Canon tables form part of the prefatory material of many Gospel books, including our project manuscript, the Book of Mulling (see previous post). They function as an index of Gospel passages. The system was developed by Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century as a means to cross-reference sections recorded by more than one evangelist. Parallels between Gospel versions were thought to reflect the harmony of the texts. The canon table system gave visual affirmation of the agreement among the evangelists’ accounts. 1
To create the canons, all Gospel passages were cataloged on one of ten tables (fig. 1). Canon 1 (I) lists the passages found in all four of the Gospels. Subsequent tables 2-4 (II-IV) list the texts common to three Gospels. Canon II, for example gives parallel passages for Matthew, Mark and Luke. Tables 5-9 (V-IX) show episodes found in two Gospels. The tenth and final canon identifies the remaining texts which were uniquely found in only one account.
In order for the canon tables to be useful, each Gospel had to be divided into sections and then numbered. The system which Eusebius employed was not the same as the modern organization of the Bible into chapters and verses. Eusebian sections could vary considerably in length. Some were brief, containing only a few words. Others were as long as a full story. The sections of each Gospel were numbered sequentially beginning with 2. In Matthew’s Gospel, there were 355 sections, 233 sections in Mark, 342 sections in Luke and 232 in John. The number of sections in each Gospel can differ slightly depending on the version being used.
Section numbers and the related canon table are identified in the margins of the Gospel texts. The Book of Mulling records this information to the left of each of its two columns. For example, the passage in Matthew’s Gospel which recounts the baptism of Christ is section XIIII (14) (fig. 2). The canon number, in this case canon I, is identified just below the section number. With this brief notation, the reader would know that the passage is found in all four of the Gospels.
To find the corresponding texts in the other Gospels, the reader could refer to the table for Canon 1 (I) at the front of the manuscript (fig. 3). Finding section 14 (XIIII) of Matthew’s Gospel in the first column of the table, it is then possible to see that the same passage is documented in section V (5) of Mark’s Gospel (f. 36r), listed in the second column. In the third column the corresponding text in Luke’s Gospel is given as section 13 (XIII) (f.56v). The fourth column shows that section 15 (XV) of John’s account is the comparable text (f.82v). To visit the digital Book of Mulling and see canon tables and the Gospel texts, click here.