Pictorial Catholic Library – Apocrypha

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It corresponds to the Jewish word * * * which the Jews applied to books withdrawn from public use in the synagogue, on account of their unfitness for public reading. But the later Jews had also the notion that some books should be withdrawn from general circulation because of the mysterious truths they contained.

The early Fathers used “apocryphal” to denote the forged books of heretics, borrowing, perhaps, the name from the heretics themselves, who vaunted the “apocryphal” or “hidden” wisdom of these writings. Later – e.g. in the “Prologus galeatus” of Jerome – apocryphal is used in a milder sense to mark simply that a book is not in the recognized canon of Scripture; and Pope Gelasius, in a decree of 494, uses the term apocryphal in a very wide manner, (1) of heretical forgeries; (2) of books like the “Shepherd of Hermas,” revered by the ancients, but not a part of Scripture; (3) of works by early Christian writers (Arnobius, Cassian, etc.) who had erred on some points of doctrine. We need scarcely add that the Protestant custom of calling Wisdom, Machabees, etc., “Apocrypha,” is contrary to the faith and the tradition of the Church.

The name is now usually reserved by Catholics for books laying claim to an origin which might entitle them to a place in the canon, or which have been supposed to be Scripture, but which have been finally rejected by the Church. In the Old Testament the most important apocryphal books are – 3 and 4 Esdras, both of which are cited by early writers as Scripture, the latter being also used in the Missal and Breviary; 3 and 4 Machabees; the prayer of Manasses, which is found in Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament, and is often printed, in a Latin version, in the appendix to the Vulgate; the book of Enoch (cf. Jude 14), which Tertullian regarded as authentic (it only exists at present in an Ethiopic version); a 151st Psalm attributed to David, which is found in Greek manuscripts, and in the Syriac, Ethiopic, and Arabic versions of the Psalms; eighteen psalms attributed to Solomon, written originally, according to some scholars, in Hebrew, according to others, in Greek.

There is a great mass of New Testament apocryphal literature. Some books, such as the “Epistle of Barnabas,” the two “Epistles of Clement,” the “Shepnerd of Hernias,” may in a certain sense be called apocryphal, because, though not really belonging to Scripture, they were quoted as such by ancient writers, or were inserted in manuscripts of the New Testament. Some other books mentioned by Eusebius – viz. the “Acts of Paul,” the “Apocalypse of Peter,” the “Teachings of the Apostles” seem to have belonged to this better class of apocryphal literature. Besides these, Eusebius mentions apocryphal books in circulation among heretics – viz. the “Gospels” of Peter, Thomas, Matthias; the “Acts” of Andrew, John, and the rest of the Apostles.’ Fragments remain of the ancient Gospels “according to the Hebrews,” “of the Nazarenes,” “according to the Egyptians,” of the preaching and Apocalypse of Peter, etc., and have been repeatedly edited.

Later times were no less fruitful in apocryphal literature, and we still possess a great number of these later forgeries, entire and complete. They have been edited by Fabricius in the work already named; by Thilo, “Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti,” 1831, of which work only the first volume, containing the apocryphal Gospels, appeared; by Tischendorf and by other scholars. This is not the place to attempt an enumeration of these apocryphal books, but we may mention some which enjoyed a special popularity in the Church, and exercised a marked influence on Catholic literature. A number of apocryphal Gospels treat of the infancy and youth of our Lord, and of the history of his blessed Mother and foster-father. Among these the “Protevangelium of James ” holds the first place. It describes the early history of Mary, our Lord’s birth at Bethlehem, and the history of the wise men from the East. This gospel was much used by the Greek Fathers; portions of it were read publicly in the Eastern Church, and it was translated into Arabic and Coptic. It was prohibited for a time among the Latins, but even in the West it was much used during the middle ages. Other Gospels, such as the Arabic “Evangelium Infantis Salvatoris,” contain legendary miracles of our Lord’s infancy. We have a second class of apocryphal Gospels, which treat of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Of this class is the “Gospel of Nicodemus.” It is probably of very late origin, but it was a favorite book in the middle ages. The Greek text still exists, but it was also circulated, before the invention of printing, In Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German, and French. Closely connected with this Gospel are a number of documents which have sprung from very ancient but spurious “Acts of Pilate.” These ancient Acts,, which were known to Justin and Tertullian, have perished, but they called forth several imitations, which still survive. The one which is best known is a letter of Lentulus to the Roman senate, describing the personal appearance of our Lord. It is a forgery of the middle ages.

Further, apocryphal literature is rich in “Acts of the Apostles,” and here, as in the apocryphal Gospels, we find early but spurious Acts, revised and enlarged, and so originating fresh forgeries. Thus the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” in their existing form, are the recension of a very early work – forged as early at least as Tertullian’s time. The fullest of all these “Acts” is the “Historia Certaminis Apostolorum.” It can scarcely be older than the ninth century, but it is of considerable value, because the author has made diligent use of earlier Acts, some of which have perished.

Of apocryphal Epistles we have, among others, a letter of Saint Paul to the Laodiceans (only existing in Latin), which, though rejected by Jerome, was accepted as canonical by many great Latin theologians of a later day won a place in many copies of the Latin Bible, and for more than nine centuries “hovered about the doors of the sacred canon.” We may also mention a letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, and another of the Corinthians to Saint Paul (both only in Armenian); letters supposed to have passed between Saint Paul and Seneca (known to Jerome and Augustine); spurious letters of the Blessed Virgin, to Saint Ignatius, to the inhabitants of Messina, etc.

Lastly, we have apocryphal Apocalypses of Paul, Thomas, Stephen – nay, even of Saint John himself.

MLA Citation