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Apocryphal Gospels

Apocryphal Gospels

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were not the only gospels that have been written. Many others tried to compose lives of Christ.

Were these gospels inspired? No, not in the traditional sense as they were the work of individuals and not of the whole Church. We call such gospels which were not universally accepted, the ‘apocryphal gospels’. Many of them had some devotional value in their own time. Others were downright heretical and untrustworthy.

Some of the better known apocryphal gospels are:

  • The gospel according to the Hebrews;
  • the gospel of St. Peter;
  • the gospel according to the Egyptians;
  • the gospel of the twelve apostles;
  • the gospel according to St. Philip;
  • the proto-gospel of St. James;
  • the gospel of Pseudo-Matthew;
  • the gospel of St. Thomas;
  • the Arabic gospel of the Infancy;
  • the gospel of Nicodemus;
  • the story of Joseph, the carpenter;
  • the transition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Right from the beginning the Church exercised its teaching authority by clearly indicating which gospels were inspired and which not. Some of these apocryphals could be used for private reading, but none of them could be read during Mass in the Church. Only the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were put on the list (the ‘Canon’) of New Testament writings that could be used in Church and for public instruction. These four gospels have, therefore, also been called the ‘canonical gospels’ to distinguish them from the apocryphal ones. (Note: the eucharistic prayer of the Mass is also called the ‘canon’ of Mass, because it contains a list of saints!)

John Wijngaards

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