Sunday, January 07, 2018

Weighing the Alternative Gospels: The Gnostic Gospels

This post resumes a project that I had set aside and have always intended to continue: an objective, computerized statistical analysis of all the various documents that are called gospels, both those that are in the Bible and those that are not.

I had previously posted word clouds as an overview of several alternative gospels that are (or some contend might be) classified as Gnostic. This type of introduction is important because the word "gospel" may cause certain expectations for those familiar with the four Biblical gospels. In the Biblical gospels, the focus on Jesus' life and teachings results in documents where the most commonly-used word is "Jesus" in each of the four. That expectation of the word "gospel" may not apply to all of the alternative gospels, which do not always share that same focus on Jesus. I've included the most commonly-used word here for each of the Gnostic gospels, with links to more complete word clouds for those interested.
For reference, there is also a Venn diagram of their major areas of focus showing the top 10 words used in each of those gospels. "Jesus" is included as the most common word for the Gospel of Thomas, but does not make the top 10 words for any of the other Gnostic documents covered here. It is important for those familiar with the Biblical gospels that we do not not carry forward too many assumptions about the content of the alternative gospels simply from the fact many scholars refer to them as gospels.

One important item lacking so far is any indication of their size. For instance, in the Biblical gospels, Luke is the longest (the NIV text that I used had around 24180 words) and Mark is the shortest (around 13840 words), by word count.

How much material is in the Gnostic gospels? This type of overview is important again as a perspective-check for people who are used to the word "gospel" referring to the canonical gospels, and so carry over some expectations to the alternative gospels, to find that those expectations may not apply.
The Gnostic gospels are relatively shorter than the Biblical gospels. They range from the longest (the Gospel of Philip, where "Jesus" is not among the top 10 most common words) at about 2/3 the length of the Gospel of Mark, to the shortest (the Gospel of Mary) at less than 1/10 the length of the Gospel of Mark.

I hope to continue this series with other, non-Gnostic gospels in an upcoming post

Technical notes: This initial comparison has been done using English texts for the word counts. Since the various documents are in different original languages, if we want to compare word counts at all then the comparison has to be in a common language, otherwise the different meaning-density of the languages would skew the results. So English will work as a common-denominator language for an initial survey of relative lengths. For the sake of the word counts, I did not include things that were not part of the original document's text such as introductory remarks, concluding remarks, chapter headings, or parenthetical references to other documents. I also excluded thing that were not actual words such as verse numbers or the standalone punctuation mark " - ". I did keep any ellipsis marks ("...") as part of the text for word counts, on the hopes that the translators were accurate there and it did stand for one or more words in a damaged ancient manuscript.) The results are rounded to the nearest 10 words.

Update: 02/04/2018: I found that some of the counts had been mis-transcribed here, and have updated accordingly.

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