Reading Apocrypha in the Middle Ages vs. Antiquity

This entry is a longer but hopefully interesting post, partly devoted to a topic that can spook many Protestants.

Mary’s Dormition, the idea that she did not die but fell asleep (to keep it simple; there are other variations), emerged as an article of faith and devotion comparatively late in Christian history. The recorded apocryphal legends themselves are thought to have been composed perhaps around the fourth-fifth century. The earliest clear invocation of these stories by a reputable Christian authority, however, comes from an address by John, the archbishop of Thessalonica, sometime during his lengthy career, 610–649.

Other than a few other attributions to his name, finer details about John’s life and context mostly elude us. In general, he was living at a time when the cult of Mary had been on fairly rapid ascent for the last century or so, not least in Constantinople and in imperial propaganda. In an oration given on the day in August commemorating the Dormition, John was trying to explain the origins of this (apparently) rather new slot on the liturgical calendar. But before launching into the narrative of the Dormition, however, John must first set some points in the record straight:

Well then, some have also handed over in writing the marvels done during that time concerning Mary, and nearly everywhere under heaven observes the yearly festal remembrance of her resting—except for a few places, one of which is this God-protected metropolis of the Thessalonicans. What then? Shall we condemn the carelessness or lackadaisicalness of those prior to us? May it not be that we say this or even just think it. . . . Therefore, our predecessors were not careless or lackadaisical but because in love of the truth—those who were present at the time, it has been said, wrote down the events concerning Mary’s completion, while later some of the maleficent heretics, sowing their own thistles, twisted these writings—for this reason, our fathers foreswore these accounts as unfit for the catholic church, so a forgetting on their part overtook the festival.[1]

What John is saying is that some “historical” accounts do exist documenting Mary’s Dormition, but that his predecessors (i.e., bishops) avoided these narratives and declined to celebrate the event because the original pure stories had been corrupted by heretics. Consequently, Thessalonica remains one of the few places that doesn’t observe the holiday: a questionable claim but one we leave aside for now.

He goes on, elaborating on these alleged heretical interpolations,

And don’t be surprised hearing about the heretics corrupting the texts, inasmuch as they have been observed at times making books similar to the epistles of the God-bringing Apostle and even the Holy Gospels. However, we shall not spit upon the writings of truth because of their God-hated trickery, but having cleaned out the bad interpolation, we shall both embrace as true those things that happened for God’s glory about his saints and receive them in a manner that nourishes the soul and pleases God. For in this way, we have discovered the holy fathers (both those who preceded us more recently and those who were long before them) used the compositions about the so-called personal wanderings of the holy apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew, and John, as well as those compositions about the Christ-bearing martyrs. For truly it is necessary to clear out, according to scripture, “the stones from the road” [Is. 62] so that the God-chosen flock does not stumble.[2]

Here, John is walking a very tight rope indeed, especially in drawing comparisons with the “personal wandering” narratives of the apostles, which belong to a larger amorphous category of story we usually call the apocryphal acts of the apostles. You see, to this point in history, virtually every extant (and non-sectarian) source—Greek or Latin—that commented on the “wanderings” or acts of Peter, Paul, Andrew, and John had taken a decidedly dim view of these stories. Here’s what Eusebius had said two hundred years prior about apocryphal apostolic acts and comparable texts, stressing to his readers the importance in distinguishing debated texts with some history of usage by esteemed figures in church history from

the ones in the apostles’ name proffered by sectarians, and actually embraced as Peter’s, Thomas’, and Matthias’, or even gospels of some others besides these, or like the acts of Andrew, John, and other apostles. None of these ever did anyone belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical men think worthy of making record in writing. And what’s more, the characteristic mark of the expression (in these books) is a long way removed from the apostolic ethos, plus the knowledge and conduct alleged in them are very much out of tune with true orthodoxy, because they clearly show themselves to be the forgeries of sectarian men. For that reason, they ought to be categorized not among the “bastard” writings but disparaged as bizarre and profane.[3]

Ancient complaints like this one notwithstanding, John justifies his method in sorting out what material he has chosen, declaring,

we suitably made no mean effort for the rousing of souls and establishing an edifice for your God-loving ears, in the fear of God and loving truth, we selected not everything we found written in various books in various ways about her but only the things that truly were done and remembered and witnessed even in the locations and witnessed up to the present, presenting no account verbatim, such as the things bastardized from interpolated folly.[4]

From here, John basically goes on to tell the sanitized story of Mary’s Dormition, as he has gleaned it from the aforementioned writings. So what?

In the first place, John is pretty obviously breaking the spirit if perhaps not quite the letter of longstanding Byzantine canon law, such as it existed in the seventh century: non-canonical texts should not be brought “into church,” and according to at least one ancient regulation, and a cleric found reading such texts to the laity should be deposed. At least two items of Justinianic-era civil law also endorsed the same rules, expecting patriarchs and metropolitans (like John) to be main enforcers of canonical regulations of this sort. (Although as Justinian noted, canon law infractions appear to be fairly common.) This is why, I suspect, John has to couch his apocryphal sources of information as he does (i.e., “not verbatim”) before he presents it to his audience.

Secondly, canon law restrictions or no, John himself certainly knew that ancient ecclesiastical tradition took an extremely dim view of such apocryphal sources: his very framing of the whole issue—“I’m not technically using apocrypha”—advertises how aware he is of potential criticism against his sources. While he insists that the stories about Mary are “mostly true” just like the apocryphal apostolic acts, that assessment of “mostly true” blatantly contradicted earlier commentators, such as Eusebius. One expert on medieval apocrypha has called this change a “logic flip” from ancient Christian commentary, where these stories were assumed to mostly false and untrustworthy, even if they perhaps contained a useful point or grain of historical truth. Additionally, it is much harder to find ancient Christian authorities who use apocryphal texts for liturgical or catechetical purposes.

For me, this all broadly illustrates how ancient Christianity is not necessarily the same as medieval Christianity. More particularly, it also demonstrates just how powerful the cult of the saints (Mary not least among them) had become since, say, the fourth century.

  1. All translations are my own. The text of John’s address is taken from Oratio de dormitione Deiparae, M. Jugie, Homélies mariales byzantines II [Patrologia Orientalis 19, fasc. 3. Paris: Firmin-Didot et Companie, 1926]: 375-405. Τοιγαροῦν καὶ γραφῇ παραδεδώκασί τινες τὰ γεγενημένα θαύματα κατὰ χρόνον ἐκεῖνον περὶ αὐτὴν, καὶ πᾶσα σχεδὸν ἡ ὑπ’ οὐρανὸν τὴν τῆς ἀναπαύσεως αὐτῆς ἐτήσιον μνήμην ἑορταστικῶς ἄγουσιν, πλὴν ὀλίγων τόπων, ἐξ ὧν εἷς ἐστιν, ὁ περὶ τὴν θεοφύλακτον ταύτην τῶν Θεσσαλονικέων μητρόπολιν. Τί οὖν; Ἀμελείας ἢ ῥᾳθυμίας τῶν πρὸ ἡμῶν καταψηφισόμεθα; Μὴ γένοιτο ἡμᾶς τοῦτο φάναι, ἢ καὶ μόνον λογίσασθαι, ὅπου γε μόνοι τῶν πάντων τοῦτο δὴ τὸ ἐξαίρετον τῇ ἑαυτῶν πατρίδι νομοθετικῶς καταλελοίπασι, λέγω δὴ τὸ μὴ μόνον τῶν ἐγχωρίων ἁγίων, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῶν ἐπὶ γῆς πάντων σχεδὸν ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ διηθληκότων τὰς μνήμας πανηγυρίζειν πνευματικῶς, συνάξεσί τε καὶ προσευχαῖς οἰκειοῦντες ἑαυτοὺς τῷ Θεῷ. Οὐκ ἠμέλησαν οὖν ἢ ἐρᾳθύμησαν, ἀλλ’ ἐπειδὴ φιλαλήθως μὲν οἱ τηνικαῦτα παρόντες, ὡς εἴρηται, τὰ περὶ τῆς τελειώσεως αὐτῆς ἀπεγράψαντο, τινὲς δὲ τῶν εἰς ὕστερον κακουργῶν αἱρετικῶν τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἐμβαλόντες ζιζάνια, ἐστρέβλωσαν τὰ συγγραφέντα, τούτου χάριν οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν, ὡς ἀναρμοδίων τῇ καθολικῇ Ἐκκλησίᾳ, τούτων ἀπέσχοντο, κἀντεῦθεν λήθη παρ’ αὐτοῖς καὶ τὴν ἑορτὴν ὑπεδέξατο.

  2. Καὶ μὴ θαυμάσητε περὶ τοῦ διαφθεῖραι τὰς γραφὰς ἀκούοντες τοὺς αἱρετικοὺς, ὅπου γε καὶ εἰς τὰς τοῦ θεοφόρου ἀποστόλου ἐπιστολὰς καὶ περὶ αὐτὰ τὰ ἅγια εὐαγγέλια τὰ παραπλήσια κατὰ καιροὺς δράσαντες ἐφωράθησαν. Ἀλλ’ οὐ διὰ τὴν ἐκείνων θεομίσητον δολιότητα τὰ τῆς ἀληθείας γράμματα διαπτυσόμεθα, ἀλλὰ τὴν φαύλην παρασπορὰν ἐκκαθάραντες, τὰ ὡς ἀληθῶς εἰς δόξαν Θεοῦ περὶ τοὺς ἁγίους αὐτοῦ γεγενημένα καὶ περιπτυξόμεθα καὶ διὰ μνήμης ἄξομεν ψυχωφελῶς τε καὶ θεαρέστως. Οὕτω γὰρ εὑρήκαμεν χρησαμένους καὶ τοὺς ἔναγχος ἡμᾶς προηγησαμένους καὶ τοὺς πολλῷ πρὸ αὐτῶν ἁγίους πατέρας, τοὺς μὲν περὶ τὰς καλουμένας ἰδικὰς περιόδους τῶν ἁγίων ἀποστόλων Πέτρου καὶ Παύλου καὶ Ἀνδρέου καὶ Ἰωάννου, τοὺς δὲ περὶ τὰ πλεῖστα τῶν χριστοφόρων μαρτύρων συγγράμματα. Δεῖ γὰρ ὡς ἀληθῶς ἐκκαθαίρειν, κατὰ τὸ γεγραμμένον, τοὺς λίθους ἐκ τῆς ὁδοῦ, ἵνα μὴ τὸ θεόλεκτον ποίμνιον προσκόπτῃ.

  3. See Hist. eccl. 3.25.5–6: ταῦτα δὲ πάντα τῶν ἀντιλεγομένων ἂν εἴη, ἀναγκαίως δὲ καὶ τούτων ὅμως τὸν κατάλογον πεποιήμεθα, διακρίνοντες τάς τε κατὰ τὴν ἐκκλησιαστικὴν παράδοσιν ἀληθεῖς καὶ ἀπλάστους καὶ ἀνωμολογημένας γραφὰς καὶ τὰς ἄλλως παρὰ ταύτας, οὐκ ἐνδιαθήκους μὲν ἀλλὰ καὶ ἀντιλεγομένας, ὅμως δὲ παρὰ πλείστοις τῶν ἐκκλησιαστικῶν γινωσκομένας, ἵν’ εἰδέναι ἔχοιμεν αὐτάς τε ταύτας καὶ τὰς ὀνόματι τῶν ἀποστόλων πρὸς τῶν αἱρετικῶν προφερομένας ἤτοι ὡς Πέτρου καὶ Θωμᾶ καὶ Ματθία ἢ καί τινων παρὰ τούτους ἄλλων εὐαγγέλια περιεχούσας ἢ ὡς Ἀνδρέου καὶ Ἰωάννου καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἀποστόλων πράξεις· ὧν οὐδὲν οὐδαμῶς ἐν συγγράμματι τῶν κατὰ τὰς διαδοχὰς ἐκκλησιαστικῶν τις ἀνὴρ εἰς μνήμην ἀγαγεῖν ἠξίωσεν, πόρρω δέ που καὶ ὁ τῆς φράσεως παρὰ τὸ ἦθος τὸ ἀποστολικὸν ἐναλλάττει χαρακτήρ, ἥ τε γνώμη καὶ ἡ τῶν ἐν αὐτοῖς φερομένων προαίρεσις πλεῖστον ὅσον τῆς ἀληθοῦς ὀρθοδοξίας ἀπᾴδουσα, ὅτι δὴ αἱρετικῶν ἀνδρῶν ἀναπλάσματα τυγχάνει, σαφῶς παρίστησιν· ὅθεν οὐδ’ ἐν νόθοις αὐτὰ κατατακτέον, ἀλλ’ ὡς ἄτοπα πάντῃ καὶ δυσσεβῆ παραιτητέον.
  4. The full passage: Ἡμεῖς οὖν, ἐπειδὴ καὶ εἰς τὴν φιλόχριστον ταύτην μητρόπολιν, ἵνα μηδὲν αὐτῇ λείπῃ τῶν καλῶν, ἀνάγκη πᾶσα δοξάζεσθαι εἰλικρινῶς τὴν εὐεργέτιν τοῦ κοσμοῦ καὶ δέσποιναν, τὴν ἀειπαρθένον καὶ θεοτόκον Μαρίαν, τελούντων ἡμῶν μετ’ εὐφροσύνης πνευματικῆς τὴν μνήμην τῆς θεοπρεποῦς αὐτῆς ἀναπαύσεως, εἰκότως σπουδὴν οὐ μετρίαν ἐποιησάμεθα πρὸς διέγερσιν ψυχῶν καὶ οἰκοδομὴν παραθεῖναι ταῖς φιλοθέοις ὑμῶν ἀκοαῖς οὐχ ἅπερ ηὕραμεν ἅπαντα ἐν διαφόροις βιβλίοις περὶ αὐτῆς διαφόρως ἐγγεγραμμένα, ἀλλὰ μόνα τὰ ὡς ἀληθῶς πραχθέντα καὶ γεγενῆσθαι μνημονευόμενα καὶ τοῖς τόποις μέχρι νῦν μαρτυρούμενα, μετὰ φόβου Θεοῦ φιλαλήθως συλλέξαντες, τῆς αὐτολογίας οὐδένα θέμενοι λόγον, ὡς ἐκ κακοφροσύνης τῶν ταῦτα νοθευσάντων παρεμβεβλημένης. Τὰ γοῦν ὡς ἀληθῶς φρικτὰ καὶ μεγάλα καὶ ὄντως ἄξια τῆς τοῦ Θεοῦ μητρὸς περὶ τὴν θεοπρεπῆ ταύτης ἀνάπαυσιν γεγενημένα θαύματα μετὰ ψυχωφελοῦς κατανύξεως ἀκροώμενοι, τῇ μὲν ἀχράντῳ δεσποίνῃ καὶ θεοτόκῳ Μαρίᾳ τὴν εὐχαριστίαν μετὰ Θεὸν καὶ τὴν ὀφειλομένην δόξαν προσοίσομεν, ἀξίους τῶν αὐτῆς δωρεῶν δι’ ἔργων ἀγαθῶν ἑαυτοὺς ἐμφανίζοντες, ἡμῶν δὲ τὸ βραχὺ τῆς ἀγάπης ἀποδεξάμενοι, καὶ τὸ ἄοκνον τῆς περὶ τὰ κρείττονα προτροπῆς διὰ τοῦ παρόντος συγγράμματος ἐπαινέσαντες, ἀντίδοτε τὴν στοργὴν ὡς ἀδελφοὶ καὶ τέκνα ἐν Κυρίῳ ἀγαπητὰ, δι’ εὐχῆς ἐκτενοῦς τὴν ἐκ Θεοῦ μοι διαπαντὸς ἀντίληψιν ποριζόμενοι· αὐτοῦ γὰρ ἡ δόξα καὶ ἡ τιμὴ καὶ τὸ κράτος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων Ἀμήν.


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