10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #6: “In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books”

Gnostic Gospels

This is the sixth installment of a blog series announced here.

One of the most common claims by some critics of the NT canon is that apocryphal writings, particularly gospels, were as common and as widely-used as the NT writings.  Helmut Koester is a good example of this trend.  He laments the fact that the terms “apocryphal” and “canonical” are even used by modern scholars because they reflect, according to him, “prejudices of long standing” against the authenticity of these apocryphal texts.[1]  Koester then argues, “If one considers the earliest period of the tradition, several apocryphal gospels are as well attested as those which later received canonical status.”[2] William Petersen offers a similar approach when he says that apocryphal gospels were so popular that they “were breeding like rabbits.”[3]

But, is it really true that apocryphal gospels were as popular and widespread as the canonical gospels?  Were they really on equal footing?  Three pieces of evidence suggest otherwise:

1. Extant manuscripts.   The physical remains of writings can give us an indication of their relative popularity.  Such remains can tell us which books were used, read, and copied. When we examine the physical remains of Christian texts from the earliest centuries (second and third), we quickly discover that the New Testament writings were, far and away, the most popular.  Currently we have over sixty extant manuscripts (in whole or in part) of the New Testament from this time period, with most of our copies coming from Matthew, John, Luke, Acts, Romans, Hebrews, and Revelation.  The gospel of John proves to be the most popular of all with eighteen manuscripts, a number of which derive from the second century (e.g., P52, P90, P66, P75). Matthew is not far behind with twelve manuscripts; and some of these also have been dated to the second century (e.g., P64-67, P77, P103, P104).

During the same time period, the second and third centuries, we possess approximately seventeen manuscripts of apocryphal writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Protevangelium of James, and more. The Gospel of Thomas has the most manuscripts of all, with just three.

The implications of this numerical disparity has not been missed by modern scholars. Hurtado argues that the low number of apocryphal manuscripts “do not justify any notion that these writings were particularly favored” and that whatever circles used these writings “were likely a clear minority among Christians of the second and third centuries.”[4]  Similarly, C.H. Roberts observes, “Once the evidence of the papyri is available, indisputably Gnostic texts are conspicuous by their rarity.”[5]  Charlesworth agrees, “If the ‘heterodox’ were in the majority for so long, the non-canonical gospels should have been preserved in greater numbers in Egypt.”[6]

2. Frequency of Citation.  While scholars typically focus on whether apocryphal books are cited, they have not paid sufficient attention to how often they are cited in comparison to the canonical writings.  When that data is considered, the disparity between apocryphal and canonical writings becomes even more evident.

Take, for example, Clement of Alexandria, who is often mentioned as an early church father who prefers canonical and apocryphal writings equally.  However, when the frequency of citations are considered, this claim proves to be unfounded—Clement vastly prefers the New Testament books, over and above the apocryphal literature or other Christian writings.  J.A. Brooks has observed that Clement cites the canonical books “about sixteen times more often than apocryphal and patristic writings.”[7] This disparity is thrown into sharper relief when we consider just the four Gospels. According to the work of Bernard Mutschler, Clement references Matthew 757 times, Luke 402 times, John 331 times, and Mark 182 times.[8]  Comparatively, Clement cites apocryphal gospels only 16 times.[9]  Apparently, Clement was not in doubt about which books he regarded as canonical.

3. The Manner of Citation.  If indeed apocryphal writings were valued equally with canonical writings, we would expect such a fact to be reflected in the way these books are cited.  Do the early church fathers cite apocryphal writings as Scripture?  Only very rarely.   In a few instances, it seems that books like the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas were regarded as having a scriptural status.  But, this was quite the minority view.  When we examine which books early Christians were not simply using (see prior post on this issue here), but books they actually regarded as Scripture, then the canonical books are far and away the most popular.   This is confirmed by the fact that there was a “core” canon of books in place by the middle of the second century (for more on that issue, see here).

In addition, it should be noted that a number of these apocryphal writings were expressly condemned by the earliest Christians.  Take, for example, the oft-discussed Gospel of Thomas. This gospel is never mentioned in any early canonical list, is not found in any of our New Testament manuscript collections, never figured prominently in canonical discussions, and often was condemned outright by a variety of church fathers.[10] Thus, if Thomas was a widely-read and widely-received gospel account, then it has left very little historical evidence of that fact.

Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.  It would certainly be far more interesting and entertaining if one could show that apocryphal books were really the Scripture of the early church and that they have been suppressed by the political machinations of the later church (i.e., Constantine).   But, the truth is far less sensational.  While apocryphal books were given some scriptural status from time to time, the overwhelming majority of early Christians preferred the books that are now in our New Testament canon.   Thus, we are reminded again that the canon was not something that was arbitrarily “created” by the church in the 4th or 5th century.  Rather the affirmations of the later church simply reflected what had already been the case for many, many years.

[1] H. Koester, “Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels,” Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980): 106.

[2] Koester, “Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels,” 107.

[3] W.L. Petersen, “The Diatesseron and the Fourfold Gospel,” in The Earliest Gospels (ed. C. Horton; London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 51.

[4] Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 21-22.

[5] Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief, 52.

[6] Scott Charlesworth, “Indicators of “Catholicity” in Early Gospel Manuscripts,” in The Early Text of the New Testament (ed. C.E. Hill and M.J. Kruger; Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[7] Brooks, “Clement of Alexandria,” 48.

[8] Bernard Mutschler, Irenäus als johanneischer Theologe (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 101.

[9]  Brooks, “Clement of Alexandria,” 44.

[10] E.g., Hippolytus, Ref. 5.7.20; Origen, Hom. Luc. 1; Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.25.6.


10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #6: “In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books” — 9 Comments

  1. I am grateful to be able to read the above. In the world of some opinionated blogs Christianity is often maligned & charged without being given the other side of the story. So it’s nice to appreciate a reasoned argument supporting Scripture as we know it, with its authority & have also been persuaded by (2Timothy 1).

  2. Pingback: What I Read Online – 06/26/2012 (a.m.) | Emeth Aletheia

  3. Mike,
    Good stuff here. But there is a problem here with Mutschler’s counting. He is counting references to Mark in the GCS indices, not citations of Mark by Clement. Clement has only two quotations from Mark according to Cosaert. That makes, by comparison, the 16 quotations from apocryphal gospels more interesting (as also does the comparison between early manuscripts of Mark and early manuscripts of Thomas).

    • Thanks, Pete. Appreciate that clarification regarding Mutschler. Mark is a bit of an enigma when it comes to its usage in early Christianity (as you well know). There is little doubt that it was regarded as canonical, but it was also used very little (when compared to gospels like Matthew and John). It is difficult to know why, but most speculate that it is due to the fact that most of its content is available in Matthew and Luke.

      • Pete and Mike,
        Mutschler (using the GCS indices) is counting ‘references’ (Bezugnahmen), not merely quotes, and Cosaert is treating only quotations which are identifiable and analyzable in terms of determining nature of the underlying text (Cosaert is doing textual criticism). Cosaert actually says, ‘Since Matthew and Luke share most of the material in Mark, there is little distinctly Markan material available for textual analysis. Thus, unless a church father specifically refers to a passage as originating from Mark, Markan references cannot usually be identified with certainty.” (234). This seems to mean that there may be many more uses of Mark in Clement, but the texts are not clearly distinguishable from Matthew or Luke, so Cosaert doesn’t treat them. Cosaert actually treats four places where Clement quotes Mark, and see his Appendix I, which gives a number of other possibilities. Even though the number of ‘references’ to Mark is unlikely to be exact, one point is that,beyond actual quotations, Clement does not tend to ‘refer’ to or ‘allude’ to The Gospel of the Egyptians, etc, as he does to what he calls ‘the four Gospels which have been handed down to us’. These four included Mark.

    • Hi Mike, hi Pete. The same stands for the first point – extant manuscripts – I reckon: we do have more canonical gospels papyri, but Mark (and other NT texts) does not fare that well when taken on its own. If these numbers are taken to prove anything on this matter, Mark (and other NT texts) would have been less popular than several non-canonical texts taken separately. I have my doubts that the number of papyri are useful in ‘canonical’ matters, not least because we are talking of rather small numbers.

  4. Pingback: Who Decided Which Books Were Going to Be in the Bible? | CC Philly - Young Adults Fellowship

  5. Dear Michael,

    Excellent article and series so far.

    I think the lack of quotations of Mark, as you noted, is not only due to the same material in Matthew and Luke, but also because Matthew was, and in some circles today, believed to be the first Gospel written and its close affinities with the Old Testament. This close connection to the OT is due to the fact of it giving the Davidic geneaology that Jesus had in 1:1-17 and His fulfillment of OT prophecies and events. (BTW, it should be noted that the only extant copies of the Davidic and Messianic geneaologies are found in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 since all the other copies were destroyed when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD.)