The New Testament Apocrypha

(Summary of a Lecture by Richard Bauckham on 5 May 1999)

[Richard Bauckham is a Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews. He is a specialist in the Gospel of John; early christology; the Book of Revelation; theological interpretation of scripture; and noncanonical Jewish and Christian literature. He has published numerous books, including a recent collection of essays in the latter area: _The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses_ (Leiden: Brill, 1998).–JRD]

Terminology and definition

There are two traditional terms for this body of literature: the Apocryphal NT, the title of English collections (Hone 1820, James 1924, Elliott 1993; cf. Sparks’ Apocryphal OT), and the NT Apocrypha, title of the German collections and their English translations (since the first edition of Hennecke, 1904).

There are several problems with this terminology:

(1) The term ‘NT Apocrypha’ might suggest a fixed collection of texts, like the OT apocrypha (= deutero-canonical works), whereas in fact we are dealing with a very open category, potentially inclusive of a very large number of works.

(2) Either term might suggest that the works in question were in some sense candidates for inclusion in the NT canon and at some point in the process of the formation of the NT canon were excluded. This would be very misleading. Only three of these works (Apocalypse of Peter, Acts of Paul, Gospel of the Hebrews) were ever listed among the ‘disputed’ books (antilegomena) which some treated as canonical (reading them as authoritative Scripture in Christian worship). Many which were written before and during the process of canonization are treated by later authors as ‘rejected’ (apocryphal) works, but for various reasons were complete non-starters, never seriously considered candidates for canonical status. Many more were written during and after the completion of the canon, not as potentially canonical works or as rivals to the canonical books, but as works functioning to supplement the canon.

(3) The term ‘apocrypha,’ which came to be used by the Fathers in the sense of ‘spurious’ or ‘rejected’ books, suggests literature that was rejected and suppressed in mainstream Christianity. This is true only of some of these works, to a greater or lesser degree, and differently in different periods. The Gnostic works were those first called ‘apocrypha’ and were vehemently rejected in mainstream Christianity from the second century. But many of the so-called NT apocrypha were not doctrinally unorthodox. Some of these were officially rejected but remained popular in practice. Such works continued to be written by orthodox Chtristians into the early middle ages, and some of the NT apocrypha were extremely popular throughout the middle ages, not suppressed, but not treated as authoritative in the canonical sense (e.g. the infancy Gospels and the apocalypses that revealed the fate of the dead in the afterlife). So the status of these works varies enormously, from those used only by heretics to those used widely by the orthodox, and with varying kinds of authority or usefulness for those who read them.

(4) If the terms ‘Apocryphal NT’ and ‘NT Apocrypha’ should not be understood as implying candidature for and exclusion from the NT canon, what kind of relationship to the NT is envisaged? By classifying the apocryphal literature as Gospels, Acts, Epistles, Apocalypses, the collections suggest that these are works in the same genres as those of the NT texts, and that we are dealing with the same kind of literature that we find in the NT. In fact, this is the case with only quite a small minority of the texts called NT Apocrypha. Most of the apocryphal Gospels are not comparable in literary genre with the canonical Gospels; the apocryphal Acts of Apostles resemble the canonical Acts in some ways, but also differ sufficiently to constitute a different literary genre; by contrast with the NT, there are very few apocryphal Epistles; and the apocryphal Apocalypses are mostly more like Jewish apocalypses than like the NT Apocalypse of John. Literary genre is not a satisfactory way of defining the way these texts relate to the NT. I suggest rather: the works in question are either attributed to or about NT characters.

(5) The terms ‘Apocryphal NT’ and ‘NT Apocrypha’ cannot, of course, cover works which are either attributed to or about *OT* characters. Christians did write such works (mostly apocalypses, but also narrative works), as well as editing Jewish works of this kind. Such works are included, if anywhere, in editions of the OT Pseudepigrapha. This is potentially misleading, because it suggests that the OT Pseudepigrapha are Jewish and the NT Apocrypha Christian. It is especially misleading if a collection of OT Pseudepigrapha takes (Charlesworth’s OTP does) as a criterion of inclusion that a work must preserve Jewish traditions, even if in Christian redaction. This means that Christian OT Pseudepigrapha fall between the two stools, and that the examples that do occur, e.g., in Charlesworth’s OTP are usually studied only for the sake of their possible Jewish substratum or contents. (Moreover, if we are looking for early Jewish traditions in Christian works, I think we are as likely to find them in the Apocalypse of Peter or the Apocalypse of Paul, as we are in the Ascension of Isaiah or the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah.) Most scholarship on the OT Pseudepigrapha has been interested in them as Jewish literature, so that those which are originally Christian or the Christian redaction of others have been seriously neglected. Responding to these problems the CCSA includes both ‘NT Apocrypha’ and ‘Christian OT Pseudepigrapha,’ refusing artificial distinctions between them, and prefers the term ‘Christian apocrypha’ for the whole corpus of literature.

The content of the rest of the lecture will be found (in more detail than as given) in the following three published articles by Richard Bauckham:

  • “Gospels (Apocryphal),” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green, S. McKnight and I. H. Marshall (Downers Grove, Illinois/Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1992) 286-291.
  • “Apocryphal Pauline Literature,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. G. F. Hawthorne and R. P. Martin (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 35-37.
  • “Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Literature,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997) 68-73.

    Select List of Christian Apocrypha, classified by genre

    All early and some especially important later works are listed
    * = work listed twice in different categoriesGospels

    Gospel of Thomas
    Gospel of Peter
    Papyrus Fragments of Unknown Gospels
    Jewish Christian Gospels (Gospels of Hebrews, Nazarenes, Ebionites)
    Gospel of the Egyptians
    Secret Gospel of Mark
    Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate and Descent to Hades)

    Birth and Infancy Gospels

    Protevangelium of James
    Infancy Gospel of Thomas
    History of Joseph
    Infancy Gospel of Matthew
    Arabic Infancy Gospel
    Latin Infancy Gospel

    Post-Resurrection Gospels (Dialogues and Revelations)

    Apocalypse of Peter*
    Epistle of the Apostles*
    Questions of Bartholomew
    Testament of our Lord
    Testament of our Lord in Galilee
    Apocryphon of James*
    Book of Thomas
    Sophia of Jesus Christ
    Dialogue of the Saviour
    First Apocalypse of James
    Coptic (Gnostic) Apocalypse of Peter*
    Gospel of Mary
    Letter of Peter to Philip (2nd part)*
    Pistis Sophia
    Books of Jeu

    Apostolic Acts

    Acts of Andrew
    Acts of John
    Acts of Paul
    Acts of Peter
    Acts of Thomas
    Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles

    Apostolic Epistles

    Epistle of the Apostles*
    Apocryphon of James*
    3 Corinthians (part of Acts of Paul)
    Letter of Peter to Philip (1st part)*
    Correspondence of Paul and Seneca
    Epistle of Titus

    Other Apostolic Literature

    Preaching of Peter
    Prayer of the Apostle Paul
    Second Apocalypse of James
    Pseudo-Clementine literature
    Accounts of the Dormition/Assumption of the Virgin

    Apocalyptic and Prophetic Literature

    Apocalypse of Peter*
    Ascension of Isaiah
    Apocalypse of Thomas
    Apocalypse of Paul
    Coptic (Gnostic) Apocalypse of Paul
    Coptic (Gnostic) Apocalypse of Peter*
    (Christian) Sibylline Oracles
    5 Ezra
    6 Ezra
    Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah
    Apocalypses of the Virgin Mary
    Greek Apocalypse of Ezra
    Apocalypse of Sedrach
    Latin Vision of Ezra
    Questions of Ezra
    Apocalypses of Daniel
    Seventh Vision of Enoch

    Wisdom Literature

    Teachings of Sylvanus

    Hymnic Literature

    Odes of Solomon

    (c) 1999
    Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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