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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Apocrypha, New Testament

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is a collective term referring to a large body of religious writings dating back to the early Christian centuries that are similar in form to the New Testament (Gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses) but were never included as a part of the canon of Scripture.

New Testament Jesus used the term apokryphos in his parable of the lamp (Mark 4:22 : “For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested;” paralleled in Luke 8:17 : “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest;”) to speak of the manifestation of that which has been hidden. In Colossians 2:3 Paul described Christ as being the one “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Meaning of the Term “Apocrypha” When the term apokryphos occurs in the New Testament, it simply means “hidden things.” This original sense does not include the later meanings associated with it. In the formation of the Christian canon of Scripture, “apocrypha” came to mean works that were not divinely inspired and authoritative. The term was also used by certain groups (for example, Gnostics) to describe their writings as secretive. They believed their writings were written much earlier but kept hidden until the latter days. Such writings were even then only available to the properly initiated. Since the church recognized works that were read openly in services of public worship, the term “apocrypha” came to mean “false” and began to be used to describe heretical material. In contrast to portions of the Old Testament Apocrypha which have been accepted by some branches of the Christian Church, none of the New Testament Apocrypha (with the possible exception of the Apocalypse of Peter and the Acts of Paul ) has ever been accepted as Scripture. Though some scholars allow the term to describe writings that are neither a part of the New Testament nor strictly apocryphal (e.g., apostolic fathers), it seems best to restrict the term to material that was not received into the canon of Scripture, yet, by form and content, claimed for itself a status and authority equal to Scripture.

Purpose of the Apocrypha Three general reasons explain the existence of the New Testament Apocrypha. First, some groups accepted apocryphal writings because they built on the universal desire to preserve the memories of the lives and deaths of important New Testament figures. Regardless of whether the transmitted traditions were true or false, the desire of later generations to know more detail made the apocryphal writings attractive. The second purpose is closely related to the first. Apocryphal works were intended to supplement the information given in the New Testament about Jesus or the apostles. This may be the motivation behind the Third Epistle to the Corinthians (to provide some of the missing correspondence between Paul and the Corinthian church) and the Epistle to the Laodiceans (to supply the letter referred to in Colossians 4:16 ). For the same reason, the apocryphal acts made certain to record the events surrounding the death of the apostles, a matter on which the New Testament is usually silent. Third, heretical groups produced apocryphal writings in an attempt to gain authority for their own particular views. After the death of the apostles and with an increase in persecution and false teaching, the written accounts of the teachings of the apostles (the New Testament) became the standard. If a group wanted to spread its new teaching, it had to make an appeal to apostolic authority. They did this many times by claiming some secret tradition from an apostle or from the Lord through an apostle.

Classification of the New Testament Apocrypha These writings parallel, in a superficial way, the literary forms found in the New Testament: gospels, acts, epistles or letters, and apocalypses. Although this formal similarity exists, the title of an apocryphal work does not necessarily provide a trustworthy description of its character and contents.

1. The apocryphal gospels. This large group of writings can be further classified into infancy gospels, passion gospels, Jewish-Christian gospels, and gospels originating from heretical groups.

Infancy Gospels is the name given to apocryphal works that in some way deal with the birth or childhood of Jesus or both. Though Matthew and Luke stressed the same basic story line, they emphasized different aspects of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, primarily because of their audience and their own particular purpose in writing. The writers of these apocryphal infancy gospels attempted to correct what they viewed as deficiencies in the canonical accounts and to fill in the gaps they believed existed. Most of the material is concerned with the silent years of Jesus' childhood. The two earliest infancy gospels, from which most of the later literature developed, are the Protoevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas . The Protoevangelium of James seems to have been written to glorify Mary. It includes the miraculous birth of Mary, her presentation in the Temple, her espousal to Joseph (an old man with children), and the miraculous birth of Jesus. This second-century work was extremely popular and undoubtedly had an influence on later views of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas depicts Jesus in a crude manner as a wonder boy, using his miraculous powers as a matter of personal convenience. This work attempts to fill in the silent years of Jesus' childhood, but does so in a rather repulsive and exaggerated manner. Take the following example (2:1-5): “When this boy Jesus was five years old he was playing at the ford of a brook, and he gathered together into pools the water that flowed by, and made it at once clean, and commanded it by his word alone. He made soft clay and fashioned from it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when he did this. And there were also many other children playing with him. Now when a certain Jew saw what Jesus was doing in his play on the sabbath, he at once went and told his father Joseph And when Joseph came to the place and saw it, he cried out to him saying: “Why do you do on the sabbath what ought not to be done?' But Jesus clapped his hands and cried to the sparrows: “Off with you!' And the sparrows took flight and went away chirping. The Jews were amazed when they saw this, and went away and told their elders what they had seen Jesus do.” As legend continued to expand, many later infancy gospels developed including the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy , the Gospel of Pseudo- Matthew , the Latin Infancy Gospel , the Life of John According to Serapion , the Gospel of the Birth of Mary , the Assumption of the Virgin , and the History of Joseph the Carpenter .

Passion Gospels, another class of apocryphal gospel, are concerned with supplementing the canonical accounts by describing events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The two most important works in this category are the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Nicodemus (sometimes called the Acts of Pilate ). The Gospel of Peter is a second-century work which downplays Jesus' humanity, heightens the miraculous, and reduces Pilate's guilt, among other things. The Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate) is another example of an apocryphal passion gospel. The trial and death of Jesus is expanded as Nicodemus, the chief narrator, tells of one witness after another coming forward to testify on Jesus' behalf. Pilate gives in to popular demand and hands Jesus over to be crucified. The Gospel of Nicodemus also includes a vivid account of Jesus' “Descent into Hell,” much like that of a Greek hero invading the underworld to defy its authorities or rescue its prisoners. Another apocryphal work that might be classified as a passion gospel is the Book of the Resurrection of Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle .

Jewish-Christian Gospels are works that originated among Jewish-Christian groups. They include the Gospel of the Ebionites , the Gospel of Hebrews, and the Gospel of the Nazarenes . Although some scholars equate the Gospel of Hebrews and the Gospel of the Nazarenes , the evidence is inconclusive. The Gospel of the Hebrews , perhaps the most prominent, appears to have been in some ways a paraphrase of the canonical Gospel of Matthew and places a special emphasis on James, the brother of the Lord.

Heretical Gospels cover a wide variety of apocryphal gospels, most of which are considered Gnostic gospels. Gnosticism developed in the second century as a widespread and diverse religious movement with roots in Greek philosophy and folk religion. The Gospel of Truth contains no references to the words or actions of Jesus. Some heretical gospels are attributed to all or one of the twelve apostles. These include the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles and the gospels of Philip, Thomas, Matthias, Judas, and Bartholomew. Written before A.D. 400, the Gospel of Thomas (of no relation to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas ) is a collection of 114 secret sayings “which Jesus the living one spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.” This document is one of almost fifty discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt as a part of what many scholars believe was the library of a Gnostic community. The heretical emphases of the Gospel of Thomas are countered in advance by the canonical Epistle of 1John, which emphasizes the gospel of Jesus Christ as the message of life, available for every person to experience. Other gospels in this class include those under the names of Holy Women (for example, the Questions of Mary and the Gospel According to Mary ), and those attributed to a chief heretic such as Cerinthus, Basilides, and Marcion.

2. The apocryphal acts. A large number of legendary accounts of the journeys and heroics of New Testament apostles sought to parallel and supplement the Book of Acts. The five major apocryphal acts are second and third-century stories named after a “Leucius Charinus” and therefore known as the Leucian Acts . Even though they show a high regard for the apostles and include some historical fact, much of what they offer is the product of a wild imagination, closely akin to a romantic novel (with talking animals and obedient bugs).

The Acts of John is the earliest of the group (A.D. 150-160). It contains miracles and sermons by John of Asia Minor and has a distinct Gnostic orientation. It tells the story of John's journey from Jerusalem to Rome and his imprisonment on the isle of Patmos. After many other travels, John finally dies in Ephesus.

The Acts of Andrew , written shortly before A.D. 300, is, like the Acts of John , distinctly Gnostic.

The Acts of Paul was written before A.D. 200 by an Asian presbyter “out of love for Paul.” He was later defrocked for publishing the writing. It is divided into three sections: (1) the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a girl from Iconian who assisted Paul on his missionary travels, (2) correspondence with the Corinthian church, and (3) the martyrdom of Paul.

The Acts of Peter is a late second-century writing that tells of Peter defending the Church from a heretic named Simon Magus by public preaching. Peter, who is forced to flee, later returns to be crucified upside down. Like the other acts, it is ascetic, that is, it promotes a life-style of self-denial and withdrawal from society as a means of combating vice and developing virtue.

The Acts of Thomas is a third-century work, thought by most scholars to have originated in Syriac Christianity. It tells how Judas Thomas, “Twin of the Messiah,” was given India when the apostles divided the world by casting lots. Thomas, though he went as a slave, was responsible for the conversion of many well-known Indians. The ascetic element is again present in Thomas' emphasis on virginity. In the end he was imprisoned and martyred.

Other later apocryphal acts include: the Apostolic History of Abdias , the Fragmentary Story of Andrew , the Ascents of James , the Martyrdom of Matthew; the Preaching of Peter, Slavonic Acts of Peter , the Passion of Paul , Passion of Peter, Passion of Peter and Paul; the Acts of Andrew and Matthias, Andrew and Paul , Paul and Thecla, Barnabas, James the Great, Peter and Andrew, Peter and Paul , Philip , and Thaddaeus .

3. The apocryphal epistles. We know of a small group of apocryphal epistles or letters many of which are ascribed to the Apostle Paul. The Epistle of the Apostles is a second-century collection of visions communicating post-resurrection teachings of Christ. The Third Epistle to the Corinthians was purported to be Paul's reply to a letter from Corinth. Though it circulated independently, it is also a part of the Acts of Paul . The Latin Epistle to the Laodiceans is a gathering of Pauline phrases probably motivated by Colossians 4:16 where Paul makes mention of an “epistle from Laodicea.”

Other important apocryphal epistles include the Correspondence of Christ and Abgar , the Epistle to the Alexandrians , the Epistle of Titus , of Peter to James , of Peter to Philip , and of Mary to Ignatius .

4. The apocryphal apocalypses. The Book of Revelation is the only apocalyptic book in the New Testament, though there are apocalyptic elements in other books (such as Mark 13:1 and parallels; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 ). The term “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic” means “to uncover” and is used to describe a category of writings that seek to unveil the plan of God for the world using symbol and visions. See Apocalyptic . While the New Testament apocalyptic material emphasizes the return of Christ, the later apocryphal apocalypses focus more on heaven and hell. The most popular of these, the Apocalypse of Peter , seems to have enjoyed a degree of canonical status for a time. It presents visions of the resurrected Lord and images of the terror suffered by those in hell. The Apocalypse of Paul is probably motivated by Paul's reference in 2 Corinthians 12:2 of a man in Christ being caught up to the third heaven. The author is thoroughly convinced this was Paul's personal experience and proceeds to give all the details. Other apocalypses include the Apocalypse of James, of Stephen, of Thomas, of the Virgin Mary , and several works discovered at Nag Hammadi.

5. Other apocryphal works. These include the Agrapha (a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus), the Preachings of Peter , the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions , the Apocryphon of John , the Apocryphon of James , and certain Gnostic writings such as the Pistis Sophia , the Wisdom of Jesus , and the Books of Jeu .

Relevance of the New Testament Apocrypha The New Testament Apocrypha is significant for those who study church history. Even though these writings were not included in the canon, they are not worthless. They give a sample of the ideas, convictions, and imaginations of a portion of Christian history. The New Testament Apocrypha also serves as a point of comparison with the writings contained in the canon of the New Testament. By way of contrast the apocryphal writings demonstrate how the New Testament places a priority on historical fact rather than human fantasy. While the New Testament Apocrypha is often interesting and informative, it is usually unreliable historically and always unauthoritative for matters of faith and practice.

J. Scott Duvall

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Apocrypha, New Testament'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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