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Apocryphal Literature


(Greek apokrythos—hidden). As well as the legends that formed part of the canonical books of the Bible, i.e., the Old and New Testaments, mediaeval literature abounded with apocryphas, legends about Biblical personages, which differed from those contained in the canonical books of the Bible. Sometimes the apocryphas adopted a different philosophical viewpoint in examining the origin of the world, its structure and the question of the “end of the world” of such great concern to mediaeval minds.18 Finally, apocryphal motifs were sometimes included in works of traditional genres, for example, vitae,19

Originally there was a distinction between apocryphas intended for readers well versed in theological matters, who could interpret the apocryphal versions in line with the traditional ones, and the “proscribed books” containing heretical views which were clearly hostile to orthodox beliefs. But the borderline between apocryphal and proscribed books was not a strict one, different writers took different views of them, and therefore both groups of writing are usually considered within the framework of apocryphal literature as a whole. It is sometimes hard to distinguish the apocryphas from the “true” (the term used by Old Russian writers) books. There was no unanimity of opinion on this question in mediaeval literature. Apocryphal subjects are found in chronicles, annals, and paleyas, and the apocryphas themselves in miscellanies alongside authoritative and revered works. The lists of proscribed books, or “indexes”, compiled in Byzantium and by the Slavs, did not always correspond to one another, and in practice their recommendations were often ignored.20

Apocryphas were known already in the literature of Kievan Russia. Manuscripts copied before the thirteenth century contain apocryphal stories about the prohet Jeremiah, The Journey of St Agapetus to Paradise, The Tale of Aphroditian, The Descent of the Virgin to Purgatory and a number of others.21 We also find apocryphal legends in the Primary Chronicle: there are, for example, apocryphal details in the story about the childhood of the Prophet Moses (how he knocked the crown off the head of the Egyptian Pharaoh when he was playing), and the reply of the leaders of the uprising in the Rostov lands to voevoda Jan Vyshatich quoted in the chronicle (under the year 1071) contains some Bogomil ideas about the Creation: “the Devil created man, and God put a soul into him”. In a description of his pilgrimage to Palestine at the beginning of the twelfth century Abbot Daniel also mentions some apocryphal legends.

Apocryphas are characterised by an abundance of miracles, fantastic and exotic happenings. For example, The Paralipomenon of Jeremiah tells how the youth Abimelech, returning to town with a basket of figs, sat down in the shade of a tree and fell asleep. He woke up sixty-six years later, but miraculously the figs were still so fresh that the juice was dripping from them.

Another apocryphal tale tells how the pious Abbot Agapetus went off in search of paradise. Paradise is described as a beautiful garden, bathed in light that is seven times brighter than the sun. The bread that Agapetus receives in paradise is wonder-working bread: it can sate starving mariners, bring back to life a young youth who died two weeks before, and one crust of it keeps Agapetus himself alive for forty years.22

At the same time the apocryphas satisfied not only literary, but also theological interests. They raised problems of special concern to religious people: about the causes of the imperfections in the world which, as the church taught, had been created and ruled by an almighty and just divinity, about the future of the world, man’s fate after death, etc. The popular Descent of the Virgin to Purgatory, for example, deals with the latter theme.

It tells how the Virgin accompanied by the Archangel Michael and the angels descends into purgatory. She sees the various torments of sinners there: some dwell constantly “in great darkness” because they did not believe in God, others are engulfed in a river of fire, because they were cursed by their parents or broke an oath sworn on the cross. Scandalmongers, sluggards who rose too late for matins, slanderers and debauchers, drunkards and money-grubbers are also suffering terrible torments. The Virgin sheds tears at the sight of this terrible retribution, and decides to ask God to have mercy on the sinners. But God the Father refuses to take pity on them. He cannot forgive men for crucifying Christ. And only after a new supplication, in which the Virgin is joined by the Prophets, Evangelists, Apostles and all the angels, does God the Father send Christ to descend into purgatory, where after severely reprimanding the sinners for not following the Divine behests, he grants them freedom from torment for two months each year.

Unlike the apocryphal tale of Jeremiah and Abimelech, which contains all the elements of an entertaining story about miracles, that of the Virgin raises the question of Divine justice and casts doubt on God’s “ineffable love of mankind”: for the Virgin, the angels and saints are forced to plead insistently for the alleviation of sinners’ terrible torments, and for a long time God remains implacable. It was perhaps this idea that put the Descent among the apocryphal works, although the need to threaten people with Divine retribution for their sins would seem to be fully in keeping with ecclesiastical teaching and behests.

Apocryphal tales are found throughout Old Russian literature, and we shall return to those apocryphal subjects that became widespread at a later period.

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