What is the New Testament Apocrypha?
The Greek word apokrypha means “hidden writings.” Clement of Alexandria uses it in this literal sense (Stromateis 188.8.131.52). But, for the most part, ancient Christian authors used it to refer to writings of their opponents, which they considered spurious. Clement says that his opponents “derived their doctrines from an apocryphal work. . . . where they have taken a sound doctrine and perversely misapplied it” (Stromateis 4.29). Ireneaus describes “apocryphal writings” as texts written by his opponents “who are ignorant of the Scriptures of truth” (Against Heresies 1.20.1). Tertullian refused to acknowledge teachings from the Shepherd of Hermas because it did not “find a place in the Divine canon” and “had been habitually judged by every council of Churches. . . among apocryphal and false (writing)” (On Modesty 10.6). The phrase New Testament Apocrypha was not used in antiquity. Instead, it is a modern umbrella title referring to a wide variety of Christian texts that ultimately were not included in the New Testament canon.
For the most part, scholars follow the three categories of New Testament apocrypha used by Wilhelm Schneemelcher: 1) Gospels, which include non-biblical material about the life of Jesus; 2) writings related to the apostles; 3) apocalypses and related subjects. Some of the apocryphal gospels, such as The Gospel of the Nazareans and The Gospel of the Ebionites are known today only because ancient Christian authors quoted them in their extant writings. Some, such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Judas, were mentioned in ancient sources, but have only recently been discovered. Some texts, such as The Acts of Thomas, were used by both “orthodox” and “heterodox” groups.
In recent years, scholars have reexamined the role the New Testament apocrypha for understanding ancient Christianity. The more traditional view has been to study them to determine what light they shed on the development of the Christian church, with particular attention to how they compare with the texts that were later canonized. However a recent growing trend is to study these texts in their own right and let them speak independently about the diversity of expressions concerning what it meant to be a Christian in antiquity.
“About a dozen noncanonical gospels were known in the 2d century and . . . the evidence for these apocryphal writings compares quite well with the evidence for the canonical gospels. The attestations do not support a distinction between canonical and apocryphal gospels. Writings of both categories were used and are referred to quite early and often by the same writers.” Helmut Koester is the John H. Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Win Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School.
Helmut Koester, “Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels,” Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980): 110.
“The value in exerting effort to understand apocryphal literature is twofold: first, once we understand the compositional situation surrounding an apocryphal text, we can then ascertain its potential to preserve credible information about Jesus or the Church that He founded. Second, once we understand how the document impacted Christian communities, we can begin to discern the historical development of the Apostasy within those communities.” Thomas Wayment is an Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University.
Thomas A. Wayment, “False Gospels: An Approach to Studying the New Testament Apocrypha,” in How the New Testament Came to Be (ed. Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd, Jr.; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 294.
 See Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols. (rev. ed.; trans. R. McL. Wilson; Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1992).
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