The destruction of the apocryphal Acts of John

Burning books with which one disagrees is such fun!  At least, we might infer this, from the universality of the practice in all ages, including our own.   A discussion on this subject elsewhere raised the question of the apocryphal Acts of John, and caused me to read the relevant sections in volume 2 of Schneemelcher’s “New Testament Apocrypha”  (2003).  Page 156 indicates:

At its fifth session the Nicene council of 787 pronounced on the Acts of John: “No-one is to copy (this book): not only so, but we consider that it deserves to be consigned to the fire.” 49

49. Conc. Nic. II, actio V (Mansi vol. 13, col. 176 A)

In the West Leo the Great had given a similar verdict to the entire compass of the apocryphal literature used by the Priscillianists: “The apocryphal writings, however, which under the names of the apostles contain a hotbed of manifold perversity, should not only be forbidden but altogether removed and burnt with fire.” 50

50. Leo the Great, Letter to Turribius of Astorga on 21 July 447, c. 15; PL 54, col. 688A.

These judgments sufficiently explain why the Acts of John have survived only in fragmentary form.

Leaving aside the somewhat doubtful logic of the latter, I thought it might be useful to examine these references.  Leo the Great, Letter 15 (to Turribius, against the Priscillianists) is online in English here:

And on this subject your remarks under the fifteenth head make a complaint, and express a well-deserved abhorrence of their devilish presumption, for we too have ascertained this from the accounts of trustworthy witnesses, and have found many of their copies most corrupt, though they are entitled canonical. For how could they deceive the simple-minded unless they sweetened their poisoned cups with a little honey, lest what was meant to be deadly should be detected by its over-nastiness?

Therefore care must be taken, and the priestly diligence exercised to the uttermost, to prevent falsified copies that are out of harmony with the pure Truth being used in reading. And the apocryphal scriptures, which, under the names of Apostles, form a nursery-ground for many falsehoods, are not only to be proscribed, but also taken away altogether and burnt to ashes in the fire. For although there are certain things in them which seem to have a show of piety, yet they are never free from poison, and through the allurements of their stories they have the secret effect of first beguiling men with miraculous narratives, and then catching them in the noose of some error.

Wherefore if any bishop has either not forbidden the possession of apocryphal writings in men’s houses, or under the name of being canonical has suffered those copies to be read in church which are vitiated with the spurious alterations of Priscillian, let him know that he is to be accounted heretic, since he who does not reclaim others from error shows that he himself has gone astray.

I can never read materials of this date, expressing themselves in these terms, without hearing an echo of modern political correctness and the exaggerations that this creates.  Every right-wing politician in the UK is labelled “fascist” more or less by reflex; yet in truth there are no politicians known to me who advocate the Fuhrerprincip or the policies of Il Duce!  The label is intended to demonise, not inform; and somehow I tend to wonder about some of the 5th century denunciations, as being examples of the same phenomenon.

Nothing in Leo’s letter leads us to suppose that any actual burnings took place, nor does it refer specifically to the Acts of John

The other reference is to the 5th session of the acts of the Council of Nicaea II in 787, the council that condemned iconoclasm.  Mansi, vol. 13 is here.

As far as I can make out, the Fifth Session of the synod was spent listening to extracts from the Fathers on the question of icons. On p.90 (col. 167D) there seems to be the start of the discussion of this text. The Acts of John are quoted twice, although not named — the text refers to bogus itineraries of the apostles.  The first passage condemns icons; the second asserts various gnostic ideas about Christ.  Various members of the synod then point out the obviously heretical nature of the text.

Our bit is right at the bottom of p.93/top of p.94 of the PDF. I find the Greek almost unreadable in this PDF; the Latin translation reads:

Joannes reverendissimus monachus et vicarius orientalium pontificum dixit: Si placet sancta ac universali huic synodo, fiat sententia, ne ulterius scribant aliqui sordidum istum librum.  Sancta Synodus dixit: Nemo scribat: non solum hoc, sed igni eum dignum judicamus fore tradendum.

The most reverend John, monk and Pontifical Vicar of the East said, “If it pleases the Holy and Universal Synod, let this be the sentence, that nothing of this sleazy book be copied (lit. written) any more.”  The Holy Synod said: “Let no-one copy it; not only that, but we judge it deserving to be thrown into the fire.”

Yet again this does not seem to me to be a general decree; so much as a rejection of the book as evidence for the purposes of the council (which indeed it could not be).

Schneemelcher is an odd book, isn’t it?  In some ways it’s very good, but in others quite dreadful.  Something must be allowed for the awkwardness of translation from the German.  Indeed there are some horribly tangled sentences, which almost suggest that the English editor did not read it carefully enough!  But the introduction by Schneemelcher himself to the five surviving apocryphal acts is not very good at all.  It consists of a rambling survey of the opinions of various scholars, on subjects that the reader has yet to encounter.  It is, indeed, otherwise fact-free.  In the English version the prose is nearly unreadable, to make matters worse.  A survey of the scholarship is not a bad idea; but this is not well achieved.

I learn from the book that Photius is our source for gathering the five together, as all composed by one Leucius Charinus, and all used by the Manichaeans; the acts of John, Thomas, Paul, Peter and Andrew.  Yet it must be questioned whether the text today known as the Acts of Paul is the same text that Photius used.  It is, after all, a very different document from the others, all of which have gnostic leanings and would be amenable to Manichaean purposes.  It may be telling that the Acts of Paul is condemned separately in the Decretum Gelasianum from the “writings of Leucius”.  Was there, perhaps, another “Acts of Paul”, which has perished?

3 thoughts on “The destruction of the apocryphal Acts of John”

  1. Note a direct English translation in Keith Elliott’s Apocryphal New Testament. A new version will be forthcoming in a Polebridge series. (This has been in press for more than 20 years.
    2 volumes on AJohn can be found in the series published by Peeters, ed. J. Bremmer.

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