Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.06.31

Oliver Ehlen, Leitbilder und romanhafte Züge in apokryphen Evangelientexten. Untersuchungen zur Motivik and Erzählungsstruktur anhand des Protevanglium Jacobi und der Acta Pilati Graec. B.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004.  Pp. 312.  ISBN 3-515-08470-3.  €60.00.  

Reviewed by A. Alcock, University of Kassel (Germany) (
Word count: 1851 words

This volume appears as no. 9 of the Altertumswissenschaftliches Kolloquium series, produced by the University of Jena, where Ehlen submitted the work for a Ph.D. thesis in 2000. One is not told whether it was revised for publication. It has an extensive bibliography, but no indexes. There are five chapters and an appendix.

Chapter One, by way of a preamble, juxtaposes two passages of text, one from the Protevangelium Jacobi (PJ) and one from the novel of Achilles Tatius to demonstrate their affinities. The first passage deals with the murder of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, by Herod's men because he refuses to tell them where his son is. The murder takes place in the Temple, where Zacharias is the High Priest. His body is not found. The action is relatively simple. The second passage deals with a much more elaborate set of events in which reality is interwoven with the appearance of reality: the 'ritual murder' of Leucippe, which does not involve her actual death, by two members of a robber band, who are not actual robbers, all of which is witnessed from a distance by Clitophon, who sees things but is unable to understand them. I cannot imagine two passages that have less in common with each other.

Chapter Two attempts to provide definitions (of novel and apocryphal gospel) and examines the question of genre. Ehlen uses the terms 'fictional' and novelistic' and finds it necessary to point out that what is fictional is not necessarily novelistic, but he uses them synonomously anyway. In his bibliography he cites the work edited by G. Schmeling 'The novel in antiquity' (1996), to which R. Pervo contributed an article on Christian fiction. Ehlen may not have read the article or he may simply disagree with Pervo's assessment that 'there is little in this material that evokes comparison with romantic novels' -- it is difficult to say which because Ehlen does not cite the article.

Chapter Three recapitulates the current state of research on the subject and sets out the methodology of this study. He discusses at great length the various elements or motifs identified by previous scholars (e.g. Rosa Söder) as crucial to the type of fiction known as the novel. The element known as the 'tendenziös' is the most varied of these, consisting as it does of several aspects (psychological, ethical, religious etc.), but it seems to be largely irrelevant ('aus der Ebene der Motivik ausgeschieden' ) for the argument of this book. The narrative structure analysis consists of the elements identified by T. Hägg, which belong to the branch of study known as narratology. Ehlen, from time to time, mentions the 'point of view', which no longer means that of the narrator (1st person, omniscient author and so on), but is used as far as I can tell largely to indicate changes of scene without commentary by the 3rd person narrator of indeterminate sex, who may be invisible but is still present.

Chapter Four is a detailed examination of PJ. The opening passage of the PJ in some ways illustrates very well the pains Ehlen has taken to link Christian and non-Christian texts: it is the passage in ch. 19, 1-2, where the birth of Jesus is described. Unlike the manger tradition recorded in Luke, the PJ Jesus was born in a cave. Caves are usually dark, so there is ample opportunity in this scenario for the displacement of the dark by the light that accompanies the birth of the Saviour. Parallels with the birth of Dionysus, Buddha, Abraham, Moses, and the mystery cults as exemplified in Apuleius and Alexander the Great are adduced, but there is no mention of the light-dark dualism that is much closer to home in early Christianity, that of the multifarious phenomenon known as Gnosis. Ehlen then goes on to examine the opening chapters of the PJ, in which the childlessness of Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary, is depicted with some poignancy. Ch. 1 deals with the rejection of Joachim, who despite his wealth is told by someone called Roubel that he may not sacrifice because he is childless and goes off into the desert without telling anyone. Ch. 2 deals with the distress of Anna, who is not only childless but has become a widow. There is a short dialogue between Anna and a maidservant about this situation. Ehlen understands the role of the maidservant as that of comforter and adduces the parallel from Chariton of Callirhoe, who is about to have an unwanted child, and her maidservant, Plangon. I cannot see that these passages have anything in common with each other. The Chariton passage is much more elaborately written, and one has an opportunity to see that the relationship between the two women is based on trust: the maidservant senses that something is not in order with her mistress, but 'remains silent because of the multitude of servants'; then, in the evening, she comes and sits on Callirhoe's bed and asks her what the problem is. The scene in the PJ is relatively sparsely described, but it is clear that the maidservant, Juthine, called a 'paidiske' in the text, is much less of a confidante. She is almost offensive in her attitude to Anna's distress: her 'consolation' is almost an order to cheer up and involves the offer of headgear to Anna, which she (Juthine) has no right to have and she (Anna) has no right to wear. In fact, one could argue that the two passages in the PJ balance each other: both involve the temporary humiliation of the protagonists by minor characters. There is undoubted use of the narratological device known as changing 'point of view', involving an abrupt change of scene without any help from the narrator (e.g., 'While Joachim was pitching his tent in the desert, Anna was pacing up and down at home wondering what had happened to him.'). Ehlen then goes on to make the extraordinary claim that a modern author would have negotiated the transition from ch. 1 to ch. 2 using the 'stream of consciousness' technique. I cannot imagine what he means.

Chapter Five is a detailed examination of the Acts of Pilate (AP). The version of this complicated text used by Ehlen is the Greek Recension B 1-XII,2. Ehlen examines the references in other writers to various texts called the Acts of Pilate. M.R. James in 'The Apocryphal NT' (1924) p. 25, a work not cited in Ehlen's bibliography, writes that some scholars believed the book to be 'a counterblast' to an anti-Christian pamphlet of the same name said by Eusebius to have been issued by Maximinus Daia for use in schools, and this idea has obviously been taken up again in more recent years (cf. Ehlen p.182 fn.11). Whatever the age of the text, the use of 'theotokos' to describe Mary indicates that the version we have was probably not written before the fifth century. Ehlen's first passage is the crucifixion scene, in which the words of the crucified Jesus to his mother and John (the 'whom he loved' of John having become the 'beloved disciple' in AP) are more or less identical to those recorded in John (19, 26-27). None of the canonical gospels, however, has anything like the extensive lament of Mary over the death of her son recorded in the AP. The first chunk of text quoted (p.190) opens with Mary and John at the cross. After a brief exchange between mother and son, Mary breaks out into a prayer-like monologue, in which she initially addresses the cross and then her son, taking the opportunity to castigate the Jews. Her speech is not well received by Jewish bystanders, described by the narrator as 'misotheoi', a term taken up by Mary two lines later where she expresses her complete exasperation at the 'misotheia' of the 'thoughtless' Jews. For some curious reason Ehlen translates the adjective as 'gottverhaßt' and says that the noun 'misotheia', which he not surprisingly finds difficult to understand in view of his failure to understand the adjective, is not attested: the well-attested adjective means 'God-hating' and an example of the noun ('hatred of God') can be found in Lampe 'Patristic Greek Lexicon'. Even a writer as anti-Semitic as the author of AP, who goes so far as to maintain that it was the Jews who set up the cross, might have balked at describing them as 'hated by God'. In a subsequent passage of the AP cited by Ehlen on p. 191, an incident is related where Mary, seeing her son on the cross for the first time, faints. This prompts Ehlen to make an extraordinary comparison, in fn. 13, with the fainting of Callirhoe in Chariton's novel after some has kicked her, and to engage in an elaborate discussion of the Greek words for 'fainting'. And, because Mary asks in her lament where the beauty of Jesus has gone, passages from the Greek novels about beauty are adduced on p.195 fn. 18, with the instruction to the reader 'Der Gedanke der Schönheit des Protagonisten ist aus dem antiken Roman wohl vertraut'. In his discussion of the lament of Mary, Ehlen very sensibly points out that it operates on three levels, only one of which is, so to speak, the universal level of common humanity, the other two being specifically Christian, with the result that parallels with non-Christian literature are by definition limited. This, however, does not stop him from drawing elaborate parallels with the various laments in Greek tragedy in general and Euripides in particular.

Chapter Six reviews and summarizes the arguments about the various motifs employed in the two texts and the models, both structural (OT and NT together with the non-Christian novel) and individual (Joachim, Anna and others).

Finally, there is an appendix of passages from the PJ, AP and one about Joseph of Arimathea from Pseudo-Epiphanius judged too long for inclusion in the main body of the book. In fact, the second of these texts has already appeared, substantially (but not entirely), with the same notes on pp. 190ff.

A few minor complaints. The absence of indexes is, regrettably, not uncommon in German academic books. It may be that the author has compiled them, but that they have been rejected by the publisher as surplus to requirements. They are not. There are some quaint features of typography which I take to be the responsibility of the publisher and not the author: the curious use of two competing systems of double inverted commas, two competing forms of the apostrophe and the hybrid use of Latin text in the middle of a sentence without any indication that the language of the sentence has changed. I wish that German writers and publishers could be persuaded to abandon the use of the Latin genitive with 'sacred names' which results in curious hybrid forms, e.g. 'Jesu Königtum'. It is entirely permissible in the case of a name ending in '-s' to use an apostrophe (after the 's') to indicate the genitive, e.g. Hans' Mutter (cf. Bastian Sick 'Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod' [2004] p.34).

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