The Lost Gospel
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Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Written

A.D. 65-95

Each of the four canonical Gospel writers are indicated by evangelical symbols—Matthew (a man), Mark (a lion), Luke (an ox), and John (a eagle)—in this illuminated Carolingian manuscript from the ninth century.
Each of the four canonical Gospel writers are indicated by evangelical symbols—Matthew (a man), Mark (a lion), Luke (an ox), and John (an eagle)—in this illuminated Carolingian manuscript from the ninth century.
Photograph by D.Y. / Art Resource

The New Testament Gospels were written between A.D. 65 and 95, though scholars have no way of knowing exactly who the books' authors were. These four Gospels tell similar, but not identical tales of Jesus' life and teachings. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are so similar to one another that they are sometimes called the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John differs the most from the others.

These familiar four were the first Gospels, and their authors may (or may not) have actually witnessed some of the events described therein. In ancient times many other Gospels existed—perhaps as many as 30. Some of them might have been as popular as today's canonical quartet. But the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have survived to become keystones of the New Testament.

Their prominence is due in part to St. Irenaeus, a second-century bishop of Lyon in Roman Gaul and an aggressive enemy of texts and beliefs considered to be heretical. In an attempt to unify the church he declared Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John the only Gospels that Christians should read. For Irenaeus the number four was extremely important: there were four directions, four winds, and he reasoned that there should be four separate gospels as well. Irenaeus and others believed that those four chosen Gospels portrayed the true word of Jesus' life and teachings.

By the late fourth century Irenaeus' list had become church policy and the foundation of the New Testament. Many other church leaders engaged in their own efforts to eliminate "heretical texts"—although authors and devotees of such works viewed themselves not as heretics but as devout Christians.

These "lost" gospels were gradually eliminated from Christian circles. Many of the texts could have been burned or otherwise destroyed. Some, not as popular as others, may not have been copied by scribes anymore. Those that survive (such as the famous codices found at Nag 'Hammadi, Egypt) were likely hidden for safekeeping—so well-secreted that they remained undiscovered for over 1,500 years.