We are now working our way through the apocryphal acts of the Apostles. These texts are not meant to rival Luke’s biblical Acts of the Apostles, but it is unclear whether they were meant as supplements to Acts or as something completely different. In the Ante-Nicene Fathers series, we encounter several of these texts:
- Acts of the Apostles Peter and Paul
- Acts of Paul and Thecla
- Acts of Barnabas
- Acts of Philip
- Acts of Andrew
- Acts of Andrew and Matthias
- Acts of Peter and Andrew
- Acts of Matthew
- Acts of Thomas
- Martyrdom of Bartholomew (not quite the same thing as the others)
- Acts of Thaddeus
- Acts of John
The dates of these apocryphal acts are actually uncertain. They are not all ante-Nicene. If memory serves me correctly, Acts of Barnabas only turns up around 470, when St Barnabas’ tomb was discovered on the island of Cyprus. Those that are certainly ancient and ante-Nicene are John, Paul, Peter, Andrew, and Thomas.
You will have noticed that there is a particular emphasis on virginity and continence in these texts. Indeed, it seems in Acts of Thomas that the apostle is at least as committed to converting the princess to celibacy as he is to converting her to Christ. This rejection of sexual intercourse will ultimately be rejected by the church, but the lifting up of celibacy as a high ideal will maintain itself through to the Reformation as the Christian ascetic movement sorts itself out through the ascetic revival that began in Egypt in the fourth century.
One reason why these texts are not necessarily rivals to the canonical Acts by Luke is the fact that, while Luke-Acts have been argued to fall within Hellenistic/Second Sophistic forms of biography, it is clear that the apocryphal acts fall more in line with ancient romance, taking the genre and subverting it. In classical Greek romances, two lovers fight against all odds to be able to consummate their erotic love through intercourse (perhaps a gross oversimplification, but there it is), whereas the exact opposite occurs in apocryphal acts.
Regardless of their standing, their genre, and their relationship with mainstream Christian ethics, the apocryphal acts were enormously popular throughout Christian history. In fact, the first time I read any of them, myself, it was the Old English verse rendition of Andreas, where he is trapped in the city of anthropophagists and must be rescued by Matthias. I also have on my shelf the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library edition with translation of the Miracles of Saint Thekla, a fifth-century Greek version (in Miracles Tales from Byzantium).
With the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent desire of the Roman Catholic Church to look respectable to the eyes of modernists, these stories have fallen in popularity. Nonetheless, they are a major part of the deposit of the Christian tradition. Historically, texts such as these (as well as the Protevangelium of James) have been used for history but not doctrine.
One wonders what we might do with them today in a postmodern, post-Bollandist age.
Besides the Ante-Nicene Fathers, this is worth reading. My internet connection is not allowing me to get access to the bibliography I want, so anyone with something less than 97 years old, please feel free to comment!
James, M. R. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford, 1924. James includes Acts of John, Paul, Peter, Andrew, Thomas as one category, then Philip, Andrew and Matthias, Peter and Andrew, and Matthew as another. This very interesting book includes many other apocryphal Gospels and epistles.