The Bible’s Dark Ages

Parchment and whether Jesus is divineWe’re taking a trip through time, from our English New Testament, back through the translations and various copies (Part 1), back through the textual variants to our best guess at the original Greek manuscripts (Part 2).  We’ve arrived at our best reconstruction of the canon determined by the Council of Nicaea (325 CE).

The novel The Da Vinci Code portrayed the Council as the stereotypical politicians’ smoky back room where the features of Christianity and the books that represented it (the canon) were haggled over.  Many Christian sources have argued against this characterization, saying that the canon had largely been decided by the early churches by that point, but this doesn’t avoid the problem.  Selecting the canon would’ve been a popularity contest either way.  If the bishops at Nicaea didn’t vote it into existence, then the weeding-out process in the early church created a de facto canon that the bishops accepted with minimal change.  Either way grounds the canon on the imperfect shoulders of ordinary people.

Let’s take the next step.  We have a big gulf to cross from 325 CE to roughly 70–90 CE, when the originals were written down.

Suppose that Mark was written in Rome in the year 70.  Copies are made and it gradually makes its way to Alexandria, where it is copied over and over until it finds its way into the Codex Sinaiticus in about 350.  What happened to it in those 280 years?  How does the version that we have vary from the original manuscript, now lost to history?  That’s a lot of time for hanky-panky.

The issue isn’t that I’m certain that the books were changed significantly; rather, we aren’t certain that they weren’t.  This period from Nicaea back to the originals is the Bible’s Dark Ages, a period with very little documentation.  We have just a few dozen Greek manuscripts that precede the complete codices.  The papyrus manuscripts are all fragments, containing at most a chapter or two of one book.  These manuscripts are remarkable finds, but that does nothing to change the fact that we’re bridging a large gap with little information.  We can’t say that our copies differ little from the originals because we don’t have the originals.

This biblical Dark Ages was a period of much turmoil in the Christian community.  The divisions in early Christianity were much bigger than the modern Lutheranism vs. Presbyterianism distinction, say.  Instead of French vs. Spanish, think French vs. pre-Columbian Mayan.  And these divisions were all fighting for survival, fighting for their place in the canon.

Historians know of four primary divisions in the early Christian church.

Proto-Orthodox.  This is Bart Ehrman’s term for the early Christian sect that would become Christianity as we know it today.  Paul’s writings (which changed Jewish law to reject circumcision, the kosher laws, and so on) form the heart of this division.

Ebionites.  These may have been the first Christians, because they saw Jesus as a Jew.  This was the Jesus who said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matt. 5:17).  The New Testament documents the struggles between the James/Peter sect and Paul in Galatians 2:11–21.  Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus says,

According to the Ebionites, then, Jesus did not preexist; he was not born of a virgin; he was not himself divine.  He was a special, righteous man, whom God had chosen and placed in a special relationship to himself.1

Marcionites.  This Christian variant was put forward by Marcion in about 144 CE.  The Marcionites had no use for the Old Testament, since it documented the Jews’ god, who was different from the (unnamed) father of Jesus.  Marcion argued that you could answer to Yahweh if you wanted, but Jesus offered a much better option.  This Jesus was divine and only appeared to be human.  Consider John 20:26: “Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them.”  Marcion considered only Paul’s writings to be canonical.

Gnostics.  The Gnostics rationalized the evil in the world by saying that the world was created by a demiurge (craftsman) who didn’t intend to or wasn’t able to create a perfect world.  While most people on the earth were just animals, some held a divine spark.  For that special few, Jesus’s hidden knowledge would be necessary after death to see them safely back to heaven.  We see this in Luke 8:10: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’”

Biblical redaction is the deliberate change or concatenation by a later editor, and the Bible is full of examples.  For example, the Old Testament has two creation stories, two flood stories, two contradictory Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 vs. 34), and even two David and Goliath stories.

The New Testament holds clues to this kind of change as well.  For example, John ends with chapter 20 and then again with chapter 21.2  The authorship of Peter’s two epistles is unclear.  Jesus says, “But about that day or hour [of the end] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36), but some scribes omitted the startling phrase “nor the Son” from their copies.

The Ebionite, Marcionite, and Gnostic passages above suggest that our Bible is a conglomeration of different traditions, with verses or chapters added as necessary to dull the edge of an unwanted concept.

This isn’t meant to be a thorough discussion of New Testament redaction.  Rather, I want to show just a few places where it is suspected and to suggest that it could have been even more widespread.  Claims as remarkable as those of the gospels must be built on more than “Well, they might not have been changed.”

The message of James differs from the message of Paul; the message of Paul differs from the message of Acts; the message of the Revelation of John differs from the message of the Gospel of John; and so forth.  Each of these authors was human, each of them had a different message, each of them was putting the tradition he inherited into his own words.3

Would writings be deliberately changed?  The author of Revelation apparently knew it was widespread enough to end with a curse against anyone who would modify his book.  The famous Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus (“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man …”) is almost universally said to have been added by later copyists.  With the pull of competing Christianities, the urge to “improve” a book might have been irresistible.

Would competing writings be destroyed?  It happened in Islam.  The “Uthmanic recension” was the process through which one version of the Koran was accepted and all competing versions destroyed.  The Nag Hammadi library seems to have been buried.  Why hide these books unless there was reason to fear destruction?  Perhaps, like the Koran, the Bible has been modified through destruction.

While historians have told us a remarkable amount about the societies from which Christianity arose, our understanding is changing even in our time.  For example, consider “Gabriel’s Revelation,” a recently discovered first century BCE writing that talks about a suffering messiah, not Jesus but Simon of Peraea.  “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice.”  Do we conclude from this that resurrection after three days wasn’t a new concept to the Jesus-era Jews?  In this revelation, the messiah sheds blood, not for the benefit of sinners but for the redemption of Israel.

Of course we don’t discard the clues we have about the original New Testament documents, but let’s proceed with humility about how little we can say with confidence.

Read the first post in the series here: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

Next time: the last post in the series will take the step from gospel originals to the figure of Jesus.

1 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (HarperOne, 2005), p. 156.
2 Ehrman, 61.
3 Ehrman, 215.

Photo credit: Walter Noel

What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say? (Part 2)

Does God exist?Part 1 of our journey from today’s New Testament back in time to Jesus looked at the problems of translations, canonicity, and finding the best copies.  The next problem to crossing this gulf is textual variants.  There are 400,000 differences between the thousands of New Testament copies—more differences than there are words in the New Testament.  Almost all are insignificant, but thousands of meaningful differences remain.

Historians use several tools to resolve these differences:

  • Criterion of Embarrassment.  Of two passages, which one is more embarrassing?  We can easily imagine scribes toning down a passage, but it doesn’t make sense for them to make it more embarrassing.  The passage that is more embarrassing is likelier to be more authentic.  For example, different copies of Mark 1:40–41 has Jesus either “moved with compassion” or “moved with anger” (for more, see the NET Bible comment on this phrase).  A copyist changing compassion to anger is hard to imagine, but the opposite is quite plausible.  The Criterion of Embarrassment would conclude that “moved with anger” is the likelier original reading.
  • Criterion of Multiple Attestation.  A claim made by multiple independent sources is preferred over one in a single source.

In addition, a contested passage in an older manuscript is preferred, the one contained in more manuscripts is preferred, and so on.

Notice that these tools need multiple manuscripts to work.  They ask: given two manuscripts with different versions of a particular passage, which is the more authentic one?

Consider the long ending of Mark, for example.  Given a manuscript of Mark ending with verse 16:20 (version A) and a manuscript ending with 16:8 (version B), the historians’ tools can be applied to determine which is the likely older and more authentic version.  But what if you don’t have multiple versions?  Suppose we only had Mark version A, with no copies of B and no references to it.  Scholars wouldn’t even know to ask the question!

Consider the three most famous of these embarrassing scribal additions: the long ending of Mark, the Comma Johanneum (the only explicit reference to the Trinity in the Bible), and the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.  Apologists will argue that these are neither embarrassing nor problems because they’ve been resolved.  We know that they weren’t original.  But this is true only because historians happen to be lucky enough to have competing manuscripts without these additions.  For what added biblical passages do we not have correct manuscripts to make us aware of the problem?

There are consequences.  Pentecostal snake handlers trust in the long ending tacked onto Mark (“In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; they will pick up snakes with their hands, and whatever poison they drink will not harm them”).  What additional nutty demands in our New Testament do we not know are inauthentic?

Of several manuscript categories, our oldest complete copies are Alexandrian manuscripts, including the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus mentioned in the last post.  That’s not because they’re necessarily better copies but because they were preserved better.  The dry conditions of Alexandria, Egypt preserved manuscripts better than many other places where New Testament documents were kept—Asia Minor, Greece, or Italy, for example.  We accept these manuscripts simply because anything that might refute them has crumbled to dust, which is not a particularly reliable foundation on which to build a portrait of the truth.

Read the first post in the series here: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

Next time: The Bible’s Dark Ages

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Related posts:

Contradictions in the Resurrection Account

A Swiss Army knife with dozens of crazy "blades"Since Easter was yesterday, I’d like to rerun a post about the resurrection story.

How many days did Jesus teach after his resurrection?  Most Christians know that “He appeared to them over a period of forty days” (Acts 1:3).  But the supposed author of that book wrote elsewhere that he ascended into heaven the same day as the resurrection (Luke 24:51).

When Jesus died, did an earthquake open the graves of many people, who walked around Jerusalem and were seen by many?  Only Matthew reports this remarkable event.  It’s hard to imagine any reliable version of the story omitting this zombie apocalypse.

The different accounts of the resurrection are full of contradictions like this.  They can’t even agree on whether Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover (John) or the day after (the other three).

  • What were the last words of Jesus?  Three gospels give three different versions.
  • Who buried Jesus?  Matthew says that it was Joseph of Arimathea.  No, apparently it was the Jews and their rulers, all strangers to Jesus (Acts).
  • How many women came to the tomb Easter morning?  Was it one, as told in John?  Two (Matthew)?  Three (Mark)?  Or more (Luke)?
  • Did an angel cause a great earthquake that rolled back the stone in front of the tomb?  Yes, according to Matthew.  The other gospels are silent on this extraordinary detail.
  • Who did the women see at the tomb?  One person (Matthew and Mark) or two (Luke and John)?
  • Was the tomb already open when they got there?  Matthew says no; the other three say yes.
  • Did the women tell the disciples?  Matthew and Luke make clear that they did so immediately.  But Mark says, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  And that’s where the book ends, which makes it a mystery how Mark thinks that the resurrection story ever got out.
  • Did Mary Magdalene cry at the tomb?  That makes sense—the tomb was empty and Jesus’s body was gone.  At least, that’s the story according to John.  But wait a minute—in Matthew’s account, the women were “filled with joy.”
  • Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus?  Of course!  She’d known him for years.  At least, Matthew says that she did.  But John and Luke make clear that she didn’t.
  • Could Jesus’s followers touch him?  John says no; the other gospels say yes.
  • Where did Jesus tell the disciples to meet him?  In Galilee (Matthew and Mark) or Jerusalem (Luke and Acts)?
  • Who saw Jesus resurrected?  Paul says that a group of over 500 people saw him (1 Cor. 15:6).  Sounds like crucial evidence, but why don’t any of the gospels record it?
  • Should the gospel be preached to everyone?  In Matthew 28:19, Jesus says to “teach all nations.”  But hold on—in the same book he says, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans” (Matt. 10:5).  Which is it?

Many Christians cite the resurrection as the most important historical claim that the Bible makes.  If the resurrection is true, they argue, the gospel message must be taken seriously.  I’ll agree with that.  But how reliable is an account riddled with these contradictions?

I’ve seen Christians respond in three ways.

(1) They’ll nitpick the definition of “contradiction.”  Contradictions, they’ll say, are two sentences of the form “A” and “not-A.”  For example: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” and “Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.”  Being precise helps make sure we communicate clearly, but this can also be a caltrop argument, a way of dodging the issue.  These sure sound like contradictions to me, but if you’d prefer to imagine that we’re talking about “incongruities” or “inconsistencies,” feel free.

(2) They’ll respond to these “inconsistencies” by harmonizing the gospels.  That is, instead of following the facts where they lead and considering that the gospels might be legend instead of history, they insist on their Christian presupposition, reject any alternatives, and bludgeon all the gospels together like a misshapen Swiss Army knife.

  • How many women were at the tomb?  Obviously, five or more, our apologist will say.  When John only says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, he’s not saying that others didn’t come, right?  Checkmate, atheists!
  • Why didn’t all the gospels note that a group of 500 people saw Jesus (instead of only Paul)?  Why didn’t they all record the earthquakes and the zombie apocalypse (instead of only Matthew)?  Our apologist will argue that each author is entitled to make editorial adjustments as he sees fit.
  • Was the tomb already open or not?  Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus or not?  Did Jesus remain for 40 days or not?  Should the gospel be preached to everyone or not?  Did the women tell the disciples or not?  Was Jesus crucified the day after Passover or not?  Who knows what he’ll come up with, but our apologist will have some sort of harmonization for these, too.

Yep, the ol’ kindergarten try.

(3) They’ll try to turn this weakness into a strength by arguing that four independent stories (the gospels aren’t, but never mind) shouldn’t agree on every detail.  If they did, one would imagine collusion rather than accurate biography.  Yes, biography and collusion are two possibilities, but another is that this could be legend.

Let’s drop any preconceptions and find the best explanation.

Photo credit: ThinkGeek

Acknowledgement: This list was inspired by one composed by Richard Russell.

Related posts:

Related links:

Word of the Day: Bronze Age Collapse

Can God and atheism coexist?The Trojan War of roughly 1200 BCE and the destruction of the city of Troy, about which Homer wrote the epic Iliad, was monumental enough in itself, but that period also marked the end of the Mycenaean Greek civilization.  The Linear B writing system of the time was abandoned, never to be revived, and most of Greek cities of the time were destroyed or abandoned.  Only after centuries of relative barbarism did the Greek city-states of Sparta, Corinth, Athens, and so on appear.

The Hittite empire in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) also collapsed at the same time.  So did the New Kingdom in Egypt.

Experts speculate on many possible causes of this Bronze Age Collapse—a meteor, drought, the eruption of an Icelandic volcano that caused climate change, the spread of iron weapons, and other causes.  Certainly invasion was a factor, but does this explain everything or were these just opportunistic invasions after the existing empires were weakened?  The cause(s) are still disputed and none explains all the facts.

Like a global extinction event that opens up niches for new species to invade, this collapse allowed new civilizations, technologies, and writing systems to emerge.

What happened to Israel, in the middle of these collapsing empires?  The historical record is unclear—the traditional date for the Israelite conquest of Canaan had been about 1400 BCE, but the modern consensus is 1250.  Perhaps the Bronze Age Collapse was a factor in jump-starting Jewish civilization.  If nothing else, this setback for the nearby empires must’ve provided some breathing room for the people in the Levant.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related posts:

Related links:

1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Cross Examined, a novel about Christian apologetics, Christianity, and atheism109-year-old Rose Cliver, the oldest survivor of San Francisco’s great earthquake, has recently died, leaving only two survivors of the event.  The Huffington Post article of the event includes some great photos of the aftermath.

While a little off-topic for this blog, this is squarely on topic for my book, set in 1906 Los Angeles in the aftermath of the earthquake.  The Azusa Street Revival, which launched the Pentecostal movement, began with a reasonably successful prediction on the front-page of the LA Times the morning of the earthquake.

Someone within the Azusa Street church saw the people of Los Angeles “flocking in a mighty stream to perdition” and saw “awful destruction to this city unless its citizens are brought to a belief in the tenets of the new faith.”

This was too cool an event to ignore, and I launched my story with this earthshaking and historic prediction.

Photo credit: Berkeley Seismological Laboratory

Related links:

  • Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey on Amazon.

Football Christianity

Bible verses, Christianity, and atheismTim Tebow of the Denver Broncos has made a name for himself (and added his name to the dictionary) with his flamboyant public appreciation whenever God helps him out with a football play.  The interesting thing about his kneeling in praise is that it’s self-aggrandizing while pretending not to be.  It was precisely anticipated in Matthew: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5).  The verse continues: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

Mr. Tebow, are we to imagine that the Creator of the universe took time out of his busy schedule of not saving starving children to help you make a good football play?  I understand that it’s important to you, and it’s nice to see a professional athlete not bragging about how great he is, but doesn’t football seem a little trivial?  Doesn’t it make your religion look bad to even suggest that?  And doesn’t it seem illogical to imagine God being yanked first one way by you and then in the opposite way by some guy praying for the opposite result on the other team?

Perhaps I’m being harsh.  Let me try to view this more charitably.

Tebow is also known for evangelizing through Bible verses painted in the eye black on his face.  Above, he’s proclaiming Ephesians 2:8–10: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

That’s good advice.  But Tebow has promoted a variety of verses, not just the standard John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world …”) or Luke 2:10–11 (“I bring you good news of great joy …”).

Here he gives us Exodus 22:29, which says, “Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats.  You must give me the firstborn of your sons.”  God’s demand of child sacrifice is often forgotten, but it’s good to be reminded of the basics.

Other verses that show how God used child sacrifice within Israel are Ez. 20:25–6.

Of course, the size constraints of eye black makes Twitter look like an encyclopedia, but these messages are worth parsing.  This one is a nice reminder of God’s limitations.  2 Kings 3:26–27 tells of the end of a battle against Moab.  The prophet Elisha promised Judah a victory.  But when the king of Moab saw that he was losing, he sacrificed his son and future heir.  This magic was apparently too much for Yahweh, because “there was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack and returned to their homeland.”

A verse with a similar message is Judges 1:19: “The Lord was with the men of Judah.  They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron.”

Another oldie but goodie.  Psalms 89:7 says “In the council of the holy ones Elohim [God] is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him.”  How often do we forget that God is part of an Olympus-like pantheon?  Ps. 82:1–2 gives a similar message.

I’m waiting for someone to reference Deuteronomy 32:8, which describes how Yahweh’s dad divided up his inheritance (all the tribes of the earth) among his sons: “When El Elyon [the Most High] gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided up humankind, he set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the heavenly assembly.”

You rarely see an entire chapter reference, but Leviticus 20 is a meaty one with a lot of good fundamentals.  Everyone knows that homosexual relations are abominable, and verse 13 gives the death as the appropriate penalty.  But it’s easy to forget the other demands of this chapter: eat no unclean animals (:25), exile any couple that has sex during the woman’s menstrual period (:18), death to spiritual mediums (:27), death for adultery (:10), and death for “anyone who curses their father or mother” (:9).  It comes as a package, people!

Eye black references to divine genocide are common—1 Samuel 15:2–3, Deut. 20:16–18, and Judges 21:10 for example—but it’s nice to see this one.  Deuteronomy 2:34–5 says, “And we took all [Sihon’s] cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.”

I’ll skim through a few more that I’ve seen.  Why aren’t more sermons taught on these verses?

  • In our modern unbiblical and slavery-free society, we too often forget that not only did God permit slavery, but he regulated it.  Exodus 21:20–21 says, “And if a man smite his slave with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.  But if [the slave] live for a day or two, he shall not be punished, for [the slave] is his property.”
  • I guess with football players, you’ll find lots of verses about violence.  Isaiah 13:15–16 is a popular one: “Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.”  Another that’s so common as to almost be cliché is Ps. 137:9: “Happy is the one who seizes your [Babylon’s] infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
  • It’s not surprising that sexual slavery interests football players.  Numbers 31:15–18 says, “Now kill all the boys.  And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”
  • I like to see reminders for racial purity.  Ezra 9:2 says, “They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them.”  Other verses in this vein are Nehemiah 13:1–3 and Deut. 23:3.
  • Finally, a helpful reminder that even Jesus can be wrong: “There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28).  Two thousand years later, and we’re still waiting.  Ah well, we all make mistakes!

I think of these as the Forgotten Verses, and I praise athletes like Tebow for putting them front and center where they belong.  It’d be great to get them back into circulation by making them the subject of sermons.  After all, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

I’ll finish with a Saturday Night Live sketch that shows Jesus visiting the Broncos after he won another game for them.

Related links: