Reflections on the 2nd York Apocrypha Symposium

Last week was a frenzy of activity and excitement for me, especially because I had the chance to attend and speak at the 2nd York Apocrypha Symposium at York University in Toronto ( Tony Burke and Brent Landau organized the event. Speakers included Nicola Denzey Lewis, Lorenzo DiTommaso, Mary Dzon, David Eastman, Mark Goodacre, Kristian Heal, Charles Hedrick, F. Stanley Jones, John Kloppenborg, Lee Martin McDonald, Stephen Patterson, Pierluigi Piovanelli, Annette Yoshiko Reed (giving the keynote), Jean-Michel Roessli, Stephen Shoemaker, Glenn Snyder, Lily Vuong, and yours truly. Needless to say, I felt completely out of my league.

Fortunately, my presentation seemed to be very well received. In it, I gave a survey of the various legends about the co-crucified bandits, from their initial emergence in Palestine in the 4th and 5th century, their reformulation in an Egyptian setting starting in the 6th and 7th century, and their export to the Latin West in revised forms starting around the 11th or 12th century. I attempted to set aside the scholarly preoccupation with the names of the bandits and instead focused on the legends as various examples of the cult of Dysmas as a patron saint. Tony and Brent are starting to gather together a volume of conference papers, and I’m hoping that my paper will make an appearance there.

It is hard to summarize how wonderful the symposium was. The papers were consistently excellent, the discussions thoughtful, the conversations international in scope and import, and the times of collegiality truly refreshing and enjoyable. It was a wonderful blend of scholars of a variety of ages, backgrounds, and specializations (New Testament, Gnosticism, Apocrypha, Patristics, Medieval), and this diversity proved mutually advantageous in myriad ways. I was especially grateful to meet Mary Dzon, an English professor and Medievalist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, who shares my fascination with the legends of the bandits. In fact, Mary has an excellent and extremely well-researched chapter on the medieval legends of the bandits. It is forthcoming in a book entitled, Diuerse Imaginaciouns of Cristes Life’: Devotional Culture in England 1300-1560 (Brepols, 2014). I’m really thankful to have been a part of such a gathering.

If I could sum up the import of the conference, I’d simply say that it exploded a lot of the conventional boundaries in early Christian studies, especially the boundaries between non-canonical and canonical literature, between so-called apocryphal and so-called Gnostic literature, between patristics and apocryphal literature, between homilies (and commentaries, and novels, and poetry, and art, and film, and comics, and even video games) and apocryphal literature. In other words, the so-called apocrypha, so often relegated to a status of ancillary curiosity, is the life-blood of Christian theology, literature, and imagination, both in antiquity and even today.

On a related note, David Eastman and I are talking about organizing a session at the upcoming NAPS (the North American Patristics Society) that looks at how the legends of the apostles are conveyed and presumed in Biblical interpretation. To paraphrase David, Augustine does not read the Pauline epistles merely as a source for theology. Instead, he reads them as reflections of Paul as a martyr, even a North African martyr. Something very similar could be said in regard to the Gospel of Luke, a topic I am currently exploring in several articles in the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. The books of the Bible are never detached from the legends of the persons whom tradition said composed them, nor the legends of the characters within them. To put it yet another way, Biblical studies is essentially a subspecies of hagiography. Thus, the task of critical Biblical scholarship is to trace out the fluid yet inextricable links between the stories in the holy books and the stories of holy persons (i.e., saints and their legends).

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