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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VIII:
Apocrypha of the New Testament.: Part I

Early Church Fathers  Index     

p. 351 Translator’s Introductory Notice.


Our aim in these translations has been to give a rendering of the original as literal as possible; and to this we have adhered even in cases—and they are not a few—in which the Latin or the Greek is not in strict accordance with grammatical rule.  It was thought advisable in all cases to give the reader the means of forming an accurate estimate of the style as well as the substance of these curious documents.

Part I.—Apocryphal Gospels.

The portion of the volume, extending from page 361 to page 476, comprising the Apocryphal Gospels properly so called, consists of twenty-two separate documents, of which ten are written in Greek and twelve in Latin.  These twenty-two may be classed under three heads:  (a) those relating to the history of Joseph and of the Virgin Mary, previous to the birth of Christ; (b) those relating to the infancy of the Saviour; and (c) those relating to the history of Pilate.  The origines of the traditions are the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Acts of Pilate.  All or most of the others can be referred to these three, as compilations, modifications, or amplifications.

There is abundant evidence of the existence of many of these traditions in the second century, though it cannot be made out that any of the books were then in existence in their present form.  The greater number of the authorities on the subject, however, seem to agree in assigning to the first four centuries of the Christian era, the following five books:  1. The Protevangelium of James; 2. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew; 4. The History of Joseph the Carpenter; 5. The Gospel of Thomas; 9. The Gospel of Nicodemus.

We proceed to give a very brief notice of each of them.

I.  The Protevangelium of James.—The name of Protevangelium was first given to it by Postel, whose Latin version was published in 1552.  The James is usually referred to St. James the Less, the Lord’s brother; but the titles vary very much. 1550   Origen, in the end of the second century, mentions a book of James, but it is by no means clear that he refers to the book in question.  Justin Martyr, in two passages, refers to the cave in which Christ was born; and from the end of the fourth century down, there are numerous allusions in ecclesiastical writings to statements made in the Protevangelium.

For his edition Tischendorf made use of seventeen mss., one of them belonging to the ninth century.  The Greek is good of the kind, and free from errors and corruptions.  There are translations of it into English by Jones (1722) and Cowper (1867).

II.  The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.—The majority of the mss. attribute this book to Matthew, though the titles vary much.  The letters prefixed, professing to be written to and by St. Jerome, exist in several of the mss.; but no one who is acquainted with the style of Jerome’s letters will think this one authentic.  There are, however, in his works many allusions to some of the legends mentioned in this book.  Chapter i.–xxiv. were edited by Thilo, chapters xxv. to the end are edited p. 352 for the first time by Tischendorf.  It is not very clear whether the Latin be original, or a direct translation from the Greek.  In most part it seems to be original.  The list of epithets, however, applied to the triangles of the Alpha in chapter xxxi. are pretty obviously mistranslations of Greek technical terms, which it might not be difficult to reproduce.

III.  Gospel of the Nativity of Mary.—This work, which is in substance the same as the earlier part of the preceding, yet differs from it in several important points, indicating a later date and a different author.  It has acquired great celebrity from having been transferred almost entire to the Historia Lombardica or Legenda Aurea in the end of the thirteenth century.  Mediæval poetry and sacred art have been very much indebted to its pages.

The original is in Latin, and is not a direct translation from the Greek.  In many passages it follows very closely the Vulgate translation.

IV.  The History of Joseph the Carpenter.—The original language of this history is Coptic.  From the Coptic it was translated into Arabic.  The Arabic was published by Wallin in 1722, with a Latin translation and copious notes.  Wallin’s version has been republished by Fabricius, and later in a somewhat amended form by Thilo.  This amended form of Wallin’s version is the text adopted by Tischendorf.  Chapters xiv.–xxiii. have been published in the Sahidic text by Zoega in 1810 with a Latin translation, and more correctly by Dulaurier in 1835 with a French translation.

Tischendorf employs various arguments in support of his opinion that the work belongs to the fourth century.  It is found, he says, in both dialects of the Coptic:  the eschatology of it is not inconsistent with an early date:  the feast of the thousand years of chapter xxvi. had become part of heretical opinion after the third century.  The death of the Virgin Mary in chapter v. is consistent with the doctrine of the assumption, which began to prevail in the fifth century.

V., VI., VII.  The Gospel of Thomas.—Like the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel of Thomas is of undoubted antiquity.  It is mentioned by name by Origen, quoted by Irenæus and the author of the Philosophumena, who says that it was used by the Nachashenes, a Gnostic sect of the second century.  Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) attributes the authorship not to the apostle, but to a Thomas who was one of the three disciples of Manes.  This fact, of course, indicates that Cyril knew nothing of the antiquity of the book he was speaking of.  This Manichæan origin has been adopted by many writers, of whom the best known are in recent times R. Simon and Mingarelli.

The text of the first Greek form is obtained from a Bologna ms. published by Mingarelli with a Latin translation in 1764, a Dresden ms. of the sixteenth century edited by Thilo, a Viennese fragment edited by Lambecius, and a Parisian fragment first brought to light by Coteler in his, edition of the Apostolical Constitutions, and translated into English by Jones.

The second Greek form is published for the first time by Tischendorf, who got the ms., which is on paper, of the fourteenth or fifteenth century, from one of the monasteries on Mount Sinai.

The Latin form is also published for the first time, from a Vatican ms.  There is another Latin text existing in a palimpsest, which Tischendorf assigns to the fifth century, and asserts to be much nearer the ancient Greek copy than any of the other mss.

It seems pretty clear, from the contents of the book, that its author was a Gnostic, a Docetist, and a Marcosian; and it was held in estimation by the Nachashenes and the Manichæans.  Its bearing upon Christian art, and to some extent Christian dogma, is well known.

The Greek of the original is by no means good, and the Latin translator has in many cases mistaken the meaning of common Greek words

VIII.  Arabic Gospel of the Saviour’s Infancy.—Chapters i.–ix. are founded on the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and on the Protevangelium of James; chapters xxxvi. to the end are comp. 353 piled from the Gospel of Thomas; the rest of the book, chapters x. to xxxv., is thoroughly Oriental in its character, reminding one of the tales of the Arabian Nights, or of the episodes in the Golden Ass of Apuleius.

It is evident that the work is a compilation, and that the compiler was an Oriental.  Various arguments are adduced to prove that the original language of it was Syriac.

It was first published, with a Latin translation and copious notes, by Professor Sike of Cambridge in 1697, afterwards by Fabricius, Jones, Schmid, and Thilo.  Tischendorf’s text is Sike’s Latin version amended by Fleischer.

There are not sufficient data for fixing with any accuracy the time at which it was composed or compiled.

IX.–XIV.  The Gospel of Nicodemus1551 —The six documents inserted under this name are various forms of two books—two in Greek and one in Latin of the Acts of Pilate; one in Greek and two in Latin of the Descent of Christ to the world below.  Of twelve mss., only two or three give the second part consecutively with the first, nor does it so appear in the Coptic translation.  The title of Gospel of Nicodemus does not appear before the thirteenth century.

Justin Martyr mentions a book called the Acts of Pilate, and Eusebius informs us that the Emperor Maximim allowed or ordered a book, composed by the pagans under this title, to be published in a certain portion of the empire, and even to be taught in the schools; but neither of these could have been the work under consideration.

Tischendorf attributes it to the second century, which is probably too early, though without doubt the legend was formed by the end of the second century.  Maury (Mém. de la Société des Antiq. de France, t. xx.) places it in the beginning of the fifth century, from 405 to 420; and Renan (Études d’Hist. Relig., p. 177) concurs in this opinion.  An able writer in the Quarterly Review (vol. cxvi.) assigns it to 439; the author of the article Pilate, in Smith’s Bible Dictionary, gives the end of the third century as the probable date.

The author was probably a Hellenistic Jew converted to Christianity, or, as Tischendorf and Maury conclude, a Christian imbued with Judaic and Gnostic beliefs.  The original language was most probably Greek, though, as in the case of Pseudo-Matthew, the History of Joseph the Carpenter, etc., the original language is, in many of the prefaces, stated to have been Hebrew.  Some think that Latin was the original language, on the ground that Pilate would make his report to the Emperor in that, the official, language.  The Latin text we have, however, is obviously a translation, made, moreover, by a man to whom Greek was not very familiar, as is obvious from several instances specified in our notes to the text.

The editio princeps of the Latin text is without place or date, and it has been re-edited by Jones, Birch, Fabricius, Thilo, and others.  The Greek text of Part I., and of a portion of Part II., was first published by Birch, and afterwards in a much improved form, with the addition of copious notes and prolegomena, by Thilo.  The latter part of his prolegomena contains a full account of the English, French, Italian, and German translations.  For his edition Tischendorf consulted thirty-nine ancient documents, of which a full account is given in his Prolegomena, pp. lxxi.–lxxvi.

For an interesting account of these documents, see the introduction to Mr. B. H. Cowper’s translation of the Apocryphal Gospels, pp. lxxxv.–cii.

XV.  The Letter of Pontius Pilate.—The text is formed from four authorities, none of them ancient.  A translation of the Greek text of the same letter will be found at p. 480.

XVI., XVII.  The Report of Pilate.—The first of these documents was first published by Fabricius with a Latin translation; the second by Birch, and then by Thilo.  Tischendorf has p. 354 made use of five mss., the earliest of the twelfth century.  It does not seem possible to assign the date.

XVIII.  The Paradosis of Pilate.—It has been well remarked by the author of the article in the Quarterly Review above referred to, that the early Church looked on Pilate with no unfavourable eye; that he is favourably shown in the catacombs; that the early Fathers interpreted him as a figure of the early Church, and held him to be guiltless of Christ’s death; that the creeds do not condemn him, and the Coptic Church has even made him a saint.  He remarks also that Dante finds punishments for Caiaphas and Annas, but not for Pilate.

The text was first edited by Birch, and afterwards by Thilo.  Tischendorf makes use of five mss., of which the earliest belongs to the twelfth century.

XIX.  The Death of Pilate.—This is published for the first time by Tischendorf from a Latin ms. of the fourteenth century.  The language shows it to be of a late date.  It appears almost entire in the Legenda Aurea.

XX.  The Narrative of Joseph.—This history seems to have been popular in the middle ages, if we may judge from the number of the Greek mss. of it which remain.

It was first published by Birch, and after him by Thilo.  For his edition Tischendorf made use of three mss., of which the oldest belongs to the twelfth century.

XXI.  The Avenging of the Saviour.—This version of the Legend of Veronica is written in very barbarous Latin, probably of the seventh or eighth century.  An Anglo-Saxon version, which Tischendorf concludes to be derived from the Latin, was edited and translated for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, by C. W. Goodwin, in 1851.  The Anglo-Saxon text is from a ms. in the Cambridge Library, one of a number presented to the Cathedral of Exeter by Bishop Leofric in the beginning of the eleventh century.

The reader will observe that there are in this document two distinct legends, somewhat clumsily joined together—that of Nathan’s embassy, and that of Veronica. 1552



[James the Lord’s brother, in the earliest Christian literature, is not identified with James the son of Alphæus, one of the twelve.  On the titles, see footnote on first page of text.—R.]


[The numbers here correspond with those of Tischendorf in his prolegomena.  In his table of contents, however, he gives a separate number to the letter of Pilate, which closes XIII.  Hence the enumeration differs from that point.—R.]


[For a full list of fragments and titles of other Apocryphal Gospels, see Schaff-Herzog, i. p. 106.  Twenty-nine are given, but in some cases the same work probably appears under two titles.—R.]

Next: Part II

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