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All Gospels Created Equal?

Various Gospels were competing for acceptance on a more or less level playing field. And the contest to determine which Gospels would command the lasting allegiance of Christian believers remained in doubt until at least the third century – some would say well into the fourth.

The following article is largely based on material contained in Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

By C. E. Hill
Professor of New Testament,
Reformed Theological Seminary,
Orlando, FL
May 2011

The topic of the reception of Gospel literature in early Christianity holds a perennial fascination both to laypeople and to scholars. Given the significance of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, the subject of “Gospel” literature, this is entirely understandable. One center of focus for investigators has always been Irenaeus of Lyons (writing in the 180s CE), who, if nothing else, provides a convenient, and controversial, point of reference.

In the face of what he thought were scurrilous counterfeits, Irenaeus wanted his readers to understand that the church had four and only four authentic Gospels which had been passed down from the time of the apostles (Against Heresies 3.1.1; 3.11.8-9). Irenaeus was also a bishop guarding the flock and engaged in the writing of polemical literature. Thus, not only are modern readers entitled to suspect the historical accuracy of Irenaeus’ claims, modern scholars are entitled to collate every kind of evidence, including archaeological evidence, to measure his words. And this they have done. Based partly on the accumulated early Christian manuscripts excavated from Egypt over the past century and a quarter, many scholars have found ample cause to challenge Irenaeus’ assertions. One scholar summarizes, “in the second century, Gospels that were later to lose out, as non-canonical, were about as common as Gospels that were later to win out, as canonical.”1 Another professes amazement at the consistency of archaeological recoveries and informs readers that “virtually every time a new document is found, it is ‘heretical’ rather than ‘proto-orthodox.’”2 When it comes to Gospels, it appears that nothing was settled at the time when Irenaeus wrote. Various Gospels were competing for acceptance on a more or less level playing field. And the contest to determine which Gospels would command the lasting allegiance of Christian believers remained in doubt until at least the third century – some would say well into the fourth.

This is what the archaeological evidence is supposed to tell us. But do the Egyptian artifacts really support the level of confidence of the scholars’ assessments just quoted?

There are, of course, certain caveats to be mentioned before sifting through the early Christian papyri. First, the dating of manuscripts an exact science. It is not unusual for trained experts to disagree somewhat in their datings, and even when they agree they usually ask for at least a 25 year margin of error on either side of the dates they give. This means we have to be a bit tentative about, let’s say, insisting on distinctions between late second-century and early third-century finds. Second, archaeological discoveries by their nature are both haphazard and always changing. When comparing the numbers of canonical and non-canonical Gospels,3 we can never know how closely the numbers represent just how things actually were. But since the discoveries of ancient documents are intrinsically important in the quest to understand the rise and reception of Gospel literature and since their significance has been appropriated and passed on to the public with such assurance, it is always good to take a closer look.

If we add up all fragments of non-canonical Gospels which are generally recognized as dating to the second century, they amount to two: one fragment of the so-called Egerton Gospel (P. Lond. Christ. 1 + P. Köln 255) and one generally thought to represent the Gospel of Peter (P. Oxy 4009). There is perhaps a third, P. Oxy. 1 (Gospel of Thomas), though it is more usually placed in the early part of the third century. By comparison, fragments generally dated to the second century have been found from four different manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew (P64+67; P77; P103; P104). There are at least two (P52; P90) and possibly four second-century manuscripts of the Gospel of John (adding P66 and P75, usually dated to around 200), probably one (P4)4 and possibly two (adding P75) second-century attestations of the Gospel of Luke. There are none, so far, from the Gospel of Mark. If we add up the totals of all second-century and third-century fragments of non-canonical Gospels, we have 9, according to the recent listing of Larry Hurtado.5 These include two more fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, two of the Gospel of Mary, and two fragments which may or may not come from the Gospel of Peter (experts disagree). It is possible that two more should be added, P. Merton 51 and P. Oxy. 210, both from the third century, but each is often thought to derive from a homily, or a theological treatise, or a Gospel harmony, and not a Gospel. And while it is true that the Gospel according to Mark is still represented by but one papyrus before the fourth century (P45 from the third century), there are a total of 38 manuscript attestations of one of the four canonical Gospels from the second or the third centuries, as compared to 9 known attestations of non-canonical Gospels.

Judging only from the numbers, it already seems tenuous to claim that other Gospels were about as popular as Matthew, Luke, or John (Mark could be a different story), or that the competition between them was quite close. It hardly seems that the consistent fruit of archaeological discovery could be said to be literature which is “heretical” rather than “proto-orthodox,” at least if we are talking about Gospel writings. But even the raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Each artifact has its own characteristics, and some scholars are discovering that certain “non-textual” characteristics may have more to reveal.


First there is the relatively well known factor of the book form: roll or codex. Though the codex form was very slowly coming into use at the beginning of the second century as a vehicle for Greek or Latin literature, its adoption by the Christians as the format for conveying their Scriptures (and eventually other literature) is nothing less than remarkable. As Larry Hurtado puts it, ‘there is no New Testament text copied on an unused roll among second- or third-century Christian manuscripts.’6 – all are on codices. This is the case, as far as we now know, for Christian copies of Old Testament writings as well.

It is therefore of some consequence that of all the manuscripts from the second or third centuries which contain non-canonical Gospels, only four are codices (P. Oxy 1 (Gospel of Thomas); P. Ryl 463 (Gospel of Mary); P.Oxy 4009 (Gospel of Peter); P. Lond. Christ. 1 + P. Köln 6.255 (Egerton Gospel)). From the same period we have portions of 38 copies of one of the four canonical Gospels in codex format, a ratio of 9.5 to 1.


Another factor is the size of the codex. Why is this important? Noting the sizes can tell us something about the evolving technology of codex production, as E. G. Turner demonstrated in his classic treatment.7 Size can also be indicative of function – at least to some extent. Early codices were made in a variety of sizes but papyrologists classify certain smaller ones, those measuring under about 15cm high by 11 cm wide, as “miniatures.”8 As C. H. Roberts says, such manuscripts “are far too small for public use.”9 A small size does not mean that the scribe or the owner could not have considered the writing in the codex to be Scripture. In fact, beginning especially in the fourth century, there are many miniature codices containing various Scriptural books, both OT and NT, probably denoting that these were personal copies owned by individuals, not by churches. So, while the miniature format cannot necessarily help us determine the status of its contents in the mind of its scribe or owner, it does at least suggest that such copies were not being used for public or liturgical reading in a worship setting.

Of the four non-canonical Gospels dating from the second or third century which are in codex form, one and possibly two could be classified as miniatures. P. Ryl 463, one of the two third-century fragments of the Gospel of Mary, originally measured about 13.5 cm high by 9 cm wide. P. Oxy 4009 is a fragment from what is possibly the Gospel of Peter. Unfortunately we only have a sliver of this manuscript, but the short length of its lines shows that it was either a codex which had two-columns to a page, or, if there was only one column, it was a miniature codex. Because two-column codices were rare in this period, it is at least very likely that this Gospel too was written in a miniature format not particularly suitable for public reading.

Nearly all of the early codices containing one or more of the four Gospels, on the other hand, were somewhat larger; only P77 (ca. 15x10cm.) and P103 (ca. 16x11cm.) are near the border of the miniature category, and their very early date (both dated to the 2nd c) may provide the reason. Scott Charlesworth has recently argued that early copies of the canonical Gospels were made in standard sizes, which increased somewhat from the second to the third century.10 In a forthcoming publication, he argues, “While the codex was the preferred vehicle for Christian texts in general, Gospels seem to have been regarded as a special category. Early Christians acknowledged their importance by using standard-sized codices.”11 This does not mean that all of these codices were actually used for public reading. Most experts would say that a substantial portion of them must have been produced for private reading. It only means that their format allows us to regard this as a viable possibility and that the formats of only two or three non-canonical Gospel manuscripts would suggest this as a viable possibility. In other words, the early manuscripts of non-canonical Gospels supply very little evidence that their texts were actually used for liturgical reading in services of worship.

Readers Aids

Scriptio continua, the practice of writing with no spaces or punctuation between words or sentences, was the norm with Greek literary papyri. Certain non-Christian manuscripts survive which show that readers of texts (not the scribes of the texts) sometimes marked their texts with punctuation, etc., to make it easier to read them, particularly in a public setting. But we find something peculiar in our earliest copies of NT papyri. They contain attempts by the scribe him/herself (not the later reader) to aid reading. Spaces are introduced at the end of sense units (paragraphs, sometimes sentences and clauses). Several ways of marking paragraphs are employed: horizontal lines in the margin (called paragraphoi), outdenting into the margin (called ekthesis), and/or enlarging the first letter of a new paragraph. We find occasional use of breathing marks, diaereses, and punctuation in some of our very earliest canonical Gospel papyri (P52; P104; P4+64+67).

There is a lot of variation among the manuscripts in regards to what have been called “readers aids”; clearly, Christian scribes were experimenting with various conventions, with various levels of consistency. While these scribal features, therefore, offer no “smoking gun” for determining which works were considered Scriptural and which were not, it is still the case that we see them employed much more consistently in early copies of the four Gospels than in copies of the other Gospels. The presence of these scribal conventions in a codex, along with other factors, can provide one more indication that a particular manuscript had been prepared specifically for the possibility of public reading.

All the physical features we have been considering are “silenced” when we simply count the raw numbers of manuscripts reclaimed from the Egyptian sands. Even those raw numbers do not support the claims scholars sometimes make from them. But paying attention to features such as the book format, the codex size, and the way the copying was executed demonstrate that “not all Gospels were created equal.” Distinctions between them were usually made even at the production stage, while they were being prepared and copied as material objects. This does not at all, of course, prove that nobody ever considered Gospels other than the four to be authoritative, “inspired”, or Scriptural. But it does suggest that if some Christians did regard them in these ways, these Christians would have been outside of what appears to be the mainstream – and that is what Irenaeus was talking about. It now appears that writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Peter either tended to be regarded differently from the four by those who produced them, or else those who produced them tended to belong to different networks from those who copied the canonical Gospels. Either conclusion is significant.


1 James M. Robinson, “The Nag Hammadi Gospels and the Fourfold Gospel,” in Charles Horton (ed.), The Earliest Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels – The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45 (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 69-87, at 86.

2 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them (New York: Harper One, 2009), 215.

3 I am using “canonical” and “non-canonical” as terms of convenience; they were not used in this way in the second or third centuries. They remain efficient ways of referring to the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John on the one hand, and all others on the other hand.

4 For a new review of the evidence that P4 once belonged to the codex which contained P64 and P67, see C. E. Hill, “Intersections of Jewish and Christian Scribal Culture. The Original Codex Containing P4, P64, and P67, and its Implications,” in Reidar Hvalvik and John Kaufman, eds., Among Jews, Gentiles, and Christians in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Tapir Academic Press, forthcoming).

5 Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 228. I am not including P. Bod. V, a late third-century or fourth-century copy of the Protevangelium of James, because it is not really a Gospel in genre.

2 Hurtado, Earliest Christian Artifacts, 58. He mentions “unused roll” because there are a few that were written on the backside of a roll that originally contained something else. In these cases, the scribe apparently simply used the writing materials at hand.

7 Eric G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977).

8 These are the dimensions given by C. H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt, The Schweich Lectures 1977 (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), 10-11; cf. Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 235-6.

9 Roberts, ibid.

10 S. D. Charlesworth, “Public and Private—Second- and Third-Century Gospel Manuscripts,” in C. A. Evans and H. D. Zacharias, eds., Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon (SSEJC 13: Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2009) 148-75.

11 S. D. Charlesworth, “Indicators of Catholicity in Early Gospel Manuscripts,” in C. E. Hill and M. J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

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