In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Apocryphal Gospels

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Introductory Essays
  • Bibliographies
  • Sayings/Agrapha
  • Gnostic Gospels

Biblical Studies Apocryphal Gospels
James Keith Elliott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0006


The title “apocryphal gospels” conventionally applies to certain early Christian or Gnostic texts that are written either in imitation of the genre “gospel” as applied to the New Testament canon or in telling of events and sayings in the life of Jesus and his immediate circle of family and disciples. The pluralism of the centuries of Christianity, the absence of a clearly established canon, the role of orality and intertextuality in the shaping of the new texts, and the existence of different “editions” of even the future canonical texts also doubtless encouraged the writing of Christian apocrypha. Modern critical editions of the texts are collected into compendia under umbrella titles such as New Testament Apocrypha or the Nag Hammadi Library. Some texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, have been extensively studied and have spawned a vast secondary literature. Others are only recently undergoing scholarly examination. Some of the texts, for example the Gospel of Judas, have come to light only recently. Others, such as the Protevangelium of James, have survived in numerous manuscript copies, some of great antiquity, and those have been known to scholars for centuries. Some texts are fragmentary; the smallest examples raise the question whether they are indeed chance survivors of a larger gospel-type writing or should really be classed as something else, perhaps part of a patristic writing or homily. The texts selected here are largely orthodox. Only a few are Gnostic: the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary; the famous Gospel of Thomas has been considered Gnostic by many readers. Most of the remaining Gnostic gospels have been included in a final section on their own.

Introductory Works

In order to provide help for complete newcomers to this area of study, the short encyclopedic articles of Patterson 1992a and Patterson 1992b are a boon. General introductions are found in Burke 2013, Foster 2009, and Smith-Christopher and Spignesi 2008. Cartlidge and Elliott 2001 offers an alternative way into the apocryphal stories, through art rather than writings. Jenkins 2001 serves as a timely warning, showing how some recent readers of apocryphal texts have distorted the historical biblical traditions. The journal Apocrypha is the only one devoted specifically to this literature. Frey and Schröter 2010 shows how apocryphal accounts of Jesus need to studied alongside canonical stories for a fuller picture to emerge.

  • Apocrypha: Revue Internationale Des Littératures Apocryphes, International Journal of Apocryphal Literatures. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1990–.

    A respected journal dedicated to studies of the Christian Apocrypha.

  • Burke, Tony. Secret Scriptures Revealed. London: SPCK, 2013.

    A popular and new introduction to the Christian apocrypha. Suitable for newcomers to this area of study.

  • Cartlidge, David R., and J. Keith Elliott. Art and Christian Apocrypha. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

    A survey of where in the plastic arts one may encounter elements of the apocryphal stories known elsewhere as written texts.

  • Foster, Paul. The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199236947.001.0001

    Like others in the series, this very short introduction (137 pages of text) succinctly gives helpful entrées into the main apocryphal and Gnostic gospels, setting them in context and assessing their value.

  • Frey, Jörg, and Jens Schröter eds. Jesus in apokryphen Evangelienüberlieferungen. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 254. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

    Twenty-two essays, many on Jesus. An important section deals with apocryphal gospels in Coptic, Irish, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Ethiopian, and Slavic.

  • Jenkins, Philip. Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A cautious warning to readers mesmerized by scholars and, more commonly, by journalists, who have credulously accepted the historical value of the noncanonical writings often in preference to the canonical.

  • Patterson, Stephen J. “Apocrypha, New Testament.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 1. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 294–297. New York: Doubleday, 1992a.

    This entry deals with problems of definition, as well as the range and influence of the literature.

  • Patterson, Stephen J. “Gospels, Apocryphal.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 1079–1081. New York: Doubleday, 1992b.

    A simple encyclopedia entry on this literature. Short bibliography appended.

  • Smith-Christopher, Daniel L., and Stephen Spignesi. Lost Books of the Bible for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008.

    Despite the popular tone of a book in this series, this particular volume is nonetheless well researched and may well provide a key for certain readers to enter the world of the New Testament apocrypha (and the Nag Hammadi texts as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls).

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