Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

Finding apocrypha

The ancient Greek word apocrypha literally means "secret [things]" and in the first Christian centuries came to refer to a variety of texts that were circulating apart from the biblical books that were regularly read in churches and used in baptismal instruction. (For an excellent online catalogue of ancient "apocryphal" texts, understood very broadly as texts set in the time of Christ and the apostles, pay a visit to the website of the North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature.) For some ancient writers, apocryphal texts might be used with great discretion by more advanced Christians, containing teachings that might come down from the apostolic era mixed with some errors. For other ancient Christians, apocrypha were bait used by deviant Christians (heretics) to lure the unsuspected into false belief and immorality.

These two perspectives (as well as a variety of viewpoints in between) showcase the evolving attitudes toward the notion of a biblical canon: either as a context specific set of books (i.e., those to be used in church settings) or as a definitive list of authoritative scriptures. In theory, the latter viewpoint took hold by the middle ages; in reality, a welter of texts set in apostolic times (if not ascribed to apostolic authors) were read and circulated widely. They not only "filled in" aspects of sacred history (who were the Virgin Mary's parents? what was Christ like as a child? how did Saint Paul die?), they gave imaginative space for Christians to interact with their literary and artistic heritage, like the voluminous lives of Christian saints that were widely circulated.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Christian apocrypha play a very different role in both academic and popular writing (indeed, the two are often mutually reinforcing). These texts from the second, third, and fourth centuries are often viewed as a kind of "countercanon," an alternative body of texts leading curious moderns down a path to the variety of Christian "roads not taken." Bart Ehrman referred to these roads not taken as "lost Christianities" and the apocryphal evidence for them "lost Scriptures," in a pair of books published in 2003.

For Ehrman, the New Testament canon, and the orthodox Christianity it supported, were the end result of a series of (metaphorical) "battles" between different varieties of Christianity whose traces remain in the historical record. But the suggestion in these volumes is that modern readers might be more receptive to these alternative Scriptures and Christianities. One set of "battles" might be over, but the theological "war" raged on.

Ehrman's books follow in the wake of a long line academic and popular writers "reintroducing" popular readerships to "lost," or apocryphal, texts. Following the discoveries of the Nag Hammadi books and the Dead Sea Scrolls, amid the roil of social, political, and religious upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s, alternative "Bibles" hit the market that promised to open readers' eyes to a sometimes bewildering array of "lost" texts and beliefs.

In 1984 poet and translator Willis Barnstone published The Other Bible, which contained (according to its subtitle) "Jewish Pseudepigrapha, Christian Apocrypha, Gnostic Scriptures, Kabbalah" and "Dead Sea Scrolls."

These corpora have little in common except for their exclusion from the "orthodox" Christian canon and the suggestion of secret revelations. The Other Bible has remained in print since the 1980s, accompanied in more recent years by expansive "countercanonical" collections, like Hal Taussig's A New New Testament, which juxtaposes select canonical New Testament works with "apocryphal" texts according to topic and genre.

These modern collections of "lost," "other," and "new" texts frame apocrypha as an intervention in a centuries-long attempt at theological conformity through a closed Scriptural canon. Moreover, the attention to ancient apocrypha brings with it the suggestion of age-old suppression of a different (truer?) story of Christian origins whose time has come to emerge from the shadows.

If all of this sounds a little conspiratorial, it is: the modern recuperation and celebration of apocryphal over canonical texts emerged, in part, from an Enlightenment project of freeing humankind from the constraints of orthodoxy, which had for centuries kept Christians in the dark about the truth of Christian origins. Harvard scholar Annette Yoshiko Reed has traced this attitude toward apocrypha to the 1700s, when freethinking Christians upheld newly published "New Testament apocrypha" anthologies as "potential sources for exposing the suppressed truth" about Jesus and Christian origins. Even though these texts have been known to specialists since antiquity, their collection, publication, and circulation to popular audiences has been deemed—from the 1700s to the present—a necessary step in undoing the suppression and repression of canonical Scriptures. The surprising revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi texts, as well as other modern "discoveries" of ancient apocrypha, has only made the revelatory appeal of apocrypha even stronger.

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