Gospels that have been lost, and some that have not been lost at all

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My current work on icons and iconoclasm has reconnected me with an old friend, namely the Patriarch of Constantinople Nicephorus (died 829), who played a crucial role in these ninth-century controversies. At the time, he was unquestionably the most influential Christian leader in the world, presiding over the largest church. But Nikephoros is also associated with a document that is of great interest to anyone interested in Christianity as a whole, not just this particular historical controversy. This document is a wonderful source on two vital alternative gospels.

When Nikephoros created his Historical Chronography, he added a list of scriptures, canonical and non-canonical. Each text being described with its number of lines, stichoi, the resulting text is called a Stichometry. This gives an excellent account of what scholars knew of the Bible and its contents in Late Antiquity. This could possibly reflect a situation from the 9th century, or more likely, it is a somewhat older document (from the 7th century?) that has been reused. Most scholars favor the early date, but a ninth-century origin is not out of the question. Nikephoros himself was a key participant in the well-studied Second Council of Nicaea in 787, when the participants retrieved an incredible amount of miscellaneous material to support their case, most of which presumably came from the depths of the patriarchal library. This suggests a real treasure, and even a decent recovery system. Perhaps all the treasures listed in the Stichometry were still somewhere close at hand in this rich collection, even up to about 810. Scholars also debate the place of Stichometry writing. Perhaps it was written in Constantinople, but if it was earlier it could have come from Jerusalem, or (my best bet) Caesarea, which had a legendary library.

Whatever its precise origins, Stichometry comes from a mature church age, not the time around the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (say) where we think everything was in motion. It’s not from some shady cult either: it’s totally mainstream. But still, at this late stage, there are real surprises, stark contradictions of familiar stereotypes. This extends to what the document includes and what it omits.

For instance:

1. At first glance, the Canon looks familiar….

The Old Testament is credited with 22 books, which may seem odd, but this numbering represents virtually everything we would include today except Esther. There are 26 New Testament books, including the obvious and familiar gospels and epistles, all with the line count we might expect. This is a very conservative list, which already attributes fourteen letters to Paul – presumably including the Epistle to the Hebrews. Unusually for an Eastern church, it cites all Catholic epistles as canonical.

2.And then we see what is left out….

Nikephoros then very helpfully offers a list of “disputed” books for the Old and New Testaments. here are the Antilegomena, literally the “spoken against”. These are not classified as horrible works of heresy, but rather as the title says, “disputed”. Some credible church leaders want them in the canon, some don’t, so let’s defer. At a minimum, some churches read them somewhere and used them in the liturgy. Others may accept them for private reading and edification, but not in actual service. This is separate from the (lower) Apocrypha list, which is offered separately.

In the Old Testament, the disputed B-team includes several works that were very familiar in the Greek of the Septuagint and which would become canonical for the Orthodox and Catholic churches. This would mean Maccabees (three books), Sirach, Esther, Judith and Tobias. In each of these cases, centuries of “dispute” would cause them to become part of the canon for the majority of non-Protestant churches.

But it is the “contested” category of the New Testament that is of real interest. Four works are mentioned:

The Apocalypse of John 1400 lines

The Apocalypse of Peter 300 lines

The Epistle of Barnabas 1360 lines

The Gospel of the Hebrews 2200 lines

In this very dominant church, therefore, the book which we know as the Revelation of John is challenged and put on a par with other texts which we now attribute to the Apostolic Fathers (Barnabas) or to things somewhat strange (Revelation of Peter). Today’s Orthodox churches are still nervous about allowing Revelation of John to be read in services.

The most important piece of evidence here concerns the Gospel of the Hebrews, one of the most quoted and prized scriptures of the early church, probably dating to the early 2nd century. It is now lost, but for several centuries it was commonly quoted as if fully authoritative. This gospel generated enormous speculation, as it almost certainly represented the position of the early Judeo-Christian sects. Father Jerome of the 4th century quoted it, and until 700 the English writer Bede still thought that “what is called the Gospel of the Hebrews [evangelium iuxta Hebraeos] is not among the apocrypha, but must be counted among the church histories. In the Stichometrics it is presented on a par with the Apocalypse of John, and its length would have been about the same as that of canonical Matthew. I repeat, the Gospel of the Hebrews is not cited here as Apocryphal: it is in a much higher category than that. It really came close to the status of a fifth gospel.

We have no idea what happened to the copy of this gospel noted in the Stichometry, but by the end of the ninth century we must search far west to find respectful quotations from the work, among the Irish writers. I speculate, but would the last copy of the gospel used by stubborn Jewish followers of Jesus have existed in medieval Ireland, a continent far removed from Palestine? And did this solitary volume perish in a war or disaster, perhaps a tenth-century Norse raid on a great monastery? This would be at least half a millennium after the time of Constantine and Nicaea, when most non-specialists believe that all of these alternate gospels have been lost or suppressed. They weren’t.

3.As for the Also-Rans…

Nikephoros cites the Old and New Testament apocrypha, which are a step backwards from the Antilegomena. In the Old we find Enoch and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs – both very important indeed – but here I will focus on the New Testament Apocrypha, which include the following:

Paul’s Circuit 3600 lines

The Stone Circuit 2750 lines

Jean’s Circuit 2500 lines

Thomas Circuit 1600 lines

The Gospel of Thomas 1300 lines

The Teaching (Didache) of the Apostles 200 lines

The 32 (books) of Clément 2600 lines

(Writings) of Ignatius, Polycarp and Hermas…

Many of these works are well known today in the respectable and unscriptural category of the Apostolic Fathers. Such are the Didache, the writings of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, and the Pastor of Hermas.

Circuits (Period) refer to the very important apocryphal acts of the various apostles, mostly from the second or third century, and several of which still survive at least in part. Most contain substantial portions that are (at least) vaguely Gnostic. We know that the Acts of John were available in the eighth century in Constantinople, where they were introduced as evidence at the Second Council of Nicaea. The “Circuit” of Thomas refers to part of the famous Acts of Thomas, but certainly not to the entire work, as it is well over 1,600 lines. Again, it is striking that a respectable traditional church library was preserving and cataloging these marginal texts at this late date.

4.And a real revelation…

But if there is one element that sets off alarm bells here, it is the reference to the Gospel of Thomas, which in modern times has become a famous and even explosive work that would have reflected a lost mystical aspect of early Christianity. And again supposedly, this gospel was lost from the earliest times – possibly the fourth century – until its rediscovery in the 20th century in the library of Nag Hammadi. In reality, it was not lost in this way. Various sects, such as the Manichaeans, continued to read it across Asia and the Near East, and citations of it appear well into the Middle Ages in sites along the Silk Road. (I write about this in my 2015 book The Many Faces of Christ). In the fifth century, the Gelasianum Decree condemned “the Gospel in the name of Thomas which the Manichaeans use”. As late as 730, St. John of Damascus still refers to the Gospel of Thomas as a Manichaean pillar. So would a Balkan bishop called Theophylact of Ohrid, denouncing local heretics until 1100. That the author of the Stichometry actually knew Thomas first hand is confirmed by his estimate of the number of lines. This gospel is presented as comparable in authority to the Apostolic Fathers – that is, non-canonical, but still worthy of respect.

So here’s an intriguing thought, and it’s nothing more than that. If, if, Stichometry really belonged to the time of Nicephorus, can we imagine a Patriarch of Constantinople in the 9th century stroll along the library and ask for a copy of the Gospel of Thomas for his reading?

My account here only scratches the surface of what we can extract from the Nikephoros document, but as I hope you will agree, it offers some real surprises.

According to an abundant scientific literature on all this, see:

Andrew Gregory and CM Tuckett, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Andre Gregoire, The Gospel According to the Hebrews and the Gospel of the Ebionites (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Richard Price, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787)two volumes (Liverpool University Press, 2018)


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