Biblical Archaeology Review 35:6, November/December 2009

How the New Testament Gospels Developed

Finds of ancient manuscripts, often fragmentary, and quotations by the Church Fathers have shown that during the first and second centuries, at least ten gospels were circulating.1 The New Testament had not yet been canonized. That the Gospels were joined together in a collection of four and became part of what we know now as the canon of the “New Testament” is a process that began at the end of the second century; the first manuscript containing all four canonical Gospels appears only in the third century.

Even during the following centuries, changes were made by scribes who copied the texts. For example, the Gospel of John received an additional chapter, John 21; the original ending of this gospel stands, after the three stories of the appearance of Jesus in John 20:30–31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through that believing you may have life in his name.”

Similarly, the Gospel of Mark originally ended with the story of the empty tomb in Mark 16:8. Later, scribes added a story of the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples (Mark 16:9–20), which is still missing in all older manuscripts.

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