Monday, May 10, 2010

A People's History of Christianity: The New Testament Apocrypha (Part Two)

Below is part two of the three post blog on the New Testament Apocrypha; it covers the Gospels. You can read part one Here.

Apocrypha Gospels

Where the infancy narratives are concerned with showing what went on before the ministry of Christ, the gospels are concerned with showing what happened after the resurrection of Christ; the exception to this are the gospels of Hebrews, Ebionites, and Mark—each short fragments that add to the gospel, as with Mark, or are parts from lost gospels.

The other gospels give resolution to characters and issues found in the NT gospels. The Apocryphon Of James for example is like the Gospel of John telling a eyewitness account of an apostle, but not the account before the resurrection, rather after. While it may or may not have been James the apostle writing the gospel, it was somebody who was well versed in James’ thought. It at times reads like, and in fact many passages are similar to, the NT letter of James. For example in the gospel the author writes, “If you contemplate the world, how long it is before you and also how long it is after you, you will find that your life is one single day and your sufferings, one single hour. For the good will not enter the world. Scorn death therefore, and take concern for life” (emphasis given); this is similar to what is written in the letter of James 1:21, “Flee therefore from the moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” If the letter was written by the same James who wrote the letter this would seem to be reflecting what he had learned from what Christ had told him.

This gospel also shows what James was confused with, and how Jesus taught him so he would no longer be confused. For example, the author of the gospel writes, “Grant us, therefore, not to be tempted by the wicked devil,” and Jesus’ response is, “‘What is your merit when you do the will of the Father if it is not given to you by him as a gift, while you are tempted by Satan?’”; this is similar to what James writes in 1:13-14, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘ God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” The elder James of the NT understands temptation in the letter, but in the gospel he is confused.

The gospel of James discusses what happened to the apostles when Christ came back—The gospels of Bartholomew and Nicodemus explain where Jesus went. In Hebrews Paul makes some reference to battles of angels, and hell, but it is not clear what he is referring to; Bartholomew and Nicodemus show what was on the minds of early Christians, and maybe what was on the mind of Paul as he wrote Hebrews. They each tell us, brutally at times, that there is a war going on in hell, and Satan is behind it. When Christ is crucified he goes down to hell, and frees the patriarchs of the Old Testament.

Like the apocryphal text already mentioned, both Bartholomew and Nicodemus rely heavily on the Old and New Testament. From the Old Testament each mentions the patriarchs in hell, and Nicodemus explains that Enoch and Elijah are the only ones not there. From the New Testament there are the resolution of Pilate, and the more detailed account of whether Nicodemus was a follower of Christ.

So far I have explained what happened before the baptism of Christ, and what happened after the resurrection of Christ, but I have made little mention of the ones who spread the good news, and founded the Christian church. The final half of this paper will discuss what happened to the apostles, and why they are of equal importance to the other apocryphal text.

In the NT the only book that gives a complete account of the apostles is the Acts Of the Apostles; this is likely a reason why the apocryphal acts were popular—early Christians wanted to know more about the men who had established Christianity. Popularity of the apostles was not the only reason for the works, however; telling the stories of what happened to them was one way they could spread Christianity throughout the empire, and in fact one of the similarities between all the acts is each has a evangelical message.

One common reason not to believe in Christ during the time the works were written, was that they, the people, felt they were not worthy. There may have been a Christ who did miracles and rose from the dead, but he was only for the Jews; their sins were too great to ever be forgiven. Each of the acts in their own way would have helped people understand how they could also become Christians.

The Acts Of John best shows how Christians were using stories to help spread the message of Christ. It portrays a humble John who helps many of the characters realize why they too are able to obtain something so great. It shows a older John who is patient, and probably not carrying the nickname son of thunder any longer. In contrast to the John of the NT who is philosophical, wanting to know everything, and having a quick temper, this John is patient; in one story a man paints John like a god, and John, instead of being quick tempered for doing such a sinful act, turns the situation around to Christ and converts the man.

The Acts of Peter, Paul, and Thomas, are also evangelical, but are written to help people who are already Christians. Each carries the theme of being chaste, a popular value for the early Christians who thought the end was coming soon. Peter also shows the famous upside down death of the apostle that has since been popular in art and legend. Thomas gives to the early Christians an image of what the kingdom of heaven is. Paul gives the popular literary motif of Christians doing evil. Each shows the reader how to live a more Christian life.

Finally, The Acts Of Andrew is written for Christians who struggled. Like John it is evangelical, and seeming to be directed at sinners, but equally it gives reasons for the Christians who were enduring the trials of persecution. 1 Peter 3:15 says to always “be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you,” the Acts Of Andrew certainly do just that. Romans and non-Christians during the time this was written were enduring many trials, and the question everyone was asking was why—Andrew answers this.

The emphasis of these texts was not to raise support for a doctrinal issue during the time, though they did do this; the emphasis was to spread the news of Christ. While most of the writing does not come close to the quality of writing found in the NT, they did help Christianity grow. Without them it would be hard to say how many people would not have become Christians.

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