[This entry contains two subentries, Old Testament and New Testament.]

Old Testament

The Apocrypha refers to a collection of Jewish writings that are not found in the Hebrew Bible but are included in the Greek Jewish translation of the Bible, the Septuagint (LXX). The Hebrew text of the Jewish scriptures constitutes the Old Testament in the Protestant canon of the Bible, and the core of the Old Testament in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.

The term “Apocrypha” is a misnomer. In Greek it means “hidden (books),” but there is nothing either hidden or esoteric about these writings. They have, as it were, been hiding in plain sight since antiquity, as part of the LXX.

The books in the Apocrypha may be divided into several categories. First, are the books that are found in Roman Catholic, Greek, and Slavonic Bibles. These include Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus/Sirach, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Additions to Esther and Daniel, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. These books are often referred to as “deuterocanonical books” (from a decree of the Council of Trent in 1546). Second are those books found in Slavonic and Greek Bibles but not in the Roman Catholic canon: 1 Esdras, Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees. Third, is the book appearing in the Slavonic Bible and as an appendix to the Latin Vulgate: 2 Esdras. Finally, the book of 4 Maccabees appears in an appendix to the Greek Bible.

Since Roman Catholics use the category “deuterocanonicals,” for the first grouping, the term “Apocrypha” in Catholic and Orthodox circles refers to additional books not included in the deuterocanonicals: those in the other three categories above and a large number of texts elsewhere referred to as Pseudepigrapha. The term “Apocrypha” was applied by Jerome to those books in the Septuagint (LXX) which were not part of the Jewish canon, which included the books later designated as “deuterocanonical.” As he translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin, Jerome considered canonical the books which he knew in Hebrew. He also translated the additional books in the LXX, though with less care and enthusiasm. His view differed from that of Augustine and many leaders in the Western church.

The location of the apocryphal books in the Christian Bible is another important matter. When they are included in Protestant and ecumenical Bibles, the Apocrypha are en bloc, almost as a third section of the Bible, between the canonical Old Testament and New Testament. In Roman Catholic editions, the seven deuterocanonical books are interspersed with the rest of the books of the Old Testament, usually placed together with books of a similar literary type: historical narratives, poetry, prophets. These books are sometimes referred to as “Jewish post-canonical literature” (Torrey 1945, p. v), or the Jewish literature “between the Testaments,” or the “outside books” (a traditional Jewish designation).


The literary divisions in the LXX yield three distinct groupings of texts.


The histories comprise eighteen books in the LXX, including the Former Prophets and four books that belong to Writings (Ketuvim) in the Jewish canon, as well as all of the Historical Books in the Protestant Bible. The additional books in the LXX, which are part of the Apocrypha, are Judith, Tobit, and the four books of Maccabees. The narratives in these books bear some similarity to the “historical books” of the Old Testament: Joshua–2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. In terms of content, 1 Esdras, 1, 2, and 3 Maccabees most closely correspond to the Old Testament histories. The books of Tobit, Judith, and Greek Esther are sometimes described as fictional narratives or novels.

Poetic Books.

The poetic books form another section. The poetic corpus includes Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job; many of these books are categorized as Wisdom books. The LXX adds two books of poetic wisdom: Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus; partially extant in Hebrew), which builds on materials similar to Proverbs and Qoheleth, and the Wisdom of Solomon, which presents theodicy and divine providence within a framework of Jewish Hellenistic thought. Sometimes these poetic books are placed last in the LXX collection (as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus), but they precede the prophets in Codex Vaticanus. This latter order is supported by many textual witnesses in both the Eastern and Western tradition.

The LXX Psalter differs occasionally from the Masoretic Text in regard to the numbering of psalms and verses, but one significant difference is that the Greek text concludes with Psalm 151 (a Davidic psalm based on a Hebrew original, which is attested at Qumran in 11Q Psa) rather than Psalm 150. Another psalter text, not found in the LXX, but a part of the larger Apocrypha is the Prayer of Manasseh. Two works considered “poetic” today (the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men) are part of the additions to the book of Daniel in the LXX (see below). These last four texts expand our knowledge of prayer and hymnic forms developing in the Judaism of the Hellenistic period.

Prophetic Books.

To the Latter Prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve), the LXX adds Baruch; the Letter of Jeremiah (= 4 Bar chap. 6), in which the prophet Jeremiah addresses exiles in Babylon, urging them to reject idols and cult-images; Lamentations (considered to be connected with Jeremiah), Daniel, along with Susanna, Bel, and the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men (as part of Daniel). Codex Vaticanus places this collection last in its Old Testament, which may suggest a theological judgment, locating prophets in closest proximity to the New Testament.

History of Composition and Canonization.

Scholars generally date the composition of most of these works between 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. Most of them come from the Palestinian arena (e.g., Sirach, 1 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Psalm 151, Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Young Men). These judgments derive either from the subject matter or the presumed language of composition (e.g., Psalm 151, Sirach, and 1 Maccabees in Hebrew, and Tobit, probably in Aramaic). The Greek style and philosophical tone of Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees suggest Alexandria as their origin; the subject matter, Greek style, and setting of 3 Maccabees suggest Egypt as well.

Jewish Community.

The canonical situation of these books is complex. None of these texts forms part of the Jewish canon of the Bible, even though some Jews in Palestine (notably at Qumran and Masada) apparently considered the following authoritative, if not canonical: Sirach, Psalm 151, Tobit, Letter of Jeremiah. Eventually, however, they were not included in the rabbinic canon, because of their perceived late date (i.e., after the cessation of prophecy), their apparent language of composition or preservation (i.e., Greek rather than Hebrew or Aramaic), or their inclusion of elements that conflicted with well-established rabbinic halakah.

Some scholars have posited an Alexandrian Jewish canon, represented by the LXX, which included most of these books. But this concept proves difficult to sustain, since the most important witnesses to the LXX come from Christian codices of the fourth to fifth centuries, not from Jewish hands. Christian use of books in the apocryphal collection may—but just as well may not—reflect choices made by the Alexandrian Jewish community.

Early Christians.

Some books of the Apocrypha appear in lists of sacred books by early Christian writers and synods. Early Christian writers in the East like Origen, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Melito of Sardis demonstrate reserve regarding the inclusion and use of the Apocrypha. The longer versions of Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah (including Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah) were often considered canonical, and Tobit, Judith, and Wisdom of Solomon enjoyed extensive use. Cyril of Jerusalem (315–386) mentions to a catechumen a narrow canon of twenty two books, which would not have included the Apocrypha; elsewhere, however, Cyril makes use of the Wisdom of Solomon.

Jerome and Augustine stand at the apex of Western Christian opinion on the Apocrypha. Jerome considered the Hebrew text superior to the Greek, noting differences between the Hebrew and Greek texts and canons. He distinguished between “canonical” books, which were extant in Hebrew and useful for doctrine, and “ecclesiastical” books, which could be read in churches, especially for edification. On the other hand, Augustine advocated the LXX as the inspired collection for church use. He knew that some Eastern churches used the additional books in the LXX and likely sought to share this practice with them. His view of the canon was followed by the Council of Carthage (397) and many writers in the Western church, such as Gregory the Great, John Damascene, Hugh of St. Victor, and Nicholas of Lyra. As a result, most Latin Bibles included the apocryphal books, along with a few others like Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras. This situation persisted through the medieval era.

Reformation Era.

The Reformation focus on sola scriptura generated Protestant discussion of the Apocrypha. Luther translated the Hebrew texts into German, following the Hebrew canon and Jerome before him. He thus set aside the apocryphal texts which he considered problematic, because they might be seen as justification for disputed Catholic practices, for example, Tobit 4:17 as prooftext for the saving value of works of mercy, and 2 Maccabees 12:43–45 as evidence of prayers for the dead (and thus a warrant for offering Masses for the dead). For Luther, these books provided good, useful reading so he retained them in his Luther Bible (1534), along with introductions which he wrote. He placed these books in a special section between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Other Reformed theologians held that one could not use these books for scriptural proof of doctrines, or in disputations. They adhered more strictly to a imited canon of scripture. In his Bible of 1543, Zwingli distinguished between the canonical (Hebrew) books and “Church books”—that is, the (moral) books “Wisdom and Jesus Sirach.” Calvin denied the Apocrypha any claim to divine inspiration, but allowed occasional use for purposes of edification. In his 1546 Bible, Calvin speaks of the Apocrypha as “private writings” which contain some good and useful teaching. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent countered the Reformed focus on Hebraica veritas by adopting the wider canon that included the seven contested books. This situation obtains to this day.

The English (Anglican) Church traditionally printed the Bible with the Apocrypha between the Testaments (Myles Coverdale's Great Bible of 1535; the Authorized Version of 1611). Two strong countermovements were found among the Puritans and the Scottish bishops; both worked to limit the influence and use of the Apocrypha. Protestant influence on the Episcopal Church in the United States led to a diminished use of the Apocrypha in the American Book of Common Prayer. In 1827 the newly founded British and Foreign Bible Society ceased providing funds to publish the Apocrypha; after that, many editions of the King James Version normally appeared without the Apocrypha. But by 1954 the number of readings from the Apocrypha in the Episcopal lectionary had grown again (to 111), and today their lectionary resembles somewhat the Roman Catholic lectionary with its deuterocanonical readings.


The Orthodox churches maintain a strong link to the scriptures used by the apostolic church, which used the LXX. Still, the deuterocanonical books were not used as sources of doctrine, but for spiritual enrichment and teaching. Old Testament and deuterocanonical lections usually appear in Vespers services, with Wisdom of Solomon being the most prominent.

These historical notes on the acceptance and utilization of the apocryphal books in various Christian churches demonstrate many different views on the significance of the apocryphal books. They imply that no clear lines of demarcation can be established regarding the apocryphal books’ import, but that these books continue to play a part in theological discussions and are read in various ways in different Christian communities.

Significance for Understanding Early Judaism and Early Christianity.

The Apocrypha are important both for understanding the history, culture, and religious background of the New Testament and early Judaism and Christianity, and as texts that demonstrate theological positions and practices developed later in various church settings.

They advance our knowledge of how Jewish writings developed according to different socioreligious and cultural situations.

Sirach witnesses to the developing wisdom tradition in early Judaism, particularly in its interaction with Torah. The setting in Jerusalem shows a wisdom-school tradition dealing with earlier biblical traditions. The Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees demonstrate the adaptation of Jewish theological reflection to a Hellenistic Greek setting, replete with Greek philosophical notions, and touching on important issues like the immortality of the soul, theodicy, and the personified Lady Wisdom (perhaps developed here from the Isis traditions as well as from texts like Proverbs 8; see below). Fourth Maccabees demonstrates the significance of Stoic philosophical notions for Judaism, and the central place of reason.

Several of these books demonstrate the development of prayer in Judaism, especially the prayers present in the Additions to Daniel and Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon 8–9, Judith 9, 1 Maccabees, and Tobit.

The book of Judith reflects interpretive elaboration of such biblical narratives concerning Jael (Judg 4–5), Dinah (Gen 34), and Moses (Exod 15 and the “hand of Moses” motif). Here a feminine character serves as a leader for the Jewish community.

The developing practice of almsgiving emerges both in Tobit and in Sirach, where it atones for sin (Sir 3:30). Tobit 8:6 presents marriage in connection with Genesis 2, as does Jesus in the Gospels (Mark 10:7 and parallels). Significant theological ideas are evident throughout the apocryphal books. Reflection on creation continues, possibly even creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo; see 2 Macc 7:28). There is continuing reflection on the feminine personification of Wisdom (cf. Prov 8; 31:10–31 with Sir 24, Wis 7–9 and Bar 3:9—4:4). The connection made between the origins of sin and Eve (Sir 25:24), led to later Christian views concerning the subordinate status of women (see especially 1 Tim 2:11–14) Views of death and afterlife, the immortality of soul (Wis 3), resurrection from the dead, prayer for the deceased, and courageous witness (marturion) emerge in 2 Maccabees.

In sum, the apocryphal books and the circumstances of their composition and reception demonstrate the ongoing relationship between text and community identity. Modern study of the Apocrypha, as a collection, has enhanced understanding of diversity of belief and practice both within early Judaism and in subsequent Christian history. The inclusion of the Apocrypha in contemporary translations may thus herald a new era of mutual reflection, study, and appreciation of differences that are ultimately rooted in respect for ancient Jewish religious works that were also preserved and mentioned by the Christian community.



  • Collins, John J. Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
  • DeSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2002. A very detailed presentation and bibliographic resource for this collection; a Protestant perspective.
  • Greenslade, S. L., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1963. Excellent, detailed information about the reception history of the Bible.
  • Harrington, Daniel J., Invitation to the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999. Very useful introduction, with focus on issue of suffering, in this collection; a Roman Catholic perspective.
  • Kiley, Mark, ed. Prayer From Alexander to Constantine: A Critical Anthology. New York: Routledge, 1997. Prayers from Tobit, 3 Maccabees, and Judith, and an essay on prayer in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, pointing toward new area of study in the Apocrypha.
  • Kohlenberger, John R., III. The Parallel Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. The Rahlfs Septuagint text, with seven representative English translations; includes concise essays on the Apocrypha's role in Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox communities.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. An Introduction to the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957. A classic survey.
  • Meurer, Siegfried, ed. The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective. United Bible Societies Monograph Series 6. New York: United Bible Societies, 1991. Very helpful collection of ten essays discussing the value and problems of the Apocrypha in broad grouping of churches and Bible societies.
  • Swete, H. B. Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek. Revised by Richard Rusden Ottley. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1914. Reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1989. Invaluable resource for early history of the LXX, texts, and reception.
  • Torrey, C. C. The Apocryphal Literature: A Brief Introduction. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1945. Early and classic presentation.

John C. Endres, S.J.

New Testament

Unlike the Hellenistic Jewish writings commonly designated the Old Testament Apocrypha, which refers to an agreed number of texts, the comparatively recent title “The New Testament Apocrypha” is applied to an amorphous collection of Christian or quasi-Christian texts written in several countries over many centuries, beginning from the second century C.E., and in a variety of literary genres.

The definite article in the title suggests a fixed collection, which is not the case—modern scholarly compendia of such writings differ over what is included. The use of New Testament implies that the literary forms Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation are replicated in the later writings and, again, that is not true in most cases. And, finally, only very few of the texts commonly assembled under this umbrella term actually claim to have been apocryphal in its literal sense of “hidden.” Thus an overall term such as (early) noncanonical Christian writings would be more suitable.

The texts most commonly included in modern editions of New Testament apocrypha are those that are early or were most influential. (The writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the bulk of Gnostic texts such as those from the Nag Hammadi library are excluded from such collections.) Some of these “apocryphal” texts are known from only a few manuscripts or even only a single copy sometimes of quite recent discovery. However, in contrast to these sparse remains, it is remarkable that for several apocryphal texts many manuscripts containing a full text survive. The Protevangelium Iacobi, for example, a work of over twenty chapters, is extant usually in its entirety in its original language, Greek, in over one hundred manuscripts today. And not only do so many manuscripts exist that may be dated from differing centuries, thus betraying the ongoing appeal of the writings, but translations also survive. In the case of the Protevangelium these are in Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, Armenian, Slavic, and Arabic. Versions of other apocrypha in the ancient Christian languages also exist, thereby indicating their continuing and widespread popularity.

Students of Christianity and its doctrines neglect this literature at their peril. Some of the texts may indeed be influenced by teachings such as Gnosticism or Docetism, but that is not surprising, as many originated in the syncretistic world of the second and third centuries; the majority of these New Testament apocrypha—superstitious, magical, unsophisticated though many be—can properly be labelled proto-Orthodox.

Adverse critical comments by the church fathers, and early lists such as the Gelasian Decree, the List of the Sixty Books, and the Stichometry of Nicephorus provide evidence of the general and widespread use and knowledge of these apocryphal writings in antiquity. In the case of the Christian writings castigated as nonapproved many survived, sometimes in clandestine or catholicized versions. The apocryphal acts in particular were heavily rewritten, frequently revised, and epitomized. For example, Gregory of Tours rewrote the ancient Acts of Andrew, setting out, as he put it, to avoid verbosity and to omit “all that bred weariness.”

New Testament apocryphal texts may be divided into several categories:


There is a considerable body of sayings attributed to Jesus that may be collected from patristic writings, biblical manuscripts, and from apocryphal sources that are not paralleled in the New Testament. Such sayings are commonly called “agrapha,” that is, sayings “not written” in the New Testament itself. In addition to the familiar saying about the man working on the Sabbath found after Luke 6:4 in Codex Bezae, other famous agrapha include: “Be competent money-changers” (in Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.28.177), and “Ask for the great things, and God will add to you what is small” (ibid. 1.24.158). Some sayings such as those could represent early tradition and be Jesus’ own words; some result from false attribution (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:9 appears as a saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas 17); some, embedded in apocryphal works, may have been composed ad hoc for the work concerned.

Lost Gospels.

Some gospels are known now only by their titles, found in patristic and other sources, while extracts from some others are known from citations in patristic works. Among the latter are extracts from Jewish-Christian gospels (e.g., the Gospel according to the Hebrews, known from quotations in Origen and Jerome), the Gospel of the Egyptians, parts of which are quoted in the work of Clement of Alexandria, and the Preaching of Peter, parts of which are known from Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

Extant Gospels.

Some of the apocryphal gospels known today have survived complete or relatively so, and others are fragmentary. The main apocryphal gospel texts are the Protevangelium of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate). Some of these are birth or infancy gospels, others passion gospels; there is nothing among these writings comparable to the canonical gospels. What have also survived are texts that contain stories which could belong to the period of Jesus’ ministry. Some are small fragments containing sometimes only one episode, sometimes three or four stories. Again, we have no means of knowing the original scale of the texts from which these fragments have chanced to survive. The most famous of these fragments of apocryphal gospels is the second-century Egerton Papyrus 2 in the British Library. This contains four stories on the front and reverse of two fragments. These stories have biblical parallels, in particular the healing of a leper (cf. Matt 8:2–4 and parallels), paying tribute to Caesar (Matt 22:15–22 and parallels), the prophecy of Isaiah 29:13 (cf. Matt 15:7–8 and parallel ), and an episode with echoes of John 5:39, 45–6; 9:29. Among other fragments are the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 840 of the fourth century, which relates a scene in which Jesus defines true purity, and the so-called Fayyum fragment of the third century containing sayings at the Last Supper.

The Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Thomas is an example of a writing claiming to be the work of an early disciple, Didymus Judas Thomas; it was discovered in its entirety at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The colophon of the Gospel of Thomas states that it is “a gospel” but its opening words speak merely of its being a collection of “secret words.” The copy, written in Coptic, has been dated to circa 350 C.E. although the original composition of its text is usually dated some two centuries earlier. It contains 114 sayings, nearly all of them attributed to Jesus. As such, it may be comparable to the canonical gospel source known as Q, usually said to have been a collection of sayings of Jesus, without narrative. Many scholars as a consequence have discussed the nature of its sayings, in some cases claiming that the Gospel of Thomas may contain a more original form of a saying of Jesus than its canonical counterpart. This apocryphon is therefore


Apocryphal Gospel.

Three fragments of the “Unknown Gospel” (Egerton Papyrus 2). Two of the fragments relate four stories with biblical parallels; the third fragment (right) contains only a few words. The text, produced in Egypt between 100 and 150 c.e., is the earliest extant example of a Christian manuscript. Size: Fragment 1 (bottom): 4.5 × 3.6 inches (11.5 × 9.2 centimeters); Fragment 2 (top): 4.6 × 3.8 inches (11.8 × 9.7 centimeters); Fragment 3: 2.4 × 0.9 inches (6 × 2.3 centimeters).


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one of the few noncanonical texts in which the actual words of Jesus are said to exist.

Most scholars accept that the Gospel of Thomas was written later than the New Testament gospels, but the degree of dependence, or relationship, between the apocryphal text and the biblical is debated. An analysis shows that many of its sayings are linked to New Testament sources, especially the gospels. Some links are mere allusions; others are variants of the same saying; a few are almost exactly parallel. All of this opens intriguing questions about the history, origins, and significance of the sayings in Thomas.

The description “Gnostic,” usually intended as a pejorative term synonymous with “heretical,” has often been applied to the Gospel of Thomas as a whole. A common judgment is that the community responsible for preserving and circulating these sayings in the form in which it was eventually written was a Christian group sympathetic to or influenced by Gnosticism. This could mean that this gospel did not necessarily originate in a fully fledged Gnostic movement nor is it to be dismissed as unorthodox in its entirety. Often the mere fact that Thomas was found in the Nag Hammadi library is sufficient for some commentators to brand it, because of guilt by association, as a Gnostic work, when all that may be deduced is that the Nag Hammadi library found it a congenial work to possess.

Marian Gospels.

The natural curiosity of those reading the texts that became the four canonical gospels led to the need to amplify the story of Mary. Anyone attempting to tell her life story, based only on the New Testament, comes across many tantalizing gaps. Biographical queries arise: Where was she born? Who were her parents? How was she reared? What about her death? Other questions are theological: Why was this woman chosen to be the mother of Jesus? What was special and unique about her? What example can she set? It was in order to answer questions such as these that, by the second century, Christian imagination and piety produced many (apocryphal) tales about Mary. Some of these survived, despite official disapprobation.

The third–fourth century manuscript, Bodmer V, contains a gospel entitled “The Birth of Mary; the Revelation of James,” a text usually referred to as the Protevangelium, because it tells of events prior to Jesus’ birth and concerns Mary's parents, Anna and Joachim, her birth and upbringing. The purported author (according to its final paragraph) is James of Jerusalem, pseudonymous authorship being an ongoing tradition within Christian writing. Its stories reflect a developing tradition that was ultimately expressed in Christian teaching about the perpetual virginity of Mary. In addition, it gave support and impetus to feasts such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Presentation in the Temple.

The work is sometimes seen as apologetic in tone. One motive for its having been written seems to have been the defense of aspects of Christianity ridiculed by the second-century philosopher Celsus. To combat charges of Christianity's humble origins, the Protevangelium is at pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ parents were not poor: Joseph is a building contractor; Mary spins, but not for payment. Another motive may be to defend Jesus’ conception against charges of sexual irregularity: the pregnant Mary's virginity is vindicated before Joseph and later before the priests. Similarly, the Davidic decent of Mary is stressed (10:3), a significant detail once Joseph is described as only the putative father of Jesus. Jesus’ siblings, known from the canonical gospels, are now explained as Joseph's children from an earlier marriage. (Later, Jerome, objecting to such an apologia, preferred to say the siblings were in fact cousins.)

A later apocryphon, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew from the fourth–sixth centuries, popularized these legends about Mary's early life in Latin-speaking Christendom in the Middle Ages. What encouraged its wide circulation and acceptance were prefatory letters allegedly from bishops Cromasius and Heliodorus to Jerome and his reply to them. Those spurious letters, which also are found within other apocryphal texts, were added here to provide this gospel with appropriate credentials. The motive for the compilation of this gospel also seems to have been to further the veneration of Mary, not least by the inclusion of stories about the Holy Family's sojourn in Egypt.

The text known as De Nativitate Mariae (sometimes, less accurately, called the Gospel of the Birth of Mary) was also popular in the West. More than 130 manuscripts of this apocryphon have been catalogued. The gospel probably arose in the ninth century; in chapters 1–8 it is a free adaptation of Pseudo-Matthew, while chapters 9–10 follow the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke. The motive for its composition was to enhance devotion to Mary but without some apocryphal accretions found in Pseudo-Matthew that were doubtless deemed inappropriate or offensive.

Stories about Jesus’ Birth.

The Protevangelium of James 17–18 elaborates the account of the journey to Bethlehem and this seems to be the earliest reference to Jesus’ birth in a cave. The narrative includes a monologue by Joseph, who describes the wonders that accompanied Jesus’ birth, in particular the cessation of natural phenomena. The apocryphal writer obviously believed that the arrival on earth of the universal Savior demanded cosmic recognition. The moving star in the biblical account was not sufficient: in this developed tradition the catalepsy of nature was introduced as an appropriate accompaniment to the birth. Parallels may be drawn with the cosmic events that accompanied Jesus’ departure from earth, notably the eclipse and the earthquake at the time of his crucifixion (Matt 23:51–2; Mark 15:33).

A variation of the stories in the Protevangelium is to be seen in the later Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Here Jesus’ birth is acknowledged not only by the shepherds and the wise men, but also by animals. This well-known scene is due to the influence of the Old Testament, in particular Isaiah 1:3 and Habakkuk 3:2, and represents an ongoing tradition in which various biblical passages were read as Messianic prophecies that were then said to have been fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Pseudo-Matthew's use of Old Testament citations continues a tradition that arose at the beginning of Christianity.

Gospels of Jesus’ Childhood.

Several apocryphal gospels such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Arabic Infancy Gospel relate incidents about Jesus as an infant and a young boy. Their main theme is to show Jesus’ precocious awareness of his supernatural origin and his power over life, death, and nature. The biblical precedent for such stories is likely to be the account in Luke's Gospel of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve. That story is to be found in a modified form in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas—a second-century composition, which, together with the Protevangelium of James, seems to have had an enormous influence on Christian tradition, thanks partly to both having been reedited in other, later writings.

The belief in Jesus’ divinity is clearly orthodox, but the often sensational manifestations of his supernatural abilities displayed in the numerous childhood stories in the apocryphal gospels tend to distort that belief. Modern readers are struck less by the piety underlying the stories than by the destructiveness of many of Jesus’ actions. Such a negative theme may be paralleled in the New Testament story of Jesus’ blasting the fig tree (Mark 11:12–14, 20–4), but the repetition of this motif makes it the dominant feature of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in particular.

Passion Gospels.

The main accounts of Jesus’ death in apocryphal texts occur in the Gospel of Peter and in the Gospel of Nicodemus. The Gospel of Peter is likely to have been composed in the second century. (Eusebius reports that Bishop Serapion of Antioch circa 190 knew of a church in Rhossus that used this “unorthodox” book and initially permitted its reading.) Yet, although it was known in antiquity, the Gospel of Peter seemed to have disappeared without trace over the centuries. Unlike many of the other apocryphal texts which have been preserved, often in multiple copies, no manuscripts of this gospel were known until at the end of the nineteenth century a copy of a part of it was discovered during an archaeological excavation in Egypt. Since then, one or possibly two tiny fragments have also come to light. A reading of the main text shows that its passion narrative parallels very closely the story in the four canonical gospels, and it seems clear that the writer of the Gospel of Peter has drawn on these New Testament accounts for his version of Jesus’ passion. Much in this gospel repeats material in the canonical stories; modern printed gospel synopses often include parallels from Peter alongside the canonical passages. As the complete text of the Gospel of Peter has not survived, we have no means of knowing if the original composition was a full gospel, similar to the canonical four, recounting stories of Jesus’ ministry prior to his arrest.

The first half of the Gospel of Nicodemus from the fifth or sixth century tells of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection. The book is concerned with Pilate's role in the sentencing of Jesus. In it we note that Jesus’ power is shown to exceed that of the Roman state, the superiority of Christianity over earthly rule being one of the most dominant themes throughout the whole range of apocryphal literature. It is perhaps the single most significant unifying element of teaching in a body of literature that is otherwise amorphous, heterogeneous, and widespread geographically and chronologically.

The Descent to the Underworld.

It is interesting to note that the apocryphal tradition did not seek to elaborate stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances but it did elaborate upon Jesus’ descent to Hades. This credal affirmation seems to be based on a particular interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19. That verse encouraged later generations of Christians to expand what was meant there by Jesus’ appearance before imprisoned spirits. The apocryphal stories of Jesus’ descent to the underworld reflect those considerations, and in addition helped address the church's doctrinal concerns about the destiny of those who had died prior to Jesus’ incarnation. The main text describing these events is the fifth- or sixth-century Descensus ad Inferos, found in several manuscripts as the second half of the Gospel of Nicodemus. Here Jesus breaks down the gates of Hades, releases the faithful dead imprisoned there, and leads them to Paradise. This is the scene known in the medieval Mystery Plays as the Harrowing of Hell.

Another text, which partly parallels the Descensus, is the Questions of Bartholomew, dated perhaps as early as the second century. In that book Bartholomew confronts Jesus in the period before his ascension. Among many questions and answers is one concerning Jesus’ whereabouts after his crucifixion (when he is said to have vanished from the cross). Jesus’ reply is remarkably consistent with the story in the Descensus.


Several apocryphal texts relate stories about the end of Pilate, the Acta Pilati being the most extensive. For many early Christians the role and fate of Pilate were enigmatic. The apocryphal tradition reflects a continuing dilemma in judging his character. Possibly the change in attitude, especially in Western European sources, may be explained by the fact that the earlier goodwill of the Roman authorities had evaporated and turned to officially inspired persecution. Where a judgment on his career is expected, he is treated variously as a saint or as an outcast. In the Eastern Church, particularly in the Coptic and Ethiopic traditions, he was portrayed favorably. Those churches eventually canonized him. An apocryphal tale, usually known as the Paradosis Pilati, shows how one eastern legend treated Pilate: although Caesar has Pilate beheaded, Pilate's destiny is described as a triumph. The Western church judged Pilate harshly, as may be seen in the text known as the Mors Pilati, in which Pilate's corpse can find no resting place.

Apocryphal Acts.

Just as the apocryphal gospels amplify events relating to Jesus’ birth, childhood, and death, so the apocryphal acts tell us more about the founding fathers of the church. There are many apocryphal acts that have survived, but the most important and influential are the oldest: the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, and the Acts of Thomas. The stories themselves, although bearing some relation to the genre of literature parallel to the Acts of the Apostles with its breathless sequence of stories, journeys, conversions, plots, and speeches, are in effect Christianized counterparts to the popular reading-matter of predominantly literate Roman believers. Parallels to these Christian novels are to be found in erotic pagan literature. Eventually this type of literature gave rise to Lives of the Saints and hagiographies. But as far as the second-century acts and their immediate successors are concerned, the emphasis is on an individual apostle's miracles, prayers, preaching, and death.

Only the Acts of Thomas has survived intact. The other early acts are very fragmentary, especially in their early chapters. The ecclesiastical authorities who denounced these second–third century acts, labeling them as apocryphal, nonetheless seemed to allow their concluding section to survive. It is in those chapters where an account of the eponymous hero's death, usually a martyrdom, is to be found. Such accounts were presumably exemplary and of hortatory value to the faithful, even though the stories preceding the martyrdom were rejected by the authorities as uninstructive, secondary, or even unorthodox. Later, expurgated rewritings of the originals were encouraged. But some of the earlier, original acts can be reconstructed from surviving manuscripts and other sources.

The majority of the stories in the apocryphal acts are concerned with the deeds of the eponymous hero—these are the “acts” themselves. Some of the passages are well-known and have had their influence on Christian tradition. The description of Paul—small, bald, and bandy (in the Acts of Paul and Thecla)—is familiar. The description of Peter's inverse crucifixion occurs in the Acts of Peter. The tradition that India was evangelized by Thomas is found in the Acts of Thomas. The “Quo vadis?” (“Where are you going?”) scene in which Jesus sees the impending death of the apostle as a repetition of his own crucifixion comes from the Acts of Peter; and a comparable scene also occurs in the Acts of Paul. The story of Thecla, the woman apostle, in the Acts of Paul was very popular. From the Acts of John we read of a parricide who later castrates himself: he is rebuked by John for so doing but is then converted. In the same book we have an amusing tale in which John rebukes bedbugs who could disturb his sleep. From the Acts of Paul come the baptism of a lion, and Paul's subsequent preservation when thrown to the self-same lion. In the Acts of Peter is the story of an adulteress who becomes paralyzed when she tries to receive the Eucharist. Also there we find a story in which Peter revives a dead fish.

Historical Value.

Despite such stories, the apocryphal acts do have historical value, but obviously not concerning the events of the first-century world they purport to relate. Their most obvious importance is that they give an unparalleled insight into the popular folk religion of their own times. But even more important, they reveal aspects of early Christian preaching, teaching, and worship. Most of these acts are orthodox and catholic and stem from those second- to third-century Christians who in writing these stories of the apostles projected their own faith. Behind their undoubted exaggeration and distortion lie beliefs that share much with the New Testament in general and the Acts of the Apostles in particular.

The death of the apostle in the apocrypha may be compared to that of Jesus, especially in the cases of Peter and of Andrew who are crucified. In addition, the various trial scenes serve as convenient contexts for the authors to have their hero preach a sermon before large, and generally sympathetic, crowds. A courtroom is a useful device allowing the apostle to deliver a major apologia pro vita sua. Such defenses are likely to represent the rationale of those Christians who identify with the apostle in order to withstand their own tribulations. Among the speeches the farewell address of the apostle, from Stephen onward, is another valuable vehicle in which the author can give a defense of Christianity. Jesus’ three-chapter farewell discourse in the Fourth Gospel doubtless provided a precedent for the long farewell in, among other places, the Acts of Andrew.

The apostles in the apocryphal acts are imitators of Jesus even after death. The tradition is that Jesus overcame death; the apostles’ deaths are also claimed to be triumphs. Thomas reappears after death. Nero sees a vision (presumably of Peter) after Peter's death and subsequently ceases persecuting Christians. In the Acts of Paul Nero hears of Paul's reappearance; Longus, a proconsul, and Cestus, a centurion, see Titus and Luke praying with Paul after the latter's death. Later Christian practices such as the veneration of relics, the intercession of saints, and the tradition of patron saints may be traced to the influence of such stories.

Two particular passages within the apocryphal acts are worthy of attention because of the beauty and poignancy of their poetry. These are the Hymn of Christ in the Acts of John 94–95 and the Hymn of the Soul in the Acts of Thomas. Both poems are likely to have been insertions into their respective narratives; they may previously have existed independently. The former concerns Christ and the disciples who exchange versicles and responses within the context of a dance. The latter is a charming oriental allegory concerning a youth who sets out to recover a pearl of great price, and when he ultimately succeeds in his mission he is rewarded with a heavenly garment.

The entertainment value of these books was obviously paramount, but these acts are witnesses to the religious ideas of a great part of Christendom—even if such teaching did not match the intellectual debates and theological ideals of the patristic writers. These acts were the popular reading matter of Christians in many parts of the Mediterranean, Syria, North Africa, and Asia over several centuries at precisely the same time as the great thinkers were formulating creeds, doctrines, and canons of belief and practice. The apocryphal acts may be crudely sensational, may promote an unthinking superstition at worst, a simple faith at best, but their creation, enduring existence, and undoubted popularity show that Christianity was vibrant, popular, and, above all, successful throughout the dark ages of the second century and beyond.

Apocryphal Epistles.

Given Paul's reputation as a letter writer, it is not surprising that several apocryphal letters claim to be from his pen. A letter from the Corinthian church to Paul and his reply, known as 3 Corinthians, are found in the Acts of Paul. The most famous of the other invented letters allegedly written by Paul is the Epistle to the Laodiceans. As is usual in the traditions of apocryphal literature, the original impetus to concoct a writing was due to a perceived gap in the New Testament. Colossians 4:16 refers to a letter Paul wrote to the church in Laodicea; that epistle did not survive. The apocryphal letter was composed, perhaps as early as the second century, out of phrases found in the authentic Pauline corpus in order to create an epistle intended to be accepted as that referred to in Colossians. That it succeeded in its purpose is shown by its appearance in several Latin manuscripts of the New Testament, including the famous codices Fuldensis, Cavensis, and Ardmachanus. It is printed as an appendix at the conclusion of modern editions of the Latin Vulgate.

Other apocryphal epistles include a set of fourteen letters, purporting to be correspondence between Paul and the Roman philosopher Seneca. Most of them are likely to have been composed in the fourth century. There is even a letter allegedly written by Christ himself to Abgar. This occurs in a version of a legend related by Eusebius, the “Father of Church History”; in it Abgar, king of Edessa from 4 B.C.E. –7 C.E. and again from 13–50 C.E., sent a letter to Jesus asking him to come to Edessa to heal a malady. Jesus does not accede to the request, but writes a letter instead, and this is reproduced by Eusebius.

Other texts that have conventionally been classified as letters include the Epistula Apostolorum, although this is not really epistolary in form or content: it starts as a letter but soon turns into an apocalypse. (Perhaps the book of Revelation provides a loose parallel.) Similarly, the Epistle of Pseudo-Titus was never an example of real, personal correspondence; it is a homily on the theme of celibacy. That letter has been used by modern scholars to assist in the recovery of some missing portions of the Acts of John, of Peter, and of Andrew.

Apocryphal Apocalypses.

Christian writers, biblical and post-biblical, concerned themselves, just as their Jewish predecessors had done, with apocalyptic themes and teaching. In general, apocalypses speak of the signs and portents presaging the end of this world, and of the nature of the other world. In the apocryphal literature we may separate these two features.

There are those texts which describe what heaven and hell hold in store for the faithful and the unbeliever. Post-biblical writers used this genre of literature with its tours of the other world with great imagination. Two of the most influential texts were the Apocalypse of Peter, possibly dating from the mid-second century, and the Apocalypse of Paul, probably written in the fourth century. Once again, one finds the names Peter and Paul in use as the supposed authors of apocryphal works. That an apocalypse was written in Paul's name is not surprising, given the statement by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 that he had been “caught up as far as the third heaven.” In the authentic Pauline literature this baffling statement is not explained. It was an obvious gap that was left to the imagination of a later writer to fill and the Apocalypse of Paul tells what happened to Paul on his otherworldly visits. This apocalypse proved to be the most popular of the Western church's apocryphal apocalypses, and it led to the commonly held beliefs about heaven and hell that fueled the medieval imagination. Much of the art and sculpture in the Middle Ages depicting the afterlife was inspired by this work. Dante's Inferno was also influenced by the Apocalypse of Paul.

Whereas the apocalypses of Peter and of Paul are concerned with the current state of affairs in heaven and hell, another apocryphon, the Apocalypse of Thomas, contains predictions about the ending of the present world. It is thus “apocalyptic” in its sense of foretelling the future.

Assumption of Mary.

Many apocryphal narratives tell of Mary's death. Just as believers and writers in the post-New Testament period began to reflect on why it was that Mary was chosen to be the one to bring Jesus into the world, so too they reflected on her death. Like her birth, her manner of dying needed to emphasize her unique status. From the fifth century onward stories of Mary's departure from the earth emerge. There are many accounts of Mary's death and acceptance into heaven, composed in various languages, although the history of those traditions is largely uncharted.

These categories of narratives make up the bulk of what are traditionally known as the New Testament apocrypha, a fruitful collection of texts from different epochs and provenances which can shed light on our understanding of popular and widespread Christian practices and beliefs, can amplify Christian doctrine and history, and may offer insights into how the Christian story developed and was received and embellished.

Reception History.

What is striking from a survey of the apocrypha is the immense popularity of many of the stories found in this literature as well as the texts themselves. We have already noted that the Protevangelium of James, for instance, was reproduced over many centuries as may be evidenced by the dates given to surviving manuscripts; many of these apocrypha were translated into other languages, which themselves survive in multiple copies from different centuries. Such books were widespread best sellers of great longevity. In some cases the originals were recast. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, for example, was a rewriting of the Protevangelium and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Then the retelling of some apocryphal tales by Jacob de Voragine in his Golden Legend in the thirteenth century (a highly popular work which itself was to appear in many translations) helped spread many of the early apocrypha especially into medieval Europe. Mention has already been made of the numerous parallels between the Divine Comedy and the Apocalypse of Paul, and John Milton too found much inspiration for Paradise Lost in the apocryphal apocalypses. J. G. Herder's poem Saint John includes the story of the partridge, known to us from some manuscripts of the Acts of John (where it is sometimes printed as chapters 56–57). More recently Frederick Buechner's American novel Lion Country (1971) includes a humorous adaptation of the exchanges between Satan and the personified Hades found in the Descensus ad Inferos.

Outside literature we also see the influence of the apocrypha in other media. In drama, the English mystery plays reveal the reception of such material; the guild of saddlers’ performance of the Harrowing of Hell in the York cycle has already been noted, but the so-called N-Town cycle includes many apocryphal episodes such as the examination of Mary and the withering of Salome's hand after the birth of Jesus, the trial of Mary and Joseph before the priests, and the Presentation of Mary in the Temple.

The plastic arts in particular account for many representations of apocryphal stories, not least painted or mosaic cycles of the lives of the saints or of Mary in places such as San Marco, Venice, and the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and in the frescoes of many an ancient church or in the illuminations of medieval manuscripts. The inverse crucifixion of Peter (or of Philip), the episode of the poisoned chalice in the Acts of John, and the torture of Thecla are other popular instances of the common reception of scenes from the apocrypha in paintings, sculpture, and other art forms. The alert observer in churches, monasteries, and art galleries may locate scenes and characters in a variety of works that parallel the written forms of our New Testament apocrypha.

Even music is not exempt. Holst's Hymn of Jesus composed in the 1920s used M. R. James's translation of the Dance of Jesus in the Acts of John 94–95 as its libretto. Modern popular culture too is not exempt; the Quo vadis? scene in the Acts of Peter lies behind a 1951 Hollywood epic with the same name.

[See also ACTS; Andrew, Acts of; APOCALYPSES; GOSPELS; LETTERS; Paul and Thecla, Acts of; Pilate, Acts of; and Thomas, Gospel of.]


Collections of Apocryphal Texts in Modern Translations

  • Bovon, François, and Pierre Geoltrain, eds. Ecrits apocryphes chrétiens. Vol. 1, Paris: Gallimard, 1997; vol. 2 edited by Pierre Geoltrain and Jean-Daniel Kaestli. Paris: Gallimard, 2005. An authoritative collection in French with good introductory sections.
  • Elliott, J. K. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993. The major collection of apocryphal texts in English with introductions and bibliographies for each text.
  • James, M. R. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon, 1924; 1953. An older translation now superseded by recent scholarship.
  • Moraldi, L. Apocrifi del Nuevo Testamento. 2d ed. Turin: ETET, 1994. A comprehensive three-volume collection in Italian.

Collections of Edited Texts in Their Original Languages

  • Lipsius, Richard A., and Maximilian Bonnet. Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha. 3 vols. Reprint, Hildesheim: Olms, 1990. A major edition of many texts with an apparatus, originally published between 1891 and 1903.
  • Lührmann, Dieter, and Egbert Schlarb, Fragmente apokryph gewordener Evangelien. Marburg: Elwert, 2000. The text of several fragments of gospel-type stories and sayings with helpful textual comments.
  • Plitsch, Uwe-Karsten. The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008. An up-to-date and authoritative edition of the text with notes and commentary.
  • Tischendorf, Constantinus de. Evangelia apocrypha. Reprint, Hildesheim: Olms, 1966. Originally published in 1876, this is still an important edition with critical apparatus.
  • See especially the ongoing series of critical texts in Corpus Christianorum Series Apocrypha such as
  • Gijsel, Jan, Libri de Nativitate Mariae: Pseudo-Matthaei Evangelium Textus und Commentarius and
  • Rita Beyers, Libellus de Nativitate Sanctae Mariae. Turnhout: Brepols, 1997 (CCSA 9–10).
  • Major critical editions of two influential texts. See also the associated index of apocryphal texts: Geerard, M. Clavis Apocryphorum Novi Testamenti. Turnhout: Brepols, 1992.

Texts and Discussions of Apocryphal Texts

  • Elliott, J. K. A Synopsis of the Apocryphal Nativity and Infancy Narratives. New Testament Tools and Studies 34. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006.
  • Klauck, Hans-Josef. Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction. London and New York: T. and T. Clark, 2003; and
  • Klauck, Hans-Josef. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction. Waco, Tex.: Baylor, 2008. Two important surveys without text.
  • Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990. A magisterial survey of canonical and early apocryphal texts.
  • Resch, A. Ausserkanonische Schriftfragmente. Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1896. The major collection of free-standing sayings (agrapha).

General Discussions of Aspects of the Apocryphal Literature

  • Bovon, François, Ann Graham Brock, and Christopher R. Matthews, eds. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. A collection of essays on the background, language, literary, and religious aspects of many of the early acts.
  • Shoemaker, Stephen S. Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Söder, Rosa. Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und die romanhafte Literatur der Antike. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1932. An influential analysis of the genre of the apocryphal acts.
  • Jan Bremmer has edited several collections of essays on aspects of individual apocryphal acts which are published in the ongoing series Studies on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles now renamed
  • Studies on Early Christian Apocrypha. Kampen: Kok Pharos then Leuven: Peeters, 1995–.

Art and the Christian Apocrypha

  • Cartlidge, David R., and J. Keith Elliott. Art and the Christian Apocrypha. London: Routledge, 2001. A well-illustrated discussion of the interrelationship of rhetorical and iconic aspects of the apocryphal stories.

J. K. Elliott