|Publication Date: 20 Jun 2013|
|Publisher: SPCK Publishing|
|Page Count: 192|
|Author: Tony Burke|
|ISBN-13: 9780281068456, 9780281068463|
Secret Scriptures Revealed
Secret Scriptures Revealed is a short, accessible introduction to “Christian Apocrypha” for students and members of the general public interested in learning more about noncanonical texts. Numerous texts are described and interpretive issues discussed. In a world in which conversations about noncanonical texts tend toward hyperbole, Burke aims to provide a “sober discussion” that “will encourage an appreciation for the literature” (4). He advocates that these texts “be taken seriously as vital witnesses to [Christian] beliefs and practices” (6).
The first chapter discusses different ways in which the term “apocrypha” is used, with Burke defining Christian Apocrypha as “non-biblical Christian literature that features tales of Jesus, his family and his immediate followers” (6). This chapter highlights the variability of the New Testament canon in the early centuries and suggests that canonical boundaries would not always have been important for Christians with limited literacy. Mentioning the work of Walter Bauer, Burke remarks, “We cannot accept one group’s version of history and set of beliefs as correct simply because they triumphed over the others. All Christian groups have something to tell us about early Christian history and, by extension, every piece of Christian literature is worthy of study” (19). He also introduces “Gnosticism,” primarily in terms of cosmogony and ascetic tendencies.
Chapter 2 describes the various ways in which apocryphal traditions have been preserved, highlighting the languages of extant manuscripts and their discovery in graves, garbage dumps, and monastic libraries. Burke notes that manuscripts of noncanonical traditions often exhibit significant variation. The influence of apocryphal traditions on art, drama, and other literary and non-literary forms is also described.
The next three chapters offer brief overviews of numerous apocryphal texts. Their content is described, information about manuscripts and their influence on later Christian tradition provided, and suggestions given for further reading and modern translations.
Chapter 3 focuses on traditions about Jesus’s life and ministry, beginning with infancy gospels such as the Protoevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which “fill in gaps” about Jesus’s early years and address theological issues such as Mary’s postpartum virginity. The adult Jesus also features in noncanonical texts. Both Christian and Muslim sources attribute sayings to Jesus that are not found in the canonical gospels (“agrapha”), and fragments have been discovered of what may be lost gospel narratives, some dated as early as 200 CE (P. Egerton 2). Longer gospel narratives, such as the Gospel of the Saviour and Gospel of Peter, are also extant. Burke highlights controversy regarding the Secret Gospel of Mark, a supposed longer form of Mark’s Gospel referenced in a letter allegedly by Clement of Alexandria. While some scholars believe both the letter and Secret Mark to be modern inventions, Burke seems to lean toward authenticity: “This stalemate demonstrates how scholars’ own sensitivities, biases and even dislike for other scholars can interfere with the study of ancient literature, particularly with gospel texts that describe a Jesus different from the one they know and believe is true to history” (62– 63).
Burke suggests that “Jewish-Christians” may also have composed gospels, although none are extant. The Gospel of Thomas, on the other hand, is available for consultation and is a collection of sayings that some consider to be an early, independent witness to Jesus’s activities. With a nod to Dan Brown, Burke remarks that the description of Mary of Magdala as Jesus’s “companion” in the Gospel of Philip need not be understood in a sexual sense and that noncanonical Jesus texts do not necessarily provide new information regarding the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, they offer a valuable window into the concerns and beliefs of early Christians.
Chapter 4 discusses texts that depict Jesus’s passion, resurrection, and postresurrection appearances. While some draw on and resemble canonical accounts, others differ. In the Revelation of Peter, a distinction is made between the crucified body of Jesus and the living Jesus who does not suffer. In the Book of the Cock, Paul puts the crown of thorns on Jesus’s head. Pilate is sometimes a villain and sometimes a hero in apocryphal texts, and Jesus’s postcrucifixion descent into hell is colourfully described (cf. 1 Peter). In numerous texts Jesus also appears and speaks with his disciples after the resurrection, answering questions they pose. One such tradition is the Gospel of Mary, where the latter plays a prominent role. Finally, Burke describes “apocalypses” such as the Apocalypse of Paul whose descriptions of hell influenced later church tradition.
Chapter 5 focuses on legends about the apostles and other early Christians, suggesting that these were sometimes written to support beliefs and practices of particular communities and sometimes functioned in tandem with pilgrimage sites and relics. Some traditions, such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, give women a prominent role, highlight conflict with governing powers, and emphasize sexual abstinence. Figures such as Judas and Jesus’s mother Mary also appear in apocryphal texts, and traditions about the latter’s death influenced the Roman Catholic doctrine of the bodily assumption of the Virgin. In one text Mary Magdalene is depicted as a virgin.
Following this helpful overview of texts, Burke devotes a chapter to “myths, misconceptions and misinformation about the Christian Apocrypha.” He counsels against generalizations regarding the dating of texts and about unwarranted assumptions regarding authorship: not all apocryphal texts are attributed to apostles, and the New Testament itself includes pseudepigraphy. Contrary to popular belief, he notes, most apocryphal texts do not contain gnostic elements, nor do their “bizarre and fanciful” features distinguish them qualitatively from the New Testament. While texts such as the Acts of John and the Revelation of Peter “explicitly argue against proto-orthodox doctrine” (143), most apocryphal texts do not seem to have been written to replace or undermine canonical texts, and the same early Christians often used both canonical and noncanonical works. Suppression of apocryphal texts was not as thorough as sometimes imagined, and the process by which a few texts became canonical reflects widespread consensus rather than the work of a powerful minority. Nor does reading Christian Apocrypha necessarily harm one’s faith, although Burke admits that his students have wrestled with the texts in different ways. Burke also identifies a deep gulf between “liberal scholars” who advocate using the Christian Apocrypha for understanding early Christianity and “apologists” or “conservative evangelical theologians” who defend the New Testament as most reflective of the life of Jesus and the views of the early church.
Secret Scriptures Revealed is a readable, engaging introduction to noncanonical texts and debates about them. Nonspecialists are gently introduced to significant scholarly issues, and texts are described in such intriguing ways that readers will surely be motivated to follow the helpful recommendations for further reading and peruse texts for themselves. This book serves as an excellent and delightfully concise overview of early Christian literature that demonstrates how study of noncanonical texts points to diversity in early Christianity. The book also illustrates how the pre-existing commitments and concerns of apocryphal interpreters have shaped discussion of these texts.
One only wishes Burke had more clearly acknowledged that he himself writes from a particular point of view, especially in a book designed for a broad audience. Although he presents his work as a “sober,” detached account (4), the book is all the more interesting because he takes interpretive stands. He treats Secret Mark as “ancient literature” (63) and suggests that copyists and translators thought apocryphal passion narratives spoke “to them in ways the canonical texts did not” (100). He remarks that a story about bedbugs in the Acts of John “is really about John ordering women from his bed” (106) and asserts that, “when biblical scholars study the historical Jesus, … Jesus’ miracles, including his resurrection, are explained as either symbolic stories intended to convey a particular message … or as primitive understandings of scientifically verifiable phenomena” (139). He also appears to avoid using the word “scholars” for persons whose views differ too radically from his own, preferring to call the latter “thinkers,” “apologists,” or “theologians” (Ch. 6). His book is thus less impartial than he makes it out to be. Although these views are not necessarily all incorrect, nor is it a weakness to state them, Burke could have acknowledged the process more openly.
One might also raise interpretive quibbles regarding a few particular texts and observe more generally that his perspectives are sometimes rather traditional. He defines “Christian Apocrypha” with relation to New Testament genre categories (6), uses the term “original text” (38, 112), and suggests that “our knowledge of the Christian Apocrypha is only as good as the texts we are able to reconstruct” (36), reflecting an assumption that “reconstructing” texts is possible and worthwhile (36). But in a field where almost everything is debatable, one would hardly expect two interpreters to agree on every point.
Secret Scriptures Revealed is to be commended as a concise, readable introduction to early Christian literature that provides a fascinating window into the intriguing world of noncanonical texts for a general audience.