'The Many Faces of Christ'

Religion Booknotes 2016
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It turns out that the popular mythologists of Christianity are wrong both in root and in branch. In an earlier book (The Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Went Wrong), Jenkins showed how very unhistorical the quest for the historical Jesus was: contrary to claims made by scholars like John Dominic Crossan, apocryphal writings do not give privileged access to knowledge about the human Jesus. Now Jenkins, a prolific Baylor University professor of history, sets out to demolish the other side of the popular myth peddled by Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrmann, and many others. The apocryphal writings generated from the second century on, these revisionists claim, were totally suppressed by the church through the process of canonization, and remained largely unknown until their recovery by modern scholars. Jenkins argues convincingly that many apocryphal works not only survived but continued to be highly influential within Christianity for a thousand years.  

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Part of his proof relies on the evidence for a wide transmission of apocryphal writings. Many of these texts are found in multiple translations, suggesting an equally extensive popularity in different areas of the Christian world. Canonization of the Old and New Testament did not lead automatically or necessarily to the destruction of other texts; it simply relegated them to the secondary position of private reading rather than public proclamation. Ethiopia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Armenia, Central Asia—even Ireland and England—provide tantalizing clues to the survival and use of both New and Old Testament apocrypha. So do the traces of apocryphal accounts discernable in the works of medieval dualists such as the Bogomils and the Albigensians, and the clear use of New Testament apocrypha in the depictions of Jesus in Muslim and Jewish writings. Early apocryphal texts serve as sources for The Golden Legend, the best-selling book of the high Middle Ages. 

Survival, then, is clear; but what about influence? Jenkins develops the case that the apocryphal gospels and acts were of critical importance for shaping the medieval image of Christ. The attention paid to the nativity of the Christ child in ecclesiastical art owed everything to the depiction of him in The Protevangelium of James, which was appropriated in the later Infancy Gospel of Matthew; the stories of the boy Jesus as wonder-worker and helper in Joseph’s carpenter shop come entirely from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. More strikingly, the widespread image of the triumphant resurrected Christ as the harrower of hell (as in Langland’s Piers Plowman) comes from the apocryphal Acts of Pilate.

Even more impressively, apocryphal gospels influenced piety and doctrine concerning Jesus’ mother. The Protevangelium of James, rather than the canonical Gospels, is a primary source for convictions concerning the Immaculate Conception as well as the perpetual virginity of Mary. Similarly, the tradition that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven owes everything to such apocrypha as The Six Books Apocryphon (fourth century) and On Mary’s Death (fifth to sixth century). And although Mary Magdalen is officially understood in medieval Christianity as a repentant sinner, the Golden Legend continues the emphasis of earlier apocrypha by memorializing her as “fellow to the Apostles” and a powerful preacher of the good news.     

Jenkins makes a convincing case that popular piety during the thousand-year span of Catholic Christianity (500–1500) did not eliminate but rather cherished and elaborated apocryphal traditions, and that the true period of repression was not the notorious fourth century, but the Reformation, when the principle of Sola Scriptura demanded the abandonment of all the legendary and miraculous elements that so enlivened medieval Christianity.

Published in the February 12, 2016 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. His many books include Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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