Gospels set during the earthly life of Jesus - The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster

The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster (2009)

Chapter 4. Gospels set during the earthly life of Jesus

Broken texts and partial lives

None of the texts considered in this chapter is complete. One is quite an extensive portion of what was obviously a larger text, although its exact range cannot be determined. Others are highly fragmentary, at best preserving a story or two that supposedly relates to the life of Jesus. Yet others are no longer existent in their own right - they are preserved through the odd fleeting reference in the writings of unsympathetic authors who do not share the perspectives of the texts they cite except for the purpose of refuting their views. So what unifies this motley collection of texts? Unlike the gospels from Nag Hammadi, they do not originate from the same cache of documents, nor like the infancy gospels do they seek to fill gaps in knowledge about the ‘hidden years’ of Jesus. Instead, the texts brought together here represent an arbitrary, but hopefully sensible, arrangement of material, since they recount variant or additional accounts of incidents from the earthly ministry of Jesus up until the time of his reported ascent into heaven. Hence they provide a greater overlap with the four canonical gospels than occurs with the texts previously considered. Such parallels and fresh traditions have excited some who have commented on these writings with the possibility that they may offer earlier and less theologically overlaid accounts of the life of Jesus.

Categorization choices are to some extent arbitrary and certainly contestable. The decision to include the Gospel of Thomas in the discussion of texts that were discovered at Nag Hammadi is, at one level, natural, but not uncontroversial. Like the vast majority of those writings, Thomas had a ‘life’ before it was collected into that corpus of writings. The existence of the various Greek fragments of Thomas demonstrates that some form of this text was being read in Egypt approximately 150 years prior to its incorporation into the Nag Hammadi collection. A case could undoubtedly be made for including the Gospel of Thomas in this chapter dealing with gospels set during the life of Jesus (although the actual setting of that sayings collection is not certain). However, because the complete form of that text is known only in the Nag Hammadi context, for pragmatic reasons, such as avoiding the complex issue of speculating about the overall shape of the Greek text, it has been decided to discuss Thomas in that chapter.

The Gospel of Peter

Archaeology and discovery of non-canonical gospels have often been closely related. Napoleon Bonaparte’s interests in Egypt were not purely military. They were also aroused by intellectual and ideological motivations. His invasion of Egypt in 1798 involved a force of 35,000 military personnel embarking at Toulon, but it is often overlooked that the contingent also included 175 scholars - including archaeologists. This marked the first serious phase of the modern study of Egyptology. Initially and understandably, it was the awe-striking physical remains of that ancient culture, such as pyramids, sphinxes, and temples, which captivated scholars. The interest in the discovery of ancient texts blossomed about a century later. It was not until 1882 that efforts were formalized, with the establishment of a French Archaeological Mission in Cairo.

It was during the winter season dig of 1886/7 that a monk’s grave was excavated at Akhmîm in Upper Egypt. Apart from the physical remains of the corpse, this tomb contained a small parchment codex with fragments of four texts. Although the chief excavator, Urbain Bouriant, appeared to place most emphasis on the third text (hitherto unevidenced Greek fragments of 1 Enoch), what excited the wider scholarly world was the first text - identified as the partial but fairly extensive fragment of the Gospel of Peter. The contents of the unusual and amateurishly compiled book were as follows:


Not all texts in this book are from the same hand. This leads to the supposition that the codex was not constructed to accommodate these four documents, but that it was put together out of fragments of previously existing documents.

Covering nine continuous pages of Greek text, the first document provided a variant version of events in the life of Jesus from his trial until the time when some of the disciples quit Jerusalem to return to their work as fishermen. At two points, the narrative breaks into a first-person account. The first time this happens, the narrator states that after the crucifixion, ‘I mourned with my companions, and with disturbed senses we concealed ourselves’ (Gos. Pet.7.26). Here the identity of the first-person commentator is not disclosed. The second time the use of the first-person voice occurs is in the final preserved verse of the manuscript, just before the text breaks off mid-sentence. In the aftermath of post-crucifixion events, the assumed narrator discloses his identity: ‘I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew took our nets and went to the sea’ (Gos. Pet. 14.60). Thus, Peter is presented as the implied narrator. Coupled with this, there exists a tradition preserved by the early Church historian Eusebius who twice mentions a gospel circulating in the name of Peter. Consequently, scholars were quick to identify the newly discovered first-person gospel-type narrative with the notice about a so-called Gospel of Peter contained in the writings of Eusebius. Although this is not an unreasonable assumption, caution should still be exercised, and while the identification is highly appealing, it is ultimately still a hypothesis - after all, various spurious texts survive that are written in the first person in Peter’s name, which may mean that Eusebius’ Gospel of Peter is not the same text as that discovered at Akhmîm.

Although Eusebius does not cite any actual passages from the text he knew as the Gospel of Peter, he does give the following important testimony about its origins, circulation, and rejection. Relating information concerning a certain Serapion, bishop of Antioch (AD 191-211), Eusebius outlines the contents of one of his writings entitled Concerning the So-Called Gospel of Peter. According to the source Eusebius claims to be citing, during a pastoral visit to the church of Rhossus, without examining its contents Serapion initially permitted the reading of the Gospel of Peter. Upon returning to Antioch, after being informed of the contents of this document, he reversed his decision.

But since I have now learnt, from what has been told me, that their mind was lurking in some hole of heresy, I shall give diligence to come again to you; wherefore, brethren, expect me quickly. But we, brethren, gathering to what kind of heresy Marcianus belonged (who used to contradict himself, not knowing what he was saying, as you will learn from what has been written to you), were enabled by others who studied this very Gospel, that is, by the successors of those who began it, whom we call Docetae (for most of the ideas belong to their teaching) - using the materials supplied by them, were enabled to go through it and discover that the most part indeed was in accordance with the true teaching of the Saviour, but that some things were added, which also we place below for your benefit.

(see H.E. 6.12.3-6)

Unfortunately Eusebius does not replicate Serapion’s list of added elements.

The term ‘docetic’ derives from a Greek word meaning appearance or semblance. It came to be used as a technical term to describe an understanding of the person of Christ that was deemed to be inadequate by emergent ‘orthodox’ Christians. As previously mentioned, docetism emphasized that the divine Logos inhabited the body of Jesus of Nazareth in order to veil its presence, but without become truly united with the human form. Prior to the crucifixion, the divine being left the human shell. This was necessary since the Logos was beyond suffering. According to Eusebius’ convoluted sentences, it appears that the Gospel of Peter was not itself considered to be docetic (although some of the ‘added things’ may have been), but rather that it was used by those Serapion labelled as ‘docetae’ to support their own teachings.

Notwithstanding this distinction, part of the early scholarly analysis of this text involved identifying features which were seen as aligning with docetism. For those who wished to unearth docetic elements in the text discovered at Akhmîm, they felt no need to look beyond the only words spoken by Jesus in the entire nine pages of text. Instead of the familiar cry of dereliction found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27.46/Mark 15.34), the Gospel of Peter places the following words on the lips of Jesus: ‘My power, the power, you have forsaken me’ (Gos. Pet. 5.19). For many scholars, this acknowledgement of the power leaving Jesus read like the divine Logos leaving the human shell to suffer. However, this reading simply will not do. First, the ‘power’ leaves after all the suffering has taken place - beatings, whippings, and crucifixion. Second, it occurs at the point of death, when it is natural to speak of one’s life-force or power leaving one. Last, the traditional words - ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ - are highly problematic. They create a picture of a despairing Jesus, who genuinely feels abandoned by God. The theological disquiet this could cause is already demonstrated by Luke’s not too subtle rewriting of this cry as the irenic ‘Father into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23.46). Similarly, the Gospel of Peter, by rewording the cry, also avoids a theological problem, and instead has Jesus almost prophetically identify the moment of his death. This may be an expedient authorial strategy, but it does not really look like an attempt to smuggle docetic perspectives into the Jesus story.

So if the purpose is not to give a docetic version of the Passion, what is the purpose of the text? In fact, there are a number of different agendas at work here as the text gently slants the Passion story in various ways. The miracle tradition is radically heightened. Like many Christian texts written in this pre-scientific period, the accounts of miracles are seen as a source of encouragement to believers and a means of commending the faith to outsiders. While the more philosophically minded contemporary critics of early Christianity could characterize such stories as mere superstitions or old wives’ tales, the vast majority of the population was credulous and was swayed by accounts of the miraculous.

The miracles contained in the Gospel of Peter both develop stories known from the canonical accounts to make them even more striking and add miraculous signs unattested in the four canonical gospels. The most famous newly innovated series of miracles in the Gospel of Peter occurs when Jesus is led forth from the tomb. First, two ‘men’ descend from heaven, and automatically the stone at the entrance to the tomb rolls away as the men approach (Gos. Pet. 9.36-37). When they leave the tomb, they are supporting a third man between them. The bodily dimensions of all three have been transformed. The two who descended have heads that ‘reach to the heavens, but that of the one led by them reached beyond the heavens’ (Gos. Pet. 10.40). However, the most outlandish and captivating miracle comes in response to a divine question. When the voice from heaven enquires, ‘Have you preached to those who are asleep?’, contrary to what might be expected it is not Jesus who responds. Instead, the cross which followed the three men out of the tomb answers ‘yes!’ This can be described as an embellishment to the canonical tradition. For those interested in the development of Christian traditions, this is one of the earliest examples of ‘cross-piety’ - a type of devotion that focuses on contemplation of the cross of Jesus. Walking and talking visions of the cross are not frequent, but they do occur in some other later texts. The tradition of the so-called ‘harrowing of hell’, prominent in late antique and early medieval texts, often results in the cross of Christ being left planted in hell as an emblematic sign of victory over death as Christ himself leads forth all the Old Testament figures from the bonds of Hades into heaven. While miracles such as talking and walking crosses are bizarre to the sensibilities of many people living in a modern scientific culture, they are commonplace and evolve in vivid ways in early Christian tradition.

Blame-shifting is also a key feature of the Gospel of Peter. In the canonical gospels, both the Romans (represented in the figure of Pilate) and the Jewish leaders shoulder the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. By contrast, in the Gospel of Peter Pilate becomes an advocate for Jesus, even if his portrayal as subservient to Herod Antipas ensures that he is not able to prevent the crucifixion. The other side of this re-portrayal results in Herod Antipas, Jewish leaders, and the Jewish mob in Jerusalem being represented as playing a much greater role in the death of Jesus. Such a phenomenon reflects wider Christian practice of heightening the involvement of the Jewish people in perpetrating the death of Jesus, to exonerate the Romans, thereby removing the stigma that Jesus had been executed under the judicial authority of the imperial system, and consequently to create a greater divide between Judaism and Christianity than was actually the reality of the origins of the 1st-century Jesus movement.


10. The opening page of the codex containing the Gospel of Peter. The decorative artwork consists of three Coptic crosses and the religiously symbolic letters alpha and omega


11. The opening two pages of the text of the Gospel of Peter. At the top of the first page there is an embellishment in the form of a Coptic cross. This has become imprinted on the facing page when at some stage the manuscript became damp


12. The final page of the manuscript of the Gospel of Peter. The text finishes mid-sentence. The scribe, however, had space at the foot of the page to add ornamental decorations’three Coptic crosses and a patterned embellishment. Also the following page is left blank. This suggests that the scribe broke off mid-sentence because he was copying a text which itself was incomplete, since the decision to cease writing was not due to space constraints

A further aim of the text is apologetic. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is reported that ‘the Jews’ had circulated the story that the disciples had stolen the body from the tomb in order to fabricate the resurrection. According to Matthew, the true origin of the rumour is that the Jewish authorities bribed the guard at the tomb to circulate this story in order to cover up the resurrection. Other early Christian writers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries responded to this same accusation. A major portion of the Gospel of Peter retells a highly expanded version of this story in a way that undercuts the charge of the disciples stealing the body themselves. This means the text has a strongly apologetic flavour, defending the Christian faith against perceived points of weakness or susceptibility.


The text of the Gospel of Peter begins, as it ends, in the middle of a broken sentence. Modern scholars have divided it into 14 chapters (with a further subdivision into 60 verses). This helpfully enables the discussion of individual scenes. The first partially preserved scene would appear to follow on from a detail found only in Matthew’s Gospel - the moment when Pilate famously washes his hands and declares ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood’ (Matt. 27.24). The first surviving line of the text of the Gospel of Peter states ‘but of the Jews no one washed the hands, nor Herod, nor one of his judges. And when they were not willing to wash, Pilate rose up’ (Gos. Pet. 1.1). This expansion of the canonical tradition presents the behaviour of the Jewish authority figures as being in contrast with that of Pilate, who rises up in protest against the miscarriage of justice that he is viewing. Next Joseph enters the scene. Although he is not named explicitly as the Joseph of Arimithea known from the accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John, there can be little doubt that the same figure is intended, since he undertakes the same task of requesting the body of Jesus from Pilate. However, unlike the sequence of the canonical narratives, this request is made prior to the crucifixion rather than afterwards.

Presumably this is primarily a stylistic alteration which makes space for the additional details the author of the Gospel of Peter introduces to the post-crucifixion storyline. In chapter 3, a description of the pre-crucifixion mockery takes place. Not only is this more brutal than that of the canonical gospels, but it is carried out by the Jewish mob acting at the behest of Herod Antipas rather than by Roman soldiers acting in accordance with Pilate’s orders. Thus a controlled Roman execution is transformed into a brutal act of mob violence. This is carried out under the direction of Herod Antipas. The effect is to shift the blame away from the Romans and to implicate ‘Jews’ more fully in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Chapter 4 commences the crucifixion scene proper. Interestingly, the title on the cross is not ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (Luke 23.58), but is subtly altered to ‘This is the King of Israel’ (Gos. Pet. 4.11). Whereas the term ‘Jew’ had become pejorative, early Christians wished to claim the heritage of historic Israel as their own. The same tendency was found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where the supposed author describes himself as ‘Thomas the Israelite’ (Inf. Gos. Thom. 1.1). This section of the Gospel of Peter also shows its dependence on Luke’s account by retelling the story of the penitent thief, which among the canonical gospels only occurs in Luke. However, the Gospel of Peter piously deletes the reference to one of the two criminals reviling Jesus. Thus a more reverential attitude towards protecting the status of Jesus is to be detected. In the ensuing description of the crucifixion, accompanying miracles become more fabulous and the apocalyptic portents are more vivid. The darkness that descends is coupled with a description of people stumbling around with lamps. The earthquake which occurs at the point of Jesus’ death, recorded in Matt. 27.51, takes place in the Gospel of Peter precisely at the moment when the sacred body of Jesus is taken down and laid on the ground. The earth itself convulses upon coming into contact with this corpse. No thoroughgoing docetic theology would view the dead shell of the divine Logos in such reverential terms.

The remainder of the account relates post-crucifixion events. Bemused and trembling onlookers, cowering disciples, and devious Jewish officials pepper the narrative. The story of the guard at the tomb is greatly developed in comparison to the version in Matthew’s account. Contrasting with that shorter version, in the Gospel of Peter the Jewish authorities anticipate the possibility of the disciples stealing the body prior to the resurrection. Proactive action is taken. Pilate is approached for a detachment of guards to secure the site. A huge stone is rolled in place to block the entrance, seven seals are affixed, and a tent is pitched so that round-the-clock surveillance can take place. The extraordinary anticipatory security is obviously a mythical feature of this story, which simultaneously rebuts claims that the disciples could have snatched the body while also showing that only divine intervention would be able to breach such defences. The emphasis placed on these features reveals that the text had the apologetic purpose to nullify the suggestion that disciples came to an unguarded tomb, took the body, and consequently created a resurrection myth. Thus, the Gospel of Peter tells the story in such a way as to undercut such an argument.

In a story full of miraculous interference and written for those who knew the outline of the canonical accounts, the events of the resurrection are not unanticipated. However, they have certainly become more fantastic. Trembling soldiers, descending angels, a self-animated stone, enlarged bodies, and a walking and talking cross - liberties are definitely taken with the more primitive form of the story. Yet this probably illustrates the attitudes of those who used the canonical texts to teach such traditions. The text was a resource for theological reflection, not a fixed and invariable entity - at least for the author of the Gospel of Peter, and he certainly was not alone in this attitude. Other texts from this period exhibit a similar tendency.

The last sections of the text conclude with a declaration from Pilate that he is ‘clean from the blood of the Son of God’ (Gos. Pet. 11.46). This proclamation of innocence not only absolves Pilate, but has the purpose of shifting the blood-guilt for the death of Jesus squarely onto the Jewish people. However, out of fear of the crowds, the leaders reason that ‘it is better for us to make ourselves guilty of the greatest sin before God than to fall into the hands of the people of the Jews and be stoned’ (Gos. Pet. 11.48). While such tendencies are understandable historically as Christians sought to define their own identity in what was at times bitter opposition to Jewish rivals, the consequences of such a ‘blame-game’ theology have resulted in some of the most reprehensible acts of anti-Jewish persecution by Christians. Obviously the Gospel of Peter is not solely or even primarily responsible for this. It does, however, represent an early expression of the anti-Jewish attitude which was to flower into the bitter fruit of medieval pogroms against Jews, and even might have shaped the thinking that could have led to supposed Christians turning a blind-eye or even worse during the events of the 20th-century Holocaust.

The narrative continues before it breaks off with a number of post-resurrection events. The story from Mark’s Gospel of the visit of the women to the tomb is followed in fairly close detail - although there are embellishments. The narrative ends with the beginnings of a story in which Simon Peter and Andrew are fishing beside the sea, perplexed and uncertain what to do after Jesus’ death. Here it appears that a story similar to that contained in the final chapter of John’s Gospel will be recounted. Yet, unless somebody unearths another manuscript of this fascinating text, this may remain a supposition - admittedly a highly plausible one, but a supposition nonetheless.

The ongoing value of the Gospel of Peter

Despite the outlandish miracles it contains, in many ways the Gospel of Peter is one of the more approachable non-canonical gospels to read. It covers a familiar story, admittedly in an embellished and expanded manner, but it does not rely on coded language or speculative cosmologies like some of the gospel texts found at Nag Hammadi. It has multiple purposes. Gap-filling is a primary aim: that is, telling the Jesus story in a way that supplies missing details or removes difficulties in the storyline of the canonical writings in order to produce a more internally consistent account.

Some recent scholars working on this text have claimed that it preserves a form of the Passion narrative which is in fact earlier than the form contained in the canonical gospels. The more sophisticated version of this theory was advanced by J. D. Crossan, who suggested that the Gospel of Peter as it survives has embedded within it an early Passion narrative source, which Crossan dubs ‘the Cross Gospel’. After removing material that is regarded as dependent on the canonical accounts, such as the visit of the women to the tomb which occurs towards the end of the Gospel of Peter (12.50-13.57) and is seen as dependent on Mark (16.1-8), the resultant material is viewed as more primitive than the synoptic gospels and as being a source used by them. Two factors tell against this theory. First, even within the material that is left in the hypothetical ‘Cross Gospel’, there appear to be elements that are still dependent on canonical sources, such as the story of the thief on the cross (Gos. Pet. 4.10-14; cf. Luke 23.39-43). Second, the actual preserved text of the Gospel of Peter does not appear to have the kind of disjunctions that usually point to such literary seams. In other words, there is little within the text to support the type of source theory suggested by Crossan.

A less nuanced version of this theory is presented by Paul Mirecki. He claims that the entire Gospel of Peter pre-dates the material in the canonical accounts: ‘The Gospel of Peter (¼ Gos. Pet.) was a narrative gospel of the synoptic type which circulated in the mid-1st century under the authority of the name Peter. An earlier form of the gospel probably served as one of the major sources for the canonical gospels.’ This claim falls foul of the obvious places where the Gospel of Peter is dependent on canonical sources which were written after the mid-1st century. Not only is it possible to detect clear parallels between the canonical stories and the version contained in the text discovered at Akhmîm, but the parallels in the Gospel of Peter appear derivative of the canonical gospels, and moreover its theological concerns reflect the known developments of Christian thinking traceable to the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Therefore, this text is no repository of unadulterated historical information concerning the crucifixion of Jesus. Instead, it is heavily overlaid with anti-Jewish sentiment, apologetic concerns, and a desire to weave together details from the canonical gospels. Its does attest to the way in which later generations of early Christians handled the Jesus tradition as transmitted in the canonical gospels, and it shows how those traditions could be tailored to address the theological concerns of the period in which the text was formed. Like a thoughtful contemporary preacher, the author of the Gospel of Peter makes the story of Jesus speak to the concerns and needs of the current situation of his early Christian audience.

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840

The unbelievably rich troves of papyrus manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus and the highly significant fragments of the Gospel of Thomas have already been mentioned, but a number of other important fragmentary texts were also discovered. For illustrative purposes only, one example will be discussed here. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840 (P.Oxy. 840) records an otherwise unattested story of Jesus that supposedly stems from the period of Jesus’ ministry on an occasion when he visited the Jerusalem temple. Because of its brevity, the full text of this fragment can be provided:

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840

‘ … earlier, before doing wrong, he slyly reasons everything out. Be careful that you do not end up suffering the same fate as them. For the evil-doers of humanity receive retribution not only among the living, but they will also undergo punishment and much torture later.’

Taking them along, he went into the place of purification itself and wandered around in the temple. Then a certain high priest of the Pharisees named Levi came toward them and said to the saviour, ‘Who permitted you to wander in this place of purification and to see these holy vessels, even though you have not bathed, and the feet of your disciples have not been washed? And now that you have defiled it, you walk around in this pure area of the temple where only a person who has bathed and changed his clothes can walk, and even such a person does not dare to look upon these holy vessels.’ Standing nearby with his disciples, the saviour replied, ‘Since you are here in the temple too, are you clean?’

The Pharisee said to him, ‘I am clean for I bathed in the pool of David. I went down into the pool by one set of stairs and came back out by another. Then I put on white clothes and they were clean. And then I came and looked at these holy vessels.’

Replying to him, the saviour said, ‘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. And when you washed yourself, you scrubbed the outer layer of skin, the layer of skin that prostitutes and flute-girls anoint and wash and scrub when they put on make up to become the desire of the men. But inside they are filled with scorpions and all unrighteousness. 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. But woe to those …’

This fragmentary text is written front to back on a single vellum leaf, of unusually small size. The dimensions are approximately 7.4 by 8.8 centimetres. There has been ongoing debate about whether this is a leaf from a longer miniature codex, or whether the leaf was an amulet worn by its owner to ward off evil. It contains two partial preserved stories. The end of the first story is brief and no context can be determined. It comprises an apocalyptic judgment saying directed against ‘evil-doers of humanity’. This saying, presumably spoken by Jesus, exhorts his hearers to guard themselves against suffering the samefateasthe evil-doers.Littlemorecanbesaidaboutthisfirststory.

The second is much more fully preserved and comprises context, narrative, and dialogue. Set within the precincts of the Jerusalem temple, Jesus and his disciples are engaged in a debate with the high priest about purity requirements. The charge levelled against Jesus and his companions is that they have transgressed the holiness of ‘the place of purification’ and viewed the ‘holy vessels’ without undergoing the prerequisite ablutions. Jesus’ reply affirms the facts of the high priest’s charge, but denies the implications drawn from it. Reversing the accusation, Jesus asks the high priest if he is clean. The response given by the high priest is a standard recitation of the formal steps taken to ensure purity. Jesus attacks this perspective on two levels. First, he states the very water in which the high priest washed was itself polluted since it had been contaminated by the uncleanness of dogs and pigs. Whether this is meant to be understood literally, or whether ‘dogs and pigs’ is a metaphor for unclean people, is uncertain. Second, the lustrations undertaken by the high priest are criticized for dealing only with superficial exterior purification. By contrast, Jesus calls for an internal purification, whereby one is cleansed with the metaphorical waters of eternal life. Such controversy stories are evidenced within the canonical gospels, although in this case it must be admitted that the likelihood of a chance encounter between Jesus and a high priest seems remote. Moreover, no high priest by the name of Levi is known from other sources for the entire time from the Persian period down to the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

Observations such as the last one raise a number of potential difficulties encountered in this text. The location of ‘the place of purification’ and the location of the ‘holy vessels’ have been hotly debated. It has been questioned whether the latter, which may denote the candelabrum, the altar of incense, and table of showbread, could ever be viewed by people who were not members of the priestly caste. It has been suggested recently that historically this is not an insurmountable problem since, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, during certain special times of the year the restrictions on viewing the vessels were temporarily suspended, and the curtain of the tabernacle was rolled back so that the people could view the interior. An even greater problem has been that there is no evidence of a requirement for visitors to the temple to completely immerse in a bath prior to entry. Such difficulties have led to other approaches to this text.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that this story does not reflect actual historical practices in the Jerusalem temple, but rather it fits better into ancient Christian disputes about the validity of water baptism. If this is correct, then the text stems from an ecclesial controversy of the 2nd or 3rd centuries and does not provide a window onto actual events in the life of Jesus during the 1st century. A third mediating option is to take the text as historizing, but not historical. By this it is meant that while the text may claim to report actual events from the life of Jesus, it is creatively written at some significantly later time and consequently might contain historical anachronisms. From this perspective, the text may, or may not, be addressing baptismal controversies.

Names or titles applied to Jesus can be revealing about the possible authorship and readers of such texts. Throughout this brief fragment, Jesus is described as ‘the saviour’ and no other title or name is used for him. Although used widely in early Christianity, the title ‘saviour’ is also prominent in texts like the Gospel of Philip. By noting such links, it has been suggested that the text has been written from a ‘Gnostic’ perspective to counter either Jewish-Christian baptist movements or mainstream Christian promotion of baptism as the only necessary entrance rite. While such theories do draw upon the link that existed in some texts that use the title ‘saviour’ and also see baptism as only the basic entrance ritual, they do not explain the fact that P.Oxy. 840 is not laden with the type of cosmological reflections that are so often characteristic of Gnostic texts.

P.Oxy. 840 is a fascinating but often overlooked text. The main incident it relates does have the same kind of ‘feel’ as many of the canonical controversy stories. However, there does seem to be an inordinate number of historically anachronistic details. This leads to the suspicion that the author was trying to imitate the style and genre of the controversies story, and while largely successful, left traces of historically implausible details that reveal that this narrative was created in a period somewhat later than the life of Jesus, and is not drawn from an historical source but rather reflects the author’s imaginative invention. What could the purpose of the story be? Perhaps it does relate to an internal Christian baptismal controversy. This is not totally obvious, especially as the primary interlocutor is a Pharisaic priest and not a fellow disciple. It is more likely that the text reflects the larger Christian agenda of polemicizing against Judaism. The key accusation is that strict observance of the Jewish law results only in superficial purity and not in the more important internal cleansing of one’s being. While such a critique of formulaic Torah observance can be found within Judaism itself - especially in the writings of the prophets - this charge seems to have been appropriated by Christians as a ready-made way of critiquing the Jewish faith.

An ‘unknown gospel’: Papyrus Egerton 2

‘Not since the discovery of the Sayings of Jesus at Oxyrhynchus has a Christian papyrus come to light which raises so many and such interesting problems as the present fragments.’ Thus opens the 1935 discussion of Papyrus Egerton 2 in the critical edition of these fragments published a year after they had been purchased from an antiquities dealer. That publication presented an edition of four fragments from three or four leaves of a codex - this can be determined because they are written on both sides of the papyrus leaves. Deciphering the fragments and determining their relative ordering is a problem not dissimilar to a jigsaw puzzle. The fourth fragment consists of a single letter - probably a sigma, but uncertain - and since this cannot be located in relation to the other fragments, it is of no help in determining the text. The third fragment is somewhat larger, 6.0 by 2.3 centimetres, but contains only a few words and hence is also too small to assist the overall reconstruction of the text. The remaining two fragments of single-column text are somewhat larger: Fragment 1: 11.5 by 9.2 centimetres, Fragment 2: 11.8 by 9.7 centimetres. These two fragments offer enough text to enable at least a partially coherent reconstruction. The story of the fragments of this text did not end with the 1935 critical edition.

More than 50 years later, another fragment of the same manuscript was discovered in a collection of papyri housed in Cologne. This fragment, measuring 5.5 by 3.0 centimetres, was seen as belonging to the same leaf as Fragment 1. On both the front and back of this new fragment of the same leaf were preserved five partial lines of text. This new fragment assisted completing two lines that were already partially extant in Fragment 1, as well as providing parts of three further lines. This combination of fragments now means that strictly speaking the text should be referred to as Papyrus Egerton 2 þ Papyrus Cologne 255. Examination of the Cologne fragment has also resulted in an adjustment to the dating. In their 1935 edition, Bell and Skeat stated that it was ‘extremely improbable’ that Papyrus Egerton 2 ‘can be dated later than the middle of the second century’. Taking into account the physical features of the Cologne fragment, the dating of the manuscript has been revised, it now being generally accepted that the codex is to be dated around AD 200. This is based upon the presence of a diacritical sign (an apostrophe) of a type frequently attested in the 3rd century but not the 2nd.

A fundamental problem with these two fragments (Fragment 1 þ P.Cologne 255, and Fragment 2) is their relative ordering - which one preceded the other, and the even more basic question of which side of each fragment should be read first. The conventional way of arranging these texts is Fragment 1 verso, Fragment 1 recto, Fragment 2 verso, Fragment 2 recto, which are here presented and discussed in that order.

Fragment 1 verso

[…] And Jesus said to the lawyers: ‘Punish every wrongdoer and transgressor, and not me. […] he does, how does he do it?’

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.’ And they said: ‘We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for you, we do not know, where you are from.’

Jesus answered and said to them: ‘Now is accused your disbelief in those who have been commended by him. For had you believed Moses, you wouldhavebelievedme.Foraboutmehewrotetoyourfathers[…]’

This brief incident portrays Jesus in polemical dialogue with two named groups of people - ‘the lawyers’ and ‘the rulers of the people’. Against the first group, Jesus appears to be responding to an accusation that he is a transgressor by affirming the right of the lawyers to punish wrong-doers, but refuting their charge that Jesus himself falls into that category. The second part of this fragment involves the confrontation with the rulers concerning whether or not the scriptures testify to Jesus, and whether Jesus or the rulers can claim the authority of Moses as an ally for their respective stances. The wording in this narrative is extremely close to passages from John’s Gospel at a number of points. In John 5.39, Jesus informs his opponents, ‘you search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is these that bear witness to me’. A few verses later in John’s account, Jesus tells his adversaries ‘do not think that I shall accuse you before the Father, the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope’ (John 5.45). There are also partial parallels with material from John 9.29. Yet, despite these striking agreements, here Papyrus Egerton 2 preserves a number of independent features in the story. It is impossible to tell whether the author recycled the story from the Gospel of John to mould his own version, or if he knew the sayings in a form that was earlier than John’s narrative, and consequently he preserves a more primitive version of the tradition. Nonetheless, in both versions the same key idea is communicated - the scriptures need to be read eschatologically in light of Jesus’ coming. He is the interpretative key to the meaning within scripture, and hence Moses can be seen as a witness who verifies the claims Jesus makes about himself.

Fragment 1 recto

[…] 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.

And behold, a leper coming to him, says: ‘Teacher Jesus, while travelling with lepers and eating together with them in the inn, I myself also became a leper. If therefore you will, I am clean.’ And the Lord said to him: ‘I will, be clean.’

And immediately the leprosy left him. And Jesus said to him: ‘Go show yourself to the priests and offer concerning the cleansing as Moses commanded and sin no more […]’

This section of the text again preserves the remains of two stories. The first is the end of a scene where presumably the crowd are seeking to stone Jesus and the rulers are willing to be complicit in this action, by trying to seize Jesus and to hand him over to the mob. The reason for this desire to murder Jesus is not preserved in the surviving section of the narrative, but if the verso of this fragment provides any clue it could be due to the elevated claims Jesus is making about his status and his identity with the Father. This is also supported by the wider context of the parallel passage in John 7 and 8. In John 7.28-30, Jesus claims that he is the Father’s appointed envoy and that his origin is with the Father. In response, the rulers ‘were seeking to seize him, and no man laid his hand upon him because his hour had not yet come’. Similarly, in John 8.58-59, ‘the Jews’ pick up stones to stone Jesus. In that context the intended murderous plan stems from Jesus’ declaration that ‘before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8.58). The ‘I am’ claim is not just poor grammar, nor is it only a claim to existence prior to Abraham, but more provocatively it seems to be an attempt by Jesus to appropriate the divine name Yahweh, which may mean something like ‘I am’. Although Papyrus Egerton 2 does not preserve either of these contexts, the similar responses are suggestive that Jesus’ Christological sayings may form the preceding context of this fragment.

The second story records the healing of a leper. It is reminiscent of the account in Mark 1.40-45; see also the parallels in Matt. 8.2-4 and Luke 5.12-14. In the versions of this story in Matthew and Luke, the leper addresses Jesus as ‘Lord’, here the title used is ‘teacher’. This may show that the version of the story preserved in Papyrus Egerton 2 originated in a section of the early Jesus movement where the title ‘Lord’ was problematic. The saying in Matt. 7.21 attests this kind of disquiet over addressing Jesus as ‘Lord’: ‘not everyone who saystome “Lord, Lord” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’. While there are striking similarities between this version of the story and those contained in the canonical accounts, again the differences reveal a version of the story that sets its own agenda and priorities. Interestingly, the story appears to introduce the novelistic detail that the leper contracted the disease while travelling with lepers and eating with them at an inn. The final instructions given by Jesus both preserve the canonical version, but also supplement it. In line with law-observance, the cleansing is to be recognized by a priest - hence the command to show oneself to the priest and make the required offering. However, the command to ‘sin no more’ is not part of the original story. Rather, it recollects a saying that occurs twice: in John’s Gospel (John 5.14); and also in the floating tradition of the women caught in adultery that attached itself to John’s Gospel (see John 8.11). Again elements from John’s Gospel are discernible.

The verso of Fragment 2 is in poor shape. The manuscript is in bad repair and there are no obvious canonical parallels to assist the reconstruction of this text. For these reasons, few comments have been offered by those studying this section of the text.

Fragment 2 recto

Coming to him, they tested him in an exacting way, saying: ‘Teacher Jesus, we know that you have come from God, for what you do testifies beyond all the prophets. Therefore tell us, is it lawful to pay to kings the things which benefit their rule? Shall we pay them or not?’

But Jesus, perceiving their purpose and becoming indignant said to them: ‘Why do you call me teacher with your mouth, not doing what I say? Well did Isaiah prophesy concerning you, saying: “This people honour 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 …”’

Interestingly, this fragment also preserves a scene of confrontation between Jesus and unnamed opponents. The repeated occurrence of controversy stories and scenes of conflict between Jesus and opponents over claims of status and issues of law-observance may suggest something about the profile of this text. Although the amount of evidence is limited, and consequently suggestions about purpose and origins must be made with great caution and by acknowledging their tentative status, it may be the case that this text originated in Jewish-Christian circles with the aim of portraying Jesus as Torah-observant. Moreover, the text upholds Jesus’ claims about his own status on the basis of Mosaic witness and the testimony of scripture.

Papyrus Egerton 2 is significant for two further reasons. First, it is a very early example of the Christian preference for writing texts in codex form rather than on scrolls. Second, it is one of the earliest examples of the practice of using nomina sacra. This is a form of abbreviating various words such as ‘Lord’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, and ‘God’ in Christian texts. This is usually done by contraction: that is, writing simply the first and last letters of these words with a horizontal (or supralinear) stroke above the letters. A debate continues among scholars as to whether the practice reflected Jewish scribal habits in treating the divine name as sacred, as in making sure that one avoided pronouncing the name ‘Yahweh’, or if it was simply a technique for abbreviating words with a high rate of repetition. It is noteworthy that besides the usual words abbreviated this way, Papyrus Egerton 2 also uses the technique to abbreviate ‘Father’, ‘Moses’, ‘Isaiah’, and ‘Prophets’. While this text does not resolve the larger debate, it does seem to reflect an early phase of the practice prior to the convention becoming standardized, and hence it shows greater freedom in its abbreviation forms.

Papyrus Egerton 2 is an early Christian manuscript most likely written around AD 200. It may transmit a text that was written several decades earlier, but the difficulties in arriving at a plausible date of composition must be acknowledged. While many have noted the number of independent elements in its fragmentary text, the number of sayings with parallels contained in the Gospel of John suggests that the author knew and recycled material from that source. Again, close analysis suggests that this non-canonical gospel does not offer Jesus traditions that are earlier than the canonical gospels. Instead, it attests to a common and oft-repeated tendency among the non-canonical gospels - that of taking up material from the canonical gospels and freely and creatively reworking those stories and sayings.

The Jewish-Christian gospels

No manuscript is preserved from this group of gospel texts. Their titles are known only through mention in the work of various other early Christian writers. Occasionally these writers also quote a snippet of a tradition from these documents. Through these scant remains one is left with at best a partial impression of the wording of these texts and some of the theological concerns they may have embodied.

The very term ‘Jewish-Christian’ requires some explanation. The origin of the early Jesus movement was embedded in the matrix of Judaism. Jesus commenced his public ministry in Galilee, was crucified in Jerusalem, and it was in that same city that many of his relatives and early disciples continued the movement in his name. These people were Jews, they observed the Jewish law, they maintained the kosher dietary codes, refrained from work on the Sabbath, and were cautious about contact with Gentiles. Yet they differed from many of their fellow Jews in their belief that Jesus of Nazareth, the one put to death with the shameful execution of crucifixion, was paradoxically God’s chosen Messiah.

This messianic faction within Judaism was radically transformed by a number of early missionaries who preached this message outside the frontiers of Judea, initially to diaspora Jews in local synagogues. Their preaching not only attracted Jewish converts, but proved surprisingly popular among Gentiles. A dilemma faced the early movement, namely whether Gentile converts were required to observe the Jewish law, or whether there could be a ‘law-free’ version of Christianity for Gentiles. In essence, ‘law-free’ Christianity for most Gentile believers did not mean cutting all links with Jewish traditions and scriptures. Rather, what was at stake was the necessity of maintaining some of the more obvious boundary-marking practices of Judaism. The three major issues were circumcision, Sabbath observance, and maintenance of dietary laws. Different answers were formulated in various sectors of the movement in regard to the necessity for Gentile converts to uphold these traditional marks of Judaism. The rulings of the Jerusalem Church under the leadership of James, Jesus’ brother, were particularly influential. This group was more conservative in its understanding of the need to maintain some form of adherence to the law on the part of Gentiles than the more liberal-minded Paul, who portrayed himself as apostle to the Gentiles. However, the martyrdom of James coupled with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 meant this powerful group in the early Jesus movement was widely scattered in the aftermath of the Jewish War with Rome, had lost its cohesion, and was being swamped by the increasing numbers of Gentile converts. The most influential authority group in the earliest phase of the Jesus movement had lost most of its power-base and had become pushed to the margins - yet it had not totally vanished, nor was it totally silenced.

The literary remains of this movement are scant and, as has been described, what remains are merely floating sayings or brief narratives embedded in the works of other authors. Since many of those authors refer to the ‘Jewish-Christian’ gospels in a variety of ways, there is debate between scholars as to how many such texts existed. From the surviving fragments, scholars have argued for either two or three gospel texts. These are usually referred to under the following titles: the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Nazoraeans, and the Gospel of the Ebionites. The last two titles are modern constructs used to designate material that ancient sources attribute to the Nazoraean or Ebionite groups respectively, but without giving the literary title from which the material was taken. By contrast, the ancient sources directly name a Gospel according to the Hebrews. The majority position is that there were three discrete documents; however, others argue that the material that some have classified as belonging to Nazoraeans was actually part of Hebrews, and hence see only two Jewish-Christian gospels.

The earliest direct evidence for the existence of a Jewish-Christian gospel comes from three Christian writers who lived in the second largest city in the Roman Empire, Alexandria in Egypt: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Didymus the Blind. These figures spanned different periods from the late 2nd century to the beginning of the 4th century. Their combined references to the Gospel according to the Hebrews suggest that this Jewish-Christian gospel enjoyed a certain longevity in Alexandria, perhaps due to the presence of a large and diverse Jewish population. By contrast, most of the material identified as belonging to the Gospel of the Nazoraeans comes from a single source - Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew. Jerome presents anumber of traditions in his Commentary which he claims to have translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic source into Greek.

The Gospel called according to the Hebrews which was recently translated by me into Greek and Latin, which Origin frequently uses, records the resurrection of the Saviour.

And when the Lord had given the linen cloth to the servant of the priest, he went to James and appeared to him. For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from the hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord until he should see him risen from among them that sleep. And shortly thereafter the Lord said: Bring a table and bread! And immediately it is added: he took the bread, blessed it and brake it and gave it to James the Just and said to him: My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among them that sleep.

(Jerome, Vir. Inl.2)

Likewise, the Gospel of the Ebionites has a single witness. Epiphanius, in his work entitled the Panarion (‘medicine-chest’), seeks to provide readers with ‘remedies’ against the various ‘heresies’ circulating in Christianity. In chapter 30 of this work, he cites from a gospel used by the Ebionite. There is strong evidence to suggest that this work was composed in Greek, due to the presence of a pun that works only in that language. Although the text is most closely aligned with traditions from Matthew, it combines elements from Luke’s Gospel at a number of points and this text may be best considered as a type of gospel harmony. Epiphanius preserves seven excerpts from this text. Following the convention of arranging these in a narrative order that follows the broad storyline of the synoptic gospels produces this table of contents:

The disproportionate interest in the figure of John the Baptist may suggest that the Gospel of the Ebionites represented a close allegiance from members of the community who cherished this text


towards the Baptist, whom they may have revered as some kind of foundational figure. There is emphasis placed on John’s diet, with locusts being omitted from the description, which Epiphnius characterizes as a perversion of the gospel.


‘It came to pass that John was baptizing; and there went out to him Pharisees and were baptized and all Jerusalem. And John had a garment of camel hair and a leather belt about his waist, and his food, as it says, was wild honey, the taste of which was that of manna, as a cake dipped in oil.’

Thus they were resolved to pervert the word of truth into a lie and to put a cake in the place of locusts.

(Panarion 30.13.4-5)

Similarly, it has Jesus deny that he wished to eat meat at the Passover. These features suggest that the Ebionites may have promoted a vegetarianism that is also evidenced in other branches of Christianity in the 2nd century.

The Jewish-Christian gospels perhaps stand closer to the canonical gospels than any of the other gospel-type texts that survive. Unfortunately, the fact that their preservation is refracted through the lenses of writers who are hostile to the perspectives that these texts promote means that ultimately the overall shape of their narratives and the details of the majority of the stories they contained are no longer recoverable.

The value of non-canonical gospels set during the life of Jesus

In many regards, the texts considered in this section are the most disparate and diverse. They are not unified by belonging to a common collection, or by presenting similar theological perspectives. Rather, the one common feature is that they purport to recount stories from the period of Jesus’ public ministry - the same phase of Jesus’ life that is the focus of the canonical gospels. Because of this overlap, comparisons may be made which allow for consideration of the possibility that these texts may preserve independent (perhaps earlier) versions of traditions that are paralleled in the four canonical gospels, or potentially they may offer that ‘pearl of great price’ - an authentic saying or incident from the life of Jesus otherwise unattested in the canonical sources.

Although this aspirational hope has motivated much interest in these texts, close analysis has shown that for the large part they appear to be later than the canonical gospels, they tend to draw upon the traditions embedded in those texts, and the new details they present are novelistic or fanciful. What then is the value of these texts that promised so much but delivered so little in scholarly attempts to learn more about the historical Jesus? First, it needs to be appreciated that these texts provide a glimpse into the way 2nd-century Christians handled and modified traditions concerning Jesus. Second, they highlight a number of pertinent issues for certain Christian groups: law-observance, vilifying Jews, heightening miraculous claims, and so on. Third, they reveal the textual nature of the preservation of early Christian tradition: with amateur scribes compiling their own collections of texts; the way Christians become innovators in using the new technology of the codex; and how they generated their own system of abbreviations. The dynamism and diversity of early Christianity comes to life through these texts, and the myth of a monolithic Christian movement existing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries is exploded.