Notes for this episode:
The Eusebian Canons:
In this episode I want to make a few brief comments drawn from my recent reading through Francis Watson’s The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus (Baker Academic, 2016).
As the subtitle indicates, this volume offers a series of theological reflections on the four Gospels and their relationship to one another. The author is a mainstream NT scholar at Durham University with whom I certainly do not agree on everything, but the book still provides many helpful insights.
One aspect of the book that is rather unique is the fact that in the second half, Watson gives emphasis to how the Eusebian canons give insight into ancient understandings and interpretations of the fourfold Gospel.
The Eusebian canons were composed by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340), the “father of church history,” best known for his Ecclesiastical History, and it was among the earliest attempts to provide a cross-referencing system and a harmony among the four Gospels, long before the development of modern printed Bibles with their chapter and verse divisions and in-text cross-references.
Eusebius had adapted his canons from an even earlier one composed by Ammonius of Alexandria.
These canons appeared in mss. (Greek and versions) for about a thousand years.
The canons are included in the front matter of the NA 28, along with Eusebius’s Epistle to Carpianus (in Greek) which introduces the layout of the canons.
There are 10 separate canons which group various passages in the Gospels along with their parallels. Canon I has passages that appear in all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John); Canon II has passages that appear in the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke); etc. The final Canon X consists of four sub-canons which list passages that are unique to each individual Gospel.
Then, in the text of the NA 28, references to these canons are listed on the inside margin of each page with two numbers (top and bottom). The top number provides a sequential reference for the passage and the bottom number provides the reference to the canon where the passage is located.
It seems there has been a revival of interest in these canons and in examination even of how they influenced early Christian reception and interpretation of the Fourfold Gospel. Some are even giving credit to Eusebius and his canons for solidifying the canonical consensus on the fourfold Gospel.
For a very recent work on this subject, see Jeremiah Coogan’s Eusebius the Evangelist; Rewriting the Fourfold Gospel in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2023).
The Eusebian Canons and the Ending of Mark:
If you have ever done any research or study relating to the traditional ending of Mark, you have probably heard as one of the arguments against its authenticity is that it is not included in the Eusebian canons.
We know that Eusebius was well aware of controversy over the ending of Mark. One key evidence of this is his Letter to Marinus in which he discusses the fact that the ending is disputed by some. Interestingly enough, he says that the source of the controversy had to do with harmonizing Matthew and Mark with respect to the timing of the resurrection (Matt 28:1 “at the end of the Sabbath” and Mark 16:2 “And when the sabbath was past” and Mark 16:9 “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week”).
This letter is the first hint of controversy over the TE that lasts till c. 500. Clearly the TE was known from earliest times (see its citation in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies).
So, the absence of the TE in Eusebius’ canons is given as an argument against its authenticity, though it is ironic that these canons appear in various Greek and versional mss. which nonetheless include the TE.
The Eusebian Canons and other disputed passages:
The thing that struck me in reading Watson is the fact that he points out that the Eusebian canons make reference to several passages whose authenticity is challenged by modern critics.
Here are two examples:
The first is Mark 15:28 “And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors” and its citation of Isaiah 53:12.
This verse is removed from the modern critical text on the assumption that it is harmonization with Luke 22:37 “For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.”
Watson points out, however, that Mark 15:28 is listed in Canon VIII which shows parallels between Mark and Luke. So Mark 15:28 is listed as 216/VIII and Luke 22:37 as 277/VIII.
This is not to say that Watson accepts the authenticity of Mark 15:28. He thinks it is “transplanted” from Luke (154). Still, it is striking that the Eusebian canons are a witness in favor of inclusion.
The second is Christ’s intercessory prayer in Luke 23:34a, “Father, forgiven them; for they know not what they do.” I did a talk on this passage last year for the TBS in London.
Watson points out that this passage is present in the Eusebian canons listed as 320/X. He observes, “Although the passage is missing from some early manuscripts and may be a later insertion, it was present in Eusebius’ text and is identified in his analysis as a passage unique to Luke” (156). Watson further notes that this prayer fits thematically with earlier teaching of Jesus in Luke, including love of enemy (156).
I was really intrigued by Watson’s insights on what the Eusebian canons reveal to us about ancient understandings of the Gospels.
I am no expert on the canons, but I think it would be interesting do further study see what other “disputed” passages appear in the canons.
Given the information in the Letter to Marinus it is unsurprising that Mark 16:9-20 is not labelled in the canons.
It seems, however, that the evidence from the canons has not always been consistently used by some scholars and apologists. Though I have heard many cite the absence of Mark 16:9-20 from the canons to justify a verdict of that passage’s secondary nature, I have not heard those same scholars make reference to the presence of passages like Mark 15:28 and Luke 23:34a in the canons to justify the conclusion that those passages are original and authentic (though, as noted, Watson seems to lean that way with regard to Luke 23:34a).JTR