Everybody knows that the Gospels of the New Testament do not present full biographies of Jesus. In their individual testimonies concerning the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Savior, the authors selectively drew upon those teachings and deeds of Jesus that were supportive of their purpose in writing. (Joseph Smith called them testimonies—see D&C 88:141.) Matthew’s repeated references to Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in Jesus, the energetic Messiah of Mark, Luke’s universalism in his portrayal of the Savior, and the place of the Son of God in history and the symbolism in John are all well-known examples of Gospel themes.
In view of such differences in purpose and approach, the historicity of Jesus’ life and ministry is strengthened by the harmonious picture of his teachings and deeds in the Gospels. The similarities in the Gospels are all the more remarkable in light of John’s statement that “there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” (John 21:25.) Such a passage was also an open invitation for ancient writers to try to provide more details about Jesus’ life either from a knowledge of true events and teachings, from a misdirected sense of piety, or simply from charlatan motives.
Men throughout history have sought to create new and sensational information about Jesus. Perhaps the best-known modern example of such fraudulent attempts to embellish the Gospel accounts is the notorious Archko Volume, which purports to originate from ancient records. (See Richard L. Anderson’s expose of this fraud published in the October 1974 Ensign, p. 45, and in an article published in BYU Studies, Autumn, 1974.) Similar ancient attempts have become part of the apocryphal literature of the New Testament. Because the New Testament Gospels are rather precise and detailed in their descriptions of Jesus’ miracles and teachings, most apocryphal writings do not attempt to add details to the period already covered by the Gospel narratives. Instead, many apocryphal works have concentrated on the youth of Jesus, the background of Mary and Joseph, and other related periods within the time frame of the New Testament. Such fanciful narratives are occasionally grotesque, since they dwell at length upon the sensational. The so-called Infancy Gospels exploit the youth of Jesus to such an extent that he often appears to be a miracle-working delinquent, quite in contrast to the self-controlled and compassionate healer portrayed in the Gospels.
Another period of Jesus’ life that constituted an obvious invitation for apocryphal writing is referred to in Acts 1:3, where Luke mentions the 40-day ministry of the resurrected Jesus with his disciples. One of the major differences between the earlier periods of Jesus’ life, which have drawn such speculative interest, and the time after the resurrection is that in the latter instance the resurrected Jesus was by then well-known and surrounded by disciples who would certainly be witnesses of his 40-day ministry. By contrast, the lives of Jesus’ parents and the period of his youth would certainly not have drawn widespread interest and attention until many years later when Jesus had become well-known. Therefore, works that deal with these early periods are likely to be much less credible simply because they are far removed from contemporary eyewitnesses.
Luke states that during the 40-day ministry the Savior spoke “of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God,” but there are only vague hints in other New Testament writings as to the nature and content of these teachings. The preaching of Jesus to the spirits in prison (see 1 Pet. 3:19 and 1 Pet. 4:6) and the doctrine of baptism for the dead (see 1 Cor. 15:29) are two examples of teachings that best fit the context of Acts 1:3. Although few, if any, works pertaining to the 40-day ministry of Acts 1:3 were known a century ago, modern discoveries have produced a virtual library of such writings. Many claim to be authored by such apostles as Peter, John, Philip, Thomas, and James, while others, for example, are simply entitled “The Accounts of the Great Ministry,” “Concerning the Resurrection,” and “Dialogue of the Redeemer.” Many of these documents provide a time reference to the 40-day ministry when they claim to contain teachings of the Living Jesus. In this literature the word “living” is often a technical term that refers to the resurrected and glorified Christ.
There are many difficulties in establishing or refuting the authenticity of such writings. One predicament concerns the varied kinds of doctrinal ideas found in them. In some instances, these ideas either expand or differ from those found in the New Testament writings. But there is no point arguing that the teachings and activities of the risen Jesus must be the same as those of the mortal Jesus, since Luke states that it was after the resurrection that the Savior “opened … their [the disciples’] understanding, that they might understand the scriptures [Old Testament].” (Luke 24:25.) John adds that the resurrected Lord did many marvels that were not recorded in his writings. (John 20:30.)
Another complication centers on the claimed authorship of many of the 40-day documents. The apostles mentioned above would be the very ones by whom such records would predictably be composed, and one must decide whether these texts indeed came from the apostles or were falsely attributed to them.
The observation that many recently found texts date from the third or fourth centuries is itself not conclusive proof against early origins, for almost all extant documents from antiquity come from copies made centuries after the original composition was published. In addition, the majority of these writings contain no allusions or references to any contemporary historical circumstances that would tell us whether they were composed near the time of Jesus or many decades afterward. Since the dating problem persists in the case of almost every apocryphal text, judgment concerning authenticity must be made on other grounds.
A third difficulty arises because these documents were not widely read and circulated. But this circumstance cannot form a decisive argument against their authenticity, for most of them claim to contain secret teachings reserved for a righteous minority within Christianity.
In view of the preceding problems, most scholars have tacitly adopted the following standard for determining the value of such documents: if they correspond to something already known to “orthodox” Christianity they are assumed to have been derived from Christianity; if they do not correspond to “orthodox” Christianity they were probably not Christian in origin. The difficulty with this standard is agreeing on a definition of “orthodox Christianity.” Although scholars differ on such a definition, they are generally agreed that most of what is contained in the 40-day literature is not fully Christian.
The restored gospel provides Latter-day Saints with an opportunity to look for elements of truth in this literature with a better standard of comparison than is available to others. Although we cannot tell any more about the history or society of the people who wrote these texts than can the scholars, we can examine some of the traditions and beliefs in their writings and note how they correspond to our understanding of the gospel. This examination leads to greater insights into the nature of early Christianity than before possible and gives further evidences of the apostasy or rebellion within the Church.
We are certain that one item of which Jesus spoke during his 40-day visit concerned the disciples’ approaching missions. In the New Testament, Luke records that at the end of the 40 days the resurrected Jesus forbade the disciples to leave Jerusalem for their missions until they had received the Spirit. (See Acts 1:4–5; see also Luke 24:46–49.) Luke then recounts Jesus’ final words to the disciples to the effect that they would be witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection “unto the uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8; see also Acts 1:22, 2:32.)
The accounts of the Gospel writers agree with this picture. For example, Matthew writes that the risen Jesus met with his disciples for the last time on earth in order to send them to “teach all nations, baptizing them.” (Matt. 28:19.) Mark concurs that Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples included the charge to go “into all the world, and preach.” (Mark 16:15.) According to Luke’s gospel, when the resurrected Lord opened the scriptures to the understanding of his disciples, he told them “repentance and remission of sins should be preached … among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47.)
It is unfortunate that we possess so little information about the missionary activities of the apostles when we know that Jesus spent time preparing them for this significant effort. Apart from a few scattered accounts in the early chapters of Acts, virtually all of the stories that concern missionary work in the New Testament are told about Paul. Even Eusebius, who published the first extant history of the Church in about A.D. 325, knows but little information about a few disciples, and much of this he obtains from apocryphal traditions. He notes that “when the holy apostles and disciples of our Savior were dispersed over the whole world, Parthia was allotted to Thomas, according to tradition, while Scythia was allotted to Andrew, and Asia to John. … But Peter, it seems, preached in Pontus and Galatia and Bithynia, in Cappadocia and Asia. … He also at last came to Rome.” (Eusebius, History of the Church, III.I.l–2.) Of Paul, Eusebius merely notes in the same source that he preached the gospel “from Jerusalem to Illyricum” in western Greece. Because Eusebius knew no other traditions about the apostles’ proselyting labors between Jesus’ death and about A.D. 65, he assumed that “during all these years the greater number of the apostles and disciples … made their abode in the city of Jerusalem.” (III.7.8) Against this “orthodox” view of Eusebius rests the weight of so-called apocryphal traditions that generally affirm that the disciples did indeed fulfill the Lord’s charge to take the gospel to the world.
The Pseudoclementina, a collection of early Christian documents whose picture of the earliest Church has been considered to be almost as reliable as that in Acts, primarily focuses on the apostle Peter’s missionary activities that ultimately led him to Rome. One section recounts that the apostles used to gather annually to Jerusalem at Passover to report on their missionary activities. (Recognitions I.43–44.) This clearly implies that all of the apostles were engaged in missionary work in some measure.
In the Apocryphon of James, a secret apocryphal letter that James the Lord’s brother allegedly wrote to an unknown person, the idea of the apostles all going on missions is so strong that this text claims they all departed before the day of Pentecost except for James himself, who returned to Jerusalem alone. In the recently discovered apocryphal Letter of Peter to Philip, Peter writes urgently to Philip to inform him that the Savior had directed the apostles to gather together before they left on their missions. When the apostles met on the Mount of Olives, Jesus appeared and repeated the command that they preach to the world. In this alleged letter of Peter we find the idea repeated that the disciples again met after having preached for a period.
To be sure, the apocryphal works offer us little more reliable information regarding where the disciples preached than we have from such “orthodox” sources as Eusebius. Although the sources do not strictly agree on the exact destination of Thomas, for example, they all concur that he went to the east.
The Acts of Thomas, a work originally composed in Syriac at an unknown date, claims to chronicle Thomas’ activities as the apostle to India. Many students of Christian history have dismissed the Acts of Thomas as a legendary fiction both because its Christian character seems perverted owing to the mention of ceremonial washings and anointings (the very things that other texts claim that Jesus gave to the disciples during the 40 days) and because many legendary elements appear to embellish the stories of Thomas’ miracles. It is remarkable that the historical and geographical details in the Acts of Thomas agree with those known from the middle of the first century A.D., the period when Thomas would have been actively proselyting.
According to the apocryphal Acts of Andrew, an account of this apostle’s missionary work written in about A.D. 150, Andrew spent the bulk of his mission in northern Asia Minor and in Greece, finally suffering martyrdom in the Greek city of Patrae.
The Acts of John, in correlation with many other so-called apocryphal and orthodox accounts, places the ministry of John the apostle in Asia Minor, especially in and near Ephesus.
In the Acts of Peter we find the assertions that Paul traveled to Spain after spending time in Rome, and that Peter spent considerable time in Rome before his own martyrdom.
In the view of the Acts of Philip, Peter and John are also said to have visited Parthia, where Philip supposedly proselyted for a time in addition to his missionary labors in Palestine, Asia Minor, and Greece. Philip purportedly was martyred in Hierapolis, a city in western Asia Minor.
The traditions about where Matthew preached in such works as the Acts of Andrew and Matthias and the Martyrdom of Matthew merely specify that this apostle proselyted among cannibals and spent time among them in a city called Myrna, otherwise unknown.
For the rest of the apostles, not even legend has enshrined their missionary efforts.
Like the Acts of Thomas, all the works just mentioned are considered fiction by most students of early Christianity. Once again, this judgment is made partially on such bases as (1) that some doctrines (such as the preexistence of all men) are not present in the New Testament and, therefore, are non-Christian; and (2) that the religious ceremonies (such as washings, anointings, and receiving special clothing) were not part of the worship services in the earliest church and, hence, their presence in these texts must be due to pagan influences. Latter-day Saints, who understand these doctrines and ordinances, should probe deeper. When available historical and geographical details in these texts agree with what is known about the first century A.D., it is clear that we have to give them more serious consideration than simply calling them pious legend.
Although the apocryphal writings found in the past century derive from many different geographical and theologically diverse sects, there are a number of themes common to virtually all the writings, regardless of origin. The similarity of themes in these texts, despite the wide-ranging theological differences of the sects that used them, argues for their development out of an authentic historical and theological setting. It is all the more remarkable that these similarities occur, considering the lack of many of these themes in the New Testament and other early Christian literature. A very brief examination of a few of the more prominent themes in this literature would include the following:
The most popular Old Testament subject for apocryphal speculation is the creation story as found in Genesis. In addition to entire works dealing specifically with the creation of the world, lengthy segments on the creation are included in such works as the Hypostasis of the Archons and the Apocryphon of John.
The Hypostasis begins with a quotation from Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians (Eph. 6:12) that establishes the purpose of the text—to explain that man’s struggles in this life are really against the powers of darkness. There follows a description of the heavenly council, the rebellion in heaven, and the casting out of Satan and his rebellious followers.
The account of the creation of the earth and subsequent events includes a dramatic dialogue between God, Satan, Adam, and Eve. The detailed account of the temptation, the partaking of the forbidden fruit, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden are followed by the esoteric and embellished account of earth’s history to the time of Noah. Some of the details included in this interesting manuscript most certainly have been added by speculative editors whose imaginations were more advanced than their perception of truth. It is quite likely that when the ordinances associated with the text were lost, the resulting deficiency was compensated in part by such additions.
In the Apocryphon of John a similarly involved account of a heavenly council, a war, and an expulsion of rebellious offspring of God is recounted. This time the telling of the story is placed in the context of the glorified Jesus explaining to John “things which are, which have been, and which will be.” The text again concerns itself with history from the time of Adam until Noah, and also includes detailed descriptions of the eternal destinies of man. These descriptions occur near the end of the text and are in the form of a dialogue: John asks Jesus about those who will be saved, those who have not known in mortality “to whom they belong,” and those “who have come into the knowledge but have turned away.”
In answer to the preceding questions the Savior explains that some will become perfect, purifying themselves from all evil, and will inherit eternal life. Those who do not know in mortality to whom they belong will go to a prison after this life, where they will be able to obtain knowledge and be saved.
At this point John asks how the spirit can return to the mortal body (implying that more than knowledge is necessary for salvation), but the Savior responds that a spirit in prison can be saved by “being connected with another in whom the spirit of Life is,” and will not have to return to a mortal body. Further along in the text, Jesus explains to John that after his death he went to the spirit prison and taught salvation to those who were there. Variations on this popular theme can be found in numerous other apocryphal texts.
Another common element in apocryphal literature is the secrecy enjoined upon those who receive these teachings. The Gospel of Thomas begins: “These are the secret words which the Living Jesus spoke,” and Thomas the Contender begins with the “secret words that Jesus spoke to Judas-Thomas.” The Apocryphon of John opens with “the secret teachings” and Second Jeu has an entire page devoted to a charge by Jesus to his disciples that they “not give these things for anything of the world.” It is obvious that the people who wrote or copied these documents did not intend for them to become widely read.
References to ritual abound in this large body of material. In addition to baptisms and sacred meals, there are also numerous references to washings, anointings, and special garments. In the Acts of Thomas, those who are baptized also request the “seal” from the Apostle Thomas, which consists of an anointing with oil. In the famous Hymn of the Pearl from the same work, the plan of redemption is portrayed in amazing detail and clarity. The son of God is sent to the world (symbolized by Egypt) with the charge to bring back the pearl (his soul). Although he falls into a spiritual coma by partaking of the food and raiment of the world, his heavenly parents, after holding a great council to plan his redemption, send the message of salvation and its attendant power to their son. The son awakens, exercises his new power over the serpent who rules the world, rescues his pearl, and accomplishes the long, hard journey back to his parents’ home. There, according to the promises given before he made the journey, the son receives a heavenly garment and a beautiful robe that admit him into the company of the great ones of heaven.
Marriage as a requirement for those who would achieve the highest of the three heavens is a teaching found in the Gospel of Philip, and the sanctity of marriage is alluded to in other documents. On some occasions the resurrected Jesus is portrayed as giving sacred teachings to the apostles and their wives, as in Second Jeu. From the variations of the rituals perceived in apocryphal literature, it appears evident that the different sects probably changed the ordinances, perhaps because they no longer understood their significance.
Finally, one of the recurring messages in this body of literature is the gloomy future that is in store for the true believers. In the Epistle of Peter to Philip, when the disciples are walking back to Jerusalem after being instructed by the risen Lord on the Mount of Olives, Peter explains to the others that they will suffer greatly. The voice of the Lord is then heard from heaven and confirms what Peter has said, adding that persecution is necessary for one to become like the Savior. In the Apocryphon of James, Jesus explains to James that by suffering persecution and doing the will of the Father one can be made equal to Christ. James later asks how the apostles are to respond to those asking for prophecy, and Jesus replies that prophecy had been taken from the earth.
Later in the same work Peter expresses concern that the Savior was not very encouraging, to which the Lord responds that the disciples should not be concerned with anything but the promise of eternal life.
In the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus explains that even Peter would be blasphemed in the future by deceivers who would depart from the truth, leading multitudes after them. These false teachers, continues the Savior, make merchandise of His word, oppress their brothers with the defilement of apostate religion, and even use Peter’s name to lead the souls of men astray. All is not lost, however, for the Savior states that there is a time appointed for the false teachers (who are characterized as “waterless canals”) and the fulfillment of their deception, after which the “agelessness of immortal thought will be renewed.” The deception will be pulled out by its roots and righteousness will prevail at His coming.
In these works the disciples are assured that through the death and resurrection of Jesus they have no need to fear suffering, persecution, or death in this life. What they learned and received in the 40-day ministry would be the means for obtaining salvation and eternal life.
Even though often spurious in origin and detail, these apocryphal writings bear a united testimony of missionary activity. They show the existence of some very interesting doctrines, especially meaningful to Latter-day Saints with the perspective of the restoration of the gospel.
Dr. S. Kent Brown is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and serves as president of BYU 37th Branch, BYU Sixth Stake.