Part II: Manuscript Evidence
2.1 New Testament Manuscripts
2.2 Canonical Testimony
2.3 Christian Apocrypha
2.4 Gospel of the Hebrews
Conclusion to Part II
Footnotes to Part II
The historical testimony for Matthaean priority is corroborated by external manuscript evidence; that is, by using manuscripts of various places and times as witnesses to the authentic content of the text, without attempting internal criticism (i.e., using literary form and content to determine how each Gospel was first composed). We will consider extant manuscripts of the New Testament canon and apocrypha, and editions known only through patristic citations and manuscript glosses. We are concerned not only with the testimony of these manuscripts, but also with their dissemination and use in Christian churches. Special attention will be given to the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" mentioned by ancient writers as a possible Hebrew version of Matthew.
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2.1.1 Titles of the Gospel Manuscripts
2.1.2 Order of the Gospels
2.1.3 Papyrus Fragments
2.1.4 Codex Sinaiticus
2.1.5 Codex Vaticanus
2.1.6 Codex Alexandrinus
2.1.7 Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus
2.1.8 Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis)
2.1.9 Codex Washingtonensis
2.1.10 Rossano Gospels
2.1.11 Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus
2.1.12 Old Latin Prologues
2.1.13 Old Syriac
There are thousands of early medieval and late classical manuscripts of the New Testament, from complete codices to papyrus fragments, enabling scholars to reconstruct the probable history of the copying and dissemination of the sacred texts. There are many thousands of textual variations among these manuscripts, but the vast majority of these are purely incidental differences in spelling or wording without change in linguistic meaning. A substantial minority of these variations (about 300 places in each of the Synoptics) do affect linguistic meaning (though only a few of these have much bearing on literary or religious content), and such alternative readings are identified by textual critics as "variants" if they are sufficiently well attested by early manuscript witnesses.
For ease of analysis, scholars have identified several "text-types" or groups of texts with generally similar readings. While many manuscripts cannot be neatly classified with a single text-type, the concept of types is still useful for organizing general tendencies of manuscript editions by date and geography.
By far the most dominant type among medieval Greek manuscripts (about 85%) is the Byzantine text-type, or Majority Text, which was considered to be the most authentic edition by Reformation-era scholars, most notably Erasmus. This was the received text of the Greek Orthodox Church (in the ancient patriarchates of Constantinople and Antioch), and manuscripts show that it has remained remarkably consistent from the fifth century until the age of the printing press.
While there are no solid reasons to impugn the basic integrity of the well-preserved Byzantine text-type, there are other ancient manuscript traditions that may aid a more exact reconstruction of the original text. Most notably, the Alexandrian text-type, exemplified by the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus of the fourth century, as well as various earlier papyrus fragments, gives witness to alternative readings, often more difficult and incongruous than the Byzantine readings. The antiquity and irregularity of the Alexandrian text-type led some modern textual critics, most notably J.J. Griesbach (1745-1812) to believe that the Alexandrian text is always more authentic than the Byzantine, and should be used to correct the latter.
It should not be assumed that the Alexandrian readings are always more authentic than the Byzantine. The oldest extant Alexandrian manuscripts are mostly fragmentary and riddled with obvious scribal errors, major omissions, and glosses, disagreeing frequently even among themselves. Their greater antiquity than the Byzantine manuscripts may be merely an accident of the fact that Egypt possesses a drier climate more conducive to their preservation. Modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament use readings from different text-types, though generally favoring Alexandrian readings when these are consistently attested.
A third text-type is the Western (formerly called the Palestinian), which is exhibited not only in Greek, but in the Syriac Peshitta and in the Old Latin (Vetus Latina) prior to its correction by St. Jerome (who apparently followed Alexandrian and sometimes Byzantine readings). Although this text-type is attested by Patristic citations as old as the third century, it was transmitted very inconsistently, especially in languages other than Greek. This text-type prevailed in much of Syria, Palestine and North Africa. The Old Latin's poor state of transmission was admitted by the fourth-century Fathers, which is why St. Jerome was commissioned to produce his corrected Vulgate translation from the Greek. Still, the presence of the so-called Western text-type in early Syriac manuscripts and even some papyri suggests that this may be coeval with the Alexandrian.
Other text-types that have been identified are combinations, subsets (e.g., the "families" of Byzantine texts), or derivatives of the three major types discussed, with the possible exception of the disputed Caesarean text-type that some glean from Origen's citations. We should keep in mind that even the accepted text-types are conceptual categories rather than distinct sets of manuscripts. A single manuscript may exhibit readings of all three types, even on the same page.
Various scholars have claimed that the Biblical quotations of the early Fathers give witness to one or another text-type, but these citations are of limited utility, since the verbal accuracy of the Patristic manuscripts is often less certain than that of the New Testament, and the Fathers frequently quoted Scripture from memory. Still, it seems clear that the Fathers knew Alexandrian readings as early as the second century, and they attest to the Byzantine type as early as the fourth.
In order to determine the literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels, we must first determine the content of the original autographs to good approximation. Allowing for credible variants among the major text-types, the verbal content of the New Testament is still known to better than 98% accuracy. This is an impressive level of fidelity, considering that we are dealing with tens of thousands of hand-copied manuscripts distributed all over Europe and the Mediterranean over the course of more than a millennium. The New Testament is by far the most well attested ancient document, with a broad manuscript tradition dating back to just three centuries after its writing, and fragmentary evidence dating even earlier. By contrast, most Greco-Roman classics are attested by manuscripts no older than the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), more than a millennium after they were written.
Still, the Christian Scriptures are held to a higher standard of accuracy due to their status as holy writ, and also because our analysis of the Synoptic problem depends in part on the wording of the original texts. Most variants are attributable to accidental scribal errors or copying glosses (clarifying words or phrases) into the main text, as was common practice in the days before parentheses or other punctuation. The majority of variants are insignificant changes in spelling, style or grammatical form. The differences in content among text-types have no obvious theological motivation, contrary to some scholars who have argued that one or another version (based on geographical distribution) was motivated by Origenist, Arian or Nicene agendas. The Byzantine text-type has a tendency to make the Synoptics in greater agreement and has fewer theologically difficult readings (e.g., statements seeming to imply ignorance in Christ) than the Alexandrian, but it still retains many difficult readings, while the Alexandrian texts contain nothing inconsistent with Nicene orthodoxy. The only textual variant with overt implications for a Christian doctrine is the Comma Johanneum, which is not in the Gospels.
Apart from variants on the level of individual sentences and fractions of a verse, the manuscript traditions of the Gospels agree in content with two notable exceptions: the ending of Mark (16:9-20) and the pericope adulterae in John (7:53-8:11), neither of which is found in the Alexandrian text-type. Since John is not one of the Synoptics and the conventional (Byzantine) ending of Mark has no verbatim parallel in Matthew or Luke, these questions have no strong bearing on our analysis of the Synoptic problem.
To assess the Synoptic problem in terms of verbatim similarities and differences, we need an accurate sense of how much resemblance there was among the original texts of the Gospels, eschewing the occasional scribal attempt to harmonize their significance or wording. For this, we rely on the work of past scholars who have produced critical editions of the Greek New Testament. Most modern critical editions take an eclectic approach, not relying on a single text-type but evaluating the consensus of the best and earliest manuscripts for each particular reading. Thanks to the abundance of New Testament manuscripts, it is practically certain that we have the authentic text among them, and in most cases, there are enough high-quality early witnesses in agreement for critics to determine a reading based solely on external evidence. In some cases, however, internal evidence (i.e., the surrounding style and context) must be used to judge which reading is original, and this can be more subjective. On the whole, nonetheless, critical texts of the Synoptic Gospels have undergone relatively minor revisions since Westcott and Hort's famous 1881 version (though there have been more substantial changes to the epistles). This is unsurprising, since all the best complete manuscript witnesses had already been discovered by then.
The most recent critical text of the New Testament is the 28th edition of the "Nestlé-Aland" Novum Testamentum Graece, which like all previous editions, generally favors Alexandrian readings over the Byzantine. For the purpose of statistical analysis of verbatim similarities, I will use the somewhat older 25th edition (1963), employed in W.F. Farmer's Synopticon. The differences among the later editions are not great enough to significantly alter our statistical estimates of verbatim similarity. The 26th edition incorporated data from Papyri 1-92, further correcting Byzantine readings and, if anything, slightly reducing the verbatim similarity among the Synoptic Gospels, which is favorable to my hypothesis. The 27th edition had no change to the text, only to its annotations. The 28th edition includes readings of Papyri 117-127 in its apparatus, but the only text change is to the Catholic Epistles (in 34 places).
We will briefly look at the testimony of some of the earliest and most important New Testament manuscripts, regarding the basic content and order of the synoptic Gospels. First, however, we make some general remarks.
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Historical evidence has shown that our familiar four Gospels were regarded as canonical as early as the second century, and this is confirmed by extant New Testament manuscripts, in which the four Gospels nearly always appear together. The oldest manuscripts of the canonical Gospels are not titled, “Gospel of Matthew,” etc. (as is sometimes done with the epistles, e.g. “Epistle of Paul to...”), but rather: “Gospel according to...” (Evangelion kata...). This formula implies that there is only one Gospel or "good message," namely the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and each document is but a particular account of the same revelation. The "good message" is not a book or scroll, but the living word that was first spread through preaching in Aramaic. Our custom of referring to the four written documents as “Gospels” in the plural developed gradually, and only centuries later was the word used in this way as commonly as in the original sense.
All four Gospels have the same formula for their titles, suggesting that these headings are not part of the original documents, but were inserted by early compilers of the canon. Accordingly, we cannot claim that any of the four Evangelists names himself in his Gospel, though we may say that the traditional attribution of authorship dates back at least to the second century.
It is not strange that the original Gospels should lack their author's names. Unlike an epistle, where the author almost invariably names himself in the greeting, a historical writing in antiquity was unlikely to open with the author's name, since that was not considered relevant to the genre. Thus in the Old Testament the historical books do not name their authors, but the prophets and teachers of wisdom do identify themselves, since their teaching derives in part from their personal authority and credibility. The Evangelists saw themselves as writing some combination of sacred history and the teachings of Christ, rather than imparting their own teaching or prophetic revelation, so they did not invoke their own names nor did they openly reflect on their own spiritual experiences (as in the Book of the Apocalypse).
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All Greek New Testament manuscripts before the fifth century (Papyrus 45, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus) place the Gospels in the traditional "Eastern order" of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This order is also used in the Sinaitic Old Syriac and the Peshitta, even though these follow the Western text-type. The Eastern order therefore has early representation among manuscripts of all text-types.
Old Latin manuscripts, by contrast, arrange the Gospels in the so-called "Western order" of Matthew, John, Luke and Mark. 'Western order' is a bit of a misnomer, since Greek manuscripts in the West still used the Eastern order. Here the Gospels written by Apostles are given pride of place, though Matthew still comes first even though he was a less important Apostle than St. John. The Western order was not intended to reflect the order in which the Gospels were written, which is why St. Irenaeus of Lyons uses the Eastern order when discussing chronology.
Another early order of the Gospels, attested in the Old Syriac Curetonian Gospels, is Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke. J. Chapman (1905) argued that this was also the order in the parent of the Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis).
In all of the most ancient manuscript witnesses, however diverse in geography or language, St. Matthew's Gospel is placed first, while St. Mark's is later. There is no external manuscript evidence for Marcan priority, while there is a universal attestation that Matthew is the First Gospel.
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Only three New Testament papyrus fragments can be definitively dated as early as the second century. Two of them, Papyri 52 and 90 in the Gregory-Aland numbering, contain text from the Gospel of St. John. The third, Papyrus 104, contains 110 letters of Matthew 21:34-37, 43-45. Remarkably, its text omits verse 21:44, in agreement with manuscripts of the Western text-type.
The Magdalen papyrus (Papyrus 64), dated c. AD 200, contains a few fragments from the Gospel of St. Matthew: 25-28; 26:7, 10, 14, 22, 31-32. Papyrus 67, believed to be part of the same manuscript, contains fragments of Matthew 3:9, 15; 5:20-22. The text-type is Alexandrian, as is generally the case with papyri. Still, when discussing the earlier papyri it is better to speak of specific "readings" rather than text-types, not only because of their fragmentary nature, but also because the papyri may have preceded the emergence of known types.
Papyrus 77, also dated around AD 200, contains much of Matthew 23:30-39, in agreement with Alexandrian manuscripts, especially Sinaiticus.
There are several third-century fragments that contain parts of the Synoptic Gospels. Their number, text-type, and content are listed below:
|P1||Alex.||Mt 1:1-19, 12, 14-20||P4||Alex.||Lk 1:58-59; 1:62-2:1; 2:6-7; 3:8-4:2; 4:29-32, 34-35; 5:3-8; 5:30-6:16|
|P45||None||Mt 20-21, 25-26; Mk 4-9; 11-12; Luke 6-7; 9-14 (also John and Acts)|
|P53||Alex.||Mt 26:29-40 (also Acts)|
|P69||West.||Lk 22:41, 45-48; 22:58-61|
|P70||Alex.||Mt 2:13-16; 2:22-3:1; 11:26-27; 12:4-5; 24:3-6, 12-15|
|P75||Alex.||Lk 3:18-24:53; John 1-15|
This last (P75) consists of Bodmer Papyri XIV-XV, which cover more than half of the Gospels of Luke and John. It is the lengthiest of the Gospel papyri, showing strong agreement with the readings of Codex Vaticanus. Its Gospel of John omits the pericope adulterae.
Most third-century codices contained just the Gospels, or just the Pauline epistles, or just the Catholic Letters. Only Papyrus 45 is a possible exception, which may have contained a more complete collection of New Testament documents.
From the late third or early fourth century, we have two more Egyptian witnesses of note. First, Papyrus 37 gives an Alexandrian reading of Matthew 26:19-52. Second, Uncial 0171, which is not a papyrus but written on vellum, contains parts of Matthew 10:17-23, 25-32 and Luke 22:44-50, 52-56, 61, 63-64.
Also of interest is Papyrus 66 (AD 200), which contains a near complete Gospel of John. Although it has no Synoptic content, it exhibits a scribal tendency of stylistic smoothing to bring out best sense of text. This shows that early scribes were more concerned with preserving the sense or meaning of the text than its exact letter, as we should expect in a society that was still predominantly oral. This tendency might account for the origin of some Byzantine readings.
Some of the papyri mentioned come from the Oxyrhynchus collection. The Gregory-Aland numbers of Oxyrhynchus papyri containing New Testament texts are as follows: 1, 5, 9-10, 13, 15-24, 26-30, 39, 51, 69-71, 77-78, 90, 100-115, 119-125, 127.
Despite all the excitement that has surrounded the discovery and publication of New Testament papyri, their general effect on the Gospels has been merely to reconfirm the critics' preference for the readings found in Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. The papyri disagree too much among themselves to constitute an older edition of the Gospels that could correct the standard Alexandrian text-type. Thus even the later editions of Nestle-Aland (NA26-28), which incorporate the papyri, are not appreciably different in their Gospel text from NA25, which in turn resembles Westcott-Hort, diverging in only 558 variants in the entire New Testament. [See E.J. Epp, "The Papyrus Manuscripts of the New Testament," in B.D. Ehrman, M.W. Iolmes, eds. The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995)]
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Following the papyri in antiquity are the four great uncial codices (so named because they were written in capital letters, before miniscules were used). The most complete of these is Codex Sinaiticus, which includes much of the Old and all of the New Testament, and likely dates to the middle fourth century. Discovered in the monastery of Saint Catherine at Mt. Sinai in the nineteenth century, this Greek text on vellum includes the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas in its canon. As with the other uncials, Sinaiticus rarely includes spaces between words, and often has mid-word line breaks, without any punctuation.
Sinaiticus is generally considered to be a high-quality witness of the Alexandrian text-type. This does not mean that the text of Sinaiticus, considered by itself, is of high quality. In fact the text contains thousands of corrections made by at least seven different scribes. The original manuscript was written by three scribes, one of which was responsible for almost the whole New Testament, including the Gospels. This scribe made some remarkably bad mistakes, often of a phonetic variety, and also omissions due to accidentally continuing from a second instance of an identical phrase. We should not assume that Sinaiticus was an important or definitive copy in its own time. Its quality and location argue against this, as does its very survival, as the common practice was to destroy old exemplars after they were copied to new parchments. Still, Sinaiticus has value as a witness insofar as its Alexandrian readings are corroborated by other early manuscripts.
The codex's Gospel of Mark ends with verse 16:8, and shows no indication that a longer ending was known. Its Gospel of John, by contrast, leaves a mark where the pericope adulterae is omitted, indicating that the scribe knew of its existence. This practice is consistent with other early witnesses, showing that the pericope was deliberately suppressed, either because it seemed to endorse adultery, or was considered of doubtful authenticity. The argument from absence against the pericope's originality is therefore weaker than that against the longer ending of Mark.
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Codex Vaticanus is the oldest of the four great uncials, dating to the early fourth century. It is less complete than Sinaiticus, but its Gospel folia are intact. The codex has been in the Vatican Library since at least the fifteenth century. Its geographic origin is uncertain, but its readings most frequently resemble the Alexandrian text-type.
Although this codex, with Sinaiticus, is one of the most important sources for constructing a critical text, its quality as a stand-alone witness is far from ideal. At least one of its scribes would carelessly skip a line while copying, suggesting that much of the New Testament was made by visual examination of the exemplar, as opposed to oral dictation, which appears to have been used for some Old Testament books.
Vaticanus ends its Gospel of Mark with verse 16:8, but leaves an uncharacteristic blank column afterward, suggesting knowledge of a longer ending. It also lacks the pericope adulterae. Additionally, it omits various individual verses and phrases in the Gospels, but in many cases these are likely accidental, due to the poor work of the scribe. Further, most of the letters have been retraced by much later scribes, impeding legibility, and there are numerous corrections. Like Sinaiticus, this codex is valuable now because of its antiquity, not because it was an important exemplar in its own time.
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Codex Alexandrinus, dating to the fifth century, is the oldest example of the Byzantine text-type for the Gospels, yet the rest of its books are of the Alexandrian text-type, with some Western readings. Although the codex was found in Alexandria, its origin is uncertain. It is the oldest manuscript to preserve the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20). Due to missing leaves, it now lacks most of Matthew (1:1-25:6), and also lacks two leaves of John (6:50-8:52). By counting the lines per leaf, it is inferred that the codex likely did not contain the pericope adulterae.
Unlike Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, which are filled with egregious errors, this codex was written by mostly careful scribes, though there are occasional careless transcriptions resulting in nonsense, and numerous later corrections in some books. Most errors are merely substitutions of phonetically similar letters, suggesting that this was copied by dictation. The codex has relatively few singular readings.
The fact that this Byzantine text is antedated only by two codices of poor scribal quality should make us hesitate to accept the critics' disparagement of the Byzantine text-type as consisting of later, "secondary" readings. Aside from two barbarously transcribed codices scarcely older than Alexandrinus, the Byzantine text is antedated only by the New Testament papyri, which, unsurprisingly, being found in Egypt, exhibit the Alexandrian text-type. There is nothing to preclude the possibility that the Byzantine text-type, at least for the Gospels, is a regional variation no less ancient than the Alexandrian.
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Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus is so named because the works of Ephraem the Syrian were written on this parchment after its original Biblical text was erased. Such overwriting was a common practice, as important texts like Sacred Scriptures were periodically copied onto newer parchments, while older parchments were erased and reused for less important texts. Since the most important exemplar texts were always kept on relatively young parchments, it is unsurprising that the texts on older surviving parchments are of poor scribal quality.
Although it once contained the entire Bible, only 209 leaves of the codex are extant, mostly from the New Testament. Its Gospels are missing many leaves, but it can be inferred from the size of the gaps that the longer ending of Mark was in the original, while the pericope adulterae was omitted. Its text-type is difficult to classify, as it has some Byzantine readings in the Gospels, especially Matthew, while its Alexandrian witness is equivocal, mixed with many unique readings.
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Codex Bezae, also known as Cantabrigiensis since it is held in Cambridge University, is an interesting fifth-century witness, as it is written in both Greek and Latin. Its Gospels are arranged in the "Western order" (not to be confused with text-type): Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark. As noted previously, J. Chapman (1905) argued that its parent codex had the order: Matthew, Mark, John, Luke. The Greek text is of the "Western text-type". (Again, "Western" is a misnomer, since this text-type is also found and likely originated in the East.) The Latin agrees with other early Vetus Latina manuscripts and is a good example of this tradition. In both languages, the codex has many singular readings, but this is typical of the highly variable "Western" Greek and Old Latin traditions. It contains the longer ending of Mark and is the oldest manuscript with the pericope adulterae in John.
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Codex Washingtonensis, discovered in Egypt by C.L. Freer in the early twentieth century, deserves to be regarded as a peer of the four great uncials, as it dates to the fourth or fifth century. Its Gospel of Matthew and Luke 8:13-24:53 witness the Byzantine text-type, while the earlier part of Luke has Alexandrian readings. Mark 1:1-5:30 follows the Western text-type, while the remainder has a close affinity to Papyrus 45, which is regarded either as an idiosyncratic Alexandrian manuscript or as the sole exemplar of the "Caesarean text-type" supposedly known to Origen.
The codex has the longer ending of Mark, and also some additional text between 16:14-15 known as the Freer Logion, which was partly quoted by St. Jerome.
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The Rossano Gospels, dated to the sixth century, are the oldest illuminated Biblical manuscript. Only the Gospel of Matthew and most of Mark (except verses 16:14-20) are extant. The text is an early witness of the Byzantine type.
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Another sixth-century manuscript, Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, closely resembles the Rossano Gospels in its Byzantine text-type, and preserves the ancient practice of writing in all capital letters. The codex contains most of the Gospels (and no other books), though there are many gaps in the text. Among these lacunae are the parts that would have contained the ending of Mark and the pericope adulterae, so we cannot tell if these were originally present. The codex also has numerous non-Byzantine readings, many of which resemble the Alexandrian type.
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Various Latin manuscripts contain prologues to the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John, which Dom De Donatien De Bruyne (1928) dated to the late second-century, owing in part to their supposedly "anti-Marcionite" content. Later critics have cogently argued, however, that these prologues are independent of each other, and of significantly later composition. [Englebert Gutwenger, "The Anti-Marcionite Prologues" Theological Studies, 7 (1946), pp. 393-409.] They should not be given the same weight as the early patristic testimony already discussed, but they merely confirm that such tradition was still accepted in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The prologue to Mark indicates its Roman origin by mentioning the evangelist's nickname of Colobodactylus ("stubby fingers"), which was known only to the Romans. Most extant manuscripts continue as follows:
He was a disciple and interpreter of Peter, whom he followed just as he heard him report. When he was requested at Rome by the brethren, he briefly wrote this gospel in parts of Italy. When Peter heard this, he approved and affirmed it by his own authority for the reading of the church. Truly, after the departure of Peter, this gospel which he himself put together having been taken up, he went away into Egypt and, ordained as the first bishop of Alexandria, announcing Christ, he constituted a church there.
De Bruyne held that the original text read simply, "He himself was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself, the same man wrote this gospel in the parts of Italy." The extant versions, however, make the Gospel written while St. Peter was alive. Both versions find support in early patristic witness. Since this prologue shows evidence of originating in Rome at a time when Greek was the language of the Church, it may date to the time of St. Hippolytus (d. 236), who was a disciple of St. Irenaeus and may have repeated the latter's testimony.
The "anti-Marcionite" prologue to Luke shows signs of literary dependence on the "Monarchian" prologue written in the fourth or fifth century (discussed below). Both versions describe St. Luke as an Antiochene Syrian who wrote his Gospel in Achaia (Greece), after Matthew wrote his in Judea and Mark in Italy, and that St. Luke later wrote the Acts of the Apostles. The "anti-Marcionite" prologue adds: "Later the apostle John wrote the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos, and then the Gospel in Asia."
Some early Latin manuscripts contain a set of four Gospel prologues now called "Monarchian", though it is far from clear that their author really held a Monarchian theology (equating the Father and the Son). The four prologues seem to have been all composed together, and originally presented in the Western order of the Gospels: Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark. Still, in their content, they explicitly give Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the chronological order of the Gospels. This proves that the Western or Old Latin order should not be taken as contradicting the traditional order in which the Gospels were written.
The "Monarchian" prologue to Matthew begins: "Matthew, from Judea, just as he is placed first in order, so wrote the Gospel first in Judea. His calling to God was from publican activities."
The corresponding prologue to John says it was written by "John the evangelist, one of the twelve disciples... after he had written the apocalypse on the island of Patmos". The prologue author clearly recognizes that the Gospel of John was written late, though it is second in the Old Latin canon. He explains this as follows:
And, if he is said to have written the gospel after all [the others], he is however placed after Matthew in the disposition of the canon as it is ordered, since in the Lord those things that are newest are not as if last and rejected for their number, but rather have been perfected by the work of fulness; and this was due to a virgin. Neither the disposition of the writings by time nor the order of the books, however, are exposited by us in the details, so that, when the desire to know has been settled, both the fruit of labor and the doctrine of teaching for God might be reserved for those who seek.
St. John's Gospel is not diminished in precedence on account of having been written last, but is a more perfect work, of an evangelist called to virginity by Christ (as the prologue elaborated earlier). The prologue author does not pretend to resolve all chronological questions in detail.
The "Monarchian" prologue to Luke comes before that of Mark, following the Old Latin canon, yet it says that Luke wrote his Gospel in Greece when the Gospels of Matthew and Mark had already been written, in Judea and Italy respectively. Once again, the author acknowledges that the Western canonical order is known to differ from the chronological order of the Gospels, which is Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.
Interestingly, the prologue to Mark mentions no Petrine influence for this Gospel, other than the fact that St. Mark was "in baptism the son of the blessed apostle Peter and also his disciple in the divine word". The prologue author explains Mark's omission of the Nativity and general brevity as being motivated by a desire "not to diminish the authority" of what had already been written, apparently referring to Matthew's Gospel. This prologue also mentions that St. Mark was a Levite, a datum apparently corroborated by Severus ibn al-Muqaffa's History of the Patriarchs of (the Coptic Church of) Alexandria (10th cent.), which says the evangelist's relative (Joseph) Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus. The "Monarchian" prologue further says that, after conversion, St. Mark amputated his thumb so he would be unfit for the (Jewish) priesthood. This might account for the evangelist's curious nickname, mentioned in the "Anti-Marcionite" prologue.
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Apart from the Greek and Latin manuscript traditions discussed, the New Testament is also preserved in a language commonly called Syriac, which is really a later form of Aramaic emerging as a literary language in the third century. A Syriac edition of the entire Bible, known as the Peshitta, is still used by the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, and has manuscripts dating to the fifth century.
Although the term "Old Syriac" is commonly applied to the two manuscripts believed to antedate the Peshitta, in fact they, like the Peshitta, are written in what philologists call Middle Syriac, a type of Eastern Middle Aramaic that overtook older forms of Aramaic around the third century AD. It is not a direct successor of the Palestinian Aramaic dialects of Jesus' time, which belonged to the Western family of Aramaic. Middle Syriac is markedly different in vocabulary and grammar from late Old Western Aramaic, and the Peshitta shows several instances of having been translated from Greek without knowledge of homonymic wordplays that existed in Galilean Aramaic, including the Gospel of Matthew. Thus the Syriac Peshitta is certainly a translation from Greek, not from Old Aramaic originals of Matthew or any other book. It definitely dates to before the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), since both the Chalcedonian Syriac Church and non-Chalcedonian Assyrian Church have the same Scriptures.
The age of the Syriac New Testament manuscript tradition is uncertain. The Peshitta edition dates back to the fifth century, but quotes from Ephraem the Syrian (d. 373) use older readings also found in the Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest (discovered in 1892), which likely dates to the late fourth century, and exemplifies the Western text-type. It omits the long ending of Mark and the pericope adulterae.
The other possible pre-Peshitta Syriac manuscript is the fragmentary Curetoninan Gospels (fifth century), in the order of Matthew, Mark, John, Luke. It was called simply the Old Syriac before the discovery of the Sinaitic palimpset. These two early Syriac manuscripts differ substantially in many readings, leading some to believe that they are based on different Greek originals. In any case, they give witness to the fact that the Syriac manuscript tradition was more diverse before the Peshitta recension of the fifth century, which more closely followed Byzantine Greek readings in the Gospels.
A further, indirect witness to the Old Syriac New Testament is the harmony of the four Gospels known as the Diatessaron, written by Tatian the Assyrian c. 160-180. This evidence is problematic not only because it is unknown if Tatian used Syriac or Greek Gospel originals, but also because his Syriac harmony is no longer extant. Still, it is preserved in a medieval Arabic translation, and in extensive quotations by Ephraem the Syrian, since it was the standard Gospel read in Syriac churches until the fifth century. This early use of harmonies by Ephraem and other Church Fathers, much like the variability found in the wording of early New Testament manuscripts, shows that early Christians were primarily concerned with preserving the meaningful content of the Gospels, not necessarily their exact verbal form.
The absence of the Alexandrian text-type in the Old Syriac should make us hesitate to regard that type as the original or "Neutral" text, rather than one among several early regional variations. Indeed, it may be hazardous to second-guess the work of the fifth-century editors of the Peshitta and Byzantine texts, on the basis of fragmentary manuscripts that may not have been considered of high importance or quality in their own time. Still, we must recognize that the fifth-century editors and modern textual critics had different objectives. The former were concerned with preserving the meaning of the Gospel clearly and intelligibly, while the latter are concerned with retaining the most original exact wording and spelling.
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We should keep in mind that the Gospels were not preserved for archival purposes, but for reading and teaching in the Churches. The written New Testament was an aid to continuing the apostles' teachings. As the New Testament epistles contain mostly theological, moral and didactic reflections, it is only in the Gospels themselves (and in the book of Acts, which is the second volume of Luke) that we may find the content of the evangelical preaching of the Apostles. If there were no apostolic preaching in the Gospels, we would be left with the bizarre situation that no apostolic preaching has been preserved, even though the Apostles were highly esteemed from the beginnings of Christianity, to the point that a teaching was considered authoritative only insofar as it was taught by the Apostles or by Christ.
We should therefore look to the canons of the Churches for testimony regarding the apostolic origins of the Gospels, giving special weight to the testimony of the "apostolic churches"; i.e., those local churches founded by the Apostles. Besides the church in Jerusalem, we have those founded by St. Peter (Antioch, Rome), St. John (Ephesus, Smyrna), and St. Paul (Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi, Athens, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Troas, Berea). These churches, along with others of comparable antiquity (notably Caesarea and Alexandria) all agreed on basic matters of doctrine (as expressed in the Apostles' Creed and other early baptismal creeds) and on the canon of the four Gospels all the way until the fourth century, when the philosophically subtle Arian dispute arose. The early heresies such as Gnosticism and Marcionism never won over any of the churches personally founded by the Apostles. Thus there is no parity of credibility between the canon of the four Gospels and alternative scriptures.
Among the early canons still extant, we have already discussed the Muratorian Canon of the second century, as well as the testimony of Origen and the Apostolic Fathers who preceded him. There are other canons, somewhat later, that help complete our picture of the unanimity of the early Church on the identity and apostolic origin of the four Gospels.
The Codex Claromontanus, a sixth-century New Testament manuscript, contains a copy of an older catalog, likely dating from the late third century, inserted between Philemon and Hebrews. This catalog is a stichometric list of the Old and New Testament canon, indicating the number of lines in each book. The Four Gospels are given in the order of Matthew (2600 lines), John (2000 lines), Mark (1600 lines) and Luke (2900 lines). This list is by no means a restrictive canon, as it includes the Shepherd, the Acts of Paul, and the Apocalypse of Peter, yet it still has only four Gospels.
Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastical History (AD 324), gives his own judgment on the New Testament canon, and is skeptical of the authenticity of the second letter of Peter. Still, he finds that the four Gospels are of undisputed authenticity. Matthew and John were the only disciples who left written memoirs, and did so only under necessity. "For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence." (III, 24) St. John wrote after Mark and Luke, in order to recount what had been omitted of Christ's early ministry.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, bishop of the most ancient Christian church, wrote (c. AD 350) a list of those books which alone are to be read openly in the churches. "Then of the New Testament there are the four Gospels only, for the rest have false titles and are mischievous. The Manichaeans also wrote a Gospel according to Thomas..." (Catechetical Lectures, iv, 35) St. Cyril is aware of other gospels falsely attributed to the apostles, but regards only the canonical four as authentic.
Another early stichometric list of the Biblical canon is the Cheltenham or Mommsen list (c. AD 360). It likewise identifies four Gospels: Matthew (2700 lines), Mark (1700 lines), John (1800 lines), and Luke (3300 lines), in that order.
Amphilochius of Iconium, in his Iambics for Seleucus (AD 380), which were formerly attributed to his more famous cousin, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, writes: "Accept only four Evangelists, Matthew, then Mark, to which Luke as third add; count John in time as fourth, but first in sublimity of dogma." This accounts for why John was moved up in some canons, without intending to contradict the traditional chronological order of the Gospels.
Several important fourth-century canonical witnesses attest to the Four Gospels, in their conventional order. These include the Council of Laodicea (AD 380) and a Council of Carthage (AD 397). Likewise the Apostolic Canons (AD 380) specify that there are four Gospels (Canon 57) and their conventional order of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (Canon 85)
In summary, there is a remarkable uniformity throughout the early apostolically-founded churches and their suffragans regarding the canon of the Four Gospels, however much they might disagree about certain Jewish apocrypha and New Testament epistles. Although many churches arranged them in the so-called "Western order", the traditional chronology of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was almost universally accepted (with some lack of clarity on the sequence or contemporeity of Mark and Luke). In no canon is the priority of Matthew over Mark contradicted, and we have seen from Patristic testimony that the "Eastern order" of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was understood to reflect chronology of composition.
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2.3.1 Protoevangelium of James
2.3.2 Gospel of Thomas
2.3.3 Gospel of Judas
2.3.4 Gospel according to Peter
2.3.5 Egerton Gospel
2.3.6 Oxyrhynchus Gospels
2.3.7 Gospel of Mary
There are other early Christian documents bearing the title or name of "Gospel", but none of these are known to date earlier than the second century, nor were they ever accepted for teaching in any of the apostolic churches. As such, they lack any sure guarantee of authenticity, since they were committed to writing well after the death of the Apostles, and were never accepted as authentic by those who had personally known the Apostles or their immediate successors. Some of these documents are "Gospels" in name only, as they do not pretend to summarize the life of Christ, but only give some explication of doctrine. Others do purport to present sayings and deeds of Christ, but often with a transparently Gnostic or Docetic agenda.
The heretical gospels blatantly contradict the teachings found in the canonical apostolic writings, so if they were authentic, we should hold that none of the New Testament canon was written by the Apostles. If this were true, we would have to accept that the Apostles left no authentic writings in the churches they founded, but somehow their true teachings were discovered by heretical splinter groups a century later. This strains credulity, of course, and if modern scholars like to pretend that there is a parity of authenticity between the canonical and non-canonical Gospels, it is only out of ressentiment toward the orthodox Church, not a true belief that the Gnostic gospels deserve credence. After all, if one accepts them as authentic, should he not admit with the Gnostics that Christ assumed only the appearance of flesh?
Although the apocryphal gospels have no parity of authenticity or antiquity with the canonical four, this does not mean that everything in them is erroneous in fact or doctrine. Some of them may even contain authentic Christian oral tradition about the life and sayings of Christ not found in the New Testament. The problem with using these documents is that there is no reliable way of distinguishing truth from falsehood in them. Still, they may be useful insofar as they provide independent witness to the traditions, oral or written, found in the canonical Gospels. Here too we must be careful to show that the apocrypha do not merely copy from the Synoptics.
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One of the oldest apocryphal "gospels" is the so-called Protoevangelium of James, which is excluded from the canon on account of its doubtful authenticity, not because it contains any objectionable doctrine. On the contrary, it would give potent testimony to the perpetual virginity of Mary if it were accepted into the New Testament. Its universal exclusion from the canon proves that the Church did not use merely doctrinal criteria, but insisted on authentic apostolic authorship. Although this proto-gospel, which discusses events from the birth of the Blessed Virgin to the birth of Christ, claims to have been written by James in Jerusalem (presumably meaning St. James the Less), this authorship was never accepted by the churches. Indeed, the content of the writing makes clear that its author was ignorant of Jewish Temple customs, so that he could not have been a Palestinian Jew, much less the Apostle.
It is difficult to date the Protoevangelium. Its earliest extant manuscript is Bodmer Papyrus V (3rd cent.). Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) and Origen (d. 254) show knowledge of some of its content, but this is no proof that they knew the document. The Protoevangelium may be merely one version of early Christian traditions about the nativity and perpetual virginity of Mary.
The Protoevangelium is generally believed to be an attempt to harmonize the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, but there are no verbatim quotes from either written Gospel. The mere presence of uniquely Matthaean or Lukan factual data does not prove dependence on the Synoptic Gospels, for it is possible that it relies instead on oral traditions underlying the Gospels or concurrent with them. If the Protoevangelium is an attempt at harmonization, it would necessarily be written later than the Synoptics, but we cannot say that it precedes the canonization of the Gospels as Scripture, for it nowhere presumes to contradict them.
The presence of apparent secondary readings in the Bodmer Papyrus suggests the Protevangelion had already been copied several times, dating it back at least as early as the second century. Beyond that we cannot say anything conclusive or even probable. For our purposes, the Protoevangelion is valuable only as a witness to the Gospel infancy narratives, as it may indicate that there was an active oral tradition surrounding these narratives in the second century.
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The oldest apocryphal gospel is likely the so-called Gospel of Thomas, preserved in Greek fragments among the Oxyrhynchus papyri (early 3rd cent.), and more completely in a later Coptic manuscript (c. AD 350). There are sufficient textual variants among these manuscripts to suggest that the document was repeatedly copied in the third century. There is no solid basis for dating the document's composition before the mid-second century, though as we shall see, it likely contains more ancient material.
Although modern scholars call it a "gospel," the document actually bears the following title: "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down." The mention of "secret words" and the subsequent content of the text lead many to regard this as a Gnostic document. Since the doctrines of the Gnostics (i.e., followers of Cerinthus or Valentinus) were plainly incompatible with the public teaching of the Apostles read in the churches, being instead derived in part from Middle Platonism, they needed to resort to the clumsy device of appealing to "secret" teachings of Christ. While orthodox Christianity did have some teachings reserved for the fully initiated (e.g., the Eucharist), these were never in contradiction with public doctrine.
The choice of the Apostle Thomas as the reputed author of the document is interesting, since this disciple has a prominent role in the Gospel of St. John, which was written as a refutation of the Gnostic Cerinthus, according to early Patristic testimony. John's Gospel is the only one in the canon that gives Thomas' nickname of Didymus ("the twin"), but the present document also gives an unattested alternate name of Judas. In St. John's Gospel, the Apostle Thomas is presented as a doubter, but not a traitor, and he is soon reconciled with the resurrected Christ. This is hardly maligning the Apostle, as all of the Twelve are depicted with human frailty in the canonical Gospels. It is hardly likely that St. John would have ended his narration about St. Thomas on a positive note if he was aware of the Gospel of Thomas and considered it authentic. More likely, then, the author of this document was aware of St. John's Gospel, so it should be dated no earlier than the second century.
This "gospel" is not an account of the life and deeds of Christ, but a collection of sayings and parables, some of which are also found in the Synoptic Gospels. Intriguingly, some of the canonical sayings here have textual variants with no obvious theological agenda. This suggests that they were recorded directly from oral tradition, independent of the Synoptics. If this is so, then the Gospel of Thomas is an important extracanonical witness to the oral Gospel behind the Synoptics. Such a supposition is not inconsistent with a mid-second century composition, as we have seen early Patristic evidence that the oral tradition was still active in that period.
The presence of some authentic oral tradition in the Gospel of Thomas may lead us to believe that even some of its extracanonical material may be authentic. Unfortunately, it is not easy to determine which of this material deserves credence. Interspersed with authentic sayings are allusions to secret teachings that contradict the public apostolic teaching.
Jesus said to his disciples: Make a comparison to me, and tell me whom I am like. Simon Peter said to him: Thou art like a righteous angel. Matthew said to him: Thou art like a wise man of understanding. Thomas said to him: Master, my mouth will no wise suffer that I say whom thou art like. Jesus said: I am not thy master, because thou hast drunk, thou hast become drunk from the bubbling spring which I have measured out. And he took him, went aside, and spoke to him three words. Now when Thomas came to his companions, they asked him: What did Jesus say unto thee? Thomas said to them: If I tell you one of the words which he said to me, you will take up stones and throw them me; and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up. ("Gospel of Thomas," 13)
This is obviously derivative of the account recorded in the Synoptics, except here instead of St. Peter proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, we find Thomas refusing to make any comparison. Jesus rewards him with three secret "words" (i.e., sayings) that would scandalize the other Apostles. This is to substantiate the fiction that Thomas alone knows the truth of Christ, while what the other Apostles teach is false.
Later, we find another obvious repudiation of the Apostles:
His disciples said to him: Who art thou, that thou shouldst say these things to us? Jesus said to them: From what I say unto you, you do not understand who I am, but you have become as the Jews; for they love the tree and hate its fruit, and they love the fruit and hate the tree. ("Gospel of Thomas," 43)
Again, the Apostles are presented as having no understanding of who Jesus really is, and are here lumped together with the unbelieving Jews. We are not told, however, what the true doctrine is.
Indeed, most of the Gospel of Thomas is doctrinally uncontroversial, causing some to doubt whether it ought to be regarded as a Gnostic document. However, this may be because it only presents exoteric doctrines, while merely alluding to esoteric Gnostic teachings. A more explicit allusion to Gnosticism is found in the final verse of the Coptic version:
Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. ("Gospel of Thomas", 114)
Regardless of which Mary is intended, we find here the Gnostic teaching (derived from Middle Platonism and also found in later "Origenism") that women must become "perfected" into males in order to ascend to heavenly life.
The Gospel of Thomas is too unreliable a witness for us to determine which of its verses are authentic sayings of Jesus. This is unfortunate, since it likely contains more than a few such sayings not found in the canon. Still, it is a valuable witness not so much for its content, but for its mode of composition. Its very existence shows that there were written collections of Jesus' sayings, much like the hypothetical Q document. This lends credibility to the existence of Q, or at least that some parts of the Matthaean-Lukan double tradition may come from a written collection of sayings.
Some scholars have argued from the genre and content of the Gospel of Thomas that it must be contemporary with or even antedate the Synoptic Gospels. This can be perilously circular reasoning for us, as it presupposes certain hypotheses about how the Synoptics were composed, which is precisely what we intend to investigate.
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A late third century Coptic manuscript, the Codex Tchacos, contains fragments of four Gnostic apocrypha, three of which (the Letter of Peter to Philip, the First Apocalypse of James, and Allogenes) are already known from the Nag Hammadi cache of papyri. The remaining document is the so-called Gospel of Judas, likely the same mentioned by St. Irenaeus in the second century as a "Cainite" text. The Cainites were a Gnostic sect who believed that all men cursed in the Old Testament, from Cain onward, should be venerated, as they were unjustly condemned by the cruel Old Testament Demiurge.
The content of this "gospel," more discursive than narrative, is theologically Gnostic, while its attribution to Judas Iscariot is consistent with Cainite attitudes. If the Cainites, like other Gnostics, considered the Apostles to be blind "as the Jews" (cf Thomas, 43) regarding Jesus, it follows that the one they condemned should actually be praised. Thus Judas is presented as the disciple who was privileged to receive the secret teachings of Jesus.
Naturally, this account deserves no credence as history, being a transparent literary device for conveying a second-century Gnostic polemic against apostolic Christianity and Judaism. This is obvious from the first scene, where Jesus is represented as mocking the disciples for their eucharistic prayer and for considering him to be the son of their god, consistent with Gnostic deprecation of the Old Testament deity. Judas alone recognizes that Jesus is "from the immortal realm of Barbelo," sent by an unnameable deity evidently distinct from the Jewish god. Jesus then takes Judas aside to receive the inner mysteries, while the other disciples will be left with their god.
The subsequent "secret conversation" is an elaborate Neoplatonic account of aeons, luminaries, stars and angels, useful for the study of second-century Gnosticism, but offering little insight into the origins of Christian tradition. To give a sample of the document's quality, it attributes to Jesus these words: "Truly I say to you, for all of them the stars bring matters to completion. When Saklas completes the span of time assigned for him, their first star will appear with the generations, and they will finish what they said they would do." Clearly, no conspiracy theory is needed to explain why this was never accepted by any apostolic church as canonical Scripture.
The Gospel of Judas should not be construed as an alternate tradition about Judas that is equal in antiquity to the canonical Gospels. The Gnostic document concludes with Judas betraying Jesus, evidently recognizing this as an already established fact. The author attempts to circumvent this fact by making the betrayal something of a ruse, so that Judas might ascend from this life. The awkwardness of this literary contrivance shows that the tradition of Judas as traitor is more ancient, and the Gnostic author must try to write his way around the facts established by that tradition. Knowledge of Judas as the betrayer is early and widespread, as is proved by the existence of diverse traditions regarding the ignoble circumstances of his death (cf. the canonical Gospels and the account of Papias).
In any event, the "Gospel of Judas" is not useful for analysis of the Synoptic Gospels, since its action is confined to a single putative discourse three weeks before the Last Supper. Its own descriptive title, "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot..." makes clear that it is something of a misnomer to call it a gospel, if this term means an account of the life and teaching of Christ.
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An early apocryphal gospel, called the "Gospel according to Peter," is mentioned by Eusebius.
The so-called Acts of Peter, however, and the Gospel which bears his name, and the Preaching and the Apocalypse, as they are called, we know have not been universally accepted, because no ecclesiastical writer, ancient or modern, has made use of testimonies drawn from them. (Eccl. hist., III, 2)
The Gospel of Peter is distinguished from the "Acts of Peter," the latter possibly being the same found in the Akhmim Codex. This "Act of Peter" is anti-Gnostic, as it speaks disparagingly of Simon Magus, and it is not a gospel, as it deals with some post-Ascension miracles performed by St. Peter.
Eusebius gives more specific information about the Gospel according to Peter much later in his history. He says that Serapion, a bishop of Antioch (late 2nd cent.), wrote a refutation of this gospel's false statements, which had led some at Rhossus into heterodoxy. He quotes Serapion's letter:
For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us.
When I visited you I supposed that all of you held the true faith, and as I had not read the Gospel which they put forward under the name of Peter, I said, "If this is the only thing which occasions dispute among you, let it be read." But now having learned, from what has been told me, that their mind was involved in some heresy, I will hasten to come to you again. Therefore, brethren, expect me shortly.
But you will learn, brethren, from what has been written to you, that we perceived the nature of the heresy of Marcianus, and that, not understanding what he was saying, he contradicted himself.
For having obtained this Gospel from others who had studied it diligently, namely, from the successors of those who first used it, whom we call Docetæ; (for most of their opinions are connected with the teaching of that school) we have been able to read it through, and we find many things in accordance with the true doctrine of the Saviour, but some things added to that doctrine, which we have pointed out for you farther on. (Eccl. hist., vi, 12)
This testimony establishes that: (1) the "Gospel of Peter" was not kept by the Apostle's successors at Antioch; (2) Serapion tolerated the reading of disputed apostolic texts in his churches as long as they contained no heresy; (3) much of the apocryphal gospel had nothing contrary to orthodoxy; (4) on thorough inspection, it contained some Marcionite or Docetist teachings; (5) Serapion actually obtained a copy from the successors of the Docetae.
Docetists are distinguished from Gnostics in that they did not subscribe to any elaborate creation myth, but held only that Christ had no human flesh except in appearance. Still, it was common for orthodox Christians to refer to Gnostics as Docetists, since they both denied the reality of the Incarnation. That appears to be the case here with the mention of Marcion, who was no mere Docetist, but also held the Gnostic belief that the Old Testament deity was a demiurge who created only the material world.
A substantial fragment of this apocryphal gospel is possibly preserved in an eighth-century codex discovered at Akhmim in 1884. The extant text is an extended passion narrative, lengthier than that of any canonical Gospel, followed by a resurrection narrative. It appears to be a harmony of the four Gospels, omitting some facts, but adding none. Yet the selective omissions and alterations of wording in certain places tend to subtly promote Docetic ideas. In particular, Christ is depicted as free from pain at the Crucifixion, and his death is represented as an analepsis, or recovery from illness. The subtlety of these changes is consistent with Serapion's testimony, and it seems likely, as H.B. Swete theorized, that the author was not a Docetist separatist, but someone who wanted to show that Docetist ideas were in harmony with the apostolic Gospel, in order to bring them into the Church. [H.B. Swete, The Akhmim Fragment of the Apocryphal Gospel of St. Peter (London: MacMillan and Co., 1893)]
Regardless of whether the Akhmim fragment is from the same gospel mentioned by Eusebius, it is a useful witness to how written documents were used by early Christian redactors. The author does not simply "copy and paste" text from his sources, but freely rearranges word and phrase order, to the extent that it is not clear if he has firsthand knowledge of all the canonical Gospels. We will see similar phenomena in the Synoptics, forcing us to carefully examine how texts were used in antiquity.
The combination of Synoptic and Johannine material, with more than incidental verbatim similarity, indicates that this gospel cannot be older than the second century. If it is the same as that mentioned by Serapion, then it certainly dates from that century, making it a highly relevant witness to the use of oral and written Gospel traditions in composition.
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The Papyrus Egerton 2 contains four fragments of Gospel narratives, three of which have parallels in the canonical Gospels. The parallel stories are highly dissimilar in wording from the canonical versions, and they lack the editorial comments of the Evangelists. Considering that this papyrus, which dates to the early second century, is one of the oldest extant Gospel manuscripts, there are good grounds for believing that this is an independent witness to early oral Gospel tradition.
The first fragment (Fragment 1 Verso) opens with a partial extracanonical saying: "And Jesus said to the lawyers: 'Punish every wrongdoer and transgressor, and not me. ... he does, how does he do it?'" This is immediately followed by sayings parallel to John 5:39 and John 5:45.
And turning to the rulers of the people he said this word: "Search the scriptures, in which you think you have life. These are they, which testify about me. Do not suppose that I have come to accuse you to my father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, in whom you have hoped."
The rulers' respond: "We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for you, we do not know..." This is similar to John 9:29, except here Jesus is addressed directly, whereas in John the Pharisees are interrogating the blind man healed at Siloam. The similarity may be purely accidental, as the narrative continues with a parallel to John 5:46. "Now is accused your disbelief in those who have been commended by him. For had you believed Moses, you would have believed me. For about me he wrote to your fathers..."
Although it is possible that this fragment is a paraphrase of John 5:39-46, dissimilarity of wording and context argue for its textual independence from John. In John's Gospel, Jesus heals a man at the pool in Bethsaida. (John 5:1-9) The Jews find out from the man that it was Jesus who healed him on the sabbath. (John 5:10-15) They confront Jesus, who responds, "My father worketh until now; and I work." (John 5:18) This continues with an extended theological discourse explaining the relationship between the Father and the Son. (John 5:19-38) In Egerton, by contrast, the theological commentary is omitted, and the material of John 5:39-46 is an immediate response to a Pharisaic accusation that has not been preserved. This suggests that the author of Egerton was not aware of the Johannine version.
The Egerton Gospel preserves a simpler version of the narrative, but it is not necessarily the more primitive account. There is no evidence that either the author of Egerton or John knew of each other's document. In both cases, the discourse is a response to a legalistic accusation made by the leaders of the Jews, so the two accounts are consistent with each other. If we accept the independence of Egerton, it follows that this particular story was known not only to St. John the Evangelist, but was already part of common oral tradition. This is not too surprising, considering the public nature of the incident.
As further evidence that Egerton and John are in no relation of simple literary dependence, we find that in another fragment (Fragment 1 Recto), it is the Egerton version which is more verbose and detailed (cf John 8:59):
...and taking up stones together to stone him. And the rulers laid their hands upon him to seize him and hand him over to the crowd. And they could not take him because the hour of his arrest had not yet come. But the Lord himself, escaping from their hands, withdrew from them.
This is immediately followed by a pericope about the cleansing of a leper. This story has parallels in the Synoptics (cf Mk 1:40-44; Mt 8:2-4), though with dissimilar wording. The juxtaposition of this pericope with apparently Johannine material indicates that all four canonical Gospels express oral traditions known also to the author of Egerton. This raises the question of why there are hardly any Johannine parallels in the Synoptics, though it is possible that John deliberately avoided repeating the Synoptics.
A third fragment (Fragment 2 Recto) opens with some men saying: "Teacher Jesus, we know that you have come from God, for what you do testifies beyond all the prophets." This only weakly resembles John 3:2, so the similarity could be accidental. After all, there were undoubtedly many who believed Jesus came from God, though they may have differed in their understanding of his identity.
This address is immediately followed by a question similar to that found in the Synoptics (Mt 22; Mk 12; Lk 20) about giving tribute to Caesar. "Therefore tell us, is it lawful to pay to kings the things which benefit their rule? Shall we pay them or not?"
Instead of immediately answering the question about paying kings, Jesus addresses the hypocrisy of those calling him Teacher. "Why do you call me Teacher with your mouth, not doing what I say? Well did Isaiah prophesy concerning you, saying: 'This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men...'" This same prophecy of Isaiah is also quoted in Matthew 15:7-8 and Mark 7:6, but all three sources place it in completely different contexts.
The Egerton Gospel seems to corroborate the impression gleaned from the Synoptics that various sayings of Jesus were retained in oral and written tradition, but the sequence or context of these had no fixed form at first. The author of Egerton exercises some editorial discretion in arranging traditional materials according to theme. Thus it seems there is nothing idiosyncratic about the basic way the Synoptic Evangelists made use of traditional source material. In fact, it is possible that even John did likewise, though we cannot verify this only because that Gospel has no "synoptic" parallel (besides the Egerton fragments) with which to compare.
As the first three fragments give us confidence that Egerton generally relies on authentic oral traditions, there is a good chance that the fourth fragment may also be from such tradition, even though it has no parallel in the written Gospel canon. In this badly damaged text, we find an apparent extracanonical miracle story. The sense of it seems to be that Jesus took water or clay in his hand from the Jordan River, and fruit was miraculously brought forth or ripened. This miracle followed a saying (also badly preserved), possibly to the effect that a hidden seed brings forth immeasurable abundance. The presence of a miracle story in Egerton contradicts the theory held by some scholars that miracles were added later to the gospels.
It should not be surprising that there are more sayings and deeds of Jesus in early tradition than what is recorded in the canonical Gospels. Even John, though writing last and almost certainly aware of the Synoptics, concludes his Gospel saying, "But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written." (John 21:25) If this final verse is attributed to a later editor, the point is only strengthened. At the end of the first century, there was still far more oral tradition about Jesus, much of it authentic, than what is contained in the canonical Gospels.
While the Egerton Gospel may be the rare written apocryphon that contains authentic extracanonical tradition, most of the "Gospels" that have been recovered are Gnostic or Docetic texts with clunky literary contrivances designed to introduce an anti-apostolic theological agenda (usually presented as "secret teachings"). A few of these heretical texts, notably Thomas, might contain some authentic material, but the admixture of fiction makes them generally unreliable. Egerton does not seem to possess any such vices, at least in its extant fragments. Even its extracanonical material seems to be consistent with the teaching and character of Jesus known from the apostolic Gospels.
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Two of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, numbered 840 and 1224, contain extracanonical gospel texts. These fragmentary sources are of more doubtful authenticity than Egerton, as they date to the late third or early fourth century, though their content could be considerably older.
The fragment of text on Oxyrhynchus 840 relates an interesting story where "a certain high priest of the Pharisees named Levi" accuses Jesus and his disciples of not washing themselves ritually before entering the temple. Jesus responds, "Woe to blind people who do not see! You have washed in the gushing waters that dogs and pigs are thrown into day and night... But my disciples and I, whom you say have not washed, we have washed in waters of eternal life that come from the God of heaven."
The name Jesus is not mentioned in the text, though the narrator twice calls him "the savior", a term that is seldom used in the canonical gospels, and then only in a direct quotation, not in narration. (cf Lk 1:47, 2:11, John 4:42) Such usage is found repeatedly, however, in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (to be discussed later), and St. Irenaeus attests that the Valentinians called Jesus "Savior" rather than "Lord." (Adv. haer., I,3) This is confirmed by St. Epiphanius. (Panarion, 31:4:3-4) There is nothing overtly Gnostic in Oxyrhynchus 840, but this could be due to its brevity.
Oxyrhynchus 1224 contains fragmentary "gospel" text, the first part of which seems to be a purported vision by the narrator rather than an account of Christ's life and teachings. He writes: "It weighed me down. Then Jesus approached in a vision and said, 'Why are you discouraged? For not... you, but the..."
The reverse side of this fragment might be a continuation of the same vision, in which case Jesus is the speaker, or, more likely, it is part of a gospel narrative, where Pharisees or other adversaries are challenging Jesus. It reads: "...you said, although you are not answering. What then did you renounce? What is the new doctrine... you teach, or what is the new [baptism?] that you proclaim? Answer and..."
Only the last fragment, on the next folio (fortunately, they are numbered), is definitely a gospel text. It reads:
When the scribes and [Pharisees?] and priests saw him, they were angry [that he was with] sinners... But when Jesus heard, he said, "Those who are [healthy] have... [no need of a physician]"
The text is highly fragmentary, and the bracketed text is only inferred from knowledge of the canonical Gospels. Yet there is no indication that Oxyrhynchus 1224 is textually dependent on these.
The reverse side of this fragment reads: "... and pray for your enemies. For the one who is not... is for you. .... is far away... tomorrow will be... and in ... the adversary..." Again, we have a general similarity with a known saying of Jesus, yet with highly unique wording, with no obvious theological motive. This suggests that Oxyrhynchus 1224 might contain some genuine oral gospel tradition independent of the written canon, which would date its content no later than the mid-second century.
The Oxyrhynchus papyri do not help us to solve the Synoptic problem, except as witnesses to the variety of oral tradition that was available about Jesus. This implies that similarities in content and wording among the Synoptics are that much less likely to be accidental, but that the Evangelists must have either had knowledge of each other's work, or they appealed to a more limited circle or oral and written traditions.
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The so-called Gospel of Mary (a title of modern invention) is an overtly Gnostic theological discourse, extant in three fragmentary manuscripts. The longest text, written in the Sahidic dialect of Coptic, is found in the fifth-century Akhmim Codex (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502). Two much shorter fragments in Greek (also from Egypt) date from the third century. One of these, Papyri Rylands 463, contains only 15 partial lines of text, while the other, Oxyrhynchus 3525, contains only 18 partial lines. The latter fragment is not in the script of professional scribes.
As with other Gnostic apocrypha (e.g., Thomas, Judas), this document's central conceit is that Jesus revealed secret doctrines to someone other than the conventional apostles, thereby accounting for the disparity between the teachings of the Gnostics and those of the apostolic churches. The privileged disciple here is a woman named Mariamme, a variant of Mary. Most interpreters assume this to be Mary Magdalene, but there are several women named Mary in the Gospels (e.g., the mother of Jesus, the wife of Clopas, and the sister of Martha). Marya and its variants was the most common name among first-century Jewish women, as is proved by tomb inscriptions. Mary Magdalene is always called Maria, not Mariamme, in the canonical Greek Gospels.
The Coptic text opens with Jesus (called only "the Savior," per Gnostic convention) explaining to Peter that all material creatures will dissolve again into their proper root. This is a fairly standard Neoplatonic eschatology found among the Gnostics and Origenists of Palestine and Egypt. He further teaches that there is no such thing (i.e., substance) as sin, but "rather you yourselves are what produces sin when you act in accordance with the nature of adultery, which is called 'sin'." People sin when they follow the passions that arise from matter, which are contrary to that which is in common to every nature, namely the Image of the Good. The Savior's discourse concludes with an exhortation to "preach the good news of the Kingdom. Do not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver..." This last sentence likely reflects Gnostic antipathy toward the authority of bishops.
After Jesus departs, the apostles are distressed, wondering how they can announce "the kingdom of the child of true Humanity? ... If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?" Evidently, this is supposed to take place sometime after the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
At this point, Mariamme arises, and here we have the Greek text to compare with the Coptic. (The Oxy. 3525 fragment begins with Jesus departing.) She exhorts the other disciples to have faith, and to be thankful that He has made us human (which is to say, human in the truer sense, following the Image of the Good rather than matter and its passions). Then Peter says to Mariamme (following the Greek, with bracketed text from Coptic): "Sister, we know that you are much [loved by the Sav]ior, as no other woman. So tell us [the] words [which you know] of the Savior which we have not heard."
Modern scholars, subject to the liberal fixation on sexual lust, have interpreted this passage as suggesting that Mary was a wife or paramour of her master, but this is utterly contrary to Gnostic sensibilities. Only a few lines earlier, the Savior is presented as saying that sin is essentially adultery, and that the passions originating in matter are deceptive. Further, the love to which Mariamme is subject is spoken of in the present tense, though we have seen this is a post-resurrection narrative. The spiritual nature of her privileged access to the Savior is confirmed when she answers the apostles: "Once, seeing [the Savior] in a vision..."
Here we must return to the Coptic text, but it too breaks off, just as the Savior starts to explain that a vision is seen not with the soul or spirit, but with the mind that exists between them. Again, Gnostic artifice is plainly apparent.
Several pages later, the Coptic text resumes, with a metaphorical discourse about Desire and the "third power", Ignorance, followed by a fourth Power with seven forms: darkness, desire, ignorance, zeal for death, realm of the flesh, foolish wisdom of the flesh, and wisdom of the wrathful person. The soul replies to these powers, saying it has been set loose from a world of space and time by a type from above. From now on, the soul will rest in silence in "the time of the due season of the aeon." Mary is recounting all this from what the Savior told her.
As Mary completes her speech, we again have a Greek fragment (P. Ryland 463) with which to compare. The Greek has:
Andrew said, "Brothers, what do you think about the things that have been said. For I do not believe the Savior has said these things. For it seems to be different than his thought about these matters. When the Savior was questioned, did he speak in secret to a woman and not openly that we all might hear? ... more worthy than us ...
The Coptic is similar, except it attributes the latter part to Peter instead of Andrew:
Peter responded, bringing up similar concerns. He questioned them about the Savior: "Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?"
Both versions have at least one apostle expressing incredulity that anyone, especially a woman, should have received privileged teaching unknown to the Twelve. The author uses this dialogue to address objections to the authenticity of the document's teaching. Likely the original text had Peter as an objector, for both versions have Levi respond to Peter:
...the Savior. Levi said to Peter, "Peter, a quick temper is always present with you. And just now you were discussing with the woman as though she were your enemy. If the Savior considered her worthy, who are you to disdain her totally. For knowing her completely, he loved her greatly. Let us be ashamed and, putting on the perfect man let us do that which was commanded of us, to proclaim the gospel, neither being angry nor prescribing laws because these are the things the Savior said." After Levi had spoken, he departed and began to proclaim the gospel. [Ryland]
Wrath, one of the deceiving powers enumerated earlier, is now imputed to Peter. The Gnostics accuse the apostolic churches of wrathfully imposing laws not commanded by the Savior. The Gnostics, by contrast, claim greater intimacy with Christ, communing with Him directly through mystical vision and contemplation. Their spiritual perfection is proof that they are with Christ. Thus the Coptic text, agreeing with the Greek, has Levi say:
For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Savior's knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us. Rather we should be ashamed. We should clothe ourselves with the perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves as he commanded us, and announce the good news, not laying down any other rule or law that differs from what the Savior said.
This text rejects the authority of the lawmaking bishops of the apostolic churches. Instead, Christ favors those who have been raised to a more perfect Humanity, a gift that can be granted even to women. The elevation of the woman Mary is deliberately contrarian, much like that of Thomas the doubter or Judas the traitor in other Gnostic texts, in order to show that Christ did not establish authority on the basis claimed by apostolic bishops.
Still, in the act of challenging apostolic authority, the Gnostics tacitly acknowledged its prior existence. Thus they make Peter and his brother Andrew eminent apostles, in agreement with the Gospel of John. Interestingly, they single out Levi or Matthew as the one who contradicts Peter and embarks on proclaiming the true Gospel. This is consistent with Gnostic acceptance of Matthaean tradition, and might be construed as recognition of Matthew's authorship of the First Gospel.
Judging from its overtly apologetic content, however, it would be unwise to attribute any historical basis to this Gospel. Mariamme is presented as an authority figure expressly to authenticate Gnostic doctrines. It is inconsistent to accept the authenticity of the narrative without accepting that of its anti-carnal teachings, as these are the primary purpose to which the narrative is auxiliary. Removing the doctrines would leave Mariamme with nothing to say, and the incident evaporates. Whether it is Mary or Judas or Thomas receiving the esoteric teaching of Christ, the important thing is the teaching.
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2.4.1 Clement of Alexandria
2.4.5 St. Cyril of Jerusalem
2.4.6 St. Epiphanius
2.4.7 St. Jerome
2.4.8 Zion Gospel
2.4.9 Stichometry of Nicephorus
The non-canonical gospel most pertinent to the question of Matthaean priority is unfortunately no longer extant. This is the so-called Gospel of the Hebrews mentioned and cited by several patristic writers. It is not clear what relation, if any, this gospel may have had to that of Matthew, nor even if all patristic mentions are referring to the same document. Given the early subapostolic testimonies emphasizing that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel in a Hebraic dialect, we can hardly neglect to examine this subject.
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The earliest patristic mentions of a "Gospel to the Hebrews" date to the late second century. Clement of Alexandria cites this Gospel twice in his Stromata, to support his argument that Greek philosophers borrowed their ideas from Jewish religion.
The beginning of knowledge is wondering at objects, as Plato says is in his Theætetus; and Matthew exhorting in the Traditions, says, "Wonder at what is before you;" laying this down first as the foundation of further knowledge. So also in the Gospel to the Hebrews it is written, "He that wonders shall reign, and he that has reigned shall rest." (Stromata, II, 9:45)
Clement was an eclectic writer who cited various apocrypha, even those of heretical sects. Here he cites the apocryphal Traditions of Matthew, though he does not indicate that the "Gospel to the Hebrews" is related to Matthew. The saying quoted from the Hebrew Gospel is also found in the Gospel of Thomas (Oxyrhynchus 654).
Later in the Stromata, Clement compares a quote from Plato's Timaeus with these words: "He, who seeks, will not stop till he find; and having found, he will wonder; and wondering, he will reign; and reigning, he will rest." (Stromata, V, 14:96) Here Clement does not name his source, but this too is an early saying found in the Gospel of Thomas, so it could well be from the same "Gospel to the Hebrews" upon which Clement depended earlier.
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St. Hegesippus (c. 110-180) is said to have quoted from a Gospel to the Hebrews, though these citations are no longer extant. Eusebius writes of him:
And from the Syriac Gospel according to the Hebrews he quotes some passages in the Hebrew tongue, showing that he was a convert from the Hebrews, and he mentions other matters as taken from the unwritten tradition of the Jews. (Eccl. hist., IV, 22, 8)
The qualifications "Syriac" and "Hebrew tongue," in ancient usage, indicate that the document was written in what we now call Aramaic, rather than Hebrew proper. We are told only that this was a written Gospel used by Jewish converts to Christianity.
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According to St. Jerome, Origen frequently quoted from the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" in his Biblical commentaries, but only one of these citations survives in his extant works.
While defending his opinion that even the Holy Spirit was made through the Word, Origen notes a possible objection from the Gospel according to the Hebrews:
If any one should lend credence to the Gospel according to the Hebrews, where the Saviour Himself says, "My mother, the Holy Spirit took me just now by one of my hairs and carried me off to the great mount Tabor," he will have to face the difficulty of explaining how the Holy Spirit can be the mother of Christ when it was itself brought into existence through the Word. (Comm. on John, II, 6)
Origen promptly dismisses the objection, citing Matthew 12:50 as showing that all who do the Father's will may be called Christ's "mother". He evidently regards the Gospel according to the Hebrews as being of doubtful authenticity, and earlier in this work plainly says that "the Gospels are four." (I, 6)
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Eusebius, likewise, refers to the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" as among the "disputed writings" (antilegomena).
And among these [disputed writings] some have placed also the Gospel according to the Hebrews, with which those of the Hebrews that have accepted Christ are especially delighted. (Eccl. hist., II, 25, 5)
Apparently Jewish Christians still used this Gospel even in Eusebius' day. It is not clear if this is related to the Hebrew edition of Matthew he mentions much later:
Pantænus [founder of the Alexandrian school] ... is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, he found the Gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time. (Eccl. hist., V, 10, 3)
This testimony is generally credible, since there were Jews in India before the Christian era, and many more arrived after the destruction of the Second Temple. Early Christian traditions say that Bartholomew and Thomas preached in India. It is perhaps telling that Bartholomew, himself an Apostle, left no writing except that of Matthew, possibly because he was not literate.
We do not have the direct testimony of Pantaenus regarding this Hebrew Gospel, so we cannot be sure if it closely resembled Matthew, or rather the apocryphal "Gospel according to the Hebrews" mentioned earlier. Possibly, the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" is derived from the Hebrew Matthew, with various accretions.
In another work, Eusebius remarkably quotes from a Hebrew Gospel to support a teaching:
He [Christ] himself taught the reason for the separations of souls that take place in houses, as we have found somewhere in the Gospel that is spread abroad among the Jews in the Hebrew tongue, in which it is said: "I choose for myself the most worthy: the most worthy are those whom my Father in heaven has given me." [Eusebius, Theophania 4.12 (on Matthew 10:34-36)]
Evidently, Eusebius thought highly of the authenticity of the Hebrew Gospel current in his time, possibly because he thought it to contain Matthaean and early Jewish Christian tradition.
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In his Discourse on Mary Theotokos, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386) mentions an episode in his life involving "a certain monk who lived in the neighborhood of Maioma of Gaza, who had received instruction in the heresy of Bion and of Harpocratius his master…" "Bion" and "Harpocratius" are the heresiarchs commonly known as Ebion (a Judaizer, of questionable historical existence) and Carpocrates (a Gnostic). This monk had kept the books of his master and spread false teachings from them. St. Cyril, as bishop, ordered for the monk and his books to be brought before him to answer the charges.
And that monk replied, 'It is written in the [Gospel] to the Hebrews that when Christ wished to come upon the earth to men the Good Father called a mighty "power" in the heavens which was called "Michael", and committed Christ to the care thereof. And the "power" came down into the world, and it was called Mary and [Christ] was in her womb for seven months. Afterwards she gave birth to Him, and he increased in stature, and He chose the Apostles, who preached Him in every place. He fulfilled the appointed time that was decreed for Him. And the Jews became envious of Him, they hated Him, they changed the custom of their Law, and they rose up against Him and laid a trap and caught Him, and they delivered Him to the governor, and he gave Him to them to crucify Him. And after they had raised Him up on the Cross the Father took Him up into heaven unto Himself.'
This gospel "to the Hebrews" seems to contain anti-incarnational theology, making Christ begotten of some heavenly power that took the form of his mother Mary, and omitting mention of his bodily resurrection. The monk's version of this Hebrew gospel evidently incorporates Gnostic teachings of Carpocrates. The monk adds that he is sent by Christ to proclaim this gospel, quoting Matthew 28:19-20.
And the archbishop answered and said, 'Where in the Four Gospels is it said that the holy Virgin Mary, the mother of God, is a "force"?' And the monk answered and said, 'In the [Gospel] to the Hebrews.' And Apa Cyril answered and said, 'Then, according to thy words, there are Five Gospels?' And that monk replied, 'Yea, there are.' And Apa Cyril answered and said, 'What is the name of the fifth Gospel? for I should like to from whence this doctrine concerning Christ is derived, and to understand it. The Four Gospels have written above them: "[The Gospel] according to Matthew"; "[The Gospel] according to Mark"; "[The Gospel according to Luke"; "[The Gospel] according to John." Whose is the fifth Gospel?' And that monk said unto him, 'It is [the Gospel] that was written to the Hebrews.'
Although there were many Gnostic apocrypha, the monk evidently considered there to be only five gospels. We must keep in mind that many of the apocrypha called "gospels" by modern scholars were not called such by their ancient adherents. The Gospel to the Hebrews, it seems, was held in a specially high regard.
St. Cyril believes that this gospel, with its heresy that the Virgin Mary was a heavenly "force", was attributable to Ebion. This "Gospel to the Hebrews" is clearly a “fifth Gospel”, not a Hebrew Matthew, and it is associated with the Gnostic version of the Ebionite heresy.
A word of clarification should be said about the Ebionites. The earlier groups that were known by this name were merely Jewish Christians who believed that the Mosaic Law should still be kept. These are mentioned by St. Irenaeus as using only the Gospel of Matthew. By the second century, many of them heretically denied the virgin birth and the pre-existence of Christ as Divinity. Later, some distinctly Gnostic elements were incorporated into their beliefs. The version of the Gospel to the Hebrews related by St. Cyril appears to have some Gnostic influence, with its description of a "force" emanating from the Deity. Still, it is mostly consistent with earlier Ebionite belief, so St. Cyril imputes it to the eponymous founder of that sect.
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St. Epiphanius mentions one or more Hebrew gospels when discussing several heretical sects in his Panarion. The first of these is the Nazarean sect, with which he was personally familiar, though his account of their earlier history is probably conjectural.
The Nazareans, according to St. Epiphanius, originated around the time of Cerinthus (late first cent.). Their antiquity is evidenced by their name (derived from 'Nazareth', not 'nazirite'), which is what all followers of Christ were called at first, until they came to be called Christians at Antioch. The Nazareans live strictly according to Jewish law in all things, except they profess to believe in Christ, earning the enmity of other Jews. Epiphanius did not know if they shared Cerinthus' opinions against the virgin birth and pre-existent divinity of Christ. "This sect of Nazoraeans is to be found in Beroea near Coelesyria, in the Decapolis near Pella, and in Bashanitis at the place called CocabeKhokhabe in Hebrew." (Panarion 29:7:7)
Earlier, St. Epiphanius remarked that the followers of Cerinthus used a partial Gospel of Matthew for its genealogy, as proof that Jesus was of seed of Joseph. (Panarion 28:5:1) Obviously, they must have excised the rest of the first chapter, which testifies to the virgin birth. He will later tell us that the Ebionites removed the entire infancy narrative from their Gospel of Matthew, beginning instead with John baptizing. Regarding the Nazareans, he says:
They have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this as it was originally written, in the Hebrew alphabet. But I do not know whether they have also excised the genealogies from Abraham till Christ. (Panarion, 29:9:4)
Clearly, he has not actually seen a copy of this Gospel, but has only heard of it. We cannot know, then, how closely it resembled Matthew.
According to St. Epiphanius, the Ebionite "Gospel according to the Hebrews" is also a version of Matthew, albeit a highly mutilated one. He says of the Ebionites:
They too accept the Gospel according to Matthew. Like the Cerinthians and Merinthians, they too use it alone. They call it, 'According to the Hebrews,' and it is true to say that only Matthew expounded and preached the Gospel in the Hebrew language and alphabet in the New Testament. (Panarion 30:3:7)
It is remarkable that so many of the earliest heterodox sects use Matthew to the exclusion of others. Even those outside the authority of the apostolic churches seem to regard Matthew as the oldest and most authentic Gospel.
St. Epiphanius acknowledges that some New Testament writings, such as the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles, were translated from Greek to Hebrew by Jewish Christians. (Panarion 30:3:8-9) Yet he does not regard the Hebrew Matthew as such a translation, but as being in its original language. (Ibid. 30:6:9)
In agreement with other patristic testimony, St. Epiphanius finds that the Gospel of the Ebionites, "what they call a Gospel according to Matthew... is not the entire Gospel but is corrupt and mutilated". (Ibid. 30:13:2) He quotes a non-canonical passage, where Jesus says:
Passing beside the Sea of Tiberias I chose John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and Simon and Andrew... and Judas Iscariot. Thee too, Matthew, seated at the receipt of custom, did I call, and thou didst follow me. I will, then, that ye be twelve apostles for a testimony to Israel. (Panarion, 30:13:3)
There is nothing overtly heretical or factually false here, except perhaps the implication that Jesus' mission is limited to Israel. Note that Jesus is speaking to Matthew, indicating that he is supposed to be the author of this writing.
St. Epiphanius apparently had access to a copy of the Ebionite gospel, as he makes several citations, sometimes noting the relative location of each. (Ibid. 30:13:6-7) Since he is concerned with proving that the Ebionites are heterodox, he focuses on quotes that differ from canonical Matthew. For example:
John came baptizing, and there went out unto him Pharisees and were baptized, and all Jerusalem. And John had a garment of camel's hair, and a girdle of skin about his loins. And his meat,' it says, 'was wild honey, whose taste was the taste of manna, as a cake in oil.' (Ibid 30:13:4)
The last two sentences parallel Matthew 3:4 (and Mark 1:6), except the Hebrew Gospel omits mention of locusts and elaborates that the honey tasted like manna. The first sentence has no obvious Matthaean parallel, though it resembles Mark 1:5a.
The Ebionite gospel begins with these words:
It came to pass in the days of Herod, king of Judea, in the high-priesthood of Caiaphas, that a certain man, John by name, came baptizing with the baptism of repentance in the river Jordan, and he was said to be of the lineage of Aaron the priest, the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, and all went out unto him. (Ibid. 30:13:6)
There is no overt verbal parallel with any canonical Gospel, though the expression "baptism of repentance" is found in Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3, and only Luke mentions the parentage of John.
Later, this gospel describes the baptism of Jesus and the appearance of the Holy Spirit, combining elements from the Synoptics:
And a voice from heaven saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased,[Mark 3:11; Luke 3:22] and again, This day have I begotten thee. [Psalm 2:7; Heb. 1:5] And straightway a great light shone round about the place. Seeing this, John said unto him, Who art thou, Lord? And again a voice to him from heaven, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. [Matt. 3:17](Ibid. 30:13:7)
This obvious harmonization is the clearest evidence that the Ebionite gospel depends on the Synoptics, certainly Matthew, and Mark or Luke. Yet it also appeals to some oral tradition known to Jewish Christians, such as the attribution of the Psalmist's words to the Father, also mentioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews. None of the canonical Gospels have the Baptist asking who Jesus is, but compare with John 1:33, "And I knew him not..."
St. Epiphanius again distinguishes the Ebionite Gospel from "the so-called Gospel according to Matthew" attributed to Cerinthus and Carpocrates. (Ibid. 30:14:2) The Cerinthian pseudo-Matthew opens with the Matthaean genealogy in order to show that Christ was born of Joseph and Mary. The Ebionites, by contrast, omit the genealogy and start with John baptizing Jesus, reflecting their heretical belief that Christ then descended from God in the form of the dove into Jesus, the offspring of man and woman.
Evidently, the Ebionite Gospel is not a Hebrew original of Matthew, nor is its content solely Matthaean. Still, St. Epiphanius' comparisons of it with canonical Matthew and the Cerinthian "Matthew" indicate that the Ebionites pretended that it came from the Apostle.
Much later in the Panarion, St. Epiphanius mentions that some people refer to the Diatessaron as "According to the Hebrews". (Ibid. 46:1:9) The similarities between Tatian's Diatessaron and the Gospel according to the Hebrews are superficial: both omit the genealogies, both contain harmonizations of canonical Gospel material, and both are written in Aramaic dialects.
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By far our most extensive knowledge of a supposed Hebrew Gospel of Matthew comes from St. Jerome, but his descriptions do not always make clear whether he was speaking of the Ebionite Gospel or the Gospel of the Nazareans. We will examine these citations in chronological order and in context.
First, we find: “As we have read in the Hebrew Gospel, the Lord says to his disciples: And never be ye joyful, save when ye behold your brother with love.” [Commentary on Ephesians (c. AD 387), 3] St. Jerome’s consistently respectful use of this source suggests that it was not the same as the heretical Ebionite texts known to St. Cyril and St. Epiphanius.
In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which the Nazaraeans are wont to read, there is counted among the most grievous offences: He that has grieved the spirit of his brother. [Commentary on Ezekiel (pre-392/393), 6]
What St. Jerome calls the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” is really a Hebrew gospel read by the Nazareans, not the Ebionite gospel widely known by that title. It remains to be seen if this is merely a poor choice of terminology, or if St. Jerome genuinely confounded the two editions.
The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, “but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James…” [De viris illustribus (AD 392/393), 2]
St. Jerome’s “Gospel according to Hebrews” is so named because he identifies it with that used by Origen. He uses it as a respectable source of information about St. James the Just, so it is not the heretical Ebionite edition known to St. Cyril and St. Epiphanius, though it contains extracanonical material. There are no grounds for doubting his claim to have translated this document from Hebrew into Greek, once we accept that it was the Nazarean and not the Ebionite gospel which he had seen. That this translation is no longer extant proves little, for even his famous Latin translation of Origen’s Peri Archon has been lost, though it certainly existed.
A few lines later in the same text, we find:
Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek, though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Cæsarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Berœa, a city of Syria, who use it. (De viris illustribus, 3)
It is not immediately clear if this Hebrew Matthew is the same as the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” cited earlier. The Nazareans of Beroea, whom St. Jerome probably met while living in Chalcis (AD 374-79), only described the document to him. It is uncertain if St. Jerome actually saw the copy at Caesarea, though we know he had access to that library (e.g., when consulting Origen’s original Hexapla). Eusebius of Caesarea’s silence about any copy of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew proves at most his ignorance of the document, not its absence from the extensive library.
A few years later (AD 398), St. Jerome again quotes a “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” esteeming it enough to offer variant readings of the Gospel of Matthew: “In the Gospel that is called (appellatur) according to the Hebrews instead of ‘essential to existence’ I found ‘mahar,’ which means ‘of tomorrow,’ so that the sense is: ‘Our bread of tomorrow’that is, of the future‘give us this day.’ [Commentary on Matthew, 1, v. 6:11] He indicates that others have given the Gospel this name, yet this is not the same as the heretical Ebionite gospel, so the confusion of names seems not to have originated with St. Jerome. He has seen only one of (at least) two Hebrew gospel editions, and assumes that the other, being called by the same name, is the same edition.
In the Gospel which the Nazarenes and the Ebionites use, which we have recently translated out of Hebrew into Greek, and which is called by most people the authentic (Gospel) of Matthew, the man who had the withered hand is described as a mason who pleaded for help in the following words: "I was a mason and earned (my) livelihood with (my) hands; I beseech thee, Jesus, to restore me to my health that I may not with ignominy have to beg for my bread." [Comm. on Matthew, 2, v. 12:13)]
Here is a clear indication that St. Jerome assumes that the Nazareans and Ebionites use the same Gospel. Yet it is clear that his knowledge is not of the Ebionite texts described by St. Epiphanius or St. Cyril, for it is hardly credible that “most people” would regard those as the authentic Gospel of Matthew. St. Jerome himself, having a strict view of orthodoxy, would not have quoted from these sources as respectfully as he does from what is apparently the Nazarean Gospel.
This is the only place where St. Jerome erroneously associates this Gospel with the Ebionites, doubtless due to the identity of their titles. Elsewhere, he mentions only the Nazareans. Given that he quotes it repeatedly in various works throughout his life, we can scarcely doubt that he possessed a personal copy, likely the translation he had made. Thus for St. Jerome, unlike other patristic authors, quotes from the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” always refer to the Nazarean edition.
The Hebrew Gospel is consistently cited as a credible variant or explication of the canonical Gospels. Thus we find: “Barabbas... is interpreted in the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews as ‘son of their teacher.’” [Comm. on Matthew, 4, v. 27:16]
In his letter to the widow Hedybia, St. Jerome shows how highly he thinks of the Hebrew text, even to the point of showing a translation flaw in canonical Matthew. Regarding Matthew 28:1, which begins “Vespere autem sabbati…”, St. Jerome explains the apparent chronological difficulty of using the term “evening” as it began to dawn, by noting that Matthew wrote in Hebrew, and used a word that could signify “evening” (Lat. vesperum; Gk. opse) or “late” (sero). The translator, “deceived by the ambiguity of the word,” interpreted it as “evening” rather than “late”. Indeed, the Hebrew ereb can admit the meaning of twilight at dawn, though it more commonly means “evening.”
In the same letter, he says: "But in the Gospel which is written in Hebrew letters we read not that the veil of the temple was rent, but that the lintel of the temple of wondrous size collapsed." (Epistula ad Hedybiam 120.8 ; re. Mt 27:51) This detail seems to be corroborated by the Talmud, which says: "Forty years before the Temple was destroyed, the gates of the Holy Place opened by themselves..." (Yoma 39b) For the heavy gates to move by themselves, something must have happened to the lintel or walls, and at the same time the veil would have been torn as the gates swung open.
According to the Gospel written in the Hebrew speech, which the Nazaraeans read, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit shall descend upon him... Further in the Gospel which we have just mentioned we find the following written:
And it came to pass when the Lord was come up out of the water, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit descended upon him and rested on him and said to him: My son, in all the prophets was I waiting for thee that thou shouldest come and I might rest in thee. For thou art my rest; thou art my first-begotten Son that reignest for ever. [Commentary on Isaiah (AD 410), 4]
This Nazarean text is certainly not what others have called the “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” i.e., the heretical Ebionite gospel, as it does not match St. Epiphanius’ citation of the baptism of Jesus.
In a final citation, St. Jerome indicates that this Gospel is written in Syriac or Aramaic.
In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which is written in the Chaldee and Syrian language, but in Hebrew characters, and is used by the Nazarenes to this day (I mean the Gospel according to the Apostles, or, as is generally maintained, the Gospel according to Matthew, a copy of which is in the library at Cæsarea), we find, Behold, the mother of our Lord and His brethren said to Him, "John the Baptist baptizes for the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him." But He said to them, "What sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, haply, the very words which I have said are only ignorance." And in the same volume, "If your brother sin against you in word, and make amends to you, receive him seven times in a day." Simon, His disciple, said to Him, "Seven times in a day?" The Lord answered and said to him, "I say unto you until seventy times seven." (Against the Pelagians, III, 2)
This is the same Hebrew Gospel that St. Jerome has always cited, the one he translated, likely from the copy at Caesarea. He believes this to be the same as that used by the Nazareans, and here for the first time indicates that it was known by a distinct name, "The Gospel According to the Apostles," perhaps because he is now aware of heretical variants of the Hebrew Gospel. He now states unequivocally that the Nazarean Gospel is the same as that reputed to be the Hebrew Matthew, which accounts for his consistently respectful citation of that document. Here, however, the readings given, particularly about refusing to be baptized by John, seem to be derivative or secondary, contradicting any claim to be a Matthaean original.
In general, the testimony suggests that St. Jerome really did know a version of the Gospel according to the Hebrews that more closely resembled Matthew than did the Ebionite gospels. He quotes it repeatedly and seems to find Matthaean authorship at least plausible. Still, we see that the Nazarean Gospel, in its fourth-century form, likely contained secondary readings and no longer represented the authentic text of Matthew, if it ever did.
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Numerous manuscripts of the Byzantine text-type, dating from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, contain annotations in Matthew which compare textual variants from the “Jewish Gospel”. These manuscripts have come to be known as the Zion Gospel manuscripts. The appearance of identical annotations in diverse manuscripts has led some scholars to believe that they likely date to the fourth century, around the time that the Byzantine text-type was established in the Antiochene church.
The content of the "Zion Gospel" glosses is as follows:
The Jewish Gospel has not "into the holy city" but "to Jerusalem." [Mt. 4:5]
The phrase "without a cause" is lacking in some witnesses and in the Jewish Gospel. [Mt. 5:22]
The Jewish Gospel reads here as follows: "If ye be in my bosom and do not the will of my Father in heaven, I will cast you out of my bosom." [Mt 7:5; cf Mt. 7:21-23]
The Jewish Gospel: (wise) more than serpents. [Mt. 10:16]
The Jewish Gospel has: (the kingdom of heaven) is plundered. [Mt. 11:12]
The Jewish Gospel has: I thank thee. [Mt. 11:25]
The Jewish Gospel does not have: three d(ays and nights). [Mt. 12:40]
The Jewish Gospel: corban is what you should obtain from us. [Mt. 15:5]
What is marked with an asterisk is not found in other manuscripts, also it is not found in the Jewish Gospel. [Mt. 16:2-3]
The Jewish Gospel: son of John. [Mt. 16:17]
The Jewish Gospel has after "seventy times seven times": For in the prophets also, after they were anointed with the Holy Spirit, the word of sin (sinful discourse?) was found. [Mt. 18:12]
The Jewish Gospel: And he denied and swore and damned himself. [Mt. 26:74]
The Jewish Gospel: And he delivered to them armed men that they might sit over against the cave and guard it day and night. [Mt. 27:65]
The "Jewish Gospel", much like St. Jerome's Gospel of the Nazareans, is treated as a source of credible variants of St. Matthew's Gospel. It agrees with other ancient manuscripts in the omission of Matthew 16:2-3. None of these citations, however, coincide with those of St. Jerome, save the mention of "seventy times seven times". Yet the Jewish Gospel follows this phrase with an extracanonical verse not mentioned by St. Jerome, raising doubts as to whether this is the same document that he read.
The paucity of variant quotations seems to imply that the "Jewish Gospel" for the most part closely matched the text of canonical Matthew. The inclusion of minor, incidental variants suggests that the glossator had a copy of this Gospel, either in Aramaic or in translation.
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The ninth-century Chronography by Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople has a stichometric list of canonical, disputed, and apocryphal books, apparently copied from a much older source. This list identifies as disputed writings (antilegomena) the Revelation of John, the Revelation of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Gospel of the Hebrews. The exclusion of the Revelation of John from the canon implies that the source document was no later than the fourth century. Strikingly, the Gospel of the Hebrews shares this relatively privileged territory, distinct from those documents listed as outright apocrypha, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Didache, etc.
The stichometry says the Gospel of the Hebrews had 2200 lines, which is 300 less than Matthew. This could mean that a substantial portion of Matthew was omitted, such as the infancy narrative. Alternatively, if the measured text was in Aramaic, we should expect it to be considerably shorter than Greek Matthew, due to the consonantal script, shorter words, and more concise grammar.
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Based on external evidence alone, there is nothing to overturn the judgment that St. Matthew's Gospel was written first, and indeed there is much to corroborate it. Apart from its consistent pride of place in the canon, we find that even early heretical Christian groups held St. Matthew's Gospel in great esteem, and regarded it as authentic.
There is abundant evidence that a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew existed, and that this was considered by many to have been the original version. Nonetheless, there were various editions of this Gospel, some of which undoubtedly contained secondary readings. None of this contradicts the idea that this was the original Hebrew Matthew, since even the canonical gospels have variant, secondary readings in many manuscripts. Still, in the absence of an extant manuscript of the complete Gospel, we cannot make reliable judgments about its content and provenance. As equivocal as the evidence about a Hebrew Gospel of Matthew may be, at least such testimony exists, which is more than can be said for Q.
If we were to evaluate the question of Matthaean priority solely on the basis of historical and external manuscript evidence, there should be no question that Matthew is the first of the Gospels, and it should be held as at least highly possible that the original was in Aramaic. The scholarly consensus on Marcan priority is based almost entirely on internal literary analysis, what was once called "higher criticism." As we shall see, this kind of criticism lacks adequate safeguards against subjectivity, and can be used to "prove" almost anything. The remainder of the work will be devoted to showing how the supposed proofs of Marcan priority are highly equivocal, and the evidence is not of sufficient quality to overturn the verdict of history and extrinsic evidence.
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Continue to Part III
 Erasmus' edition is often referred to as the Textus Receptus, but this is not the same as the Majority Text or Byzantine type. Although his edition is based in part on five late Byzantine manuscripts, there are over a thousand discrepancies between his readings and that of the majority of Byzantine text-type manuscripts.
 Kurt Aland objected to the term "eclecticism", calling it instead a "local-genealogical" method. The sheer number and diversity of ancient New Testament manuscripts made it impossible to trace all branches back to a common manuscript stemma, so instead one may try to trace the genealogy of each reading, following external and internal criteria. No manuscript group, not even the Alexandrian text-type, is any longer presented as a "Neutral text", nor do the great uncials provide a reliable guideline for determining the original. [See K. Aland, Introduction, Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th ed. (Stuttgart, 1979), p. 43.]
 In 2005, a tenth-century prayer book was discovered to have been written on parchment formerly containing mathematical treatises by Archimedes, some of which was not extant anywhere else. It is commonly presumed that the mathematical text was erased because it was no longer valued, but the Codex Ephraemi shows that erased text is not necessarily considered less important.
 This apocryphon is not to be confused with the so-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," a relatively late papyrus fragment (7th-9th cent.). The latter has no known relation to the Gospel of Mary, save that it is written in Coptic. Its highly fragmentary text of eight lines contains the intriguing words: "Jesus said, 'My wife...'" Given the surrounding text, mentioning Jesus' mother and who is fit to be his disciple, it is possible this was meant in a figurative sense (cf Mt. 12:48-50; John 3:29; Rev. 21:9), as the figure of the Church as "bride of Christ" was by then common. Much less is it clear if the Mary mentioned in a previous sentence fragment is the same as this wife. The text is much too fragmentary to admit anything but speculative interpretation. [Karen L. King (2014). “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...'”: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment. Harvard Theological Review, 107, pp 131-159.]
 'Aramaic' is a scholarly anachronism for the vulgar Hebrew dialect spoken in the first century, as it is believed to be closer to the Aramaean language than to Biblical Hebrew. People of that time, and well into the Christian era, often called it simply 'Hebrew' or 'the Hebrew speech'. Others, more accurately, called it 'Chaldean' or 'Syrian', though these terms may also refer to the Aramaic dialect now called 'Syriac' (the language of the Peshittas).
 The words “and Latin” might be a gloss, as only a Greek translation is mentioned in the later Commentary on Matthew.
 The MS numbers are 039, 20, 117, 153, 157, 164, 215, 262, 300, 376, 428, 565, 566, 686, 718, 728, 748, 754, 892, 899, 901, 922, 980, 1032, 1071, 1118, 1121, 1124, 1187, 1198, 1355, 1422, 1521, 1545, 1555, 1682, 2145, and 2245.
© 2014 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org