the oldest known gospel fragment --- P52 --- was found in this mummy mask

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: “A period of forty years separates the death of Jesus from the writing of the first gospel. History offers us little direct evidence about the events of this period, but it does suggest that the early Christians were engaged in one of the most basic of human activities: story-telling. In the words of Mike White, "It appears that between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel, Mark, that they clearly are telling stories. They're passing on the tradition of what happened to Jesus, what he stood for and what he did, orally, by telling it and retelling it. And in the process they are defining Jesus for themselves." “These shared memories, passed along by word of mouth, are known as "oral tradition." They included stories of Jesus' miracles and healings, his parables and teachings, and his death. Eventually some stories were written down. The first written documents probably included an account of the death of Jesus and a collection of sayings attributed to him. [Source: Marilyn Mellowes Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Then, in about the year 70, the evangelist known as Mark wrote the first "gospel" — the words mean "good news" about Jesus. We will never know the writer's real identity, or even if his name was Mark, since it was common practice in the ancient world to attribute written works to famous people. But we do know that it was Mark's genius to first to commit the story of Jesus to writing, and thereby inaugurated the gospel tradition.

“"The gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They're not biographies," says Prof. Paula Fredriksen, "they are a kind of religious advertisement. What they do is proclaim their individual author's interpretation of the Christian message through the device of using Jesus of Nazareth as a spokesperson for the evangelists' position."

“About 15 years after Mark, in about the year 85 CE, the author known as Matthew composed his work, drawing on a variety of sources, including Mark and from a collection of sayings that scholars later called "Q", for Quelle, meaning source. The Gospel of Luke was written about fifteen years later, between 85 and 95. Scholars refer to these three gospels as the "synoptic gospels", because they "see" things in the same way. The Gospel of John, sometimes called "the spiritual gospel," was probably composed between 90 and 100 CE. Its style and presentation clearly set it apart from the other three.

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

Story Telling and Early Christianity

Before the gospels were composed, Jesus' first followers sustained his memory by sharing stories of his life, death and teachings. Professor L. Michael White told PBS: It's rather clear from the way that the stories develop in the gospels that the Christians who are writing the gospels a generation after the death of Jesus are doing so from a stock of oral memory, that is, stories that had been passed down to probably by followers. But if we think about the death of Jesus and remember a group of people who would have still been attached to him and to his memory after his death, it must have been a rather stark and traumatic period of time. Many of their initial hopes and expectations had been dashed. All of this talk of the kingdom of God arriving soon seemed to be disconfirmed with his death. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Jesus walks on Water

“And yet there's that story of his resurrection of his coming back to life. And it's around that memory, around that set of concerns that a lot of the earliest oral stories about Jesus must have circulated and must have been built. So we have to imagine the followers of Jesus getting together around the dinner table probably and talking about their memories, maybe it was the memory of something he actually said once upon a time or maybe it was a glimpse of an image that they had of him. Surely they thought it was some image of great power.... But the thing that keeps coming back is they tell the story of who he was in retrospect from the experience of what he became through his death and through the story of his resurrection....

“Story telling was at the center of the beginnings of the Jesus movement. And I think we're right to call it the Jesus movement here because if we think of it as Christianity, that is, from the perspective of the kind of movement and institutional religion that it would become a few hundred years later, we will miss the flavor of those earliest years of the kind of crude and rough beginnings, the small enclaves trying to keep the memory alive, and more than that, trying to understand what this Jesus meant for them. That's really the function of the story telling...it's a way for them to articulate their understanding of Jesus. And in the process of story telling, when we recognize it as a living part of the development of the tradition, we're watching them define Jesus for themselves. At that moment we have caught an authentic and maybe one of the most historically significant parts of the development of Christianity.”

Oral Tradition and Early Christians

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “Now what happens as an oral tradition arises about an historical event or an historical person is that, strangely enough, the first oral tradition is not an attempt to remember exactly what happened, but is rather a return into the symbols of the tradition that could explain an event. Therefore, one has to imagine that legend and myth and hymn and prayer are the vehicles in which oral traditions develop. The move into a formulated tradition that looks as if it was a description of the actual historical events is actually the end result of such a development. Only the later writer would bring a report about Jesus' suffering that has the semblance of the report of the actual events, one after another, that happened. One could, for example, imagine that the oldest way in which the early Christians told about Jesus' suffering and death was the hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2, about the one who was in the form of God who humiliated himself and was obedient even to death on the cross, and was therefore raised high up by God. This was a very old hymn. Paul quotes this hymn when he writes Philippians, that is, in the early 50s of the first century. He quotes this as a hymn that probably was sung in the Christian communities, ten or twenty years earlier. That is the way in which you first tell the story. And that you tell the story in the form of a hymn also shows that the telling of the story is anchored in the worship life of the community. So here is really the beginning of the oral tradition. And it becomes story as it is retold, resung.... It could be resung as a hymn, but retold as a narrative, again in the worship setting of the community. [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“So oral tradition develops as the community looks for a recreation of memory in community life. The same thing also happens to the words of Jesus as they are remembered, because the words of Jesus are not remembered in order to record Jesus' wonderful preaching, but they are remembered in order to find in the words of Jesus wisdom for the ordering of the life of the new community. The earliest quotations or words of Jesus that we have are not in our gospels, but they are in the letters of Paul. And each one of these words of Jesus that appears in the letters of Paul is advice for the regulation of the life of the community. That's where they function. And what does not serve such purpose would not enter the oral tradition....

Jesus's Exhortation to the Apostles

“We cannot go back and peel the later ecretions away, and outside we have the earliest layer of the words of Jesus, and this is what Jesus must have said, because even the earliest layer of the tradition of Jesus' words has already been formulated, not for the purposes of memory, but for the purposes of community life....

“Why do these stories and these oral traditions finally get written down is the question.... Perhaps because in order to communicate from one community to the other. The only way in which different Christian communities who had contact with each other could assure that their traditions were uniform and could be shared was by writing them down, and by thus exchanging those stories. It could also be written down in order to be used as letters of recommendation. Now let me explain this because this sounds a little strange. We do know that Christian apostles traveled around not only doing miracles, but also bringing records of miracles they had done at other places and at the same time miracles of Jesus they had written down in order to be used as accreditation as they came to a new community....

“And so the writing was for particular purposes, probably this passion narrative was written down also in order to assure among different communities that the story that they would tell of Jesus' suffering in the celebration of the Eucharist would be stories told along the same lines. But even the writing down of a story at one point does not mean that it is now fixed. Because we go from telling of a story to writing of a story, but that written story is now used again in the telling of the story in a new liturgical situation. So that the next process of writing would look different than the first writing in fact was. And therefore we can not just simply talk about a tradition that was once oral and then it's fixed....

Resurrection StoryProfessor

L. Michael White told PBS: “How did the resurrection story get started? We have to remember that the gospels themselves and their full account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus came a good bit after the fact, a full generation, in some cases perhaps even sixty years, two generations later. So those stories had a long time to evolve and develop. But we can see that they're based on some smaller units of oral tradition that had been circulating for many years before. We see this even in Paul's letters. Paul himself, remember, doesn't write a gospel. He actually doesn't tell us much about the life of Jesus at all. He never once mentions a miracle story. He tells us nothing about the birth. He never tells us anything about teaching in parables or any of those other typical features of the gospel tradition of Jesus. What Paul does tell us about is the death, and he does so in a form that indicates that he's actually reciting a well-known body of material. So when he tells us, "I received and I handed on to you," he's referring to his preaching, but he's also telling us that what he preaches, that is the material that he delivers, is actually developed through the oral tradition itself. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]


“Now one of the most important examples of this comes in the First Corinthian Letter. On two separate occasions in First Corinthians, he actually gives us snippets of early pieces of oral material which he repeats in a way, so as to remind his audience of what they've already heard. In other words, it presupposes that they will recognize this material. And because we can isolate it out of his letters, the way he describes, we then are able to reconstruct...what that early body of material would have looked like at a time before it's ever written down.Now one of these is First Corinthians 11 where Paul describes Jesus instituting the last supper. And that's one of the early pieces of oral material. The other one is First Corinthians 15 where Paul describes the story of the death, burial and resurrection. In First Corinthians 15, Paul's description of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is the earliest account that we have in any written form. And it's clearly what Paul himself had heard and learned over a period of several years. So it's one of those little blocks of material in Paul's letters that pushes us that much farther back toward the historical time of Jesus.

“Now here's what he tells us, he says that Jesus died, was buried, was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, he relates it to prophecy. Then he says, "Jesus appeared". He doesn't tell us about the empty tomb. There's no reference to that part of the story at all. Instead he tells us Jesus appeared, first to Peter and then the twelve, next to 500 people, some of whom had already died by the time Paul heard the story. Now in each of these two cases it's interesting that we have information that we don't get anywhere else in the gospels tradition. So it's a unit of oral material that is very important to the development of the tradition....

Oral Traditions Evolve into Gospels

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “We have to remember that Jesus died around 30. For 40 years, there's no written gospel of his life, until after the revolt. During that time, we have very little in the way of written records within Christianity. Our first writer in the New Testament is Paul, and his first letter is dated around 50 to 52, still a good 20 years after Jesus, himself. But it appears that in between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel, Mark, that they clearly are telling stories. They're passing on the tradition of what happened to Jesus, what he stood for and what he did, orally, by telling it and retelling it.... [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“The fact that we're dealing in oral medium of story telling is very important to the development of the tradition itself because stories tend to be told in some units that can be passed along easily, easily remembered. Sometimes they may even be put in different order or you may only tell certain parts of the story. They're indications that we may have collections of miracle stories that circulated independently and maybe collections of teachings, as well. But, probably the core of all the oral tradition is the summary of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the Passion tradition.

“In the development of the oral tradition then, it seems that over time some of these stories came to be written down, and the use of these summary statements about the contents of the story of Jesus are what came to be thought of as the gospel, the good news, the story of Jesus. But the term gospel, or good news, itself, means just a proclamation of the information, of what happened - The Great Story. And that's what the gospels are, a narrative tradition, the story of Jesus.

Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus

The Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus (also known as the Syriac Sinaiticus, and Sinaitic Palimpsest of Saint Catherine's Monastery and Old Syriac Gospels) is a late-4th- or early-5th-century manuscript of 179 folios, containing a nearly complete translation of the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament into Syriac, which have been overwritten by a vita (biography) of female saints and martyrs with a date corresponding to AD 697. This palimpsest is the oldest copy of the Gospels in Syriac, one of two surviving manuscripts (the other being the Curetonian Gospels). [Source: Wikipedia]

One theory how the Gospels originated

Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson were Scottish twins and self-taught scholars who between them mastered some dozen languages. Robert Draper wrote in National Geographic: In 1892 the plucky Presbyterian sisters, both middle-aged widows by then, crossed the Egyptian desert on camelback and arrived at St. Catherine’s. They’d been tipped off that works in ancient Syriac — a dialect of Aramaic, a language Jesus spoke — were stashed in a dark closet. The sisters were eager to investigate. [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, December, 2018]

“With the monks’ permission, they examined several volumes, including a dirt-encrusted codex that hadn’t been cracked open for decades, perhaps centuries. Using their camp kettle to steam the grimy pages apart, they found that it was a biography of female saints dated A.D. 778. Then sharp-eyed Lewis noticed a faint underwriting beneath the top layer of text and realized that it was a palimpsest — a manuscript that had been partially erased and reused. Studying the text beneath the text, she was staggered to see that it was a translation of the four Gospels. Dating roughly to the early 400s, the Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus, as it’s known today, is one of the oldest copies of the Gospels ever discovered.

“Rather than try to “borrow” the Syriac codex — which remains at St. Catherine’s to this day — the sisters took photographs of each page with a camera they’d brought along to document their discoveries. They also used a chemical solution in a successful attempt to enhance the faded undertext of the palimpsest. Their work anticipated by more than a century the use of multispectral imaging and other technologies to reveal ancient biblical texts hidden beneath more recent writing.

Irenaeus, Heretics and the Politics of the Gospels

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: ““I think the composition of a four-fold gospel canon reflects complicated developments during the course of the second century. One of the factors that played a role here certainly was the fact that certain gospels were revered in certain ecclesiastical centers, so it may be that Antioch had a special affection for the Gospel of Luke. We don't know that for a fact, but this is certainly an element in the development of the gospel canon. So as the centers got together and wanted to share fellowship and shared their readings, it would have been important for them to recognize one another's principle texts. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“There may also have been some theological issues that were being debated, and the use of certain texts in connection with those debates probably played a role in the recognition of those texts as authoritative. We know that that was the case with the Gospel of John; by the end of the second century there was a faction among the Roman church leadership that rejected the fourth gospel and said, "We ought not have it." They thought that perhaps there was a portrait of Jesus that compromised his humanity. And so the insistence upon the full humanity of Jesus would have been an issue in the acceptance of John as authoritative. So there were both some political and also some theological reasons that no doubt played a role. And then there were various other gospels that were not included within the fourfold canon that probably did not have the sponsorship of a major church, or had some feature to them that was particularly problematic from a theological point of view.


Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “Irenaeus was a Bishop of Lyon in what today would be France in the later second century.... [He] was particularly noted for his writings in which he tried to combat various kinds of so-called heretics of the second century. Most of these were people who would consider themselves Christians. In fact some of these heretics such as Marcion and Valentinus clearly thought that they were better Christians and higher kinds of Christians than ordinary run of the mill Christians in the catholic churches. Irenaeus took it upon himself to expose these different kinds of so-called heresies, people that had chosen wrong ways of thinking about Christianity, from his point of view. In an enormous book called "Against Heresies" in which he outlined all the difficulties, particularly, he said, many of these heretics decried the created order. They thought the material world was bad. They didn't honor the God of the Old Testament who was represented as a creator. They didn't honor the law that God gave in the Hebrew Bible, and in fact that does seem to be the case with some of these so-called heretics. They themselves, however, certainly thought of themselves as being truer and higher kinds of Christians who had gone beyond much of what the Hebrew Bible said and were now into a different stage.... So what you really have here I think is a kind of in-group Christian fighting over the who has the purer, truer kind of Christianity. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Irenaeus was very concerned to say there's one kind of Christianity which has come down from the time of the New Testament and been preserved through the bishops.... You could say Irenaeus was no postmodernist. He did not think there were many approaches to truth or many kinds of truths in the plural. There was one truth that he thought had been given in ... the creed of the church such as it had developed at that time and was preserved by bishops in their teaching authority, so he was not willing to admit that there could be these varieties of Christianity all of which were true.

Development of the Canon

Marilyn Mellowes: “The New Testament, published in Christian Bibles used around the world, contains 27 manuscripts or texts. The most prominent of these are the four gospels known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These texts are so familiar, that it is easy to assume that four — and only four — gospels ever existed.This is not the case, and the story of how the four gospels became chosen as part of the canon, or accepted literature of the church, offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the early Christians. [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Early Christian communities produced many gospels. One was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, in which Mary is regarded as a disciple, a leader of a Christian group. Another early Christian text known as the Gospel of Truth, reflects on the teachings of Jesus, but does not talk about his death and resurrection; and the Gospel of Thomas contains only sayings attributed to Jesus.

“As the number of Christian communities grew, so did the number and types of gospels. During the 2nd century, writing gospels became practically a "cottage industry," for the audience and the appetite for the literature seemed unlimited.

“But there were those who felt a need to place some boundaries on the proliferation of gospels. Among them was Irenaeus, who became the bishop of Lyon, after the Christian community there had suffered a devastating persecution. For Irenaeus, the survival of the church was linked to the necessity for order.

“That order extended to the texts that Christians used in their worship. In about the year 180 CE, Irenaeus suggested that the proper number of gospels was four. He invoked a curious logic: there are four corners to the earth, there are four winds, there are four beasts of the apocalypse.

“Irenaeus himself did not have the authority to simply impose this limitation to four gospels. But it seems that many church officials were sympathetic to his perceived need to reign in diversity. As Allen Callahan points out, it is easy to stereotype the arbitrary quality of the decision-making process: "a bunch of cigar smoking Christian big shots got together, and they decided who was going in and who was going out. It was a wrap, they closed up, and taken everything else was on the cutting room floor and the janitors took away what didn't get in the Canon."

“But Callahan suggests that the choice of these four gospels reflects the preferences and practices of a growing majority of early Christian communities. There was a rough consensus about "literature that they want to read, that they want to hear over and over again. And other kinds of literature that they don't want to hear."

“The canon imposed limits, but it also preserved a measure of diversity. As Helmut Koester has observed: "There is no claim that this canon represents four gospels that are all saying the same thing. It is rather an attempt to bring together as many Christian communities as possible into one major church."

“The four gospels reflect diversity, yet they all share one key element: each tells the story of passion of Jesus, his suffering and his death. That story is intimately connected to the ritual that is the centerpiece of Christian worship, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Last Supper. Story and ritual are deeply connected. As Koester has observed, the ritual cannot live without the story. And, in the worship of the emerging church, the story was sustained and deepened by the ritual.”

Emergence of the Canon

Dozens of gospels circulated in early Christian communities. How were the four now used in the New Testament selected? Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “In the earliest Christian movement, there were actually many different writings circulated, and many traditions about the sayings of Jesus. Some of the leaders were concerned to say, "Well, which of these writings can be read in church? Which are the right ones? Which are the best ones?" And Irenaeus, the leader of a church in France in about the year 170, declared that "The heretics boast that they have many more gospels than there really are. But really they don't have any gospels that aren't full of blasphemy. There actually are only four authentic gospels. And this is obviously true because there are four corners of the universe and there are four principal winds, and therefore there can be only four gospels that are authentic. These, besides, are written by Jesus' true followers." [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Now, today, scholars of the New Testament wouldn't agree with Irenaeus, because we don't know who wrote the gospels we call Matthew, Mark, Luke andJohn, any more than we know who wrote the Gospel of Thomas. They're all attributed to disciples of Jesus, but we don't really know who wrote them. And we don't know whether they came as the earliest sources or not. In fact, chances are they didn't. But they did present views of Jesus, which make him very important and make the institutional church [central].... The gospels of the New Testament, of course, have a lot of differences among themselves. But they're all similar in that they all see Jesus as the pivotal person, the one on whom everything depends, the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord. These other gospels, many of them, see Jesus as a teacher, as a kind of figure of enlightenment, a kind of bodhisattva figure, but one whom you and I could emulate, whom we could perhaps become. And that's a very different kind of emphasis. I think the gospels of the New Testament were chosen because they do share this conviction of the importance and uniqueness of Jesus, which also becomes the importance and uniqueness of the church as the only means of salvation. That is, the church that called itself "catholic," which means simply universal, claims to be the only access to salvation there is. If you're not a member of that church, leaders of that church have claimed from the first century until now, you are outside, you are perhaps consigned to damnation.

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “In the second and third century we know now there were any number of gospels which had names of apostles appended to them. There were also acts or also with names of apostles appended to them so you have The Acts of Paul, The Acts of Thomas and so forth. ... these circulated quite freely in the church and Christians for a while probably used these ... somewhat indiscriminately; it's only a little bit later ... you begin to have people objecting, "don't use this one, don't use that one". ... It may surprise people to know that it's really not until the year 367 that we have a list of New Testament books that conforms exactly to the list of the twenty-seven books we would call the New Testament today. So throughout the second and third centuries there was quite a lot of fighting about which ones are in and which ones not. I think there was general agreement quite early Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Letters of Paul were safely in, but there was fighting about books like Jude and Second Peter. Certainly the book of Revelation was fought about a lot. The apocalyptic tone of that work was not very suitable in the eyes of some Christians a little bit later on.... [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Irenaeus doesn't like the idea that there are many gospels circulating with different accounts about Jesus, particularly a number of these accounts [which] rather down-play the materiality and physicality of Jesus' body. They stress the kind of miracles that Jesus, as a little child, performed, and Irenaeus thinks if we just stick to the gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we will have a more historical, we might say, account of Jesus. I think also what's at stake here though too, is that the Catholic Church, which Irenaeus represents, is in competition with groups, like the followers of Valentinus and the followers of Marcion, who were not inconsiderable threats in the 2nd century. So this is a kind of campaign about who has the best and right form of Christianity....

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “In the second and third century we know now there were any number of gospels which had names of apostles appended to them. There were also acts or also with names of apostles appended to them so you have The Acts of Paul, The Acts of Thomas and so forth. ... these circulated quite freely in the church and Christians for a while probably used these ... somewhat indiscriminately; it's only a little bit later ... you begin to have people objecting, "don't use this one, don't use that one". ... It may surprise people to know that it's really not until the year 367 that we have a list of New Testament books that conforms exactly to the list of the twenty-seven books we would call the New Testament today. So throughout the second and third centuries there was quite a lot of fighting about which ones are in and which ones not. I think there was general agreement quite early Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Letters of Paul were safely in, but there was fighting about books like Jude and Second Peter. Certainly the book of Revelation was fought about a lot. The apocalyptic tone of that work was not very suitable in the eyes of some Christians a little bit later on.... [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Ecumenical council

Canon Emerges from Consensus

Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “Sometimes when the New Testament scholarship discusses the matter of canon formation, the story implied is that there are some smoke filled rooms somewhere in the 2nd century and a bunch of these cigar smoking Christian big shots got together and they decided who was going in and who was going out and then... it was a wrap, they closed up and then everything else was on the cutting room floor.... If we return to Irenaeus' argument for the canon, I think precisely the contrary is closer to a more responsible historical reconstruction, and that is that there's some kind of consensus among people in the Jesus movement as to what constitutes reliable tradition, reliable literature - literature that they want to read or they want to hear over and over again, and other kinds of literature that they don't want to hear. And, of course, there are groups that have differences of opinion about this. [Source: Allen D. Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“There's some discussion about certain books that can be read but can't be read in church, for example. You can read them on your own, but there's a kind of parental advisory on them or something, and you don't read them in church and you're careful when you read them by yourself, this kind of thing. Or there's some pieces of literature that a lot of people are reading but that the Grand Poobahs in the church don't want them to read. But these really constitute special cases that imply a kind of consensus that are formed very early about the kind of literature Christians used that spoke to their self-identification and by which, they in turn, identified themselves.... That's kind of touchy-feely; it's hard to get a get a historical fix on it, but it's got to have been there. That was a development... from the bottom up, as opposed to from the top down. In Irenaeus' voice, I think we're hearing some top down arguments ex-post facto.

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “Who decided exactly what got in and what was left out? What was excluded? What was suppressed? It's hard to say.... We do have a document called the Muratorian Canon ... which tells us that one of the criteria for deciding whether a book is scripture or not is whether it can be read in the church. Now, this seems to be rather a circular argument, because you probably don't read it in the church unless you think it's scripture, but there seems to be something about suitability for public reading during worship, that's one criterion. The churchmen who argued about these points of what's in and what's out... [also] wanted to say if we know a book was supposedly written by an Apostle or by a follower of an Apostle, this gave it some authenticity. This was an attempt to say, "We're as close back with eyewitness reporting as we can be." [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Four Gospels From Many Gospels

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “The process of the development of the canon; that is, the bible itself as the normative document in the way that we now have it, is really a product of the second and third century use of the gospels tradition. Now, from early on, of course, we have the four main gospels that we now see in the New Testament; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but there were many others that we know existed. There's the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, each of which may go back to a very early tradition. There's the Q document; the source, the saying source that underlies the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It's now lost but obviously it was known at one time, and it, too, is very early, probably dating as early as the 50's of the first century. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “The diversity of Christianity is certainly closely related to the proliferation of gospels. Even the gospels which we have in the canon of the New Testament are not of one mind, but really represent very different religious positions and very different images of Jesus. You go beyond this, we have the Gospel of Thomas, which again is a very different image of Jesus as the revealer of the divine truth about the ultimate human self than we find in Mark, or in Matthew. We have numerous fragments of other gospels, which sometimes we only know they existed, but cannot really say what they [said]. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“So the question of establishing some authority in terms of gospels, which gospels should be read and which should not be read, was discussed in the second century, especially after Marcion. Marcion lived in the first half of the second century. He was a wealthy ship owner and ship merchant. He came from northern Turkey... to Rome and he gave the Roman Church a lot of money, and they welcomed him with open arms. But he felt that the original Christian gospel was no longer preserved, and he thought that only the apostle Paul had the true gospel. And he set out to find this true gospel, and he took the Gospel of Luke and purified it from whatever he thought was Jewish and said, "This should be the scripture for the church, and this should be the only scripture for the church." And the Roman church became very suspicious of his manipulations with the Gospel of Mark. It is reported that they gave the money back to him and said, "Thank you very much, but we don't want you and your gospel...."

“But the church really had to think at that point, what should they do with the many gospels on hand. And with new editions of the gospels which were coming out all the time. Right after Marcion, we have evidence from Rome that some other people sat down and wrote a new harmony of the gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke, melding them together into one gospel. Now in that situation we have apparently a recourse to the original function of gospel narrative which is the narrative of Jesus' suffering and death as the story that accompanies the celebration of the central Christian ritual, the Eucharist. And that meant that only gospels who have a passion narrative can be included. The Gospel of Thomas does not have a passion narrative. And it was never discussed for possible inclusion. It is characteristic that all gospels of the canon have a passion narrative because the central Christian ritual, that's the Eucharist, cannot live without that story. And it is out of that movement that the four gospel canon arises. And it comes, interestingly enough, as a canon that preserves diversity, within limits.... There is no claim that this canon represents four gospels that are all saying the same thing. It is rather an attempt to bring together as many Christian communities that were bound to a particular gospel into one major church. And this was essentially accomplished through the four gospel canon.

Selecting the Four Gospels Out of Many Gospels

Gospel of Phillip, one of the rejected Gospels

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: ““In the second and third century, we know that there were many other gospels that were developed. We have a charming array of popular kinds of stories of the life of Jesus. There's baby Jesus stories; the infancy Gospel of Thomas is one of these where you have the stories of the little child Jesus performing all sorts of miracles. And obviously these are developing out of a kind of what we might call popular interest. You can imagine the stories of Jesus developing in a lot of ways much like any famous figure. I mean, let's think of a Superman character. Once you know that Superman's a great guy, what was he like as a child; the same thing happens with Jesus. Baby Jesus stories are one of these, and we get some wonderful little legends that develop this way.” [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“We also hear of other kinds of gospels that develop. Stories of the birth that tell you in lurid detail, really, how true it really was or how marvelous and miraculous it was; stores of apostles traveling to all kinds of strange lands; Thomas, who goes to India; Andrew, who goes out to some strange world, and so on. These kinds of stories proliferate through the second and third century. There's a burgeoning Christian literature, and in some ways, I think we have to look at it as if it were really taking over the market, in a literary sense, of the popular imagination of the second and third centuries.

“At the same time, this burgeoning literature, ... even when it's used for local traditions or is, for example, the official gospel of a particular church, also presents a problem because if there's only one Jesus, how can there be all these different gospels? And when you look at them all, even the four gospels in the New Testament, not to mention all these other kinds of things that we read; when you look at them all, you really see that there are rather different portrayals of Jesus that come out of them. There's a different image in each different tradition. So, the proliferation of the gospels on the one hand reflects the growth and the kind of upsurge of popularity of Christianity. On the other hand, it produces a dilemma; how can there be so many gospels when there's only one Jesus? And this is even a problem that faces the development of the New Testament canon itself. If there's only one Jesus, why even four gospels, why not just one?

“So, by the late second and early third century, we're starting to face this problem. We hear of people who want to harmonize all the gospels into just one story. We actually have a document called the diatessaron, produced by a Syrian Christian theologian by the name of Tatian, and the diatessaron means "through the four;" he weaves the four gospels together into one, single narrative, and it produces some interesting effects with the story when he does so. In fact, it's so much of a problem that he puts them together that way, that people begin to worry too much if you do that.

“So, on the one hand, one gospel is too few, but the other possibility is you could throw three of them out.... But if one is too few and you can't fuse them all together, how many is too many? And finally the answer comes down that four is the right number, and we have this writer by the name is Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, in Gaul, modern day France, who around the year 180 says that no, the number of the gospels is properly four; these are the earliest, these are the best, but four is the right number.

Famous Jesus Story and Saying Wasn’t in Original Gospels

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: One of the most famous moral teachings of the New Testament is “Judge not lest ye be judged.” It’s a favorite with pastors and politicians alike, and no individual story so exemplifies this maxim as Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John. A woman "caught in the act" is brought to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees. They ask him if she should be stoned to death in accordance with the law given by Moses. At first Jesus ignores them and writes on the ground. When the accusers continue to challenge Jesus, he does not take the bait. Instead he asks that the person who is “without sin” cast the first stone. Nobody condemns the woman and Jesus tells the woman that he does not condemn her either and that she should go and sin no more. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 17, 2018]

Gospel of Mary, another rejected gospel

The problem is that this story wasn’t originally in the Gospel of John. It didn’t become part of the Bible until at least a hundred years after the Gospel of John was written. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John show no trace of the story. It’s simply not included in the text. The two earliest manuscripts of John (known as P66 and P75), which were written in the second and early third centuries, do not include it. Nor do the mid-fourth century books Codex Sinaiaticus and Codex Vaticanus, the earliest complete collections of the New Testament. So where did the story come from and how did it make it into our Bibles?

In the new book To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (Princeton, 2018), scholars Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman explore the tangled and complicated history of this beloved story. In it they argue, as others do, that the story was introduced into the Gospel of John by a later interpolator sometime in the third century. Some other ancient authors refer to the story as part of different literary tradition, a lost ‘gospel’ known as the Gospel of the Hebrews. That interpolator presumably believed that the story was important and authentic and added it into the text of the Gospel of John. Looking at the manuscripts themselves it’s possible to watch that happen. One manuscript, Codex Sangallensis 48, leaves a blank space in John 7:53-8:11, the place where the story is usually found.

Though they are careful to point out that we don’t know for sure where the story came from or why it was added to the Gospel of John, Knust, an associate professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Boston University, and Wasserman, a professor of Biblical Studies at Ansgar Teologiske Høgskole in Norway, told The Daily Beast that the interpolation took place “in a context where Greek was used but Latin was also spoken, and probably because the interpolator thought it fit best into that Gospel.” They added that “we can only speculate about why John and not some other Gospel,” but mentioned several theories, including the prominence of stories about women in the Fourth Gospel. They also note the intriguing theory of New Testament scholar Chris Keith that, in addition to portraying Jesus as forgiving, the story also presents Jesus as able to write. Perhaps it was added, then, to combat the scandalous accusation that Jesus wasn’t fully literate. “Once it was added,” they said “it made sense to many Christians to read it there.”

The story proved enormously popular. In part, Knust and Wasserman told me, because “[it] fits well within a number of stories and sayings that also highlight the forgiveness or rescue of women who either engage in sexual misconduct or are falsely accused of doing so.” But also because it is intrinsically interesting to people and can be read in a variety of ways. “One of the attractive aspects of this story is that it can be interpreted in multiple and diverse ways. In the earliest period of its telling, for example, some Christians seem to have thought that the woman was innocent and that Jesus, like the prophet Daniel, intervened to save her from a false accusation. Stories that leave a lot to the imagination often have significant staying power.” Once the version of the story we have in John was placed into the Gospel, “it began to spread and a majority of Greek and Latin copies available in Rome, Italy, and Spain included it there.”

One of the most interesting findings of the book is how the authors trace the history of the manuscript in artistic and liturgical contexts, not only literary ones. What they discover is that the story not only had a great deal of staying power, it also captured the imagination of important fourth-century bishops, like St. Augustine, who referred to it in their sermons as well as their theological treatises.

Were the Gospels Rough Drafts?

A book by scholar at Princeton in 2018 makes the argument that the Gospel of Mark was more like a rough draft than a finished book. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Many modern American Christians believe that that the Bible is inerrant. That is to say, it contains no mistakes, no inconsistencies, and no inaccuracies. Of course, believing that the Bible has no mistakes assumes that the Bible is a complete and fully polished collection of works. But a new book on the writing of the Gospels blows this assumption out of the water and suggests, for the first time, that the gospels were not finished products. One of the versions that we have — the Gospel of Mark, the earliest one — might never have been intended for publication and was more like a rough draft or collection of notes than a book. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 8, 2018]

In “Gospels Before Book”, Matthew Larsen, a member of the Society of Fellows at Princeton, examines ancient writing and “publishing” practices. Most scholars believe that the four New Testament Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were written between 70-120 A.D. Larsen discovered that prior to the second century people didn’t talk about the Gospels as “Gospels” or books. In fact, he says, “the very idea that there are four separate, finished, and fully authored books called the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” is one of the “more significant ideological invention[s]” of the late second century.

another theory of how the Synoptic Gospels originated

During the course of his research Larsen ran across dozens of texts in the ancient world that were published without authors, as rough drafts, accidentally, or were even revised post-publication. Writing rough drafts or collections of notes that might find their way into the hands of other authors was a relatively common practice in antiquity. Other texts were circulated without the permission of their authors before they were complete. The upshot of these discoveries is the realization that in the ancient world some texts were very fluid.

There’s no better example of Larsen’s hypothesis than the Gospel of Mark. Mark, as we know it, is considered by historians to be the earliest Gospel, and is often criticized for its poor literary style. Ancient Christian readers, Larsen shows, seemed to have seen Mark more as a collection of notes than a fully formed book. The second-century bishop Irenaeus, for example, describes the “publication” of the Gospels of Matthew and John for specific audiences but does not seem to have viewed Mark in the same way. Another second-century writer, Papias, also envisions Mark as a kind of note taker, writing that Mark wrote down everything the apostle Peter had remembered but did not make “an orderly arrangement” of them. “Early readers,” Larsen told The Daily Beast “often regarded the Gospels in general and the Gospel according to Mark in particular not as books published by singular author-figures but as unfinished, unpolished, and open textual traditions that not ascribed to authorial figures.”

In particular, the conclusion to Mark bears the hallmarks of a draft. Historians will tell you that the oldest manuscripts (and, we thus say, the earliest “original” version) of Mark finish at Mark 16:8, with the women who had come to the tomb running away in fear. But there are at least four other endings to the Gospel in the ancient manuscripts, which serve as evidence of early Christian readers’ efforts to revise, polish and improve the text. Larsen concludes that Mark was “a powerful text that was not ‘finished’”; it was, he writes, more like a rough draft. Later texts, including the Gospel of Matthew, added additional resurrection stories and prologues to the text and constantly repurposed this collection of notes.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except the Canon diagram from Bible Diagrams and the mummy mask, Live Science

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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