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Are the 'other' gospels historical?

A gospel is a work written from the third-person perspective that claims to give direct reports about the life and/or teachings of Jesus. The 4 canonical gospels may be categorized as ‘narrative gospels’, while the 16 extra-canonical gospels of the second and third centuries C.E. may be categorized as:
1. ‘Narrative gospels’ – P. Egerton 2 + P. Koln. 255, Gospel of Peter, P. Oxy 840
2. ‘Sayings gospels’ – Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip
3. ‘Dialogue/discourse gospels’ – Gospel of the Savior (P. Berol. 22220 + Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus 5-7), Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary, Book of Thomas the Contender, Sophia of Jesus Christ, Dialogue of the Savior
4. ‘Other gospel fragments’ – P. Berol. 11710, P. Mert. 51, P. Oxy 210, P. Oxy 1224, P. Vindob. G. 2325.
If it is acknowledged that a gospel’s historicity may be measured in part by its references to specific historical locations, then one is able to measure the historicity of the canonical and extra-canonical gospels by comparing their references to towns, regions, topographical features, and structures.

Towns
* The canonical gospels mention 26 specific towns by name; the extra-canonical gospels mention 2 (Jerusalem and Nazareth, although Nazareth is interpreted as Jesus’ middle-name in its only occurrence in the extra-canonical gospels (Gos. Phil. 62.14)). 
* The canonical gospels refer to 29 specific towns including people associated with those towns (ex. Mary Magdalene is associated with the town of Magdala); the extra-canonical gospels refer to 3 (Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Magdala).
* The canonical gospels refer to these specific towns approximately 3 times / 1000 words; the extra-canonical gospels less than once / 1000 words.

Regions
* The canonical gospels mention 19 specific regions by name; the extra-canonical gospels mention 3 (Galilee, Judea, and Israel).
* The canonical gospels refer to 24 specific regions including people associated with those regions (ex. Simon the Cyrenian who carried Jesus’ cross); the extra-canonical gospels refer to 6.
* The canonical gospels refer to these specific regions approximately 3.5 times / 1000 words; the extra-canonical gospels once / 1000 words.

Topography
* The canonical gospels refer to 12 specific topographical features by name (ex. the Sea of Galilee, Golgotha, and Gethsemane); the extra-canonical gospels mention 4. Two of these features (the Jordan River and the Mount of Olives) are also mentioned more frequently in all four canonical gospels – the Jordan River only occurs once in P. Egerton 2 and Gos. Phil., yet it occurs 15 times in the canonical gospels; the Mount of Olives only occurs once in Soph. Jes. Chr., yet it occurs 11 times in the canonical gospels.
* The canonical gospels mention 26 unspecified topographical features (ex. a sea, a wilderness, a place); the extra-canonical gospels mention 15. The canonical gospels mention these features approximately 6.5 times / 1000 words; the extra-canonical gospels 8.5 times / 1000 words.

Structures
* The canonical gospels refer to 10 structures associated with historical people (ex. the house of Simon the leper, or the portico of Solomon in the temple); the extra-canonical gospels do not mention any of these structures.
* Although there is a certain amount of correspondence regarding structures mentioned in the canonical and extra-canonical gospels (ex. houses, the temple, etc.), there is also a notable dissonance. The ‘synagogue’ is mentioned in all four canonical gospels a total of 33 times, while it is not mentioned in the extra-canonical gospels at all; Gos. Phil. uses three different terms to refer to the ‘bridal-chamber’ a total of 26 times, while the canonical gospels only refer (inadvertently) to this structure on 3 occasions (Matt 9:15, Mark 2:19, Luke 5:34).

It appears that the canonical gospels are more interested in the specific geographical locations surrounding Jesus’ ministry and teaching than the extra-canonical gospels. More specific towns and regions are mentioned more often in the canonical gospels than the extra-canonical gospels; the greater amount of references to unspecified topographical features suggests that Jesus ministry in the extra-canonical gospels and his teaching in these works were not concerned with specific topographical features; the dissonance between structures mentioned reveals the different emphases between the canonical and extra-canonical gospels. These results suggest that either the extra-canonical evangelists were not interested in situating Jesus’ ministry and teaching with specific geographical locations, or they were simple unaware of these historical details apart from those mentioned in the canonical gospels.

 

(C) Lorne Zelyck 2010


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