Wednesday, September 24, 2014


At one time even the most literate people found it difficult to read the Gospels. In their earliest versions they were written in all capitals and without punctuation and spaces between the words. This means that if you were a First Century scholar tying to read the Gospel of John, it would look something like this:


The Gospel of John
Eventually they quit writing in all capitals and added punctuation and spaces. This made the Bible easier to read, but it was still difficult to work with because there were no page numbers in early manuscripts and the books of the Bible had yet to be divided into chapters and verses. The Bible wouldn’t come to have chapters until around 1207 when Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, divided the books of the Bible into chapters. Readers would have to wait until 1551for verses. In that year Robert Estienne, a Protestant printer, published an edition of the Bible divided into verses.

Chapter and verse divisions were not the first attempt at subdividing the Gospels. Early on Bible scholars noticed that many of the stories told in Matthew are repeated in Mark, Luke, and John, and vice versa. Because scholars wanted to be able to compare these stories against each other, some sort of reference system was needed to easily find the stories for comparison. In the early 300’s, at a time when punctuation was in its infancy and page numbers were unheard of, the Church Father Eusebius devised a method for finding these parallel passages and comparing them.

Eusebius first divided each Gospel into subparts. Matthew had 335 sections; Mark had 241; Luke had 342; and John 232. These divisions came to be known as Eusebian Sections.  Then Eusebius drew up ten tables (known as canons) showing which sections were the same from one Gospel to the next. The tables were arranged like this:

Canon I: All four Gospels
Canon II: Matthew, Mark, and Luke
Canon III: Matthew, Luke, and John
Canon IV: Matthew, Mark, and John
Canon V: Matthew and Luke
Canon VI: Matthew and Mark
Canon VII: Matthew and John
Canon VIII: Luke and Mark
Canon IX: Luke and John
Canon X: Sections appearing in one Gospel only

These tables, which became known as the Eusebian Canons, were placed at the front of many manuscripts of the Gospels. By the Middle Ages the Canons came to be set in ornate, colorful designs looking like arches supported by columns. The parallel sections were written between the columns. This made for pages which were both beautiful to look at and useful to use in tracking down parallel Gospel stories.

A Page of the Eusebian Canons from the Lindisfarne Gospels
(courtesy of the British Museum)

One of the most beautifully illustrated Medieval editions of  the Gospels has to be the edition made around 700 at the Lindisfarne Monastery in England. Known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, and filled with colorful illustrations, this manuscript has survived to the present day and is on display at the British Library. Because not everyone can go to the British Library to view the Gospels, the British Library has placed a photograph of every page of the Gospels online. You can browse the Gospels here: LINDISFARNE GOSPELS.

There is another interesting fact about the Lindisfarne Gospels. They are an example of one of the earliest “interlinear” editions of the Gospels. Originally written in large letters in the Latin language, the pages of the Gospels had large spaces between the lines. At some time after the Gospels were produced someone came back to the manuscript and interlined the book with an Old English translation written in smaller letters.