Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

The Genesis

Part II of II (click here for Part I):

Who were the early church fathers and why should we care?

Although the early Christian church fathers, particularly from the first to the second century weren't direct eyewitnesses of Jesus themselves, in most cases they had direct access to the earliest information in way of tradition, rumor, documents or records that don't exist today, and though they were undoubtedly apologists with some natural biases, they were often objective, never holding back addressing issues, scriptural problems, contentions and controversies of the church either before or during that time, even those that were quite damning to the church, and certainly didn't hold back openly addressing the variety of attacks or objections raised by outside critics who were against the Christian faith. Even though they certainly didn't agree in every area of theology, they were relatively in agreement on most historical issues, obviously concerned about the Christian message being just as the apostles and other eyewitnesses themselves had proclaimed it, and though heralded certain doctrine above other doctrine, analyzed and scrutinized various doctrines and were extremely critical of the authorship of certain earlier New Testament works that were even in favor of their theology.

The church father Irenaeus, of the late second century, is the first father who directly acknowledges the existence of the four canon gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by name and within a consortium. The church father Papias mentioned the gospel of Matthew and Mark earlier, but we don't know if he had knowledge of other two (though he probably did, which I'll discuss in a bit). Hence, the tussle between apologist and critic is how to determine when these works were written between the time of Jesus and the time of Irenaeus, a span of about 140 years. We know for a fact that many of the letters written by Paul were written prior to 70 CE just based on the historical content within his letters. The date of the gospels, however, is much more difficult to determine since the authors were writing history and not current events.

So, why are the fathers so important here? No church historian gives us a specific date when the four canon gospels were actually written. However, if they had mentioned or quoted from the gospels in their own writings, then obviously the gospels were already in circulation before this time, which is the only real barometer we have to gauge when the gospels were written prior to the late second century.

Though this could give us some idea when they were circulating, this is not at all a sound criterion by which to determine the precise date they were NOT in circulation. In other words, if there is a period they are not mentioned in any works, this is not a sound criterion, or argument from silence, by which to determine whether they existed at that time or not. The reason for this is that we don't know the exact extent of information from earlier church historians that we may have lost, though we do know for a fact that at least some Christian material written in the second century has been lost. We know from Eusebius and Irenaeus that Papias wrote extensively about the early church, yet we only have fragmented quotes from secondhand sources. Quadratus and Hegesippus, both of which were briefly mentioned by Eusebius, had apparently written volumes of lost works on Christian history from the second century. Thus it's always possible, most likely probable, we have but scant remnants of the information that existed at that time, so this sort of skews how accurate it is to determine when the gospels were not in circulation based on the absence of early written material that may have referenced them since the material available to us from that period is obviously incomplete. Another factor against using this methodology is that many of the church fathers of the second to the fourth century, long after we know for a fact the canon gospels were already in circulation, wrote extensive material without even quoting any of the works of the New Testament, much less acknowledging any of the works specifically by name. Examples:


  • Both Polycarp and Ignatius of the first to second century quote gospel verses even though they don't mention the gospels by name, yet they also quote extensively from Paul's letters, but never specifically acknowledge any of Paul's letters by name, yet we know for a fact many of Paul's letters preceded them by decades.
  • Irenaeus of the second century obviously acknowledged the gospels by name in his book Against Heresies, yet he has other works where he quotes extensively from Paul and the gospels, yet doesn't mention the gospels specifically by name once.
  • Lactantius of the third century wrote extensively, yet quotes very little of the gospels and doesn’t mention them by name in any of his works.
  • Cyprian of Carthage of the third century wrote at least 62 epistles that quote various passages of gospel scripture yet does not mention them by name once.
  • Gregory Thaumaturgus of the third century quotes from the gospels but does not mention them.
  • Peter of Alexandria of the fourth century extensively quotes from Matthew but does not mention Matthew by name, and mentions the apostle John but not his gospel.


This is why mere quotes of the works of the New Testament by the early fathers, though anecdotal, is more of a sound methodology to determine the existence of the gospels than to refute their nonexistence prior to their direct acknowledgment in this material. In other words, there actually are critics who demand that we not date the existence of gospels until the time they are directly mentioned by name in the Christian works we have, yet using this strict methodology would obviously not give us an accurate gauge of a period the gospels were NOT in existence. We might get away with assuming the gospels existed during the time they are at least quoted in these works (or when what they quote matches the passages we find in the gospels), but the standard cannot be the same, as is shown, to dismiss their existence until they are directly acknowledged by name in these works.

We know we've lost a rather large portion of earlier Christian material, therefore, had we lost the information of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, the earliest fathers who all mention the gospels directly by name (though this information is but a small portion of their other works), the same argument from silence fallacy would be miscalculated in this case, because the only other father who directly acknowledged the gospels by name, aside from these three, would have been Eusebius from the 4th century. So, using the strict standard of these critics, we would have to erroneously date the gospels no earlier than the 4th century if it weren't for the information we have from those other three.

More than a million New Testament quotations are found in the works of the church fathers.[1] For whatever that's worth, among the earliest church fathers who identified the gospels one way or another -- either direct acknowledgment or indirect quotes of gospel scripture -- are as follows:

(early second century)

Though we have lost his original works, fragmented quotes have survived in the works of other church fathers. He seems to authenticate the gospel of Matthew and Mark, and that Mark was the interpreter of Peter. Let's look closely at what Eusebius quotes from Papias…

"'And the presbyter would say this: Mark, who had indeed been Peter's interpreter, accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord's reports, so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.' Now this is reported by Papias about Mark: 'but about Matthew this was said, Now Matthew compiled the oracles (Logia) in a Hebrew manner of speech, but each interpreted them as he could.'"[2]


Three things are apparent in Papias' statement here:


  1. Matthew wrote a document (we can assume is the gospel) in regards to Jesus.
  2. Mark also wrote a document about Jesus, which was considered not in chronological order (whether this is the gospel Mark that we have today is unclear, but most likely the case).
  3. Mark specifically wrote down what Peter taught about Jesus. 


Papias indicates the gospel of Matthew was originally written in a Semitic tongue, either Aramaic or Hebrew, but since we don't have a physical copy of this Semitic manuscript, scholars are highly critical of this. However, the verdict is still not in, therefore, the issue remains inconclusive. The evidence I laid out in another article is likely that Papias was indeed describing the gospel of Matthew and not another work (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #1). Nonetheless, the fact remains that Papias obviously recognized a document that was scribed by the apostle Matthew, and though Papias could have been wrong, he was at least a secondhand witness to the apostles themselves, thus had access to the earliest traditions known. The statement that Mark did not record the things about Jesus in "order" is also in dispute. It either suggests a work by Mark other than the gospel Mark we know today (which is almost surely in chronological order about Jesus -- from baptism to resurrection), or suggests that Papias was comparing Mark's structure and content to the other gospels. The former has no evidence at all and is highly unlikely. The latter is a strong possibility, and John S. Kloppenborg agrees with this assessment.[3]

It's a strong possibility Papias was speaking from a standpoint of Mark being a subsequent gospel, and the reason this holds quite a bit of weight is because his negative criticism works against the gospel of Mark, an issue that would not have been so easily adopted by the Christian community unless there was a valid reason to do so. In other words, assuming hypothetically that the gospel of Mark came after the gospels, Mark's work gave rise to an argument against how Mark constructed his work against the others, and since Mark is similar to the others yet structured slightly differently in certain areas, this would have presumably made Mark the odd man out compared to Matthew's and Luke's order, thus the reason for Papias' apologetic of Mark's attempt.

In any event, though Papias doesn't mention Luke or John, this may be incidental since he seems to have been engaged in an apologetic specifically about the authority of Matthew and Mark only. Since Papias is presenting an apologetic for Mark, there may not have been any contention with the gospels of Luke and John which needed addressing. Whether this is the reason he did not mention Luke or John, the argument is inconclusive since these are but fragmented quotes from Eusebius, thus no way to be sure whether Papias either did or did not mention the gospel of Luke and John in his original works, which we don't have. 


Ignatius (60-110 CE)

In his epistle to the Magnesians, he most definitely alludes to the incident of the resurrected dead (chap. 9), a unique tradition only found in Matthew (27:52). In his epistle to the Smyrnaeans, he quotes a passage about Jesus' baptism (chap. 1) that is only found in Matthew (3:15), and also seems to allude to an account of the resurrection (chap. 3) that is unique only in the gospel of Luke (24:39-41). In his epistle to the Ephesians, he alludes to an event in the Nativity scene (chap. 19), the mysterious star and the chorus in heaven (Luke 2:13-14) only unique to Luke, and the pouring of oil over Jesus' head (chap. 17) unique to Mark (14:3) and Matthew (26:7). In his Romans epistle (chap. 6), he also quotes a passage directly from Mark (8:36). In his epistle to Polycarp, he quotes a passage (chap. 2) only found in Matthew (10:16).[4]


Polycarp (70-150 CE)

In his epistle to the Philippians (chap. 2), he quotes a passage found only in Matthew (5:10), and a passage (chap. 7) from Mark (14:38).[5]

Justin Martyr (100-165 CE)

Is much more evidential of the gospels existence than the others, aside from Papias. Justin recorded an apologetic debate he apparently had with a learned Jewish man named Trypho, and though he quotes the Old Testament extensively for obvious reasons (his opponent being Jewish), he also quotes gospel scriptures extensively which he refers to as "scriptures" interchangeably with the Old Testament, so he apparently considered the passages from both Old and New Testament texts of equal authority. He did not specifically identify a gospel by name, but gave the most extensive reference to them as "written works." He refers to the works as "doctrine" and was confident his opponent knew exactly what he was talking about and his opponent too had access to at least one gospel when he writes: "For since you have read, O Trypho, as you yourself admitted, the doctrines taught by our Saviour" (ibid., chap. 18). He would have hardly been as cavalier about it with his opponent if he was not referring to all four works. He quotes "the den of thieves" (ibid., chap. 17) passage found in Matthew (21:13), and Mark (11:17), and the "whited sepulchers" passage found only in Matthew (23:27), which he precedes with the words "it is written." He quotes the "ravening wolves" (ibid., chap. 35) passage found only in Matthew (7:15). He quotes the "tread on serpents" (ibid., chap. 76), which is only found in the gospel of Luke (10:19). He throws bits and pieces of quotes into a whole monologue, and he calls them recordings "in the memoirs of the apostles" (ibid., chap. 100), and proceeds to refer to them as "memoirs" several times. He quotes the passage about Jesus sweating blood (ibid., chap. 103) found only in Luke (22:44), and quotes the passage about "the sons of thunder" (ibid., chap. 106) found only in Mark (3:17). I think we get the idea, and there's simply no possible way to argue Justin Martyr's ignorance of the gospels which he referred to as "scripture," "it is written," "doctrine," or "memoirs of the apostles."[6]


Aristides the Athenian (early to mid second century)

Was one of the first Christian apologists in the early second century who wrote the Apology of Aristides, and though the letter is disputed as to which Emperor Hadrian it was actually addressed to, the one earlier or later (based on a rather questionable accusation that the church historian Eusebius and Jerome both made an error), the letter unquestionably dates somewhere between 117-140 CE. There is very little doubt that he was referring to the gospel of Luke instead of Matthew, because he not only mentions the ascension, only found in Luke, but declares:


"The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time ago was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven. Thereupon these twelve disciples went forth throughout the known parts of the world, and kept showing his greatness with all modesty and uprightness. And hence also those of the present day who believe that preaching are called Christians, and they have become famous."[7]


This obviously alludes to the gospel of Luke, the only work to record both the virgin birth and the ascension, in addition to the book of Acts that records the accounts of the disciples taking the gospel to the "known parts of the world" after the resurrection, which was Luke's second work and may have been a single unit.


The Didache (80-120 CE)

A treatise containing instructions for Christian communities, and the date of its origin has been in some dispute, but the manuscript clearly has strong Semitic elements within, such as it's reference to the day "of Preparation" (the Passover) (chap. 8:1), and most scholars concur that it dates to the first century. It quotes the Lord's prayer from either Matthew (6:7-13) or Luke (11:2-4) and precedes it with: "as the Lord commanded in His Gospel" (chap. 8:3). It refers to either Matthew or Luke once again (chap. 15:4) when he states: "But your prayers and alms and all your deeds so do, as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord." It quotes a passage (chap 16:1) about keeping "your loins girded and lamps lit" uniquely found only in Luke (12:35). In the entire 16th chapter he quotes snippets from the Olivet Discourse (Jesus' prophecy about a tumultuous time before his coming), most likely taken from the gospel of Matthew (24:3-31).[8]


Celsus (mid second century)

Not a church father, but a Greek philosopher and rather outspoken Christian opponent who fiercely attacked the gospels in his works that were referenced by Origen in his rebuttal. It's highly unlikely Celsus got his gospel citations from oral tradition. According to John G. Cook, there have been twenty one references to texts from Matthew by Celsus that have been identified, eight references to Luke (most of which are parallel to Matthew), and four references from the gospel of John.[9]

Gospel date consensus

By the end of the second century, Christianity had spread as far south as the northern tips of Africa and Egypt, as far west as Spain, as far north as Germany (Gaul), and as far east as Turkey (Asia Minor).[10] There of course was no Internet, printing machines, mass transit or communication systems, so we would expect a rather large preponderance of copied written Christian material to have been circulating in these areas by this time, most of which is unfortunately lost to us.

The earliest canon gospel manuscripts or fragments consist of the gospel of John -- p52, p66 and p90; fragments of the gospel of Matthew -- p104; a manuscript copy of John and Luke -- p75; manuscript fragments of Matthew and Luke -- p66+67. Though it is uncertain and disputed whether these date within or close to the second century, p52 dates 100-160 CE without a doubt. P52 was found in Egypt, whereas the region of its origin of publication was probably the church of Ephesus in Asia Minor which scholars typically date from 120-160 CE, though other scholars such as Daniel Wallace date it at around 100-130 CE.[11] If the common order of the other gospels came before John, this would obviously push those gospels earlier. Wallace also argues that there is a significant amount of manuscript material that dates from the second century and a possible manuscript of the gospel of Mark that dates to the first century...


"We have as many as eighteen second-century manuscripts (six of which were recently discovered and not yet catalogued) and a first-century manuscript of Mark’s Gospel! Altogether, more than 43% of the 8000 or so verses in the NT are found in these papyri. Bart had explicitly said that our earliest copy of Mark was from c. 200 CE, but this is now incorrect. It’s from the first century. I mentioned these new manuscript finds and told the audience that a book will be published by E. J. Brill in about a year that gives all the data."[12]


The sources we previously looked at, such as Celsus, who was from either Rome or Alexandria, obviously had access to the written gospels, as did Justin Martyr, who was from Rome, as well as his opponent Trypho who had access to at least one of the gospels. Papias who identified Mark and Matthew was from Turkey; Aristides was from Greece; Irenaeus, who identified all four gospels, was from France; and Clement II, whose writings also date within or close to the second century and who also identified all four gospels, was from Alexandria (Egypt).[13] Other early sources that directly reference the gospels are as follows...


  • The Marcionite canon, which included an edited version of the gospel of Luke, dates from the early second century and originated in Turkey. [14]
  • Scholars date the Muratorian fragment, which acknowledged the four gospels to about the mid-to-late second century and originated in Italy.[15]
  • The Diatessaron, a compilation of all four gospels, dates from about the mid-to-late second century and it originated in Syria.[16]
  • There are apocryphal works (which I'll discuss in a bit) from the second century that used parts of one or more of the gospel narratives. The Protoevangelium of James, which dates from 120-150 CE, is reliant on the gospel of Matthew and Luke and probably originated in Rome.
  • The Gospel of Truth, which originated in Rome and dates from 100-160 CE, has unique passages from Matthew and is reliant on John.
  • The Epistula Apostolorum (Epistle of the Apostles) which dates to the mid-second century (location unknown) is heavily reliant on John and uses unique accounts from both Matthew and Luke.[17]
  • The Gospel of Thomas, which probably originated in the east, perhaps Syria, dates no later than the late second century and is so dependent on the gospels that it is considered a collage of New Testament and apocryphal material including the four gospels (especially content unique only to Matthew, Luke and John), and reflects posterior editing of all this material for Gnostic reasons.[18]
  • The Gospel of Peter, which probably dates to the late second century, is also reliant on the canon gospels. Though current scholars such as Crossan and Koester have argued for its complete independence, the gospel of Peter's dependence on the canon was concluded without a doubt among earlier scholars, particularly its use of Matthew and Mark, and other current scholars such as Craig Evans, David Wright and Raymond Brown also concur with these earlier views. They not only point out places of obvious reliance of the gospel of Peter on the canon works, but legendary material found in the gospel of Peter that was typical in later apocryphal works, in addition to historical inaccuracies and a lack of knowledge of Judaic culture and customs, all of which suggest the work was posterior not prior to the synoptics.[19]


As I pointed out earlier, there are church father NT quotes from the first to the second century, particularly Ignatius and Didache, probably the two earliest. Some of the earliest heretics, such as Marcion, the Ebionites, and the followers of Valentinus, according to Irenaeus, were either extrapolating their own interpretations from the canon gospels to support their own beliefs or were editing the works themselves,[20] though this obviously doesn't hold as much weight as everything else.

Though there are various apologetic scholars that date the canon gospels earlier than 70 CE, the consensus of most at least secular scholars is that the original gospels were written anywhere from 70-100 CE,[21] and as we can plainly see, this is not based on guesswork but an estimation from the cumulative data I just showed. In other words, you can’t possibly have such an array of canon gospel references from different places, different people, different sources from the second century without the original works existing from an earlier period. Let's also not forget that from various writings such as Clement I, Ignatius, Eusebius, Suetonius, Tacitus, letters from Hadrian, Pliny the Younger, Trajan and other works, we know that Christendom was illegal in the Empire at the turn of the century and into the second century,[22] so even being in possession of Christian material, much less copying and distributing it would have been hazardous to one's health. Point being, this was obviously a world without the Internet, without copy machines, and without modern communicative and travel technology, so if the canon gospels were already being referenced and cited this widely in the second century; from sources that span to Egypt, Alexandria, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Rome, there needs to be time of copy distribution and circulation, thus the initial root sources would have originated much earlier from which they came. Moreover, smuggling illegal goods throughout the Empire would have also decreased the probabilities of circulation of this information quickly, thus would presumably require more time of circulation of copies from the original sources. Hence, is why 70-100 CE date of the originals is the consensus and is the maximum date possible as per the data we just covered.

However, could the gospels have been written earlier than 70-100 CE? As we have seen, there is data that establishes the maximum date possible, but there really is no direct data for or against an earlier date other than subjective opinion. However, is there evidence for an earlier date? Just how reliable are the original works regardless of when they were written? How honest or bias were the authors that wrote them? Is there any possible way to distinguish the actual accounts of Jesus from possible theological fabrication and myth embellishment? I'll thoroughly cover these questions in other articles.

New Testament or New Testaments?

The books we find in the New Testament bible today aren't the only ancient Christian records in existence. Four of these gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John appear in the NT bible we know today, but there are dozens and dozens of extant books about Jesus known as the apocrypha ("hidden away") -- with such names as the Infancy gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Pilate, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Nicodemus, and so on -- which were not included in the NT bible that is common today.[23]  Some of these apocrypha works are epistles (letters), some are church instructions, some are just sayings ascribed to Jesus, and some are actual narratives. Can you have an effect without a cause? Or can you have an explosion of so much widespread material within two centuries about a particular figure, without such a figure in the historical scope? This is also a question Jesus-mythers need to ask, because whether Christian or non-Christian material, no other mythological deity around this era has as much documented sources referencing him, and this extraneous gospel material would certainly be expected much more so of a first century historical man than an invented first century myth. In any event, some of these apocryphal books do appear in various other earlier church collections like the Nag Hammadi Library,[24] but what we see in today's standard bible is called the canon.

Conservative Christians consider the canon adequate, which went through the rigors of an "inspired" filtering process by earlier Christian authorities that sifted through the dozens and dozens of manuscripts circulating during the first few centuries in order to find what was considered acceptable or unacceptable doctrine. The criteria used to determine which ones were acceptable was based on a variety of factors, such as whether the work was believed to have been written by an apostle or if it was spurious (forgery), when it was written, and of course whether it was agreeable with other orthodox theology. Though a lot of Christian communities did not always agree with these canonized choices, the final choice was ultimately made by the established church at Rome regardless, and whether right or wrong, inspired or not, they had the power to enforce the decision at the time. It's certainly not like the church fathers who engaged in some debate about this issue of acceptable and unacceptable works were careless or even partial in this matter. Many of them accepted works that were later rejected or rejected works that were later accepted. Once most of these rejected works are examined, it becomes pretty clear why most of those choices were made.

Because the actual canonization was gradual and done over a period of time, it remains debated as to when this canon was officially accepted by the church. As we pointed out earlier, the Muratorian fragment was compiled by an anonymous source as early as the mid-to-late second century. In the middle of the fourth century a list of the books found in the NT were generally already agreed upon as being the canon by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria,[25] so somewhere between the second and fourth century this decision may have become pretty commonplace. What makes any work more authoritative than the other is typically its antiquity, and most of the works (with exception of a few disputed epistles) of the canon NT can be dated within the first century, whereas most of the apocrypha works are dated to the second or many centuries later, many of them ascribed with obvious pseudonyms to apostles or key figures of the first century church who obviously were not living at the time the work became known. Many of the apocryphal narratives make for some interesting and entertaining reading, and some of them were probably intentionally designed that way, which contain what scholars consider "extended legends" for Christians who may have been hungry for more detail or theology about the life of Christ than what was being offered in the canon texts.

Scattered denominations and even quite a few sects that were deemed heresies began to pop up after the turn of the first century, and some of the apocryphal writings show direct hints or reflections of these ideas, such as Gnosticism, thus just one reason scholars are able to pinpoint a general date of their origin. A few display signs of being completely outside the realm of the canon gospels, yet most of them show a compatibility with the canon or at least knowledge of its existence, and some actually show direct reliance on one or more canon texts. Though most apocryphal works, like the Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Philip, two manuscripts heavily touted by The Da Vinci Code advocates, are dated well within the second century or later, some who might consider themselves, or identified by others, of the skeptical fringe have tried to give some of the apocryphal works as much credence as the canon works, particularly the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Peter, the former two currently being the crowning princes of the media. Some critics often insinuate some great church conspiracy to cover these works up, particularly in the fourth century with the introduction of the Nicene Creed.[26] However, it always strikes me as somewhat odd why manuscripts that are at odds with orthodoxy, works that reflect no less theological, mystical or spiritual overtones, sometimes even more so than the canon scriptures themselves, seem to be exceptionally esteemed and shown much appraisal by some of the very same critics and skeptics who shun the canon texts for the same reasons.

Scholars like Craig Evans lay out pretty extensive arguments as to why the early church obviously did not accept these works, and it was more than just not adhering to their brand of orthodox theology, though they did often express this issue on occasions as part of their dismissal, nor was it some grand conspiracy by the Roman Catholic church to cover these works up (you could probably visit any Catholic bookstore and pick up a copy of these Gnostic works). The Gospel of Peter is a perfect example of this swirling controversy of acceptable and unacceptable New Testament works. Though we briefly covered why some of these works like the Gospel of Peter were rejected as spurious, with evidence suggesting they date later than the canon works, John Dominic Crossan has been the leading advocate of such works. Evans accuses Crossan of basing his analysis on hypothetical and subjective guesswork, the type of guesswork that would typically be considered negligible by other scholars, including John P. Meier. Meier and Evans argue that after careful analysis these "extracanonical" gospels clearly show the signs of second century works, if not later, and it appears that most of the advocates of these works typically engage in exaggeration, misinformation and sometimes even false assertions to endorse them. Just some of the reasons found in the assessment of these works that raise credibility issues as pointed out by Evans are as follows:[27]


  1. Many apocryphal gospels are obvious forgeries written in the subsequent centuries under direct apostolic pseudonyms that were not living at the time, some within the work itself in order to bolster their authority (in contrast to the canon gospels that have no assigned names within the content of the works).
  2. They not only often contain allusions or direct citations of other canon NT material, including gospels and epistles, but conversely show no regards to other apocryphal works in the same manner (indicative of either lack of knowledge of the later apocryphal works or lack of authoritative factors).
  3. They presuppose knowledge of the canon, often times filling in gaps of missing information not found in the canon, and these additions usually show clear signs of embellished legend, anti-Semitism, subjective sensibility, exaggerated flattery or appraisal of Jesus from his contemporaries and opponents -- example: the Jews confessing their sin of killing the Messiah before God in the Gospel of Peter, something that "bears the stamp of enthusiastic Christian exaggeration unrestrained by realistic knowledge of Jewish piety and sentiment."[28]
  4. They often show signs of improvement to canon material -- the apocryphal authors often cleaned up duplicated sentences and phrases found in the canon that were awkward, reminiscent of secondhand redaction, particularly in the case of the Egerton Papyrus 2 fragment.[29]
  5. They sometimes show parallels with Eastern traditions that became distinct in the late second century.
  6. They show ignorance of early culture and Judaic customs -- example: the Gospel of Peter records the Jewish authorities camping out in the cemetery as part of the guard keeping watch over the tomb of Jesus, something that would be unheard of for Jews due to impurity laws of dead corpses, as well as a general fear of cemeteries.
  7. They almost always show clear signs of second century gnosticism, often shunning doctrine that conflicts with the doctrine of "Jesus in the flesh" or regards to Yahweh of the Old Testament, both of which saturate first century canon texts.
  8. They were either denounced as spurious by the church fathers, who were rather unbiased in their assessments, at times even questioning the authenticity of some of the material that eventually found its way into the canon, or they were not acknowledged by them at all in the second century, even as spurious works, therefore, were most likely not written yet.


A lot of these works get special media attention because "Jesus is big business these days," says Daniel Wallace [30], and most of these "renegade" manuscripts are eye-candy to a jaded and bored generation "not restrained by mundane things like evidence and plausibility" and that relish being stimulated with drama, controversy, imagination, mystical insights, and extended in-roads to fulfill their insatiable desire for further truth and information about Christian history. These works have indeed been exploited to the fullest, over-sensationalized by some with the intent to propel these works, along with themselves or their own books, into the media spotlight using the inevitable controversy and fascination. It's only natural for people to be drawn to something that causes controversy, particularly when it results in public outrage or outrage by the church institution itself (undoubtedly the media ploy exploited to its fullest by Dan Brown). In some cases, Evans argues, there are circumstances surrounding this material that even give strong indications of outright modern fraud (as in the case of the Secret Gospel of Mark and the Jesus Papers) for no other reason than to take advantage and cash into the whole "church conspiracy" craze of the 20th century. The ongoing feud and legal wrangling between Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) and Michael Baigent (The Jesus Papers) over the rights to these claims makes this fact all to obvious.[31]   


Go home 


Source References

1. Dan B. Wallace, The Number of Textual Variants (

2. Papias, as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 39:15-16 (

3. John S. Kloppenborg, The formation of Q, pp.53-54, 59-64; 2000.

4. Ignatius, epistle to the Magnesians (

    epistle to the Smyrnaeans.

    epistle to the Ephesians.

    epistle to the Romans.

    epistle to Polycarp

5. Polycarp, epistle to the Philippians (

6. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (

7. Aristides, The Apology of Aristides, v.2 (

8. Didache (

    Also see Didache: Date of Composition.

9. John Granger Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism, p.25; 2002.

10. A. Bowman, P. Garnsey, A. Cameron, The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193-337, p.573-588; 2005.

      Mark Damen, Early Christianity and the Church: C. The Growth of Church Government (

11. Daniel B. Wallace, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Argument, Outline; External Evidence (

12. Dan B. Wallace, Ehrman Vs Wallace: Round Three; 2012.

13. Papias, as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 24:15-16 (

      Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3 (

      Clement, as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 6, chap 14:5-7; Paedagogus, book 2, chap 1; Stromata, book 1, chap 21 (

14. Tertullian, Against Marcion (

      Also see Marcionism

15. The Muratorian Fragment (

16. See Diatessaron

17. The Protoevangelium of James (

      The Gospel of Truth (

      The Epistula Apostolorum (

18. Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus, pp.67-68; 2008.

      The Gospel of Thomas (

19. Bruce Chilton, Craig A. Evans, Studying the historical Jesus, pp.503-514; 1998.

      The Gospel of Peter (

20. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3, chap. 11:7 (

21. See Gospel Dating.

22. Ralph M. Novak, Christianity and the Roman Empire, pp.46-70; 2001.

23. See New Testament Apocryphal.

24. See Nag Hammadi Library.

25. See Athanasius of Alexandria.

26. See The Nicene Creed.

27. Evans, Fabricating, pp.56-94, 97-99.

28. Chilton, Studying, p.510; 1998.

29. Papyrus Egerton 2, Fragment 2 Recto ( 

30. Wallace, The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

31. Evans, ibid., pp.94-99. 

      Also see The Jesus Papers