Book Reviews

New Testament Apocrypha

In preparing for my university course on “Lost Scriptures,” I had to review many volumes of Christian “apocrypha” in order to select appropriate readings for the students. I thought that it might be useful to others to provide a list of collections of this apocrypha as well as some introductory books that I highly recommend for further exploration into this fascinating topic.

The Apostolic Fathers

Not really “apocrypha” in the strict sense but a modern collection of early second-century texts that, together, might be thought of as the New Testament Part 2. There are no gospels in this collection but many letters, an early “church order,” and an apocalypse of sorts are included. Critical texts among the Fathers for exploring Christian origins are especially the Didache (“Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”), which may provide our earliest description of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, the First Letter of Clement, which documents the situation at Corinth decades after Paul’s troubles there in the fifties, and the earliest example of a Christian martyrology, the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

The English translation of these texts used by most scholars is the two-volume edition published as part of the Loeb Classical Library recently translated by Bart Ehrman. Though relatively expensive, they offer the original Greek text on one page, English on the other. An excellent, and less expensive, one-volume translation is that of Michael Holmes revising the work of the late 19th-century New Testament scholar J. B. Lightfoot. He has also released an alternate version with the original language text. A very inexpensive publication is that by Penguin edited by Andrew Louth and Maxwell Staniforth. The only problem with this one is that it lacks chapter and verse references making it hard to use with other works that reference them.

New Testament Apocrypha

These collections include the full range of Christian apocrypha: gospels, acts, letters, and apocalypses, that have fired the interest of scholars in recent decades and shed new light on the landscape in which Christianity evolved. None of these collections are “complete” – such a feat would be practically impossible. But they are weighty and there are pros and cons to each of them.

The least expensive collection of these texts is to be found as volumes eight and nine of the ten-volume collection The Ante-Nicene Fathers by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (not to be confused with the Apostolic Fathers which are included in this collection as volume one). This late-nineteenth century collection has much going for it including some rare Syriac apocrypha, Tatian’s Diatessaron, and the only complete English translation of the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions and Homilies. The pseudo-Clementines, purportedly written by Clement of Rome, document the verbal and magical jousts between Peter and Simon Magus up and down the coast of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. On the downside, the translations are a bit stilted being written in a style of English more appropriate to the time of publication. Digital versions of the entire set of Ante-Nicene Fathers can be had for a few dollars.

More modern English translations include the two-volume New Testament Apocrypha translated by R. McL. Wilson published in 1990 and 1992. This is the English version of the German collection edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher who carries on the original work begun by Tübingen scholar and editor Edgar Hennecke. For a long time, this was the “go-to” translation for scholars who simply referred to it as “Hennecke-Schneemelcher.”

Then, in 1994, J. K. Elliott revised and updated M. R. James’s 1953 collection of New Testament Apocrypha (still available inexpensively and quite useful) calling it instead The Apocryphal New Testament. Like James’s original, it is conveniently published as a single volume. One cannot easily choose between Hennecke-Schneemelcher’s NTA and Elliott’s ANT. Both offer some different texts and summaries that makes each version worthwhile though admittedly expensive to own.

Smaller collections and summaries may be more in the line of first-time readers of this material. Excellent summaries of the most interesting texts have been published by Bart Ehrman (Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew), Tony Burke (Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha), Hans-Josef Klauck (The Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction and The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction), and Fred Lapham (An Introduction to the New Testament Apocrypha).

Excerpted collections of apocrypha can be purchased in tandem with these introductions in order to complement one’s reading. Ehrman, for example, has specifically edited Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament as a companion volume to his Lost Christianities. Elliott has published The Apocryphal Jesus: Legends of the Early Church which features excerpts from a wide variety of apocrypha appearing in his larger volume.

Those specifically interested in the apocryphal gospels should consider Ehrman’s The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (for a less expensive volume without the original languages, try The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament). Also recommended is an inexpensive selection of apocryphal gospels published by Ron Cameron as The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts. For a broader representation of early Christian literature, including the apocrypha, Ehrman’s After the New Testament: 100-300 CE: A Reader in Early Christianity comes recommended.

Many apocryphal texts came to light with the discovery in 1945 of the so-called Nag Hammadi Library of fourth-century manuscripts. Though the manuscripts are written in Coptic, most of these texts are believed to have originated in the second-century in Greek. The Nag Hammadi collection includes the redoubtable Gospel of Thomas. The best English translation of these sometimes difficult texts is Marvin Meyer’s one-volume The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts.

An excellent multi-volume series of newly-translated apocryphal texts called Early Christian Apocrypha is currently being published by Polebridge Press. These provide new translations and extensive commentary to individual texts and they are very reasonably priced. So far the following entries have been published: the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Thomas, the Acts of John, the Epistle of the Apostles, and the Didache. The Acts of Paul and Thecla is announced for 2016.

Armed with a selection of the texts described above, anyone can make an intelligent and rewarding investigation into the Christian apocrypha. These texts offer a wider view of the early Christian world than would be possible using only the New Testament. Seen altogether, the entire collection of Christian writings reminds us that theological speculation was vigorous, variegated, and vociferous in the first four centuries of the faith.

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