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Beyond the Canonical and the Apocryphal Books, the Presence of a Third Category: The Books Useful for the Soul

  • François Bovon (a1)

I like tennis—both to play and to watch it.1 Nothing is more pleasant than watching an exchange between Federer and Nadal. There is a similar kind of exchange that has been going on in this country in recent years. On one side, there are evangelical New Testament scholars; on the other, liberal scholars working on early Christianity. In the camp of the evangelicals, Ben Witherington,2 Craig A. Evans,3 and Darrell L. Bock4 are playing a defensive game, accusing the others of constituting a “new school,”5 one that prefers heresy over orthodoxy and promotes diversity where unity once was. In the camp of the critics, Elaine Pagels promotes the spirituality of the Gospel of Thomas; 6 Bart D. Ehrman's Lost Christianities flies in the face of his opponents;7 and Marvin Meyer considers the Gospel of Judas a valuable work that reveals in the mind of the dark apostle knowledge of the divine realm.8

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1 This paper was presented as the Presidential Address at the 2011 New England and Eastern Canada Regional Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. I would like to thank Linda Grant who improved this essay in particular by revising its English.

2 Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Da Vinci (Downers, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004); idem, What Have They Done With Jesus? Between Strange Theories and Bad History: Why We Can Trust the Bible (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

3 Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006); Exploring the Origins of the Bible: Canon Formation in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (ed. idem and Emmanuel Tov; Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

4 Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson, 2006); idem and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson, 2007).

5 Bock, Missing Gospels, 32.

6 Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2005); eadem and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Viking, 2007).

7 Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); idem, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

8 Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, The Gospel of Judas from the Codex Tchacos (Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2006); see Marvin Meyer, The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

9 See the neglected book by Hans Urner, Die außerbiblische Lesung im christlichen Gottesdienst. Ihre Vorgeschichte und Geschichte bis zur Zeit Augustins (Veröffentlichungen der evangelischen Gesellschaft für Liturgieforschung 6; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1952).

10 Eusebius of Caesarea, referring to Clement of Alexandria, uses the term inline-graphic in Hist. eccl. 6.13.6 and 6.14.1. A little further down Eusebius quotes Origen in the fifth book of his Comm. Joh. and this one uses the verb inline-graphic, ibid. 6.25.8. While the author of the Synopsis Athanasii (PG 28.432) is on the whole opposed to these documents, he is aware of the orthodox extraction of some parts of them. Léon Vouaux (Les Actes de Pierre. Introduction, textes, traduction et commentaire [Les Apocryphes du Nouveau Testament; Paris: Letouzey, 1922] 191) translates in the following way: “Certains fragments de ces écrits, plus vrais et respirant le souffle divin, ont été détachés et séparés pour la lecture.”

11 Origen's nuanced position is accessible in Eusebius's presentation, see Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25; see Jean Ruwet, “Les ‘antilegomena’ dans les œuvres d’Origène,” Bib 23 (1942) 18–42 and 24 (1943) 18–58; idem, “Les apocryphes dans les œuvres d’Origène,” Bib 25 (1944) 143–66 and 311–34.

12 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.25.1–7; Éric Junod, “La formation et la composition de l’Ancien Testament dans l’Église grecque des quatre premiers siècles,” in Le Canon de l’Ancien Testament. Sa formation et son histoire (ed. Jean-Daniel Kaestli and Otto Wermelinger; Le Monde de la Bible; Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1984) 105–34, particularly 120–23.

13 Athanasius, Epistula festalis XXXIX (PG 26.1435–1440); see David Brakke, “Canon Formation and Social Setting in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria's Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter,” HTR 87 (1994) 395–419; Éric Junod, “Quand l’évêque Athanase se prend pour l’évangéliste Luc (Lettre festale XXXIX sur le canon des Écritures),” in Early Christian Voices in Texts, Traditions and Symbols: Essays in Honor of François Bovon (ed. David Warren, Ann Graham Brock and David W. Pao; Biblical Interpretation Series 66; Boston: Brill, 2003) 197–208; David Brakke, “A New Fragment of Athanasius's Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter: Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon,” HTR 103 (2010) 47–66.

14 Nicephori archiepiscopi Constantinopolitani opuscula historica (ed. Carl de Boor; Leipzig: Teubner, 1880) 132–35. It is not certain that Nicephorus, the early ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, is the author of this Stichometry.

15 See Dominique Barthélemy, “L’état de la Bible juive depuis le début de notre ère jusqu’à la deuxième révolte contre Rome (131–35),” in Kaestli and Wermelinger, Le canon de l’Ancien Testament, 9–45.

16 See ibid., 40–42.

17 For example, Vaticanus graecus 455, at f. 290v. See also John of Thessalonika's clause in his homily De Dormitione 1 (see below n. 28: inline-graphic).

18 See Ernst von Dobschütz, Das Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis in kritischem Text herausgegeben und untersucht (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1912).

19 The book of Daniel is presented not as a new revelation but as the rediscovery of an ancient collection of visions; see Barthélemy, “L’état de la Bible juive,” 23 on Dan 9:24.

20 Gilbert Dagron, Vie et miracles de sainte Thècle. Texte grec, traduction et commentaire (Subsidia hagiographica 62; Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1978).

21 Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, The Life and Miracles of Thekla: A Literary Study (Washington D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006). This author has prepared an English translation of the second part of that work: idem and Alice-Mary Talbot, Miracle Tales from Byzantium (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).

22 To exculpate himself, he compares his intentions with Luke's programmatic statements in the preface to his gospel, see Luke 1:1–4.

23 See Codex diplomaticus Fuldensis (ed. Ernst Friedrich Johann Dronke; 1850; repr., Aalen: Zeller, 1962).

24 Curiously, although building on the Latin version of Eusebius's Hist. eccl., Victorinus does not call Tatian's harmony Diatessaron, but Diapente! This means that Tatian used a fifth source in addition to the four gospels, perhaps Q, the Gospel of Thomas, or a Jewish-Christian gospel.

25 On the Diatessaron, its vulgatization in ancient times, and its study in modern times, see William L. Petersen, Tatian's Diatessaron: Its Creation, Dissemination, Significance, and History in Scholarship (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 25; Leiden: Brill, 1994).

26 Gregory of Tours, Liber de miraculis beati Andreae apostoli. Edited in 1885 by Maximilien Bonnet, it has been reprinted and translated into French by Jean-Marc Prieur, Acta Andreae. Textus (CCSA 6; Turnhout: Brepols, 1989) 551–651.

27 “Nam repperi librum de virtutibus sancti Andreae apostoli, qui propter nimiam verbositatem a nonnullis apocrifus dicebatur; de quo placuit, ut, retractis enucleatisque tantum virtutibus, praetermissis his quae fastidium generabant, uno tamen parvo volumine admiranda miracula clauderentur, quod et legentibus praestaret gratiam et detrahentium auferret invidiam, quia inviolatam fidem non exegit multitudo verbositatis, sed integritas rationis et puritas mentis.” Gregory of Tours, The Life of Andrew, lines 5–13 of the edition by Prieur, Acta Andreae, 569.

28 Other cases of orthodox rewritings of apocryphal material according to prefaces include the following. Rufinus in his letter to Gaudentius, serving as a preface to his Latin translation of the Clementine Recognitions; see Die Pseudoklementinen, II, Rekognitionen in Rufins Übersetzung (ed. Bernhard Rehm and Georg Strecker; GCS; 2d ed.; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1994) 3–5. The anonymous translator of one form of the Latin Acts of Thomas: “Nam legisse me memini quendam libellum in quo iter eius vel miracula quae in India gessit explanabantur. De quo libello, quod a quibusdam non recipitur, verbositate praetermissa pauca de miraculis libuit memorare, quod et legentibus gratum fieret et ecclesiam roboraret;” see Klaus Zelzer, Die alten Lateinischen Thomasakten (TU 122; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1977) 45. The author of a Latin translation of the Protevangelium of James, see Jean-Daniel Kaestli, “Le Protévangile de Jacques en latin. État de la question et perspectives nouvelles,” Revue d'histoire des textes 26 (1996) 41–102, particularly 55–61. The author of the Libellus de nativitate sanctae Mariae P 1.2: “Nam hoc quod a me nunc cano capite exposcis, adolescentulum me in quodam libello qui in manus meas incidit legisse noris, et certe tanti temporis intercessu et aliarum non leuium rerum interuentu facile aliqua memoriae elabi potuerunt”; see Libri De Nativitate Mariae (ed. Rita Beyers; CCSA 10; Turnhout: Brepols, 1997) 269–71. The beginning of the long Latin version of the Apocalypse of Paul 1–2; see Konstantin Tischendorf, Apocalypses apocryphae (1866; repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 1966) 34–35. John of Thessalonika, De Dormitione 1–2; see Homélies mariales byzantines. Textes grecs édités et traduits en latin, II (ed. and trans. Martin Jugie; PO 19; Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1926) 375–78; and Simon Mimouni, Dormition et assomption de Marie. Histoire des traditions anciennes (Bibliothèque historique 98; Paris: Beauchesne, 1995) 135–48. Jean Gerson, Monotessaron. Prooemium in concordantias evangelistarum. Prologus. Prooemium super unum de quatuor: cujus titulus esse potest Tetramonum, vel Monotessaron; see Jean Gerson, Opera omnia (ed. Louis Ellis Du Pin; 5 vols.; 1706; repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 1987) 4: 83–92; Marc Vial, “Zur Funktion des Monotessaron des Johannes Gerson,” in Evangelienharmonien des Mittelalters (ed. Christoph Burger, August den Hollander, and Ulrich Schmid; Assen: Royal van Gorcum, 2004) 40–72, esp. 62–63.

29 Probably under Western influence the letter would be removed from the Armenian canon. The 1805 critical edition of the Armenian Bible prints it in an appendix.

30 See Carl Schmid, Acta Pauli aus der Heidelberger koptischen Papyrushandschrift Nr. 1 (Veröffentlichungen aus der Heidelberger Papyrus-Sammlung 2; 2d enlarged ed., 1905; repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 1965).

31 See Éric Junod and Jean-Daniel Kaestli, L'histoire des Actes apocryphes des apôtres du IIIeau IXesiècle: le cas des Actes de Jean (Cahiers de la Revue de théologie et de philosophie 7; Lausanne: Revue de théologie et de philosophie, 1982) 43–47.

32 See François Bovon and Bertrand Bouvier, “Étienne le premier martyr: du livre canonique au récit apocryphe,” in Die Apostelgeschichte und die hellenistische Geschichtsschreibung. Festschrift für Eckhard Plümacher (ed. Cilliers Breytenbach and Jens Schröter; Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity 57; Leiden: Brill, 2004) 309–31. The article includes the edition of the Greek text of the story (BHG 1649c) according to the Vaticanus graecus 679.

33 This is the Houghton Library Ms. Lat. 117. Beverly Kienzle drew my attention to the volume. I am grateful to her.

34 See The Apocryphal New Testament Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses (ed. and trans. Montague Rhodes James; corr. ed.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1969); Neutestamentliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung (ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher; 2 vols.; 5. Auflage der von Edgar Hennecke begründeten Sammlung; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1987–1989).

35 See Zbigniew S. Izydorczyk, Manuscripts of the Evangelium Nicodemi: A Census (Subsidia mediaevalia 21; Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1993); The Medieval Gospel of Nicodemus: Texts, Intertexts, and Contexts in Western Europe (ed. Zbigniew S. Izydorczyk; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 158; Tempe, Ariz: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1997) particularly 12–13.

36 See inline-graphic (ed. P. G. Nicolo-poulos; Athens: inline-graphic, 1998) 239.

37 It was Rémi Gounelle who first drew my attention to that document.

38 See François Bovon and Bertrand Bouvier, “Prière et Apocalypse de Paul. Un fragment grec inédit conservé au Sinaï. Introduction, texte, traduction et notes,” Apocrypha 15 (2004) 9–30.

39 See Louis Leloir, Écrits apocryphes sur les apôtres. Traduction de l’édition arménienne de Venise, I, Pierre, Paul, André, Jacques, Jean (CCSA 3; Turnhout: Brepols, 1986) 87–172.

40 See below, p. 10.

41 “Ma io, perché venirvi? o chi 'l concede? / Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono; / me degno a ciò né io né altri 'l crede,” Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia. Inferno, 2.31–33, see also 2.28–30. The Italian text and English translation are taken from The Divine Comedy (trans. and commentary by Charles S. Singleton; 3 vols.; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973).

42 See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

43 See Theodore Silverstein, Visio Sancti Pauli: The History of the Apocalypse in Latin, Together with Nine Texts (London: Christophers, 1935); Apocalypse of Paul: A New Critical Edition of Three Long Versions (ed. Theodore Silverstein and Anthony Hilhorst; Cahiers d’Orientalisme 21; Geneva: Cramer, 1997).

44 See n. 38, above.

45 See Ferdinand Piontek, Die katholische Kirche und die häretischen Apostelgeschichten bis zum Ausgang des 6. Jahrhunderts. Ein Beitrag zur Literaturgeschichte (Breslau: Nischkowsky, 1907) 15–16 and 26–33. I admit that my third category works particularly well when the fronts of orthodoxy and heresy have been clearly established.

46 See the prescription in the manuscript Athos, Xenophontos 32, f. 29v. This note says also that the Martyrdom of Philip, considered hagiographic material, was to be read in the church at the early morning service.

47 Jean Daniélou, “Les traditions secrètes des apôtres,” Eranos-Jahrbuch 31 (1962) 199–215.

48 See 1 Cor 2:2 and 6–16.

49 This attitude has an antecedent in Jewish literature: 4 Ezra 14 betrays an attitude opposed to the closed canon of Jewish Scriptures established by the Pharisees and claims a higher status for the apocalyptic books reserved for the elite of the wise: “Le texte proclamerait la supériorité des 70 livres apocalyptiques, reservés à l'usage des sages, sur les écrits ordinaires, destinés à la masse du peuple,” wrote Jean-Daniel Kaestli, “Le récit de IV Esdras 14 et sa valeur pour l'histoire du canon de l’Ancien Testament,” in Kaestli and Wermelinger, Le Canon de l’Ancien Testament, 95.

50 Philastrius of Brescia, Diversarum hereseon liber. See Piontek, Die katholische Kirche und die häretischen Apostelgeschichten, 39; Junod and Kaestli, L'histoire des Actes de Jean, 59–62.

51 See Ernest Ch. Babut, Priscillien et le priscillianisme (Paris: Champion, 1909) 120–31 and 218–40; Junod and Kaestli, L'histoire des Actes de Jean, 87–90. There has been new interest in Priscillian in recent years, see Sylvain Jean Gabriel Sanchez, Priscillien. Un chrétien non conformiste. Doctrine et pratique du priscillianisme du IVe au VIe siècle (Théologie historique 120; Paris: Beauchesne, 2009) 269–90 on the apocrypha. Priscillian of Avila, The Complete Works (ed. Marco Conti; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 82–99 (ed. and trans. of the third treatise, Liber de fide et de Apocryphis).

52 Turibius of Astorga, Epistula ad Idacium et Ceponium 5 (PL 54.694). See Piontek, Die katholische Kirche und die häretischen Apostelgeschichten, 46–47; Junod and Kaestli, L'histoire des Actes de Jean, 70–72 and 96–98.

53 If this is so, I would have to introduce a distinction among the several books of the third category: I would have to distinguish between those books that have less authority than the canonical books and those that have more authority.

54 See Jaroslav Pelikan, The Reformation of the Bible and the Bible of the Reformation (catalog of the exhibition by Valerie R. Hotchkiss and David Price; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

55 See Irena Backus, “Praetorius’ Anthology of New Testament Apocrypha (1595),” Apocrypha 12 (2001) 211–36.

56 See article VI “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation,” in The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Church of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, n.d.) 613–14: “And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” There follows a list of the Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament. I thank John T. Townsend for this reference.

57 Apophtegmata Patrum 14.16; see Jean-Claude Guy, ed., Les Apophtegmes des Pères. Collection systématique, chapitres X–XVI (SC 474; Paris: Cerf, 2003) 264–65. I am grateful to John Duffy, who drew my attention to this passage.

58 Écrits apocryphes chrétiens (ed. François Bovon, Pierre Geoltrain, and Jean-Daniel Kaestli; 2 vols.; La Pléiade 442 and 516; Paris: Gallimard, 1997–2005).

59 See François Bovon, “Editing the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles,” in The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: Harvard Divinity School Studies (ed. François Bovon, Ann Graham Brock and Christopher R. Matthews; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999) 1–35.

60 See Albert Maichle, Der Kanon der biblischen Bücher und das Konzil von Trient. Eine quellenmässige Darstellung (Freiburger Theologische Studien 33; Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1929).

61 Elias Hutter, Novum Testamentum DNI NRI: Iesu Christi, Syriace, Ebraice, Graece, Latine, Germanice, Bohemice, Italice, Hispanice, Gallice, Anglice, Danice, Polonice (2 vols.; Nuremberg, 1599) 2: between p. 526 and p. 527.

62 It seems that in the first edition of his German translation of the Bible Luther also refused to give a page number to some books of the Bible that he considered to be christologically less relevant, for example the letter of James. See Maichle, Der Kanon der biblischen Bücher und das Konzil von Trient, 6–7. I owe this information to my colleague Helmut Koester, in a conversation.

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