D. Moody Smith, John, the Apocryphal Gospels and Tony Burke’s class
I’ve very much been enjoying blog posts by Tony Burke (York University) on his course on the Christian Apocrypha. I’ve been trying to follow along with the reading he mentions as well. So far, he has made the following posts:
- 2012 “New Testament Apocrypha” Course
- New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 1
- New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 2
- New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week 3
- New Testament Apocrypha Course: Week Four
(Yes, I know, he is inconsistent in using digits or spelling out numbers, but you Emerson’s old saw about the “hobgoblins” and all.)
Today’s post included some exposition of the idea that the Fourth Gospel was compiled from multiple early Christian groups:
Taking a page from Gregory Riley and Helmut Koester, we looked at the possibility that characters in John are intended to represent other Christian groups with which John’s community was in conflict. Doubting Thomas, therefore, represents the group behind the Gospel of Thomas (which too seems to “doubt” physical resurrection) and Mary Magdalene represents the group behind the Gospel of Mary (which seems to portray Mary as a visionary).[…] As many scholars maintain, John was constructed in layers with the primary layer being a “Signs Gospel.” Like Q, this text no longer exists and is not included in the NT and therefore is non-canonical, but it is preserved in a sense through John’s use of it, which makes it canonical. Another source for John is the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery. This story is not original to the text, and even shows up in the Gospel of Luke (and, incidentally, according to a note in one manuscript of John, it ultimately derives from a “Gospel of Thomas”). Technically, this is a non-canonical story—text critics should argue for its removal from John (like Romans 16:24, which can be tricky to find in many Bibles)—but it is a treasured story so it remains canonical.
(To be clear, Burke clearly states that he’s “not entirely convinced by the Riley-Koester argument.”)
But things got very interesting in the next paragraph.
The other aspect of John related to orthodoxy and heresy deals with John’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels. I had the students read an article by D. Moody Smith (“The Problem of John and the Synoptics”). In the article, Smith discusses the assumptions made about apocryphal gospels—they are late, derivative of canonical texts, and contain bizarre embroideries and expansions of canonical texts. By such a definition, John looks like an apocryphal gospel. Matthew and Luke seem to consider Mark “scriptural”—it is clearly an authority for them and they follow its structure and style. But John does not. Also John is not featured as prominently as the Synoptics in the Apostolic Fathers, and its esteem among non-proto-orthodox groups made orthodox writers suspicious (the Muratorian Canon features a lengthy justification for its inclusion in the list; Hippolytus wrote a defense of John against Gaius who wanted it eliminated because it disagreed with the Synoptics). In essence, Smith is saying that John is apocryphal because it does not follow Mark, but its inclusion in the NT makes it canonical.
I’m not sure exactly which publication Burke is referring to here, because D. Moody Smith wrote several works with similar titles, but I think it is “The Problem of John and the Synoptics in Light of the Relation between Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels” in Denaux’s John and the Synoptics (although Smith seems to cover many of these themes in his book John Among the Gospels as well.)
In any case, Burke’s posts make for concise and interesting reading, and I can recommend them.