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Apocryphal New Testament

This is a general description of those books circulating during the first centuries of the Christian era which purported to relate details about Christ and the apostles, but which were never considered to be canonical. The title probably developed on the analogy of the OT Apocrypha,* which was, however, a more specific collection of books. In the NT apocrypha there was never a collection of books which offered an alternative to the NT canon, but rather a motley variety of literature whose only unity was its common noncanonical status. The popularity of these books is demonstrated by the number which are extant in whole or in part and the wide geographical distribution of their use. Many of them have been preserved only in versions, although a number of originals are known.

One of the most striking features about the Christian apocrypha is the fact that the majority are attempts to produce literary forms parallel to those of the NT books. It is possible therefore to classify them under gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses, plus a small group of miscellaneous works. Of these literary forms the most prolific was the acts and the least prolific was the epistolary form. This reflects the differing degrees of difficulty surrounding their production. To produce a narrative of events in which various apostles figured as heroes was clearly a simpler procedure than to produce an epistle which possessed some air of validity.

It will be possible here only to mention the major examples of these apocryphal works to illustrate both their variety and their characteristics. Among the gospels there were three main types. The first shows some influence from the Synoptic gospels in its literary form. There is a small fragment known as Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840 which consists of only a few verses but belongs to the early second century. Of about the same date is the Egerton Papyrus 2 which combines Synoptic-type material with Johannine. But these may be instances of the combining of written material. The Gospel of Peter draws some material from the Synoptics, but mixes it with Gnostic overtones. Another work which may belong to this type is the Gospel of the Egyptians, but the remains of this are too fragmentary to provide an accurate picture of its original form.

The second type of gospel is essentially Gnostic, imparting Gnostic doctrine in the form of teaching attributed to the exalted Lord. Examples of this kind are the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Sophia Jesu Christi. Two other Gnostic works which have the word “gospel” in their title, but which bear no relationship to the canonical gospels, are the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip.

Because of the fact that the canonical gospels confine themselves almost wholly to the ministry of Jesus, it is not surprising that there was an urge in the third type of apocryphal gospels to fill in some of the gaps by recourse to imagination. This is particularly true of the Infancy gospels, which offered considerable scope for descriptions of the early years of Jesus about which the canonical books are silent. A work like the Gospel of Nicodemus is an example of an attempt to fill out the Pilate story. The proportion of legendary material in works of this type is high.

The apocryphal acts offer a more varied form of literature, bound together by what was loosely considered as possibly “apostolic.” Sometimes the emphasis was on polemic, sometimes on apologetic. Some of these apocryphal acts made attempts to edify, some only to entertain. There is no easy way of classifying these works. All of them are attributed to apostles. The earliest books of this character which are extant are those which circulated under the names of John, Peter, Paul, Andrew, and Thomas. There is abundant evidence to show the high esteem in which apostolic names were held in the earliest period of church history, and this literature corroborates this evidence. It is significant that although these books purport to have the same form as the canonical Acts, the attribution to individual apostles at once sets them apart. Moreover the frequency with which heterodox doctrine occurs further reveals the gulf between the canonical and apocryphal books.

In addition to these books, epistles and apocalypses circulated. Examples of the former are few because of the difficulty of producing this type of literature with any appearance of authenticity. The most notable is that known as 3 Corinthians which appeared as part of the Acts of Paul but circulated separately at least in the Syriac-speaking church where at one time it seems to have been accorded canonical status. The only other epistle which deserves special mention is the Epistle to the Laodiceans which had a wide circulation during the Middle Ages, although there is nothing distinctive about its contents. In fact it is almost wholly a plagiarization from the canonical Philippians. Such works as the pseudocorrespondence between Paul and Seneca and the pseudo-Epistle of Titus make no attempt to imitate the epistolary form.

Among the apocalypses, the most notable are those ascribed to Peter, which in certain quarters achieved some sort of semicanonical status (it is mentioned in the Muratorian Canon, although doubts regarding it are reported) and the Ascension of Isaiah, which shares the form of Jewish apocalypses but has clear Christian allusions. The Apocalypse of Paul and another ascribed to Thomas are both later productions.

It is important to examine the motives which prompted these apocryphal books. It is worth observing the comment of Tertullian that truth precedes forgery, for it is clear that the widespread acknowledgment of the canonical books was a necessary prelude to the production of imitations, at least in title. By means of pseudonymous literature the producers hoped to gain acceptance for their ideas. The importance of apostolicity in relation to Christian tradition largely dictated the pseudonyms which were chosen.

Some of the literature was simply the result of the desire to satisfy imagination. It is not difficult to see that such a reference as Colossians 4:16 could have proved sufficient impulse for someone to produce an epistle to the Laodiceans. The author of this epistle may well have thought that nothing written by Paul should have been lost and therefore an epistle to suit this reference was desirable. Many of the narrative forms in these apocrypha are fanciful and clearly fictional. In an age which was mainly uncritical, particularly among members of the general public, there was an ever-ready market for romances about the earliest Christian leaders.

Another motive which was particularly dominant was the desire to add details which are missing from the canonical books. The most prevalent source of such a motive was Gnosticism,* which by this means introduced its own particular tenets into much of the pseudepigraphical literature. A book like the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, contains a medley of sayings, some closely parallel to the synoptic gospels and some couched in the language of Gnosticism. Other books, like the Gospel of Peter, which is in the main orthodox but has Docetic implications in its account of the crucifixion, are less pronouncedly Gnostic (see Docetism). In many cases the introduction of heterodox doctrine is subtly done.

Apocryphal literature offered a suitable medium for those who wished to claim a secret source for their doctrines as many of the authors of this kind of literature did. There was no reasonable alternative when pseudonymous works were published a considerable time after the putative author had died. Moreover, a favorite device was to concentrate on the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, which offered most opportunity for the creation of speeches containing deviating doctrine. Indeed, Gnostics generally showed little interest in the humanity of Jesus, and thus the resurrection experiences came into greater prominence.

The history of the canon shows that the orthodox Christians had a discerning approach to the mass of apocryphal literature. None of the books came to be generally received, although some enjoyed extensive popularity. There is a wide gap between the canonical books and their apocryphal imitations. In spite of their use of apostolic names they completely lack the apostolic content. They are nevertheless a witness to the unrestrained character of much that passed for popular Christianity. The vigilance of the leaders of early Christian thought deprived them of any authority.

M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (1924); R.M. Wilson (ed.), New Testament Apocrypha, I (1963), II (1964)-based on E. Henneeke-W. Schneemelcher's Neutestamentliche Apokryphen.

APOCRYPHAL NEW TESTAMENT. The collective title given to a number of documents, ranging in date from the early Christian centuries to the Middle Ages and even into modern times, all similar in form to the NT books (gospels, epistles, Acts, apocalypses) but never finally received into the canon of Scripture (for following titles see separate articles). The Apocalypse of Peter and the Acts of Paul did enjoy a measure of temporary or local canonicity (the former is mentioned, with some reserve, in the Muratori Canon; both are included in the catalog in the Codex Claromontanus), but no others attained even to this level of recognition. The list of known apocrypha has recently been considerably increased by the discovery of a Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, but not all the works it contains belong in this context.

The Gr. word άπόκρυφος means “hidden” or “secret” (cf. Mark 4:22; Col 2:3), and was used by the Gnostics of esoteric works, the contents of which were too sacred to be imparted to the uninitiated (cf. Oepke, TDNT III, 996ff.). Thus the Coptic Books of Jeu and Apocryphon of John contain stern injunctions against communicating them to any unauthorized person. The Church, on the other hand, recognized only those books which were openly read in public worship, and since many of the apocryphal works were frankly heretical, the term fell into disrepute. The word is thus used in several senses: (a) the original sense of “hidden, secret”; (b) of books not suitable for reading in public worship (though they might be read in private, cf. the Muratorian Canon on Hermas); (c) of books rejected as false and heretical. The modern use of the adjective “apocryphal” in the sense of “spurious” or “mythical,” “unworthy of credence,” is a further extension of meaning.

The technical modern use of the term appears to have developed on the analogy of the OT Apoc., and is in some respects unfortunate, since some of the latter do have a claim to recognition and are recognized in certain branches of the Church. With the NT Apoc. this is not the case. With the exceptions noted above, none of these works has ever been accorded recognition or authority in any branch of the Christian tradition. It is important to emphasize this, since it is sometimes suggested that the canonical NT is the result of an arbitrary selection by the Church from a large mass of documents which had an equal claim to recognition. Comparison of the apocryphal NT with the canonical books is in itself sufficient to reveal the inferiority of the former (cf. the comments of James, ANT xivff., on Hone’s ed.). As James says (xi f.), “there is no question of any one’s having excluded them from the New Testament; they have done that for themselves.”

A further point to be noted is that in the course of its history the term has sometimes been applied to documents which are not strictly either NT or apocryphal at all, e.g., to the Apostolic Fathers. It is advisable that its use should be restricted to those writings which were not received into the canon, but which by form and content lay some claim to be in the same class with the canonical Scriptures.

Broadly speaking, the NT Apoc. may be divided into two groups: those which are intended to propagate a particular kind of teaching, usually heretical; and those which are intended to make good the deficiencies, as they appeared to a later age, in the canonical reports of the activity of Jesus and His apostles. The significance of this lit. does not lie in its content, often merely legendary and fictitious, but in the insights which it provides into the popular Christianity of the early centuries, which was often on an entirely different level from the theological speculation and theorizing of the early Fathers. Authentic early historical tradition is scarcely to be expected, and is likely to be found only in the earliest documents, if at all. These writings provide a useful standard of comparison with the canonical books and show the difference between documents still controlled by authentic recollection of events and those in which inventive imagination has been given free rein.

Perhaps the best way to form an estimate of the character of these writings is to classify them according to their literary form and then to compare them with the corresponding canonical works. It should be noted that the title of a book is not necessarily an accurate description of its character and contents. The Epistula Apostolorum, for example, begins as a letter, but soon develops into a report of a dialogue between the risen Christ and His disciples, similar in form to several Gnostic “gospels.” The same is true also of the Nag Hammadi Letter of James.

The agrapha.

Reference should be made in the first place to the agrapha, the sayings attributed to Jesus which are not recorded in the gospels. These are for the most part isolated sayings quoted either in the NT (Acts 20:35; 1 Thess 4:15ff.) or by some early Father, although collections are known, including the famous Oxyrhynchus Logia (POx.1, 654, 655), preserved also in Coptic in the Gospel of Thomas. Of the numerous agrapha known, some are pure invention, others result from the transference to Jesus of material from another source (the passage quoted by Papias ap. Iren. V. 33. 3 is from the Apocalypse of Baruch; logion 17 of the Gospel of Thomas ascribes 1 Cor 2:9 to Jesus), others are modifications or adaptations of genuine sayings; only a few of the agrapha have any claim to be considered authentic (see Jeremias, Unknown Sayings of Jesus, 2nd. ed. [1964]).

The apocryphal gospels.

These may be classified under three heads: (a) the early texts, unfortunately for the most part fragmentary, in which alone we have any real prospect of finding the survival of genuine early tradition; (b) the Gnostic gospels and related documents; and (c) the infancy gospels and other later texts.

The early texts.

To the first group belong a number of papyrus fragments, the most important being POx. 840, which reports a discussion in the Temple court between Jesus and a “Pharisaic chief priest” named Levi, and P Egerton 2, which is of special interest because it is dated before a.d. 150 and shows Johannine elements. With the Rylands Papyrus 457 this provides important evidence for the dating of the fourth gospel. The Jewish-Christian Gospels present a problem, since the patristic sources name three different titles, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and the Gospel of the Nazarenes, and it is not certain whether these refer to one, two, or three documents and to which document the fragments quoted actually belong (Vielhauer in NTAp I. 117ff. decides for three, and allocates the fragments afresh among them). As there are only fragments, it is difficult to form any real estimate of the character of these works, and it is dangerous to build far-reaching theories upon them. It may, however, be added that the Gospel of the Hebrews is always mentioned by the Fathers with a certain respect (Lietzmann, Kleine Schriften II. 71). A Gospel of the Egyptians is quoted by Clement of Alexandria, who did not entirely disapprove of it; but since only his quotations are available, it is difficult to assess its character. It may have been the gospel of Gentile Christians in Egypt, while the Gospel of the Hebrews was that of the Jewish Christians; it appears to have been rather more Gnostic in character, and certainly was used by some Gnostic sects. A completely different work with the same title was found at Nag Hammadi. A fragment of the Gospel of Peter, previously known only from references in Eusebius, was found in 1886; it is of interest for its original and unorthodox account of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. Finally, the Epis tle of the Apostles, already mentioned, is in some respects similar to some of the Gnostic gospels.

The Gnostic gospels.

A common feature of many Gnostic gospels and related documents is their presentation of revelations given to the disciples by the risen Christ in the period between the Resurrection and the Ascension, a period extended by the Gnostics from forty days to 550 days or eighteen months. The scene is usually a mountain, often the Mount of Olives; one or more of the disciples meet with Jesus, ply Him with questions, and receive His answers. The subjects discussed include cosmology, usually in the form of a Gnostic reinterpretation of the Genesis creation story; the nature and destiny of man, and the future lot of various classes of mankind. Occasionally there is some kind of visionary experience. Some of these works are associated with the names of particular disciples, as with the Apocryphon of John; others, like the Sophia Jesu Christi or the Pistis Sophia, have more general titles. In point of form, and occasionally even of content, it is sometimes hard to draw a rigid distinction between these texts and some of the later works in the previous group.

A second type consists of writings ascribed to the founders of heretical schools, Cerinthus, Basilides, Marcion, Mani; but in most cases only the titles exist, and it is not always certain that they represent separate and independent works (e.g. Marcion’s “gospel” appears to have been an expurgated VS of Luke). A third group is formed by the three “gospels” found at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip. None of these is strictly a gospel at all: the Gospel of Truth is a meditation on the theme of the gospel message, the Gospel of Thomas a collection of sayings, while the Gospel of Philip appears to be composed of sayings and meditations strung together largely on a catchword principle, without much regard for coherence or systematic presentation. From this it is clear that, as already noted, the title “gospel” is no guarantee of the nature or content of these documents; and conversely some Gnostic documents which do not bear this title must be classed formally with the “gospels” of a Gnostic type.

The infancy gospels.

These owe their origin to the desire, already mentioned, to make good the apparent deficiencies of the canonical gospels and fill in the gaps in the story. In the oldest gospel tradition only those events are recorded of which the apostles were or could have been witnesses (cf. Acts 1:22f., “beginning from the baptism of John”); even in the fourth gospel, although the Prologue takes us back to the absolute beginning of things, the actual story of Jesus and His mission begins with John the Baptist. Both Matthew and Luke, however, preface their accounts of the ministry by narratives of the birth and childhood of Jesus. Significantly, they differ up to the point when they begin to draw upon Mark and Q, thus showing that they have utilized separate and independent cycles of tradition. Some motifs have parallels in non-Biblical sources, but the primary interest is not narrative or imaginative, but theological and apologetic (see Cullmann, NTAp. I. 364f.), and in comparison with later developments these narratives reveal a marked sobriety and restraint. The infancy gospels are much more extravagant. Jesus is depicted as possessing miraculous powers even in childhood, and in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas he sometimes makes use of them in a way quite incompatible with the character presented in the canonical tradition (this work has no connection with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas). The Protevangelium of James is much less crude, and indeed its use of legendary material is comparatively restrained. This work was written mainly for the glorification of Mary and carries the story back beyond the birth of Jesus to the miraculous birth of Mary herself and her upbringing in the Temple. On the basis of these two documents an extensive lit. developed in later centuries, despite condemnation by the popes, and enjoyed a wide popularity. Reference may be made to the Arabic and Armenian infancy gospels, to Coptic lit. relating to the birth of Mary, and to the Ethiopic Miracles of Jesus. A special importance attaches to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, dating from the 8th or 9th cent., in which much of this material was presented in a more refined form. Its significance lies in the fact that these legends thus became common property and were able to exercize an influence on Christian art and lit. It has indeed been said that in antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, these writings had more influence on lit. and art than the Bible itself (Cullmann, NTAp. I. 368).

Apocryphal accounts of the passion and Resurrection are less common. Apart from the Gospel of Peter, already mentioned, chief interest attaches to the Gospel of Nicodemus, otherwise known as the Acts of Pilate, which incorporates an account of Christ’s descent into hell and His triumph over the powers of the underworld. The lit. relating to Pilate had a wide circulation in various languages. Also to be mentioned here is an Arab. text examined by Prof. S. Pines (Proc. Israel Acad. of Sciences and Humanities, vol. II, no. 13 [1966]), who claims that it goes back to a Jewish-Christian source (contrast S. M. Stern, JTS 18 [1967], 34 ff.). At all events it shows acquaintance with apocryphal motifs.

The primary significance of all these documents is that they serve as a foil to set off the comparative sobriety and restraint of the canonical gospels and reveal what can happen when imagination and legendary embellishment are allowed free play. Often they take over and expand or elaborate canonical material, but when they are original and independent they are seldom reliable. There is, therefore, little (if any) authentic tradition about Jesus which has not been included in the gospels.

The apocryphal epistles.

These are comparatively few and some are not really epistles. The Muratorian Canon mentions a letter to the Laodiceans and another to the Alexandrians, “forged in Paul’s name for the sect of Marcion.” The extant Lat. Epistle to the Laodiceans is a patchwork of Pauline phrases, although it is found in some MSS of the Bible; there is some doubt concerning its identity with the letter mentioned in the Muratorian Canon. The Letters of Paul and Seneca, known already to Jerome, are clearly intended to enlist the prestige and authority of the Rom. philosopher in support of the Christian faith. A letter from Corinth to Paul, and his reply (3 Cor) are now known to have formed part of the Acts of Paul, although they also circulated independently. The Epistle of Pseudo-Titus is a lengthy treatise in praise of celibacy which makes liberal use not only of Biblical but also of apocryphal material (see NTAp II. 141ff.). Finally, there is the correspondence between Christ and Abgar, king of Edessa, first mentioned by Eusebius (see Abgarus).

The apocryphal acts.

More extensive, and more significant, are the Apocryphal Acts, and esp. the five major works from the 2nd and 3rd centuries: the Acts of Andrew, John, Paul, Peter, and Thomas (see separate articles). In general it may be said that these were intended to supplement, rather than to replace, the canonical Acts by providing fuller information about the deeds of the apostles and in particular about their martyrdoms. These works testify to the high regard in which the apostles were held, as guarantors of the authentic gospel message and pioneers of the Christian mission; but at the same time their use of legendary motifs and their delight in miracle for its own sake, as a means of glorifying the apostles, place them in the category of romance rather than of history. The ascetic tendencies which they frequently display again reflect the ideals of a later age. Such elements of authentic early tradition as they contain are usually borrowed from the canonical Acts or other NT sources. They belong to the realm of popular lit. and show certain affinities with the Hel. novel; one may note, for example, the place given to the journeys of the apostles, the wonders they encounter (e.g. cannibals, talking animals, even obedient bugs!), and the emphasis upon their own miraculous powers. Here the apostles are closer to the Hel. wonder-worker, the θει̂ος ἀνήρ, than to the NT apostle.

The state of preservation of these works varies; the Acts of Paul, for example, must largely be reconstructed from the extant fragments. In most cases some sections, and esp. the martyrdoms, enjoyed a separate circulation, which sometimes led to their elaboration and expansion. Sometimes VSS exist in different languages which vary considerably from each other. The important point, however, is their popularity and their influence on later writings. They were themselves the basis, and often a quarry for numerous later works (see NTAp. II., 572ff.), and in time Acts were composed for other apostles also: Philip, Matthew, Bartholomew, Simon and Judas, Thaddaeus, Barnabas.

Apocryphal apocalypses.

The one apocalyptic book in the canonical NT is the Revelation of John, although apocalyptic elements are to be found in other works (e.g. Mark 13 and parallels; 2 Thess 2:1-12). The Early Church shared to a large extent in the temper and thought world of Jewish apocalyptic and took over and adapted several of its documents (see Vielhauer, NTAp. II. 581ff.), but there is a shift of emphasis: interest now centers in the return of Christ, and later on, with the delay of the Parousia, in the world beyond, “heaven and its blessedness, hell and its miseries.” The Ascension of Isaiah, for example, derives its title from a vision describing the prophet’s ascent through the seven heavens, which may date from the 2nd cent. a.d. Also from this cent., since it was known to Clement of Alexandria, is the Apocalypse of Peter, which is significant both for the way in which it incorporates ideas of heaven and hell from non-Christian sources and also for its influence on later writing, down through the Apocalypse of Paul and other works to the Divina Comedia of Dante.

It should be added that not all the works which include “Apocalypse” or “Revelation” in their titles are necessarily apocalyptic in the full sense; and, conversely, revelations of an apocalyptic character sometimes occur in writings which do not bear the title. Also to be mentioned are a few books of prophecy (sometimes neither NT nor apocryphal in the strict sense), notably the Christian portions of the Sibylline Oracles, the Fifth and Sixth Books of Ezra, and the fragments of the Book of Elchasai. According to Schneemelcher (NTAp. II., 688f.), Montanism stands in continuity with the early Christian prophets of the NT period, not with apocalyptic; but hostility aroused by Montanism may have carried with it an opposition to apocalyptic and to other forms of prophecy.

Modern apocrypha.

As already noted, the production of Apoc. continued not only in the Early Church but also into the Middle Ages, and even into modern times. Here a distinction must be made between novels and similar works of fiction in which the author has used the events and figures of the NT period in his own imaginative writing, and documents which purport to be authentic texts from ancient times, newly discovered, restored or reconstructed. The former are not apocryphal, but openly and honestly fictitious; the latter are apocryphal and may be dangerous and misleading (for a list, see IDB I., 168, 169).


A convenient collection of the NT apocrypha in Eng. tr. is provided by James, ANT (Oxford 1924; often reprinted). For more recent discoveries and extensive discussion of the lit. see Hennecke-Schneemelcher, NTAp. (2 vols., ET [1963, 1965]). Four Gnostic apocalypses from Nag Hammadi have been published by A. Böhlig and P. Labib, Koptisch-gnostische Apokalypsen aus Kodex V von Nag Hammadi, Halle-Wittenberg (1963). For the most recent information on publication of the Nag Hammadi texts see D. M. Scholer, Nag Hammadi Bibliography (1949, 1969, 1971), 92ff.

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