Friday, May 08, 2009

Andrew Gregory on the non-canonical Gospels

As a follow-up to my earlier post on the Gospels making come back, in the latest issue of Evangelical Quarterly (81.1 [2009]: 3-22), Andrew Gregory of Oxford Uni has an excellent article entitled, "The non-canonical gospels and the histoircal Jesus - some reflections on issues and methods".

In the article, Gregory looks at the genre of "Gospel" and asks whether the non-canonicals qualify. Contra Tom Wright, he argues that dismissing them from the genre is premature. We need to remember that many of these Gospels exist only in fragments so it is impossible to determine their literary texture and these non-canonical texts represent a tertiary stage in the development of the Gospel genre which means that they are probably dependent upon the canonical Gospels. Also, there are generic affinities between the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the canonical Gospels in terms of containing a biographical narrative.

Gregory also evaluates the Gospel of the Ebionites, P.Oxy 840, PEgerton 2, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel according to Thomas in terms of their value for being for the historical Jesus. While leaving the door open for some authentic material in the Gospel of Thomas, he is rightly suspect of their historical utility for shedding light of the historical Jesus.

He concludes in the end: "Neither here nor elsewhere in this essay do I wish to argue that any text labelled generically as a gospel must be a reliable source for the historical Jesus. But I oppose utterly any attempt to deny ancient texts this title if that is intended as a way of ruling them out of the discussion without first reading them on their own merits and asking what, if anything they might contribute to a historical reconstruction of what Jesus may have said or done" (p. 20).

A few comments:

1. Gospel genre. A reading of the earliest Gospels (i.e. the canonical one's) gives the impression that a Gospel is a biographical story about Jesus climaxing in his death and resurrection and consists of narrating the a biographical story as a continuation of the story of Israel. The "Gospels" are also an expression of the "gospel" proclaimed in the early church (see further F.F. Bruce, "When is a Gospel not a Gospel?" Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 45 (1963): 319-39. Of course, who is to say what the limits of the Gospel genre are? There are those who think that the category of "Gospel" should include any document that purports to give an account of the life/teachings of Jesus (see Philipp Vielhauer, Geschichte der urchristlichen Literatur: Einleitung in das Neue Testament, die Apokryphen und die Apostolischen Väter [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1975], 614 W. Schneelmelcher 1991: 78; Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1990], 46). We should also remember the words of Origen, "The Church has Four Gospels, but the heretics have many" (Hom. Luke 1) which implies that the other Gospels are indeed "Gospels" but they do not accord with the "gospel" of the orthodox church.

2. Gospel of Thomas and Authenticity. Gregory suspects that logia 8, 82, 65-66 might have some claim to dominical authenticity. I confess that I am optimistic about the possible authenticity of logia 82, 97, and 98.

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