An Unassuming History
The History and Origins of the Biblical Canon
Although our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.
–James D. Tabor
It has been my experience that independent freethinkers walk the road less traveled because they seek out pearls of truth and wisdom. Their skepticism drives them to question everything, and so, skeptics and freethinkers never seem to be satisfied. For this reason we value free inquiry and the pursuit of the truth over loyalties to pre-established doctrines or dogmas which relegate the truth to the narrow confines of devotional faith. Herein the confines of faith the believer can throw away free inquiry for pure conviction. Often this causes those of faith to stop questioning their faith altogether, and this leaves us skeptics as the only ones left willing to raise the difficult questions.
When it comes to professions and declarations of faith, I don’t doubt the sincerity of most Christians, but I do question their reasons for believing. Are they Christian because they have stopped to examine the evidence and have seriously considered what it all means, or are they Christian for different reasons? Maybe they were born into Christianity? Maybe they got caught up in an evangelical movement when they were a teenager because they lived in a predominantly Christian culture and society? It’s hard to tell why people believe what they do, but when it comes down to understanding the reasons for why we believe what we do, professions of faith carry no weight. “I believe because I just do” or “I believe because deep down in my heart I know” are meaningless statements. Time and time again I have made it a point to raise the question, “What is your faith based on?” Minus professions of faith, this question forces Christians to pause and think—what is it that I believe, exactly? What are my beliefs based on? For Christians the answer would ultimately have to be “the Bible.”
Needless to say, without a central doctrine, without the articles of faith, there could be no devotional agreement as to the proper convictions a Christian should hold. Or to say it more plainly, without the Bible there could be no collective agreement of what the faith should even be about. If you think about it, this is some heavy handed business, because what it means is that without the Bible then there would be no good reason for Christianity.[i]
In this article I will take you through the history of the canonization of the Bible, what books were selected, by whom, and for what purposes. As it so happens, we can answer the question what is Christian faith based on, but the answer may shock believers, because it turns out it’s not based on any divinely inspired word of God, but rather, the Bible is an undeniably man-made text!
Consider the following, we have documented the development of the New Testament every step of the way from a handful of scrolls and codices to full-fledged religious compilations and compendiums. I posit the case that if the Bible can be proved beyond a reason of a doubt to be man-made and riddled with irreconcilable errors and contradictions then it cannot be a trustworthy text, and furthermore, cannot be relied upon to form any basis for establishing a reasonable faith. If you follow the progression of the development of the text of the Bible itself, then you’re logical conclusion will most likely match mine—so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Hallowed Be Thy Text?
Zealous belief in the Bible as a hallowed text, that the book itself is somehow sacred, as well as the obvious example of how such a doctrine of infallibility can so easily corrupt and override common-sense logic, can be characteristically summed up by suffering to listen to the biblical scholar John William Burgon, who over a century ago, dogmatically declared, “The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it… every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!”[ii]
When debating Evangelical Christians I often get the whole pleading preachment about how the Bible matches all the old documents exactly, that the translations are inerrant, and that there are more copies and fragments of the Bible than any other ancient text (as if the proliferation of a text had anything to do with its being accurate)! They may go on to add that the archeological evidence which supports the Bible has never been contested (actually, it has), and they may even add the familiar qualification that Christianity wouldn’t have survived this long if it wasn’t true (see JP Holding’s The Impossible Faith).
Being challenged on any of these points Christian apologists will raise automatic (and rehearsed) rebuttals, such as the criterion of embarrassment, mainly that there are some embarrassing incidences in the Bible, and why on earth would the Bible authors include these tidbits if it only embarrassed and complicated matters? This analytical tool is often (mis)used by desperate apologists to show how the New Testament’s accounts of Jesus’ actions and words are historically probable and therefore likely. As the priestly scholar John P. Meier has commented:
The point of the criterion is that the early church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents. Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus would naturally be either suppressed or softened in later stages of Gospel tradition, and often such progressive suppression or softening can be traced through the Four Gospels.[iii]
Precisely because the Bible contains embarrassing elements, since why would the Gospel authors write lies to discredit those they wrote about? They therefore will say that this must denote genuine historical occurrences! Additionally, they will often claim this makes the Bible a reliable historic document (even as they neglect other valid criteria in the field of Biblical criticism) and will say that, as a solid historical document, it validates the resurrection story of Christ. All this, however, the claim of the Bible’s unfaltering historicity, of the criterion of embarrassment in particular, has been disproved time and time again (see Richard Carrier’s Not the Impossible Faith) and rests on several wrong assumptions about of the formulation and formation of the Bible as a text.
Another consideration is that such fundamentalist literalism actually is disparaging. In his book The Reason-Driven Life the historian Robert M. Price reveals:
The claim for biblical inspiration is pernicious because it straitjackets the open-ended, inductive reading of the Bible. Once one holds normative beliefs about what an inspired book may or may not be found saying, one has abandoned both the Protestant axioms of Sola Scriptura and the grammatico-historical method… There is no biblical claim that the whole biblical canon as we know it is inspired. And to claim that there is, is circular, making the Bible into a univocal, canonical monolith. It is a spurious claim.[iv]
To set the record straight, it helps to get a general overview of the Bible’s progression as a book. So as Sister Maria says in The Sound of Music, let’s start at the beginning, since the beginning is the very best place to start.
The Septuagint, denoted by the symbol LXX, is the Christian Bible (OT) translated from the Hebrew into the Greek. During the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BCE) legend tells of a massive undertaking in which seventy Jewish scholars assembled and in as many days translated the full compendium (hence the LXX).
While there were second century BCE MSS fragments of the LXX among the Dead Sea scrolls (recovered in 1947) what should not be overlooked is that even though the LXX became the Bible of the early Christians, it wasn’t without revision. In fact, even as it included some books not in the original Masoretic Hebrew text (e.g. the Apocrypha) other books, such as Jeremiah, were much shorter abbreviated versions of the original.
After all this controversy there were even more repeated revisions and further translations by Aquila, Theodotion, Lucian, and eventually numerous evangelical redactors from the third century onward.
In his book Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine the literary critic Harold Bloom brings up the most apparent, and regrettably the most ignored, of Biblical changes which should cause us to immediately doubt the divinity of the text as a whole. Bloom’s acute observations lead the scholar to write, “The New Testament frequently is a strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible, and certainly it has persuaded multitudes,” and goes on to inform, “The New Testament accomplishes its appropriation by means of its drastic reordering of the Tanakh.”[v]
Bloom reminds us in his book The American Religion, that this human design, since at the very least humans had to assemble the pages and put the book together, is something we must think about when we think of any holy scriptures. To show, that even before Christian history, that early on there were human artificers behind the creation of the supposed word of God, Bloom reflects, “…what we now call the Bible is the result of a complex process of canonization for which the criteria were surprisingly aesthetic, or at least reconcilable with the aesthetic. The Song of Songs is in the Bible because it had enchanted the great Rabbi Akiba…”[vi]
Variant Editions and the Protocanon
If you’ve ever looked at a Protestant Bible and a Roman Catholic Bible you’ll immediately realize that your Protestant version is missing a whole lot of books! Why is a Protestant version so drastically different from a Roman Catholic version? Well, to answer that we must look to the past.
Before any set canon could be decided, however, the Bible would undergo numerous other revisions. The rabbis of the first century who taught at Jamnia also finalized the Jewish canon (70 CE) but with the creation of the Septuagint (LXX) the Christian scribes would once again copiously alter the Jewish canon and fit it to a remodeled Christian version. Not only were the Jewish list of books rearranged, but new additions which were excluded from the Hebrew canon (such as the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, as well as 1 and 2 Maccabees) were subsequently added into the Christian canon.
The first official NT canon formation stretches back to c.140 CE when the heretic Marcion (c.140 CE) issued his own version of the NT—a highly edited non-authoritative canon of his own making. Due to the arbitrary omission of numerous texts, this tampering forced the early Church to decide upon selecting an official core canon. Meanwhile, Irenaeus (c.180 CE) would quote from other Hellenistic Christian writings further lending support for the growing popularity of what would come to be known as the Gospels (second century onward).
Although it is true that some of the Gospels, such as the book of Mark, were written in the latter half of the first century, the earliest mention of it doesn’t exist till well into the second century. In fact, the earliest the four Gospels are ever mentioned together is in the Muratorian Fragment, from probably 190 CE, and no earlier. Although Paul’s writings predate the Synoptic Gospels (the first three gospels of similar content and style, e.g. Mark, Matthew, and Luke) it does seem to suggest the other NT works came much later, written anywhere from 100 to 150 CE. What this means specifically is that there couldn’t have possibly been any eye-witness accounts or personal testimonies of the events contained in the Gospel stories. Moreover, internal evidence gained via Higher Criticism suggests the Gospels and much of the New Testament writings are less history than actual imaginative interpolation, redaction, not to forget to mention fictitious.[vii]
Eusebius (c.340 CE), on the other hand, devised a threefold classification; noting the accepted, disputed, and rejected books. Eusebius would reluctantly include John’s Revelation, which he considered overtly Gnostic, yet rejected the Didache, Acts of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the epistle of Barnabas, while the gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias weren’t even considered for inclusion; mainly because they were incomplete. A full copy of the gospel of Thomas, for example, wouldn’t be unearthed until the find at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 CE; over one thousand and six hundred years later! Even though it is a Gnostic text, the fragments of the Gospel of Thomas manuscript are the oldest surviving textual evidence for the person called Jesus of Nazareth.
Athanasius of Alexandria created a list of twenty-seven NT books, in his Easter letter of 367 CE, providing the earliest extant list for a protocanon of fourth century Christendom. Augustine’s criterion followed suit, namely a universal acceptance of Athanasius’ prior listing, and Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate (c.405), from the list of twenty-seven books provided by Athanasius. This would become the decisive act of establishing the core content of the Christian canon. Even so, Jerome admitted the epistle to the Hebrews and Revelation only on the grounds that they had been recognized by the early Church Fathers even as they were not present in the original Hebrew version of the Bible.
Compounding the issue, the Council of Carthage (397 CE) had forbade the reading of non-canonical books, meaning anything left out couldn’t make it back in and no additional works could be amended to the authorized list of twenty-seven books. The provision of the authorized canon was mainly a defense against the perceived heretical movements of Gnosticism and Montanism. Obviously the great irony here being that, such as the case with the recently recovered Thomas manuscript, any extra-biblical evidence which would lend support for the historicity of Jesus Christ would be automatically rejected by Christians on the basis of it not being canonical.
Supplanting Tradition: Judaism Usurped by Christianity
Due to the fact many Christians are not aware of this reordering of the original “Word of God” I should like to recite the flaws which historians and scholars have been pointing out as the primary fingerprints of human involvement behind said “divinely inspired” texts. This man-made touch is not an assumed conspiracy, but rather, a provable historical happening. Once we honestly investigate the matter we can readily admit to this as will see that the design of the whole of the Holy Bible is not a work of God so much as the work of men. A Jew by birth, Bloom does a fine job of pinpointing the exact Biblical alterations and the initial re-ordering of the texts. Bloom expounds:
The King James Bible, with which readers… are likely… most familiar, departs from the Tanakh’s order initially by inserting Ruth between Judges and I Samuel, perhaps because as the ancestress of David, she is the remote ancestress also of Jesus. Then, in a major change, it follows Kings with Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Solomon’s Song, before proceeding to the major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, whose Lamentations are then inserted before Ezekiel. Then comes Daniel, given the status of a major prophet, and then all is concluded with the grouping of the Twelve Minor Prophets, from Hosea through Malachi.[viii]
Every single one of these cited examples depict changes made from the original order of the Tanakh. Many of these changes were presumably made to better coincide with the latter addition of the Gospels as able support for the coming prophesy of a Davidic Messiah figure hailing from King David’s royal bloodline, something which must be stressed in relationship to the census debate (I discuss this thoroughly in the following chapter). Changes made to coincide with a coming Messiah may be misleading to those Christians who have not considered that since these changes were, ironically enough, made after the fact the Christian prophesies could in no way be reliable. Bloom adds, “Aside from the inclusion of the apocryphal works, the crucial Christian revisions are its elevation of Daniel and the difference in endings…” which alerts us to the intent of early Church leaders who wanted to portray early Jewish prophesy and stories in an altogether different, and most certainly, ahistorical light.
In his rather telling conclusion of his chapter regarding the futile attempt to find a purely historical Jesus, Bloom states in what might be the most telling and brutally truthful insight in regards to the alteration of Biblical text, relaying:
If the New Testament triumphed in the Roman mode, and it did under Constantine, then the captive led in procession was the Tanakh, reduced to slavery as the Old Testament. All subsequent Jewish history, until the founding more than half a century ago of the State of Israel, testifies to the human consequences of that textual slavery.[ix]
We can’t help but be dumbfounded at how these obvious facts have so long gone unnoticed by the general public. This peculiar fact has led many skeptics to assume that there has been a huge Christian conspiracy to cover these thought provoking facts up, but I think it has more to do with the almost illiterate and uneducated status of those who put their spiritual and religious loyalties behind what their religious leaders dictate to them—especially since from the beginning Latin (e.g., the Vulgate) was only comprehensible to a few educated elite. Surely the everyday Christian of antiquity had no capacity to read or comprehend the “Word of God” for themselves. Indeed, the Church was banking on it. It wasn’t until William Tyndale’s English language translation of the Bible (1526 CE) that the English speaking world could even come to learn about the true meaning behind the “Word of God.” Everything until this point had been taken strictly on a matter of faith.
Founding a Religion: Historical Influences and further Theological Tampering
Browsing through the Synoptic Gospels, the first three gospels of the New Testament, we discover that the canonical order of these Gospels follows the tradition that the book of Matthew came first. This was originally proposed by the fifth century bishop Augustine of Hippo. He did so to try and explain the consistent relationships between the Synoptic Gospels by proposing that Matthew was written prior to Mark which in turn used Matthew as a source. Finally Luke was presumed to have been written using Matthew and Mark as its sources. Modern scholars now reject this theory knowing that the Gospel of Mark, not Matthew, was the earliest written canonical Gospel. However, the exclusive relationship between the three texts, especially the near duplication of wording and structure in some parts of Matthew and Luke, still needed to be explained. Scholars have been of the opinion that:
The relationships between the three synoptic gospels goes beyond mere similarity in viewpoint. The gospels often recount the stories, usually in the same exact order, sometimes even using the exact same words. Some sections are repeated nearly verbatim... Scholars note that the similarities between the Mark, Matthew, and Luke are too great to be accounted for by mere coincidences. Since multiple eyewitnesses reporting the exact same events will basically never relate a story using exactly the same word-for-word telling, scholars and theologians have long assumed there was some literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels.[x]
Extensive copying between all three texts, which were written separately around 70 C.E., turns out to be the result of another document referred to by scholars as Q. Stemming from the word Quelle, which means “source” in German, historians have postulated that there is a lost textual source for the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke. This theoretical text is presumed to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings and was further given credibility with a huge find in Egypt in 1945 near the town of Nag Hammâdi. As the story goes, a local peasant named Mohammed Ali Samman discovered a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts, having stumbled upon several buried jars, all of them sealed. Upon opening the jars the man discovered twelve leather-bound papyrus codices giving birth to The Nag Hammâdi library (popularly known as the Gnostic Gospels). Picknett and Prince explain better the importance of the Gnostic texts when they inform:
There are also a large number of fragments of lost works, sometimes referring to sayings or deeds of Jesus that are not in the New Testament, but of roughly the same age. In fact one of the fragments—actually four small scraps of papyrus—in the British Museum and known by the riveting title of ‘Egerton Papyrus 2’ is possibly the oldest surviving document about Jesus in existence.[xi]
What is so marvelous about this discovery is that some of the Gnostic Gospels were dated to roughly the same time as the Synoptic Gospels, the oldest canonical source being the Ryland’s fragment of John’s Gospel (c.125-150 CE) with a composition date hovering between 117 and 130 CE. The Egerton fragments, a previously unknown Gnostic text, was dated between 90-150 CE (possibly older) with a composition dated to as early as 50 CE. At the very least, the Egerton fragment is slightly older than the Ryland’s fragment. Coincidentally enough, it shares many of the same sayings of Jesus Christ of the Synoptic Gospels, but as Jon B. Daniels has pointed out the absence of editorial language mark it as a prior text, so couldn’t have borrowed from the Synoptic tradition, thus proving that a yet undiscovered third source text must exist—this being the lost Gospel of Q.
Another point worth bringing up is that the majority of the Gnostic Gospels show a much more human portrayal of Jesus Christ. In fact, the Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Mary (attributed to Mary Magdalene) we find no evidence of any miraculous resurrection, which coincides with the original Gospel Mark and its strange absence of a post resurrection Christ.[xii] This may suggest that the resurrection story was added later into the canonical scriptures as some scholars suggest.
What may be more shocking to believers is that modern Christianity does not stem from Jesus Christ at all, but rather, comes from that re-envisioned theology of Paul of Tarsus. Not forgetting to mention that almost an entire third of the New Testament is Pauline, a fact we can’t afford to overlook. The discerning Harold Bloom mentions, “Between his priority, his centrality in the text, and his reinvention of much of Christianity, Paul is its crucial founder. Yeshua of Nazareth, who died still trusting in the Covenant with Yahweh, cannot be regarded as the inaugurator of a new faith.”[xiii]
More than this, we cannot fail to neglect the augmentation of Paul’s theology by early church leaders. In the Jesus Dynasty Tabor reminds us, “Although our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.”[xiv] This is such an important point, I saw fit to include it in the epigraph to this chapter.
Often times early Christian sects disagreed, and would write polemics against each other, and this accounts for much of the theological disagreement contained within the scriptures. In his book Lost Christianities, Biblical historian Bart D. Ehrman expounds:
There were many early Christian groups, most of them recognizing the eternal significance of the theological truths that they claimed, and yet most of them also at odds—not just with the Roman religions surrounding them and the Jewish religion from which they emerged but also with one another… Among the fascinating “discoveries” by scholars in modern times has been the realization of just how diverse these Christian groups were from one another, just how “right” each one felt it was, just how avidly it promoted its own views over against those of the others.[xv]
This may have been the beginning of these frequent theological alterations, but it didn’t end there. The First Council of Nicaea, held in Nicaea in Bithynia, convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325 CE, by my estimation, is the starting point of orthodox Christian theology. At Nicaea they met to discuss ideas and settle on creeds, and what is theology if not ideas bound by creeds?
Leading the council was St. Alexander of Alexandria and the ascetic Egyptian theologian Athanasius, who convened to resolve disagreements arising from within the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus in relationship to the Holy Father God in terms of divinity—an ontological argument by its very nature.[xvi] This meeting, along with the second one in 787 CE, would result in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. With the creation of the creed, a precedent was established for subsequent general (ecumenical) councils of Bishops’ (Synods) to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy—the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the whole of foundling Christendom.
The Nazarene movement led by James, Peter, and John, which was more or less early Christianity in its Jewish form, was undeniably altered by Hellenistic influenced Pauline teachings which would then be the guiding force behind the later considerations of early Gospels as well as the Nicene council more than three hundred years after the death of Jesus.
The Canon Finalized
In 1545-47 the first Council of Trent was convened in Northern Italy in the city of Trento. The early Church met not only to decide on what the canonical books of the Bible should be, including protocanonical (first level) books and deuterocanonical (second level) books, but they chose to omit some books (such as 3 and 4 Esdras) while keeping others (e.g. the Apocrypha). The Council of Trent would meet again to rule against Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, and simultaneously reject the Lutheran and Zwinglian positions on the Eucharist (1551-52). Luther meanwhile would, once again make amendments to his faith, this time by altering the Holy Bible, not only by translating it into German but Luther also relegated all of the deuterocanonical books to an appendix at the end—and eventually would get rid of them altogether. By the third session (1562-63) the Council of Trent would mark the start of the Counter-Reformation by handing all unfinished Protestant transcripts of the Bible over to the Pope to correct and re-translate (yet again) the Bible; this time doing a complete revision of the Vulgate (finally finished in 1592).
Luther, having amended the OT Apocryphal books to an appendix, relegating them as less authoritative, in so doing changed the directive of the Bible more than any revisionist before him. Not only this, but he also de-emphasized the books of James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation therefore causing them to lose precedence among the growing community of Protestants.
Bart D. Ehrman advises, “At the end of the day, the canon is the canon, and there’s little point in thinking how we might want to change it. Better to figure out how to encourage interpretations of it that don’t lead to sexism, racism, bigotry, and all kinds of oppression.”[xvii] I think this advice rings true of any holy book. Even so, it must not escape our attention that human minds have decided upon the canons, human hands have tampered with and altered the texts repeatedly over the course of history, and throughout most of which human error has lead to all kinds of religious folly.
Continuation of Copious Canonical Change and Perpetual Translations
Today you’ll notice more than a few dozen or so variant translations of the Bible ranging all the way from the Authorized King James Bible (1611) to the evangelist translation of the NIV (1978) to the English Standard Version (2001) all the way to the linguistically interesting paraphrase called The Message by Eugene H. Peterson (2002). The revisionism of the Bible is ongoing as it continues even today!
No other literary tome in the history of literature has undergone such blatant and never-ending manipulation, arrangement, emendation, translation, and re-translation. This makes the Bible entirely unique, but also, not entirely dependable. That said, if you’re wondering what the most accurate and reliable translation of both the Old and New Testament is, I have it on good authority, that the New King James version and the Revised Standard Version are the best two literal translations out there. However, if you are like me and would rather just read the Bible for its literary value, for the poetry and the beauty of the language and fun stories (and nothing more), then I suggest you go with the eloquent translation by William Tyndale (1494-1536).
Tyndale’s translation forms the basis for the Authorized Version, but for the crime of translating the Bible into English, Tyndale was martyred and burnt at the stake in Antwerp on the charge of heresy (1535). In fact, to read the Bible in English was considered a sin punishable by death! Suspicious, though, that an all knowing God should only be capable of dictating his divine diktats in only one specific language which, in turn, can only be fully recognizable and comprehensible by those, conveniently enough, who are (already) the lucky adherents of that deity. I suspect this cultural stamp of selective linguistics is just more proof of the limited worldview of first century residents and continued support for the idea that God is entirely a man-made concept.
Dissimilarity and Disagreement among the Gospels
Theologians have often cited that there is an intertextual nature to the Gospels which miraculously unite their message, and that this grand unification, or harmonization, is evident proof of their divinely inspired origins. Although, having looked at the progression of the canon, we can conclude that this belief that the Bible is a divinely inspired work is purely wishful thinking. Even the Gospels do not fully agree with one another all of the time, as Biblical NT historian Bart D. Ehrman puts it, “The biblical authors did not agree on everything they discussed; sometimes they had deeply rooted and significant disagreements.”[xviii]
Ehrman clarifies further, adding, “A large number of the books in the early church were written by authors who falsely claimed to be apostles in order to deceive their readers into accepting their books and the views they represented.”[xix] Historians for the past couple centuries have taught this historically supported view as the standard which is taught at virtually all the major educational institutions of higher learning, including seminaries and divinity schools. Yet this is only scratching the surface of the dilemma, as Ehrman goes on to inform:
And so we have an answer to our ultimate question of why these Gospels are so different from one another. They were not written by Jesus’ companions or by companions of his companions. They were written decades later by people who didn’t know Jesus, who lived in a different country or different countries from Jesus, and who spoke a different language from Jesus.[xx]
Christians are great at rationalizing away the problems to try and get a unity of thought and belief, two important ingredients in any system of faith. The reason most Christians don’t see the errors or discrepancies in the Bile is because they are utilizing a harmonizing approach to their interpretation of the text. I used to do it, I too believed the Gospel narrative was one self affirming flawlessly interwoven story which didn’t leave anything out, and certainly I didn’t find any so called contradictions. It wasn’t until I engaged critical scholarship of real biblical historians that I slowly came to see what they were talking about. Biblical Scholar Bart D. Ehrman phrases it like this:
Most people… assume that since all the books of the Bible are found between the same hard covers, every author is basically saying the same thing. They think that Matthew can be used to help understand John, John provides insights into Paul, Paul can help interpret the book of James, and so on. This harmonizing approach to the bible which is foundational to much devotional reading, has the advantage of helping readers see the unifying themes of the bible, but it also has serious drawbacks, often creating unity of thought and belief where originally there was none.[xxi]
We might wonder how is Christians can pretend to know what they can’t possible know while refusing to correct the errors in print as they continue to discount the very precise scholarly research, each new archeological discovery, advance in the understanding of ancient Hebrew and Greek languages, and the deep penetrating historical, literary, and textual analyses which lend themselves to a more accurate picture of the overall truth. It seems that to continue to believe that the Bible is a divinely inspired text is to remain willfully ignorant of the real historical evidence and modern scholarship which has given us new insights into the matter, and which definitively shows us that the Bible was never a divinely inspired work.
Lost in Translation: Dissemination and Data Loss
Knowing is half the battle, and if you’ve ever played the phone game with a group of friends, where you whisper something to someone and they pass on what you said to the next person and so on, by the time you get to the end of the line of people the message will come out inexact if not completely garbled. Such is the way of transmission and retransmission. There is always inevitably going to be data loss. This in turn will lead to a breakdown of communication, and the only thing which is certain is that, the message you think you have is NOT the original message. It’s been undeniably changed.
There is just too much historical evidence that shows the NT books have been tampered with repeatedly, from their initial assembly all the way down to the present day editions. As Professor Ehrman inquires, I too have often wondered, “Why would God have inspired the words of the Bible if he chose not to preserve these words for posterity?”[xxii]
Now imagine over two thousand consecutive years of the phone game! That message is going to be so far removed from the original, so totally dissimilar, that it’s not even wrong.[xxiii] So the next time a fundamentalist person of faith tries to tell you that their holy book is perfect and always has been, that it’s the inerrant word of God, that it’s inspired, and that it has been miraculously preserved throughout antiquity without the slightest alteration or revision, by all means, feel free to set them straight and inform them as to the truth of the matter.
With so much evidence working against the fundamentalist Christian conviction that the Bible is the inspired word of God, why would anyone need it pointed out at all? Even most liberal Christians know better than to make such an obviously false declaration. So why are so many Christian Americans arguing that the Bible is right—every title, ever blot of ink, all of it—divinely inspired? Why do they echo the piety of Muslims who believe the same about the Qur’an? Once again, our scholar of many insights, Price equivocates:
The controlling presupposition seems to be, “If the traditional view cannot be absolutely debunked beyond the shadow of a doubt, if it still might possibly be true, then we are within our rights to continue to believe it.” But scholarly judgments can never properly be a matter of “the will to believe.” Rather, the historian’s maxim must always be Kant’s: “Dare to know.”[xxiv]
The will to believe—that’s the answer—that’s the reason many Christians continue to believe the Bible is holy, sacred, or divine despite all evidence to the contrary. This alone discredits any so called Biblical authority, which is why so many Christian apologists adamantly deny the Bible has been changed at all.
However, having looked at the evidence of the actual changes, I do not think such defiance is overly beneficial to Christianity since it denotes a strong sense of denial. Anyone who denies that the message of the Bible that Christians read today is not the same message as the Bible of yesteryear are just proving my point for me—like William Lane Craig, they would rather believe in the wrong information, the fantasy, than correct their misconceptions to align with reality lest their faith would be bowdlerized. Yet I must agree with Price, for those of us concerned with the uncovering the authentic history cannot simply let the will to believe disrupt the search for the truth, we must dare to discover the truth no matter what.
The total sum of these changes amount to what modern skeptics point to as the hobbled together, thrice altered, misinterpreted, historically inaccurate, and incontrovertibly human design behind the Bible. What’s more, the Bible, whatever its original message may have been, has been lost in translation. Whatever your feelings are on the Christian Holy Bible and its multiple and anecdotal translations, the undeniable fact of the matter is, the Christian Bible is clearly the handiwork of men and suffers from an acute case of the bad human touch.
[i] Early Judaism existed as charismatic schisms which followed one chosen prophet. Those who followed Jesus Christ called themselves Christians. Most historians agree that when Christian doctrine was formulated the institution of the church erected, the subsequent unification of these rival sects of Christians coalesced into an orthodox belief which enveloped or erased the weaker strands of early Christianity. Eventually the authority of the Church replaced the authority of the Prophet.
Ironically enough, after the Reformation and start of Protestantism, which stripped the Church of sole authority and placed that authority back in the Bible, modern Christianity now exists as a series of charismatic schisms which follow their own chosen ideal version of Christian faith. Now it spawns more faiths, because anytime there is ample disagreement, the most original and enduring revisions take on a life of their own, and you get all kinds of newfangled Christianities. From this schism we get Lutherans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Calvinists, Pentecostals, Quakers, as well as a thousand and one other divisions and subdivisions.
[ii] For more on what Burgon felt about the nature of Biblical text see his work, Causes of the Corruption of the Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels, available for free online:
[iii] John P Meier, A Marginal Jew, p.168
[iv] Robert M. Price, The Reason Driven Life, p.228
[v] Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, p.47
[vi] Harold Bloom, The American Religion, p. 72
[vii] Read: The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert M. Price, Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? by Dennis Ronald MacDonald, Lost Christianities, Misquoting Jesus, and Jesus Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman, and Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth by Burton L. Mack just for starters.
[viii] Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, p.49
[ix] Ibid, pp.46-47
[x] See: “Q Source,” Wikipedia.org, 2008 available online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_document
[xi] Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, The Masks of Christ, p.50
[xii] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_16
[xiii] Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, p.53
[xiv] James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, p. 139
[xv] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, p.93
[xvi] See: St. Augustine On The Trinity, and St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica. Available online at: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/index.html
[xvii] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, p. 222
[xviii] Ibid, pp.62-63
[xix] Ibid, p.136
[xx] Ibid, p.112
[xxi] Ibid, pp.62-63
[xxii] Ibid, p.182
[xxiii] An argument, first phrased by the theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli and later used by the physicist Peter Woit for the title of a book, which states anything that appears to be scientific but cannot be falsified (i.e., tested) by experiment or cannot be used to make predictions about the natural world is said to be not even wrong. I have used it here to represent the irony of the fact that despite what Christians might think about the oral transmission of Christian, the development of a core canon, the creation of tenets of faith, and doctrinal theology that to assume all this is divinely inspired, or have been perfectly preserved over time, to form the perfect word of God is not even wrong.
[xxiv] Price, p.22