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.

11 thoughts on “Apocrypha and Psuedepigrapha for Medievalists

  1. B. Hawk

    Thanks for such a great post! This is a lot of response to my list, and there’s a lot packed in here. You’ve provided a great overview, and I really like the synthesis of biblical and medieval studies perspectives you bring to the material.

    I definitely agree with you about the Powell & Scragg volume’s value (unprecedented), and I’d add the volume for SASLC by Frederick M. Biggs, The Apocrypha (Kalamazoo, 2007). If you haven’t seen it, check it out: it’s great for pulling together knowledge about the presence of individual apocryphal works in Anglo-Saxon England (and, subsequently, later medieval England, too). Another brand new study for the medieval–and right in your camp with the liturgical sources–is Els Rose, Ritual Memory: The Apocryphal Acts and Liturgical Commemoration in the Early Medieval West (c. 500-1215) (Leiden, 2009).

    Also, I think the Doctors of the Church is one area that may need to be added to my plan: I don’t have much on there, since I’ve focused on the biblical currents, and I’ve only done peripheral work with them for the medieval perspective. Obviously Biggs provides a good overview in the Powell & Scragg volume, but there are more places to go with it by digging into patristics.

    I’ll definitely revisit this post as I go forward, for both the sheer amount of information pulled together and the references you’ve provided.

  2. Matt Gunter

    “far better served by actually reading all of the Old Testament and knowing the Canonical Scriptures”

    I suppose the $64000 question is whether the Apocrypha is included in the “all” of the OT and thus canonical. I am inclined to answer yes, but that puts me somewhat beyond the Articles of Religion.

  3. Derek the Ænglican


    As Episcopalians using the ’79 BCP we must answer your question in the affirmative–as have generations of Anglicans before us. The “apocrypha” has always had a place in the Daily Office and in the Mass readings. Therefore, it is Holy Scripture.

  4. Derek the Ænglican


    The Rose book looks great!

    As far as patristics goes, I’d return again to points already made about Paul the Deacon: thus, Bede, Gregory, Leo, Maximus, and Jerome on Matthew.

  5. Michelle

    Mary Clayton has two books on the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England.

    Mary Clayton. The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England. (1990 HB/ 2006 PB) Cambridge.

    Mary Clayton. The Apocryphal Gospels of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge. (2006 paperback)

  6. Michelle

    It also seems worthwhile to mention that the Oxford study bible includes all of the OT apocrpypha, sandwiched in between the OT and NT.

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    Thanks, Michelle! I’d heard about the first of Clayton’s books, but not the second.

    Many of the RSV’s and NRSV’s have the Apocrypha as will any explicitly Catholic Bibles. Most of the standard Protestant or Evangelical aimed Bibles lack it, of course. I’m always amused by the Fundamentalist 1611 KJV only crowd who seem to forget that the Apocrypha were an integral part of that edition…

  8. rick allen

    Back in 1989, when I was in England for my sister’s wedding, I purchased a facsimile 1611 Authorized Bible from Oxford University Press–quite a beautiful book, with non-modernized spelling, with the marginal notes, the 1611 calendar, and, of course, between the testaments, what Protestants tend to call the Apocrypha, and what Catholics have come to call the Deutero-canonical books. Apparently the only thing that keeps it from being a true facsimile is the use of modern “s”‘s rather than the old long “s” that’s so difficult to tell from an “f”.

    I was looking on Amazon the other day and it seems to be out of print, which is quite a shame, because it wasn’t outrageously priced. But there must be some used ones floating around out there.

    One other similar resource some might find helpful is the Prichard Ancient Near Eastern Tests relating to the Old Testament, which used to be published by Princeton University Press. It’s a great source on Near Eastern myths, legends, laws and history in its own right, but also good for putting the Old Testament in a literary context.

  9. B. Hawk

    I’ll second Michelle’s recommendations of Clayton’s work–both valuable in previous work on apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England.

    Also, about the Apocrypha (Deuterocanonical books), I’ve posted a bit on this issue from a “Protestant” perspective before–reflections on their nature and moving toward a wider acceptance of them:
    Part I: http://bwhawk.blogspot.com/2008/05/toward-protestant-acceptance-of.html
    Part II: http://bwhawk.blogspot.com/2008/06/toward-protestant-acceptance-of.html
    Part III: http://bwhawk.blogspot.com/2008/06/toward-protestant-acceptance-of_26.html

  10. Christopher

    Of course, they are Scripture and occupy a particular place in the life of our tradition:

    “And the other books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following…”

    I would suggest that in this case the matter has to do with what is sufficient for salvation and the delineation has to do with Justification versus Indulgences and prayers for the dead in Maccabees. There are those of us who have no issue with these prayers, myself included, but would take issue with selling them. As Ramsey would put it, they’re about family and beloved relationship rather than juridical and propitiatory piety.

    Nonetheless they are publicly read in our liturgy and makes them Canon with a particular and I think beloved place in our life together. As example, I always note any edition of the Scriptures that lack them and refuse to purchase such an edition. I too find it amusing that KJV-only folks cut out something integral to the Authorized Edition. Finding such an edition in the US that contains the Apocrypha is sometimes difficult, however.

    I loved studying the Dead Sea Scrolls in undergraduate along with the OT Pseudapigrapha. Sometimes they do not help us directly but they give us a sense of the diversity of intertestamental Judaism as well as various frames of mind and relationships of thinking and writing.

    I would note that the Eastern Churches are more consistent in considering the whole of the Septuagint as scripture, including the Odes of Solomon without which there is much lost to us in understanding of their tradition and that of the Isles. And that the Ethiopians uniquely draw upon Enoch, Jubilees and other Apocalytpic-style literature. I was always fascinated that Jude draws on these and I believe one of the Moses books.

    I would add to Derek’s list because we cannot understand our own American liturgical development from the Carolines forward to the Liturgical Movement as it develops within our Church without: Nyssa, Nazianzus, Basil, Athanasius, Irenaeus, and Damascene. In particular, Irenaeus profoundly affects our own liturgical doctrine of Holy Communion through Andrewes onward.

    Also, Benedict, Julian, and Bernard.

    Our doctrine of participation reemphasized through Maurice from Hooker resonates profoundly with Maximus, though Maurice did not seem to have patience for patristics while becoming a modern divine to us himself. With that in mind, the outline Derek gives us of Scripture, Patristics, Common Prayer is one that is distinctively Anglican through the centuries but not for their own sake, but in the words of Temple, for the sake of immediacy of encounter with the Living God to whom these writes point us and bear us forth.

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