Cursing in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles

I will be presenting a paper at the Spring 2017 meeting of the Westar Institute next week (March 22-25) in sunny Santa Rosa, California (further information HERE). The paper, “Cursing and the Apostle: The Fight for Authority in Early Christianity,” will be read during the Christianity Seminar (papers available online HERE). It features a lengthy introduction on cursing in the ancient world, including the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The final section covers cursing in the canonical Acts and Paul’s letters and then turns to the apocryphal acts. For those interested in Christian Apocrypha (and why else would you be here?), I have excerpted here, with some changes, the portion of the paper focusing on Acts and apocryphal acts.

The canonical book of Acts is a treasure trove of curse stories. Several of these are perpetrated by God: the fatal punishment of Judas (Acts 1:15–20), the death of Herod Agrippa (12:20–23;  cf. Josephus, Ant. 19.8.2, where Agrippa’s death is also seen as divine retribution), and the blinding of Paul (9:3–9). In two other curse stories, an apostle is given an active role. The first of these is the story of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1–11; influenced perhaps by the story of Achan who misappropriated what had been dedicated to God and was killed along with his family; see Josh 7:1–26). As the story goes, the community in Jerusalem shares its resources so that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). Members of the group sold their land and houses and gave the proceeds to the apostles who “distributed to each as any had need” (4:35). Two members of the community, however, had not given all they owned.

Ananias and Sapphira

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things. (5:1–11)

It is not clear who exactly is the instrument of doom in the tale, God or Peter. While God is certainly the power behind the curse, Peter has the ability to know that Ananias is lying and Ananias dies after Peter’s declaration of the falsehood. The same formula is followed for Sapphira, though by now Peter certainly knows what fate will befall her if she lies. The story is a frightening warning to those who dare to cheat or lie to the community. Readers of the text, or hearers of the tale, would feel some hesitation in doing the same. They may also have felt that the successors of Peter would have the same ability to curse those who disobey the church’s commands and justifiably worry if they are called before their superiors.

The second apostolic curse story in Acts is Paul’s encounter with Bar-Jesus, also known as Elymas (13:6–11). Paul and Barnabas have traveled to Cyprus and meet the proconsul of Paphas who is accompanied by “a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus” (13:6). When Elymas tries to prevent Paul and Barnabas from speaking to the proconsul about Jesus, Paul curses him: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun” (13:10–11). And, as one might expect, Elymas is blinded. It is not revealed to the reader how long the blindness lasts—perhaps for his entire life. As for the proconsul, “when [he] saw what happened, he believed” (13:12). Miracles are often depicted in the canonical Gospels and Acts as effective ways to attract people to the faith and encourage belief; they are an entryway, an attention-getter for the teacher, who then follows up the miracles with teachings. But this story demonstrates that a curse can be just as effective, particularly when encountering rival wonderworkers. It is a classic case of my god is bigger and better than your god.

The same conflict between apostles and rival wonderworkers is observable in the curse stories of the apocryphal acts. The apocryphal acts are similar to the canonical Acts—they feature stories of apostles travelling to various locations, performing miracles, converting people to the faith, and encountering persecution and martyrdom—but focus on individual apostles, each of whom is appointed a corner of the world to evangelize. Every apostle, as well as several secondary figures, such as Cornelius the Centurion and Mark the Evangelist, gets his own text, but five of these stand out in scholarship as the earliest: Andrew, Peter, Paul, John, and Thomas, all composed in either the late second or early third century. Christian institutions and theologians have not looked favorably upon these texts. Uneasy about the somewhat unorthodox preaching and ascetic practices of the apostles in the apocryphal acts, orthodox revisers removed the martyrdom accounts and discarded the rest. Due to the efforts of Christian apocrypha scholars, portions of the discarded material have been recovered but even today, only the Acts of Thomas is available in its entirety. The material that is available for study features a number of curse stories, but the texts may once have featured more.

Several of the stories focus on encounters between the apostle and minor characters who offend the apostle or interfere in his mission. Both Paul and Thomas encounter unworthy people who attempt to take part in the Eucharist. In one story, “a certain youth who had wrought an abominable deed” (he killed a woman who spurned his advances) cannot not put the Eucharist in his mouth because his hands had withered up (Acts Thom. 51). The apostle says that the Eucharist had detected his lie, though presumably the punishment came directly from God. In the other story, the apostle is more active in the curse. A woman named Rufina approaches Paul to receive the Eucharist but he stops her and says, “Rufina, you are not coming to the altar of God like a true (worshipper), rising from beside (one who is) not your husband but an adulterer, yet you seek to receive the Eucharist of God. For behold Satan shall trouble break your body and cast you down in the sight of all that believe in the Lord, so that they may see and believe, and know that it is the living God who examines (men’s) hearts. But if you repent of your action, he is faithful, so that he can wipe away your sins (and) deliver you from this sin. But if you do not repent while you are still in the body, the consuming fire and the outer darkness shall receive you forever” (Acts Pet. 2). Rufina falls down, paralyzed on the left side of her body. The onlookers worry now that God will not forgive their own former sins, a concern that reflects the overarching theme of the text, that apostates during times of persecution should be welcomed back to the community if they repent. Rufina, for her part, is not repentant of her sin and is punished as a result.

Another tale of Paul features the common punishment of blindness. A man in Myra named Hermocrates is cured by Paul of dropsy. This angers his son Hermippus because he wanted his father to die so that he could inherit his property. Hermippus comes at Paul with a sword but after Paul prays to God to “look down upon their counsel and let me not be brought to nought by them,” Hermippus is struck blind (Acts Paul 4). Attacking an apostle brings misery also when a cupbearer at a wedding strikes Thomas. The apostle says to him, “My God will forgive you for this wrong in the world to come, but in this world he will show his wonders, and I shall soon see that hand that struck me dragged along by dogs” (Acts Thom. 6). And indeed, the cupbearer is later killed by a lion and a black dog takes his hand and brings it back to the wedding (Acts Thom. 8). Andrew also meets resistance and is twice saved from death by curses from God. In the first story, a noble youth named Exoos comes to Andrew without his parents’ consent. The parents lead a mob to the house where Andrew is staying, but before any harm can come to him, God blinds the mob. “All were converted,” the text reports, “except the youth’s parents, who cursed him and went home again, leaving all their money to public uses. Fifty days after they suddenly died, and the citizens, who loved the youth, returned the property to him” (Acts Andr. 12). In the second story, a proconsul sends Andrew into a pit of wild animals, but God intervenes and a fierce bull spares Andrew, killing instead its two handlers; then a fierce leopard enters the pit but it “left every one alone but seized and strangled the proconsul’s son” (Acts Andr. 18).

Giotto, Raising of Drusiana, Peruzzi Chapel (14th. cent.)

The final example of cursing opponents is the infamous tale of the attempted necrophilia of Callimachus from the Acts of John (70–86). Callimachus and Fortunatus enter the tomb of Drusiana but before they can defile her body, a snake comes out of nowhere and kills Fortunatus. Then an angel appears. He covers Drusiana and says to Callimachus, “die, that you may live” (76). And Callimachus is bitten by the snake. John comes to the tomb, dismisses the snake and raises Callimachus to life so that he can reveal what happened. Now repentant of his attempted crime, Callimachus is  accepted into the apostle’s group. Drusiana is then restored to life and in turn she raises Fortunatus, who flees from the tomb. Later John receives a revelation that Fortunatus will die of blood-poisoning from the bite, and he dispatches one of his followers to determine if he is indeed dead. When they discover it is true, John says, “You have your child, devil!” (86) and they all rejoice.

Another apostolic curse story deserves separate mention, because one of the victims in the account is not a sinner, but someone who was cursed in order to prevent sin. The story is the sole episode in the Act of Peter from Berlin Coptic Papyrus 8502. A crowd comes to Peter in search of healing. One person in the group asks him about his daughter: “why haven’t you helped your virgin daughter, who has grown up to be beautiful and has believed in the name of God? For look, she is completely paralyzed on one side and lies there in the corner, helpless. We see people you have healed, but your own daughter you have neglected” (128,15–129,8). Peter responds that it is indeed within God’s power to heal her and Peter does so, “so that your soul may be convinced and those here may increase their faith” (129,17–19). The crowd rejoices and Peter declares, “Look, your hearts are convinced that God is not powerless regarding what we ask of him” (130,12–16). Then Peter says to his daughter, “Now go back to your place, lie down, and become an invalid again, for this is better for both of us” (131,2–5). The crowd begs him to heal her again but Peter refuses, saying the Lord told him on the day she was born, “this girl will harm many souls if her body stays healthy” (132,1–4). He then relates a story of a man named Ptolemy who was tempted by the girl when she was only ten years old. The text is damaged at this point, but it seems that Ptolemy attempted to “defile” her and was prevented when God paralyzed the girl and blinded her attacker. Ptolemy repented and his sight was restored, though he died shortly after. Ptolemy’s story is not unlike those of Hermippus, Callimachus and Fortunatus, and the parents of Exoos, all of whom were cursed for their attacks on believers. But the curse on Peter’s daughter is different, because she never sinned. She was paralyzed largely to avert another man’s sin and remains that way to prevent others from doing the same. The story is a shocking example of victim blaming of a girl who was never even given a name.

A second set of curse stories in the apocryphal acts were written to demonstrate to the reader that the Christian God is mightier than other gods. The tales involve the destruction of pagan temples, and sometimes the temple officials along with them. In a lengthy account from the Acts of John 37–47, John enters the temple of Artemis in Ephesus dressed in black. The worshippers, all dressed in white, are insulted and try to kill him. John evades the crowds and issues a challenge: “Behold, here I stand. You all assert that Artemis is powerful. Pray to her, that I alone die! Or if you cannot accomplish this, I alone will call upon my own God to kill you all because of your unbelief” (39). Those who had witnessed his previous miracles realize their danger and plead for their lives. The apostle prays for God’s mercy on them. In response, half of the temple falls down, the idols and altar are smashed, and the priest is crushed by the roof. Again, the people cry out for mercy and then destroy the rest of the temple themselves and declare, “We know that the God of John is the only one, and henceforth  we worship him, since we have obtained mercy from him” (44). Later, one of the priest’s family takes his body and lays it at the gate of the house where John is staying. Impressed by the man’s  faith, John tells him to raise the priest to life using the words, “The servant of God, John, says to you, Arise!” The priest is restored to life and follows John. A similar story is told of Paul (Acts Paul 5), who is imprisoned along with two companions in the temple of Apollo in Sidon. He prays for liberation and half of the temple falls. There is no mention of loss of life but the text is too fragmentary at this point to know for sure. In its present form, the episode is more of a “liberation miracle” in the same vein as Acts 12:1–19. Destruction of temples occurs also in later apocryphal acts, though no one is hurt in the accounts. In the Acts of Cornelius the converted centurion visits Skepsis and prays for the temple of Zeus to fall, temporarily trapping the governor’s wife and son (2:10—3:4), and in the Acts of Titus a temple under construction falls after Titus walks by and “utters a deep groan” (9:1–2). The outcome of both miracles, as usual, is the conversion of onlookers.

Bennozzo Gozzoli, Fall of Simon Magus (1461)

The final category of curses in the apocryphal acts are those invoked against religious rivals. The high priest of Artemis killed in the Acts of John could be placed also in this category, but far more illustrative of the competition for followers is the fall of Simon Magus in the Acts of Peter. The two figures are established as rivals in the canonical acts, though their encounter ends rather peacefully with Simon repenting of his attempt to buy the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9–24), and thus prevents Peter’s curse (“May your silver perish with you, because you though you could obtain God’s gifts with money,” 8:20) come coming to fruition. The pair compete more aggressively in Peter’s solo adventures, not only in the Acts of Peter but also the Pseudo-Clementine Romance and several derivative texts. But it is the martyrdom portion of the Acts of Peter that features the final contest between the two wonderworkers (ch. 32). In a final attempt to demonstrate his greater power, Simon climbs up on a high place in the city of Rome and there appears to be flying. Worried that many would turn from God and worship Simon, Peter prays to Jesus for assistance, saying, “Make haste, O Lord, show your mercy and let him fall down and become crippled but not die; let him be disabled and break his leg in three places.” As expected, Simon does fall and is crippled. To add insult to injury, the crowds stone him and “from that time” they believed in Peter. Simon is carried off by his remaining supporters to Africa where he is operated on and dies shortly thereafter. Simon’s end is relatively tame compared to those who oppose Philip in the fourth-century Acts of Philip. In one story (ch. 2), Philip is opposed by a Jewish delegation to Athens led by the high priest Ananias, who is possessed by the demon Mansemat. Ananias comes to the apostle with 500 men and accuses him of sorcery. After Philip gives a spirited defense of his mission, Ananias runs at the apostle to whip him but his hand withers and his eyes are blinded. Then the 500 are blinded also (2:12). The 500 repent and eventually regain their sight, but Ananias remains stubborn and refuses to believe, even after Jesus himself descends from heaven in glory and lightning. The apostle restores the high priest’s sight but utters a spell in Hebrew and the earth swallows him up, first to his knees, then his waist, then his neck. Finally, with Ananias still unrepentant, Philip becomes angry and says, “A curse on you! Depart now entirely into the abyss in front of all these people” (2:23).  And Ananias descends alive into Hades. Philip’s anger eventually becomes his undoing. In the final act of the text, Philip is crucified upside down. He is told by Christ not to prevent his martyrdom, but he is incensed by the treatment of his companion John and declares, “I will no longer hold myself back, but I will bring my full indignation upon them and destroy them all” (15:25). Again he cries out to God in Hebrew and the proconsul, the temple and its priests, and 7000 men are swallowed up by the abyss. Fortunately for the townspeople, Jesus appears again and punishes Philip for disobeying his rule to “not return evil for evil” by preventing his entry into paradise for forty days (15:29–31). Philip struggles to understand the reason for this punishment—he asks, “Why are you angry with me, Lord, that I called down curses on my enemies? Indeed, why do you not strike them down since they still live in the abyss?” (15:30)—but relents and accepts his fate. Jesus saves the townspeople from the abyss by transforming his cross into a ladder (15:32). What is most surprising in this final story is that Philip can curse without the consent of God; the power is entirely the apostle’s.

The apocryphal acts, as with other noncanonical texts, tend to be disparaged for their abundant use of wonders and prodigies, the principal aim of which is to entertain their readers while at the same time demonstrating that the apostles’ miracles are mightier than the magic of their rivals and that their God is the only god. The apocryphal acts look garish, they say, in comparison to the more sober canonical acts. Yet, when it comes to curse stories (the most offensive element of the acts for many readers), the canonical Acts has the apocryphal acts beat: there are far more punitive miracles per page in Acts than in the longer individual acts. And the curses largely function the same way: to demonstrate the might of the apostles over their opponents and thereby elicit belief from onlookers. There is little that separates Philip’s blinding of the high priest Ananias and his men from Paul’s blinding of Elymas, nor God’s murder of Judas, Agrippa, and Ananias and Sapphira from the killing and maiming of Fortunatus, the parents of Exoos, and the priest of Artemis.

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