David M. Nielsen and Dr. Kristian Heal, Director, Center for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts
The corpus of texts that constitute the New Testament apocrypha is large, to make a gross understatement. It is a vast collection that spans the continents, languages, and centuries of the early Church and rightly so would take a lifetime to master. Originally I set out to see what we can learn about the office of the apostolate as seen through the lens of these acts. As I read I became increasingly interested in the idea of how these texts came into being and compositional issues in general. In the end my paper was still centered on how the apostleship is seen in the apocryphal acts, but in a slightly different way. My main area of investigation was how the aspect of social memory was the driving force in bringing the stories contained in the apocryphal acts from oral tradition and memory to the pen, and thus to us.
To do this I focused on the Acts of Peter, generally agreed to be a second century composition from Asia Minor. After a brief survey of the date, general milieu of the text, but more so on the sources for the work, I explored what can be learned about early Christian tradition from this case study. My conclusion moved that, more than anything else, the acts were written when they were so as to preserve the memory of the apostles, and therefore provide Christians with a foundation for their testimony in Christ and in the doctrines taught by his messengers; that social memory and oral tradition were the impetus not only behind the apocryphal acts, but must be more fully considered in the study of the origins and sources of the canonical New Testament.
It must be said first that history includes what is remembered and not merely what happens to be recorded. No matter how much a historian is trained or tries to be objective, there is no way to be completely unbiased in the interpretation of the past. Primary sources are vital for the reconstruction of the past, but what constitutes a ‘primary’ source? The earlier the better, no doubt, but to have any semblance of truth, it must have some degree of interaction with an eyewitness to the events under consideration. We must be cautious, though, on what we can accept as true. The line between what happened and interpretation of those who knew the eyewitnesses and heard the stories becomes more and more transparent the further away we move from the original event.
It has been suggested by scholars that the events of the life and times of Jesus extend, within an accurate realm, into the second century A.D, even up to 150 years after, depending on the opinion of the individual anthropologist or social scientist. If we consider the general dates for events of the New Testament, Jesus was crucified in the first half of 30’s, and if John wrote somewhere around the turn of the century, the window is open for an elderly disciple of his, of the third generation after Christ, to have compiled traditions and memories in the last half to the last quarter of the second century. Again, one must be extremely careful in considering the veracity of the tradition: memory does not equal tradition, and tradition does not equal accurate events based on memory. However, that when it is associated with persons or places, remembered history often continues where spontaneous reminiscence has long since ceased, and that the places are often pegs so to speak where memory and tradition are tied and helps one remember.
If it is true that the stories contained in the apocrypha were preserved in memory, then we must expect to find proper evidences in the text. In the ancient world those who told the tales relied upon set structures in order to retain names and important details of the story. For example, the stories of Homer use poetic verse, epithets, and stock scenes such as sacrifices or banquets were to convey the essence of the story. We may be sure that no two performances of a storyteller were exactly the same. Indeed, the only evidence that a story was told orally are variant versions of recognizably the same story.
Such set themes and structures are present in the Acts of Peter. Called multiforms, they emerge as relics of multiple performances on an oral level, each separate version of the same story results from a separate retelling for another audience. In a written text the doublet is the literary equivalent of this phenomenon. These are considered to be the mindless compilation of two separate sources by an author or scribe, which results in the same pericope or saying appearing twice, once because of its presence in one source and a second time because of it presence on another sources. One may recognize them quite easily as redundant aspects that frame the similar details of the narrative. There are four such doublets in the Acts of Peter. Unfortunately in such a short report they cannot be analyzed. These multiforms are not only found in the Acts of Peter but also in the other major apocryphal acts, evidence of the oral medium by which they were passed down and the unifying social purpose the texts served.
This is a very fascinating subject that has opened many doors to me. I was able to present the paper at a student-faculty conference on apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature this December, put on by the Students of the Ancient Near East, the club of the Ancient Near Eastern Studies major. The Maxwell institute has agreed to publish all papers from that conference that meet a certain scholarly benchmark. I am currently in the process of revising my conference paper to submit for that volume.
This was the first ORCA grant that I applied for, and has proved to be a wonderful experience for me. I was able to work very closely with a mentor whose knowledge not only of the subject matter but also of the publication process has taught me much about the field that I aspire to go into. I am confident that with the experience I have gained from this project will ensure success on my next project, should I be awarded. In the end we must remember that social interactions were means by which the faith and testimony of the earliest Christians were passed down, and we may be proud that we belong to a communal organization that allows us to be as closely knit as our forebears.