Significant Gospels and Acts in the New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

Posted: April 9, 2013 in General

stthomastheapostleI appreciate Andrew Jasko for his boldness in expressing his views. In a context in which the East and the Eastern ideologies and scriptures are abnegated, his short piece of writing direct the attention of the readers toward the facts and persuade the readers to remain broad-minded. Herewith, I express my thankfulness to Prof. James H. Charlesworth for introducing Andrew and this interesting piece of work to me. The post here was formerly submitted to Prof. Charlesworth, in partial fulfilment of NT3290 NTAP at Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey, USA. It is published here with written permission from the author.

About the Author: Andrew Jasko has felt a call to pastoral ministry, academics, and cross-cultural ministry from a young age. Andrew graduated from Wheaton College with a concentration in Biblical Studies and Ministry. After college he moved to New Jersey to youth pastor and to teach Bible classes. Andrew is currently working on his Masters of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. Andrew is passionate about seeing people transformed through understanding the gospel of grace, and the person and work of Christ. He has published “The Scarlet Letter of Mental Illness: De-stigmatizing Bipolar Disorder” in The Journal of Pastoral Psychology. Vol. 61, Issue 3 (June 2012). Andrew is interested in Pauline studies, Apocalypticism, and Christian Origins. You can contact Andrew here: andrew.jasko@ptsem.edu.

Read below…

[In order to determine which apocrypha are most important, we must first enumerate the criteria for making judgments about value. I will only list the two most significant criteria here because of the limited scope of this paper. Firstly, New Testament Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal (NTAP) documents are important inasmuch as they preserve early, historical traditions concerning Jesus, and the so-called early Church.[1] This includes the dating of the finished works but, more broadly, it also includes the dating of significant traditions within these works. Secondly, NTAP documents are important in the search for the alleged ipsissima verba Jesu.[2] Many of these documents may contain genuine sayings of the historical Jesus. As J.H. Charlesworth highlights, apocryphal works should not be excluded from the search for the sayings of Jesus (or the history of the Church) on the basis that they have been shaped by later communities, for the canonical Gospels have also undergone redaction and editing.[3] The Gospels and many of the NT documents come to us with edited yet reliable traditions, just as some of the NTAP documents do. Thus, it is essential that our view of canon be elastic enough to allow for God’s word to speak to us through these important NTAP Gospels and Acts.

Charlesworth states, “[The documents in the NTAP] are almost all imitations of the gospels, acts, letters, or the apocalypse in the New Testament.”[4] The Gospel of Thomas (GosTh) may be an exception to this generality. It is distinct among the apocryphal Gospels in that it may have an early date (125 C.E.) and portions of it may have developed independently from the canonical Gospels.[5] The Gospel may preserve sayings “in a more primitive form than the Synoptics.”[6] Thus, since it preserves early traditions and may contain material independent of the Synoptics, the GosTh may contribute insights on the development and traditions about Jesus and his movement (fulfilling my first criteria for significance). Likewise, because it purports to be a collection of sayings of Jesus, the GosTh is indispensable in the search for the ipsissima verba Jesu. For example, saying 82 (“He who is near me is near fire but he who is far from me is far from the kingdom”) may be an original saying of Jesus, because it is similar to some of Jesus’ other teachings about the kingdom in its brevity, its usage of metaphor and shock value, and the absence of “heretical” words and thoughts. On the other hand, some sayings on the GosTh are probably not original to Jesus. For example, in saying 12 Jesus tells his disciples that James will be their leader. He states, “Wherever you are, go to James the just; heaven and earth came into being for him.” This sounds like a constructed justification for the leadership of James in the early Church. However, this verse is still significant in that it may be an early attestation to the importance of James in some segments of the early Church. Since the GosTh may contain original sayings of Jesus and supply us with information about the thoughts of the early Church, it is worthy of the attention of New Testament scholars and serious students of Jesus.

The Acts of Thomas (AcTh) may be the most significant of the NTAPActs. Most of the other Acts contain embellishments and expansions based off of canonical works as well as legendary material. The AcTh is similar in style to these NTAP Acts. However, the AcTh is unique among the Acts in that it contains historically corroborated information that is not available in other canonical works. While its final form is not early [7], it may preserve traditions about the origins of Christianity in the East– particularly India – that date from the time of the Apostle Thomas (the first century). The fact that the Protestant canon does not include much information about Christianity outside of the West, not to mention that Western authors such as Paul have been elevated over authors such as James, is telling of the problem that we have relegated the East to a lower status. May be our Western canonical bias blinds us to ways that God has been speaking and moving in a substantial part of the Church.

While the AcTh is similar to the other Acts in its literary and often legendary character, it differs in several key respects. Firstly, its focus is on Eastern Christianity. Secondly, the noticeable anti-Jewish tendencies of the other Acts are missing in the AcTh. For example, in AcTh vv. 5-9[8] the author brings to the forefront a Hebrew flute-player whom Thomas praises in a beautiful Hebrew song. Thirdly, the AcTh has substantial historical evidence behind many of its claims, including an existing Indian Christian community and the archeological findings of relics of an Indian king called Gundaphoros and his brother Gad.[9]

The AcTh makes historical claims about the emergence of a first-century Church in the East through the Apostle Thomas. If these claims are true, then the AcTh would fit our first criteria for NTAP significance, making the AcTh invaluable to our understanding of the early Jesus Movement and Indian Church. Thus, these historical claims, and the historicity of the AcTh as a whole, is the main issue in the AcTh under discussion. J.K. Elliot represents one side of the argument, “The consensus of modern scholarly opinion is skeptical about the historicity of the Thomas story, and in any case the local references are perfunctory.”[10] Elliot insinuates that the presence of an eponymous hero and colorless and stylized character of the episodes make it likely that the Act is merely fictional with some historical incidents.[11] He intimates further that an already established Indian Church may have written the Acts as a self-justification.[12] At the other end of the spectrum, some Indians, such as scholar P. V. Matthew of the Catholicoses of the Malankara Church, view the work as divinely inspired.[13] Somewhere in-between these positions, J Thomaskutty accepts throughout his works that many of the stories have an expansive and stylized nature, but contends that the AcTh preserves a great deal of accurate information about the apostle, his teaching, and the emergence of the Indian Church.[14]

Like Thomaskutty, I take a moderate position on the issue. For instance, the story about Gundaphoros’ conversion (vv. 17-29) is probably legendary, but it may convey an historical event of Thomas’s conversion of King Gundaphoros. Additionally, while some of the teachings of AcTh, such as Encratite doctrine, are more likely a reflection of later theological development than original Thomistic teaching, the AcTh conceivably still preserves original information about the apostle’s lifestyle and teaching, particularly his asceticism. S.P. Brock attributes Thomas’ asceticism to the ascetic nature of Syrian Christianity, which Brock believes is behind the AcTh.[15] However, Thomas’s asceticism could also be viewed missiologically. According to my own knowledge, the holy men of Hinduism and Indian polytheistic religions, particularly in royal circles, were and continue to be ascetic. Hence, a prudent missionary to India such as Thomas, who sought to reach both rich and poor, would have adopted an ascetic lifestyle compatible with Christianity. Thus, it is not so easy to separate fact from fiction, or historical incident from theological import, in the AcTh. The AcTh is also important as it elucidates the potential value of other NTAP documents. It cautions us not to hastily dismiss other apocrypha as unhistorical due to their legendary qualities, for they may still preserve genuine historical incidents.

Documents from the NTAP contain information independent from the Protestant canon that help us to better understand Jesus and the movement he engendered. Ironically, by closing the Canon so tightly we have closed ourselves off from the full word of God, part of which is contained in several of these documents. A more permeable conception of canon and Scripture may allow us to consider these NTAP texts alongside our other Scriptures so that we might gain a better understanding of the Church, Jesus, and God’s continuing word to us.]

End Notes:

[1] J. H. Charlesworth, Authentic Apocrypha (North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 1998), x.

[2] J. H. Charlesworth, The New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha: A Guide to Publications, with Excurses on Apocalypses (Metuchen and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1987), 3.

[3] Ibid, 4.

[4] Ibid, 6.

[5] J. H. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdom Press, 2008), 35.

[6] R. J. Bauckham, “Gospels (Apocryphal),” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edd.J. B. Green, S. McKnight and I. H. Marshall (Downers Grove, Illinois/Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 287.

[7] About the beginning of the third century, according to A. F. J. Klijn,The Acts of Thomas(Leidin: Brill, 1962), 26.

[8] I am using J. K. Elliot’s versification in this paper.

[9] J. Thomaskutty, “The Thomas of  ‘The Acts of Thomas’ (Part I)” last viewed 13 March 2013, https://ntscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/the-thomas-of-the-acts-of-thomas-part-i-the-forgotten-thomas/.

[10] J. K. Elliot, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 440-441.

[11] Ibid, 441.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See P.V. Matthew, Acta India (Kottayam: Learners’ Offset Press, 2005).

[14] See J. Thomaskutty, “The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas,’” Parts I-IV, last viewed 13 March 2013, https://ntscholarship.wordpress.com.

[15] S.P. Brock, “Early Syrian Asceticism,” Numen 20 (1973): 8-9.

Works Cited:

Bauckham, R. J.”Gospels (Apocryphal).”Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edd. J. B. Green,

S. McKnight and I. H. Marshall. Downers Grove, Illinois/Leicester: InterVarsity Press,

1992. 286-291.

Brock, S. P. “Early Syrian Asceticism.”Numen 20 (1973): 1-19.

Charlesworth, J. H. Authentic Apocrypha.(North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 1998).

——–The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide. (Nashville: Abingdom Press, 2008), 35.

——–The New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha: A Guide to Publications, with

Excurses on Apocalypses. (Metuchen and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1987),

Elliot, J. K. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford: Clarendom Press, 1993.

Klijn, A. F. J. The Acts of Thomas.Leidin: Brill, 1962.

Matthew, P. V. Acta India. Kottayam: Learners’ Offset Press, 2005.

Thomaskutty, J. “The Thomas of ‘The Acts of Thomas.’” Parts I-IV. Last viewed 13 March 2013, https://ntscholarship.wordpress.com.

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