My previous two posts were meant to be a kind of lead-up to this one; this thread started by my talking about the times I have published both a scholarly work and a trade book for popular audiences on the same topic. The third and most recent time had to do with an edition of the Apocryphal Gospels. I’ve now given some of the backstory: I had done a translation project creating a new bi-lingual edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library, and had vowed I would never do something like that again. But I broke my vow.
It all began innocently enough. I had a scholar from England as a houseguest back in 1999 or so. David Parker is the premier New Testament textual critic in the U.K. these days, or in the English-speaking world for that matter. He is a real, hard-core manuscript guy. At that point of my career – fifteen years ago now – I too was actively involved in that field. Some of our interests and writings overlapped, but we also had distinctive emphases: I was more interested in how the various surviving manuscripts related to each other genealogically and with how scribes had intentionally altered the texts when they copied them; he was more interested in specific individual manuscripts as artefacts and how they conveyed the textual tradition of the New Testament. Anyway, we always had a lot to talk about, and he was over for a visit to give a lecture at Duke, and I had him say in my home.
One morning over breakfast we got to talking about the manuscript tradition not of the New Testament, but of the non-canonical Gospels, and he expressed his surprise that there was no handy edition that presented these books in their original languages. I was teaching a course on the Apocryphal Gospels at that time and I too was a bit puzzled by that: for some individual Gospels (for example the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi Library, or the Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas) there were good, up-to-date editions that could be easily purchased. But for other Gospels that were historically important – e.g., the Gospel of Nicodemus and various other ones of the so-called “Pilate Gospels” (called this because they focus on Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus and its aftermath) – about the only edition available was that done by Constantine von Tischendorf in 1853 (second edition 1876)! And this edition was not exactly available at your local bookstore or on Amazon. It had been out of print for many decades. I didn’t even own a copy at the time.
As we talked about it, we agreed…
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As we talked about it, we agreed that it should be a fairly easy thing to produce a new edition of these texts, and that someone ought to do that. We were OH SO WRONG about the first point, but right about the second.
Anyway, I kept that conversation in the back of my mind. About seven or eight years later, I was again at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting walking around in the huge book display, and came upon the Harvard University Press stall, and struck up a conversation with my erstwhile editor Peg Fulton. This was a few years after my Loeb Apostolic Fathers had appeared, and as we talked Peg asked if I’d be interested in doing another edition of some other text for them. And off the bat, just off the top of my head, the idea having come from nowhere it seemed (maybe I was teaching that seminar again?) I said that what we really needed was a Greek/Latin – English edition of the Apocryphal Gospels. I explained why and what an enormous service it would be to have an edition like that.
Peg was excited about the idea and asked me if I’d be willing to write up a proposal for the Loeb editorial board. I went back home and thought about it. At that point of my career I was in the midst of writing various trade books (God’s Problem; Jesus Interrupted) and was feeling like I wanted to do some more serious scholarship as well. I didn’t have a monograph project in mind at the time (the monograph on Forgery and Counterforgery was later), but I thought about the possibility of an edition of the Apocryphal Gospels. How hard could it be? I could utilize the Greek and Latin texts that had been established by various scholars over the years and produce new translations and voila! I would have a very useful bi-lingual edition. I think, for some reason, that I had forgotten just how crazily difficult this was the last time I tried something like that (it’s like breaking your arm: hard to remember how bad the pain is later….).
So I wrote up a prospectus of what the volume would include and the rationale for it since there was nothing like it available, it was very much needed, and would sell extremely well: every scholar of the NT and early Christianity and their graduate students would want a copy. I sent the prospectus to Peg, she presented it to the board, and they … turned it down!! They made a decision at their meeting that they did not want to publish any more texts of ancient Christian writings in the Loeb, since the series is really meant to be Greek and Roman classics, not Christian works, and they were afraid that if they started publishing more Christian works that, well, they would not know how to shut the barn door once it was opened, and the Loeb Classical Library would eventually become the Loeb Christian Library (since there are so very, very many Christian texts in Greek and Latin).
And so I had to go to Plan B, which I’ll describe in my next post.