The Role of Esoteric and Apocryphal Sources in the Development of Christian and Jewish Traditions
convened under the auspices of the Leibniz Programme, DFG
Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main, Department of Ancient History
Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften, Bad Homburg, 26–29 March 2018
Over recent decades our acquaintance with apocryphal and gnostic literature has deepened considerably; this has allowed us to see some of the exegetical, liturgical and artistic sources of early Christianity in a new light. We are now better able to discern, in numerous elements of Christian traditions in both East and West, an indebtedness to texts of Jewish or Gnostic origins. Scholars have demonstrated how texts of Jewish derivation were elaborated by Christians, and how the literature of the Second Temple provided inspiration for Christian authors and artists of different national traditions, even when the ‘explicit meaning’ of such documents seemed to contradict the New Testament. A remarkable number of the documents that we now call ‘Apocryphal’ (originally meaning ‘hidden’ or ‘concealed’) continued to condition the mental world of late antique and early mediæval Christendom. Not verified by formal authorities, numerous apocryphal texts underwent important transformations, often to become a medium of literary elaboration and mythological creativity. The phenomenon of rewriting and of local adaptations of Biblical stories in text and in the arts indicates that copyists, authors and artists conceived of themselves living not in a post-Biblical era, but in direct continuity with the personages of the Bible.
Certain themes deriving from Second Temple Judaism, which are not present in the Canonical Scriptures, were inherited by both Christianity and the Jewish tradition of the Rabbinic period. Each tradition, however, developed these themes in its own way, so that the place occupied by them in Christianity is not symmetrical with their place in Judaism. Nevertheless, the investigation of these two religious worlds may be undertaken as a shared enterprise. One of the central themes that this conference will seek to explore is the origin of the human race as presented in exegetical, liturgical and artistic sources of the first millennium. Apocryphal sources narrate the story of the first human beings, telling also about the eschatological expectations which they would transmit to their posterity. Some sources speak of a secret knowledge passed on by Adam to his progeny. Transmission of divine revelation via Adam and other patriarchs would thus make real the covenant between creatures and the Creator, while ideas about the origins of humankind conditioned the understanding of time and chronology. This conception of the human past also played a crucial role in the formation of historiographical representations. The Christianisation of time, as well as the understanding of time in the Rabbinic tradition (and, more widely, in the late antique and early mediæval Jewish world, as well as in the Samaritan tradition), have seldom been addressed within the scholarly contexts of either early Christianity or Judaism.
Texts regarding primæval human beings also trace a direct line between Adam and the Messiah; the advent of the Saviour is often accompanied by numerous references to the vicissitudes of the first human beings. Christ’s Nativity is depicted as the accomplishment of the promises received by Adam, Eve and other antediluvian patriarchs; the new-born child is visited by Eve who recognises in him her Saviour; the Magi coming from the east to Bethlehem are revealed as inheritors of a secret writing transmitted to them from the beginnings of the world, while the infant Jesus is presented as an actor from the days of Creation. The recognition of the Messiah by his contemporaries had to rely on ancient revelations and prophecies; that recognition is the precondition of the Messiah’s earthly ministry.