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In his Foreword to this volume, Kevin J. Vanhoozer has helpfully drawn attention to Francis Watson’savowedly theological work in the 1990s and 2000s. My aim here is to take up the story from there and focus in particular on his more recent work, on canonical and noncanonical Gospels. This field is evident most magnificently in his monograph Gospel Writing, but has continued to be discussed in a number of edited volumes and essays: a fascinating conference hosted by Francis in Durham, for example, produced the book Connecting Gospels.1 Its subtitle has been something of a motto for Francis’ recent work: Beyond the Canonical/Non-Canonical Divide. Francis’ comparative work on canonical and noncanonical Gospels can also be seen as a study of reception, as for example in his analysis of the Apocalypse of Peter’s rewriting and development of Matthew’s Olivet discourse.2 In that spirit, I will in this Afterword take the Gospel of Philip as a case study of Gospel reading – first, as a text that engages in Gospel reading; second, as it is read as Gospel in antiquity; and finally, how it might affect our reading of canonical Gospels.
Before the early Christian evangelists were Gospel writers, they were Gospel readers. Their composition process was more complex than simply compiling existing traditions about Jesus, then ordering them into a narrative frame. Rather, these writers were engaged in a creative and dynamic act of theological reception. 'Gospel reading' refers to this innovative and often artistic use of source materials -- from Israel's Scriptures to pre-existing narratives of Jesus-- to produce updated, expanded, or even alternative renditions. This volume explores that process. The common thread running through each chapter is the conviction that the early Christian practice of writing 'gospel' and the 'Gospels' was one of the most hermeneutically creative exercises in ancient literary culture, one that was prompted by the perceived theological significance of Jesus. The contributors seek to demonstrate the intricate dynamics of this controversial figure's theological and textual reception through foundational essays on specific texts and themes.
According to the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews, the figure of Melchizedek comes on the scene in primeval history ‘without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days’. Something similar is the case with Celsus, whose work the Alēthēs Logos appears in the second century as if from nowhere. Unlike Plato son of Ariston or Nicomachus son of Aristotle, we know nothing of Celsus’ parentage; unlike Zeno of Citium or Antiochus of Ascalon we know nothing of his place of origin or base of operations. An important study of Celsus titles him Celsus philosophus Platonicus, but this last epithet which seeks to place him in a tradition is a modern scholarly deduction, rather than a label with which Celsus identifies himself in the fragments which have come down to us.
1 Even his nemesis Origen, whose Contra Celsum of 248–249 CE is our sole source for Celsus’ text, seems to have been unable to identify which Celsus he was; Origen equates him faute de mieux with an Epicurean Celsus from the time of Hadrian (Cels. 1.8) – a conclusion now universally rejected, and which even Origen himself grew to doubt.2 To use another analogy, Celsus arrives in history unheralded and full-grown, like Athene being born from her pater’s pate.