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9. Gospels |
Out of some 50 gospels which ones matter?

Gospels is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 254, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

A chaos of books and stories on Jesus’ life pose a growing problem, though four retain credibility

Gospels - Out of some 50 gospels which ones matter?

Gospels - Out of some 50 gospels which ones matter?

By the late second century, a mind-boggling welter of writings about the life and teachings of Jesus had proliferated wildly among Christians. Imagine, for example, a congregation listening to accounts of the child Jesus in the so-called infancy Gospels.

From the Gospel of Thomas, they would hear this story about him as a five-year-old: “When Jesus was going through the midst of the city, a boy threw a stone . . . and struck him on the shoulder. And Jesus said to him, ‘Thou shalt not go on thy way.’ And directly falling down the boy died.” Neighbors demanded that the family move Jesus out of town “for he is killing our children.”

Then there was the time the young Messiah profaned a Sabbath by making twelve clay sparrows. When Joseph reprimanded him, Jesus refused to answer. Instead he “looked upon the sparrows and said, ‘Fly and live and remember me.’” Instantly the clay creatures turned into real birds and flapped away.

Worshipers learned that at age eight Jesus ventured into a den of lions, and the beasts simply fell down and worshiped him. They also heard how he used his bare hands to stretch a board that his carpenter father had cut too short, and how the child laughed after he had so thoroughly outshone his adult teacher that the poor man lamented, “There is nothing for me but despondency and death on account of this boy.”

How were Christians to reconcile the spiteful, self-centered show-off of these fables with messages of love and charity they heard in the older, less fantastic accounts of Jesus’ life? Such a conundrum was typical of scores of interpretive puzzles created by a growing diversity of texts.

After more than two centuries, Christians faced “a terrifying jungle of scholarly contradictions,” observes historian Paul Johnson in his History of Christianity. The further in time and distance that the movement spread from its point of origin, the more teachings diverged and discrepancies arose. By the end of the second century, he estimates, there were in circulation some forty-seven hundred relevant manuscripts and one hundred thousand written quotations or allusions to Jesus or early church fathers.

Many factors accounted for confusions and inconsistencies in Scripture: lack of written accounts during Jesus’ lifetime; the rich oral tradition (“miasma,” Johnson calls it) from which written texts emanated; tensions between Gentile and Judaic interests; rivalries between two evolving loci of church power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Rome; competition of Christianity with mystery cults and Gnosticism; melding of the faith with local traditions and cultures, and attempts at compromise; pressures of politics on spiritual affairs in the Greco-Roman world; mistranslation between languages; simple errors in reading and copying handwriting; and the sheer physical disintegration of papyrus on which most writing was preserved.

The desire of enthusiasts to attract followers often led to overemphasis on the supernatural and embellishments of dramatic detail.

Bitter controversies over doctrine and liturgy also drove selection and editing of texts. There were arguments about everything from relationships between the material and spiritual worlds to apocalypse, judgment, and the imminent return of Christ; about ritual, the nature of Jesus as both man and God, and the concept of a Holy Trinity; about the meaning of parables Jesus told and the stories about him; about the role of women in the church and the function of clergy. But beyond all this, one overarching fact counted most of all: there was simply no controlling ecclesiastical authority to determine what Scripture should be used.

Around almost all great historical figures, the twentieth-century Christian apologist C. S. Lewis observes, there grows up a body of legend. First come the historical, more contemporary accounts of what they said and did, often with great gaps in the chronology, particularly in their earlier years, when their lives go unrecorded. Then, usually a century or more after they died, there gradually accumulates a body of far more colorful, spectacular tales, the basis of a mythology that admirers create and cherish.

Precisely this, he said, occurred around the figure of Jesus. The earlier texts circulating among the first congregations included what Christians now accept as the New Testament. And among these, the four Gospels, from very early times called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, had gained general recognition as a group. All contained a critical common core, centering in the story of Christ’s Passion. The narrative of Jesus’ suffering, death, and Resurrection was at the heart of Christian experience and was the climax of each Gospel.

These accounts were always longest and most consistent in shared detail and clearly the oldest and most important of the early writings. They plainly demonstrated that Jesus was not merely a good man but something beyond that. Son of God, they said, whatever that meant. Clearly intended to be read aloud, these four Gospels contained short, mostly unconnected anecdotes telling about something Jesus said or did.

But there were huge gaps in them. Between the birth and infancy stories in Matthew and Luke, and apart from a single instance in Luke alone, they recount nothing of Jesus until his ministry began at about the age of thirty. This is typical of almost anyone who lived at that time, except, of course, emperors and kings whose childhood was often noted because a significant future was foreseen for them. Gradually, therefore, a distinction was being drawn between the four accounts, which represented the memory of eyewitnesses, and the later fantastic accounts, like the infancy Gospels, written some 150 years after his death, which were the stuff of mythology.

Meanwhile, Paul’s Epistles had been collected and shared widely, although there were arguments over the authenticity of some letters attributed to Paul. The Book of Revelation was broadly distributed as well. But it, too, was a source of contention because many Gentiles considered the treatment too much like pre-Christian Jewish literature. The fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius, for example, personally rejected the very idea of apocalypse as unbiblical.

More than fifty texts like the Gospel of Thomas had appeared and some dozen or so of these were in fairly heavy use. They fell into two categories: reiterations of primitive tradition, or romantically amplified recastings of synoptic Gospel narratives.

The Gospel of Thomas, for example, circulated in four popular versions, two in Greek and two in Latin, and all were quite different. In extravagantly magnifying the divine aspects of the boy miracle worker, it removed almost all traces of humanity from Jesus (other than some disagreeable traits of character, such as a vindictive streak). Much of the book’s appeal was its unique description of Jesus’ life between ages five and twelve.

Other popular early gospels were:

- The Protoevangelion Jacobi, loosely known as the Book of James. An example of the early veneration accorded the Blessed Virgin Mary, it includes the story of her own birth, education, and marriage. She herself was the miraculous offspring of the previously childless Joachim and Anna, and was dedicated to service in the Temple at age three. A priest chose Joseph as her husband after the miraculous sign of a dove emerging from his staff and landing on his head.

- The Gospel According to the Hebrews. Popular in the Upper Nile region, it was apparently the only gospel used for many years among the Palestinian Judeo-Christians. The book closely parallels the Gospel of Matthew, which it replaced in some congregations, but also contains other stories and sayings that critics considered attempts to “Judaize” the Scripture.

- The Gospel of Peter, probably dating from the middle of the second century, apparently drew upon the Four Gospels for a narration of the Passion, and dates from the first quarter of the second century. Critics contended that it presented a Docetic view (that Jesus was not truly human but only appeared to be so), and were offended by the language and implications in the book’s description of Jesus on the cross: “‘My power, my power, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Immediately he was taken up.”

Other such gospels that appeared in the early centuries include the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which includes a narrative of Jesus’ flight into Egypt, filled with wonders like dragons and palm trees bowing to him; the Gospel According to the Egyptians, a Coptic work that circulated in the Lower Nile area around Alexandria and tended toward pantheistic Gnosticism; and five other books–the Arabic Gospel of Infancy, the Gospel of Gamaliel, Transitus Mariae or Evangelum Joannis, the Gospel of Bartholomew, and the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles.

In addition to the cornucopia of gospels, there were more than a dozen different texts in the category Acts of the Apostles, along with a similar number of apocalyptic books dealing with the “end-times” and several Epistles. There were also three versions of the Lord’s Prayer in circulation.

Among the additional epistles in use were three Epistles of the Blessed Virgin, composed in Latin; the Epistle of the Blessed Virgin to St. Ignatius, which exhorts faith and courage; and the Epistle to the Messaniense.

Then, too, there was the Epistle of Peter to James the Less, which beseeches him to keep Peter’s preaching, and the Epistle to the Laodiceans, an apparent attempt to replace a lost document referred to by Paul, along with the Correspondence of Paul and Seneca, eight letters supposedly from the Stoic philosopher and six replies, based apparently on Seneca’s leanings toward Christianity.

Several attempts were made in the second century to impose order on this chaos. One was the Diatessaron of Tatian (c. 170), which wove the four synoptic Gospels into one narrative (see p. 59), and Marcion’s compilation based on his own Pauline sympathies and anti-Jewish views (see p. 237).

Even then there was a deep yearning for what would become known as “biblical Christianity,” that is, for a Christian book. For instance, Bishop Papias of Hierapolis complained bitterly about the chaos sometime before 165, says Eusebius, and he tried to establish an orthodox New Testament by getting rid of any works that were not demonstrably connected to the original apostles. Around the year 200, these books were listed in a Roman catalog known as the Muratorian Canon. (Discovered in 1740, its earliest surviving version is from the eighth century).

But determining what texts actually represented the divinely inspired “Word of God” presented a challenge that was both monumental and increasingly urgent for the Christian faith. All agreed that the Holy Spirit must decide. But how and through whom? Without an agreed-upon answer, there could be no Christian Bible and no biblical Christianity.

Over the coming 250 years or so, the decision would evolve, not at any specific point in time, but gradually and with protracted argument over what came to be called “the Canon of Scripture,” which meant the official list of books. What is known of how this happened will be described in successive volumes.

This is the end of the Gospels category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 254, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Gospels from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at