Get the CD Now!

A Handbook of Patrology


  1. Judeo-Christian Literature
  2. Gnostic Literature
  3. Montanistic Literature
  4. Apocryphal Literature - Christian Apocrypha of the Old Testament
  5. The Apocrypha of the New Testament - The Gospels
  6. Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles
  7. Apocryphal Epistles
  8. Apocryphal Apocalypses

The Church in the second century had not only to maintain her right to exist against the pagans; she had also to defend her faith against the heretics. Side by side with the Apologists, therefore, she numbered many controversialists and doctors. Before speaking of their works, a word should be said of the principal authors and writings they had to confute. We shall complete the study with a passing notice of the Apocryphal Writings, especially the New Testament Apocrypha, a great number of which, as we shall see, are of heretical origin.

In many cases we shall have to content ourselves with merely indicating the titles of the writings, both for the sake of brevity and because many of these works are known only by their names. With the exception of a few books, the heretical literature of the second century has perished, because the Church waged war against it and also because such uninteresting works were naturally neglected. Once the sects died out, their literary productions passed quickly into oblivion.

Three great heterodox movements assailed the Church or developed in her bosom during the second century: Judeo-Christianity, Gnosticism, and Montanism. We shall devote a few pages to each.


Judeo-Christianity, known also, in its strictest and frankly heretical form, as Ebionitism, sprang from an excessive attachment of certain Jewish Christians to the ceremonies and prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. These Christians

[1] See O. Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirchlich. Literatur, I, 2nd edit., p. 377-381.


looked upon certain observances which the Gospel had annulled as indispensable for salvation and regarded Jesus as a human Messias, such as the Jews were expecting. Their principal center was at Pella, beyond the Jordan, and in the surrounding country. They formed various sects: the Ebionites, the Essenians, and the Elkesaites.

Among the Ebionite writings we must mention first those of Symmachus. He is known for his translation of the Old Testament into Greek (c. 161-211), but composed also commentaries on an adulterated gospel of St. Matthew;[2] the so-called Journeys of Peter (Periodoi Petrou); interpolated Acts of the Apostles in use among the members of the sect, which included the Ascents of James (oi anabaqmoi 'Iakwbou); and, most important of all, the Clementine Romances, which have been preserved.

These writings have been collected under the name of Clementine Literature, because St. Clement of Rome plays an important part in them and is even supposed to be their author. They comprise the Greek Homilies and the Recognitions.[3]

The Homilies are twenty in number; they are prefaced by a letter of Peter to James, an attestation (diamarturia) of James and his priests, and a letter of Clement to James, in which he informs him that he is sending a summary of Peter's discourses. The twenty Homilies follow. They are a mixture of more or less fantastic stories and theological controversies. Clement tells the story of his own conversion and of his travels with St. Peter in the persecution ot Simon Magus. The primary purpose of the work, however, is to give an exposition of the pretended doctrinal teaching of Peter. This doctrine is, of course, Ebionite: Christian revelation is simply a restoration of Mosaic revelation, which, in turn, is a restoration of primitive revelation.

The subject-matter of the Recognitions is about the same as that of the Homilies. We possess them only in a rather inaccurate Latin translation by Rufinus. The peculiar title of "Recognitions" is given to the work because, according to the fictitious accounts which, in both books, form the framework of the doctrinal discussions, Clement recovers in

[2] Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., VI, 17; St. Jerome, Vir. Ill., 54.

[3] Text in Patrol. Graeca, tom. I and II. See H. Waitz, Die Pseudoklementinen, Homilien und Rekognitionen, Leipzig, 1004 (T. U. XXV, 4) ; A. Harnack, Die Chronologie der altchr. Liter., II, p. 518 ff.


the course of his journeys his father, mother, and two brothers, whom he had lost.[4]

According to Waitz and Harnack, the Homilies and the Recognitions are two independent recensions of an anterior work which bore, perhaps, the title of Clement's Epitome of the Sermons made by St. Peter (KlhmentoV twn Petrou epidhmewn khrugmatwn epitomh) or Journeys of Peter [written] by Clement (Periodoi Petrou dia KlhmentoV; v. supra). This work is regarded as the synthesis of two others still more ancient,—the Sermons of Peter (Khrugmata Petrou), clearly Ebionite-Gnostic, and the Acts of Peter (PraxeiV Petrou), anti-Gnostic. The Homilies and the Recognitions, and the writings of which they are summaries, are said to be the work of orthodox authors, whose primary purpose was to write an edifying apology, but who did not take sufficient care to eliminate the Judeo-Christian characteristics contained in the Khrugmata. Harnack thinks that the Homilies and the Recognitions received their present form in the fourth century at Rome, or in Syria, the book of which they are recensions having been composed between 225 and 300 at Rome, and the two primitive works c. 200.

A work entitled The Book of Elkesai (Elxai), brought to Rome c. 220-230 by a certain Alcibiades,[5] was attributed to Elkesai (Elxai), the (problematical) founder of the sect of the Elkesaites. St. Epiphanius[6] mentions a book of Jexai, brother of Elkesai, which was also in use in the sect.


The generic name of Gnostics comprised a number of sects the doctrines and tendencies of which were often at great variance, but all of which claimed to be in possession of a superior religious science and a far more penetrating insight into Christian revelation than that of the simple

[4] Besides these two principal texts, we have: a) a Syriac compilation of the Clementine Romances, which combine the two texts; b) two Greek epitomes, which sum up the Homilies, and c) two Arabic epitomes, which sum up the Homilies and the Recognitions.

[5] Philosophoumena, ix, 13 ff.

[6] Haer., xix, 1; liii, 1.

[1] See O. Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirchl. Literatur, I, 2nd edit, p. 343-376; A. Harnack, Gesch. der altchr. Liter., i, 143-205; Die Chronologie, I, 289-311; 533-541; II, 128-132; E. de Faye, Gnostiques et Gnosticisme, etude critique des documents du gnosticisme chretien aux Il' et Ill' siecles, Paris, 1913.


faithful and the official Church. Two important questions above all others attracted the attention of these sects: the origin of evil and the manner in which the redemption was effected. Each sect discussed these problems and each endeavored to solve the mystery.

Gnostic literature was very voluminous. Since the Gnostics generally professed that men have to work out their salvation by means of science (gnosis), they were naturally led to write out for the use of their adepts a good part of their teachings and secret traditions. Very little, however, remains of all this literature,— at the most five or six complete works and a number of fragments inserted in the writings of the historians of heresies.[2] In the following sketch we can mention only the principal works.

We will follow the order commonly adopted in speaking of the Gnostic sects: Syrian Gnosis, Alexandrine Gnosis, Marcionism and Encratism. This classification is merely provisional and questionable in some details; but for want of a better one it may be accepted.

1. Syrian Gnosis.—It is a well-known fact that ancient authors are agreed in recognizing Simon Magus as the father of Gnosticism. St. Hippolytus gives us quotations from, as well as an analysis of, a Revelation ('ApofasiV), the book used by the Simonians.[3] We do not know whether Cerinthus, Menander, or Satornilus wrote anything. The Nicolaites possessed some Books of Ialdabaoth, a book entitled Noria, a Prophecy of Barkabbas, a Gospel of Perfection (or consummation, teleiwsewV) and a Gospel of Eve, which seems to have been an apocalypse.[4]

2. Alexandrine Gnosis.— This Gnosis is represented first by three great leaders — Basilides, Valentine and Carpocrates—and secondly by a multitude of more or less definite sects without leaders, who have received the generic name of Ophites.

a) Basilides taught at Alexandria, between 120 and 140, a doctrine which, according to his followers, he received from a certain Glaukias, interpreter of St. Peter. He had a son named Isidorus, who kept up the teaching after his father's death. Basilides wrote a Gospel, 23 or 24 books of

[2] These fragments may be largely found in tome VII of the Patrologia Graeca, col. 1263-1322.

[3] Philosoph., vi, 7-20.

[4] Philastrius, Haer., 33; St. Epiphanius, Haer., xxv-xxvi.


Commentaries on it, a few quotations of which still remain, and some Odes, mentioned by Origen and the Muratorian Fragment. His son, Isidorus, left three works: On the Second Soul (Peri prosfuouV yuchV), i.e., the soul of man under the influence of the passions; Ethica, and an Exposition of the Prophet Parchor in at least two books.

b) The Valentinians were the most considerable and the best known of all the Gnostic sects. Valentine himself was an Egyptian and pretended to have studied under a certain Theodas, a personal disciple of St. Paul. He preached his doctrine first in Egypt, came to Rome under Pope Hyginus, and resided there until the advent of Pope Anicetus, about 135-160. He was driven out of the Church several times and at length retired to the Isle of Cyprus.

Tertullian praises the wisdom and eloquence of Valentine. Early writers are acquainted with his Letters, Homilies, and Psalms, but he does not seem to have written the Gospel of Truth which, according to St. Irenaeus (iii, 11, 9), was in use among the members of his sect.

This sect spread throughout the Roman Empire and soon divided into two branches, known respectively as the Western or Italian branch, which declared that the body of the Savior was of a psychic nature, and the Eastern branch, which maintained that it was pneumatic.

Heracleon belonged to the Western branch and was the ablest of Valentine's disciples. He wrote between 155 and 180. We have more than forty fragments, some of them lengthy, of his commentary on St. John, entitled 'Upomnhmata. The commentary itself probably went no further than the tenth chapter. As a rule his exegesis is allegorical.

Ptolemy was another personal disciple of Valentinus, He has left us a Letter to Flora, the complete text of which was preserved by St. Epiphanius.[5] Flora was a Christian lady, who hesitated to undertake the studies or gnosis imposed by the Gnostics. To convince her, Ptolemy undertakes to prove that at least part of the Old Law was the work, not of the Supreme God, but of the Demiurge.

After these two great representatives of Western Valentinianism, we must name: Florinus, to whom St. Irenaeus addressed a letter reproaching him with his blasphemous writings; Theotimus, who wrote on the figures of the Old

[5] Haer., xxxiii, 3-7.


Testament, and Alexander, author of a book alluded to by Tertullian,[6] which may have been entitled Syllogisms.

The principal writers of the Eastern branch of the Valentinians are Marcus, Theodotus, and Bardesanes.

Marcus, whom some authors assign to the Western branch, taught in Asia Minor, c. 180. He is known to us principally through St. Irenaeus, who very probably possessed one of his works and also some of the numerous works of his sect.

Of Theodotus we know nothing, but Clement of Alexandria had at least one of his writings, since he gives a series of extracts from it in his Excerpta ex Scriptis Theodoti.[7]

Bardesanes is generally counted among the Valentinians, and indeed Eusebius[8] affirms that, before he became an orthodox Catholic, he was more or less infected by Valentinianism. It is infinitely more probable, however, that the qualification of Gnostic is less applicable to the master than to his disciples, who distorted his teachings. Bardesanes devoted himself especially to the exact sciences and to astrology.[9] He was born of noble parents at Edessa, July 11, 154, and in his youth was the companion of the future toparch of Edessa, Abgar IX (179-214). After the conquest of Edessa by Caracalla, 216-217, he was forced to withdraw into Armenia, but returned to his native town and died there in 222 or 223.

St. Ephraem relates that Bardesanes composed 150 Psalms as well as melodies for them; this would make him the most ancient of Syriac hymnologists. It is possible that a few fragments of these songs may yet be found in the Syriac Acts of St. Thomas. Different authors, among them Eusebius,[10] attribute to him a few dialogues written against the Marcionists and other heretics. His most popular work is that On Fate (Peri eimarmenhV), which has been found in Syriac, bearing the title of Book of the Laws of the Countries.[11] The work is written in dialogue form, and Bardesanes

[6] De Carne Christi, 16, 17.

[7] Patr. Graeca, IX, 653-698; edit. Stehlin, Vol. III, 105 ff.

[8] H. E., iv, 30.

[9] See F. Nau, Une Biographie inedite de Bardesane I'Astrologue, Paris, 1897; and R. Graffin, Patrologia Syriaca, II, Paris, 1907, p. 490-658. Diction. de Theologie Catholique, article "Bardesane."

[10] H. E., iv, 30.

[11] Edit. F. Nau, in Patrologia Syriaca, loc. cit. French transl. in V. Langlois, Collective des Historiens de I'Armenie, I, Paris, 1867, P. 73 ff.


has been considered its author because he is the chief interlocutor. In reality, however, it is written by one of his disciples, named Philip. Bardesanes makes a study of the laws and customs of various countries and proves, against a certain Avida, that human liberty is in no way affected by the stars.

Harmonius, the son of Bardesanes, wrote many works in Syriac. His Odes are mentioned, and Sozomen[12] says that he was the true author of the 150 Psalms mentioned above.

c) Carpocrates was the third leader of the Alexandrine Gnostics. He was a contemporary of Valentine and Basilides. We do not know if he wrote at all. His son, Epiphanes, who died when only seventeen years of age, has left us a treatise On Justice, cited by Clement of Alexandria.[13] He is an advocate of out-and-out communism. St. Irenaeus mentions in globo several Carpocratian writings (I, 25, 4, 5).

d) Under the Alexandrine Gnosis must also be ranged the many subsidiary sects derived from it and designated under the general name of Ophites, or "Brethren of the Serpent." The Ophites were the first to take the name of Gnostics. The name Ophites was used in connection with the part generally played in their system by the serpent in the garden of Eden. These sects branched out very widely and produced many writings. Apocrypha of the New Testament (to be mentioned later) abounded among them. Among their other productions we may mention: Great and Small Questions of Mary, Hymns and Naasinian Psalms, a Paraphrase of Seth, some books attributed to the children of Seth, entitled Strangers ('AllogeneiV), a Symphony, an Apocalypse of Abraham, and an Assumption of Isaias. The Gnostic Justin, mentioned in the Philosophoumena, cites, among others, a work entitled Baruch.[14] Moniumus left us a Letter to Theophrastes.[15]

According to C. Schmidt, several other Gnostic writings, preserved entirely or almost entirely in Coptic, belong to the Ophitic literature. These are the Pistis Sophia and the writings contained in the Bruce papyrus.

[12] H. E., iii, 16.

[13] Strom., III, 2.

[14] Philos., V, 24.

[15] Ibid., viii, 15.


The work entitled Pistis Sophia,[16] in four books, contains three distinct writings. The first of these, which alone deserves the title of "Pistis Sophia," comprises paragraphs 1-181,[17] and relates the fall and deliverance of the eon bearing that name. The second, which probably ought to be identified with the Little Questions of Mary (Mary Magdalen), commences with paragraph i8i,[18] and ends with Book III. It discusses the salvation and fate after death of the different categories of men. The third, embodied in Book IV, describes the faults and wickedness of the Archontici, the celebration of the mystery of water, and, finally, the punishment of the wicked.

The Bruce codex[19] (Vth-VIth century) contains two distinct writings. The first, in two books, is identical with the Two Books of Jeu cited in the Pistis Sophia. One of these explains the emanation of the eons, describes the invisible world, and furnishes the reader with the necessary pass-words to reach the Father. The other initiates us into the three baptisms of water, fire, and spirit, and gives other formulas analogous to the pass-words in order to overcome the evil spirits. This treatise is followed immediately by a second, considerably mutilated in the beginning, which seems to be a description of the origin of the suprasensible world and the visible cosmos.[20]

All these Coptic writings are translated from the Greek and date from the third century. From the point of view of antiquity they rank as follows: the second treatise in the Bruce papyrus comes first, then the books of Jeu and the fourth book of the Pistis Sophia and, finally, the first three books of this work.

3. Marcionism.—Marcion was born at Sinope in Pontus.

[16] Ed. Schwartze-Petermann, Berlin, 1851; French transl. by E. Amelineau, Paris, 1895; German transl. by C. Schmidt, Koptisch-gnostische Schriften, I, Leipzig, 1905.

[17] Schmidt, 1-83.

[18] Schmidt, 83.

[19] Edit. by E. Amelineau (text and French transl.), in Notices et Extraits des Manuscrits de la Bibliotheque Nationale, etc., xxix, i, Paris, 1891; and by C. Schmidt, Gnostiche Schriften in koptischer Sprache aus dem Codex Brucianus, Leipzig, 1892 (T. U. VIII, 1-2); and in Koptisch-gnostische Schriften, I.

[20] Besides these works, a Coptic papyrus of Berlin (Vth century?) contains three other Gnostic writings, not yet edited: a Gospel of Mary, known to St. Irenaeus, an Apocryph of John, and Wisdom of Jesus Christ.


About 135-140, he came to Rome and was received into the Church. He soon left the Roman communion, however, and founded a sect, which spread and became strong, and was destined to last for many years. His death occurred, at the latest, in the year 170.

Marcion's system is based upon the opposition between the Law, the work of a just God, and the Gospel, the work of a good God. In support of his doctrine he published a work known as Antitheses, a collection of sentences from the Old and New Testaments, which seem to be complete antinomies. He also gave his disciples a New Testament which he himself had composed. This comprised the Gospel of St. Luke, abbreviated and adulterated, and ten epistles of St. Paul. Tertullian attributes to him a letter in which he tries to justify his apostacy.

The best known of Marcion's disciples is Apelles. He lived for a time with his master in Rome, but afterwards left him to settle in Alexandria. There he modified to a certain extent the doctrine of Marcion, but returned to Rome, where he died shortly after A. D. 180. He wrote a work entitled Syllogisms, cited by St. Ambrose.[21] This is a very lengthy book, in which the author attempts to prove that the Books of Moses contain nothing but lies. Another work of his is the Revelations (fanerwseiV), which describes the pretended revelations of a certain female visionary of the sect, named Philumena.

The Marcionites made use of a special collection of Psalms, distinct from those of David, and also of a work bearing the obscure title of Liber Propositi Finis, destined to supplant the Acts of the Apostles.

4. ENCRATISM.— The Encratites do not seem to have formed a distinct sect. They were found nearly everywhere and marked by their tendency to reject as sinful both matrimony and the use of meat. The Valentinian dissenter, Julius Cassianus, was one of their greatest writers. He flourished at Antioch or Alexandria c. 170. Clement of Alexandria[22] cites two of his works: "'Exhghtika (Commentaries), in several books, and a "Peri egkrateiaV h peri eunouciaV" (On Continence), a condemnation of matrimony.

[21] De Paradiso, 28, probably according to Origen.

[22] Strom., i, 21; iii, 13.



Although St. Hippolytus[2] speaks of countless books written by the founders of Montanism, we know of very few writings belonging to this sect.

The oracular replies of Montanus, Maximilla, Priscilla, and other prophets were certainly collected.[3] About 19 of these — some very doubtful — are cited by different authors.[4]

Tertullian[5] is of the opinion that Montanistic communities dispatched letters to Rome in order to obtain recognition. These letters dated very probably from the commencement of the Montanistic movement, c. 173-180. Eusebius[6] mentions a reply to the anti-Montanistic work of the apologist Miltiades and[7] a Letter called Catholic, written by a certain Themison. It is also very probable that Proclus wrote some work or other. He was a defender of Montanism in Rome under Pope Zephyrinus (198-217), and the priest Caius argued against him.[8]

If we add to these works the Montanistic treatises of Tertullian, we have a fairly complete summary of the writings of the sect that are known to us.


The term apocryphal (apokrufoV, hidden), applied to a book, may mean simply that the author and the origin of his work are unknown. In ecclesiastical terminology it means that this book has been excluded from official use in the Church and is not placed in the hands of the faithful. An apocryphal book is an uncanonical book and, besides lacking ecclesiastical recognition, it is often regarded by the Church

[1] On this subject see the two volumes of P. de Labriolle, La Crise Montaniste, and Les Sources de l'Histoire du Montanisme, Paris and Fribourg, 1913.

[2] Philosophoumena, viii, 19.

[3] Eusebius, H. E., v, 16, 17.

[4] See list and text translated and explained in P. de Labriolle, La Crise Montaniste, p. 34-105.

[5] Adv. Praxean, i.

[6] H. E., v, 17, 1.

[7] Ibid., v, 18, 5.

[8] Ibid., ii, 25, 6; iii, 31, 4.


as being more or less legendary and as propagating questionable or erroneous doctrines.

The purpose of the Biblical Apocrypha is to furnish a new treatment of the historical or doctrinal data of the canonical books by completing or amplifying them. They are naturally divided into the Apocrypha of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha of the New Testament, according as they deal with the period previous or subsequent to the coming of Christ.

As a rule, the authors of the first set are Jews, although several of these works have been improved upon by Christian writers. It is for this reason that Christian interpolations are to be found in the Fourth Book of Esdras, the Book of Henoch, the Assumption of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Apocalypse of Elias, the Apocalypse of Sophonias, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Books of Adam, the Sibylline Oracles,[1] etc. Others are entirely the work of Christian writers, examples of which have already been seen in connection with Gnostic literature. To this category belong the Odes of Solomon.

These odes, forty-two in number, have recently been discovered in a Syriac manuscript of the XVIth or XVIIth century.[2] They are a continuous hymn of the soul in thanksgiving to God for having saved it. Their beauty and lyric inspiration are remarkable. However, the speaker in these odes is not always the same fictitious personage; sometimes it is the converted Christian, sometimes the elect triumphant in heaven, sometimes Jesus Christ Himself. The tone is personal and intimate. No mention is made of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or of the sacrifice of the Redeemer, or of the Sacraments. The terminology closely resembles that of St. John.

The most divergent opinions have been put forth concerning the origin of these odes. The most probable is that they were written entirely in Greek by a Christian in the first half of the second century. The Syriac in that hypothesis would be a translation. It has not yet been proved that the author was a Docetist or even a Gnostic, a few vague textual indications

[1] On these apocrypha, see E. Schurer, Geschichte des judischen Volkes, 4 edit., vol. III.

[2] Text published by J. Rendel Harris, The Odes and Psalms of Solomon, Cambridge, 1909, 1911. See J. Labourt and P. Batiffol, Les Odes de Salomon, traduction francaise et introduction historique, Paris, 1911; Tondelli, Le Odi di Salomone, Rome, 1914.


to the contrary notwithstanding. Some critics think that he wrote in Syria; others, in Asia Minor in the neighborhood of Ephesus; others, in Egypt.


The authors of the New Testament Apocrypha are naturally Christians. From the point of view of form, these writings, like the canonical New Testament literature, comprise Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Epistles and Apocalypses. From the point of view of origin and tendency, we may divide them into two distinct groups. The first group is of heretical and particularly of Gnostic origin and purposes to inculcate a very definite doctrinal error, namely, that Jesus Christ and His Apostles gave out teachings contrary to those of the Church. The second is of orthodox origin and written with the intention of edifying; hence details of the lives of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles and St. Joseph, which are lacking in the official writings, are added in these compositions.

Whatever may have been their origin, these Apocrypha have two traits in common. The first is the weirdness and strangeness of their accounts, in which uncalled-for wonders and miracles are scattered profusely. The various actors move about in an unreal world where the marvelous is the rule. The second is the variance of their texts. As these books were not consecrated by the authority of the Church, but were widely circulated, people modified them and added to them to suit their own tastes. This accounts for the many recensions of the same work — new ones are still being found 2 and also renders it very difficult, nay impossible, to determine the origin and date of these writings. It is not always easy to distinguish between the primitive work and later alterations. Again, many of these Apocrypha,

[1] Concerning all this literature, see O. Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirchl. Liter., I, 2nd ed., p. 498-622. On the Gospels: J. Variot, Les Evangiles Apocryphes, Histoire Litteraire, etc., Paris, 1878. Usually the texts may be found in Hilgenfeld, Novum Testamentum extra canonem receptum, 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1884; E. Preuschen, Antilegomena, Giessen, 1901; C. Tischendorf, Evangelia Apocrypha, ed. altera, 1876. French transl. in G. Brunet, Les Evangiles Apocryphes, Paris, 2nd ed., 1863, and in Textes et Documents (V).

[2] This remark applies also, in a certain degree, to the apocrypha of the Old Testament.


heretical in the beginning, were afterwards corrected and purged of their heresies and have come down to us only in the latter form.

1. The Gospel of the Hebrews. Some of the Apocryphal Gospels bear the name of an author, others are anonymous. Among the latter we must mention, first, the Gospel according to the Hebrews (to kaq' 'EbraiouV euaggelion), spoken of by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and St. Jerome, and probably known also to Hegesippus and St. Ignatius of Antioch. Unfortunately, their citations lack precision; they prevent us especially from seeing the relation of this Gospel with the "Gospel of the Ebionites," cited by St. Epiphanius.[3] It seems safe, however, to treat these two Gospels as two distinct compositions. The Gospel according to the Hebrews was in use among that orthodox portion of Judeo-Christians called the Nazaraeans. It was written in Aramaic, with square characters, and closely follows the canonical narrative of St. Matthew. The quotation by Clement of Alexandria is a proof that this apocryphal gospel was composed in the middle of the second cen- tury at the latest. If, however, as St. Jerome affirms, it was cited by St. Ignatius in his Letter to the people of Smyrna (iii, 2), it would date at least from the end of the first century, as Harnack thinks it does.

2. The Gospel of the Ebionites was in use among the heretical Judeo-Christians, for the quotations by St. Epiphanius prove that it contains their heretical teachings. According to Bardenhewer, it was a compilation from the canonical Gospels and is identical with the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, marked out as heretical by Origen.[4] It was written in Greek at the end of the second or in the beginning of the third century.

3. The Gospel of the Egyptians. Clement of Alexandria[5] cites a Gospel according to the Egyptians (to kat' AiguptiouV euaggelion), known also to Origen, St. Hippolytus, and St. Epiphanius, who all regarded it as a heretical work. It condemns matrimony and upholds Sabellianism and metempsychosis. Several critics have exaggerated the importance of this work. It was probably written in Egypt, towards the end of the second century. The date of its composition

[3] Haer., xxx, 13-16, 22.

[4] In Lucam, Homil., i.

[6] Strom., iii, 9; 13.


would have to be placed much earlier if it were certain that it is quoted in the Secunda Clementis (xii, 2).

4. The Gospel of Peter.[6] Until 1886, the Gospel of Peter was known to us only through the fragment of a letter of Serapion of Antioch cited by Eusebius.[7] Since that date, a large fragment, including the history of the Passion and Resurrection, was recovered, in 1892, and published. Serapion characterized this Gospel by saying that, as a whole, it was conformable to the teaching of the Savior, but of Docetic tendencies. This is precisely the impression made upon one who reads what we possess of the work. The author made use of the three synoptic Gospels and probably also of the Gospel of St. John, and may have composed his book at Antioch towards the middle of the second century. Harnack believes that the work was known to St. Justin,[8] and therefore places its composition in 110-130.

5. The Gospels of Mathias, Philip, and Thomas form a trilogy of Gnostic origin, for these three Apostles are represented in the Pistis Sophia as being the three privileged witnesses chosen by Jesus Christ after His resurrection. (i) The Gospel of Mathias we know only by its title; very probably it should be distinguished from the Traditions of Mathias, cited by Clement of Alexandria,[9] and especially favored by the Basilidians. It was composed in Egypt, no later than the beginning of the third century. The Traditions, on the contrary, date back to 110-130. {2) The Gospel of Philip was in use among the "Gnostics" in Egypt. St. Epiphanius[10] has given us a quotation which sufficiently marks it out as heterodox. It was probably written towards the end of the second or at the beginning of the third century. (3) The Gospel of Thomas was found cited in a Naassenian work by St. Hippolytus,[11] and he has even preserved for us one sentence from it. St. Irenaeus had probably known the work before him,[12] which means that it was written in the middle of the second century.

6. We no longer have the Gnostic "Gospel of Thomas,"

[6] See J. B. Semeria, L'Evangile de Pierre, in the Revue Biblique, III (1894), 522-560.

[7] H. E., vi, 12, 2-6.

[8] I Apol., xxxv, 6; Dial., xcvii, 3.

[9] Strom., ii, 9; iii, 4; vii, 13.

[10] Haer., xxvi, 13.

[11] Philos., v, 7.

[12] Adv. Haer., i, 20. 1.


but we have a compilation in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Slavonic which is, to all appearances, derived from the original work and which may be a much expurgated original copy. These forms are entitled Statements of Thomas, Jewish Philosopher, upon the Infancy of the Lord (Qwma israhlitou filosofou rhta eiV ta paidka tou Kuriou).[13] They relate the miracles performed by the Infant Jesus from His fifth to His twelfth year. These miracles do not always agree with the character of the Divine Child and the Gnostic color of the original has not completely disappeared from the book in spite of the many transformations it has undergone. In their actual state these writings seem to belong, as a whole, to the fourth or fifth century.

7. The Protoevangelium Jacobi[14] is the best known and most popular of the Apocryphal Gospels. There are many Greek manuscripts and versions of it in different languages. The title varies with the manuscripts, but in none is to be found the name "Gospel." The purpose of the book is to give an account of the birth of Mary, her childhood, her betrothal to St. Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the slaughter of the Innocents and the execution of Zacharias in the temple. The author pretends to be James (evidently the Lesser), the brother of the Lord. The Greek text, as it stands, does not seem to date back further than the fourth century. It is supposed to be a composite work, made up of three previous writings: (a) An account of the birth, infancy, and betrothal of Mary (chs. i-xvii, i), the work of a Judeo-Christian, 130-140; (b) An account given by Joseph of the birth of Jesus Christ and the adoration of the Magi (chs. xvii, 2-xxi), called Apocryphum Josephi, written probably in the second century; (c) an account of the slaughter of the Innocents and the execution of Zacharias (chs. xxii-xxiv), called Apocryphum Zachariae, the groundwork of which also dates back to the second century.

8. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The "Protoevangelium Jacobi" has its Latin counterpart in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, entitled Liber de Ortu Beatae Mariae et Infantia Salvatoris,[15] the contents of which are much the same as that of the "Protoevangelium," plus the subject

[13] Edit. C. Michel, Textes et Documents: Evangiles Apocryphes, i, Paris, 1911.

[14] Edit. C. Michel, loc. cit.

[15] Edit. C. Michel, loc. cit.


matter of the "Gospel of Thomas." It is a compilation of the fifth century.

9. The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy and other analogous compositions in Syriac and Armenian belong to a still later period.[16]

10. Besides these Gospels, we know that there once existed a Gospel of Bartholomew, a Gospel of Thaddeus, mentioned in the decree of Pope Gelasius, and a Gospel of Judas Iscariot in use among the Cainites and spoken of by St. Irenaeus (i, 31, 1). Greek, Latin and Coptic fragments have been found of the Gospel of Bartholomew.

11. To the literature of the Apocryphal Gospels belong also the accounts concerning Pilate and the descent of Jesus into hell, those about the death of the Blessed Virgin and of St. Joseph.

a) Under the title of Gospel of Nicodemus we possess a composition the most ancient recension of which — in Greek — dates back to the first half of the fifth century. The work may be divided into three parts, which in the beginning probably formed two, or even three, distinct writings. The first part (chs. l-ll) relates to the interrogatory of Jesus before Pilate, His death and burial. It intends to show that Pilate was convinced of the innocence of Our Lord. The special title, Acta Pilati, is given to this part. St. Epiphanius[17] was acquainted with some acts of this kind from which the Acta Pilati must be derived. It is even possible that Tertullian knew of a supposed report of Pilate to Tiberius, the apologetical purpose of which was the same.[18] The nucleus of the Acta Pilati would then date back to the second century. The second part (chs. 12-16) relates the discussions which took place in the Sanhedrin after the resurrection of Christ. Its purpose is to prove that the leaders of the Jews themselves must have admitted the truth of His resurrection. The third part (chs. 17-27), which was certainly once an independent treatise, relates the descent of Jesus into hell and the deliverance of the just of the Old Law. The action and brilliancy of style of this part are remarkable.

b) The title of Dormition of Mary (Transitus Mariae,

[16] Edit. P. Peeters, in Textes et Documents: Evangiles Apocryphes, II, Paris, 1914.

[17] Haer., I, 1.

[18] Apologeticum, 21.


KoimhsiV thV MariaV) is given to an account of the death ot the Blessed Virgin, the most ancient recensions of which are the Greek recension and the two Syriac recensions, B and C. The book narrates how Mary died in Jerusalem, surrounded by the Apostles, and how her body was carried up into heaven. The story contains very ancient elements, but the actual form of the work supposes that the cultus of the Blessed Virgin was already well developed in the Church. It is the general belief that this work does not date earlier than the fourth or fifth century.

c) The History of Joseph the Carpenter,[19] which exists in two recensions—one Coptic, the other Arabic—contains an account, supposedly by Jesus Himself, of the life and more especially the death of St. Joseph. The author seems to have borrowed from local traditions as well as from the "Gospel of Thomas." The purpose of the book is well indicated in ch. 30: — it was intended to furnish matter for liturgical readings for the Feast of St. Joseph, celebrated on the 26th of the month of Epiphi, i.e., July 20. The original Greek text from which the recensions were made dates back, at most, to the fourth century. It is probably even more recent.


The imagination of certain writers has, perhaps, thrown off restraint more in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles than in the apocryphal Gospels. Indeed, they were allowed much more freedom in this by the official text of the canonical Acts, which does not mention the fate of the Twelve, with the exception of St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. James, nor relate the last years of the ministry of the two great apostles.

i. Concerning St. Peter, we have first a Preaching of Peter (Petrou Khrugma), known to Clement of Alexandria, Heracleon the Gnostic, Origen, and Eusebius. The work must probably be identified with the Preaching of Peter

[19] Edit. P. Peeters, l. cit., note l6.

[1] The texts are usually to be found in C. Tischendorf, Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, Lipsiae, 1851 and especially in R. A. Lipsius and M. Bonnet, Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, 3 vol., Lipsiae, 1891, i8o8, 1903. The classical work on the subject is that of R. A. Lipsius, Die apokyphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden, Braunschweig, 1883-1890.


(Petrou didaskalia), cited by John of Damascus. It comprises a series of missionary discourses of the Apostle, together with a connecting narrative. There is nothing to prove that it was a heretical writing. It was composed in the first half of the second century, either in Egypt or in Greece.

2. The Acts of Peter (PraxeiV Petrou),[2] on the contrary, are plainly Gnostic. Two parts of this work are extant, namely,

a) The conclusion of the work in the Marturion tou agiou apostolou Petrou, of which the Martyrium Beati Petri Apostoli a Lino Apostolo Conscriptum is only an enlarged Latin version; and

b) The episode of the triumph of St. Peter over Simon Magus in the Actus Petri cum Simone of the manuscript of Vercelli. In this work are to be found the details concerning the fall of Simon Magus, the "Quo Vadis" and the crucifixion of the Apostle, head downwards. Although various corrections have been introduced into the actual text, it still bears traces of Docetism and Encratism. The original composition must have dated back to the second half of the second century. Pope Innocent[13] declared that the author was identical with the author of the Gnostic "Acts of John," i.e., Pseudo-Lucius (the Lucius Charinus spoken of by Photius).

3. Just as there was a "Preaching of Peter," so there was a Preaching of Paul. It is mentioned in the Liber de Rebaptismate (17), which was written in the time of St. Cyprian. The work does not appear to be orthodox; however, we lack information concerning it.

4. Quite different has been the fate of the Acts of Paul (PraxeiV Paulou), which is said to have contained 3560 or 3600 lines. These Acts have been recently found in a Coptic version,[4] although the manuscript is in bad condition. This discovery has enabled us to ascertain that the original text comprised the Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Paul, the Correspondence of St. Paul and the Corinthians (apocryphal),

[2] J. Flamion, Les Actes Apocryphes de Pierre, in the Revue d'Histoire Ecclesiastique. ix-xil (1908-1911).

[3] Epist. ad Exsuperium, 13.

[4] Edit. C. Schmidt, Acta Pauli aus der Heidelb. kopt. Papyrus-handschr. herausgeg., Leipzig, 1904; and L. Vouaux, Les Actes de Paul et ses Lettres Apocryphes, Introd., texts, transl. and commentary, Paris, 1913.


and the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which at a later date took on an independent form. But since Tertullian affirms[5] that the story of Paul and Thecia was composed in Asia by a priest who was very enthusiastic about St. Paul, and who was deposed for his writing, it is likely that the entire Acts of Paul are the work of the same author and were composed in Asia. They were orthodox in the beginning. Certain details warrant our fixing the date of their composition c. 170.

5. Besides the "Acts of Peter" and the "Acts of Paul," we have, in revised texts, a composition entitled Acts of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (PraxeiV twn agiwn apostolwn Petrou kai Paulou). Originally these acts comprised an account of the journey of St. Paul to Rome, where St. Peter was already residing, and an account of the labors of the two Apostles and their martyrdom. This is the order followed by a whole series of manuscripts. Like the "Acts of Paul," this work is an orthodox composition, which the author wished, perhaps, to substitute for the Gnostic "Acts of Peter." According to Bardenhewer, they date from the first half of the third century.

6. The Acts of the Apostle Andrew, probably from the second half of the second century, are mentioned by Eusebius[6] and other ancient writers, who regard them as heretical. Some critics attribute them to Pseudo-Lucius. Only a few short citations from this work have been preserved, but we have in Greek, and in expurgated and revised texts in other languages, three principal episodes of the story which form the subject matter for three separate writings: the Acts of Andrew and Mathias in the town of the Anthropophagi, the Acts of the Holy Apostles Peter and Andrew and the Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Andrew.[7] The latter pretends to be the work of eye-witnesses, priests and deacons of the Churches of Achaia. In reality, it is not older than the fifth century.

7. The same authors who speak of the "Acts of Andrew" mention also Acts of John, of heretical origin. Innocent I attributed them to Pseudo-Lucius. These Acts, probably composed, as those of Andrew, in the second half of the second

[5] De Baptismo, 17.

[6] H. E., iii. 25, 6.

[7] See J. Flamion, Les Actes Apocryphes de l'apotre Andre, les Actes d'Andre et de Mathias, de Pierre et d'Andre, et les Textes Apparentes, Louvain, 1911.


century, are now almost entirely lost. A fair number of fragments have reached us through citations and other manuscripts and have enabled us to reconstruct approximately the order of the narrative. To accomplish this work, orthodox recensions of a later period have been used, which have more or less retouched and corrected the original copy. Such are, in Greek, the Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, written by his disciple Prochoros (first half of the fifth century), and, in Latin, the Virtutes Joannis, written by Pseudo-Abdias (end of the sixth century), and the Passio Joannis, written by Pseudo-Melito (still more recent).

8. The Acts of the Apostle Thomas have been preserved better than all the Gnostic Acts of the Apostles We have not, it is true, the original; but two recensions in Greek and Syriac have reached us, and they preserve both the spirit and form of the work.[8] The whole clearly shows Encratic tendencies. Some poetical pieces written originally in Syriac and inserted here and there, form an integral part of the treatise and have led the majority of critics to conclude that the entire work was written first in that language. It may have been originally composed at Edessa by some disciple of Bardesanes. Everything indicates that it was written in the beginning of the third century.

9. The Acts of Philip (apocryphal) are first mentioned in a decretal of Pope Gelasius. We possess these Acts in two forms, both of orthodox origin, but of small value. In them there is a confusion of Philip the Apostle with Philip the Deacon. The Greek acts are incomplete and seem to have been compiled from two independent writings; they do not date beyond the end of the fourth century. The Syriac acts seem still more recent.

10. The Acts of Matthew are not mentioned by any ancient author; yet such a work must have existed, since we have in Greek the conclusion, which is an account of the ministry of the Apostle and his martyrdom at Myrne. The author of these Acts was acquainted with the "Acts of Mathias," which were, perhaps, called "Acts of Mathias" by mistake instead of "Acts of Matthew."

11. The Acts of Thaddaeus, who was one of the seventy-two

[8] Greek in Lipsius and Bonnet; Syriac text in W. Wright, Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, London, 1871.


two disciples, were known to Eusebius, who analysed them partly and copied out a few extracts, notably those referring to the famous correspondence between King Abgar of Edessa and Jesus. These Acts, called the Acta Edessena, were written first in Syriac and may date back to the first half of the third century. We possess, under the title of Doctrina Addaei, a Syriac recension of the work, which is much more elaborate and may be dated from 390-430.[9] The Greek recension edited by Tischendorf is shorter and has substituted the Apostle Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus for the disciple Addaeus or Thaddaeus. The work is not older than the fifth century.


Apart from the Epistles mentioned in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, of which they form a part, there remain only a very small number of Apocryphal Epistles. The reason for this is simple. Epistolary literature is one in which the imagination finds little field for exercise and to which it is much harder to give an authentic ring.

1. Fragments, still partly unpublished, of an Epistle of the Apostles, have recently been discovered in Coptic and Latin. This Epistle recounts the resurrection of Our Lord and the deliverance of St. Peter. Harnack fixes the date of its composition between 150 and 180.

2. We have an Epistle of St. Paul to the Laodiceans[1] written evidently for the purpose of answering a passage in the "Epistle to the Colossians" (iv, 16). The most ancient text extant is in Latin. Both the matter and the form of this composition are mediocre; very probably it has nothing in common with the "Epistle to the Laodiceans" mentioned by the Muratorian Fragment. There is no sure witness of it before the fifth century.

3. The same Muratorian Fragment mentions an Epistle of St. Paul to the Alexandrians, forged by the Marcionites. All trace of this work has been lost.

4. We have, however, a Letter of the Corinthians to St. Paul and a (third) Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, which originally formed part of the "Acts of Paul" and,

[9] See J. Tixeront, Les Origines de l'Eglise d'Edesse et la Lcgende d'Abgar, Paris, 1888.

[1] Text in Th. Zahn, Geschichte des neutestamentl. Kanons, II, 2, Eriangen, 1892.


like it, were written in Greek. They remain only in Latin and in one Armenian translation.[2] The contents of these letters may be summed up as follows: The Corinthians make known to Paul that Gnostic doctrines are creeping in among them. St. Paul answers, insisting strongly on the doctrine which he had preached to them. These letters have been held in great esteem by the churches of Syria and Armenia. Like the "Acts of Paul," they date from c. 170.

5. As to the fourteen Latin letters between Seneca and St. Paul (eight letters of Seneca, six of St. Paul), which have been preserved,[3] it is certain that they are not genuine and are the work of a very mediocre author. The poverty of thought, rough diction, and unpolished style are striking. Are they the same as those mentioned by St. Jerome in De Viribus Illustribus (12)? Most critics admit it and consequently fix the date of their composition about 360-380, at the latest; others think they are more recent. In any case, they are based on the belief that relations once existed between St. Paul and Seneca, the truth of which is in nowise proved. Seneca may have heard about the Christians, but he certainly never borrowed anything from their doctrines.


l. The Apocalypse of Peter, about half of which has been found in a manucsript of Akhmin, is mentioned in the Canon of Muratori and cited and even commented upon by Clement of Alexandria.[1] The fragment contains two visions, one of heaven, the other of hell. The work enjoyed great popularity in many churches. It must have been composed at the latest in the middle of the second century.

An Apocalypse of Peter by Clement,[2] a more lengthy work extant in Ethiopic and Arabic, is not older than the VIIth or VIIIth century.

[2] A. Carriere and S. Berger, La Correspondene Apocryphe de Saint Paul et des Corinthiens, Paris, 1891.

[3] See Ch. Aubertin, Etude Critique sur les Rapports supposes entre Seneque et S. Paul. Paris, 1857; Seneque et S. Paul, Paris, 1869; G. Boissier, La Religion Romaine d'Auguste aux Antonins, tome II.

[1] Text in V. Gebhardt, Das Evangelium und die Apokalypse des Petrus. Leipzig, 1893.

[2] Edit. and transl. by S. Grebaut in the Revue de l'Orient Chretien, 1907-1912.


2. The passage of St. Paul's second Epistle to the Corinthians (xii, 2 ff.) relating to his being rapt into the third heaven, and the mysterious words he heard there, was a natural inducement for some author to reveal these wonders. St. Epiphanius[3] mentions an Assumption of Paul ('Anabatikon Paulou) of the second or third century, used by the Gnostics. We know nothing more about this book. But there does exist in Greek, Latin, Syriac and other recensions (the Latin is the best), an Apocalypse of Paul which enjoyed great vogue.[4] The Apostle is represented as visiting successively the dwelling-place of the elect, that of the damned, and the Garden of Eden. The work is orthodox and states in the introduction that it was discovered during the reign of Theodosius (379-395) beneath the house in which St. Paul lived at Tarsus, and was sent by that prince to Jerusalem. Traces of it first appear in Tractate xcviii, 8, of St. Augustine on St. John (c. 416); consequently, it dates from the end of the fourth century and was written in the neighborhood of Jerusalem.

3. Besides the "Apocalypse of Paul," the decretal of Pope Gelasius mentions an Apocalypse of Thomas and an Apocalypse of Stephen. Nothing is known of this latter work; perhaps it has been confounded with a document of the fifth century on the finding of the relics of St. Stephen. The Apocalypse of Thomas, a very short work, has recently been found in Latin and seems to be of the fourth century and of Manichean provenance.[5]

4. The Apocalypse of Zacharias, mentioned by the catalogues of Biblical apocrypha, may refer to the Old or to the New Testament. Not having the text, we do not know whether the Zacharias referred to is the prophet or the father of St. John the Baptist.

[3] Haer., xxxviii, 2.

[4] Greek in Tischendorf, Apocalypses Apocryphae, Lipsiae, 1866. Latin in M. Rh. James, Apocrypha Anecdota, Cambridge, 1893. (Texts and Studies, II, 3.)

[5] P. Bihlmeyer, Un Texte non Interpole de I'Aporalypse de Thomas, Revue Benedictine, xxviii (1911), 270-282.

Go to the Table of Contents for J. Tixeront's A Handbook of Patrology

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.