Markus Bockmuehl on Reading the Apocryphal Gospels
Earlier this year, Markus Bockmuehl wrote Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, published by Westminster John Knox Press— a book worth investing in. This book offers a basic and readable overview of the Apocryphal Gospels, their textual history, contents, and a selected bibliography. One of the positive features of this book is his comments on how to read these gospels.
In my Gospels course, I also introduce my students to other ancient Jewish and Christian literature. They read a variety of primary text material in the Maccabean literature, Didache (surprise surprise — especially if you know my research interests), Eusebius, and much much more. I've created a packet of primary source material that accompanies the study of the canonical gospels.
However, one set of literature that often catches my students off guard is the apocryphal literature. Eventually, I hope to add to Bockmuehl's 5 ways to read the Apocryphal Gospels below. I have a few other theories that I'll test out in conversation and in the classroom.
I am fascinated by the apocryphal literature and hope to write on some of its reception among early Christian writers. Nonetheless, below are my lecture notes and summary of Bockmuehl's section on the Apocryphal Gospels.
How to Read Apocryphal Gospels***
Marcus Bockmuehl offers 5 ways to read the Apocryphal Gospels. These are helpful reasons and ways to move forward our understanding of how to read them and how to think about them.
Given the diversity of the Apocryphal Gospels, he suggests 5 theses on how to read these gospels and reference points for further discussion. The apocryphal gospels help point to the diversity of early Christian movements and how they portrayed the gospel narratives.
(1) The canonical gospels appear to be unique and distinctive
The current 4 canonical gospels reflect a unique narrative and biographical component to them that no apocryphal gospel compares to their content.
Furthermore, even the reception and copying of the canonical tradition pales in comparison. “No extant or attested ancient apocryphal gospels are known to offer a consecutive narrative of the life of Jesus from his baptism by John to his death and resurrection.”
(2) Non-canonical gospels did not ‘become apocryphal’ and were not ‘suppressed’ from the canon.
“It is theoretically conceivable that some non-canonical gospels were at first serious alternatives to supersede or replace the canonical Four before being relegated to the margins. But the attested evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this was not the case.”
Some of these gospels claim apostolic association (joining themselves to an actual apostle), others are wholly fictitious or building from previous traditions/hearsay.
For example, the Gospel of Thomas “deliberately set[s] out to be apocryphal and plainly never contended for the status of public canonical gospels. But their limited acceptance and minimal circulation meant not that they ‘became apocryphal’ but more accurately that the ‘did not become canonical’ – and never had any purpose or prospect of doing so.”
(3) The apocryphal gospels are epiphenomenal to the gospel tradition that became canonical.
Epiphenomenal means a secondary effect or by-product. Thus, the apocryphal gospels are the by-product of the canonical gospels, not vice-versa.
Within 2nd Temple Jewish literature, a feature of literature is “Re-written Bible,” whereby later Jewish literature fills out or offers another narrative to older Bible material. Bockmuehl suggest that these apocryphal gospels could have homiletically intended to be viewed as “rewritten gospel.” Many of the Apocryphal Gospels fill out a smaller story of Gospel canon literature or attempt to fill historical gaps that are left out.
(4) Only a minority of the Apocryphal gospels seem to intend explicit subversion or displacement of the fourfold gospel.
To say that some or all of the apocryphal material are a by-product (epiphemeral) of canonical material says nothing of whether or not this material was meant to supplement or subvert canonical gospels.
The Gospel of Judas, for example, “seems patently antagonistic to the tradition that became canonical, even while ironically articulating its subversion in ways that depend rhetorically on the existence of something very like the canonical outline.”
(5) The apocryphal gospels illustrate the diversity of early Christianity’s cultural and religious engagement with the memory of Jesus.
These apocryphal gospels are written to supplement the traditions of the canonical four and therefore shed light on the variety of ways these texts were understood in different communities.
***These five theses are taken from Ancient Apocryphal Gospels by Markus Bockmuehl, chap. 6 “How to Read the Apocryphal Gospels.”
 Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 227.
 Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 228.
 Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 228–29.
 Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 229.
 Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 232.
 Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 234.
 Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels, 234.