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What are the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles?

Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles
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In the late second century and early third centuries, Gnostic writers penned stories about the apostles. These stories are referred to today as the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles and include works such as Acts of Peter, Acts of Thomas, and Acts of Paul and Thecla. Other texts supposedly contain information about apostles such as Barnabas, Matthias, Andrew, and John. None of these accounts were accepted as valid by the early church, primarily because of their false content, not to mention their extremely late dates of composition.

The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles generally follow established patterns of Gnostic writing. Their depictions of spirituality condemn all things material, especially the body, most particularly all forms of sexuality. Convincing others of the need for total celibacy is a recurring theme in these writings, but such a stance contradicts the teaching of the New Testament.

Miracles occurring in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles are ostentatious: over-the-top, flashy, and almost comical. In the Acts of Thomas, for example, donkeys not only speak, but they also perform exorcisms. The Acts of Peter describes a battle against a flying magician and other actions more suited to a Harry Potter novel. In the Acts of Andrew, an apostle is crucified and yet preaches for three full days while hanging on the cross. The Acts of John describes the vindictive, supernatural collapsing of a pagan temple. In contrast, the miracles recorded in the gospels and the biblical Book of Acts are relatively subdued. “Real” miracles are not primarily about spectacle or petty revenge.

In addition, miracles in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles often blatantly contradict scriptural principles; for example, one miracle included in the Apocryphal Acts involves a murderer bringing his own victim back to life—from hell—by praying. Another one has Andrew miraculously causing an illegitimately conceived unborn child to be aborted. Or the destruction of a pagan temple in the Acts of John, a miracle intended to kill a hostile priest. Resurrections are common in these stories, as well, sometimes performed simply to ask the dead person questions.

A useful aspect of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles is their connection to other early Christian traditions. Broad points such as Thomas’s travel to India and Peter’s upside-down crucifixion are echoed in these Gnostic writings. Such stories are considered for what they are: traditions, but not infallible histories. At best, the Apocryphal Acts provide perspective on legendary tales ascribed to the apostles. But since they are also filled with the words of false teachers, they should never be held in the same esteem as the actual, inspired Word of God.

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This page last updated: April 26, 2021