ALL GOSPELS WERE NOT CREATED EQUAL

I just read an obituary of Early Christianity scholar Marvin Meyer, who died at the obscenely early age of 64.

In recent years, Meyer was best known for his edition of the Gospel of Judas, which in his view portrayed Judas in vastly more positive terms than the conventional account. His translation was however controversial, provoking a vigorous attack by his doctoral supervisor James M. Robinson. Among other issues, Meyer seems to have omitted the word “not” in a crucial sentence, resulting in Jesus placing Judas in a highly favorable light. I am not a Coptic scholar, and cannot judge the linguistic point.

I am, though, a historian, and on that basis I fundamentally challenge the framework of the debate presented by among others, Britain’s Daily Telegraph. (I stress that I am critiquing that media discussion, and not Meyer’s own work). According to the Telegraph, which should know better,

What we know as the New Testament – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation – was actually born of thousands of texts and gospels circulated among the early Christians. Members of the new faith were subject to persecution, and the Church fathers felt that for the faith to survive, there had to be a unified belief system. Some time around AD 180, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon denounced all gospels but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as heretical. Later, about 50 years after Constantine’s conversion early in the fourth century, the New Testament became Christianity’s official text.

Lacking here is any sense that these early Christian texts vary enormously in authority, and in date. As I discussed some years ago in my book Hidden Gospels, the fact that a text circulated among the “early Christians” (anywhere from the first through fourth centuries) is irrelevant to what it can tell us about Jesus or his world. Contrary to the Telegraph account – and good grief, this is a conservative paper – the reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.

Forgive me for the obvious remark, but they never seriously contemplated adding most of the Nag Hammadi texts because they had not even been written in the mid-second century, and in any case, these relied on the Big Four for any historical descriptions. I can point confidently to chains of historical evidence and authority linking the apostles to Mark, and on to the other synoptics, and John has its distinctive foundations. Literally no other gospel – including Thomas – has anything vaguely comparable.

We find possible reference to a Gospel of Judas in the mid-second century, though it is not clear if this is the one that recently came to light. Possibly it was written fifty or a hundred years later. But assume for the sake of argument that it dates from 150. It offers precisely nothing suggesting any independent historical transmission, beyond a second century thinker meditating freely (and wildly) on what he/she has gleaned from one or more of the Four Gospels.

To put this chronology in perspective, it’s the difference between a first hand memoir of (say) a US Army unit in the First World War, written down in 1950, and an article on that same war that I just penned myself, relying wholly on secondary sources. My article might be brilliant, but it has no independent authority whatever for the era it seeks to describe, any more than do the Gospels of Judas or Mary.

All gospels were not created equal.

 

 

  • Falcon 78

    All gospels are not equal–well stated and made with a good analogy about the war reporter writing with primary sources versus secondary sources. Now, his next article should be about how the Reformation came about. The Church had existed for 1500 years before the Reformation, 27 of the 33 Doctors of the Church lived, wrote and taught before the Reformation, councils such as that of Nicea were held before the Reformation–and it was not until Martin Luther was the one who got it “right”? Everybody before Luther misunderstood? The Church was teaching from the wrong deposit of faith? There is a great, similarly themed article waiting to be written.

    • jonathanbartlett

      The reformation does not say that 1500 years of the Church got it wrong. Instead, it argues that the Roman church at the time of the reformation had gotten it wrong, and, most even in Romanism today, agree with their assessment. It was not Luther’s view of grace that got him kicked out, but the fact that he defied the church’s fundraising efforts.

  • J. Bob

    It seems by the time of the Muratorian Canon (~160 AD), the primary books of the NT were almost complete.

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  • Fr. John W. Morris

    St. Irenaeus of Lyons also chose the 4 Gospels because they taught the same Faith that he had learned from St. Polycarp who was a student of St. John. The Gnostic gospels were rejected because they taught a different Faith than that which had been handed down from the Apostles.

    Fr. John W. Morris

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    The early Christians began telling each other their stories about what Jesus said and did from the moment of the resurrection. Of course they would have done this. Out of this “comparing of notes”, it would not have taken very long for a fairly complete and more-or-less standardized oral tradition to have emerged. There might have still been room for a little bit of individualized style in the transmission of this oral tradition as new people were brought into the fold and the new faith spread around the Mediterranian, but there would have been limits. Once the oral tradition became fairly standardized, anyone adding some new invention would have been questioned. For the first few decades it would have been possible to send someone back to the original disciples to verify whether or not Jesus actually did say or do whatever was claimed of him.

    Given all this, it is no mystery why the four gospels – and only the four gospels – became widely accepted. It happened because what they taught was in accordance with the oral tradition that Christians already had. None of the four gospels contained the complete oral tradition, but people were willing to accept that. Mark was a good first attempt at writing down some of the essentials of the Jesus story. Mathew and Luke each fleshed it out a bit, bringing in some of the sayings of Jesus that were in the oral tradition but that Mark had not included. There were still things in the oral tradition that wasn’t in any of the three synoptics, however, so John’s gospel was a late attempt to capture those things in writing before the oral tradition was supplanted by the written scriptures.

    Even after John, there apparently were still a very few things from the oral tradition that had not made it into any of the four gospels, such as the story about the woman accused of adultry and “he who is without sin may cast the first stone”. Someone undoubtedly thought they were doing us a favor by inserting these at a later date. Perhaps they were. Just because Jesus said or did something that didn’t make it into bona fide scripture doesn’t mean that it isn’t good to know about it.

    I wouldn’t even rule out the possibility that a few stray sayings of Jesus that the four gospels didn’t capture might have eventually made their way into some later documents. That is an interesting avenue of endeavor to pursue, but that does not change the fact that those later documents are not scripture. There is too much in them that is not in accord with either the oral tradition that was still remembered at the time, or with the written scriptures that had largely already replaced it. There is no deep dark conspiracy about this.

    • Philip Jenkins

      I entirely agree that some authentically early Jesus sayings (and stories) might surface in later texts outside the New Testament – especially in the Muslim tradition. I wouldn’t fight to the death for this, but I have no problem believing that Jesus really did say “The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it.” The phrase occurs widely, including on the Taj Mahal.

  • GarlicClove

    I wonder if you could point me in the directions of any primary sources that contain the early church debates you mention in your article? They sound very interesting.

    • Philip Jenkins

      In response to “GarlicClove”, Eusebius’s History of the Church includes a lot of discussion on this, quoting many other early writers, and there are several readable translations of that book.

      There are some great collections of extracts from early Christian writers debating the canon (that is, the defined list of what was included in scripture). A couple of older ones that I find useful include E. Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and Related Writings. Or J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius.

      One standard book is Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.

      Good luck making discoveries!

    • Philip Jenkins

      This may be really obvious, but let me say it anyway. There are some wonderful free resources for accessing early Christian texts online.

      The easiest by far is through the CHRISTIAN CLASSICS ETHEREAL LIBRARY, ccel.org, which allows you to read older (but still excellent) translations full text. If you want Eusebius’s Church History for instance, find him at

      http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.toc.html

      If you want all the Apostolic Fathers – Clement, Justin and the rest – go to

      http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01

      CCEL politely requests donations, but if you don’t have the money, their invaluable services are still available for free.

  • Jim Davila
    • Philip Jenkins

      Mr Davila’s link shows that the Telegraph obit I cited included many plagiarized passages. See that link to Mark Goodacre’s careful analysis. Goodacre writes, “I think that it is disgraceful that The Telegraph’s obituary of Marvin Meyer is a patchwork of passages plagiarized from different electronic articles and I would like to suggest that they acknowledge what they have done, issuing a full apology, and replacing the plagiarized piece with something that appropriately honours Professor Meyer’s memory.” Indeed. What on earth were they thinking?

  • http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog Roger Pearse

    Well said, Dr. J. M.R.James long ago commented that no-one “excluded” these volumes from the NT — their contents did that for themselves.

    I myself am very tired of these crude attempts to falsify history (and things like the Walter Bauer thesis seem to be nothing else). I can only presume that they are made in the cause of ensuring that no-one believes that Christianity might be true; hardly a value-neutral enterprise. But if that’s the real issue, then we might reflect that no honest cause needs to falsify history. And I’d rather people read the apocrypha because they are interested in them — why should not some stray agrapha survive in all this stuff? — than out of hatred towards someone else.

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  • cken

    Interesting article and comments. All the discussion about what man did to the Bible makes one wonder why some still insist on calling it the Word of God.

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