THE APOCRYPHA AND THE CHURCH

 

 

 

At a very early period orthodox writers and, presumably, ecclesiastical authorities found it necessary to distinguish between the genuine inspired books and a multitude of spurious rivals -- a fact which is a very important element in the formation of the Christian canon. Thus as early as about A.D. 170, the author of the descriptive Latin catalogue known as the "Muratorian Fragment" mentioned certain works as fictitious or contested. At the same time St. Irenæus called attention to the great mass of heretical pseudographic writings (inenarrabilis multitudo apocryphorum et perperam scripturarum, Adv., Hær., I, xx). Undoubtedly it was the large use heretical circles, especially the Gnostic sects, made of this insinuating literature which first called forth the animadversions of the official guardians of doctrinal purity. Even in the East, already the home of pseudographic literature, Origen (d. 254) exhibits caution regarding the books outside the canon (Comment. in Matth., serm. 28). St. Athanasius in 387 found it necessary to warn his flock by a pastoral epistle against Jewish and heretical apocrypha (P. G., XXVI, 1438). Another Greek Father, Epiphanius (312-403) in "Hæreses", 26, could complain that copies of Gnostic apocrypha were current in thousands. Yet it must be confessed that the early Fathers, and the Church, during the first three centuries, were more indulgent towards Jewish pseudographs circulating under venerable Old Testament names. The Book of Henoch and the Assumption of Moses had been cited by the canonical Epistle of Jude. Many Fathers admitted the inspiration of Fourth Esdras. Not to mention the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of St. Paul (at least in the Thecla portion) and the Apocalypse of St. Peter were highly revered at this and later periods. Yet, withal, no apocryphal work found official recognition in the Western Church. In 447 Pope Leo the Great wrote pointedly against the pseudo-apostolic writings, "which contained the germ of so many errors . . . they should not only be forbidden but completely suppressed and burned" (Epist. xv, 15). The so-called Decretum de recipiendis et non recipiendis libris" is attributed to Pope Gelasius (495), but in reality is a compilation dating from the beginning of the sixth century, and containing collections made earlier than Gelasius. It is an official document, the first of the kind we possess, and contained a list of 39 works besides those ascribed to Leucius, "disciple of the devil", all of which it condemns as apocryphal. From this catalogue it is evident that in the Latin Church by this time, apocrypha in general, including those of Catholic origin, had fallen under the ecclesiastical ban, always, however, with a preoccupation against the danger of heterodoxy. The Synod of Braga, in Spain, held in the year 563, anathematizes any one "who reads, approves, or defends the injurious fictions set in circulation by heretics". Although in the Middle Ages these condemnations were forgotten and many of the pseudographic writings enjoyed a high degree of favour among both clerics and the laity, still we find superior minds, such as Alcuin, St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, pointing out their want of authority. An echo of the ancient condemnations occurs in the work De Festis B.M.V. of Benedict XIV, declaring certain popular apocrypha to be impure sources of tradition.