By Austin Adkinson

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 4
July – August 2018
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She said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’

He answered me, ‘How wonderful you are for not wavering at seeing me! For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’

I said to him, So now, Lord does a person who sees a vision see it with the soul or with the spirit?’

The Savior answered, ‘A person does not see with the soul or with the spirit. Rather the mind, which exists between these two, sees the vision an[d] that is w[hat…] [pages 11–14 are missing].1
The Gospel of Mary 7:1–6

Just when it sounds as if a new important teaching from Jesus is at hand, the text is yanked away from us! To make matters worse, when the text picks up four pages later, Mary is in the middle of telling an odd story of a soul’s journey through the obstacles of seven mystical powers. This is one of the frustrations of working with extracanonical texts. The copies are very old and often damaged. There are holes, tears, and other flaws, resulting in missing pieces of texts, called “lacunae” (Latin for “gaps”), which must be reconstructed. Sometimes the gaps cannot be filled, as exemplified by the breaks in the following passages from “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.”

Whenever you hide yourselves, I myself will appear
17 Whenever you, I myself […….] you [..
[…….] Those who have [….]
[…..] to it […..……..] take me [………….] from within

Do not separate me from the first 18 ones
you [……….] throw away no one [………..]
turn away no [………….
she who […..
I know those
And the ones after these know me

On the day that I am close to you 19[.............] are far away
[……..] on the day that I [……..]
from you [……..]
[……….] of the heart […..]
[…….] of the natures
I am he [.......] of the creation of the spirits [….] request
of the souls [……]
control and the uncontrollable

20 I appear and [………] walk in […………] seal of my
[…….] I am he […………] the defense […….]
I am she they call truth and violation […….]
You honor me [………] and you whisper against me

Sometimes, as in the case of the Gospel of Mary, whole pages disappear between discovery and publication. Sometimes, misguided preservation efforts actually cause new damage, as in the case of the Gospel of Judas, which was damaged when unfortunately stored for a period in a freezer. A more common frustration is the damage that occurred naturally over a period of several centuries. There is usually only one extant copy of extracanonical texts, so unless future discoveries yield additional manuscripts, missing information will remain impossible to fill.

In contrast, in the case of biblical manuscripts, scholars can look to numerous other overlapping manuscripts to help determine the details of missing text. In fact, this produces an entirely different dilemma for textual critics. Instead of filling the gaps, scholars must interpret discrepancies between various manuscripts. Which differences are scribal errors? Which differences are intentional adaptations for the thoughts and needs of a given community? Our modern standard of maintaining the original wording of a text (solidified by copyright law) was not valued in antiquity. 2 Which, if any, version of a scripture is the original version?

There are no first edition copies—a category that likely did not exist in antiquity—available of any biblical text.

There are no first edition copies—a category that likely did not exist in antiquity— available of any biblical text. The earliest extant fragment of any part of the New Testament dates back to approximately 125 CE and consists only of a few words from the Gospel of John 18:31–33 and 18:37–38. In comparison, Paul’s latest epistles were composed about seventy years earlier (c. 55–56 CE). Mark, likely the earliest of the canonical gospels, was composed about fifty-five years earlier (c. 70 CE).3 And John was probably composed about thirty years earlier (c. 90–95 CE).

Does earlier mean more genuine? No. Depending on the scribal lineage, a later manuscript could be closer to the original than an earlier manuscript. For example, imagine the different branches of scribal lineages as if they were on a family tree for manuscripts. In one branch, a series of copies might be produced in a way that insured that each edition maintained very close precision to its predecessor, but only after a significant alteration to one of the earliest versions. A second branch could have had several different small adaptations in each generation. Would it be possible to decide which of the manuscripts at the end of each branch came closer to the original composition? Or indeed, which version is closer to the truth? Adaptations could be many things. They could mean the addition of details from oral history that the original author did not know. They could also mean the removal of errors in the original composition.

Lacunae are significant frustrations in the exploration of extracanonical texts. However, there is also less clarity in the exploration of canonical texts than most Christians are led to believe. When the frustrations of lacunae show up in extracanonical reading, I suggest looking at them as a visual reminder of the holes we cannot see in the canonical texts: the holes of translation misunderstandings and of scribal error and adaptation; the holes that represent women’s stories and women’s leadership that were excised; the holes where multiple lines of Christian thought have disappeared or were destroyed … The list could go on and on.

Copyright © 2018 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Photo of Austin Adkinson

Rev. Austin L. Adkinson is the pastor of Haller Lake UMC in Seattle. He is a member of the leadership teams of United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus and the Western Methodist Justice Movement and was part of the 2016 General Conference delegation from the Pacific Northwest Conference.


1. These missing pages, and six missing pages from the beginning of the gospel, were likely removed by someone trying to sell the codex in pieces. The pages appear to have been jumbled and the pages taken may have been assumed to be consecutive by someone who was unable to read the Coptic script.

2. The Gospel of Mark, for example, has three significantly different endings depending on which manuscripts are consulted. The earliest manuscripts conclude with Jesus’ empty tomb, and do not include a resurrection appearance by Jesus.

3. If you were unaware of this before, yes, each of the canonical Gospel accounts were composed at least thirty-five years—a whole generation—after Jesus died.

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