Ask a Scholar

Noncanonical Gospels by Nicola Denzey Lewis

Q. How many gospels were "excluded" from the Bibles as we know them today? And why?

A. Thanks for a great question! It’s a little tricky to answer. First of all, we don’t know how many gospels were excluded, because we don’t know how many gospels once circulated. Maybe hundreds! If you look at the table of contents of Wilhelm Schneemelcher’s New Testament Apocrypha (a standard scholarly reference), it details 35 writings with “Gospel” in the title, some of which you may know, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary. But Schneemelcher’s book only includes surviving gospels or the ones whose titles are at least known.

Also tricky: what constitutes a “gospel”? It’s a perplexing genre. While we recognize the four canonical gospels as all being similar, there are differences between them. For example, they are all biographies of Jesus, whereas by contrast, not one of our surviving noncanonical gospels is. The Gospel of Thomas is a sayings collection with no narrative. The Gospel of Mary is primarily a description of the cosmos, with Mary speaking to the other disciples after Jesus’s death.

There’s also the issue of labels. The Gospel of Mark calls itself a gospel in Mark 1:1, but the Gospel of John does no such thing. Our sole copy of the Gospel of Thomas is labeled as such at the end, but the text itself says only that it’s the “secret words” of the living Jesus. A text we call the Gospel of the Egyptians is actually called the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit in the manuscripts. So even if I were to say that we have thirty texts that were called “gospels” from, say, the second century C.E., virtually all of those were really not much like the four canonical gospels in form. Their difference in genre alone might account for the fact they were not included with the four; of course, as you know from reading them, they are also different in content and perspective.

Then there is the curious case of the Egerton Gospel, which looks a lot like a canonical gospel, but which preserves some unique Jesus-sayings; unfortunately, we don’t have very much of it, so we are not sure how it related to the canonical gospels, nor how widely it circulated, nor what it was called, nor even when it dates from. What it does tell us is that there were other ancient biographical gospels that fell out of use.

I note your use of quotation marks around the word “excluded.” You know, then, that we can’t really talk about gospels being deliberately excluded from the canon when it was compiled, probably in the fourth century. The process of canon development is complex and opaque, but by the time the New Testament was compiled, probably most other gospels were no longer known or widely circulated.

The most famous and most early discussion of the topic is from Irenaeus of Lyon, who argues forcefully around 180 C.E. that there could only be four gospels, just as there are four winds and “four zones of the earth” (Adversus Haereses 3.11.8). This tells us, first, that in Irenaeus’ time there were more than four gospels circulating (although other communities Irenaeus complains about elsewhere used only a single gospel, so his insistence doesn’t mean “only four” as much as it could also mean “more than one”!); second, if we want to talk about “exclusion” from an established canon, the canonical four were already authoritative by the second century, although it would take another 150 years before Bibles similar to ours were produced and circulated.

Nicola Denzey Lewis, "Noncanonical Gospels", n.p. [cited 26 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/noncanonical-gospels

Contributors

Nicola Denzey Lewis

Nicola Denzey Lewis
Visiting Associate Professor, Brown University

Nicola Denzey Lewis is a visiting associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. An award-winning teacher and researcher, she is a frequent contributor to Bible Odyssey. She is also featured in documentaries on the Bible and Early Christianity on the History Channel, the BBC, and CNN's new six-part series, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, and Forgery.

Of or related to textual materials that are not part of the accepted biblical canon.

Trustworthy; reliable; of texts, the best or most primary edition.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

The known universe.

A category or type, often of literary work.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

An apocryphal gospel made up of sayings attributed to Jesus Christ and considered to be Gnostic in viewpoint.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

An early (second century) Christian leader and theologian whose writings attacked heresies like gnosticism.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A collection of sayings of Jesus, which many scholars speculate may have circulated in written form, to be later incorporated into narrative gospels.

An alternate spelling for "tel" meaning a mound or hill-shaped site containing several occupational layers one on top of the other over milennia.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Mark 1:1

The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

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