No manuscripts from the hands of the original authors of the gospels survive. All of our gospels, then, come to us at several removes from their authors. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are preserved in about 3,500 manuscripts. Best represented among these manuscripts is the Gospel of John, which was a favorite in the ancient Christian community as it is in modern times. The Greek texts behind our English translation is a reconstruction produced by patient and exacting comparison of thousands of differences in wording among the numerous copies. Most of the other gospels, however, come to us from the ancient world on the most meager of surviving records.
Of the sixteen other gospels in this volume, only two are amply represented by surviving manuscripts. They are the two infancy gospels, Thomas and James. The number of extant copies witnesses to the popularity of stories about the birth of Mary, Jesus, and the wondrous activities of the young Jesus.
Seven of our gospels are known to us on the basis of a single precious manuscript each: Gospel of Peter, Secret Book of James, Dialogue of the Savior, the Egerton Gospel, Secret Gospel of Mark, and the Oxyrhynchus Gospels 840 and 1224. The Gospel of Thomas is preserved in full form only in Coptic, but it has also survived in three important Greek fragments, which attest to the fact that it was originally written in Greek. The Gospel of Mary is known in both Coptic and Greek fragments.
Some of our gospels are not even preserved in their original language. All but one of them originally were written in Greek, but the Gospel of Thomas (except for the Greek fragments), the Secret Book of James, and the Dialogue of the Savior are known to us only in Coptic translation. Four gospels exist only in fragmentary form: Gospel of Peter, the Egerton Gospel, and the Oxyrhynchus Gospels 840 and 1224. One gospel (Dialogue of the Savior) has numerous gaps in the manuscript and another one (Gospel of Mary) is missing about half of its pages. The Gospels of the Hebrews, Ebionites, and Nazoreans are preserved only in fragments, in the writings of the early Christian authors who quoted from them. The Secret Gospel of Mark is available only in a transcription made by an 18th-century scholar.
The other two gospels in this volume (the Signs Gospel and Q) are not even "texts" in the strict sense, since we have no manuscript copies of them at all. They have been reconstructed by being isolated from the larger texts in which they are embedded: the Signs Gospel from John, and Q from Matthew and Luke.
Beyond the holy four
Most who have sought to understand the words and deeds of Jesus and the traditions about him have confined their attention to the New Testament gospels. Those texts are readily available and have been intensively studied. Many interested in Jesus were not even aware of the existence of other gospels, or if they knew of them, did not know where to find them. While scholars had access to these documents-they are called extracanonical gospels because they were not included among the so-called canonical gospels-and could study them in the original languages, the vast majority tended to dismiss them as unimportant, on the hasty assumption that all of them were fanciful elaborations based on the New Testament gospels, or at least came from a much later period. However, research in the last several decades has significantly broadened our understanding of the diversity and complexity of the early Jesus traditions. Scholars now find it necessary to turn to the extracanonical gospels to learn about the development of even the earliest Jesus traditions. These texts disclose to us how Christian communities gathered, arranged, modified, embellished, interpreted, and created traditions about the teachings and deeds of Jesus. All of the intracanonical and extracanonical texts in this volume are witnesses to early Jesus traditions. All of them contain traditions independent of the New Testament gospels.
Authorized and canonical
During the first few centuries after Jesus, most Christian communities, if they were fortunate enough to possess written gospels at all, contented themselves with one or more of the four major gospels. These predominant narratives eventually gained formal ecclesiastical approval in the fourth century with a ruling by the Greek-speaking hierarchy that the only gospels authorized for official use-belonging to the rule or norm of the church and therefore canonical-were the texts attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, in earlier centuries many Christians had cherished other gospels, which they sincerely believed to carry the revealed truth about Jesus. It is only from the perspective of later centuries that these texts which nourished the faith of generations of Christians can be called non-canonical. The distinction between the canonical and the non-canonical gospels did not exist in the period of Christian origins, and therefore is not helpful for understanding the earliest centuries of Christianity in their rich diversity. Texts excluded from the canon of the New Testament nevertheless contain and disclose valuable historical information.
The Complete Gospels
The Complete Gospels now makes available to the general reader all the principal texts required for the critical study of the early gospel tradition. In addition to the four New Testament gospels, other gospels were selected with three considerations in mind. The extracanonical gospels selected are those which
date from the first and second centuries
are more or less independent of the canonical gospels and contain significant material that is not derived from them; and
significantly contribute to our understanding of the developments in the Jesus traditions leading up to and surrounding the New Testament gospels.
The list of the gospels in this volume was determined after lengthy discussions by a panel of scholars who teach college and seminary courses on the gospels.
In The Complete Gospels each gospel is preceded by an introduction which provides basic information about that gospel. The New Testament gospels are sufficiently well known not to require an introduction here. But it may be helpful to summarize the value of the remaining texts.
The Signs Gospel is a source for most of the narrative in the Gospel of John, and may well be the earliest written account of the deeds of Jesus. Q is a source for much of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and it witnesses to a very early stage of theological reflection in the Jesus tradition.
The Gospel of Thomas has core elements as old as the synoptic gospels which have proven a valuable source for the teachings of the historical Jesus; while in its later layer, Thomas is the record of a Christian community creatively accommodating influences from Gnosticism.
The Secret Book of James and the Dialogue of the Savior show the modulation in the form of the sayings gospel from the simple collection of sayings we see in Thomas to their composition into extended discourses and dialogues, a development in the use and interpretation of Jesus' sayings that is paralleled in the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of Mary is an historical window into the interpretation of the teaching of Jesus from the perspectives of Gnosticism and into the heated debate among early Christians about the role of women in the churches.
The Infancy Gospels of Thomas and James testify to the popular, if theologically unsophisticated, interest among early Christians in elaborating and embellishing the edifying biographical circumstances of Jesus' birth, childhood, and family background.
The Gospel of Peter, in the partial form in which we have it, is an early passion gospel with important differences from the other passion narratives. It may contain, in an embedded source document, the primary material for the passion and resurrection stories in the canonical gospels.
The Egerton Gospel and the Oxyrhynchus Gospels 840 and 1224 are partial remnants of early, independent, and otherwise unknown gospels with some parallels to the canonical gospels.
The Secret Gospel of Mark consists of excerpts from a variant edition of the Gospel of Mark, and may represent an earlier version of Mark than the one in the New Testament.
The fragments of the Gospels of the Hebrews, Nazoreans, and Ebionites represent distinctive ways in which Jewish Christians interpreted the Jesus tradition.
The twenty gospels and gospel fragments in this volume, not including the orphan sayings and stories, are the principal texts needed for understanding the early Jesus traditions. There are, of course, other orthodox and heretical gospels that are required for tracing later developments. The Complete Gospels is designed to serve the needs of the teacher, student, and lay reader at all but the most advanced level.
In keeping with the spirit of being a "complete" collection of gospels for the general reader, four new selections have been added in the third edition: the Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas and the remains of the three Jewish-Christian gospels. Also, in keeping with the character of the Scholars Version as a living translation that is periodically revised, numerous improvements have been made in the translation.