HOW MANY GOSPELS? March 8, 2013

In a post last year, I remarked how definitions of the Biblical canon had changed through the centuries.

I’ve recently been working on the history of lost and alternative gospels, and how such texts continued to be available through the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Contrary to popular legend, the mainstream churches did not succeed in stamping out all competitors to the Big Four gospels in the fourth or fifth centuries, and numerous alternative works maintained their influence for at least a thousand years afterwards. This story is interesting enough in itself, but it also raises questions about the very idea of canonicity, and declaring what is and is not sacred scripture.

By the fifth and sixth centuries, the churches had come to a broad consensus over what was and was not included in the New Testament canon. There were four gospels, no more, no less, and that should have been straightforward.

The problem is that through the Middle Ages – roughly from 500 through 1500 – all churches continued to use many other texts generally classified as New Testament apocrypha, including some pseudo-gospels. However counter-intuitive this may seem, some of these ancient texts remained so popular that they came close to overwhelming Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Such alternative gospels were read in liturgies from time to time, and elite clerical authors and scholars sometimes cited these texts as if they were canonical.  “Other” gospels also formed the basis of religious popular culture, including mystery plays and devotional literature. They contributed mightily to shaping the standard Christian narrative available to the great majority of believers, and especially at the Christmas season. Of course, literacy rates were not high in this era, leaving ordinary believers to learn their lessons through visual symbols or religious drama. Stained glass windows, famously, were the “Bible of the Poor.” But these texts also found a large reading audience, and they were popularized through anthologies like the Golden Legend, which between 1470 and 1530 was by far the most popular book printed in Europe.

Some texts stand out particularly, and most date from Late Antiquity, from between the second and fifth centuries. I have already posted about the enduring influence of the Protevangelium, concerning the Virgin Mary, but we might also look at the very popular Infancy Gospels of Christ, or the overwhelming image of the Harrowing of Hell. This last story tells how Christ, after the Resurrection, broke the gates of Hell and rescued the souls of the righteous who had died before his time, including the great figures of the Old Testament narrative. Several Biblical texts point to some such event, although they do not describe it explicitly. The direct source of the Harrowing was a massively influential apocryphal gospel called the Acts of Pilate, often known in the Middle Ages as the Gospel of Nicodemus.

So successful were these alternative texts, so influential, that they force us to reconsider our standard literary categories. A culture rooted in centuries of Protestantism tends to think of a sharp and obvious division between Holy Scripture and all other types of literature, whether religious in intent or not. Either something is within the canon, or it is not, and ever since the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church likewise has adopted that attitude. In earlier times, though, we have to think of more fluid boundaries.

Works like Nicodemus were absolutely central to Christian consciousness for at least a millennium – in fact, for over half the story of Christianity in Europe alone, never mind the wider world. If such alternative texts were not canonical, neither were they wholly excluded or condemned, and the term “apocryphal” goes nowhere near indicating their practical influence. In practical usage, to describe a story as “apocryphal” is more or less to dismiss it as spurious or even fantastic.

Put another way: if churches treat a text exactly as if it’s a canonical scripture, and use it as fully authoritative, what prevents us from calling it canonical, at least for that particular community?

If the Christian canon was not open, yet for long centuries it was much more flexible and accessible to alternative texts than we commonly think.





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  • Andrew

    You’re correct that many other works, such as the ‘Acts’ of various Apostles and infancy Gospels, made a permanent mark on not only popular Christian storytelling but even found their way into Catholic theology (and some of it still remains). That stated, it seems that many of these gained popularity because they were essentially Hellenized adventure stories (complete with magical battles between saints and sorcerers) given a Christian sheen.
    There are other non-canonical documents such as the Barnabas letter or Shepherd of Hermas that are earlier (late 1st, early 2nd century) and IMO more thoroughly Christian documents. Then you have the Gnostic Gospels, and very early Gospels composed at the same time or earlier than the Canonical ones that we only have fragments of (Gospel of the Hebrews, Oxyrhynchus 1224). And of course the oft-debated Gospel of Thomas.

  • Philip Jenkins

    With respect, I disagree on that. Yes, you definitely see those elements, but the various apocryphal texts cover a huge range. Many of these specific tales are extrapolated (shall we say) from canonical stories in Acts. Also, other texts like Nicodemus are quite serious explorations of Christian theological issues, in narrative and fantastic guise. So I’m more dubious about applying a term like “thoroughly Christian”

  • David Naas

    How about “Christian midrash”? Which will also cover such as The Book of Mormon and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Or, perhaps, we should give up on the concept of a “canon”, and accept that people are going to find God wherever they can, even if the Ecclesiastics feel threatened by it?

  • Andrew

    You’re correct; there is a wider range; my language was too “broad brush.”

  • Philip Jenkins

    I think that’s a very helpful concept, and one I use increasingly. As in the Jewish case too, “midrashic” additions tend to feed back into ordinary people’s sense of what the Bible must really say. I think for instance of the story of the young Abraham destroying the idols his father manufactured, which is commonly cited as if it really occurred in Genesis.

  • Kent Steinkamp

    The Catholic Church has always valued the truths passed down through Tradition. Having a New Testament canon doesn’t limit what we know about Christ, but it does set a standard of truth for the nearly unlimited additional information the Catholic faithful have always found inspiring. Your analysis now seems to try to fuzz the clear lines set by the Catholic Church in its establishment of a canon. I learned about the Apocrypha in second grade from Sister Merizi. There is nothing new here.

  • Joel J. Miller

    Thank you for this article. There seems to have been a willingness by the ancient church to use many different texts, providing they were edifying and seemed to resonate with the reader — a resonance that sometimes settled into a widespread and authoritative tradition of acceptance, as it did with Hermas and more s wiht the Protoevangelium.

    Maximus the Confessor might give us a window on this process in the opening chapter of The Life of the Virgin. “Now, then, everything that we will relate and make known is trustworthy and reliable, true testimonies taken from the assembly of the pious,” he starts and then lists:

    first of all, from the holy evangelists and apostles; then from the holy and deeply devout Fathers, whose words are full of wisdom and were written by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and their works are beautiful and virtuous. These are Gregory of Neocaesarea the Thaumaturge, and the great Athanasius of Alexandria, the blessed Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysius the Areopagite, and others similar to them in virtue. And if we say some things from the apocryphal writings, this is true and without error, and it is what has been accepted and confirmed by the above-mentioned Fathers.

    The truth of something was verified by testimony. If a book found its way into circulation, its widespread use through the congregations and affirmation by authorities lent it credence. And that use and affirmation came because those reader and leaders found in those texts things with which the resonated as true. They added their amen to it.

    The Harrowing of Hell provides an example of this. The belief is not sourced to the “apocryphal” gospel, but merely echoed and elaborated by it. Melito of Sardis, for instance, mentions the outlines of the Harrowing in his late-second century poem On Pascha:

    “It is I,” says Christ,
    “I am he who destroys death,
    and triumphs over the enemy,
    and crushes Hades,
    and binds the strong man,
    and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights.”

    And of course Melito here is echoing thoughts from the Gospels (binding the strong man) and the fourth chapter of Ephesians (bearing humanity away from Hades). When it comes to Nicodemus, the church already believed the Harrowing and so they accepted it’s presentation here.

  • Joel J. Miller

    Sorry, just noticed some typos: “more s wiht” should be “more so with,” and “it’s presentation” in the last line should be “its presentation.” Thanks.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    We are pretty explicitly told in the Gospel narratives and Acts that immediately after Jesus’s resurrection, the disciples started talking with each other, remembering what Jesus had said and done and comparing notes. Jesus Himself did a very thorough review with them during that first evening appearance. Mary was with them and they undoubtedly would have asked her many questions about Jesus’s nativity. It would not have taken very many weeks for a very comprehensive oral tradition to emerge. This oral tradition was transmitted from Christian to Christian as the faith spread and new people came into the fold. (This is where the “Q” thesis falls short: there didn’t need to be a document of Jesus’s collected sayings, because all the early Christians KNEW all of Jesus’s sayings, and told them to each other over and over again.)

    It was only a couple of decades later that anyone attempted to start writing any of this down. When the various gospels appeared, the scattered Christian communities would compare what was written with the oral tradition with which they were well familiar. They could undoubtedly be understanding and forgiving of a gospel being somewhat selective rather than exhaustive in the material it included, and they might even have been willing to extend to each author some artistic license in how he put the material together. Anything that flat-out contradicted the oral tradition, however, or invented something out of thin air, would have been highly suspect and very likely to be rejected. The reason why we have four – and only four -gospels is that these four were in accord with the oral tradition, and the others weren’t.

    It is quite possible that there were stories in the oral tradition that didn’t make it in to one of the four gospels. John makes it pretty clear that this was the case. (Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason why his gospel is so different from the synoptics is that he felt that it was important to get into writing some of the more important parts of the oral tradition that had not been included in the other three gospels. ) We know for certain of one of these excluded stories – the story of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. It is pretty clear now that it was a later addition to John’s gospel, added no doubt by someone who thought they were being helpful by preserving a story about Jesus that was otherwise at risk of being lost. Once the churches had the four gospels, they tended to refer to those rather than to the oral tradition, and thus by the late 2nd and 3rd centuries the oral tradition was in danger of totally fading away. I, for one, am glad that the story was preserved, for it does indeed sound like the Jesus that we all know and love. However, it probably isn’t actually scripture.

    It is possible that some of these other gospels and other early documents preserve a few other pieces of the genuine oral tradition that didn’t make it into the four canonical gospels. I’d keep an open mind about that. If there are stories that are true, then that is valuable information to have. However, they aren’t scripture.

  • J. Bob

    While there are those who believe that the gospels were written much later then the life of Christ, more modern Biblical scholars such as Fr. Jean Carmignac & J.A.T. Robinson make a good case for the gospels initial elements being written during or shortly after the death of Christ.

    Fr. Carmignac, the late Dead Sea Scroll scholar, noted that it was common for pupils to take notes as the speaker preached. And Jesus would be no exception. These notes could be gathered together shortly after the Resurrection to provide a basis scripture that St. Paul mentions. Robinson makes a good argument that the 5 portico building was standing when he wrote his gospel would be a strong indication that his gospel was completed prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

    Finally, the Cannon was developed very early in the Church, as noted in the Muratorian fragment, dated to just after the death of Pius I (157 AD). While it didn’t include all the current epistles, it did have most, & would take a bit longer to finalize the last of these. However there are writings by the Apostolic Fathers, the Didache, & others such as Justin Martyr to fill in many gaps left out in the Cannon.

    Most later one seemed to come about in a effort to fill in many human interest gaps, missing in the originals.

  • Todd Collier

    Christianity seems to have adopted at an early stage a “this but not that” view of Scripture. As such much heretical material was immediately recognized and eliminated. At the same time however much helpful material from the early Church was dropped from use leaving us with large gaps in our understanding of the development of the early “organization” of the Church. How did we get from small semi-independent house based churches to an empire wide authority structure in just a couple of hundred years? Perhaps we would have done better to retain the more “progressive” view of scriptural authority in use in the Judaism of the day. The Torah, Prophets and Writings along with what we call the Apocrypha each had its own level of authority and purpose. As such potential variances were less frightening and greater freedom of interpretation could be countenanced.

  • Philip Jenkins

    My question of course focuses on your final comment about “However, they aren’t scripture.” But how do we define scripture? Different churches around the world differ considerably about that, adding some books not accepted in the West, and excluding others, particularly from the Catholic Epistles. I do stress that this comment does NOT apply to gospels strictly defined.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    I am well aware there exist a diversity of views on this subject. There exists a core of texts for which there is a widespread consensus among Christians that these are scripture, and this consensus is very ancient. As you have indicated, the four gospels very quickly secured their place within this set. As I indicated above, this wasn’t something arbitrary; Christians recognized the canonical books as scripture precisely because they were in accord with the oral tradition they already had. This is also the explanation why non-canonical books were excluded.

    There were, of course, a few books that were “on the margins” for a while: Revelation, some of the “General Epistles”, as well as some books that didn’t make the final cut like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. This apparently was less about content than about authorship. That, in turn, raises a whole bunch of other issues. Ultimately, we get back around to consensus being the ultimate factor that determined whether a book was considered canonical or not.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Well put. But let me give you a hypothetical. Suppose that a particular church in a particular part of the world is in communion with other mainline churches, but for a long time, say for several centuries, it uses a particular non-canonical text as if it is scripture, and treats it with the appropriate authority and veneration. Can we not describe it as scripture for that church? As an example, I cite “Psalm 151” which was commonly used as authentic by the medieval church for a millennium , including by many great writers and theologians. Or an even better example the “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” What do you think?

  • Philip Jenkins

    Beautifully put. Watch this space for further comments on the Harrowing of Hell!

  • Joel J. Miller

    As an Orthodox, I’d say Psalm 151 is canonical. If the long-discussed reconciliation ever happened between Orthodox and Anglicans, would Anglicans have to accept 151 as canonical?

    Same problem, but trickier: What if the rift between the non-Chalcedonians and the Chalcedonians is healed? Will Eastern Orthodox or Catholics be ready to accept Enoch and host of other books from the Ethiopian canon?

    Perhaps there’s part of the answer: the Copts and Ethiopians are in full communion and yet they don’t share the same canon. Perhaps our list of books isn’t the most important thing.

  • Wayne

    Well written, and I’m sure you know your research, but this really is “much to do about nothing”.
    All of these “alternate gospels” are now known to be 2nd/3rd/4th century on creations, while the New Testament “canonical” books are universally acknowledged to be 1st century (or maybe early 2nd in some cases) documents. So they are MUCH closer to Jesus and the early Church. Based on my knowledge, rejection of the apocryphal books largely took place soon after creation (during the 2nd century), although SOME maintained their use just as you state. I see no reason for the Church to rethink the idea of the canon, since these books fall short now for the same reason they were rejected by mainline Christianity early on- late development (post apostolic), odd doctrinal stances (not in accord with early documents), and overall low quality works. It’s quite fashionable today to talk about how we’ve just “discovered” the “other Gospels” that were “suppressed” by a power hungry orthodoxy. In reality, it’s easy to see why “alternate gospels” were rejected- they lacked early “creds”, had fanciful superstitious doctrines, and/or were of low literary and spiritual quality. Anyone that takes up the “gospel of Peter” and the “gospel of John” side by side with a fair mind can easily see why one is in a different class that the other. I’m all for getting as much information on early Christianity as possible (including the range of documents), but making more of things than they are isn’t balanced either.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    Of course, each church body can use whatever they want – there is no ecclesiastical police to stop them. Each church body is also free to reject whatever texts they do not want to recognize as being scriptural. This is the actual state of affairs. I am not going to get in to whether or not that is as it should be, for that would be a purely abstract discussion divorced from reality.

    What that gets us down to is a least common denominator minimalist core of scripture that virtually everyone (with a few fringe groups that come and go, like the Marcionites, excepted) recognizes, plus a set of additional texts that are each accepted by some but not by all church bodies. That may not necessarily be a satisfactory state of affairs, but it is the one that we actually have.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I agree with most of what you say, but it does not get to the issue of canonicity. I am not for a second suggesting that something like Nicodemus is very early – it certainly is not. It may be fifth century. It is not vaguely comparable to the canonical gospels as historical evidence. HOWEVER given all that, the point remains – if churches used it quite widely as if it was canonical (and they did), what does that say about their attitude to canons, and to the definition of scripture?

  • Philip Jenkins

    By the way, I exactly share your opinion that “It’s quite fashionable today to talk about how we’ve just “discovered” the “other Gospels” that were “suppressed” by a power hungry orthodoxy.” Such a view is nonsense. But it is not relevant to what I am arguing.

  • Joel J. Miller

    I think the problem is that we are imposing a more rigid understanding of canon than did the early church. They rejected books they knew to be spurious, but were open to others being read and used in church. That’s the other side of the story of Antiochian bishop Serapion and the Gospel of Peter. He allowed it to be read, though it was clearly not one of the more generally received gospels, and only stopped the practice when he read it for himself and noticed things that didn’t jibe with what was handed down by the apostles.

    The idea that the canon was firm and unbending seems to be an idea required for Sola Scriptura but not actually seen in the early church. Different regions had differing canons for centuries. Clement and Hermas were widely read in churches, today only in seminary. But that doesn’t mean they were not considered holy scripture by those who first read them. That’s only a problem if we need to somehow turn the process of refining the canon into a magical process that removes the church as the arbiter and custodian of the books.