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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essays
  • Bibliographies

Biblical Studies Apocryphal Acts
Tony Burke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0149


The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles are a category within Christian apocryphal literature detailing the individual journeys of the surviving eleven apostles and Paul, alone or in small groupings, to various locales assigned to them for evangelizing by the risen Jesus. In form, they are similar to the canonical book of Acts, with the texts’ protagonists preaching, healing, battling magicians, and encountering conflict with local rulers. However, scholars are divided over whether or not the Apocryphal Acts were influenced by their canonical counterpart. The five ancient Apocryphal Acts—John, Paul, Peter, Andrew, and Thomas—were written in the late 2nd to early 3rd centuries. At first, the Apocryphal Acts circulated independently of one another, and scholars caution against attempts to read them as a unit; instead one should try to understand each text on its own terms. Over time, various forms of the Acts were collected, first by the Manicheans, and later in compilations such as the Latin Apostolic History of Pseudo-Abdias and the Ethiopic Contendings of the Apostles, as well as in ad hoc groupings in a variety of manuscripts in multiple languages. Orthodox Christianity had an uneasy relationship with the Apocryphal Acts. Some writers appealed to them in their own works; the Acts of Paul even came close to being considered canonical in some areas. But by the 4th century, orthodox Christianity either reduced the Apocryphal Acts to their martyrdoms or rewrote them to omit objectionable content. Thanks to the orthodox pruning of the Apocryphal Acts, reconstructing the original texts can be very difficult, and the results greatly affect scholars’ understanding of their contents. Despite their essential independence from one another, the Apocryphal Acts share certain common literary and theological elements. In form, they resemble the ancient Hellenistic novel, particularly the subgenre of romance. In the romances, two young protagonists are separated and then later reunited after a series of adventures and journeys. Through it all they remain chaste and faithful to one another. In the Apocryphal Acts, however, the theme is inverted: the apostles interact with young women who deny their romantic partners and join the apostles in a life of chastity.

General Overviews

The Apocryphal Acts receive far less attention in scholarship than Apocryphal Gospels, which are often the focus of very readable introductory studies and text collections. The only comparable work for the Acts is Klauck 2008; Schneemelcher 1992 has become an authority on English scholarship, but its discussion of the texts, while detailed, can be unfriendly to new readers. Many of the major scholars of the field have contributed seminal studies on the texts in the essay collections of Bovon, et al. 1999; MacDonald 1986; and Stoops 1997. Lipsius 1976 is important, but only if doing detailed work on the texts. Cartlidge and Elliott 2001 demonstrates the popularity of the texts through the centuries in art and iconography. The various New Testament Apocrypha Anthologies are helpful for their introductions and translations. Readers must be cautioned, however, that these do not always incorporate the latest text-critical work on the texts.

  • Bovon, François, Ann Graham Brock, and Christopher R. Matthews. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: Harvard Divinity School Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

    A collection of papers delivered in 1993–1994 at the Harvard Divinity School. Of particular interest is Bovon’s contribution, “Editing the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles” (pp. 1–35), which focuses on the intricacies of text-critical work.

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

    A survey of artistic expressions (in manuscripts, church decorations, on sarcophagi, etc.) of episodes and motifs from a variety of apocryphal Christian texts, including the Apocryphal Acts.

  • Klauck, Hans-Josef. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction. Translated by Brian J. MacNeil. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008.

    An English translation of Apokryphe Apostelakten: Eine Einführung, which was published in 2005. This is an indispensable and comprehensive study for new readers and veteran scholars of both early and later texts, with summaries of each work and bibliographic entries for further study.

  • Lipsius, Richard Adelbert. Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden: Ein Beitrag zur altchristlichen Literaturgeschichte und zu einer zusammenfassenden Darstellung der neutestamentlichen Apokryphen. Vols. I–II. Parts 1–2 and Supplement. Amsterdam: APA Philo, 1976.

    First published in Braunschweig (1883–1890). A magisterial study of the Apocryphal Acts. Essential for anyone who wishes to perform detailed work on the material.

  • MacDonald, Dennis R., ed. The Apocryphal Acts of Apostles. Semeia 38. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986.

    A special edition of the journal Semeia focusing on the Apocryphal Acts with contributions from North American and international scholars of the texts, including Willy Rordorf (“Tradition and Composition in the Acts of Thecla,” pp. 43–52), Stevan Davies (“Women, Tertullian, and the Acts of Paul,” pp. 139–149), Arthur J. Dewey (“The Hymn in the Acts of John: Dance as Hermeneutic,” pp. 68–80), and François Bovon and Eric Junod (“Reading the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles,” pp. 161–171).

  • Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, ed. New Testament Apocrypha. Vol. 2, Writings Relating to the Apostles, Apocalypses, and Related Subjects. Rev. ed. Translated by R. McLachlan Wilson. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992.

    The English translation of the fifth edition of Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, Vol. 2 originally published in 1989. Schneemelcher provides a comprehensive introduction to the five main Acts in “Second and Third Century Acts of the Apostles” (pp. 75–100), and Aurelio de Santos Otero covers “Later Acts of the Apostles” (pp. 426–482).

  • Stoops, Robert F., Jr., ed. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles in Intertextual Perspectives. Semeia 80. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997.

    A second special volume of Semeia devoted to the texts, this time focusing on the relationship of the Apocryphal Acts to the canonical Acts. Contributors include: Richard Bauckham (“The Acts of Paul: Replacement of Acts or Sequel to Acts?” pp. 159–168) and F. Stanley Jones (“An Ancient Jewish Christian Rejoinder to Luke’s Acts of the Apostles: Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1.27–71,” pp. 223–245).

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