Introductory Notice to Apocrypha of the New Testament.
By Professor M. B. Riddle, D.D.
The translations which follow have been made from the critical edition of Tischendorf (see Bibliography at close of this volume). The text varies greatly from that of Fabricius. It was found impossible to introduce the various readings and to cite the manuscript evidence supporting them. Those who are interested in such study will have recourse to the volumes of Tischendorf.
The general character of the writings here grouped as "Apocrypha of the New Testament" will appear from even a cursory perusal of them. It did not require any great discernment to distinguish between these and the canonical books of the New Testament. The negative internal evidence thus furnished in support of the authority of the latter need not be emphasized. But attention may well be called to certain historical facts in regard to these apocryphal writings:--
No one of them ever obtained any general recognition among Christians; still less, a place in the Canon of the New Testament. A few so-called Gospels are referred to by early writers; some obtained local recognition; others, written for a purpose, were pressed into notice by the advocates of the tendency they were written to support: but, as a rule, the books were soon rejected, and never obtained extensive circulation.
Though a few of the Apocryphal Gospels are of comparatively early origin (see Translator's Introduction), there is no evidence that any Gospels purporting to be what our four Gospels are, existed in the first century, or that any other than fragmentary literature of this character existed even in the second century. The Canon of the New Testament was not formed out of a mass of writings possessing some claim to recognition, though there is a popular impression to this effect.
Here the character of the writings comes in as confirmatory evidence. Of the Apocryphal Gospels in general, R. Hofmann 1 well says: "The method employed in these compositions is always the same, whether the author intended simply to collect and arrange what was floating in the general tradition, or whether he intended to produce a definite dogmatical effect. Rarely he threw himself on his own invention; but generally he elaborated what was only hinted at in the Canonical Gospels, or transcribed words of Jesus into action, or described the literal fulfillment of some Jewish expectation concerning the Messiah, or repeated the wonders of the Old Testament in an inhanced form, etc. The work done, he took care to conceal his own name, and inscribed his book with the name of some apostle or disciple, in order to give it authority." As a rule, therefore, the Apocryphal Gospels give details regarding those periods of our Lord's life about which the New Testament is wisely silent.
The genesis of much of the literature resembles that of modern "Lives of Christ" written to present a view of the Person of our Lord which is not in accordance with the obvious sense of the New Testament. Probably some of the Apocryphal Gospels and Acts were not intended to be forgeries, but only novels with a purpose. 2
- But while the early Church exercised proper discernment, and the Canon of the New Testament was soon definitely recognised and universally accepted, the apocryphal writings were not without influence. The sacred legends, the ecclesiastical traditions, all too potent in their effect, are in many cases to be traced to these writings. Much that Rome inculcates is derived from these books, which the Western Church constantly rejected. It is, therefore, not strange that modern Protestant scholarship has been most active in the investigation of this literature. The study of these works furnishes not only a defense of the canonical books of the New Testament, but an effective weapon against that "tradition" which would overbear the authority of Holy Scripture. No attempt has been made to annotate the various works in illustration of the above positions, although the temptation to do so was very great. A few notes have been appended, but it was felt that in most cases the intelligent reader would not fail to draw the proper conclusions from the documents themselves. Those who desire to investigate further will find the best helps indicated either in the Introduction of the translator or in the Bibliography which closes this volume and series.
It will be noticed that no Apocryphal Epistles are included in the literature which follows. Such forgeries were less common, and the Apocryphal Acts furnished a more convenient channel for heretical opinions and argument. Of the few in existence, some appear, in connection with other works, in the Acts of Thaddaeus, in the Pseudo-Ignatian Epistles, in the Clementine Homilies (Epistles of Peter to James), and in Eusebius. The forged letters of Paul, to the Laodiceans and a third to the Corinthians, deserve little attention, being made to supply the supposed loss suggested by Col. iv. 16 and I Cor. v. 9. The correspondence of Paul and Seneca (six letters from the former and eight from the latter) has a certain interest, but scarcely deserves a place even among the apocryphal writings.
Schaff-Herzog, i. p. 105. ↩
In most cases the vocabulary of the books furnishes positive evidence of the late origin. A great number of terms can be traced to a particular period of ecclesiastical development, while the dogmatic tendencies which point to a given (and comparatively late) period of controversy are frequent and obvious. ↩