« Prev Section XVI. Apocryphal Books Which Are Still… Next »



WE come now to consider those apocryphal books which are still extant, and concerning which, therefore, we can speak more particularly.

The first of these is, “the letter of Abgarus, king of Edessa, addressed to Jesus, and sent by his footman Ananias.”

Eusebius is the first who makes mention of this epistle, and the sum of his account is, that our Saviour’s miraculous works drew innumerable persons to him, from the most remote countries, to be healed of their diseases;—that Abgarus, a famous king beyond the Euphrates, wrote to him, because he was afflicted with a malady incurable by human art. Our Lord promised to send one of his disciples to him, and Thaddeus, one of the seventy disciples, was sent by Thomas after the ascension of Jesus, by an intimation given him from heaven. For the truth of this story, Eusebius appeals to the public records of the city of Edessa, where, he says, all the transactions of 282the reign of Abgarus are preserved in the Syriac language, out of which he translated these epistles, and the accompanying history. He proceeds to relate that Thaddeus having come to Edessa wrought many miracles, and healed many that were diseased. Abgarus, supposing that this was the person whom Christ had, in his letter, promised to send to him, as soon as Thaddeus was introduced to him, perceiving something extraordinary in his countenance, fell down before him, at which his nobles were greatly surprised. The king having inquired whether he was the person sent by Christ, he answered, that on account of the faith of Christ he was sent, and assured him that all things should be according to his faith. To which the king replied, that he believed so much in Christ, that he was resolved, had it not been for fear of the Romans, to have made war with the Jews for crucifying him. Thaddeus informed him of the ascension of Christ to his Father. The king replied, I believe in him, and in his Father also: on which the apostle said, I lay my hand on you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ; and the king was instantly cured of his disease. He also cured others who were diseased; and, on the morrow, the king ordered all the city to meet together, to hear the apostle preach. The king offered him gold and silver, which he refused, saying, “We have left our own, and should we take that which is another’s?”

These epistles are also mentioned by Ephrem, the Syrian, who was a deacon in the church of Edessa, in the latter end of the fourth century. His account of this matter, as given by Dr. Grabe, is as follows: “Blessed be your city, and mother Edessa, which 283was expressly blessed by the mouth of the Lord, and his disciples, but our apostles; for when Abgarus the king, who built that city, thought fit to send and acknowledge Christ, the Lord and Saviour of all, in his pilgrimage on earth; saying, I have heard all things which are done by you, and how much you have suffered by the Jews, who contemn you, wherefore, come hither, and take up your residence with me; I have a little city which shall be equally yours and mine; hereupon the Lord admiring his faith sent by messengers a blessing unto the city, which should abide for ever, till the Holy One be revealed from heaven, even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and God of God.”

No other writer of the first four centuries makes any explicit mention of this epistle; but Procopius, in the sixth century, in his history of the Persian war, relates, ” That Abgarus had been long afflicted with the gout, and finding no relief from the physicians, but hearing of the miracles of Christ, sent to him, and desired that he would come and live with him; and that upon his receiving an answer from Christ, he was immediately cured; and that our Saviour, in the end of his letter, gave Abgarus assurance, that his city should never be taken by enemies.”

Evagrius, in the latter end of the sixth century, appeals to this account of Procopius, and confirms the story that the city never should be taken by enemies, by a reference to some facts, particularly the failure of Chosroes to take the city, when he laid siege to it. But this author adds a circumstance, which has much the air of a fable, that this failure of capturing the city was brought about by a picture 284of Christ’s face, which he had impressed on a hand kerchief, and sent to Abgarus, at his earnest request.

Cedrenus adds to all the rest that Christ sealed his letter with a seal consisting of seven Hebrew letters, the meaning of which was, “the divine miracle of God is seen.”

Among the moderns, a very large majority are of opinion that this epistle is apocryphal. Indeed, the principal advocates of its genuineness are a few learned Englishmen, particularly Dr. Parker, Dr. Cave, and Dr. Grabe, but they do not speak confidently on the subject; while on the other side are found almost the whole body of learned critics, both Protestants and Romanists. Now, that this epistle and history existed in the archives of Edessa in the time of Eusebius, there is no room to doubt, unless we would accuse this respectable historian of the most deliberate falsehood; for he asserts that he himself had taken them thence. His words, however, must not be too strictly interpreted, as though he had himself been at Edessa, and had translated the epistle from the Syriac; for there is reason to believe that he never visited that place, and that he was not acquainted with the Syriac tongue. The words will be sufficiently verified, if this document was translated and transmitted to him through an authentic channel from Edessa.

It is probable, therefore, that this story has some foundation in truth. Probably Thaddeus, or some other apostle, did preach the gospel and perform miracles in that city; but how much of the story is credible, it is not now easy to determine. But I 285think it may be shown that this epistle was never penned by Jesus Christ, for the following reasons:

1. It is never mentioned in the genuine gospels; nor referred to by any writer of the first three centuries.

2. If this account had been true, there never could have been any hesitation among the apostles about preaching the gospel to the Gentiles.

3. It is unreasonable to believe that if Christ had been applied to by this king for healing, he would have deferred a cure until he could send an apostle after his ascension. This does not correspond with the usual conduct of the benevolent Saviour.

4. It seems to have been a tradition universally received that Christ never wrote anything himself; and if he had written this letter, it would have been more prized than any other portion of Scripture, and would have been placed in the Canon, and everywhere read in the churches.

5. After it was published by Eusebius, it never gained so much credit as to be received as a genuine writing of Christ. As it was unknown in the first three centuries, so in the fourth when published it was scarcely noticed by any writer.

6. The plain mention of our Lord’s ascension in the epistle, is an evidence of its spuriousness; for in all his discourses, recorded by the evangelists, there is no such explicit declaration of this event; and it cannot be supposed that he would speak more explicitly to a heathen king than to the persons chosen to be witnesses of his actions, and dispensers of his doctrine. There is, however, nothing in the sentiments expressed 286in this epistle unsuitable to the humble and benevolent character of the Saviour; but learned men have supposed that there are several internal evidences of spuriousness besides the one just mentioned. I conceive, however, that the reasons already assigned will be considered as sufficient to prove that this letter forms no part of the sacred Canon. It is excluded by several of the rules laid down above; and even if it were genuine, it seems that it ought rather to be received as a private communication than as intended for the edification of the whole church. The history which accompanies the letter has several strong marks of spuriousness, but as this does not claim to be canonical, we need not pursue the subject further. It may, however, not be amiss to remark that the story of the picture of our Saviour impressed on a handkerchief and sent to Abgarus, is enough of itself to condemn the history as fabulous. This savours not of the simplicity of Christ, and has no parallel in anything recorded in the gospel.

II. There is now extant an epistle under the title of “Paul to the Laodiceans,” and it is known that as early as the beginning of the second century, a work existed under this name which was received by Marcion the heretic. But there is good reason for thinking that the epistle now extant is an entirely different work from the one which anciently existed; for the present epistle does not contain the words which Epiphanius has cited from that used by Marcion; and what renders this clear is, that the ancient epistle was heretical, and was rejected by the Fathers of the church with one consent; whereas, the one which we now have contains nothing erroneous; for it is a 287mere compilation from the other epistles of Paul with a few additional sentences which contain no heretical doctrine. As the epistle is short, a translation of it will be given in the notes at the end of the volume.7575See Note G.

Concerning the ancient epistle under this title Philastrius says, “That some were of opinion that it was written by Luke; but because the heretics have inserted some (false) things, it is for that reason not read in the churches. Though it be read by some, yet there are no more than thirteen epistles of Paul read to the people in the church, and sometimes that to the Hebrews.” “There are some,” says Jerome, “who read an epistle, under the name of Paul to the Laodiceans, but is rejected by all.” And Epiphanius calls it “an epistle not written by the apostles.” The epistle now extant never having been received into the ancient catalogues, read in the churches, or cited as Scripture, is of course apocryphal. It is also proved not to be genuine, because it is almost entirely an extract from the other epistles of Paul.

III. Another writing which has been ascribed to Paul is, “Six Letters to Seneca,” with which are connected “Eight Letters from Seneca to Paul.” These letters are of undoubted antiquity, and several learned men of the Jesuits have defended them as genuine, and allege that they are similar to other epistles received into the Canon which were addressed to individuals. That such letters were in existence as early as the fourth century appears from a passage in Jerome’s Catalogue of Illustrious Men, where he gives the following account of Seneca: “Lucius Anneus Seneca, born at Corduba, a disciple of Sotio, a 288Stoic, uncle of Lucan the poet, was a person of very extraordinary temperance, whom I should not have ranked in my Catalogue of Saints, but that I was determined to it by the “epistles of Paul to Seneca,” and “Seneca to Paul,” which are read by many. In which, though he was at that time tutor to Nero, and made a very considerable figure, he saith he wishes to be of the same repute among his countrymen, as Paul was among the Christians. He was slain by Nero two years before Peter and Paul were honoured with martyrdom.”

There is also a passage in Augustine’s 54th epistle to Macedonius, which shows that he was not unacquainted with these letters. His words are, “It is true, which Seneca, who lived in the times of the apostles, and who wrote certain epistles to Paul which are now read, said, ‘he who will hate those who are wicked must hate all men.’”

There is no authentic evidence that these letters have been noticed by any of the rest of the Fathers. Indeed, it has been too hastily asserted by several eminent critics, that Augustine believed that the letters of Paul to Seneca were genuine; but the fact is, that he makes no mention whatever of Paul’s letters; he only mentions those of Seneca to Paul. The probability is that he never saw them, for had he been acquainted with them, it is scarcely credible that he would have said nothing respecting them in this place.

Neither does Jerome say anything from which it can with any certainty be inferred that he received these letters as genuine. He gives them the title by which they were known, and says they were read 289by many; but if he had believed them to be genuine letters of Paul, would he not have said much more? Would he not have claimed for them a place among Paul’s canonical epistles? And what proves that this Father did not believe them to be genuine is, that in this same book he gives a full account of Paul and his writings, and yet does not make the least mention of these letters to Seneca.

But the style of these letters sufficiently demonstrates that they are not genuine. Nothing can be more dissimilar to the style of Paul and of Seneca, than that of these epistles. “The style of those attributed to Seneca,” says Dupin, “is barbarous, and full of idioms that do not belong to the Latin tongue.” “And those attributed to Paul,” says Mr. Jeremiah Jones, “have not the least tincture of the gravity of the apostle, but are rather compliments than instructions.” The subscriptions of these letters are very different from those used by these writers in their genuine epistles. Seneca is made to salute Paul by the name of brother; an appellation not in use among the heathen, but peculiar to Christians. By several of these letters it would appear that Paul was at Rome when they were written, but from others the contrary may be inferred. It seems strange if they were both in the city, that they should date their letters by consulships; and, indeed, this method of dating letters was wholly unknown among the Romans; and there are several mistakes in them in regard to the consuls in authority at the time.

Their trifling contents is also a strong argument of spuriousness. “They contain nothing,” says Dupin, “worthy either of Seneca or of Paul; scarcely one 290moral sentiment in the letters of Seneca, nor anything of Christianity in those of Paul.” What can be more unlike Paul than the fifth letter, which is occupied with a servile apology for putting his own name before Seneca’s, in the inscription of his letters, and declaring this to be contrary to Christianity? These letters, moreover, contain some things which are not true, as “that the emperor Nero was delighted and surprised at the thoughts in Paul’s epistles to the churches:—and that Nero was both an admirer and favourer of Christianity.” But very incongruous with this, and also with Paul’s character is that which he is made to say in his fourth epistle, where he entreats Seneca to say no more to the emperor respecting him or Christianity, lest he should offend him. Yet, in the sixth letter he advises Seneca to take convenient opportunities of insinuating the Christian religion, and things favourable to it to Nero and his family. But for further particulars the reader is referred to the epistles themselves, a translation of which may be found in “Jones on the Canon.”

IV. There is extant a spurious gospel entitled, the “Protevangelion of James,” in the Greek language, which was brought from the east by Postell, who asserts that it is held to be genuine by the oriental churches, and is publicly read in their assemblies with the other Scriptures. This learned man, moreover, undertakes the defence of this gospel as the genuine production of the apostle James, and insists that it ought at least to have a place in the Hagiographa. But his arguments are weak, and have been fully refuted by Fabricius and Jones.

This apocryphal book, however, appears to be 291ancient; or at least there was formerly a book under the same name, but that it is not canonical is easily proved. It is quoted by none of the ancient Fathers except Epiphanius, who explicitly rejects it as apocryphal. It is found in none of the catalogues, and was never read in the primitive church. It contains many false and trifling stories; and in its style and composition is a perfect contrast to the genuine gospels of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. From the Hebraisms with which it abounds, it has been supposed to be the work of some person who was originally a Jew; but as it was anciently used by the Gnostics, there can be little doubt that the author when he wrote, belonged to some one of the heretical sects which so abounded in primitive times.

There is also another work which has a near affinity with this, called “The Nativity of Mary.” And although these books possess a similar character, and contain many things in common, yet in other points they are contradictory to each other, as they both are to the evangelical history. The internal evidence is itself sufficient to satisfy any candid reader of their apocryphal character.7676Both of these apocryphal works may be seen in the second volume of Jones’ learned work on the Canon.

V. The largest apocryphal gospel extant is entitled “The Gospel of our Saviour’s Infancy.” There is also remaining a fragment of a gospel ascribed to Thomas, which probably was originally no other than the one just mentioned. These gospels were never supposed to be canonical by any Christian writer. They were forged and circulated by the Gnostics, and altered from time to time according to their caprice.


The “Gospel of our Saviour’s Infancy,” seems to have been known to Mohammed, or rather to his assistants; for according to his own account, in the Koran, he was unable to read. Many of the things related in the Koran, respecting Christianity, are from this apocryphal work. This gospel is condemned by almost every rule laid down for the detection of spurious writings; and if all other evidence were wanting, the silly, trifling and ludicrous stories, with which it is stuffed, would be enough to demonstrate, that it was spurious and apocryphal. To give the curious reader an opportunity of contrasting these apocryphal legends with the gravity and simplicity of the genuine gospels, I have inserted some of the miracles recorded in this book, at the end of the volume.7777See note H.

It seems highly probable that this “Gospel of the Saviour’s Infancy,” and the book of the “Nativity of Mary,” were originally parts of the same work; an evidence of which is, that in the Koran, there is a continued and connected story, which is taken partly from the one, and partly from the other.7878See Koran, chap. iii. The same thing is proved by the fact, that Jerome in one place speaks of a preface which he had written to the ” Gospel of our Saviour’s Infancy,” in which he condemns it, because it contradicts the gospel of John, and in another place, he uses the same words, and says they are in the preface to the “Nativity of Mary.”

Both these apocryphal books have been formerly ascribed to Lucius Charinus, who lived in the latter part of the third century, and who rendered himself famous, by forging spurious works under the name of the apostles.


VI. There is another apocryphal gospel, entitled, “the Gospel of Nicodemus,” or, “the Acts of Pilate,” which was probably forged about the same time as the one last treated of, and it is very likely by the same person. That it was the custom for the governors of provinces in the Roman empire, to transmit to the emperors an account of all remarkable occurrences under their government, is capable of proof from the Roman history, and Eusebius expressly informs us that this was customary: and Philo Judæus speaks of “the daily memoirs which were transmitted to Caligula, from Alexandria.”

That Pontius Pilate transmitted some account of the crucifixion of Christ, and of his wonderful works, is, therefore, in itself, highly probable; but it is rendered certain, by the public appeal made to these “Acts of Pilate,” both by Justin Martyr and Tertullian, in their Apologies; the one addressed to the Roman emperor Antonius Pius, and the other probably to the Roman senate. The words of Justin Martyr are, “And of the truth of these facts you may be informed, out of the acts which were written by Pontius Pilate.” And in the same apology he refers to these acts for proof, ” That our Saviour cured all sorts of diseases, and raised the dead.”

Tertullian, in two places of his Apology, appeals to records which were transmitted to Tiberius from Jerusalem. His testimony is remarkable in both places, and deserves to be transcribed: “Tiberius,” says he, “in whose time the Christian name became first known in the world, having received information from Palestine in Syria, that Jesus Christ had there given manifest proof of the truth of his divinity, 294communicated it to the senate, insisting upon it as his prerogative, that they should assent to his opinion in that matter; but the senate not approving it refused. Cæsar continued in the same opinion, threatening those who were accusers of the Christians.”

In the other passage, after enumerating many of the miracles of Christ, he adds, “All these things, Pilate himself, who was in his conscience for following Christ, transmitted to Tiberius Cæsar; and even the Cæsars themselves had been Christians, if it had been consistent with their secular interests.” Both Eusebius and Jerome, cite this testimony of Tertullian as authentic. It seems therefore certain, that some account of Christ and his actions was transmitted by Pilate to the emperor. “For,” to use the words of an eminent man, “Tertullian, though a Christian writer, durst never have presumed to impose upon the senate themselves, with such a remarkable story, if he was not able to prove it; and that he was, is evident from Justin Martyr, who often appeals to the Acts of Pilate, concerning the history of our Saviour-That Pilate did send such acts is evident, for scarce any man, much less such a man as Justin Martyr, would have been so foolish, or so confident, as to affirm a thing in which it would be so easy to convict him of falsehood.”7979Dr. Parker.

And another, speaking of the same thing, says, “They were men of excellent learning and judgment; but no man who could write an apology, can be supposed to have so little understanding, as to appeal to that account which Pilate sent to Tiberius, concerning the resurrection of Christ, in apologies, 295dedicated to the Roman emperor himself, and to the senate, if no such account had ever been sent.”8080Dr. Jenkin.

It does not follow, however, that these Fathers had ever seen these Acts, or that they were ever seen by any Christian. During the reigns of heathen emperors, Christians could have no access to the archives of the nation; but the fact of the existence of such a record might have been, and probably was, a matter of public notoriety; otherwise, we never can account for the confident appeal of these learned and respectable writers. There is no difficulty in conceiving how such a fact might have been certainly known to these Fathers, without supposing that they had seen the record. As the learned Casaubon says, “Some servants or officers of one of the Cæsars, who were converted to Christianity, and had opportunity of searching the public records at Rome, gave this account to some Christians, from whom Justin and Tertullian had it.”

It may seem to be an objection to the existence of such Acts, that they were never made public when the emperors became Christians; but it is altogether probable, that they were destroyed through the malice of the senate, or of some Roman emperor who was hostile to Christianity. They who took so much pains to destroy the writings of Christians, would not suffer such a monument of the truth of Christianity to remain in their own palace. But as to those Acts of Pilate which are now extant, no one supposes that they are genuine. They have every mark of being spurious. The external and internal evidence is 296equally against them; and it would be a waste of time to enter into any discussion of this point.

It may, however, be worth while to inquire into the motives which probably led some mistaken Christian to forge such a narrative. And there seems to have been two: first, to have it in his power to show the record, to which the Fathers had so confidently referred. The heathen adversaries might say, after the destruction of the genuine Acts of Pilate, Where is the document to which this appeal has been made? let it be produced. And some man, thinking that he could serve the cause of Christianity by forging Acts, under the name of Pilate, was induced through a mistaken zeal, to write this narrative.

But there was another reason which probably had some influence on this fact. About the close of the third century, the heathen had forged and published a writing called “The Acts of Pilate,” the object of which was to render the Christians odious and contemptible to the public, by foul calumnies against their Founder and his apostles. Of this fact, Eusebius gives us express and particular information. “From whence,” says he, “the forgery of these is manifestly detected, who have lately published certain Acts against our Saviour. In which, first, the very time which is assigned to them discovers the imposture; for those things which they have impudently forged, to have come to pass at our Saviour’s crucifixion, are said to have occurred in the fourth consulship of Tiberius, which coincides with the seventh of his reign; at which time, it is certain, Pilate was not yet come into Judea, if any credit is due to Josephus, who expressly says, that Pilate was 297not constituted governor of Judea until the twelfth year of Tiberius.”8181Euseb. Ecc. Hist. lib. I. c. 9, 11. And in another place he says, “Seeing therefore that this writer, (Josephus) who was himself a Jew,. has related such things in his history concerning John the Baptist and the Saviour, what can they possibly say for themselves, to prevent being convicted of the most impudent forgery, who wrote those things against John and Christ.” And in the ninth book of his ecclesiastical history, this writer gives us information, still more particular, respecting this malicious forgery. “At length, (the heathen) having forged certain Acts of Pilate, concerning our Saviour, which were full of all sorts of blasphemy against Christ, they caused them, by the decree of Maximinus, to be dispersed through all parts of the empire; commanding by letters, that they should be published to all persons, in every place, both in cities and country places; and that schoolmasters should put them into the hands of their children, and oblige them to learn them by heart, instead of their usual lessons.”

Here it may be observed, that while this impudent forgery clearly shows with what malicious efforts the attempt was made to subvert the gospel, it proves at the same time, that there had existed a document under the name of “The Acts of Pilate.’” Now, the circulation of such an impious piece of blasphemy, probably instigated Charinus, or whoever was the author of these Acts, to counteract them by a work of another kind, under the same name. How this book came to be called, “The Gospel of Nicodemus,” will appear by the subscription annexed to it, in which 298it is said, “The emperor Theodosius the great, found at Jerusalem, in the hall of Pontius Pilate, among the public records, the things which were transacted in the nineteenth year of Tiberius Cæsar, emperor of the Romans—being a history written in Hebrew by Nicodemus, of what happened after our Saviour’s crucifixion.” And if this subscription be no part of the original work, still it may have occasioned this title; or it may have originated in the fact, that much is said about Nicodemus in the story which is here told. But even if we had the original Acts of Pilate, or some history of Nicodemus, it needs no proof that they could have no just claim to a place in the Canon.

VII. The last apocryphal book which I shall mention, is that entitled “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” There is no doubt but that this book is apocryphal. It was so considered by all the Fathers who have mentioned it. Tertullian says respecting it, “But if any read the apocryphal books of Paul, and thence defend the right of women to teach and baptize, by the example of Thecla, let them consider that a certain presbyter of Asia, who forged that book, under the name of Paul, being convicted of forgery, confessed that he did it out of respect to Paul, and so left his place.”8282Tertull. De Baptismo. And Jerome, in his life of Luke, says, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla, with the whole story of the baptized lion, I reckon among the apocryphal Scriptures.” And in the decree of Pope Gelasius, it is asserted, “That the ‘Acts of Thecla and Paul’ is apocryphal.”

It is manifest, however, that the primitive Christians 299gave credit to a story respecting Paul and Thecla, on which this book is founded: for it is often referred to as a history well known and commonly believed. Thus Cyprian, or some ancient writer under his name, says, “Help us, O Lord, as thou didst help the apostles in their imprisonment, Thecla amidst the flames, Paul in his persecutions, and Peter amidst the waves of the sea.” And again, “Deliver me, O Lord, as thou didst deliver Thecla, when in the midst of the amphitheatre she was in conflict with the wild beasts.” Eusebius mentions a woman by this name, but he places her long after the apostle Paul, and she is, therefore, supposed to be another person. Epiphanius relates, “That when Thecla met Paul, she determined against marriage, although she was then engaged to a very agreeable young man.”8383Epiph. Hær. lxviii. Augustine refers to the same thing, and says, “By a discourse of Paul’s, at Iconium, he incited Thecla to a resolution of perpetual virginity, although she was then actually engaged to be married.” Many others of the Fathers speak of Thecla as of a person whose history was well known. And among the moderns, Baronius, Locrinus, and Grabe, look upon this history as true and genuine, written in the apostolic age, and containing nothing superstitious or unsuitable to that time. But none have ventured to assert that these Acts ought to have a place in the Canon.

No doubt the book now extant is greatly altered from that ancient history referred to by the Fathers, and probably the original story was founded on some tradition which had a foundation in truth; but what the truth is, it is impossible now to discover among 300such a mass of fables and ridiculous stories as the book contains. As it now stands, it contains numerous things which are false in fact; others which are inconsistent with the canonical Scriptures, and some totally incompatible with the true character of Paul. Moreover, it is favourable to several superstitious practices which had no existence in the apostles’ days; and finally, the forgery was acknowledged as it relates to the ancient Acts, and those now existing cannot be more genuine than the original; but to these many things have been added of a silly and superstitious kind.

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