Tales From Apocrypha 2: The Acts of Andrew or When Christianity Goes Off the Rails

24 Jan

Some Apocrypha, such as The Acts of Peter, are just plain good stories. Others show a very different form of Early Christianity, what came to be known as heresy. And then there are those which were likely considered Orthodox (or trending toward what would become Orthodox) but while reading it I came across something which made me say, “What the wha-huh?” Or something like that. The Acts of Andrew(AA) is in this last category.

Based on Schneemelcher and Wilson(2003), The AA was likely composed around 150 in the Eastern Empire. It isn’t exactly a heretical text but was used by some groups such as the Manichaeans and Priscillianists due to its extreme asceticism and hints of dualism. Various folks were uneasy about its use including, eventually, the Decretum Gelasianum (ca. 492-96) where it is listed as banned due to its use by heretics. Despite this, it appears to have been popular and survives in several texts and Gregory of Tours included a heavily edited version in his Liber de miraculis (one of his books which I don’t have). Schneemelcher and Wilson(2003) use several texts to complete the story, including Andrew’s Martyrdom from the Passio Andreae. 1

In addition to heretical tendencies (or at least being the sort of book heretics thought they could use) it appears heavily influenced by Classical themes. In particular Andrew’s death resembles that of Socrates as he was visited by various friends and acquaintances and had conversations with them before he was crucified.

Statue of St. Andrew in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The bulk of the AA takes place in Patra, Greece. Through his preaching in the city Andrew has converted Maximilla, the wife of the proconsul Aegeates. And not just converted; Maximilla has vowed to never again have sex which Andrew calls “a polluted and foul way of life.” 2 Unsurprisingly, Aegeates is angered by this and pleads with her to change her mind but Andrew meets with her regularly and urges her to stay strong and pure.

(from this point forward I’m recounting from the Passio Andreae)

So far so good. A married person withdrawing from the marriage bed is pretty far on the ascetic side of Christianity and not something the Church generally approved of but it’s not unheard of. Various passages of scripture such as Matthew 19:6, “Therefore what God has joined let no man separate” and 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 where Paul says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” and, “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set of time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again” support the idea that sex is a part of marriage and one in which each person was expected to participate. I believe that Gratian was the first to formally codify this, in the 12th century, but it was in effect long before that. However, though leaving an unwilling husband (or, more rarely, a wife) to pursue an ascetic lifestyle is at the edge of mainstream, it is sometimes found in Medieval literature, including hagiography.

However Aegeates is a powerful man, used to having his way, and isn’t about to give up easily. So Maximilla, helped by generous bribery, talks her maidservant, Eucleia, into sharing her husband’s bed and he (the AA doesn’t explain exactly how but the inference is that this is God’s will acting through Andrew) never realizes that this isn’t his wife. This goes on for eight months until Eucleia gets greedy, starts asking Maximilla for ever-increasing gifts, and brags to her fellow servants about who she’s spending her nights with.

However, “Maximilla, thinking that Eucleia was not gossipy but faithful because of the gifts she had given her …” (faithful seems a strange term to use considering she’s been shacking up with someone else’s husband for the better part of a year) is unaware that her plan is about to fall apart. 3 She returns to her home and is seized by some of the servants who threaten to expose the plot. Maximilla gives a thousand denarii to each slave who promises not to tell her husband about this. Despite this, the slaves tell Aegeates.

As you might expect, he’s not pleased. He tortures Eucleia who tells him everything, “slandering her mistress.” I’m reading this whole thing thinking, she tells him the truth under torture and it’s slander? Well, “As for Eucleia, he cut out her tongue and cut off her hands and feet, ordering that she be cast out and after some days without nourishment she became food for the dogs.” 4 Following this he returns to pleading with Maximilla to return to him. Urged on by Andrew, she refuses and Aegeates has the apostle thrown in prison.

Maximilla continues to visit Andrew every day and he urges her to continue as she has begun, “Let it be yours henceforth to keep yourself chaste, pure, holy, undefiled, sincere, free from adultery, unwilling for intercourse with the alien, unbent, unbroken.” 5 The remainder of the narrative is predictable. Aegeates, not getting his wife back, eventually crucifies Andrew (though Andrew does have an interesting conversation with the cross as if it were a person). Meanwhile Maximilla is called “pure,” “undefiled,” “holy” and “… supplied with the blessed love of Christ.” 6

So I’m reading this narrative thinking to myself, Is this for real? Seriously, even if asceticism is a good thing, how does Maximilla, and by proxy Andrew, come off good in this? Let’s list the transgressions:

1. Breaking the marital bond.
2. Lying and deception, and for eight months.
3. Prostitution (not sure what else to call Maximilla giving buckets of gifts to Eucleia to persuade her have sex with Aegeates)
4. Adultery – and a double whammy here as Maximilla fools her husband into being an unwitting adulterer and pays Eucleia to be an adulteress.
5. Bribery (in order not to get caught in a lie)
6. Responsible for Eucleia’s death – indirectly at least – and not a very pleasant one.

And so, IMO, this is an example where Christianity tried to go “out there”, well beyond what could be justified, even in the pursuit of asceticism. Some of this story strikes me as absurd. In the previous quote Andrew tells her to remain free from adultery but apparently it was OK for her to turn two other people into adulterers. This “pure” individual pays someone to have sex with her husband. With all this, the text continued to be used though there are versions without some of the more explicit details. In any case, I do not see how any group, whatever their belief system or values they tried to promote, could view the actions of Maximilla and Andrew as positive.

1 This is footnoted in Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003) as from, “Ed. Th. Detorakis, Acts of the Second International Congress of Peloponnesian Studies I, Athens 1981/2, 325-52.

2 From the Codex Vaticanus 808 version of The Acts of Andrew 5 in Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003).

3 Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003), from the Detorakis edition of AA, p 140 – this edition isn’t broken into chapters.

4 Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003), from the Detorakis edition of AA, p 141.

5 Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003), from the Detorakis edition of AA, p 145.

6 Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003), from the Detorakis edition of AA, p 151.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.

Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha Volume Two: Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press (2003). ISBN:9780664227227.


Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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3 responses to “Tales From Apocrypha 2: The Acts of Andrew or When Christianity Goes Off the Rails

  1. Vann Turner

    January 25, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    Hi Curt,

    I like your blog, and like your prose. I think I can clarify certain cultural things you seem to have missed:

    The proconsul and his wife are Romans. To a Roman adultery was very narrow in meaning: For the charge of adultery meant one had sexual relations with another married person. To Romans slaves were chattel, and had no rights, not even the right of marriage. Slaves of either sex could be used sexually by either husband or wife, and such was not regarded as adultery. The wife wouldn’t get angry about it if she found out, and the husband wouldn’t either. Sex was widely enjoyed, and it wasn’t a big deal — it was just sex, a boon the gods had endowed upon humankind. (A popular pagan criticism of Christianity was the church wanted to take all joyful things away from the people– some truth in that, I must say, much of it directly attributable to St. Paul, and not to Jesus, who would probably be horrified at how his generous teachings have turned into shackles on the people.)

    Under Roman law a slave who made accusation against master (whether true or not) was to be executed.

    So, with the narrow definition of adultery and the non-status of slaves, the AA is not so inexplicable. (Help refresh my memory: Was it the Manichee heresy that insisted on celebacy by all?)

    Best wishes, Vann Joe Turner (423) 487-4182

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 25, 2013 at 7:32 pm


      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you but the problem is this was written from a Christian, not a Roman perspective. Second-century Christians used the treatment of Romans toward slaves as one of their main talking points. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Minucius Felix all wrote extensively on it. Slaves were people, individuals with as much spiritual worth as anyone. Clement talked about how a Human soul could not be and should never be considered a slave. Felix made arguments that all people were begotten alike.

      One of the main Christian precepts that the above and others wrote on was that every individual, even the lowest slave, had intrinsic value as an individual. From a Roman perspective all of the actions of Aegeates toward his slave was justified – she was his property. From a Christian perspective Maximilla’s actions should have been abhorrent. It was a violation of a great many core Christian beliefs, even in the 2nd century. I suppose we could have a mixing of values except those values are so at odds with one another, something Christian (and some Roman) authors also wrote extensively on.

      Manichaeans were not celibate though, as with many of the dualist groups it was considered an ideal as one way of rejecting the earthly, evil life for the spiritual one. There was a theory later that one who became “perfected” and reached a higher spiritual level was to be celibate though this seems to have been more ideal than reality.

      Priscillianists were extremely ascetic as were some Gnostic sects, but not as many as some people believe. I’m sure there were other groups. There was a tendency toward this by apocalyptic groups such as the Montanists though they, like Paul, didn’t strictly prohibit sex, just felt it wasn’t much use in a world about to end both from the emotional trauma of seeing children die and from diverting someone from “getting right” spiritually before the end.

      I’ll likely know more on this once I read Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Early Christianity: The Jovianist Controversy by David G. Hunter. But it’s late 4th century and I’m still in the second.

  2. Larry Swain

    April 29, 2013 at 2:50 am

    Vann: agree mostly, if by “Roman” we mean upper class people of the Empire. Romans qua Romans when not overly influenced by the Greeks were actually a bit more conservative, though more liberal than most Christians, about such things.

    One of the interesting things about early Christianity, esp in hagiography, is the thing about sex: we have this example, but examples of women dressing as men to avoid sex, women dying to avoid sex, fathers killing daughters to avoid sex, women running into the desert and living a hermit life to avoid sex….and that’s the tip of the iceberg.I admit, AA is a bit more out there than a lot of texts, but not as out there as it seems at first sight.

    Been enjoying these early Christian posts!


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