Antike christliche Apokryphen

This is a pre-pub version of my brief review of an important collection of Christian apocrypha, which will appear in Reviews in Religion & Theology in due course.

Antike christliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung. I. Band: Evangelien und Verwandtes. 2 Teilbände, Edited by Christoph Markschies and Jens Schröter with Andreas Heiser, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012 (ISBN 978-3-16-149951-7), xxvi + 1468 pp., Hb €249.00, Pb €99.00.

These two impressive half-volumes together comprise the first volume of a substantial re-working and expansion of the Hennecke-Schneemelcher collection of ancient Christian apocrypha. Hitherto known as a collection of ‘New Testament apocrypha’, the change in name in this seventh edition signals also a change in focus and organization. Rather than simply judge these works in their formal or material connection to the New Testament, the present collection casts its net wider to encompass a broader collection of Christian material (and in some instances, non-Christian, as in the welcome addition of material transmitted through Islamic tradition).

One can gain some measure of the expansion from the previous edition by noting that this edition is over a thousand pages longer than its previous German instantiation (x + 442 versus xxvi + 1468 pp.). At almost every point the present edition is fuller than its predecessors, in both scope and depth. Some texts are newly included on the basis of new discoveries (such as the so-called Gospel of Judas), while others that were only mentioned in the previous edition are now included in translation (such as the Gospel of Gamaliel, here included in both Arabic and Ethiopic recensions). Most often we find an expansion of the entries on the basis of subsequent scholarship. The Haupteinleitung by Markschies is a book-length (180 pp.) treatment of the concepts and history of the canon, apocrypha and testament, with a significant number of canon lists and testimonies from ancient authors about the canon included in German translation. The massive erudition and wide learning evinced in the introduction will repay careful study, and justify the space devoted to its inclusion.

This edition uses a new principle of arrangement, with the major division now between ‘non-canonical Jesus tradition’ (Section A) and ‘non-canonical Gospels’ (Section B). The first comprises non-canonical sayings of Jesus (including now those from Nag Hammadi and from Islamic literature in Arabic), non-Christian testimonia about Jesus, and texts about Jesus’s work and suffering (e.g., the Abgar legends), and relatives (e.g., the Transitus Mariae). The second section, the larger by far, is divided again into seven subsections: fragments of unknown gospels on papyrus; various small fragments of non-canonical gospels; other non-canonical gospels mentioned but not preserved by ancient authors; sayings gospels; narrative gospels; dialogue gospels; and a broad category entitled ‘Evangelienmeditationen’, that subsumes texts related in some way to gospel traditions (many of them from so-called Gnostic backgrounds) that seem to provide reflective engagement with the story of Jesus. The categories are not always water-tight, as the brief introductory essays to each section demonstrate, but they offer a less tendentious means of categorization than in previous editions.

The entries on individual texts provide substantial bibliographies with orientating remarks on introductory questions. On the whole, these are helpfully expanded from the previous edition. For example, Beate Blatz’s introduction to the Gospel of Thomas was seven pages in the English translation of the previous version, while Jens Schröter now spends twenty-four pages introducing the same text. It is impossible within the constraints of this review to discuss the contributions on the more than seventy-five texts individually. Among many points one might note, attention should be drawn to Jörg Frey’s excellent 100-page contribution on the Jewish-Christian gospels, including two useful synopses. Moreover, the full discussion by Markschies of gospels mentioned but not preserved, and the robust treatment of the Bartholomaeus traditions should be counted as special strengths. There are myriad points of detail on which experts will disagree. For example, Helmut Merkel has updated his previous view on the Secret Gospel of Mark, now opting, in light of recent discussion, to see the work as a forgery (rightly, in my opinion).

The contributors are, on the whole, experts in their fields. Most work in German universities (with an understandable concentration in Berlin), but one might also note a handful of contributors from Austria, Switzerland, France, the UK and Canada.

We have been fortunate to see a number of useful collections of the apocryphal gospels in recent years, with, for example, Andrew Bernhard’s Other Early Christian Gospels (Continuum, 2006), Tobias Nicklas, Thomas J. Kraus and Michael J. Kruger’s Gospel Fragments (Oxford, 2009), and Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše’s The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (Oxford, 2011). While each of these collections has a particular focus and all differ from the volume under review in providing the original language of the texts in question, this new ‘Markschies-Schröter’ (as it will surely be known) provides such an unparalleled breadth of texts, together with generally substantial discussion of Einleitungsfragen, that it will remain an indispensable collection for years to come. The next volume, devoted to apostolic and related traditions, will be eagerly anticipated.

This is a major publishing event. All theological libraries, and most advanced students and scholars of early Christianity and related sub-disciplines, will want to own these volumes. Let us hope that an intrepid team of translators will be assembled to repeat the great feat previously undertaken by the late Robert McL. Wilson of making the collection available in English.

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