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Literatur- und Forschungsberichte


Joseph Verheyden


Ancient Christian Apocrypha*

Antike christliche Apokryphen (ACA) is the title given to the seventh edition of a work that first appeared more than a century ago and that has always situated itself within a much longer tradition, which ultimately goes back to J. A. Fabricius in the early 18th cen-tury. The first edition appeared in 1904 and was given the title Neutestamentliche Apokryphen. Its editor was Edgar Hennecke, »Pastor in Betheln (Hannover)«.

The purpose of the book was to inform readers about the present state of affair in the research of a number of apocryphal texts and also offer full or partial German translations of these documents. It was quite an achievement: Hennecke and his fifteen collaborators produced a volume of almost 590 pages co-vering the whole of the apocryphal corpus, gospels, acts and letters, apocalypses, and a few other writings, among them the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didascalia, that would soon, and with good reason, disappear from later editions. Twenty years later, in 1924, the same editor published a second, »völlig umgearbeitete und vermehrte Auflage«, with the help of a partially updated team of collaborators. Hennecke passed away on March 25, 1951, aged 85. Just three years before he had asked W. Schneemelcher to take over as editor in chief. By that time only three of the collaborators to the second edition were still alive. Schneemelcher had some trouble putting together his team, as he indicates in the Preface to the third edition, which appeared in 1959, about a decade after he had come in charge of the project. He changed a lot in terms of arranging and adding to the material, but he did not change the title of the work. Schneemelcher produced a completely new Introduction and the prominent place that was given to the chapter on the history of the New Testament canon (60 % or so of the total of the text) is a clear marker of how he saw things: this is a corpus of extra-canonical writings and that is where they belong.

This third edition was published in two volumes: the first one, on the Gospels, counted 377 pages (over against Hennecke’s 110!); the second added another 660 pages for a total of more than thousand pages. Schneemelcher was re­sponsible for three more editions. The fourth (1968) merely was a revised edition of the third. The fifth (I, 1987; II, 1989) totalled nearly 1150 pages, hence not that much more than the third. This edition counted twelve, instead of ten, major sections for the part on the gospels. The two extra ones are those on the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip which now received chapters of their own; the chapter on »Dialogues« was considerably extended with material from Nag Hammadi that had previously figured in the chapter on gnostic literature. In 1999 this edition was re-published as the sixth edition of »Hennecke-Schneemelcher« (HS). It marked the end of an era.

The seventh edition was published in 2012. It was first presented to the in-crowd in Berlin, and then to the wider world during the general meeting of the SNTS. The work had been long awaited for. It was known for quite some years that the old Schneemelcher in the mid-90s, towards the end of his life, had asked Christoph Markschies to take over the project and prepare a new edition, thereby giving him all the freedom he would need for a thorough revision. And that is what we got. When it was first presented it blew most of us away: the work had been given a new title, illustrative of the new approach to apocryphal literature that had been building over the past decades, and counted 1468 densely printed pages of introductions, bibliography, comments, and translations of a seemingly endless number of texts, and this only for the part on the gospels!

I must confess I have not read everything (and I assume the read-er will understand), but I am quite certain I read enough to appreciate the many strengths of this »new« HS, and maybe also hint at a few weaker points left or right.

A first and important strong component of the ACA, as I see it, is the general Introduction written by the editor in chief. It has be-come a monograph in its own right. Hennecke thought he had said all there is to say in a mere 26 pages (up to 32 in the second edition). Schneemelcher needed 8 pages in the third and went up to 61 in the last edition. Markschies’ »Haupteinleitung« counts 180 pages and 539 notes. It is divided into seven sections and numerous subsec-tions one had wished had been reprinted in the Table of Contents. The seven sections deal with: the title and content of the collection (I. 2–9), the core concepts of canon, apocryphal and testament (II. 9–24), the history of the formation of the canon of Old Testament and New Testament (III. 25–74), the ACA as witnesses of ancient Chris-tian piety (IV. 74–80), the Nachwirkung of ACA in medieval litera-ture and art (V. 80–90), the history of research on the apocryphal gospels and the dispute about the defining the corpus (VI. 90–114), and ancient list of canonical writings and the evidence in early Christian writers on the apocrypha (VII. 114–146 and 147–180). This is solid work from beginning to end, of which one would tend to say, with Athanasius in his Festal Easter Letter 39 of 367, »Niemand soll ihnen etwas hinzufügen oder etwas von ihnen fortnehmen« (161).

In particular, I wish to draw attention to Markschies’ definition of the concept of apocrypha. I cite it here in full: »›Apokryphen‹ sind jüdische und christliche Texte, die die Form kanonisch gewordener biblischer Schriften aufweisen oder Geschichten über Figuren kanonisch gewordener biblischer Schriften erzählen oder Worte solcher Figuren überliefern oder von einer biblischen Figur verfasst sein wollen. Sie sind nicht kanonisch geworden, sollten dies aber teilweise auch gar nicht. Teilweise waren sie auch ein genuiner Ausdruck mehrheitskirchlichen religiösen Lebens und haben oft Theologie wie bildende Kunst tief beeinflusst« (114; reprinted in an abbreviated form on the back of the dust jacket and on the inside of the front of the jacket, though here without the qualification »Jewish and Christian«).

Three brief comments on the basis of this definition. First, the reader will have noticed that the words New or Old Testament seem to have been banned from this definition, as they are from the title page. There are good reasons for this. Henceforth, then, no New Testament Apocrypha anymore, but ACA instead. The change reflects the outcome of a debate that has been going on for several years and in which the old Schneemelcher was still very actively involved, though he was fighting a lost battle. It is the view that this literature obviously has links with canonical writings, both in genre and in contents, but that it also often goes beyond these, again both in genre and content, and cannot be defined by the (sole) criterion of canonical vs. extra-canonical. The canon is the result of a history, hence in part also a bit incidental, and some, though few, of the writings that now figure in collections of apocrypha might well have ended up in the canon, if things had worked out a bit differently for them. So these documents should not be measured against the canon, but in their own right, and that is now finally achieved by dropping the burdensome New Testament/Old Testament labels in defining the corpus.

Second, and still about the title, one may have noticed that the definition in no way refers to any form of delineation in time or otherwise explains what is meant by »ancient«, but maybe that is not really necessary. Hennecke originally suggested, rather whimsically, to limit the corpus to the death of Origen, a suggestion he apparently regretted from the very moment he had written it, for it was dropped in the second edition and not replaced by anything else. »Ancient« relates to the »common« view on what is the »ancient Church«. That is as workable a solution as it is a realistic one, for the limits of the era of the ancient church are not fixed by any law, but on the other hand also not too flexible and open as to allow for every possible interpretation. There is a grey zone and some opportunity for discussion, but clearly medieval texts are hereby excluded and relegated to a volume of their own. It is a position that is worth arguing for. The point is then also to keep to this rule, and that the editors have managed to do with maybe one exception to which I come in a moment.

Third, it is Christian texts that are collected here, not Jewish or Muslim stories about Jesus or any of the apostles or other biblical characters. This too is a good decision. It is a collection of writings that have been composed, used, cherished and damned in Chris-tian circles. They reflect aspects of Christian religious life. The latter observation may sound oblique, yet should be given its due. For too long, indeed, and in part linked to the misconception on the relationship with canonical texts, these writings have been largely ignored for what they can tell us about the life of the church and of particular communities, which were once, quasi inevitably, labelled heretic. It is therefore a welcome correction now to read in the definition that some of these writings were also used by »mehrheitskirchliche« groups. That is certainly true. Whether one should say that they also had a deep influence (»tief beeinflusst«) is a matter of some discussion. Some may have had such an influence, at least for some groups, others were probably rather used along with »canonical« texts, to complement or vivify the latter. Some of these texts can be labelled representatives of highbrow theology, but several others are as interesting and may well have been more successful in terms of popularity. The first group may have felt to be dangerous in some circles of the establishment; the other may often reflect what I would call a naïve or un- or under-developed theology, which is not the same as harmless, both with regard to topics that are immaterial and more sensible ones, such as irruptions or feelings of anti-Semitism or anti-feminism. But that in turn makes these texts so interesting, as they inform us not, or not only, about what Alexandria, or Antioch, or Constantinople, or Rome was thinking or saying about the matter, but rather what could be heard or was rumoured in the desert, the countryside, and the monastery and scriptorium. In this respect a lot of interesting work remains still to be done.

But the ACA is of course more than its introduction. It is an excellent and indeed exhaustive collection of what has been pre-served, in full or partially, indirectly or even only by name, of this literature. The material has been divided in two major parts (A and B). The first collects the extra-canonical traditions on Jesus that are not transmitted or preserved through gospels, but as separate sayings or in other indirect ways. First there are the agrapha, to which are now also added two chapters on such and similar sayings in the Nag Hammadi corpus and in Islamic literature (181–208). I will come back to the latter. The non-Christian testimonies form a se­cond chapter (209–218). The section on »Jesu Wirken und Leiden« (219–279; the title is preserved from the earlier editions) comprises, as before, the Abgar story and the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Acts of Pilate with the Descensus ad inferos, to which is now added, as a third chapter, other Pilate literature. Another old section, »Jesu Verwandtschaft« (280–342), has also survived, but some of the material is now given a chapter of its own (the Transitus Mariae and the story of Joseph the carpenter).

The much longer Part B, entitled »Extra-canonical Gospels« (Außerkanonische Evangelien), counts seven sections with some-times rather general titles:

1. Fragments on papyrus (343–399), ten in total, against six in HS6, including a couple of fragments that have been claimed for the Gospel of Peter (see below);

2. »Other« small fragments (400–428), including the Gospel of Eve, the Questiones Mariae, the Genesis Mariae, and the Traditions of Matthias (the first three were gathered together under the title »gospels under the name of holy women« in HS6 as part of the gnostic gospels);

3. References (Nachrichten) on extra-canonical gospels (429–479), i. e., such works of which we often only have the title and maybe a minimal description of their contents (13 in total, most of these also under the gnostic and related literature in HS6);

4. Sayings gospels (Spruchevangelien, 480–557), Thomas, Philip, and the Greek fragments of Thomas, now again collected under one heading diff. HS6;

5. Narrative gospels (erzählende), a most substantial section (558–1050!): the gospels usually referred to as Jewish-Christian gospels, but also the so-called Jewish Gospel (to Ioudaikon), the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Peter, the complex of Bartholomew traditions and the Gospel by that name, the Quaes­tiones Bartholomaei, the Coptic Bartholomew traditions, the Protevangelium of James, the Infancy gospels, and the »Gospel« of Mani, all gathered together here from various chapters in HS 6;

6. The Dialogue gospels (1051–1238), 13 in total, from section VIII and part of section IX.C of HS6, with in addition the Gospel of Mary, some fragments of a dialogue of Jesus with John, the Gospel of Judas, and the so-called Book of Allogenes from the same Tchacos codex as the previous;

7. Gospel meditations (1239–1364), the Pistis Sophia and the two books of Jeu (HS6 IX.C), a couple of other texts from the Nag Hammadi corpus, the UBE, and the Gamaliel cycle but now in a much expanded format.

The whole is concluded with an impressive set of Indexes (1365–1461).

A recent reviewer of ACA has gone through the trouble of carefully drawing the list of texts that are found here but were still lacking in HS6 (for the details, see J. K. Elliott’s review in JSNT 35 [2013], 285–300).

Some of the titles may seem a bit too general, but overall this arrangement is solid and often also certainly better than the one in HS6. But the real asset of this collection is that it offers, for each and every writing, a selective but useful bibliography, often a mix of classic works and recent monographs and other more detailed studies, and most importantly, a German translation, something that was sadly missing for considerable parts of the earlier editions of HS, which sometimes offered only a series of excerpts or no translation at all. This is a strong point of the collection, one in which it can now compete on equal basis with other collections, Moraldi’s and Erbetta’s in Italian or the EAC in French, which both offer full translations but often far less detailed introductions (and for the Italian now also partly outdated). It would be a great gain if this collection could also be translated into English (as was Schneemelcher’s third edition in 1963), and if I am well informed this is not just a pious wish.

With the contents comes a team of contributors. It is probably one of the major achievements of the editors that they have man-aged to put together a new and relatively young team of most ca-pable collaborators, almost all of them Germans and many of them »Berliner« at that. This was necessary as most of the members of the previous team are now long retired or have passed away. Of the old guard there remain Hofius on the agrapha, Merkel on the Secret Gospel of Mark (SGM), Bethge, Funk for the 1–2 Apocalypse of James, Müller for the Epistula Apostolorum, and Schenke, who in addition to the chapters on the Gospel of Philip and the Book of Thomas the Contender also contributed a number of smaller chapters, but like Müller sadly did not live to see the ACA published. For several chapters the editors were capable of signing up just about the best person available for the job (Gregor Wurst on Judas, Uwe-Karsten Plisch and Judith Hartenstein for a number of Nag Hammadi texts, Tobias Nicklas for some of the fragments), and if it happened that no one could be found there was the all- and ever-present editor in chief to fill the gap, in the good tradition of HS.

But so far for the strengths. As for weaknesses, these are few, indeed virtually inexistent. Yet here are one or two observations, not necessarily criticisms, that may be worth mentioning. O. Hofius is one of the few »survivors« of the 6th edition. His chapter on the agrapha is a slightly revised version of the one that figured in this earlier edition. The Bibliography is updated, but the bulk of the text and the thesis remain unchanged, though some extra notes have been added. There is nothing wrong with this: an author should not change his opinion because a new edition is published, and a new edition should not change its author if the editors think this is still the best opinion on the issue. So it is the same seven sayings that are cited as »authentic«, i. e., sayings that are ascribed to the earthly Jesus and not found in what is commonly regarded as the oldest version of the canonical gospels. But yet one would also have liked to see Hofius go into discussion with some of the more recent literature, right or wrong, e. g., with the views of T. Nicklas ( RB 2006) and E. Norelli (Apocrypha 2006), or the volume Le Parole dimenticate di Gesù by M. Pesce (which appeared in a ninth edition in 2009 and is listed in the Bibliography as a sort of translation of D. Lührmann’s Apokryph gewordener Evangelien, which it is not).

The first and second of these authors have some interesting things to say on the broader background and the importance of fabricating such sayings. Pesce does not limit himself to agrapha in this strict sense; his volume also includes the sayings that can be found in Jewish-Christian gospels and in Thomas, all of which are of course part of ACA, but do not show up under the Agrapha sec-tion because they are found in texts that claim to be gospels in their own right. In this regard it is all the more surprising to find this »classical« list of seven now to be in the company of a new chapter that informs about and lists the relevant material of such Jesus sayings that is found in the Koran and later Islamic tradition. The first could with some reason still be said to be part of the ancient world, be it the non-Christian one, but that is also the case for some of the evidence of Greco-Roman authors that is included in ACA. But the latter and larger part of that extra chapter on agrapha deals with Arabic authors from the Middle Ages. The material is interesting and has been studied in some detail lately (on should add to the Bibliography the Spanish translation of the collection by M. Asin y Palacios that was published in 2009 by Pilar Gonzalez Casado, Hechos y dichos de Jesus en la Literatura ascetica musulmana; it lists 233 sayings over against the 41of ACA), but it is late, indeed too late to be called »ancient« material and there is little or no evidence for arguing that part of it (and which part would that be?) goes back to an earlier period, though that is certainly not to be excluded on principle.

My second case is in part also a kind of critique of a critique. The so-called Secret Gospel of Mark has been promoted, it seems, from an annex to the section on papyrus fragments to an integral part of this section (at least, the word »Anhang« is dropped). In this case, the author has remained the same (H. Merkel), but the text was thor­oughly re-written (89–92 in HS6 and now 390–399). Merkel duly informs about the fuzz the text once more has made a couple of years ago, when it was brought under the attention again in a number of monographs. With regard to Stephen Carlson’s criticism of M. Smith, Merkel notes, »nicht alle Aspekte sind gleich überzeugend« (396), but he also admits to be heavily impressed by the arguments (»beeindruckend«). It should be noted that others were less impressed and have raised questions about Carlson’s own inven-tiveness and ingenuity. The authenticity question remains open, as before, with some believing and others vehemently disbelieving the truth about the SGM. And it must be said that there is reason to remain sceptic. A reviewer of ACA took this as the main reason for questioning the presence of the writing in this volume (Elliott in JSNT). As before, I remain a sceptic myself, but I think there is sufficient reason to keep the chapter in the volume, though perhaps rather as an »Anhang« after all. The good thing is that we now also have a German translation of the letter of Clement in which the excerpts are cited; in HS3–6 the translation was limited to the excerpts only.

According to Jörg Frey, the fragmentary Jewish-Christian gospels are three in number (Hebrews, Ebionites, and Nazoraeans). It is the classical position, as this was also found in HS5–6 in Ph. Vielhauer’s chapter on the matter, though he arranged them in the order N-E-H. To these should also be added the scholia in the so-called »Ioudaikon«, but I leave these out here to concentrate on the major three. All of the material that can be linked to any of these gospels has been preserved only indirectly through quotations in ancient Christian authors. The evidence is studied in great detail in Frey’s introduction (560–592) and then still further developed and commented upon for each of the gospels individually. The problem is that only one of these three titles is attested as such in ancient literature (H) and that these ancient witnesses are themselves confused about assigning individual fragments to one or another of these gospels. Jerome’s position that there was only one such »Jewish-Christian gospel« seems now to have been given up almost completely (but see 570 n. 47). The situation is most clear with regard to the Gospel of the Ebionites, where Epiphanius is practically our sole source, but scholars remain divided on whether there really were two other gospels. Frey is certainly right in calling those scholars who defend the position that there were only two such gospels (E and H) as »eine ›qualifizierte Minderheit‹« and in repeatedly stating that the issue is a most complex one (so already right at the beginning: 564 »Die Forschungslage […] ist complex und strittig« and also 571 »unser Wissen über diese Texte ist aufgrund des fragmentarischen Überlieferungsbestands hypothetisch und viel unsicherer, als dies häufig wahrgenommen wird«). How-ever, I am less inclined to use this observation to say that perhaps the right way forward is to open up the perspective even further and to reckon with inter-textual relations between the three or even more of these gospels, as Frey suggests: »Die Lösung der Probleme liegt […] eher in einer noch differenzierteren Sicht des textlichen Status und der intertextuellen Beziehungen zwischen den einzelnen Texten« (571). That may be correct, but unfortunately we have very little to go on to make such a differentiation plausible. In the mean-time, it seems we will have to live, as before, with three highly hypothetical entities.

A final comment, this one on the Gospel of Peter. Lots of work has been done on this writing in the past years, and it also raised quite some controversy, especially with regard to whether or not to attribute some small fragments to this same writing. The work was edited with a German and English translation as recently as 2004, and one of the editors, Tobias Nicklas, apparently has assisted M. Vinzent in preparing the text of this chapter. ACA does not reproduce the translation of the 2004 edition, but offers a slightly dif-ferent one. There is nothing wrong with this. The introduction contains the usual rubrics, and in addition pays great attention to the hotly debated question of the relationship with the canonical gospels. Again, all good and well. However, the fact that this chapter has apparently been written by two authors, without clearly indicating who did what or whether they both agree on everything that is written here, may cause some confusion for those who are familiar with the 2004 edition or would consult it in comparison with the chapter in ACA.

In the edition Nicklas had argued that the fragment P.Oxy. LX 4009 should in any case be consulted for a new edition of GP (2004, 5: »in einer Neuausgabe des PE zu berücksichtigen«) and he thought this was also the case for the Vienna fragment P. Vindob.G2325. In the ACA one now reads that such a move is »umstritten« and that the case cannot be solved on the basis of the evidence that is currently available. That may be true, but it sounds a bit different from what one reads in the edition. I suspect that this comment in ACA has to be qualified with regard to the authors signing for the chapter. They do seem to agree that an ostrakon from the 6th or 7th century featuring a figure that is identified as »Peter the evangelist« and that was published in 1904, has probably nothing to do with GP (»allerdings fraglich«). Again that may be the correct conclusion, but I would have liked to have found here a further refer­ence to the late Dieter Lührmann who has stepped up for the ostrakon in a way that no one had done before. Finally, I assume Nicklas can agree with the verdict formulated in this chapter on his views on the possible relationship between the GP and the Apocalypse of Peter that figures in the same Akhmim codex: this rather speculative suggestion, picking up on M. R. James, has indeed not been received so far (687, »kaum berücksichtigt«).

It took the editors a good number of years to complete this first part, on the apocryphal gospels. No doubt, it were years well spent, but the work is far from over. There should follow volumes on the apocryphal Acts and the apocryphal Apocalypses. That is quite a lot of work. But the editors are enthusiast about continuing the project and they have built an enormous expertise in these past years in collecting a team, keeping it on the rails, and being effective. That looks well for the future. The editors also display a good sense of reality. They know how much work there was involved in this first part and so they have refrained of setting impossible deadlines for themselves, hopefully with the consent of the publisher. The editors are not only realistic, they also seem to display a sense of eschatological urgency. Indeed, they have decided to continue first with the part on the apocryphal Apocalypses. We are all very much looking forward to this next instalment. For now, we can live with the certainty that we already have in our hand what simply is the best guide around for the study of the apocryphal gospels in this first part of the 21 st century.


* Antike christliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung. I. Band in zwei Teilbänden: Evangelien und Verwandtes. 7. Aufl. d. v. E. Hennecke begründeten u. v. W. Schneemelcher fortgeführten Sammlung d. neutestamentlichen Apokryphen. Hrsg. v. Ch. Markschies u. J. Schröter in Verb. m. A. Heiser. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2012. XXVI, 1468 S. Lw. EUR 249,00. ISBN 978-3-16-150087-9; Kart. EUR 99,00. ISBN 978-3-16-149951-7.