All historical thinking involves tinkering with the lenses that shine the light of other days into our lives. ~ Richard F. Snow
I have always wondered about Christianity, and how so many people can have so many twists, turns, ideas, fears, and concepts about what is true. We see the monks in undeveloped countries living as hermits without any possessions in service of other people; TV ministries touting about ways to wealth and being a millionaire; folks living in isolated communes; the shakers of men and woman who lived in abstinence; snake handlers in the Appalachians; preachers predicting doom and wrath striking us down; groups drinking poisons to prove their righteousness; and followers of David Koresh and others believing these are the “end times” and all saying that all the others are heretics and wrong in their beliefs. One of the few things in common with all of these groups is they all point to the Bible as their sacred scriptures. This is just confusing.
As children, we learned that the Bible is the Divine Word of God and it will never change. It is the same today, as yesterday, as tomorrow. So who wrote the Bible? For a while, I was married into a family that is evangelical in their faith, and believed that everything in the Bible is precise and true. After all, it is the written Word of God.
For many years this was a core belief that I had accepted for myself, and wondered how science and the Bible could be so at odds. It tis a puzzlement.
Bishop Spong recently wrote “In the ninth decade, Matthew added such details to the growing mythology as the miraculous birth, the heavenly star, the wise men, and the physiological appearances of the raised Jesus. Some five to ten years after Matthew, Luke added to the developing story such parts of our tradition as the shepherds, the swaddling cloths and the appearances of the angels. Later he intensified the physical character of the resurrection until it became resuscitation back into the life of this world, which in turn necessitated his eventual escape from this earth in the story of the cosmic ascension. Still later John identified him with the Word of God spoken in creation. As these mythological layers were laid on top of him, his humanity began to fade. That is where the faith crisis of today emerges. We have begun to strip away the mythology, and as we do we begin to fear that there is nothing under it. So we hesitate and even pretend to believe what, when pressed, we would say we no longer believe. Many of the fundamentalist churches are made up of pretenders who reveal their vulnerability by getting angry whenever they are forced to face the game that they are playing.”
So, what is fact and what is myth? Can we find out? For 1900 years the “smoking gun” lay hidden in the deserts where people buried old documents for fear of life! Then the Nag Hammadi Library was discovered and started to reveal it’s secrets of long ago. The old documents are made of papyrus and show a whole new story of the early Christian era. We often think today’s idea of Christianity is confusing, and radical, but folks this is nothing compared to 2000 years ago. This is where the winners really got to do a rewrite on history.
There are over 5400 copies of the early scriptures of the New Testament, and by copies, it needs to be understood, that these copies are not originals in any form. To be closer in understanding, these copies are copies of copies, of copies, of copies, and of other copies, of still more copies. And within all of these copies, some pieces no bigger than a thumbnail, not one agrees with another copy, except in the smallest of details.
To compound the numerous copies, there are errors in the copies, and some estimates put the number of errors well over 300,000. To put it in context, there are more errors than there are words in the New Testament! Then add to it, there are forgeries, text changes, and text added just where you might think they would turn up.
We have to keep in mind the period we are visiting under this prism of glass. In this period there is a war going on, in Christianity, or should it be called Christianities. The faiths are more diverse, than imaginable, some believe that there are 34 Gods, and others believe 1 exists. You would need a scorecard to keep them all separated. But, the two main sects were the Christians that practiced gnosis and that God is within, and those that believed that God is out there someplace watching over everyone. Under Constantine he was the unseen policeman on every corner. What better way to control a population than by using fear.
In the first hundred years, the apostles, such as Paul, could not be in all places at the same time, so they had letters sent to various areas and churches. Since most people could not read or write, including a lot of scribes, textural errors occurred, or a scribe would change or add to the words to try to clarify something for another church.
Some textural changes can be important for interpretation. For example, the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at 16:8 with the report that the women fled Jesus’ empty tomb in fear and told no one what they had seen or heard. But later manuscripts append and additional twelve verses onto this chapter. What are those verses added? Here they are:
9 When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. 11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. 12 Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. 13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.
14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. 15 He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."
19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. 20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
One of the reasons sighted for the change, is that a man had to make and proclaim this discovery. It would not look good for a women to be the first in the know.
Are there any other verses added? Yes, There is the famous well known story of the adulterous woman, with the men wanting to stone her to death, and Jesus writing in the sand. Most scholars believe those verses were also added by a scribe. They were not in any earlier copy, but appear later in history.
There are other changes in the text, some small, and some not as large as the preceding ones. Most of the other changes were made to give the appearance of Jesus’ divine nature. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was pictured as being in earnest prayer, and sweating blood. That was to show his Divine nature, but as human. When Jesus went to the temple as a boy, the earlier text said his father and mother came to find him, as they were worried. This was changed to leave out the word “father’ in referencing Joseph, as Jesus’ father was God. There could not be two fathers.
Paul wrote 7 books in the New Testament, and none of them set up a hierarchy in church structure, as he firmly held the belief that Jesus would return in his lifetime. However, a total of 13 are credited to his name, the others being written long after his death. Specifically, Timothy 2, where the church hierarchy is set up and women are subjected to their husbands.
As the war waged on over beliefs, the proto-orthodox church, which means the universal church, or Catholic Church, used the sacred text to aid in stating their case. But the major reason of text alterations, added text, and added books in canon and scripture was to close the doors on gnosis or going within. The church wanted it to be the only “right” belief system and to make gnosis and Gnostics – heresy and destroy this alternate way to God. Many volumes were written to answer Gnostic claims, but the articles by the Gnostics were missing. On the other hand, the Gnostic Christians believed that there was nothing worth dying for on this world. Eventually, the proto-orthodox church was victorious over all the other belief systems, and one of the orders was to go back and rewrite history to give the semblance that everything was as ordained. And I thought spin-doctors were a new phenomenon.
The next step was to give more credibility to this new religion, as they knew that without “roots” it would not take. Since the Jewish books were the only written books of any religion, they decided to tie the two together. Now they had a history, and a resemblance of being there from time beginning.
Now, how far back did they go? Your guess is as good as mine.
In 1963, John F Kennedy was shot, there were camera’s rolling, pictures being snapped, and numerous people as witnesses, and yet with all of this evidence, people still disagree as to what happened.
An author writes a book “A Million Little Pieces” and it becomes knowledge that he made up some things and is chastised on TV and in the press. Are there any parallels? What makes one ‘right” and the other “wrong”?
I can imagine there will always be folks that will disagree with what happened 2000 years ago. However, I do think we all can agree that a great man lived and died, and the truths and lessons he lived were profound and changed the course of history.
The core truths of his life were to love unconditionally, to love God and to not sit in judgment of ones brother. For as we judge and condemn our brother, we judge and condemn ourselves to that same harsh judgment. What we put out to the universe comes back to us. It is all-circular.
For myself, I have come to understand that the New Testament and Bible were written by human hands; with human judgments; human interpretations; and human agendas. There is a lot of wisdom in the books, and it is up to each of us to discern its relevance in our lives.
I have considered myself as a Christian out of a respect for our heritage and a recognition that Jesus taught the universal truths we value. However, I am not Christian as Christianity defines itself today through its dogma.
For further reading;
“Lost Christianities” by Bart D. Ehrman
“Misquoting Jesus” by Bart D. Ehrman
“Why Christianity Must Change or Die” Bishop Spong
“The Gnostic Gospels” Elaine Pagels
“Gnosticism” Stephen A. Hoeller