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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The New Testament Apocrypha Books

Don Stewart :: What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles?

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What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles?

The New Testament Apocrypha – Question 4

In the early years of the church, there circulated a number of “Acts of the Apostles” that gave apocryphal or fictitious accounts of the lives of some of the prominent figures in the early church. These “Acts” can be categorized as “Christian fiction,” or works with Gnostic tendencies. Gnosticism was an early heresy that emphasized “secret” or “hidden” teachings of the Lord.

The five most notable among the apocryphal Acts are the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Thomas, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Paul. We can briefly summarize their contents as follows:

1. The Acts of Peter

The Acts of Peter was originally composed in Greek; probably around A.D. 150. However, the majority of the text has survived only in the Latin translation. The Acts of Peter deal with the last part of the life of Peter. It tells how he came to Rome and was martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ. The document also reports a renewed confrontation with Simon Magus; the sorcerer whom Peter had formerly confronted in Samaria (Acts 8). The tradition of Peter being crucified upside down is found in an early Greek manuscript of this work.

In the Acts of Peter, he performs many miracles; this includes such things as causing dogs to talk. In addition, we are told that Peter not only brought people back from the dead, he also brought back to life a dead fish which had been hung in a window! This work is usually placed in the category of Christian fiction. It is easy to see why this is so.

2. The Acts of Paul

Another work of Christian fiction is the “Acts of Paul.” The man who wrote this fictitious account was an elder in one of the churches in Asia. He was removed from his position as elder for composing this piece of Christian fiction, though he claimed to have written it “out of his love for Paul.”

The Acts of Paul contains a well-known section called The Acts of Paul and Thecla. According to the account, Thecla was supposedly a young woman from Iconium who was converted under Paul’s ministry as recorded in the Book of Acts (Acts 14:1-7). After her conversion, she then broke her engagement, and joined Paul in missionary work. According to the text, she baptized herself by throwing herself into a ditch filled with water. Eventually, Paul sent her back home to teach the Word of God. This text associates a number of prophetesses with Paul and his ministry.

One amusing story concerns the Apostle Paul and his encounter with a lion. The story says that Paul preached to a lion in the wilderness around Ephesus. The lion was converted and was then baptized. Later, when Paul was taken to the amphitheatre in Ephesus to be thrown to the lions, we are told that the lion who was sent out to kill him was actually the same one that Paul baptized! Consequently, Paul was able to miraculously escape death!

This work also chronicles Paul’s martyrdom; he was beheaded under Caesar Nero.

According to the early church father Tertullian, who had an earlier form of the text of this work than we presently possess, Thecla actually baptized others. People were citing this work to argue that women should baptize; something Tertullian strongly opposed. However, the text of this work that has survived to our day only says she baptized herself. There is no record of her baptizing others.

One note on this work that is of some interest is that this work contains a physical description of Paul. In this work, Paul is described as a small man with a bald head, crooked legs, with wide eyebrows and a prominent nose. There is no way of knowing whether or not this is an accurate physical description of Paul.

3. The Acts of Thomas

The Acts of Thomas give the account of Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, as he was on his way to India to preach the gospel. This is a Gnostic work that has no historical basis whatsoever. Contained within the text of the Acts of Thomas is a famous poem called, “the Hymn of the Pearl.” This poem, it seems, was added later to the original Acts of Thomas.

4. The Acts of John

The Acts of John contains a number of stories about the life of John. Like the Acts of Thomas, it is a Gnostic work without any factual foundation. Among other things, it tells the story of Jesus and His disciples performing a dance to a Gnostic hymn! While these other apocryphal Acts have the main character martyred, John is spared martyrdom in the “Acts of John.”

5. The Acts of Andrew

The Acts of Andrew provides a number of apocryphal anecdotes in the life of the Apostle Andrew; the brother of Simon Peter. His martyrdom by crucifixion is recorded in this work. As is true with these other works, there is no basis in fact of what is written in the document.

These Works Circulated as a Unit

These five apocryphal Acts actually circulated as a unit among a group known as Manicheans. These writings were singled out by name, along with other heretical books, in a sixth century decree, known as the “Gelesian Decree.” The Gelesian Decree also made clear the identity of the authentic New Testament books; these books were not among them.

They Are Characterized by Three Common Things

These Apocryphal Acts are characterized by a number of regular features. They include these three common themes:

First, there is the promotion of celibacy in these various “acts.” This includes celibacy between husbands and wives!

Second, each of these works contain numerous miracles. Some of these miracle stories are absurd. This includes the story in the Acts of Paul of the lion whom Paul baptized after the lion was converted, as well as the account of the resurrected fish which was given in the Acts of Peter. Nothing more needs to be said.

Finally, martyrdom is glorified in these works. The Acts of Peter relates how Peter was crucified upside down and the Acts of Paul tell the story of the Apostle Paul being beheaded. Only John escaped martyrdom.

This briefly sums up these apocryphal acts which were circulating at an early date in the church. While giving us some insight into the stories circulating at this time, these “acts” do not provide us with much, if any, historical information about these biblical characters.

Summary – Question 4
What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles?

There were a number of attempts to compose Acts of notable New Testament characters. These include Andrew, Paul, Peter, John, and Thomas. None of these “Acts” have any basis in fact. Some of them fall into the category of Christian fiction, while others have definite Gnostic tendencies. Whether they may contain certain elements of truth about the main character is still debated.

The common themes of celibacy, martyrdom, and numerous miraculous deeds run through these works. They were all denounced by church authorities as works that should not be read in the churches. The reasons are rather obvious.

What Caused the Apocryphal Gospels to Be Written? ← Prior Section
What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Letters? Next Section →
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