, it is believed, these were put in written form when the apostles were dying one-by-one and thus could no longer be a source for oral traditions about Jesus. But now, along comes these lost sayings of Jesus, demonstrating that there were other teachings by Jesus outside of the New Testament. “For almost 2000 years,” Rose says, “[the New Testament gospels] had the monopoly on the story of Jesus.” Well, that’s not true. There were plenty of apocryphal texts known before the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas—including a plethora of infancy gospels that added much to the “story of Jesus.” But, granted, none of them present potential teachings of the Historical Jesus in quite so dramatic a way as Thomas does.

The episode turns next to a digression on the impact on Biblical Studies made by the opening of the East beginning with Napoleon in the late 18th century. The Temple of Denderah is shown, with its zodiac demonstrating an antiquity to civilization counter to Ulster’s “young Earth” chronology, and later there is a discussion of the Egypt Exploration Society and the discovery of the Amarna letters. This material seems out-of-place in the documentary and one wonders if it was intended originally for an episode all its own.
The next site of interest is the Syrian Monastery (Deir el-Surian; mentioned recently HERE) visited by Robert Curzon in 1883. Curzon brought dozens of manuscripts from the library back to England with him; they are held now in the British Library. One of these manuscripts is the Acts of Peter and Paul, which Rose calls “a text no-one had seen before.” He asks “ why was this not included in the Bible?” The Acts of Peter and Paul is an odd example to use here. Numerous other, and more interesting, texts were found at el-Surian, including a very early manuscript (Add. 14484) combining the Infancy Gospel of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the Dormition of Mary. And to ask why the Acts were not included in the Bible is odd, given that it is a rather late text (fifth century), especially compared to the infancy gospels.

Curzon traveled on from Deir el-Surian to the White Monastry in Sohag, and Rose follows him there. While Curzon is said to have found nothing significant at the White Monastery, later Bible hunters came across a hidden library that included the Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, by Bartholomew the Apostle (mistakenly called the Questions of Bartholomew in the documentary). The manuscript for this text is dispersed in several European libraries; the image shown here is Ms 1991 of the Schøyen collection. Again, much is made of the discovery of this text, but its real impact was rather negligible. Numerous other White Monastery discoveries hold greater interest. Alin Suciu has made great advances recently in bringing the pages of these manuscripts together. It is unfortunate that this work was not featured in the documentary.

The next site that Rose visits is Akhmim, where, in 1886 French archeologist M. U. Bouriant discovered in the necropolis  of a Christian monk a book containing excerpts from 1 Enoch, the Gospel of Peter, and the Apocalypse of Peter. Rose says of this discovery, that the Gospel of Peter was the “first gospel to appear in print not in the New Testament,” which, of course, is not true. Certainly it was a significant find, but it should have been put in better context (indeed, the earlier discussion of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus belongs here, not with the Gospel of Thomas). Still, it was interesting to watch Rose search through the Akhmim cemetery, and we are given a look at the type of tomb in which the codex was found.

Rose then turns his attention back to Oxyrhynchus for a more in-depth discussion of the manuscript discoveries with Dirk Obink, the head of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project. Now the sayings from the Gospel of Thomas are placed in their more appropriate context; unlike the Acts of Peter and Paul and the Book of Bartholomew, the Oxyrhynchus sayings did make a big impact on scholarship and public thinking. People did wonder if these were real teachings of the Historical Jesus excluded from the Bible. The Gospel of Thomas provides a useful segué to the next site: Nag Hammadi, where the “mystery of the Oxyrhynchus sayings was solved” with the discovery of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. Egyptian guide Ahmed M. Abul Ella Ali discusses the find and Larry Hurtado declares that the texts at Nag Hammadi have an “elitist outlook” (a perspective that has led to some criticism from April DeConick). The Gospel of Philip is mentioned as a text that “might have seemed scandalous” because of its mention of the kiss exchanged between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but there is no scholarly discussion of this passage. Also given some attention is the Gospel of Mary, erroneously identified as a text discovered at Nag Hammadi, and what it might tell us about women’s roles in early Christianity.

The el-Gurna manuscripts

Finally, we come to the last site on the tour: a hermitage at Sheikh el-Gurna in Upper Egypt excavated in 2005. Here the grave of a Christian monk yielded a 9/10th-century Coptic codex containing Isaiah and fragments of the Martyrdom of Peter (here called the Acts of Peter and said to be similar to the Acts of Peter and Paul found by Curzon). The discovery has not received much attention in scholarship, despite the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities’ hyperbolic statement that “the finds are equal in importance to the Naga Hammadi manuscripts.”

In all, the Bible Hunters is an excellent series, rich in archeological detail, manuscript images, and on-site journalistic inquiry. Though it suffers from the occasional factual error and distortions from both simplification and exaggeration, it presents the information far better than its sensationalist North American counterparts. It is unfortunate, however, that the producers could not include opinions of local experts on the literature—including J.K. Elliott, Christopher Tuckett, and Andrew Gregory. Instead we get an Egyptian guide (Ali) and the author of a book on early Christianity (Freeman). Neglected also is the Bodmer Papyri, a cache of texts found at Dishna, not far from Nag Hammadi, that includes significant Biblical Mss as well as several Christian Apocrypha, including very early copies of the Infancy Gospel of James, the Acts of Paul, and 3 Corinthians. This is an astonishing oversight.

The value of documentaries like Bible Hunters is in their use in the classroom. In the Fall, I will be looking for ways to integrate the series into my classes on the History of the Bible and the Christian Apocrypha.

Peter Kirby Expands Early Christian Writings

March 2nd, 2014

If you have ever needed a fast and handy source for an early Christian text, chances are you have come across Peter Kirby’s popular site Early Christian Writings. To celebrate ECW’s recent expansion, I asked Kirby some questions about the origins of the site and the challenges it has posed for him over the years.

Early Christian Writings describes itself as “the most complete collection of Christian texts before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.” At last count, the site features 226 entries, arranged in chronological order from the hypothetical Passion Narrative in 30-60 to the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies in 320-380. Included are all New Testament texts and some of their hypothetical sources (e.g., the Signs Gospel, Q), a large variety of Christian Apocrypha (as well as Christian-authored Old Testament Apocrypha, such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs), Gnostic Apocrypha (newly added in January 2014), and significant non-Christian authors writing on Christianity (such as Josephus and Pliny the Younger). The entry for each text features at least one English translation (the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, has five), links to online resources, a short bibliography of print scholarship, and a brief introduction.

Kirby created the site almost 15 years ago when he was in college working on a Computer Science degree. In his spare time he participated in New Testament-themed listserv discussions, such as Internet Infidels and Crosstalk. To hold his own in such discussions, Kirby produced an online crib sheet of the relevant early Christian texts. “I enjoyed the discussion online,” Kirby said, “and I wanted to know it as well as I could if I were going to spend my time talking about it. With a different set of circumstances, perhaps I would have had a website about coin collecting or science fiction instead.”

The site began simply as a list of the documents with rough estimates for when they were written. Over time he added the translations and other resources. “You could find most of the texts already online,” Kirby said, “but not all in one place and not with typical introductory material situating the text in a historical and chronological context.” Along with Early Christian Writings, Kirby also maintains Early Jewish Writings, his own self-titled blog, the Early Writings forum, and Christian Origins, a platform for essays by Kirby and others.

Finding content for ECW and EJW, all of which is taken from public domain sources, can be difficult. Kirby said, “Sometimes it is hard to find versions of texts that can be used. Recent discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls don't have any public domain translations. A couple of the hypothetical texts on my site, such as the pre-Markan passion narrative and the Kerygmata Petrou, don't have a public domain translation. But I was able to offer translations by using a pastiche of the sources (the Gospel of Mark and Pseudo-Clementines, respectively) that have been translated long enough ago to be in the public domain.”
Response to Early Christian Writings has been uniformly positive. The glowing testimonials collected by Kirby over the years include:

“It is a pleasure to look at your website.” (Gerd Lüdemann)

“By the way, during Spring semester I found your amazing Web site on Christian Writings.  Many, many thanks for this site.  It is a gold mine for everyone!  I have all of my students use it, and I have been giving the URL to all of my colleagues.” (Vernon K. Robbins)

“I enjoyed looking at your new site on Early Christian Writings arranged chronologically. It looks like it is going to be a very useful resource—congratulations. . . Thank you again for your work on this site.” (Mark Goodacre)

As for future projects, Kirby is working with Chris Weimer (a graduate student at City University of New York) on an Early Latin Writings site to be launched later in 2014; the two are considering creating also a companion site for secular Greek texts from antiquity. And Kirby may apply his presentation of the “Collected Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas” (each saying features the morphologically marked-up text in its original language, various English translations, a collection of quotations from scholars, and commentary from site visitors) to other texts on the site. As for other achievements, Kirby remarked, “It’s funny, but these websites more or less happened by accident. As a kid in high school my two dreams were to get married and to make computer games. February two years ago I got married to my beautiful wife Liss, so now that dream is for us to have a good life together. And, fortunately, she likes games too, so it's not going to be a problem there to start working on that other dream.”

A frequent user of the site myself, I add my voice to Kirby’s other supporters in saying that Early Christian Writings is an excellent resource for the study of the Christian Apocrypha, particularly as a one-stop location for students to find and become acquainted with the texts. Thanks Peter for all of your work over the years.

Larry Hurtado on Bible Hunters Episode 2

February 22nd, 2014

VIA LARRY HURTADO'S BLOG: Larry comments on the second episode of BBC's The Bible Hunters (HERE). This episode focuses on discoveries of apocryphal texts (the Nag Hammadi Library and Oxyhrynchus). I'll make some comments on it as soon as I get my (virtual) hands on a copy.

Returning to the Funeral of Jesus

February 21st, 2014

Several years ago I came across a text described in a manuscript catalog as “On the Funeral of Jesus.” I worked up an edition and translation of the text for the 2010 workshop in Winnipeg on Acta Pilati traditions. At the time, several sentences in the text were difficult to reconstruct and translate; so I put it aside, expecting someday to get back to it. The years went by, but now I have finally returned to the text and solved most of the remaining problems.

The text is an untitled, two-page excerpt found in a fourteenth/fifteenth-century Greek manuscript. It appears to derive from a sermon that draws upon the Acta Pilati traditions, particularly  the Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea. The text is difficult to read, due to scribal misspellings (itacisms), abbreviations, and manuscript damage. It begins midsentence with Pilate (it seems) granting Joseph the body of Jesus. Nicodemus hears of this and asks to join Joseph in preparing the body. Then Joseph and Nicodemus speak. Joseph remarks that a “counterfeit” appeared in the burial shroud of “the stranger.” Presumably this “stranger” is Jesus, but this counterfeit (perhaps “image”) is perplexing. Joseph says that he and the stranger (a ghostly Jesus?) appeared outside of the synagogue while the priests were asking why Jesus’ relatives were not burying him. They mention also “dead (dying?) strangers” coming in to Jerusalem at Jesus’ death (perhaps a reference to the resurrected saints of Matthew 27:52-53).

Nicodemus tells Joseph not to worry and that he will go to the temple and request the body of Jesus and ask about the other strangers. This statement is odd given that Pilate has already given them the body and Nicodemus does not actually do what he says. Instead, he goes to the temple and obtains the face cloth of Jesus—the cloth that will be rolled up in a place by itself as in John 20:7. Then he returns and the two men place the body of Jesus in the tomb.

Three days later Jesus rises from the grave. No specific empty tomb stories or resurrection appearances are mentioned but the priests and scribes are aware that he has risen. Horrified, they say, “Horror, horror! Why is this misery for us?” Recalling Matthew 28:11-15, they scheme to accuse Joseph and the disciples of stealing the body. They incite the people against Joseph (Nicodemus is not mentioned again), and they grab Joseph and bring him before Pilate. The people accuse Joseph of taking the burial shroud (presumably the face cloth) from the temple and of stealing the body and claiming that Jesus has risen from the dead. Pilate gets furious with the Jews. As with Jesus, he says, “See to it yourselves. I am innocent of this man’s blood” (see Matt 27:4). The priests lock Joseph in prison and plan on stoning him the next day. This entire scene is paralleled in the Gospel of Nicodemus 12 and the Narrative of Joseph 4:1.

Alone in his prison, Joseph laments saying, “What good is it to me now (to be) of Jesus?” Then Jesus appears, along with the good thief (see Gospel of Nicodemus 15:6 and Narrative of Joseph 4:2; but only in Joseph does the good thief appear). Jesus brings Joseph to Galilee and teaches him so that he may in turn teach the disciples about the resurrection. The next day, the priests come to the prison and find Joseph missing. They fall to the ground in fear. The author then concludes his text with a statement against the priests: “Oh their blindness, oh their misery, not wishing to show kindness to those who believe in our Lord Jesus.”

As soon as I polish up the introduction to the paper, I will submit it for publication. If anyone has any thoughts about the text, don’t hesitate to add some comments to this post. I’m particularly interested in whether anyone has seen a text like this before.

Brandon Hawk Reviews Secret Scriptures Revealed

February 18th, 2014

Brandon Hawk, a student working on Anglo-Saxon apocrypha at the University of Connecticut, has posted to his blog this excellent review of my book Secret Scriptures Revealed (excellent because it's so positive!). Thanks Brandon.

Larry Hurtado comments on BBC’s “Bible Hunters”

February 18th, 2014

VIA LARRY HURTADO'S BLOG: Larry Hurtado is among the scholars interviewed for BBC's two-part series "Bible Hunters." He offers some reflections on the first episode HERE. The home page for the series at BBC includes two clips from the first episode—one of these is about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The second episode apparently covers discoveries of apocryphal texts, such as the Nag Hammadi. Alas, no word yet on broadcast in North America.

Library of the Deir al-Surian in the News

February 18th, 2014

VIA Paleojudaica: Egypt's Mysterious Monastery Hides Ancient Secrets by Teresa Levonian Cole in Spear's Magazine (made available here via AINA. Among the many finds at Deir al-Surian (the Monastery of the Syrians) is the earliest manuscript witness to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (purchased by the British Library; catalogued as Add. 14484). The manuscript also contains portions of the Infancy Gospel of James and the Assumption of the Virgin.

2014 Réunion de l’AELAC

February 12th, 2014

The 2014 réunion de l'AELAC will take place August 29-31 at the Centre culturel Saint Thomas in Strasbourg. Traditionally (indeed for over 25 years) the réunion has taken place at Mont Roland in Dole. But the centre has closed its doors, so AELAC has found a new home for their annual gathering. Visit the AELAC site for news on the programme as it develops (

News on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

February 12th, 2014

VIA LARRY HURTADO: "Jesus' Wife" Fragment: Latest Developments

Rumour has it that the ink is not modern. Of course, this won't silence those who want it to be a forgery.

Rethinking Canon: Michael J. Kruger’s “Self-Authenticating Canon”

February 6th, 2014

As mentioned in my previous post, I will be appearing at University of Toronto on Monday as part of a series led by their Seminar for Culture and Religion in Antiquity. The title of the paper is, "What Do We Mean by ‘The Bible’? Re-imagining Canon for the Twenty-first Century." My interest in the canon has been developing over the last year through writing Secret Scriptures Revealed, reading several of Lee Martin McDonald’s books on canon (and working with Lee for last year’s York Christian Apocrypha Symposium), and in the development of the latest iteration of my class The History of the Bible.

This year the students were required to read two books on canon, McDonald’s The Origin of the Bible: A Guide for the Perplexed (London/New York: T & T Clark, 2011) and Michael J. Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), and prepare a paper comparing the authors’ positions on the formation of the Bible. I wanted the students to be acquainted with two perspectives on canon formation: one historical-critical, one theological. This is a strategy I often use in my courses, so that students come away from the classes with more than just the general scholarly consensus found in their textbooks. Using Kruger also reflects my work on apologetic responses to the recent increase of interest in Christian Apocrypha (see, e.g., “Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium,” SBL Forum, 2008 and a number of Apocryphicity posts under the category "Anti-CA Apologetic"). In surveying that material, I was concerned about how the writers try to discourage others from reading apocryphal texts and, in the course of their work, often obscure the texts contents, in part because of deficiencies in their knowledge of the field. Reading apologetics can be frustrating, but there is much to be learned from exposure to other perspectives.

McDonald’s approach in The Origin of the Bible is typically historical-critical. Drawing on his previous work in the field, he surveys all of the evidence on canon formation—both for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament—and carefully determines what we can learn from this evidence. What is surprising at times is how many of the components of the narrative of canon formation have been challenged in recent scholarship—including, that Marcion valued only the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters (apparently he valued more, including the Gospel of Matthew), that the Jewish canon was settled at the “Synod of Yavneh” in 90 CE (there was no “synod” and several texts continued to be debated for a few more centuries), that the Muratorian Fragment is a witness to the developing New Testament canon in late-second-century Rome (more likely it is from fourth-century), and that the canon was essentially closed with Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter in 367 (it wasn’t; much variety continued). Though scholarly rigorous, McDonald is not entirely dispassionate in his presentation. As a former pastor he is very interested in how Christians put scholarly discussion on canon into operation; it is encouraging to read his calls for open discussion of the canon, even if this means removing problematic texts (Ephesians, due to its support of slavery) and adding others (the Gospel of Thomas, for its witness to authentic teachings of Jesus).

Kruger’s Canon Revisited begins as a direct challenge to the suggestion of opening the canon. In response to arguments from historical-critical scholarship that certain texts of the New Testament are pseudepigraphical and that some apocryphal texts should be included in the canon, Kruger writes with the express goal of showing that, “the Christian religion provides sufficient grounds for thinking that Christians can know which books belong in the canon and which do not” (p. 21). After surveying a variety of scholarly and theological approaches to canon formation, he discounts all theories that allow for human agency in the selection of texts. Instead, he believes the New Testament texts contain divine qualities—beauty, efficacy, harmony—that ensured their selection by the church, helped of course by the activity of the Holy Spirit (God, he says, “not the church, determined what would be inspired and what would not,” p.46). He calls this the “self-authenticating canon” (p. 58).

As a historical-critical scholar myself, I find Kruger’s perspective problematic. My training prevents me from considering supernatural explanations for historical events. But even if I try to put myself in the believer’s shoes, I find it difficult to imagine that the Holy Spirit would act so capriciously. If God wanted humans to have an unambiguous, closed 27-book canon, then why do we have such variety? Greek churches did not include Revelation until the tenth century, Armenian Bible manuscripts include the Repose of John (a section from the apocryphal Acts of John), and the Ethiopic Bible today also includes additional texts. Kruger does have an explanation for this, but one that I find quite troubling. Kruger believes any divergences from the 27-book canon result from “spiritual forces" that oppose the church, adding that “people often resist the Spirit by their sin and disobedience," and "not all groups who claim to be the ''church' are really part of it” (p. 199). To drive the point home, Kruger cites the modern example of Mormonism: “The distinction between the true  church and the false church reminds us that not every community’s reception of books holds the same weight. For instance, even though Mormons claim to be followers of Christ, we would not accept their canon (composed of the twenty-seven New Testament books plus the Book of Mormon) because they are not part of the true church” (p. 104 n. 49). This viewpoint spills over into the reception of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. Along with his belief that New Testament writers did not consider any of the Apocrypha as scripture (though it seems they did) and that Jews did not adopt the Apocrypha as scripture (but some did! He calls these “minority opinions”), he says that the Roman Catholic Church include the Apocrypha in their Old Testament because “the Spirit’s witness was widely obscured by the church’s sin and rebellion” (p. 200-201 n. 11). Essentially, if your canon is different from Kruger’s canon, then you are not a member of the “true church.”

Granted Kruger is writing for a particular audience, an audience of Christians who want the validation of the canon that he promises to deliver. He uses scholarship, but he is not working as a scholar, writing for scholars. Nevertheless, I am interested in his views because they enter into public consciousness. If theologians like Kruger are going to interact with scholarship (even if only to denigrate it), then scholars should interact with theologians. As critics of the recent Han On Nye debate on Creation have pointed out, Kruger and McDonald (or similar-minded writers) are not going to change their positions, but at least providing one forum for both perspectives allows readers to learn from their juxtaposition.

For more on Michael J. Kruger, go HERE to watch four lectures on canon delivered in 2012, and HERE for a discussion of Kruger’s views on Roman Catholic approaches to canon formation. Kruger has published a second book on canon: The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2013)