Apocryphal Writings on Jesus, in Arabic

Interview With Professor Juan Pedro Monferrer

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CORDOBA, Spain, NOV. 12, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Among the texts the early Church had to decide on were apocryphal writings in Arabic.

In this interview, Juan Pedro Monferrer, professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Cordoba, explains what apocryphal Arabic writings are and why they are not part of the canonical writings accepted by the Church.

That they were not included in the canon can be attributed to their «conceited» character, says Monferrer, who has just published a work entitled «Arabic Christian Apocrypha.»

In the Christian apocrypha the figure of Jesus appears «with changing features according to the work we refer to» and in them «acquires the double dimension of God and man at the same time,» this expert says. These texts, he adds, show that Arabic is not the exclusive language of Islam.

Q: What are the Christian apocrypha?

Monferrer: The word «apocryphal» comes from the Greek «apocryphos,» which means «hidden,» «secret.» The term identifies a vast gamut of writings of Jewish and Christian origin that, with but a few exceptions — as is the case of the Book of Enoch in the Coptic Church — did not become part of the canon of the sacred books of the Bible.

These works, composed in the manner of biblical books, are usually classified by critics as «Apocrypha of the Old Testament» and «Apocrypha of the New Testament.»

Q: Do they exist also in Arabic?

Monferrer: Not just in Arabic. The languages in which these books have come to us are very varied: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Coptic, etc. And also in Arabic, which has been the language of Christians of the Middle East since the sixth century, when Islam occupied the territories formerly belonging to Christian communities that lived under the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian empires.

Q: Why haven’t they been included in the official canon of the Church?

Monferrer: Canon is, also, the Greek word that really means «rule» or «norm.» The canon is the list, the catalogue of books, which is recognized by the authority of the Church as books that have been inspired and that constitute the norm of faith for believers. To be canonical, a book must be recognized as inspired.

The exclusion of any given work is the result of different factors. An essential element that must not be forgotten is that one of the peculiarities of the majority of these books is their «conceited» or exaggerated character.

Q: What aspects of Jesus Christ underlie these writings?

Monferrer: The fundamental element contributed by the «apocrypha of the New Testament» is the information they give which does not appear in the New Testament.

All that area of which we know nothing, or perhaps very little from the Gospels — for example, the birth of Jesus, the journey and sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt; the 18 «hidden» years of Jesus, that is, from 12 to 30, prior to his public life — is the material developed by the apocrypha, with the intention of making available to the Christian communities all that information they wanted on Jesus.

In this connection, the figure of Jesus, with changing features according to the work we refer to, acquires the double dimension of God and man at the same time, with a dynamic activity elaborated according to the pattern of the New Testament, yet going beyond, in an attempt to bring his figure closer to the audience to which the text was being addressed.

Q: Why is it so difficult to have this type of text reach the average reader?

Monferrer: It’s really not difficult to have this type of text reach the average reader. What it does take is work, at times arduous, of finding manuscripts, study, editing and translating, which takes considerable time.

Q: Is your work difficult?

Monferrer: Yes … I began to dedicate myself to the study of Eastern Christianity and, because of this, remained marginalized, outside the interests that are proper to Arabic studies in Spain.

Of course, I might have lost fame and even money, but every day I am happier for having followed this area of Eastern Christianity studies …, an area that I hope other people will soon pursue, to be able to make more rapid progress in this realm of studies.

The Arabic language does not belong to Islam; it is the language of the diverse communities that lived in the East and, in the concrete case of Christianity, it has served to preserve extremely valuable jewels of the Early Christian tradition. It is surprising to see how close Jesus comes to us in Arabic which, after all, is a sister language of the Aramaic dialect that Jesus spoke.

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