New Testament Apocrypha

General Information

The Apocryphal New Testament is an undefined group of early Christian writings similar in general form to the biblical books but not included in the canon of the Bible. Some, such as the gospels according to the Hebrews, Nazarenes, and Egyptians (lost, except for fragments), were at one time used in certain churches as Scripture. The Infancy Gospel of James has influenced Christian tradition and art.

There are acts of apostles attributed to Peter, Paul, and James, and apocalypses, or books of revelations, such as that of Peter. Those attributed to Paul (3 Corinthians and Laodiceans) and other apostles are obvious forgeries.

Many of the Coptic works discovered in recent years were products of Gnosticism. Few of these, except for the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, contain valuable traditions about Jesus' teaching, but the apocryphal works throw some light on the history of early Christianity, especially in its popular and heretical forms. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers do not properly belong to the Apocryphal New Testament.

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Sherman E. Johnson

Bibliography:
Cameron, R., ed., The Other Gospels (1982); Jeremias, Joachim, Unknown Sayings of Jesus, 2d ed. (1974); Hennecke, Edgar, and Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, New Testament Apocrypha, vol. I (2d ed., 1968) and vol. II (1964). Haardt, Robert, Gnosis: Character and Testimony, trans. by J. F. Hendry (1971); Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels (1981).


Apocryphal New Testament

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The Apocryphal New Testament is a substantial collection of works that were published under the names of apostolic writers during the second and subsequent centuries. For the most part they were deliberate fabrications and never had any serious claim to canonicity. Hence, in this connection the word "apocrypha" is used in its meaning of untrue or spurious.

Evidently the NT Apocrypha arose primarily for two reasons. First, some sought to satisfy the curiosity engendered by the failure of the canonical Gospels to describe Christ's early life or numerous aspects of his personage. Others tried to supply details concerning the apostles omitted from the Acts. Second, those with heretical tendencies made an effort to gain an acceptance for their views by embedding them in works attributed to Christ and the apostles. Especially did the Gnostics seek to advance their cause in this way.

Writers of NT apocryphal works attempted to produce literary forms parallel to those of NT books. Hence their efforts may be classified as gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses.

The popularity of the NT Apocrypha is evidenced by the number of these works still in existence in whole or in part and the wide distribution of their use. To be sure, leaders in the church saw to it that the Apocrypha never received official sanction; but in more ignorant communities they were sometimes used without suspicion in the church service, and their contents continued to make a widespread impact on the popular piety. This fact is demonstrated by a study of the reliefs on sarcophagi of western Europe during the Middle Ages, as well as of the mosaics and stained glass windows of churches and cathedrals, the art of illuminated manuscripts, and themes of the mystery plays. All these drew some inspiration from the NT Apocrypha.

Therefore, if one is to understand many aspects of medieval life, it is necessary to study the Apocrypha. Moreover, one will gain important insights into the nature of Christianity during the postapostolic period. Heretical tendencies and popular beliefs and superstitions are writ large in these works. One can discern the slippage of the teachings of grace and a corresponding rise of legalism, a growing veneration of Mary, and an increase of sacramentalism. Furthermore, a study of these apocryphal works will demonstrate the superiority of the NT books in both content and form and will heighten respect for the canon and the validity of the canonical process.

As noted above, NT apocryphal works parallel in form the NT books. Something is known about over fifty apocryphal gospels. A few of these have been preserved in their entirety, others in fragments, and only the names are known of yet others. In these generally the author concealed his own name and ascribed his work to an apostle or disciple. Those available in their entirety are the Protevangelium of James (brother of the Lord), Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, History of Joseph the Carpenter, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Infancy, Gospel of Nicodemus, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of the Egyptians.

Numerous Acts of the Apostles were also composed. Among the better known is the collection called the Leucian Acts because they were collected by Leucius. Five in number, these fragmentary works include the Acts of Paul, John, Andrew, Peter, and Thomas.

Apocryphal epistles are not so numerous because it was harder to fabricate them to have any appearance of authenticity. Among the better known are the Epistle of the Apostles, which dealt with heretical tendencies; the Epistle to the Laodiceans (cf. Col. 4:16), excerpts from Paul's letters (especially Philippians); Third Corinthians; and the Correspondence of Paul and Seneca.

Apocalypses were modeled somewhat on the book of Revelation. The most famous are the Apocalypse of Peter (second century) and the Apocalypse of Paul (fourth century). Among other things, both have visions of heaven and hell with scenes of blessedness and lurid descriptions of punishment.

One of the most significant finds of NT apocryphal works occured in 1946 at Nag Hammadi, about thirty miles north of Luxor in Egypt. This included thirty-seven complete and five fragmentary works, generally with a Gnostic bias. All in Coptic, they were translated from Greek originals.

H F Vos

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
E. J. Goodspeed, Strange New Gospels; A. Helmbold, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Texts and the Bible; M. R. James, The Apocryphal NT; R. M. Wilson, ed., NT Apocrypha, 2 vols.; J. M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library.


Apocryphal New Testament

Advanced Information

Another extensive Advanced Information article for this subject is contained in the Apocrypha presentation.


Also, see:
Protevangelium of James
Apocalypse of Peter
Gospel of Thomas
Shepherd of Hermas

and
Apocrypha (Old Testament)
Pseudepigrapha


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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