On Byzantine Apocrypha and Erotapokriseis Literature

by Tony Burke

As I work through the contributions to the second volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, I am struck by how many of them are related to a genre of literature that has not been discussed much in connection with apocryphal texts. This genre is erotapokriseis (question-and-answer) texts. For an introduction to this literature, see Péter Tóth, “New Wine in Old Wineskin: Byzantine Reuses of the Apocryphal Revelation Dialogue,” in Dialogues and Debates from Late Antiquity to Late Byzantium(ed. Averil Cameron and Niels Gaul; New York: Routledge, 2017), 77–93 (available on academia.edu) and Yannis Papadoyannakis, “Instruction by Question and Answer: The Case of Late Antique and Byzantine Erotapokriseis,” in Greek Literature in Late Antiquity: Dynamism, Didacticism, Classicism (ed. Scott Fitzgerald Johnson; London/New York: Routledge, 2006), 91–105 (also online HERE).

The genre can be defined widely enough to include any dialogue literature, going as far back as Pseudo-Aristotle’s Problemata (compiled over a period stretching from 300 BCE to 600 CE) and, in their early form, are structured as an exchange between a master and his disciples. This should be familiar to readers of such apocryphal texts as the Dialogue of the Savior and the Letter of Peter to Philip, in which a (typically) post-Easter Jesus responds to a series of questions from his disciples. Kurt Rudolph called these texts “apocryphal revelation dialogues,” Helmut Koester, more provocatively, “dialogue-gospels.” The prevalence of the form among the so-called “gnostic” texts of the Nag Hammadi Library led to a belief that it was particularly favored among gnostic Christians. But the form is also used in the more orthodox Epistle of the Apostles and the Questions of Bartholomew, and to some extent in tour of hell apocalypses, such as the Apocalypse of Paul or the Apocalypse of the Virgin, in which various locations of punishment are explained in response to questions from the visionary of the text.

Non-revelation erotapokriseis include works by Origen and Eusebius. On their models evolved in late antiquity a flexible form of numbered questions and answers that allowed for adaptation and supplementation. One of the first of these is the Quaestiones et responsiones ad orthodoxos attributed to Justin. It features 161 questions and answers (in the long recension) dealing with themes such as eschatology, cosmology, demonology, magic etc. It has an apologetic dimension, asserting orthodox teachings against the views of well-known critics of Christianity (Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian) and of heretics. It is these Byzantine question-and-answer texts that have some kind of relationship to contemporary apocrypha.

The erotapokriseis texts included in MNTA 2 include one text closely aligned with the early “gnostic” dialogues. It has appeared in previous editions and collections, including the German collection edited by Schneemelcher (by Henri-Charles Puech, see pp. 388–90 in the English translation) and its revision by Markschies and Schröter (by Hans-Martin Schenke, see pp. 1217–19). In both collections the text is called “Fragments of a Dialogue between John and Jesus,” but Philip Tite, who has provided an extensive introduction and new translation of the text for MNTA, prefers to keep the identity of the revealer anonymous, simply calling the text the Dialogue of the Revealer and John. The fragmentary manuscript, in Coptic, is a single page broken up into smaller pieces. It likely derives from the Monastery of Apa Apollo at Deir el-Bala’izah, which seems to have been abandoned by 750 CE. The remaining portions of the text comprise a series of questions about Genesis—the fall of humanity, Cain and Abel, the Flood, and Melchizedek—answered by the Revealer with hints of Sethian theology (the mention of five seals, the terms “silence” and “rational power”).

Tite’s work on the Dialogue of the Revealer and John is followed in MNTA 2 by a series of Byzantine Johannine apocalyptica. Most of these have appeared previously, most prominently in John M. Court’s collection The Book of Revelation and the Johannine Apocalyptic Tradition (JSNTS 190; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000). Court republished earlier editions and provided English translations and notes. The first of these Johannine apocalyptica, 1 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, is the most widely known as it is included in Constantin Tischendorf’s Apocalypses Apocryphae, from which it was translated into English in Alexander Walker’s Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Revelations. In the text, John sits with the resurrected Jesus on Mount Tabor and asks a series of questions about the fate of the soul, the form of the body in the afterlife, and about the anti-Christ. My favorite section is the answer to John’s question on the form taken by the righteous after resurrection:

For even as the bees are, and are no different one from another, but are all one appearance and one stature, in the same way, even those in the resurrection will all be human. They will be neither fair of skin, nor red of skin, nor black of skin; neither will they be (like the) Ethiopian with different facial features; 5but all will rise in one appearance and one stature. (11:2–4)

Many new manuscripts of the text have been found since Tischendorf’s day—he used seven in Greek, but Rick Brannan’s introduction for MNTA 2 lists an additional 27, and likely there are more. The text is known also in Arabic, Garšuni, Armenian, and Slavonic. It was certainly popular. With a new critical edition still a desideratum, Brannan provides only a new translation of Tischendorf’s text. He has also published a Greek reader of the text (more on this HERE). Besides the question-and-answer structure of the text, 1 Apocr. Apoc. John also intersects with the erotapokriseis genre in a number of parallels of content with the Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem, attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria but likely composed in the seventh century. Both texts share material in their answers to whether the dead will be able to recognize each other in the afterlife (Quaest. ad Ant. 22; cf. 1 Apocr. Apoc. John 12) and about the number of the angels (Quaest. ad Ant. 6; cf. 1 Apocr. Apoc. John 26). The parallels are noted in work on the text in the nineteenth century in Russian by Vassily Mochulsky but have only been brought into Western scholarship recently by Péter Tóth (“New Wine in Old Wineskin,” 82–84) and Laurence Vianès (“Les citations bibliques dans la Première Apocalyse Apocryphe de saint Jean et dans les Quaestiones ad Antiochum Ducem,” in Soyez des changuers avisés. Controverses exégétiques dans la littérature apocryphe chrétienne, ed. Gabriella Aragione and Rémi Gounelle [Cahiers de Biblia Patristica 12; Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 2012], 145–612, also available on academia.edu).

The second Byzantine Johannine apocalypse is known, appropriately enough, as 2 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, though it is attributed in the manuscripts to John Chrysostom, not John the Theologian. It is possible that the attribution to Chrysostom is a secondary development in the tradition, though the content of the text—questions about the Byzantine liturgy—is certainly appropriate to Chrysostom, who was instrumental in its development. This text was first published by Russian scholar N. Th. Krasnoseltsev in 1898 but readers in the West became aware of it from an edition by François Nau in 1914. Janet Spittler and two of her students, Rebecca Draughon and Jeannie Sellick, have prepared for MNTA 2 a synoptic translation of both editions, which vary from one another significantly. At least four other manuscripts are known, one from the new finds at St. Catherine’s Monastery, but these have yet to be evaluated or published. The fragmentary St. Catherine’s manuscript should be important since it dates from around the eighth or ninth century. As with 1 Apocr. Apoc. John, there are several Byzantine erotapokriseisworks, indicated by  Krasnoseltsev, that share content with 2 Apocr. Apoc. John. As Tóth notes (p. 83), the Various Questions and Answers on Priests contains the questions, “What is the church? What is the sanctuary? What is the altar?” and the answers sometimes agree verbatim with 2 Apocr. Apoc. John 3:1–3. Parallels to the apocalypse can also be found in commentaries on the liturgy, such as Germanos of Constantinople’s Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation.

MNTA 2 features also, for the first time, a translation of a new text: 3 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John. This text has been prepared by Chance Bonar and I from two error-ridden Greek manuscripts; it is available also in 24 Slavonic manuscripts. 3 Apocr. Apoc. Johnhas some clear connections with 1 Apocr. Apoc. John: the dialogue occurs on the Mount of Olives after the resurrection and overlaps in content with the question on the form of post-resurrection bodies. But in this text, John asks questions of Abraham, not Jesus. The patriarch is an appropriate choice for interlocutor given the tradition in ancient Jewish and Christian tradition of the “bosom of Abraham,” which holds that after death the righteous are separated from the unrighteous and cross over to an area of Hades/Sheol where Abraham dwells. So Abraham is fully qualified to answer questions about the nature of souls and the afterlife, such as will the Jews find mercy in the afterlife? What will happen to the impious on judgment day? Will the righteous be separated from family and friends? And do deceased children go to heaven? Some questions also deal with the conduct of priests and other church officials, with a particular interest in their conduct and who will speak for whom on judgment day. It is not known yet whether this particular apocalypse has any connection to other erotapokriseis texts. Perhaps scholars who work closely in that area will see some parallels when the text is published.

The last of the texts in this cluster of Johannine apocalyptica is the Questions of James to John, prepared by Kathleen Gibbons. The text was first published from one Greek manuscript by Athanasius Vassiliev in 1893 in his collection Anecdota graeco-byzantina; an English translation was provided by Court. An additional seven manuscripts are known, and Kate drew upon four of these for her translation. As of yet no versions have been found in other languages. The questions posed by James focus again on the fate of the soul after death, but this time attention is paid to what happens to sinners (in typical tour-of-hell fashion they are placed in a fiery river where they are consumed by a sleepless worm) and on the possibility of repentance. A number of examples are presented of notorious sinners who received forgiveness, both biblical (Peter, Manasseh, David, and the Good Thief) and nonbiblical (Mary of Egypt, Andrew of Crete, and Cyprian of Antioch). Tóth does not mention any connections between Quest. James and other erotapokriseistexts, and very few other scholars have worked on this text. The repentant late antique saints given as examples of repentance certainly indicate use of another source—that John would have knowledge of these figures is peculiar and not explained in the text—but so far no one has pursued parallels.

Two other apocryphal erotapokriseis texts are mentioned in Tóth’s study: the Revelation on the Lord’s Prayer (BHG 821x–y), which entails a post-Easter discussion between Peter and Jesus about the interpretation of the prayer (e.g., “what is ‘they kingdom come’?”), and the Dialogue of Mary and Christ on the Departure of the Soul, which is attributed to John. The first of these texts was published by Krasnoseltzev from two manuscripts, and a third is known. It also appears appended to Quest. James in one of the manuscripts used by Kate for her translation. The Dialogue of Mary was found by Tóth in two manuscripts but has yet to be published. I wish we had known about these two texts earlier in the process of compiling MNTA 2! Ah well, there’s always vol. 3 (if indeed there is a vol. 3).

One more text to appear in MNTA 2 relates to erotapokriseis literature, but this one is not a Johannine apocalypse. It is the unpublished Martyrdom of Zechariah, translated by Sarah Veale and I from two Greek manuscripts. It is extant also in 18 Slavonic manuscripts. The text compiles traditions about Zechariah’s death and episodes from the life of John the Baptist. Some of this material appears also in an exchange between Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great known as Quaestiones ac responsiones. One question addresses how long the Holy Family spent in Egypt, with the answer given as 12 months. Another addresses where Jesus lived while there, with the answer given as “the house of Alphaeus,” and a partial exchange refers to the murder of Zechariah by Herod. All of this information appears in the early chapters of Mart. Zach. Another erotapokriseistext extant in Slavonic under the title “Narrative from the unknown, true books of Genesis” includes a question about the baptisms of Zechariah and John; the response, corresponding to the narrative in Mart. Zech. 5–6, is given as:

The Lord baptized the two after he came out of Egypt with the four angels. After Zechariah had been killed in the temple, he baptized the two there, after he raised Zechariah from the dead. But he brought John out of the mountain, and again sent him into the mountain.  Zechariah, however, fell asleep again and was buried under the altar. The Lord himself went to Egypt. But all this happened in one night.

Two other Slavonic manuscripts have the same question and answer but in these manuscripts the question is posed by Gregory of Nazianzus, suggesting that it has some association with the Greek Quaestiones ac responsiones.

Opinions vary as to the direction of dependency of the erotapokriseis texts and their related apocrypha. Vianès reserves judgment about which of the two texts he examines, 1 Apocr. Apoc. John and Quaest. ad Ant., is primary, or whether they depend on a third, unknown source, whereas Tóth concludes that 1 Apocr. Apoc. John is a transformation of Quaest. ad Ant. As for Mart. Zech., it appears to me far more likely that the questions addressed to Gregory are based on Mart. Zech. than the reverse. Regardless of the answers on dependency, the relationship of apocrypha and erotapokriseis texts begs for further exploration. In cases were the apocryphal texts are primary, the examples show that Byzantine writers were willing to draw upon apocrypha as sources for questions about the afterlife, the liturgy, and the lives of saints; where erotapokriseis texts are primary, we see the transformation or adaptation of one type of literature into apocrypha, presumably because doing so would give it a wider hearing or appeal. As Tóth writes, “The close dependence of the Apocalypse to the Quaestiones seems to indicate a certain permeability between the two literary forms. The dry and impersonal series of questions and answers could easily be turned into a more lively dialogue form resulting in a, so-to-say, ‘apocryphised’ version of the erotapokriseis” (p. 84).

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