The definition of the word apocrypha is "writings or statements of dubious authenticity." It comes from the Greek word for "obscure" or "hidden."
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the canonical Gospels, which means they are a part of the biblical canon. They have been recognized since the early church days as being factually accurate, authoritative, and God-inspired accounts of Jesus's life and teachings. In the early church days there were many other literary works that claimed to record other stories about Jesus's life and teachings; however, these works were not considered to be God-inspired, authoritative, or even accurate depictions of Jesus's deeds. Neither are these works accepted by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestants today. Early works that are non-canonical but claim to cover the life and teachings of Jesus are known as the apocryphal gospels.
Some of the apocryphal gospels were considered to be helpful resources by the early church, but they were not accepted as inspired by God. Therefore, they are not a part of the biblical canon. Some of these works have since been lost. These include: the Gospel of Andrew, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Gospel of Barnabas, and Memoirs of the Apostles.
In more recent times, the Gnostic gospels were discovered in Egypt in 1945. The Gnostic gospels are inauthentic, though claiming to be written by early church apostles. Even in the early church days, the Gnostics were considered a group with heretical views. Some of the apocryphal gospels find their origins within heretical groups attempting to use the teachings of Jesus to achieve their own desired end. These works include: the Gospel of Marcion, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth.
Some of the apocryphal gospels are quite outlandish. The Gospel of Peter contains accounts of a cross that talks. Recently The Secret Gospel of Mark surfaced, which hints that Mark and Jesus may have been involved in a homosexual relationship. Some modern critical scholars accepted this gospel as factual for a time; however, upon further researching this book, it was discovered that Morton Smith, the man who said he discovered it, created this story and it was simply a hoax.
Since there is such a wide variety of content and viewpoints within the apocryphal gospels, some modern scholarship uses the term "early Christianities" to imply that because there were so many groups and books claiming to be truth about Jesus that there never really was an authoritative or accurate singular teaching about Him. Because the orthodox group became the most prominent one, the canonical Gospels they adhered to as truth were widely accepted, or so the claim goes. The DaVinci Code, the popular novel by Dan Brown, uses this theory as its premise. What theories like this fail to recognize is that the early church was given "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people" (Jude 1:3, NIV).
Looking into this further, we see that while the canonical Gospels present a unified record of Jesus's life and teachings, the apocryphal gospels present very divergent views which are not found in other early church writings. This is probably because they were written significantly later than the canonical Gospels. Scholarship that attempts to give equal standing to all the gospels tends to be more accommodating to the apocryphal gospels than is warranted by historical context and evidence.
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