Ancient Apocryphal Gospels

By Cole, Zachary J. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Ancient Apocryphal Gospels


Cole, Zachary J., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. By Markus Bockmuehl. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017, xiii + 330 pp., $40.00.

In this "deliberately brief and accessible guide," Markus Bockmuehl offers an introduction to the so-called apocryphal or noncanonical Gospels. This volume comes as the latest installment in the series "Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church," which is aimed at teachers and preachers. Bockmuehl describes his approach as having five emphases. First, the book is meant to be accessible to non-specialists but also non-sensationalist, and so a centrist position is taken on most scholarly debates within the field. Second, since all apocryphal Gospels in some way presume the existence of the NT (a point that he demonstrates through the course of the book), they should be read alongside the canon as "paracanonical" or "epiphenomenal," supplementing the four Gospels rather than truly rivaling them. Third, although perhaps surprising, it should be kept in mind that no ancient Gospel offers "an alternative account of the kind provided in the four New Testament gospels" or "trace[s] what Jesus did and said and suffered from his baptism through his public ministry to his crucifixion and resurrection" (p. 30). Apocryphal Gospels should therefore be seen as something fundamentally unique and distinct from the canonical ones. Fourth, attention is given to intertextuality, or the relationship between canonical and noncanonical Gospels, which Bockmuehl describes in terms of "antecedence and influence" rather than strict literary dependence. Fifth is an emphasis on social memory, which considers "the social, cultural, ritual, and religious dimensions of how communities remember their past and understand their identity" (p. 31).

The book contains six chapters, the first of which is a comprehensive introduction to the subject. Here we find definitions of key terms such as "Gospel," "apocryphal," and "gnostic" (Bockmuehl generally avoids the latter due to its misleading connotations). Chapters 2-5 examine the texts themselves. In line with his proposal that apocryphal Gospels are "epiphenomenal" in nature, Bockmuehl groups them according to their relation to the basic narrative structure of the canonical Gospels. So, chapter 2 examines "Infancy Gospels"; chapter 3 moves to "Ministry Gospels"; chapter 4 then treats "Passion Gospels"; and chapter 5 focuses on "Post-Resurrection Discourse Gospels." A final chapter summarizes and concludes the study. In addition to the main bibliography, each chapter is followed by a short list of "Suggested Further Reading." Also included is a glossary of technical terms.

In chapter 2, Bockmuehl concentrates on the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the most influential and best attested of the Infancy Gospels, though some minor texts such as the History of Joseph the Carpenter and the Birth of Mary also have brief descriptions. Chapter 3 deals with a wide range of texts called "Ministry Gospels." Here, Bockmuehl first discusses the so-called "Jewish Christian Gospels" (those according to the Hebrews, the Nazoreans, and the Ebionites), which he suggests might have been nothing more than paratextual supplements to the canon-such as a series of marginal glosses-rather than stand-alone books. Other fragmentary Gospels on papyrus such as Papyrus Egerton 2 are then treated together. Mention is also made of Marcion's Gospel, the Diatessamn, the so-called "Secret Mark," and the Agbar legend.

The subject of chapter 4 is "Passion Gospels," which concerns primarily the Gospel of Peter and similar fragments, but later Gospels associated with Pilate, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea are also introduced. Chapter 5 is about "PostResurrection Discourse Gospels" and includes lengthy discussions of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. Other texts included here are mostly those discovered at Nag Hammadi. …

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