Gospels, canonical and otherwise confrim historical JEsus

The Religious A priori

Historical Jesus

VI.Lost Gospels (page 1)

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Bible Review, June 2002: 20-31; 46-47

The 34 Gospels

Diversity and Division Among the Earliest Christians


I.Traces of the Historical Jesus In Lost Gosples

NOt all of these are really "lost," some are actually found, and some are canonical readings. But, among a wide diversity of Gospels, both canoincal and otherwise, we find surviving forms of readings which indiate ealier readings. In other words, they are traces of previous Gspels, sometimes they are actualy fragments of them. These readings push the existence of the Jesus story in writteen form as far back as AD50.

Charles W. Hendrick, professor who discovered the lost Gospel of the Savior tells us

Mirecki and I are not the first scholars to find a new ancient gospel. In fact scholars now have copies of 19 gospels (either complete, in fragments or in quotations), written in the first and second centuries A.Dó nine of which were discovered in the 20th century. Two more are preserved, in part, in other andent writings, and we know the names of several others, but do not have copies of them. Clearly, Luke was not exaggerating when he wrote in his opening verse: "Many undertook to compile narratives [aboutJesus]" (Luke 1:1). Every one of these gospels was deemed true and sacred by at least some early Christians

These Gospels demonstrate a great diversity among the early chruch, the diminish the claims of an orthodox purity. On the other hand, they tell us more about the historical Jesus as well. One thing they all have in common is to that they show Jesus as a historical figure, working in public and conducting his teachings before people, not as a spirit being devoid of human life.Hendrick says,"Gospels-whether canonical or not- are collections of anecdotes from Jesus' public career."

Many of these lost Gospels pre date the canonical gospels, which puts them prior to AD 60 for Mark:


The Gospel of the Saviour, too. fits this description. Contrary' to popular opinion, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not included m the canon simply because they were the earliest gospels or because they were eyewitness accounts. Some non canonical gospels are dated roughly to the same period, and the canonical gospels and other early Christian accounts appear to rely oil earlier reports. Thus, as far as the physical evidence is concerned, the canonical gospels do not take precedence over the noncanonical gospels. The fragments of John, Thomas and theEgerton Gospel share the distinction of being the earliest extant pieces of Christian writing known. And although the existing manuscript evidence for Thomas dates to the mid-second century, the scholars who first published the Greek fragments held open the possibility that it was actually composed in the first century, which would put it around the time John was composed.

In sum, in addition to the four canonical gospels, we have four complete noncanonicals, seven fragmentary, four known from quotations and two hypothetically recovered for a total of 21 gospels from the first two centuries, and we know that others existed in the early period.

B. Traces of the Jesus Story Prior to the Writing of Mark

1) Diatessaron

The Diatessaron ..of Titian is the oldest known attempted harmony of the Gospels. It probably dates to about 172 AD and contains almost the entire text of the four canonicals plus other material, probably from other Gospels and perhaps oral traditions. It is attested to in many works and is probably the first presentation of the Gospel in syriac.

In an article published in the Back of Helmut Koester's Ancient Christian Gospels, William L. Petersen states:

"Sometimes we stumble across readings which are arguably earlier than the present canonical text. One is Matthew 8:4 (and Parallels) where the canonical text runs "go show yourself to the priests and offer the gift which Moses commanded as a testimony to them" No fewer than 6 Diatessaronic witnesses...give the following (with minor variants) "Go show yourself to the priests and fulfill the law." With eastern and western support and no other known sources from which these Diatessaranic witnesses might have acquired the reading we must conclude that it is the reading of Tatian...The Diatessaronic reading is certainly more congielian to Judaic Christianity than than to the group which latter came to dominate the church and which edited its texts, Gentile Christians. We must hold open the possibility that the present canonical reading might be a revision of an earlier, stricter , more explicit and more Judeo-Christian text, here preserved only in the Diatessaron. (From "Titian's Diatessaron" by William L. Petersen, in Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990, p. 424)

While textual critics find it more significant that the early implications are for Jewish Christianity, I find it significant that the pre-Markan material in the Diatesseran includes a miracle story. Those miracles just never really fall out of the story. They are in there from the beginning. But for our purposes the most important point to make is that here we have traces of pre-Markan material. That is, Mark as we know Mark was not the earliest Christian Gospel written, it is merely the earliest of which we have a full copy. The date assigned to the composition of Mark is not the date assigned to the sources used to redact that composition. This pushes the written record of the Jesus story before A.D. 60 and makes it at least contemporaneous with Paul's writings. In other words it is clear that written Gospels with Jesus in an historical setting, and with Mary and Joseph the Cross and the empty tomb existed and circulated before the version of Mark that we know, and at the same time or before Paul was writing his first epistle (150'sAD).

2) Gospel of Thomas

The saying source of Thomas is clearly set within a Gnostic framework. It is widely attested and circulated in the second century. Not all of the sayings are authentic, in fact most are clearly latter additions that come with the Gnostic frame. Only a few sayings are viewed by Scholars as authentic sayings of Jesus. It is arguable even that these really predate the canonicals. There are is a large group of scholars which value it as an authentic source of original Jesus sayings (Hennecke-Schneemelcher-Wilson, NT Apocrypha1.99, 105). Nevertheless it is important to note that the source itself, Gospel of Thomas, assumes that Jesus was a flesh and blood man who really lived on the Earth and who really taught the things recorded. While the Thomas Jesus never speaks of the Cross or dying for sins or raising from he dead, he does claim to be divine. 28 Jesus said:

"I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in flesh I appeared to them. I found them all drunk, and I did not find any of them thirsty. My soul ached for the children of humanity, because they are blind in their hearts and do not see, for they came into the world empty, and they also seek to depart from the world empty. But meanwhile they are drunk. When they shake off their wine, then they will change their ways."

This saying is remarkable for many reasons. As a Gnostic addition to the original saying source it is most curious because it does not say "I appeared as flesh" but "I took my stand in the midst of the world and in flesh I appeared to them...." At the very least this indicates an assumption that Jesus was a real person set in a real historical context. Since the notion of a flesh and blood Christ was abhorrent to the Gnostics, this is probably an authentic saying. IF it predates the canonicals it is very good indication that Jesus was viewed as a flesh and blood human before he was seen as anything else. If it does not predate it is passing strange that even the Gnostics would have less of a Gnostic redeemer than Paul! One who appeared in the flesh! And the fact that the Gnostics never argued that Jesus didn't have an historical setting speaks volumes, since their whole point was to abhor the flesh and to construct an ethereal Christ.

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The Religious A priori