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Uncanonical but still informative

25 October 2013

John Court considers Christian apocrypha

Secret Scriptures Revealed: A new introduction to the Christian apocrypha
Tony Burke
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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 The aim is to produce updated English translations of little-known texts, together with others so far unpublished.

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 I myself had a glimpse of such a quest, with an unpublished Fourth Apocalypse of John using two or three manuscripts, one of which I could not read!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.

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