An essay by Scott Bidstrup
"If the truth is that ugly -- which it is -- then we do have to be careful about the way that we tell the truth. But to somehow say that telling the truth should be avoided because people may respond badly to the truth seems bizarre to me."
--Chuck Skoro, Deacon, St. Paul's Catholic Church
The Bible is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to Christians, especially, it is a source of inspiration and a guide to daily living.
To others, the Bible is a historical document and a source of controversy.
To others still, the Bible is a self-contradictory mish-mash of arcane rules and proscriptions, mostly relevant to long-dead cultures in far away places.
What is the truth in all of this?
The reality is that it is all true to an extent, and equally nonsensical at the same time. The Bible has meaning to all its readers, but it is important to consider that the meaning it has is informed by the prejudices the reader brings to it.
To really understand the Bible and what it intends to say to present generations, it is necessary to understand who wrote it and why, and the cultural context in which it was written. The story is an interesting one, in no small part because the story is so much messier than most of its advocates would have you to believe. And its very messiness is why it is a story rarely told in any completeness to Christian audiences.
The overriding theme of the Bible storylines is the theme of cultural conquest. Conquest by the Hebrews over their enemy neighbors, culturally by the Jews over the Israelites (used here to mean members of the ten "lost" tribes), the Christians over the Jews, the Catholics over the Gnostics, Marcionites, and other pre-Catholic factions, and on and on. In some cases, the conquest is recorded as a historical, often military event. In others, it merely is recorded as a change in content and context, an alteration of the storyline and outlook and worldview.
And the story of the editing and translation of the final form of the Bible into what today is regarded as holy scripture is a story not just of cultural conquest, but of political intrigues, and not just between competing bishops, but with secular political authority itself. It is as if the U.S. congress or president were to decide what constituted Christian doctrine and scripture, and everyone went along - at the peril of their lives - until no one even questioned the accuracy of the official viewpoint.
The effect of its origins as selected parts of whole bodies of scripture, written by at least a hundred and fifty different people in dozens of different places at different times, many centuries apart, and for different reasons, colors what its authors wrote. Yet that simple fact is widely ignored, both by people who naively follow what they read in it as the inerrant word of God, and by more liberal scholastic theologians, who seek to understand its historical context as well as a body of doctrinal scripture, which they often blindly follow, even though they know full well its messy origins.
Origins of the Earliest Scripture
Prehistory to 1850 B.C.E.
Scholars have traced the roots of many of the Old Testament stories to the ancient, pagan myths of the ancient Mesopotamian cultures. In the Fertile Crescent, the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in present-day Iraq, gave birth to some of the worlds first civilizations.
In this early flowering of civilization, many religious myths abounded, seeking to explain what was then unexplainable. From this context comes the oldest complete literary work we have, the age of which we are certain, dating back at least 7,000 years. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a lengthy narrative of heroic mythology that incorporates many of the religious myths of Mesopotamia, and it is the earliest complete literary work that has survived.
Many of the stories in that epic were eventually incorporated into the book of Genesis. Borrowed from the Epic of Gilgamesh are stories of the creation of man in a wondrous garden, the introduction of evil into a naive world, and the story of a great flood brought on by the wickedness of man, that flooded the whole world.
In this Mesopotamian basin civilization, known to us today as the Chaldean Empire, tribal alliances that predated the amalgamation into a single empire, continued to exist and flourish. Many were allied to the palace, many opposed, all retained elements of their pre-conquest cultures.
The patriarchs first appear in our story with the journey of one of them, Abraham, who, the story tells us, led members of his tribe from the city of Ur, west towards the Mediterranean, to the "promised land" of Canaan, sometime between the 19th and 18th centuries B.C.E. Or so the story goes.
The problem is that we don't really have any good archeaological evidence to support the Abraham story, and there is much archaeological evidence to contradict it. The land where Abraham supposedly settled, the southern highlands of Palestine (from Jerusalem south the the Valley of Beersheba) is very sparse in archaeological evidence from this period. It is clear from the archaeological record that its population was extremely sparse - no more than a few hundred people in the entire region, and the sole occupants of the area during this time were nomadic pastoralists, much like the Bedouin of the region today. We know from clear archaeological evidence that the peoples known as the Phillistines never even entered the region until the 12th century B.C.E., and the "city of Gerar" in which Isaac, the son of Abraham, had his encounter with Abimelech, the "king of the Phillistines" (in Genesis 26:1) was in fact a tiny, insignificant rural village up until the 8th century B.C.E. It couldn't have been the capital of the regional king of a people who didn't yet exist!
This isn't the only problem with the account of the Age of the Patriarchs, either. There's the problem of the camels. We know from archaeological evidence that camels weren't domesticated until about the late second millenium B.C.E., and that they weren't widely used as beasts of burden until about 1000 B.C.E. - long after the Age of the Patriarchs. And then there's the problem of the cargo carried by the camels - "gum, balm and myrrh," which were products of Arabia - and trade with Arabia didn't begin until the era of Assyrian hegemony in the region, beginning in the 8th century B.C.E.
Yet another problem is Jacob's marriage with Leah and Rachel, and his relationship with his uncle, Laban, all of whom are described as being Arameans. This ethnic group does not appear in the archeological record prior to 1100 B.C.E., and not a significant group until the 9th century B.C.E.
Yet influences from the east must have been, because we have evidence of worship of their gods and goddesses. The heiarchy of gods and goddesses who included Baal, the god of storms, who made the land fertile, and Lotan, the seven-headed dragon, known to Old Testament readers as Leviathan. There is Yam Nahar, the god of the seas and rivers, and other pantheons and heiarchies of gods and goddesses.1 Reigning over them all was El, the king of the gods, ruler of the pantheon. Remember the name, we'll encounter it again.
The Problem of the Exodus Story and the
First Great Revision of Judaism
about 1200 B.C.E.
The fact is that with all that is known of Egyptian history from this time (since scholars can now read the records the ancient Egyptians with the ease of a modern newspaper), and the fact that the history of Egypt in this period is well documented, there is no evidence from the records of Egypt itself that the events of Exodus ever occured, either archaeologically or documentarily in the manner in which the Bible describes the events. The reality is that if a series of plagues had been visited upon Egypt, thousands of slaves escaped in a mass runaway, and the army of the Pharaoh were swallowed up by the Red Sea, such events would doubtless have made it into the Egyptian documentary record. But the reality is that there isn't a single word describing any such events.
Instead, what we do have from Egyptian sources is a remarkably different story of the Exodus. From about the beginning of the second millenium B.C.E., through about 1200 B.C.E., Egypt ruled the region known today as Palestine. How do we know this? We know it not only from Egyptian records themselves, which talk about tribute taken from the various towns and cities in Canaan, but from archaeological evidence within the region itself, which shows a number of settlements which were clearly Egyptian military outposts.
During this time, the region which was to become the land of Israel, occupying the northern highlands between the coastal plain and the valley of the Jordan river, was sparsely populated and densly forested with stands of oak and terebinth trees. This land was populated by one of two groups (we're not sure which), either the Apiru or Shoshu peoples. The former were known to have originated as intinerant nomads, largely on the fringes of lowland society, who may have taken refuge in the highlands, or the Shosu, a more cohesive, well-defined group. The linguistic association of Apiru (sometimes Habiru) with the word, "Hebrew" had long, in the minds of scholars, been considered good evidence that this was the group that gave rise to the Hebrews, but we now know that the association wasn't quite that simple. The name may have been from that source, but the people probably weren't.
In any event, the highlands of northern Palestine which was home to the Kingdom of Israel has a highly variable climate. Agricultural productivity, and the ability of people to sustain trade with the lowlands, was subject to varying climatic conditions, meaning that famine was a frequent occurence. When crops failed and trade could not be sustained, it was not uncommon for people to flee the region and head for refuge where crops were dependable. The nearest such place was the Nile delta in Egypt.
So many of the "Hebrews" (culturally indistinct from the Canaanites at this time), who were citizens of Egypt, fled to the Nile delta. Time and again. Every time there was a famine in Judah, Israel or Canaan, refugees headed for Egypt. The event was so common, and the refugees so numerous, that they eventually became a substantial minority group, influential in Egypt, where they were known as the Hyksos, as is now very clear from the archaeological record.
The story of the expulsion of the Hyksos is easily the closest parallel we have from either the Egyptian record or the archaeological record to the story of the Exodus as recorded in the Bible. There are problems, though. Besides the Exodus story line, the biggest problem is the dates: the Bible places the Exodus at about 1200 B.C.E., yet the story of the Hyksos culminates in 1570 B.C.E. It is quite likely that the story of the Hyksos is the story that eventually, through generations of revisionistic retelling, became the myth of the Exodus -- another example of history being rewritten to flatter the storytellers rather than to record the unvarnished truth.
Anyway, the Hyksos grew in influence until they eventually took control of Egypt, which they ruled, with considerable cruelty and tyrrany during the Fifteenth Dynasty, beginning in 1670 B.C.E. The Egyptians had finally had enough, though, and rebelled against the rule of the Hyksos and drove them out a century later in 1570 B.C.E. They weren't just driven out, either; the Egyptians pushed them back into Canaan with considerable force, driving them all the way to the Syrian frontier, sacking and burning Canaanite cities along the way. Sometime later, the Hyksos capital in Egypt, Avaris, in the eastern Nile delta, was razed to the ground by the Pharoah Ahmose, who chased the last remnants of the Hyksos back into Canaan and even laid siege to Sharuhen, the main Canaanite citadel, destroying it and ending Canaanite influence there. At least one historian claims (a millenium after the fact) that the Hyksos refugees settled in Jerusalem and built a temple there, but the archaeological record does not support the claim of either a temple or large numbers of refugees in Jerusalem from this period.
It is quite clear from the archaeological record, as well, that there never was a "wandering in the desert for 40 years," either. Extensive archaeological surveys of the Sanai desert have never shown any encampments dating from the time of the Exodus, either before, during or after the time of the Ramsean pharoahs. At least two sites mentioned in the exodus story have been positively identified and carefully and extensively excavated, but no evidence of late bronze-age occupation or encampment has been found at either site. Additionally, the Sanai Desert was literally dotted with Egyptian military outposts, and nowhere in the Sanai could the Hebrews have been more than a day's travel from one of them. It is inconceivable that they could have remained undetected in the Sanai for forty years. The story of the Exodus is clearly mythmaking designed to portray a possible forced expulsion of oppressors as an escape of victims.
By the 12th century B.C.E., the Hebrews assumed an identity unique enough in the archaeological record to become discernible for the first time. In the mountains and plateaus of the northern highlands of Canaan, from Jerusalem north to the Jezreel Valley, the highland settlements, poor for their day, begin to show a single distinguishing feature from other, similar highland settlements in regions around them. There is little to go on - pottery shows an impoverished lifestyle, with little decoration and use other than as storage and cooking vessels. Yet one thing is clear - the bones of pigs become absent from the archaeological record. The prohibition on eating pork is therefore the oldest archaeologically supported feature of Jewish culture. It is representative of the beginnings of the transformation of the god "El" into "El-ohim," the god of gods, the god of Israel.
We now know this Mesopotamian god as "El-ohim," and our author "E," one of the earliest scriptorialists writing about this time, first has El introducing himself to Abraham as "El Shaddai" (El of the Mountain). He also appears as El Elyon, or El of Bethel in other, non-canonized scripture, and his name is also preserved in such Hebrew names as Isra-El and Ishma-El. The word Elohim was originally a plural of El.2
To the south, from Bethel to the Valley of Beersheba, a similar transformation is taking place. In this climatically and geologically harsher place, a place with a much smaller and less settled population with greater geographical isolation, the Canaanite god Yahweh is being transformed by a culturally similar people of the land of Judah. The unknown author known to scholars simply as "J" has his god being familiar with and comfortable with Abraham, and he casually appears to Abraham in Genesis 18, introducing himself as Yahweh. But "J's" contemporary, author "E" in the north can't have God being so casual, and first appears as a voice, commanding Abraham to leave his people in Mesopotamia and settle in Canaan.3
Yahweh, in his transformation from a pagan Canaanite god to the god of the Jews, becomes a cruel and vindictive god in the hands of author "J." He commands Abraham to sacrifice his first born son, an act which is not at all surprising given the nature of the pagan religions of the time. Many of these pagan religions (and remember that Yahweh got his start as a Canannite pagan god) considered the first-born to be the seed of a god. Because of this, they were often sacrificed to the god who presumably sired them.
Yet Elohim in the north continues to be a much more subtle god, who directs the affairs of men by revelation of the voice, hidden from the view of mere mortals. There is a tension among these peoples, both of whom identify themselves as culturally decendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. One people, perhaps, but two gods.
The people of the north, with a much more favorable geography and climate, eventually prosper and establish trading links with their neighbors. Their wealth eventually comes to greatly exceed that of the south - to the extent that they become a nation in their own right - the nation of Israel. Israel prospers to the extent that it becomes a significant trading nation - greatly eclipsing its poorer neighbor, Judah. The archaeological record clearly shows Israel to be a major regional power, one that certainly attracted the interest of its neighbors.
By now, the Egyptian hegemony in the region has faded, and the geopolitical vacuum was filled by Assyria. The Assyrians eventually assumed control of the region, with two provincial areas, Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Israel, vastly more prosperous and populous than Judah, had its capital at various times in Megiddo, Samaria and Seschem, and Judah had its capital at Bethel, on it's northern frontier, or sometimes at Hebron in the south. Jerusalem, up until this time, was a tiny agricultural village of insignificance, and, until the Assyrian deportations, was certainly not a cultural center.
By the end of the eighth century, B.C.E., a Hebrew alphabet appears, and literacy rapidly spreads among the wealthier Hebrews. Finally, after centuries of oral tradition, writing becomes widespread for the first time, and culturally changes everything. The myths are written down and compared. And the two gods come into open conflict with each other.
Widespread literacy and the geopolitical events of the day, changed everything. Israelite rebellion against the Assyrians brought repression in the north, and with it, waves of refugees into the south. With the arrival of waves of refugees, Jerusalem is quickly transformed from a tiny agricultural village of no particular significance into a major town, with a religious influence of its own. The arriving Israelites with their gods with El at the helm, and the Judeans, with their single god Yahweh, are now forced to reconcile their religious differences. It is also from this era that the myths of the Old Testament become frozen in the form in which they have come down to us - the story of Abraham and his family travelling and trading Arabian goods with the use of camels, the myth of Exodus transformed as it was from the story of the expulsion of the Hyksos, the stories of the conquest of Canaan with David slaying Goliath, which was really a story based on the forced resettlement by the Egyptian authorities, of Solomon's great wealth and his great temple at Jerusalem; all were myths substantially altered from the facts as they originally occured. But writing them down now froze those myths, and it is from this time they came to us unaltered for the most part. For the first time, the Biblical record begins to correspond with the archaeological record.
The Deuteronomist and the Second Great Revision, With the Rise of the Temple State and the Third Great Revision
It is at least a century after the first books of the Pentatuch was written that the gods of the Old Testament are harmonized into a singular being, this having been done by the third major writer of the Old Testament books, a writer (or more probably group of writers) called by scholars, "D" the Deuteronomist. If we are going to have a monotheistic religion here, we can't go around having two competing gods, so something must be done. The tribes of Israel and Judah had a choice to make, and Joshua warned them that Yahweh was a jealous god. Which god would it be? In essence, there was no difficulty making a choice. Yahweh was the more powerful, having demonstrated his power by intervening on their behalf in Egypt, and in the desert at Sinai. The choice was easy. It was Yahweh.
So the second great revision of Judaic religion has happened. In the original Pentatuch, written in the 8th century B.C.E., there isn't a clearly monotheistic statement to be found, but by the time of the writings of the Deuteronomist, a century or so later, the Deuteronomist has Joshua threatening the Israelites and making sure they became monotheistic under threat of being destroyed. The Deuteronomist pulls off this neat harmonization of two competing gods by having the Israelites reminded that their fathers had promised Yahweh that he would be their god, and so they made him their elohim, their high God. So now, Elohim, who originally was the king of the gods of Fertile Crescent, is now Yahweh, the god of Israel. If you have two conflicting gods, its a neat trick to just get rid of the conflict by declaring they're the same being.4
A god has to have a home, and the home of the god Yahweh was in heaven. But his priests on earth had to have a place for the ritual sacrifices that were handed down as part of the ritual of the "El" pantheon, as well as the original pagan Canaanite god, Yahweh, which of course had been descended into the Hebraic monotheism. This place was the temple, of course, whose construction was attributed to Solomon, a mythical king. The reality is that it was built at least a century later than the period attributed to the rule of Solomon. The whole story of Solomon, his father David and the events surrounding that dynasty were created during this era to explain the fading splendor of Jerusalem and provide a centering myth around which to rally the culture towards a monotheistic religion, under assault from the Assyrian culture that politically was hegemonous in the region.
In the year 742 B.C.E., while the Deuteronomist writers were still busy getting rid of Elohim, a member of the Judean royal family had a vision. In it, he saw Yahweh sitting on his throne, directly above the temple in Jerusalem. In the vision, Isaiah is commanded to bring a new message to Israel. Isaiah is filled with foreboding and with good reason; King Tigleth Pilesar, who had recently ascended to the throne of Assyria had designs on Israel, and now the god of Israel had to take up the duties of defending the people of his covenant.
Isaiah was commissioned by his god to carry the message to Israel that he is the only god there is; this comes as a great problem to the Israelites who see Isaiah's concept of God as being the very god who had aided the Assyrians in their victories against them. Isaiah is largely rejected with his message, and Yahweh becomes a pensive, introspective god, who invites his followers to enter into a dialogue with him. Isaiah's second innovation was the notion that the commandments of the god should be integrated into the very lives of those who follow him, and not just be restricted to temple observance and ritual. Only by doing so would Yahweh be appeased and Israel saved. This also did not have much resonance in the lives of the average Hebrew.
In punishment for disregarding the prophet's message, Yahweh conveniently permits King Sargon II of Assyria to occupy the northern portion of Palestine and deport the population. Suddenly, the warnings of Isaiah are taken a bit more seriously as the ten "lost" tribes of Israel are marched off into forced assimilation in Assyria and Palestine becomes the land of the Jews. The reality of course, is that Sargon was punishing Israel for its insurrection and refusal to pay tribute. Israel, with a wetter, more productive climate and much easier geography was much easier pickings than the dry, rocky, thinly populated and more distant Judah. So it was only natural that Sargon would choose to occupy Israel rather than Judah. Yet even as Sargon occupied Israel his own empire was beginning to crumble. Assyrian power was fading, but Babylonian power was increasing.
In the south, to ensure that the people of Judah hear his message, Yahweh sends a succession of prophets to them. They preach from the temple and ally themselves with the political power of the Jewish kings. In so doing, the temple and the political process become allied in the fight against the military power of their neighbors. There is no longer an Elohim cult, and the Israelites are long gone. The Hebraic religion and culture becomes a Jewish one. Amos and Jeremiah were the prophets of note from this period.
Jeremiah's Failed Prophesy of Exile in Babylon
and The Fourth Great Revision
586 B.C.E. to 538 B.C.E.
Jeremiah's message was that God is dependent on man to carry out his wishes in the world, a view very much in contrast to the writers of Exodus, who had Yahweh being a powerful, independent and even capricious god. And Jeremiah warns that only following the dictates of God would keep the newly ascendant Babylonians at bay. But it was not enough. He predicted that Babylon would conquer Palestine and the occupants of that land would spend 70 years in captivity by the rivers of Babylon. Well, the captivity happened, but it didn't last 70 years. We know from secular sources that it actually lasted from 586 to 538 B.C.E., a period of only 48 years.
By 600 B.C.E., the Babylonians were capturing bits of Palestine. By 586, Jerusalem itself was conquered and the temple destroyed. But as conquests of the period went, it was not a bitter one, as only some of the Hebrews were taken into captivity and those who were, were not forced to assimilate. Many were allowed to remain in Palestine. Archaeological surveys indicate that at most, about 10% of the population was forced into exile, most of them being the most economically and politically useful.
Among the first batch of deportees, in 597 B.C.E. was a young priest known as Ezekiel.
Ezekiel claimed to have had a great vision. It was a typical Yahwehian affair, a great and horrible thing, in which was revealed a plan of action. And in Ezekiel's case, the plan of action was unique, indeed. He first had to eat the word of God. Yes, he was required to eat and swallow the scroll containing the word. This was to make it a "part of" himself.
Then his wife died, and Ezekiel was forbidden to mourn. Instead, he had to lie down on one side for 390 days and then on the other for 40. On another occasion, he was required to eat excrement. For a period of five years, he spoke to no one.
Yahweh had not just become a violent and jealous god, he was also demanding and irrational at times. No wonder Ezekiel complained about the burden of being a prophet.
It seems that Yahweh could not only allow his chosen people to be taken captive, he seemed to have made a circus performer out of his prophets. The irrationality of all this was not lost on the Jews. Exiled as many of them were in Babylon, it seemed that the whole world was topsy-turvy, and practice of their religion, based as it was in a destroyed temple, was impossible outside their homeland. They resented their captivity and relished the thoughts of dashing out the brains of Babylonian babies.
But a new prophet preached tranquility.
Scholars know him as Second Isaiah, as his true name is lost to history, and his message was much like that of the first Isaiah. Second Isaiah also preached that God was unknowable, hence the irrationality of trying to understand him as Ezekiel had gotten in trouble for. Yet this newer incarnation of Yahweh was a more tranquil god, who transcended the pettiness of human politics, and declared himself to be the god that Egypt and Assyria would ultimately worship alongside Israel. So Yahweh's jurisdiction seems to be transformed once again, from the god of the Jews, then all of Israel, to the whole world, and now back to just Palestine, Egypt and Assyria.
The numerous writers of this period became known to scholars as the Priestly writers, or "P." They gave us the books of Numbers and Leviticus, and also gave their interpretations to the events described by "J" and "E," including the account of the creation, taken from the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, a decendant from the Epic of Gilgamesh. "P" subscribes to the Ezekielian vision that God is unknowable and unseeable; it is from this revision that we now have Moses shielding himself from the sight of God by hiding behind a rock. It is also from this period that we have the Levitical proscriptions, the cleanliness laws, which do not define sin, but instead define simply what is Hebraic as opposed to the hated paganism (read: Babylonian) religions (it would only be the Christians centuries later who would assume the Levitical proscriptions to have been descriptions of sin). All this new material was inserted into the Pentatuch about the time Cyrus conquered Babylon in 538 B.C.E. and allowed the Jews to return to Palestine.5
The returning Jews wished to rebuild the temple and reestablish the kingdom it all its glory, but they had a problem. Being still governed by foreigners, they weren't allowed a king.
They solved this problem by simply denying that a king was even necessary, instead heaping their veneration on the high priest of the temple, which they were allowed to have. This would be the pattern of religious practice they would maintain, even during periods when they escaped foreign domination and were able to have their own kings, until the destruction of the Second Temple, centuries later. It was during this period, about 400 B.C.E., that the Torah finally became canonized as scripture.
Greek Influence and the Fifth Great Revision of Judaism
323 B.C.E. to 45 C.E.
Hellenism by now was becoming a major cultural influence throughout the middle east. Successive waves of Greek influence, first brought by Alexander the Great, had brought with it a knowledge of the great Greek philosophers. For several centuries running, right up to and including the time of Christ, the major cultural influence in the region was Greek. The Roman Empire was primarily a political affair, relatively unconcerned with culture. It brought the Roman form of government, but it was the Greeks whose ideas were spreading with the Romans, which brought to Palestine a systematic philosophy the likes of which the Jews had never seen.
And Greek philosophy, skeptical and secular in many ways, made a great deal of sense. So again our Hebrew culture is presented with a problem.
How can the Jewish god, who by now had acquired a great deal of mythological and philosophical baggage, be reconciled with the unspeakable, unknowable god(s) of the Greek philosophers?
The first to sense the tension were the authors of Wisdom of Solomon and the other Wisdom books. The author of Solomon, a Jew living in Alexandria, warned Jews to be true to Yahweh, and that it was fear of Yahweh, not Greek philosophy that constituted true wisdom.
Yet the logic and reason of Greek philosophy was too great to be ignored.
The first major attempt at a reconciliation was by Philo of Alexandria (30 B.C.E. to 45 C.E.). Philo was a thoroughgoing Hellene who wrote in elegant Greek, but was probably ignorant of Hebrew and Aramaic, as the Jewish lingua franca had by now become, yet he was also an observant Jew. In his own mind there must have existed a microcosm of the conflict so evident around him.
Aristotle had considered history to be unphilosophic. It had nothing to tell us about the nature of God, he said. And to Plato, God was so unknowable and unreachable, it was only man's gift of reason that made him kin to the Gods. How then could Philo reconcile the humanist nature of Aristotelian historical interpretation with great epic of Exodus? And how could Plato's unknowable, unreachable God be manifesting himself with such drama as to terrify the Exodian Hebrews at Sinai?
Philo gets around the problem by creating a distinction between the essence of God (ouisa), and God's activities in the world (dynameis or energeiai). The essence of God, as Plato had said, is shrouded in impenetrable mystery. But the power, and evidence of God's existence is everywhere in evidence.
To Philo, the stories of the Pentatuch were allegorical, in keeping with the secular nature of history as Aristotle had taught. So the great myths of Genesis and Exodus should not be taken literally. What they had to tell us was hidden in inner meaning; and the spirit of intuitive apprehension was the way of knowing that meaning.
It was a neat theological trick, but none of this made any sense to the Semitic Jews. But to the enthusiastically Hellenized Romans of the era, searching as they were for a highly moralistic philosophy of living, and attracted as they were to Judaism for that very reason, it made a great deal of sense. They didn't have to have a literally jealous, blatant, thundering God, but one of unknowable subtlety would do quite nicely. Just give us a plan for living, they seemed to be saying, and we'll forget about thundering avengers. And so Jewish schools of thought based on Philo's interpretations of the scriptures began to spring up all around the Mediterranean basin. This dichotomy between the ethnic Jews and the converts to Philo's school of Judaism was to have important consequences for development of Christianity a couple of centuries later.
The Christian Era and the Last Great Revision of Judaism
30 C.E. to appx. 73 C.E
The conflict between the Hellenism and the traditions of ethnic Judaism was nowhere more obvious than in the northern part of Palestine, which had been so often subject to conquest and which, being on the major trade route between Asia Minor and the Transjordan, was constantly subjected to foreign influence. This northern region apparently didn't even consider itself to be Jewish, but rather a separate nation that had been annexed, apparently involuntarily, by the Maccabean kings of Israel. So here you have Hellenized Semitics under the influence and control of Jewish kings, looking elsewhere for philosophical guidance. It was a volatile mix.
Into this little region, called Galilee, was born a stubborn iconoclast. He resented the Roman occupation but accepted its rule. He was an intellect who understood at least the rudiments of the Cynic school of Greek philosophy and the complex theology of the Semitic Jews around him. But he would have none of it. He felt that there had to be a better way to live. He grew up a suburb of the capital of Galilee, in a place called Nazareth. His name was Jesus.
At least, that's the mythology that has grown up around this figure. For all his influence on the world, there's better evidence that he never even existed than that he did. We have absolutely no reliable evidence, from secular sources, that Jesus ever lived, or that any of the events surrounding his life as described in the four Gospels ever happened.
Indeed, when scholars apply the Negative Evidence Principle, it begins to look like the Jesus we know from the New Testament is the result of late first-century mythmaking.
The Negative Evidence Principle is, of course, not foolproof. It is not a proof in itself, but is rather a guideline, a good rule of thumb. How useful and reliable it is, of course, is subject to debate among logicians. Here's how the N.E.P. works - it states that you have good reason for not believing in a proposition if the following three principles are satisfied: First, all of the evidence supporting the proposition has been shown to be unreliable. Second, there is no evidence supporting the proposition when the evidence should be there if the proposition is true. And third, a thorough and exhaustive search has been made for supporting evidence where it should be found.
As for the first point, the only somewhat reliable, secular evidence we have for the life of Jesus comes from two very brief passages in the works of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian. And Josephus was a prolific writer - he frequently wrote several pages on the trial and execution of individual common thieves, but on Jesus, he is silent except for two paragraphs, one of which is a known interpolation, and the other is highly suspect. Other references to Jesus in secular writings are ambiguous at best, or known to be later interpolations, or both. The earliest references to Jesus in the rabbinical literature come from the second century, even though known historical figures such as John the Baptist merit considerable discussion, even though his impact on Judaism was minimal. There are no references to Jesus in any of the Roman histories during his presumed lifetime. That he should be so thoroughly ignored is unlikely given the impact the gospel writers said he had on the events and politics of the Jewish kingdom.
So we have to turn to Christian literature for help.
At this point, caution is called for in examining first century Christian literature. This caution is made necessary by the fact that during this era, it was not considered wrong to write your own material and ascribe it to someone else, someone you consider your philosophical mentor, in whose name and style you are writing. Indeed, not only was this a common practice, but it was actually a skill taught in the schools of the day. This practice has made modern scholarship enormously difficult in dealing with who actually wrote the New Testament books and when. The problem, though difficult, is not insoluble, and modern scholarship has developed techniques which have been applied to early Christian writings, to find out who is saying what, when and why. When these techniques are applied to these early Christian writings, the results have been quite surprising.
The writings of Paul accepted as genuinely his (Galatians I and II and Thessalonians I and II, Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, Phillipians, and possibly Colossians) are by far the most pristine of any early Christian literature we have. They were probably written beginning in the fifth decade of the first century - well after the events of Jesus' life. When the letters are examined in isolation, it becomes apparent that Paul was ignorant of the doctrine of the virgin birth, that he never spoke in terms of having lived in Jesus' time, nor does he mention that any of his mentors were contemporaries of Jesus, nor that Jesus worked any miracles and he appparently did not associate the death of Jesus with the trial before Pilate. Only in Galatians 1:19 does he make reference to a contemporary Jesus, and then only in terms of James being the "Lord's brother." The use of the term "Lord's" even makes that single reference somewhat questionable to scholars, as the word "Lord's" did not have currency until the late 2nd. century. So the Pauline letters, at least the reliably Pauline letters, aren't good witnesses for a Jesus of the first half of the first century. What makes this particularly interesting, is that other non-Canonical early Christian pre-Gospel literature make the very same omissions.
Later Christian writings were written well after the events they describe, none earlier than at least the seventh decade at the earliest. And none of them are known to have been written by the authors to which they are ascribed. Most are second or third-hand accounts. There was plenty of time for mythmaking by the time they were written, so they're clearly not reliable witnesses.
The next stricture of the Negative Evidence Principle is that there isn't any sound evidence where there should be, and here again this stricture is met. First, there are no records whatever of Jesus' life in the Roman records of the era. That's surprising, since he stirred up so much unrest, at least by Biblical accounts. There at least ought to be a record of his arrest and trial, or some of the political notoriety the gospel writers describe. Yet the Roman histories are silent, even though they are quite thorough (Flavius Josephus alone wrote dozens of volumes, many of which survive, and he is far from the only historian of Palestine in this period whose writings have survived in some form). Second, as mentioned, there is no reliable account in Josephus.
Josephus was a historian who was so very thorough he would write a three page history of the trial and execution of a common thief, and wrote extensively about John the Baptist, but on Jesus, his two small references are seriously doubted by scholars as being genuine. Unfortunately, the writings of Josephus have come down to us only through Christian sources, none earlier than the fourth century, and are known to have been revised by the Christians. There are a number of reasons why the two references in Josephus are doubted: As summarized by Louis Feldman, a promient Josephus scholar, they are, first, use of the Christian reference to Jesus being the Messiah is unlikely to have come from a Jewish historian, especially from one who treated other Messianic aspirants rather harshly; second, commentators writing about Josephus earlier than Eusebius (4th Cent. C.E.) do not cite the passage; third, Origen mentions that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the messiah. There is a full account available on the Internet that describes the whole long list of problems with the "Testimonium Flavium" as scholars call it.
The earliest secular literary evidence for a religion based on the man we call Jesus comes from many decades after Jesus' supposed death (from about 70 C.E.). Why, if he had as much influence, and caused as much a stir as the Bible says he did, do we not know of him at all from reliable, contemporary testimony?
The third stricture of the N.E.P. holds that we must have conducted a thorough and exhaustive sweep for evidence where there should be evidence. Indeed, thousands of scholars, religionists, crusaders, apologists and skeptics alike have searched for such evidence since the earliest days of the Christian era. That they haven't found any reliable evidence that should have been there says that the third stricture has been clearly satisfied.
So based on the Negative Evidence Principle, we have good reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus and that lack of reliable evidence suggests no good reason to accept it.
How is it, then, that the movement began? Why did it grow as it did?
As discussed above, there was considerable intellectual ferment in Palestine at the time of the beginning of the Jesus movements. Many secular scholars and scholars from non-Judeo-Christian traditions have proposed, and I tend to agree, that it is likely that the Jesus myth began as a social movement to 'reJudify' Judaism. Remember that at this point, the temple was thoroughly corrupt, the high priest was a Roman political appointee, and many Jews felt that their culture and religion were under threat.
The most prominent of the many movements to 'reJudaify' Judaism was the Essene Movement. Founded in the second century B.C.E., the Essenes were either founded by or greatly influenced by a "Teacher of Righteousness," to which the Dead Sea Scrolls make constant reference without ever naming. One individual who fits the scanty evidence is a Yeishu ha Notzri, Jesus or Jesua, or Yeshua or Joshua ben Pantera or Pentera or Pandera or Pandira, who apparently had some influence with this movement, but may have been much more than that; we simply don't know. Indeed, there are even several first-century Christian references to this supposed miracle worker.
If he was the Teacher of Righteousness referred to by the Dead Sea Scrolls, as some have suggested, his impact on the movement towards Jewish reform was considerable. And if he was the Teacher of Righteousness, it would answer a lot of interesting questions, such as the scattered first century Christian and Talmudic references to a miracle worker named Yeishu ha Notzri, known to first-century Christians as Jesus or Jesua ben Pantera. Among them are a quote from Origen, saying that his arch-rival Celsus had heard from a Jew in Jerusalem that "Jesus Ben Pantera" was born of Mary as the result of a rape by a Roman soldier named Pantera, and had borne the baby in secret (most scholars now regard this claim to be a first-century legend resulting from misinterpretation of the facts).
That the first century Christians may have feared there was some truth to this rumor is evidenced by the fact of Mark's obvious embarrassment regarding the origins of Jesus; Mark, the first writer of a canonic gospel, never mentions Joseph as the actual husband of Mary. Note also that it was both the Roman custom and the custom of the Jews to include a patrilineal surname as part of a person's full name; yet nowhere in the New Testament does the surname of Jesus, (or Joseph, for that matter) appear. There is at least one Talmudic reference to Jeshu as being the illegitimate son of an adultress named Mary Magdala. There are several interesting references to a Yeishu ha Notzri (note the resemblance of the name to "Jesus of Nazareth"), who traveled around and practiced magic during the reign of Alexander Janneus, who ruled Palestine from 104 to 78 BCE. As these references are Talmudic (from the Baraitas and the Gemara), and therefore presumed by Christian scholars to be anti-Christian; Christian apologeticists have simply dismissed them as referring to someone else or being fabricated propaganda. But if they are genuine, and they really do refer to the Jesus of whom the Christians speak, they add evidence to the claim that the Jesus of Nazareth story is really based on the life of Yieshu ha Notzri, possibly the Essene "Teacher of Righteousness." Evidence points to him being the founder of the Notzri as the sects were known in first century Palestine, and as the Jesus Movements to modern scholars.
It must be noted here is that the version of the Talmud still used by most modern Christian scholars, is normally the version known to have been heavily edited by Christians by the 16th century - presumably to remove the dangerous references to Yeishu ha Notzri and his followers, the Notzrim, the account of which is absent from this version. But the pristine version, still used by Jewish scholars, gives us some rich detail. Yeishu ha Notzri was considered by the temple authorities of the time to be a troublemaking heretic, and when they had finally had enough of him, they put him on trial. He was convicted of heresy, sentenced to wander the city for 40 days, with a crier going before him, shouting that if anyone had reason why he should not be executed, they should come forward. When no did, he was stoned to death, and his body hung from a tree on the eve of passover, in 88 B.C.E. Note the death on the eve of passover. Note also the hanging of the body from a tree - at the time, a sign of despicability, with its resemblance to the crucifixion myth.
The Essene movement was one based on a very strict asceticism. Followers were expected to live in monastic isolation, eating a rough diet of hard, primitive foods and living in very simple, rough accomodations, in the harsh climate and isolation of the Judean desert. Since not a lot of people had a taste for that kind of harsh, strict living, it was not exactly a wildly popular movement, yet its social ideals had a great deal of popular appeal. The result was that many people began to adopt the social ideals if not the religious asceticism, and began to associate with each other, much like the modern Hippie movement borrowed heavily from Eastern mysticism and spawned a social movement in our own times. Many organized themselves into small groups for social sharing and discussion. By the first century, these movements, known to the Jews of the time as the Notzri, and its follwers the Notzrim, had become widespread, and were found throughout the Eastern Meditteranean region. It is of considerable importance to note here that it is also known from Talmudic sources and elsewhere that the first century Christians also referred to themselves as Notzrim - lending strong support to the Yeishu ha Notzri theory as the source of the Jesus myth.
The Notzrim, or Jesus Movements, as modern scholars refer to these groups, appeared as isolated groups in widely separated towns and villages throughout the region. What they had in common was that they were a social reform movement, and often refered to a 'Jesus' or 'Jeshua' or 'Yeishu' or 'Yeshua' as their inspiration, but we know from contemporary descriptions that they were clearly not a religion, even though they incorporated many religious values.
Each of these Jesus Movement groups had its own ideas, often networking with others of a like mind, often disputing with others of conflicting ideas. While we have no writings from them directly, we have many references to them by contemporary historians, so we have some awareness of what they believed and practiced, if filtered by others. By the time of Paul, the Jesus Movements had become extraordinarily diverse and widespread. Some were bands of iternant preachers, others were guilds of settled craftspeople. Some were simple study groups, others were formal schools of scholastic research. As mentioned, there was philosophical ferment in first century Palestine, and the Jesus movements were not immune. Rather, they were very much a part of it. While none of what they wrote has survived intact, scholars are reasonably certain of a "Sayings Gospel Q" (subsequently revised at least three times), which is lost to us except where Mark quoted from it much later in "his" gospel, and one of the gospels of "Thomas," which has survived to the modern era in at least two versions, contain if not the pristine writings of Jesus Movements, at least quotations from them.
What is interesting about the Jesus Movements as the source of Christianity and the Jesus myth, is that they were the source of Gnosticism, which for many decades, was considered by scholars to be a Christian heresy which arose in the second century. Scholars had presumed this mostly as a result of the comments made in the screeds of Iraeneus, who railed against this widespread and threatening "heresy" endlessly. But it is now widely accepted that Gnosticism was widespread by the time Jesus is supposed to have lived, and now, having the Nag Hammadi library as a treasure trove of new information, we now know that its mythology was Jewish, not Christian, its metaphysics was Neo-Platonic and Neo-Stoic, and it shared ideas from Egyptian, Greek, Jewish and "Hermetic" mystery religions, and was an outgrowth of the Jesus Movements. Yet, when one reads the Nag Hammadi gospels we have today, we also read constant references to Jesus, including such stories as the Last Supper and the Crucifixion - evidence that the Gnostic gospels themselves borrowed from later Christian sources. But the Jesus myth's widespread popularity among the Gnostics by the first third of the first century leads to the suggestion that, unless a wholesale and dramatic conversion took place (for which there is no evidence whatever), the Jesus myth was already widespread among the Gnostics by the time Jesus was supposed to have lived and died, and he died a long time ago. He wasn't a contemporary divine Messiah-figure. At least not yet.
The destruction of the Second Temple which occurred during the Roman-Jewish war of 66-73 C.E. and the diaspora that followed also greatly impacted Judaism. The destruction of the Temple-based priesthood made central authority for doctrine and ritual impossible, along with the ability to perform temple-based ritual. So now every local rabbi was on his own. Each had his own response to the rise of Christianity and the contemporaneous diaspora into which Judaism was forced. In certain places at certain times, various rabbinates established local schools and influenced local movements, but as a whole, Judaism split into local factions, each struggling to maintain the tradition as best it could. In the main, the maintenance of a Jewish identity and the basic cultural traditions was possible, but the rigid adherence to a single doctrinal viewpoint was not, since there was no central authority against which to measure local ideas against a common doctrinal standard. So it's not surprising that nearly as many schools of thought arose in the Judaism of the diaspora as occurred in Protestantism, a millenium and a half later.
The impact of the destruction of the temple on the Jesus Movements was to galvanize them into activism, trying to reform Judaism in order to save it from forced Romanization and the enveloping diaspora. For most of the Jesus Movements, there was no effort to reform the religion as much as the culture, but as we will see, for one Jesus Movement, things were to be quite different. Gnosticism, an outgrowth of the Jesus Movements, was by now and remained an inward-focused quasi-religion, based as much on personal reform as the basis of the social reform of the Jesus Movements from which it sprang, but which intended to contribute to the salvation of Jewish tradition by making Jewish religion more personal and inward-focused, and not dependent on outside authority.
The Road To Damascus And The Origins of Christianity
Appx. 50 C.E. to 140 C.E.
In about 50 C.E., a remarkable event occurred, which ultimately changed the course of human history. In Antioch, the local Jesus Movement suddenly and quickly transformed itself from a social and political reform movement into a full-blown religion. As this occurred, a remarkable conversion happened - or maybe the transformation occurred because Saul of Tarsus was "converted" to a new religious vision of his own and evangelized the group as Paul the Apostle. Whichever way it happened, we will probably never know. But secular scholars are pretty much agreed that this group included the first true Christians and that Paul, a Gnostic, was one of the first if not the first convert. And the Antioch Jesus Movement became the first of what modern scholars now refer to as the Christ Cults, the variety of Pauline-inspired cults prior to their consolidation under a single authority centuries later into the Catholic church.
That Paul was greatly influenced by Gnosticism, there is little doubt, in that many writers quote Gnostic sources as writing favorably of Paul and considering Paul to be their ally. There is also little doubt that Paul, among his contemporary Christian writers (Clement of Rome, Barnabas, and the author of Hebrews), and among the Gnostics and members of the Jesus Movements, all considered Jesus to be a long dead figure, their highly revered founder. None of these writers directly quote people who claimed to have seen Jesus in mortal flesh. Instead, what had changed was that with the advent of Paul, Jesus had now become available for visionary appearances, and, having been shown on the right-hand of God in Paul's visions, was clearly a divine being, not just a great teacher and prophet, as the Gnostics had heretofore held.
By accepting Paul's vision and taking the relatively small step of transforming Jesus from a great teacher of righteousness and great prophet into an actual divine being, Gnosticism became a form of Christianity, albeit one with a very different theology from the catholicised Christianity of later centuries. The form of divinity they eventually accepted, however, was that Jesus was a wholly spiritual being who only "seemingly" appeared to his followers as a man, and exposed himself to persecution and death on the cross. This lack of mortality became known to the catholic Christians as the "docetic" heresy of the Gnostics. It would survive into the sixth century, in spite of repeated attempts by the church and the Empire to stamp it out.
Paul's writings are among the earliest Christian writings that have survived intact, and quite probably because they were the first Christian writings in the sense that we know Christianity. They date to within two decades of the presumed date of the crucifixion. Of the books in the New Testament that are attributed to Paul, there are only a few that are generally agreed by scholars to be the product of his pen. Among these are Galatians I and II and Thessalonians I and II, Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, Phillipians, and possibly Collosians. The rest of the New Testament books attributed to him were written by later authors seeking to ride on his credibility and authority.
What's remarkable about these writings is that when considered apart from the rest of the New Testament, they paint an interesting and very different picture of Paul himself and of very early Christianity than that accepted by most Christians. Among the possibilities that have been presented to account for this are that Paul was ignorant of many of the important details of the life of Jesus or, more likely, those details are simply myths that were incorporated into Christianity after Paul wrote his letters.
The reasons for Paul's conversion is a question that deserves discussion here. Saul, the pre-conversion Roman Jew, was a man with an intense self loathing. He doesn't tell us why, but time and again, he describes himself as a sinner who was far beyond any possible redemption. A man who stood condemned in the eyes of God. A man clearly destined for hell, and there's nothing he himself could do about it, especially since his body's 'member' would not cooperate. It's not his persecution of the Christians that creates the self loathing; rather it is the other way around. Something was eating at Saul. It clearly related to behavior, because he describes himself as being a sinner. Over the centuries, many suggestions have been made as to what might have been the source of that self loathing. Few of them are really convincing, they all seem to have serious problems - except for one: the suggestion that Paul was a repressed homosexual. Homosexuality was not widely condemned in this region at the time, yet it could possibly have been a personal interpretation of Levitical proscriptions that drove him to consider himself a sinner for being a homosexual. Yet when he experiences his conversion, he realizes that by the grace of God, his homosexuality no longer matters, for God loves him, the same as all men. I say this after having read the references in the New Testament in which Paul speaks of his shame and his self loathing: his words have a startlingly deep resonance with every gay man who was ever brought up in a Christian environment. This theory alone to the exclusion of all others I've seen explains all the strange aspects of Paul's attitudes towards sexuality - the proclivity to a monastic degree of chastity, the extreme mysogony, the fact that he remained single and urged others in his situation, whatever that was, to do likewise, and the frequent discussions of how the 'members' of his body do not cooperate with his spiritual goals, and his despair over his inability to effect the changes he would like. All of these evidences are consonant with the repressed-gay theory; no other theory I know of account for them all.
I hasten to add here, that there is no acctual evidence to indicate that Paul was gay. The evidence is purely circumstantial, as is much of the evidence widely accepted in Biblical scholasticism. It has been charged that I included this theory only because "it irks Christians" or because I am myself gay. This is simply not true. I have included it, because it fits the evidence better than any other theory I have seen - the evidence fits remarkably well. On a personal note, I don't happen to care a whit whether Paul was gay or not - I have no investment in the theory as I am not a Christian; I'm only trying to arrive at a theory that fits the evidence better than any other, and so far, I have yet to find another that fits it better. If the reader can offer one, I'd be delighted to entertain it, and I hasten to point out that I have analyzed dozens of theories. The search for truth is a search for the best evidential fit, not the search for comfort, so whether Christians find the theory irksome, troublesome or disturbing, or whether the author of this essay is gay, is really quite irrelevant to reality. But I digress from the story...
If this theory is true, it may well be that the whole of the Christian edifice of sexual doctrine, and even of Christianity itself, is built on the foundation of the self-loathing of a repressed gay man, unable to change himself or find salvation within himself, but finding salvation only in the grace of God. Again, if this theory is true, try to imagine how world history might have been different had Saul not been born gay and suffered the self-loathing that resulted from that circumstance of his birth.
Paul speaks, then, from the perspective of a self loathing, pre-mythologized Christian. He utters the doctrines that pretty much will shape Christianity in the centuries ahead, but does not relate any of the 'faith promoting' miracle stories or details of Jesus' life that one would expect of an evangelist seeking converts in a first-century world hungry for the evidence of spirituality offered by miracles and magic. This, of course, is because the miracle stories didn't yet exist. Those stories would come from the gospel writers.
The Gospels: Mythmaking Begins in Ernest
65 C.E. to appx. 120 C.E.
The gospel writers were converts to the new Christ cults. Whether any were directly converted by Paul, we don't know, but it has been 20 years since Paul's conversion, and the new religion has been spreading like wildfire among the Jesus Movements of the Eastern Mediteranean. We also know that none were writing from Palestine, but were all in the Diaspora, and none had, so far as we know, even traveled to Palestine. Mark wrote with the letters of Ignatius in hand, and each of the succeeding writers wrote with the previously written gospels, and probably Ignatius as well, in hand.
We do know that Paul traveled to Jerusalem to discuss with Peter the doctrines of his new church, and how they should be applied to gentiles as well as Jews. We can only speculate as to the details of what was discussed during this meeting, but one thing is clear: Peter and Paul had a heated discussion as to just who this new gospel should be preached to, whether gentiles should be included with Jews. Paul returned to Antioch apparently satisfied that he had convinced Peter and James of his point of view.
It is also quite clear that this meeting was one of several (there was at least one other, where Peter was known to have been publicly humiliated by Paul) that must surely have occurred among the early luminaries which took up the general outlines of how proselytizing should be done, how the church should be structured and what doctrines should be promulgated in order to appeal to as many people as possible, and whether they should include gentiles as well as Jews. The reason why was that there was a serious problem: Judaism was under direct threat from Roman persecution of the priestly class (seen as a political threat resulting from the uprising against Roman rule) and a new version of Judaism had to be concocted that would be so appealing that people would want to belong to it, and so captivating that people would not want to abandon it, even in the face of persecution, and be politically inoffensive so as to hopefully escape the attentions of the Roman persecutors. It had to abandon the temple worship since there was no temple anymore, and it had to be able to survive the onslaught of foreign ideas which were widely available, from Roman, Hellene, pagan and oriental sources, not to mention the many attractive mystery religions of the Roman Empire. The result is that the new religion had the features of what in our day is called a meme - an idea that actually behaves like a virus - it infects, reproduces and spreads itself, and most importantly, has the ability to evolve to adapt to fluid circumstances. As a response to Roman persecutions following the failed uprising against Rome, Paul and the other founders of Christianity seem to have set out to create a religion that was flexible enough that it could evolve in this way, so as preserve at least some form of Judaism from the Roman persecutions and do so in the absence of a highly organized priesthood. They succeeded, of course, beyond their wildest hopes, creating a cult that not only survived the Roman persecutions and the diaspora, but would survive, evolve and grow to become one of the world's major religions.
The ideas of Paul, with the contributions of Peter, James, and other early conversants and early bishops, including among others, Ignatius, Barnabas, the author of Hebrews, Clement of Rome and others, apparently communicated back to the local Jesus movements many of which had been converted to the members of the new Christ cult, either as Gnostics or as followers of Ignatius. These local Christ cult converts included the gospel writers, many of whom were inspired to write, at least following in the lead of Ignatias, to take up the cause against the "docetic" heresy of the Gnostics, claiming as it did, that Jesus was a purely spiritual being who never had a physical body, and only "seemed" to be in mortal flesh. Leading the charge against the Gnostics was the first-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch, highly regarded by the church membership and persecuted by the Romans, which of course, only increased the esteem with which he was held. It was his letters, seven of which are widely considered genuine and all of which were written before the canonic gospels, that contain the first references to "the Gospel," to Mary the Virgin, to the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus, to Jesus being the seed of David, and God being his father. It is clear that the rapidly spreading popularity of the Isis cult, with it's virgin mother of God story, was the inspiration for including a virgin birth for Jesus. Ignatius is the first to mention the role of Pilate, giving us our first reference date for Ignatius' physical Jesus to have lived in the first century. It is apparent from a careful reading of Ignatius' letters, in comparison to the canonic gospels and the first-century texts that preceeded them, that the myth of a first-century historical Jesus is quite likely to have originated with Ignatius.
Building upon the myth created by Ignatius, and to make a flesh-and-blood, historical Jesus real to believers and thereby make the docetic heresy untenable, additional myths surrounding the life of Jesus had to be and were liberally borrowed by the gospel writers from the pagan religions that surrounded them, probably because of the appeal these myths clearly had had for the followers of the pagan religions. Everywhere were to be found religions that had as major features one or more of the myths that eventually came to be associated with Jesus. Virtually every story surrounding Jesus, whether it be the virgin birth (borrowed from the myth of the birth of Tammuz, a pagan god from northern Israel who was supposed to have been born of the virgin Myrrha), the miracle stories found in the Bacchus and Isis cults, the betrayal and crucifixion, were part of one or more of the pagan religions of the time. The liberal plagiarizing of these stories from the mystery religions was one of the many embarrassing facts pointed out by Celsus.
Some of the myths were even the result of simple misinterpretations by gospel writers who writing from the Diaspora and who had never even been to Palestine - Nazareth, for example, was not a place name, but simply a corruption of the name "Notzri," with the name not meaning "of the town of Nazareth," but "of the Notzrim," the social reform groups known by scholars today as the Jesus Movements. Nazareth, as a place name, did not even come into existence until Emperor Constantine's mother, searching for the holy sites in Palestine in the fourth century on which to build preservatory basilicas, simply invented the name for a pre-existing village for which only very flimsy evidence tied it to the site of the youth of Jesus. Among the religions of the day incorporating a crucifixion myth, for example, were the mystery religions of Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, and several others. Dionisus, for example, was depicted as being given a crown of ivy, dressed in a purple robe, and was given gall to drink before his crucifixion. The depiction on a Greek vase from the 5th century B.C.E. even shows a communion being prepared. The fact that these stories are today almost exclusively associated with the myth of Jesus of Nazareth, show how both myth and history is often outright expropriated - and even rewritten - by the victors, in their own way.
There were literally dozens of gospels, most of which have been lost to us, but significant numbers survive, not just those included in the canon. Most of the non-canonical gospels are polemics and are easily dismissed, though some (particularly those from the Nag Hammadi library) including especially the Gospel of Thomas, are interesting mostly for what they help us learn of the early church. But because the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are so important to the development of Christianity, we'll examine each of them and the effect they have had on the Christian church. Of particular importance is the Gospel of Thomas, having been written before any of the canonic gospels, and therefore lacking in detail regarding the life of Jesus, but giving us a good overview of some of the more important Gnostic doctrines. By the late second century, the vast library of gospels, most of which contradicted each other to various degrees, led bishop Iraneus to angrily rail against most of them, and argue forcefully that there were only four legitimate gospels, the ones we know today as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. His reasoning might seem a bit obscure to us today - he argued that as there were four elements (earth, water, wind and fire) and there were four cardinal points of the compass (north, south, east and west), so there should be considered only four gospels. Yeah, you know the ones. The Gospel of John was included on his list even though it was clearly a Gnostic gospel, but he included it because it argued against the docetic heresy of the Gnostics, asserting the physicality of Jesus at every possible opportunity. Doing so was a very ecumenical move on Iraneus' part, offering a way into the fold for the Gnostics, if they would just give up their heresy. His successors argued that John should be dropped from the list because it was Gnostic, but they ultimately lost the debate.
The first of the canonic gospels to be written was that of Mark. We don't know much about the author of the Gospel According to Mark, but we do know that the author was a simple man, not highly literate in Greek (for whom it may have been a second language), and not particularly well educated, but a man who was thoroughly steeped in Jewish mythology and religion. Not being particularly well educated, his was a world of superstition, demons, of possession, of miracles and gods of the Roman world, and all these had an effect on how he wrote his gospel. It is also clear that his gospel was greatly influenced by the stories circulating in the Christian community as to just who this Jesus was.
If Jesus existed as depicted in the New Testament, Mark never knew him, but claimed to have been a follower of Peter instead - so much so that his gospel was known for a time as the Petrine gospel. Mark wrote his gospel in Syria for an audience of Roman Christians. Many scholars like to claim that the date of his gospel is about 70 C.E., but there are plenty of reasons to doubt this, mostly the fact that he is quoting many sayings that first appear in the letters of Ignatius, who began writing a bit later - and for that reason, I suspect a date early in the second century is more likely.
The Christians were suffering intense persecution at the time at the hands of Nero who was scapegoating them for the Roman fire and other problems, and so Mark wrote what he hoped would be a gospel to strengthen the Christian community and give it hope in times of trial. In so doing, he wrote a gospel that was long on the suffering of Jesus and those who follow him, and short on temporal salvation. Jesus was mythologized not as a carpenter, but rather as a carpenter's son - a blatant attempt to confer social status, by not relegating him to the status of a simple craftsman, but as someone who rose far above his circumstance, as the Christians were being asked by their leaders to do. Joseph is not mentioned in the story of Jesus' birth, but Jesus is rather referred to as "the son of Mary," a description (being the "son of" a woman) was normally reserved for the illegitimate - so it is clear that Mark is intent on telling what he regards as the truth, even if he has to tell half-truths to achieve his goal. Mark never explains the circumstances of Jesus' birth, but merely says that Jesus came from Nazareth - a misunderstanding of the term "Notzri" - the name by which the Jesus Movements had called themselves until the first half of the first century. Making this mistake was easy, because Mark had doubtless heard that Jesus had been a Notzri, but had apparently not understood what it meant, and assumed it to be a geographical reference. There is nothing in Mark about virgins or wise men or being born in a manger with angels talking to shepherds. This is because as Mark writes, the myths surrounding Jesus' birth had yet to be incorporated into Christian mythology, and Mark has not done so. But other myths of the Christian community, including several of the miracle stories, were included by Mark in his gospel. This is because Mark was a simple man and tended to accept these traditions at face value, and included them because they elevated Jesus in the minds of his readers, an important goal if his audience were to consider the hero of the story to be worth dying for.
The next of the canonized gospels to be written was Matthew. The author of Matthew was a well-educated conservative Jew, trained in the nuances of the Levitic tradition, and was intent on showing the Hebraic world just what Jesus had to offer them. Scholarship has traditionally held that he wrote a decade or so after the Second Temple was destroyed in the abortive Jewish uprising, but he quotes Mark, whose gospel was unlikely to have been written before the beginning of the second century. Matthew was determined to explain to the Jewish world just who Jesus was and to show Judaism that there was an alternative to the Rabbinic tradition that was then developing in the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple; i.e., that salvation through Jesus was possible. It was Matthew's conservatism that was the source of the hellfire and damnation in Fundamentalist Christian conservatism. Indeed, without Matthew in the canon, there would be few other biblical references to it. Matthew had a fire and a passion about him that well outran his qualifications as a scholar of Jewish law. Even though he was well versed in it, the attempt to prove his case by quoting Jewish law proved to be, well, disastrously badly done.
Matthew used as his primary source the gospel of Mark. In doing so, he incorporated many of Mark's myths and added a few of his own, changing bits of the story line here and there to better make the points for his Jewish audience that he was trying to make. For example, to make his case that Jesus was the promised Messiah, he heightened the miraculous and altered the detail, to the point of obvious error. A case in point is the geneology with which he begins his narrative: he deliberately left out detail in order to have seven generations each from Abraham to David and David to the Exile, and the Exile to Jesus. This has left some to suggest that Matthew couldn't count very well, as his geneology conflicts with other genealogies in the Old Testament. If he was aware of these discrepancies, his attempt to deify Jesus for a Jewish audience certainly overruled them.
What Matthew was to the Jews, Luke was to the gentiles. Luke, unlike Matthew, was the consummate scholar. Fluent in Greek, almost certainly a gentile himself, Luke saw the need to write a gospel to explain the new religion to the gentile community, and so he wrote one. Like Matthew before him, he had a copy of Mark and used it liberally, quoting long sections and adding twists of his own to suit his needs.
Above all else, Luke was an evangelist. His mission was to make this Jewish sect a relevant religion for the gentiles who had nowhere else to turn in the search for a strict moral code by which to live. Judaism required circumcision, an obvious disadvantage, and besides, it was a tribal religion whose members tended to view gentile converts with skepticism, if not outright racial discrimination, so all that got short shrift in Luke's gospel.
With the ascent of Domitian to the Roman throne in 81 c.e., the fires of persecution began to be stoked once again, and Luke saw the need to address Roman political concerns by showing that Christianity was simply a natural and harmless outgrowth of the respected Jewish tradition. Hence his address of the document to "The most excellent Theophilus."
Because Luke was writing for an official Roman audience as much as for an audience of prospective gentile converts, he was careful to portray Rome in as good a light as possible. For example, Luke has Herod's soldiers scourging Jesus, not Rome's soldiers as does Mark. The Kingdom of Christ being described by Jesus is proclaimed as being "not of this world," an obvious attempt to assuage Roman suspicions of a conspiracy at work within the bowels of this new cult. There are many other examples, which, like the above, bring this gospel into conflict with the others in Luke's attempt to dress up the story for an official Roman audience.
The last of the four gospels is, of course, the Gospel of John. Though a favorite of the literalists, this anti-authoritarian Gnostic gospel ironically takes great delight in poking fun at literalist authority. Chapters 3, 4, 6 and 8 all have stories in which those who have taken the word literally have been made fun of. John's gospel is skillfully crafted, the work of a true scholar and a deeply religious man, who well understood that myth and meaning are the substance of scripture, not the literality of the words themselves. Who "John" was we are not sure, but some scholars suggest he could have been a disciple of the two Johns of Ephesus, one of which was the John Zebedee spoken of by Mark, or John Zebedee's son. John wrote his gospel in the early to middle years of the second century, fully four to six generations after the events he recorded allegedly had transpired.
John, a Gnostic convert to the ecclesiastical non-docetic point of view, wrote his gospel with an eye to the growing rift between Judaism and Christianity, and sought to heal it by trying to bring the two together. He tried to do so by fashioning a mythology that would be acceptable to both: quoting liberally from respected and appreciated Jewish literature and by incorporating a mythology of Jesus that sought to fulfil Jewish law and prophesy - a gospel that also sought to heal the rift between the Jewish Essene gnosticism, and the ecclesiastical viewpoint. In so doing, John created a gospel that broke so completely with the gospels that proceeded it, that it is directly appealing to the Jews who found themselves uncomfortable with the tightening screws of Jewish orthodoxy that was one of the results of the destruction of the Second Temple. The apocalypic vision of the narrative was meant to appeal to the Jewish sense of destiny as well as Essene apocalypticism while being true to the Christian ideal. Here we have a prophetic Jewish vision in a Christian setting, completing the foundations of later fundamentalist Christian doctrine. The result, along with the book of Acts, believed to have been written by the author of the gospel of Luke, writing this time for a Christian audience, gave us the complete set of myths that are so central to the beliefs of many Christians, particularly fundamentalist Protestants. Unlike Mark, whose mission of Jesus as the Messiah is revealed only at the end of Mark's narrative, here is a Jesus whose very being seems to shout, "I am the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets made flesh." Both the audience and the resulting mythology couldn't have been more different, and of course many factual and contextual conflicts were the result. It made his gospel controversial from the start.
These four gospels, as well as Luke's Acts, were the theological "best sellers" of their day, and with Iraneus' endorsement, had pretty much assured their canonic status by the end of the second century, in spite of the protests of many bishops about the gnosticism of the Gospel of John.
One question remains: if the Essenes are really so widespread and influential as we now know they were, why do we see no references to them in the Gospels and other New Testament works? Good question, and one that is often asked, seldom with satisfactory answers from the apologists. But the answer is simple - there are references to them, lots of references. We know them from the canonic gospels as the Nazarenes - a corruption of the word "Nozrim," by which the Jesus Movements, which sprang from the Essene movement, knew themselves early in the first century. Not citizens of a place (Mark's mistake), but members of a movement. By the time the gospel writers composed their gospels early in the second century, the word was no longer current, hence the mistake was an easy one for an uncultured non-scholar like Mark to make during his mythologizing. Mark, fairly ignorant of history as he was, failed to understand it as a movement, because by the time he was writing, that movement had largely disappeared - through being subsumed into the church. Subseqent Christian writers, knowing no better, never corrected the mistake, but compounded it by entrenching it in their own mythmaking. Once that is understood, it all makes sense.
The Great Heresies of Gnosticism and the
Revisionism of Marcion
140 C.E. to 312 C.E.
Right from Paul's time, the Christ cults grew disputatious, with new ideas and heresies spreading among them like wildfire as each local bishop had his own ideas and sought to see them accepted. The cult became cults as the new "heresies" spread.
By the end of the first century, Romans hungry for a workable moral code began to look to the transforming Jesus movements and Christ cults for a spiritual home. Judaism still had appeal, but required circumcision, an obvious disadvantage. The Christ cults made no such demands. Indeed, membership in the Christ cult was a pleasurable affair, not requiring much in the way of embarrassing ritual and offering much interesting discussion and amiable camaraderie amidst the ritual of the table fellowship, a weekly ritual of the time, involving the community gathering together for a meal and discussion and ritual worship in private among friends.
Soon Christ Cult congregations were spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. They offered, with careful calculation, a way out for the Jews of the Diaspora, who could not accept such as the unabashed gnosticism of Philo of Alexandria, or were too distant from Jerusalem to engage in rabbinical study, or were misinclined to accept local rabbinical authority. And this new series of cults were as open to the gentiles as Judaism was suspicious. Here was a religion all could be a part of, without regard to ethnic origins or circumstances of social status, accidents of birth or location.
But which cult to join? Each local group, under the influence of local bishops had generated its own local traditions and doctrinal ideas, and even local groups splintered as doctrinal disputations arose. Christianity had by now become a significant social force in spite of Roman efforts to stop it; in Asia Minor especially, it had become so common that disputations between the followers of various Christ cults was as common a local pastime as discussion of football is today.
By the end of the first century, the smug confidence of the local bishops in their own ideas was about to be shattered by the very success of the Christ Cults. The doctrinal gulf between various groups calling themselves Christian had grown too great to be ignored, especially between the Gnostic Christians and those respecting the ecclesiastical and doctrinal authority of the bishops. So when intellectuals among these movements began to appear, it became obvious that something needed to be worked out. Finally, Valentinus of Alexandria, Justin of Samaria, Irenaeus (from Asia Minor, but writing from Lyons and a thoroughly loyal Roman), the Gnostic bishop Marcion of Sinope (a small town in Asia Minor), Clement of Alexandria, and a few others all converged on Rome in 140 C.E. with ideas of what Christianity was, that could hardly have been at greater odds. One of the most charismatic of these was Marcion, whose heretical views were supported by many other Gnostics in attendance. Indeed, this charismatic heretic was nearly elected to the papacy.
But the doctrinal gulf was huge, the controversies enormous, and the debate uncompromising. The church was never to be the same again. The firebrand intellectuals brushed aside the watered down ideas of the local bishops and looked at the foundations of the church, to discover that the stones of that foundation, based as they were on the old Jesus Movements, were not sound. So they set about revamping the entire doctrinal basis of the church.
One of the problems as Marcion saw it was that Christians were expected to be loyal to the Jewish god, even though they did not have to keep his law. Marcion's vision of God was as it was taught by Paul, his major influence, where grace was everything for salvation, and a personal relationship with God was the doctrinal authority. God was a god of mercy and compassion, a god for all mankind, not proprietary to a "chosen people."
The Jewish god, according to Marcion, was not worthy of worship. He was to be replaced by Christ, who had revealed the law that Christians should follow, as understood and interpreted by Paul. He was a god of justice and salvation, very unlike the Jewish concept of the angry, fiery, vengeful Jahweh.
By now, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as well as the many others had appeared, written by followers of the new Christ cults, and Marcion brought with him an abbreviated version of Luke, together with ten letters of Paul, to form the first canon of the New Testament. It was the first Christian scripture.
The other intellectuals rejected Marcion's ideas, primarily because they were Gnostic and docetic, and therefore rejected the Apostolic myths of the deeply respected Ignatius outright, and because he pointed out many other unresolved problems left them by the first-century bishops. But even more radical was his flat-out rejection of early "apostolic" writings where it was obvious that the writer did not share the current vision of the physical mission of Jesus as the savior of mankind. One of the intellectuals, Polycarp, called Marcion "the first-born of Satan" and others, especially Tertullian and Justin wrote extensively against his views.
But that opposition did not stop Marcion. He went on a preaching tour that was spectacularly successful, especially in the Eastern half of the empire. Congregations of Gnostic Marcionite Christians were organized in Ephesus, Rome and Pontus in Asia Minor. Even whole villages soon became converts. And the Marcionite church proved to be as durable as it was popular - it survived into the fifth century, in spite of official and papal persecution.
The Marcionite appeal lay in the fact that the doctrine was simple and understandable, but more than that, doable. Even though it had its own share of internal contradictions, it was clearly resonating with the masses, and the other bishops could see that and grew concerned.
By the dawn of the fourth century, the local bishops could no longer rely on their watered-down doctrines for support and authority, and feeling the threat from Gnosticism especially in the form of Marcionism, began to contend with each other regarding doctrine. The bishops of the principal congregations headquartered in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Caesaria, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Carthage proceeded to squabble with each other incessantly. The attempt by the Rome conference to deal with the problem a century and a half earlier, had been a complete failure. Worse, it had spawned the development of the Marcionite church, a movement, regarded as heretical by the bishops, but with broad appeal.
There was such fierce, intractable doctrinal turmoil within the church, it appeared the church was doomed. And with continuing Roman persecution, how could the church survive?
An Unlikely Savior Saves The Church -
And Spawns The Greatest Revision Yet
313 C.E. to appx. 430 C.E.
In 313, Emperor Constantine and his co-emperor Lucinius sent a series of rather flowery letters to their governors, in which they said it was "salutory and most proper" that "complete toleration" be given to anyone who has "given up his mind to the cult of the Christians" or any other cult which "he personally feels best for himself." The Edict of Milan, as this series of letters came to be known, had the effect of legalizing Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The question history has never adequately answered is why the Edict of Milan was issued in the first place, but it was probably due to the growing political power of the Christians of various stripes. Constantine's own wife was a convert (if not born into the church, we don't know for sure), and this was likely a contributing factor.
Emperor Constantine was a deeply superstitious man, but also a consumate politician. He was a practitioner of several religions, trying to keep his religious bases covered, even after his 'conversion.' He was also spectacularly arbitrary and capricious. He sent prisoners of war to the lions, committed wholesale acts of genocide in his campaigns in North Africa, and was known for his overbearing, egotistical, ruthless and self-righteous behavior. His nephew Julian said that his appearance was strange, with stiff effeminate garments of Eastern fashion, jewelry on his arms and it was all set off by a tiara perched on a dyed wig. Constantine apparently viewed Christianity as just one of the many cults of his realm, and he seemed to practice them all, apparently with roughly the same depth of commitment. He wasn't actually baptized until he was on his death bed.
Emperor Constantine, for all his strangeness, was nothing if not a good politician. He understood well the fact that the Christians were becoming so numerous as to represent a considerable political threat should they get their act together and become organized. In 312, a year before the Edict of Milan, he fought the battle of Milvan Bridge, against a rival claimant to the emperor's throne. Among his soldiers were many, if not a majority of Christians and they were already carrying on their swords and shields the Christian Chi-Rho sign. Well, to hear the stories, the heavens opened up, and the Emperor himself had a great vision, including the famous quote from God himself, "In this sign you shall conquer." And he was granted victory in his battle, which proved pivotal in his struggle to consolidate the empire. Rather than a grand vision, it's more likely that he simply looked out on all his soldiers with the power they represented, with so many of them bearing the Chi-Rho symbol on their shields, and he saw the light.
Unfortunately, we don't know what exactly happened at Milvan Bridge, because the dear Emperor kept changing his story and telling different versions of the events to different people. At least six different, contradictory versions have survived from different people who all claimed to have heard it first-hand from the good emperor himself. As he kept telling these conflicting stories, he still apparently remained personally converted to the Mithraic sun-cult common in the Empire at the time. Besides the somewhat dismissive wording of the letters in the Edict of Milan (see above), there is the small matter of the Milvan Arch. As a monument to his victory at Milvan Bridge, some years later, he raised a triumphal arch, which survives to this day. It still bears on it a dedication to the "Unconquered Sun" (a reference to Mithra) and referred to Jesus Christ "driving his [the sun's] chariot across the sky." He commanded the Christians to hold their services on Sun-day, and to commemorate the birth of their savior on December 25 - the birthday of Mithra.
Constantine became the sole Roman emperor in 324, amidst a period of intense squabbling by the various local bishops (not to mention pamphleteering and widespread graffiti campaigns by both sides). So intense were the feelings on both sides of the principal controversy, that civil unrest was being threatened, and Constantine wanted to put a stop to the controversies before it came to that. So he convened the First Council of Nicea the following year. His commandment to the bishops: Get your act together and quit squabbling. Come up with a consistent doctrine that would be universal, i.e.catholic - note the small "c", and could be understood and practiced by all.
The Council of Nicea And The Emperor Dictating Doctrine
Rather than risk Imperial disfavor and banishment from the Empire and almost certain death, the bishops met at Nicea, a small town in Turkey where the emperor owned a lake house on June 19th, 325 C.E. They squabbled and squabbled some more, and were able to come to almost no agreement among themselves. The most important of these controversies is called the "Arian Controversy," by historians, after Arius the Preacher, a bishop who was preaching that Jesus had been real enough, but not divine - rather, merely a great preacher and prophet. The other side of the controversy held that Jesus was the physical incarnation of God himself. This was a dispute over the doctrinal outcome resulting from the suppression of the Docetic Heresy, which gave rise to the physical Jesus myth itself. Basically, the Arian Controversy was a whole series of questions over the relationship of Jesus to God the Father. Now that we have a physical Jesus, was Jesus God? Or was he the son of God? Was he divine? Or was he merely a divine prophet? Did he die and was he resurrected, or was he taken up into heaven? Finally, in exasperation, the emperor himself intervened, and imposed some compromises by direct imperial edict. The principal compromise was simple: Jesus and God the father were of "the same substance" - whatever that meant, but the dear emperor didn't exactly delve into what that actually entailed. But the bishops had little choice but go along with that concept, even if the details were murky to nonexistent. The principal issue being settled, as well as several others, by imperial edict, the bishops went on to hammer out a statement of a few common doctrines (mostly with regard to the date for Easter celebrations, the creation and the nature of the universe, and the first version of the Apostolic Creed), declared themselves in agreement on it - that agreement is now known as the Nicene Creed - and departed totally unconverted to each other's views. So there you have it. Some of the most important of Catholic, even pan-Christian doctrines were the result of the edict of a politician, whose conversion and commitment to Christian ideology itself was highly questionable at best.
Argument and dissension continued for the next six decades with various factions finding themselves in and then out of Imperial favor at various times, in various places and for various reasons, almost all of them political. Athanasius, for example, the actual author of the Nicene Creed, found himself exiled and 'rehabilitated' on no fewer than six separate occasions. It was eventually imperial politics and the wealth of the Roman bishopric, which it shared with the smaller congregations along with instructions for its use, more than theology, that finally governed the form that Christian doctrine and its interpretation would take, as various bishops found themselves in and out of imperial favor at various times. By 430, the council of Nicea, having been frequently reconvened, had become an ongoing affair, designed to stamp out various "heresies" (in particular, Gnosticism as a movement in competition with the Roman church) and create a formal, universal, i.e. catholic church organization, organized in a manner similar to the political structure of the Roman Empire itself.
The Council of Nicea became, in essence, the enforcer of the official, politically correct doctrine, and in essence, the forerunner of the Inquisition. This, along with the influence of the emperor himself, is why the Catholic Church today resembles in its government the government of the Roman Empire of the period. The headquarters of the church was eventually established at Rome, and the head of the church became known as the Pope. New basilicas dotted the landscape, all built with the blessing of the Emperor, and all aligned to the new, imperially blessed, church headquarters in Rome (indeed, the very word "basilica" itself originally meant a building that was the local Roman courthouse and hall of justice). Constantine sent his mother off to Palestine to build basilicas over the sacred sites of the church's early history, and "find" and return with faith-promoting "relics" which of course, local entrepreneurs were happy to produce. The newly established headquarters in Rome set about persecuting the Gnostics (crucifying many of them and sending many others to the lions), and suppressing the Marionite, Arian and other heresies.
In order to popularize the church with the masses, the doctrinal emphasis was changed significantly even when the ideology didn't. These changes were reflected in the art of the Christian church. When early, pre-Constantine Roman Christians met secretly in Rome, the art they produced reflected the pastoral nature of Jesus' teachings - scenes of Jesus feeding the multitudes, blessing the children, and healing the sick were the themes in the art of that period. After the conversion of Constantine, the character of the art suddenly and dramatically changed to reflect the change in doctrinal emphasis. Gone are the sweet, pastoral scenes of a meek Jesus patiently ministering to his humble followers. Instead, images of the crucifixion and the scourging of Jesus in the court of Pilate become common. This was to help the suffering masses identify with Jesus who was said to have suffered on their behalf. The church had became a political instrument -- be patient with your suffering under Roman rule, the masses were told, and a better life for you is prepared for you if you believe in Jesus the Savior. The emperor may not provide good living in this life, but Jesus would in the next. In other words, shut up and suffer quietly.
It is at this time that the Chi Rho and the symbol of the fish, representing the miraculous nature of Jesus' message (at least as formulated by the gospel writers), is replaced by the cross, at the time a symbol of death and suffering, as the almost universal emblem of Christianity. The political message of the new symbol couldn't have been clearer at the time - join up and Jesus will relieve your suffering in the next world even if the Emperor doesn't do so in this. Fail to join, and you're on your own - and the consequences could be dire. For obvious reasons, the new religion spread quickly in far-off corners of the empire that had barely heard of it before.
Creation Of The Bible As We Know It
and Yet Another Revision
320 C.E. to 1330 C.E.
In the midst of all this intellectual turmoil in the church, Constantine gave to Eusebius, the bishop of Caesaria (a Roman port on the coast of modern Israel), a little assignment. Put together some scriptures for the emperor to present to the new churches he was constructing at his new capital of Constantinople in time for his new festival of the resurrection, to be called "Easter." Fifty copies, please.
Eusebius, who was easily the most notorious documentary revisionist of his time, thoughtfully complied. We do not know which books of the hundreds available that he supplied the emperor, nor how much he revised them (since many are not known from texts earlier than Eusebius), but we do know that Eusebius realized that it was only a matter of time before the "inspired oracles" as he called them, would have to be gathered together for Christians to study in common worldwide in the form of a scriptural library, a bible. We also know that Eusebius was deeply worried about the contradictions they contained and the political dynamite that could ensue should those contradictions become a matter of dispute among the masses, or, far worse, in the mind of the Emperor. We do know that Eusebius did, in fact, make extensive modifications of the works he was concerned about, as we have a few earlier texts with which to compare some of his work. As correlation and standardization were the orders of the day (under the less-than-gentle hand of the Council of Nicea), Eusebius could clearly see a very Imperial problem was brewing, and was determined to head it off if he could. Eusebius' revisionism is particularly unfortunate for modern scholars, in that the only versions we have of many early Christian documents are ones known to have passed through his scrutiny.
Everyone had their list of favorite books and letters; the various factions, with headquarters in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Caesaria, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Carthage all had their own ideas as to what was or should be scripture. And they certainly didn't agree, in spite of the heavy hand of the Council of Nicea. Eventually, after the split with Rome, the compilation of Eusebius was to become the standard bible of the Eastern church. No doubt on his mind was the docetic heresy of the Marcionites, still a thorn in the side of the Roman as well as Eastern churches. The strongly anti-docetic message of the four gospels favored by Iraneus no doubt played a role in their inclusion.
We're not quite sure how the task of compiling and translating a bible for the Roman, or Western church fell to Bishop Jerome of Dalmatia (340-420 C.E.), a few decades later, though imperial politics quite likely played a role. Jerome was highly educated and had devoted his life to the study and translation of scripture. He was a deeply devout adherent to the Roman faction, and the fact that the Roman church was wealthy and influential probably had something to do with his being the choice, since he had spent years in the cause of translating scripture into Latin and standardizing what are now New Testament texts for the benefit of the Roman church at the request of Damasus, the bishop of Rome. We can presume from the politics here that this certainly colored his choices.
Melito of Sardis, one of the disputants at that infamous Council of Rome of 140 C.E. that had spawned the Marcionite Church, had compiled a list of Hebrew scriptures that Jerome is known to have much admired. Yet Augustine, himself a rather nasty piece of work (the first known advocate of forced conversion and forced celibacy, among other things) and a man of doubtful ecclesiastical credentials, intervened and convinced Jerome to include works on a list compiled by himself (Augustine), which was similar to one compiled by Athanasius, the author of the first Apostolic Creed. We don't know all the intrigues which convinced Jerome to accede, but some were almost certain to have been political, with Eusebius' earlier imperial commission among them. Jerome's choice of New Testament works was governed by his choices in the works he'd already translated and standardized for Damasus at Rome.
Jerome's compilation and translation into Latin became known as the Vulgate (popular [language]) Bible. It was to become the standard Bible of the Roman Catholic church till the sixteenth century. It is still available, published by the Catholic Church in the original Latin, and as the Douai Version, one of the numerous English translations of the Vulgate Bible to appear in the 16th century as noted below.
After the death of Constantine, subsequent emperors, including Constantine's son, attempted to stamp out the Christian cult, but under Constantine's rule, it had become too entrenched, and too powerful and popular to be readily suppressed. The power of the papacy increased with the decline of the Roman imperium as Roman rule was being challenged on all sides - the Vandals, arriving by sea from Scandinavia sacked Roman ports in the western Meditteranean, and the Huns, sweeping in from the northeast, undermined Roman power slowly but steadily and brutally. The previously peaceful, agrarian Goths, who had been displaced by the Huns and had asked for asylum from the Roman emperor, had been betrayed with enslavement and conscription in the Roman army instead of being given the food and land they had been promised, and quickly rose in revolt, turning on the Romans, adding to the pressure, and finally sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. The myth of Roman invincibility was shattered by the sacking, and Roman power and prestige would never recover.
By the middle of the Fifth Century, the Huns themselves threatened to sack Rome, but Roman military power had declined to the point where Pope Leo Magnus felt himself forced to intercede with Atilla, the powerful Hun leader. Totally unarmed, dressed in his papal vestments, he met with Atilla in what is now northern Italy and persuaded him that the power of God would strike him and his troops down if the sacking took place. Atilla's troops, never before exposed to malaria, had no immunity and had already begun to suffer. As they moved south into warmer weather, the malaria endemic to the region began to take its toll, and not knowing what had hit him and his troops, Atilla apparently began to take the Pope's threat seriously. In the end, Atilla was brought down by the humble mosquito, but it was God who got the credit, and the disgraced Roman emperors, impotent and cowardly in the face of the threat, sort of just skulked out of town and the pope, seeing an unrivaled opportunity, scooted over into their seat. After sacking Rome, the Goths assumed power in the provinces as the Christianized Visigoths until displaced by the rising Islamic caliphates in Spain and Constantinople two centuries on - but it was the pope who permanently remained the center of political power in Rome itself.
The pope, the new political ruler by default of what was left of the Roman Empire, set about strengthening the church, converting the pagans and Christianizing Europe to consolidate his power and that of the church, while the political entity known as the Roman Empire slowly crumbled away. The process, interrupted occasionally by various wars and rebellions, proceeded apace for the next two centuries.
While the Latin bible was widely available for those who could afford a copy, Latin as a spoken, understood language eventually began to die out among the peoples of what had been the Roman Empire. So, with that dying out, access to the bible by the common man died out as well, for bibles were available in Latin, but were not being translated into the rapidly diverging local languages. The church eventually exploited this situation by making the reading of the Bible by the common man a crime, at times even punishable by death. This law was intended to enhance the local power of the priesthood.
And enhance that power it did. Not only did they have the political power of Constantine's legacy behind them, the priesthood also now held the keys to the church in their hands, both figuratively and literally. They couldn't have been more happy with that situation. They could often engage in acts of cruelty, repression or corruption and not be called to account by an ignorant and often superstitious congregation. Rebellions against the authority of the pope, including the Cathar Church, a rival to Catholicism which appeared in France, were ruthlessly put down. But power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and with it, the power of the papacy became ruthless and eventually, absolutely corrupt. Various popes engaged in behaviors that could only be described as scandalously immoral and unethical, and there are even persistent (if unproven) rumors that one pope was actually a cross-dressing woman, who actually gave birth to a son while on a papal precession. The son born of "Pope Joan" is alleged to have gone on to become a cardinal himself. While the story is almost certainly mythical, the very fact that it was widely accepted unquestioningly by Catholics themselves for a long time, exemplifies the sordid state of corruption into which the papacy had sunk.
But in spite of the papal decree against doing so, there were occasional attempts made to get at least small portions of the scripture into the hands of the masses, mostly in a vain attempt to reform the church.
The first attempts at an Old English translation appear with Aldhelm, who in 709 published an Anglo-Saxon translation of Psalms, and the Venerable Bede, who is said to have finished a translation of the Gospel of John on his deathbed 26 years later. Unfortunately, the latter translation has not survived.
The Protestant Revision and the English Bibles
1330 to 1611
In the 13th and 14th centuries, translations of Psalms appeared by William of Shoreham and Richard Rolle, in Middle English. Their popular translations would plant the seeds for the struggle to come to break the stranglehold of the clergy and put the Bible in the hands of the lay people.
John Wycliffe (1330-1384) was repulsed by papal corruption and its demands on the English for money. A true man of the people, he decided that the best way to cop a snook at the Pope would be to publish the Bible in English. By the time of his death, the translation from the Vulgate was done, and John Purvey, a close associate, thoroughly revised and 'corrected' it, with a view to publishing it. It became the first and was the only English-language bible till the 16th century.
A scholar by the name of William Tyndale had the ambition of translating into English the entire bible, not from the Vulgate, but from the original Greek and Hebrew. This became his life's work. Tyndale learned his Greek from Erasmus. His study of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus probably influenced his later work.
Because the Roman Catholic church opposed his translation of the Bible into English, Tyndale was forced to leave England for Germany in 1524. For the next two years, staying one step ahead of Papal persecution, he managed to complete his first translation of the New Testament, which was then printed and smuggled into England and snapped up by an eager public.
Tyndale worked for years on his Hebrew translations of the Old Testament, finally completing them in 1534 and revising his New Testament in 1535. While not as violently opposed as were the earlier works, he was still betrayed by the Romanists, and was strangled and burned at the stake after months in prison in 1536. His last words were reputedly, "Lord, please open the King of England's eyes!"
King Henry VIII was the first English king to ask that a bible be placed in the hands of the common man. His motive was also likely to have been to cop a snook at the Pope in Rome, as a result of the fact that the Pope had refused to grant him a divorce. The bible chosen was The Great Bible, a work edited by the less-than-scholarly Miles Coverdale. Coverdale was an associate of Tyndale, and his Bible was the first to be an officially approved bible in English. Coverdale was no scholar, but had based much of his work on that of Tyndale who was. A flood of translations and revisions followed, the most notable being the Rogers bible appeared in 1537 and the Taverner's Bible in 1539.
Yet it was another bible was to become the family Bible. Called the Geneva Bible, because it was cheaply mass produced in Geneva, Switzerland, it was a decidedly one-sided translation favoring the views of the notorious French religious tyrant of that city, John Calvin. It had but one virtue - it was cheap, and could thus be afforded by the masses. It became popularly known as the "breeches bible" because of Genesis 3:7, where Adam and Eve "sewed figge leaves together and made themselves breeches."
The King James Version
1604 to the present
In 1604, King James of England called a conference at Hampton Court. In attendance were 47 scholars and clerics. The agenda was to organize the production of a bible that would satisfy the needs of all -- the clergy, the king, the common man. An ambitious goal, considering the widely disparate points of view each with a political investment.
The King James Version first appeared in 1611. Though the frontispiece written by the conference declares it to be a new translation, that's not really what it was. In fact, it was a revision of the Bishop's Bible of 1602, which itself was a revision of the Bishop's Bible of 1568, which was a revision of Coverdale's less than scholarly Great Bible, which was a rewrite of the Tyndale and Wycliffe bibles which themselves had been translated on the run.
The King James Version did not gain immediate acceptance. It took a half century to displace the bibles that came before it, especially the Great Bible from which it was descendant, and the notorious Geneva bible of the masses which influenced it.
Yet it retains much of the beautiful English prose of the Tyndale and Wycliffe bibles, and hence its enduring popularity. The spectacular quality of its prose, not the accuracy of its translation, is why it endures. Consider the following translations of the same passage from Matthew 6:28-29, first from the King James Version, then the popular "Good News Bible" and finally from what I consider to be the translation most faithful to the original Greek, the Richmond Lattimore translation:
King James Version of 1611: "Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they do not toil, neither do they spin, yet I say unto you that even Solomon, in all his glory, was never arrayed like one of these."
Good News Bible (American Bible Society, 1976): "And why worry about clothes? Look how the wild flowers grow, they do not work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that not even King Solomon, with all his wealth had not clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers."
Richmond Lattimore Translation (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996): And why do you take thought about clothing? Study the lilies of the field, how they grow. They do not toil or spin, yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these."
Which is the more accurate translation? The scholars will have to decide, but the beauty of the KJV's language and the power of its prose has seldom been equaled in English literature. The power of Tyndale's and Wycliffe's prose has been called some of the best in all of English literature.
So this is one the principle reasons, that for all its faults, the King James Version endures. It sounds like scripture. It truly sounds like it could have the authority of God whether in reality it does or not. As we've seen, prose aside, the legacy of its creation alone is enough to question its authority as scripture. But it just sounds so good!
How Objective Are The Translations, Anyway?
The short answer is not very. The Geneva bible, which through its sheer popularity greatly influenced what we have today, was a blatant piece of propaganda, pushed by the 'religious' tyrant, John Calvin. Other bibles, which also influenced what is now regarded as scripture, were written with clear points of view in mind, just as modern translations are now being done by theologians who come to the work with a religious axe to grind.
I've finally found a translation of the New Testament that is scholarly objective and complete, though necessarily without the flowery prose. You can find a link to it at the bottom of this page. I recommend it for anyone who is serious about knowing what at least the Gospels really have to say. It is the Richard Lattimore translation.
A point of pride among nearly all Christian theologians is that they feel the Bible, in whatever version they're talking about, appears to be reliably translated. Yet as we have seen, the writers of the original documents that became source material for the bible often picked up and revised earlier material, and in turn, their work was revised, often again and again. Then the translations were done and yet more revisions made, always with religious and political axes to grind in the process.
Well, if the bibles that Christian theologians use are reliably translated, there remain errors, then, with the source documents. The bible is fairly riddled with errors and contradictions, and not all of them are mistranslations, deliberate or otherwise. In fact, in response to the Christian fundamentalists who read this document and criticise it claiming that the book has come through the process described above still perfect, I've written an analysis of some of the more glaring errors and contradictions in the Bible. These are errors and contradictions in the bible that are simply not resolvable in any resonable way, even by resorting to magic and miracles. They're just plain impossibilities. As always, I welcome the fundamentalist's response, and have made room in that document for reasonable and logical alternative arguments to what the secularist will consider to be obvious. You'll note how few I've recieved.
How Reliable Is The Bible As A Source Of Guidance?
If not translated and edited properly, and full of obvious errors and logical contradictions, how reliable can the bible really be as a source of guidance?
The bible suffers from four problems in this regard. First, we can't know that what we are reading are words that convey the meaning the original writers intended, because the original texts are long lost, and the best we have for most of these documents are many generations removed from the originals. That problem has been the subject of this essay, and by now it should be very clear that after the multitudinous revisions, translations and editing by at least the 150 people who produced what we now call the Bible, there's way too much room for error to safely claim that it is error free.
The second problem from which the Bible suffers is the doctrinal content of the Bible itself. As Shakespeare observed, the Bible can be made to advocate anything you desire. Want a blatant, wrathful, vengeful god, zapping everything and everyone who doesn't stay out of His way, demanding genocide, infanticide and even slavery? Exodus is the book for you. Want a harsh, strict, angry, meanspirited code for living? Can't do better than Leviticus. Want a quiet, subtle, unknowable god who seldom intervenes but can be known only by sincere prayer and soulful supplication, who is kindly, gentle and forgiving? If so, Paul has written the scriptures you want. It's all there in the same book.
The third problem is that the Bible has many contradictions and errors in it, not just of obvious facts, but of doctrine as well. This is one reason why Shakespeare was so right. If you want to justify the dashing out of brains of infants against the stones, you can find justification for it in the injuctions of God in the bible. If on the other hand, you want to justify a ban on abortion, you can find it there too. So which is it? Of course that has to be a matter of personal interpretation, and any fundamentalist who argues otherwise simply isn't reading his Bible. One has to interpret matters of doctrine for himself, because the Bible is so often directly contradictory on matters of doctrine.
A fourth problem relates to the Bible but is not of it. And that is the problem of interpretation. The same passage of the same book of the same translation of the Bible can mean entirely different things to people of different religious backgrounds. It can mean entirely unrelated things to the Mormon, to the Southern Baptist, to the Seventh Day Adventist and to the Guatemalan Catholic as well as to the African Pentacostal. Who is right? Is anyone right? Who knows? How can anyone resolve such conflicts?
The Bible and Christianity in the Modern World
This brings up the question of the relevance of the Bible and Christianity in the modern world. it's easy to see, if one takes the trouble to look, that Christianity and belief in the Bible in the modern world are most successful in the more impoverished regions of the world, or where education is failing or has failed to raise standards of living and provide a sense of understanding and self worth.
In America, contrary to what Christians themselves believe, Christianity has always been a minority religion. From its low point at the American Revolution (19%) to its high-water mark today (49%), Christianity in America is often cited as the font of American civilization and culture. Yet this is contradicted by the fact that even though the number of converts is increasing, largely as a result of the decline of public education, the cultural influence of Christianity continues to decline. People continue to think for themselves, and it is the widespread contact with a variety of ideas and values is responsible for this trend in America.
In Europe, the scene of so much Christianity-inspired bloodletting and persecution in recent centuries, Christian influence has declined to the point that scholars refer to the current day as the "post-Christian era." In most countries of Europe, weekly church attendance has declined to low single-digit percentages. Only in Russia, suffering from the collapsing economy and educational system caused by the ill-concieved structural readjustments of the transition from Communism, is Christianity making headway, alongside New Age movements and cults based on eastern philosoply and religions.
The main regions where Christianity is gaining serious ground is in the impoverished nations of South Asia and Africa, where modern transportation and communications are beginning to reduce the cost of evangelical missionary work. The impoverished villages of India and Africa are the places where Christianity is seeing its most successful efforts at expansion. Where values of the 19th century still live, Christianity still flourishes.
To base one's religion on a scripture as deeply suspect as the Bible, and declare it to be absolutely inerrant and reliable, is to build one's religion on what is clearly a foundation of sand.
If the lessons of recent Biblical scholarship mean anything, it is that the history of Christianity and the Bible it spawned is a very messy one that seriously calls into question the divinity, if not the validity of the message. To deny that fact is to simply deny reality.
Yet many people continue to do just that, even in the face of evidence that they and the religion they support are clearly wrong in holding that the origins of Christianity are divine and unsullied by human politics, greed and arrogance.
It can only be said that doing so is to display a form of ignorance. What then of the fundamentalist groups that do so, loudly and insistently? Clearly, they believe what they believe, not because it is true, but for other, less sound reasons, the primary reason being that the truth requires the painful admission that they are wrong.
In related essays, I have written of the the many basic errors of fundamentalism, and the virulence of Christianity as a meme complex. Clearly, believing because they want to believe, not because it is true, Christians around the world are making these fundamental errors. It is a sure prescription for ignorance, not wisdom.
What I have written in this essay is a summary of authenticated fact. It is fact gathered not by those seeking evidence to support a theory, as religionists too often do, but rather as scientists do, by gathering the evidence together and seeing what theories that evidence suggests.
It is the latter process, a dedication to the truth, that enables human progress. This is because humility is the basis of all intellectual advancement, spiritual or scientific. The ability to admit that you are wrong is the absolute prerequisite to gaining understanding. The presumption that the answer is revealed, and must then be supported by seeking evidence, is a sure way to lead civilization down the blind alley of arrogant egotism and the institutionalized error that prevented the Catholic church from acknowledging for three centuries that it was wrong to punish Galileo for defying the pope in publishing the Dialog, when Galileo was right about the sun being the center of the solar system and everyone who read the book knew it. That is the position in which the dogmatic Christian now finds himself. It is up to the Christian to be honest with himself as to what this means for his faith. Believe what you want to believe, because it is what you have heard all your life, or accept what is real, regardless of how painful that may be.
Source URL: http://www.bidstrup.com/bible.htm
"Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."- Diderot