« Prev Chapter III. Apocryphal Literature. Next »



The same service which the early heretics and heathen opponents of Christianity render to our cause, we may get, from consulting the so-called Apocrypha of the New Testament. My reader will ask, What is this Apocryphal literature? Now I can give some information on this subject, as I have paid much attention to it, and have discovered several originals in old libraries, and edited them for the first time. Sixteen years ago I wrote an essay, which obtained a prize in Holland, on the origin and worth of the apocryphal gospels. The apocryphal books are writings composed with a view of being taken up into the canon, and put on a level with the inspired books, but which were deliberately rejected by the church. They bear on their front the names of apostles, or other eminent men; but have no right to do so. These names were used by obscure writers 87to palm off their productions. But for what purpose were these apocryphal books written? Partly to embellish and add to, in some fanciful way of their own, Scripture narratives; partly to invent others about the Saviour, Mary, Joseph, and the apostles; and partly to support false doctrines, for which there was no support in Scripture. As these objects were decidedly pernicious, the church was fully justified in rejecting these writings.

They nevertheless contain much that is interesting and curious, and in early times, when the church was not so critical in distinguishing the true from the false, they were given a place which they did not deserve. We have already explained in what sense we shall use them: they will go to strengthen our proof of the early reception of the canonical gospels. Every thing will therefore depend upon the age of these apocryphal writings, and here we confine ourselves to two only, the Gospel of St. James, and the so-called Acts of Pilate. We think we shall be able to prove that both of these date from the early part of the second century. To begin with the Gospel of James.


In Justin Martyr’s Apology, written A. D. 139, we find many details of the birth of our Lord, such as are only found in this so-called Gospel of James. Justin relates that the birth of Christ was in a grotto near Bethlehem; so we read in the apocryphal gospel. In the account of the annunciation to the Virgin Mary, Justin concludes with the words, “And thou shalt call his name Jesus;” and he adds, immediately after, “for he shall save his people from their sins.” The order is the same in St. James’ gospel. According to St. Matthew, these words were spoken to Joseph; while they are wholly wanting in St. Luke’s gospel. We pass by other instances. But an objection may be raised. It may be said that Justin obtained his account from some other document since lost. For my part, I cannot agree with this objection. I find no references to any lost gospels; the attempts to discover them on the part of the skeptical school have not been successful; and as the materials of Justin’s information lie before us in the gospel of St. James, I have no hesitation in ascribing it to that source. Not only does Origen mention 89this gospel of James as everywhere known about the end of the second century, but we have also about fifty manuscripts of this gospel of the date of the ninth century, and also a Syriac of the sixth century. To get rid of the inference that Justin made use. of this gospel, we must lose ourselves in wild conjecture.

Now the whole of the writing called after St. James is so closely related to our gospels, that they must have been extensively known and used before the former was concocted. Matthew and Luke had declared that Mary was a virgin-mother: now there were sects who taught that there was also a son naturally born to Joseph and Mary: that the brethren of Jesus are referred to in the gospels seems to imply this. There were learned Jews who denied the meaning of the prophet’s reference to the virgin, Matt. 1:23; and heathen and Jews also mocked at the doctrine of a son born to a virgin. These objections were raised as early as the former part of the second century, and the gospel of James was written in reply to these objections. It set forth by proving that from her birth Mary 90had been highly favored; that from her birth she was marked out as the virgin; and that her relationship to Joseph always stood higher than that of a mere matrimonial union. Now if this writing is assigned to the early part of the second century, the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark, on which it is grounded, could not have been written later than the end of the first century.

It is the same with the Acts of Pilate, with this difference only, that it rests on the gospel of St. John as well as on the other evangelists. Justin is our earliest authority for the writing which professes to have appeared under Pilate, and which adduces fresh and convincing testimony for the godhead of Christ from events before, during, and after his crucifixion. That it was a pious fraud of some Christian, neither Justin, Tertullian, nor any other ever doubted. On the contrary, Justin twice refers to it. First, he refers to it in connection with the prophecies of the crucifixion, Isa. 65:2; 58:2; Psa. 22:16-18; adding, “that this really took place, you can see from the Acts composed under Pontius Pilate;” and, in the second 91place, when he adduces the miraculous cures wrought by Christ, and predicted by Isaiah, Isa. 35:4-6, he adds, “That Jesus did these things, you may see in the Acts of Pontius Pilate.” The testimony of Tertullian is even more express, Apology 21, when he says, “The doctors of the law delivered Jesus through envy to Pilate; that Pilate, yielding to the clamor of his accusers, gave him up to be crucified; that Jesus, in yielding up his breath on the cross, uttered a great cry, and at the instant, at midday, the sun was darkened; that a guard of soldiers was set at the tomb, to keep the disciples from taking away the body, for he had foretold his resurrection; that on the third day the earth suddenly shook, and that the stone before the sepulchre was rolled away, and that they found only the grave-clothes in the tomb; that the chief men in the nation spread the report that his disciples had taken away the body, but that Jesus spent forty days still in Galilee, instructing his apostles, and that after giving them the command to preach the gospel, he was taken up to heaven in a cloud.” Tertullian closes this account with the words, 92“Pilate, driven by his conscience to become a Christian, reported these things to Tiberius, who was then emperor.”

These are the testimonies of Justin and Tertullian as to the Acts of Pilate. We have to this day several ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts of a work which corresponds with these citations, and which bears the same name as that referred to by Justin. Is it then the same which Justin and Tertullian had read?

This view of the question has been opposed in several ways. Some have maintained that these testimonies only existed in imagination, but that the writing itself, suggested by these very quotations, afterwards appeared. But this is a baseless supposition. Others think that the original has been lost, and that these are only copies of it. Is there any ground for supposing this? No. It is true that the original text has been altered in many places; and in the middle ages the Latins mixed up the title of the Acts of Pilate with that of the Acts of Nicodemus, and added a preface to it in this altered form; and lastly, side by side with the ancient Greek text, we have a recast 93of it comparatively modern. But, notwithstanding all this, there are decisive reasons for maintaining that the Acts of Pilate now extant contain substantially that which Justin and Tertullian had before them. Our own researches in the great libraries of Europe have led us to discover important documents to prove this. I would mention only an Egyptian manuscript, or papyrus, and a Latin manuscript, both of the fifth century. This last, though rubbed over about a thousand years ago, and written over with a new writing, is still legible by practised eyes. (Manuscripts of this kind are called palimpsests.) These two originals, one Egyptian, the other Latin, confirm the high antiquity of our Greek text, on which they were founded; for if there were versions of these Acts as early as the fifth century, the original itself must certainly be older.

Let us look at the matter a little more closely. This ancient work was very highly prized by the Christians. Justin and Tertullian are proofs of this, and Justin even appeals to it, in writing to an emperor, as to a decisive testimony. It still maintained its 94place of authority, as Eusebius and Epiphanius attest. The first tells us that at the beginning of the fourth century the emperor Maximin, who was hostile to Christianity, caused some pretended Acts of Pilate to be published, full of false charges and calumnies, and circulated it through the schools with the evident intention of throwing into the shade and discrediting the Acts which the Christians prized so highly. I ask then is it the least credible that this ancient Apocryphal book, so freely used up to this time, could have been so completely recast towards the end of the fourth or fifth century, as that the original disappeared, and a spurious version took its place? Such a supposition violates all probability, and also carries a contradiction on the face of it in that it implies that a work so mutilated could retain at the same time a certain real resemblance to the gospels. Such a theory can only mislead those who are entirely ignorant of the subject. We cannot class ourselves among such; we rather rely with confidence on our own conscientious examination of the documents, and our conclusion is as follows: Our Acts of 95Pilate not only presuppose acquaintance with the first three gospels, but also and especially with St. John’s; for if the details of the crucifixion and resurrection rest on the former, those of the trial of Christ refer to the latter. It follows from all this that as the so-called Acts of Pilate must have been compiled about the beginning of the second century, as Justin, A. D. 139, refers to them, the original gospels on which they are based, including that of St. John, must have been written in the first century.

This conclusion is so satisfactory and decisive, that we do not seek to add any thing to it from any further uses of the Apocryphal books of the New Testament.

« Prev Chapter III. Apocryphal Literature. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |