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Gregory, Andrew, and Christopher Tuckett [Eds.]


The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha. Consultant Eds.: T. Nicklas and J. Verheyden.


Oxford u. a.: Oxford University Press 2015. 504 S. = Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology. Geb. US$ 150,00. ISBN 978-0-19-964411-7.


Julia A. Snyder

This volume is a helpful introductory resource that provides an overview of non-canonical Christian texts and questions scholars ask about them.
Christopher Tuckett starts with a common question about »early Christian apocrypha«: what texts are we talking about? As he points out, there is no simple answer. Decisions about which texts to include in printed collections are usually made on pragmatic grounds, and distinctions between these and others that tend not to be included, such as »Apostolic Fathers,« are artificial. Tuckett also clarifies that the term »New Testament Apocrypha« is con-sidered outdated and misleading.
Other essays in Part 1 introduce some of the many texts that might be considered »early Christian apocrypha.« Jörg Frey de-scribes »texts about Jesus,« which include not only »Gospels,« but also, e. g., isolated sayings attributed to Jesus and works where the risen Jesus talks with disciples. Charlotte Touati and Claire Clivaz survey texts about figures such as Mary, John the Baptist, and Pilate, who get more stage time in non-canonical texts than in the canon. An essay by Richard Pervo introduces stories about the apostles, and Andrew Gregory discusses epistles and related literature, noting that if one includes Apostolic Fathers and »letters« embedded in other writings, there are more letter-like texts than printed apocrypha collections might suggest. This helpfully illustrates the selective nature of those collections. A final essay by Richard Bauckham introduces apocalypses and prophetic texts. His essay shows that such works were popular not only in »Christian,« but also in (other) Jewish circles, and that »Christians« appreciated and reproduced apocalypses with (non-Christian) Jewish origins. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to decide whether to label such texts »Jewish« or »Christian,« and it may not always be helpful to make such a distinction (cf. Nicklas’ essay).
Overall, the essays in Part 1 introduce a large number of texts and will appeal to people who are unfamiliar with Christian apocrypha and want an overview of what is out there. The quality of the discussion is generally good, although I would caution that Pervo sometimes offers his own interpretation of texts without clearly indicating that he is doing so. One should not accept all of his statements about apostle narratives as facts, e. g., that »the standard pattern follows an apostle from the time of his call/conversion/commission to his death« (65) or that »the Acts of Paul forbids sexual relations« (72).
Part 2 includes nineteen essays on a variety of themes. Two ex­plore the intersection between Christian apocrypha and Judaism. Tobias Nicklas examines how Jewish Scriptures were read as speaking or prophesying about Jesus, and points out that some »Christian apocrypha« feature figures such as Isaiah. Petri Luomanen identifies texts that show different attitudes toward Judaism, from supercessionism (e. g., Protevangelium of James) to a more clearly anti- Jewish stance (e.g., Gospel of Peter in the Akhmîm codex). – Larry Hurtado discusses readers. He points out that references to apocrypha in other texts and art suggest that some works had a fairly wide readership. His discussion of what one can learn about readership and use of texts from extant manuscripts is particularly interesting.
Two essays discuss the formation of the New Testament canon and how apocryphal texts were viewed in comparison. Both Jens Schröter and François Bovon point out that not all non-canonical texts were considered heretical. In fact, many were seen as »useful.«
Pheme Perkins and Paul Foster focus on Christology and soteriology. For read­ers only familiar with New Testament depictions of Jesus, these essays offer a tantalizing taste of other ways he was portrayed in early literature, especially in texts that emphasize his di-vinity more than his life as a Palestinian Jew. Also focusing on Jesus is Stephen Patterson, who describes debate about whether the Gospel of Thomas is useful for historical Jesus research. He thinks it can be, but Simon Gathercole seems skeptical.
Other essays describe the portrayal of Mary in literature (J. K. Elliott) and art (Robin Jensen). Jensen points out that Christian art was influenced by non-canonical as well as canonical traditions. A second piece on the apostles by Pervo is disappointing. He generalizes from multiple texts rather than discussing them individually, obscuring differences between them.
Outi Lehtipuu describes the fate of the dead in apocalypses, some of which include guided tours of Hell with gruesome punishments, or trips to Paradise. He also observes that resurrection language is sometimes used in connection with the present life. – An excellent piece by Harald Buchinger explores what one can learn from apo-crypha about early Christian liturgy, e. g., about baptismal rituals in Syria. He discusses the extent to which such narratives might reflect actual liturgical practice, and notes that some liturgical texts have been influenced by apocrypha. – Candida Moss comments on persecution and Roman officials. She sees an implicit undermining of social conventions and political structures in the topos of marital breakups and use of imperial language for Christ. These claims are, of course, debatable. – Judith Hartenstein and Yves Tissot examine gender and asceticism in apocryphal Gospels and Acts. Tissot rightly criticizes those who apply the label »encratite« to the Acts of Peter and Acts of Paul. Rounding out the volume are essays by Tony Burke, who notes that apocrypha continue to be a source of inspiration for art, music, fiction, and film. He observes that tendencies to denigrate non-canonical texts illustrate the concern many people have to protect particular narratives about early Christianity.
Together, the essays provide a tantalizing overview of the topics and themes that crop up in non-canonical texts, and the sorts of questions one can ask about them. One hopes that this book will inspire readers to read the primary sources for themselves and to think carefully about the complex questions introduced. Essays are concise, aiming to introduce issues rather than provide exhaustive coverage. They should be taken as a starting place rather than the »last word« on topics addressed. Bibliographies are provided to help readers delve deeper.
This book is a suitable resource for students and scholars look-ing for an overview of current research on non-canonical texts, and for anyone who wants to get an impression of the fascinating things these texts contain. Since most essay topics overlap with questions asked about the New Testament, patristic literature, etc. (e. g., sexuality, Christology), this book is also a helpful way for students and scholars in those fields to see how the same themes are addressed in other texts. Given the wide range of texts and topics covered, even people already working on non-canonical texts will encounter new ideas, although the essays are too short to provide comprehensive arguments.
The essays are readable and accessible even for advanced undergraduates. Quality is generally good, and it is especially valuable that most essays treat texts individually rather than generalizing.