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Gospel Questions and Problems

Here I return to the quiz I gave my undergraduate class the first day of the term; I have been explaining why I ask the questions I do and what I would like my students to learn from them.  Here now are three more of the questions

  1. Name three Gospels from outside the New Testament

Some students may know something like the Gospel of Thomas, but, well, not many even know this one.  In the course we spend most of our time, of course, talking about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  But we also look at some of the amazing non-canonical Gospels:

  • The Gospel of Peter. This is a fragmentary alternative account of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection, with unusually interesting features, including an actual description of the resurrection.  People are surprised to hear this, but the New Testament Gospels do *not* describe the resurrection.  They indicate that Jesus was buried, and then they jump to the third day when his tomb is discovered empty.  The event itself is not narrated.  But it is in the Gospel of Peter.  And it’s a remarkable story, of Jesus emerging from the tomb taller than a mountain, supported by two giant angels (not quite as tall), followed then by the cross which speaks to a divine voice that comes from heaven!  A giant Jesus and a walking, talking cross….
  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This is an entertaining account of Jesus as a boy, showing how the supernatural powers he had as an adult were already evident when he was young.  He has many of the same kinds of controversies he will have later in life – with overly zealous Jews insistent on keeping a strict view of Sabbath, with scribes, with teachers who think they know more than he does.  But in this case – hey, he’s just a kid! – he curses those who irritate him, either maiming or killing them.  OK then!  But in the end he ends up doing good and, well, healing and raising those he had earlier harmed.
  • The Proto-Gospel of James. This is the “Gospel before the Gospel” (hence its name) about the miraculous birth of Mary (she is not born of a virgin but to parents who were barren), her miraculous upbringing (she is raised in the temple of Jerusalem and fed daily by an angel), her betrothal to Joseph, and then her own miraculous conception of Jesus.  In this account, after the birth of Jesus a dubious midwife gives Mary an internal exam to see if she really is still a virgin and, yup, she sure is!
  • The Coptic Gospel of Thomas. This is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, with no narrative of any kind – just one saying after the other.  About half of them are very similar to ones you can find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and many scholars think that the phrasing found in Thomas is probably more likely what Jesus actually said.  The other half seem very peculiar to modern readers; mystical, mind-bending.  Scholars for a long time called this a Gnostic gospel but these days most are not sure it represents a gnostic point of view, even though it does teach that salvation comes by understanding the meaning of Jesus’ secret teachings.
  • Gnostic Gospels of Philip, Mary, and Judas. These on the other hand are Gnostic in one way or another, also stressing the secret teachings of Jesus that can provide knowledge that leads to salvation, but rooted in set of (to modern hearers’) bizarre Gnostic myths about how the world and the divine realm came into being.

So the point of this question is to get students to realize that the canonical Gospels are just four that were on offer in early Christianity.  They are indeed most likely to be the four earliest that survive; and more than the others they do provide historical information about Jesus himself.  But they, like the others, are all different not just from the others but from one another; and all of them are more easily studied for what they want to tell us about Jesus than for knowing what Jesus himself was all about: they all represent distinctive points of view, perspectives, ideas, and understandings of who Jesus is and what he accomplished.


  1. What does the word “Gospel” mean?

It comes from the Old English term for “good news,” which is a translation of the Greek term εὐαγγέλιον EUANGELLION (from which we get the word “evangelist,” which is why the Gospel writers are sometimes called the “four evangelists”).   I think it is important that these books are called “Gospels,” and not, for example, “biographies” or “histories.”   By calling them Gospels the early Christians acknowledged that their intention was not just to give the bare facts of history, but to describe the events of Jesus’ life and death in order to convey an important theological message.  These are “proclamations of the truth,” as the Christians saw it.  Their purpose is to make religious claims about Jesus, not simply to recount what happened in the past.  That in turn means that can’t be read simply as history books, even if they do discuss past events.


  1. According to the Gospels, who baptized Jesus?  Who carried his cross?  Who buried him?

Most of my students get the first right (John the Baptist); those raised in the church often get the third (Joseph of Arimathea); but they tend to disagree on the second.  Some say Simon (of Cyrene), and others say Jesus himself.

And I use that as a teaching moment   Mark’s Gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, indicates that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross.  John’s Gospel says that Jesus himself carried the cross all the way.  Oh.  Uh, how can it be both?

I use this as the first example to the class of what looks like a contradiction.  In fact, I think it is one, but I tell them to see if they can figure out a solution.  And then I tell them that we will be watching films to see how directors deal with the problem.  Do they follow Mark?  Or John?  Or some kind of reconciling view of their own?  The last solution is the most interesting.

I’ve seen over the years that many people think that Jesus started out carrying his cross; he stumbled under the weight because he was weak from flogging; and then the Roman soldiers compelled Simon to take the cross the rest of the way.  But that sequence happened is found in precisely *none* of the Gospels (it’s either Simon or Jesus, not first one then the other).

Another solution found in some films (such as the Greatest Story ever Told, where Max von Sydow is Jesus and Simon is played by Sidney Poitier!) is that *both* of them carry the cross, simultaneously.  Hey, that solves the problem!  But again, it’s something none of the Gospels says.

It’s interesting how even the most simply questions about the Gospels can uncover major problems; then again, if the Gospels posed no problems, there would be no need for biblical scholarship.  Everyone could just read them and know everything that there is to be known!

An Unusual Podcast Interview with a Muslim about How I Debate. Check This One Out!



  1. TimOBrien
    TimOBrien  September 13, 2020

    On what basis have scholars come to doubt that Thomas is a Gnostic gospel? The fact that it does not reference gnostic creation myths is hardly relevant. Neither do any of the canonical gospels make anything more than the most fleeting and incidental reference to the Genesis creation myths.

    Isn’t the crucial distinction between gnosticism and orthodoxy over whether salvation comes from hearing, heeding and acting on the teachings of Jesus versus merely believing and affirming that Jesus’ death was the once-and-for-all, substitute sacrifice on behalf of all mankind that finally appeased Yahweh’s wrath over Adam’s transgression and thereby brought reconciliation?

    Indeed, if the substitute sacrifice view is correct, what was the point of any of Jesus’ teachings in the first place? Why all the talk about love of God and neighbor, feeding and clothing those in need, going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, etc., etc.?

    If it is by grace that we are saved and not by works, why would there be any need (or point) for us to act on any of Jesus’ extensive importuning? Aren’t the callousness of priest and Levite passersby and the compassion of a Samaritan equally irrelevant?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2020

      The ultimate question is “what makes a document gnostic”? It can’t just be over whether it is the teachings of Jesus or his death bring salvation. All sorts of people think Jesus’ teachings will bring salvation who aren’t Gnostic. Gnosticism is normally not defined as a form of Christianity that stresses above all Jesus’ teachings. (And plenty of Christians have not, and do not even today, hold to the idea of a substitutionary atonement theory of salvation)

      • TimOBrien
        TimOBrien  September 15, 2020

        It was that ultimate question to which I was alluding in asking how and why scholars have come to change their mind on whether Thomas reflects gnostic theology. Is that work now thought to be consonant with the orthodox rubric? Does it represent some other theological conception?

        In any case the ultimate issue — for any Christian theology — has to be “what brings salvation?” The gnostic answer is, well, knowledge. That, however, presupposes that the responsibility for attaining salvation remains with the newly knowledgable, each of whom must exercise it to earn salvation for him/herself. The orthodox view is that salvation can only come from being “covered by the blood.” It cannot IOW be earned — by anyone, by any means — making the notion that there could even exist the knowledge of how to do so the apotheosis of wrong-headed.

        If there are any Christians who do not hold to a “substitutionary atonement theory of salvation,” I haven’t met them. I assumed they had all (including, presumably, the author of Thomas) been exterminated as heretics by Emperor Constantine’s RCC henchmen fifteen centuries ago. Which Christian denomination today does NOT subscribe to the substitutionary atonement theory of salvation?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 16, 2020

          The objection is that “Gnosticism” is not a single thing over against “orthodoxy.” Gospel of Thomas certainly is not “orthodox” by later standards.
          Oh yes, historically there have been *lots* of theories of the significance of Jesus’ death that do not involve substitutionary atonement. The Gospel of Luke doesn’t even see it as an atoning sacrifice. And the “doctrine of the atonement” is widely seen as highly problematic by many of the major theologians of today. But if all one were to listen to were fundamentalist or conservative evangelical preachers, one wouldn’t know that! (As you know, many denominations don’t have theological statements that have to be upheld, so it’s not possible to talk about what denominations believe)

          • TimOBrien
            TimOBrien  September 17, 2020

            Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I recognize that Gnosticism is not a single thing (and not just vis-a-vis orthodoxy, but even Christianity generally.) This may be an unscholarly supposition, but what seems to me to be the defining characteristic of Gnosticism is that salvation comes from having the knowledge of how it can be obtained — notwithstanding differences over what specific knowledge will be efficacious. Knowing passwords to get past gatekeeping archons, for instance, strikes me as absurd. Awareness of the spiritual peril in the distractions and attachments of the material world OTOH, or recognizing that love of fellow man must go beyond what is reciprocal and extend even to one’s enemies are ideas that ring true and relevant. Admittedly, so broad a definition would in fact put Buddhism under the Gnostic umbrella.

          • TimOBrien
            TimOBrien  September 17, 2020

            If salvation depends on having knowledge of the correct path to it, however, the contradistinction could hardly be sharper than with a theology that removes all personal, individual knowledge and behavior from the equation. According to church orthodoxy — going all the way back to Paul — every one of us remains under the curse of the god of a primitive, animal-sacrifice cult. A psychopathic, genocidal deity who continues to bear a grudge against the descendants of someone who gave offense in prehistoric times, absolution for the offender’s (innocent) progeny only obtainable by embracing the blood sacrifice of another innocent! I suppose there is some perversely twisted balance in this abomination of so-called divine justice. Individuals who did not commit the grievance for which they have been condemned are also incapable of obtaining absolution for themselves and must instead rely for their redemption on the self-sacrifice of someone else.

            Or am I missing something?

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 13, 2020

    In Matthew, Jesus says that whoever alters or ignores even the smallest part of the Law will “be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Does this indicate that they will still get in? So if we then look at the parable of the sheep and the goats, it’s more important to be loving and feed the poor and destitute than to follow every part of the Law?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2020

      Yeah, it’s weird. Seems like being “least” would be OK as long as you were in but not out. And it’s a very big question of whether Matthew 5 and 25 can be reconciled on this score.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  September 16, 2020

        Are Matthew 5 and 25 both original to Matthew? Why would he put in two passages that can’t be reconciled?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2020

          You’ll need to explain why you think they can’t be reconciled? (In my experience *everything* can be reconciled!) (You’ll need to explain what you’re reconciling in your next comment or readers won’t know what you’re referring to)

      • TimOBrien
        TimOBrien  September 16, 2020

        If the Kingdom of Heaven is an afterlife of absolute, unalloyed bliss for all who enter, how can Jesus (at least per Matthew’s unattested quote in his Ch. 5) make a distinction between the “least” and the “great”? Doesn’t church doctrine hold that ‘eternal reward’ is the same for all who are saved — whether following a lifetime of devotion, e.g., Mother Theresa, or an 11th-hour repentance, e.g., the dying thief on the cross? This certainly does seem to be the conclusion of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in Ch. 20 (also unique to this gospel.) Is it, perhaps, because envy only arises from the limitations of our temporal perspective, an affect that will from an eternal perspective simply evaporate?

        In the contending between a calibrated or uncalibrated afterlife what are we to make of Paul’s claims about a vision of being “caught up to the third heaven”? Doesn’t this require at least two lower-level heavens, and even imply the possibility of higher ones (perhaps culminating in a ‘Seventh Heaven’), as well?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2020

          Who says it is an absolute unalloyed bliss for everyone? In the Xn tradition rewards were often calibrated. That’s why you tried to be a more righteous monk than the guy in the next cell….

      • TimOBrien
        TimOBrien  September 16, 2020

        And while we’re on pericopes unique to Matthew — and since you brought it up — can the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Ch. 25 be reconciled with the assertion by Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians) that it is “by grace you have been saved” and “not as a result of works”? Can one be interpreted in some way that does NOT directly contradict the other?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2020

          Of course. For many centuries people have reconciled them. One simple way is to say that if you have faith in Christ you will do good works (and only if you have faith in Christ, since everyone else is under sin); those who do these works will be saved (Matthew 25); but it is not the works that save you (Eph. 2), even though you do them. It is the faith.

  3. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  September 13, 2020

    Thanks as always Bart!
    I don’t get why the Romans compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross. (Wikipedia not terribly helpful here.) Would it have been that Jesus was too weak after having been flogged? But he was also flogged in John. Some say that Simon of Cyrene is a kind of vestigial remnant in the synoptics of a Gnostic belief mentioned by Irenaeus, whereby he (Simon) was crucified instead of Jesus. What say you?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2020

      It doesn’t say. Many scholars think that it’s a legendary addition to demonstrate the need to follow Jesus’ teaching that it is important to “take up the cross and follow me.” Here is someone in Mark’s Gospel doing that? But he was compelled, right? Yeah, right, but it’s hard within the narrative to come up with any *other* reason for someone to be carrying his cross, and so that was the solution Mark chose.

  4. Avatar
    tskorick  September 13, 2020

    Even the *Wikipedia* page on the Crucifixion repeats the “Jesus stumbling” myth, citing verses in the synoptics that say nothing of the sort! I tried to find out how far back the stumbling tradition dates, but the data are threadbare. The modern Catholic Stations of the Cross tradition has him falling three times, but references to the Franciscan Stations of the Cross from after the 14th century appear to have had seven stations but no falls (info is sketchy).

    The German friar Henry Suso was said to have engaged in a devotional retreading of Jesus’ steps every night that was similar to the Stations of the Cross where he kissed the ground where he felt Jesus must have fainted (https://bit.ly/3kesHXr). There is a 15th century German painting titled “One of the Seven Falls of Christ” (https://bit.ly/3itX3oz) and the Nuremberg Kreuzweg is marked by seven stone reliefs from the early 16th century depicting Jesus falling (https://bit.ly/32q3iUz).

    At some point after that the tradition was absorbed into the Franciscan Stations of the Cross. So far I haven’t found good info dating from before the 15th century depicting Jesus as stumbling.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2020

      You mean Wikipedia got something wrong?? How could that be??

      • Avatar
        tskorick  September 14, 2020

        Haha yes I wasn’t as shocked as I made it sound. Hey in their defense when it comes to NT matters they seem to cite you as a source quite a bit 🙂

  5. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  September 14, 2020

    Thank you for another great post. I was wondering, if the Gospel of Thomas is no longer regarded as ‘Gnostic’ by some scholars, how would they categorise it?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      Some think of it as principally ascetic in orientation; many people think we simply shouldn’t put a label on it (Gnostic, e.g.,), but just study it on its own terms.

  6. Avatar
    pmcginness  September 14, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    After reading this post, I immediately thought about what Jehovah’s Witnesses teach about Jesus and the cross. They do not believe Jesus died on a cross but rather on an upright stake.

    Did Jesus die on a cross or might there be something to the claim that it was an upright stake?


    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      Ancient sources that describe crosses do so in terms of the shape of a “t” (i.e., an upright and a cross beam, like the mast of a ship)

  7. LaoWho
    LaoWho  September 14, 2020

    Professor, because you’ve brought up “gospel”, according to the economist Michael Hudson’s new work, “…and forgive them their debts,” the good news could have been that with the installment of Jesus as king he would have instituted the year of Jubilee, a tension which might have been exacerbated with Hillel’s workaround for this (to the advantage of the creditor). They’d been 400 years(?) without debt forgiveness, and according to Hudson, such a custom wasn’t unique to the Jews, but common even to the Babylonians and Assyrians and others. Just wondering if this ever comes up among biblical scholars, and if so why we haven’t heard about it.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      No, that’s pretty clearly what the text is not talking about.

  8. Avatar
    rborges  September 14, 2020

    How, why, and when did the Marian cult begin?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      Hard to say. The adoration of Mary begins in the mid-second century or so, but does not become a pronounced feature of Christianity until several centuries later.

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  September 19, 2020

        Prof Ehrman,
        Q1. Concerning the adoration of Mary, it appears to me as quite a strong theme in the Proto-gospel of James. Is that the case?

        Q2. What is the dating of this gospel?

        Q3. Your earlier comment on Wikipedia “You mean Wikipedia got something wrong?? How could that be??” is of great interest to me. I tend to go wiki quite a lot on matters of religious interest ( especially Christianity). I wondered lately how well I could trust wiki. Since you are an expert in the field, your advice on my sourcing related material and info from wiki will be much appreciated? Would you recommend it as one of the ‘go to’ sources?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 20, 2020

          — Yup!
          — Probably late 2nd c.
          — It’s gotten much, much better. But on controversial issues, you need to check around a bit. What you read on Wiki, at any point, may be written by someone who is giving you dated, wrong, or (most often) unnuanced information.

  9. Avatar
    Lizzypug  September 14, 2020

    Another possibility is that if the cross could walk and talk neither Jesus nor Simon had to carry it.

  10. Robert
    Robert  September 14, 2020

    Bart: “the Gospel of Peter.  And it’s a remarkable story, of Jesus emerging from the tomb taller than a mountain, supported by two giant angels (not quite as tall), followed then by the cross which speaks to a divine voice that comes from heaven!  A giant Jesus and a walking, talking cross….”

    Mark Goodacre has an interesting conjectural emendation that makes more sense than the current text:


  11. Avatar
    fishician  September 14, 2020

    Simon the Cyrene is one of those characters like Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene who seem to be inserted into the crucifixion story for some reason. Simon is said to be be the father of Alexander and Rufus; Paul mentions a Rufus in Rome (and cryptically also “his mother and mine”) and there is an Alexander in the Pastoral Epistles. Perhaps there really was a Simon of Cyrene in the early church, and this was a way to place him at the crucifixion so he could serve as an eyewitness. But then “John” writes him out of the story; perhaps John (or the J community) did not like Simon and what he taught? Can I assume that scholars have spent some time dissecting Simon the Cyrene? Anything worth mentioning?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      Yup, it’s usually thought that Simon was known somehow to people in Mark’s community. Matthew and Luke got the story from Mark. And John had never heard it.

  12. Avatar
    J--B  September 14, 2020

    Greetings, Dr. Ehrman!
    For the first question above, would you accept the answer: Tatian’s Diatessaron?
    I first heard of this by reading John Barton’s enlightening book, “A History of the Bible”, which I learned of from a post on your blog a year ago. In it you provided excerpts from your “Telegraph” review of the book.
    In the book, Barton writes, “But for Tatian this (that the Gospels are canonical Scripture and so cannot be changed, and that any conflicts between them are only apparent) is not yet the case: the materials in the Gospels are fluid and can be altered – just as Matthew was free to change Mark.” (p. 260) And a little later: “In a sense, Tatian is simply a fifth evangelist.” (p.260)

  13. galah
    galah  September 14, 2020

    “It’s interesting how even the most simply questions about the Gospels can uncover major problems; then again, if the Gospels posed no problems, there would be no need for biblical scholarship.”

    Well, you could just ask the pastor of the denomination of your choice. 😮

  14. Avatar
    mplioplis  September 15, 2020

    What’s the best of your books dealing with the development of the canon? I’ve read Jesus, Interrupted, which I thought would address it, but it’s simply one chapter or so.

    Which one is the most academic, i.e. citing the greek and or textual/manuscript evidences?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 16, 2020

      I don’t have an academic book on it, but it’s the question driving my book Lost Christianities. If you want a hard-core academic book, the classic is Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the NT; a less rigorous but important account is Harry Gamble, The New Testament in the Making.

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