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The Epistle of the Apostles

The “Epistle of the Apostles” is a bit of a misnomer in that it is not really an epistle but a Gospel. The book does start out as a letter, written by the apostles to the churches around the world; but its content involves a con­ versation between Jesus and his eleven remaining disciples after his resurrection—Judas having already hanged himself. This kind of Gospel, containing a post-resurrection “dialogue” of Jesus and his followers, was quite popular among Gnostic Christians, in that it allowed them to indicate that Jesus provided secret teachings to his disciples that were different from his public teachings delivered during the course of his ministry. These secret teachings, then, could become the basis for the “true” understanding of the religion that the Gnostics set forth. But the orientation of this particular book is completely anti-gnostic. In particular, it seeks to counter the views of Simon Magus and Cerinthus, two Gnostics most despised among the proto-orthodox heresy-hunters of the second century, by insisting on the fleshly nature of Christ’s body, the reality of his incarnation, death, resurrection, and future return in glory, and the importance of his followers’ fleshly existence in this world and in the world to come.1 It appears, then, that a proto-orthodox Christian has taken over a genre beloved among the Gnostics and turned it against them, to show that even after his resurrection Jesus proclaimed not a Gnostic myth but a proto-orthodox understanding of the flesh. The “Epistle of the Apostles” was unknown through the Middle Ages down into the modern period, until a Coptic version was uncovered in Cairo near the end of the nineteenth century. Later a fuller and more accurate Ethiopic version was found. The book was originally written in Greek, probably in the middle of the second century. The following excerpt is drawn from the Ethiopic translation.

1 On the importance of Simon Magus for the early proto-orthodox heresy-hunters, see Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 165–67.

Translation by C. Detlef G. Muller in Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1 (rev. ed.; Cambridge/ Louisville: Lutterworth/Westminster/John Knox, 1991) 252–64; used with permission.


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