The meaning of Apocryphal Acts, General in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
A. GENERAL INTRODUCTION
I. THE MEANING OF "APOCRYPHAL"
2. False and Heretical
II. GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS
2. The Supernatural
3. Sexual Asceticism
4. Heretical Teaching
5. Religious Feeling
1. Reverence for Apostles
2. Pious Curiosity
3. Apostolic Authority Desired
4. Interests of Local Churches
1. Canonical Acts
3. Romances of Travel
V. ECCLESIASTICAL TESTIMONY
4. Ecclesiastical Condemnation
VII. RELATIONSHIP OF DIFFERENT ACTS
1. As History
2. As Records of Early Christianity
B. THE SEPARATE ACTS
I. ACTS OF PAUL
II. ACTS OF PETER
III. ACTS OF JOHN
IV. ACTS OF ANDREW
V. ACTS OF THOMAS
A. GENERAL INTRODUCTION
I. The Meaning of "Apocryphal."
As applied to early-Christian writings the term "apocryphal" has the secondary and conventional sense of "extra-canonical."
Originally, as the etymology of the word shows (Greek apokrupto = "hide"), it denoted what was "hidden" or "secret." In this sense "apocryphal" was, to begin with, a title of honor, being applied to writings used by the initiated in esoteric circles and highly valued by them as containing truths miraculously revealed and kept secret from the outside world. Just as there were writings of this kind among the Jews, so there were in Christian circles, among Gnostic sects, apocrypha, which claimed to embody the deeper truths of Christianity, committed as a secret tradition by the risen Christ to His apostles.
2. False and Heretical:
When the conception of a catholic church began to take shape, it was inevitable that these secret writings should have been regarded with suspicion and have been ultimately forbidden, not only because they fostered the spirit of division in the church, but because they were favorable to the spread of heretical teaching. By a gradual and intelligible transference of ideas "apocryphal," as applied to secret writings thus discredited by the church, came to have the bad sense of spurious and heretical. In this sense the word is used both by Irenaeus and Tertullian.
Short of being stigmatized as false and heretical many books were regarded as unsuitable for reading in public worship, although they might be used for purposes of private edification. Chiefly under the influence of Jerome the term "apocryphal" received an extension of meaning so as to include writings of this kind, stress now being laid on their non-acceptance as authoritative Scriptures by the church, without any suggestion that the ground of non-acceptance lay in heretical teaching. It is in this wide sense that the word is used when we speak of "Apocryphal Acts." Although the Acts which bear this name had their origin for the most part in circles of heretical tendency, the description of them as "apocryphal" involves no judgment as to the character of their contents, but simply denotes that they are Acts which were excluded from the New Testament canon because their title or claims to recognition as authoritative and normative writings were not admitted by the church. This definition limits the scope of our investigation to those Acts which belong to the 2nd century, the Biblical Acts having secured their place as an authoritative scripture by the end of that century.
See further, APOCRYPHA.
II. General Characteristics.
The Apocryphal Acts purport to give the history of the activity of the apostles in fuller detail than the canonical Acts.
The additions to the New Testament narrative found in them are highly flavored with romance and reveal an extravagant and unhealthy taste for the miraculous. Wonderful tales, the product of an exuberant fancy, often devoid of delicacy of feeling and always out of touch with reality, are freely heaped one upon the other. The apostles are no longer conceived as living on the ordinary levels of humanity; their human frailties, to which the canonical writers are not blind, have almost entirely disappeared; they walk through the world as men conversant with the mysteries of heaven and earth and possessed of powers to which no limit can be set. They have the power to heal, to exorcise demons, to raise the dead; and while marvelous deeds of that nature constantly recur, there are other miracles wrought by the apostles which remind one of the bizarre and non-moral prodigies of the Childhood Gospel of Thomas. A smoked fish is made to swim; a broken statue is made whole by the use of consecrated a wafer; a child of seven months is enabled to talk with a man's voice; animals receive the power of human speech.
2. The Supernatural:
The romantic character of the Apocryphal Acts is intensified by the frequent introduction of the supernatural. Angelic messengers appear in vision and in dream; heavenly voices are heard; clouds descend to hide the faithful in the hour of danger and lightnings smite their foes; the terrifying forces of Nature, earthquake, wind and fire, strike dismay into the hearts of the ungodly; and martyrs die transfigured in a blaze of unearthly glory. Especially characteristic of these Acts are the appearances of Christ in many forms; now as an old man, now as a comely youth, now as a child; but most frequently in the likeness of this or that apostle. (It is interesting to observe that Origen is familiar with a tradition that Jesus during His earthly life could change His appearance when and how He pleased, and gives that as a reason for the necessity of the traitor's kiss. Compare also Mark 16:9, Mark 16:12.)
3. Sexual Asceticism:
One must not suppose from the foregoing that the Apocryphal Acts with their profusion of romantic and supernatural details were designed merely to exalt the personality of the apostles and to satisfy the prevalent desire for the marvelous. They had a definite practical end in view. They were intended to confirm and popularize a type of Christianity in strong reaction against the world, in which emphasis was laid on the rigid abstinence from sexual relations as the chief moral requirement. This sexual asceticism is the dominant motif in all the Acts. The "contendings" of the apostles, their trials and their eventual martyrdom are in almost every case due to their preaching the sinfulness of conjugal life and to their success in persuading women to reject the society of their husbands. The Acts are penetrated throughout by the conviction that abstinence from marriage is the supreme condition of entering upon the highest life and of winning heaven. The gospel on its practical side is (to use the succinct expression of the Acts of Paul) "the word of God regarding abstinence and the resurrection."
4. Heretical Teaching:
Besides inculcating an ascetic morality the Apocryphal Acts show traces more or less pronounced of dogmatic heresy. All of them with the exception of the Acts of Paul represent a docetic view of Christ; that is to say, the earthly life of Jesus is regarded merely as an appearance, phantasmal and unreal. This docetic Christology is most prominent in the Acts of John, where we read that when Jesus walked no footprints were discernible; that sometimes when the apostle attempted to lay hold of the body of Jesus his hand passed through it without resistance; that when the crowd gathered round the cross on which to all appearance Jesus hung, the Master Himself had an interview with His disciple John on the Mount of Olives. The crucifixion was simply a symbolical spectacle; it was only in appearance that Christ suffered and died. Allied with the docetic Christology is a naive Modalism, according to which there is no clear distinction between the Father and the Son.
5. Religious Feeling:
In spite of the unfavorable impression created by the flood of miraculous and supernatural details, the pervading atmosphere of sexual asceticism and the presence of dogmatic misconception, it is impossible not to feel in many sections of the Apocryphal Acts the rapture of a great spiritual enthusiasm. Particularly in the Acts of John, Andrew and Thomas there are passages (songs, prayers, homilies), sometimes of genuine poetic beauty, which are characterized by religious warmth, mystic fervor and moral earnestness. The mystical love to Christ, expressed though it frequently is in the strange language of Gnostic thought, served to bring the Saviour near to men as the satisfaction of the deepest yearnings of the soul for deliverance from the dark power of death. The rank superstition and the traces of unconquered heathenism should not blind us to the fact that in the Apocryphal Acts we have an authentic if greatly distorted expression of the Christian faith, and that through them great masses of people were confirmed in their conviction of the spiritual presence and power of Christ the Saviour.
The Apocryphal Acts had their origin at a time when the canonical Acts of the Apostles were not yet recognized as alone authoritative. Various motives contributed to the appearance of books dealing with the life and activity of the different apostles.
1. Reverence for Apostles:
Behind every variety of motive lay the profound reverence for the apostles as the authoritative depositories of Christian truth. In apostolic times the sole authority in Christian communities, outside Old Testament Scripture, was "the Lord." But as the creative period of Christianity faded into the past, "the apostles" (in the sense of the college of the Twelve, including Paul) were raised to a preeminent position alongside of Christ with the object of securing continuity in the credentials of the faith. The commandments of the Lord had been received through them (II Peter 3:2). In the Ignatian epistles they have a place of acknowledged supremacy by the side of Christ. Only that which had apostolic authority was normative for the church. The authority of the apostles was universal. They had gone into all the world to preach the gospel. They had, according to the legend referred to at the beginning of the Acts of Thomas, divided among themselves the different regions of the earth as the spheres of their activity. It was an inevitable consequence of the peculiar reverence in which the apostles were held as the securities for Christian truth that a lively interest should everywhere be shown in traditional stories about their work and that writings should be multiplied which purported to give their teaching with fullness of detail.
2. Pious Curiosity:
The canonical Acts were not calculated to satisfy the prevailing desire for a knowledge of the life and teaching of the apostles. For one thing many of the apostles are there ignored, and for another the information given about the chief apostles Peter and Paul is little more than a meager outline of the events of their life. In these circumstances traditions not preserved in the canonical Acts were eagerly accepted, and as the actual history of the individual apostles was largely shrouded in obscurity, legends were freely invented to gratify the insatiable curiosity. The marvelous character of these inventions is a testimony to the supernatural level to which the apostles had been raised in popular esteem.
3. Apostolic Authority Desired:
As in the case of the apocryphal Gospels, the. chief motive in the multiplication of apostolic romances was the desire to set forth with the full weight of apostolic authority conceptions of Christian life and doctrine which prevailed in certain circles. (1) Alongside the saner and catholic type of Christianity there existed, especially in Asia Minor, a popular Christianity with perverted ideals of life. On its practical side the Christian religion was viewed as an ascetic discipline, involving not only abstinence from animal food and wine but also (and chiefly) abstinence from marriage. Virginity was the Christian ideal. Poverty and fastings were obligatory on all. The Apocryphal Acts are permeated by this spirit, and their evident design is to confirm and spread confidence in this ascetic ideal by representing the apostles as the zealous advocates of it. (2) The Apocryphal Acts were also intended to serve a dogmatic interest. Heretical sects used them as a means of propagating their peculiar doctrinal views and sought to supplement or supplant the tradition of the growing catholic church by another tradition which claimed to be equally apostolic.
4. Interests of Local Churches:
A subsidiary cause in the fabrication of apostolic legends was the desire of churches to find support for the claims which they put forward for an apostolic foundation or for some connection with apostles. In some cases the tradition of the sphere of an apostle's activity may have been well based, but in others there is a probability that stories of an apostolic connection were freely invented for the purpose of enhancing the prestige of some local church.
In general it may be said that the Apocryphal Acts are full of legendary details. In the invention of these everything was done to inspire confidence in them as historically true.
1. Canonical Acts:
The narratives accordingly abound in clear reminiscences of the canonical Acts. The apostles are cast into prison and are marvelously set at liberty. Converts receive the apostles into their houses. The description of the Lord's Supper as "the breaking of bread" (Acts 2:42, Acts 2:46) is repeated in the Apocryphal Acts and is strictly apposite to the ritual there set forth in which there is frequently no mention of wine in the celebration of the sacrament. In the Acts of Paul the author evidently used the canonical Acts as the framework of his narrative. This dependence on the canonical Acts and the variety of allusions to details in them served to give an appearance of historical truthfulness to the later inventions and to secure for them a readier acceptance. The fact that the canonical Acts were so used clearly shows that they had a position of exceptional authority at the time when the Apocryphal Acts were written.
The legendary character of the Apocryphal Acts does not preclude the possibility of authentic details in the additions made to the canonical history. There must have been many traditions regarding the apostles preserved in Christian communities which had a foundation in actual fact. Some of these would naturally find a place in writings which were designed in part at least to satisfy the popular curiosity for a fuller knowledge of the apostles. It is certain that there is some substratum of historical fact in the episode of Paul's association with Thecla (Acts of Paul). The description of Paul's appearance given in the same connection is in all likelihood due to trustworthy historical reminiscence. But it must be confessed that the signs of the presence of reliable traditions are very scanty. The few grains of historical fact are hidden in an overwhelming mass of material whose legendary character is unmistakable.
3. Romances of Travel:
Although a formal connection with the canonical Acts is recognizable and reliable traditions are to a slight extent incorporated in the Apocryphal Acts, it is unquestionable that as a whole they are the creation of the Hellenic spirit which reveled in the miraculous. A noteworthy type of popular literature whose influence is apparent on almost every page of the Apocryphal Acts was that of the travel-romance. The most famous example of this romantic literature is the Life of the neo-Pythagorean preacher, the great wonder-worker Apollonios of Tyana, who died about the end of the 1st century AD. The marvelous deeds reported to have been wrought by him on his travels were freely transferred in a somewhat less striking form to other teachers. It is in the atmosphere of these romances that the Apocryphal Acts had their birth. In particular the Acts of Thomas recall the history of Apollonios. For just as Thomas was a missionary in India, so "Apollonios as a disciple of Pythagoras had traveled, a peaceful Alexander, to the Indian wonderland and there preached his master's wisdom" (Geffcken, Christliche Apokryphen, 36).
V. Ecclesiastical Testimony.
From the nature of his reference to the canonical Acts it is probable that the writer of the Muratorian Canon (circa 190 AD) had the existence of other Acts in mind. "The Acts of all the apostles," he says, "are written in a single book. Luke relates them admirably to Theophilus, confining himself to such as fell under his own notice, as he plainly shows by the omission of all reference either to the martyrdom of Peter or to the journey of Paul from Rome to Spain." During the 3rd century there are slight allusions to certain of the Apocryphal Acts, but it is only in the 4th century that distinct references are frequent in writers both of the East and of the West. A few of the more important references may be given here. (For a full account of the ecclesiastical testimony see Harnack, Gesch. der altchr. Lit., I, 116 ff.)
Among eastern writers Eusebius (died 340) is the first to make any clear reference to Apocryphal Acts. He speaks of "Acts of Andrew, of John and of the other apostles," which were of such a character that no ecclesiastical writer thought it proper to invoke their testimony. Their style and their teaching showed them to be so plainly of heretical origin that he would not put them even among spurious Scriptures, but absolutely rejected them as absurd and impious (Historia Ecclesiastic, III, 25.6.7). Ephraem (died 373) declares that Acts were written by the Bardesanites to propagate in the name of the apostles the unbelief which the apostles had destroyed. Epiphanius (circa 375) repeatedly refers to individual Acts which were in use among heretical sects. Amphilochius of Iconium, a contemporary of Epiphanius, declares that certain writings emanating from heretical circles were "not Acts of the apostles but accounts of demons." The Second Synod of Nicea (787 AD), in the records of which those words of Amphilochius are preserved, dealt with apocryphal literature and had under special consideration the Acts of John to which the Iconoclasts appealed. In the synod's finding these Acts were characterized as "this abominable book," and on it the judgment was passed: "Let no one read it; and not only so, but we judge it worthy of being committed to the flames."
In the West from the 4th century onward references are frequent. Philastrius of Brescia (circa 387) testifies to the use of Apocryphal Acts among the Manicheans, and declares that although they are not suitable for general reading they may be read with profit by mature Christians (De Haeres, 88). The reason for this favorable judgment is to be found in the pronounced ascetic tendency of the Acts, which was in line with the moral ideal prevalent at that time in the West. Augustine refers repeatedly to apocryphal Acts in use among the Manicheans and characterizes them as the work of "cobblers of fables" (sutoribus fabularum). The Manicheans accepted them as true and genuine; ? and in respect of this claim Augustine says: "They would in the time of their authors have been counted worthy of being welcomed to the authority of the Holy Church, if saintly and learned men who were then alive and could examine such things had acknowledged them as speaking the truth" (Contra Faustum, XXII, 79). The Acts of John and the Acts of Thomas are mentioned by Augustine by name. He also refers to Leucius as the author of Apocryphal Acts. Turribius of Astorga (circa 450) speaks of Acts of Andrew, of John, of Thomas, and attributes them to the Manicheans. Of the heretical teaching in the Acts of Thomas, Turribius singles out for special condemnation baptism by oil instead of by water. Leucius is mentioned as the author of the Acts of John. The Acts of Andrew, Thomas, Peter, and Philip are condemned as apocryphal in the Gelasian Decree (496 AD) and in the same condemnation are included "all books written by Leucius, a disciple of the devil."
The fullest and most important reference to the Apocryphal Acts is found in Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople in the second half of the 9th century. In his Bibliotheca, which contains an account of 280 different books which he had read during his absence on a mission to Bagdad, we learn that among these was a volume, "the so-called Wanderings of the Apostles, in which were included Acts of Peter, John, Andrew, Thomas, Paul. The author of these Acts, as the book itself makes plain, was Leucius Charinus." The language had none of the grace which characterized the evangelic and apostolic writings. The book teemed with follies and contradictions. Its teaching was heretical. In particular it was taught that Christ had never really become man. Not Christ but another in His place had been crucified. After referring to the ascetic doctrine and the absurd miracles of the Acts and to the part which the Acts of John had played in the Iconoclastic Controversy, Photius concludes: "In short this book contains ten thousand things which are childish, incredible, ill-conceived, false, foolish, inconsistent, impious and godless. If anyone were to call it the fountain and mother of all heresy, he would not be far from the truth."
4. Ecclesiastical Condemnation:
There is thus a consensus of ecclesiastical testimony as to the general character of the Apocryphal Acts. They were writings used by a number of heretical sects but regarded by the church as unreliable and harmful. It is probable that the corpus of the Acts in five parts referred to by Photius was formed by the Manicheans of North Africa, who attempted to have them accepted by the church in place of the canonical Acts which they had rejected. These Acts in consequence were stamped by the church with a heretical character. The sharpest condemnation is that pronounced by Leo I (circa 450) who declares that "they should not only be forbidden but should be utterly swept away and burned. For although there are certain things in them which seem to have the appearance of piety, yet they are never free of poison and secretly work through the allurements of fables so that they involve in the snares of every possible error those who are seduced by the narration of marvelous things." The Acts of Paul, which show no trace of dogmatic heresy, were included in the ecclesiastical censure owing to the fact that they had received a place at the end of the corpus. Many teachers in the church, however, made a distinction between the miraculous details and the heretical doctrines of the Acts, and while they rejected the latter they retained the former. Witness the words of an orthodox reviser in regard to his heretical predecessor: "Quaedam de virtutibus quidem et miraculls quae per eos Dominus fecit, vera dixit; de doctrina vero multa mentitus est."
In the notice of Photius (Bibliotheca codex 114) all the five Acts are ascribed to one author, Leucius Charinus. Earlier writers had associated the name of Leucius with certain Acts. In particular he is, on the witness of several writers, declared to be the author of the Acts of John. As these Acts show, the author professes to be a follower and companion of the apostle, and Epiphanius (Haeres., 51 6) mentions one named Leucius as being in the entourage of John. This notice of Epiphanius, however, is of doubtful value, as it probably rested on the association in his mind of the name of Leucius with the Acts of John. Whether or not there is any truth in the ascription of these Acts to a disciple of John must be left undecided, but the probabilities are against there being any. Be that as it may, when the different Acts were collected, the name of the reputed author of the Acts of John was transferred to the whole collection. This probably happened not later than the 4th century. Although all the Acts are certainly not from one hand (the difference of style is sufficient proof of this), there are so many striking similarities between some of them as to suggest a possible common authorship in those cases or at least a relation of literary dependence.
VII. Relationship of Different Acts.
That some connection existed between the different Acts was clearly recognized in early times, and it was doubtless due to this recognition that they were gathered together in a corpus under the name of one author. It is acknowledged that there is a close relationship between the Acts of Peter and the Acts of John, some holding that they are the work of the same author (James, Zahn), others that the former are dependent on the latter (Schmidt, Hennecke), while others again believe that their origin in the same theological school and in the same ecclesiastical atmosphere sufficiently explains all similarities (Ficker). The Acts of Andrew, too, reveal a near kinship to the Acts of Peter. But however the matter may stand in regard to literary dependence, the affinity between the different Acts in a material sense is manifest. All are pervaded by the ascetic spirit; in all Christ appears in the form of the apostle; in all women visit the apostle in prison. In respect of theological doctrine the Acts of Paul stand by themselves as anti-Gnostic in tendency, but the others agree in their docetic view of Christ's person; while in the Acts of John, Peter and Thomas, there is a similar mystical doctrine of the cross.
1. As History:
As a source for information about the life and work of the apostles the Apocryphal Acts are almost entirely worthless. A possible exception in this respect is the section of the Acts of Paul dealing with Paul and Thecla, although even there any historical elements are almost lost in the legendary overgrowth. The spheres of the apostles' work, so far as they are mentioned only in these Acts, cannot be accepted without question, although they may be derived from reliable tradition. Taken as a whole the picture given in the Apocryphal Acts of the missionary labors of the apostles is a grotesque caricature.
2. As Records of Early Christianity:
The Apocryphal Acts, however, though worthless as history, are of extreme value as throwing light on the period in which they were written. They belong to the 2nd century and are a rich quarry for information about the popular Christianity of that time. They give us a vivid picture of the form which Christianity assumed in contact with the enthusiastic mystery-cults and Gnostic sects which then flourished on the soil of Asia Minor. We see in them the Christian faith deeply tinged with the spirit of contemporary paganism; the faith in Christ the Saviour-God, which satisfied the widespread yearning for redemption from the powers of evil, in association with the as yet unconquered elements of its heathen environment. (1) The Acts show us popular Christianity under the influence of Gnostic ideas as contrasted with the Gnosticism of the schools which moves in a region of mythological conceptions, cold abstractions and speculative subtleties. At the basis of Gnosticism lay a contempt for material existence; and in the Christianity of the Apocryphal Acts we see the practical working up of the two chief ideas which followed from this fundamental position, a docetic conception of Christ's person and an ascetic view of life. In this popular religion Christ had few of the features of the historic Jesus; He was the Saviour-God, exalted above principalities and powers, through union with whom the soul was delivered from the dread powers of evil and entered into the true life. The manhood of Christ was sublimated into mere appearance; and in particular the sufferings of Christ were conceived mystically and symbolically, "sometimes in the form that in the story of His sufferings we see only the symbol of human sufferings in general; sometimes in the form that Christ who is present in His church shares in the martyr-sufferings of Christians; sometimes, again, in the form that the sin, weakness and unfaithfulness of His people inflict upon Him ever-renewed sufferings" (Pfleiderer, Primitive Christianity, III, 181). The ethical influence of Gnosticism is apparent in the spirit of strict asceticism which is the most characteristic feature of these Acts. It is true that the ascetic ideal obtained not only in Gnostic but also in orthodox church circles, as we gather from the Acts of Paul as well as from other sources. The prominence of the strict ascetic ideal in early Christianity is intelligible. The chief battle which the Christian faith had to fight with Hellenic heathenism was for sexual purity, and in view of the coarseness and laxity which prevailed in sexual relations it is not surprising that the Christian protest was exaggerated in many cases into a demand for complete continence. This ascetic note in primitive Christianity was emphasized by the spirit of Gnosticism and finds clear expression in the Acts which arose either in Gnostic circles or in an environment tinged with Gnostic ideas. It goes without saying that the influence of these romances which are so largely concerned with sexual morality and occasionally are unspeakably coarse, was to preoccupy the mind with unhealthy thoughts and to sully that purity of spirit which it was their intention to secure. There are, however, other ethical elements in these Acts which are in complete harmony with a true Christian morality. (2) The Apocryphal Acts are an invaluable source for