Daily Archives: January 23, 2010

Apocrypha and Psuedepigrapha for Medievalists

Laying Out the Territory

A medievalist comrade has put up a reading plan to get better acquainted with the Biblical Apocrypha and Psuedepigrapha, and asked for comments. As a Medievalist with a PhD in New Testament this question is right up my alley. Here are a few thoughts…

First off, definitions. Recall for a moment that the bulk of our Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Generally speaking, we tend to agree that the biblical books were put down in writing in the period between the 8th and the 3rd centuries BC with some material (whether oral or written) going back as far as the 10th century, and a few pieces perhaps older still. After the Exile to Babylon (587-515), the main language of most of the people was Aramaic and we see traces of this in Daniel where the bulk of the book is actually in Aramaic.

Because of the destructions, scatterings, persecutions, etc. a fair number of Jewish folks no longer lived in the Holy Land. Those who lived outside tended to speak the same language as everyone else in “the civilized world”, i.e., Greek. Thus it’s no surprise that the educated community in the intellectual capital of Alexandria translated their Scriptures into Greek, various parts at various points, in and around the 2nd century BC. And this is where our story really starts: apocrypha is the term generally used to describe the books that appear in the Septuagint (LXX), but not the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament.

The pseudepigrapha is the term used to describe religious writings from this same general period (3rd century BC to—oh, say—the 5th century AD) that present themselves under the name of a figure from biblical history.   Daniel is the only such book in the OT Canon; there are arguments over whether some of the NT Epistles are pseudepigraphal as well, particularly Jude and 2nd Peter.

A related but different term is apocalyptic; this refers not to a distinct body of literature but to an attitude or theological stance that tends to use a grand style of rhetoric with quite a lot of mythic, poetic, and allusive (sometimes elusive) language to communicate theological thoughts and themes, generally to a people who perceive themselves to be in persecution. This kind of rhetoric is quite common in the pseudepigrapha.

Conventionally, we scholar types tend to talk about “OT Pseudepigrapha” and “NT Pseudepigrapha”. The first refers to books purporting to be by OT people and events, the second about NT people and events. This isn’t always a helpful division, though, especially when trying to grapple with the popular religion of the first centuries BC and AD. I’d rather we discuss whether texts are Jewish or Christian Pseudepigrapha and the short answer is that most of what has survived is either Christian or has been Christianized. Thus, it tends to teach us far more about early Christianity (a gentile phenomenon after the first couple of generations) than about 2nd Temple Judaism—1 Enoch being the major exception. [“Second Temple Judaism” is a technical term describing the competing and conflicting bodies of belief that grew out of “Hebrew/Israelite religion” in the period between the Exile and the Fall of Herod’s Temple (AD 70)]

Ok—now we can actually turn to the question at hand… I’ll begin by identifying some major collections of literature, then talk about them in relation to the task at hand. Looking at Brandon’s reading list, it does fall fairly naturally into groups based on the four primary source collections he has identified and one he identified earlier but didn’t include in the primary source section:

  • OT Apocrypha
  • OT psuedepigrapha (OTP)
  • NT pseudepigrapha (NTP)
  • the Gnostic materials from Nag Hammadi (NH)
  • the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS)

All of these are fascinating documents. I have, at one point or another, read through these. But before we look at each one, a fundamental question that must be wrestled with is that of purpose. Why are we looking at these? Is it because they’re inherently interesting and cool (which they are…)? Or is it to gain a solid foundation in the extra-biblical religious literature that formed early Christianity and shaped medieval discussions and understandings of religion?

If it’s the former—have at it! If it’s the latter, a certain amount of judicious pruning of the list is in order. There’s a lot of great stuff here—but it’s a lot of stuff!

Ranking them in the order of importance for medievalists and those with an interest in Church History they would look like this:

  • OT Apocrypha
  • NT pseudepigrapha
  • OT psuedepigrapha
  • the Gnostic materials from Nag Hammadi
  • the Dead Sea Scrolls

I love the Dead Sea Scrolls, but, generally speaking, wrestling with them will provide a whole lot of work with very little pay-off for those interested in Christianity. The Dead Sea Scrolls are—for the most part—the literary leavings of a particular sect within Second Temple Judaism. They were a priestly group who were all about wresting control of the temple away from the current top dogs (i.e., the Sadducees) and doing liturgy right! (heh—sound familiar?) Students of the New Testament find these writings instructive because they give us an intimate look at a community that was parallel to the early Jesus movement and that gives us a better sense of the milieu from which Jesus and the Jesus movement came. That is, here we have an apocalyptic reform movement that understands itself and the historical events within which it is involved through the lens of scriptural prophecy. So—knowing these texts are key for understanding what the fringes of Second Temple Judaism were like, but as a completely different group with completely different aims, don’t teach us anything directly about early Christianity. [And here I’m making an artificial though useful distinction between the “Jesus movement” and “early Christianity/the early Church” as the first is a movement within Second Temple Judaism while the second is predominately a gentile movement outside of Second Temple Judaism.]

The Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi are, again, a really cool set of texts. Very diverse texts, they represent a fairly broad snapshot of Gnostic documents circulating in 3rd century Egypt. Many of the major schools are represented (as far as we can tell) and, as a result, they can’t necessarily be seen as a coherent body of documents that were ever intended to be believed together.  Actually defining who and what the gnostics were is tricky and has occasioned no little argument since people started arguing about this stuff. Suffice it to say, the gnosticism of the Nag Hammadi codices is a movement outside of Christian orthodoxy as defined by canon, creed, and apostolic succession that draws on biblical writings, Neoplatonic philosophy, and other sources to construct a theological system where the divine soul must be freed from the evils of a material creation.

Gnosticism is important for Church history more for what it produced than what it was. Gnosticism was the most important force that acted both externally—most visible through the Manichees—and internally—most visibly in the Marcionites—on the Church that required it to express definitions and self-understandings about what made a community or certain expressions of belief distinctively and identifiably Christian.

Much of our early literature against heresies and heretics was spawned by various forms of gnostics and the need to explain how their beliefs were a distortion of the Christian understanding that 1) creation is of a good and loving God and that 2) Jesus is God who willingly entered into and clothed himself in creation by taking on our human nature.

So, gnostics and the Nag Hammadi stuff is important, but more for their effect on the Church Fathers than for their own content. That having been said, gnostic movements popped up in medieval Europe in groups like the Bogomils and the Cathars but, as far as I know, they were led in that direction more from seeds in the canonical writings and in creation-denigrating forms of Christian asceticism than from surviving gnostic documents.

As far as the Psuedepigrapha goes, again, this a wildly diverse set of writings enclosed within rather arbitrary covers. Again, as I said above, these can be grouped broadly in Jewish and Christian writings. Within the Charlesworth volumes—which are the single best collection of the OTP—the chief representatives of Jewish material would be 1 Enoch in vol 1 and the Fragments in vol 2. If you want to do serious work on these texts, though, Stone’s edition of 1 Enoch is far superior and Holladay’s texts on the Fragments of Hellenistic Jewish Authors is more complete and comprehensive (full disclosure—I indexed Holladay’s index for the Aristoboulos volume).

As far as Christian pseudepigrapha, the most important material is the narrative material. Things like the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Adam directly informed medieval understandings of the prophets and patriarchs. The Gospel of Nicodemus and related documents are essential reading for anyone with pretensions to Christian medievalism. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles circulated for centuries and sections of these were enshrined in The Golden Legend, popular preaching, and martyrologies. The Apocalypses of Paul and Thomas are represented in Old English; the Protoevangelium of James as read in and through the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is essential for understanding medieval speculation and thought around the Blessed Virgin Mary, and most art around the BVM that references her childhood is entirely incomprehensible without it.

The least sexy of the above collections is truly the most important, though. The OT Apocrypha was not apocrypha to most patristic and medieval Christians—it was Bible. In particular Sirach/Ecclesiasticus was one of the preeminent wisdom books used by theologians and it figures heavily in medieval understandings of conduct and the sacraments (especially almsgiving and its relation to both penance and forgiveness). Wisdom of Solomon is another biggie for the same reason. You cannot be a credible (liturgical) medievalist if you cannot recognize the Additions to Daniel at a glance. Daily Office-praying Anglicans have a big leg up here as we’re used to seeing them in the context in which the medievals saw and heard them: these would be the Song of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men which are canticles 2/13 and 1/12 respectively.The narratives of Tobit, Susanna, Judith, and the Maccabees are clearly important as well.


The place where I would start is with a new work that will help you locate Christianity within the main strains of Jewish and Greco-Roman thought, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity by Luke Timothy Johnson. I’ve promised a review of this but it hasn’t been written yet… One of the great achievements of this book is showing where the communities of both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices fall in terms of how they understood religion and religious practices in relation to emerging Christianity.

This will give you both a foundation and a very helpful conceptual framework rooted in a host of primary sources. Next, go to the texts.

Start with the Apocrypha. If you haven’t purchased a decent academic study Bible in a while, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NRSV with Apocrypha) is probably the best one out there and is the one I’d recommend. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to glance at your Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate as you go…

For secondary literature on the Apocrypha, I’d stick with just one book, Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. This hits the wisdom portions that are most crucial.

The bulk of your time in this investigation needs to be in the NTP. Hennecke is good and a classic; I use J. K. Elliott’s The Apocryphal New Testament. The Acts and the Gospels deserve the bulk of your time. Seriously. As you finish each act, go to the respective section in the Golden Legend and see how much derives from these apocryphal materials. Or, when you finish the Mary material, get your hands on the Heiland and see how much of it comes directly from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

As far as secondary sources go, I don’t know much good stuff on these… Johnson talks about these acts a certain amount in Among the Gentiles; this would probably be the best place to read through the essays in Powell & Scragg’s Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England.

Then move to the OTP. 1 Enoch is just an all-around great read; Jubilees and the Sibylinne Oracles are also important for getting a sense of this literature. Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs is good for the moral dimension of the psuedepigrapha.

My standard introduction to this material would be John J. Collin’s Apocalyptic Imagination. I haven’t read VanderKam & Adler’s The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity but knowing VanderKam, it’ll be terrific and well worth your time.

As for the others—read what you’d like as time allows, but I’d really focus on the first three categories before moving there.


I just have to say this… One of the reasons why this stuff is cool and attractive is because it’s outside the boundaries: it’s what Christians weren’t suppose to read. It gives you some great anti-authoritarian cred to read and know this stuff. But—honestly—most people who are interested in Early Christianity (and Christianity in general) would be far better served by actually reading all of the Old Testament and knowing the Canonical Scriptures before moving outside the canon. Similarly, while the Nag Hammadi stuff can be a great head trip, its not nearly as useful as knowing the homilies of Leo, Gregory and Bede.

Don’t read the outside stuff at the expense of knowing thoroughly the inside stuff: the Scriptures and the Doctors of the Church.