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A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century?

Artifact and Arti-fiction

Author: Hill, Charles E. Source: Early Christianity, Volume 4, Number 3, September

2013, pp. 310-334(25)
Publisher: Mohr Siebeck

Charles E. Hill

A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century?1

Artifact and Arti-fiction

Die Funde antiker christlicher Schriften in Ägypten widersprechen nach Meinung vie-
ler Forscher dem Bild, das sich aus Aussagen frühchristlicher Theologen wie Irenäus
oder Origenes über die Evangelien ergibt. Denn unter den frühesten Evangeliums-
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fragmenten finden sich sowohl Abschriften von EvThom, EvMar und möglicherweise
EvPetr, als auch der vier kanonischen Evangelien. Dieses Nebeneinander kanonischer
und nichtkanonischer Schriften hat viele Exegeten dazu bewegt, Begriffe wie ”apo-
kryph”, ”kanonisch” und ”Neues Testament” im Kontext der vorkonstantinischen Zeit
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als nicht mehr sinnvolle Bezeichnungen fallenzulassen. Dieser Aufsatz vertritt dage-
gen die These, dass diese Schlussfolgerung möglicherweise verfrüht ist, denn zum
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einen bleibt dabei das genaue statistische Verhältnis zwischen an denselben archäo-
logischen Stätten gefundenen kanonischen und nicht-kanonischen Handschriften
unberücksichtigt. Darüberhinaus muss aber v. a. den artefaktischen Merkmalen
der frühen christlichen Handschriften genaueste Beachtung geschenkt werden,
denn nur so erhält man ein kohärenteres Bild von der Beziehung zwischen den arte-
faktischen und den literarischen Zeugnissen.
Keywords: Gospels, Apocryphal Gospels, Canonical Gospels, New Testament Canon,
Early Christian Artifacts, New Testament Papyri, nomina sacra, diples

I. Introduction: The Challenge of the Archaeological Record

Evidence from literary sources, though not monolithic, suggests there was
a fairly widespread recognition of a four-Gospel collection or canon from
at least the second half of the second century. This is clearly the case in the
writings of Irenaeus of Lyons (Haer. 3.11.9, cf. 3.1.1; 3.11.8), Clement of
Alexandria (Strom. 3.13.93; Quis div. 1.5), and the Muratorian Fragment,
and is carried on into the ensuing years of the third century by Origen in
the East, Hippolytus and Tertullian in the West. Earlier precursors include

1 This article is a reworked version of a paper given for the Extent of Theological Diversity
in Earliest Christianity Group at the Society of Biblical Literature Meeting in San Fran-
cisco, November, 2011. Much of it is also indebted to my Who Chose the Gospels? Probing
the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford 2010).

Early Christianity 4 (2013), 310–334 DOI 10.1628/186870313X13744931257485

ISSN 1868-7032 © 2013 Mohr Siebeck
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 311

the four-Gospel harmonies of Tatian and Theophilus from the 170s or ear-
lier, the literary borrowing practices of Justin2 and the Epistula Apostolo-
rum,3 and possibly the report of Papias.4 Moreover, these four Gospels far
outstrip all others in terms of the number of times they are cited in sur-
viving literary sources.
It is well known, however, that the great majority of second-century lit-
erary sources belong to the stream of Christianity that ultimately pre-
vailed, and for this reason their value, in the eyes of some scholars
today, is restricted. This is particularly so because the archaeology of
the early period is often thought to deliver a formidable blow to the
ideas of writers like Irenaeus, demonstrating that matters “on the ground”
were much more fluid than the bishop wanted his readers to believe.
Among the earliest scraps of Gospel-like materials unearthed in Egypt
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over the past century and a half are fragments of the Gospel of Thomas,
the Gospel of Mary, possibly the Gospel of Peter, and a few other as-yet-un-
identified Gospel-like works. There are, moreover, currently more frag-
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ments of the Gospel of Thomas (three) than the Gospel of Mark (one).
The evidence moves Bart Ehrman to exclaim, “Amazingly, virtually
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every time a new document is found, it is ‘heretical’ rather than ‘proto-or-

thodox’”.5 James M. Robinson concludes from such discoveries that “in
the second century, Gospels that were later to lose out, as non-canonical,
were about as common as Gospels that were later to win out, as canoni-
In light of such findings, calls for qualifying or abandoning traditional
categories have become fairly commonplace. In 2004, noting the existence
of a relatively large number of extracanonical Christian writings found at
Oxyrhynchus, Eldon J. Epp wrote,
“The collocation with our so-called ‘New Testament’ papyri of such recognized or pos-
sible candidates for canonicity raises serious issues, such as the propriety of designating
two categories of writings in this early period: ‘New Testament’ and ‘apocryphal,’ and

2 See, e.g., O. Skarsaune, “Justin and His Bible”, in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. by S.
Parvis and P. Foster; Minneapolis 2007) 53–76, at 72.
3 D.D. Hannah, “The Four-Gospel ‘Canon’ in the Epistula Apostolorum”, JTS 59 (2008)
4 C.E. Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (Oxford 2004) 383–396, 407–416.
5 B.D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and
Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York 2009) 215.
6 J.M. Robinson, “The Nag Hammadi Gospels and the Fourfold Gospel”, in The Earliest
Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels – The Contribu-
tion of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45 (ed. by C. Horton; London and New York
2004) 69–87, at 86.
312 Charles E. Hill

whether we have given sufficient weight to the provenance of these ‘extracanonical’

books and to their juxtaposition and utilization alongside our ‘New Testament’ manu-

With the artifactual evidence in mind, Epp continued, “there is no basis …

to claim that the ‘New Testament’ manuscripts stand out as a separate or
separable group”.8 Robinson too decries “our modern situation, with the
canonical Gospels well known and treasured, but the apocryphal Gospels
unknown and looked down on”, calling it “very misleading, if we seek to
understand the earliest centuries of Christianity, when ‘canonical’ and
‘apocryphal’ are largely anachronisms, and popularity was rather evenly
distributed”.9 “Canonical” and “apocryphal” are among terms which
James Charlesworth and Lee McDonald say
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“should not be used in reference to this literature when describing ancient history and
many subsequent centuries. Moreover, such terminology is frequently prejudicial and
misrepresents both Early Judaism and earliest Christianity.”10
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Similar statements could be multiplied, but perhaps we might summarize

the conclusions of many scholars in three interrelated points. Regardless
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of the words of Irenaeus or Origen or Eusebius, artifactual evidence shows,

1) an equal or greater popularity of “Gospels that were later to lose out”, at
least up to the beginning of the third century, if not later, 2) that through-
out the pre-Constantinian period, one cannot distinguish “New Testa-
ment” manuscripts from “apocryphal” ones, 3) therefore, that words
like “apocryphal” and “New Testament” or “canonical” and “non-canon-
ical” are anachronistic, prejudicial, and inappropriate for the early period.
It certainly ought to be said at the outset, and always kept in mind, that
as crucial and eye-opening as archaeological discoveries are, they provide
at best only a part of the total picture of the development of Christianity.
They have the advantage of being tangible, impartial, and, in a sense “in-
disputable”, but the disadvantage of being more or less fortuitous, full of

7 E.J. Epp, “The Oxyrhynchus New Testament Papyri: ‘Not without Honor except in their
Hometown’?”, JBL 123 (2004) 5–55, at 17. Even “juxtaposition” in the mounds of debris,
however, does not necessitate the conclusion that books were “utilized alongside” each
8 Epp, “Not without Honor” (see n. 7), 18.
9 Robinson, “Fourfold Gospel” (see n. 6), 87.
10 J.H. Charlesworth and L.M. McDonald, “Preface: The Function of Alleged ‘Non-Ca-
nonical’ Religious Texts in Early Judaism and Earliest Christianity”, in Jewish and Chris-
tian Scriptures: The Function of ‘Canonical’and ‘Non-Canonical’ Religious Texts (ed. by
J.H. Charlesworth and L.M. McDonald; London 2009) x-xii, at xi; cf. L.M. McDonald,
“What Do We Mean by Canon? Ancient and Modern Questions”, in Jewish and Chris-
tian Scriptures (see this n.), 8–40, at 8.
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 313

gaps, and in need of interpretation. Thus, conclusions from archaeological

evidence should be drawn carefully, and after close consideration of evi-
dence provided by other sources. Having said this, there is yet a good deal
of information disclosed by the very same artifacts referred to above,
which, though long available, is only beginning to be fully appreciated.
The purpose of the present article is to indicate briefly the ways in
which this information challenges the three points above, and, in fact,
tends to reveal the presence of a “canonical consciousness” among Chris-
tian scribes from at least the late second century, the time when our Chris-
tian archaeological record begins in earnest.

II. Apocryphal
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Focusing for a moment on the one term “apocryphal”, as used in the schol-
ars’ statements above it is pejorative, perceived as a disparaging moniker
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foisted upon certain books by the fourth-century ecclesiastical “winners”,

and by their heirs. It is good to remember, however, that the word was
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first associated with Christian books not by orthodox polemicists but by

the authors and promoters of these books themselves.
Irenaeus (in the second century), indeed, once complained about “apoc-
ryphal and spurious writings” (!pojq¼vym ja· mºh_m cqav_m) of the Mar-
cosian Valentinians (Haer. 1.20.1). But one recently recovered work which
in some version was known to Irenaeus,11 the Gospel of Judas, introduces
itself as “The secret [or apocryphal] revelatory discourse in which Jesus
spoke with Judas Iscariot”. Another (the Apocryphon of John) calls itself
“The teaching [of the savior] and [the revelation] of the mysteries, [and
the] things hidden in silence, [even these things which] he taught John,
[his] disciple (1.1)”.12 The colophon of this work, in all three Coptic versions
found at Nag Hammadi and in the Berlin Codex, and its title on the flyleaf in
NHC 3, contain the Greek loanword apojquvom.13 Irenaeus also knew a
Carpocratian writing which professed to relate what “Jesus spoke in a mys-
tery to His disciples and apostles privately” (Haer. 1.25.5). This is possibly
the same gnostic work Clement of Alexandria quotes as “a certain apocry-

11 See now P. Foster, “Irenaeus and the Noncanonical Gospels”, in Irenaeus: Life, Scripture,
Legacy (ed. by S. Parvis and P. Foster; Minneapolis 2012) 105–117, esp. 106–108, 116.
12 Translation of F. Wisse from, J.M. Robinson (gen. ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library in
English (3rd ed.; San Francisco 1988).
13 See J.M. Robinson (ed.), The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag
Hammadi Codices (4 vols.; Leiden, Boston and Köln 2000), vol. II.
314 Charles E. Hill

phon” (5j timor !pojq¼vou, Strom. Hippolytus reports the claim
of Basilides and his son Isidore that Matthias (or Matthew) left them secret
discourses (kºcour !pojq¼vour) received privately from Jesus (Ref. 1.20).
Another second-century writer, Hegesippus, knew a number of such apoc-
ryphal works.14 Perhaps most poignantly, the second-century Gospel (evi-
dently not known to Irenaeus) most often portrayed as unjustly spurned by
the church, the Gospel of Thomas, begins, “These are the secret (!pºjquvoi)
words which Jesus spoke …” And this incipit is partially preserved artifac-
tually in the third-century papyrus, P. Oxy. 654.15
It is true that Irenaeus and others thought the appeal to apocryphal words
and traditions was a detriment to these books (Haer. 3.2.1)16 but their au-
thors clearly must have regarded it as a plus. Thus, to refer to works men-
tioned above and others like them17 as “apocryphal” is to do what their au-
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thors evidently wanted. It is not anachronistic and is only pejorative de-

pending upon the theology of the one who uses it.
There is something else to be learned from such self-designations about
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the mindset of those who used them. To trade on secret words of Jesus con-
cedes that there are public words already well-known, functioning as a kind
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of standard or criterion. Klauck states that such a mindset could only be pos-
sible after the close of the third century, when a notion of “canon” existed.18
Texts from the earlier period
“became ‘apocryphal’ only at a later date … their genuine Sitz-im-Leben is the wide current
of early Christian literature antecedent to the process of the formation of a scriptural canon.
There was no such canon which could have provided a criterion for the authors or for the
evaluation of their writings”.19

14 Eusebius says, “in discussing the so-called apocrypha (t_m kecol´mym … !pojq¼vym),
[Hegesippus] relates that some of them were fabricated by certain heretics in his own
time” (Hist. Eccl. 4.22.9). The substantive use of the adjective could be Eusebius’ own,
though perhaps not, as it soon appears, simply Latinized (apocrypha), in Tert.,
Pud. 10.12.
15 oitoi oi {oi} kocoi oi [apojquvoi our eka]kgsem igr … The exact orthography is vari-
ously deciphered: see D. Lührmann and E. Schlarb, Fragmente apokryph gewordener
Evangelien in griechischer und lateinischer Sprache (Marburg 2000) 113.
16 Also, Tert., Pud. 10.12, says that The Shepherd of Hermas had been judged among
“apocryphal and false writings” (inter apocrypha et falsa) by previous councils. Near
the end of the second century, Serapion of Antioch also knew of a number of “pseud-
epigrapha” (xeudep¸cqava) not accepted in the church (Eus., Hist. Eccl. 6.12.3).
17 Such as the Apocryphon of James, or the Gospel of Mary. The latter has Mary saying to the
disciples “Whatever is hidden (kamh²mei) from you and I remember, I will proclaim to
you”, preserved artifactually in the third-century fragment P. Oxy. 3525 line 18.
18 H.-J. Klauck, Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction (trans. by B. McNeil; London and
New York 2003) 2.
19 Klauck, Apocryphal Gospels (see n. 18), 2.
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 315

But on the contrary, as we have just seen, these second-century texts (some
of which are artifactually attested from the third) were “apocryphal” from
their conception, by design of their second-century authors. This would
seem to demonstrate the prior existence of a functional “canon” of Jesus’
words and deeds, not in the sense of an official ecclesiastical decree from
a centralized authority, but stemming from a strong perception of common
knowledge or consensus.
The same “apocryphal” or “alternative”, group self-consciousness man-
ifests itself in what Robinson calls the “dominant genre of Christian Gnos-
ticism”, revelation discourses of Jesus after the resurrection.20 Setting the
revelation discourse after the resurrection, outside the scope of the bulk
of the narratives in the four Gospels, seems to concede a) that what Jesus
said and did before the resurrection was already available in commonly-
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known sources, and b) that these available sources did not adequately con-
vey the meanings these authors believed needed to be conveyed. As Robin-
son says,
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“In this way the gnostics could explain the absence of gnostic mythology from mainline
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Christianity by claiming that gnostic mythology was an esoteric teaching first revealed
by the resurrected Christ to the select few.”21

This is a self-conception that defines itself over and against what is perceived
as public and common (or “catholic”). It seems the mirror-opposite to the
self-conception of people like Irenaeus, and suggests that his attitude may
have been anchored in a broadly based set of circumstances.
Of course, not all the Gospels sometimes called “apocryphal” were of this
self-consciously apocryphal type, and their inclusion with the others could
be considered category confusion. Works such as the Gospel of Peter, the
Gospel of the Ebionites, probably the Egerton Gospel and others, while
they add various other elements as well, correspond more nearly to the nar-
rative materials in the four Gospels. It is quite conceivable that some of these
Gospels, particularly those which betray strong synthetic tendencies, may
have been intended primarily as popular digests or individualized retellings
of the Gospel stories, for assorted purposes. At least to some extent they be-
long to the multifaceted amalgamating/harmonizing impulse, already ac-

20 Robinson, “Fourfold Gospel” (see n. 6), 80. These works “were not called ‘gospels’ …
Yet, for all practical purposes, they are for Gnosticism what ‘Gospels’ are for orthodox
21 Robinson, “Fourfold Gospel” (see n. 6), 80.
316 Charles E. Hill

tive in the second century.22 This found its apotheosis in the careful, schol-
arly four-Gospel harmonies of Tatian the Syrian and Theophilus of Antioch
(perhaps Justin used a precursor). It is also seen in many quotations of
church writers (Justin in particular), which tend to conflate and/or harmo-
nize words from two or more of the four Gospels.23 It is manifested as well
occasionally in early copies of the canonical Gospels, where a scribe witting-
ly or unwittingly harmonized one Gospel to the wording of another. All
these phenomena presuppose the prominence of the synoptic and the Jo-
hannine traditions and provide evidence of the individual Gospels of Mat-
thew, Mark, Luke, and John being read together and interpreted in light of
each other. Thus, though they do so in different ways, these phenomena and
the self-styled apocryphal literature each tend to point to a fund of Jesus-ma-
terial already widely known and accepted among Christians.
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III. Numbers
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The numbers of Gospels to be attributed to a certain period may always vary

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slightly, depending upon whether a few separately discovered fragments

might have once belonged to the same codex, and due to the imprecise na-
ture of paleography. Here, particularly for the purpose of evaluating schol-
ars’claims, I shall use the “consensus” dates of the profession, realizing that
some of them may be too precise,24 and placing more emphasis on the entire
pre-Constantinian period.

22 See, e.g., T. Baarda, ‘Diavym¸a – Sulhom¸a, Factors in the Harmonization of the Gospels
Especially in the Diatessaron of Tatian”, in id., Essays in the Diatessaron (Kampen 1994)
29–47, at 35; A. Gregory, “Jewish Christian Gospels”, in The Non-canonical Gospels (ed.
by P. Foster; London 2008) 54–67, at 61. For more on this, see Hill, Who Chose the Gos-
pels? (see n. 1), Chapter 5.
23 See, e.g., J. Verheyden, “Justin’s Text of the Gospels: Another Look at the Citations in 1
Apol. 15.1–8”, in The Early Text of the New Testament (ed. by C.E. Hill and M.J. Kruger;
Oxford 2012) 313–335.
24 Cf. B. Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in ‘Dating of the
Fourth Gospel’”, HTR 98 (2005) 23–48; D. Barker, “The Dating of New Testament Pa-
pyri”, NTS 57 (2011) 571–582. Barker, „Dating“ (see this n.), 575, believes that P52 can be
dated no more narrowly than “II or III”, though he earlier had stated that the “graphic
stream” to which P52 belongs “is attested in the first century AD and onwards” (574).
This approach would also affect the early dating of the Egerton Gospel, with which
P52 shares some scribal characteristics (574). Barker’s broader dating for P4+64+67
(mid-II to mid-IV) (578) discounts, however, the reasons others have given for the
late-third-century dating of the Philo codex in which P4 (in my opinion, once joined
to P67) was found. On the other hand, Barker opposes Bagnall’s doubts (R.S. Bagnall,
Early Christian Books in Egypt [Princeton 2009] 2–24) that any second-century Chris-
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 317

There seems to be a consensus that the Egerton Gospel (P. Egerton 2 + P.

Köln 255) and P. Oxy. 4009 (an unknown Gospel, sometimes claimed as the
Gospel of Peter) belong to the late second century. In addition, P. Oxy. 2949
(also possibly Gos. Pet.) is listed by as “II/III” by Lührmann and Schlarb,25
and Juan Chapa has dated to the same period the newly published P. Oxy.
5072 (unknown Gospel).26 P. Oxy. 1 (Gospel of Thomas) is usually consid-
ered to be early third century. Thus we might say there are very probably two
but possibly as many as five non-canonical Gospel fragments copied in the
second century.
There seems to be a consensus that four27 separate fragments of Matthew
(P , P77, P103, P104) and two of John (P52 and P90) are from before the close
of the second century. If P4 is from the same codex as P64+67, then it too could
be classified as second-century, though others have dated P4 to the early
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third. In addition, P66 (John) is usually placed at “ca. 200”, P75 (Luke,
John) is most often dated late second- or early third-century, less frequently
P5, P39, P108, and P109 (all fragments of John) as well.28 Thus, there are now
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very probably six but possibly as many as fourteen second-century frag-

ments of one of the four Gospels.
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If we broaden our scope to the pre-Constantinian period, the four Gos-

pels Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John are represented, by one count, 41 times
in 36 separate manuscripts up to the beginning of the fourth century.29 If (as

tian papyri could be found in the Egyptian chora, noting that texts produced in Alex-
andria or further afield in the second century could well have been brought to the chora
in the third. For another response to Bagnall, see Larry Hurtado’s review at http://www.
25 Lührmann and Schlarb, Fragmente (see n. 15), 23.
26 J. Chapa, “Uncanonical Gospel?”, inThe Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 76 (ed. by D. Colomo
and J. Chapa, with contributions by J. Barton et al.; London 2011) 1–18.
27 Three if, as some believe, P77 and P103 are from the same copy of Matthew.
28 For a chart comparing the dating of various experts, see Hill, Who Chose the Gospels?
(see n. 1), 249f. To that list, now add P39 (P. Oxy 1780), which, in the opinion of D. Bark-
er, “How Long and Old is the Codex of Which P. Oxy. 1353 is a Leaf ?”, in Jewish and
Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon (ed. by C.A. Evans and H.D. Zacharias; SSEJC
13; Edinburgh 2009) 192–202, at 198, could be late second-century.
29 Numbers based on L.W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and
Christian Origins (Grand Rapids and Cambridge 2006), Appendix 1, which includes
two early parchment manuscripts (0171, Matthew/Luke; 0162, John); adding two re-
cently published third-century fragments of John (P119 [P. Oxy. 4803] and P121 [P.
Oxy 4805]). In a 2012 debate with Bart Ehrman, Daniel Wallace reported that three
more Gospel fragments are awaiting publication, including one early fragment of
Mark. These are not counted as they remain unpublished.
318 Charles E. Hill

I believe) P4+64+67 (Matthew and Luke) came from the same codex,30 and if
(as some think) P77 and P103 (Matthew) came from the same codex, this
would reduce the representations of one of the four Gospels to 40 and
the number of manuscripts to 34. By comparison, non-canonical Gospels
represented in fragments dating from the period now number ten: 3 of Tho-
mas; 2 of Mary; 1 of Peter(?), and four unidentified Gospels.31
Robinson’s claim that in the second century non-canonical Gospels were
about as common as the four is thus not supported by the evidence. Not only
does his statement generalize about Christianity as a whole from the chance
discovery of manuscripts, ignoring literary witnesses entirely, it is not borne
out by the numbers.32 Ehrman’s quip that “virtually every time a new doc-
ument is found, it is ‘heretical’ rather than ‘proto-orthodox’” fails even more
miserably, particularly when applied to Gospels.33 It does not really help to
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point out that heretics also used proto-orthodox Gospels, and therefore that
some of the canonical fragments may have been used by heretics. While this
may be true, it is also the case that the “orthodox” sometimes used “heret-
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ical” Gospels.34
More impressive on the surface is that Mark, at present, is represented
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only once among published, pre-Constantinian, papyrus fragments, and

therefore lags behind the attestation of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel
of Mary. Yet that single third-century transcription of Mark (P45) exists
within a large codex bound together with Matthew, Luke, John, and
Acts. Mark’s Gospel is also conflated with the other three in a third-century
parchment fragment of the Diatessaron (P. Dura 10), and harmonizations
to the text of Mark are seen in Luke in P4 and possibly in other early man-
uscripts.35 Complementing this artifactual evidence are literary sources in-

30 See C.E. Hill, “Intersections of Jewish and Christian Scribal Culture. The Original
Codex Containing P4, P64, and P67, and its Implications”, in Among Jews, Gentiles,
and Christians in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (ed. by R. Hvalvik and J. Kaufman;
Trondheim 2011) 75–91.
31 Based on Hurtado, Artifacts (see n. 29), Appendix 1, but including P. Oxy. 5072 (un-
known Gospel), which has since been published.
32 His qualification, that things began to change around the year 200 “as the concept of
canonicity began to take over” (Robinson, “Fourfold Gospel” [see n. 6], 86), may
place too much confidence in precise dates, and at any rate is not backed by dramatically
changing ratios in the third century.
33 Even more so, because many fragments come from books that were not “canonical” but
neither were they gnostic or “heretical”.
34 I shall return to this matter later.
35 For P4, see T. Wasserman, “A Comparative Textual Analysis of P4 and P64+67”, TC: A
Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism 15 (2010) 1–26, at 21; for Matthew in P103, id.,
“The Early Text of Matthew”, in The Early Text of the New Testament (see n. 23),
83–107, at 100.
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 319

dicating that from at least about a century earlier than P45, Mark was used by
many churches alongside Matthew, Luke, and John, and that a Gospel at-
tributed to Mark was in use in Asia Minor near the beginning of the second
century (Eus., Hist. Eccl. 3.39.14–15). It is this sort of evidence, the sort
which does not exist for any of the non-canonical Gospels, which makes
it appear that Mark is currently “under-represented” in the Egyptian papyri.
Significance also attaches to the fact that our papyrus evidence comes
from Egypt. It is axiomatic among scholars that second-century Egyptian
Christianity was characterized by the strong presence – according to
some, the domination – of heterodox, or “gnostic” groups. This axiom is
seldom referenced, however, when scholars generalize about early Christi-
anity solely from our Egyptian archaeological evidence. What it means is
that if there is any place in the empire where we ought to expect the ratio
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of heterodox to orthodox documents to favor the former, it is Egypt. But

even in Egypt, canonical Gospels outnumber non-canonical ones by
about four to one, and some of the non-canonical ones are almost certainly
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not heterodox.36 It might be reasonable to expect that canonical Gospels

might fare even better in other parts of the empire, if evidence were forth-
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Yet the raw numbers tell only a small part of the story; the manuscripts
themselves have more to say. Epp has stated, “there is no basis … to claim
that the ‘New Testament’ manuscripts stand out as a separate or separable
group”.37 On a closer look, there may well be, particularly with Gospel man-

36 This may include P. Oxy. 2949 (Gos. Pet.?); Egerton, quite possibly the Fayuum Gospel,
and others.
37 Epp, “Not without Honor” (see n. 7), 18.
320 Charles E. Hill

IV. Physical Distinctions

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Gospel A Gospel B
Figure 1.: Two Early Gospel Fragments

There is a clear, visible difference between these two contemporary Gospel

manuscripts. Gospel A exhibits a rapidly-written, informal, cursive hand,
the kind customarily used for bills of sale and other documentary records.
It is characterized by ligatures (pen-stroke connections of letters), a lack of
concern for regularity in letter size or shape, little attempt at bilinearity
(keeping letters within imaginary double horizontal lines). This copy
was clearly intended for personal and not for public reading.
Gospel B is written in a clear, upright, even calligraphic hand, an early
example of a formal bookhand often called “biblical majuscule”. Each let-
ter is written separately, and much care is taken in the formation of the
letters and lines. The scribe, clearly a professional, achieves great regular-
ity, keeps to a bilinear formation, and uses some spacing. The scribe ob-
viously was attempting a formal and easily-readable transcription. This
copy was almost certainly intended for public reading.
But beyond the obvious differences in the care and style of writing, a
perhaps more significant point of differentiation is one which is not visible
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 321

from the photographs. Gospel A (P. Oxy. 3525, Gospel of Mary)38 is written
on a roll, Gospel B (P39, Gospel of John)39 on a codex.

1. Physical Format
In 1970 C. H. Roberts observed, “All Christian manuscripts of the Bible,
whether of the Old Testament or of the New Testament, attributable to the
second or the earlier third century, are codices, all written on papyrus.”40
With non-Biblical manuscripts, Roberts said, “practice varies; some, pos-
sibly because they were candidates for the Canon, others more probably
on the analogy of the biblical texts, are in codex form”.41 While the codex
form was gradually coming into use in the second century as a vehicle for
Greek and Latin literature, its early and virtually universal adoption by
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Christians as the format for conveying their Scriptures (and eventually

other literature as well) is extraordinary and has been the subject of
much scholarly attention. In 2006, after the publication of dozens more
early Christian manuscripts, Larry Hurtado could still write, “there is
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no New Testament text copied on an unused roll among second- or

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third-century Christian manuscripts”.42 There are only a few written on

the backs of used rolls (opisthographs), a practice adopted presumably
when other writing materials were scarce or unaffordable.43
Of the 40 representations of one of the four Gospels, none was written
on the inside of an unused roll and only one (P22, P. Oxy. 1228) is an opis-
thograph; all 39 remaining instances are in codex form. Hurtado thinks,
“it is reasonable to judge that the use of a roll to copy a text signals that the
copyist and/or user for whom the copy was made did not regard that text
(or at least that copy of that text) as having scriptural status”.44 It thus

38 Egypt Exploration Society.

39 Ambrose Swasey Library, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Rochester, New York.
40 C.H. Roberts, “Books in the Graeco-Roman World and in the New Testament”, in The
Cambridge History of the Bible (ed. by P.R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans; Vol. 1, From the
Beginnings to Jerome; Cambridge 1970) 48–66, at 56.
41 Roberts, “Books” (see n. 40), 57.
42 Hurtado, Artifacts (see n. 29), 58.
43 P22 (John), P13 (Hebrews), P18 (Revelation), and P98 (Revelation).
44 Hurtado, Artifacts (see n. 29), 81. Does our evidence justify the obverse proposal – that
the use of a codex to copy a text signals that the copyist and/or user did regard that text (or
at least that copy of that text) as having scriptural status? One complicating factor is that
the codex form, at least by the later third century, is becoming more widely used for all
kinds of literature, so that by probably sometime in the fourth century the distinction
had lost much of the meaning it once had. Yet, for the second through at least most of the
third century, it might be a viable hypothesis that, unless contrary indications are pres-
322 Charles E. Hill

would appear to be quite significant, though it is seldom noted, that five of

our ten earliest (pre-Constantinian) non-canonical Gospel fragments, are
not in codex form.45 That is, only five have even the outward appearance of
contemporary copies of the four Gospels that we know from literary
sources were being used by churches as scripture. Put another way, 0%
of manuscripts of the (four) canonical Gospels are written on unused
rolls, and only 2.5% are opisthographs, while 40% of manuscripts of
non-canonical Gospel manuscripts are written on unused rolls, and
10% are opisthographs. In 50% of the cases, then, something does distin-
guish “canonical” from “non-canonical” Gospels in the early period: their
basic physical form.
The ratio of canonical to non-canonical Gospels in codex form current-
ly stands at 39 to 5.
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Gospel Unused Roll Opisthograph Codex

Matthew 0 0 13
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Mark 0 0 1
Luke 0 0 7
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John 0 1 18
Thomas 1 1 1
Mary 1 0 1
Peter 1 0 0
”Egerton” 0 0 1
Fayum 1 0 0
P.Oxy.4009 0 0 1
P.Oxy.5072 0 0 1

Fig. 2.: Formats of 2nd and 3rd Century Gospel Manuscripts

In addition, one of the noted advantages of the codex was its ability to ac-
commodate more text, and more separate texts, than the roll. At least

ent, a non-miniature (see below) codex form for a Christian document may be pre-
sumed to entail a perception, or a claim, of scriptural status.
45 These are P.Oxy. 655 (Gos. Thom.), 3rd c.; P. Oxy 3525 (Gos. Mary), 3rd c.; P.Oxy 2949
(possibly Gos. Pet.), 2nd-3rd c; P.Vindob.G. 2325 (the Fayûm Gospel), 3rd c, and P.
Oxy. 654 (Gos. Thom.), 3rd c., opisthograph. This (and in particular P. Oxy. 2949) raises
the possibility that when Serapion of Antioch was handed a copy of the Gospel of Peter in
Rhossus in the late second century (Eus., Hist. Eccl. 6.12), he was looking at a roll, not a
codex. This might help account for his seemingly casual initial reaction to the docu-
ment. See C.E. Hill, “Serapion of Antioch, the Gospel of Peter, and a Four Gospel
Canon”, in Studia Patristica XLV (ed. by J. Baun, A. Cameron, M. Edwards and M. Vinz-
ent; Leuven, Paris and Walpole, MA 2010) 337–342.
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 323

four46 multiple-Gospel codices have been recovered dating from the sec-
ond or third centuries.47 In none of these is a non-canonical Gospel bound
together with canonical ones, all four are combinations of two or more of
the four Gospels (P4+64+67, Matthew and Luke; P75, Luke and John; P45,
Matthew, John, Luke, Mark, with Acts; 0171, on parchment, Matthew
and Luke).

2. Other Physical Characteristics: Codex Size, Nomina Sacra,

Handwriting, Reader’s Aids
The basic form, codex or roll, is probably the closest thing we have to a
physical, “absolute” distinguishing factor. But there are other physical
or formal factors which, because they occur not at random but show
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signs of regularity or standardization, may serve as points of comparison.

These are, codex size, the particular use of the nomina sacra conventions,
the formality or informality of the hand, and the scribal incorporation of
various “reader’s aids” such as punctuation, spacing, paragraphing, letter
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size, reduced line lengths and number of lines per page.

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Codex Size. The attempt to classify early codices by size was a pioneering
effort of papyrologist Eric G. Turner. Turner was convinced that
“within chronologically definable periods scribes favored one or other of such groupings
sufficiently for these groupings themselves to offer a chronological aid to the research-

Building upon this conviction, Scott Charlesworth has made the impor-
tant observation that, with few exceptions, early Gospel codices were con-
structed in “standardized” sizes, and that these sizes increased somewhat
from the second to the third century.49
“In the second and second/third centuries the preferred size for gospel codices approx-
imated the small Turner Group 9.1 format (W11.5–14 cm x H at least 3 cm higher than

46 Or five. Two fragments identified as P53 (P. Mich. Inv. 6652), one containing a portion
of Matthew, the other a portion of Acts, were found together and are considered to have
come from the same codex. It is likely, though of course not certain, that such a codex,
like P45, would have contained the other three Gospels.
47 There may be more, but the fragmentary nature of most manuscripts does not allow a
firm judgment.
48 E.G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex (Philadelphia 1977) 25.
49 S.D. Charlesworth, “Public and Private – Second- and Third-Century Gospel Manu-
scripts”, in Jewish and Christian Scripture (see n. 28) 148–175.
324 Charles E. Hill

W), while in the third century a size approximating the taller but still portable 8.2 Group
format (W12–14 cm x H not quite twice W) predominated.”50

Charlesworth here is cataloguing only copies of the canonical Gospels. So

it is a relevant question how the non-canonical Gospel manuscripts com-
pare. Of the five non-canonical Gospels in codex form, at least one has di-
mensions which place it outside the norm, and quite possibly another.
P. Ryl. 463, third century, Gospel of Mary, codex: P. Ryl. 463, originally
measuring about 9 cm wide by 13.5 cm high, is uniquely small compared
to contemporary codices containing one of the four. In fact, this copy of
Gos. Mary is usually classified as a miniature codex, that is, one “measur-
ing from 15 x 11 cm. down to 7 x 5 cm”.51 The small size of P. Ryl. 463 is
more conspicuous given its third-century dating (see Charlesworth’s com-
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ment above). What the small size of miniature codices denotes is not nec-
essarily that the texts they contained were not considered sacred or scrip-
tural,52 but that these particular copies were most likely constructed with
private, not public, reading in mind.53 In any case, this codex stands apart
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from the crowd.

P. Oxy. 4009, late second c., codex: Unfortunately, only a narrow piece
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of this papyrus manuscript remains, but enough for the first editors of P.
Oxy. 4009 to conclude,
“If there was only one column to the page, we have a miniature codex, with a page width
of (say) 7 cm … In that case, the original page height may have been no more than

50 S.D. Charlesworth, “Indicators of Catholicity in Early Gospel Manuscripts”, in The

Early Text of the New Testament (see n. 23) 37–48, at 37. He maintains, “Early Christians
acknowledged their importance by using standard-sized codices” (37f).
51 C.H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt, The Schweich Lec-
tures 1977 (London 1979) 10f. P. Ryl. 463 is listed as a miniature by L. Hurtado, “Early
Christian Manuscripts as Artifacts”, in Jewish and Christian Scripture (see n. 28) 66–81,
at 80; T.J. Kraus, “Die Welt der Miniaturbücher in der Antike und Spätantike. Pro-
legomena und erste methodische Annäherungen für eine Datensammlung”, SNTU
35 (2010) 79–110, at 99; L.H. Blumell, Lettered Christians. Christians, Letters, and
Late Antique Oxyrhynchus (Leiden and Boston 2012) 168 n. 25.
52 Especially beginning in the fourth century, many OTand NT books were copied in min-
iature codices for private reading. Yet the strong correspondence between non-scrip-
tural Christian books and the miniature format is often noted (e.g., Blumell, Lettered
Christians [see n. 51], 168).
53 Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief (see n. 51), 11. While we cannot be sure whether
or not the Gospel of Mary was ever read liturgically in a service of worship, neither of our
two extant manuscripts (P. Oxy. 3525, written on a roll in a cursive hand; P. Ryl. 463,
miniature codex) gives us good reason to believe that it was.
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 325

10 cm… but it remains possible that we have here one of the rare examples of a two-col-
umn papyrus codex…”54

Since two-column codices were much less common in this period (often
the term “rare” is used), it is at least more likely (though not certain) that
this manuscript was a miniature codex like P. Ryl. 463 and was made for
private reading.
The ratio of canonical to non-canonical Gospels in non-miniature
codex form, currently stands at 39 to 4/3.

Use of the Nomina Sacra. Another characteristic of early Christian writ-

ings, canonical and non-canonical, is the use of the so-called nomina
sacra, the compendia of abbreviations with overscoring, used instead of
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writing out in full certain theological words. There are four (or five)
“core” terms, all divine names or titles (heor, juqior, Igsour, Wqistor,
and perhaps pmeula as well), which were all but universally abbreviated
in early Christian writing. There are ten other words connected in
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some way with these five,55 which are irregularly abbreviated, probably
signifying expansions upon the earlier more restrictive practice. On
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these other ten, practice varies from scribe to scribe (or perhaps church
to church). While use of the convention is universal among Christians,
Hurtado has noted that there is a “comparative differentiation between
Christian biblical and some copies of nonbiblical texts”.56 This, we find,
is the case with Gospel texts.
The Egerton Gospel (P. Egerton 2 + P. Köln 255), codex: The most no-
torious example is the Egerton Gospel (P. Egerton 2 + P. Köln 255), whose
peculiarities have been evident since the editio princeps.57 Besides three of
the five “standard” words for which Christian scribes always employed the
nomina sacra technique, this manuscript abbreviates the proper (but non-

54 D. Lührmann and P.J. Parsons, “4009. Gospel of Peter?”, in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri,
vol. 60 (ed. by R.A. Coles, M.W. Haslam and P.J. Parsons; London 1994) 1.
55 In his classic study, Paap identified the others as patgq, ouqamor, amhqypor, Daueid,
Isqagk, Ieqousakgl, uior, sytgq, stauqor, lgtgq (A.H.R.E. Paap, Nomina Sacra in
the Greek Papyri of the First Five Centuries [Leiden 1959]).
56 Hurtado, Artifacts (see n. 29), 125f.
57 H. Idris Bell and T.C. Skeat, Fragments of an Unknown Gospel and Other Early Papyri
(London 1935). See Paap, Nomina Sacra (see n. 55), 114; R. Goode, “Kings or Gods?
Towards an Anthropology of Text”, in Textual Variation: Theological and Social Ten-
dencies? Papers from the Fifth Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of
the New Testament (ed. by H.A.G. Houghton and D.C. Parker; Piscataway, NJ 2008)
25–33, at 27.
326 Charles E. Hill

divine) names Moses (ly) and Isaiah (g[sar or g[r)58 and the plural nouns
kings (bakeu[sim) and prophets (pqovar); it even contracts the verb
“prophesy” (epqovsem), all of which are anomalous, and their closest anal-
ogies occur in sources much later than the date customarily given for Eger-
ton.59 Various explanations have been proposed: the scribe does not grasp
the logic of the convention; the scribe is unconcerned with the logic of the
convention;60 the scribe is writing before the convention had been stand-
ardized, etc. In any case, the scribe’s practice is “unconventional”. It is pos-
sible that this scribe was simply not accustomed to copying Christian
manuscripts. The scribe seems to be consciously imitating, but either in-
tentionally exaggerating or simply executing idiosyncratically, such fea-
tures as he or she had seen in manuscripts of other Gospels. This expla-
nation would cohere well with this text’s apparent dependency on the Jo-
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hannine and the Synoptic Gospels in terms of content.61 In any case,

Egerton’s peculiar set of nomina sacra sets it apart from contemporary
copies of canonical Gospel (and other NT) manuscripts.
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P. Oxy. 5072, codex: This small codex fragment was published in 2011
and was dated “end of second/beginning of third century” by its first ed-
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itor.62 Its contents show similarities to Matthew and Luke (in a minor way
to Mark). As with some other fragments often classified as Gospel frag-
ments, it is not clear whether this is indeed a Gospel, or “an abridged ver-
sion, combining more than one gospel, or an account of gospel stories and
sayings recounted from memory”.63 Its fragmentary text preserves only

58 See Paap, Nomina Sacra (see n. 55), 114.

59 The only non-divine personal name included in Paap’s expanded list of 15 nomina sacra
is “David”, the earliest example of which is in the Acts of Paul dated ca. 300. David, how-
ever, is part of the Christological title “Son of David”. One might speculate a Christo-
logical basis for Moses in “a prophet like Moses”, but this is a stretch; I am not aware that
Isaiah is part of any Christological title. On “kings” see below.
60 “At least the scribe … seems to have used the abbreviations without deeper theological
considerations”; “it is also perfectly possible that the forms … are just used in an ad hoc
way, without further considerations”, T. Nicklas, “The ‘Unknown Gospel’ on Papyus
Egerton 2 (+Papyrus Cologne 255)”, in Gospel Fragments (ed. by T. Nicklas, M.J. Kruger
and T.J. Kraus; Oxford 2009) 11–122, at 18, 19.
61 Though this remains contested by some, the way Egerton combines both Johannine and
Synoptic elements, in my opinion, points decisively to its dependence upon these earlier
written Gospels. See, Hill, Johannine Corpus (see n. 4), 302–306 and literature cited
there, adding S.R. Pickering, “The Egerton Gospel and New Testament Textual Trans-
mission”, in The New Testament Text in Early Christianity: Proceedings of the Lille col-
loquium, July 2000 (ed. by C.-B. Amphoux and J. Keith Elliott; Lausanne 2000) 215–233.
62 Chapa, “Uncanonical Gospel?” (see n. 26), 1.
63 Chapa, “Uncanonical Gospel?” (see n. 26), 1.
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 327

two clear nomina sacra.64 Its abbreviation of uie (ue) is attested in early NT
manuscripts, but its abbreviation of basikeia (bakeia in fl9), “kingdom”, is
unparalleled in other early Christian papyri,65 though it could be related to
one of the Egerton abbreviations, the plural basikeusim (bakeu[sim).66 Not
only is P. Oxy 5072’s choice of words unusual, so is the method of conden-
sation. Typically, nomina sacra were abbreviated either by contraction
(writing first and last, or first, second, and last letters) or less often by sus-
pension (first two letters only). Here only the two letters (or, the second
syllable) si are omitted.
The same possible explanations that exist for the unusual practice in
Egerton are available for P. Oxy. 5072 as well.67 The point is, that while
these two early non-canonical Christian papyrus fragments share some
physical traits of canonical materials, they stand with each other but
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apart from the mainstream by their use of (in Egerton’s case, a set of)
“non-standard” abbreviations.
Thus the ratio of early canonical to non-canonical Gospels in non-min-
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iature codex form, using standard nomina sacra stands at 39 to 1/2.

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Handwriting and Reader’s Aids. This brings us down to the non-canon-

ical Gospel fragment which seems to bear the greatest resemblance to con-
temporary canonical Gospel manuscripts, P. Oxy. 1.
P. Oxy. 1, Gospel of Thomas, codex: After offering a detailed analysis of
the scribal features of P. Oxy. 1, Hurtado summarizes:

64 It also preserves ]r on line ! 9. This is probably the final letter of the nomen sacrum ir
(in which case it would differ from Egerton, which uses the suspended form ig for Jesus),
but could also be jr.
65 The seventh- or eighth-century supplementer of codex W at John 1:49 abbreviates basi-
keur as bkeur and at 3.3 has bkeiam for basikeiam (the words are not abbreviated else-
where in W). In John 1:49, the reference is to Jesus, and in 3:3 it is to “the kingdom of
God”, thus in each case the abbreviated word is closely associated with divinity. In Eger-
ton, on the other hand, the “kings” are contrasted to God (I am not persuaded by Goode’s
suggestion (Goode, “Kings or Gods?” [see n. 57], 28) that the contracted form of basi-
keusim in Egerton is a deliberate interpretation of secular kingship as divine). In 5072 we
cannot tell the context as the papyrus breaks off. A form of basikeia or basikeur is also
abbreviated in P. Oxy 2068, a fourth-century liturgical fragment. But this is a contraction
br (Paap, Nomina Sacra [see n. 55], 114) and apparently unrelated to the practice of
Egerton or P. Oxy. 5072.
66 This and other similarities with P. Egerton 2 noted by J. Chapa, “A newly published ‘gos-
pel fragment’”, Early Christianity 3 (2012) 381–389, at 387f, make possible the specu-
lation (and it is only a speculation) that P. Egerton 2 and P. Oxy 5072 represent two early
copies of the same work.
67 Chapa, “A newly published ‘gospel fragment’” (see n. 66), 382.
328 Charles E. Hill

“It is … more difficult to be certain about the intended usage of P.Oxy 1. The probable
size of this codex is rather typical of papyrus codices of its time, including many Chris-
tian copies of biblical texts. But, as noted already, in comparison with some other Chris-
tian manuscripts, the somewhat larger number of lines per page and the small size of the
letters, plus the good likelihood that the codex included some other text(s) as well as
GThom68 combine to make one wonder if this manuscript was some sort of compendi-
um, perhaps for personal usage. The lack of sense-unit markers or spacing and punctu-
ation is consistent with this, as Christian codices copied for public/liturgical usage tend
to have such readers’ aids supplied by the original copyist.”69

AnneMarie Luijendijk, however, disputes Hurtado’s assessment.70 She re-

gards P. Oxy. 1 as quite comparable to “Numerous contemporary manu-
scripts of now biblical books” which “reveal similar hands”, and suggests
this copy of Thomas conforms to other “relatively unimpressive manu-
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scripts” which were “read in worship settings and considered sacred scrip-
ture”.71 Hurtado’s point, however, concerns not simply the scribal hand,
but more especially the other scribal features of P. Oxy. 1. The overall scri-
bal character of P. Oxy. 1 (a reformed documentary hand, but with more
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text per page and no punctuation or spacing) does resemble a number of

NT manuscripts, but its closest resemblance is to NT manuscripts which
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scholars judge more likely to have been copied for personal rather than
public use.72 As Charlesworth says, when the characteristics of
“uniformity in size, hands in the semi-literary to (formative) biblical majuscule range,
and the use of text division and punctuation as reader’ aids … are present as a group,
especially in tandem with checking and correction, the manuscript was probably pro-
duced in a ‘controlled’ setting for public use in Christian gatherings”.73

If we were to compare P. Oxy. 1 to “public copies” such as, for instance,

P4+64+67 or P75, we would see a number of contrasts in paratextual fea-

68 This is because a page number is preserved in P. Oxy. 1, showing that the codex must
have contained something more than simply the Gos. Thom. However, there is not
enough space for one of the four Gospels.
69 L. Hurtado, “The Greek Fragments of the Gospel of Thomas as Artefacts: Papyrological
Observations on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654 and Papyrus Oxy-
rhynchus 655”, in Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie (ed. by J.
Frey, E.E. Popkes and J. Schröter, in colloboration with C. Jacobi; BZNW 157; Berlin
and New York 2008) 19–32, at 30.
70 A.M. Luijendijk, “Reading the Gospel of Thomas in the Third Century: Three Oxyrhyn-
chus Papyri and Origen’s Homilies”, in Reading New Testament papyri in context/Lire les
papyrus du Nouveau Testament dans leur contexte (ed. by C. Clivaz and J. Zumstein, in
collaboration with J. Read-Heimerdinger and J. Paik; BETL 242; Leuven and Walpole,
MA 2011) 241–268, at 255.
71 Luijendijk, “Reading” (see n. 70), 256; cf. 254, 257.
72 See Charlesworth’s Table 2.2 ‘Private’ Gospel Manuscripts (“Catholicity” [see n. 50], 44).
73 Charlesworth, “Catholicity” (see n. 50), 42.
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 329

tures.74 Therefore, I do not think Luijendijk has won the case for P. Oxy. 1
being a liturgical copy in the mold of what are most likely to be liturgical
copies of one of the four Gospels.75
Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to conclude that P. Oxy. 1 was pre-
pared by its scribe to look like copies of Christian scripture the scribe
had seen (perhaps the scribe only knew private and not liturgical copies),
much as P. Egerton 2 + P. Köln 255 apparently was. That is, while it lacks
features typical of most-likely liturgical copies of scriptural Gospels, P.
Oxy. 1 was probably prepared by its scribe to be “put forward”76 as a scrip-
tural Gospel.77 P. Oxy. 655 (roll) and 654 (opisthograph) were possibly
made by or for Christians who did not hold the same opinion of Gos.
Thom. and wanted personal copies to read out of curiosity, for personal
enlightenment, or perhaps even for refutation.78
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Simply counting the raw numbers of canonical and non-canonical

manuscripts reclaimed from Egypt leaves a great deal unsaid. Copies of
the four Gospels do tend to stand out from copies of other Gospels, though
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it should probably be stated the other way: the physical and scribal qual-
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74 See Charlesworth’s Table 2.1 ‘Public’ Gospel Manuscripts (“Catholicity” [see n. 50], 43).
75 Her argument for liturgical use of Thomas based on Origen’s (rare) use of material from
it does not sufficiently take into account Origen’s notion that some works were “mixed”
(l¸jtom, Comm Jo. 13.104), that is, they could contain some true or genuine material
without being scriptural. See Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? (see n. 1), 75–78.
76 As some in Rhossus were “putting forward” (t¹ … pqoveqºlemom) the Gos. Pet. some
years earlier.
77 Whether this or any copy of Thomas was ever read from in a liturgical setting we, of
course, do not know. At best, the number of Christians who might have regarded Tho-
mas as scriptural was probably never very high. It is not only the scarcity of codex man-
uscripts and the sparse but negative notices of a number of church leaders which point
in this direction. This Gospel’s self-proclaimed apocryphal character (Section 1 above),
its esoteric slant on sayings that are paralleled in other sources, and perhaps, as Hurtado
suggests, its tendency to use singular exhortation forms, do as well. Hurtado, “Greek
Fragments” (see n. 69), 31, suggests, Gos. Thom. “may simply have been intended
for the private/personal attention of individuals seeking some sort of deeper/higher
truth … Perhaps like-minded souls formed some sort of loose network, sharing texts
such as GThom. with one another. But I see little reason to think that demarcated ‘com-
munities’ lie behind this text”.
78 Luijendijk, “Reading” (see n. 70), 257, suspects “it is significant that the earliest copy of
Thomas, P.Oxy. I 1, was written in codex format, while the later copies appeared in rolls.
Apparently, we witness here a development from the Gospel of Thomas as scripture to
document for private study”. Although we really cannot be sure that P. Oxy. 1 is the
earliest of the three, the progression she outlines is plausible, though it may not have
been wholly vertical, but sideways. That is, P. Oxy. 1, and possibly others, may have orig-
inated among people, perhaps in Alexandria, who were interested in promoting Gos.
Thom. as a sacred text, and later brought to Oxyrhynchus, where it was copied by others
who were not.
330 Charles E. Hill

ities of non-canonical Gospels, in nearly every case, set them apart from
the larger group of canonical ones.

3. “Diplae Sacrae”
Finally, I wish to call attention to a little-noted feature of some early man-
uscripts, one which seems to confirm the sort of early “canon-conscious-
ness” that emerges from the artifactual data already presented. The scribes
entrusted with copying the great fourth- and fifth-century biblical codices
(Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Bezae, Alexandrinus, Claromontanus) often placed
sigla, arrows known in antiquity as diplai, in the margins of NT books at
the point where a writer quotes from scripture.79 Throughout the middle
ages, such marks are not uncommonly found in theological treatises to
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mark scriptural citations.80 Obviously, if these signs were meant to

mark quotations of scripture, one had to know which quotations to
mark and which ones not to mark. In other words, the scribe who set
out to use this convention had to be operating with a notion of “canon”
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– an exclusive body of Scripture. For instance, Codex Alexandrinus (5th

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c.) does not mark Acts 17:28, where Paul quotes the pagan writer Aratus;
nor does it mark the citation of Epimenides inTitus 1:12 or the citation of 1
Enoch in Jude 14f.81
It is perhaps not surprising that such a scribal practice might develop in
the fourth century and later, when, all will admit, the church and its trained
scribes held developed notions of canonicity. The question is: how far
back does the practice go? I have not yet seen these markings in any
pre-fourth-century NT manuscripts, where the authors cite scripture.
In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that the practice did not originate
in the copying of biblical manuscripts but in the copying of other theolog-
ical writings which quoted scripture. This is what is referenced by the only
ancient writer I have found who comments on the practice. Isidore of Se-
ville, early in the seventh century, mentioned the diple in his Etymologies,
“Our scribes place this in books of churchmen to separate or to make clear
the citations of Sacred Scriptures.”82

79 For a fuller presentation of this phenomenon see C.E. Hill, “Irenaeus, the Scribes, and
the Scriptures. Papyrological and Theological Observations from P. Oxy 3.405”, in Ire-
naeus (see n. 11), 119–130.
80 M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect. An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West
(Berkeley/Los Angeles 1993) 58.
81 See Hill, “Irenaeus” (see n. 79), for some of the inevitable complications encountered by
82 See S.A. Barney et al., The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge 2006).
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 331

So far, I have come across four pre-Constantinian, non-biblical man-

uscripts which show the practice was in use in the early period, when many
scholars believe there was no New Testament and no concern for canon
issues. One of these is a late third-century copy of two treatises of Philo of
Alexandria, copied by a Christian scribe. In several places where Philo
quotes the OT, this Christian scribe has placed diplai in the margin,
while not employing the siglum in the same context for non-scriptural ci-
tations. P7 is listed as a New Testament papyrus, but it is actually a frag-
ment of an unidentified theological work which contains a quotation of
a New Testament text, marked with diplai. Kurt Aland dated the manu-
script to the third or early fourth century.83 The two remaining manu-
scripts are dated even earlier. P. Mich. 764 is a fragment of a theological
work by an unknown author, dated by Cornelia Römer to the second or
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the third century.84 The other is P. Oxy. 405, the earliest known fragment
of Irenaeus’Against Heresies, discovered at Oxyrhynchus, a manuscript C.
H. Roberts thought belonged to the late second century.85 In the photo-
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graph supplied here, one can see how this scribe clearly marked the
lines in which there is a quotation from Scripture.
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83 Unfortunately, it is now lost. See K. Aland, Studien zur Überlieferung des Neuen Testa-
ments und seines Textes (Berlin 1967) 137–140. The kurzgefasste Liste of the Münster
Institut dates the manuscript as “III/IV (?)” (
84 C.E. Römer, “7.64. Gemeindebrief, Predict oder Homilie über den Menschen im An-
gesicht des Jüngsten Gerichts”, in P. Michigan Koenen (= P. Mich. xviii). Michigan Texts
Published in Honor of Ludwig Koenen (ed. by C.E. Römer and T. Gagos; Amsterdam
1996) 35–43.
85 Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief (see n. 51), 53. Roberts suggests the manuscript
may have been produced in a scriptorium in Alexandria or in Oxyrhynchus itself (24).
332 Charles E. Hill
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Fig. 3.: P.Oxy 3.405, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, late-second century, roll. The Syndics of
Cambridge University Library.

Here, then, is further, tangible and impartial, artifactual evidence that

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some Christians by at least the end of the second century86 were operating
with a functional canon of Scripture. Most pertinent is that these early
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fragments show scribes marking not just OT texts, but NT texts. P.

Mich. 764 marks citations of both Jeremiah and 1 Corinthians; P.
Oxy. 405 marks a citation of Matthew; P7 a citation of Luke.

V. Conclusion

Calls for expurgating words such as “apocryphal”, “canonical”, or “New

Testament”, from discussions of the early period are not particularly
well-founded, and do not have the support of the artifactual evidence.
The choice to use cognates of “apocryphal” and other esoteric terminology
for written Jesus materials was made by the authors of those writings
themselves, from the early second century on (sometimes artifactually at-
tested). This choice seems to concede the prior existence of better known,
public or exoteric, written repositories of Jesus’ words and deeds. While
this does not necessarily signify a formally recognized “canon”, it seems
to reflect a situation in which some Jesus-books are already so well accept-
ed among Christians, that secret tradition had to be invoked to cover for
sayings or ideas left out of them. This is confirmed by the judgment that

86 Even if P. Oxy. 405 and P. Mich. 764 were to be dated slightly later, it is unlikely that they
represent the absolute beginnings of the practice.
A Four-Gospel Canon in the Second Century? 333

most if not all writings of the “apocryphal” genre seem to show some
knowledge of the synoptic or Johannine Gospel materials.
Artifactual evidence does not support the thesis that non-canonical
Gospels were ever as common as the four, even in the second century.
Even in “diversity-rich” Egypt, canonical Gospel fragments significantly
outnumber non-canonical ones (“heretical” ones even more so), in
every period.87 But scholarship can no longer rely upon simply the raw
At present, half of the early non-canonical Gospel witnesses do not
share the basic physical format, the codex, which was used for copies of
the four, and for other Christian scriptural works in general. Well prior
to the fourth century, distinctions between Christian books, Gospels in
particular, were often being made even prior to their use, already at the
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production level. In the small number of cases in which the codex partition
is breached (perhaps in some cases deliberately attempting to imitate con-
ventions visible in extant copies of the four), interesting differences in cod-
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icologial and/or scribal features still divide these texts from the larger
group of Gospel texts in codex form, particularly from those copies
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most clearly constructed for public reading.

It can hardly be missed that these visible distinctions in form/format
correspond to scriptural distinctions made by writers of the period
such as Irenaeus, Clement, Hippolytus, and Origen. This, of course,
does not mean that nobody ever considered Gospels other than the
four to be authoritative, inspired, or scriptural. But it does suggest that
any who might have so regarded them probably stood apart from what ap-
pears to be the Christian mainstream – if judged by the scribal tradition.
The manuscript evidence suggests that works like the Gospel of Thomas,
the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Peter either tended to be regarded
differently from the four, even by those who copied them, or else those
who copied them tended to belong to different scribal networks from
those who copied the canonical Gospels. This has special relevance for
the supposition that some of our copies of the canonical Gospels (John
in particular) were made by “heretics”. If they were, it seems remarkable
that even the heretics’ copies of the four kept to the conventions of the
mainstream, while their copies of their own works did not.
In addition, artifactual evidence shows some scribes of the period were
marking citations of scripture in theological treatises, a practice which
presupposes a functioning inventory or “canon” of sacred writings, in-

87 On Mark, see Section II above.

334 Charles E. Hill

cluding Gospels. The physical properties of P. Oxy. 405 reveal two ways in
which Christian scribes were making distinctions between Christian
books they considered sacred or scriptural, and those they did not.
First, this copy of Irenaeus’ treatise, though careful, elegant, and scholarly,
was made on a roll and not a codex. Second, the words of scripture con-
tained in this roll are distinguished from the words of Irenaeus by diplai in
the margin. Scribes employed this sign in Christian books “to enact visu-
ally what, one might say, was expected to take place in the mind of the
reader (perhaps of the next copyist as well …), a setting-apart of certain
words by quite literally ‘pointing them out’”.88
In sum, the artifactual evidence as it presently exists, seems to pose no
great challenge to the picture gained from literary sources of the second
and early third centuries. On the contrary, it seems to complement that
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picture surprisingly well, and begins to give it tangible form.

Charles E. Hill
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88 Hill, “Irenaeus” (see n. 79), 128.