As many of you know I am on sabbatical this year at the National Humanities. This gives me a year off from teaching duties in order to focus on my research for my next book. I am not working on a trade book for a general audience, but a scholarly monograph meant for academics in the field of Early Christian studies. I’ve talked about the book before on the blog, but want to say a few more things about it now that I’ve been doing research on it.
I have no idea what it will be called, but I know what I want it to be about. It is related to my trade book (which itself is virtually finished – I still need to put the final touches on it before sending it in to my editor), whose tentative title (the trade book) is “Heaven, Hell, and the Invention of the Afterlife” (again, who knows what it will finally be called; that has to be worked out between the publisher, my agent, and me). The trade book, as you know, is about where the ideas of heaven and hell came from – the sense that when you die your soul goes to an eternal reward or eternal punishment. It’s a view not found in the Old Testament and it’s not what Jesus taught. So where’d it come from then?
The scholarly monograph is taking one aspect of that popular book and hitting it with scholarly rigor. It focuses on the early Christian texts that describe personal tours of the afterlife, where a living person is taken and shown the realms of the blessed and the damned, the torments of sinners in particular being given in quite gory and lurid detail.
We have such accounts starting in the early Christian century, with a book that nearly made it into the New Testament canon, called the Apocalypse of Peter. In this account Peter, Jesus’ closest disciple, is shown by Jesus himself what fates await the saints and sinners. I will give a closer description of the book in the next post. For now I’ll say that it had numerous predecessors outside the Christian tradition, in both pagan circles (from Homer’s Odyssey, to Plato’s myths, to Virgil’s Aeneid, to Lucian of Samosata, and others) and Jewish circles (in a range of non-canonical texts such as 1 Enoch and the Testament of Abraham). And it had some Christian successors, as in the Acts of Thomas and the Apocalypse of Paul, which later was to become a major text throughout the Middle Ages and an important influence on Dante himself.
And so my book – at least as I’m conceiving it now – will deal with these various texts. And I want to have a very short thread here on the blog on the latest thing that has absorbed my interest in the last couple of weeks. To explain what the small little issue is (it’s a big issue, but it deals with one specific detail) will take a few posts by way of background.
Before getting to that, though, I want to say just how amazing it is to have a year to do nothing but research. You can’t describe how enlightening and invigorating and intellectually stimulating it is. There is nothing like it. I spend my days reading texts and puzzling over them and thinking about them and realizing problems they pose and trying to figure out the problems; and also reading scholarship on them, which itself is a task since a good deal of the scholarship is not in English but in German, French, and Italian. This kind of work is not at all like writing a lecture for a general audience or for an undergraduate class!
And in doing this kind of detailed work, problems and questions pop up that demand answers and don’t have easy ones. For the past two weeks I’ve been wrestling with an intractable question that has been puzzling and puzzling me. It has to do in very broad terms with an issue I’ve confronted my entire academic life, namely, why did some books get into the New Testament and others not.
I’ve face this question since my first semester in my PhD program in 1981. I actually wrestled with it *before* that, but that was when I went at it head on. That semester, my first PhD seminar was on the canon of the New Testament with my beloved professor and mentor Bruce Metzger. We spent the entire semester translating the ancient Christian canon lists from Greek and Latin (these are the lists of books thought by one author or another to be part of the Christian scriptures – different lists by different author in different contexts who said different things about the books); and we read widely in what scholars had to say about the formation of the canon: when did the 27-book canon come to be assembled, who chose which books would be included, what were there criteria, why didn’t everyone agree, which books were the outliers, why were they left out, what parts of the church has (slightly) different canons, and for how long, etc. etc. etc.?
I’ve thought about these issues on and off ever since. It was really the ultimate question driving one of my first trade books Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, and its companion anthology of ancient texts Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It Into the New Testament. And I’ve continued thinking about it. But two weeks ago a question occurred to me that I’ve never ever asked myself, and that so far as I have been able to see (so far) no one else has asked either. I’ve thought and thought and thought about it. And I was just about ready to decide that it was indissoluble. Or at least that to solve it would take such masses of work that it would sidetrack my larger book project and become a *different* book project.
Then I woke up this morning and the answer popped into my head. I’m not sure if it’s the right answer, but I’m thinking it might be. The question, as I’ll explain in subsequent posts, has to do with why the Apocalypse of Peter did not make it into the New Testament, but the book of 2 Peter did.