Get the CD Now!

Egerton Gospel


by David Ross
1 July 2000 - 4 July 2002


While I was looking into 1 John, I peeked into the so-called "Egerton Gospel". This is a common reconstruction of what the Jesus Seminar have labeled "Egerton 1:4":

(14/14) [you] have hoped." Then t[h]ey [said],
(15/15) "We know that through Moses
(16/16) God [spoke], but you, we do not know
(17/17) [where you are from.] When Jesus replied,

And here is "Egerton 3:2":

(50/43) [After c]oming to him,
(51/44) they ex[acti]ngly tested him, s[aying,]
(52/45) "Teacher Jesus, we know that [from God]
(53/46) you have come.

Egerton Papyrus 2- translation by Andrew Bernhard Fragment 1: Verso

According to Helmut Koester, Jon B Daniels in his dissertation The Egerton Gospel: Its Place in Early Christianity [Claremont Graduate School, CA: 1990] 24 n.1 derived the "[where you are from.]" from John 9:29's poqen ei. Dr Koester, the Seminar, Bernhard, and countless others have generally followed suit.

It is not hard to see why. The surviving part of Egerton shares with John 5:39-47 and 9:28-29 a concern over Jesus's authority, and how it derives from Moses. (Similarly, John 8:31-59 is concerned with how his authority derives from Abraham.) Helmut Koester (pp. 208-211) has adequately proven to me, at least, that the Egerton form is original, and that John broke it into two debates in chapters 5 and 9.

As for Egerton 3:2, its parallel in John 3:2 reads, "He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.'" That part of John goes on in 3:4 to have Nicodemus ask a shocking question, and then in 3:9-12 to have Nicodemus question Jesus more politely and Jesus accuse Nicodemus. Jesus returned to metaphysical discourse, if only for 3:13, but there he said that only one has gone up and down from heaven, which implicitly should absolve Nicodemus of responsibility for his lack of knowledge and of faith. John 3:4 and 3:9-12 are in tone at odds with the structure of John 3, hinting at a more controversial origin for some of John 3's sayings. Back to John 3:2, it is unlike Egerton 3:2 in that John 3:2 does not follow with an explicit question; instead, Jesus treats it as an opportunity to expand on what "coming from God" means. It is also striking that Nicodemus - one man - counts himself as a group ("we"). Egerton 3:2 better fits Egerton 3 than John 3:2, with 3:4 and 3:9-12, fits John 3.

As a result, Egerton is often called "pre-Johannine".

The Light is not in you, Egerton.

But most modern scholars seem to consider Egerton not only pre-Johannine, but at least partially Johannine itself. They have reconstructed Egerton 1:4 and 3:2 according to the Gospel of John. Egerton 1:2 reads, "do not think I have come to accuse you", which begs the question, why did Jesus come, and (arguably) from whence. John is all about where Jesus came from, where he is going, and who gets to follow him: for example John 3:8 (itself a Johannine extension): "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going", and John 8:14 in the Abrahamic debate: "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going". But where these scholars have gone, I cannot come just yet.

The first clause in Egerton 1:4 is, "we know God has spoken to Moses". The second clause should logically refer to Moses or God's word. Where Jesus claims to originate should be irrelevant to what was said or who said it. The Gospel of John would disagree - but Egerton is not the Gospel of John.

No other concerns of the Johannine literature shine through Egerton. There is no "love of God" (5:42), no "word dwelling in you" (5:38), no "walking in darkness" nor "light" (8:12), no "works of God" (5:36, much less of the Father or sender) - and that's just in the chapters parallel to Egerton. Even having zwhn aiwnion - seen in the Egerton parallel John 5:39, common throughout John and 1 John, used heavily by the true-Pauline and Pastoral literature, and even cited by original Mark (albeit introduced as a quote by the rich man) in Mark 10:17, 10:30 and synoptic parallels - is merely "life" in Egerton. When we say "pre-Johannine", we had best beware lest we let the term influence the translation.

Nor can we remove John 9:29 from its fold in just this one case. The second clause of John 9:29 can be read as a non-non sequitur (is that a valid phrase?) - but only in John. John 3:34 reads, "For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God [*] gives the Spirit without limit" (c.f. John 5:24). For John, if Moses speaks the word of God then God sent Moses. If the Jews can accept that, he reasoned, then they ought to know whence came Jesus.

Ultimately, when it comes to Jesus coming upon us, Egerton answers "why", and John answers "whence" and "whither". The ancient saying which Luke 12:51 and Matt 10:34 cite treats the subject in the same manner as Egerton. In both, Jesus does not claim to be from anywhere other than (presumably) Bethlehem and/or Nazareth, at least not in what we have; and he has no destination in mind but (also presumably) Galilee, Jerusalem, and the cross.

Is Egerton Gnostic?

John wasn't the only gospel speculating on Jesus's origin. According to Dr Koester, a quasi-philosophical religion called "gnosticism" preceded the Johannine Gospel. The gnosticism associated with John claims special "knowledge" hidden from the average person; knowledge concerning the elect's origin from a divine plane alien to this world (which is of the devil: John 17).

Helmut Koester noted parallels between Dialogue of the Saviour 13:1-14:4, Secret Book of James 2:4-6, and John 14:2-9. Koester and others think that collections of dialogues developed into dialogue narratives, and thence to dialogue-miracle gospels. Admittedly the parallels in the surviving literature are more thematic than literal, but this can be easily addressed; it is entirely probable that at least within gnosticism, the older forms were not abandoned (and therefore frozen in time) but took further paths of development before being buried at Nag Hammadi.

I agree with Koester that the evidence is in favour of the process outlined above. However, I see no need to assume that the gnostics held a monopoly on dialogue-miracle gospels. Any more than Johannine elements, there are no otherworldly / mystical elements in the surviving fragment of Egerton. On the contrary: the question of Jesus's authority from Jewish scripture is entirely temporal, and was a concern of all the gospels, especially Matthew.


If we abandon the assumption that Egerton mentioned Jesus's origins, we can then explain John 3:2 and 9:29 as Egerton through the looking-glass of John's link between origin and authority.

What else might Egerton 1:4 read? Goro Mayeda in Das Leben-Jesu-Fragment Papyrus Egerton 2und seine Stellung in der urchristlichen Literaturgeschichte (Paul Haupt Verlag, Bern, 1946) suggested [tiV su ei] from John 8:25. This would make it "who you are". While this also has problems - "on what authority you speak" would be more relevant to the preceding clause - it is at least more neutral than what we have now. As for Egerton 3:2, it might be as basic as "for this you have come", referring to the imminent restoration of God's reign.

This essay does not deny that Egerton may have speculated as to Jesus's origins. It should however be clear that to assume that Egerton did so - especially after splicing in parallel passages from a more popular gospel - is at least equally baseless. To do so is to give Egerton a gnostic or Johannine outlook it does not yet have. To borrow a phrase from Dr Ehrman, this amounts to a modern-day "orthodox corruption of scripture", the more poignant because it is being done by scholars.

Go to the Chronological List of all Early Christian Writings

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.