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Epistula Apostolorum

At a Glance
Gospel
Genre:
(4/5) ****
Reliability of Dating:
(3/5) ***
Length of Text:
Greek
Original Language:
Ancient Translations:
Coptic, Ethiopic
Modern Translations:

Estimated Range of Dating: 140-150 A.D.

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Information on Epistula Apostolorum

The Epistula Apostolorum is also known as the Epistle of the Apostles. Although originally written in Greek, it is preserved in translations of Coptic and Ethiopic. The Coptic manuscript comes from the late fourth to early fifth century CE. The Ethiopic manuscripts come from the eighteenth century but preserve the entire text. While the Coptic seems to be a direct translation of the Greek, the Ethiopic may be a translation of an existing translation into Arabic or Coptic.

The Epistula Apostolorum is a fine piece of Catholic Christian polemics against gnostics represented by their leaders Simon Magus and Cerinthus. Ron Cameron writes in his introduction in The Other Gospels:

In presenting an alleged revelation of Jesus to his apostles, the Epistula Apostolorum superimposes the literary form of revelation discourse and dialogue upon its traditions. Jesus speaks as the risen Lord who mediates instruction to the community. This literary layering is clearly secondary: the discourse and dialogue are not composed of sayings, but comprise creedal formulas, catechetical instructions, and portions of abbreviated dogmatic treatises, all of which are used in the service of "orthodoxy." The Epistula Apostolorum thus mimics a form of revelation literature which was popular among many gnostics, attempting to combat its opponents with their own theological weapons. This apologetic purpose is heightened by prefixing an epistolary introduction to the document. Against the claims of authority of certain writings that circulated under the names of individual apostles or disciples of Jesus, all the apostles are mentioned by name as the authors of this "letter" and the recipients of this revelation. The Epistula Apostolorum thus modifies the form of the letter to stress that this revelation is encompassed with a truly catholic epistle, that it is not a secret teaching, and that what is revealed is known by and available to all. The Epistula Apostolorum, therefore, is an anti-genre, a parody of a form of apocalyptic literature favored by its Christian gnostic opponents, an attempt to domesticate the literature of those who portrayed Jesus as the revealer of otherworldly knowledge disclosed in mystery books.

The Coptic version in ch. 17 places the end of the world at 120 years past Pentecost, while the Ethiopic version states that 150 years would pass. A likely explanation would be that the document was originally composed shortly before 150 C.E. and was revised by a redactor when the prediction didn't come to pass.

On the dating of the Epistula Apostolorum, Cameron writes:

The Epistula Apostolorum was composed sometime after the gospels of the New Testament and before the Coptic translation was made in the fourth or fifth century. The freedom in its use of traditions, the adaption of the gospels into regulations for church order, the way in which the creed's position is consolidated and used to combat its gnostic opponents, and the co-opting of the apostle Paul as a subordinate of the emerging "catholic" church - all of this suggests that this document was composed in the mid- to late second century. Internal evidence suggests that Egypt was its place of origin.

The Epistula Apostolorum thus provides a window into the disputation between Catholics and Gnostics of the second century.


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Kirby, Peter. "Epistula Apostolorum." Early Christian Writings. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/apostolorum.html>.