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History of the Origins of Christianity. Book VI. The Reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. (A.D. 117-161)
« Prev Chapter XXVI. The Apocryphal Gospels. Next »

CHAPTER XXVI.

THE APOCRYPHAL GOSPELS.

If we accept the apologists, such as Aristides, Quadratus, and Justin, who addressed themselves to the Pagans, and the pure traditionists, such as Papias and Hegesippus, who regarded the new revelation as essentially consisting in the words of Jesus, almost all the Christian writers of the age we have just left had the idea of augmenting the list of sacred writings susceptible of being read in the Church. Despairing of succeeding in this through their private authority, they assumed the name of some apostle or of some apostolic personage, and made no scruple in attributing to themselves the inspiration which was indiscriminately enjoyed by the immediate disciples of Jesus. This vein of apocryphal literature was now exhausted. Pseudo-Hermas only half succeeded. We shall see the Reconnaissances of pseudo-Clementine and the pretended Constitutions of the twelve apostles equally stamped with suspicion in respect of canonicity. The numerous Acts of Apostles which were produced everywhere had only a partial success. No Apocalypse appeared again to disturb seriously the masses. The success of public readings had, up to this point, been the criterions of canonicity. A Church admitted such a writing imputed to an apostle or to an apostolic personage to the public reading. The faithful were edified. The rumour was spread in the neighbouring Churches that a very beautiful communication had been made in such a community, on such a day; people wished to see the new writing, and thus, little by little, this writing came to be accepted, provided that it did not contain some stumbling-block. But as time went on people became critical, and successes such as those which the Epistles to Titus and to Timothy, the Second Epistle to Peter, obtained, were no longer renewed.

The fertility of evangelical invention was in reality exhausted; the age of great legendary creation was past; people no longer invented anything of importance; the success of psuedo-John was the last. But the liberty of remodelling was sufficiently extensive, at least outside the Churches of St Paul. Although the four texts which became subsequently canonical, had already a certain vogue, they were far from excluding similar texts. The Gospel of the Hebrews retained all its authority. Justin and Tatian probably made use of it. The author of the Epistles of St Ignatius (second half of the second century) cites it as a canonical and accepted text. No text, in fact, destroyed the tradition or suppressed its rivals. Books were rare, and badly preserved. Dionysius of Corinth, at the end of the second century, speaks of the falsifiers of the “Scriptures of the Lord,” which induces the belief that the retouching continued for more than a hundred years after the compilation of our Mathew. Hence the indecisive form in the sayings of Jesus which is to be remarked in the apostolic fathers. The source is always vaguely indicated; great variations are produced in the citations up to the time of St Irenæus. Sometimes the words of Isaiah and Enoch are put forth for the words of Jesus. There is no longer any distinction between the Bible and the Gospel, and some words of Luke are cited with this heading, “God says.”

The Gospels thus were until about the year 160 and even beyond that, private writings designed for small circles. Each of the latter had its own, and for a long time individuals did not scruple to complete and to continue already accepted texts. The compilation had not taken a definite form. The texts were added to, they were abridged; such and such a passage was discussed, and the Gospels in circulation were amalgamated, so as to form a single and more portable work. The oral transmission, on the other hand, continued to play a part. A multitude of sayings were not written down: it would have been necessary to determine the whole tradition. Many of the evangelical elements were yet sporadic. It was thus that the beautiful anecdote of the woman taken in adultery circulated. It was made use of as best it might in the fourth Gospel. The phrase, “Be good money changers,” which is cited as being “in the Gospel,” and as “scripture,” did not find a corner anywhere in it.

Certain abridgements which were threatened to be made were much more serious. Every detail which represented Christ as a man, appeared scandalous. The fine verse of Luke, where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, was condemned by the uncultured sectaries who pretended that weeping was a token of weakness. The consoling angel and the bloody sweat on the Mount of Olives provoked objections and analogous mutilations. But orthodoxy, already dominant, prevented these individual conceits from seriously compromising the integrity of the texts already sacred.

In truth, amidst all this chaos, order was established. In like manner, between opposing doctrines an orthodoxy was designed, just as from amongst a multitude of Gospels four texts tended to become more and more canonical, to the exclusion of others. Mark, pseudo-Matthew, Luke, and pseudo-John, tended towards an official consecration. The Gospels of the Hebrews, which at first equalled them in value, but of which the Nazarenes and the Ebionites made a dangerous use, began to be discarded. The Gospels of Peter and the twelve apostles appeared to have various defects, and were suppressed by the bishops. How was it that people did not go still further, and were not tempted to reduce the four Gospels to one only, either by suppressing three, or in making a unity of the four, after the manner of the Diatesseron of Tatian, or in constructing a sort of Gospel a priori, like Marcion? The honesty of the Church never appears to greater advantage than in this circumstance. With a light heart she placed herself in the most embarrassing situation. It was impossible that some of these contradictions of the Gospels should have escaped observation. Celsus was already keenly alive to them. People preferred for the future to be exposed to the most terrible objections, than that the writings regarded by so many persons as inspired should be condemned. Each of the four great Gospels had its clientèle, if one may thus express oneself. To wrench them out of the hands of those who admired them would have been an impossibility. Besides, it might have resulted in condemning to oblivion a multitude of beautiful details in which we recognise Jesus, although the order of the narration was different. The tetractys gained the day, except in imposing upon ecclesiastical criticism the strangest of tortures—that of making a text accord with four texts discordant.

In any case, the Catholic Church no longer now accords to any person the right to revise from top to bottom the anterior texts, like as has been done by Luke and pseudo-John. We have passed from the age of living tradition to the age of moribund tradition. The book, which until now had been nothing, became everything for the people, who were already removed from the ocular witnesses by two or three generations. Towards the year 180, the revolution will be complete. The Catholic Church will declare the last of the Gospels rigorously closed. There are four Gospels. Irenæus tells us it is necessary to have four, and it is impossible there can be more than four; for there are four climates, four winds, four corners of the world, calling each for a defender; four revelations, that of Adam, of Noah, of Moses, and of Jesus; four animals in the cherub, and four mystic beasts in the Apocalypse. Each of these monsters who for the prophet of the year 69 were simple animated ornaments of the throne of God, became the emblem of one of the four accepted texts. It was admitted that the Gospel was like the cherub, tetramorphous. To put the four texts in accord, to harmonise the one with the other, was the difficult task which shall henceforth be pursued by those who attempt to form to themselves a conception, be it ever so little reasonable, of the life of Jesus.

The most original endeavour to get out of this confusion was certainly that of Tatian, the disciple of Justin. His Diatesseron was the first essay at harmonising the Gospels. The Synoptics, together with the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Gospels of Peter, were the basis of his labour. The text which resulted from it resembled closely enough the Gospel of the Hebrews; the genealogies, as well as everything which connected Jesus with the race of David, were wanting in it. The success of the book of Tatian was at first very considerable; many of the Churches adopted it as a convenient résumé of evangelical history, but the heresies of the author rendered the orthodoxy suspicious; in the end, the hook was withdrawn from circulation, and the diversity of texts finally gained the day in the Church Catholic.

It was not thus with the numerous sects which sprang up everywhere. It did not please the latter that evangelical productions had in a manner become crystalised, and that there was no longer any reason for writing new lives of Jesus. The Gnostic sects desired to renew continually the texts, in order to satisfy their ardent fantasy. Almost all the heads of sects had Gospels bearing their names, after the example set by Basilides, or after the manner of Marcion, according to their good pleasure. That of Apelles was drawn, like so many others, from the Gospel of the Hebrews. Markos drew from every source the authentic and the apocryphal. Valentinus, as we have seen, pretended to ascend to the apostles through personal traditions given to him. People quoted a Gospel according to Philip, which was greatly prized by certain sects, and another that they called “The Gospel of Perfection.” The names of the apostles furnished a sufficient guarantee for all these frauds. There was hardly one of the twelve who had not a Gospel imputed to him. No more Gospels were invented, it is true, but people wanted to know the details which had been omitted in the four inspired ones. The infancy of Christ, in particular, excited the liveliest curiosity. People would not admit that he, whose life had been a prodigy, had lived for some years as an obscure Nazarene.

Such was the origin of that which is called “Apocryphal Gospels,” a long series of feeble productions, the commencement of which may be safely placed about the middle of the second century. It would be doing an injury to Christian literature to place those insipid compositions on the same footing with the masterpieces of Mark, Luke, and Matthew. The apocryphal Gospels are the Pouranas of Christianity; they have for their basis the canonical Gospels. The author takes these Gospels as a theme from which he never deviates; he seeks simply to elucidate and perfect by the ordinary processes of the Hebraic legend. Luke already had followed the same course. In his deductions in regard to the infancy of Jesus, and the birth of John the Baptist, he uses processes of amplification; his pious mechanism of mise en scene is the prelude to the apocryphal Gospels. The authors of the latter make the utmost use of the sacred rhetoric, which, however, was employed by Luke with discretion. Their innovations were few, imitated, and exaggerated. They did for the canonical Gospels what the authors of the Post-Homerica have done for Homer, what the comparatively modern authors of Dionysiacso or Argonautics have done for the Greek epopee. They dealt with those parts which the canonists, for good reasons, neglected; they added that which might have happened, that which appeared probable; they developed the situations by means of artificial reconciliations borrowed from the sacred texts. Finally, they sometimes proceeded by monographs, and sought to construct legend out of all the evangelical personages in the scattered details which had reference to them. They thus limited themselves in everything to embroidering on a given canvas. This was so different from the assurance of the old evangelists, who spoke as if inspired from on high, and pushed boldly forward, each in his way, the details of their narratives, without troubling themselves whether they contradicted one another. The fabricators of the apocryphal Gospels were timid. They cited their authorities; they were restricted by the canonists. The faculty for creating the myth was altogether wanting; they could no longer even invent a miracle. As for details, it is impossible to conceive anything more contemptible, more pitiful. It is the tiresome verbiage of an old gossip, the vulgar and familiar style of a literature of wet nurses and nursery maids. Like the degenerate Catholicism of modern times, the authors of the apocryphal Gospels on their part descended to the puerile side of Christianity—the infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph. The veritable Jesus, the Jesus of public life, was beyond them, and frightened them.

The real cause of this sad debasement was a total change in the manner of comprehending the supernatural. The canonical Gospels maintained themselves with a rare dexterity on the verge of a false situation, which, however, was full of charm. Their Jesus is not God, since his whole life is that of a man. He weeps, and allows himself to be moved by pity: he is filled with deity: his attitude is compatible with art, with imagination, and with moral sense. His thaumaturgy, in particular, is that which is becoming to a divine envoy. In the apocryphal Gospels, on the contrary, Jesus is a supernatural spectre, without bodily corporeity. In him humanity is a lie. In his cradle you would take him for an infant: but wait a little: miracles start up round about him; this infant calls out to you, “I am the Logos.” The thaumaturgy of this new Christ is material, mechanical, immoral; it is the juggleries of a magician. Wherever he passes, he acts as a magnetic force. Nature is unhinged, and beside itself by the effect of his vicinage. Each word of his is followed by miraculous effects, “for good as well as for evil.” Doubtless the canonical Gospels were sometimes not free from this defect; the episodes of the swine of the Gergesenes, of the fig-tree that was cursed, could have only inspired in contemporaries a rather barren moral reflection: “The author of such acts must indeed be powerful.” But these cases are rare, whilst in the apocryphal the true notion of Jesus, at once human and divine, is perfectly obliterated. In becoming a pure déva, Jesus lost all which had rendered him amiable and affecting. People were constrained, logically enough, to deny his personal identity, to make of him an intermittent spectre, which showed itself to his disciples now young, now old, now an infant, now an old man, now tall, now short, and sometimes so tall that its head touched the sky.

The oldest and the least objectionable of these insipid rhapsodies is the narrative of the birth of Mary, of her marriage, of the birth of Jesus, reputed to be written by a certain James, a narrative to which has been given the erroneous title of Protevangel of James. A Gnostic book, the Genna Marias, which appears to have been known to St Justin, may have served as the first foundation of it. No book has had so much importance as the latter as regards the history of the Christian festivals and Christian art. The parents of the Virgin, Anne and Joachim; the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, and the idea that she had been brought up as if in a convent; the marriage of the Virgin; the meeting of the widowers, the circumstance of the miraculous wands, the picture of which, in certain parts, has been sketched so admirably. The whole of this comes from this curious writing. The Greek Church regarded it as semi-inspired, and admitted it in the public readings in the churches, at the feasts of St Joachim, of St Anne, of the Conception, of the Nativity, of the Presentation of the Virgin. Its Hebrew colouring is still sufficiently distinct. Some pictures of the manners of the Jews recall at times the Book of Tobias. There are distinct traces of Ebionite Judeo-Christianity and of Docetism; in it marriage is almost reprobated.

Many passages of that singular book are not destitute of grace, nor even of a certain naïveté, The author applies to the birth of Mary, and to all the circumstances of the infancy of Jesus, the methods of narration the germ of which was already to be found in Luke and Matthew. The anecdotes in regard to the infancy of Jesus in Luke and in Matthew are ingenious imitations of what is recounted in the ancient books and in the modern agadas about the birth of Samuel, Samson, Moses, Abraham, and Isaac. In this class of writings there was an habitual introduction giving the history of all the great men, several species of commonplaces, always the same, and topics of pious invention. The infant destined to play an extraordinary part must be born of aged parents for long sterile, “so as to demonstrate that the child was a favour bestowed by God, and not the fruit of an unbridled passion.” It was held that the Divine power shone out to more advantage when human agency was absent. The result of long expectation and of assiduous prayers, the future great man was announced by an angel, at some solemn moment. It was thus in the case of Samson and of Samuel. According to Luke, the birth of John the Baptist occurred under such conditions. It is believed that it was the same in the case of Mary. Her birth, like that of John and of Jesus, was preceded by an annunciation, accompanied with prayers and with canticles. Anne and Joachim are the exact counterparts of Elizabeth and Zacharias. Some go even beyond that, and embellish the infancy of Anne. This retrospective application of the methods of evangelical legend becomes a fruitful source of fables responding to the requirements, constantly springing up, of Christian piety. People could no longer consider Mary, Joseph, and their ancestors as ordinary personages. The cult of the Virgin, which later on attained so enormous proportions, had already made invasions in every quarter.

A multitude of details, sometimes puerile yet always conforming to the sentiment of the times, or susceptible of removing the difficulties which the ancient Gospels presented, were disseminated by means of these compositions, at first not avowed, or even condemned, but which finished soon in being right. The case of the nativity was completed; the ox and the ass take definitely their places in it. Joseph is depicted as a widower four score years old, the simple protector of Mary. We could have wished that the latter had remained a virgin after as well as before the birth of Jesus. She was made to be of a royal and sacerdotal race, being descended at once from David and from Levi. People cannot represent to themselves that she died like a simple woman. They already speak of her ascension to heaven. The assumption was created, like so many other festivals, by the cycle of apocryphas.

An accent of lively piety distinguishes all the compositions of which we have just been speaking, whilst one cannot read without being disgusted the Gospel of Thomas—an insipid work, which does as little honour as possible to the Christian family, very old though it be, which produced it. It is the point of departure of these flat merveilles in regard to the infancy of Jesus which, by reason of their very dullness had a success so disastrous in the East. In them Jesus figures as an enfant terrible, wicked, rancorous, the dread of his parents and of everybody. He kills his companions, transforms them into he-goats, blinds their parents, confounds his masters, demonstrates to them that they know nothing about the mysteries of the alphabet, and forces them to ask pardon of him. People flee from him as from a pestilence. Joseph in vain beseeches him to remain quiet. This grotesque image of an omnipotent and omniscient gamin is one of the greatest caricatures that was ever invented, and certainly those who wrote it had too little wit for one to credit them with the intention of having meant it as a piece of irony. It was not without a theological design, that, contrary to the perfect system of tact of the old evangelists as regards the thirty years of obscure life, it was desired to be shown that the divine nature in Jesus was never idle, and that he continually performed miracles. Everything which made the life of Jesus a human life was vexatious. “This infant was not a terrestrial being,” says Zachæus of him; he can subdue fire; perhaps he existed before the creation of the world. He is either something great, or a god, or an angel, or one I don't know what. This deplorable Gospel appears to be the work of the Marcosians. The Nessenes and the Manicheans appropriated it to themselves, and spread it over the whole of Asia. The inept Oriental Gospel, known by the name of the Gospel of the Infancy, brought into vogue especially by the Nestorians of Persia, is only, in act, an amplification of the Gospel according to Thomas. It passes in all the East as the work of Peter, and as the Gospel par excellence. If India knew any Gospel, it was this one. If Krechnaism embraced any Christian element, it is from this source that it came. The Jesus of whom Mahomet heard speak, is that of the puerile Gospels, a fantastic Jesus, a spectre proving his superhuman nature by means of an extravagant thaumaturgy.

The passion of Jesus owed likewise its development to a cycle of legends. The pretended Acts of Pilate were the framework which was made use of in which to group this order of ideas, with which were readily associated the better polemics against the Jews. It is only in the fourth century that the episodes, of an almost epic character, which were supposed to have taken place in the descent of Jesus to Hades, were put into writing. Later, these legends in regard to the subterranean life of Jesus were joined to the false Acts of Pilate, and formed the celebrated work called the Gospel of Nicodemus.

This base Christian literature, borrowed from a wholly popular state of mind, was in general the work of the Judaising and Gnostic sects. The disciples of St Paul had no part in them. It was created, to all appearances, in Syria. The apocryphal of Egyptian origin, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, for example, are more recent. Although of humble origin, and tainted with an ignorance truly sordid, the apocryphal Gospels assumed very early an importance of the first order. They pleased the multitude, offered rich themes for preaching on, enlarged considerably the circle of the evangelic personnel—St Anne, St Joachim, the Veronica, St Longinus—from that somewhat tainted source. The most beautiful Christian festivals—the Assumption, the Presentation of the Virgin—have no basis in the canonical Gospels; but they have in the apocryphas. The rich chasing of the legends which have made Christmas the jewel of the Christian year, is drawn for the most part from the apocryphas. The same literature has created the infant Jesus. The devotion to the Virgin finds there almost all its arguments. The importance of St Joseph proceeds entirely from them. Christian art finally owes to these compositions—very feeble, from a literary point of view, but singularly simple and plastic—some of its finest subjects. Christian iconography, whether Byzantine or Latin, has all its roots there. The Peregrine school would not have had any Sposalizio; the Venetian school no assumption, no presentation; the Byzantine school no descent of Jesus into limbo, without the apocryphas. The crib of Jesus without them would have lacked its most beautiful details. Their recommendation was their very inferiority. The canonical Gospels were too strong a literature for the people. Some vulgar narratives, often base, were nearer the level of the multitude than the Sermon on the Mount, or the discourses of the fourth Gospel.

So the success of these fraudulent writings was immense. From the fourth century the most instructed Greek fathers—Epiphanes, Gregory of Nyssa—adopted them without reserve. The Latin Church hesitated, even put forth efforts to take them out of the hands of the faithful, but did not succeed. The Golden Legend draws largely upon it. In the Middle Ages the apocryphal Gospels enjoyed an extraordinary popularity; they have even an advantage over the canonical Gospels, which is this: not being a sacred Scripture, they can be translated into the vulgar tongue. Whilst the Bible is in a manner put under lock and key, the apocryphas are in everybody’s hands. The Miniaturists were ardently attached to them; the Rhymers seized upon them; the Mystics represented them dramatically in the porches of the Churches. The first modern author of a life of Jesus—Ludolphe le Chartreux—made them his principal document. Without theological pretension these popular Gospels have succeeded in suppressing, in a certain measure, the canonical Gospels; Protestantism also has declared war against them, and devotes itself to proving that they are the work of the devil.

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