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November 20, 2013

The New Testament Apocrypha and Agrapha in the Orthodox Church

By Panagiotis Melikidis

In November the Church celebrates the Entrance of the Theotokos (Nov. 21). The event of the Entrance is not mentioned in the books that make up the New Testament canon, but is in the so-called "Apocrypha" books of the New Testament. What are the "Apocrypha" (Απόκρυφα) and "Agrapha" (Άγραφα) Sayings?

The "Apocrypha" are the books written from the second century onward. The aim of their authors is to cover the gaps of the canonical books of the New Testament related to the life of Christ and the Apostles (these stories are mostly fiction created out of the imagination of the authors) in order to present heretical opinions. Indeed, to gain prestige these literary works bear (falsely) the name of a certain Apostle. Surely the Apocrypha are not inspired by God. They satisfy the curiosity of readers, but do not lead to repentance and salvation. Yet they do preserve traditions underlying certain feasts of the Church (such as the Entrance of the Theotokos), and they extract themes of ecclesiastical hagiography. Origen notes that even in the "muck" of these texts a kernel of truth can be found. It is a fact that the Apocrypha do not add anything essential to the canonical books of the New Testament and are dangerous because, as noted above, they profess heretical opinions.

The Apocrypha are divided into:

Epistles and

The most important are:

Apocryphal Gospels - Protoevangelium of James, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas (refers to the childhood miracles of Christ), Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, etc. In Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1948 Gnostic texts were found, such as the Gospel of Philip.

Apocryphal Acts - Sermon of Peter, Acts of Paul, Acts of John, Acts of Andrew, Acts of Barnabas, Acts of Bartholomew, Acts of Thaddeus, etc.

Apocryphal Epistles - Correspondence of Paul and Seneca, Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans, Correspondence of Abgar and Jesus Christ, etc.

Apocryphal Apocalypses - Apocalypse of Peter, Apocalypse of Paul, Apocalypse of Thomas, Apocalypse of Mary, Sibylline Oracles, Prayer of the Apostle Paul, etc.

With the term "Agrapha" are characterized the Sayings attributed to Christ by some writers of the first centuries, but are not included in the four Gospels. Such Sayings have survived in books of the New Testament separate from the four Gospels, in the margins of certain manuscripts of the Gospels, by ecclesiastical authors of the first centuries in apocryphal books or even in liturgical books of the Church.

To name a few examples:

In Acts of the Apostles (20:35) the Apostle Paul says his farewell as follows to the presbyters of the Church of Ephesus: "And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’"

Didymus the Blind makes the following reference in his commentary on Psalm 88:8: "On this account the Savior says: 'He that is near me is near the fire. But he that is far from me is far from the kingdom.'" This passage is also found in Origen (commentary on Jeremiah 20:3) and in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

Finally, in the Service of Anointing (Unction) we encounter in the prayer after the second Gospel reading the following sentence: "You said: 'As often as you fall, get up, and you shall be saved.'"

Based on the above we can draw the following conclusions:

A) Many of the sayings attributed to Jesus are variants of well-known phrases from the Gospels or further develope what the Lord said.

B) Sometimes ecclesiastical writers cite from memory various biblical passages consistently not verifiable to a text of the Bible.

C) A large number of agrapha derived from apocryphal books, so it is suspected that these are fake.

D) Agrapha passages are figments of the imagination of writers and attributed to Jesus.

These sayings do not add anything to the knowledge we gain from the canonical books of the New Testament on the teaching of Christ, but reveal the existence of an ancient oral tradition long before the Church determined the canonical books of the New Testament.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΑΠΟΚΡΥΦΑ ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΑ", November 2002. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.