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VCU Menorah Review Fall 2003
Number 59
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Non-Canonical Literature Remembered

The Lost Bible: Forgotten Scriptures Revealed
by J.R. Porter
University of Chicago Press

A Review Essay by Kristin Swenson

From our early 21st-century vantage point, when the lines between Judaism, Christianity and Islam seem strikingly clear, it is easy to forget that such has not always been the case. Indeed, Christianity emerged messily in widely diverse groups from Judaism, which itself was far from tidy and monolithic; and common traditions, legends, even theology were adopted and sustained in Islam, the youngest of the three religions. The Lost Bible: Forgotten Scriptures Revealed by J.R. Porter is not a history book, chronicling the development of these religions. Rather, it is a pleasing collection of text excerpts, brief commentary on the ancient books from which the excerpts come and reproductions of fascinating artwork illustrating aspects of the texts. As Porter notes in the first sentence of his introduction, “The Lost Bible is an anthology of ancient scriptures which did not become part of the Jewish or Christian Bibles” (p. 6). That’s all. Nevertheless, in its pages, representing many different extrabiblical texts, The Lost Bible demonstrates how permeable the membranes between religious traditions have been.

Indeed, its sampling of diverse and copious literature related in time, style, subject and theology to canonical texts suggests that some of what distinguishes the three “Religions of the Book” is the product of small changes, even chance, here and over the centuries rather than of grand, once-and-for-all decisions made by a founder or handful of leaders. Like an individual’s life, seemingly small decisions lead here and not there until the sum of all realized possibilities (and absence of those not realized) is something no one might have anticipated. You take this step here and not there and so on until you may find that you are a folk musician in Missouri who fishes with her crazy brother-in-law on weekends rather than a pastry chef in Manhattan who discusses psychotherapy with similarly chic, single friends.

In his brief (4-page) introduction, Porter notes that the books composing the Hebrew Bible and New Testament were selected during a period of time from a larger body of literature that also was considered authoritative by many people. It is with this latter, the books that were not finally canonized, that Porter is concerned, particularly with those that have been especially “lost,” not Old Testament Apocrypha or Dead Sea Scrolls. The book is arranged in two main parts — titled “The ‘Lost’ Hebrew Scriptures” and “The ‘Lost’ New Testament.” Individual texts are sampled and reviewed under subheadings: “In the Beginning,” “Words of the Patriarchs,” “Lost Writings of the Prophets,” “Psalms, Songs and Odes,” and “Wisdom and Philosophy” for Part I; “The Missing Years of Jesus,” “Gospels of the Passion,” “Gnostic Mysteries,” “Legends of the Apostles,” “Visions of the End of Time” and “Lost Letters to the Faithful” for Part II. That the headings within each of these subsections are sometimes the names of individual books and sometimes the subject of individual books can be confusing.

However, Porter provides aids to help readers keep the literature straight. They include a timechart on pages 8-9 that extends from the period of the Babylonian exile in the early sixth century BCE to the mid sixth century CE, when the Babylonian Talmud was compiled. Colored lines distinguish the different collections of sacred text, with relative dating of individual books. Readers will find the chart especially helpful as they work their way through the many and various texts that Porter excerpts and discusses. Unfortunately, the line distinguishing New Testament books does not appear, although bubbles identifying the dates of Paul’s letters, the gospels and Revelation do. Furthermore, with each entry, Porter provides a small data box that includes information about the book’s original date of composition, original language, provenance and earliest extant manuscript. Readers also may find helpful the brief (single page) glossary and index at the end of the book.

Text excerpts and Porter’s commentary reveal an intriguing world of religious development during the last centuries before the common era as well as early centuries of the common era. They appeal to that part of us wanting to know what cannot be proved, such as the following: Where do angels come from? What happens after we die? What was Mary like as a child? How did Joseph and Asenath negotiate an interracial, interfaith marriage? Many of the non-canonical texts Porter reviews are concerned with just such things. Sometimes, too, they tell pedagogical stories about biblical heroes, such as Abraham’s condemnation of idols and John’s episode with the bedbugs. And sometimes they tell things that believers would rather not hear, like Jesus’ feisty temper and violent outbursts as a child or the silence of God in the face of Ezra’s accusation that God is to blame for Adam’s fall.

Complementing the imaginative and colorful texts Porter describes and excerpts are stunning pictures of art and photographs illustrating the texts and their themes. The artwork itself spans centuries and continents that comes from manuscripts, mosaics, frescoes, carvings and paintings. They include a papyrus manuscript depicting judgment after death (p. 41); a highly detailed, medieval painting depicting “The Testament and Death of Moses” by Luca Signorelli (p. 66); a drawing of Baruch in the first printed Bible produced by Gutenberg in the mid-15th century (p. 88); and, a 14th-century mosaic in what is now a mosque in Istanbul depicting scenes from Mary’s life (pp. 132-133). The reader meets such images with every turned page, making the book suitable for “coffeetable” browsing.

The Lost Bible is not a substitute for a study of non-canonical ancient scriptures and some readers may be frustrated, on one hand, by the small size of the excerpts and, on the other, by the lack of a synthesizing discussion introducing or concluding the anthology. Nevertheless, the dazzlingly numerous and diverse books from which Porter draws create a valuable collection for people interested in ancient literature related to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Furthermore, Porter’s brief commentary on each one gives readers a sense of the greater books from which the excerpts come and may compel readers to study particular books and/or themes in greater detail on their own. Although Porter’s bibliography provides minimal direction for such interested readers, they may turn, for a start, to the collections that Porter cites at the end of his introduction as the sources for his excerpts — “the standard scholarly collections of the Pseudepigrapha by J.H. Charlesworth and of the New Testament Apocrypha by W. Schneemelcher” (p. 9).

While The Lost Bible successfully introduces readers to the fascinating world of ancient literature related to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, it also demonstrates elements common especially to Judaism and Christianity. As Porter notes of those books that he calls the “Lost Hebrew Scriptures”: “These writings are now recognized as essential for understanding the formative period of both Judaism and Christianity. They show the Judaism of this epoch to have been lively, diverse and speculative, open to a range of influences from the surrounding world yet concerned to preserve and reinterpret its traditions in the face of outside threats. The adoption of these works by the Church reveals how deeply the new religion remained rooted in the soil of Judaism” (p. 8).

And it seems that dependence went in the other direction, too. Porter explains that texts such as “The Gospel of the Hebrews” attest to the existence of “Jewish Christians” who believed that Jesus was the Messiah but continued to observe Jewish practice. Furthermore, texts such as the Jewish “Sibylline Oracles” suggest less a problem with Gentiles, who are portrayed in a positive light, than with Greece and Rome. Finally, although the texts reviewed are related particularly to the Jewish and Christian Bibles, some of the traditions they describe also are represented in Islamic texts and images. For example, Porter includes a 17th-century Persian miniature, “The Angels Adoring Adam” (p. 23), depicting a belligerent Iblis (Islam’s Satan) and a 16th-century Turkish miniature of Enoch, known as Idris in Islam, talking with angels (p. 31). Both of these attest to extrabiblical traditions about Enoch that were common in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Lost Bible is a beautiful book proffering thought-provoking glimpses into the multi-faceted past that we share.

Kristin Swenson is a member of the religious studies faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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