The Apocryphal Acts of Paul, Peter, John, Andrew and Thomas
Bernhard Pick
11:07 h
The full title of this book, published in 1909, is The Apocryphal Acts of Paul, Peter, John, Andrew and Thomas. As early as the second century, numerous legends concerning the fates of the Christian apostles were in circulation. These Acts, widely regarded as originating circa 150 CE, are among the earliest accounts still in existence of the lives, preaching and martyrdoms of the apostles Paul, Peter, John, Andrew and Thomas.
The Apocryphal Acts
Paul, Peter, John,
Andrew and Thomas
Bernhard Pick


The publication of the epoch-making work by Lipsius on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles comprising about 1800 pages closely printed; Schmidt’s Coptic Acta Pauli, more especially the critical edition of the Apocryphal Acts by Lipsius and Bonnet, have opened a large, but very little cultivated field of ancient Christian literature. The oldest of these Acts are those which are treated in the present volume. They give us a picture of Christianity towards the end of the second century. They are important for the history of the Christian cultus in the second and third cent., and by their description of the divine service in the houses they supplement of picture delineated in the Acts of the Apostles. They are also important for the history of Christian poetry which commences among the Gnostics; in short: though these Acts contain both “truth and fiction,” they cannot be ignored by the teacher and preacher, the missionary and historian. What has hitherto been a terra incognita generally speaking, has now been made accessible, especially by the beautiful edition of Lipsius and Bonnet, whose text must now be considered as textus receptus. Tischendorf’s text which was published in 1851, is now superseded by this later publication, and what is said of the text concerns also the English translation of Apocryphal Acts based on Tischendorf's work. As an illustration we only refer to the fact that chaps, 39-41, 62-158 now found in the Acts of Thomas are wanting in Tischendorf’s edition. The Acts of Paul and Thecla formerly regarded as a separate book, are now proven to be a part of the Acts of Paul, to which also belongs the so-called third epistle to the Corinthians. Without calling attention to many other points, it is obvious that the Apocryphal Acts, as far as they have been translated into English, need a thorough revision, if not a new translation. For the present we offer the oldest and therefore most important Acts, That these Acts cannot be ignored because they form an important contribution to the primitive literature of the Church, the reader can readily see from the special introductions and literature. In the preparation of the present volume the work edited by Edgar Hennecke has been of great help. I have also made free use of the English translation of the Apocryphal Acts by A. Walker in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library as far as was possible. In other respects the present work is entirely independent, and whatever its shortcomings may be, we have the satisfaction that it is the first effort to make the researches of Lipsius, Bonnet, Schmidt, etc. accessible to the English reader.

B. P.

Newark, New Jersey, Nov. 1908.


The late Professor R.A. Lipsius, of Jena (d. 1892), thus opens his epoch-making work Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden (1893-91):

“Under the name of Acts or Deeds Circuits or Journeys and Martyrdom or Consummation ) of the various apostles was comprised in the times of Christian antiquity a widely spread and manifold literature, of which very important remains exist. As early as the second century numerous legendary reports concerning the fates of the apostles were in circulation, in part, at least, of a very romantic character. The real history of the lives and deaths of most of the apostles being shrouded in obscurity, a pious imagination was very early busily employed in filling up the large lacunae left in the historical reminiscences of the church. Not a few of such narratives owe their origin simply to an endeavor to satisfy the pious curiosity or taste for the marvelous in members of the primitive church; while others subserved the local interests of particular towns or districts which claimed to have derived their Christianity from the missionary activity of one of the apostles, or their line of bishops from one immediately ordained by him. It likewise not infrequently happened that party spirit, theological or ecclesiastical, would take advantage of a pious credulity to further its own ends by manipulating the older legends, or inventing others entirely new, after a carefully preconceived form and pattern. And so almost every fresh editor of such narratives, using that freedom which all antiquity was wont to allow itself in dealing with literary monuments, would reveal the materials which lay before him, excluding whatever might not suit his theological point of view dogmatic statement, for example, speeches, prayers, etc., for which he would substitute other formulae of his own composition, and further expanding or abridging after his own pleasure, or as the immediate object which he had in view might dictate. Only with the simply miraculous parts of the narrative was the case different. These passed unaltered and unquestioned from one hand to another, ecclesiastical circles the most opposed in other respects having here equal and coinciding interests, while the critical spirit, usually so acute in detecting erroneous opinions or heretical tendencies, was contented here to lay down its arms, however troubled or suspected the source from which such legendary narration might flow. Therefore, although these fables originated for the most part in heretical quarters, we find them at a later period among the cherished possessions of ordinary Catholics, acquaintance with them being perpetually renewed or their memory preserved in Catholic Christendom, partly by the festal homilies of eminent Fathers, and partly by religious poetry and works of sacred art. Like all legends or myths preserved in popular memory, however, they present great difficulties in the way of a satisfactory treatment from a literary point of view, perpetually springing up, as they do, afresh, now here, now there, now in one shape, now in another, and again withdrawing themselves in a tantalizing way, for a longer or shorter period, from the eyes of the historical inquirer. The older church martyrologies and calendars, subject as they were to continuous processes of change and augmentation, and the collectanea of later chroniclers and legend writers, who for the most part copied one from another, have furnished us with rich stores of legendary matter, which only in rare instances can be satisfactorily traced back to their original sources.”

There can be no doubt that numerous apocryphal apostle-legends were current during the second century, and that certain written recensions existed, as may be seen from allusions and references by early writers. But with the fourth century the testimonies as to the existence and use of apocryphal Acts become numerous. Most explicit in this respect is the testimony of Photius, patriarch of Constantinople, A. D. 858, who inhisBibl.,cod.114, speaks of a volume purporting to be written by Leucius Charinus, and containing the travels of Peter, John, Andrew, Thomas and Paul. Photius describes the book as both foolish and heretical. It taught the existence of two Gods an evil one, the God of the Jews, having Simon Magus for his minister; and a good one, whom, confounding the two Persons it identified with Christ. It denied the reality of Christ’s incarnation, and gave a Docetic account of his life on earth, and in particular of his crucifixion; it condemned marriage, and regarded all generation as the work of the evil principle; and it told several silly and childish stories. We can satisfactorily trace these Acts back to the fourth century by means of references in writers of that date. At that time they were chiefly in use among the Manicheans; yet there are grounds for looking on them as more ancient than that heresy, which only began toward the end of the third century. We do not find, indeed, the name of Leucius in any writer earlier than the fourth century; yet earlier writers show acquaintance with stories which we know to have been in the Leucian Acts; whence the conclusion has been drawn that these Acts are really a second-century production, and that they found favor with the Manicheans on account of the affinity of their doctrines. From Epiphanius we know that these Acts were also largely in use among other heretical parties, and much that still remains to us seems frequently to favor older sectarian opinions, although in our present texts the most characteristic passages have been toned down or removed. Scarcely one of these Gnostic Acts of the Apostles has come down to us wholly untampered with; while, on the other hand, even in works which have already passed several times through the reforming hands of Catholic revisers, some of the old Gnostic features, despite all their efforts, are still distinctly traceable.

The original purpose with which these apocryphal writings were composed was that of diffusing a knowledge of the doctrines and customs of the various Gnostic schools, and of setting up against the Catholic tradition another which appealed with no less confidence to the authority of apostles and their immediate disciples. And yet it was hardly as a sort of rival or additional canon that these writings were presented to the Christian public of those times. They aimed, rather, at supplying a popular kind of religious reading in the shape of tracts set forth by the Gnostic propaganda, which, professing to contain historical reminiscences from apostolic times, and composed in the credulous spirit of the age, seemed to satisfy the demands of pious curiosity and soon obtained an extensive circulation. Catholic bishops and teachers did not know how better to stem this flood of Gnostic writings and their influence among the faithful, than by boldly adopting the most popular narrations from the heretical books, and, after carefully eliminating the poison of false doctrine, replacing them in this purified form in the hands of the people. That this process of purification was not always complete need not surprise us when we consider how changeable or uncertain on some points was the boundary line between Gnostic and Catholic doctrines. Thus originated the many castrated and revised editions of the Acts of Peter, Paul, John, Andrew, Thomas, Philip, Matthew, and others, which are found in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Anglo-Saxon, and ancient Slavonic languages.

In general, however, says Lipsius whom we follow for the most part, these Gnostic productions, apart from any more or less marked assertion of heretical dogmas or rules of life, betray their real origin by the overgrowths of a luxuriant imagination, by their highly colored pictures, and by their passionate love for mythical additions and adornments in excess even of the popular belief in signs and wonders. The favorite critical canon “the more romantic the more recent in origin” does not hold good as against this branch of literature, in which exorcising of demons, raisings of the dead, and other miracles of healing or of punishment are multiplied endlessly. The incessant repetition of the like wonders baffles the efforts of the most lively imagination to avoid a certain monotony, interrupted, however, by dialogues and prayers, which not seldom afford a pleasant relief, and are sometimes of a genuinely poetical character. There is withal a rich apparatus of the super-natural, consisting of visions, angelic appearances, voices from heaven, speaking animals and demons, who with shame confess their impotence against the champions of the truth; unearthly streams of light descend, or mysterious signs appear, from heaven; earthquakes, thunders and lightnings terrify the ungodly; the elements of wind and fire and water minister to the righteous; wild beasts, dogs, serpents, lions, bears and tigers are tamed by a single word from the mouths of the apostles, or turn their rage against the persecutors; dying martyrs are encompassed by wreaths of light or heavenly roses and lilies and enchanting odors, while the abyss opens to devour their enemies. The Devil himself is often introduced into these stories in the form of a black Ethiopian, and plays a considerable part. But the visionary element is the favorite one. Our Lord often appears to his servants, now as a beautiful youth, and again’ as a seaman, or as a shepherd, or in the form of an apostle; holy martyrs return to life to manifest themselves, at one time to their disciples, at another to their persecutors. Dreams and visions announce beforehand to apostles their approaching martyrdom, or to longing souls among the heathen the fulfillment of their desires. All this fantastic scenery has been left, for the most part, untouched by Catholic revisers, and remains, therefore, in works which in other respects have been most thoroughly recast. Yet it was only in very rare cases that these romantic creations of fancy were themselves the original object in view with the writers who produced them. That object was either some dogmatic interest, or, where such retired into the background, an ascetic purpose. Many of these narratives were simply invented to extol the meritoriousness of the celibate life, or to commend the severest abstinence in the estate of matrimony. At this point Catholic revisers have been careful throughout to make regular alterations, now degrading legitimate wives to the position of concubines, and now introducing objections connected with nearness of kin or other circumstances which might justify the refusal or the repudiation of a given marriage. But where merely the praise of virginity was concerned the views of Catholics and Gnostics were nearly identical, except that the former refused to regard the maintenance of that estate as an absolute or universal moral obligation.

Recent investigations have shown that in large portions of these Acts genuine reminiscences are to be found, though not in reference to the legends themselves, yet in regard to the setting in which they are presented to us, their secular historical background, or their geographical and ethnographical scenery. Yet, at the same time, all efforts to derive from them any trustworthy particulars as to the actual histories of the apostles themselves, or to extract from the confused mass of legends any sound historical nucleus, have hitherto proved almost always unsuccessful. Such are in the main the characteristic points given by Lipsius in the beginning of his work mentioned before.


The Acts of Paul (Praxeis Pauiu, or Acta, also Actus Pauli) are first mentioned by Origen, who quotes twice from them. Thus we read Hom. in John XX, 12: “if any one likes to receive that which is written in the Acts of Paul as said of the Saviour, I go to be crucified again.” In a somewhat different form the same phrase occurs in the Acts of Peter. Since it is impossible to imagine that Origen should confound the Acts of Peter which were rejected as heretical with the Acts of Paul which he highly esteemed, Harnack may very well be right in supposing that the old Acts of Peter did not contain an account of Peter’s martyrdom, but that this originally occurred in the Acts of Paul.

The second reference is found in De Princip., 1, 2, 3, where we read: “Hence that word appears to me also spoken correctly which is written in the Acts of Paul: ‘This is the word, a living being,’ though not expressed so well as in the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel.”

Without name the Acts are also referred to by Hippolytus (Commentary on Daniel, III, 29, who says: “for if we believe that when Paul was condemned to the wild beasts, the lion that was loosed upon him lay down at his feet and licked him, why should we not believe what happened in the case of Daniel in the lion’s den?” This seems to suppose that the writing which contained the narrative concerning Paul was regarded as trustworthy in Church circles. Besides, the parallels are so obvious that there can be no doubt as to the author of the work. That the statement of Hippolytus is taken from the Acts of Paul is clear from the statement of Nicephorus Callisti (Church history, II, 25 who relates that this incident was related in the Periodoi Pauli.