The New Testament canon as we know it includes 27 books. It was compiled by St. Athanasius of Alexandria in 367, and affirmed by the Synod of Hippo in 393. Until that time, canons had a varied content. Earlier, we wrote about the books that entered the New Testament canon. Now let us discuss those that remained outside of it. Why was it possible for these books to enter the New Testament and why did they fail? Can these books be of interest to the modern reader?
Shepherd of Hermas
St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202) in his work titled Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), quotes The Shepherd as follows:
Truly, then, the Scripture declared, “First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence: He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one. (Vol. 4, Ch. 20)
Thus, the saint considered the book as part of the Holy Scriptures. At the same time, the text of the Muratorian Canon (Lat: Canon Muratori), the oldest known New Testament canon written no later than 170, includes the following passage, “Hermas wrote the Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome … And therefore it ought indeed to be read; but it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the Prophets … or among the Apostles, for it is after [their] time.”
The Shepherd quickly gained authority among Christians. It was written early (c. 140-150), and its author was identified with Hermas of Philippopolis, while the text itself was edifying and consistent with Orthodoxy. At the same time, as per the Muratorian Canon, the book was not of the apostolic origin and therefore it was not included in the canon. However, reading it privately has never been forbidden, as it used to be the case with many other books.
What is the book about?
Hermas is an ordinary Christian who is given a revelation from an angel. His life, filled with trouble, is somewhat reminiscent of that of Job the Long-suffering. At the same time, the sorrows of Hermas are not so severe (bankruptcy, unhappy marriage, corrupted children abandoning Christianity).
Hermas is not saintly, like Job. He has his downfalls, for which he is rebuked by the angel. The personality of Hermas is not as remarkable as the very fact of a revelation being passed on to such a person.
The content of the book can be divided into three types – visions, commandments, and similitudes.
The main theme of the visions is the life and the formation of the Church. In visions, the Church appears in the form of an Eldress talking to Hermas and revealing to him the fact that it had existed before the creation of the world. The foundation of the earthly Church by believers is described allegorically as the building of a tower, where the believers are the building stones, the lawless are the stones unfit for construction, and the virtues are upholding the tower. It is difficult to summarise the inner beauty of this vision. It is better to experience it directly. The reading will take no more than 10 minutes.
Other, shorter visions are addressed to Hermas personally, calling him to repentance and revealing to him the horror of the future persecution of Christians.
The commandments are arranged in the form of a dialogue. The angel instructs Hermas and gives him commandments allowing or forbidding him to perform certain deeds, while Hermas asks the angel questions. Some topics are obvious, for example, “One must avoid falsehood”. Others, on the contrary, are controversial: “Should a husband take back his former wife who repents of adultery?” or “Is there a point where you should no longer ask God for anything?”
The similitudes are small allegories or parables, where the angel uses domestic or natural images to instruct Hermas spiritually. For example, as a vineyard is supported by an elm, so the prayer of a poor man helps the rich; or, just as in winter you cannot distinguish living trees from dead ones, so in earthly life you cannot distinguish the righteous from the wicked, but in the future life (as in summer) everything will become distinguishable.
Overall, the Shepherd of Hermas is unsophisticated, and at the same time spiritually instructive and engaging literature for anyone. A few hours is enough for a thoughtful and measured reading.
The notion that a good and an evil angel accompany a person all his life comes from The Shepherd of Hermas.
Apocalypse of Peter
The Apocalypse of Peter is included in the Muratorian Canon and Codex Claromontanus, although the former stipulates that it is not universally recognized. The Apocalypse of Peter was recognized by Hieromartyr Methodius of Olympus and Clement of Alexandria.
The Apocalypse of Peter was written in the early second century and contained fragments repeating the canonical Gospels. At the same time, it described some visions of the afterlife more consistent with pagan, rather than Christian literature. The early writing date, attribution to the Apostle, and ideas familiar to former Gentiles provided good ground for its dissemination.
The Apocalypse of Peter was accepted by a very limited number of educated theologians, mostly with a pagan background. Many parts of the text do not correspond to the Orthodox dogma and clearly do not belong to the pen of the Apostle, which is why the book was eventually rejected.
What is the book about?
There are two known versions of the Apocalypse of Peter, the fragment in Greek, discovered in the 19th century and the complete Ethiopian version in Coptic, found in the 20th century. The two versions differ in details, but have a common essence.
The Greek fragment begins with a prediction about false prophets and their future punishment. Its content is very similar to the prophecies about false teachers in 2 Peter and Jude.
The following part is a first-person account of Peter’s experience during the Transfiguration of the Lord. At first, the Apostle is amazed at the vision of two men (Moses and Elijah) in white robes, and then the Lord shows him heaven and hell. In heaven, he sees bright light, exquisite flowers and plants, fragrance and beautiful fruit. The righteous in white robes praise God, and angels fly among them.
In hell, there is darkness, seething mud, flowing blood and lakes of human sewage. The blasphemers of justice are burned with hot iron and hung by the tongue; adulterous women are strung up by the hair; murderers are forever tormented by wild beasts in front of their murdered victims; homosexuals are forced repeatedly to throw themselves off cliffs, and so on.
The Ethiopian version is longer. It begins with Christ’s Sermon on the Mount of Olives, where He tells the apostles about the future fate of the world and the Second Coming.
The text begins with quotes from Christ’s parable of the barren fig tree presented very close to the Gospel version. This gives the impression of authenticity, but not for long. Soon statements begin, allegedly spoken by Christ about the beatitudes of heaven and the torments of hell. The description of hell, as in the previous case, is replete with excessive details of cruel tortures, while heaven is described as abounding in blissful pleasures. At the end of Christ’s speech, the apostle experiences the same visions of heaven and hell as we see in the Greek version.
The book ends with a description of the Transfiguration, conveyed in a form close to the Gospels. The repetitive change in style is hard to miss, which again makes you trust the text less.
It is difficult to recommend reading the Apocalypse of Peter. Dubious prophecies, repetitions of the original gospel fragments in a slightly distorted version and a large amount of cruelty are not worth your time.
If it seems to you that you have already read this somewhere, you are not mistaken. It is difficult to claim with accuracy that the Apocalypse of Peter inspired Dante Alighieri at the time of writing the Divine Comedy, but the similarity is clear even in small details. For example, in both sources there is an obvious connection between the depth of the immersion into hell and the horror of cruelty and sin one has to witness.
If you have not read The Divine Comedy, it should be noted that the Apocalypse of Peter carries an imprint of certain ideas about the afterlife from the works of pagan authors (Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and Plato’s Myths).
Acts of Paul
Among the books considered, this one has the least authority. It is recognized as canonical only by the 6th-century Codex Claromontanus. Eusebius of Caesarea calls the Acts of Paul spurious and controversial, whereas in the fourth century the book was still in circulation and considered by some to be God-inspired.
For the most part, this apocrypha written quite early (arguably circa 100-160, although there are certain difficulties with dating) reflected church and folk oral tradition of that time. According to Tertullian, the Acts of Paul was written by a certain presbyter, by his own admission, “out of love for Paul. The presbyter’s work, however, was not appreciated and the author was defrocked for writing it. Being a non-apostolic work containing not always reliable information, the Acts of Paul could not enter the canon.
What is the book about?
The original work has been lost. The Acts of Paul in its present state is a compilation of manuscripts with Greek and Coptic origin.
Most of the Acts are stories about the missionary travels of the Apostle Paul, as well as accounts of miracles and healings performed by him. This part of the text is preserved the worst: not a single episode has survived intact. Some episodes, like Paul’s acts at Ephesus, still portray the events in sufficient detail, while only a few lines remain of others.
In addition to the actual acts, the text contains a letter of the Corinthians to Paul and his response, i. e. the Apostle’s third letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthians wrote about two people, Simon and Cleobius, who preached heresies in their church. They asked Paul to come preach and save lost souls. The essence of the heresiarchs’ teachings was in their denial of the Old Testament, God the Creator, the resurrection of the flesh, the real incarnation of Christ and their belief that the world is not governed by God, but by angels (likely, evil).
Antinomianism, dualism and Docetism are indeed the main features in the teachings of the ancient Gnostics in general and the teachings of Simon Magus in particular. Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History (ch. 22) names Simon and Cleobius among the false teachers corrupting the church of Corinth. This gives the Acts of Paul greater plausibility.
In his response letter, Paul refutes heretical errors and admonishes the Corinthians. He writes that he can no longer come in person, because he is in prison, preparing for martyrdom. The theology of the epistle corresponds to the Orthodox spirit, which is explained by its authorship (see above).
The episode ends with the martyrdom of Paul in Rome. During the time of persecution, Paul foresaw his own execution and preached, “…Believe in the Living God, Who will raise me from the dead, and all who believe in Him.” During Paul’s execution milk miraculously flowed from his wounds instead of blood. This news, spread throughout Rome, reached Nero and caused him to be amazed.
Soon, the resurrected Paul came to the imperial court and prophesied that Nero would soon suffer great misfortunes and punishments for the innocently shed blood of the righteous. Nero was frightened and ordered to release the imprisoned Christians.
The text is a mixture of Church Tradition, the author’s theology, and a folk tale. Due to considerable damage, the first part of the Acts of Paul is not perceived as a whole. The most valuable fragment in the book is the epistle to Corinth, where the dangerous heresies of that time are denounced and refuted, if not in the apostolic, then at least in the Orthodox spirit.
The Acts of Paul contains a very unusual fragment, unique to all Christian literature. During Paul’s journey from Ephesus, a fierce lion came out to meet him and his two companions. Preparing for the imminent death, they began to pray. After some time, Paul saw the lion lying at his feet. The following is an abbreviated text:
‘Lion, what wilt thou?’
But he said, ‘I wish to be baptized.’
I glorified God, who had given speech to the beast and salvation
to his servants. Now there was a great river in that place; I went
down into it and he followed me… I myself was in fear and wonder, in that I was on the point of leading the lion like an ox and
baptising him in the water. But I stood on the bank, men and brethren, and cried out, saying, ‘Thou who dost dwell in the heights, who
didst look upon the humble, who didst give the rest to the afflicted(?),
who with Daniel didst shut the mouths of the lions, who didst send
to me our Lord Jesus Christ, grant that we… escape (?) the beast,
and accomplish the plan which thou hast appointed’.
When I had prayed thus, I took (the lion) by his mane (and) in
the name of Jesus Christ immersed him three times. But when he
came up out of the water he shook out his mane and said to me,
‘Grace be with them!’
And I said to him: ‘And likewise with them.’
Clearly, this is far from the complete list of books that are claimed to be canonical. However, others have a similar history. When authorship was attributed to an apostle, a hitherto unknown text immediately claimed authority.
By the third century, the first canons had already been formed, and the list of books recognized in the various churches had become relatively uniform. Although there were still controversial books, the appearance of a new “revelation” attributed to the apostles was already a cause for caution, and the new text was not easily disseminated.
Bogus books are not part of Scripture, and their content is sometimes far from reality, but this does not mean that reading them cannot be useful. St. Irenaeus of Lyon used the Shepherd of Hermas to fight heresies, while many heretics (for example, Arians or Monophysites) distorted the faith relying only on the canonical text of the New Testament. When reading the Apocrypha, it is important to remember that our faith is not based on them. It is especially important to always consider the opinion of saints and councils about any specific texts.