Coptic literature is particularly rich in so-called apocryphal texts. This is especially noticeable in the documents dealing with the apostles. The source of this phenomenon may be ascribed to the spirit of patriotism prevailing among the Copts or to the tradition of legendary and fictitious forms so commonly used in the monastic milieus for edification or entertainment. The importance of such texts in the Christian literature of the first few centuries was signaled by I. Guidi (1888, pp. 1-7) as a means for a better knowledge of the numerous apostolic acts to be found in Coptic manuscripts. In his estimation, they were the basis of the collections of acts known in Arabic and in Ethiopian.

In 1904, E. REVILLOUT undertook the publication of a number of fragments derived mainly from the National Library of Paris, as well as the Vatican Library and the libraries of Oxford and Strasbourg. These he presented under the inclusive and erroneous title of “The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles” (PO 2). That same year, P. Lacau also brought out a number of those fragments, but he classified them very carefully, distinguishing the Acts of Pilate from an Apocalypse of Bartholomew and some other pieces to which, for want of better title, he gave the name “Apocryphal Gospel.”

Since then, the labors of different critics and in particular the effort to assemble pages of spread throughout the various libraries of the West, put into action by T. Orlandi at the center of the Corpus dei manoscritti letterari in Rome, have allowed us to form a clearer idea of that group of apocryphal acts, preserved, translated, and recopied, at times revised and even rewritten by the Coptic church throughout the first six centuries.

If the Arabic (ed. Smith-Lewis) and Ethiopian (ed. Malan and Budge) collections inform us about the content of the legends inherited from Coptic sources, they tell nothing about the composition of the collections that preserved these legends. The work of reassembling the codices has brought to light the fact that, with the exception of acts about the great figures such as Peter, Paul, and John, the narratives concerning an apostle were practically never circulated in an isolated state. They were always inserted in a collection that was carefully arranged in a specific order. It is therefore possible to find collections that contain only the acts, namely, the teaching of the apostles, without the accompanying martyrdom narratives.

Other collections contain only an account of a martyrdom, as does the manuscript of the Pierpont Morgan Library M 635—which alone is still in its original arrangement. In some collections the teaching and the martyrdom narrative alternate, and finally, some collections combine different acts of the apostles. Andrew is an example of such, for he is always associated with a companion. The apostle Simon, son of Cleophas, also called the Zealot or the Canaanite, and a virgin named Theonoe, are the subjects of a story apparently belonging to the local Egyptian patrimony, since it is not found in the Arabic and Ethiopian collections. It should in all probability fill a complete of its own.

The principal apostles, Peter, Paul, and John, have obviously received special treatment, since their acts and stories occupy a complete codex, or else the copyist has summarized the story—something that occurs from time to time with other apostles—or he has simply given an extract in a collection concerning the acts of the other apostles.

In this way, the Acts of Paul in the Coptic language are known primarily by the Papyrus No. 1 (ed. Schmidt), which gives, again in a fragmentary state, a witness of the Greek Acts of Paul, that is, not only the journey, the acts of Paul and of Thecla, but also the correspondence with the Corinthians and the martyrdom (cf. for that account, F. Bovon et al., 1981, pp. 295-98). C. Schmidt dates the papyrus as the sixth century being the latest possible date. Its language is Sahidic very strongly colored by Akhmimism. There are two other unedited fragments, one minute on a fourth-century parchment ( Rylands Library Suppl. 44, English translation by E. Crum in the Bulletin of the Ryland’s Library 5, 1920, pp. 498ff.), and the other in a very bad state, on a fifth-century papyrus in the Bodmer Collection, translated provisionally by R. Kasser (Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses 40 (1960): 45-57, and Hennecke and Schneemelcher, Vol. 2, pp. 268-70). The first of these gives again a passage from the beginning of Saint Paul’s journey; the other, the Ephesus episode. The collections of reconstructed acts have, up to now, given only fragments of martyrdom, possible proof that the entire story of Paul’s predication should have been the object of separate codices.

Perhaps it was the same with the Acts of Peter, though some fragments of bring to light some passages that are difficult to insert in the existing collections (cf. Poirier and Lucchesi, 1984, p. 8, notes 2 and 4; p. 12, note 1).

As is the case with Paul, Peter’s martyrdom is better testified (ed. Guidi, 1887-1888, Vol. II, pp. 25-29 and 31-34). The Act of Peter preserved in the Gnostic Berlin 8502, is of particular interest because it was cut out of the authorized version of Acta Petri known through the Vercelli manuscript (cf. Schmidt, 1903, 24, 1, pp. 3-7; Parrott, 1979, 11, pp. 478-93; Tardieu, 1984, pp. 217-22) but inserted in a Gnostic collection. Till and Schenke (1960, p. 333) and Tardieu (1984, pp. 67-72) have tried to explain why Gnostic people preserved this particular story. In the light of that text, it is striking to observe the role that popular and fictitious narrative could play in ethic and dogmatic paraenesis, like the narratives that are to be found in the collection of stories preserved in Coptic apostolic collections. These stories were surely linked with a solid reality, namely, that of the society of those times as well as its thoughts and its customs.

The Acts of John preserved in Coptic are those of Prochorus (fifth century). At least one manuscript keeps them in their entirety (M 576, Pierpont Morgan Library), and several others are in a fragmentary state (cf. Junod and Kaestli, 1983, pp. 377-97). The account of the apostle’s death, or metastasis of the Greek acts, is covered widely enough, and particularly so in the manuscript Or 6782 (tenth century) edited by E. A. Wallis Budge (1913, pp. 51-58).

In the Acts of Andrew, the Coptic papyrus of Utrecht No. 1, now edited by R. van den Broeck in J. M. Prieur, 1989, pp. 653-671, with French translation (translated into German in Hennecke and Scheemelcher, Vol. 2, pp. 281-85 by and Zandee, and in Italian in Erbetta, Vol. 2, pp. 404-406; Moraldi, Vol. 2, pp. 1424-27) proves that the text of the Greek acts had itself circulated in Coptic, because the fragment, damaged at the beginning and in the center, is inserted very neatly in chapter 18 of the story of Gregory of Tours. On the other hand, the reconstituted codices and the Arabic and Ethiopian collections have preserved different acts about Andrew where the apostle always appears accompanied, either by Matthias or Philemon, or by Bartholomew, or by Peter or Paul. As to the martyrdom, the thin fragment that remains is very close to the Arabic version (Smith-Lewis, 1904, p. 28).

Finally, the Coptic text of the Acts of Thomas, the contents of which had been known until now from the Arabic and Ethiopian versions that derive from Coptic, was published in its fragmentary state by P. H. Poirier in 1984. E. Lucchesi in an appended codicogical study, determines the place of the fragments in the Coptic collections of the apocryphal acts. The story about Thomas’s working of miracles and his conversions, as well as of his carrying on his shoulders the skin that had been torn from him, are not to be found in the Greek acts, nor in the or Latin traditions, but a Persian legend attributes the same to Bartholomew. As to the martyrdom, it seems to be a simplified version of that contained in the primitive Greek acts.

As to the other apostles, the fragments that remain allow us to establish the fact that, with some occasional differences, the narratives agree more or less with those of the Arabic and Ethiopian collections; the exceptions are the acts of Simon, son of Cleophas, and of the Virgin Theonoe. This story is preserved in Coptic by at least two manuscripts, of which one, very fragmentary (Zoega, 1810, no. 137) allows us to complete the other; this text was edited by I. Guidi (1887-1888, 3, 2, pp. 76-80). It is not to be found in the Arabic and Ethiopian collections. It is true that the Copts, judging from the pieces that have survived, should have possessed a considerable number of codices, distributed in various ways—either in the list of the apostles, which is never absolutely the same as that of the synoptic gospels or as that of the Arabic and Ethiopian collections, or in the orderly arrangement of the texts (sufferings, teachings, or an alternation of the two).

A link should be noted in the transmission of these apostolic Coptic legends: between the Sahidic collections (originating mainly from the White Monastery—see DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH) or Sahidico-Akhmimic (Acts of Paul, for example) and the Arabic or Ethiopian collections existed the Bohairic collection of the in Wadi al-Natruun. Unfortunately very few fragments remain from the acts of of Prochorus, the metastasis, the teaching and martyrdom of Philip, the teaching of Bartholomew, and the martyrdoms of Matthias, Mark, and Luke. The content has a close resemblance to the Arabic and Ethiopian versions and remains in the category of a precious witness of the transition that the editor H. Evelyn-White (1926) dates to the thirteenth century or thereabouts.

The Coptic church was therefore rich in numerous collections of apostolic legends, which had been taken from the Greek tradition and translated or reshuffled, or which had been fashioned by the church itself. If one reflects on the numerous codices that were recopied, at the White Monastery for example, the church must have made great use of them in the liturgy as much as in the instruction and building of a Christian and monastic people.


Acta Apocrypha in general

  • Bovon, F., et al. Les Actes apocryphes des apôtres. Publications de la Faculté de l’Université de Genève; Geneva, 1981.
  • Erbetta, M. Gli Apocrifi del Nuovo Testamento, Vol. 2, Atti e Legende. Turin, 1966.
  • Hennecke, E., and W. Schneemelcher. Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, Vol. 2. Tübingen, 1959-1964.
  • Lipsius, R. A. Die Apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostellegenden, 2 vols. Brunswick, West Germany, 1883-1890; repr., Amsterdam, 1976.
  • Moraldi, L. Apocrifi del Nuovo Testamento, Vol. 2. Turin, 1971.

Acta Apocrypha Coptica

  • Budge, E. A. W. Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, pp. 51-58, 233-40. London, 1913.
  • Guidi, I. “Frammenti copti.” R. Accademia nazionale dei Rendiconti, ser. 4, 31, 1887, 47-63; 3.2, 1887, 19-35; 65-81, 177-190; 251-270; 368-384; 4.1, 1888, 60-70. Rome, 1887- 1888.
  •    . “Gli Atti Apocrifi degli Apostoli nei testi copti, arabi ed etiopici.” Giornale della Società asiatica italiana 2 (1888):1-66.
  • Junod, E., and J.-D. Kaestli. Acta Johannis (Corpus Christianorum, Series Apocryphorum 1), Vol. 1, pp. 377-97. Turnhout, Belgium, 1983.
  • Lacau, P. Fragments d’apocryphes coptes. Mémoires de l’Institut d’archéologie orientale du Caire 9. Cairo, 1904.
  • Lemm, O. von. “Koptische apokryphe Apostelacten” 1-2. Mélanges asiatiques 10 (1890-1894):99-171, 293-386.
  •    . Kleine Koptische Studien 1-58, ed. P. Nagel. Leipzig, 1972.
  •    . Koptische Miscellen 1-148, ed. P. Nagel. Leipzig, 1972.
  • Lucchesi, E. “Deux nouveaux fragments coptes des Actes d’André et de Barthélemy.” Analecta Bollandiana 98 (1980):75-82.
  • Lucchesi, E., and J. M. Prieur. “Fragments coptes des Actes d’André et de Barthélemy.” Analecta Bollandiana 96 (1978):339-50.
  • Morard, F. “Notes sur le copte des Actes Apocryphes des Apôtres.” Revue de théologie et de philosophie 113 (1981):403- 413.
  •    . “Les Recueils coptes d’actes apocryphes des apôtres. Un exemple: le R.” Augustinianum. XI Incontro di studiosi dell’ antichità cristiana 23 (1983):73-82.
  • Orlandi, T. “Gli Apocrifi copti.” Augustinianum. XI Incontro di studiosi dell’ antichità cristiana 23 (1983):57-71.
  • Parrott, D. M. Nag Hammadi Codices V, 2-5, and VI with Papyrus Berolinensis 8502 1 and 4. Nag Hammadi Studies 11, pp. 478- 93. Leiden, Poirier, P.-H. Acts of Thomas. Louvain-la-neuve, 1981.
  •    . La Version copte de la prédication et du martyre de Thomas, avec une contribution codicologique au corpus copte
  • des Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha par E. Lucchesi. Subsidia Hagiographica 67. Brussels, 1984.
  • Revillout, E. Les Apocryphes coptes. PO 2, pt. 2.
  • Schmidt, C. “Die alten Petrusakten.” Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der alterchristlichen Literatur 24, 1, pp. 3-7. Leipzig, 1903.
  •    . Acta Pauli, aus der Heidelberger Papyrushandschrift Nr. 1. Leipzig, 1904; 2nd ed., 1905; repr.,
  • Hildesheim, 1965.
  • Tardieu, M. de Berlin, pp. 67-72, 217-22; 403-410. Paris, 1984.
  • Till, W., and H. M. Schenke. Papyrus Berolinensis 8502. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der alterchristlichen Literatur 60, 2. Berlin, 1960.
  • Zoega, Georg. Catalogus codicum copticorum manuscriptorum qui in adservantur. Opus posthumum. Rome, 1810. Re-edited J. M. Sauget. Hildesheim, 1973.

Acta Bohairica

  • Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi n’Natrun, Vol. 1, pp. 27-50. New York, 1926.

Acta Arabica

  • Smith-Lewis, A. The Mythological Acts of the Apostles. Horae semiticae 4. London, 1904.

Acta Ethiopica

  • Budge, E. A. W. The Contendings of the Apostles, 2 vols. London, 1899-1901.
  • Malan, S. C. The Conflicts of the Holy Apostles. London, 1871.