Elijah Hixson reviews Whose Fathers? A Note on the (Un-)Johannine Echo in the Egerton Gospel, by Peter Malik, Early Christianity, Volume 9, Number 2, June 2018, pp. 201-211.
The existence of “gospels” other than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can be exciting or even scandalous to someone hearing about them for the first time. Manuscripts of these documents are often worth a second look. What looks scandalous could turn out to be, upon closer inspection, a mountain made out of a molehill. The Gospel of Philip (found in Egypt in 1945) provides a good example of this phenomenon. Some editors report that the Gospel of Philip claims that Jesus “used to kiss her [i.e. Mary Magdalene] often on her mouth”. When we check the manuscript itself, we see that “mouth” is not there at all. There is a hole in the papyrus at that point, and “mouth” was simply a guess about what was once there. More than that, the word translated “kiss” can simply mean “greet”. What might have appeared to imply a scandalous romantic relationship looks to be as innocent as Jesus saying hello to a friend.
In a recent article published in the scholarly journal Early Christianity, Peter Malik has been having a second look at another manuscript referred to as a "gospel". The papyrus in question is the only known manuscript of the “Egerton Gospel” (henceforth GEgerton), a non-canonical gospel named after Francis Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater. Dated to between AD150 and AD250, it is roughly contemporary with our earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. Some of the text it contains is strikingly similar to John’s Gospel.
Complicating matters is a suggestion made in 2013 by Francis Watson of Durham University, one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars. Watson appealed to one particular spot in the manuscript of GEgerton to suggest that GEgerton might be a source of some parts of John's Gospel. Because John’s Gospel claims to be eyewitness testimony (John 21:24), the possibility that John drew information from someone else’s account is uncomfortable.
The issue comes to a head at John 5:46. Both John and GEgerton have a near-identical phrase coming from the lips of Jesus: “For if you believed Moses you would believe me. For he wrote about me...”. GEgerton adds something else (represented here in italics): “For he wrote about me to our [corrected to your] fathers.” Watson stresses that we should take the uncorrected reading "our" seriously.
We might have expected Jesus to say “to our Fathers” as a first-century Jew speaking to first-century Jews, but a later Christian distancing himself or herself from Judaism might write “to your Fathers” (although Jesus himself uses the phrase “your fathers” in John 6:49, as Malik points out). Could GEgerton preserve original words of Jesus, lost by the time John wrote his Gospel?
Examining the manuscript itself, Malik points out that this correction in the manuscript of GEgerton is almost certainly the correction of a simple error. The difference involves only a single letter and is consistent with what we might expect in such a manuscript as this one. The same person who wrote the rest of this manuscript made the correction, and this kind of mistake is extremely common. No other manuscript of GEgerton has ever been identified, so the possibility that this correction was made against a different copy of GEgerton is slim. In short, Malik demonstrates that the text of GEgerton here should read “to your fathers.”
How is it relevant?
First, we can have serious doubts that John used GEgerton as a source; a better explanation would be that the author of GEgerton used John 5:46 as the source for its similar words. John’s Gospel claims to be written by an eyewitness who was present for many of the events he described (John 21:24). Even if it were true that John depended on a non-canonical source to compose his Gospel, that shouldn't damage Christian faith. If the Holy Spirit could inspire Luke to work with other sources to produce a canonical work (Luke 1:1), then he could also inspire John to use someone else’s account for the wording of his own Gospel.
Second, that there even was a debate about the original reading of GEgerton at this point stems from the fact that only one fragmentary copy of the work is known to survive. John’s Gospel has around 25 Greek manuscripts and fragments dated to the fourth century and earlier, a few of which contain substantial portions of the gospel.
Finally, the existence of documents such as GEgerton and the Gospel of Thomas do show that Jesus was seen to be so important in the decades and centuries immediately following his earthly ministry that many people recorded sayings and deeds attributed to him.
Dr Elijah Hixson is a Research Associate at Tyndale House