Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Strangeness of Biblical and Apocryphal Texts

Over on Apocryphicity, Tony Chartrand-Burke continues his enjoyable series on the Top Ten Faulty Arguments in Anti-Apocrypha Apologetics. One of his top ten is as follows:
9. Characterization of CA texts as containing “bizarre” embroidering (see Komoszewski et al, Reinventing Jesus, p. 163-166; Jenkins, Hidden Gospels, p. 105). Certainly some parts of the CA are bizarre to modern readers. But the NT texts too are pretty bizarre. The canonical gospels feature a man who is born from a virgin, speaks to voices from heaven, walks on water, multiplies food, heals afflictions, and rises from the grave. How are these things any less “bizarre” than a talking cross (Gospel of Peter) or a cursing Jesus (Infancy Thomas; see the canonical Acts for plenty of examples of cursing holy men)? We all (scholars and non-scholars) know the canonical texts so well that often we give little thought to how strange these texts are. I like to begin my courses on the Bible by encouraging the students to see the biblical texts in all their “bizarre” glory.
The post reminds me of an exercise I have often done with undergraduates when we begin to explore non-canonical Christian texts. I gather together a series of quotations, some taken from the New Testament, some taken from Christian apocryphal texts, and I put them on a hand-out but do not give the source of the texts. I try to make sure that each quotation is a good paragraph or so. I then ask the students, in class, to study the sheets and to ask themselves whether they think the texts in question come from (a) the New Testament or (b) a non-canonical text. I then ask them to state their reasons. The results vary from group to group, but one of the most memorable experiences I had was of a student who guessed that the coin in the fish's mouth (Matt. 17.24-27) must be a non-canonical text because it was so weird. She was horrified to discover that it was in the Bible. The exercise helps students to think through some of their own presuppositions as they approach texts, and provides an entertaining way of getting them thinking about issues of canonical and non-canonical texts.


Christopher Shell said...

This is a very valuable exercise. For example, I have always wondered whether my instinct that GThomas is (by any meaning of the word) thoroughly uninspired, containing imbalanced sayings, bathos, the sort of portentous drivel that the pious are imagined to say, this instinct informed or uninformed? I have refused to give this instinctive reaction any authority until I have quantifed it or (as may happen) failed to do so.

AKMA said...

Sometimes, when I'm teaching deutero-Pauline texts, I assign my students to try to write a pseudo-Pauline epistle.

The results illuminate many dimensions of such a class: the complexity of attempting to simulate Pauline authorship, the students' relative unfamiliarity with Pauline style, their difficulties in writing in a particular style.

Jim Deardorff said...

Any assessment of bizarreness has to make use of one's knowledge and experience of what's commonplace versus unusual in our present day and age. Hence present-century events such as miracle healings that leave doctors totally perplexed, life-saving premonitions, documented yet unbelieved feats by yogi masters, need to be taken into account.

Tony C-B said...

Thanks for the comments, Mark. I have done a similar exercise. The text that my students have uniformly considered non-canonical is an except from Hebrews ch. 1.

Nick said...

Would it be possible to get a copy of the list you give your students? Or perhaps you could post it on the blog =)