Classify This: Reflections on the 2013 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium

by Ian Brown

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 2013 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium at York University. The symposium featured 20 invited papers from scholars hailing from numerous North American universities. The papers were very eclectic with topics ranging from the historical Jesus to late Medieval stories about Jesus to Dan Brown and Anne Rice. And while the objects of inquiry varied widely in terms of date, geographical provenance, and genre, two things tied them together: they were all “Christian Apocrypha” (henceforth CA), and they were all concerned with (to a greater or lesser extent) just what that designation meant. To put it another way, the conference was an exercise in classification. The extent to which theories or methods of classification factored in to any one paper, however, was lacking.

This is not a criticism of any of the individual papers, or of the symposium generally, more of an observation of the state of the field. Too often we who study religion—and especially those of us in the sub-discipline of early Christianity—are so comfortable with our categories that we don’t bother to ask simple questions of them. What are we including; what are we excluding; and on what grounds? Categories don’t simply exist out in the ether waiting for us to put things in them. Categories are constructed by people to do work for people. Thus our main concern should be; what kind of work is this particular category doing for me?

Returning to the Christian Apocrypha Symposium, a few brief observations can be made. First, CA is not a stable, ahistorical category, it is a constructed one. Second, the criteria for what is and is not CA is not set in stone, or even penned on parchment. A number of features could be, and have been emphasized in classifying CA. Classifications based on date, content, and function are quite common, but the sine qua non of CA is rather straightforward: CA are stories about Jesus or Jesus-related figures (and not just his disciples, figures such Pilate, the bandit crucified with Jesus have a rich tradition of stories) not contained within the canon of the New Testament. This leaves the door open for hundreds and hundreds of texts to be added to the “canon” of CA, a project already begun by the Symposium’s host and organizer, Tony Burke.

Breaking down the old canon of CA and including later medieval texts, Islamic texts, and even Dan Brown and Anne Rice raise new and interesting questions of our data, and the study of CA no longer finds itself confined to the “losers” of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. But adding data to our pool is only the first step. From here we need to ask the critical questions of how and why we classify our data as such. Interrogating modes of classification may seem like an easy way to sound theoretically sophisticated without actually having to know anything, but, in fact, theorizing systems of classification is one of, if not the most important tasks we who study religion undertake.

Ian Brown is a PhD student at the Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto.

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