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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.
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 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:
|“||And we said to him: Lord, who are the wise and who are the foolish? He said to us: Five are wise and five foolish; for these are those of whom the prophet has spoken: 'Sons of God are they.' Hear now their names.
But we wept and were troubled for those that slumbered. He said to us: The five wise are Faith and Love and Grace and Peace and Hope. Now those of the faithful which possess this shall be guides to those that have believed in me and on he that sent me. For I am the Lord and I am the bridegroom whom they have received, and they have entered in to the house of the bridegroom and are laid down with me in the bridal chamber rejoicing. But the five foolish, when they had slept and had awaken, came to the door of the bridal chamber and knocked, for the doors were shut. Then they wept and lamented that no one opened to them.
We said unto him: Lord, and their wise sisters that were within in the bridegroom's house, did they continue without opening to them, and did they not sorrow for their sakes nor entreat the bridegroom to open to them? He answered us, saying: They were not yet able to obtain favour for them. We said to him: Lord, on what day shall they enter in for their sisters' sake? Then said he to us: He that is shut out, is shut out. And we said unto him: Lord, is this word (determined?). Who then are the foolish? He said to us: Hear their names. They are Knowledge, Understanding (Perception), Obedience, Patience, and Compassion. These are they that slumbered in them that have believed and confessed me but have not fulfilled my commandments.
— Chapter 42-43
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.
- Epistula Apostolorum, introduction by C.D.G. Muller, p. 249ff, in New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and related writings, Volume 1. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., Westminster John Knox Press, 1991 ISBN 0-664-22721-X
- M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1924) 485-503.