A Report on the 2017 CSBS Apocrypha Session: Some Reflections

Tony Burke (York University in Toronto) has posted an insightful overview of the 2017 Canadian Society of Biblical Studies annual meeting, held in Toronto at Ryerson University on May 27-29. Unfortunately I have not been able to attend the CSBS meetings in many years, but it is always great to see the fascinating work being done by my fellow Canadian scholars. Tony is one of the leading scholars today on Christian apocrypha, with a particular specialization on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (indeed, his critical edition is now the standard edition of this fascinating gospel).

CSBS Presenters

In his report, he highlights several papers delivered on non-canonical or apocryphal texts. Although I will not reproduce Tony’s conference report, let me briefly highlight these papers. I encourage readers to check out Tony’s full report on his own website (http://www.apocryphicity.ca/2017/06/03/2017-csbs-christian-apocrypha-session-report/).

  • Ian Phillip Brown (University of Toronto), “Where Indeed was the Gospel of Thomas Written?: Thomas as a Product of Alexandrian Intellectual Culture.” – Arguing against the grain of scholarship that situates this gospel in Edessa.
  • Amelia Porter (University of Toronto), “New Paideia?: The Construction of Social Identity in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” – Situating this text within ancient aspects of paideia (fascinating in relation to the “teacher” sections of this infancy gospel).
  • Robert Edwards (University of Notre Dame), “The Deposition and Christology in the Gospel of Peter.” – I am seeing a rising interest in the Gos. Peter in recent years, which is exciting (especially as I’ve also been working on this fragmentary gospel), so I’m delighted to see another voice challenging docetic Christological readings of this gospel while offering a fresh perspective to the text.
  • Tony Burke (York University), “Christian Apocrypha in Ancient Libraries.” – A look at where and why apocryphal texts were preserved and discovered while challenging popularized notions of apocryphal vs. canonical texts, notions that make for great fiction but poor history.

Interest in Christian apocrypha is growing, not only in the Canadian academic sphere but throughout North America and especially Europe. I regret not hearing these papers in person, though I look forward to seeing them–or larger research projects (if I’m not mistaken the first three papers are by doctoral students) from which these papers are derived–in published form in the years ahead. In reflecting on Tony’s report along with other tends I’ve been seeing in the field, there are several positive developments worth noting:

(1) There is an increasing interest in Christian apocrypha without the text necessarily having to link to “New Testament” studies (as if studying a non-canonical text is only valuable if it helps us better understand canonical texts). Appreciating these texts on their own merits bodes well for a more holistic and balanced historical reconstruction of early Christianity.

(2) Longstanding assumptions or conclusions in the interpretation of these apocryphal texts are being reassessed. A Syrian or even more specifically Edessene location for the Gos. Thom. or the docetic Christology, which was largely based on Eusebius reference to Serapion, has consistently come under fire in recent scholar or fresh readings of Inf. Gos. Thom. that situate the text within broader cultural dynamics in late antiquity all help us to approach these texts with fresh perspectives (and hopefully to gain a better understanding of these texts and their place within antiquity).

(3) Thankfully there is a growing recognition that “orthodoxy and heresy”–along with corresponding dichotomy of the canonical and apocryphal–is a misleading model for historical research. Why would a library or monastery have non-canonical or apocryphal writings? Aren’t these heretical works? Surely people only engaged and were taught “orthodox” scripture, right? Or perhaps the church authorities set out to suppress and obscure the “truth” of the heretics (need I evoke such conspiracy theories in pop culture)? We are increasingly recognizing, instead, that many of these texts stood side-by-side with their canonical “cousins”, that ancient and medieval popular imaginations were saturated with a range of religious and textual resources; indeed, even with an established canon of scripture, there was a great deal of fluidity and creativity. Rather than dichotomies, we have far more dynamic processes at play.

(4) The rising interest in Christian apocrypha–e.g., with the More New Testament Apocrypha project, the founding of North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature (NASSCAL), and the establishment of the e-Clavis Christian Apocrypha project (as just a few examples from North America)–is well illustrated with these papers. Of the four papers presented at the CSBS, three are by younger scholars and the fourth by a significant midstream career scholar. A field of study is only as viable as the continued interest and fresh perspectives of those who enter into and continue to engage in research on given topics. The talent and energy brought to the table by each of these academics is certainly welcome and bodes well for the future of scholarship on the apocrypha.

Again, I wish I had been able to hear these papers. But I’m glad to have read Tony’s report and to gain a small glimpse into more research from my Canadian colleagues on these fascinating apocryphal writings.



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