by David Ross
22 Mar 1998 - 18 Feb 2001


The Gospel of Matthias was, at one time, almost as popular as the Gospel of Thomas. Origen (Homily on Luke 1:1) and Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica III.25.6) viewed Thomas and Matthias as a twin threat, and the great churchmen Jerome (Praef. in Matth.), Pope Gelasius I (Decree VI, 8), and (although I haven't found the reference yet) Ambrose still felt the need to debunk Matthias up to the sixth century. The last to list it was the seventh-century Catalogue of the Sixty Canonical Books. On a more positive note, Clement of Alexandria quoted thrice from a work he called the "Traditions of Matthias". The Gospel of Matthias has understandably not received nearly as much press as has Thomas, however, because Thomas has been found and Matthias is still missing.

More accurately, Matthias has not yet been identified. I have noted a number of parallels between Matthias as the Church fathers descibed it, and a gospel fragment long known from excavations last century. The fragment I have in mind is Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 840, which British archaeologists discovered in Upper Egypt. 1998 was in fact the centennial of that fragment's publication, so what better time for a new look?

Matthias and the Heresiologists.

Many orthodox heresiologists took aim at gnostic texts written in Matthias's name; but none tell us more than the text's pseudepigraphical title. It is an open question whether these men had actually read the texts in question.

There is one possible exception. According to Hippolytus, anti-pope of Rome (200-235 CE), the Basilideian gnostics in Egypt were asserting that they had secret teachings from Matthias:

Basilides, therefore, and Isidorus, the true son and disciple of Basilides, say that Matthias communicated to them secret discourses, which, I being specially instructed, he heard from the Saviour. Let us, then, see how clearly Basilides, simultaneously with Isidorus, and the entire band of these [heretics], not only absolutely belies Matthias, but even the Saviour Himself.

The Refutation of All Heresies Bk VII, Ch. 8

If Hippolytus was referring to writings of the Basilideian sect, he did not bother to name them. And if Basilides was claiming that Matthias had written a gospel, Hippolytus completely ignored him. "Belying Matthias" refers to the heretics' misuse of apostolic authority, not to misuse of a text; all quotes from Basilides's material are sparse and buried in paraphrase. They might even refer to the distinct "Gospel of Basilides" which Origen also attacked in Homily on Luke 1:1. Hippolytus believed, and was trying to prove, that their writings all derived from Aristotle anyway.

Irenaeus had opposed the same sect 182-188 CE. Irenaeus does not tell of a Matthian book; in fact, he may be implying that the sect had not even heard of Matthias. The gnostics claimed that the Twelfth Aeon had left the Pleroma just as Judas had left the Twelve Apostles. But since Luke's Acts tells that Judas was replaced by Matthias, reasoned Irenaeus, this analogy must fail (Adv. Haer. Bk II, Ch. 10).

I would conclude that it is possible that the "secret discourses of Matthias" known to Hippolytus may be equivalent to the Traditions of Matthias known to Clement. But they might also be metaphysical rantings along the lines of the Johannine literature or the Nag Hammadi texts. The heresiologists don't give us enough data.

Traditions and Gospel.

The first (and only) true witness to the text of a book then entitled The Traditions of Matthias is Clement of Alexandria, writing circa 210 CE.

The beginning thereof [sc. of the knowledge of the truth] is to wonder at things, as Plato says in the Theaetetus and Matthias in the Traditions when he warns 'Wonder at what is present' establishing this as the first step to the knowledge of things beyond.

Stromateis II 9.45.4

For in obedience to the Savior's command ...[a man has] no wish to serve two masters, pleasure and Lord. It is believed that Matthias also taught this, that we must fight against the flesh and treat it with contempt, never yielding to it for pleasure's sake, but must nourish the soul through faith and knowledge.

Stromateis III 4.26.3, II 208.7-9

(The above was quoted word-for-word by Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica III.29.4.)

They say that Matthias the apostle in the Traditions explains at every turn: 'If the neighbor of one of the chosen sin, then has the elect sinned; for if he had so conducted himself as the Word commends, the neighbor would have had such awe at his way of life that he would not have fallen into sin'.

Stromateis VII 13.82.1

The Traditions exist in only three small fragments, and those in quotation, perhaps even paraphrase. Can the sources and ideals of this book be extracted from these fragments? Can it even be considered a gospel?

I will have to start with a brief discussion of the Two-Source Hypothesis, namely, that the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are (1) dependent on the Gospel According to Mark and (2) dependent on other shared sources, as yet undiscovered. (1) is now commonly accepted; however, (2) is still subject to nit-picking. Some parts of the so-called "Synoptic Sayings Source" (also called Q) agree so well in grammar and vocabulary that scholars posit a single, coherent document. This project will assume the minimum: that Q material is a stratum of the Jesus sayings tradition which predates Luke and Matthew.

This project also assumes that the Gospel of Thomas is independent of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. It follows that parallels between Q and Thomas may represent either (1) the correct wording of Q or (2) a stratum earlier than Q.

"A man/servant has no wish to serve two masters" appears in the Gospels of Luke, Matthew, and Thomas; but not Mark. It is certainly a quote from the earliest years of the oral tradition. But in Thomas and Luke, it reads "servant" instead of "man"; it probably read "servant" in the oral tradition and/or Q. Matthew edited out the "servant".

A tentative conclusion: The author of the Traditions was familiar with the sayings recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, and used them from memory to contruct his own quotes.

"Wonder at what is present" as a "beginning" and a "first step" is a concept found in Thomas 2 (and possibly Paul's opponents in 1 Cor 4:8):

Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds.
When he finds, he will become astonished.
When he becomes astonished, he will become king.
And when he has become king, he will find rest.

The last of Clement's quotes does not appear in any known gospel, although the language is reminiscent of Jesus's: "that which you do to the least of your brethren, so do you it to me" and "do unto others as you would have done unto you".

What is seen here is a reworking of traditional gospel materials into the service of strict, abstinential ideals. More: the Traditions explicitly claimed that these gospel sayings of Jesus came from the "Saviour", and in Clement's day this book claimed to be from the apostle Matthias. Since this is a book which claimed apostolic authority for a tradition of Jesus's sayings, I conclude that it must be compared with other Gospels; canonical or otherwise. The Traditions is the Gospel of Matthias.

The Text of Pap. Oxy. 840.

verso recto
(01) "[. . .] earlier, before doing wrong, he slyly reasons everything out,
(02) but be careful that you do not also somehow
(03) suffer the same things as them. For not
(04) only among the living do
(05) the evil-doers of humanity receive retribution, but [a]lso
(06) they will undergo punishment and mu[c]h
(07) torture." And taking them along,
(08) he went into the place of purification itself and
(09) wandered about in the temple. And c[o]ming toward them,
(10) a certain high priest of the Pharisees - Le[vi (?)]
(11) was his name - joined them and s[aid]
(12) to the savior, "Who permitted you to tram[ple]
(13) this place of purification and to see [the]se
(14) holy vessels, although you have not ba[th]e[d] n[o]r
(15) have the f[eet] of your disciples
(16) been [wa]shed? But after having def[iled] it,
(17) you trample this a[rea] of the temple which
(18) [i]s clean, which nobody e[lse except for]
(19) a person who has bathed and chan[ged his]
(20) [clot]hes tramples on. Nor does he dare to lo[ok upon these]
(21) holy vessels." And s[tanding nearby, the savior]
(22) wit[h his] disciple[s replied],
(23) "Then, being here in the temple, are you
(24) clean?" He said to him, "I am clean.
(25) For I bathed in the pool of David and
(26) after going down by one set of stairs, by another
(27) I came back [u]p. And I put on white clothes
(28) and they were clean and then I came
(29) and looked upon these holy
(30) vessels." Re[ply]ing to him, the savior
(31) said, "Woe to blind people who do not
(32) s[e]e! You bathed in those gushing
(33) w[a]ter[s] in which dogs and pigs have been
(34) ca[st] night and day. And wash[i]ng yourselves,
(35) you scrubbed the outer layer of skin which
(36) also prostitutes and th[e] flute-girls
(37) ano[int a]nd bathe and scrub
(38) [and p]ut make up on to become the desi[re]
(39) of [t]he men. But from within th[ey]
(40) [are fill]ed with scorpions and
(41) [all unr]ighteousness. But I and
(42) [my disciples], whom you say have not
(43) wa[shed], we [have wa]shed in waters of li[fe]
(44) [eternal co]ming from [the]
(45) [God of heaven. B]ut woe to [th]ose [. . .]

transl. Andrew Bernhard

The text above is quoted because it is a line-by-line rendition of the base text. (And because I received written permission for it.) I defer to the freer Jesus Seminar text, with their chapter-verse notation (see The Complete Gospels). Their "chapter 2" starts at line 7, at "And taking them along".

The fragment is very concerned with the "evils" of the world. Chapter 2 is a long discussion on what constitutes true uncleanness. Pharisees are compared with prostitutes, who bathe outwardly yet are sinful inside; earthly water is contaminated by "dogs and pigs". As a corollary, the fragment is no friend of the world's oldest profession. In the canonical gospels plus Thomas, Jesus never attacks prostitutes. In fact, he dines with sinners and tax collectors. Here, it is taken for granted that whores are the worst type of scum.

The Saviour of the fragment is unnamed, but the Jesus Seminar, among others, identify Him with Jesus the Christ. The fragment is so reminiscent of other Gospel parables and controversy stories that it almost forces this interpretation.

1:1 forms the conclusion to a parable, and 1:2 implies that someone in that parable suffered a bad end, presumably an earlier protagonist who did not plan ahead. What parable it was, cannot be established as yet, but the topic is obvious. It was a parable of preparation, like Thomas 98: "The Kingdom of the Father is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful".

1:3 adds a moral to the parable which is alien to the thought of the parable. 1:1 and the witness 1:2 do not condemn criminality, but a lack of planning. The fragment is performing midrash upon a hard saying. This was a common feature of the early Church: witness the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-8a), with "the children of this world exhibit better sense in dealing with their own kind than do the children of light" (8b) and "make use of your ill-gotten gains to make friends for yourselves" (9).

Chapter 2 is a conflict story as one finds in all the canonical gospels. Verses 2:7-10 show the author's hand at work.

Pap. Oxy. 840 Gospel
2:7 Damn < you > blind (Ouai tufloi) who won't see! Mt 23: 25a Damn you... Pharisees (Ouai... Farisaioi)
26a You blind Pharisee (Farisaie tufle)...
You bathe in these stagnant waters where kuneV kai coiroi wallow day and night. Mt 7: 6a Don't offer to dogs what is sacred, and don't throw your pearls to pigs.
8a And washing the outer (niyamenoV to ektoV) skin you scrape < it > (esmhxw) Mt 23: 25b You clean the outside (kaqarizete to exwqen) of cups and plates
26c that you might make also the outside (to ektoV) of it clean
8c but inwardly (endoqen de) they are filled ([pepl]hrw< n >tai) by scorpions and all kinds of corruption. Mt 23: 25c but inside (eswqen de) they are full (gemousin) from greed and dissipation.
26b ... clean first the inside (to entoV) of cups
9 But my disciples and I - you say we are unbathed - have bathed in waters of life (en udasi zw[hV])... [c]oming down from ... Jn 4: 10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew what God can give you, and who just said to you, 'give me a drink," you would ask him and he would give you water of life (udwr zwhV)."
13 Jesus responded to her, "Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again;
14 "But all who drink the water I'll provide them with will never get thirsty again"

Here I am indebted to The Complete Gospels, again, for listing the thematic parallels in 2:7 and 2:8; the Greek words come from a partial text quoted in Kloppenborg p. 109.

The fragment's connection of dogs and pigs is paralleled in Matt 7:6 and Thom 93. There is no adjudicating between the two, as the parallel is in vocabulary only. The rest of 2:7-8 parallels passages found in Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. Its genesis may be in any one of those sources, it may be in Q, or it may even be a development independent from them all.

I would eliminate Luke. For the saying about washing the cups, Luke 11:39-41 has "inside you are full of greed" instead of "they"; why would Pap. Oxy. 840 have blunted Luke's more direct attack? (As a corollary, the fragment and Matthew are reflecting Q here; Matthew would not have softened this saying either.) The fragment also diverges from Luke 11:39-41's vocabulary. The fragment has Matthew 23:26's to ektoV; and even a harmony between 23:25's eswqen and 23:26's to entoV: endoqen. Instead, Luke 11:40 has "did not He who made the outside (exwqen) make the inside (eswqen) also?", using the same words as Luke 11:39 == Matt 23:25.

Is the fragment's apparent use of Matt 23:25-26 really an independent echo of a prior tradition? Taking this to a real independent witness, Thomas 89:2 agrees with Luke 11:40 against Matt 23:26, and lacks the polemic against Pharisees found in Luke and Matthew. This suggests that the fragment is not dependent on Thomas, and that Thomas may be even closer to the original saying than Q. Looking at it another way, Luke 11:40 is more faithful to the oral tradition than is Matthew 23:26; the middleman, Q, probably contained a variant of Luke 11:40 as well.

Moreover, Matthew 23:25a's "you ... Pharisees, ... woe to you" must stem from Matthew, not Q; Luke would not have edited out a negative beatitude (c.f. Luke 6:24-25). Also unique to Matthew here is "you blind Pharisee" (Matt 23:26a). The beginning of verse 2:7 in the fragment reads, "woe to the blind that won't see": in the context, this refers to a Pharisee and even uses the word tufloV, which does not appear in Luke 11:40 nor Thomas 89.

It is still possible that Matthew 23:25-26 was cited in that form before Matthew incorporated it, albeit unknown to Luke and Thomas. However, POxy 840 and Matthew 23:25-26 also share the narrative setting. The fragment's "chapter 2" kicks off when Jesus enters the temple precinct. In Matthew, Jesus enters the temple area in 21:23 and stays there until he explicitly leaves in 24:1. Compare with Thomas 89, which has no context, and Luke 11:37-53, set in some Pharisee's house in an unspecified location (remember, he will not enter Jerusalem until Luke 19:41). POxy 840 and Matthew are not borrowing from a shared oral tradition here, even a secondary one. POxy 840 read Matthew 23:25-26 within the context of 21:23-24:1.

This fragment betrays an additional relationship to terminology also seen in the Gospel of John. "Water of life" is a word-play on running water and eternal life, which in Christianity first appears in this Johannine discourse. These word-plays are not the style of the rest of the fragment, but they are the style of John (for example, John 3:3's "born anwqen: from above / again"). The Pharisees and leading priests are also typically Johannine opponents, as opposed to the Synoptic Gospels' Sadducees and lawyers (nomikoi). That Pap. Oxy. 840 thought highly of John 4 is shown by his title for Jesus as "Saviour" (2:2, 4, 7; note Jn 4:42).

Also, as the Jesus Seminar pointed out, the fragment does not know details of the Temple, nor indeed of Judaism. It uses the term hagneuterion ("purification") for the inner sanctum and its target is a Pharisaic leading priest (!). The polemic against ritual washing is culled second-hand from John 11:55, and the feet as the minimum requirement for purity from John 13:10: "people who have bathed need only wash their feet". The fragment is parroting the anti-Semitic mistakes of previous Gospels, more specifically, of John.

I would conclude that the fragment is a Gospel fragment, and that this Gospel is dependent on the prior Gospels of John and Matthew at least. No other source is discernible.

The Common Ground.

So in both The Traditions cited by Clement, and Pap. Oxy. 840, the authors rework sayings taken from earlier, accepted Gospels (particularly Matthew) into another Gospel in order to prove their common point. That point is that the world is evil and sinful, particularly the pleasures of the flesh. In each case the dependence is not literal, but from memory; and both texts were extant in Egypt before the third century.

I propose firstly that Pap. Oxy. 840 be tentatively identified with the Traditions of Matthias, and secondly that both be removed from the scholarly canon. This Gospel is more on the level of Nicodemus than of Thomas.

It should be asked here, of what use is an apocryphal gospel which willfully distorts the words of earlier, more authentic, canonical gospels? When I started this project, I didn't think that this fragment was of any use at all. At worst, it is an ignorant distortion of the teachings of Jesus, which if granted canonical status would skew Christianity back into anti-Semitism and a self-loving denial of God's creation. But canonization is not the issue anymore. On the contrary, it is a witness to the text and influence of John and Matthew among ascetics. One could argue that this bolsters the canon.

Any thoughts? e-mail me :^)

Other Links


6 April 2008: Redid some links.

24 December 1999: Art Kilner wrote me and mentioned that POxy840 2 and Matthew 23 share setting. 18 Feb 2001: nothing new has been added; but we will soon have an Italian translation (thanks Frank Powerful!), and Andrew Bernhard changed his site address.

21 August: I fixed a spelling error, and emphasized that POxy 840 and Matthias used Matthew and John more probably from memory than from hardcopy. I'd like to thank Dr Werner Kelber of Rice University for reminding me of that distinction (and, belatedly, for encouraging me when I started the first of these projects).

30 April: I had to redo some of the links. The conference is long-gone and Andrew moved his site (not far, though).

19 October: I found a Greek transliteration of POxy 840 2:7-9; this adds more weight to my idea that Matthias used Matthew. 31 October: I explained why Traditions == Gospel in this case.

6 October: I needed to clean up my reasoning behind why I think the fragment was dependent upon Matthew. More importantly, I realized I'd made a mistake in assuming Irenaeus wrote Against All Heresies. Irenaeus did write against Basilides, so that section needed to be expanded. And I tracked down the various mentions of the Gospel of Matthias by Eusebius and Origen, and leads for Jerome and Ambrose. Thank God for the Internet!

31 July: I made some major changes. Irenaeus actually wrote before Clement. Thanks to Andrew Bernhard, for pointing that out. (Dammit, I knew that. I was just sloppy.) Also BIG thanks are due him for graciously giving me permission to stea- erm, borrow his translation. He requested only that I put in the line numbers; I had tried to do this earlier with HTML's "ordered list" tag, but that clearly didn't work. Anyway, I went one better; I have replaced his earlier effort with his updated version (complete with brackets! YAY!). I also added a short explanation of my assumptions concerning "Q" and Thomas. I missed the BA Oxyrhynchus Symposium on 15-18 July (drat).

The first version of this project was written 22-28 March.