The Bible, the Vedas, Apocryphal Literature and Fanfiction/Deritative Works


Yeah, I know that’s a very odd title right there. :wink:

I’ll be honest. I’m someone who likes studying cultures and religions just for fun. (All the stuff I’m posting here? Definitely not part of my school curriculum.) Aside from Judaeo-Christianity and the ancient Near East I’m particularly interested in south Asian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Part of it stems from watching a tad too much Bollywood (and Kollywood and Tollywood, etc.) ‘mythologicals’ featuring gods and heroes with a lot of arms and heads saving the world now and again from demons and evildoers who mess up the cosmic balance. Part of it stems from currently living in an historically Shinto-Buddhist country - though to be fair, modern Japan is highly secular and religion doesn’t really play much of a part of everyday life.

I’m gonna focus on Hinduism and the ‘scriptures’ it reveres, the four Vedas. No, I’m gonna go into detail about the contents here - I’m going to compare the way the Vedas are transmitted over time with how our own Scriptures are transmitted over time. The way these two are handed down provide quite a nice contrast if you ask me.

First off, what exactly are the Vedas? The Vedas (from the Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom”) are a large body of ancient Indian texts (hymns, incantations, ritual formulas), composed in the language of the ancient Indo-Aryans - Vedic Sanskrit. The Vedas constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and are among the oldest sacred texts still used today. The Vedas are also the most ancient extensive texts in an Indo-European language (the same language family as Armenian, Albanian, Iranian, Latin or Greek!), and so are invaluable in the study of comparative linguistics.

There are four Vedas, of which the first three are related to the performance of yajña (sacrifice) by Vedic priests (brahmin) in historical Vedic religion:

(1) The Rigveda (from ṛc “praise, verse”), which contains the hymns and litanies recited by the hotar, the presiding priest who recited the invocations. Most of these hymns are invocations and eulogies of various Vedic deities such as Indra (the heroic national god of the Indo-Aryans and the head of the pantheon) or Agni (the god of fire/the sacrificial fire itself) or Soma (the mysterious sacred beverage and the plant it was made from), although there are a few hymns with secular, speculative, and even possible historical matter;
(2) The Yajurveda (from yajus “sacrificial formula”), containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu, the priest in charge of the physical details of the sacrifice);
(3) The Samaveda (from sāman “melody”), a compilation of hymns to be sung by the udgatar, the chanter of hymns set to certain melodies;
(4) The Atharvaveda (from Atharvan, the name of an ancient sage or rishi), a collection of spells, incantations and hymns. Unlike the other three Vedas (which is concerned entirely with the priestly elite and sacrificial ritual), the Atharvaveda has a more popular character, which led to it having a very ambiguous status early in its history.

(No, Ayurveda - ancient Indian medicine - isn’t one of the four. ;))

There is an overlap in the contents of the four Vedas - some hymns and detached verses taken from one could be found in the other. Take for example the Samaveda; in it verses from the Rigveda have been transposed and re-arranged, without reference to their original context and order, to suit the rituals in which they were to be employed.

Based on philological and linguistic evidence, scholars believe that the Vedas were composed during the Vedic period (about 1700-1000 BC), corresponding to the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age in India. Of the four, the Rigveda - composed by different clans of rishis, Indo-Aryan poets and sages - is the oldest. In traditional Hindu belief, however, the Vedas are considered to be coeval with the universe itself (anādi “without beginning”): in fact, they are considered to be apauruṣeya (“not of human agency”) and śruti (“what is heard”), distinguishing them from other sacred Sanskrit literature, which are smṛti (“what is remembered”). In other words, the Vedas are traditionally considered to have been a direct revelation ‘heard’ by the rishis who then translated the knowledge they had heard into something understandable by humans and passed it down unadulterated from generation to generation. This is in contrast to smṛti, myths and law codes which ordinary people had put into memory and passed down to others (epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana belong in this category); unlike the Vedas, these stories could and did change a little in the process of transmission, so smṛti is not as highly respected as śruti is.

The texts were standardized and codified in the following centuries, culminating at about the 6th century BC. It is unknown when they were finally committed to writing, but this probably was at some point after 300 BC, when writing first began to appear in India. Before then these texts were transmitted by oral tradition alone, and even after writing was introduced, oral transmission continued. This is going to be our focus.


Have you read Aurobindo?


The thing is, the traditional writing medium in ancient India was birch bark or palm leaves, which of course rotted fairly quickly in the tropical climate. So, despite the fact that the Vedas are one of the oldest sacred texts in existence, the manuscript attestation for them is fairly recent and few: the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute has about thirty manuscripts of the Rigveda collected in the 19th century from various parts of India by Western Indologists, the oldest of which dates from 1464 - almost two millenia late.
Palm leaf manuscripts looked pretty much like this.

But that didn’t really matter, since the different schools of Brahmins (sshakha) have developed complex systems of oral transmission which enabled them to preserve the Vedas with a high degree of fidelity. So written texts really only served a secondary purpose: as memory aids to help recall what one had already learned by rote, and even then there’s not much need for that. These in fact helped develop the study of phonetics (shiksha) and linguistics in ancient India. Even today word-of-mouth and memorization is still one way to transmit the Vedas. The insistence on preserving pronunciation and accent as accurately as possible is related to the belief that the potency of these texts (mantras) lies in their sound when pronounced; the shakhas thus have the purpose of preserving the sound of the “knowledge” (= veda) supposedly ‘heard’ by the rishis.

The oral tradition of the Vedas consists of several pāṭhas or “recitations,” specifically designed to allow the complete and perfect memorization of the text and its proper pronunciation. There are around eleven pāṭhas: the easiest method is simply to recite the text continuously (saṃhita-pāṭha): a-b-c-d-e, etc.

agnim īḻe purohitaṁ yajñasya devam ṛtvijam |
hotāraṁ ratnadhātamam ||
agniḥ pūrvebhir ṛṣibhir īḍyo nūtanair uta |
sa devām̐ eha vakṣati ||
(Rigveda I.1.1-2)

“I laud Agni, the chosen priest, god, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, lavishest of wealth.
Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring hitherward the gods.”

Pada-pāṭha (pada ‘foot’, ‘portion’, ‘word’), meanwhile, involves word-by-word recitation: a, b, c, d, e, etc. Sanskrit is a language wherein you have particularly have this phenomenon where sounds across word boundaries are fused together or sounds are altered due to neighboring sounds or due to the grammatical function of adjacent words, something linguists call sandhi. Going back to the former example:

agnim | īḻe | puraḥ-hitam | yajñasya | devam | ṛtvijam |
hotāram | ratna-dhātamam ||
agniḥ | pūrvebhiḥ | ṛṣi-bhiḥ | īḍyaḥ | nūtanaiḥ | uta |
saḥ | devān | ā | iha | vakṣati ||

You would notice that in pada-patha, the word purohitaṃ (literally “one who is placed in front;” from puras ‘in front’, ‘before’ and hita ‘laid upon’) is broken down into its components: puraḥ-hitam. Sa devāneha vakṣati (“he shall bring the gods here”) meanwhile is demolished into saḥ devān ā iha vakṣati. In other words, saḥ (‘he’) becomes sa if it is in front of a consonant (devān = ‘the gods’); the sound ā and i of ā iha (‘to here’) have merged together into e, giving us devām̐ eha or devāneha. (Other examples of this phenomenon: adya iha ‘now here’ = adyeha; atra adya ‘now here’ = atrādya; adhuna eva ‘just now’ = adhunaiva; tatha uktaḥ ‘so said’ = tathoktah.)

Krama-pāṭha (“step recitation”) involves repetition of the second of each pair of words on the pattern: ab, bc, cd, de, etc.

*svādiṣṭhayā madiṣṭhayā pavasva soma dhārayā |
indrāya pātave sutaḥ || * (Rigveda IX.1.1)

“In sweetest and most gladdening stream
flow pure, O Soma, on thy way,
Pressed out for Indra, for his drink.”

svādiṣṭhayā-madiṣṭhayā / madiṣṭhayā-pavasva / pavasva-soma / soma-dhārayā / dhārayā-indrāya, etc.

After the three simpler methods (samhita, pada, krama) the student learns the remaining eight modes or vikriti, all of which involve manipulation of the basic word order (through some kind of inversion, or viloma).

Jaṭā-pāṭha (“mesh recitation”), the first and the oldest of these, involves reciting every two adjacent words in the text in their original order, then in the reverse order, then again in the original order: ab, ba, ab; bc, cb, bc, and so on. Going back to the last example, it would be something like svādiṣṭhayā-madiṣṭhayā, madiṣṭhayā-svādiṣṭhayā, svādiṣṭhayā-madiṣṭhayā; madiṣṭhayā-pavasva, pavasva-madiṣṭhayā, madiṣṭhayā-pavasva, etc. After this comes (in ascending order) mālā, sikha, rekha, dhvaja, danda, rathā, and finally, ghana-pāṭha (“bell recitation”), the most advanced of them all: ab, ba, abc, cba, abc; bc, cb, bcd, dcb, bcd, and so on.

Here’s a little UNESCO video showing this.



The fun thing about these methods is that they actually work: the Vedas (and their various recensions) are more or less preserved intact by the different shakhas over the centuries. The only difference between the hymns as they are recited now and as they were first composed is really only the pronunciation of certain words and syllables: in the Rigveda’s case the text was standardized by applying later rules of sound combination, which kind of obscured the metrical form of the original poems. Sanskrit terminology actually reflects this primacy of oral memorization: the word for study (specifically the study of the Vedas) is svādhyāya “going over by oneself,” or memorizing through vocal repetition. Another word is abhyāsa “tossing over,” repeating aloud a text to be learned.

That the written word was secondary in Indian culture is reflected by the fact that there was once even a taboo against writing down anything that is considered to be Veda (which might also explain why we don’t have much manuscripts of it). There is an anecdote related by Dutch missionaries from 1737 about how a south Indian Brahmin scholar was willing to write down for them whole passages from non-Vedic texts that he knew, but refused to write down any from the Yajurveda. He did agree to give them its “main contents” orally, but as he recited for them, he would only write particular words from the recited text as the need arose to explain questions of ortography. Even then he would only ‘draw’ the words with his finger on the table or sometimes write them in a piece of palm leaf which he destroyed immediately afterwards. A late Vedic text, the Aitareya Aranyaka even considered writing to be an impure act: “He (the śiṣya or student) should not learn when he had eaten flesh, or seen blood, or a dead body, or done what is unlawful … or had intercourse, or written, or obliterated writing.”

But whereas the Vedas (śruti) are transmitted with such scrupulous care, the transmission of works classified as smṛti is not as strict or meticulous. Basically, I would say that way the Christian Scriptures are transmitted are more closer to how smṛti texts were transmitted than to the way the Vedas are transmitted.

The Mahābhārata is, along with the Ramayana, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. Its main plot concerns the feud between the Kaurava and the Pandava princes, two branches of the same clan, for the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapura, which eventually escalated into the Kurukshetra War.

Compared to say the Rigveda the date of composition is harder to pin. Again, traditional Hindu belief would claim that the epic is actually thousands of years old, but historically the origins of the epic would probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BC, with the oldest preserved parts of the text probably being not much older than around 400 BC. (The 4th century BC grammarian Pāṇini made a probable reference to it.) The text probably reached its final form by the early Gupta period (ca. 4th century AD). This fluidity is ascribed to the fact unlike the Vedas, which have to be preserved letter-(and sound-)perfect, the epic was a popular work whose reciters would inevitably conform to linguistic and stylistic changes. Storytellers repeating the same story would sometimes add or remove or alter a few details.



The Mahābhārata is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyasa, who is himself also a major character in the epic. (Hindu tradition also claims Vyasa to be the author of loads of other works.) The beginning of the epic claims that the god of knowledge Ganesha (you know, the one with the head of an elephant) offered to be Vyasa’s scribe on one condition: Vyasa should never ever pause in his recitation of the story. Vyasa in turn offered another condition: Ganesha should take the time to understand what was said before he wrote it down. So basically the two raced - soon Vyasa found that he was running out of shlokas (veses) and Ganesha was writing too fast, and so tried to gain time by reciting particularly difficult verses that would make Ganesha stop to think; Ganesha himself found Vyasa, true to his word, dictating the story non-stop and could not always keep up, missing some verses.

"Then Vyasa began to call to mind Ganesa. And Ganesa, obviator of obstacles, ready to fulfil the desires of his votaries, was no sooner thought of, than he repaired to the place where Vyasa was seated. And when he had been saluted, and was seated, Vyasa addressed him thus, ‘O guide of the Ganas! be thou the writer of the Bharata which I have formed in my imagination, and which I am about to repeat.’
"Ganesa, upon hearing this address, thus answered, ‘I will become the writer of thy work, provided my pen do not for a moment cease writing.’ And Vyasa said unto that divinity, ‘Wherever there be anything thou dost not comprehend, cease to continue writing.’ Ganesa having signified his assent, by repeating the word Om! proceeded to write; and Vyasa began; and by way of diversion, he knit the knots of composition exceeding close; by doing which, he dictated this work according to his engagement.
“I am (continued Sauti) acquainted with eight thousand and eight hundred verses, and so is Suka, and perhaps Sanjaya. From the mysteriousness of their meaning, O Muni, no one is able, to this day, to penetrate those closely knit difficult slokas. Even the omniscient Ganesa took a moment to consider; while Vyasa, however, continued to compose other verses in great abundance.”

The epic employs the story-within-a-story structure - a common cliche in Indian literary works. It is recited by the sage Vaisampayana, a disciple of Vyasa, to the King Janamejaya who is the great-grandson of the Pandava prince Arjuna. The story is then recited again by a professional storyteller named Ugrasrava Sauti, many years later, to an assembly of sages performing the twelve-year sacrifice for the king Saunaka Kulapati. As if that isn’t enough, the Kurukshetra War proper is narrated in-story to the blind Kaurava king Dhritarashtra by his advisor Sanjaya (who had been specially granted the gift of seeing distant events)! The Mahābhārata itself claims to have passed two or three stages of redaction: Jaya (Victory) composed by Vyasa with 8,800 shlokas; Bhārata as recited by Vaisampayana with 24,000 shlokas; and the Mahābhārata, recited by Ugrasrava Sauti with over 100,000 shlokas.

Again, the manuscript evidence for this epic is somewhat late, dating from the Middle Ages (the oldest is around seven hundred years old and is only of the first book, the Adi Parva), given its material composition and the climate of India, but it is very extensive.
The manuscripts date from after the formation of the two major extant recensions of the text: the northern and the southern.

Between 1919 and 1966, scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, compared the various manuscripts of the epic from India and abroad and produced the 27-volume critical edition of the Mahabharata (19 of the main text, two of the appendix - the Harivamsa, and six index volumes), the so-called Pune or Poona edition (after the location of the Institute). The editor, Vishnu Sukthankar, commented: “It is useless to think of reconstructing a fluid text in a literally original shape, on the basis of an archetype and a stemma codicum [a family tree of the manuscripts]. What then is possible? Our objective can only be to reconstruct the oldest form of the text which it is possible to reach on the basis of the manuscript material available.”



We can compare both the Mabaharata and the Rigveda with the New Testament. We have manuscripts of NT books closer to the time they are believed to have been first composed: the earliest fragment we have is of John’s gospel (Papyrus 52, containing John 18:31-33, 37-38) dating from around the early 2nd century - relatively close to the time of the composition of John. But then again, differences in cultures and outlook should also be taken into consideration: as mentioned earlier Indian culture was primarily and predominantly oral, with the written word taking a very subordinate place.

At first Christians did also rely on oral tradition: because they apparently they believed that the parousia (the second coming of Christ) was coming soon anyway they at first did not bother putting the teachings into written form, content to pass it down by word-of-mouth. (Of course, they did not go all the way to invent complex memorization techniques like the Brahmins.) But as time passed, with Jesus still not returning and many of the first generation of Christians being either dead or engaged in missions in far-away lands, early Christians thought that they might need to put down what they have received into writing after all. When the story and teachings of Jesus was finally put into writing, the written word came to stand alongside the oral teaching.


Thank you for your interesting post.

I find myself not so much focussed on the origins of holy writings as what they reveal about the divine.

27 The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:
The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.
28 In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behaviour: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being:
From one ancestor (God) made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.”

Hinduism, perhaps because I have not studied it sufficiently, presents as a “minestrone” of ideas, images and stories that seems too disorganized for my mind.

I would however contribute a description of Vishnu because it speaks of the divine albeit in a different voice:

Vishnu is the eternal, universal essence of all beings, the creator, sustainer, governor and destroyer of all that exists. His form is beyond human perception or imagination. His home is the realm of eternal, the final abode of liberated souls. Within the material universe, He reclines and rests on Shesha, a many thousand-headed serpent, who holds the all the celestial bodies of the universe on his hoods. Floating coiled in space, an ocean of milk, and remaining after the ends of time, Ananta Shesha eternally sings the glories of Vishnu from all his mouths.


Modern Hinduism is anything but monolithic and consistent. For example, you have schools like Vaishnavism (which holds that the god Vishnu is the supreme deity), Shaivism (which holds that no, Shiva is the supreme god), Shaktism (focusing on the mother goddess Shakti as the ultimate godhead), or even Smartism (which believes that deities like Vishnu and Shiva are all simply different yet equal manifestations of the supreme Brahman). Even within Vaishnavism there is some difference on who is considered to be the ‘original’ form of the deity from which all the other incarnations of the divine (avatars) emanate. Some Vaishnavite schools of course would say Vishnu is the source, but Bhagavatism (aka Krishnaism) would hold Krishna to be the original, absolute form of the supreme deity (what would be called in Sanskrit svayam bhagavanBhagavan (the blessed one; i.e. ‘God’) himself”), while Vishnu is an avatar.

A little digression. When Hinduism grew out of the Vedic religion, many of the traditional Vedic gods either received an upgrade or a downgrade or even a change in status. Indra is the archetypal example: while he was still nominally the king of the devas (which now has more of a connotation of ‘lower-class deities’ or ‘demigods’), he was no longer important as he was for the earlier Indo-Aryans. Whereas the older legends preserved in the Vedas praised his prowess and his valiant deeds, in later texts the focus was seemingly on his negative traits like his affairs with different women or his being an all-around jerk (like Zeus, his Greek counterpart). Sarasvati was at first the personification of the river of the same name before she became the goddess of wisdom. Savitar (a Vedic solar deity) totally disappeared: he is only remembered today mainly because his name appears in the venerable Gayatri mantra (Rigveda III.62.10):

tát savitúr váreṇyaṃ
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi
dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt

May we attain that excellent glory of Savitar the god:
So may he stimulate our prayers.

Surya (another Vedic solar deity) de facto became the Hindu god of the sun in place of the various Vedic solar deities (which is really more like ‘deities with solar characteristics’).

Out of father-deity figures like Prajapati (the “lord of creatures”) came Brahma (not to be confused with the cosmic spirit Brahman). The fearsome Vedic storm deity Rudra meanwhile apparently absorbed traits of other gods (as well as characteristics coming from other sources) and became the much-tamer Shiva (the ‘Auspicious’), Destroyer and ascetic-slash-householder. Vishnu on the other hand, starting from being a minor solar deity became the Preserver and for the human devotees, very much Shiva’s rival for the title of supreme deity. And then there’s the other “new” gods like Ganesha (aka Ganapati etc.), Durga, Kali, Murugan (aka Kartikeya, etc.), and so on.


One thing you would notice about how Christians handled the Scriptures is that apparently they didn’t think that it had to be preserved letter-perfect as the Indo-Aryans thought of the Vedas. In fact, there are times when Christians would not hesitate adding to and changing the text slightly if it meant ‘clarifying’ what the text said or sometimes even removing a few ‘difficult’ bits. This viewpoint is actually quite close to what some Jews in the 1st century did. Quoting from Geza Vermes (The Story of the Scrolls: The Miraculous Discovery and True Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls):

The distinctive mark of the biblical texts found in the Qumran library is their elasticity. Before the establishment of the authoritative wording of the Hebrew Scriptures, as a result of the Pharisaic-rabbinic reorganization of Judaism in the decades following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, textual pluriformity reigned. The choice of the text and its interpretation were left in the hands of the local representatives of doctrinal authority. We even have evidence that a Qumran Bible commentator was aware of the existence of variants and was ready to employ them in his exposition of a biblical passage. In Habakkuk 2:16, ‘Drink and show your foreskin!’ (he’arel from the root ‘RL), the traditional Hebrew uses the image of a drunkard, who like Noah, discards his clothes and allows his foreskin to be seen. The Septuagint, in turn, translates a slightly differently structured Hebrew verb, hera’el (from the root R’L, made up of the same consonants as the forgoing verb ‘RL but placed in a different order) which means ‘to stagger’, and gives, ‘Drink and stagger!’ The author of the Qumran Habakkuk Commentary, applying the prophecy to the ‘Wicked Priest’, the priestly enemy of the Dead Sea Community, skillfully plays with both ideas: ‘For he did not circumcise the foreskin (‘RLH from ‘RL as the traditional Hebrew) of his heart and walked in the ways of drunkenness’, i.e. staggered as in the LXX (Commentary of Habakkuk 11:13-14). By contrast, the biblical manuscripts dating to the early second century, yielded by the caves of Murabba’at, attest only the traditional (proto-Masoretic) form of the scriptural text.
The causes of the textual elasticity of the Qumran Bible are manifold. On a superficial level they may be seen as the result of efforts of modernization of spelling and grammar, the search for stylistic variation and harmonization, but above all, in Professor Shemaryahu Talmon’s words, they are due to ‘insufficiently controlled copying’. Put positively, the Qumran scribes arrogated to themselves the right to creative freedom and considered it their duty to improve the work they were propagating. Such relative liberty could go hand in hand with the conviction that all they were doing was to transmit faithfully the true meaning of Scripture. As is often the case, Flavius Josephus has the final word on the matter. In his Jewish Antiquities 1:17, he maintains that he has reproduced the details of the biblical record without adding anything to it, or removing from it, when in fact he has been doing the exact opposite while intending to transmit what in his view Scripture really meant. Allowing us to perceive the situation that preceded the enforced unification of the biblical text is one of the chief innovations of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a major, indeed unique, contribution to an improved understanding of the history of the Bible.


I’ve just been reading this post from Larry Hurtado’s blog. This part is actually quite relevant to what I’ve been talking about earlier:

In my experience, those who urge a strong “performance” view of the delivery of texts in early Christianity (whom I shall refrain from naming out of courtesy) also seem woefully uninformed about the physical properties of earliest Christian manuscripts, which are , in fact, the most valuable physical artefacts of the writing, circulation and usage of texts in early Christian circles. One sees statements by some scholars that manuscripts were not meant to be read from, but were used to memorize the text for “performance”, i.e., purely oral delivery from memory. Well, maybe some Christians particularly trained in oratory may have done this, although in fact we have no indication of it. But we do have physical evidence of manuscripts of Christian literary texts (notably, those treated as scripture, i.e., read out in churches) being prepared by the originating copyist with various “readers’ aids”, precisely to facilitate the reading of these manuscripts. (I’ve discussed this matter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins [Eerdmans, 2006, esp. pp. 155-89].)


So, about the other half of the title (fanfiction). As Wikipedia explains, fanfiction is basically:

…a broadly-defined fan labor term for stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator. Works of fan fiction are rarely commissioned or authorized by the original work’s owner, creator, or publisher; also, they are almost never professionally published. Because of this, stories often contain a disclaimer stating that the creator of the work owns none of the characters. Fan fiction, therefore, is defined by being both related to its subject’s canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe. Most fan fiction writers assume that their work is read primarily by other fans, and therefore tend to presume that their readers have knowledge of the canon universe (created by a professional writer) in which their works are based.

Living in Japan (the home of anime) and being a fan of anime and manga - and some other geeky stuff - myself, I personally often like to compare OT and NT apocryphal literature with fanfiction. (Or as it is called in Japanese, dōjinshi.)

Christian apocryphal literature (I’m gonna focus on the Christian ones for now) has points of similarity with modern fanfics, and also some differences. First off, one of the reasons why authors penned stuff like the Protoevangelium of James or the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is to ‘fill in the gaps’, so to speak. In other words, people simply wanted to know more about, say, the lives of biblical characters like Mary or Joseph who do not have much ‘screen time’ in the canonical gospels or those segments of Jesus’ life that the gospels skim over entirely. They aren’t content with the bits and pieces that Matthew or Luke gives us and so some people indulged in a ‘what-if’ sort of situation: what if Mary was born like this? What if Jesus was like that as a kid? There is of course something similar in some fanfiction, where fanfic authors would create stories to ‘fill in the gaps’ of the canonical material.

There’s also in modern fanfiction the idea of an 'alternate universe’ (AU), where official canon is deliberately changed and disregarded. Unlike regular fanfiction, which generally remains within the boundaries of the canon set out by the author of a given work, alternative universe fiction are generally at a liberty to explore the possibilities of pivotal changes made to the story or the characters. There are two subcategories of AU: (1) fics where the plot happens in the same “world” as canon, but change one or more major plot points; (2) stories that take some or all characters from the source material and put them in an entirely different situation. Sometimes canonical information might also be altered to the point that the only visible similarity between the characters in the source material and the fanfic would be their names. All in all, this is a different type of ‘what-if’ from the one described in the last paragraph.

Some apocryphal works - such as many of the so-called ‘gnostic’ literature - have some similarities with AU fiction. The various gnostic versions of the Genesis creation story IMHO may more or less qualify as subcategory (1) AU fics: they still follow Genesis (which here would be the ‘canon’ source material) in that the world is created by God, but they alter ‘canon’ in such a way that it is revealed that the ‘god’ who created the world is actually a lesser, flawed divinity distinct from the true God. Same goes for books with a docetic bent: in these works, we are given the reveal that the person who was crucified on Golgotha was not actually Jesus but a body double or a mirage. Hence the crucifixion happened (as in the canonical gospels), but Jesus never really died/the one crucified was not Jesus (contrary to the canonical gospels).


There are also some gnostic works featuring Jesus and His disciples where the authors would follow subcategory (2) and deliberately disregard details from ‘canon’ (i.e. the canonical gospels) or put them in an entirely different situation. In Pistis Sophia for instance, Jesus is said to have remained on earth for eleven years after His resurrection teaching His disciples secret knowledge. (In contrast to Luke-Acts, where the resurrected Jesus only spends forty days at most before His ascension.) He does ascend into heaven, but soon - just more or less a day after - returns to earth anyway in order to give the disciples the more advanced teachings! In fact, Pistis Sophia and some other works (say, the Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Judas or the Books of Ieou) follow the cliche of Jesus engaging in long dialogues and discourses to His followers. You can say that this is an example of characters from ‘canon’ (in this case, Jesus and His disciples) being transplanted into a new context and being stripped into the barest essentials so that the only real similarity between them and the figures that appear in the canonical gospels is their names. In these works, Jesus acts really as the spokesman for the particular sect that penned the work in question, in that the doctrines, the theology and the cosmology of said sect are put into His lips; He has been divorced from His 1st-century Jewish context and turned into a vaguely Greco-Roman, too-divine-to-be-human guru spouting syncretic mumbo-jumbo.


Another element in fanon is that fans will sometimes try to give names to canonically-nameless characters.

One good example of this is from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo agrees to take the One Ring into Mordor in order to destroy it, the film switches to a shot where a certain Elf (played by Bret McKenzie) can be seen standing on the far right. Fans who have noticed this character gave him the name ‘Figwit’: “Frodo is grea…who is that!?”

For some reason, ‘Figwit’ (or McKenzie, rather) attracted a fanbase of his own that McKenzie appeared as the same Elf again (in a single scene with two lines) in the third film The Return of the King, although simply credited as ‘Elf Escort’. Peter Jackson admits in the DVD commentary for The Return of the King that ‘Figwit’ was called back and given dialogue in the third film was because of his popularity:

[T]hat was actually put in just for fun for the fans, because we didn’t even know about this character - I can’t even pronounce his name and umm … yet this guy was created by the fans, really. He was an extra in the Council of Elrond in Fellowship and so much fuss has been made about him over the last couple of years, we had this moment where we wanted Arwen to have this, you know, brief moment with an anonymous elf but we thought - well, rather than making him anonymous lets make him Fig… Figwit.

In ‘Figwit’s’ case, you have two degrees of ‘fanon’: ‘Figwit’ as a character does not appear in the books (making him a film-only character), and in the films themselves this Elf is never even given a name.

To slightly complicate things, McKenzie also appears in the recent The Hobbit film, this time as an actual minor character from the books: Lindir (although in the books, Lindir appears only in The Fellowship of the Ring). As a result, there have been some discussions among some fans lately as to whether ‘Figwit’ and Lindir are supposed to be the same character, since after all they are both played by the same actor and are both Elves of Rivendell.

‘Figwit’ / Elf Escort


What you have in ‘Figwit’s’ case really is what TV Tropes would call ‘Ascended Fanon’: where the fan’s explanations are accepted into canon (in this case, PJ’s films as opposed to Tolkien’s books).

In the case of the Bible, we also have something similar to this, in that Christians would routinely try to give anonymous biblical characters a name. Take for example the criminals crucified with Jesus or the soldier who pierced His side. The gospels never give names to all of them (they are just “one of the criminals who were hanged,” “the other one” and “one of the soldiers,” respectively), but on a popular level they are commonly given the names Gestas/Dysmas and Longinus. In the case of the two criminals in particular, a lot of different names have been given them by Christians (naming first the ‘good’ criminal on the right, followed by the one on the left):


Zoatham, Camma (Codex Colbertinus, Matthew 27:38)
Zoathan, Chammatha (Colbertinus, Mark 15:27)
Ioathas, Maggatras (Codex Rehdigeranus, Luke 23:32)
…], Capnatas (Codex Usserianus I, Luke 23:32)
Ioaras, Gamatras (Inventiones Nominum, 8th century)
Ionathas, Gomatras (Adrian and Epictus)
Matha, Ioca (Pseudo-Bede, Excerpta et Collectanea, 8th century?)
Dismas, Gesmas (Golden Legend)
Vicimus, Iustinus (Historia Christi Persice conscripta, Jerome Xavier)


Dysmas, Gestas (Acts of Pilate)
Demas/Dimas/Damas/Dymas/Dēmas/Dymakus, Stegas/Kustas/Kestas/Titas (variants in Greek/Latin/Syriac/Armenian/Coptic)
Demas, Gestas/Geustas (Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, Greek)
Titus, Dumachus (Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, Book of the Bee, Bar-Hebraeus, Arabic/Syriac)
Titus, Zumachus (Book of the Holy Hierotheos, Syriac)
Ṭeṭos, Dârkès/Dâkrès (The Miracles of Jesus, Ethiopic)
Ṭiṭus, Daumakas/Dūmakas (Arabic Apocryphal Gospel of John)


You have something akin to Ascended Fandom in the case of the good criminal and the soldier - both are venerated as saints usually under the names which were applied to them on the popular level: Dysmas and Longinus, respectively. (There’s of course no ‘official’ declaration that these are indeed their names, but you have here the adoption of popular usage.) In fact, if you looked at the list of the various names given to the two ‘thieves’ above, some Vetus Latina manuscripts of the gospels have even inserted these names to the actual text itself!

Colbertinus (c, 11th-12th century), Matthew 27:38: Tunc crucifixerunt cum eo duo latrones unus a dextris nomine Zoatham et unus a sinistris nomine Camma (“Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right, named Zoatham, and one on the left, named Camma”)

Colbertinus, Mark 15:27: Et crucifixerunt cum eo duos latrones unum a dextris nomine Zoathan et alium a sinistris nomine Chammatha (“And with him they crucified two robbers, one on the right, named Zoathan, and another on the left, named Chammatha”)

Rehdigeranus (l, ca. 7th-8th century), Luke 23:32: Ducebantur autem et alii duo latrones cum eo, Ioathas et Maggatras, ut crucifigerentur

Usserianus Primus (r1, 6th-7th century): …et Capnatas ("… and Capnatas")

closed #15

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