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Apocryphal Literature

By Mel Borup Chandler.

What is Apocryphal Literature?

There has been an evolution of meaning in the word “apocrypha.”  The councils of the early Christian church were meant to clarify doctrine and prevent and do away with heresies.  Then, apocryphal literature was not just considered outside the canon of the church, but also heretical, false teaching.

ApocryphaIn the early years of Christianity (until the invention of the printing press and translation of the Bible into vernacular languages in the mid-sixteenth century), few people could read, and few people had access to written scripture.  Therefore, an oral tradition also sprang up that was also apocryphal, even fanciful,  with stories of the apostles that often made them sound like our modern fictional super-heroes, rather than meek and humble servants of God.

This literature was intended not only to inspire, but also to entertain and to demonstrate in a concrete sense how the weak are made strong and the strong weak before the one true God. Some of the works were apparently written as sequels to earlier stories, so we have the continuing adventures of Christ and his apostles and even disciples or followers of Christ. Of interest is that women often playing pivotal and key roles and the characters come from all strata of society.

Most modern biblical scholars simply define apocrypha as extra canonical, meaning it is not found in accepted canon scripture. However, some of the more orthodox and conservatives Christians still apply the 3rd century meaning to mean a false teaching and heretical. The idea of Apocrypha in their view is overwhelming negative.
The actual word evolves from the Greek: apokrypt, meaning “to keep hidden from, or to hide from.” Apocrypha was usually a term given to various revelations like those given to perhaps Isaiah, Malachi, or even Elijah in the Old Testament.

For the first three centuries, there was no approved Bible as we know today. During that time there were a number of manuscripts and books that were widely accepted and read in the church as scripture, others concealed from the church in general, and still others were believed to be foolish or even interesting, but not rejected, and some of them were obviously in no way inspired at all. They were considered to simply be part of the Christian history or heritage and in some cases tradition. Some of the materials are or have been deliberately suppressed. An example is the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Christ for money.  The Gospel of Judas was honored by the Gnostics, declared an apostate group.  It shows Judas as being the favored apostle, entrusted by Christ with extra knowledge and also the exalted opportunity of sending Him to His crucifixion.

When we read the Bible, we see four gospels, and they often do not agree.  A good example is the story of the events surrounding the birth of Christ.  Most Christians have created a traditional Christmas story by combining information from Luke and Matthew, but a close examination of the texts raises many questions.  In fact, in the early years of Christianity there were many gospels, and all but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have been declared unworthy of being canonized, so are apocryphal.

Canonizing Scripture

It was not until the first council of Nicaea held in 325 CE (Also known as AD for Anno Domini, a Latin term meaning “In the year of the Lord”) that the manuscripts and books were sorted out and the bible began to come together. Those writings that were not considered worthy of inclusion were omitted, and the word Apocrypha was applied to describe books and manuscripts that were not acceptable or “that taught false doctrines or teachings referred to as heresies.”  Not all Christians agree as to which works are apocryphal.

There were many reasons why the early Christian church had to maintain close control over scripture:     1) The church was in its infancy in a primarily pagan culture; 2) Belonging to the church or disclosing an affiliation at various times meant persecution and death; and 3) military intervention and occupation all played into Christianity keeping its secrets and preserving the Christian church’s identity in its infancy. Additionally, some of the teachings and materials were simply regarded as too sacred to share (too sacred to share is sometimes referred to as “Arcane discipline”) with the church’s population in general, and there is also the possibility that some of the writings were guarded because of their sensitivity or by divine command.  The church also  sought to standardize church teachings so that the confusion and false teachings of the past could be clarified and rectified as much as possible.

The reformation to correct perceived abuses of Christian orthodoxy began with Martin Luther.  Luther never meant to start a new religion, but he was excommunicated by the Holy Catholic Church.  The reformation took focus away from the central hierarchy of orthodoxy and placed it wholly on scripture, which was translated out of Latin and gotten into the hands of the people.    Biblical inerrency was a crucial part Luther’s Reformation and reform of Protestant Christianity.   Luther and many modern Protestants consider the Bible perfect, even in its many translations.

Martin Luther’s German edition of the Bible was not challenged. Most everyone accepted it. When Luther translated the Bible from the Latin to German he helped standardize the modern German language. Along the way he had to make hundreds, even thousands of tiny and major decisions about how to translate Latin to German.

Luther translated some of the apocrypha that had existed in some editions of the Bible.  He put them in a separate section between the Old and New Testaments.  Luther’s inter-Testamental section first appeared in his Bible of 1534. In that edition, Luther made a passionate, strongly worded, and controversial argument  against the inclusion of these books as scriptural material that should be included in the Bible. Luther loved scripture, and believed no one person should try to interpret scripture and that the Lord’s words should stand alone. Luther was a purist.

The Apocrypha

Apocryphal literature contains at least 20 gospels, five Acts of the Apostles, six Apocalypses and nine Epistles and it seems that every year a new artifact or writing is discovered.  Apocryphal literature is also broken down in to even more categories. Specifically the narrative gospels contain (written in the style of the synoptic gospels), collections of sayings of Christ, Infancy accounts and those with Jewish/Christian influence.

There are some disagreements between Catholics and Protestants about what constitutes apocryphal literature.  For example, some works from the era of the Apostolic Church such as Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas and the letters of Clement were held in high esteem by the early fathers of the church. These are they that the Catholic Church claims as tradition rather than apocrypha even though they are “extra-canonical” and from a protestant perspective are apocrypha.

Modern Discoveries

Nag Hammadi CodicesThere have also been a number of books that have only come to light in modern times, that perhaps should be at least considered perhaps, not as accepted scripture, but at least inspired.

Manuscripts called the Gospel of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter dating from the eighth or ninth century were discovered in a tomb in Egypt in 1886.  Moreover, there have also been some modern discoveries like a series of books discovered that were announced in a published book called The Lost Books of the Bible published in 1926, and some 19 years later, a farmer in the Nag Hammadi region of Egypt, roughly 300 miles south of Cairo, discovered another group of ancient manuscripts. These were dated as New Testament era documents.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to the late Old Testament era were found in caves in Qumran in 1947. A third century Greek manuscript called the Proto-Gospel (also known as an Evangelium) of James is also interesting. Luther could not have anticipated that these books would eventually come to light.


In the early Church, towards the end of the second century, the Gospel of Peter is said to have been read at Rhossus in Syria. This particular gospel was the preferred gospel of the Docetist movement, which held that Christ was not really human.  However, this gospel was rejected by the Bishop of Antioch and as a result fell out of circulation. It does however recount some events of the passion and resurrection of Christ that are found nowhere else. It states that as Jesus hung on the cross he was “silent as if he had no pain” and describes Jesus as he emerged from his tomb at the resurrection.

The Gospel of Joseph (the spouse of Mary) reported that Joseph had children from a previous marriage and these are what scripture refers to as the brothers and sisters of Jesus.  In the Gospel of Mary, (Magdalene) there are private conversations  Mary had with Jesus that took place after the resurrection. Toward the end Levi says to Peter that Christ “..loved her (Mary) more than us.”  The popular book and movie the Da Vinci Code written by Dan Brown is based on this gospel. There is also the Epistle of the Apostles that begins “What Jesus Christ revealed to his apostles in a letter” and recounts the post-resurrection encounters of Jesus with his Apostles and visits to Sarah, Martha and Mary Magdalene, and how the Apostles rejected the resurrection story when told it by the women. It also condemns the Gnostic movement but was fully embraced by them because it gives secret knowledge which orthodox Christians did not have.

The Treatise of the Great Seth claims Jesus said “I visited a bodily dwelling, cast out the one who was in it previously, and I went in.” It claims that Jesus occupied that body throughout his ministry and at the end gave the illusion of dying. Jesus is also said to have watched and laughed as the crucifiers fed gall and vinegar to Him, put the crown  of thorns on, and nailed Him to the cross Different individuals thought they were punishing  Jesus, “Who was not afflicted at all.” Third century Gnostics  also embraced this gospel because it again gave them secret knowledge of Jesus’ life and death.  The actual work was lost to history, until  it was rediscovered at Nag Hammadi Egypt in the 1940’s.

The Secret Gospel of Mark is said to be much longer than the canonical version of the Gospel of Mark, and only fragments have been found, but Clement of Alexandria comments on it in a letter. Mark allegedly wrote the New Testament version for ordinary Christians. The longer gospel was apparently directed to Gnostics and promised even greater secret knowledge than they already had. It also embraces the Gnostic assumption.

The Gospel of Nicodemus was also known as the Acts of Pontius Pilate. Here are recounted the sufferings and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It is similar to and parallels the canonical versions of the gospels but has embellishments. Both Nicodemus and Pilate figure prominently in this work.  Then there is the Gospel of Saying, which has no narrative content. A number of scholars call it the Q Source.  There is no evidence it still exists and is apparently lost to history, but it was believed to be the source material used by canonical evangelists as they wrote their gospels.

The Gospel of Thomas, begins, “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke, and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.”  This gospel also contains secret knowledge, which according to the gospel will allow the reader not to experience death. Altogether, there are 114 verses or sayings, 79 of which have parallels in the Synoptic canonical gospels (those accepted in the Bible as scripture), 11 of which are variants of synoptic parables.
The Gospel of  Thomas the Contender states that it contains secret sayings of the Savior. It contains some esoteric Gnostic teaching and the Gospel of Phillip which was not well known in antiquity, but is one that was found at Nag Hammadi in the 1940’s. This gospel is mostly Gnostic and talks about the contrast between ordinary Christians and those with the secret esoteric knowledge. The gospel is famous for its emphasis on the virginity of Mary and the teachings of the five sacraments: Baptism, Anointing, Eucharist, Salvation and Marriage.

The Infancy Gospels emphasize events before, during and shortly after the birth of Jesus, or to his childhood. The most important of these gospels is the Proto Gospel of James which has a number of names, including the “Proto-Evangelium”, The Birth of Mary; the Revelation of James, and the Birth of Saint Mary Mother of God.” this gospel ends with the statement “But I James, the one who has written this account in Jerusalem.” This gospel recounts the Birth of Mary to Joachim and Anna, whose names are not found in the canonical gospels.

This gospel is highly prized among the orthodox Christian community, and in 1854 Pope Pius IX embraced the concept of the Immaculate Conception based on this gospel. The Gospel also recounts how the 12 year old Mary and Joseph (an older widowed man) came together and how he reluctantly agreed to take Mary in safe keeping after a dove signaled he was to take her to wife. The proto- gospel also describes the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, and the birth of Jesus and how a midwife and another unidentified woman (as witness and legal requirement of the day) examined Mary and found her to be a virgin. We know that this gospel was well known to early church fathers after the middle of the second century.

Another infancy gospel is that of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is probably in no way inspired and contains stories which are absurd and fanciful. This gospel is troublesome because it claims that as a child, Jesus used his powers to blind others, and even killed a playmate.

The Gospel of Truth was found again in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the 1940’s. In a sense it is really not a gospel at all, because it does not present the life or teachings of Jesus but does share the joy of the Gnostic teachings and the so-called enlightening truths. It also claims that it is the gospel of “the one searched for who will be revealed to those who are prefect through the mercies of the Father’ the hidden mystery, Jesus the Christ, enlightened those who were in darkness through oblivion. He enlightened them; he showed them a way and the way is the truth which he taught them.”

The last of the gospels is the letters of Herod and Pilate.

The Worth of the Apocrypha

Obviously, we have been well-served by the culling of ancient writings to decide what should be canonized and what should not.  We should also expect writings to be discovered that deserve to be canonized.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expects this to happen.  The LDS Church has canonized the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants.  These scriptures are of great worth as companions to the Bible.  Latter-day Saints have been told through modern revelation that portions of the Book of Mormon have been withheld from translation by God, because we a not yet worthy to receive them.  Other scriptures purposely withheld and identified in modern revelation are the writings of John the Baptist and Joseph (who was sold into Egypt).  It is expected that the Ten Lost Tribes will bring scriptures with them when they return, probably worthy also of canonization.  Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon “the most perfect book,” because it was translated with divine help only once from the original text.

Joseph Smith asked the Lord about the worth of the apocrypha that is included with many Bibles, and this was the Lord’s response:

Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;  There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.

Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.   Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;  And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;  And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 91).

Additional Resources

*Book of Mormon Online

*Basic Mormon Beliefs

*Mormon Beliefs and Mormon Temples

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