Through the Middle Ages, European churches made enthusiastic use of apocryphal scriptures, but matters changed rapidly at the Reformation. Protestants and Catholics alike campaigned against the old alternative gospels and saints’ lives, driving many out of use. A similar process of scriptural cleansing was under way elsewhere in the world in these same years, and it makes for a disturbing and depressing story. It also represents one of the most painful encounters between old and new Christian worlds.
The Christian presence in Southern India dates back to very early times, at least to the second century. Claiming foundation by St. Thomas, the church maintained its identity through the Middle Ages. It was firmly part of the Church of the East, the so-called Nestorian Church, which looked to the Iraq-based Patriarch of Babylon.
In the sixteenth century, new Christian adventurers appeared, as Portuguese ships carved out their commercial empire in the Indian Ocean. Portuguese and Spanish Catholic clergy were intrigued but baffled by these Indian Christians, who claimed not even to have heard of the Pope in Rome. Gradually, the Europeans expanded their power over the local churches.
Matters came to a head in 1599, with the synod held at Diamper (Udayamperoor, in the modern Indian state of Kerala) under Aleixo de Menezes, the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa. The synod imposed Roman authority on the local church. It demanded that Indian believers renounce their Nestorian doctrines, as well as any customs that could not be reconciled with European Catholic standards. This particularly included Hindu-tinged customs that had crept in over the previous centuries.
For present purposes though, the synod’s most significant act was in identifying and condemning many local writings, including ancient apocryphal scriptures. Henceforward, on pain of excommunication, no person should “presume to keep, translate, read or hear read to others” any of the following books. One was The Infancy of our Savior (The History of our Lady), which contained many ideas that had been the familiar fare of pseudo-gospels across the Christian world for centuries, including the Protevangelium. Now, though, they were classified as damnable errors, demanding the book’s suppression and elimination. For instance, the book asserted that
That the Annunciation of the angel was made in the Temple of Jerusalem , where Our Lady was, which contradicts the Gospel of St. Luke, which says, it was made in Nazareth; as also that Joseph had actually another wife and children when he was betrothed to the holy virgin; and that he often reproved the child Jesus for his naughty tricks; that the child Jesus went to school with the rabbins, and learned of them with a thousand other fables and blasphemies of the same nature….. that St Joseph, to be satisfied whether the virgin had committed adultery, carried her before the priests who according to the law gave her the water of jealousy to drink; that Our Lady brought forth with pain, and parting from her company, not being able to go farther, she retired to a stable at Bethlehem.
Also condemned to the fire was a whole library of Syriac spiritual and theological writings. I quote from A Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts Preserved in the Library of the University of Cambridge (1901), by William Wright and Stanley Arthur Cook:
“The main object of the Synod of Diamper was to stamp out Nestorianism and enforce Roman Catholicism. With this object a careful examination was made of all the extant writings, and those which taught the heresy of Nestorius, or spoke against the Virgin, or suggested an early rivalry between S. Peter and S. Thomas (the patron saint of the S. Indian Syrians), or were opposed in any way whatsoever to the teaching of Rome were condemned to be burnt. This was actually done at Angamale, Chinganor, and elsewhere. … Fortunately the edicts of the Synod give us some idea of the writings which were burnt. Among them are mentioned:
The infancy of our Savior, or the History of our Lady;
the Book of John Barialdon (Bar Khaldon);
the Book of the Fathers;
the Procession of the Holy Spirit;
the Book of the Pearl (‘Abhd-isho’);
Maclamatas (i.e. Makamat, ‘Abhd-isho’s Book of Paradise);
a Life of Abba Isaiah (which anathematized Cyril of Alexandria);
the Book of Synods (with a forged letter of Pope Caius);
the Book of Timothy the Patriarch;
the Letter which came down from Heaven, called also the Letter of the Lord’s Day;
the Uguard or ” Rose ” (the Warda ?);
the Camiz (the Khamis?);
an exposition of the Gospels wherein it is stated that 1 John and James are not the work of the Apostles whose names they bear and are therefore uncanonical;
the Book of Rabban Hormizd the Martyr;
the Letter of Mar Narsai (against the doctrine that Mary is the Mother of God);
a book after the manner of the Flos Sanctorum, containing the lives of over a hundred Nestorians — many of them current separately;
and astrological and kindred works, including the Book of Lots, and one called Parsiman.”
All copies were to be surrendered for destruction.
An area once rich with ancient Christian scriptures was largely robbed of its heritage. The Synod of Diamper “probably accounts for the poverty of the Indian Syriac literature and the absence of really old MSS.”
Incidentally, Catholic envoys were in these same years inflicting similar damage on the old Christian libraries of Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia.
Overall, this was a cultural catastrophe, inflicted by Christians on other Christians.