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Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Helmut Koester
Harvard University, The Divinity School, Cambridge, MA 02138


The problem addressed in this paper is implied in the title. The terms “apocryphal” and “canonical” reflect a traditional usage which implies deep-seated prejudices and has had far-reaching consequences. Any standard dictionary, like Merriam-Webster, will explain the term “apocryphal” as “not canonical; unauthentic; spurious.” The synonyms are listed under “fictitious,” i.e., “invented or imagined rather than true and genuine,” and the term “apocryphal” is explained here as follows: “implies a mysterious or extremely dubious source of origin.”

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1980

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1 The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1924) xiv.Google Scholar

2 Hennecke, Edgar and Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, New Testament Apocrypha (hereafter NTApo; 2 vols.; trans. R. McL. Wilson; Philadelphia: Westminster, 19631964) 1.61.Google Scholar

3 Ibid., 1.27.

4 Fitzmyer, Joseph A., “The Gnostic Gospels according to Pagels,” America (16 February 1980) 123.Google Scholar

5 The most learned recent Introduction to the New Testament, by Werner George Kümmel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), in its detailed discussion of the source theories of the Synoptic gospels, mentions only one apocryphal gospel, namely, the Gospel of Thomas, and only in order to refute its relevance (pp. 35–38).

6 Spivey, Robert A. and Smith, D. Moody, Anatomy of the New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1969) 173.Google Scholar

7 Geschichte der urchristlichen Literatur: Einleitung in das Neue Testament, die Apokryphen und die Apostolischen Väter (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1975).Google Scholar

8 Vielhauer (Geschichte, 252–459) treats the Synoptic gospels and their sources, Luke-Acts, and the Gospel of John; pp. 613–92 deal with the apocryphal gospels; pp. 693–718 with the apocryphal acts of the apostles. This is quite peculiar, because Vielhauer believes that the Gospel of Thomas is not dependent upon the canonical gospels but represents an independent tradition (cf. pp. 627–29).

9 For the dates of the NT papyri see Metzger, Bruce M., The Text of the New Testament (New York/London: Oxford University, 1964) 247–55Google Scholar; Aland, Kurt, Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschrifen des Neuen Testaments I. Gesamtübersicht (ANTF 1; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1963)Google Scholar; idem, Neue neutestamentliche Papyri,NTS 3 (19561957) 261–86Google Scholar; NTS 9 (1962–63) 303–16; NTS 10 (1963–64) 62–79; NTS 11 (1964–65) 1–21; NTS 12 (1965–66) 193–210; ATS 20 (1973–74) 357–81; see also Nestle-Aland, , Novum Testamentum Graece (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1979)Google Scholar Appendix 1, pp. 684–89. For the evidence for noncanonical gospels see the pertinent sections in Hennecke-Schneemelcher, NTApo, 1.

10 1 Clement does not seem to have known any written gospels. The sayings quoted in I Clem. 13.2 and 46.8 derive from the free tradition which is closely related to the Synoptic Sayings Source; cf. Köster, Helmut, Synoptische Überlieferung bei den apostolischen Va'lern (TU 65; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1957) 423.Google Scholar

11 Ibid., 24–61.

12 Papias says that “Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew language and that each translated them as best he could” (Eusebius Hist. eccl. 3.39.16). This is usually taken as a reference to the canonical Gospel of Matthew. Friedrich Schleiermacher was the first to suggest that Papias did not speak about the canonical Matthew but about a source of sayings which the author of that canonical gospel used and which was originally composed in Hebrew (or rather Aramaic). This hypothesis was recently taken up by Robinson, James M. in: idem and Koester, Helmut, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) 7476. The merits of this hypothesis cannot be discussed here in detail. In any case, neither the suggestion of a translation from Hebrew nor the characterization as logia (even if logia can also designate narratives, why does Papias call the Gospel of Mark a book of the things “said and done by the Lord”?) fits the canonical Gospel of Matthew. This embarrassment is clearly visible in Vielhauer, Geschichte, 261–62.Google Scholar

13 The quotations from Matthew and Luke appear in the first chapters of the preserved letter, i.e., in that part which was composed much later than the cover letter to the Ignatian epistles; cf. Harrison, P. N., Polycarp's Two Epistles to the Philippians (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1936).Google Scholar

14 The sayings quoted in 2 Clement derive from a collection of sayings, not from a gospel. However, this collection shows influence from the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke; it also includes apocryphal material. Cf. Köster, Synoptische Überlieferung, 62–111.

15 The Acts of Pilate are preserved in a number of medieval MSS and translations as part of the Gospel of Nicodemus. The date of the composition of this book is not certain, but the earliest references to Acts of Pilate appear in Justin Matryr (Apol. 1.35.8–9; 48.2–3). Some scholars believe that Justin did not know any such document but simply assumed that a report about Jesus’ crucifixion was kept in the Imperial archives (for the discussion of this question see F. Scheidweiler, “The Gospel of Nicodemus,” in: Hennecke-Schneemelcher, NTApo 1. 444–49). However, Justin's references to the Acts of Pilate closely parallel his method of referring to the “Memoirs of the Apostles,” i.e., the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which he certainly knew. Furthermore, a passage in Justin Apol. 1.48.2 closely resembles a sentence in a Letter of Pilate, si second-century writing which Tertullian knew and which is probably preserved in Acta Petri et Pauli.

16 A thorough and detailed investigation of the relationship of this writing (as well as of other documents from the Nag Hammadi library) to the canonical gospels has not yet been made.

17 On the use of the Secret Gospel of Mark by the Carpocratians and Clement of Alexandria's knowledge of this gospel, see Smith, Morton, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1973).Google Scholar

18 That Tatian used the Gospel of Thomas is possible but not certain; cf. Quispel, Gilles, “L'Evangile selon Thomas et le Diatessaron,VC 13 (1959) 87117.Google Scholar

19 According to Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 4.22.8), Hegesippus quoted from a gospel according to the Hebrew and from the Syriac gospel. The first must have been written in Greek and was probably identical with the Gospel of the Hebrews referred to by Clement of Alexandria; the latter, written in Aramaic (or Syriac) was most likely the Gospel of the Nazoreans; cf. P. Vielhauer, “Jewish-Christian Gospels,” in: Hennecke-Schneemelcher, NTApo 1. 122 and passim.

20 Irenaeus says that the Ebionites used the Gospel of Matthew but also reports that they had deleted the story of the virgin birth from it. Thus this “Matthew” was probably the heretical revision of Matthew which is otherwise known as the Gospel of the Ebionites; cf. Vielhauer, “Jewish-Christian Gospels,” 119.

21 Further references to the Gospel of Peter are given below.

22 For a brief account of the Nag Hammadi discovery see Robinson, James M., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (New York: Harper & Row, 1977) 125. See below for text, translations, etc. of the Gospel of Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior, and the Apocryphon of James.Google Scholar

23 It must be noted that some writings from this “library” which bear the title “Gospel,” such as the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip, do not belong to the genre of gospel literature. Nor is the Sophia Jesu Christi a gospel, but a secondary version of a philosophical treatise which is without any relation to the transmission of gospel material.

24 The Secret Gospel of Mark is not included in this essay, although it should be discussed here. This gospel, mentioned and quoted in a letter of Clement of Alexandria recently published by Morton Smith (see above, n. 17), contains a miracle narrative of the raising of a young man by Jesus which seems to reflect a tradition that is older than the form of the same story in the Gospel of John (John 11). But the discussion of the Secret Gospel of Mark involves complex issues of the relationship of this gospel to the version of the Gospel of Mark used by Matthew and Luke and the Markan Gospel which was ultimately canonized for which I do not know a persuasive solution. This deserves detailed further treatment which is not possible in the space of this article.

25 For recent wofk on the Synoptic Sayings Source, see Lührmann, Dieter, Die Redaktion der Logienquelle (WMANT 33; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1969).Google Scholar

26 See above, n. 12.

27 Cf. James M. Robinson, “LOGOI SOPHON: On the Gattung of Q,” in: idem and Koester, Trajectories, 71–113.

28 Matt 11:25–30.

29 Luke 11:29–51. On the question of wisdom theology in the Synoptic Sayings Source, cf. Suggs, M. Jack, Wisdom, Christology, and Law in Matthew's Gospel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1970) esp. 63–97.Google Scholar

30 See particularly Luke 17:22–32.

31 On the wisdom party in Corinth, cf. Conzelmann, Hans, 1 Corinthians (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) esp. 5669.Google Scholar

32 On the relationship of wisdom material in 1 Corinthians 1–4 to wisdom sayings in the Synoptic gospels cf. my forthcoming article “Gnostic Writings as Witnesses for the Development of the Sayings Tradition,” Proceedings of the International Conference on Gnosticism (held at Yale University 1978; Leiden: Brill, 1980).Google Scholar

33 Coptic text and English translation were first published by Guillaumont, A., Quispel, G., Till, W., and Masihi, Yassah, The Gospel According to Thomas (New York: Harper, 1959)Google Scholar. New translations have been published several times, cf. Hennecke-Schneemelcher, NTApo, 1. 511–22; Aland, Kurt, Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1964) 517–30Google Scholar. The quotations here follow the translation of Thomas O. Lambdin, “The Gospel of Thomas,” in Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, 118–30.

34 For literature on the relation of the Gospel of Thomas to the canonical Gospels cf. Robinson and Koester, Trajecorties, 129–32, 166–86.

35 E.g., Grant, Robert M., The Secret Sayings of Jesus (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960) 102–8Google Scholar; Haenchen, Ernst, Die Botschaft des Thomas-Evangeliums (Berlin: Topelmann, 1961) 912.Google Scholar

36 For such a comparison see my essay, “One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels,” in Robinson and Koester, Trajectories, 167–86.

37 1 Cor 2:6–16.

38 See also the phrase, “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear,” which is often added to a parable: Gos. Thorn. 7, 21, 63, 65, 96; cf. Mark 4:9.

39 Attention was drawn to this parallel by Nordheim, Eckhard von, “Das Zitat des Paulus in 1 Kor 2,9 und seine Beziehung zum koptischen Testament Jakobs,” ZNW 65 (1974) 112–20Google Scholar. He argues that the Testament of Jacob could have been the source of Paul's quote in 1 Cor 2:9. The Coptic text of the Testament of Jacob was published by Guidi, J., “II testamento di Isacco e il testamento di Giacobbo,” Rendiconti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, ser. 1, vol. 9 (Rome, 1900) 223–64Google Scholar; an English translation by S. Gaselee was published in Box, G. H., The Testament of Abraham (London: SPCK, 1927)Google Scholar Appendix.

40 The I-sayings are discussed in Trajectories, 177–79.

41 For the quetion of the Johannine parallels, cf. Brown, Raymond E., “The Gospel of Thomas and St. John's Gospel,” NTS 9 (19621963) 155–77.Google Scholar

42 The prophetic sayings are discussed in Trajectories, 168–75.

43 Galatians 2; Acts 15:13; 21:18. Hegesippus’ report about James the Just is quoted by Eusebius Hist. eccl. 2.23.4–18. A good collection of all early materials about James can be found in Dibelius, Martin, James (rev. Heinrich Greeven; Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) 1121.Google Scholar

44 lt is also intriguing to compare John 21:23 with this saying of the Gospel of Thomas: “The word now went out to the brothers that that disciple would not die.” Brown, Raymond E.(The Gospel According to John [AB; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970] 1117–22) demonstrates the embarrassment of scholars to interpret this sentence.Google Scholar

45 On the Gospel of Peter see below.

46 Bell, H. Idris and Skeat, T. C., Fragments of an Unknown Gospel and Other Early Christian Papyri (London: British Museum, 1935)Google Scholar, and by the same authors (with corrections): The New Gospel Fragments (London: British Museum, 1935).Google Scholar

47 The relationship of the Unknown Gospel to the canonical gospels was discussed in numerous publications of the years 1935–37, but no consensus emerged. The publications are listed in Mayeda, Goro, Das Leben-Jesu-Fragment Papyrus Egerton 2 und seine Stellung in der urchristlichen Literaturgeschichte (Bern: Haupt, 1946) 9495.Google Scholar

48 See n. 47.

49 Papyrus Egerton 2 is rarely discussed in detail. Exceptions are Braun, F.-M., Jean le Théologien (3 vols.; Paris: Gabalda, 19591966) 1Google Scholar. 87–94, and Jeremias, Joachim, Unknown Sayings of Jesus (2d ed.; London: SPCK., 1964) 1820.Google Scholar

50 NTApo 1. 95; the same judgment is repeated by Vielhauer, Geschichte, 638; cf. Brown, The Gospel According to John, 229–30.

51 NTApo 1. 28–60.

52 Pap. Egerton 2, frg. 1 verso, lines 7–16. The English translations given here follow Jeremias (with minor changes), in NTApo, 1. 96–97.

53 Terms used here and also in the Synoptic gosples are “lawyer” (νομικός), “unbelief” (πιστία), and “life” (instead of the Johannine “eternal life”. The phrase ροκριθες κα εἰᵔπεν never occurs in John, but frequently in the Synoptic gospels. For further documentation see Mayeda, Leben-Jesu-Fragmem, 15–27.

54 Pap. Egerton 2, frg. 1 recto, lines 22–31.

55 See Mayeda, Leben-Jesu-Fragment, 27–31.

56 Pap. Egerton 2, frg. 1 recto, lines 32–41.

57 The elaborate report of the reason for the illness is certainly a later feature and reveals that the author had no knowledge of the Palestinian milieu. That, however, only proves that such stories were further developed in the oral and written transmission. It does not say anything about dependence upon the canonical gospels.

58 Gos Thorn. 52: “His disciples said to him, ‘Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel and all of them spoke in you.’ He said to them, ‘You have omitted the one living in your presence and have spoken (only) of the dead.’”

59 A full acounting of all parallels to this part of the Unknown Gospel is given by Mayeda, Leben-Jesu-Fragment, 37-

60 The Dialogue of the Savior (CG 3,5) has not yet been published in its Coptic text except for The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, published under the Department of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 1976) vol. 3. A full edition of the text with introduction is in preparation. For an introduction and translation, see Helmut Koester, Elaine Pagels, and Harold W. Attridge, “The Dialogue of the Savior,” in: Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library, 229–38.

61 CG 3,5: 124,22–127,19; 131,19–133,15: 137,3 to the end (where the text is very poorly preserved). For a detailed analysis, see the forthcoming edition (above, n. 60).

62 See Koester, Helmut, “Dialog und Spruchiiberlieferung in den gnostischen Texten von Nag Hammadi,” EvTh 39 (1979) 536–56 and idem, “Gnostic Writings,” (see above, n. 32).Google Scholar

63 CG 1,2; ed. Malinine, M., Puech, H.-Chr., Quispel, G., Till, W., and Kasser, R., Epistula Jacobi Apocrypha (Zurich: Rascher, 1968)Google Scholar; translation in: Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library, 29–36.

64 Examples for parallels in the Gospels of Thomas and in the Synoptic gospels are cited in my article, “Dialog und Spruchüberlieferung,” (above, n. 62).

65 Cf. Luke 24:36–42; Ign. Smyrn. 2.2–3.

66 Eusebius Hist. eccl. 4.12.

67 For the first publication of the text and translation, see Chr. Maurer, in: Hennecke-Schneemelcher, NTApo 1. 183.

68 All important arguments are reported in Maurer, NTApo, 1. 180–82.

69 Jürgen Denker, Die theologiegeschichtliche Stellung des Petrusevangeliums (Europäische Hochschulschriften 23/36; Bern/Frankfurt: Lang, 1975) 58–77; see also Johnson, Benjamin A., “Empty Tomb Tradition in the Gospel of Peter” (Th.D. diss., Harvard Divinity School, 1966).Google Scholar

70 The close connection of this feature to the interpretation of Scripture is demonstrated in Barn. 7.5.

71 Bultmann, Rudolf, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York:’ Harper, 1963) 275–84.Google Scholar

72 Gos. Pet. 10.38–39 says that the soldiers reported what they saw. This is a secondary expansion which tries to involve the centurion and other witnesses.

73 The following reference to the preaching to the dead, the appearance of another person entering the tomb—he is needed in the tomb for the next story—and the counsel to report to Pilate (10.41–11.43) do not belong to the original epiphany story.

74 Here follows a description of the report to Pilate which interrupts the context and is only designed to exonerate Pilate —clearly a secondary motif. This apologetic motif is continued in 11:46–49.

75 See the redactional material mentioned in nn. 72–74.

76 Bultmann, History, 287.

77 Ibid., 259.

78 Cf. Denker, Theologiegeschichlliche Stellung, 99–101.

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