Reviews of

An Apostolic Gospel

In Cambridge University Press, Epistula Apostolorum, Francis B. WATSON, Gospels, Julia D. Lindenlaub on March 19, 2021 at 3:00 pm

2021.3.8 | Francis Watson. An Apostolic Gospel: The “Epistula Apostolorum” in Literary Context. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 179. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. ISBN 978-1-108-84041-5.

Review by Julia D. Lindenlaub, University of Edinburgh.

Francis Watson’s already wide-ranging work in gospels within and beyond the canon is here expanded with a new translation of a remarkably significant yet infrequently studied text: Epistula Apostolorum (EpAp). In addition to his translation work, this contribution to the limited secondary literature on this text exemplifies its overlooked potential to problematise generic classifications of texts about Jesus and to shed new light on the early use and reuse of written Jesus tradition. Watson presents EpAp alongside counterparts in its literary context and explores central themes that suggest intriguing avenues for further research—for which this translation will surely prove indispensable.

The monograph begins with an introduction addressing key preliminary issues, including title, date, and provenance. His discussion of the title, “Epistula Apostolorum,” ascribed by modern scholarship, aims to discern beneath anachronous genre labels a fundamental continuity between this text and a broader corpus of canonical and non-canonical gospels (pp. 2–7). Concurring with prior assessments of a provenance in Asia Minor, Watson emphasises a prospective Ephesian influence on the basis of the text’s apparent interest in the apostle John (pp. 7–8). He presses prior scholarly assessments on dating, attempting to narrow estimates of the mid-second-century. Watson posits that in-text references to a plague correspond to the Antonine plague beginning in 165 CE and consequently suggests a dating of c. 170 CE (pp. 8–11). What follows this overview is divided into three parts: I Recovering the Epistula, II Themes, and III Additional Notes on Text and Translation.

In Part I, the first chapter begins by relating the tale of EpAp’s discovery and initial publication, thereby setting the stage for Watson’s own contribution. The cast of characters for this story includes Adolf Harnack and M. R. James, and Watson’s retelling presents a carefully researched history of the complex tensions underlying scholarly reception of the translation from Coptic to German done by Carl Schmidt, as well as the translation done from Ethiopic to French by Louis Guerrier. In Watson’s estimation, this early issue in the text’s publication has resulted in a problematic format for subsequent translations: differentiating Coptic and Ethiopic versions in side-by-side columns, rather than coordinating them in a single text. Watson positions his own work as a response to this problem. The second chapter thus offers a single column translation that uses the later Ethiopic manuscript evidence to supplement gaps in the much earlier Coptic manuscript. The detailed critical apparatus grapples with variants between versions by consulting readings across more Ethiopic manuscripts than prior translations. Extensive notes on texts and translation are furthermore provided in Part III.

Part II covers central themes in EpAp, generally corresponding to their order of appearance in the text. The third chapter focuses on the text’s miracle catena, emphasising the author’s editorial eye for prior written Jesus tradition. This point underscores Watson’s claim that no canonical consciousness constrains the author’s use of gospel sources (p. 82). Moreover, Watson counters speculation that this sequence is secondary to the original text with a compelling case for a “skilfully constructed symmetry” orienting this passage within EpAp as a whole (p. 87). Further discussion of such literary cohesion supports Watson’s overarching case that EpAp “straddles the boundary between the narrative gospel and dialogue gospel genres” (p. 93). This chapter thus comprehensively presents EpAp in a literary context of generically fluid gospel writings broadly conceived.

The fourth chapter continues to explore EpAp’s free adaptation of sources, examining its use of the resurrection sequence in the Gospel of John. Watson here provides an informative comparison of the two accounts, asserting that the author of EpAp deems the Johannine source “in need of correction and supplementation” (p. 107). Ensuing discussion follows three key features of EpAp’s Easter sequence: the personnel at the tomb, the apostles’ unbelief, and the significance of Jesus’ feet to confirm his resurrection in the flesh. The latter portion of this chapter transitions to comparison with the theme of resurrection in Treatise on the Resurrection (NHC I,4). This further literary contextualisation importantly resists the imposed categories of “gnosticism” and “proto-orthodoxy” that have long held sway in research on this text (p. 125). 

Like prior chapters, the fifth chapter addresses EpAp’s relationship to its gospel predecessors, in this instance by positing that its narrative of descent and incarnation attests an authorial perception of “deficiency in the older gospel literature” (p. 135). Similarly, orienting EpAp within its literary context is again fruitful. Watson traces the self-incarnation of the Logos primarily alongside the canonical gospels and EpAp’s own creedal confession (EpAp 3.13) (pp. 135–39), before comparing diverging narrations of Jesus’ hiddenness in descent and transformation with Ascension of Isaiah (pp. 140-48). The incarnation in EpAp is further examined by contrasting its narration of incarnation at conception with incarnation at birth in Protevangelium of James (pp. 148–56). Closing attention to patristic controversy over the incarnation situates the whole of this chapter’s literary context on a backdrop of early Christian debate over how the incarnation “could or should be narrated” (p. 163). 

The sixth chapter explores the overarching “single theme of this text,” the apostolic mission, through the transformation from disciples to apostles via Jesus’ imparted instruction (p. 165). Literary contextualisation here prioritises sources texts from the New Testament, particularly Matthean and Pauline traditions. Watson concentrates on EpAp’s presentation of Paul through this lens, first positing that Paul’s distinction from the eleven disciples is minimised by his presentation as an ordinary Jew (pp. 173–77). Likewise, he asserts that EpAp reframes Pauline tradition by downplaying the severity of Paul’s early persecutions (pp. 177–80) and foregrounding the importance of human agents in his conversion (pp. 180–89). These formative agents are the eleven disciples themselves, who mediate Jesus’ instruction to Paul and thereby integrate him as “an apostle in his own right, restoring the eleven to the full complement of twelve” (p. 185). 

The monograph’s final chapter again finds its starting point in EpAp’s response to its gospel sources, this time in its stress upon Jesus’ resurrection as “the basis and precedent for the future resurrection and salvation of his followers” (p. 191). Watson proposes that on this point EpAp unites often disparate components of early Christian theology: Jesus’ resurrection as the foundation for salvation and the importance of eschatological judgment for securing salvation (pp. 193–202). Discussion of EpAp’s preoccupation with the necessity of obedience to commandments for true belief is connected to its wrestling with earthly suffering and eternal sundering of believers in a final judgment that divides the righteous from the unrighteous (pp. 202–12). The disciples’ anxiety depicted in their dialogue with Jesus expresses fundamental early Christian concerns yet nonetheless demonstrates the authors’ ability as a “systematic thinker” in reusing written Jesus tradition for a new composition (p. 190).

This monograph presents a wealth of research on a relatively unknown text and offers many illuminating points of contact with diverse writings from early Christian literature. Yet a work of this scope is rarely without points at which additional material would have been beneficial. A reader can easily recognise that Watson is quick to assert that EpAp does not attest a proto-canonical consciousness of the fourfold gospel. Yet in a text with seemingly high esteem for written Jesus tradition, his view of the functional status that recommends EpAp’s gospel sources for compositional adaptation remains somewhat opaque. For example, Watson highlights the Apostle John’s position as the first of EpAp’s named disciple authors in suggesting an Ephesian provenance (p. 7) but withholds from the Gospel of John a similar special significance motivating its pronounced influence on EpAp’s resurrection sequence (p. 107). Further explanation would have been welcome on the question of just what authority prior gospel writings do command when used as literary sources by the author of EpAp.

A desire for even more discussion in an already thorough monograph notwithstanding, Watson’s reading of EpAp is insightful and thought-provoking, sparking further prospects for research on this text in dialogue with its better-known contemporaries. Moreover, Watson’s work marks an important development in the history of research on EpAp. This new translation opens the door for popularising this text in a more accessible format for researchers and students first encountering it. The critical apparatus and extended notes describing manuscript evidence and translation decisions are well presented and user-friendly. It is readily apparent throughout the monograph that Watson is deeply invested in this text and genuinely believes in its untapped value for further scholarship on early Christian literature. With this conviction I wholeheartedly agree. 

Julia D. Lindenlaub
University of Edinburgh
lindenlaub.julia [at] gmail.com

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