The composition of works describing the deeds of various apostles, partly inspired by but often in some tension with the book of Acts that became canonical, continued until the sixth century. Extracts from them, specifically the accounts of apostolic deaths, have remained in liturgical use, especially in religious communities. Investigation of the genre(s) of these Christian texts requires attention to the title, literary parallels, and literary history.
The title “Acts” (Gk. praxeis) was suitable for an account of the careers of notables such as Hannibal or Alexander the Great. In so far as such works did not deal with birth, childhood, and education, they are distinguished from biographies, but this distinction was not always present. (On the title see Pervo 2009, pp. 29–30.) The title “Acts of the Apostles” was not original to the canonical book, since its major character, Paul, was not, according to the criteria used by the author, an apostle. By the end of the second century this title was used by Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. “Acts” indicates that the early Christians who applied it understood the book to fall within the general range of historiography or, at least, narrative, with an emphasis upon the deeds of certain persons. “Of the Apostles” stresses both a plurality of persons and the unity of that group. This could be a challenge to enemies of Paul, but the more likely explanation is that its target was those, notably Marcion, who embraced Paul while rejecting Peter and the others. It is therefore possible that the title first appeared in the Acts of Paul and was adjusted to suit the book that became canonical.
Acts as a Genre.
In so far as the several acts can be associated with a genre—the varied applications of the designation “gospel” show the danger of assuming that titles identify genres—a number of Greco-Roman models provide comparative illumination. The most important of these is the monograph. Biographies also command attention. Romantic novels, leading examples of which appeared during the second half of the second century, manifestly influenced the content of various acts.
Monographs are clearly distinct from general history or the extended history of a nation. As the term implies, they consist of a single book. The surviving Latin examples by Sallust (Cataline, The Jugurthan War) and Tacitus (Agricola) suggest careful attention to structure. Readers may assume that monographs had axes to grind; precise historical accuracy was not an entity before which their authors bowed down and worshiped, however much obeisance they may have paid to it in other circumstances (e.g., Tacitus). Monographs could be more or less entirely fictional, witness 3 Maccabees. Chariton's Callirhoe is a historical novel with a structure similar to that of a monograph, albeit much longer.
Although monographs often focused upon the career or part of the career of a single person, they are not biographies. Lack of detailed attention to early life (and, possibly, death) is a notable distinction and a pointer to the affinity of the type to the acts (as noted above). It is appropriate to classify the acts as a subtype of monograph, strongly tinged by the biographical tradition. Specific features include a nearly constant focus upon the principal character, one of the early followers of Jesus or an associate of “the twelve apostles.” On the surface these accounts seem to record in a random manner the life of an itinerant missionary, who moves from place to place, disrupting the natural order through subversion of marriages and the working of miracles until, in the last chapter, the hero is, for some reason, not rescued from imminent death. Closer study shows that this understanding is superficial.
The Hellenistic era (ca. 330 B.C.E.–ca. 30 B.C.E.) saw the emergence of Greek prose narratives about heroes of various types, most notably Alexander the Great. These novels might be characterized as popular epics in prose. In time such works came to concentrate upon personal and private rather than public and official experiences. The fragments of a novel mmabout the famous Assyrian conqueror Ninus show him as an awkward boy in love (Ninus). Callirhoe, although an historical novel, is a love story. The heyday of the romantic novel was in the period circa 150–250 B.C.E., roughly the same as that of the acts. These genres were thus responsive to and stimulated by similar phenomena in the broader literary world (Hägg 1993). In so far as the acts were competitive with romantic novels, they constitute a dimension of the reception history of the novel. An appreciation of their differences and similarities will result from a comparative reading of the Acts of Paul and An Ephesian Tale. In addition to stylistic similarities, preference for last-second rescues, and a pronounced disinterest in delaying gratification, Thecla's admiration for Paul amounts to a crush. In other acts similarities include adventures on the road and persecution from rivals. It is slightly more probable that the acts imitated popular novels to provide something appealing to Christian audiences than that they were produced to keep the faithful from consuming “heathen” romances.
Those interested in sex will generally find more in the acts than in most romantic novels. The sexual specifics of the acts tend toward the sado-masochistic end of the erotic spectrum. In environments where erotic thoughts and actions are to be suppressed, violence permits one to enjoy thoughts of involuntary sex (“it's not my fault; I was forced!”) while associating desire with punishment (see, e.g., Burrus 2005). It is worthy of note, although not surprising, that romantic novels which promoted lawful marriage as the cement of the social order and acts that rejected procreation as a responsible goal utilized similar literary techniques in pursuit of their goals. The death of the apostle or saint constitutes a happy end in the acts, for that is the means by which the holy achieve the happily ever after.
The most direct source and model of the acts was the canonical gospels, in particular Mark and John (Bovon 1988). Mark has resemblances both to the monograph and to biographies. Although the Gospel of Luke contains two chapters of birth and development material (if Luke 1–2 are original; see Tyson 2006), the canonical Acts begins, like Mark, with an epiphany of the Spirit, and, like Mark, closes on a resilient but incomplete note. John also serves as a prototype because of its inclusion of lengthy discourses. Like Jesus, his disciples recruit followers in the course of their peregrinations, attract crowds through working miracles, and finally so exacerbate the authorities that they are executed. Any hopes that the death of a leader would squelch the movement proved vain.
Most of the particular acts exhibit one or more exceptions to the general pattern. In the Acts of Peter the apostle's travels are limited to the environs of Jerusalem and Rome. The canonical Acts intimates, but does not narrate, the demise of Paul. John dies a natural death (Acts of John). A clear indication of the influence of the gospel genre is the tendency, expressed in different ways, for the apostles to become savior figures who recruit disciples who follow them, without formally usurping the place of the heavenly savior. (See Pervo 2010.)
Although the model of canonical gospels is present from the beginning, all of the acts—with the incomplete exception of the canonical—display continuation of the “radical” model of Jesus visible in Q and in the Gospel of Thomas. Their heroes are typically homeless itinerants who summon people to reject the world. In addition to interaction with popular novels, the acts can be fruitfully compared with political (in so far as Jesus is a world ruler and his disciples challenge worldly powers) and philosophical biographies.
A survey of the various acts provides scholars with an outline of early Christianity's ascent up the cultural ladder, including increasing literary sophistication and intellectual depth. From these perspectives the Acts of Andrew represents the culmination of educational achievement. The Acts of Thomas is a monument to Syriac-speaking Christianity, a phenomenon that once extended from Damascus to China and has not yet been completely extinguished.
Acts and Historiography.
Ancient historiography was essentially political, the record of important events affecting organized nations, ranging from city-states to empires. On the grounds of subject no works of early Christian literature prior to the fourth century constituted suitable material for history. Ancient historians always—like many modern historians—focused upon the present. Authors of contemporary history liked to assert their status as eyewitnesses. Research was chiefly limited to literary texts. (The Christian historian Eusebius was quite unusual in the number of documents that he cited or explicitly mentioned. The Jewish historian Josephus, whom Eusebius read, followed the conventions of Greek historiography while quoting from a number of primary sources.)
Historiography also had a number of formal conventions, few of which were mandatory and none of which could not be used in other writings. Prefaces constituted one common feature, but these were not restricted to history. The composition of suitable speeches for various occasions was a right widely assumed by historians, occasional criticism notwithstanding. To moderns the practice seems a breach of historiographical ethics.
From the earliest times authors have propounded stories as if they were factual records of actual events. Conventions and signals of fictionality exist (e.g., “once upon a time”), but these are neither constant nor reliable. The story of “the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30–35) displays no marks of fiction. It can be argued that it was a true story used as an illustration. In borderline cases investigators are frequently reduced to formulating guesses about an author's intentions or readers’ perceptions. Early Christian narratives were presented as true, but not as a record of historical events. This did not, and has not, prevented readers of every age from taking them at face value. Those who have objected to one or more acts have often been motivated by theological disagreement. Eusebius did not hesitate to draw historical data from various apocryphal acts, even if he disagreed with some of their theological propositions. As late as the twentieth century reputable historians could be found who approved of the description of Paul in the Acts of Paul 3 while ridiculing the account of his baptism of a lion (ch. 9). This judgment is purely rationalistic and based upon a concrete understanding of the text. More recent critics are likely to judge both accounts as symbolic representations of spiritual truths. Similar questions may be addressed to the tradition of classifying the canonical Acts as reliable historiography while consigning the other representatives of this type to the dustbin of fiction. Acts is not without historical value, but the difference is of degree—ranging from about 25 degrees to about 275 degrees in various critical judgments—rather than of kind. The belief that canonicity guarantees accuracy and “apocryphal” status fiction is a dogmatic judgment that has no place in historical criticism.
In sum, the apocryphal acts may be characterized as Christian historical novels that reflect a rich and fluid literary tradition, including the influence of various genres. They are historical in that they focus upon characters deemed to have existed and because they may portray actual events and reflect important traditions. They are novels both because of their form and because much of their contents derives from the minds of individual authors, influenced by sources and tradition. Scholars generally prefer to apply the designation “novel” to the apocryphal acts while withholding it from the canonical example. The terminology is less important than is recognition of the similarities and differences between and among the various texts.
The general purpose of these acts was to promote understandings of the Christian message. A common characteristic is staunch opposition to sexual reproduction, whether dealt with obliquely, as in the canonical Acts, or as a cardinal tenet of the faith, as in most of the other examples. The basis for this exaltation of celibacy is not, as once thought, originally and primarily due to “Gnostic” influence, which tends to enter the picture later, although suspicions of Gnostic content had a deleterious impact upon the interpretation of the apocryphal acts that lasted through the twentieth century. Other purposes vary widely and must be considered with the individual books, discussed in the following section.
Because they are popular in intent, the acts strive to present their message in engaging form. Spiritual uplift can be engaging with or without attempt at entertainment, but the acts sought also to entertain, to teach lessons via thrilling adventures and captivating tales. If these seem repetitious, that confirms their purpose, for those who direct their material to a mass audience know what it wants and continue to supply it; for evidence one may consult romance novels and television series, to name but two examples. One value of comparison with ancient novels is the light it throws upon what audiences of that era regarded as entertaining.
Dating and Intertextuality.
Major representatives of this literature appeared in the period from circa 100 to circa 225. Most controverted are the dates of the canonical Acts (ca. 60–ca. 125), the Acts of Paul (ca. 150–ca. 175), and the Acts of John (ca. 150–ca. 200). The consensus date of the first has been moving forward toward 100. Those who prefer an early date for the Acts of Paul generally wish to view it as independent from the canonical Acts. The (unrevised) Acts of John could be quite early. Because use of canonical Acts by the Acts of Paul seems beyond dispute and because the canonical book served as the main impetus for all of its successors (including the Pseudo-Clementine writings), the later dates are more probable on intertextual grounds (see Stoops 1997). The tentative chronological order followed here is: canonical Acts ca. 115; Acts of Paul, ca. 175; Acts of Peter, ca. 185; Acts of John, ca. 200; Acts of Andrew, ca. 215; and Acts of Thomas, ca. 225. The Acts of Paul and the Acts of Peter may be assigned to Asia Minor. That area is possible for the Acts of John, but either Alexandria or West Syria is somewhat more probable. Alexandria would suit the Acts of Andrew; the home of the Acts of Thomas was East Syria.
The fact of intertextual relationships among the acts is indisputable; their nature is extremely difficult to untangle. The canonical Acts inspired both the Acts of Paul and the Acts of Peter. Direct influence upon others is probable, if less certain. Establishment of intertextual relationships would be easier if complete early manuscripts of the acts existed, but they do not. Of the major apocryphal acts, only the Acts of Thomas is complete, and it does not survive in its original form. Even the canonical Acts survives in two editions. Mutual imitation and contamination further complicate the task of establishing literary relations among them. The earliest extant edition of the Acts of Paul has evidently borrowed a story from the Acts of Peter, but the former is most likely the earlier book. The popularity of these acts stimulated the production of different editions, some of which involved expansion of the texts or portions thereof, although abbreviation also occurred. The latter is more detectable. Prominent examples include the final chapters of the acts, lodged in liturgical books, and the selection of favored chapters, such as the story of Thecla, which was subsequently expanded to round off her career, or the Act of Peter found in a Coptic manuscript. The extant, largely Latin, Acts of Peter is an abbreviation and modification of a longer work. Gregory of Tours issued a Latin epitome of the Acts of Andrew.
The last is an example of editing into conformity with orthodox theological taste. Censorship dealt sharp blows to the apocryphal acts, in episodes, in total, and even collectively. Most scholars study editions or translations assembled from a variety of manuscripts of different provenance, date, and language. The characteristic episodes in which apostolic preaching leads to the disruption of a marriage are attested in few manuscripts. Monks and ecclesiastical authorities were all for voluntary celibacy, but did not want apostles depicted as wreckers of lawful unions. The Manicheans warmly embraced the apocryphal acts. With friends like those these books needed no enemies. The acts fell under a cloud. Nonetheless they continued to be read. The Third Council of Nicea in 787 condemned the Acts of John because it provided ammunition for iconoclasts. This condemnation indicates that the book continued to possess authority, since appeal to a rejected book would have discredited the opponents of religious images.
The Acts of Andrew.
This is the worst preserved and in some ways the least typical of the apocryphal acts. Alexandrian Christianity was quite diverse. The Acts of Andrew embraces a broad swathe of that spectrum, encasing a sophisticated theological system in the form of popular, sometimes vulgar, narrative. Middle Platonism, along with some contributions from Stoic ethics, and more than a dash of Christian “gnosis” Monarchian features (Father, Son, and Spirit are three aspects of the one God) help locate the work in the first half of the third century. Valentinian influence was strong in Christian Alexandria and could be fit into the framework of Middle Platonism. The eclecticism exemplified in borrowings from Stoicism that was characteristic of that era (cf. Philo). Comparison may be made with another novelist of Middle Platonic orientation: Apuleius of Madaura, who wrote the Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass).
Reassembly of these acts begins with the well-attested and highly edited passion of its protagonist. In addition to some substantial fragments is the aforementioned epitome of Gregory of Tours, a simplified presentation of the narrative bones. The bishop regarded the work as edifying and could not deny its popularity. By eliminating Andrew's sermons Gregory disposed of material that he viewed as highly suspect and probably incomprehensible to many, possibly including himself. The epitome serves as a useful guide to the structure, as well as to the narrative content of the book. Gregory's source began with an episode about Andrew and Matthias in a city distinguished by preference for a cannibalistic lifestyle. The current text of the Acts of Andrew and Matthias is a distinct piece that exhibits a number of differences from the other components of the Acts of Andrew.
Cannibal stories belonged then, as now, to the realm of the terrifying other. (See the novels Lollianos [fragmentary] and Leucippe.) Christian readers of quite modest sophistication would have interpreted this story as an allegory. If located at the beginning of a longer narrative the story would have served as a hermeneutical key that would have opened to those willing to look beneath the surface fresh insights into faith and the nature of reality. Salvation comes through insight, the recognition or “birth” of the genuine self. This awareness equips the faithful to free themselves from bodily passions and embrace an ascetic life. This theology is compatible with modern psychology. The apostle delivers his final sermon on the theme of renunciation over a period of some days while being crucified.
In 1994 Dennis R. MacDonald advanced a fresh intertextual theory: that the Acts of Andrew is a parody of the Odyssey. His theory has persuaded few in full, since he must reconstruct the book's plan before analyzing that structure, but he has discovered many enticing data and, most important, has undermined the wall separating Jewish and Christian from polytheistic texts.
The Acts of John.
Like other apocryphal acts, this text ran afoul of theological controversy and survives only in part, although a much later, well attested, and quite orthodox successor, known as the Acts of John by Prochorus, contains some portions of the early work. Excepting some later interpolations (see below), this work could be dated on theological grounds to the middle of the second century, but its ecclesiological concerns and the probability that it is later than the Acts of Paul suggest a date closer to 200. During the last decades of the second century emergent orthodoxy (e.g., Irenaeus) had identified the apostle John with the “beloved disciple” of John 13–21 and therefore as the author of the Fourth Gospel. He was located in Ephesus, the metropolis of Asia and home to numerous heresies, against which the Johannine writings, as understood by people like Irenaeus, were potent weapons. The Acts of John turns this assemblage upside down, utilizing the association of John the Apostle at Ephesus to uphold a non-orthodox viewpoint. This book helps scholars follow the history of the “deviant” forms of Johannine methods (glimpsed in 1–3 John) into a later period and notes its integration into the realm of Valentinian thought.
The beginning of the Acts of John is missing. The story evidently opened at the Sea of Galilee, where the risen savior appeared to very young John and dissuaded him from marriage. This would have constituted his call. After other lost episodes, the extant text begins with the apostle returning to Ephesus. There he responds to the supplication of the chief magistrate, Lycomedes, on behalf of his wife Cleopatra. She perished from illness, whereupon he succumbed to grief. John restored her to life and arranged for her to revive Lycomedes. He responded in a typical manner, by commissioning a portrait of John, to which he rendered devotion. Discovery of this situation supplied the apostle with an opportunity to contrast internal with external. The body is death personified, as it were. Images are dead symbols of the dead. Resurrection, the staple miracle of the Acts of John, symbolizes the gift of genuine life.
The next major episode is an astonishing public healing of all the elderly, sick women in the theater. This is a symbolic baptism of a place associated with potential and actual bloodshed (Acts 19; Acts Paul 9). From other sources it transpires that John converted one Drusiana. Like many women won over by the gospel, she was socially prominent, as was her husband, Andronicus, who took exception to her withdrawal from the conjugal bed. Both convert and converter landed in jail. This type of episode is scarcely rarer than sunrises in the apocryphal acts. It represents the continuation of the literary tradition of the canonical book, in which persecution drives the plot, introducing peril that ends in greater success. In this case Andronicus converted.
A vision of Christ intended to comfort the incarcerated Drusiana only confused her because of the savior's many forms. John responds with an embedded “gospel” (narrative of Jesus’ life) concentrating on the pivotal events from the Last Supper through the crucifixion. The meal included the famous “Hymn of Christ” with its attendant dance. While Jesus hung on the cross the true Christ revealed himself to John, who was watching events from a convenient cave. The different appearances assumed by both the earthly Jesus and the heavenly Christ illuminate the perennial problem of the one and the many. Polymorphy—a quality taken for granted by the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon—can serve both theological and dramatic ends.
After a gap the story resumes with the apostle's destruction of the temple of Artemis, yet another improvement upon Paul (Acts 19). The collapse killed a priest of the goddess, who was revived to join his brother, who had already changed his religious allegiance. Following this is a tale about a man who murdered his father because he disapproved of his son's adulterous affair. Remorse led the youth to plot the deaths of his mistress, her husband, and himself. John leads him away from this dreadful path and revives the dead father, who says, in effect, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The youth's climactic act is self-castration, a deed nearly as distasteful to the apostle as sexual intercourse.
While John was absent on mission, Drusiana died out of despair that she had become the object of lust. Her admirer was a leading citizen, Callimachus. Undeterred, he resolved to have his way with the corpse. Heaven thwarted these lascivious ambitions. These facts come to light in the post-posthumous revelations of Callimachus, whom the apostle had brought back to life. With his conversion the burden upon Drusiana had been removed, and John restored her to the community. This macabre episode has displeased modern critics. For his part, John knows when to quit and dies, uniquely for an apostle, of natural causes.
If the narrative of the Acts of John can approach the surreal, that is because earthly reality is illusory, at best. In short, narrative and theology cohere. The symbolic stage is crowded, because the narrator, inspired by the Johannine tradition, regards no single system of myth or group of images as adequate for the presentation of transcendent truth. Plurality can help point to the one, but it also reveals the limits of every system. Many of the faithful want clearer, more straightforward, and, by and large, simpler answers. Proto-orthodoxy appreciated this desire. The Acts of John is a riposte to the idea of the simple answer and the single system. Today these ideas are seen to have merit, but matters were quite different in the second and subsequent centuries. Few of the acts received such strong condemnation as did this work.
The Acts of Paul.
This is probably the earliest of the apocryphal acts. Consensus locates it in Asia Minor in the second half of the second century, most likely circa 175. Literarily, if not directly, it constitutes the bridge between the canonical and other acts. Because it shares much of the form and the major character with Acts, the Acts of Paul has to be characterized in some relationship to it. The poles are: a sequel and a rival. During the last half of the second century the Acts of Paul was arguably more widely used than the book that became canonical. It appears on some lists of biblical texts and was a trusted source for ecclesiastical writers well into the Middle Ages. The theology of the Acts of Paul resembles that of many biblical writers. Despite the fact that it was the most catholic of the acts, no more than two-thirds of the text survives. Its contents must be assembled from material of different eras and languages. Nonetheless, the original shape is clear: a series of episodes evidently beginning with Paul's conversion at Damascus and ending with his execution at Rome. The narrative consists in movement from one missionary station to another, although little interest in forming new communities appears. In this sense the work is utterly anachronistic.
Two components survive because of liturgical use: the martyrdom, in the customary manner, and the story of Thecla, probably the best known of all the narratives in the apocryphal acts, preserved and revised for use in her veneration. Also preserved was the correspondence known as 3 Corinthians, a later (third-century) addition to the acts that sought to reinforce its orthodoxy. The story of Thecla was originally independent. The author of the Acts of Paul integrated what is now chapter 4 (Antioch) into a narrative that began with Thecla's conversion by Paul (ch. 3, Iconium).
The author proceeded with quite scrupulous attention to conform Paul's practices to 1 Corinthians and to set them against those advocated by the author of 1–2 Timothy and Titus (the Pastoral Epistles; see MacDonald 1983). Second-century (and later) Christians tended to absolutize Paul's views on marriage (1 Cor 7). Extremes are represented by these acts, which forbid sex even to married couples, and the Pastorals, which more or less require it. This opposition to sex generates considerable controversy and thus narrative incident. The grounds for Paul's execution are not, however, the disruption of marriages but firm rejection of the imperial state. The spiritual milieu of the Acts of Paul shows some affinities to the intensely apocalyptic and charismatic movement that would presently erupt in rural Asia (“The New Prophecy,” or Montanism).
Its gospel-like character is apparent in Paul's relationship with Thecla, for whom he is like Jesus, and in the finale, which comes equipped with a tomb scene and a well-chosen post-mortem appearance to Nero and his inner circle. At the very least the Acts of Paul wished to supplement the canonical book by finishing the apostle's story. It should not be overlooked that the author set aside Luke's account of Paul's arrest in Jerusalem and attributed the grounds for his death not to antagonizing Jews but to disrupting the imperial family. Moreover, if the canonical Acts exhibited some anti-imperial sentiments, they were far too pusillanimous for this author, who preferred an apostle who threw down the gauntlet to one who allowed a few ironic hints and untidy ends.
The Acts of Peter.
The current state of the Acts of Peter, probably two-thirds of the original, reflects the pressures of ecclesiastical politics. The beginning is, as usual, lost. The bulk of the surviving material is, the martyrdom excepted, found in a Latin version that does not antedate the fourth century. The extant text is set in Rome, the imperial capital and subsequent residence of the most powerful bishop in Western Christendom. Those bishops were not unwilling to embrace the presumed founder of the Roman see and leader of Jesus’ disciples. Among the revisions was the addition of Paul, who is the leader of the Roman community as the book opens. When Paul is summoned to Spain, God arranges for Peter to head for Rome, where, lacking an apostle, things are a mess. Travel was never a prominent feature of the Acts of Peter; Antioch seems to have been omitted. Peter limits himself to work in two political capitals: Jerusalem and Rome. The original Acts of Paul and Peter ran on quite separate tracks. Both ended their earthly work in Rome, but quite independently of one another. The force of tradition, which celebrated these two saints as patrons of Rome replacing Romulus and Remus, would eventually bring about a joint Roman ministry and martyrdom. That force is already apparent in the oldest surviving edition of the Acts of Peter.
The original gave more scope to Jerusalem and environs, including Peter's first encounter with Simon, who has come down in history with the surname “Wizard” (Magus). Unable to best Peter, Simon let the roads lead him to Rome, where he quickly seduced nearly the entire Christian community.
Two of the early episodes survive, one in Coptic, the other in Latin, which exhibit a strong misogynistic prejudice in favor of female virginity. Interest in chastity has evidently been edited out of much of the extant text. The Coptic text presents Peter's failure to heal his beautiful but crippled daughter, despite the many others from whom he has removed physical impairments. The apostle heals her, evidently to show that he has the power to do so, but promptly restores her to her pathetic state. It transpires that she had become an occasion of temptation by the age of ten. Ptolemy, a wealthy man, had seen her bathing with her mother and was swept away. After his offer of marriage was declined, he had her kidnapped. Soon thereafter she was left at the parental door, crippled. Ptolemy repented and gave his property to the believers.
The Latin narrative is no more enlightened. In response to a gardener's petition that Peter pray for what was best for his virgin daughter, she dropped dead. At the father's behest Peter raised her. Within a few days she ran off with a visitor. The interpretation that springs first to mind is better dead than wed. Another approach would take these episodes as vivid arguments for Providence: God does what is best for the faithful even when they believe that they have been neglected.
The extant text does not introduce chastity until the last chapter. Peter, as noted above, arrives in Rome to reverse the depredations of Simon, who has enticed to his side most of the community, including the Roman senator Marcellus, who, as befit his status, was a financial pillar of the community. The chosen means for deciding between the two leaders was a contest, familiar to everyone in Greco-Roman antiquity, and, more specifically in the biblical tradition, the running battle between Moses and Pharaoh's picked wizards. The contest is an exciting and often amusing story that has left modern theologians distinctly disgruntled.
In every case the good Simon (Peter) can match and supersede the remarkable deeds of the bad Simon. An infant talks (“out of the mouth of babes”), and, unforgivably, a dog talks, a dried fish is revived, as are humans. The climax arrives with Simon's plan to fly like a bird. Peter's well-aimed prayer brings him down with a mortal wound.
Sex and religion can be a more potent formula than magic, as Cecil B. DeMille (whose 1932 film, The Sign of the Cross, was a cousin twice removed of the Acts of Peter) demonstrated for decades. The abstinence of Christian wives and mistresses irritated their powerful husbands and masters, igniting a persecution. Christ appears in the famous Quo Vadis scene, turning Peter back to the path of discipleship, which generates another legend: crucifixion upside down, accompanied by a sermon. As in the Acts of Paul a revelation to Nero ends the persecution.
Other texts centered upon Peter are cumbersomely known as the Pseudo-Clementines, as they purport to stem from Clement, a traditional leader of the Roman community in the late first century. The original work evidently appeared in West Syria around the middle of the third century. Formally it could be described as an Acts of Peter encased within a family novel. The plot would be at home in a New Comedy. Various revisions yielded two works, the Homilies, issued in the fourth century by an editor inclined to Arianism (a view that subordinated Christ's divinity), and the Recognitions, which survives in Latin and Syriac versions. Theologically these works promote rationalistic, quasi-Gnostic, anti-Pauline, Judeo-Christian ideas. Peter's enemy remains Simon the Magician, whose theology is that of Paul. The extremely complex plot (Pervo 2010, pp. 177–184) centers on Clement's quest for religious truth and the missing members of his family. The two may have been well coordinated in the original edition. Despite its deviations from theological correctness and its (evidently overlooked) antipathy to Paul, the Recognitions became the normative Western account of Peter's Palestinian ministry, ousting the old Acts of Peter.
The Acts of Thomas.
This is the only complete example of the type. The Acts of Thomas is also the sole apocryphal acts evidently not composed in Greek, although the matter remains open to debate. In any case its author was intimately familiar with the Greek Bible and many early Christian writings. Its home was the bilingual, multicultural area of East Syria. In West Syria Peter's name conveyed authority. East Syria appealed to traditions associated with Thomas, competed with other believers for the allegiance of James, and rejected Paul. Christianity in eastern Syria during the early third century had distinctive features, including a general requirement for celibacy after baptism. If the Acts of Thomas is doctrinally deviant by Western standards, it presents the normal theology of its place of origin.
The book begins with a lottery distributing the regions of the earth among the twelve apostles. Thomas wanted a new drawing, as he did not appreciate receiving India as his territory. He landed there anyway, as a slave. Casually examined, the first six sections appear to be a loose string of episodes, while “acts” 7–13 center on the court of King Misdai (Misdaeus). In fact, the opening chapters exhibit a different level of organization. Chapters 6–7 contain a hymn, set in the context of a royal wedding (cf. Matt 22:1–14), that portrays the marriage of Christ and the church. This poem invites the thoughtful, biblically literate reader to engage the text on a symbolic level of rich intertextual associations. The stirring adventures do not dispel a dreamy quality from the narrative. Chapters 108–113 contain another hymn. On the surface this is a fine fairy tale. Its deeper level presents the theology of the book in poetic form. Textual evidence indicates that, although it arose in a kindred theological milieu, this “Hymn of the Pearl” was a subsequent addition to the text. Few authors have received the services of a more competent interpolator.
The Acts of Thomas is clearly dualistic, but, like the Acts of John, it does not borrow from a developed “Gnostic” philosophy. Humans are fallen creatures. Their fall brought mortality and desperate efforts to cancel its effects through procreation. Celibacy opens the way to recovery of the primordial, asexual self. The properly managed body can convey its owner to the gate of the heavenly city. Chapters 39–41 illustrate this through an ass gifted with human speech. Unlike the talking dog of the Acts of Peter 9–12, this donkey can evoke a biblical precedent: Balaam's ass (Num 22). He asks to carry Thomas to the city, does so, and dies, mission completed. The Acts of Thomas is a profound religious novel that can be read for both profit and pleasure.
One of its tropes is based upon the view that Thomas's proper name was Judas, and that he was the twin brother of Jesus. (“Thomas” means “twin” in Aramaic, as does “Didymos” in Greek: John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2. “Twin” could be a nickname.) This can allow for mistaken identity (ch. 11) and, at the theological level, for the notion of the “soul” as one's heavenly “twin” self. The twin feature also appears in the Recognitions and plays a role in the Acts of Philip.
The Acts of Philip.
The Acts of Philip lies on the boundary between the major acts of the second and third century and their reception (see Bovon et al. 1999). Although large portions of this book have been recovered, it is not yet complete. As it stands the book belongs to the fourth century. The first seven “acts” are a composite of various sources, some as early as the second century. Acts 8–15 and the Martyrdom are unified. The original theology must be disentangled from layers of revision. The Acts of Philip is militantly supportive of celibacy. The dominant christological image is medical: the savior and the Christian message provide healing for the soul.
Relevance of the Acts for the History of Early Christianity.
To a substantial degree the various acts, most notably but not exclusively the canonical and those of Peter and of Paul, constituted the history of early Christianity. History meant recitation of the stories of the leaders. One can see a parallel in the biographies of Roman emperors. The notion that church history was the history of the ordained leaders dominated into the twentieth century. This was not a burden the various acts were designed to bear. At present they serve as indirect sources for ecclesiastical history.
For more than a millennium hagiography served as the dominant, sometimes the exclusive form of Christian prose literature. Although hagiography did not develop from the acts alone, they served, with their parallels and prototypes, as a major impetus for hagiography, which in function succeeded, without fully superseding, the acts. Church history was viewed as a continuum, an unfinished nave. If apostles occupied the front and foremost examples of stained glass artistry, other saints occupied successive windows. Early hagiography is still read, and modern examples continue to appear.
The canonical Acts established the normative picture of Christian origins. For most people, including many scholars, the story is simple fact. On the grounds of omission alone that view cannot stand, but it has been most persuasive. For example, the Lucan pattern has shaped the Christian calendar: Christmas, Circumcision, Presentation, Annunciation, Holy Week, Ascension, and Pentecost. Luke's salvation-historical orientation has provided the most general and popular approach to the Bible, which may be summarized as, or reduced to, the story of God's people.
Successive acts furnish a useful variety of theologies, including the sophisticated (Acts Andr., John, Thom.) and the generally “popular” (Acts Pet. and Paul). These testify to the diversity of Christian thought and indicate a high level of comfort with Docetism (Christ's humanity was not genuine) and Modalistic Monarchianism.
The History of Interpretation and Reception History.
The canonical Acts left few marks on the first few centuries. For Irenaeus it was of great value. Clement of Alexandria also knew the book. John Chrysostom's Homilies on Acts, circa 400, are the first known substantial reflection. The ancient and medieval interpretation of the apocryphal acts was marked by condemnation, censorship, and revision, clear signs of vitality. The general tendency was to treasure the miracle stories and trash the theology. Only in rare cases was the “historical,” that is, narrative, material challenged. Theologians of the Renaissance and Reformation era usually despised the noncanonical acts. General disdain prevailed until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Critical scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries challenged the historical reliability of the canonical Acts, although it continues to have its defenders.
The apocryphal acts have been the subject of vigorous attention in recent decades, yielding new editions, translations, and a number of specialist investigations. This activity reflects academic shifts toward an appreciation of pluralism and minority voices as well as the attraction of feminist, cultural studies, and other modern methods. The apocryphal acts are now viewed as important because they attest to the reception of various canonical and other texts and to the diversity of early Christian thought in its popular expression. Post-Structuralist thought has rejected the criterion of elite taste. All texts are worthy of study.
The numerous “minor” acts, featuring such figures as Barnabas, Titus, and Bartholomew, as well as later texts about the more famous apostles, tend to be orthodox in theology and ecclesiological in orientation (see de Santos Otero 1992). Acts proved a useful medium for the communication of messages. These serve as both elements of reception history and as examples of literary and theological transformation.
In the history of art it is almost possible to argue that the impact of Christian apocrypha has been greater than that of canonical scripture. Surviving artistic depictions assist in the reconstruction of the Acts of John, for example (see Cartlidge and Elliott 2001). This interest has not vanished. Gustav Holst set his own translation of the Hymn of Jesus from the Acts of John to music in 1917. Luis Buñuel's film La voie lactée (1969) depicted the accompanying dance. The Acts of Peter received a makeover in Henry Sienkiewcz's 1896 novel, Quo Vadis, freshly retranslated into English in 1989, and also inspired a 1951 film. Thomas B. Costain utilized those acts for his 1952 best-seller The Silver Chalice, which in 1954 became a major film.
- Bovon, François. “The Synoptic Gospels and the Non-canonical Acts of the Apostles.” Harvard Theological Review 81 (1988): 19–36.
- Bovon, François, ed. with Bertrand Bouvier and Frédéric Amsler. Acta Philippi. Corpus Christianorum. Series Apocryphorum 11–12. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999.
- Bremmer, Jan N. has edited a collection of essays on each of the Apocryphal Acts: The Apocryphal Acts of Andrew, 2000; Peter, 1998; and Thomas, 2001 (Leuven: Peeters); and John, 1995; and Paul and Thecla, 1996 (Kampen: Pharos).
- Burrus, Virginia. The Sex Lives of Saints. An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
- Cartlidge, David R., and J. Keith Elliott. Art and the Christian Apocrypha. London: Routledge, 2001.
- Elliott, J. Keith, ed. The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation based on M. R. James. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993. A standard collection of texts, with good English translations and other features.
- Hägg, Tomas. The Novel in Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
- Junod, Eric, and Jan-Daniel Kaestli. Acta Johannis. 2 vols. Corpus Christianorum. Series Apocryphorum 1–2. Turnhout: Brepols, 1983.
- Klauck, Hans-Josef. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction. Translated by Brian McNeil. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008. This is the standard handbook.
- Lalleman, Pieter J. The Acts of John. Leuven: Peeters, 1998.
- MacDonald, Dennis R. The Acts of Andrew. Edited by Julian Hills. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Polebridge, 2005. A new American translation with introduction and notes.
- MacDonald, Dennis R. Christianizing Homer: The Odyssey, Plato, and The Acts of Andrew. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- MacDonald, Dennis R. The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983.
- Pervo, Richard I. Acts; A Commentary. Edited by H. W. Attridge. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
- Pervo, Richard I. “Direct Speech in Acts and the Question of Genre.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28 (2006): 285–307.
- Pervo, Richard I. The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.
- Prieur, Jean-Marc. Acta Andreae. 2 vols. Corpus Christianorum. Series Apocryphorum 5–6. Turnhout: Brepols, 1989.
- Reardon, Brian P., ed. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
- Santos Otero, Aurelio de. “Later Acts of the Apostles.” In Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 2:426–483.
- Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, ed. New Testament Apocrypha vol. 2, Writings Relating to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, Translated and edited by R. McL. Wilson. Rev. ed. Cambridge, U.K.: James Clarke, 1992. The standard reference work, with substantial introductions and many complete translations.
- Stoops, Robert F., ed. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles in Intertextual Perspectives. Semeia 80 (1997).
- Tyson, Joseph B. Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
Richard I. Pervo