What’s So Cool about Greek Apocryphal Gospels?

You may have seen an announcement for a new Pre-Pub called Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments and Agrapha.

Yes, that’s a mouthful. But what are they? And are these things actually useful to me in my study?

I think they are, and I’m pretty excited about working on this project.

These documents are not canonical. Some of them are just fragments that were found in dumps of papyri. But they give us insight into how early Christians dealt with their faith, how they told others about things they’d heard, and how they interacted with the myriad of stories and tales they were hearing about this guy Jesus and his disciples. These documents also teach us more about the Greek the early church used. Just think, something useful for historical studies and grammatical studies!

This resource includes gospels, which means it centers on things that tell the story of Jesus. Different people see different kinds of these gospels. I include three basic different types:

  • Infancy Gospels. These include stories about Jesus’ youth and even earlier. The Protevangelium of James includes a much fuller story about Mary and Joseph with all sorts of details (even about Mary’s midwife) that are not canonical by any stretch, but insightful nonetheless.
  • Passion Gospels. These are gospels about the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. They have similarities with the canonical gospels, but include expansions and embellishments as well.
  • Post-resurrection Gospels. The Greek extant for the Gospel of Mary is fragmentary, but insightful; one of the available fragments has a snippet of a story where Peter turns to Mary and asks her to relate what she knows of Jesus.

There are also fragments of apocryphal gospels.  One of these, P.Egerton 2, is fantastic. It consists of a few fragments, but these compile in short succession a number of events that are easily recognizable in the canonical gospels. Again, we get to see how early Christians understood the canonical gospels, how they framed that material, and how they used it for other purposes.

Among the coolest things, from my perspective, are the agrapha. The word technically means “unwritten”; in this context it denotes sayings that claim to originate with Jesus but aren’t in the canonical gospels as we’ve received them. Some of my favorites of these are in the Apostolic Fathers, in the written work known as Second Clement, which is the earliest complete non-canonical sermon we’ve got today. In chapter 5, there is an allusion to Matt 10.16 / Luke 10.3, but with an expansion and a twist:

2 For the Lord said, “You will be like sheep among wolves.” 3 And answering, Peter said to him, “But if the wolves tear apart the sheep?” 4 Jesus said to Peter, “The sheep have no fear of the wolves after they are dead, and you have no fear of those who kill you and who are able to do nothing more to you, but you fear him who after you are dead has power to throw soul and body into the hell of fire.” (2 Clem 5.2–4)

Whether this was really something Jesus said, we have no idea. But isn’t it interesting that it would be used in the early church (early/mid second century) in a sermon?

What is in the resource?

The resource includes morphologically analyzed Greek of each of the included gospels, fragments, and agrapha. So it will be searchable and useable much like you’d use any morphologically analyzed Greek edition (NT, LXX, Apostolic Fathers, Philo, etc.). In addition, I’ll be writing introductions and providing bibliographies for each major document and fragment. The agrapha will probably have a single introduction and bibliography.

This is pretty much the same format we used for the Old Testament Greek Pseudepigrapha with Morphology. The goal is to provide a useable Greek text and, because the material is not that familiar to many, decent introductions to each of the major documents giving some background, history, and applicability to one’s studies of the Bible.

Does that sound like fun? It does to me. If it does to you too, then order the Pre-Pub and let’s get this thing going!

Excited about this project? Leave us a comment!

Comments

  1. karl pfaff says:

    These documents may give some ancillary information, but even though the church rejected them, many consider them an equivalent source and may even be more valid than inspired Scripture because they may be written from a human culture point of view. The description is valid by noting that some of these are “just fragments that were found in ‘dumps’ of papyri.” Some consider that unless things are considered from that cultural vantage point there is a very vague connection to reality. The point to remember is that these are generated from a fallen human intellect (extrapolated and paraphrased opinion) rather than the expression of truth from the infinite, perfect wisdom of the almighty God whose purpose it is to declare His plan and purpose to humanity.

    • Thanks for the response, Karl.

      As you note, these documents (and, in some instances, fragments of documents) are not considered canonical. I don’t think they’re valuable to insert into any doctrinal debates.

      What they are valuable for, though, is the historical discussion about these new beliefs and ideas. These documents give us a glimpse, albeit incomplete, of how early believers (and others) interacted with stories and traditions that were passed down in addition to the canon. Simply by reading some of these stories, you get a better idea of the issues these folks were concerned with. Why did they make up all sorts of stories about Mary and about Jesus as a kid? Because it was hard to understand that Mary was a virgin, and that Jesus was God, even when he was a kid. These are the same sorts of things that folks today have a hard time understanding.

      Anyway, I think the apocryphal gospels are helpful not because they supplement our doctrinal knowledge (they don’t), but because they humanize these early believers. We see their struggles to understand are similar to our own. And while they may have different methods to try to grasp these new concepts, we realize that they were probably more like us than we previously understood.