History of The Gospels – Texts

One would be mistaken in thinking that once the Gospels were written they constituted the basic Scriptures of the newly born Christianity and that people referred to them the same way they referred to the Old Testament. At that time, the foremost authority was the oral tradition as a vehicle for Jesus’s words and the teachings of the apostles. The first writings to circulate were Paul’s letters and they occupied a prevalent position long before the Gospels. They were, after all, written several decades earlier.

British Library Manuscript Number 17,202: A Lost Gospel? 

It has already been shown, that contrary to what certain commentators are still writing today, before 140 A.D. there was no witness to the knowledge that a collection of Gospel writings existed. It was not until circa 170 A.D. that the four Gospels acquired the status of canonic literature.

In the early days of Christianity, many writings on Jesus were in circulation. They were not subsequently retained as being worthy of authenticity and the Church ordered them to be hidden, hence their name ‘Apocrypha’. Some of the texts of these works have been well preserved because they “benefitted from the fact that they were generally valued”, to quote the Ecumenical Translation. The same was true for the Letter of Barnabas, but unfortunately others were “more brutally thrust aside” and only fragments of them remain. They were considered to be the messengers of error and were removed from the sight of the faithful. Works such as the Gospels of the Nazarenes, the Gospels of the Hebrews and the Gospels of the Egyptians, known through quotations taken from the Fathers of the Church, were nevertheless fairly closely related to the canonic Gospels. The same holds good for Thomas’s Gospel and Barnabas’s Gospel.

Some of these apocryphal writings contain imaginary details, the product of popular fantasy. Authors of works on the Apocrypha also quote with obvious satisfaction passages which are literally ridiculous. Passages such as these are however to be found in all the Gospels. One has only to think of the imaginary description of events that Matthew claims took place at Jesus’s death. It is possible to find passages lacking seriousness in all the early writings of Christianity: One must be honest enough to admit this.

The abundance of literature concerning Jesus led the Church to make certain excisions while the latter was in the process of becoming organized. Perhaps a hundred Gospels were suppressed. Only four were retained and put on the official list of neo-Testament writings making up what is called the ‘Canon’.

In the middle of the Second century A.D., Marcion of Sinope put heavy pressure on the ecclesiastic authorities to take a stand on this. He was an ardent enemy of the Jews and at that time rejected the whole of the Old Testament and everything in writings produced after Jesus that seemed to him too close to the Old Testament or to come from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Marcion only acknowledged the value of Luke’s Gospel because, he believed Luke to be the spokesman of Paul and his writings.

The Church declared Marcion a heretic and put into its canon all the Letters of Paul, but included the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They also added several other works such as the Acts of the Apostles. The official list nevertheless varies with time during the first centuries of Christianity. For a while, works that were later considered not to be valid (i.e. Apocrypha) figured in it, while other works contained in today’s New Testament Canon were excluded from it at this time. These hesitations lasted until the Councils of Hippo Regius in 393 and Carthage in 397. The four Gospels always figured in it however.

One may join Father Boismard in regretting the disappearance of a vast quantity of literature declared apocryphal by the Church although it was of historical interest. The above author indeed gives it a place in his Synopsis of the Four Gospels alongside that of the official Gospels. He notes that these books still existed in libraries near the end of the Fourth century A.D.

This was the century that saw things put into serious order. The oldest manuscripts of the Gospels date from this period. Documents prior to this, i.e. papyri from the Third century A.D. and one possibly dating from the Second, only transmit fragments to us. The two oldest parchment manuscripts are Greek, Fourth century A.D. They are the Codex Vaticanus, preserved in the Vatican Library and whose place of discovery is unknown, and the Codex Sinaiticus, which was discovered on Mount Sinai and is now preserved in the British Museum, London. The second contains two apocryphal works.

A page from Matthew, from Papyrus 1, c. 250 AD

According to the Ecumenical Translation, two hundred and fifty other known parchments exist throughout the world, the last of these being from the Eleventh century A.D. “Not all the copies of the New Testament that have come down to us are identical” however. “On the contrary, it is possible to distinguish differences of varying degrees of importance between them, but however important they may be, there is always a large number of them. Some of these only concern differences of grammatical detail, vocabulary or word order. Elsewhere however, differences between manuscripts can be seen which affect the meaning of whole passages”. If one wishes to see the extent of textual differences, one only has to glance through the Novum Testamentum Graece.[33] This work contains a so-called ‘middle-of-the-road’ Greek text. It is a text of synthesis with notes containing all the variations found in the different versions.

The authenticity of a text, and of even the most venerable manuscript, is always open to debate. The Codex Vaticanus is a good example of this. The facsimile reproductions edited by the Vatican City, 1965, contains an accompanying note from its editors informing us that “several centuries after it was copied (believed to have been in circa the Tenth or Eleventh century), a scribe inked over all the letters except those he thought were a mistake”. There are passages in the text where the original letters in light brown still show through, contrasting visibly with the rest of the text which is in dark brown. There is no indication that it was a faithful restoration. The note states moreover that “the different hands that corrected and annotated the manuscript over the centuries have not yet been definitively discerned; a certain number of corrections were undoubtedly made when the text was inked over.” In all the religious manuals the text is presented as a Fourth century copy. One has to go to sources at the Vatican to discover that various hands may have altered the text centuries later.

One might reply that other texts may be used for comparison, but how does one choose between variations that change the meaning? It is a well known fact that a very old scribe’s correction can lead to the definitive reproduction of the corrected text. We shall see further on how a single word in a passage from John concerning the Paraclete radically alters its meaning and completely changes its sense when viewed from a theological point of view.

O. Culmann, in his book, The New Testament, writes the following on the subject of variations:

“Sometimes the latter are the result of inadvertant flaws: the copier misses a word out, or conversely writes it twice, or a whole section of a sentence is carelessly omitted because in the manuscript to be copied it appeared between two identical words. Sometimes it is a matter of deliberate corrections, either the copier has taken the liberty of correcting the text according to his own ideas or he has tried to bring it into line with a parallel text in a more or less skilful attempt to reduce the number of discrepancies. As, little by little, the New Testament writings broke away from the rest of early Christian literature, and came to be regarded as Holy Scripture, so the copiers became more and more hesitant about taking the same liberties as their predecessors: they thought they were copying the authentic text, but in fact wrote down the variations. Finally, a copier sometimes wrote annotations in the margin to explain an obscure passage. The following copier, thinking that the sentence he found in the margin had been left out of the passage by his predecessor, thought it necessary to include the margin notes in the text. This process often made the new text even more obscure.”

The scribes of some manuscripts sometimes took exceedingly great liberties with the texts. This is the case of one of the most venerable manuscripts after the two referred to above, the Sixth century Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis. The scribe probably noticed the difference between Luke’s and Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, so he put Matthew’s genealogy into his copy of Luke, but as the second contained fewer names than the first, he padded it out with extra names (without balancing them up).

Is it possible to say that the Latin translations, such as Saint Jerome’s Sixth century Vulgate, or older translations (Vetus Itala), or Syriac and Coptic translations are any more faithful than the basic Greek manuscripts? They might have been made from manuscripts older than the ones referred to above and subsequently lost to the present day. We just do not know.

It has been possible to group the bulk of these versions into families all bearing a certain number of common traits. According to O. Culmann, one can define:

–a so-called Syrian text, whose constitution could have led to the majority of the oldest Greek manuscripts; this text was widely disseminated throughout Europe from the Sixteenth century A.D. onwards thanks to printing. the specialists say that it is probably the worst text.
–a so-called Western text, with old Latin versions and the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis which is in both Greek and Latin; according to the Ecumenical Translation, one of its characteristics is a definite tendency to provide explanations, paraphrases, inaccurate data and ‘harmonizations’.
–the so-called Neutral text, containing the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, is said to have a fairly high level of purity; modern editions of the New Testament readily follow it, although it too has its flaws (Ecumenical Translation).

All that modern textual criticism can do in this respect is to try and reconstitute “a text which has the most likelihood of coming near to the original. In any case, there can be no hope of going back to the original text itself.” (Ecumenical Translation)


Borrowed from  The Bible, The Qur’an and Science by  Dr. Maurice Bucaille 

33. Nestlé-Aland Pub. United Bible Societies, London, 1971

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