April DeConnick, on the Forbidden Gospels Blog, has raised the question, “Why do non-canonical texts make us uneasy?” As a scholar of Nag Hammadi texts and other early Christian writings, she has repeatedly run up against the desire among fellow academics to keep such materials marginalized.
The issue is not new, though the publication in accessible form of “Gnostic” materials in the last several decades has brought it home to students of early Chistian history. One hundred years ago, it was the publication of the Gilgamesh flood story that threatened to relativize the Hebrew Bible’s account of origins by placing its materials within a wider and older historical and religious context.
The cultural standing of Jewish and Christian scriptures, however, seems not to have been dented much by such discoveries over the last one-and-a-half centuries or by the two-centuries of historical-critical scholarship on their origins and development. I suggest that resilience is due to the fact that the Bible’s reputation depends as much on the inspiration it produces through performance in sermon, song and dramatization (now frequently on film) and on the legitimacy conveyed by its iconic representation in ritual, art, and mass media as it does to the textual authority conveyed by interpretations of its message by scholars.
If anything, the main effect of biblical scholarship on public perceptions of the Bible is to emphasize the scripture’s importance precisely because so much attention and effort is devoted to controversies over its meaning and origins. Here may lie one source of anxiety about non-canonical texts: the intuitive suspicion that more attention to these other materials raises their status and dilutes claims to the unique importance of the scriptures.
The history of the actual religious influence of such scholarship suggests that Christians and Jews have little reason to worry. The net effect of comparative scholarship is probably to draw even more popular attention to scriptures whose status is, at any rate, well protected by the ways in which Jews and Christians ritualize their iconic and performative dimensions.
Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)