Blesok no. 27, July-August, 2002

Apocryphal Literature

Dobrila Milovska

     The apocryphal scriptures originate from the early Hebraic religious literature, in which the subject term was used for the secret books that elaborated themes same as those of the Old Testament. In the 2nd century B.C. those scriptures, along with the rest of the Hebraic Old Testament books, were translated into Greek language, and, since they were considered as secret, hidden books, they were given the name Apocrypha (from Gr. apocryphos – hidden away, secret). The first Christians took on The Apocrypha by use of those translations, which started playing a significant role in the Christian literature ever since. The contemporaries of the initial centuries of Christianity showed great interest in some of the main personalities and events of the history depicted in the Old Testament, wanting to learn far more details than those found in the Bible. As a result, spreading of numerous anonymous apocryphal books, which re-elaborated and supplemented the Bible legends, took place at that time. The Apocrypha, which further built on, in an equivalent way, the events and the personalities of the New Testament, emerged simultaneously with the Old Testament scriptures. There was a particular need for the second type of Apocrypha, which contained many incomprehensible and abstract points, plenty of symbolism and allegories, poorly attainable to the vast majority. The writers of those Apocrypha of the Old Testament and of the New Testament remained anonymous; however, sometimes, in order to grant better reliability to their writings, they used to sign them with the names of the earliest Christian writers, with those of some of the apostles and of their scholars.
     The number of those “fake” apocryphal texts started increasing during feudalism, when Christianity became an official Church, as a response to which various heresies featured their resistance towards Christianization and the further imposing of the feudal system. Therefore, in the 2nd century the representatives of Christianity set apart the canonical from the scriptures they categorized as non-canonical, and formed an index of “fake” apocryphal books. This procedure was applied in the case of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, which we got to know through their translation from Hebrew. Those translations were sometimes too free since the translators didn’t know Greek/ Hebrew well. The most diligent copysts and users of the apocrypha were the Bogomils. As a result, certain episodes on their teaching, which do not exist in the scripture that was translated, can be found in the Apocrypha.
     Depending on the events and personalities they talk of, The Apocrypha can be divided into two groups: those of the Old and those of the New Testament.
     The Apocrypha of the Old Testament were lesser in number because Bogomilsm rejected the largest part of the Old Testament. Nonetheless, as the teaching progressed, especially after the persecution of its followers, they started using some of the legends of the Old Testament convenient for disguising the principles of their dualistic teaching. One such book is The Book of Enoch, written in a form of a vision or an apocalypse, and was declared apocryphal text in the V century, when various dualistic teachings came into use. This apocryphal book was believed to have been written by Enoch himself, the seventh man after Adam, the latter being the first man on Earth according to the Christian legend. In this text Enoch tells the story of his journey through the heavens. Accompanied by the heavenly angels, Enoch traveled the seven skies, where he saw the life in Paradise and in Hell. The angels showed him the paths of the sun and the stars, introduced him to the heavenly dignitaries, made him know of the heavenly angels, and brought him before the Lord’s throne. God himself told Enoch how He had created the world and the first man, and let him know of His own intentions for the future.
     This book’s autograph appeared in the Hebraic literature, was translated into Greek, and came to our knowledge through the Byzantine literature.
     Of a theme alike is The Book of Baruch, in which a vision (apocalypse) of the life in the heavens, a description of the cosmos, the first couple and their sin are given. Some of the episodes resemble the Bogomils’ teaching (such as the one on the planting of the vine in Paradise by the Satan).
     The scripture says that Baruch, thanks to a way of life pleasing to God, was in God’s good graces.
     When the Babylonian emperor Nabuchodonosor tore down and robbed Jerusalem, Baruch was consumed by grief. In order to comfort him, God sent him the angel who took him to the heavens and revealed him the secrets of the heavenly life, which were inaccessible to mortals.
     The Old Testament apocryphal Book on Adam and Eve is another such scripture aside from the latter apocalyptical apocrypha. It is written in a form of a legend-like narrative, in which the Biblical tale on the first couple, Adam and Eve, and their life after they were expelled from Paradise is further elaborated. This scripture was taken on from the so-called apocryphal folk bible – Palea.
     This scripture tells that Adam and Eve had 33 sons and 33 daughters after they were expelled. When Adam reached the age of nine hundred and thirty, he got fatally ill. His son Seth went to God to ask for mercy on his father. However, Archangel Michael told him that there was no cure for Adam and that the day of his death was about to come. He gave Seth three stalks, pine tree, cedar and cypress, for him to take them to his father. For Adam it was a sign he was going to die. He made a wreath out of those three small branches for his head. Later on, the cross on which Jesus Christ got crucified was made of the latter wreath.
     According to this apocryphal book Eve lived yet another six years after Adam’s death. She used to tell stories to her grandchildren about the time when she and Adam were expelled from Paradise. Certain details of this scripture, such as the prayer of Adam and Eve in the rivers of Jordan and Tigris for instance, or that of the signing of the contract between Adam and the Satan during the plowing, are of a Bogomils-like, i.e. dualistic origin.
      In the medieval literature there is a considerable number of Apocrypha of the New Testament. It is understandable, given that the Bogomils, alike all the rest of the heresies, in the main based their teaching on the New Testament scriptures, i.e. on the gospels and the works of the apostles. Several Apocrypha that depict the life of Jesus, the Holy Mother of God and other personalities of the New Testament in more details than the canonical gospel can be cited here.
     The most popular apocryphal scripture is that of the apocalypse of the Mother of Jesus (The Walk of the Holy Mother of God over the Suffering). Much fantasy and realistic depiction were used in this text to illustrate the life of the sinners in Hell.
     The heavenly archangel lead the Holy Mother of God through Hell, showing her the sinners and their suffering. One of the major Christian dogmas is God’s trinity – the belief in God the Holy Father, his Son and the Holy Spirit. There was a teaching within the Christian Church that denied this trinity. Church’s rigidity regarding the obedience by the dogmas is well expressed in this scripture. Following the spirit of such severity the writer managed to portray the suffering of the sinners in Hell who had not obeyed by the canon.

     One of the most renowned gospels of the New Testament was The Gospel of Thomas (or The Infancy Gospel), named after the apostle Thomas, to whom the latter is ascribed. In this apocryphal text Jesus Christ is portrayed as a child of supernatural powers, demonstrated at the age of four already. He could turn dirty water into a clear one “with a word only”. While playing with the rest of the children with mud, he made 12 birds, brought them to life and let them fly. As they played, one of the children muddled up with a willow stick the pond with which Christ played. He got mad and ordered for the child to dry up as a willow stick. Another occurrence is the one when some child jumped on Christ’s back. In an act of revenge he ordered for the child to become paralyzed. Thus Christ generated fear and panic among the locals, who communicated their complaints to his father. The father reprimanded him, but Jesus revenged by making all of those who said things about him blind. Joseph took the child and “pulled his ear”, but Jesus went furious and called him a bandit. Next, the father sent him to school, but the teachers sent the child back for he defied them with his knowledge.
     These episodes from Jesus’ life substantiate the dualistic teaching of the Bogomils of him being more of a spirit, and being of an illusive human dimension.
     For similar reasons, the Bogomils opted for other apocryphal gospels as well, such as: The Proto-Gospel of Jacob and the Gospel of Nicodemus. The Proto-Gospel of Jacob speaks of the earliest legend of the Holy Mother of God, her provenance and the birth of Jesus Christ.
     The Gospel of Nicodemus elaborates the suffering and the death of Christ.
     Apart from the gospels, the Apocrypha of the New Testament built on the events and personalities of The Works of the Apostles as well, those of the apostles Thomas, Andrew and Mathew in particular. In these scriptures emphasis was given to their suffering and the miracles generated about them on their Christian missions through the lands of the Far East.
     Even more popular were the Apocalyptical Apocrypha of the New Testament, written in a form of mental images and “visions”. They depicted life after death, the suffering of the sinners in Hell and the enjoyment of the righteous in Paradise; however, certain eschatological motives such as the final judgment and the end of the world were elaborated as well. In this view, emblematic is the case of The Vision of the Apostle Paul, in which the latter, accompanied by Archangel Michael, walked through Hell and witnessed the suffering of the sinners. A particular general interest, out of those “visions”, caused the apocryphal text on The Vision of Isaiah, which represents a sort of a contamination between one apocryphal scripture of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament. After his legendary death and suffering, Isaiah also traveled the seven skies, where he had a vision of Christ’s birth and death. There are several examples of dualistic belief in this scripture, which illustrates the degree of its popularity not only among our Bogomils, but also among some of the western dualists, the Cathars and the Albigensians.
     It can be hereupon understood that the heretical literature and culture are the first agents of critique in relation to the feudal society governed by the Church. By acting so, the heresies demand the improvement of the feudal system in the spirit of the principles of the primary Orthodox Christianity.
     Hence, heresy was of progressive nature in these circumstances since it accelerated the fall of the feudal system.
     The Apocrypha are one of the most popular literary phenomena in our medieval literature. Within the frames of one’s ideological capabilities, one was provided with further understanding of the world and its phenomena through them. Medieval people could picture their ideals – Paradise, the Heavenly world and life therein – by the means of these Apocrypha and personal imagination.
     The fictional substance was told in a realistic manner. Poetic tales, legends and narratives were written for that purpose.
     As a result, the Apocrypha were much preferred texts in our medieval literature, alike in the literature of others.

Generally Christian Hagiographa

     As it reads in the very title (aitos – a saint), the hagiographies were biographies of prominent Christian individuals, who were proclaimed to be saints by the Church. The hagiography phenomenon has a long history, which has its start in the initial centuries of Christianity, up to the Middle Ages, and furthermore, to more recent times. The first ever written hagiographies were testimonies of the first persecutions of the Christians, which gradually evolved into artistic hagiographies. The writers on martyries would find their model in the simple story-telling tone of the holly books, in Christ’s suffering given in the gospels, in the First Christian Martyr Stephen’s death in the Apostles Acts, etc. Undoubtedly, the biographies that arose during Antiquity played their own exclusive part thereat.
     The hagiography holds a very important position within the system of medieval prose genres. Some parts of the hagiography were available for individual reading, whilst others were related to the religious service.
     The religious service uses the so-called short hagiographies, which present the holly biographies in a dense form. The short/ prologue hagiographies are read during the service in honor of the saint, after the sixth song of the canon. The extended hagiographies are intended for shared reading (in the monastery dining room, for instance).
     The worldwide spread Christian legends historically result from the martyrs’ cult.
[1] The bloody persecutions of the earliest Christians and their martyr death were but the basis on which the religious version of the saint was built. The cult of the martyrs created the cult of the holly one. In the generally Christian hagiographies the saints are religious heroes. They bring light to humankind. The Christian saints preserved their powers even after their death, because their relics nonetheless kept on generating miracles. It is the legend phenomenon that is of vital importance for the maintenance of the saint’s cult. The Christian legends, although anonymous, are works of writers who created whilst facing a certain goal. And – the purpose of the legends was of a cult nature.
     In most of the cases hagiographies depict the lives of the distinguished and renowned ascetics, who lead a monk life in the eminent ascetic centers of Palestine, Constantinople, Mount Athos, the Olympic Mounts in Asia Minor.

     The ascetics renounced everything that was of earthly provenance, neglecting their life needs, lived their days in fasting and prayers, in self improvement according to the principles of the Christian religion, thus approaching God, which was the very ideal of asceticism. The hagiographies aimed at strengthening the Christian moral standard and lacked of historical data, because what was in the foreground were the life principles which the ascetic followed. In accordance with the already established pattern, the hagiography was composed in the latter way in order to glorify as much as possible the moral character of the saint. The hagiographies depicted the saints’ life from beginning to end, and often narrate the miracles they made even after their death. Usually, the first description is that of the saint’s birth and childhood. In almost all of the hagiographies the saint showed piousness and inclination towards religion even as a child. He avoided playing with the rest of the children; he meditated, fasted and prayed. The hagiographer usually underlined points of the saint which were in accordance with the life of a Christian following the Christian canon. The hagiographer added on to the saint supernatural powers, the representations of which were the miracles he generated. The mode often found in the Hagiographies is the dialogue, which created certain dynamism of narration. The monologues were given in the form of a prayer, thrill, grief, crush; they were full of lyric pathos. The very narration within the hagiographies was enriched with abounding comparison, reminiscence, epithets, symbols, and metaphors. The narration was of a rhetorical character. In the epoch of the developed feudal system in the South-Slav lands, those proclaimed to be saints were individuals from the top social layers, from the state and Church hierarchy, including herein, first and foremost, the governors and the Church heads. Their lives are described in a distinct literary genre – the biographies, which were highly fostered in the Middle Ages.
     Out of the translated hagiographies the most popular were: The Life of Gorge of Kapadokia, The Life of Paul the Caesarian, the Life of Alexei, the peaceful man etc.
     The St. George of Kapadokia Hagiography
[2] is known as indicated by the earliest copy from the 14th century. The foremost text of the latter hagiography referred to St. George, as a soldier-saint; but, in the following reworked copies, in addition to the basic fable on the fierce tortures St. George underwent, renouncing to give up Christianity, the episode on the dragon, which threatened the life of the emperor’s daughter, was further included in this hagiography’s base.
     The St. George of Kapadokia legend was elaborated not only within the Byzantine, but also the South-Slav literature, and in the literature of other cultures, too. This is the type of a Christian hero idealized in the most beautiful way. George of Kapadokia was a character fit to be an idealized combatant for Christianity because, according to tradition, he had come from high social circles, in times of the most severe persecutions of the Christians.
     The legend says George was a very rich man, who, following the Christian principles, dealt out everything he had to the poor and took an open stand for the persecuted Christians. Thus he made the emperor furious, so the latter ordered for George to undergo torture, of a sort such that only the medieval writer’s fantasy could give a picture of. He endured most various cruelties – until his brain leaked down his nose. George withstood it all thanks to the prayers and the genuine faith in God.
     As a final try, the emperor called the sorcerer to dissuade George from Christianity by means of spell. On the contrary, George made a great impression on him, so he asked to be converted to the Christian faith.
     The legend on George of Kapadokia evolved gaining various episodes. This character impressed the feudal lords because it had come from high social circles. Later on, the anonymous writers depicted this character according to the taste and the needs of the feudal society.
     Yet another translated and popular hagiography of the South-Slav literature was the one on the life of St. Paul the Caesarian.[3]
     The scripture dates from the 17th century, however, judging by its popularity, no doubt it was written earlier. In fact, it’s about the popular narrative on the incestuous sin of the Antique king Oedipus, transferred to the Byzantine saint from the 6th century and Christianized. The incestuous sin is one of the heaviest, even if committed out of ignorance. However, Christianity regards one’s penitence as the most important phase of the self-improvement of one’s soul. In this hagiography the anonymous writer underlines that even the most terrible sin, such as the incestuous, can be repented if one approaches it honestly and behaves according to the norms of the Christian living.
     The Antique legend on the incestuous sin, alike the Christian one, grew from the corresponding social relations. Without knowing it, Oedipus married his own mother and bore heavy repercussions as a result of the latter kind of violation. Such relations between the son and the mother were regarded as an offense, most probably as of the patriarchy-strengthening period. However, the incestuous sin depicted in this hagiography grows out of the feudal social system.
     Paul the Caesarian is a fruit of a sinful marriage between a brother and a sister, the Caesarian emperor and empress, who got married, fully conscious, so as to prevent the dividing up of the feudal property. Immediately after he was born, Paul was put into a chest and thrown into the sea, out of which he saved himself in some miraculous way. Once grown up, he married the Caesarian empress, whose husband had died, not knowing she was his mother. But, Paul found out, and, before committing the sin with his mother he addressed the St. Goldenmouth John for penitence.
     The Golednmouth ascertained that the very act of marrying the mother was a severe sin that required an equivalent atoning. Therefore, The Goldenmouth locked himself inside a marble pillar and threw the keys into the sea. The keys were found 12 years later, and when the pillar was opened – Paul was found alive and consecrated.
     The ending of this hagiography became of use to the medieval priests in their sermons to point out to the believers the importance of penitence and of the mercy of God who forgave even the most terrible sins to those who felt honest repentance.
     This very much popular Christian legend on Oedipus’ sin entered the folk literature, the famous lyrics about Nachod Simon, Tsar Dusan and about others.

Translated by: Aneta Manevska


1. Hippolute Delehaue, Les legendes hagiographiques, Bruxelles, 1905, str. 187. – Les origines du culte des marturs, Bruhelles 1912, Chapitre IX.


2. А.Б. Р.Eстенко, Легенда о св. Георгиj и дракон в Византискоj и славјaноруској литературах, Одеса 1909.
3. М. Драгоманов, СНУНК, V, 268-310< истото, бр. VI, стр.239-304< Н. А. Наќов, СНУНК, IX, 94< С. АргировŠ, СНУНК, VII, 556< А. И. ŸŸŸцимирски‡, Сборник Харчковскаго историко-филологиќеског општества 1909.

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