Canonical Questions, Apocryphal Answers

The canonical Gospels can be described as extended answers to the question: “Who is Jesus?” However, none of these extended responses claims to give an exhaustive answer (e.g., John 20:30), and in some cases, the answers given lead to further questions. For instance, the canonical Gospels record Jesus’ birth and resurrection. But how was Jesus born? How exactly was he resurrected? These questions may strike modern ears as irrelevant, but second-century inquiring minds wanted to know. With the Gospel of Peter and the Protevangelium of James serving as premier examples, we will explore how apocryphal gospels answered questions that were seemingly implicit in the canonical accounts – such as questions surrounding the virgin birth and the resurrection. Instead of pressing apocryphal gospels into the service of a quest for the historical Jesus, we will argue for their relevance in understanding second-century Christology and scriptural interpretation. Our investigation will bolster the case for the second-century origin of the Gospel of Peter. But in doing so, we will also showcase similarities between second-century readers (and/or hearers) of (what came to be) the canonical Gospels, explaining how such ancient approaches (common also to patristic authors and early Jewish exegetes) contrast with modern exegetical techniques. As we explore, for example, how the Gospel of Peter answers the questions raised by Mark 16:3, we may conclude that some Christian apocryphal gospels are best read not among Gnostic works of the third and fourth centuries, but rather alongside Jewish “rewritten Bible” or even Midrash Rabbah.