The words “Defending Heresy” in the title of this blog are deliberately provocative. I am referring to a recent article published on the Society of Biblical Literature’s web site by Tony Burke entitled “Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium.”  Burke (whose full name, according to his web site, is Tony Chartrand-Burke) teaches biblical studies at York University in Toronto, Canada, and specializes in the study of the Christian (or New Testament) apocrypha. His doctoral dissertation was on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  This post is the first installment (Lord willing) of a thorough reply to Burke’s article.

Burke’s SBL article is a critique of the way various conservative Christian apologetic works handle the Christian apocrypha (hereafter CA). The main authors he criticizes are Darrell Bock,[1] Ben Witherington,[2] N. T. Wright,[3] J. Ed Komoszewski,[4] Philip Jenkins,[5] and Craig A. Evans.[6] According to Burke, these authors’ works “often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them. Proper research and sober argument take a back seat to the apologists’ goal of buttressing the faith.” Like the ancient orthodox apologists such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus, they sacrifice accuracy “to the needs of apologetics” and hurl demonizing invective against modern advocates of the CA.

Burke is to be commended for focusing on this particular roster of authors, as these works are among the very best conservative Christian books written for a popular audience that discuss the Christian apocryphal writings. It would have been easy to have focused on the books produced by conservative writers lacking in the academic credentials of these authors. And scholars should welcome critical feedback on their work, as I expect all of these men would.

Unfortunately, Burke is not above some rhetorical gamesmanship himself, though it follows a different style than that of the conservative Christians whom he critiques. Burke refers to them as “apologists” twenty-five times in his brief article and as “scholars” only twice (but as “conservative scholars” and “fundamentalist scholars”). “Apologists” in the land of SBL, one should note, is a term of disapprobation. He refers consistently to writers whose research is sympathetic to the CA, however, as “scholars” (nine times) and never refers to them using the term “apologists” or any other label that would imply some agenda. Even advocates of what Burke admits is “fringe scholarship,” such as Michael Baigent and John Allegro, are called simply “scholars.” Like innumerable partisans of a secularized approach to biblical studies, Burke has difficulty describing evangelical and conservative Catholic scholars as “scholars” without qualification.

Some of Burke’s comments offer veiled criticisms (by way of subtext) that would never hold up if stated forthrightly. For example, he writes:  “The authors contribute testimonials to one another’s covers and introductory pages, and many of the books are published by conservative presses (IVP, Eerdmans, Baker). Also like the heresy hunters, the writers address their concerns to insiders, a closed group of believers who likely need little convincing that the Browns and Ehrmans of the world must be ignored.” The implication is that the authors are unable to market their work outside a narrow circle of those who share their religiously partisan point of view. Yet similar statements could be made about the scholars whose works Burke defends. Liberal and skeptical authors often contribute testimonials to one another’s covers and write forewords to each other’s books; this is as one would expect. But it may be pointed out that books by conservative scholars sometimes enjoy a wider breadth of endorsement than secular works. Bock’s book The Missing Gospels, for example, was endorsed by Martin Hengel (University of Tübingen) and Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh) as well as various conservative scholars. While several of the books Burke criticizes were published by conservative presses, Philip Jenkins’s book Hidden Gospels was published by Oxford University Press and Ben Witherington’s book What Have They Done with Jesus? (which Burke cites more than any other) was published by HarperSanFrancisco. Secular and revisionist authors also typically write primarily for readers sympathetic to their perspectives, what might in some cases be described as “a closed group of unbelievers.” And it is certainly true that secular scholars tend to ignore conservative Christian scholarship to a far greater extent than the other way around.

Let’s look at Burke’s first specific points of criticism of this anti-apocrypha literature. He complains:

“However, often the apologists excerpt the texts simply to highlight their differences from the canonical texts. 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….” In support of this criticism Burke cites Komoszewski, Wright, Witherington, Jenkins, and Bock. Unfortunately, in each case Burke has not done justice to the books he critiques.

The book Reinventing Jesus has only one 16-page chapter on the CA; to expect such a short chapter to offer a thorough review of the contents of the CA is unrealistic. The main point of the chapter is that Dan Brown (in The Da Vinci Code) had it backwards when he claimed that the early church suppressed gospels that viewed Jesus as too human, since the main problem with most of the apocryphal gospels was actually that they did not view Jesus as truly human:

“It’s almost as if this Jesus hovered three feet above the ground: He doesn’t need to learn anything as a human being, speaks in intelligent sentences as an infant, and seems altogether otherworldly…. [T]he vast majority of rejected gospels emphasized Jesus’ divinity over his humanity, rather than the other way around…. Those that were influenced by Gnostic thought viewed Jesus as not really human…. As such, they did not see Jesus in any sense as a real human being who developed naturally…. Thus, these gospels were unorthodox in that they greatly diminished the humanity of Jesus while elevating his deity.… [T]hey emphasized the deity of Christ while sacrificing his humanity…. The vast majority of apocryphal works were not rejected because they had too low a view of Jesus—a too human and earthly Jesus—but because the Jesus they envisioned could hardly be called human in any sense.”[7]

Burke cites Wright’s comments about the Gospel of Peter as another example of a conservative “apologist” noting only those parts of the apocryphal gospels that were “particularly odd.” Here Burke has taken no notice whatsoever of Wright’s actual purpose. The book in question is about the Gospel of Judas, not the Gospel of Peter. In context Wright is not arguing that the Gospel of Peter should be rejected because of the way it differs from the canonical accounts. He mentions in passing that it differs somewhat both from the canonical Gospels and from the type represented by the Gospel of Thomas, in order to situate it in the early church. The overarching point of Wright’s chapter is that most of the apocryphal gospels are not “gospels” in the sense of being books similar in genre to the New Testament Gospels, because most of them have little if any narrative about or biographical interest in Jesus or anything to say about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this context Wright acknowledges that the Gospel of Peter is a partial exception to this generalization, because it does offer a narrative about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but “has no explanation of why the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection actually accomplish anything.”[8] That’s the point Wright is making about the Gospel of Peter. Burke has entirely missed this point, as well as misconstruing Wright as if he were claiming to offer an assessment of the Gospel of Peter.

Burke cites one page from Witherington’s What Have They Done with Jesus? as another supposed example of a conservative writer focusing only on a few oddities in an apocryphal gospel. He complains that “Witherington, for example, considers [Thomas] 31 ‘pantheistic,’ 114 ‘misogynist,’ and 18 ‘is just being obscure for obscurity’s sake!’” Although these quotations from Witherington are basically correct (it is saying 77, not 31, that Witherington says “sounds like pantheistic thought”), Burke has not accurately or fairly represented Witherington’s analysis of the Gospel of Thomas. In fact, Witherington discusses eighteen sayings in Thomas (1, 3, 7, 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 21, 22, 30, 37, 51, 62, 64, 70, 77, 114) over a span of five pages, a quite respectable survey.[9] Witherington’s emphasis is not merely on the differences between Thomas and the canonical Gospels (although of course he makes note of some differences) but rather on the lack of historical credibility of the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas. This is a point that Burke completely avoids (saying merely that he “misses” it would, I think, be too charitable) in his comments about the conservative scholars’ take on the apocryphal gospels.

As for Witherington’s sometimes harsh descriptions of the Thomas sayings, the reader can judge for himself or herself whether these assessments are fair. For example, the view that Thomas 114 is “misogynist” seems quite appropriate. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, in her book Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine (Oxford University Press), comments:

“The Gnostic writings, themselves far from a monolithic corpus, also abound in antifemale statements that make the ‘problematic’ New Testament passages about women pale in comparison to their own misogyny. For example, we find in the Gospel of Thomas the following misogynistic words on the lips of Peter and Jesus: ‘Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, because women are not worthy of the Life.” Jesus said, “Look, I shall guide her so that I will make her male, in order that she may become a living spirit, being like you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven”’ (Gospel of Thomas 114).”[10]

The attempts of many scholars to rehabilitate this saying into something modern humanists can embrace notwithstanding, the merit of Greene-McCreight’s (and Witherington’s) judgment is patently obvious. Had Paul written such a thing, we would never have heard the end of it as proof positive of his misogyny.

Burke also cites four pages (209-12) from Jenkins’s book Hidden Gospels, in which Burke says “a few other texts are ‘exposed.’” Never mind that these pages come toward the end of the book, after two hundred pages of analysis and argument. Ironically, these four pages are of supreme relevance to Burke’s thesis, but he fails to engage Jenkins’s argument at all. Burke’s thesis is that the conservative “apologists” attack the apocryphal writings in much the same way as ancient orthodox theologians like Irenaeus did. In these closing pages of his book Jenkins argues that those theologians, and specifically Irenaeus, were quite right in the way they characterized the Gnostic writings:

“Already by the second and third centuries, the Gnostic scriptures were utterly opaque and prolix. In fact, one of the main scholarly discoveries about Gnosticism over the last century has been the incredulous realization that the early Fathers were not exaggerating when they described the rococo nature of that movement’s scriptures, or its imagined hierarchies…. Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi and elsewhere show that Irenaeus was accurately portraying both the world-view, and the weird Biblical exegesis on which it was founded.”[11]

If Burke wishes to disagree with Jenkins, let him do so, but his failure to engage Jenkins’s argument when it is so directly relevant to Burke’s claim and when it appears in the very pages that Burke cites from Jenkins’s book is inexcusable.

Finally, it should be noted that at least some of the books that Burke criticizes do an excellent job of providing an even-handed, thorough overview of the contents of the apocryphal gospels. Bock (whom Burke also accuses of citing the CA selectively to overstate their oddities) actually comments on numerous passages in the CA and gives helpful descriptions of the apocryphal books in nine chapters of his book The Missing Gospels. Craig Evans gives a very nuanced overview of the Gospel of Thomas, pointing out that it contains numerous sayings that parallel sayings of Jesus in the canonical Gospels.[12] Acknowledging these more fully-orbed treatments of the apocryphal gospels, however, would have undermined the force of Burke’s caricatured characterization of the work of these scholars.



[1] Darrell L. Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone’s Asking (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004); idem., The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006); Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).

[2] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004); idem., What Have They Done With Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

[3] N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006). Burke consistently misstates the title as Judas and the Gospel of Judas.

[4] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006).

[5] Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[6] Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

[7] Komoszewski, Reinventing Jesus, 153, 154, 157, 160, 166.

[8] Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, 69.

[9] Witherington, What Have They Done with Jesus, 28-32.

[10] Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: Narrative Analysis and Appraisal (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 90.

[11] Jenkins, Hidden Gospels, 209.

[12] See especially the list in Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 69, and his discussion of these parallels, 68-75.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 14th, 2008 at 5:34 pm and is filed under apocrypha, apologetics, Biblical studies. 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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