Monday, February 04, 2013

Picture this: What some "alternative" gospels have in common

As basic as my Venn diagramming skills are, I will not try to represent more than four things at a time quite yet. There are more "alternative" gospels than these four, but I have limited myself to these for right now. Here are the reasons why I started with these:
  • The Gospel of Mary, because it has received some publicity and more people may be aware of it
  • The Gospel of Thomas (Coptic), because it is the most focused on Jesus
  • The Gospel of Philip, because it is substantially longer than many alternative gospels (some of which are only a few pages long)
  • The Gospel of Truth, because it is among the earliest-written of the ones that did not make the Bible

Points of interest

To compare this diagram to the previous one, we can immediately see that these alternative gospels are not as tightly related to each other as the Biblical gospels. We see that in an objective, measurable way: they do not all share a core set of keywords, or share the same most common word.

With a high-level picture like this, a picture that shows only the ten most-common keywords from each document, some of the documents don't share any keywords at all. The Gospel of Philip doesn't have an overlap with the Gospel of Mary at that level, and neither does the Gospel of Truth. The Gospel of Mary only relates to the Gospel of Thomas through a match between "Savior" in the Gospel of Mary and "Jesus" in the Gospel of Thomas (more on that in the technical notes). In general, these documents have as much that is different from each other -- sometimes much more that is different -- than they have in common.

Again, comparing the alternative gospels to the Biblical gospels, "Jesus" does not have as much of a place here as in the Biblical accounts. In some alternative gospels, "Jesus" (or a title like "Savior" to represent him) isn't one of the top ten keywords. For example, in the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth, "Jesus" is not represented in the top ten words, being relatively less important in those documents than other keywords or concepts. This is in contrast to the Biblical gospels where "Jesus" is the highest-frequency keyword -- the topic of first importance -- in all four.

It is questionable whether "Gospel" is an accurate thing to call those particular documents that make no attempt to relate the life or teachings of Jesus, and where "Jesus" does not appear prominently in the top keywords. If a gospel is something that has -- or claims to have -- some record of the life and teachings of Jesus from a viewpoint of his early followers, then some of these documents simply don't meet that definition. Neither is it any complaint against certain documents to mention they do not meet that definition; they simply were not written with the purpose of recording the life and teachings of Jesus. (I've mentioned before, "unorthodox patristics" may be a more accurate classification for some of these documents.) Bear in mind that we are measuring the emphasis of all the documents in an objective way; the result is not something that depends on any ideology, belief, or lack of belief. We are not measuring things one way for the Biblical documents and another way for the non-Biblical documents: we have a level playing field, and all documents are handled in the same way. When we handle the documents the same way, we find there are some differences in what they contain. We are letting each document's contents set its own keywords, and measuring how often those keywords are used. Anyone would get the same results regardless of their views on the documents in question. It is not some sort of ideological thing to notice that some documents are mainly about Jesus while others are not; it is a matter of objective fact. Calling these other documents "gospels" may generate publicity, but it is done at the expense of accuracy about what they actually contain.

Technical Notes

  1. In the section where the Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas overlap, "Savior" from the Gospel of Mary is treated as a match to "Jesus" in the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Mary never actually mentions the name of the "Savior" in the remaining text that we have. Matching "Savior" to "Jesus" is a debatable move in a word matching exercise -- not because the identity of the "Savior" being discussed is in serious doubt, but because "Savior" is a religious idea or title, while "Jesus" is the name of a historical person. These differences reflect something you see when you compare the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary side-by-side. The Gospel of Thomas aims to record the sayings of Jesus; it consists largely of a series of sayings introduced by the phrase "Jesus said". In the Gospel of Mary, the Savior makes only a brief appearance in person (at least in the remaining text that we have), and he is more often the topic of discussion among Mary and the disciples. So there is some question about allowing a word match between "Savior" and "Jesus" since they aren't actually the same word and are used somewhat differently. However, if we did not allow "Savior" and "Jesus" as a match in this case, it would give the impression that the Gospel of Mary wasn't related to the others at all; I thought it would be a more accurate representation to show that there was a match of sorts.
  2. There is a second difference between how these charts were made compared to the earlier one. Previously, when we looked at the Biblical gospels, all four shared the same most-frequently-used keyword: Jesus. To reflect this, "Jesus" was in larger typeface, and all the keywords were left in black letters since there was no need to distinguish a different keyword for the different documents. Here, the four writings have four different most-frequently used keywords. For Mary it is "Savior"; for Thomas it is "Jesus"; for Philip it is "man", and for Truth is it "father". To represent this, I have put the most-frequently-used word in the same color as the circle to which it belongs (that is: red for the most-frequently-used word for the Gospel of Thomas, and so forth).
  3. For a different type of technical note: I have been working on my diagramming skills a little bit, and I hope the next diagram will be slightly more detailed without losing its readability.


Martin LaBar said...

So far, your diagrams are pretty good.

Yes, these should probably be "gospels" in quotes.

Good work.

Weekend Fisher said...


Right, if we define the term "gospels" in a way that most people would recognize, then many of the alternative, non-Biblical candidates don't meet that definition. Nothing against them as works of another sort, you just have to be fair to the facts about what a thing is and what a thing isn't.

I'm sure somewhere someone is screaming "oppression" that a 3rd-century work with little interest in Jesus isn't considered along with the canonical gospels as a source of information on the life of Jesus ... Probably someone on the faculty at Duke, actually. ;)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF