Epistula Apostolorum

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The Epistula Apostolorum (Latin for Letter of the Apostles) is a work from the New Testament apocrypha. The work was lost to the West until a complete version in Ethiopic translation was discovered and published in the early 20th century. The text was used regularly by the relatively isolated Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and was evidently not considered heretical by that church. A fragmentary Coptic manuscript of the fifth or 4th century, believed to be translated directly from the original Greek, and one leaf of a Latin palimpsest, dating to the 5th century, were then identified as deriving from the same text.[1]

The text is commonly dated to the 2nd century, perhaps towards the middle of it. (See New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and related writings, Volume 1. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., Westminster John Knox Press, 1991 ISBN 0-664-22721-X, p. 251)

Although the text is framed as a letter, and the first 20% (10 chapters) begins in this manner, describing the nativity, resurrection, and miracles of Jesus, this framing is only done extremely superficially. In fact, the remainder of the text recounts a vision and dialogue between Jesus and the apostles, consisting of about sixty questions, and 41 short chapters. The text is by far the largest epistle in either the New Testament or Apocrypha.

The whole text seems to have been intended as a refutation of the teachings of Cerinthus, although "Simon" (probably Simon Magus) is also mentioned.

The text itself appears to be based on parts of the New Testament, in particular the Gospel of John, as well as the Apocalypse of Peter, Epistle of Barnabas, and Shepherd of Hermas, all of which were considered inspired by various groups or individuals during periods of the early church.

The content heavily criticises Gnosticism, although it does so not so much as a polemic against it, as an attempt to shore up the faith of non-Gnostics against conversion to Gnosticism. In particular the text uses the style of a discourse and series of questions with a vision of Jesus that was popular amongst Gnostic groups, so as to appeal to the same readers.

However, the text is at pains to point out that it is not a secret teaching, that the content applies universally rather than to one group, and that everyone can easily come to learn its content, strongly differing with the esoteric mysteries inherent in Gnosticism.

One of the most important parts in this respect is the parable of foolish virgins:

Other polemical features include emphasising the physical nature of the resurrection, to counter docetism, by having the apostles place their fingers in the print of the nails, in the spear wound in his side, and checking for footprints (like similar imagery in the Gospel of John, having the appearance of design to specifically counter docetism rather than to reflect history).

Fully 20% of the text is devoted to confirming the doctrine of resurrection of the flesh, in direct conflict with the Gospel of Truth's criticism of this stance; it states that the resurrection of the flesh happens before death, which is to be understood esoterically. When Jesus is questioned further on this point, he becomes quite angry, suggesting that the pseudonymous author of the epistle found the Gnostics' stance both offensive and infuriating.

Since the text is ostensibly written in name of the apostles from the period immediately after Jesus' resurrection, it necessarily excludes Paul of Tarsus from the category "apostle." However, given the importance of Paul and his writings to the mainstream church, it is not surprising that the author of the text chose to put in a prediction of Paul's future coming. The description of the healing of Paul's blindness in Acts by Ananias is changed to healing by the hands of one of the apostles, so that Paul is thus subordinate to them. It also quotes an ancient prophecy about a new Jerusalem arising from Syria and the old Jerusalem being captured and destroyed (as happened in 70). This latter prophecy is likely to have been invented, as it is unknown in any previous texts.

One of the reasons that the text probably fell into disuse by the mainstream churches is that its claim that the Second Coming shall be 150 years after the time of the vision to the apostles obviously failed to occur. Whether the text was ever considered heretical by the Catholic churches is unknown, as there are no clear references to it in the extant ancient Christian literature. However, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church evidently accepted it basic orthodoxy.



  1. ^ M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1924) 485-503.