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Fantastic tales and where to find them

07 May 2021

Keith Elliott explores the significance of apocryphal texts

Matteo Omied/Alamy

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)’s depiction of The Harrowing of Hell (1933)

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)’s depiction of The Harrowing of Hell (1933)

THE word “apocrypha” usually means “spurious” or “of dubious historical value and, therefore, unauthenticated” (an alternative description for an apocryphal text is the Italian ben trovato). Theologically, however, “The Apocrypha” normally refers to those Old Testament books sometimes found published — especially in the Protestant world — as a separate section of the Bible. Here, the dictionary definitions seem not to apply, and the Greek Old Testament apocryphal writings are thus the books deemed secondary to those Bible texts that were originally composed in a Semitic tongue.

But there also exist writings referred to in modern times as New Testament apocrypha. These are usually early (Christian) texts that were never accepted by the Church at large as either canonical or scriptural. Despite the absence of official ecclesiastical approval, large numbers of manuscripts contain such writings.

Some of the stories in the New Testament’s apocrypha were inspired by incomplete events, or by persons found in the New Testament canon; others show developments within the Early Church. Although “apocryphal”, these writings often deliberately imitate the genres of the New Testament: Gospels, Acts, letters, and apocalypses.

Theologians of a purist, or even a puritanical, turn of mind could ignore or marginalise such apocrypha as immature, perverse, and of dubious value: in other words, as “apocryphal” in the dictionary definition of the term. It is certainly true that the contents of the New Testament apocrypha seem to lack credibility and historicity, although some of them may actually be (to borrow the term used in film credits) “based on fact”.

As works of pious imagination, however, such apocrypha may reveal the earliest Christians’ beliefs win the contexts of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies. To the extent that they reflect what was important to those who wrote and read such texts — the ordinary believers rather than the intellectual elites (the church Fathers such as a Jerome or an Augustine or Origen in the early centuries, or the schoolmen of the medieval Church) — the apocrypha are both true and historical.

Stories about Jesus in these apocryphal Gospels sometimes portray him as a capricious wonder-worker, or a precocious child. The motives behind such depictions are quite orthodox, and emphasise the divine origin, powers, and statusthat the writers believed Jesus to possess. Some tales influenced Christian art as well as its theological teachings: Mary’s perpetual virginity, her early upbringing and her assumption at the end of her life, and the stories known as the “harrowing of hell” inspired many frescoes, sculptures, and mosaics, as well as Britain’s medieval Mystery plays. Dante and Milton were probably also influenced by the apocryphal apocalypses.

Some Christians may disapprove of or be offended by such stories, although popular Christmas cards regularly depict the ox and the ass present at Jesus’s birth — a story that appears in written form in an apocryphal Gospel, nowadays known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.


IN THE apocryphal Acts, where several well-known apostles are the heroes, conventions of the ancient novels are employed in a Christian cause. The corrupt Roman rulers, the pious Christian apostles, and the doggedly faithful believers are the standard characters in the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Thomas, and the like. Paul baptising a lion, as well as the familiar Quo vadis, Domine?, are scenes that come from this literature.

Feminists usually applaud the presence of the woman apostle, Thekla, who forsakes her fiancé, dons male attire, and follows Paul, before branching out as a preacher of Christianity in her own right. That story now occurs in the apocryphal Acts of Paul.

Meatier stories in these Acts include scenes of attempted necrophiliac rape and self-mutilation; others tell of sexually frustrated pagan husbands who are given the Lysistrata treatment by their recently converted Christian wives. Repetitive and verbose some of those yarns may be, but they are racy enough to have motivated Gregory, the famed sixth-century Bishop of Tours, to produce an expurgated version. In the words of a now defunct Sunday tabloid, “all human life is here.”

Not all the accounts in the apocrypha are comparably “realistic”, however: they include also references to talking animals, flying magicians, and bizarre revivifications. (Readers who are familiar with canonical tales about Jesus walking on water, the blasting of the fig tree, and raisings from the dead — not to mention Balaam’s talking donkey in the Book of Numbers — may feel that the apocryphal texts do not have a monopoly on incredible yarns.)

These apocryphal tales are, however, exceptionally moral. In them, good always triumphs. For instance, the apostle is often described as Jesus’s alter ego; as such, he usually succeeds before and even after his inevitable martyrdom. The wicked (usually men) typically perish; the pious (usually women) are sustained in their faith, despite their regular imprisonments, cruelty, and even exposure in the arenas.

It is obvious why the Church at large failed to commend such stories as scriptural: they are often tinged with heresy, particularly gnosticism. That was inevitable in the earliest Christian centuries, when all religions were somewhat syncretistic. Reading them today, however, gives us an entrée into the experiences of early Christians in the context of a Roman world, intent on revolutionising contemporary mores, philosophies, and beliefs.

It may be that some real historical nuggets are to be found within a few such apocrypha: for example, an occasional divine saying in the Gospel of Thomas. But to read such literature in order to add to, or to plug perceived gaps in, the New Testament proper is to miss their point.

They may be most profitably understood today as the inspiring reading-matter of pious Christians who lived in a world very different from our own — one in which a confidence in divine intervention is paramount. But a common theme running throughout these apocrypha promulgates self-denial and otherworldliness; in other words, this teaching is still relevant in today’s world. It would be a mistake to dismiss them as merely “apocryphal”.


J. K. Elliott is the translator and editor of The Apocryphal New Testament (The Clarendon Press, 1993+), and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism at the University of Leeds.

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