Gregory of Tours vs. Eusebius of Caesarea on Handling Apocrypha

Gregory of Tours (538–594) is best known for his early medieval history on the Merovingians, but he was also something of an enthusiast for the saint cults. Modern scholarship has identified him as the editor/re-publisher of the Acts of Andrew, an apocryphal set of stories about the apostles that dated back a few centuries. For this new edition, the so-called Miracles of Andrew, Gregory cut out most of the speechifying and left the really exciting bits about Andrew’s signs and wonders. He also attached a new preface, the relevant part of which is as follows:

The famed victories of the holy apostles escape the notice, I think, of none of the faithful, since thereafter the evangelical teachings report certain ones, the Acts of the Apostles narrate some, and concerning others there also exist books in which their own individual actions are recorded. For we have received nothing about most of these men other than their passions. Accordingly, I have discovered a book about the achievements of the holy apostle Andrew, which used to be called “apocryphal” by some because of excessive wordiness. For that reason, it seemed good that, with the achievements drawn out and elucidated while the parts that were creating the aversion were left out, the admirable miracles alone would be contained in a single, small volume that presents grace to the readers and removes the ill-will of detractors. For much wordiness (verbositas) is not what has produced a sound faith, but rather integrity of reason and purity of mind.[1]

So Gregory knows he has an apocryphal document on his hands but thinks he can trim the doctrinally questionable material out. The “wordiness,” he suggests, is the real reason people objected to the original text: a half-truth, insofar as a lot of the theologically noxious material came in the “apostolic” speeches that characterize second- and third-century apocrypha. In reality, given the strongly worded patristic and papal condemnations out there against such apocryphal material, this project was rather avant garde by most historical standards, especially for a bishop. And it’s not as if Gregory could feign ignorance here. We know for a fact he read Rufinus’ Latin translation of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, which had little nice to say about the Acts of Andrew:[2]

But it should also be known about those (writings)—which are proffered under the apostles’ name by heretics, like the “gospels” of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, and of certain apostles similarly, but also “acts” of Andrew, of John, and other apostles—that absolutely nowhere, as far as they’re concerned, is any mention or recollection of them made in the writing of the elders who succeeded the apostles. In them, even the style is detected to be far apart from ecclesiastical custom. The very sensibility too and everything reported in these (writings) differ from the apostolic faith by a long shot, from which they are proved to be the imaginings of heretical crookedness. So certainly they should not even be placed among those (books), about which we have said there is doubt [see 3.25.3–4] but should be chucked out as deeply foreign and discordant with the rule of piety.[3]

Rhetorically, this is about as shrill as Eusebius gets. Now consider that Gregory had almost definitely read this passage himself, and that it was in the back of his mind when he acknowledged the Acts of Andrew had been called “apocryphal” by some invidious detractors. His own, much earlier sources clearly would have scoffed at the idea. Yet Gregory persisted.

In my mind, this underscores a few things. First, the early medieval literary criticism was not up to ancient standards, at least in much of the West. Yes, there are exceptions: Cassiodorus certainly comes to mind. But as a technical skillset universally taught to elites, “grammar” had probably disappeared from Gregory’s world well before he was on the scene, and it was precisely upon metrics of grammar that Eusebius derided the apocryphal apostolic works. There, perhaps Gregory cannot be faulted completely. But the other factor is the cult of the saints, narrower aspects of which existed in Eusebius’ context but not anywhere close to the degree of Gregory’s. To me, it seems fairly clear that this is what impelled Gregory forward with this editorial project, all the major doubts and misgivings about this literature notwithstanding.

Experts on ancient and medieval apocrypha have a tendency to take someone like Gregory as evidence that enthusiasm for the saints and/or related apocryphal books was always “there” for early Christians, despite the griping from the likes of Irenaeus, Eusebius, Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, etc. This is true up to a point, but it overlooks that someone of Gregory’s position could not have gotten away with this sort of project (on the grounds he gives, anyway) even about a century earlier in the same general region of the erstwhile Western empire. Priscillian comes the closest in the 380s, but even his idiosyncratic case of advocating for books extra canonem has been frequently misread. He certainly avoided calling any books he liked “apocryphal,” and even then he was roundly criticized for trying to apply noncanonical literature to crucial questions of doctrine and practice. Gregory, by contrast, seems to have avoided that kind of blowback, and he anticipated the increasingly formal, liturgical position assigned to a class of literature strongly repudiated through most of Christian antiquity.[4]

All in all, this serves as another healthy reminder that medieval Christianity is not always in continuity with what came before.

  1. Inclita sanctorum apostolorum trophea nulli credo latere fidelium, quia quaedam exinde euangelica dogmata docent, quaedam apostolici actus narrat, de quibusdam vero extant libri, in quibus propriae actiones eorum denotantur. De plerisque enim nihil aliud nisi passionum scripta suscipimus. Nam repperi librum de virtutibus sancti Andreae apostoli, qui propter nimiam verbositatem a nonnullis apocrifus dicebatur; de quo placuit, ut, retractis enucleatisque tantum virtutibus, praetermissis his quae fastidium generabant, uno tantum parvo volumine admiranda miracula clauderentur, quod et legentibus praestaret gratiam et detrahentium auferret invidiam, quia inviolatam fidem non exegit multitudo verbositatis, sed integritas rationis et puritas mentis.
  2. On Gregory’s reception of Eusebius, see Michael J. Hollerich, Making Christian History: Eusebius of Caesarea and His Readers (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021), 144–6.
  3. sed et de illis sciendum est, quae sub nomine apostolorum ab haereticis proferuntur, velut Petri et Thomae et Matthiae et ceterorum similiter apostolorum quae appellant euangelia, sed et Andreae et Iohannis atque aliorum apostolorum Actus, quod nusquam prorsus in scriptis veterum, eorum dumtaxat, qui apostolis successerunt, aliqua mentio eorum aut commemoratio habetur. 7. in quibus et ipse stilus multum ab ecclesiastica consuetudine deprehenditur esse diversus. sensus quoque ipse et omnia, quae in his inferuntur, longe ab apostolica dissonant fide, ex quo figmenta esse pravitatis haereticae conprobantur. unde ne inter illa quidem, de quibus dubitari diximus, conlocanda sunt, sed ut aliena penitus et a pietatis regula discrepantia propellenda.

  4. For more on this integration, see Els Rose, Ritual Memory: The Apocryphal Acts and Liturgical Commemoration in the Early Medieval West (c. 500-1215) (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2009).


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