These are some of the points raised during the class discussion of the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah
on 16 March. The Apocalypse of Elijah
exemplifies some of the chronic problems one encounters in the study of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, including a number of problems we have not yet discussed in detail. These include the following.
- The problem of reconstructed texts. Note that on p. 727 of Charlesworth's OTP vol. 1, Wintermute tells us that various passages of the Apocalypse of Elijah are translated from different manuscripts in different Coptic dialects. The particular text translated in OTP did not exist until put together by Wintermute. This is problem for all eclectically reconstructed ancient texts, but the narrow manuscript base of many of the OT Pseudepigrapha, should give us pause about the reconstructed text we use.
- The problem of different (?) works with the same or a similar title. Books of Elijah with similar titles are mentioned, for example, in the Sitchometry of Nicephorus and the List of the Sixty Books, and by Origen and Jerome. These may or may not have been the same work as our Coptic apocalypse. In some cases it appears pretty clear that they are not.
We know that different books circulated in antiquity with the same or a similar title. Examples are the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi Library; the two Apocalypses of James in the Nag Hammadi Library; and one Apocalypse of Peter from the Nag Hammadi Library and a perhaps Jewish-Christian apocalypse with the same name. So we have no particular reason to suppose that multiple works pertaining to Elijah also circulated. (For more on lost works attributed to Old Testament characters, see here.)
- The problem of different recensions of the same work. The Stichometry of Nicephorus gives the length of its Elijah book as 316 stichoi (lines). Wintermute (p. 728) notes evidence that this could be about 7% shorter than our Apocalypse of Elijah. But there is ample evidence that these works circulated in multiple recensions of different lengths. For example the Coptic Gnostic Apocryphon of John - known from the Nag Hammadi Library and elsewhere - survives in a long and a short recension). So a small difference in length (or even a large one) does not automatically prove that a lost work is not a variant recension of a work that survives.
- The problem of similar works with overlapping material. The classic example of this phenomenon is the three Synoptic Gospels in the New Testament, and it is telling that the interrelationships of this comparatively large corpus continues to be debated in serious scholarship today. So the partly overlapping (and not very close) descriptions of the Antichrist in the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah and the Hebrew Sefer Elijah could be explained in any number of ways.
- The problem of similar works with similar titles that have overlapping themes. The Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah and Sefer Elijah share numerous general themes, too many to be coincidental (future battles involving foreign kings and countries, including Assyria; the coming of the Messiah; the coming of the Antichrist/eschatological adversary; the millenial/paradisiacal age; descriptions of hell; etc.) There is some relationship between the works, but it does not seem to be literary.
In general it is clear that there was a Jewish body of tradition about Elijah in antiquity and that ancient Christians drew on this body of tradition and augmented it with their own ideas and legends. How these two fairly vague clouds of tradition led to our Christian Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah
(apparently translated from Greek), our Jewish Sefer Elijah
, and one or more other works associated with Elijah which now survive only in fragments, is almost certainly a process too complicated for us to reconstruct on the basis of surviving evidence.
We also discussed in general how undergraduate students can best approach the material in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and we agreed that it was important to begin with the primary texts (i.e., the ancient texts) and to master their content in translation before tackling the secondary literature (the scholarly articles and monographs).
We also briefly discussed, among other things, the figure of Tabitha (who seems to draw on traditions about Tabitha in Acts 9; an Egyptian mythological figure with a similar name; and the Greek prophetess know as the Sibyl
); the relationship between the Apocalypse of Elijah
and the NT Book of Revelation (at the very least they came from a shared tradition); and possible Jewish traditions in the Apocalypse of Elijah
, which are almost impossible to separate out due to our lack of such Jewish sources as the author apparently used.