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Gospels, Apocryphal

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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GOSPELS, APOCRYPHAL . According to Luke 1:1-4 , there were a number of accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus in circulation among the Christians of the 1st century. Among these were not only the sources of our canonical Gospels, but also a number of other writings purporting to come from various companions of Jesus and to record His life and words. In process of time these were lost, or but partially preserved. The Gospels were supplemented by others, until there resulted a literature that stands related to the NT Canon much as the OT Apocrypha stand related to the OT Canon. As a whole, however, it never attained the importance of the OT Apocrypha. Individual Gospels seem to have been used as authoritative, but none of them was ever accepted generally.

I. The Origin of the Apocryphal Gospels. So voluminous is this literature, so local was the circulation of most of it, and so obscure are the circumstances attending its appearance, that it is impossible to make any general statement as to its origin. Few apocryphal Gospels reach us entire, and many are known to us only as names in the Church Fathers. It would seem, however, as if the literature as we know it might have originated: ( a ) From the common Evangelic tradition preserved in its best form in our Synoptic Gospels ( e.g. Gospel according to the Hebrews, Gospel of the Egyptians). ( b ) From the homiletic tendency which has always given rise to stories like the Haggadah of Judaism. The Gospels of this sort undertake to complete the account of Jesus’ life by supplying fictitious incidents, often by way of accounting for sayings in the canonical Gospels. At this point the legend-making processes were given free scope ( e.g. Gospel of Nicodemus, Protevangelium of James, Gospel according to Thomas, Arabic Gospel of Infancy, Arabic Gospel of Joseph, Passing of Mary). (c) From the need of Gospel narratives to support various heresies , particularly Gnostic and ascetic ( e.g. Gospels according to Peter, Philip, pseudo-Matthew, the Twelve Apostles, Basilides).

In this collection may be included further a number of other Gospels about which we know little or nothing, being in ignorance even as to whether they were merely mutilated editions of canonical Gospels or those belonging to the third class. The present article will consider only the more important and best known of these apocryphal Gospels.

II. Characteristics of these Gospels. Even the most superficial reader of these Gospels recognizes their inferiority to the canonical, not merely in point of literary style, but also in general soberness of view. In practically all of them are to be found illustrations of the legend-making process which early overtook the Christian Church. They abound in accounts of alleged miracles, the purpose of which is often trivial, and sometimes even malicious. With the exception of a few sayings, mostly from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the teaching they contain is obviously a working up of that of the canonical Gospels, or clearly imagined. In the entire literature there are few sayings attributed to Jesus that are at the same time authentic and extra-canonical (see Unwritten Sayings). These Gospels possess value for the Church historian in that they represent tendencies at work in the Church of the first four or five centuries. From the point of view of criticism, however, they are of small importance beyond heightening our estimation of the soberness and simplicity of the canonical narratives.

These Gospels, when employing canonical material, usually modify it in the interest of some peculiar doctrinal view. This is particularly true of that class of Gospels written for the purpose of supporting some of the earlier heresies. So fantastical are some of them, that it is almost incredible that they should ever have been received as authoritative. Particularly is this true of those that deal with the early life of Mary and of the infant Christ. In some cases it is not impossible that current pagan legends and folk-stories were attached to Mary and Jesus. Notwithstanding this fact, however, many of these stories, particularly those of the birth, girlhood, and death of Mary, have found their way into the literature and even the doctrine of the Roman Church. Of late there has been some attempt by the Curia to check the use of these works, and in 1884 Leo xiii. declared the Protevangelium of James and other works dealing with the Nativity of Jesus to be ‘impure sources of tradition.’

III. The Most Important Gospels

1. The Gospel according to the Hebrews . (1) The earliest Patristic statements regarding our NT literature contain references to events in the life of Jesus which are not to be found in our canonical Gospels. Eusebius declares that one of these stories came from the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, particularly the latter, apparently knew such a Gospel well. Origen quotes it at least three times, and Clement twice. Eusebius ( HE iii. 25) mentions the Gospel as belonging to that class which, like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache , were accepted in some portions of the Empire and rejected in others. Jerome obtained from the Syrian Christians a copy of this Gospel, which was written in Aramaic, and was used among the sects of the Nazarenes and Ebionites, by which two classes he probably meant the Palestinian Christians of the non-Pauline churches. Jerome either translated this book from Heb. or Aram. [Note: Aramaic.] into both Greek and Latin, or revised and translated a current Greek version.

(2) The authorship of the Gospel according to the Hebrews is in complete obscurity. It appears that in the 4th cent. some held it to be the work of the Apostle Matthew. Jerome, however, evidently knew that this was not the case, for it was not circulating in the West, and he found it necessary to translate it into Greek. Epiphanius, Jerome’s contemporary, describes it as beginning with an account of John the Baptist, and commencing without any genealogy or sections dealing with the infancy of Christ. This would make it like our Gospel according to Mark, with which, however, it cannot be identified if it is to be judged by such extracts as have come down to us.

(3) The time of composition of the Gospel according to the Hebrews is evidently very early. It may even have been one form of the original Gospel of Jesus, co-ordinate with the Logia of Matthew and the earliest section of the Book of Luke. Caution, however, is needed in taking this position, as the quotations which have been preserved from it differ markedly from those of any of the sources of our canonical Gospels which can be gained by criticism. At all events, the Gospel is to be distinguished from the Hebrew original of the canonical Gospel of Matthew mentioned by Papias (Euseb. HE iii. 39. 16, vi. 25. 4; Irenæus, l. 1). On the whole, the safest conclusion is probably that the Gospel was well known in the eastern part of the Roman Empire in the latter half of the 2nd cent., and that in general it was composed of material similar to that of the canonical Gospels, but contained also sayings of Jesus which our canonical Gospels have not preserved for us.

The most important quotations from the Gospel are as follows:

‘If thy brother sin in word and give thee satisfaction, receive him seven times in the day. Simon, His disciple, said to Him, “Seven times in the day?” The Lord answered and said to him, “Yea, I say unto thee, until seventy times even; for with the prophets also, after they were anointed with the Holy Spirit, there was found sinful speech” ’ (Jerome, adv. Pelag . iii. 2).

‘Also the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was recently translated by me into Greek and Latin, which Origen, too, often uses, relates after the resurrection of the Saviour: “But when the Lord had given the linen cloth to the priest’s servant, He went to James and appeared to him. For James had taken an oath that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord, until he should see Him rising from that sleep.” ’

‘And again, a little farther on: “Bring me, saith the Lord, a table and bread.” And there follows immediately: “He took the bread, and blessed, and brake, and gave to James the Just, and said to him. My brother, eat thy bread, inasmuch as the Son of Man hath risen from them that sleep” ’ (Jerome, de Vir. Illus . ii.).

‘In the Gospel according to the Hebrews … is the following story: “Behold, the Lord’s mother and His brethren were saying to Him, John the Baptist baptizes unto the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him. But He said unto them, What sin have I done, that I should go and be baptized by him? unless perchance this very thing which I have said is an ignorance” ’ (Jerome, adv. Pelag . iii. 2).

‘In the Gospel which the Nazarenes are accustomed to read, that according to the Hebrews, there is put among the greatest crimes, he who shall have grieved the spirit of his brother’ (Jerome, in Ezech . 18:7).

‘In the Hebrew Gospel, too, we read of the Lord saying to the disciples, “And never,” said He, “rejoice, except when you have looked upon your brother in love.” ’ (Jerome, in Ephesians 5:3 f.).

‘For those words have the same meaning with those others, “He that seeketh shall not stop until he find, and when he hath found he shall wonder, and when he hath wondered he shall reign, and when he hath reigned he shall rest” ’ (Clem. of Alex. [Note: lex. Alexandrian.] Strom , ii. 9. 45).

‘And if any one goes to the Gospel according to the Hebrews, there the Saviour Himself saith: “Just now my mother the Holy Spirit took me by one of my hairs and carried me off to the great mountain Tabor” ’ (Origen, in Joan . vol. ii. 6).

‘It is written in a certain Gospel, the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews, if any one likes to take it up not as having any authority but to shed light on the matter in hand: “The other,” it says, “of the rich men said unto Him, Master, by doing what good thing shall I have life? He said to him, Man, do the Law and the Prophets. He answered unto him, I have. He said to him, Go, eell all that thou hast, and distribute to the poor, and come, follow Me. But the rich man began to scratch his head, and it pleased him not. And the Lord said unto him, How sayest thou, I have done the Law and the Prophets, since it is written in the Law, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; and behold many brethren of thine, sons of Abraham, are clad in filth, dying of hunger, and thy house is full of good things, and nothing at all goes out from it to them. And He turned and said to Simon His disciple, who was sitting by Him: Simon, son of John, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven” ’ (Origen, in Matthew 15:14 ).

‘The Gospel which has come down to us in Hebrew characters gave the threat as made not against him who hid (his talent), but against him who lived riotously; for (the parable) told of three servants, one who devoured his lord’s substance with harlots and flute-girls, one who gained profit many fold, and one who hid his talent; and how in the issue one was accepted, one merely blamed, and one shut up in prison’ (Euseb. Theoph . xxii.).

2. The Gospel of the Egyptians . This Gospel is mentioned in the last quarter of the 2nd cent. by Clement of Alexandria, by whom it was regarded as apparently of some historical worth, but not of the same grade as our four Gospels. Origen in his Commentary on Luke mentions it among those to which the Evangelist referred, but does not regard it as inspired. Hippolytus says that it was used by an otherwise unknown Gnostic sect known as Naassenes. It was also apparently known to the writer of 2 Clement (ch. xii.).

The origin of the Gospel is altogether a matter of conjecture. Its name would seem to indicate that it circulated in Egypt, possibly among the Egyptian as distinguished from the Hebrew Christians. The probability that it represents the original Evangelic tradition is not as strong as in the case of the Gospel according to the Hebrews. At least by the end of the 2nd cent. it was regarded as possessed of heretical tendencies, particularly those of the Encratites, who were opposed to marriage. It is not impossible, however, that the Gospel of the Egyptians contained the original tradition, but in form sufficiently variant to admit of manipulation by groups of heretics.

The most important sayings of Jesus which have come down from this Gospel are from the conversation of Jesus with Salome, given by Clement of Alexandria.

‘When Salome asked how long death should have power, the Lord (not meaning that life is evil and the creation bad) said. “As long as you women bear” ’( Strom . iii. 64. 5).

‘And those who opposed the creation of God through shameful abstinence allege also those words spoken to Salome whereof we made mention above. And they are contained, I think, in the Gospel according to the Egyptians. For they said that the Saviour Himself said, “I came to destroy the works of the female,” the female being lust, and the works birth and corruption’ ( Strom , iii. 9. 63).

‘And why do not they who walk any way rather than by the Gospel rule of truth adduce the rest also of the words spoken to Salome? For when she said, “Therefore have I done well in that I have not brought forth,” as if it were not fitting to accept motherhood, the Lord replies, saying, “Eat every herb, but that which hath bitterness eat not” ’ ( ib. ).

‘Therefore Casaian says: “When Salome inquired when those things should be concerning which she asked, the Lord said, When ye trample on the garment of shame, and when the two shall be one, and the male with the female, neither male nor female” ’ ( Strom . iii. 13. 92).

3. The Gospel according to Peter . This Gospel is mentioned by Eusebius ( HE vi. 12) as having been rejected by Serapion, bishop of Antioch, in the last decade of the 2nd century. He found it in circulation among the Syrian Christians, and at first did not oppose it, but after having studied it further, condemned it as Docetic. Origen in his Commentary on Matthew (Book x. 17, and occasionally elsewhere) mentions it, or at least shows an acquaintance with it. Eusebius ( HE iii. 3, 25) rejects it as heretical, as does Jerome ( de Vir. Illus . i.).

In 1886 a fragment of this Gospel was discovered by M. Bouriant, and published with a trans. in 1892. It relates in some detail the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It is particularly interesting as indicating how canonical material could be elaborated and changed in the interests of the Docetic heresy. Thus the words of Jesus on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ are made to read, ‘My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me.’ At the time of the resurrection the soldiers are said to have seen how ‘three men cams forth from the tomb, and two of them supported one, and the cross followed them; and of the two the head reached unto the heavens, but the head of him that was led by them overpassed the heavens; and they heard a voice from the heavens saying, “Thou hast preached unto them that sleep.” And a response was heard from the cross, “Yea.” ’

4. The Gospel of Nicodemus . This Gospel embodies the so-called Acts of Pilate , an alleged official report of the procurator to Tiberius concerning Jesus. Tertullian ( Apol . v. 2) was apparently acquainted with such a report, and some similar document was known to Eusebius ( HE ii. 2) and to Epiphanius ( Hær . i. 1); but the Acts of Pilate known to Eusebius was probably still another and heathen writing. Tischendorf held that the Acts of Pilate was known to Justin; but that is doubtful.

Our present Gospel of Nicodemus, embodying this alleged report of Pilate, was not itself written until the 5th cent., and therefore is of small historical importance except as it may be regarded as embodying older (but untrustworthy) material. As it now stands it gives an elaborate account of the trial of Jesus, His descent to Hades, resurrection, and ascension. Altogether it contains twenty-seven chapters, each one of which is marked by the general tendency to elaborate the Gospel accounts for homiletic purposes. Beyond its exposition of Jesus’ descent into Hades it contains little of doctrinal importance. It is not improbable, however, that chs. 17 27, which narrate this alleged event, are later than chs. 1 16. The Gospel may none the less fairly be said to represent the belief in this visit of Jesus to departed spirits which marked the early and mediæval Church. It is also in harmony with the ante-Auselmic doctrine of the Atonement, in accordance with which Jesus gave Himself a ransom to Satan.

The first sixteen chapters abound in anecdotes concerning Jesus and His trial, in which the question of the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth is established by twelve witnesses of the marriage of Mary and Joseph. It relates also that at the trial of Jesus a number of persons, including Nicodemus and Veronica, appeared to testify in His behalf. The accounts of the crucifixion are clearly based upon Luke 23:1-56 . The story of the burial is further elaborated by the introduction of a number of Biblical characters, who undertake to prove the genuineness of the resurrection.

Although the Gospel of Nicodemus was of a nature to acquire great popularity, and has had a profound influence upon the various poetical and homiletic presentations of the events supposed to have taken place between the death and resurrection of Jesus, and although the Acts of Pilate has been treated more seriously than the evidence in its favour warrants, the Gospel is obviously of the class of Jewish Haggadah or legend. It is thus one form of the literature dealing with martyrs, and apparently never was used as possessing serious historical or doctrinal authority until the 13th century.

5. The Protevangelium of James . This book in its present form was used by Epiphanius in the latter part of the 4th cent., if not by others of the Church Fathers. It is not improbable that it was referred to by Origen under the name of the Book of James . As Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr both referred to incidents connected with the birth of Jesus which are related in the Protevangelium, it is not impossible that the writing circulated in the middle of the 2nd century.

The Protevangelium purports to be an account of the birth of Mary and of her early life in the Temple, whither she was brought by her parents when she was three years of age, and where at twelve years of age she was married to Joseph, then an old man with children. It includes also an account of the Annunciation and the visit of Mary to Elisabeth, of the trial by ordeal of Joseph and Mary on the charge of having been secretly married, of the birth of Jesus in a cave, and accompanying miracles of the most extravagant sort. The writing closes with an account of the martyrdom of Zacharias and the death of Herod.

It is probable that the chapters dealing with the birth of Jesus are of independent origin from the others, although it is not improbable that even the remainder of the Protevangelium is a composite work, probably of the Jewish Christians, which has been edited in the interests of Gnosticism. The original cannot well be later than the middle of the 2nd cent., while the Gnostic revision was probably a century later.

From the critical point of view the Protevangelium is important as testifying to insistence in the middle of the 2nd cent. upon the miraculous birth of Jesus. It is also of interest as lying behind the two Latin Gospels of pseudo- Matthew and the Nativity of Jesus; although it may be fairly questioned whether these two later Gospels are derived directly from the Protevangelium or from its source.

6. The Gospel according to Thomas . Hippolytus quotes from a Gospel according to Thomas which was being used by the Naassenes. The Gospel was also known to Origen and to Eusebius, who classes it with the heretical writings. It was subsequently held in high regard by the Manichæans. It exists to-day in Greek, Latin, and Syriac versions, which, however, do not altogether agree, and all of which are apparently abbreviated recensions of the original Gospel.

The Gospel of Thomas is an account of the childhood of Jesus, and consists largely of stories of His miraculous power and knowledge, the most interesting of the latter being the account of Jesus’ visit to school, and of the former, the well-known story of His causing twelve sparrows of clay to fly.

The book is undoubtedly of Gnostic origin, and its chief motive seems to be to show that Jesus was possessed of Divine power before His baptism. The original Gospel of Thomas, the nature of which is, however, very much in dispute, may have been in existence in the middle of the 2nd century. Its present form is later than the 6th century.

7. The Arabic Gospel of the Childhood of Jesus . The Arabic Gospel is a translation of a Syriac compilation of stories concerning the child Jesus. Its earlier sections are apparently derived from the Protevangelium, and its later from the Gospel of Thomas.

This Gospel supplies still further stories concerning the infancy of Jesus, and begins by declaring that Jesus, as He was lying in His cradle, said to Mary, ‘I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth.’ The miracles which it narrates are probably the most fantastic of all in the Gospels of the infancy of Jesus. From the fact that it uses other apocryphal Gospels, it can hardly have been written prior to the 7th or 8th century.

8. The Gospel of Philip . The only clear allusion to the existence of such a book is a reference in Pistis Sophia . From this it might be inferred that from the 3rd cent. such a Gospel circulated among the Gnostics in Egypt. It is of even less historical value than the Protevangelium.

9. The Arabic History of Joseph the Carpenter . This Gospel undertakes to explain the non-appearance of Joseph in the account of the canonical Gospels. It describes in detail Joseph’s death and burial, as well as the lamentation and eulogy spoken over him by Jesus. It is at some points parallel with the Protevangelium, but carries the miraculous element of the birth a step farther, in that it makes Jesus say of Mary, ‘I chose her of my own will, with the concurrence of my Father and the counsel of the Holy Spirit.’ Such a formulary points to the 4th cent. as the time of composition, but it could hardly have been written later than the 5th cent., as Jesus is said to have promised Mary the same sort of death as other mortals suffer. The work is probably a re-working of Jewish-Christian material, and is not strongly marked by Gnostic qualities.

10. The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles . This Gospel is identified by Jerome with the Gospel according to the Hebrews. This, however, is probably a mistake on his part. The Gospel comes down to us only in quotations in Epiphanius (Hær. xxx. 13 16, 22). To judge from these quotations, it was a re-writing of the canonical Gospels in the interest of some sect of Christians opposed to sacrifice. Jesus is represented as saying, ‘I come to put an end to sacrifices, and unless ye cease from sacrificing, anger will not cease from you.’ The same motive appears in its re-writing of Luke 22:15 , where the saying of Jesus is turned into a question requiring a negative answer. If these fragments given by Epiphanius are from a Gospel also mentioned by Origen, it is probable that it dates from the early part of the 3rd century.

11. The Passing of Mary . This Gospel has come to us in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Sahidic, and Ethiopic versions. It contains a highly imaginative account of the death of Mary, to whose deathbed the Holy Spirit miraculously brings various Apostles from different parts of the world, as well as some of them from their tombs. The account abounds in miracles of the most irrational sort, and it finally culminates in the removal of Mary’s ‘spotless and precious body’ to Paradise.

The work is evidently based on various apocryphal writings, including the Protevangelium, and could not well have come into existence before the rise of the worship of the Virgin in the latter part of the 4th century. It has had a large influence on Roman Catholic thought and art.

12. In addition to these Gospels there is a considerable number known to us practically only by name:

( a ) The Gospel according to Matthias (or pseudo-Matthew ). Mentioned by Origen as a heretical writing, and possibly quoted by Clement of Alexandria, who speaks of the ‘traditions of Matthias.’ If these are the same as the ‘Gospel according to Matthias,’ we could conclude that it was known in the latter part of the 2nd cent., and was, on the whole, of a Gnostic cast.

( b ) The Gospel according to Basilides . Basilides was a Gnostic who lived about the middle of the 2nd cent., and is said by Origen to have had the audacity to write a Gospel. The Gospel is mentioned by Ambrose and Jerome, probably on the authority of Origen. Little is known of the writing, and it is possible that Origen mistook the commentary of Basilides on ‘the Gospel’ for a Gospel. It is, however, not in the least improbable that Basilides, as the founder of a school, re-worked the canonical Gospels, something after the fashion of Tatian, into a continuous narrative containing sayings of the canonical Gospels favourable to Gnostic tenets.

( c ) The Gospel of Andrew . Possibly referred to by Augustine, and probably of Gnostic origin.

( d ) The Gospel of Apelles . Probably a re-writing of some canonical Gospel. According to Epiphanius, the work contained the saying of Jesus, ‘Be approved money-changers.’

( e ) The Gospel of Barnabas . Mentioned in the Gelasian Decree. A mediæval (or Renaissance) work of same title has lately been published (see Exp. T . xix. [1908], p. 263 ff.).

( f ) The Gospel of Bartholomew . Mentioned in the Gelasian Decree and in Jerome, but otherwise unknown.

( g ) The Gospel of Cerinthus . Mentioned by Epiphanius.

( h ) The Gospel of Eve . Also mentioned by Epiphanius asin use among the Borborites, an Ophite sect of the Gnostics.

( i ) The Gospel of Judas Iscariot , used by a sect of the Gnostics the Cainites.

( j ) The Gospel of Thaddæus . Mentioned in the Gelasian Decree, but otherwise unknown.

( k ) The Gospel of Valentinus . Used among the followers of that arch-heretic, and mentioned by Tertullian.

( l ) The Fayyum Gospel Fragment . It contains the words of Christ to Peter at the Last Supper, but in a different form from that of the canonical Gospels.

( m ) The Logia , found by Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus, contains a few sayings, some like and some unlike the canonical Gospels. Possibly derived from the Gospel of the Egyptians.

( n ) The Descent of Mary . Quoted by Epiphanius, and of the nature of a Gnostic anti-Jewish romance.

( o ) The Gospel of Zacharias . Subsequently incorporated into the Protevangelium.

Other Gospels were doubtless in existence between the 2nd and 6th centuries, as it seems to have been customary for all the heretical sects, particularly Gnostics, to write Gospels as a support for their peculiar views. The oldest and most interesting of these was

( p ) The so-called Gospel of Marcion , which, although lost, we know as a probable re-working of Luke by the omission of the Infancy section and other material that in any way favoured the Jewish-Christian conceptions which Marcion opposed. This Gospel can be largely reconstructed from quotations given by Tertullian and others. The importance of the Gospel of Marcion as thus reconstructed is considerable for the criticism of our Third Gospel.

Shailer Mathews.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Gospels, Apocryphal'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​g/gospels-apocryphal.html. 1909.
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