In his latest contribution to the study of early Christian literature, Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments and Agrapha, Rick Brannan places pseudepigraphal gospels, agrapha, and fragments in their due place, allowing the scholar quick access to a world that could reshape some of our understanding of early Christian theological and literary development.
Drawing from a wide range of scholarship including Evans, Meier, and Fitzmyer (the bibliographies alone are insightful), Brannan diligently takes each non-canonical saying, memory, or complete story of Jesus from early Church apologists, places them within their time, offers a translation, and more — this is highly beneficial to those who study with an eye to literary development through imitation — gives the expected parallels. Often times, Brannan’s expertise in these sayings are shown by his unique translations — an added benefit, I think. Another added benefit is Brannan’s generosity towards those who have composes the non-canonical gospels, allowing that these works can be contributed to well-meaning Christians who were engaging difficult topics in their context, such as the virgin birth (and those the Protevangelium of James).
The work is divided into two parts in Logos. The first contains the introductions and translations while the text is the Greek text, fully searchable through Logos. The first work begins with an overview of what the agrapha are as well as some discussion on the gospels (listing the general categories), ending with an overview of the fragments. After detailing the agrapha, the author moves into the introductions for the non-canonical gospels. Brannan does not rewrite history here, but calmly and in quick cadence marches down the facts so that the reader will get some grasp of the historical situation thought to surround the production of these works. This provides us meaning today, as Brannan shows. Again, I have to admire Brannan’s generosity here. He doesn’t throw away these works because they aren’t canonical, but accepts them as testimonies to the developing Christian community. This is vital for the historical theologian, no doubt. As far as translation these works, Brannan often relies on a critical approach to M.R. James’ The Apocryphal New Testament (1924).
Following the agrapha and the gospels, Brannan has included fragments — works long lost except for surviving scraps here and there. As he does with the other two areas, Brannan gives a basic understanding of the fragments and history of their discoveries. From here, he argues for their use in biblical studies (such as languages). For instance, Dura Parchment 24 could be used in reading early gospel harmonies. For those interested in the Synoptic problem, Parchment 24 “represents material found in Matt 27.56-57; Mark 15.40-42; Luke 23.49-51; and John 19.38.” In other words, as Brannan points out, there is exegetical material in these fragments. I might add that for those of us who study such minuscule pieces of paper in hopes of discovering a singular family tree of textual development, the exegetical promise of these fragments are essential. The second part of this work contains the works Brannan has offered in the first part in their original languages.
What Brannan has done through this project is to give those of who devote ourselves to studying not only Patristics, but so too textual development, imitation, and theological development a treasure map. He doesn’t give us the treasure; however, what he does give us are the tools to discover our own gems. Because of his work here, we can map and track developments in literary patterns. For instance, while he mentions some of this in his work on the Protevangelium of James, there are intertextual clues to be discovered between this work, the infancy narratives of the Gospels, and even the Old Testament. What might this yield? First, it will help to better define the text of the canonical gospels. Second, early trajectories of Christian theology will be narrowed. Much like what Mark Goodacre as done with his recent work on Thomas and the Synoptics (Eerdmans, 2012), those who use this work diligently can start to create a better image of early Christian literary traditions. Finally, for those of us interested in mimetic criticism (how one text was preserved in another), having these texts collected in such a manner will aid the process of identifying literary sources.
Of particular interest to those who map the development of early Christian literature, Logos provides the ability to place the dates as points on a timeline. This is a well done resource and must be in the library of the serious student of early Christian literary traditions.