The Christian Apocrypha

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Beyond Paul – Many Apostles, Many Viewpoints
As we have learned, Paul dedicated his life to bringing the teachings of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. The result was that new churches sprung up all over the Empire.

However, Paul wasn’t the only one doing this important work – there were many other ”apostles” or “disciples” doing the same thing in other areas. These early workers believed Jesus would be returning shortly, so little effort was put into record-keeping or looking at the big picture. The stories were simply passed down from generation to generation.

But not everyone had the same story or timeline or viewpoint. Indeed, some were downright contradictory and centuries would pass before it would all be sorted out.

For the moment, we will consider some of the writings that are unfamiliar. Through them, we will glimpse just how messy this formative period really was.

A New Testament Apocrypha?
It seems as though it should be a simple matter. There is an Old Testament Apocrypha comprised of books that are "useful but not canonical" (as Martin Luther opined about them), and likewise there is a New Testament Apocrypha comprised of numerous books. Some of these Christian books have only recently been discovered (for instance, the Nag Hammadi Library), while others have been around for centuries and first turned up in ancient libraries or monasteries. In addition, a few are known only because of authors who railed against them.

Scholars today aren't even sure that Apocrypha is the proper term to describe these books since the word “apocrypha” literally means "hidden books." This seems somewhat of a misnomer for many of them, because they were hardly "hidden." In fact, many of these books have been revered by Christians for centuries and circulated openly despite not being canonized.

Some scholars get around this naming dilemma by referring to them as the Christian Pseudepygrapha – a Greek word meaning "written under a false name." But we already know that several canonized New Testament books were written under a false name, so it hardly seems an adequate solution. In recent years, "lost Scriptures" has also become rather popular nomenclature. But that doesn’t really work either, since many of the “lost” books have now been discovered.

In the Canon or Not?
The fact that a canon exists, however, raises the question: how did some books get relegated to apocryphal status, while others were canonized? We are all familiar with the books of the New Testament. There are the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen books written by or attributed to Paul, some pastoral letters, a sermon or two, and the Book of Revelation.

Most people take that collection of writings at face value, not bothering to ask who decided on these particular books, when did they make that decision, and what criterion was used to decide. But early church scholars now tell us that the debates over which books to include in the New Testament canon lasted for centuries.

Numerous Other Books – Paul and the Apostolic Fathers
Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians began writing all sorts of books. Some recorded the words and works of Jesus, while others focused on the words and works of the apostles. Some wrote letters to various communities. Others wrote prophetic revelations about the Day of the Lord – the final Day of Judgment when Jesus would return. Some of these authors claimed to be eyewitnesses or claimed to be the apostles that were with Jesus – no doubt, some were simply making this claim without really being eyewitnesses or apostles, a common practice in antiquity.

The bottom line is that there were actually hundreds of texts circulating among the various communities for hundreds of years. Although it is probably very naïve to think that early Christians ascribed to a "live and let live" approach, that may very well have been the case. However, some of the earliest recorded Christian writings are Paul's letters and some of his letters are renowned for their blistering attacks against "opponents."

After Jesus' ascension, it was the apostles (and Paul) who were his authorized representatives, bearing witness to Christ’s teachings and healings. The so-called apostolic Fathers, who were more interested in moral and practical issues then in theological development, came after the apostles and Paul.

Second Century – the Canon begins to come together
The middle of the second century saw the rise of several important "heretical" groups. The first of these was led by Marcion (ca 140 CE) who came from Asia Minor.

Marcion believed the God of the Old Testament was inherently inferior to the God of the New Testament, as shown and demonstrated by Jesus. Hence, he eliminated the Old Testament altogether. He decided which books were appropriate – mostly Luke and Paul's writings – for study by his followers. Followers of Gnosticism and Montanism formulated additional opposing views.

In response, the church was required to start thinking about what was true doctrine and which books were sacred. Out of this struggle emerged one group claiming to be the "orthodox" view.

Orthodox simply means "the right belief," yet the orthodox/winning side of the debates was not all of one mind. However, orthodox beliefs generally included the claim that there was one God, that Jesus was his divine/human son, and that the Holy Spirit was the third member of the godhead.

This “orthodox” group determined which books would be authoritative and deemed them to be as sacred as the writings of the Old Testament. Scholars think the culmination of these events took place around 367 CE. A powerful Alexandrian bishop by the name of Athanasius documented this process.

Debating the Canon, Destroying Heretical Writings
But even after these events, issues remained. For example, should Revelation be included? How about the book of Hebrews? What about the Epistle of Barnabas? Obviously, two out of three would eventually be affirmative.

Scholars now know that these debates were very impassioned, somewhat political, and, in some cases, a matter of life or death. After the votes were tallied, the losing teams were deemed "heretics" and their teachings were considered to be "heresies," which simply means "false views."

The winners not only prevailed in the debates, but also began to destroy or suppress the heretical writings upon winning. As a result we only know about some of the heretical writings through the writings of people who wrote against them. And the winners wasted few words in pointing out the error of the heretical theology.

Although it may seem like a clean break was made from the heretical writings, the reality is that many of these books continued to be regarded as very sacred and were revered by Christians – sometimes over the course of many centuries. These believers were convinced that they had the true teachings of Jesus and their opponents were, in fact, the heretics.

Reading Apocryphal Books
Needless to say, modern Christians have been raised in the orthodox tradition so it is hard for us to dispassionately read these texts. When the discovery was made at Nag Hammadi, many of the books were dismissed outright as being "Gnostic," and therefore "false." But after decades of study, scholars are no longer sure what it meant to be "Gnostic."

Nonetheless, the study of Apocryphal texts has provided scholars with a window into the early church. Many of these texts present views markedly different from what we are familiar with in the New Testament. These differences weren't about things like which vestments to wear on which holiday or what color they should paint the walls.

The differences are weighty. How many gods are there – one, two, or three? Did the true God create the world, or did a lesser god take this on? Was Jesus human, divine, or both? Is Christianity part of Judaism? Should the Hebrew Bible be part of Christian teachings? Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New Testament?

Some of us might think these questions are ridiculous, but that is because proponents of these points of view were not the winners of the debates.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha