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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are Some Books Missing from the New Testament?

Don Stewart :: What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Letters?

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What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Letters?

Are Some Books Missing From the New Testament – Question 5

The largest part of the New Testament is made up of letters; twenty-one out of the twenty-seven books are letters to either churches or individuals. In contrast to this, the apocryphal letters make up the smallest percentage of writings that were attributed to a New Testament character. While a number of false gospels and Acts circulated, it was much more difficult to falsify a letter from a prominent New Testament figure. Therefore, the number of the apocryphal letters that were written is fewer than the number of false gospels or Acts.

The New Testament shows an awareness of false letters circulating in the name of an apostle. It seems that there were attempts to forge letters of the Apostle Paul. He wrote the following to the church at Thessalonica:

And now...let us tell you about the coming again of our Lord Jesus Christ and how we will be gathered together to meet him. Please don’t be so easily shaken and troubled by those who say that the day of the Lord has already begun. Even if they claim to have had a vision, a revelation, or a letter supposedly from us, don't believe them. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 NLT)

This may indicate that false letters were circulating at this early time.

Some Apocryphal Letters

Some of the prominent apocryphal letters include the following:

1. The Third Letter to the Corinthians

One of the apocryphal letters that circulated was Third Corinthians. This is found in the work known as the “Acts of Paul.” The Armenian Church held it in high esteem and actually included it in the appendix of a particular edition of the New Testament.

The Third Letter to the Corinthians attempts to correct misunderstandings which occurred with the prior letters written to the church at Corinth; First and Second Corinthians. In particular, this work seeks to correct the misinterpretation of Paul's statement, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Some people took this to mean that the resurrection of the dead was not physical. Indeed, the Gnostics were fond of quoting this part of 1 Corinthians in their effort to deny a bodily resurrection. Third Corinthians corrects this misunderstanding of the text.

It is believed that Christians felt the need to forge Third Corinthians to counter the claims of the Gnostics. Of course, all this was not necessary. What was necessary was to have a complete understanding about the teaching of the New Testament concerning the resurrection body.

2. The Letter to the Laodiceans

Paul’s mention of a letter from the Laodiceans prompted a number of attempts to compose such a work. In his letter to the Colossians, he wrote the following:

After you have read this letter, read it in the church at Laodicea. Make sure that you also read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16 God’s Word)

We know nothing of this letter from Laodicea except from this reference. In fact, it is debated as to whether this letter was written by Paul to the Laodiceans or if it was another letter of his. It is possible that Paul was referring to his letter to the Ephesians, which was circulating and was, at that time, in Laodicea. If this was the case, then Paul was instructing the Colossians to send for another of his letters to have it read in the churches; the letter to the Ephesians.

Because of the ambiguous way in which the verse was written, it can be understood either way. While it has been assumed to be a letter written by Paul that was sent to the Laodiceans, there are those who have contended that the letter originated from Laodicea.

And a letter from Laodicea had indeed appeared! This letter to the Laodiceans consists of about twenty verses which are taken from a number of Paul’s letters. This patchwork document does not show much creativity. Though obviously not one of Paul’s writings, it remained highly valued for a number of years in the church.

3. The Letter of the Apostles

This letter is addressed to the churches of the East and the West. Its existence was unknown until a copy of the text was found in the year 1895. It is an attack on Gnosticism by an orthodox believer. It begins with the eleven apostles giving a description of various miracles of Jesus that He performed throughout His life. Then Jesus responds to questions from His disciples concerning the time of His Second Coming, the last judgment, the fate of the lost, and the resurrection of the body.

The work concludes with a description of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven accompanied by an earthquake, thunder and lightning. This document shows familiarity with much of the New Testament. While no one actually believes it was written by the apostles, it seems to have been written by an orthodox believer; that is, one who held to the New Testament teachings about Christ.

These three examples provide us with an idea of the kind of documents that were circulating in the early years of the church that claimed to be actual letters from the apostles.

Summary – Question 5
What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal New Testament Letters?

It seems that at the time of the apostles, there were a number of false letters circulating. This continued in the early years of the church after the death of the last of the apostles. While not as popular as false gospels, there were indeed some false letters that circulated in the early church. Some of the more prominent include, “3rd Corinthians,” “the Letter to the Laodiceans,” and “the Letter to the Apostles.”

Each of these works circulated among the believers in the early years of the church and have had those who accepted their authenticity. Yet, there is no reason to believe that they are authentic.

What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles? ← Prior Section
What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Apocalypses? Next Section →
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