This essay, and essays in the coming weeks, were part of a panel at the Society of Biblical Literature 2018 Annual Meeting titled, “Textual Objects and Material Philology,” inspired in part by the publication of Snapshots of Evolving Traditions (eds. Lied and Lundhaug).
In the following very short essay, I’m going to make a very small point about the way scholars use language and terminology, and how that use can affect the questions we ask and the range of possible interpretations we consider. This is also a very brief account of how looking at a digitized image of a manuscript folio shifted—again, in a very small way—my own thinking about one particular text (the Acts of John), but also about how an entire genre of texts (the apocryphal acts) may have circulated in the late ancient and medieval world. Warning: I’m going to spend the next 1200 words or so explaining some of the complicated textual tradition of the Acts of John—something that is probably not very interesting to anyone but me, but nevertheless necessary for understanding what’s going on with the particular manuscript that I’m going to describe. Then I’m going to make my very small point.
The Acts of John as we know it today—that is, the text you’ll find translated into modern languages in the various collections of New Testament apocrypha—is not extant from late antiquity or the middle ages as a whole. There is no manuscript that presents anything like the basic outline of the text that readers of the apocryphal acts are now familiar with. The Acts of John has, rather, been reconstructed by at least four generations of scholars working with a wide range of source material. We know from patristic sources that a text called the Acts of John did indeed circulate in the second century CE. We also have from patristic sources an author’s name: “Leucius” or “Leucius Charinus.” It’s been a long time since any scholars have thought that the Acts of John were actually written by someone named “Leucius,” but the existence of this tradition is important to note: the fact that this narrative was attributed to a particular individual—and the consequent notion that there must have existed at some point a single “authorial” version—is no doubt part of what drove early scholars of the text to work so tirelessly to recover that “original,” “authorial” version.
How did they go about doing that? What sources did they use? Here I will briefly discuss just two steps in this process: the work of Theodor Zahn and the work of M. R. James. The full version of this story would include also Johann Karl Thilo, Constantin von Tischendorf, Maximilian Bonnet, Knut Schäferdiek, Eric Junod, Jean-Daniel Kaestli, and others. As for sources, while the Acts of John as we know it now is not extant, a number of Johannine narratives are: the Acts of John in Rome, the Metastasis (that is, account of John’s death), the Syriac History of John, the Latin Virtutes Iohannis, the Acts of John by Prochorus, an Oxyrhynchos papyrus fragment, the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum (an Irish apocryphon), excerpts quoted in the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, and the narrative found on folios 51v to 55v of Vienna hist. gr. 63. These are the most important sources scholars have used to reconstruct the early Acts of John. Of these, the most important by far is the Acts of John by Prochorus, edited by Zahn in 1880. The Acts of John by Prochorus is a very interesting text that seems to have been widely read: there are more than 150 manuscripts containing it, dating from the 10th to the 16th centuries. Zahn uses some 15 of them to create his edition. Unsurprisingly, the Acts of John by Prochorus exists in multiple recensions, but the basic outline of the contents is relatively stable. It begins with the disciples of Jesus casting lots to divide up the world for their missionary activities. This episode also introduces the narrator: after John draws Asia, the first-person narrator reports, “to me, Prochorus, it fell by lot to go with John.” This is followed by a shipwreck and delayed arrival at Ephesus. John and Prochorus immediately go to work at a bathhouse, where they have several adventures that end in John’s exile to Patmos by either Trajan or Domitian (depending on the manuscript). Then there’s the boat trip to Patmos, which is also eventful. What follows is a series of episodes that involve far more people and far more cities than the diminutive island of Patmos could possibly have accommodated. These episodes are more or less standard fare for apocryphal acts, but with a particular emphasis on head-to-head religious battles: Christianity’s triumph over pagan god-demons is underscored again and again; and the narrative is sprinkled with a handful of sensationally wicked Jews. In most manuscripts, John’s release from exile, return to Ephesus, and death by (mostly) natural causes are narrated very briefly.
The editing of this material was the first part of Zahn’s work. But, as Zahn noticed, there are a handful of manuscripts of the Acts of John by Prochorus that include additional material, accompanied by a reordering of several of its sections. Zahn hypothesized that these additions were likely excerpts from the earlier Acts of John, fragments of which were also found elsewhere. In the second part of the work, then, he collects material relating to “the travels of John according to Leucius Charinus.” The largest continuous narrative is an episode culled from the Acts of John by Prochorus, in which a wealthy, married woman named Drusiana becomes the object of a certain Callimachus’ lecherous desires. To make a long story short: Drusiana blames herself for Callimachus’ lechery and dies of grief; Callimachus then attempts to rape her entombed corpse, but—don’t worry—the risen Jesus intervenes, and John eventually raises Drusiana from the dead. Other material that Zahn collects as parts of this “early” Acts of John are three selections from the Acts of John that were read into the record at the Second Council of Nicaea. These include a section (now numbered 27.1-28.6) in which a disciple commissions a portrait of John, and John reacts angrily; this episode is the reason why the text was introduced into this council, which ultimately restored the veneration of images after the first period of Byzantine iconoclasm. In the other two sections (now numbered 93.1-95.22 and 97.1-98.12), John reminisces about his experiences with the living Jesus; these excerpts, inasmuch as they reek of Docetism and replace the eucharist with an interpretive dance, are offered to the Council as proof that the text is wrong about everything, including its seemingly iconoclastic attitude.
Zahn’s work, however, was still just a collection of unconnected pieces; there was no sense of a narrative shape, no sense of the structure of the whole. The crucial moment for assembling a coherent narrative came with M. R. James’ discovery of a Johannine text in a 14th century Vienna manuscript (hist. gr. 63, folios 51v–55v). The bulk of this narrative is a gospel flashback, in which the apostle John describes from his own perspective his experiences with the living Jesus, including the sections quoted at the Second Council of Nicaea. The narrative frame around the flashback, however, involves Drusiana—the heroine from the episode edited by Zahn; moreover, it begins with Drusiana referring, briefly, to her experience in the tomb. Now, M. R. James was very familiar with Zahn’s work as well as with the ongoing work of his own contemporary, Max Bonnet, who was at that moment in 1897 working on an edition of the Acts of John. So, when James finds this narrative he immediately knows exactly what it is and, moreover, exactly where it fits.
He identifies it as a “fragment” of the early Acts of John, and he writes: “As to its place in the complete book a word only need be said. It follows immediately upon the long episode of the raising of Drusiana, of which Zahn gives us the greater part in Greek, while M. Bonnet has the whole text.” In the edition that was in process as James wrote, Bonnet did indeed place this “fragment” exactly where James suggests. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this chunk of text functioned as a missing link: its discovery allowed the reconstruction of the early text. Aside from the death of John, which obviously belonged at the end, this is the first section of text that clearly seemed to follow upon another section. After these larger sections were in place, it was just a matter of slotting the additional pieces into their most probable locations within the newly created narrative sequence. As it turns out, the current scholarly consensus is that James and Bonnet were wrong about where this second Drusiana episode should be placed (and also wrong about several other placement decisions), which is why the Acts of John in modern translation is a text that begins at chapter 18, a text where chapters 87–105 fall between chapters 36 and 37, and a text that has two completely different possibilities for chapters 56–57.
But the very small point I want to make in this very short essay is much more basic, and here it is: I’m not sure that the narrative from Vienna hist. gr. 63 is best described as a “fragment.”
It certainly doesn’t look like a fragment in the manuscript: it has some nice decoration at the top, and it’s given a long-ish title: “An Amazing Narrative concerning the deeds and the visions which the holy John the theologian saw with our Lord Jesus Christ—how he appeared in the beginning to Peter and James, and wherein he narrates the mystery of the cross” (Διήγησις θαυμαστή περὶ τὰς πράξεις καὶ ὀπτασίας ἣν εἴδεν ὁ ἅγιος Ἰωάννης ὁ θεόλογος παρὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ πῶς ἐφάνη ἀπ᾽ἀρχῆς Πέτρον καὶ Ἰάκωβον καὶ ὅπου διηγεῖται τοῦ σταυροῦ τὸ μυστήριον). You can also see the lovely decoration of the initial epsilon of the word ἐξήτασαν. On the last page you can see that the narrative ends with the formulaic “now and always and forever and ever, amen” (νῦν καὶ ἀεὶ καὶ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνοας τῶν αἰώνων. ἀμήν).
This is, again, a very small point, but to me the term “fragment” suggests something that has been broken off willy-nilly—and that was very much how I thought of this narrative for years. I am rather embarrassed to admit that, while both the title and concluding formula are printed in both Bonnet’s Junod and Kaestli’s editions of the Greek text, it wasn’t until I looked at this folio for the first time that it even occurred to me to ask whether the content really is a broken off piece or if it could be read as some sort of narrative whole all on its own. I don’t have the space for too much detail here, but my short answer to that question is, yes, I think it works.
That the end—beyond just the concluding formula—is an “end” is clear to, I think, all readers. In fact, translators who supply headings generally label the last few paragraphs as “concluding admonitions” or some such. The last few lines read: “And when John had handed these things down to the brothers, he departed together with Andronicus on a walk. And Drusiana followed at a distance along with all the brothers, so that they might see the deeds done by him and hear his word, at all times in the Lord (now and always and forever and ever, amen).” The beginning is not quite so clearly a “beginning,” but I actually think it works, too. The first line reads: “And so those present asked questions about the cause, and were particularly perplexed, when Drusiana said ‘the Lord appeared to me in the tomb as John and as a youth’” (Ἐξήτασαν οὖν οἱ παρόντες τὴν αἰτίαν, καὶ μάλιστα ἠπόρουν, εἰρηκυίας τῆς Δρουσιάνης ὅτι Μοι ὁ κύριος ὡς Ἰωάννης ὤφθη ἐν τῷ μνήματι καὶ ὡς νεανίσκος·). It continues with, “And so because they were perplexed and, in some ways, not yet solidified enough in the faith to bear this firmly, John said…” at which point John launches into a narration of his experiences with the similarly shape-shifting living Jesus. To be sure, the narrative begins in medias res—but that’s not so unusual in ancient prose fiction (we could compare it with the beginning of Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Tale); moreover, when I look at the verbs in that first sentence (ἐξήτασαν “they asked questions” and ἠπόρουν “they were perplexed” or “they were at a loss”), I see some intentionality. To begin a text in medias res with an internal audience that is, like the external audience, confused, at a loss, asking questions—that seems pretty smart to me. It is certainly true that this narrative assumes prior knowledge of, to borrow some language from comic book studies, “the Johannine universe of stories”; the reader is assumed to be someone who knows something about Drusiana. But I think it still works on its own.
Again, to me the term “fragment” suggests something that is broken off or otherwise unintentionally separated: a stray puzzle piece, a single sock. The term points to what is missing. But I don’t think we have to look at this narrative in that way. I think it is more helpful to see it as an independently circulating episode, which may well be an excerpt from a longer narrative, but can also go it alone. The larger very small point that I’d like to make is that I suspect that independently circulating episodes like this one play a larger role than is generally acknowledged in the textual traditions of apocryphal acts and other early Christian narratives.
Janet Spittler is an historian of early Christian literature and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.