What Is the Apocrypha?
The Old Testament Apocrypha
The Old Testament, as we know it now in most English-language Protestant texts, reflects the decision of a council of non-Christian Jewish rabbis around A.D. 90. Because these were non-Christian rabbis who met after the Church had already begun to be established, their decisions did not have weight for the early Christians. To make matters more complex, there has been some debate between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians about which of these texts are authoritative. The Roman Catholic scholar Jerome did not believe that some of these books should be used at all.
The New Testament Apocrypha
The focus of this chapter, however, is on those texts that are sometimes called the New Testament Apocrypha. These have a much different origin and status than the Old Testament Apocrypha, and vary greatly in character and content. Some of them, particularly the Protoevangelium of James, were accepted as useful even if not fully canonical, while other texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, which showed many Gnostic tendencies, are full of ideas that were contrary to the Christian gospel and were shunned as heretical.
The Gnostics were an offshoot of early Christianity — early enough that some parts of the New Testament are crafted as an argument against them, particularly 1 John. Gnosticism is a diverse phenomenon, but it can be broadly characterized by a few traits held in common by these disparate (and quarreling) groups. Gnostics:
Understood themselves to possess a secret knowledge (“gnosis”) that others did not have
Believed that the God spoken of in the New Testament was different from, and superior to, the God of the Old Testament
Viewed the body, and the material world in general, as insignificant or evil, fundamentally opposed to that which is spiritual
Because of the belief that the body and the material world are evil, many Gnostics sought liberation from the flesh through extreme ascetic practices. Although these sometimes resembled orthodox practices — trying to become liberated from the tyranny of the flesh through fasting and abstinence from sexual intercourse — Gnostics practiced asceticism for different reasons. While Christians believed the world was fundamentally good, but fallen, Gnostics viewed the world as something to be escaped entirely.
Some Gnostics took their beliefs and practices in an opposite direction from the majority of Gnostics, believing that if what happened with the flesh was meaningless, there was no reason to avoid indulging the lusts of the flesh.
As noted above, Gnostics also generally taught that there was a deep division between the Old and New Testaments — that the God of the Old Testament was inferior to the God of the New, and that this inferior God had created the material world, and that childbirth merely prolonged people's enslavement to this lesser world. These teachings were considered heretical by the early church because Gnosticism viewed the body as evil, and viewed death as the ultimate separation of the body and soul, while more mainstream Christians taught that although the body and soul were separated at death, they would be reunited at the Resurrection. Although the lusts of the flesh were to be overcome, the body itself was to be sanctified, not despised. Marriage and procreation were defended as good things — as gifts from God.
The Making of Scripture
The first canon of Scripture, or list of official books, was drawn up by a Gnostic teacher named Marcion in the second century A.D. His list of books included only parts of the Gospel of Luke and some of Paul's letters, and specifically excluded the Old Testament. It was only in the fourth century that a final and authoritative list of the books of the New Testament was agreed upon. This wasn't arbitrary, though.
The books that were finally accepted had to meet certain criteria. They had to:
Be written by one of the apostles or their close associates
Conform to the understanding of the Gospel message passed down by the apostles or to those they appointed as successors in the churches and those who came after them (thus giving birth to the doctrine of Apostolic Succession)
Be more or less universally known and accepted in all of the churches
Thus it could be said that the current New Testament was not invented in the fourth century, but rather was formally recognized and sealed by the church leaders at that time. One amazing thing about this process was how much agreement there actually was with regard to which books were to be included.