Three lost christian writings

    Three lost Christian writings which would be interesting to read are the books of Hegesippus and Papias, as well the Acts of Pilate.  The Acts of Pilate was an account that Pilate wrote of the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus and sent to the emperor Tiberius.  There is an apocryphal document with that title, but there is evidence that a real Acts of Pilate existed.  One example is that the early Christin Philosopher Justin Martyr writes refers to them his First Apology

    "How it was prophesied that our Christ would heal all diseases and raise the dead, hear what was spoken, as follows: 'At his coming the lame will leap like a hart, and the stammering tongue will be clear; blind will see and lepers be cleansed, and the dead will arise and walk.'  That he did these things, you can learn from the Acts of what took place under Pontius Pilate."

    No doubt Pilate's view of the miracles of Jesus was different than that of the Christians.  However, although some Romans were skeptical of the existence of the supernatural, many, even those who disbelieved in Christianity had no difficulty in accepting the miraculous healings of Jesus.  Indeed, pagan writer Eunapius writes of the philosopher Porphyry (who wrote a book against Christianity which only survives in quotation from other authors because all copies were burned): 

    "And he says too that he cast out and expelled some sort of daemon from a certain bath; the inhabitants called this daemon Kusatha."

    In other words, many Romans admitted the possibility of, and actually believed in, miraculous healings and other supernatural events, but their understanding of their significance was different than that of the Christians.  

    More evidence for the existence of the Acts of Pilate comes from Eusebius in his History of the Church: 

    "Our Saviour's marvellous resurrection and ascension into heaven were by now everywhere famous, and it had long been customary for provincial governors to report to the holder of the imperial office any change in the local situation, so that he might be aware of all that was going on.  The story of the resurrection from the dead of our Saviour Jesus, already the subject of general discussion all over Palestine, was accordingly communicated  by Pilate to the emperor Tiberius.  For Pilate knew all about Christ's supernatural deeds, and especially how after death He had risen from the dead nd was now generally believed to be a god.  

    It is said that Tiberius referred the report to the senate, which rejected it.  The apparent reason was that they had not gone into the matter before, for the old law still held good that no one could be regarded by the Romans as a god unless by vote and decree of the senate; the real reason was that no human decision or commendation was required for the saving teaching of the divine messge.  In this way the Roman council rejected the report sent to it about our Saviour, but Tiberius made no change in his attitude and formed no evil designs against the teachings of Christ."

    As with Justin Martyr's reference, it is not likely that Pilate believed in the resurrection of Jesus; he probably viewed people's discussion of the resurrection as the emergence of a new religious sect.  Nonetheless, this document would be worth reading because it would give us a description of Jesus and the emergence of Christianity from a Roman perspective.  

    Hegesippus's writings have been lost, but he lived in the 100s AD and wrote five books that described events that happened in the early Church, many after the Acts of the Apostles.  For example, Eusebius quotes Hegesippus's description of the martyrdom of James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, who was killed by the Scribes and Pharisees.  This James was not James the Apostle, but a relative of Jesus who was a Nazirite (like Samson) and was widely respected because of his upright manner of living.

    Papias wrote five books called The Sayings of the Lord Explained.  Eusebius writes: 

    "Pre-eminent at that time in Asia was a companion of the Apostles, Polycarp, on whom the eyewitnesses and ministers of the Lord had conferred the episcopate of the church at Smyrna.  Famous contemporaries of his were Papias, bishop of the see of Hierapolis, and one who to this day is universally remembered - Ignatius, the second to be appointed to the bishopric of Antioch in succession to Peter."

    Papias did not know the Apostles personally, but he spoke with those who had known them.  Eusebius quotes Papias as writing: 

    "And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the Presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Phillip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other disciple of the Lord, and what Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord, were still saying.  For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice."

    Since Papias spoke with people for whom the age of the Apostles was still a living memory, his books would have much of historical interest.  

    Unfortunately, all of these books are long gone.  But then again, it is not unprecedented that long-lost Christian writings be recovered.  The Infogalactic page on Hegesippus says: 

    "Zahn has shown that the work of Hegesippus may still have been extant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in three Eastern libraries, saying: 'We must lament the loss of other portions of the Memoirs which were known to exist in the seventeenth century.' "

    Furthermore, the Didache, an early document of Christian teaching, which had been referred to by other writings, but lost was rediscovered.  The Penguin Classics Early Christian Writings gives the following account: 

    "Towards the end of 1883, Philotheos Bryennios, then Metropolitan of Nicomedia, astonished the world by publishing a text of The Didache which he had discovered ten years earlier in a small eleventh-century codex of 120 pages in the library in Constantinople belonging to the Patriarch of Jerusalem (it has since been transferred to Jerusalem) - a manuscript we have already encountered as it contains the only complete Greek texts we know of the epistles of Clement and Barnabas.

    Another example of a lost and found again text is the Epistle to Diognetus.  The introduction to Early Christian Writings says: 

    "In about 1435 in Constantinople, where he had gone to study Greek, a young Italian student, Thomas of Arezzo, discovered amonst a pile of packing paper in a fish market a rather tattered volume of ecclesiastical writings in Greek.  The first five treatises in this manuscript volume were spurious works acribed to Justin Martyr, i.e., the second century apologist the fifth of them headed 'By the same [i.e. Justin], to Diognetus.  ... It was a work previously unknown - neither Eusebius nor any of the Fathers refers to it - and this sole manuscript was the basis of many editions, from that of H. Estienne in 1592 onwards, until the manuscript was destroyed in the flames of Strasbourg in 1870, a victim of the Franco-Prussian War.


it is the sole - though fleeting - evidence of a work that has fascinated since its discovery.  It is written in Greek of a conscious elegance rare among early Christian writings, even though at times, because of illegibility, it becomes barely comprehensible."  


  1. A fascinating and thought-provoking post. I had never heard of the Acts of Pilate before. It's a shame that it appears to be lost. I, for one, would love to read it!

    1. Thanks.

      It is disappointing that the Acts of Pilate is lost. I could see the other two showing up in the Vatican library or a monastery somewhere, but I get the impression the Acts of Pilate only had one copy.

    2. I really appreciate blog posts like this one, which send me 'link clicking' off to discover new interests...
      Also, this post brought to mind the work of biblical scholar George Howard, who published a book of evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.

      Here also is a link to a really great video talk on the subject (& transcript) by biblical scholar Nehemia Gordon, who is also an expert in ancient Hebrew and helped translate the Dead Sea Scrolls:

      I think both of you would appreciate Mr. Gordon's work. Though he's a Karaite Jew, he's done quite a bit of New Testament research -

      - actually, the video linked above starts out as a talk on the book, "A Prayer to Our Father-Hebrew Origins of The Lord's Prayer" (written with Christian Pastor, Keith Johnson)
      If you pull up the video transcript you can skim down to where he starts talking about "George Howard", then lays out some of the evidence for "Hebrew Matthew", and goes on to discuss the textual references which 'witness' to the Hebrew origin of that Gospel...

    3. I'm glad you liked this post.

      Thanks for the info about the Gospel of Matthew.
      In Eusebius's book, he also writes that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.

  2. I have always been disappointed whenever I read any of these discovered books - in the sense that none of them have ever made any difference to my faith; not least since they all seem to pursue the errors of the Synoptics even further. (I regard the 'gnostics' as just more extreme versions of the theological errors of orthodox Christianity.)

    The exception is the Book of Enoch - which has some exciting stuff about the Nephilim - great basis for fantasy fiction.

    It would most interest me to have an autograph version of the Fourth Gospel (chapters 1-20), to see if I am correct about the later textual insertions and omissions!

    1. "I have always been disappointed whenever I read any of these discovered books - in the sense that none of them have ever made any difference to my faith"

      I understand your perspective. You would probably find the two rediscovered books mentioned in this post (Didache and Epistle to Dignetus) similar because they were written as introductions to Christianity. My main interest in the lost writings isn't so much the big picture as the details that would fill in more about that time. Things like, what happened to Pilate's wife or what did the Ethiopian Eunuch do after he went back to Ethiopia?

      "It would most interest me to have an autograph version of the Fourth Gospel (chapters 1-20), to see if I am correct about the later textual insertions and omissions!"

      I agree; it would be interesting to have an autograph version of any of the books of the Bible.


The Hall of Mirrors Effect

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