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Review of Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments, and Agrapha

Rick Brannan, Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments, and Agrapha: Introductions and Translations. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 193. ISBN 9781683590651. $14.99.

Reviewed by Dave Massa, Shepherds Theological Seminary

Several recent books (and even movie adaptations) aimed at a public audience have popularized non-canonical Greek literature from the first centuries CE. It’s within that cultural milieu that Rick Brannan has provided a valuable resource: concise introductions and updated translations of select non-canonical material. Brannan’s short volume distinguishes itself from the majority of published works in that he avoids the typical skeptical approach of “lost” or “concealed” Scriptures that were bullied out of the canon. Instead, he explicitly warns the reader of the recent misuse of extra-biblical literature as sensational selling points. He also addresses the danger of misappropriating the timeline of these extra-canonical writings: contrary to the assessment of popularized publications, Brannan contends that the Apocryphal Gospels reveal less about the historical Jesus and more about how communities in later centuries or geographical locales understood and responded to him. In other words, Brannan takes a distinctly evangelical perspective, a rare and refreshing departure from the increasingly popularized approach of The Da Vinci Code, Lost Scriptures, and Holy Blood, Holy Grail. He instead finds the balance between completely discarding these extra-canonical texts or relying too heavily on them. Their main benefit, then, is as comparative rather than rival literature to canonical material.

In the first major section of the book, Brannan introduces and translates several Agrapha, statements from Jesus that are not attested in the canonical gospels. Such sayings are found in Canonical Books (one from Acts, five from Paul’s epistles), Additions to Bezae and the Freer Logion in Washingtonianus, The Apostolic Fathers Clement and Barnabus, and Justin Martyr.

The next major section is the longest of the book, on the Apocryphal Gospels. Brannan divides the Apocryphal Gospels into three subcategories: Infancy, Passion, and Post-Resurrection. The Infancy Gospels included in this volume are The Protevagelium of James and the Gospel of Thomas; in the Passion Gospels are The Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Nicodemus; and the Post-Resurrection Gospel’s lone representative is the Gospel of Mary. Having only seen smaller bits of translation up to this point in the book, these translations feel substantial. Several footnotes on each page offer cross-references to Canonical literature (both Old and New Testaments) and literal renderings of idiomatic expressions. The introductions to each translation provide concise yet plentiful paleographical, papyrological, transmissional, and linguistic data.

The book’s final section includes the Fragments, grouped together because “they cannot be reliably placed within a larger gospel or writing” (p. 3). There are ten such manuscripts included in this volume, all quite short and riddled with lacunae. Because they are so brief/short, a line translation follows each block text of the reading translations/paragraphs.

There are a few shortcomings that warrant brief mention. First, none of the translations provide any of the underlying Greek text. Second, there are a few modern words (i.e., dimwit, uterus, card) injected, which make those lines somewhat awkward. Third, there are a few structural issues. For example, the book’s outline (Agrapha, Gospels, Fragments) follows a different order than the title; also, definitions of papyrus, parchment, recto, and verso don’t appear until pages 134-135, even though prior material (pp. 77-79, 82, etc.) assumes the reader is already familiar with such terminology. Finally, several of the Agrapha have such strong parallels with the Canonical Gospels (for example, “faithful in little” or “love your enemies”) that they should probably be considered expansions or expositions of Jesus’ previously known teachings rather than grouped with new or unheard of statements of Jesus.

Regardless of these minor issues, Brannan has provided in Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments, and Agrapha a valuable tool for students and scholars looking for an evangelical introduction to non-canonical literature.

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