CHURCH FATHERS (8): Fake writings, and genuine chronicles

Rev. José Mario O. Mandía

Together with the early Christian writings such as the Didache, there arose other literary works during the same period. Among these were the apocryphal writings, Christian poetry and chronicles of martyrs. We will discuss the apocryphal writings and the chronicles of martyrs.

(1) Apocryphal Writings. When we read the Gospels, we notice that they hardly give detailed descriptions of anything, not even the most important events in the life of our Lord. So, what some devout and imaginative Christians did was to try to supply more detail. They invented legends around the real stories in order to arouse piety.

On the other hand, some writers who propagated heresies also made use of legends to support their teachings.

These legends were called apocryphal writings. The term came from the Latin ‘apocrypha scripta’ (‘hidden writings’), which, in turn, was derived from the Greek apokrýptein (‘to hide from, keep hidden from’) because only a select few were supposed to know them. In order to make the legends more easily acceptable, they were claimed to have been written by the Apostles or close disciples of the Lord. This is why the meaning of apocrypha evolved to mean spurious and false.

But are apocryphal works of any value? Yes, indeed. They “supply valuable information about tendencies and customs which characterize the early Church. Moreover, they represent the beginnings of Christian legends, folk stories and romantic literature. They are indispensable to the understanding of Christian art.… Their influence on the later miracle or mystery plays was considerable…. Accordingly, we possess in them a picturesque and first-hand source on Christian thought” (Quasten, I, pp 106-107). It must be noted here that there were also apocrypha of Jewish origin.

The apocrypha of Christian origin include the following:

(1.1) Apocryphal Gospels: attributed to the Hebrews, the Egyptians, Ebionites, Peter, Nicodemus, James, Thomas, Arabs, Philip, Matthias, Barnabas, Bartholomew, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Thaddaeus, Eve, and so on.

(1.2) Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: attributed to Paul, Peter, Peter and Paul, John, Andrew, Thomas, Thaddaeus.

(1.3) Apocryphal Epistles: attributed to the Apostles, Paul, disciples of Paul.

(1.4) Apocryphal Apocalypses: attributed to Peter, Paul, Stephen, Thomas, John, the Virgin.

We can thus see that piety and devotion were not lacking among the early Christians.

(2) Chronicles of the Martyrs. The chronicles of the suffering and death of the martyrs used to be read out in the liturgical celebration during the martyr’s death anniversary. They can be divided into three groups:

(2.1) Acts of the martyrs. These are official court proceedings that report on the questions addressed to the martyrs and their respective replies. These are official records that were in the public archives. “The term acts of the martyrs (acta or gesta martyrum) should be reserved to this group, because only here do we have immediate and absolutely reliable sources of history, which give merely the data” (Quasten, I, p 176).

The following Acts belong to this group: St Justin and his Companions, Martyrs of Scilli in Africa, St Cyprian.

(2.2) Passiones or martyria. The reports of eyewitnesses belong to this group. These include the ones of St Polycarp, martyrs of Vienne and Lyons, Perpetua and Felicitas, Saints Carpus, Papylus and Agathonice, Apollonius.

(2.3) Legends of martyrs. These were composed sometime after the martyrdom and their contents range from a mix of fact and fiction to pure fiction with no historical foundation. Among these are those of St Agnes, St Cecilia, St Felicitas and her seven sons, St Hippolytus, St Lawrence, St Sixtus, St Sebastian, Sts John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian, St Clement, St Ignatius.

(Image: This sculpture, probably from a retable (decoration behind an altar) depicting Jesus commanding the palm tree to bend down so that the Holy Family could eat its fruit, is based upon New Testament Apocrypha, episodes from the life of Jesus not recounted in the Gospels. The composition is derived from an engraving by Martin Schongauer, dated about 1476.)