Dan Brown, Eat Your Heart Out

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This is the story of a major documentary find, the rediscovery of priceless texts that for centuries were hiding in plain sight, and which throw a remarkable light on Christian history. Yet outside a fairly narrow section of the academy, the story remains virtually unknown.

The fact that early and medieval churches used apocryphal and non-canonical scriptures will surprise nobody with any background in Christian history. We know about all the New Testament apocrypha, like the various accounts devoted to the Virgin Mary. Quite apart from such "mainstream" apocrypha though, churches were long familiar with a large and influential body of works with Old Testament settings, and usually claiming the authorship of various patriarchs and prophets, of Moses, Abraham, Enoch, Ezra, and Isaiah.

To use the technical term, these are pseudepigrapha, "false" writings under assumed names. In their day, these writings exercised a huge influence over Christian thought and religious practice, and were widely used by mainstream authors. These pseudo-Old Testament texts survive in the many different languages of the Christian world, not just Latin and Greek but the various tongues of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

From the end of the nineteenth century, scholars began looking at the extensive materials that existed in the old Slavonic languages of Eastern Europe. They were astonished. Far from being medieval concoctions, this corpus included many works that clearly dated back to an ancient Jewish milieu, roughly the era from 200BC-200AD. Many of these works, moreover, do not survive in other languages, including in their (usually) Greek originals.

As far as we can reconstruct the history of these documents, they were known within the East Roman Empire and the Byzantine church. They were transmitted to Eastern Europe when the peoples of that region accepted Christianity in its Orthodox form from the ninth century onwards. Those east European churches then preserved and copied the texts long after they had vanished from other areas.

The rediscovery of these apocryphal writings deserves to be counted alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library as one of the scholarly feats of modern times. Among the works that today exist only or chiefly in Slavonic forms, we find for instance the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Ladder of Jacob, 2 (Slavonic) Enoch, 3 and 4 Baruch, and the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah. Others bear such suggestive titles as the Testament of Job, Joseph and Aseneth, the Apocryphon of Zorobabel, and the Sea of Tiberias.

Together, they give a staggering picture of the kaleidoscopic thought-world of Second Temple Judaism, from which Christianity itself emerged. Several of these works are indispensable for understanding the origins of Jewish mysticism.

These works show how manuscripts have evolved over time. One existing version of the Book of the Secrets of Enoch has clearly been adapted over time for Christian purposes. The Slavonic version is clearly much older and closer to the Jewish original, in its lack of reference to a Messiah or the Resurrection of the Dead. The Slavonic form -- noted by scholars only in the 1890s -- gives us an excellent idea of a work written by an Alexandrian Jew somewhere around the first century AD.

Conceivably too, these texts might have been enormously influential in medieval Europe. We know that in the ninth and tenth century, Bulgaria was the base for the Bogomils, a mighty Dualist heresy that blamed the material creation on an evil and inferior God, while Christ came to reveal the true God of Light and love. In this view, churches and kings served the old God, the Devil. Under names like the Albigensians and Cathars, Dualist movements spread across medieval Europe, and the Catholic and Orthodox churches killed many thousands in their efforts to stamp out this vast religious insurgency. The Inquisition was originally invented to stamp out Catharism in France and Italy.

The Slavonic scriptures may well show where these subversive ideas came from. As scholars explored these ancient texts, they were struck by resemblances to the doctrines and imagery of heretical sects like the Bulgarian Bogomils. Some apocrypha, for instance, suggest that the material world was created by an inferior God, a Demiurge. Bogomils definitely used several pseudepigraphical works, including 2 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and the Vision of Isaiah.

The Slavic-based Bogomil movement thus originated and flourished in regions of South-Eastern Europe, precisely where these enticing texts were circulating in Slavic languages.

That could of course be a coincidence, but other possibilities suggest themselves. One is that the texts as we have them in their present forms have over time been adapted or edited by writers with a Bogomil axe to grind. In other words, claim some scholars, ancient Jewish texts have been subjected to medieval Dualist editing. That theory has become less fashionable over time, and the alternative is quite evocative.

Just suppose that those apocrypha themselves started East European clerics thinking in Dualist directions, and laid the foundations for the heretical movements we see emerging no later than the tenth century. That would mean a direct influence from the long-destroyed fringes of Second Temple Judaism through the heresies of medieval Europe.

So were the Inquisitors of the thirteenth century actually struggling against ideas that originated in Alexandria and Jerusalem over a thousand years before? It's a stunning thought.

Dan Brown, eat your heart out.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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