Apocryphal Gospels

The new edition by Simon Gathercole reviewed.

There is a tradition in London in the run up to Christmas to listen to the steel drum band on Oxford Street. As the first snows of the season fall, shoppers clutch their Selfridges bags, stop a while and listen to their favourite festive songs played in the up-tempo and joyful style. 

The pans developed over many years from African drumming. They have a long history of resistance and resilience in Trinidad. 

The songs in the band’s Christmas repertoire include a combination of pop music and Christmas carols. For many people these carols are associated with school days. Songs like Little Donkey normally plod along. Here they really swing.

Music is there to change, developing new styles and merging with other styles. But other things, we might think, are not subject to intentional changes. Amongst these would be the Holy Bible and the narrative of the Nativity. If there are changes to particular retellings then we can return back to the single authoritative source. This version has tomatoes as the Holy Family, that one has Christmas Lobsters etc. but there is still that single source. Side stepping questions on the number of wise men or angels present on that miraculous morn, there is little dispute in what is said to have happened at Bethlehem in the year Zero (or 4 BCE).

It may come as a surprise to some readers that different versions of the Nativity and other Biblical texts were popular within antiquity.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1849) 83.2 x 65.4 cm Public Domain

The Protoevangelium of St James is one example. It adds detail to the Canonical story of the birth and childhood of our Lord beginning with the miraculous birth of St Mary. 

At 3 years old, Mary was dedicated to the temple ‘and was cared for there like a dove. She received her food from an angel’. She lived there until 12, when the priests said ‘We must do something about her, or the sanctuary of the Lord our God may be defiled’. An angel approached the High Priest and told him to gather widowers and a sign will be given to the man who should marry her.

The lot befall Joseph, who was reluctant at first – ‘I am an old man …She’s a young girl. I’ll be the laughing-stock of the sons of Israel’.

Later, as Mary is weaving a deep purple and scarlet curtain for the Great Temple an angel appears to her. The words he said to her are mostly known from the Bible but it goes into some of the technicalities:

When she heard this, Mary was confused. ‘Will I conceive through the Lord, the Living God, in the same way that all women do?’

The angel stood by. ‘No, Mary,’ he said. ‘For the Power of God will overshadow you, and so the holy one conceived in you will be called the son of the Most High.’

Many people in the story doubt Mary’s virginity, including Annas the Scribe, but she passes the test of the High Priest. At the birth of Jesus, the midwife and her friend Salome argue over Mary’s virginity. Salome inspects Mary and also attests to this. 

Mary is the protagonist of the Protoevangelium. If it has a purpose, it is to prove her perpetual virginity. The text reveals a certain discomfort with the female body and sexuality, but we should understand this within the theological disputes about the nature of Jesus himself. 

Like Little Donkey and other Christmas carols, the Protoevangelium adds details to the account in the New Testament. Over the years, other writers and editors added more details.

Related post

Simon Gathercole has edited a new collection of Apocryphal Gospels for Penguin books, gathering texts like this and others. 

Apocryphal Gospels are texts which claim to be authoritative accounts of biblical truth. They can range from life stories to secret teachings. They circulated in antiquity. Many early Christian writers protested about what they saw as false teaching. Hints of early disagreements may even be found in the Bible. In 1 John 2:26 – writes the beloved disciple ‘These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you’.

At the heart of the Apocryphal Gospel is the question of authority. Whereas some early figures claimed authority from an unbroken line back to the Apostles others claimed authority from divine visions. St Paul himself was converted by a vision on the road to Damascus, whilst Irenaeus the Bishop of Lyon was taught by St Polycarp who was taught in turn by St John the Apostle (traditionally identified as the writer of the Epistle quoted above). Iraeneus also wrote that ‘The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are’. He was protesting against other versions of the Gospels, other forms of authority.

Gospels could be used to provide evidence of authority for particular kinds of Christian groups or even to articulate their understanding of divine teaching. 

Scholars often identify groups which would use particular ‘Gospels’. Sometimes this is because Christian writers linked particular groups with particular texts. These descriptions are often hostile but still afford useful insight into early Christianities. 

At first glance, what is most interesting is perhaps the range of different types of competing Christianity, perhaps also the strangeness. As you study more, you learn that these Christianities were not offshoots of a correct Christianity, but part of the general pell-mell which later developed into Christianity. Many beliefs found in the ‘Apocryphal gospels’ later became influential in Orthodox Christianity, whilst conversely some figures identified as Orthodox thinkers held beliefs which were considered heretical.

For example, the Ophites were said to worship the serpent of the Genesis tale. Irenaeus was perhaps the first writer to describe this group in an important book of his which argued that all heresies began with Simon Magus. Many contemporary Christians would identify the serpent with Satan, yet even this belief was a later development perhaps itself the result of ‘Apocryphal’ tales.

Like Little Donkey, some of these texts were just different ways of playing the same melody.

Gathercole’s new edition is a great resource for new readers dipping their toes in the rich and intriguing world of Apocryphal Gospels. It lacks notes or a detailed commentary, so I would also recommend reading supplementary material like Bart Ehrmann’s Lost Christianities.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics