Review: Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed (Skinner)

Burke BookAmong those with interests in the non-canonical Christian literature, Tony Burke is well known for his scholarly writings and his blog devoted to exploring the Christian Apocrypha. This volume, which Burke describes as his “dream project” (vi), is a superb introduction to a broad range of early Christian, non-canonical texts. The book consists of seven chapters of unequal length and a short appendix listing resources for further study (pp. 153-56).

Chapter 1 (“What are the Christian Apocrypha?”) is more than a simple introduction to the subject at hand. Burke situates the study of the apocrypha in the modern Western context of media hype, defines a number of key terms, and demonstrates why these texts are important for our study of early Christianity. Particular attention is given to problems with our current terminology (viz., apocrypha, non-canonical, hidden, secret) and how the use of a given term can unwittingly influence the direction of a discussion. We all know that the terms you choose and how you define them are key to discussing literature such as this, especially among audiences that privilege canonical texts. As I have noted elsewhere, many Christians are quick to dismiss as valueless, all non-canonical material. What is striking about this chapter is the way in which Burke describes both the apocrypha and his task. He writes with the passion and infectious enthusiasm of someone who genuinely enjoys his topic of study.

After introducing readers to the foundational questions, Burke uses Chapter 2 to introduce the tools and methods necessary for studying the Christian apocrypha. Included in the overview are texts and translations, historic discoveries such as Nag Hammadi and Oxyrhynchus, monastic libraries, and the apocrypha in art, literature, and drama.

The next three chapters survey non-canonical writings about Jesus’ life (Chapter 3), passion and resurrection (Chapter 4), and early church legends after Jesus’ departure (Chapter 5). These chapters constitute the substance of Burke’s primer as they introduce students to specific texts and their contents. One emphasis that continues to appear throughout the book is the role these writings play in our understanding of history. At the end of Chapter 4, Burke notes, “[T]here is likely little in these texts that can be considered historical—at least not in the sense that these texts provide additional information about what really happened…But the value of these texts lies not in what they say about Jesus, but in what they say about Christians, about how they used early Christian figures and events to discuss and debate new developments in the lives of their communities” (99). These three chapters are succinct and substantive at the same time. This is the portion of the book from which students will glean the most information about the actual content of the Christian Apocrypha.

Chapter 6 (“Myths, Misconceptions, Misinformation”) looks briefly at nine myths and misconceptions related to the apocrypha: (1) The Christian Apocrypha were all written after the texts of the NT, or were all written before the texts of the NT; (2) The Christian Apocrypha are ‘forgeries’ written in the names of the apostles; (3) The Christian Apocrypha were written by Gnostics; (4) The Christian Apocrypha claim that Jesus was not divine; (5) The Christian Apocrypha are bizarre and fanciful compared to the canonical gospels; (6) The Christian Apocrypha were written to undermine or replace the canonical texts; (7) The Christian Apocrypha were enormously popular before their suppression by a powerful minority in the church; (8) The Christian Apocrypha are being used to rewrite Christian history; (9) Reading the Christian Apocrypha is harmful to one’s faith. This chapter is a thorough coverage of ideas that circulate among popular audiences, and thus helps Burke connect with his intended, non-specialist audience.

Chapter 7 consists of a very brief (3 page) conclusion to the work.

Several features of this book stand out in my mind. First, the material Burke covers is grouped by subject matter rather than date, an arrangement that will likely prove useful for non-specialists. Second, his writing style is clear, engaging, and at times, even humorous in places. Third, at the end of each major section there is a textbox providing information for further study. What I most appreciate about this book is that Burke writes with the skill of an expert and the communicative ability of a great teacher. He ably accomplishes the aim of writing an introductory text for the non-specialist. I definitely plan to require this textbook the next time I teach the non-canonical literature!

Nine Books I’m Currently Reading (Skinner)

Ok, so I just checked and in my last three weeks of blog inactivity, Nijay has literally posted 14 different times. (I think he’s trying to make me look bad.) During that period I have been a little busy, first finishing exams and then finishing up a paper I’ll be giving at this conference in London in a little more than a week. When I return from London I have a bunch of stuff to post about, but for now, I thought I’d mention a few books that I am reading at the moment as I plan on reviewing them here on the blog. Summer is a good time to catch up on (late) book reviews and other books I have been too busy to pick up. Here are nine I’m currently reading, seven of which I plan to discuss here:

Black Book1.  C. Clifton Black, The Disciples according to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate (2d ed; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

I am currently reviewing this one for Biblical Theology Bulletin. I received it awhile back when I was working on my book on Markan character studies and I found it extremely useful for my historical overview of Markan research on the disciples. This is a second edition of Black’s revised dissertation, which was an “instant classic” when it was first published back in 1989. Black’s insightful analysis of the different types of redaction criticism, as well as the failures and successes of redaction critical method remains poignant and thought-provoking. The substance of the original book remains the same, though Black has added a lengthy “Afterword” (43 pages) in which he discusses redaction criticism in the 25 years since the initial publication of his book. I have several thoughts about this book that I hope to share in due course.

Burke Book2. Tony Burke, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). 

I am currently reviewing this one for Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Tony (whom I have not yet met) has a very good blog named Apocryphicity, devoted to all-things-Apocrypha. If you’ve read his blog, you won’t be surprised by the quality of this book. Those who know me well know that I love to research and write, but they also know that I am a teacher first. That’s why I love getting solidly-researched, well-written books aimed at students. I am not finished with the book yet, but I can already tell you that it’s a great fit for the classroom. I do intend to try it out the next time I have an opportunity to teach a course on the non-canonical literature.

Ehrman.Plese Book3. Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Like the previous book, I am also reviewing this one for Catholic Biblical Quarterly, though I have yet to do more than simply leaf through a few pages. Back in 2011, Ehrman (who is well-known to anyone who might read this blog) and Plese (a leading authority on Christian Gnosticism) published a book entitled, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations, in which they provided original language texts–complete with text-critical discussions–and translations of non-canonical writings about Jesus. This book covers the same writings from that previous volume but with English-only translations and without all of the scholarly jargon. Like the Burke book, I think this has the potential to be a useful classroom resource. I will say more about this once I’ve had a chance to go over it in greater detail.

Keith Book4. Chris Keith, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). 

I am reviewing this one for Theology. I read (and really liked) Chris’ related book, Jesus’ Literacy , and I have already read the first two chapters of this one. Chris writes that this book is part three of a three-part “Spielbergian” project (my words, not his) in which he deals with various issues and various angles related to the literacy of Jesus (see here and here for the previous two works). I have made no secret of the fact that I think very highly of Chris Keith’s scholarship. He is a creative, intelligent, and productive scholar, especially in light of his age. I look forward to working my way through the rest of the book.

Bennema Book5. Cornelis Bennema, A Theory of Character in New Testament Narrative (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

This book came to me in the mail awhile back. I have been asked by Fortress Press to provide a review here on the blog (which I will due by summer’s end) and was just asked today to review it for a journal. I have had a chance to look over several chapters (but, if I’m being totally and completely honest), I have only really perused the four or five sections in which Cor interacts with my own work. This is not as utterly self-serving as it sounds. In November I will be on a panel with Cor, Alicia Myers, Steve Hunt, Frank Moloney and others at SBL in which we deal with Johannine characterization. I already know that I have some strong disagreements with Cor, but I also find his work stimulating. One of the strengths of what I’ve already read is that Cor is definitely read up on all of the important research in this area.

Myers Book6. Alica Myers, Characterizing Jesus: A Rhetorical Analysis on the Fourth Gospel’s Use of Scripture in its Presentation of Jesus (LNTS; London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2014).

OK, I have to be honest and say that I haven’t even looked at this one yet. Like the previous book, I just received this in the mail so that I can read up for our November session at SBL. I recently had the chance to meet Alicia who is moving to Campbell University, right down the road from where I teach. I will likely provide a review of this one closer to November, but I did want to mention it.


Crump Book7. David Crump, Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

I agreed to review this one for Biblical Theology Bulletin, but I am not really sure what to say or think about it. This book is different in focus and content from the volumes I typically review and I’m just not sure what to do with it. Crump wants to look at the Scriptures through a Kierkegaardian lens while giving a nod to issues like authentic faith and Scriptural authority (issues I am a little tired of discussing in public), all while questioning the value of the historical critical method. It’s been an *interesting* read thus far. Tune in and I’ll say more once I’m done.

Finally, I’m also reading the competing 8. Ehrman and 9. Bird (et al) volumes….but don’t worry, I don’t plan to review either one here on the blog. There’s much too much of that going on in the blogosphere right now.