Jim Davila’s Review of More New Testament Apocrypha: Some Thoughts on Parts Two and Three–With Comments on the Acts of Timothy and the Encomium on John the Baptist

Last week I shared, along with my own reflections, a link to Jim Davila’s review of Tony Burke and Brent Landau’s edited New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). Over the weekend, Davila has posted parts two and three of his review. The fourth and final installment is forthcoming.


Here are the links to parts two and three:

Part Three:


Part Two:


Undoubtedly, the most insightful of all the segments of the review will be part four, where Davila will share his own thoughts on the entire project. This should give us some valuable insights into the MNTA project and its place within an emerging area of research.

The parts just posted, however, are highly descriptive. Basically, Davila briefly presents each of the thirty texts covered in MNTA1. He organizes this list by broad chronological groupings. He has not evaluated the translations or the introductions to each text, but instead allows readers to get a “taste” of what they will find in this wonderful volume. And what a taste it is!

Yes, I’m a bit biased because I translated and introduced one of these texts (the Encomium on John the Baptist), but like Davila I’ve enjoyed bouncing through this collection of ancient texts. Just last night I was captivated by Cavan W. Concannon’s translation of the Acts of Timothy (CANT 295; fifth century). This is a fascinating little text that bridges genres of apocryphal acts and martyrology. It seems to be designed to reinforce or reestablish the ecclesial importance of Ephesus in the fifth century. Concannon’s introduction to the Latin and Greek manuscripts nicely covers this social function of Acts of Timothy, though readers will also want to read his recent article (one of the few modern pieces of scholarship on this text), “In the Great City of the Ephesians: Contestations over Apostolic Memory and Ecclesial Power in the Acts of Timothy,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 24.3 (2016): 419-46. And I’ve spent many evenings just reading several of these texts. As a specialist in early Christian studies, it is exciting to “discover” such wonderful gems from the ancient world. It brings back memories of when, as an undergraduate student lo those many years ago, I first encountered early Christian apocryphal writings.

My point is that this collection is not just a rehash of “standard” apocryphal writings (as delightful and valuable as those writings are). This is something new and exciting. I may not agree with all my colleagues in this volume (e.g., I’m not sure if the Encomium on Mary Magdalene–introduced and translated by Christine Luckritz Marquis–should be identified as an encomium or if it fits the “pseudo-apostolic memoirs” genre identified by Alin Suciu), but I recognize the significance of this collection and the potential significance of future MNTA volumes. So Davila’s “snapshot” of the thirty texts included in volume 1 is helpful for those unfamiliar with this collection.

I do want to make a brief comment, however, on his summary of the Encomium on John the Baptist. Davila writes:

This volume translates two other works about John. An Encomium on John the Baptist (pp. 217-246, Philip L. Tite) is a Coptic text whose Greek original could have been composed anywhere between the late fourth and the tenth centuries, with later in the range being more likely. The Life of John the Baptist by Serapion (pp. 268-292, ed. by Slavomír Čéplö) survives only in Arabic (Garshuni) manuscripts and was likely composed in Egypt in the fourteenth century, with parts perhaps translated from Coptic.

This description is basically correct, with the date more likely falling somewhere between the eighth and tenth century. The question of a Greek original, however, is very debatable and something I struggled with while working on this text. As nicely demonstrated by Walter Till in 1958 (“Johannes der Taüfer in der koptischen Literatur,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Abteilung Kairo 15: 128-45, 355-51), the Encom. Bapt. has a large number of Greek loan words. It used to be common to assume that such use of Greek in a Coptic text was an indication of an underlying Greek original translated into Coptic. This assumption was especially common in studies of the Nag Hammadi Codices (and in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, given the Greek fragments we have, a valid assumption). Originally, I figured that the same process was going on with Encom. Bapt., a process that could allow us to read the text from a non-Egyptian perspective (e.g., outside of Egypt) or a Greek-speaking Egyptian context (e.g., within Egypt) (note, for example, my discussion of the ferryman of the dead motif in this encomium).

However, as I continued to work on the text—and especially through an exchange with Alin Suciu—it became evident that a shift in Coptic studies was occurring, a shift that affected how we should read Encom. Bapt.; i.e., we are beginning to appreciate the presence of Greek terms within texts originally written in Coptic (notably within liturgical texs). With such a shift in Coptology, I think we may need to reassess, for example, past readings on the provenance of many of the Nag Hammadi tractates. In support of a Coptic original for Encom. Bapt., Alin pointed out to me that in other pseudo-Chrysostom encomia preserved in Coptic, there is a lack of a Greek manuscript tradition. The Encom. Bapt., rather than falling along a Greek-Coptic continuum, seems to fall along a Coptic-Arabic-Ethiopic continuum. This view—that the text was originally produced in Coptic not Greek—is my current position.

However, there is the other side to the debate. The Encom. Bapt. could have a “carry over” from a Greek original, much like we find with some other Coptic texts where we know there was an earlier Greek version (e.g., Gos. Thom. and Gos. Mary). The Encom. Bapt. exists in two Sahidic Coptic manuscripts, both dated to the tenth century (London, British Library, Or. 7024 [fol. 1a-17b], offered as a gift to the Monastery of St. Mercurius near Edfu, and Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Copte 12918 [fol. 116-20], from the White Monastery).  The latter only has a few pages and the more complete text, the former manuscript from the Monastery of St. Mercurius, is our main source for the Encom. Bapt. There are stylistic differences in the Coptic, though few significant differences that arise in translation. Originally, I planned to present both manuscripts in synoptic columns for comparison, but in the end decided that the differences were not significant enough for such a presentation. However, it is possible that we have two separate translations into Coptic of the two texts, though this is largely just an impression on my part and would need a closer text-critical analysis to confirm one way or the other. If they are independent translations, then it would make sense to posit a Greek original.

I’m still leaning toward a Coptic original, however. This seems to make the best sense of the text within its late antique context. And I would be most comfortable dating the text to a two-hundred-year range of eighth to tenth century.

Anyway, just a small comment to follow up on Davila’s description. Overall, I’m enjoying reading his review of MNTA1, almost as much as I’m enjoying reading the various texts collected by Tony and Brent. I look forward to the fourth and final installment.


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