The Epistle of the Apostles

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The Epistle of the Apostles, known also by its Latin name, Epistula Apostolorum, was unknown until its discovery in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first version was written in Coptic, and found near Cairo. The fragmented papyrus probably dated back to the fourth or fifth century. This was a translation of an earlier Greek document, written, possibly in Egypt, before the second century but after the canonical gospels. After this discovery, a more complete version was found in Ethiopia that dated back to the eighteenth century and may have been a direct translation of the Coptic. The Epistle was published for the first time in 1919, and is now kept in an archeological museum in Cairo.

The Epistle doesn't really have a title, so its name is derived from its opening verses. It begins as "the letter of the council of the apostles." It portends to be a revelation of Jesus to his apostles after his resurrection. Speaking as the risen Lord, Jesus instructs them on creedal formulas, dogma, and catechetical points. Hence, this is a reiteration of "orthodoxy." He does this through visions and dialogue. It is not based on sayings material, but on biblical narrative. There are about sixty questions in fifty-one chapters. It is, by far, the longest epistle.

Its importance is made clear by listing not just one or two of the apostles, but all of them. It suggests that they were all present for the revelation, and that it was not a secret teaching given to a chosen few. In addition to giving this document extra authority, the inclusion of all their names also contrasts with so many other documents of this period, where a single author claimed he had been privy to special teachings.

The fact that Jesus presented himself to them also emphasizes the physical reality of his resurrection. The text builds on the post-resurrection stories from the New Testament, though some liberty has been taken with the details. Some scholars maintain that the Epistle of the Apostles was the basis for much of the creedal tradition that evolved in the early Church. Just as Jesus' resurrection appearances validated his resurrection, the creedal tradition was validated by the historical facts of Jesus' earthly life. Documenting the historical aspects of his life was, then, an important part of the written tradition. Everything Jesus stated was rooted in scripture, lending additional weight to its legitimacy as an extension of the gospel tradition.

The main part of the work predicts that the Parousia would occur in 150 years (120 in the Coptic version). Some scholars have explained this discrepancy by suggesting that it was written after 120 CE, and since the Parousia had not arrived, the date was pushed back a few years. Surprisingly, there is only one possible reference to the Epistle by other ancient writers. Nonetheless, it was probably used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for centuries, and considered quite orthodox.

The text mentions two heretical teachers by name – Cerinthus and Simon. Scholars think this is a reference to the Simon Magnus named in the Book of Acts. The Epistle minces no words in criticizing their Gnostic notions. It was probably used as a counterclaim to those who were thinking about converting to Gnosticism. Hence, it uses a format familiar to the Gnostic reader. Yet, it takes great pains to also distinguish itself from traditional Gnostic material by its openness and universality. It is not preaching competing "mysteries" that were typical of Gnostic writings.

After naming the two "false apostles," the "true apostles" (listed by name) write about what they have seen, heard, and touched after Jesus had been raised from the dead. This is followed by several claims about Jesus — that he was sent by God, enthroned at the right hand of the Father, maker of heaven and earth, fulfiller of prophecy, and known by the apostles. He was the word become flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, and begotten of the Holy Spirit. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and born in Bethlehem. Details about how he grew up and came to maturity reinforced stories from the Infancy Gospels.

After affirming that all these events were true as stated, the apostles recall all the miracles he performed, including changing the water into wine at Cana, causing the lame to walk, withered hands to heal, blood to be staunched, and demons to drown in the sea. He not only stilled the sea, but also walked upon it. When they had no money for the tax collector, they found it in a fish's mouth. When they only had five loaves and two fishes, he commanded 5,000 people to sit down and set bread before them. When they were all filled, they still had twelve baskets of leftovers. The five loaves represented the symbols of faith – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the church, and the remission of sins.

The apostles appealed to the reader to become partakers of his grace, to think about eternal life, and not to pervert the word (like Cerinthus and Simon had done). Death and destruction would await the enemies of the Lord. That provided a segue into the final moments of the Lord, who was crucified by Pilate between two thieves. When the three women went to anoint his body, they discovered the empty sepulcher.

But as they mourned and wept, the Lord appeared unto them, telling Martha to go and tell the rest of the disciples. The apostles admit they didn't believe her, so she went back to Jesus with her report. Jesus then sent Mary, but they didn't believe her, either. Then Jesus and the women went together to find the apostles (who were out fishing by that time). Jesus called unto them, but they thought he was a ghost. Finally, Jesus convinced them that he was, indeed, risen. While still doubting, the apostles were invited to place their fingers into the print of the nails and to notice his footprints. Then, they fell on their faces and worshipped him.

With this introduction, the remainder of the Epistle focuses on the revelation. The Lord existed from the beginning, having been given power and wisdom. He appeared as Gabriel unto Mary, and when Mary accepted him, he formed himself and entered into her body, becoming flesh.

He predicted the imprisonment of Peter, but promised to send his power in the form of Gabriel, who would open the doors. This prompted a question about the importance of taking the cup and drinking it. Jesus said it would be needful until he came again. "How would he come?" was the next question. The Lord said he would be like the sun when it bursts forth, seven times brighter than his glory. "When would this happen?" In 120 (or 150) years, between the Passover and the feast of unleavened bread.

When they doubted their ability to perform what was required of them, the Lord promised to be with them. He added, "Be of good courage and rest in me." The next ten chapters included teachings commonly found in the gospels.

In chapter 31, the Lord mentioned Paul, and described what would happen to him. They were to "do unto him what I have done unto you." They were to guide him and instruct him in all that had been spoken of the Lord. Paul would become the salvation of the Gentiles.

After this short interlude involving Paul, the apostles once again asked about all the things they still didn't know—everything from salvation to the end of the world. Jesus patiently answered all their questions, including a description of the end of time and the Day of Judgment. When they expressed concern for those who would be excluded at the final judgment, the Lord encouraged the disciples to pray for them.

He brought home the point by relating the parable of the wise virgins who watched versus the foolish virgins who slumbered. The names of the wise were Faith, Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope. The names of the foolish were Knowledge, Understanding, Obedience, Patience, and Compassion. While these five may have believed and confessed, they did not fulfill his commandments. For that, they would remain outside the kingdom and were condemned to die in torment.

The bottom line is that believers should be upright and preach rightly, fearing no man (especially the rich). If they see sinners, they should admonish them, but if the sinners do not respond, they should be ignored. Rumors should be ignored as well. Standards are high for believers; one cannot profess belief and act oppositely. Those who believe and act rightly will be hated by the world, but will be rewarded by the Father. The Lord's final words included warnings about false teachers. Those perpetrators would be the ones who would be cut off from eternal life and subjected to judgment.

When the Lord had finished speaking, there was thunder and lightning and an earthquake. The heavens parted and a bright cloud bore him up amid the singing and rejoicing of angels. His final words were: "Depart hence in peace."

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha