Secret Scriptures Revealed: A new introduction to
the Christian apocrypha
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT923
TONY BURKE of York University, Toronto, together with Brent
Landau of the University of Oklahoma, has been engaged in recent
years with a project, More New Testament Apocrypha, for
publication next year by Eerdmans. The aim is to produce updated
English translations of little-known texts, together with others so
The volume now being reviewed is an introduction to the range of
such material, known as Christian apocrypha, outside of the canon,
for anyone with a religious or secular interest, or merely curious
about the sources of works such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci
Code, and the part played by St Mary Magdalene.
This is a splendid volume, both for its clarity and its detailed
documentation. Burke begins by offering neat definitions of
"apocrypha" and other related terms. He then explains what is
involved in a search for the original text of a "secret scripture",
perhaps charting the history of its tradition through several ages
and geographical settings. I myself had a glimpse of such a quest,
with an unpublished Fourth Apocalypse of John using two or
three manuscripts, one of which I could not read!
The apocryphal texts are surveyed in three groups: Gospels
focused on the infancy and ministry of Jesus; Gospels of Jesus's
Passion and resurrection (including Apocalypses and texts of
post-resurrection teaching); and church legends comprising Acts of
named apostles and lives of figures from the New Testament. We can
see the powerful way in which the Gospel of Peter
describes the fact of the resurrection, and be disturbed by the way
the infant Christ not only performs miracles but executes curses.
These tra-ditions supply the names of the three magi, but also
variant names for the two thieves executed on Calvary.
It is unlikely that texts such as these will offer much to a
quest for the historical Jesus. They will cast a different light on
the nature of canonical scriptures (see my review of Francis
Watson's Gospel Writing, Books, 6 September). Also, in
Burke's words, "This is what these secret scriptures reveal. Each
story, each saying, discloses something about the writer and the
community in which he or she belonged - their beliefs, their
practices andtheir responses to the world around them."
Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical
Studiesat the University of Kent at Canterbury.