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Epistle of the Apostles

APOSTLES, EPISTLE OF THE. A letter addressed by the eleven apostles (including Nathanel, and with Cephas distinguished from Peter) to the churches of the four regions of the world. Nowhere mentioned in early Christian lit., it was completely unknown before the discovery in 1895 of a badly mutilated Coptic MS (the primary VS where available). We also now have an Ethiopic VS complete, and fragments in Lat.

Following the introduction the document makes an emphatic affirmation of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and then gives a summary account of several incidents from the gospels, including the story of Jesus and the teacher recorded in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The report of the resurrection appearance to the disciples develops into an extended discourse by Jesus, interrupted by questions from the disciples to which he replies. This discourse includes a prophecy of the conversion and missionary work of Paul (ch. 31ff.), and a curious interpretation of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (ch. 43ff.), with admonitions regarding Christian conduct. For example, a man should admonish his neighbor without respect of persons if he sees him sin, or he is himself liable to judgment.

The revelation conveyed in the form of a post-resurrection discourse is similar in type to some Gnostic documents (e.g. the Apocryphon of John), which present the same pattern of a dialogue between the risen Jesus and one or more disciples. Despite affinities with Gnosticism, however, this is not a Gnostic document; it expressly warns against the “false apostles,” Simon and Cerinthus, “the enemies of our Lord Jesus Christ” (chs. 1, 7), and emphasizes the reality of Christ’s body, in particular of His risen body (chs. 11, 12). On the other hand, it stands at some distance from the NT and primitive Christianity.

The author was familiar with the gospel tradition, giving a special place to John, but his free handling of the gospels and his use of non-evangelical material suggest that they have not yet reached full canonical status. The absence of evidence for knowledge of Pauline theology is remarkable in view of the place given to Paul. All this points to a 2nd cent. date. Schmidt thought it was composed in Asia Minor between a.d. 160 and 170, but others argue for Egypt. Hornschuh notes parallels with the Qumran lit., and dates it to the first half of the 2nd cent.


C. Schmidt, Gespräche Jesu (TU 43, 1919); ANT 485ff.; NTAp. I. 189ff.; M. Hornschuh, Studien zur Epistula Apostolorum (1965).