The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha

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Andrew Gregory, Christopher Tuckett, Joseph Verheyden, Tobias Nicklas
Oxford Handbooks
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Andrew Gregory and Christopher Tuckett have compiled twenty-five essays that will serve not only as an (and quite possibly the) introduction to early Christian apocrypha for students, but also as an invaluable reference for professional scholars. While some of the language in the essays was beyond the scope of an unabridged dictionary, the extra effort involved in finding the unknown terminology was worth it. Anyone remotely interested in these texts for personal or professional study will not be disappointed. The first third of the book contains introductory essays about early Christian apocrypha, including genres and specific texts. The remaining two-thirds of the book contains essays about major research questions, including historical context, readers, the relationship between early Christian apocrypha and canonical texts, major characters and themes, and past and present uses of the texts. All of the essays display a respect for the texts in question, specifically an insistence that any label one wants to throw upon a particular text (“gnostic” or “encratite,” for example) must be done with care, and with as much understanding of the text’s context as possible. Early Christian apocrypha should be read as works in their own right, with theological arguments and presuppositions that should not be dismissed simply due to differences from the books that became canonical scripture. 

While it is impossible here to discuss all twenty-five essays, a representative sample of essays from each section hopefully will give a sense of the book’s many strengths. The opening essay, by Christopher Tuckett, defines the parameters within which the other essay writers operate. Early Christian apocrypha are non-canonical texts up to the 4th century CE (with some exceptions) and are divided “into ‘gospels,’ ‘acts,’ epistles,’ and ‘apocalypses’” (8). The editors want to introduce readers to new material, so they intentionally leave out more popular texts—with some exceptions, including the gospel of Thomas, which is the only book to get its own chapter, Stephen J. Patterson’s “The Gospel of Thomas and the Historical Jesus.” Patterson carefully outlines the issues surrounding the gospel’s date and the authenticity of its sayings, concluding that these questions notwithstanding, the gospel can be used in studies about the historical Jesus. 

Because each author decides what genres or texts she or he will examine, and the corpus itself is quite large, occasionally a text falls through the cracks. Petri Loumanen’s fine essay on “Judaism and anti-Judaism in Christian Apocrypha” focuses on gospels, meaning that 5 Ezra, one of the earliest anti-Jewish apocryphal texts, is excluded from his analysis. Tobias Nicklaus, however, notes 5 Ezra’s references to the Hebrew Bible (144-45), although he does not mention supersessionism, which is a focus of Loumanen’s work. Reading both essays in conversation yields a richer analysis of both 5 Ezra and the connections between the use of the Hebrew Bible in the apocrypha, and the ways in which such use could be anti-Jewish. Similar benefits arise when reading Judith Hartenstein’s and Yves Tissot’s essays on encratism and asceticism in the gospels and acts, respectively. Hartenstein links arguments against sex to a larger discussion about asceticism and views about women in early Christian communities, and Tissot argues that most texts that are labeled as encratic actually are not. 

Two authors, Richard Pervo and Tony Burke, have two essays in this volume. Pervo has an essay in each section: a general review of the works about the apostles, and a specific essay about the apostles’ roles in those works. What stands out in both essays is the combination of careful scholarship with readable and personable prose. For example, in describing the Apocrypha’s unpopularity, Pervo writes, “Talking dogs and balking wives have helped consign many Apocrypha to the fringes of the scholarly horizon” (310). And yet both examples explain the apostles’ power—new female converts see their Christian lives as ones that should preclude sexual activity, and even a dog can advocate for Christianity if called to do so by an apostle. Pervo describes such works as the equivalent of commercials, whose job is to persuade the viewer (or in this case the reader) of the benefits of Christianity (311). Burke’s two essays end the book, discussing the use of early Christian apocrypha in popular culture and modern theological discourse. If any good history must answer the “so what?” question, Burke gives a competent answer. These texts matter: people not only use them, but also talk about them. From The Da Vinci Code and Stigmata to the controversies around The Secret Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Judas, Burke argues that early Christian apocrypha remain key sources of scholarly debate and apologetics and critical cultural use. 

And this seems to be the point not only of Burke’s essays, but of all of the essays. As Tuckett writes in the introduction, “It is hoped that this Handbook will provide a small contribution to making these "lost" texts better known, and increase our understanding and appreciation of the wide range of Christian piety to which they give witness” (11). Every author makes a successful case for the value of the texts they describe, as sources of early Christian history, liturgy, and theology, and as sources that are dramatic works of literature in their own right. The Handbook succeeds in bringing the early Christian apocrypha to life, and the bibliographies at the end of each chapter point any curious reader in the direction of further study. The book is a triumph.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stacy Davis is Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College.

Date of Review: 
March 13, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Gregory is Chaplain and Fellow of University College, Oxford.

Christopher Tuckett was Professor of New Testament Studies at University of Oxford.

Tobias Nicklas is Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Hermeneutics at the University of Regensburg.

Joseph Verheyden is Professor of New Testament at the University of Leuven.


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