The Apocryphal Gospels

Foster, Paul
OUP (2009)
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It is perhaps a little harsh - but only a little - to judge a book on the basis of what it is not. If you take Paul Foster's title literally you are, I think, entitled to assume that all the major pseudo graphic texts are included but his definition of Gospel, a work described as such or referring to itself as such, is artificially narrow and therefore excludes, for example, the Shepherd of Hermas which was by far the nearest of its kind to being included in the New Testament Canon.

The definition demonstrates an artificial fastidiousness which pervades the book, alternating with purple passages on the histories of manuscripts which include crime, intrigue, double dealing and pure incompetence which, in the case of the Gospel of Judas led to its being seriously harmed because the owner froze it, thinking that that would better preserve the papyrus manuscript which had already been damaged through greed, indecision and vandalism.

The contrast between the dry scholarship and the colourful manuscript history does not quite work because the two facets operate in loose parallel rather than being part of a bigger picture. Foster might have said but does not, why the material was excluded from the New Testament Canon and he might have stated in a quite straightforward way that, pace Dan Brown, apocryphal material was never banned by the Church, collectively or by its bishops but, rather, it was allowed to take its chances alongside more established, earlier work by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John until it faded out of consciousness. The major barriers to canonical inclusion were the highly personalised views of authors, far-fetched embellishment of the canonical tradition and, above all (another point which Foster does not make) the fact that such authors wrote to supplant not supplement the emerging canon.

One area where Foster writes well is on the provisional nature of 2nd Century Christianity and the parallel diversity of Gnosticism, noting that Justin Martyr, Valentinius and Marcion were all teaching in Rome c150. Christianity was so pluralist in its piety and practice that some of the apocryphal material, notably the Gospel of Thomas was read with reverence; and many of the stories and motifs (notably Mary's Joachim and Anna parenthood) became lodged in Christian tradition and art.

Foster's analytically cool approach to content of documents helps to correct contemporary near hysteria in the name of feminism and against authority which is supposed to have suppressed material for its own power crazed ends. His refutations are laudably concise but I wish he had found more room for a discussion of the subversion of Mary Magdalene, culminating in the false charge of prostitution levelled at her by Pope Gregory the Great and which in some ways accounts for the later charges of gender subversion; and although he mentions it in passing, there should surely have been more room for a wider discussion of the cult of virginity in the 4th century which, coinciding with the Constantinian settlement, accounts for yet more of the subversion of the role of women in Christianity which we are still trying to work through.

Overall, I missed the excitement of this highly charged material which is transmitted in Robin Lane Fox's The Unauthorized Version [1]. In short, this is a useful supplement for those who already have a comprehensive listing of pseudographia. There are some good yarns, a good deal of straight analysis and the occasional nugget but I completed the reading with a deep sense of frustration and a determination to find something better.

[1] Lane Fox, Robin: The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible.  Penguin; New Ed edition 2006.  ISBN-10: 0141022965.