Introduction: What is Early Christian Apocrypha?
Abstract and Keywords
This essay provides an introduction to the volume as a whole. It discusses issues of terminology and content: what is meant by the term ‘apocrypha’, or ‘apocryphal’, and what can or should be included for discussion under the heading ‘Early Christian Apocrypha’. The adjective ‘apocryphal’ has a number of different meanings. Etymologically it derives from the Greek word for ‘secret’, but it has come to refer to ‘non-canonical’ texts, though also with an assumption that the texts are similar to those in the biblical canon. The essay also notes the move away from talking about ‘NT Apocrypha’ to ‘Early Christian Apocrypha’. Decisions about what to include in this category are partly pragmatic, including texts not treated in other (also sometimes arbitrary) collections. The aim of such collections, and of this Handbook, is to increase understanding of the wide range of Christian piety to which these texts bear witness.
The Oxford Handbook series has grown considerably since its inception and now covers a very wide range of subject areas. Within ‘theological’ areas of study, there are already Handbooks on ‘Jewish Studies’, ‘Biblical Studies’, and ‘Early Christian Studies’. In many ways it made sense to the overall editors of the series to have a Handbook devoted to the study of Christian ‘apocryphal’ literature. Delimiting and defining any individual subject area is difficult and runs the risk of overcategorizing, or delineating too narrowly, the area to be studied. On the other hand, some limitation is necessary if a subject is not to become so diffuse and imprecise that it includes everything and anything and thus becomes too vast to try to cover in a reasonable and finite compass. In the case of Christian apocryphal literature, this problem of defining terms and of having some reasonably well-defined limits of the texts and subjects to be included (which in turn might imply what is excluded) is particularly acute. The title chosen by the editors of this volume is ‘Early Christian Apocrypha’; yet the problems of trying to pin down what one might mean by such a term, and whether alternative terms might be more appropriate, are by no means trivial; and the history of research in this broad area has shown some variety and developments since its inception.
In one sense, the issues involved in trying to determine exactly what one means by ‘Early Christian Apocrypha’ are perhaps slightly less exacting if one is producing a Handbook such as the present volume, rather than producing a collection of specific texts under this category. If one has the latter end in view, with an aim of producing a potentially ‘comprehensive’ collection, then the problems of deciding precisely what to include, and also what to exclude, are particularly pressing. Most editors of such collections regularly say something to the effect that the precise boundaries of their collections are inevitably a little ‘rough and ready’. The same applies even more to this Handbook, which seeks to provide a number of essays and studies to introduce readers to this material: the precise boundaries of what might be covered here, and what is not covered, are inevitably more than a little imprecise at times. Most would probably (p. 4) presume without question that texts such as the Gospel of Thomas, or the Acts of Peter, or the ‘letter’ known as 3 Corinthians, would receive some coverage; texts such as Justin’s Apology, or Augustine’s sermons, would not be included (unless they witnessed to other texts which are in view), perhaps in part because they do not purport in any way to be written by (or about) New Testament characters. Other texts might be in a ‘grey’ area in between. Should one be seeking to cover texts such as 1 Clement, the Didache, or the Gospel of Truth from Nag Hammadi? (We return to this broad issue later, particularly in relation to the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’ and the Nag Hammadi texts.) Where then does/should one draw the line between what is to be considered within the category of ‘Early Christian Apocrypha’ and what should be excluded? Further, is the name the most appropriate one? In the past, some have used the term ‘New Testament Apocrypha’ instead. What then are the issues in the choice of ‘Early Christian’ rather than ‘New Testament’ as qualifying ‘Apocrypha’?
Collections of ‘apocryphal’ literature have been made for some considerable time. One of the earlier ones dates back to the start of the eighteenth century with the Codex apocryphis Novi Testamenti of Fabricius (1703). Within the modern era, the seminal collection has perhaps been that associated with the name of Edgar Hennecke (1904), subsequently taken over by Schneemelcher: their Neutestamentliche Apokryphen has gone through six editions (the most important changes occurred in the third edition (Schneemelcher 1959–64) and the fifth edition (Schneemelcher 1987–9)), with English translations now available of two of them (see Schneemelcher 1963–5 and 1991–2). The latest version of this collection, edited by Markschies and Schröter, has recently appeared, with a slightly changed title, Antike christliche Apokryphen, and a much enlarged scope (Markschies and Schröter 2012; the scope is enlarged by including material from a later period, as will be noted. For full discussion of the history of the Hennecke editions and other broader issues, see Markschies 1998.) In the English-speaking world, James’s The Apocryphal New Testament appeared first in 1924, with a number of subsequent editions; that work was then updated and completely rewritten by Elliott (1993) in his larger volume of the same title. Within the French-speaking world, the two-volume work Écrits apocyphes chrétiens has appeared with an extensive range of texts covered (Bovon and Geoltrain 1997; Geoltrain and Kaestli 2002).
Most have taken the word ‘Apocrypha’, and/or the related adjective ‘apocryphal’, to be the other side of the coin of the term ‘canon’ or ‘canonical’, that is, belonging to the New Testament canon of scripture. What is ‘apocryphal’ is thus what is not ‘canonical’. This serves in one way as a reasonable clarification (provided that it is clear and well defined what is ‘canonical’!) but clearly also needs more specificity if it is to be anything like a ‘definition’: many texts were produced by early (and later) Christians which were not canonical but no one would thereby think of them as ‘apocryphal’. Within (relatively) early Christianity, we have writings from church fathers such as Justin, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Augustine, etc. that are not ‘canonical’ (as being part of the NT canon) but no one would think of calling them ‘apocryphal’. Thus many people have taken ‘apocryphal’ as referring not just to texts which were/are non-canonical, but which also might have had some claim to be canonical.
(p. 5) Whether the term ‘apocryphal’ should be taken as meaning ‘non-canonical’ is debatable. The English word ‘apocryphal’ arises as virtually a transliteration of the Greek word apokryphos, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ (and some have suggested that this should be the primary meaning of ‘apocryphal’ today). The term only gradually made its way into the vocabulary of Greek writers as being virtually the same as ‘not canonical’. In early writings, the word is used to refer to the ‘secret’ teachings and/or books of, for example, ‘Gnostics’, both (positively) by those claiming possessions of such traditions and (negatively) by opponents. Thus work known as the Apocryphon of John (clearly an important text for some: cf. the existence of multiple versions of the text in the Nag Hammadi library) uses the word ‘apocryphon’ positively as a quasi-title. The Gospel of Thomas speaks (positively) in its opening of the ‘secret words’ (logoi apokryphoi) spoken to Thomas and recorded here in the text. Negatively, Irenaeus uses apokryphos alongside nothos (‘false’) to refer to the (secret) books of the Gnostics (Adv. Haer. 1.20.1); Tertullian uses apocrypha and falsa as virtual synonyms (Pud. 10.12). Over the course of time, the adjective apokryphos comes to be used in discussions of the NT canon to refer to books which were not included, though by no means uniformly. For example, Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.25) has a number of categories and corresponding words or phrases: there are writings that are (universally) ‘recognized’ (homolegoumenoi), there are others which are ‘disputed’ (antilegomenoi), others which are ‘spurious’ (nothoi), and all these distinguished from the writings of the heretics which are to be seen not even as ‘spurious’ but as ‘wicked and impious’. In his 39th Festal Letter of 367, Athanasius labels the books to be rejected as ‘apokrypha’, though he also mentions alongside those in the canon various texts which are recent but nevertheless useful for reading. (Thus not all non-canonical books were regarded as reprehensible or ‘bad’; see further Bovon 2012 and his essay in this volume, 185–95, on ‘books useful for the soul’.) In the ‘Gelasian Decree’ at the end of the fifth century, the word apokryphos is first used to refer to all the books which are not to be included in the canon. (For fuller discussion, see Markschies in Markschies and Schröter 2012: 18–21.)
Yet whatever terminology might have been used by writers in antiquity in such discussions, it remains the case that the word ‘apocryphal’ in English, at least in academic circles, has generally come to mean something akin to ‘non-canonical’, albeit in discussions about the possibility of texts being considered canonical. And in terms of modern semantics, the meaning of words is determined primarily by their contemporary usage, not by their etymology! Hence not all non-canonical texts are apocryphal, but all apocryphal texts are non-canonical.
(The usage in more colloquial English, whereby ‘apocryphal’ can mean ‘fictitious’—telling an ‘apocryphal story’ about someone can be taken as implying that the story is untrue—is perhaps less prevalent within academic/scholarly language. All those engaged in ‘biblical’ studies are familiar with the idea of an ‘Old Testament Apocrypha’ comprising essentially books which are included in Greek in the Septuagint but are not in the Hebrew Bible. There is no question that such books are ‘fictitious’ by virtue of this alone!)
Within the history of scholarship, one of the earlier attempts to try to define the category of what might count as ‘Apocrypha’ was that of Hennecke in his edition of the (p. 6) ‘New Testament Apocrypha’. Hennecke proposed including within the category of ‘Apocrypha’ texts which (1) had been explicitly rejected as possible candidates for being included in the NT canon, but (2) were related in terms of their form and/or content to the NT texts, and (3) were to be dated to a period before the end of the canonizing process of the NT (Hennecke suggested the death of Origen in 254). Further, as already noted, Hennecke entitled his collection ‘New Testament Apocrypha’.
For various reasons, all these supposed criteria have become somewhat problematic in subsequent discussion, though there is no clear alternative as to how one might define the category of ‘New Testament/Early Christian Apocrypha’. (E.g. in an often-cited comment in the middle of a review of a later edition of Hennecke–Schneemelcher, Klijn wrote that ‘it appears impossible to give a definition of these writings’, Klijn 1988: 305.) The issue of the date is perhaps the criterion that has become the most questionable since Hennecke’s initial proposal (and indeed was dropped by the time of the third edition of Hennecke’s own work). Trying to date any of these works is enormously difficult in any case, but texts which many would regard as ‘apocryphal’ continued to be produced well after the time of the mid third century. (For example, literature about Mary and/or the infancy of Jesus abounded well into the Middle Ages: see e.g. Elliott’s essay here, 269–88.) Thus we would be in an almost impossible situation if we tried to exclude texts which were (perhaps!) dated to a time after the mid third century.
On the other hand, the tendency to write texts that relate to the material covered in the NT, but perhaps expanding it and/or filling in gaps in the story as we have it from the NT texts themselves, has never stopped. One has only to think of modern films, as well as other popular literature (some written for sensational purposes, some for genuinely devotional purposes), to realize that the production of ‘apocryphal’ material continues up to the present (see e.g. Burke’s essay on Early Christian Apocrypha in popular culture, 424–40). In order then to retain some kind of proportion, and to prevent one trying to extend the range of attempted coverage beyond what is feasible, practical, or even possible, some time limit might be desirable. Hence, for example, the latest version of the Hennecke–Schneemelcher compendium (Markschies and Schröter 2012) has set a limit of including texts up to the end of the time of ‘Late Antiquity’ (which probably means up to about the eighth century). But the result is verging on the limits of the practical: Part 1 alone of the collection, containing only ‘gospel’ or related texts (so far the only Part published) comprises two large volumes and almost 1500 pages of closely printed text! Similarly, the combined length of the two Pléiade volumes (Bovon and Geoltrain 1997; Geoltrain and Kaestli 2002) is more than 4000 pages. Thus there may be value in distinguishing ‘early’ Christian Apocrypha from ‘later’ Christian Apocrypha. (For the purposes of this Handbook, the initial intention had been to seek to focus mostly on material stemming from a period up to the fourth century ce. However, a number of the essays here inevitably cover materials from a later date; and in any case, some texts that may have originally been written at a relatively early date are available now only in much later versions, many of which may be substantially different from earlier forms. Thus any time limit, or dividing line, is inevitably artificial, and should probably remain fluid.)
(p. 7) Whether the ‘Apocrypha’ should cover (only?) texts which claimed to be canonical, and/or were rejected by others as being canonical, may also be problematic if applied too rigidly. It remains unclear how many (if indeed any) of the ‘apocryphal’ texts were ever conceived explicitly to be competitors for inclusion in an NT canon. Certainly for the earliest texts, this would be all but impossible as there was no NT canon at the time for which any author or text might be vying for inclusion. Hence one should perhaps not talk about texts which ‘were’ apocryphal or canonical, but rather of texts which became apocryphal or canonical. (Cf. the carefully chosen title of the book of Lührmann 2004.) For other texts, their contents may indicate that not only may they not have claimed any ‘canonical’ status, they did not even claim to be universally available to all Christians. As noted earlier, some texts were apparently written to be deliberately ‘hidden’ and not accessible to all (cf. the Apocryphon of John, or the reference to the ‘secret words’ of Jesus contained in Gospel of Thomas). So too if we apply the criterion too strictly, we would exclude texts which made little if any impact: thus, for example, the Gospel of Mary is never mentioned by any other ancient writer (either positively or negatively), nor does it make any explicit claim to be rival to, or take a place alongside, the other canonical gospels within an NT canon. (Whether the title in its colophon (‘The Gospel according to Mary’) is implicitly staking such a claim by using the ‘titles’ similar to those given to the canonical gospels from a relatively early time is debated.)
Probably we should not insist too much on any demand that an ‘apocryphal’ text should be one that was staking a claim (or even was seen by others as staking a claim) to be accepted as a canonical text. Such a demand might be too restrictive, and would exclude, for example, texts that may have wished to try to expand some of the canonical texts, perhaps to fill in some of the ‘gaps’ there, but without ever claiming to be canonical.
Perhaps the criterion that has stood the test of time better than others has been the proposal that ‘apocryphal’ texts should be related in some way to NT texts with regard to their form and/or content. Thus, at least in very general terms, it has been assumed that an ‘apocryphal’ text will be similar in (very broad) genre to one or other of the NT texts, that is that its genre will match one of four main genres of texts in the NT, viz. gospel, acts, letter, and apocalypse. Further, the contents of the text should be broadly comparable to what we find in the NT: thus apocryphal texts might include stories about Jesus, or accounts of ‘apostolic’ figures, or purport to be letters written by figures of the NT era.
On the other hand, one has to say that any such general rule of thumb has to be taken quite ‘liberally’! Most readers of this Handbook will be well aware of the problems involved in trying to determine and define the genre of the four canonical gospels (if indeed there is one genre that covers them all). The problem is magnified many times over if one includes non-canonical texts which might claim for themselves the title ‘gospel’ (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Mary), and/or other texts which modern scholarship might put into the category of a ‘gospel’. Many might work with a very rough-and-ready, broad category of ‘gospel’ as meaning a text which purports to give information about Jesus and/or teaching by Jesus; but any attempt to determine genre at a more specific level might highlight as many differences between texts as any elements they might share in common. Texts such as the Gospel of Thomas provide only a (p. 8) series of sayings of Jesus, leading some to characterize this as a ‘Sayings Gospel’, which is generically very different from, for example, the Gospel of Mark with its mixture of teaching, narratives, and above all its focus on the passion narrative; some of the texts known now from Nag Hammadi provide teaching given by the risen Jesus to a chosen group of disciples after the resurrection, leading some to call these ‘Resurrection Dialogues’. The text known today as the Gospel of Truth (NHC 1.3) derives its name from its opening sentence (‘The gospel of truth is joy for those who have received from the father of truth … ’), and is an extended meditation on the joy available to those with the knowledge of God, but it makes no claim as such to be providing any kind of (further) information about Jesus’ life or teaching. Thus the ‘gospels’, whether self-styled or those labelled as such by modern scholarship, are a very ‘mixed bag’. Similar considerations apply to so-called ‘acts’. The canonical Acts of the Apostles gives an account of some ‘apostles’ (though it is notoriously the case that at least half of the book focuses almost exclusively on the activities of Paul, and yet Paul does not appear to be an apostle for the author of Acts); but it does so in a form that makes it at least akin generically to Jewish and/or Graeco-Roman historiographical texts. The (apocryphal) ‘acts’, usually linked to the name of a specific apostle (e.g. the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Thomas, etc.), are more akin generically to Graeco-Roman novels and romances. Thus while the later acts bear a superficial resemblance to the canonical Acts, the differences at the generic level are very considerable.
Nevertheless, this broad ‘generic’ criterion has stood the test of time (so far) with the result that many would still work with a very general idea that ‘apocryphal’ texts are (at least superficially) similar to canonical texts in being capable of being categorized into ‘gospels’, ‘acts’, ‘epistles’, and ‘apocalypses’; further, they are all related in some way to New Testament figures, perhaps as claiming to be written by an NT character as author, or using on an NT figure as the focus of a narrative account. Thus the recent collection of Markschies and Schröter (2012) offer (on their cover sheet) the following ‘definition’ (or perhaps better rationale) for what is included in their volumes:
‘Apocrypha’ are texts which either have the form of biblical texts which became canonical, or tell stories about characters in the biblical texts which became canonical, or convey words purportedly spoken by these characters.
This assumption about the ‘form’ of apocryphal writings is reflected also in this Handbook: cf. the four main survey essays in Part I of this volume, focusing on ‘gospels’, ‘acts’, ‘letters’, and ‘apocalypses’.
One other factor to be borne in mind is that the production of collections of works entitled ‘New Testament Apocrypha’, or ‘Early Christian Apocrypha’, for example, at the time of the production of a collection such as that of Hennecke, was with the overall aim of making available to a wider public texts which might otherwise have been unknown. It is in this context that decisions about what to include, and what not to include, were taken. Inevitably, one factor was that texts which are otherwise well known were not included. This means that decisions about what might be ‘in’ or ‘out’ are in part based (p. 9) on pragmatic reasons rather than on the basis of deep ‘philosophical’ ideas about the ‘identity’ of such texts! The fact is that a number of texts, which some might think qualify for inclusion in any collection of ‘Apocrypha’ on the basis of whatever ‘definition’ is concocted, are already very readily accessible for modern readers as part of other collections. For example, the collection of texts known as the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ is in one way a highly artificial, and relatively recent, collection. It includes a text such as the Didache, which purports to be teaching given by the twelve apostles, or by Jesus to the twelve apostles and then to be passed on to others. (There are two quasi-‘titles’ at the start of the current text, reflecting these possibilities.) Either way, it would seem to qualify for consideration as an ‘apocryphal’ text in that it purports to give either further teaching of Jesus (hence a ‘gospel’ text in a very broad sense) or further teaching of the apostles themselves (perhaps then similar to other ‘acts’). Yet the Didache is readily available in all modern editions of the texts of the Apostolic Fathers and hence is not generally included in the so-called ‘Apocrypha’. The same would apply to the so-called Epistle of Barnabas. Likewise a text such as the Shepherd of Hermas, which has always had a firm place within the ‘Apostolic Fathers’, is similar (in broad terms) to many apocalypses. Yet such texts are not generally considered as candidates for inclusion in a collection of ‘Apocrypha’, primarily on the pragmatic grounds that they are readily available for modern readers as part of another collection. Similar considerations apply to the Nag Hammadi (and related) texts. Many of these texts are clearly ‘apocryphal’ writings in some sense; yet since the discovery of the library, there have been a number of publications making the texts available, often as a corpus. Again, many would then exclude these texts from a possible collection of ‘Apocrypha’ for the pragmatic reason that duplication of effort in making the texts available to a wider public is unnecessary.
Nevertheless, others have taken a different view, at least in relation to the Nag Hammadi texts, so that one of the latest collections of Early Christian Apocrypha (Markschies and Schröter 2012) does include these texts (though it does not include any texts from the ‘Apostolic Fathers’). In the present Handbook too, some of the Nag Hammadi texts are considered for detailed discussion. Certainly the Gospel of Thomas (the full text of which is only available to us through the Nag Hammadi library) has always been considered a quintessential part of early Christian ‘Apocrypha’, and is discussed here in some detail (see, e.g. Patterson’s essay, 233–49, as well as references in other chapters); so too issues about possible encratite tendencies and attitudes to sexual activity in early Christian texts have often focused on some of the Nag Hammadi material as providing the most important evidence, and these issues too are explored here (see the essay by Hartenstein, 389–406). (Perhaps surprisingly, the (relatively) modern division of texts into groupings that are more than a little artificial still exercises a fairly powerful subconscious influence, so that a text such as the Didache gets little mention in this Handbook: maybe editors are primarily to blame!)
A final issue to be discussed here concerns the name we give to any such collection. Traditionally, the name ‘New Testament Apocrypha’ has been used. For example, this was the name used originally by Hennecke (1904, and also in the later editions of Hennecke–Schneemelcher); it was also the name used by the English edition of (p. 10) James (1924), and retained in the complete reworking of that in the collection of Elliott (1993). The nomenclature has however been criticized heavily by some (see especially Junod 1983 and 1992).
The reasons given for questioning the use of such language are various. It is said that perhaps the language used may be misleading: ‘the’ New Testament is a reasonably well-defined body of texts with clear limits and boundaries set; does talk about ‘New Testament Apocrypha’, or even ‘the New Testament Apocrypha’ suggest an equally well-defined group of texts with clear boundaries? Everything said so far in this Introduction should make clear that such an idea is a bit of a nonsense, and hence it might be better to find an alternative to the term ‘New Testament Apocrypha’.
Another reason for questioning the term is that it might be taken as implying that all Christian ‘apocryphal’ literature relates primarily to NT figures and/or texts. This is clearly not the case. It is widely accepted that the so-called Ascension of Isaiah is a Christian text, but which takes as its starting point the figure of the OT prophet Isaiah. So too the expansions of the Jewish apocalypse known as 4 Ezra, now present in the text generally known as 2 Esdras (chs 1–2 of 2 Esdras are often known as 5 Ezra, chs 15–16 as 6 Ezra), are both Christian ‘apocalypses’ now appended to Jewish ‘apocryphal’ writings. (See Bauckham’s essay, 115–40.) 4 Ezra and 2 Esdras are often assigned to the ‘Apocrypha’ of the Old Testament. In other cases, any attempt to distinguish clearly between Jewish and Christian materials in texts is extremely complex. Thus it is still debated whether the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs represent (a) Jewish text(s), or Jewish material which has been worked over subsequently by Christians, or represent (a) Christian text(s) throughout. Either way, the Testaments clearly belong in the category of ‘apocryphal’ texts; they do not relate primarily to New Testament figures or narratives, yet they may be part of Christian apocryphal literature.
With these factors in view, it is probably misleading and unhelpful to talk any more about ‘New Testament Apocrypha’. Hence, the trend in recent years has been to move to talking rather about ‘Early Christian Apocrypha’ (cf. the new title given to the latest edition—Markschies and Schröter 2012—in the line of continuity reaching back to Hennecke: Antike christliche Apokryphen; also the work of French-speaking colleagues over a number of years: cf. the title Écrits apocryphes chrétiens in Bovon and Geoltrain 1997 and Geoltrain and Kaestli 2002). The title chosen for this Handbook reflects this developing trend too in moving away from any mention of the ‘New Testament’ as such in the title and replacing this with the designation ‘Early Christian’.
The editors are fully aware that even this new title may beg as many questions as it seeks to answer. (How early is ‘early’? How can/should one define what is ‘Christian’? How overtly ‘Christian’ does a text have to be to qualify for this description?) Nevertheless, it is believed that this title is perhaps more satisfactory than the older, traditional title. Further, the aim of this Handbook (as with all the OUP Handbooks) is not to provide the last word on any particular subject. Its primary aim is just as pragmatic as that of editors who have sought to compile collections of ‘Apocrypha’ to make the texts more easily accessible for readers (and who then had to decide what to include and what not to include). The purpose of this Handbook is to provide various essays which will (p. 11) enable people to be introduced to some of the relevant material (especially the essays in Part I here), and to the issues which are live ones in current debates about the texts concerned (the essays in Part II). The precise limits which are placed around the material are then not that important. What is perhaps more important is to realize precisely this! And it is also important to recognize that the category of ‘Early Christian Apocrypha’ is a very fluid one, and that attempts to pin down the category with precise definitions are doomed to failure.
Much of this literature reveals a breadth and range of early Christian piety that almost inevitably has been in danger of being lost: the very fact that much of this literature has to take its place alongside the texts of the New Testament canon, along with the canonical status of the New Testament, has meant that this ‘other’ literature has often been swamped, ignored, at times even suppressed. Texts that were not canonical were copied far less frequently than their canonical counterparts, they were read less frequently, and as a result they were often ‘lost’ and/or forgotten—until sometimes emerging to the light of day in the modern era due to chance discoveries of previously lost manuscripts. It is hoped that this Handbook will provide a small contribution to making these ‘lost’ texts better known, and increase our understanding and appreciation of the wide range of Christian piety to which they give witness.
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