The Bible as Scripture for the Church is undisputed. It is also acknowledged by a majority of the faithful as the inspired word of God. However knowing the other traditions that existed during the early centuries of the church is not a question of not believing the Bible but on the contrary it should give us a better understanding of what we believe.
This understanding comes with the knowledge of how the Canonical Gospels came to be and the reasons why the other texts sometimes referred to as apocryphal did not find a place in the official scriptures of the church.
The Synoptic Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels are so called because they are said to have a “common view”. That is the meaning of the Greek word “Synoptic”.
In the first few decades after the death of Jesus his disciples and other followers went in different directions preaching the teachings of their master. Their preaching was based on their own witness of events and the reports and testimonies – some written some oral – of others
What they preached reflected not only the teachings of Jesus but also their understanding of the unfolding of God’s work in the world, taking into account the expectations of the emerging church. Besides this, the followers of Jesus had to communicate those teachings in the language of their audience. If we assume that Jesus spoke Aramaic, then the message had to be translated from Aramaic into Greek for Hellenistic Jews and Greeks, or Coptic for Egyptians. And that was easier said than done.
In addition to this difficulty the followers of Jesus had to contend with the bigger issues of cultural background. This is apparent from instances in the Gospels where the writers stop and explain Jewish customs for the simple reason that the people for whom they were writing were not familiar with Greek. “Because of their cultural and religious background, Jews would need to hear the message in one way, while Greeks with different interests, background, and concerns would need to hear it in a different way. Even among Jews, traditional Palestinian Jews most likely needed to hear it in different terms than Hellenistic Jews (Jews who had adopted Greek culture).” (1)
Diversity Of The Gospel Tradition
All this simply suggests a diversity of the Gospel tradition even before it was even written down. The demands of the growing and spreading church encouraged, not a change in the message itself, but certainly in how it was communicated. Even if there were “original” written records or notes of Jesus’ teachings, how these teachings were presented “was also a function of both the ongoing theological reflection of the early church as well as the practical demands of proclamation to widely scattered and diverse first century audiences.” (2)
The early preaching of the gospel was quickly reduced to a selected set of core traditions that soon evolved into a rather fixed form in the church because it was repeated so often. The differences arose because that core tradition was preached in different circumstances that required adaptation of those traditions.
The reasons for the differences in the preaching of the followers of Jesus also apply to differences in the actual writing of the biblical texts. Just as the disciples had to speak to certain audiences in a language that was synchronous with their language and culture, the same was expected of the writers of the Gospels. “The Gospel writers had to translate the oral tradition into the cultural and historical context of the audience for which it was written. While we do not know for certain who these audiences were or their location, the very fact that there were a variety of Gospels written in the first and early second centuries suggests that the Gospel message was being preserved in various locations.” (3)
The Gospel writers did not have a ““master” copy of the Jesus tradition.” They instead had an assortment of Gospel messages that were in vogue for 3 to 6 decades after the death of Jesus.
The preface to Luke’s Gospel confirms this:
1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. Luke 1:1
From this we may conclude that Luke was aware of the oral tradition that had become the core of the teachings of the church of that time. Luke may have also had access to other documents that were already in existence. Both Matthew and Luke are said to have been influenced by Mark and a document generally referred to as the Q document – a hypothetical written collection of Jesus’ sayings.
Differences Between John And The Synoptic Gospels:
The Gospel of John “differs significantly from the Synoptic Gospels in theme, content, time duration, order of events, and style. Only ca. 8% of it is parallel to these other Gospels, and even then, no such word-for-word parallelism occurs as we find among the Synoptic Gospels.” (4)
The differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels are because the Gospel of John represented a different Christian tradition. As a consequence of this the Gospel of John was rejected as heretical by the early Christian movement. However it was used extensively by the Gnostic Christians. Eventually this Gospel was accepted into the official canon and is now a favorite with conservative Christian groups. John was lucky that his Gospel was not axed. Others were not.
Subsequently the original copies of all the four Gospels in the Christian Scriptures were lost. Reliance was then placed on “an unknown number of hand-copied replications removed from the originals. The oldest known surviving part of a gospel dates from about 125 CE. It consists of about 50 lines from the Egerton gospel — one of the 40 or so gospels that never made it into the official canon, and whose author is unknown. Another portion of an ancient manuscript, containing part of the Gospel of John, is also dated to about 125 CE. The remaining manuscripts date to the second half of the second century CE or later.” (5)
According to biblical scholars the differences between the Synoptic Gospels in terms of content and arrangement, chronological order and theological design show that each of these Gospels had their unique theological emphasis. Besides this each of these Gospels were written for different audiences in different locations at different points in time. The word-for-word similarity in the Synoptic Gospels suggests that the writers had one common document from which they copied.
During The Early Christian Era There Were Many Christian Writings
During the early Christian movement there were many Christian writings in circulation. This raised the question: which of these are right and which of them represented the official version of the church? Eventually around 170 CE Irenaeus the leader of the church of France decided that “The heretics boast that they have many more gospels than there really are. But really they don’t have any gospels that aren’t full of blasphemy. There actually are only four authentic gospels. And this is obviously true because there are four corners of the universe and there are four principal winds, and therefore there can be only four gospels that are authentic. These, besides, are written by Jesus’ true followers.” (6)
(Fig 2) Irenaeus
Nevertheless the scholars of today do not agree with Irenaeus for the simple reason that they are not sure as to who wrote the Canonical Gospels just as they are not sure as to who wrote the Gospels trashed as heretical. What is certain is that Jesus was central to all the Canonical Gospels and “they all saw Jesus as the pivotal person, the one on whom everything depends, the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord.” (7)
However the other Gospels projected Jesus differently. He was shown as a teacher, “a figure of enlightenment, a kind of bodhisattva figure …” But the church chose the four Gospels as they show Jesus as a unique figure and this in turn gave the Catholic church the uniqueness that no other church could claim: the only source of salvation. (8)
As regards the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and the differences between them and the Gospel John there is no one answer that can definitely explain the reasons for these differences. In fact we cannot even say for sure that these are the only factual transcripts of the teachings of Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John were chosen as they were the most widely followed traditions and traditions that lasted the longest. The other Gospels – some of which may have predated the Canonical Gospels – were trashed as heretical for several reasons. Some of those Gospel were without doubt the victims in the scramble for the leadership of the emerging church.
We know from non-canonical texts that James the brother of Jesus was chosen by Jesus himself to lead the mission after his death. But he was effectively sidelined because his brand of Christianity did not suit the majority of the faithful. We know from similar texts that Jesus revealed to Mary Magdalene more secrets that he did to any of his apostles. Yet she was systematically removed from any position of significance merely because the other apostles rejected the leadership of a woman.
Some of the other Gospels – the Gnostic Gospels – hold views that are drastically different from the Canonical Gospels.
To know what these other Gospels contain and the different views they hold is not an attempt to question the historical validity of the Canonical Gospels.
We have come a long way since the early days of the church to damn the literature that the church termed as apocryphal merely because they held different views. The infancy Gospels of the 2nd century and later periods though not accepted into the biblical canon are still very popular. Works such as 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas were not included when the canon was formally decided in spite of their general popularity during the early centuries.
There is no harm in knowing more about what the non-canonical texts contain. If nothing else this could only serve to strengthen our faith in the Bible.
Please also read my other blogs:
James The Just – What Was He To Jesus? at 99
James – full Brother of Jesus, his step brother or cousin? at
When Did James The Brother Of Jesus Become A Disciple? at
Death Of James The Brother Of Jesus at
Consequence Of The Death Of The Brother Of Jesus at
(1), (2) & (3) Dennis Bratcher, The Literary Relationship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke http://www.crivoice.org/synoptic.html
(4) & (5) B.A. Robinson, http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_john.htm
(6), (7) & (8) Elaine H. Pagels, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/emergence.html
(Fig 1) Synoptic problem two source
(Fig 2) Irenaeus
(Fig 3) Christian Text outside the Canon