Sourcebook of Texts for the Comparative Study of the Gospels

Written by David L. Dungan and David R. Cartlidge (editors) Reviewed By R. T. France

Most students of the Gospels have heard of Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana, of the Gospel of Thomas, or of the Protevangelium Jacobi, and have seen the Gospels compared in different ways with these and other works, Christian and non-Christian, of the first few centuries. But I would guess that not so many have ever set eyes on the actual texts of these works, with the probable exception of the Gospel of Thomas. For those who are not prepared to take such judgments second-hand, but who are daunted by the prospect of hunting through unfamiliar tracts of classical, rabbinic and gnostic literature, this book is a boon. It is, as its title suggests, simply a collection of texts thought to be relevant to the comparative study of the Gospels, translated into English (most of the translations are the editors’ own), and set out so as to be of maximum assistance to the student. The whole is presented in a ‘workbook’ format, with spiral back and large pages (11″ x 8½″) photoprinted from a well-spaced typescript. The result is an inviting appearance of informality, and a very moderate price. Three cheers for SBL’s new publishing policy!

The texts are set out in two sections. Part I consists of short extracts to illustrate each of several main themes or Gattungen of the Gospels (e.g. miraculous birth, extraordinary childhood, miracles, apophthegms, parables, martyrdoms, ‘resurrections’). Part II counteracts the piecemeal effect of Part I by giving the continuous text (in some cases considerably abbreviated) of some key writings: the Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Peter, the Acts of Thomas, Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius, Philo’s Life of Moses, and Diodorus Siculus’ account of the Deeds of Herakles.

The selection of texts is extensive, covering roughly three main areas of literature: Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian/gnostic. Of these the Graeco-Roman will probably be the least familiar to many students of the Gospels, and some of it may be an eyeopener to those who have blissfully assumed that miracles and religious devotion were the sole prerogative of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The Jewish material is less extensive, and some of it is rather late, but the accounts of the miracles of Hanina ben Dosa show a near-contemporary of Jesus, and Philo’s Life of Moses (presented in extracts linked by summaries) is a too little known example of ‘religious biography’ in the first century. Most of the Christian/gnostic material (except the Gospel of Philip) is in the two volumes of Hennecke’s New Testament Apocrypha, together with a great deal more, but it is useful to have it set alongside Jewish and pagan comparative material, and the excerpts presented here are less forbidding than the mass of material in Hennecke.

The translations are lively and the introductions brisk and businesslike (though their conciseness leads to some rather daring dates for Christian apocrypha being stated as if beyond dispute—e.g. ‘third or fourth century’ for the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, or ca. AD 125 for the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). Those works which are presented in summary form with extracts are thereby kept interesting even where the original was particularly dreary. The high point of the book for sheer enjoyment is Dungan’s racy presentation of the Life of Apollonius, for which many students, perplexed by learned discussions of the theios anēr figure, will be heartily grateful.

All this adds up to a very useful tool for the student. But what effect is the study of all this material likely to have on our understanding of the Gospels?

The editors have stated their aim clearly. They want us to see the Gospels not against a ‘background’ of supposedly inferior writings, but as an integral part of a much wider literary milieu, that of the Mediterranean culture of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This ‘area studies’ approach precludes any distinction between ‘heretical’ and ‘orthodox’ or any judgment on the relative value of religious systems. Each must be taken at face value. We must get away from thinking of the four Gospels as somehow sui generis. They are part of a continuing literary development, and must be understood in relation to it.

This approach, which lies behind the selection of the texts (though not to the logical extent of including extracts from the four Gospels alongside those from later Christian works!), suggests some comments.

  1. Is such a wide area, both geographically and chronologically, realistic for the study of the Gospels? Can it be seriously suggested that they belong to the same milieu as Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras (a fourth century AD account of a sixth century BC sage) or as Vergil’s Georgics or as such late gnostic-type material as the Pistis Sophia, the Poimandres, or even the Gospel of Philip? To cast the net so wide makes any meaningful comparison hazardous. The reader would be well advised to take note of the date and provenance of the texts cited if he is to avoid superficial and misleading comparisons.
  2. The constant juxtaposition of Christian and non-Christian sources is also misleading. The Christian writings included owe so much to the four Gospels that it is confusing to put them on a par with pagan literature as equally valid samples for comparison with the Gospels. A clear distinction between works dependent on the Gospels and those unrelated to them would have been both correct and helpful, but it is apparently ruled out by the editors’ approach.
  3. A reading of the literature here collected, especially by a student who is unfamiliar with most of it, is likely to have quite the opposite effect to that apparently intended by the editors. Instead of seeing the four Gospels as just a few among many similar writings, he is likely to be impressed with the immense distance which separates them from both contemporary non-Christian hagiography and subsequent Christian apocrypha. The restrained and almost utilitarian character of the Gospel miracles and visions contrasts sharply with the free proliferation of useless and even destructive ‘wonders’ in the later Christian writings and in Graeco-Roman ‘biographies’. And the pervasive influence of gnostic thought in so much Christian literature from quite early in the second century makes one the more grateful for the canon, a sentiment not likely to please the editors!

But even if we are not in sympathy with the aim of the editors, we can only be grateful for a very convenient collection of important material which is often referred to but not always easily accessible to the student of the Gospels. It is not an essential reference book; one must look elsewhere for complete and definitive editions of the various texts. But as a functional tool, and a fascinating literary excursion, it is well worth its price.

R. T. France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd