What is the Apocrypha — and why it matters for religious diversity.

Naiara Leão
7 min readFeb 21, 2022

False, spurious, doubtful, secret, shady. There’s much unflattering talk around the Apocrypha, but what are they, really? Objectively, the Christian Apocrypha is a body of ancient religious texts that didn’t become part of the biblical canon but circulated widely among early Christians. They were fun, entertaining and also considered wise or sacred for some. Eventually, male leaders from the emerging Catholic Church, the Church Fathers, started separating them from sacred biblical texts, and labeling them as prohibitive or, in the best cases, tolerated for instruction.

It’s an ancient story but one that still matters today. Apocryphal texts show there was never a single unified Christian church, not even in the beginning of Christianity. They also reveal that the mainstream narrative of Christian origins — the Biblical narrative of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, followed by the evangelism of 12 apostles and the spread of Christianity by Paul of Tarsus — is, at minimum, a narrow version of what went down.

Jesus and disciples in “Untitled” (“Ethiopian Last Supper,” anonymous, year unknown)

Between one and 365 gods

In the beginning there was… a mess. Two or three generations after Jesus, in the 2nd century, people were conceptualizing, creating and understanding Christianity for the first time. They weren’t eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life or experienced his speeches firsthand. There was a lot of talk on what Jesus would’ve said and on what someone had said about what he would’ve said. Stories circulated orally, much more than in writing. And as stories spread from Palestine to the larger Ancient Mediterranean world, they gained local versions and overtones. Besides facts, people were discussing symbols and meanings in Jesus’s teachings, and how to live accordingly. This was not about truth and lie, only, but about interpretations.,

Unlike today, 2nd and 3rd century Christians did not necessarily saw Jesus as the son of God who was sent to die, redeem humanity from sin and guarantee eternal life for humanity. Whereas some would see him as both human and divine, many wouldn’t even consider him a god but as some kind of special human that temporarily housed a deity in his body. These different views were written down in texts for new converts or ministers. They came to be known later as apocryphal.

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Naiara Leão

Nomad. PhD student of Religion, early Christianity and Women's and Gender Studies. Follow my IG @academicanomad