According to Tony Burke, conservative scholars writing about the “Christian Apocrypha” (CA) unfairly focus on their allegedly “absurd” and “bizarre” elements and in doing so misrepresent them:

Of course, only those sections of the CA texts that are particularly odd are provided and commented upon. The favorite targets appear to be the resurrection account from the Gospel of Peter, the “absurd tales” of the various infancy gospels, and certain logia from the Gospel of Thomas (Witherington, for example, considers 31 “pantheistic,” 114 “misogynist,” and 18 “is just being obscure for obscurity’s sake!”). Such focus on the “bizarre” elements of the texts misrepresents their contents…. Large parts of the CA are quite “orthodox” but these sections are not discussed…. The refutation by exposure is assisted, as with the ancient heresiologists, by explicit ridicule of the texts’ contents.

Let us stipulate that the conservative scholars whose works Burke is criticizing do have a specific agenda or polemical purpose that involves, at least in part, discrediting the noncanonical gospels in some way. If that is these authors’ intent, drawing attention to absurd, bizarre, or repugnant elements in these apocryphal works is a perfectly legitimate strategy. Why not point out such elements? Why not focus attention on those aspects of the writings that most easily serve to discredit them? Burke complains that such critiques ignore those parts of the CA that are compatible with orthodox Christianity and that are not obviously objectionable. This complaint would have some relevance only if the conservative critics of the CA were alleging that all of the contents of all of the CA were objectionable from start to finish. This is not what these conservative scholars are saying.

Let me put the issue in a broader context here by drawing attention to the way some writers sympathetic to the CA have spoken about them. Elaine Pagels is outspoken in her admiration for some of these writings:

I had come to respect the work of “church fathers” such as Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 180), who had denounced such secret writings as “an abyss of madness, and blasphemy against Christ.” Therefore I expected these recently discovered texts to be garbled, pretentious, and trivial. Instead I was surprised to find in some of them unexpected spiritual power—in sayings such as this from the Gospel of Thomas, translated by Professor MacRae: “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is in you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’” The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me self-evidently true.[1]

If it is legitimate for Pagels to claim that the Gospel of Thomas, far from being “garbled, pretentious, and trivial,” is a book of “unexpected spiritual power,” and to illustrate that claim with a specific saying from the book that she considers “self-evidently true,” it is certainly legitimate for other scholars to dissent from this assessment by pointing out elements that seem garbled, pretentious, trivial, self-evidently false, or otherwise consistent with Irenaeus’s assessment.

Consider the statement of another noted scholar in this field, Marvin Meyer:

The presentation in the Gospel of Thomas of the good news of wisdom, I am convinced, contributes a great deal to our understanding of the history and significance of Jesus, and this understanding provides another viable way of articulating the gospel of Jesus.[2]

One common argumentative strategy that conservative scholars use to debunk this sort of sentiment about the Gospel of Thomas is to show that the “sympathetic” interpretations of this and other apocryphal works put forth by scholars like Pagels and Meyer is inconsistent with the books’ contents. What better way to do this than by citing those statements in the CA that would normally be embarrassing to a Pagels or a Meyer—or even offensive to them, were they to be found in the writings of John or Paul?

Religious studies professor Stevan Davies, who has written several books on the Gospel of Thomas, is only more frank in expressing his admiration for the book:

I remember my first impression [of the Gospel of Thomas] to this day, which was that the sayings of Jesus in Thomas’s Gospel seemed altogether more pleasant than the sayings in the canonical texts…. I, and many more people, would prefer to think that Jesus spoke in the manner of the Gospel of Thomas rather than in the manner of the church’s gospels, but we must all bear in mind that our preferences are irrelevant to the determination of historical fact.[3]

Two pages later, Davies cautiously entertains “the possibility” that the canonical Gospels’ orthodox Christianity that was later chosen to represent Jesus’ views was not his own perspective but that of the one victorious group among all of the first-century groups that taught in his name.”[4]

The author of his Foreword, Andrew Harvey, is not so circumspect:

The Gospel of Thomas really is, I believe, the clearest guide we have to the vision of the world’s supreme mystical revolutionary, the teacher known as Jesus.[5]

Pointing out absurd, bizarre, or offensive elements in the CA is a legitimate, reasonable response to such statements. Now, to be fair, each of the apocryphal writings ought to be evaluated on its own merits; what is true of one (say, the Gospel of Judas) may not be true of another (say, the Gospel of Thomas). But this caution works both ways: what a scholar says that is critical of the Gospel of Judas should not be assumed to be intended as applicable to the Gospel of Thomas.

Now, are these aspects of the CA as bad as the conservative scholars say they are? Burke offers very little in the way of a direct rebuttal to these specific criticisms. In a new post commenting on my second and third posts in this series, Burke does offer a brief, general rebuttal to one of these criticisms:

Similarly, some of the “bizarre elements” in Gos. Thom. and Gos. Pet. can also be tamed or explained if one takes the time to do so. It is unfair, I think, to label Gos. Thom. 114 “misogynistic.” For one thing, such an assessment is anachronistic; for another, it is far too simplistic a way to interpret the saying. I won’t attempt to do so here as there are far too many other experts on the text who could do so, and have done so. Unfortunately, the apologists (like Witherington) do not consult these works; they simply draw attention to these sections of the texts that will alarm their readers.

The interpretation of Gospel of Thomas 114 is indeed a point of some controversy among scholars, and I agree that it would be good for conservatives to give more attention to the differing interpretations. But this doesn’t mean the criticism is unjustified. As I said in a previous post in this series, had such a statement appeared in any of the canonical writings, we would (rightly) never hear the end of it. I am bemused by Burke’s suggestion that referring to the saying as misogynistic is “anachronistic.” Really? Misogyny didn’t exist in the first or second centuries? I hope Burke will share this revelation with the numerous scholars who have pilloried the apostle Paul, or the author of the so-called deutero-Pauline epistles, for his supposed misogyny. David D. Gilmore speaks for many scholars (and non-scholars, too) when he asserts, “Paul (or the writer of some of the material attributed to him) can be legitimately cast in the role of the first official Christian misogynist.”[6] Karen Armstrong can allege that the Pastoral Epistles contain “misogynist passages,” with reference to statements that do not come close to the offensiveness of the idea that a woman must become male in order to be worthy of the kingdom of God.[7] Cannot N. T. Wright and other scholars (including some feminist scholars, as I illustrated previously), then, argue a fortiori that Gospel of Thomas 114 should be judged misogynist, or at least far more so than anything in the New Testament?

In a separate post I will discuss more directly the controversy over the interpretation of Gospel of Thomas 114. Suffice it to say that conservative scholars have every right to bring up such texts when arguing that the Gospel of Thomas and other apocryphal writings should not be treated as viable alternative visions of Jesus for a more enlightened age. 



[1] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2005), 32.

[2] Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 82.

[3] Stevan L. Davies, The Gospel of Thomas: Annotated and Explained (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2002), xxi.

[4] Ibid., xxiii.

[5] Andrew Harvey, “Foreword,” in Davies, Gospel of Thomas, x.

[6] David D. Gilmore, Misogyny: The Male Malady (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 86.

[7] Karen Armstrong, “The Eve of Destruction,” in The Guardian, Feb. 15, 2004.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008 at 2:40 pm and is filed under apocrypha, apologetics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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Rob: I’ve really been enjoying this series, keep up the good work! 🙂

October 22nd, 2008 at 5:28 pm

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  1. Burke vs. Bowman: Christian Apocrypha & Apologetics « Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth    Oct 22 2008 / 5pm:

    […] “Bizarre” Aspects of the Apocryphal Gospels: Reply to Tony Burke (IV) (Bowman) […]

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