The Apocryphal New Testament

Recently the world-renowned text critic J. K. Elliott delivered a guest lecture in the Ph.D. seminar I am teaching this semester on Current Issues in New Testament Studies. Elliott is also the author of The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993; paperback edition 2005), which is the standard compilation of NT apocryphal literature in the field. What follows is a succinct digest of this lecture in order to highlight the significance of the study of the NT apocrypha for NT studies.

Elliott provided an eminently sober-minded assessment of the value of this highly amorphous body of literature. He described its value primarily in terms of their expression of popular piety. He noted with regard to the title of his book that the “the” needs to be taken with a grain of salt since there is really no definite delineation of this corpus; and that “apocryphal” is not ideal either, since “apocryphal” means “hidden,” and, of course, we have this literature. For these reasons, Elliott himself suggested, a better title for his collection would be “Non-canonical Early Christian Writings.”

Types of New Testament Apocryphal Literature

In essence, and very helpfully, Elliott structures his collection under four major headings: (1) Apocryphal Gospels; (2) Apocryphal Acts; (3) Apocryphal Epistles; and (4) Apocryphal Apocalypses. These headings make clear that the character of NT apocryphal literature is their imitation of earlier, now canonical, NT writings. Interestingly, Elliott does not include any of the Gnostic writings found at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere, because these documents reflect a very different philosophical framework not otherwise characteristic of NT apocryphal literature. I find this very helpful. Unfortunately, in much of the popular literature and the media the Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas and other non-canonical Gospels are regularly lumped together. Much confusion could be avoided if people were adhering to Elliott’s distinction here.

Similar to the Old Testament Apocrypha, much of NT apocryphal literature was motivated by curiosity and a desire to fill in perceived “gaps” in the canonical writings of Scripture. A good example of this are the Infancy Gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas). In chapter 4 of this Gospel, for example, we read that as a boy, Jesus was knocked against his shoulder by a boy passing by. Jesus, angry, pronounced judgment on the boy, and he immediately died. Then the parents of the boy came to Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph and reproached him: “What kind of child do you have, who does such things?”

Influence of New Testament Apocryphal Literature

In the remainder of his lecture, Elliott focused on several areas in which various NT apocryphal writings have influenced popular piety, most notably Roman Catholic tradition. His list is as follows:

(1) Devotion to Mary, esp. the Assumption of Mary and the emphasis on Mary’s perpetual virginity

(2) Celibacy and extreme asceticism: see Acts of Thomas 12

(3) Poverty: monastic practices

(4) Anti-Jewish sentiments

(5) Veneration of relics: Acts of Thomas; esp. Veronica’s handkerchief

(6) The so-called “harrowing of hell” per 1 Peter 3:19: see the Gospel of Nicodemus, medieval mystery plays

(7) Art: Peter crucified upside down, Thecla, the female apostle, thrown to the lions (Acts of Paul); Veronica; the Arabic Infancy Gospel (a palm tree bending low); John and the poisoned chalice (Acts of John); the ox and the donkey at the Nativity (Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew; already on sarcophagus lid two centuries earlier); the Mary Cycle in Chartres Cathedral (Protevangelium of James); Dante’s Inferno (Apocalypse of Paul); Milton’s Paradise Lost (scenes in hell); Herder’s poem “St. John” (Acts of John); and

(8) Drama: the Hollywood movie Quo Vadis? (Acts of Peter); Frederick Buechner, Lion Country; Gustav Holst’s 1924 The Hymn of Jesus (Acts of John)

While the NT apocrypha do not shed any light on the interpretation of the NT itself, they do provide an interesting glimpse into popular piety subsequent to the apostolic period. If approached in this light, the study of the NT apocryphal writings can be instructive. Especially helpful is the way in which these documents show the sources for many Roman Catholic traditions which are not based in Scripture.

For Further Study

See J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Clarendon: Oxford, 2005); and David Cartlidge and J. K. Elliott, Art and the Christian Apocrypha (London: Routledge, 2001).