Gospels That Were Lost, And Some That Were Not Lost At All

Gospels That Were Lost, And Some That Were Not Lost At All July 18, 2022

My current work on icons and iconoclasm has reacquainted me with an old friend, namely the Constantinople patriarch Nikephoros (died 829), who played in a critical role in those ninth century controversies. At the time, he was beyond question the world’s most influential Christian leader, presiding over the greatest church. But Nikephoros is also associated with a document that is of great interest to anyone concerned with Christianity as a whole, and not just that particular historical controversy. That document is a wonderful source on two vital alternative gospels.

When Nikephoros created his historical Chronography, he appended a listing of the scriptures, canonical and non-canonical. As each text was described together with its number of lines, stichoi, the resulting text is called a Stichometry. This gives a great account of what learned people knew about the Bible and its contents in Late Antiquity. It might conceivably reflect a ninth century situation, or more likely, this is a somewhat older document (seventh century?) that has been repurposed. Most scholars favor the early date, but a ninth century origin is not out of the question. Nikephoros himself was a key participant in the well-studied Second Council of Nicea in 787, when participants trawled up an amazing quantity of miscellaneous documents to support their case, most of which presumably came from the depths of the Patriarchal library. That suggests a real treasure trove, and even a decent retrieval system. Just possibly, all the treasures listed in the Stichometry were still somewhere within reach within that rich collection, even as late as 810 or so. Scholars also debate the Stichometry’s place of writing. Perhaps it was written in Constantinople, but if it was earlier, it could have come from Jerusalem, or (my best bet) from Caesarea, which had a legendary library.

Whatever its precise origins, the Stichometry comes from  a mature age of the church, and not the time around the 325 First Council of Nicea (say) when we think everything was in flux. Nor is it from some flaky sect: it is totally mainstream. But still, at this late point, there are some real surprises, some radical contradictions of familiar stereotypes. That extends to what the document includes, and what it leaves out.


For example:

1.At First Sight, The Canon Looks Familiar….

The Old Testament is credited with 22 books, which may sound odd, but that numbering accounts for virtually everything we would include today, except for Esther. There are 26 New Testament books, including the obvious and familiar gospels and epistles, all with the number of lines we might expect. This is a very conservative listing, which already credits Paul with fourteen letters – presumably including the Epistle to the Hebrews. Unusually for an eastern church, it cites all the Catholic Epistles as canonical.

2.And Then We See What Is Left Out….

Nikephoros very helpfully then offers a list of “disputed” books for Old and New Testaments. These are the Antilegomena, literally the “Spoken Against.” These are not classified as horrible works of heresy, but are rather just what the title says, “disputed.” Some credible church leaders want to include them in the canon, others don’t, so let’s agree to differ. At a minimum, some churches at least were reading them somewhere, and using them in the liturgy. Others may accept them for private reading and edification, but not in an actual service. This is distinct from the (inferior) list of Apocrypha, which is offered separately.

In the Old Testament, the Disputed B-Team includes several works that were very familiar in the Septuagint Greek, and which would become canonical for both Orthodox and Catholic churches alike. That would mean Maccabees (three books), Sirach, Esther, Judith, and Tobit. In each of these cases, centuries of “dispute” would result in them being brought into the canon for the majority of non-Protestant churches.

But it is the “Disputed” New Testament category that is of real interest. Four works are mentioned:

The Revelation of John                  1400 lines

The Revelation of Peter                 300 lines

The Epistle of Barnabas               1360 lines

The Gospel of the Hebrews            2200 lines

In this very mainstream church, then, the book we know as John’s Revelation is disputed, and put on a par with other texts that we now attribute to the Apostolic Fathers (Barnabas) or to the somewhat weird (Revelation of Peter). Orthodox churches today are still nervous about allowing John’s Revelation to be read in services.

The prize piece of evidence here involves the Gospel of the Hebrews, one of the most widely cited and prized scriptures of the early church, probably dating from the early second century. It is now lost, but for several centuries it was commonly quoted as if it was utterly authoritative. That gospel has attracted huge speculation, as it almost certainly represented the stance of early Jewish-Christian sects. The fourth-century father Jerome quoted from it, and as late as 700, the English writer Bede still thought that “what is called the Gospel of the Hebrews [evangelium iuxta Hebraeos] is not among the Apocrypha, but to be numbered among the church histories.” In the Stichometry, it is presented on a par with John’s Revelation, and its length would have been around the same as canonical Matthew. I say again, the Gospel of the Hebrews is not cited here as Apocrypha: it is in a much higher category than that. It really came close to the status of a Fifth Gospel.

We have no idea what happened to the copy of that Gospel noted in the Stichometry, but by the late ninth century, we have to look far to the west to find respectful quotations from the work, among Irish writers. I speculate, but might the last copy of the gospel used by Jesus’s stubborn Jewish followers have existed in medieval Ireland, a continent away from Palestine? And did that solitary volume perish in some war or disaster, perhaps a tenth-century Norse raid on some great monastery? That would be at least half a millennium after the time of Constantine and Nicea, when most non-specialists think all those alternative gospels were lost or suppressed. They weren’t.

3.As to the Also-Rans…

Nikephoros cites Apocrypha of both the Old and New Testaments, which are a step down from the Antilegomena. In the Old, we find Enoch and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs – both very important indeed – but I will focus here on the New Testament Apocrypha, which includes the following:

The Circuit of Paul                                  3600 lines

The Circuit of Peter                                 2750 lines

The Circuit of John                                  2500 lines

The Circuit of Thomas                             1600 lines

The Gospel of Thomas                              1300 lines

The Teaching (Didache) of the Apostles       200 lines

The 32 (books) of Clement                        2600 lines

 (Writings) of Ignatius, of Polycarp and of Hermas … 

Several of these works are well known today in the respectable and non-scriptural category of the Apostolic Fathers. Such are the Didache, the writings of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, and the Shepherd of Hermas.

The Circuits (Periodoi) refer to the very important Apocryphal Acts of the various apostles, mainly deriving from the second or third centuries, and several of which still survive at least in part. Most contain substantial portions that are (at least) loosely Gnostic. We know that the Acts of John was available in eighth century Constantinople, where it was introduced as evidence at the Second Council of Nicea. The “Circuit” of Thomas refers to a portion of the famous Acts of Thomas, but certainly not the whole work, as that is much longer than 1,600 lines. Again, it is striking that a respectable mainstream church library was preserving and cataloguing such marginal texts at this late date.

4.And a Real Eye-Opener…

But if there is one item that sets off alarm bells here, it is the reference to the Gospel of Thomas, which in modern times has become a famous and even explosive work that supposedly reflected a lost mystical aspect of early Christianity. And again supposedly, that gospel was lost from early times – perhaps the fourth century – right up to its rediscovery in the twentieth century in the Nag Hammadi library. In reality, it was not lost in any such way. Various sects, such as the Manicheans, continued to read it across Asia and the Near East, and quotes from it appear well into the Middle Ages in sites along the Silk Road. (I write about this in my 2015 book The Many Faces of Christ). In the fifth century, the Decretum Gelasianum condemned “the Gospel in the name of Thomas which the Manichaeans use.” As late as 730, St. John of Damascus still refers to the Gospel of Thomas as a Manichean mainstay. So would a Balkan bishop called Theophylact of Ohrid, denouncing local heretics as late as 1100. That the author of the Stichometry actually knew Thomas at first hand is confirmed by his estimate of the number of lines. That Gospel is presented as comparable in authority to the Apostolic Fathers – that is, not canonical, but still worthy of respect.

So here is an intriguing thought, and it is no more than that. If, if, the Stichometry really belonged to Nikephoros’s time, can we imagine a Patriarch of Constantinople in the ninth century strolling along to the library and requesting a copy of the Gospel of Thomas for his perusal?

My account here is just scratching the surface of what we can extract from Nikephoros’s document, but as I hope you will agree, it does offer some real surprises.


From a large scholarly literature on all this, see:

Andrew Gregory and C. M. Tuckett, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Andrew Gregory, The Gospel according to the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Ebionites (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Richard Price, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), two volumes (Liverpool University Press, 2018)

Browse Our Archives