Thursday, October 18, 2012

RBB12: Hans-Josef Klauck's Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction

The introduction of Klauck's Apocryphal Gospels (T&T Clark, 2003) drops the gauntlets right at the beginning: there is "a newer ideology" (2)—one exemplified by Helmut Koester and North American scholarship in general—that does not simply wish to offer a balanced take on Christian origins but actually favours non-canonized early Christian writings ("apocryphal" in Klauck's parlance) in its historical reconstructions.

This stance is further described as "an un-nuanced position" (2) and it is no surprise that shortly afterwards Klauck feels it is necessary to explicate his own criteria for dealing with non-canonized early Christian writings. He states clearly that there are no underlying apologetic motives in his discussion. It is best to judge each "apocryphal" work independently (even so far as taking each logion in the Gospel of Thomas separately under scrutiny; 108), as certain writings hold the possibility for offering important insights into the formation of the new religious movement. For examples, Klauck thinks that the Gospel of Peter (as Koester has suggested) could contain independent, early traditions about Jesus (96), and in this regard the Gospel of Thomas remains another major contender for him (121).

Yet there exists a pronounced division that is drawn firmly into the ground, as Klauck considers "every apocryphal writing ... something of a detour", contrasted with "the main road" by which Klauck undoubtedly refers to the canonized early Christian writings as they were interpreted by the proto-orthodox Christians (219). The concluding section of Klauck's Apocryphal Gospels goes even further: a programmatic decision to study early Christianity without honouring canon boundaries is deemed "itself in danger of putting forward an ahistorical argument" (222), and two reasons are presented for this judgement. First, it is a historical fact that "the canon" (of four Gospels) emerged, and second, it emerged relatively early i.e. the four canonized Gospels were collected together already by the middle of II CE (222).

But, quite frankly, something is seriously wrong here. Even if we, as Klauck does, posit the collection of the four canonized Gospels of John, Luke, Mark, and Matthew and contrast them with all the other Gospels that came to be, I do not see how it follows from the fact that some early Christians held some writings authoritative (Irenaeus and his fourfold Gospel) while other early Christians held other writings authoritative (Marcion and his Gospel of Luke) that a historian of the ancient world should not "ignore the boundaries of the canon as a matter of principle" (222). Of course a historian should make away with canon boundaries whenever his historically-minded questions have no relation to them i.e. when the canon boundaries themselves are not part of the questions! The talk on canon in this instance betrays the bias: if there is no apologetic tendency whatsoever involved, why is it always about Irenaeus' canon and never about Marcion's? The emergence of the latter is as much a historical fact as the first, and it is at least as ancient a collection, as well. The problem I have with this stance is that it makes Irenaeus's canon a kind of Jedi mind trick: "These are not the droids writings you are looking for", the old man Obi-Wan Irenaeus tells us. "These are heretical and they lie", he whispers. Only by repeating these over and over will we be allowed to move along.

As with Koester, it all comes down to language (see my previous writings under RBB12 heading). Klauck, for whatever reason, is content in talking of the "main road" whilst placing the "apocryphal Gospels" on the sideline. While this does not make Klauck's attitude apologetic per se (and his choice of tackling each literary work independently is a good one in any case), it is quite obvious which early Christianity he is most sympathetic with. For choice examples, Klauck frames his discussion of "the exuberant gnostic mythology" in the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit by calling it "an artificial creation" (60), further characterized as "difficult to understand" and even "repellent" (if only initially) (60), and he considers the "intellectual world" of the Gospel of Philip to be "foreign" (134). At the other end of the spectrum, the Protevangelium of James exhibits "charming touches" in its elaboration of the history of Mary, the mother of Jesus (based on the scarce description provided by Matthew and Luke), while the hymn of Anne, the mother of Mary, is found to be "moving" (66). The most ambiguous statement is Klauck's observation that there is a certain "spiritual fascination" in the more gnostic-oriented Gospels which "suggests that today's readers find in them an echo of the way they too feel about the world and about the project of their own lives" (105). But does Klauck posit himself among those "today's readers"? Maybe not, as the sentence looks like an effort to understand and distance himself from the popular rather than to embrace it.

The problem? This choice of perspective has the danger of ending up with a position that, in Klauck's words, turns out to be "un-nuanced" (or unreflected). It is the danger of taking the story of one variant of early Christians as the basic building block in the writing of their history—a story that is, furthermore, told by themselves of themselves. It marginalizes other groups of early Christians for an arbitrary, ahistorical reason. In short, it does not look like fair play, a notion Heikki Räisänen has championed for over two decades, and one we will discuss in more length when I get around to write about The Rise of Christian Beliefs (2010).

Yet when all is said and done, is it for the greater glory of the general historical method that, despite the differences enumerated above, Klauck's reading of the actual sources has much in common with Koester's? True enough, he is more careful (or even, conservative) in his assessment: the Dialogue of the Saviour (185), the Gospel of Thomas (122), and the Gospel of Peter (83) are located to II CE rather than the first, for instance. But overall, Klauck's Apocryphal Gospels presents a plausible, non-controversial reading of all the major contenders for the status of non-canonized Gospels. The choice of texts is done on pragmatic grounds (3), and, ultimately, it is the self-designation of the ancient texts as "Gospels" that matters, despite this criterion being "merely extrinsic" (106). In practice, Klauck ends up discussing the Gospel of Truth (which is more of a homily), and also the agrapha or the "scattered" logia of Jesus found in isolation outside gospel literature proper.

The presentation of each Gospel follows a tripartite form of (1) contextual information, (2) paraphrasing the text in question with a choice number of direct quotations, and (3) evaluation of the text. Only one of the texts, the Discourse of St John the Theologian About the Falling-Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, is presented in whole (in translation). Personally, I prefer to have access to the texts themselves. Early Christian writings are fascinating on their own right, and a collection of translated texts works as an introduction as well, as exemplified by the Finnish edition of Nag Hammadi writings (Nag Hammadin kätketty viisaus, eds. Ismo Dunderberg & Antti Marjanen) which is required reading at the undergraduate level at the University of Helsinki.

For one final personal note, I highly approve of Klauck's decision to include the Toledoth Yeshu (which he calls "Anti-Gospel") in his discussion (211-220). To be sure, this is not a Christian Gospel but a Jewish one, highly critical of Christianity and deliciously mocking satire of the Christian Gospels so far that Klauck has decided to play it safe by calling its protagonist "Yeshu" instead of "Jesus" and omitting some of the cruder versions from his discussion altogether. Despite its highly polemical tone, its contents are not exactly new, as the accusations of sorcery, unmarried parents, and the stealing of Jesus' body by his disciples are already present in the Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate), and the Protevangelium of James has likewise presupposed the existence of such arguments. Klauck suggests, quite rightly, that some traditions used in this work are ancient (IV CE at the latest) though as a complete literary work the Toledoth Yeshu is harder to date—no "canonized" version exists as the transmission of this text has taken place behind the scenes (for obvious reasons).

Finally, Klauck does a better job in contextualizing the writing of Toledoth Yeshu than he does with some of the Christian writings (namely, the Gospel of Philip and other gnostic-oriented texts). Specifically, I am left wondering what does it mean that the Toledoth Yeshu is described as "a form of protest by the oppressed and persecuted" (211), and "a voice of the persecuted" whose "reaction" is "provoked" by the "social, religious and political pressure exercised by the Christian majority" (219)? Does the lightly patronizing tone illustrate how the academy has come to terms with the Jewish Other and left the antisemitic tendencies largely in the past? If so, then I suggest the next step should be coming to terms with the Gnostic Other and leaving aside notions of "repellent" and "foreign" when confronted with it. Those Christians who wrote the Apocryphon of John, for example, were certainly protesting against something and their subversion of certain themes looks quite similar to the treatment Jesus receives in the Toledoth Yeshu.

Though I may appear to be overly critical above, I wish to point out that there is almost nothing in the actual historical work that I disagree with Klauck. My criticism stems from the fact that lately, I have become more interested in the framework or the paradigmatic understanding in which scholarship is conducted than with the actual scholarship itself—not that the first does not feed directly into the latter. In any case, Klauck's Apocryphal Gospels works as a useful albeit short introduction into the world of early Christianities.

1 comment:

  1. You know, the funny thing was, I was sure those WERE the droids we were looking for. Yet my boss said, "Move along." How we let them get away I do not understand to this day.