THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - Volume 2: by Philip Carrington, Archbishop of Quebec. Published by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


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We have moved on a matter of forty or fifty years since the early half of the reign of Hadrian, at which point we attempted a consideration of the anonymous and pseudonymous literature which appeared on the fringe of the New Testament. Many apocryphal books have appeared during these four or five decades, and it is not possible to assign exact dates to them; some of the books which we shall consider may not have received their final form until the third century; but it is more convenient to take them together. It is a fictitious literature for the most part, and its touch with history is slight. The Acts of Paul, for instance, of which we have given some account already, is simply a historical romance. It was written to amuse and instruct and entertain, and to point a moral or two at the same time. The older non-canonical books like the Revelation of Peter were written for church use.


It is not possible, however, to draw a line of demarcation between these two types of literature. The Hebrew Gospel seems to have been a serious piece of Gospel-making designed for liturgical use in Jewish churches, and the Marcionite Gospel was designed to meet the needs of an anti-Jewish gnosis. The new Egerton papyrus is such a small fragment that we cannot tell what it was: a number of selections for the use of a preacher perhaps. These Gospels retell the old narratives with differences of detail. In the Hebrew Gospel, the man with the withered hand says, 'I was a mason earning my bread by my hands; I pray thee, Jesus, to restore me to health lest I beg my bread in shame'. |352 In the British Museum Gospel, the leper says, 'Rabbi Jesus, by travelling with lepers, and staying with them in the inn, I became a leper myself; if therefore thou wilt, I am made clean'. This is the kind of dramatization which a preacher introduces almost instinctively as he goes along. They are 'homiletic variations', not fictional writing.

The Egyptian Gospel may also have been made for actual use. It was quoted by the Alexandrian docetic, Julius Cassianus and seems to have been a gnostic expansion of the Gospel in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and the women, with some of the disciples. Celsus mentions a sect of' Harpocratians' who followed Salome, and others who followed Martha and Mariamne. Hippolytus mentions a group of Ophites who received traditions from Mariamne, who had received them from James the Just. Pistis Sophia, a third-century compilation contains conversations between Jesus and these three women. We only possess a single group of sayings from the Egyptian Gospel, and these are quoted by Clement of Alexandria. When Jesus had finished speaking on some apocalyptic subject, Salome asked, 'How long will men continue to die?' and the Lord made answer, 'So long as women bear children', a cryptic answer which conceals within it the docetic abhorrence of sex; for he also says 'I came to destroy the works of the female '. It must have been a secret tradition that was being delivered, for Salome goes on to say, 'When will these things become known?' 'When you have trampled on the garment of shame', Jesus answers, 'and the two become one, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.'

The last saying is also found in 2 Clement, though it is given a different and more respectable interpretation. It may have been one of the extra-canonical sayings of Jesus which were going the rounds.

It is more blessed to give than to receive.
Acts xx. 35.

Wherein I find you, there will I judge you.
Justin and others.

Be ye approved bankers [or money changers: or good business-men?].
Clement of Alexandria and others.

He that is near me is near fire: he that is far from me is far from the kingdom.
(Origen; and compare Ignatius, Smyrnaeans, iv, 2.)

Such sayings were collected into anthologies, and examples of these anthologies have cropped up among the Egyptian papyri.

The only other Gospel which can be safely assigned to so early a |353 period, and to actual church, use is the Gospel of Peter which is a literary rewriting of the four-Gospel story for a docetic sect; it was in use at Antioch, and probably at Alexandria too. The 'Ebionite Gospel', quoted by Epiphanius, seems to be a later composition. None of these Gospels was widely received, or considered for inclusion with the four.


We have dealt in some detail with the various types of Epistles which succeeded the apostolic period, and carried on the apostolic tradition. There was the fringe of the New Testament group to consider, like Hebrews and James, neither of which was strictly apostolic; there were the Epistles of apostolic men like Clement and Ignatius and Polycarp; there were the nameless writings which acquired apostolic associations, like Barnabas and 2 Clement; there were actual pseud-epigraphs like 2 Peter.

The Muratorian Catalogue mentions two epistles 'forged for the Marcionite heresy', which it calls Laodiceans and Alexandrians. The Marcionite Epistle to the Laodiceans was simply our Epistle to the Ephesians under another name; but at a later date an orthodox Epistle to the Laodiceans was made up by combining passages from the genuine Epistles. Such an Epistle seems to be demanded by the reference in Colossians iv. 16. About the Epistle to the Alexandrians we know nothing at all. There is a third Epistle to the Corinthians in the Acts of Paul. It is painfully orthodox. Stephanas and the elders write to Paul and tell him that Simon and Cleobius have come to Corinth and are overthrowing the faith of many by saying that they must not use the Old Testament, that the 'Almighty' is not God, that there will be no resurrection of the flesh, that man was not made by God, that Christ was not born of Mary, and that the world was not made by God, but by the angels; a pretty summary of the position of Simon, Satornil and Marcion. Paul's reply covers all these points, but especially the resurrection of the flesh.

The much longer Epistle of the Apostles was put together to correct much the same erroneous opinions, in opposition to Simon and Cerinthus, who were chosen as typical opponents of leading apostles. It expressed the received theology in a semi-apocalyptic form. It has a good knowledge of most of the New Testament.


The Muratorian does not name any apocryphal Acts, but seems to have them in mind when it alludes to the canonical Acts as the Acts of all the Apostles, thus ruling out the Acts of one particular apostle; and also when it defends the Acts for omitting certain points which are supplied in the Acts of Peter.

We have given some account of the Acts of Paul. In its original form it was one of the oldest of the apocryphal Acts, and the text we have has passed through numerous revisions. The story of Thecla, the Corinthian correspondence, and the martyrdom of Paul, circulated as separate documents. There is only one manuscript of the book as a whole, and it is in such bad condition as to be little more than a mass of fragments. It is a Coptic translation. It glorifies martyrdom, asceticism and virginity; but it cannot be called unorthodox. No doubt it has been corrected. It is full of miracles, hairbreadth escapes and marvellous conversions. It was written by a presbyter in Asia and was condemned there at a synod.

Some scholars place the original form of the Acts of John earlier than the Acts of Paul. Photius of Constantinople, at the end of the ninth century, found a corpus of five books of apocryphal Acts, which had been put together by the Manichaeans; they were the Acts of John, Paul, Peter, Andrew and Thomas; and they were all ascribed to an author named Leucius Charinus. It is thought that Leucius may be the author of the Acts of John, which is the first-named, and so they are sometimes called the Leucian Acts. But nothing is known about Leucius except for a statement in Epiphanius that he was a disciple of John.

A good deal of the Acts of John has survived, and it is apparent that it is a Valentinian production. The apostle appears as a mystic and wonder-worker. The book is written in a verbose high-flown style, and does not seem to add anything of historical value to the church tradition about John, which it fully accepts; John of Ephesus is the disciple who reposed on the bosom of the Lord at the Last Supper; he dies peacefully at a great old age in Ephesus. It has been suggested that some of the stories about John in the church tradition may have been taken from this book, but none of them are to be found in the portions of the book which survive. There is a Roman tradition, mentioned by Tertullian, that John was immersed in a cauldron of boiling oil, from |355 which he emerged without hurt; but it is not found in what remains of the Acts of John ; and it is not known to any Greek writer, so that it is quite unlikely that it ever stood there. It was known to Hippolytus, and so was the tale of the lion who licked the feet of St Paul, but this fails to appear in the Acts of Paul, which tells how a lion licked the feet of Thecla. It will be seen that the traces of the apocryphal Acts in church writers of this period are very slight, or even non-existent.

It is probable that the better-known anecdotes about the apostles were very widely told, and need not be traced to one source or another. A certain number would be in the common stock. We can see the beginning of this in Papias.

In the Leucian Acts, John has a supernatural power over death and the devil. One episode tells of a lady named Drusiana, who gave up marital relations with her husband Andronicus for the sake of godliness and persuaded him to agree with her on the subject. Much to her mortification, she was courted by a wealthy Ephesian named Calli-machus, and was so grieved by his attentions that she died. Callimachus, who was devoid of gnosis, was still enslaved to his passion, and decided to visit her dead body. Fortunatus, the steward of Andronicus, admitted him to the tomb; but a serpent appeared from some quarter and slew him. As for Callimachus, it wound itself round his legs, brought him to the ground and sat on him.

On the next morning, which was the third day after the death, John and Andronicus and the brethren came to the tomb at dawn to break bread. « It is suggested by some that this represents a common Christian practice. This third day celebration in the Acts of John is based on the Easter morning narrative. A beautiful youth with fiery eyes appeared to them, smiling, and told John that he was to raise to life those who were dead. After a number of speeches and prayers, the two corpses were raised to life. The eucharist was then celebrated in the tomb, but when they came out they found Fortunatus lying on the ground, dead and black. This tale illustrates the gnostic division of mankind into three species; Andronicus and Drusiana are the spirituals or true gnostics; Callimachus is the psychic, capable of salvation; Fortunatus is the choic or material. He has no possibility of salvation. He is a compound of death, earthly matter and fire. John looks at his dead body, and says, 'Thou hast thy child, O devil'.


We have already referred to the Palestinian Ascents of James, and the Wanderings of Peter, which were worked into a tale about Clement and incorporated into the later Books of Clement called the Recognitions and the Homilies. The first of these recorded the arguments of James the Just in the temple with Caiaphas and the priests and the attack upon him by an enemy, who was intended to represent Paul; the second recorded the contest between Peter and Simon Magus in southern Syria, and at some stage or another the figure of Simon Magus was so handled as to represent Paul. In these Ebionite documents the figure of James gives added weight to the witness of Peter and the Twelve, just as Paul does in the catholic tradition. James is almost, if not quite, the superior of Peter.

There is no trace of these theological tendencies in the Acts of Peter, which is almost a catholic book. It is usually assigned to about 200-220 and is thought to have been written in Syria. It brings Peter to Rome to continue his controversy with Simon Magus, a conclusion which is foreshadowed in the Ebionite legends. It shows no first-hand knowledge of Rome whatever. It says nothing at all about Clement or his family.

Like all the Acts, it is encratite or ascetic in character, but it is not far removed from orthodoxy, except for some gnostic devotions and a gnostic exposition of the mystery of the cross which is allowed to take possession of the story of Peter's martyrdom. This material closely resembles certain passages in the Acts of John, from which it may be borrowed; but it is liturgical in character and was probably circulating independently.

When Peter reached Rome, he found that Paul had departed on his voyage to Spain; and this excludes the idea of antagonism between Peter and Paul. Simon Magus was living in the house of a rich senator named Marcellus, who had been a convert of Paul and the patron of the church; but he was now under the influence of Simon. Peter knocked at the door of the house and asked Simon to come out; but Simon would not come; in fact he told the porter to say that he was not at home. So Peter sent in the dog to deliver his message, and the dog went in and stood up on his hind legs and delivered it; in fact he said more than Peter told him to say. There were several contests of wit and |357 eloquence between Peter and Simon, and more miracles were performed. Before long Peter reclaimed Marcellus to the true faith.

There is a certain rough humour about this book. There is a rather peculiar miracle in which Peter animates a dried herring; and such stories may perhaps be poking fun at the miracles attributed to Simon in the Simonian tradition. The account of Simon's death may also have been intended to raise a laugh. He decided at last to give his supreme display of the magic art; he would fly up into the air over the city of Rome; and so he did, but Peter put up a prayer and Simon crashed, breaking his leg in three places. He retired into the country and died. Now this is not the form of the legend which was known in Rome. According to Hippolytus, he had himself buried in the earth, and promised that after three days he would rise again, which, however, he failed to do; 'for he was not the Christ'.

The account of Peter's martyrdom, which may have been a separate document, contains the celebrated 'Quo vadis?' story. Peter was persuaded to leave the city by night during the persecution of Nero; but as he was going out of the city, he met the Lord who was coming into it. 'Where are you going, Lord?' said Peter. 'I am going to Rome to be crucified,' said the Lord. So Peter came to himself, and returned to Rome rejoicing and glorifying God. The legend of his crucifixion head downward then follows.


The story of the passion of Peter is extremely weak, but the 'Quo Vadis?' story has become famous. It is the only episode in the Acts of Peter which stands up and looks solid. The rest is two-dimensional; highly-coloured but flat. This author could not have invented such a story; or was he successful, just for once? It is an audacious story which reveals Peter as very nearly failing his Lord and Master again; and of course it might be taken as a rebuke to those bishops who retired into the background in persecution. It is quite possible that it was picked up out of the living tradition. We have drawn the conclusion that the Roman church did not possess a passion-story about Peter similar to the Jerusalem passion-story about James; for surely it would have been preserved; but no doubt they did possess little pieces of anecdote and tradition, such as persist in the wake of all great historic events, and |358 attach themselves to great personages. Where did Clement of Alexandria get his story about Peter encouraging his wife when they were facing martyrdom? He spoke her name, and said, 'Remember the Lord.'

The substance of the Acts of Peter is fairy-tale, but what about the framework of 'history' within which it moves? Paul's journey to Spain? Peter's journey to Rome? and his crucifixion head downwards? It looks as if these points were firmly fixed in the consciousness of the church. And whence came the idea of a contest between Simon Peter and Simon Magus in Rome, which does not appear before Clement of Alexandria? The readers of the tale would look for the points which were familiar to them, and the writer would use these points to provide a semblance of historical outline for his inventions. He would not conflict with such ideas as were very generally accepted.

On the other hand, he does not trespass on New Testament territory; and the same is true of John, though not of Paul, which is related in part to Paul's Galatian adventures. Peter and John answered the question which had now arisen, What happened after the sudden close of the canonical Acts? The Acts itself was obviously well established in the church before they were written.


What was the value of this literature? It had the value that fictions, fairy-tales and folk-lore have in every time and place. They give expression to a faculty for day-dreaming that cannot be eradicated from the heart of man; and if they are well-written he sees something of himself and his friends reflected in the events and characters. A number of equally fanciful novels and films, dealing with the life of Jesus and his apostles, have appeared in the last few years in America and been very popular.

It is probable too that the type of Christian for whom they were written may have thought it wrong to read the Greek or Latin literature of the day, which was full of pagan mythology and sexual adventure; instead of this they provided a Christian mythology, enlivened with ascetic adventure and stories of heroic martyrdoms. It is possible that pagan myths or folk-tales have been taken into them. They should be compared with the occasional short stories of eminent rabbis which |359 enliven the pages of the rabbinic writers, and on the other hand with the biographies of Hellenistic sages, who were also ascetics and wonderworkers.

From the point of view of the historian, they allow us to penetrate into a level of Christian life and culture which would not otherwise be accessible to us. Those who read these stories were romantics. The characters are quite unreal; their fancy names and fine speeches are hopelessly 'literary'; they are such things as dreams are made on; but they do show us what the Christian imagination achieved when it was liberated from the limitations of actual history and real life. They show us the popular conception of a great apostle like Peter or Paul, and the gnostic conception of a great apostle like John; their idea, that is, of what the apostles ought to have been like; great orators and wonderworkers and confounders of all opponents. They give us the picture of the apostolic tradition as it was visualized and magnified in the Christian imagination. They expressed it in a readable form, no doubt, for the pagan inquirer.

A long account is given, for instance, of a Friday service at the house of Marcellus, which was purified for the occasion by the sprinkling of water and the invocation of the name of Jesus, a ceremony which reminds us of the dedication of the tower in Hermas. The widows and old people assemble, and each one of them is given a gold coin. Narcissus the presbyter is present. « A Narcissus is mentioned in Romans xvi. 11. The Gospel of the transfiguration is read from the scroll of the Gospel, and Peter gives an exposition of it; a rather gnostical exposition, for it was a favourite gnostic passage. It had to do with the opening of the eyes for mystical vision. When the ninth hour arrived, the point at which the day's fast normally terminated (at about three in the afternoon, that is), they rose up to make prayer; and Peter prayed that their eyes might be opened to see Jesus Christ. And they did see Jesus Christ. The whole hall shone with light. Some saw an old man, some a young man, some a boy gently touching their eyes. They saw him in different forms. Fasting and prayer were rewarded by vision.

The favourite form in which Christ appears in these Acts is as a young man with a bright torch or with shining eyes, and the favourite time for his appearance is at a baptism. It is the Hellenistic idea of an angel or spirit or divine being.


These Acts contain liturgical forms which may be older in origin than the Acts themselves. The Acts of Peter are orthodox on the whole, and even make use of the Hebrew scriptures at one point; but there is an infusion of gnostic liturgy and mysticism; and there are traces of the view that the twelve apostles did not fully understand the Lord. The Acts of John gives this material in a fuller and clearer form, and we find a great advance upon the primitive or degraded forms which Irenaeus discovered in the Valentinian schools in Ephesus. It is of real importance to the scholar; for, erratic as it well may be, it is still a form of Christian worship, and must have some relations at some points to the liturgical development as a whole. The difficulty of the gnostic was that all authentic Christian prayers were originally Jewish prayers, glorifying and blessing the creator of heaven and earth, and he was obliged to produce prayers which were free from this association with the demiurge. He had to compose new books of Psalms. He fell back on the mysticism of the Gospels, and especially of the fourth Gospel, and also no doubt on pre-Christian and non-Christian Hellenic forms. The baptisms, the acts of prayer, and the eucharists, are of particular interest. Baptisms were taken in the name of the Trinity, and anointing with oil followed. Prayers were built up round the invocation of the name, or the offering of glory and thanksgiving for the name, meaning of course the name of Jesus, not the name of the Creator. In the eucharist, bread and water were used, or bread alone.

What praise or what offering or what thanksgiving shall we name, as we break the bread, save thee, O Lord Jesu? We glorify thy name which was given through the Father. ... We glorify thy entering of the door; we glorify thy resurrection shown to us by thee; we glorify thy way; we glorify thee the seed, word, grace, faith, salt [and so forth at great length].
(Acts of John, 109, in M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, p. 268.)

When the prayer was finished, the bread was broken, and given to the brethren with prayer, and sometimes with the laying on of hands. As a rule, there was no cup, or else a cup of water.

There is an important liturgical text in the Acts of John, which is set for the evening of the Last Supper and the day of the Crucifixion; it was therefore a paschal ritual. It is preceded by references to earlier events |361 in the gospel story which also had a cultic significance, the call of the first disciples, the transfiguration, and the meals of Jesus with his disciples, which are turning points in the structure of Mark's Gospel. It is made clear that the Lord did not actually eat and drink, since he had no real human body. Nor did he really suffer. He was the Word of God, but not the Word made flesh.

On the night before the Passion, the disciples form a ring round Jesus and join in a mystic dance as they sing a hymn to the Father. Jesus sings, and they respond with an Amen.

I would be saved and I would save: Amen.
I would be loosed and I would loose: Amen.
I would be wounded and I would wound: Amen.
I would be born and I would bear: Amen.
I would eat and I would be eaten: Amen.

and so forth indefinitely.

A lamp am I to thee that beholdest me: Amen.
A mirror am I to thee that perceivest me: Amen.
A door am I to thee that knockest at me: Amen.
A way am I to thee the wayfarer: Amen.
Behold thyself in me who speak, and, seeing what I do, keep silence about my mysteries.
(Acts of John, 94-5.)

There is a great deal more of it, and it is related to the heavenly ogdoad and zodiac. « The Valentinian year began in the spring, that is to say at Passover, which was also the commemoration of the creation in Philo and some of the Jewish authorities. The disciples represent the twelve months of the zodiac circle; Jesus was betrayed in the twelfth month by the twelfth disciple. To some modern minds it is poetry of a high order; to others it is merely idle chatter of a transcendental kind. Perhaps some poetic insights lie hidden under its mechanical iterations.

During the Crucifixion, John retreats to a cave on Mount Olivet, and the Lord stands by him and exposes for his benefit the unreality of the scene that is taking place on Calvary. He shows him the real cross, a cross of light, which was called word or mind or Jesus or Christus or door or bread or seed or resurrection, and so forth.

I suffered yet I did not suffer,
Pierced and yet I was not smitten,
Hanged and yet I was not hanged,
Blood flowed from me and it flowed not [and so forth].

|362 He was taken up, John says, and yet not one of the multitudes beheld him; 'and when I went down, I laughed at them all, for the Lord had contrived everything in symbols, and by a dispensation towards men, for their conversion and salvation'.

In this way John is given the inward gnostic understanding which the Valentinians believed that they had received through his Gospel. The life of Jesus was an allegory, revealing and yet concealing the heavenly mysteries.


The older apocryphal Gospels were succeeded by a number of lesser Gospels which were written to shed light on special points and illustrate special views. One class is that of the Passion Gospels. Possibly the Gospel of Peter was such a Gospel. The existing Acts of Pilate or Gospel of Nicodemus is a late compilation, but seems to have had second-century forerunners, as we have indicated. Its theme is the descent of Christ into Hades and the liberation of the souls of the righteous dead. To this extent, therefore, such a Gospel would be supplementary to the canonical Gospels.

The same is true of the infancy Gospels. There is a late Gospel, called the Gospel of Thomas, which contains stories of the childhood of Jesus, including the one about his learning his letters which we have found in the Epistle of the Apostles and in the Valentinian school at Ephesus; so this Gospel too looks as if it was descended from a second-century ancestor. We have confirmation of this supposition in Hippolytus and Origen, who both speak of a Gospel of Thomas which was used by a branch of the Ophites. No doubt it contained some of the other miracles which are found in the extant texts. The child Jesus makes little birds out of clay, which fly away when he claps his hands. Joseph finds that a piece of wood which he is using is too short, and Jesus pulls it out to the correct dimensions. He strikes his school companions dead with a casual word, when they offend him. These stories may come out of pagan myth or folk-lore; they would offset the adoptionist statements that he did no miracles before his baptism by John.

Another field of speculation which is not illuminated as brightly as was desired was the history of the Virgin. There is a late Gospel called |363 the Book of James, the so-called Protevangelium, which gives a long account of her birth and childhood, and names her parents as Joachim and Anna. The name Joachim seems to be derived from the last Davidic king « Identified by Hippolytus in his lectures on Daniel with Joachim the husband of Susannah. in the royal genealogies, and the name of Anna from the mother of Samuel or the Anna of St Luke's second chapter. This book shows a quite remarkable indifference to the realities of Jewish religious and social life; its origin is Gentile. In the text as we have it an angel announces to Anna that she will become the mother of a child, and the birth takes place without the intervention of Joachim. Mary is born and brought up in the Temple, where her virginity is carefully guarded until Joseph, who is a widower with children, takes her as his virgin-spouse. Her virginity is maintained, and is certified by a midwife after the birth of Jesus. This legend about Mary's continued virginity was in existence in the second century; it is found in the Ascension of Isaiah. Origen knew of a Book of James which says that the 'brethren' of Jesus were the sons of Joseph by a former wife. Clement knew of the story about the midwife.

The growth of legend round the person of the Virgin during the second century is an obscure point. In catholic theology she was the second Eve, whose obedience offset the disobedience of the first Eve and so made the salvation of man possible. She was also the mysterious Virgin foretold by Isaiah; and so she appears in a second-century painting in the catacomb of Priscilla.

The doctrine of her continued virginity appears in writings of Egyptian origin. It was developed in a peculiar manner by Valentine, who does not allow that Jesus took anything at all from the Virgin in being born of her. This was very different from the catholic belief about Mary, which emphasizes the true human nature of her child; the doctrine of the continued virginity as expressed in these legends undoubtedly diminished it. The second-century evidence does not take us any further. The legend existed and may have been orthodox in intention. Perhaps its principal purpose was to offset the stories put about by the Jews that Jesus was illegitimate, and of course the adoptionist theories which made him a 'mere man' on whom the divinity descended at his baptism.


All these Gospels are a little shadowy; no doubt they made their appearance in the second century, but we do not know them in their second-century forms. Still more shadowy is the Ophite Gospel of Judas mentioned by Irenaeus, or the Gospel of Matthias or Traditions of Matthias mentioned by Clement and Origen; sources from which Basilides is said to have helped himself. Many scholars assign the Epistle of Barnabas to Alexandria, and the Homilies of Clement identify Barnabas with Matthias, and assign the preaching of Barnabas to Alexandria; the Recognitions place it in Rome.

Our list would not be complete without a reference to the 'Ebionite Gospel', of which we know nothing at all except for the quotations which are culled from it by Epiphanius. It must not be confused with the much earlier Hebrew Gospel, which was orthodox by comparison. The quotations from the Ebionite Gospel are of a heretical colour which harmonizes with the Clementine legends. It commended an ascetic diet of herbs, and made Jesus say that he came to destroy the sacrifices, the very announcement which James the Just is said to have made in the Temple in the Books of Clement. It refers to Jesus himself as a ' man named Jesus', so that its theology would seem to be prophetic or adoptionist.


Clement of Alexandria quotes a saying or two from the Traditions of Matthias :

Wonder at the things that are before thee, making this the first step in further gnosis.
Fight with the flesh and abuse it ... making the soul grow by faith and gnosis.

The former resembles a saying found in the famous Oxyrhynchus papyrus; the latter resembles a saying attributed to the Nicolas of Antioch who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. As we have seen they were handed down in the ' apostolic' schools and passed, no doubt, from mouth to mouth. Some were collected into anthologies; others even found their way into manuscripts of the canonical Gospels. We may give examples of both.

|365 The two fragments of papyrus which were found at Oxyrhynchus are too mutilated to give a complete text, but some twelve or thirteen sayings can be recovered in whole or in part. One of them has a little introduction which claims that the words were spoken to Thomas. In the following extracts the words in brackets are supplied by conjecture.

Let not him that seeketh cease [seeking till he] find, and when he find [let him wonder, and] having wondered, he shall reign, and [having reigned] he shall rest.

If ye fast not from the world, ye shall not find the kingdom of God, and if ye keep not the sabbath for the whole week, ye shall not see the Father.

Wheresoever there are [two, they are not without] God, and where there is one alone, I say I am with him: lift up the stone and there shall thou find me: cleave the wood and there am I.

The best example of a floating tradition which found its way into one or another of the texts of the canonical Gospels is the story of the woman taken in adultery, which is found in the Latin Vulgate and the English Authorized Version as John viii. 1-11. Another interesting anti-rigorist story has been inserted into Luke in the Cambridge Codex Bezae (D), immediately after Luke vi. 4. The story must be ancient since it deals with a purely Jewish problem.

On the same day he saw a man working on the sabbath, and said unto him, O man, if thou knowest what thou doest, blessed art thou: but if thou knowest not what thou doest, thou art accursed and a breaker of the Law.



Another kind of sacred literature which should not be overlooked is the myth. Some of the old 'testimony' material, like the saga of Moses and Joshua, was on its way to become myth (see Barnabas, xn); and the stories of creation and of the Garden of Eden, in the first chapters of Genesis, invited this treatment and had long ago received it. There was an old apocryphal book called the Book of Adam, which is thought to have been Jewish, but may have been Christian. Catacomb pictures of Adam and Eve and the serpent are assigned to the third century.

The supreme example, however, is the Ophite myth of Sophia and the serpent, which was transformed into a connected story with a |366 dramatic appeal. It reached its highest form of literary expression in the Valentinian school in which the sorrows of Sophia were presented as a passion play.

For at times she wept and sorrowed, as they say, because she was left alone in the darkness and the void; sometimes, when she thought upon the light that had left her, she was confused and laughed; sometimes again she feared; and at other times was perplexed and amazed. And indeed there was a remarkable tragedy there now, and an imaginative creation, as each of them, some in one way and some in another, pompously announced from what emotion it was, or from what element, that material subsistence took its origin; and these things, it seems to me somehow, they have no desire to teach openly, but only to those who can afford a heavy price, worthy of these mysteries.
(Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. 1, 1, 7-8.)

The sorrows of the mother were the principal feature of the inner mysteries; they represented in an allegorical form the desperate case of the human soul, in its conflict with sin and evil and ignorance and death. Its main features are illustrated in later gnostic documents, like the third-century Coptic Pistis Sophia (which draws upon the Psalms of David and the Odes of Solomon), and an apocryphal Gospel (probably the Egyptian Gospel), to help it out devotionally.

Numerous written forms of the myth and ritual are referred to by Celsus, Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Origen. Those mentioned by Celsus were closely related to the mystery-religion type of ritual. He possessed a diagram or map of the seven heavens, on which a ladder of seven metals was indicated, which symbolized the ascent of the soul to the realm of real existence; strange animal figures guarded the various portals. There was something similar in Mithraism. Origen had a different version of this diagram. Irenaeus had a connected story of the primal man and his offspring, and their love for the primal woman. He follows it with fragments of alternative myths which are not so literary, and are much harder to follow. Those given by Hippolytus are more advanced and sophisticated and radically pagan. The infinitesimal point, or small seed, develops into the tree of life, which is the universe itself, and God, and primal man; in one colossal system of Phrygian origin, the pagan cults, and especially those of the Egyptian Osiris, are taken into consideration, every male image and every temple is a representation of the gnostic primal man or divine fertility-principle.

|367 Hippolytus gives an account of a writer named Justinus, who combined the story of the twelve labours of Heracles with a system of Ophite myth. His books were to be committed to the initiates under an oath of secrecy such as Elkhasai had demanded from his followers; but Hippolytus had managed to obtain a copy of his Book of Baruch, who was the third angel of the Father and creator, whose name was Elohim. Elohim was an emanation from the high God, and the world came into existence as a result of his love for Edem, or pleasure; he representing the spirit, and she the soul. Her third angel was Naas, the serpent who seduced Eve. In Elkhasai, too, there was some special significance about the third of a series, and in Ebionism the male principle is strong, and the female weak. Elohim sent Baruch to inspire the Jewish prophets, but all of them succumbed to the evil influence of Naas. Then he selected Heracles, who went valiantly through his twelve labours, but was enticed and overcome by the half-virgin half-serpent Omphale, who was also called Babel or Venus. Lastly he found Jesus, who was the son of Joseph and Mary, at the age of twelve, minding the sheep – a Davidic touch; and Jesus remained faithful to the inspiration of Baruch, who appears to be the Holy Spirit. Out of jealousy, Naas caused him to be crucified; but he left the 'body of Edem' hanging on the tree, and ascended to the Father, saying to Edem, 'Woman, behold thy son', meaning thereby his natural and earthly man.

This narrative does not look like a system of religious faith. It looks more like a mythical romance of the Greek type, mixed in equal proportions with Ebionite gnosis, to form agreeable reading and illustrate certain religious ideas. The gnostic Justinus is not otherwise known, and is very likely a literary fiction. Justin Martyr had pointed the way to possibilities of this kind by making use of a Socratic myth, which he took from Xenophon, in which Heracles comes to a place where the road divides and has to choose between two female figures, one of whom represents Virtue and the other Vice. Even Tatian had a good word to say for Heracles; he was a popular god in eastern Syria and represented the sun driving in his chariot round the circle of the heavens; Commodus identified himself with Heracles. It is possible, therefore, that since Justin Martyr had originated the idea of allegorizing Heracles in the interests of Christian preaching, our author boldly took the name of Justin as a suitable one for the quite imaginary narrator of his |368 mixture of mythological material. The oaths of secrecy may have been another literary touch, designed to give artistic verisimilitude and awaken interest.


Justin Martyr had been troubled by the obvious resemblances between the pagan myths like those of Heracles, Orpheus, and Bellerophon, and the central facts of the Christian gospel. Now myths were not, in their origin, connected stories or fables, such as the Greek poets had made of them. They were the fragmentary imaginative conceptions which accompanied the ancient rituals, and often personified the forces of nature or the history of the tribe. They expressed in poetic form the conflict with evil and the mysteries of life and death. We may take as an example the myth of Perseus, which is known to all of us in its Christianized form of St George and the dragon. The Christian populace did not need to have a biography of St George with historical references; the imaginative concept of the hero on his horse slaying the dragon, was sufficient; but it could have, in addition, the picture of the virgin tied to the tree and in danger from the dragon, she being a king's daughter, of course.

These primitive mythical ideas are quite limited in number, though they were capable of an indefinite number of artistic affiliations and spiritual applications. They revolve round the topics of life and death or good and evil; the hero born to be king, the maiden giving birth to the hero, the hero riding on his horse, the hero slaying the dragon, the hero wedded to the maiden. They symbolize the fundamental realities with regard to man's life in a dark and mysterious universe.

Such figures are as ancient as civilization itself and as widespread. We find them in the Bible from the first chapters of Genesis onward; they appear in the apocalypses either in heaven or in the imagined future. Pagan poets placed them in the skies as constellations, where the gnostics found them and used them for their fantasies. The author of the Revelation adapted them for his own purposes; the hero born of the virgin, the hero slaying the dragon, the hero riding his horse in the heavens, the hero coming to his wedding day. The docetic myth recalls them in the Spirit who descends from heaven to do battle with Death and Hell and to set their prisoners free. Even Paul in his Epistle to the Romans is using this kind of language at times.

|369 Primitive Christianity loved the language of myth, falling now and then into the snare of literalism, but handling it on the whole with a creative freedom. No council ever decreed dogmas about Adam and Eve or the tree of life or the serpent or the mysticism of the cross or what was called in the Middle Ages the harrowing of hell. John, Barnabas, Justin and Irenaeus knew the old tradition well. Its central paradox in its Christian form was the picture of the hero who conquers the dragon by dying on the cross.

The reader should be warned that the word dragon or drakon is simply a Greek word for a snake or serpent; but the serpent is apt to appear in strange forms. But fantastic dragons are of ancient origin, being found in Babylonian art and mythology and passing into the Jewish and Christian apocalypses. In John's apocalypse a monster with seven heads rises out of the sea. In the catacomb art a dragon-like monster rises out of the sea to swallow Jonah. The home of the primeval dragon was in the sea; he is the Leviathan of Psalm lxxiv. 14 and civ. 26, and probably of Job too.

The language of myth passed very easily into Christian art and poetry, and continued to be used in the popular tradition to express fundamental religious ideas, especially the idea of a conflict between man and his sinful self, or between innocence and malevolence, or between life and death; that is to say the fundamental existential situation of Christians face to face with the pagan world and the facts of life.


The Little Labyrinth, which is thought to be the work of Hippolytus, speaks of psalms and songs which had been written by faithful brethren from the beginning, celebrating Christ as the Word of God, and speaking of him as God; and Pliny, a century earlier, had mentioned the songs which were sung at dawn to Christ as God. There are only a few traces of them and little record of the music of the churches, though Celsus remarks that it was the custom of the Christians to use instrumental music in order to excite the emotions. The Muratorian Catalogue mentions a Marcionite Psalm-book; and certainly Marcion would have to find some substitute for the Hebrew psalmody which was one of the legacies of Judaism to the church.

Clement of Alexandria, who weaves verses from pagan Greek |370 poetry into his Christian prose, denominates Christ himself as the new song, and appends two hymns to his Paidagogos, or Leader of Youth.
The first of them begins as follows.

1. Bridle of untamed colts,
Wing of unwandering birds,
Sure helm of babes,
Shepherd of lambs.

2. Assemble thy simple children,
To praise holily,
To hymn guilelessly with innocent mouths
Christ the guide of children.

3. O King of saints,
All-subduing Word of the most high Father,
Ruler of Wisdom, support of sorrow,
Rejoicing unto the ages.

4. Jesu, Saviour of mankind,
Shepherd, Husbandman, Helm, Bridle
Heavenly wing of the holy flock.
Fisher of men who are saved.

It need hardly be said that it would be a mistake to think of this as a children's hymn; he is thinking of those simple believers who make good martyrs, even if they are not cut out for philosophers. The birds, the lambs, the babes, are to be found in the catacomb art as symbols of the souls of the faithful; and so are the shepherd and the fisherman as symbols of Christ; and the ship as the ark of Christ's church. For the wing, the reader might consult Basilides, or one of his followers in Hippolytus, Refutation vii, 10: see page 67 of this volume. The untamed colt is that on which Christ rode into Jerusalem, and symbolizes the Gentiles who lived apart from the Law.

Hippolytus knew a collection of Ophite hymns, from which he quotes the following. It visualizes the descent of the Saviour through the heavenly spheres to save mankind.

Then said Jesus, Father:
The pursuit of evil upon the earth
makes men to wander from the Spirit.
He seeks to escape the bitter chaos:
but knows not how to flee.
Wherefore send me, O Father!

|371 With the seal will I descend,
All the aeons journey through,
All the mysteries disclose,
Forms of gods will I impart:
Secrets of the Holy Way –
which men call gnosis –
Will I impart.

Another collection of hymns which may be assigned to the second century is the so-called Odes of Solomon, not to be confused with the older Pharisee Psalms of Solomon. They exist only in Syriac, but it is considered probable that they were written in Greek, and in the second century, possibly quite early in the second century. There is a Johan-nine touch about them; they recall the ardent poetry of Ignatius of Antioch; they are spiritual, mystical and sacramental; they express themselves in oriental images, without the flesh-and-blood feeling of the popular Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic; they are perceptibly nearer to Valentinus than to Papias or Justin. Perhaps they come from the Syrian border-land where the Christian tradition had not been fixed yet on western lines. Here is a very simple one, which we may call 'The Fountain'.

Fill ye waters for yourselves,
from the living fountain of the Lord;
for it is opened unto you.
And come all ye thirsty,
and take the draught,
and rest by the fountain of the Lord.
For fair it is, and pure,
and giveth rest to the soul.
Much more pleasant are its waters than honey:
and the honeycomb of bees is not to be compared with it.
For it flows forth from the lips of the Lord:
and from the heart of the Lord is its name.
And it came infinitely and indivisibly:
and until it was given in the midst they did not know it.
Blessed are they who have drunk therefrom:
and have found rest thereby. Alleluia.
(Odes of Solomon, xxx.)



There was no lack, therefore, of imaginative writing in orthodox, encratite, semi-orthodox, semi-gnostic and gnostic circles; historical romances about apostles, fanciful imitations of the Gospel narrative, anthologies of sayings attributed to Jesus, imitation Epistles, prophetic oracles, mythical tales, poetry, psalmody and song; but what impresses us is that it never entered into competition with the apostolic writings which were being organized into a New Testament. The popular idea that the New Testament books were selected by ecclesiastical authorities from a larger mass of possible literature is the reverse of the truth. It was always a rather small and select tradition. The New Testament of the Muratorian Catalogue is not so large as ours, unless we include the Revelation of Peter and the Pastor of Hermas, both of which were being questioned; neither is the New Testament of Irenaeus, or Origen, or even Eusebius, unless we add Hermas in the case of Irenaeus, and Hermas and 'Barnabas' in the case of Origen.

Dr Montague James, whose Apocryphal New Testament is the most convenient collection of this extra-testamental literature, « Unfortunately it lacks the Recognitions and Homilies of Clement; but there are translations of these in the Ante-Nicene Library. has a very fair statement on this point. 'We may fairly say that the only books which had a real chance of being included in the canon of the New Testament were the Epistles of Clement and Barnabas, the Revelation of Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas; for I do not think we need to reckon in the Didache or the Acts of Paul .' And we might add that there came a time when the church might have lost the Revelation of John if the east had had its way, and the Epistle to the Hebrews if the west had had its way; and that the canon of seven 'catholic' Epistles does not appear before the time of Origen, James and 2 Peter being disputed even then. This is the penumbra of doubt and debate within which the main structure of the New Testament stands as a catholic institution fully accepted by the end of the second century.

This does not mean that all the apocryphal books were banned by churchmen. Far from it. The non-heretical literature was read, and enjoyed, but not in church. In later, less critical times, the apocryphal Acts, and the infancy Gospels, were accepted at their face value as history; though not as scripture. The stories of the apostles, and of the Holy |373 Family, were still further elaborated. Acts of Thomas and Andrew were composed in the third century. The myths and symbols inherited from the wisdom of the ancient world passed into Christian art and poetry. In one shape or form, most of the extra-canonical imaginative inheritance of the Middle Ages was present in germ at least at the end of the second century; we might almost say the poetry and art of Christian Europe. It is an authentic creation of the primitive Christian genius for poetic expression, which, after all, is the natural form of intellectual expression for Christian enthusiasm.

Note. Since writing the above it has been announced that the MS. of a second-century Gospel of Thomas has been discovered in Cairo and will be published. It appears to be identified with the Thomas gospel mentioned on p. 365, not that on p. 362.
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