An example of the liberal use of Christian apocryphal literature

September 6, 2011

As mentioned in the last post, Tony Chartrand-Burke, Prof. at York University, has panned the treatment of Christian Apocryphal literature by the evangelical scholars, who have written with apologetic motives. While agreeing with him in part, I mentioned in passing that evangelicals who have been stung by such criticism should take heart.  I wrote: “It is not as if liberal scholars, who are not specialists, are any more accurate in their treatment of Christian apocryphal literature.”

One such example is the funny little book by Stevan L. Davies, The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts (1980), Professor of Religious Studies at Misericordia University.    As a doctoral student I borrowed the book from one of my professors.  I spilt coffee on it one day, and upon returning the book I confessed my misdeed and offered to pay for a new copy; my prof responded with a wink, “Don’t worry about it.   After all, it is not a very good book, is it?”

Chief among  Davies’ faults is his assumption of a single coherent community behind the five major Apocryphal Acts (Peter, Paul, John, Andrew and Thomas).  It is widely acknowledge that this is a methodological faux pas.*

*See in this regard, Jean-Daniel Kaestli,  “Les principales orientations de la recherche sur les Actes apocryphes des Apôtres.” In Les Actes apocryphes des Apôtres.  Christianisme et monde païen, ed. François Bovon, 49-61. Publication de la faculté de théologie de l’Université de Genève. Geneva: Labor et Fides.  (56-57, “La nécessité d’étudier chaque texte pour lui-même”).


An 18 foot lion

August 25, 2011

Tony Chartrand-Burke, a professor at York University, castigates evangelicals who have an apologetic motive for their treatment and understanding of Christian apocryphal literature.  For example, he writes:

The modern apologists’ inadequate knowledge of the CA [Christian Apocrypha] is due to the fact that they are not experts on the CA nor on Gnosticism. The apologists show their shortcomings in CA studies also in their reliance on collections of apocryphal texts or commentaries rather than recent and comprehensive scholarship on the texts.

Being evangelical myself, I am sympathetic with the aims of the apologists and have myself been accused of being one.  Yet as a specialist of the Acts of Paul, I would desire that those on my side who wish to say things about Christian apocrypha do so with accuracy and sophistication.  Thus, I am in part (and only in part) in agreement with Prof. Burke’s sentiments.

So consider the following lines from Timothy Paul Jones’, Misquoting Jesus:

According to this document [Acta Pauli], being a Christian includes not only faith in Jesus Christ but also complete abstinence from sexual relations, even within marriage.  Plus, about halfway through Acts of Paul, the apostle Paul baptizes a lion that’s eighteen feet tall.  So, if Acts of Paul had ended up in the New Testament, you might get to dunk wild felines in your church’s baptistery, but you’d also have to stop having sex.

First, the Acts of Paul nowhere gives such a measure of the lion, though we found that Goodspeed’s translation of the Epistle of Pelagia, an Ethiopic text which shows evidence of dependence on the Acts of Paul.

And they set a lion in ambush for Paul in the theater, and the one whose height is 12 cubits, and his size as that of a horse …

Now a cubit is said to be usually equal to 18 inches (Webster’s) and so 12 cubits comes to 18 feet.  Hence, it is our theory that Jones mistakenly applies something that he read in the Epistle of Pelagius to the Acts of Paul.  This is a pretty amateur mistake.

While it is true that most scholars have concluded, as Jones, that the Acts of Paul is encratite, I have written a lengthy refutation of this view in chapter 4 of my doctoral dissertation.  Even the scholar I quoted yesterday, as saying that the lion himself had given up marital sex, concludes (H.-J. Klauck, The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, 75):

Despite all the exhortations, and despite Thecla’s radiant example as image of an ideal virgin, there is no clear prohibition of marriage anywhere in the text, nor is the renunciation of marriage made a precondition for the reception of baptism.  It is possible that Onesiphorus, with his wife and two sons, is intended to function as a model of Christian family life.  It seems that the author stops just short of an important boundary line, which he does not cross into a programmatic encratism.

This is a much more subtle and sophisticated reading of the Acts of Paul, and Klauck has evidently come to this position quite independently of me, since he betrays no knowledge of my unpublished or published work on the Acts of Paul.   For evangelical Protestants, it is perhaps strange to see a text extol the virtues of sexual continence, yet even the New Testament promotes Christian chastity.  The Acts of Paul likewise allows the Christian either the path of marriage and family or the path of total devotion to God through sexual continence.

How could evangelical scholars overcome this lack of sophistication and accuracy with regard to Christian apocryphal literature? My suggestion is that they and their publishers consider seeking the help of consultants, like myself and others (members of AELAC), before publishing.  No one can be an expert in every area and so there is absolutely no shame in consulting the opinion of others who have become specialists in a subject.  And finally, I would offer courage to such evangelicals who have made mistakes like Jones’s.  It is not as if liberal scholars, who are not specialists, are any more accurate in their treatment of Christian apocryphal literature.