“Can Reading the Christian Apocrypha Be Harmful to Faith?” by Tony Burke

Tony Burke
Tony Burke

Tony Burke is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada, and author of Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha.

This is the second in a two-part series of guest posts by Tony Burke on EerdWord. Read part one here.

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My new book, Secret Scriptures Revealed, concludes with a chapter entitled “Myths, Misconceptions, and Misinformation about the Christian Apocrypha.” It is a distillation of my previous work on the conflict between liberal scholarship on the Christian Apocrypha and its apologetic critics (“Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium,” published in Studies in Religion/ Sciences Religieuses 39 [2010]: 405-420 and in a shorter form in SBL Forum, available online HERE).

The content of this chapter is arranged as responses to ten common statements on the Apocrypha, including: “The Christian Apocrypha were all written after the texts of the New Testament,” “The Christian Apocrypha were written by Gnostics,” “The Christian Apocrypha were written to undermine or replace the canonical texts,” and “Reading the Christian Apocrypha is harmful to one’s faith.”

Essentially I try to show that all of these statements require nuanced discussion: not all Christian Apocrypha are early or late (indeed some can be both, with early portions incorporated into later texts); not all Christian Apocrypha are written by Gnostics; and so on. While certainly a handful of so-called “liberal” scholars arguably have exaggerated the importance of some noncanonical texts (e.g., John Dominic Crossan on the Gospel of Peter), their arguments often are not engaged fairly in the apologetic literature. I suppose it is the nature of apologetics to simplify arguments and, alas, demonize their opponents. It is important, therefore, particularly in popular discourse, to demonstrate that views like Crossan’s are not representative of the field (we don’t all try to date apocryphal texts early) and that dismissing Crossan’s arguments does not mean that all liberal scholarship is in error.

Secret Scriptures Revealed
Secret Scriptures Revealed

But what about the biggest challenge posed by those critical of noncanonical texts? Can reading the Christian Apocrypha be harmful to one’s faith?

I will not deny that this question was a struggle to answer. To admit that apocryphal texts could in any way be harmful to faith means acceding that the ancient heresy hunters were — and the modern apologists are — right, and that Christianity can be damaged by these texts. This issue, again, however, requires a nuanced response.

I have seen in my students that their individual reactions to these texts are much like their reactions to biblical scholarship in general. Students from conservative Christian backgrounds, where the authorship of the gospels or the historical veracity of traditions about Jesus are never questioned, tend to feel cheated, misled, and manipulated by their church leaders when they encounter the challenges posed by (liberal) biblical scholarship. But students from Christian communities that are more open to discussing the results of scholarly inquiry feel much less anxiety in biblical studies classrooms. Their beliefs and experience of Jesus are less tangled up in texts and traditions and more connected to Jesus the man. From this perspective, noncanonical gospels can be considered sympathetically as additional interpretations of Jesus, though perhaps more distant from their subject in time and place than the canonical texts.

The harm, then, is not so much to Christianity as to Christian orthodoxy — i.e., to Christianity that propagates a very narrow definition of “truth” and encourages the eradication, or at least the repression, of contrary viewpoints.

Christian faith can be built on both canonical and noncanonical traditions. Indeed, it has been throughout the history of Christianity, where stories and images from both categories of texts have met regularly in homilies, popular literature, art, drama, and iconography.

Click to order Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed, to visit his blog, Apocryphicity, or to read part one of his EerdWord miniseries, “Revealing Christianity’s Secret Scriptures.”