Welcome to the latest in the exclusive posts written by Paul Andruss for the blog. We are accustomed to Paul’s skill in deconstructing the myths and legends of real and other worldly beings and today he covers one of the most controversial legends of them all!
Portrait of Christ from the Book of Kells
(Paleographically dated to 600-800 AD)
Now this is trickier than getting your keys out of a bag of rattlesnakes.
And before you get on the blower to the Pope in Rome demanding the first fatwa in Catholic history, this ain’t about who He was or even if He was. I’m only examining the evidence. Even if I wanted, I couldn’t change your mind; not by one scintilla, jot or iota. What you believe is down to you.
The New Testament consists of:
4 Gospels – considered, by the faithful, eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life. And Acts of the Apostles, a companion volume to Luke’s Gospel, recording the history of the early church after the crucifixion of 30 AD. It is believed they were written 65-120 AD. But not by the people whose names they bear. Because it has a different viewpoint, John was thought written much later, until a fragment of it, uncovered in Egypt, forced scholars to rethink John’s date to around 100 AD.
Because many Church Fathers disputed St John wrote Revelation, it was almost not included in the New Testament. It is dated to 60-100 AD.
There are letters (epistles) by St Paul, some more genuine than others; by Jesus’s brothers, ‘according to the flesh’, James and Jude; St Peter and St John. Church historians believe Paul’s letters, written between 50 and 60 AD, are the earliest church documents.
So far so good…
Except, we don’t have any original documents, only copies of copies of copies removed by hundreds of years, and with centuries of errors.
Passages from the New Testament were quoted around 100-150 AD, but those documents are now lost. All we have are quotes from writers living a couple of hundred years after the original authors. This is a problem. Without source documents we don’t know if the quotes were ‘corrected’. For some quotes sound similar but are not as they appear in the Gospels. And there are different versions of Gospels around today.
We don’t know how old the oldest extant documents are. None are radiocarbon dated. Radiocarbon-dating of small samples could give dates within 50 years. Yet dates are still assigned through the traditional method of palaeography: the study of ancient handwriting. This technique, around since Erasmus in the 1510s examined Vaticanus, dates the time of writing by how the handwriting looks.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were radiocarbon dated they were found to be older than estimates based on palaeography. This did not suit Church historians who argued for a date later than Christianity because the Dead Sea Scrolls uncomfortably contained unique Christian ideas.
Dating documents through palaeography seems odd, especially in light of the Turin Shroud. For centuries people argued it was Christ’s burial cloth until it was radiocarbon dated to the Middle-Ages. Even then many ‘experts’ swore the radiocarbon dates were wrong.
Churches have always sponsored biblical scholarship. So while scholars disagreed with each other, they were not prepared to jeopardise their careers by trashing hundreds of years of established ‘evidence’. In a way it is a bit like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin without ever asking if angels exist.
In the 20th century, secular historians argued Jesus never lived at all; pointing out:
- Many pagan gods had virgin births.
- The Greek word translated as ‘virgin’ only means ‘young woman’.
- The word for Joseph’s profession ‘carpenter’ means ‘scholar’.
- Herod was dead when Jesus was born.
- There is no evidence the slaughter of the innocents ever happened.
- Nazareth is not in an ancient list of towns.
- Nazoreans were Jewish mystics who took vows of celibacy and denial.
- The Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the meek etc.) belongs to Jesus ben Sira who lived 50 years before Christ.
- The crucifixion narrative can be constructed from Old Testament quotes concerning the messiah.
- St Paul and the early Church Fathers talk about Christ the Son of God but never Jesus the man.
- The gospels have a shaky grasp of verifiable historical events and do not know the geography of Israel.
The English word Gospel comes from the Greek ‘Evangelion’ meaning ‘Good News’. It first appeared on a peace proclamation when Augustus became Emperor at the end of the Roman Civil Wars 30 years before the birth of Jesus.
Early Church Fathers do not mention Gospels. Some speak of ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ but do not give names or details. St Clement’s letter, thought to be written 40 years after Clement died, says Peter’s disciple Mark wrote down the saint’s favourite quotes from Jesus; after Peter’s martyrdom around 50 AD. The word Clement uses means pithy sayings. He makes no reference to a Gospel.
It is believed the synoptic (one-vision) Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written 65-120 AD. While largely similar they do not exactly correspond with each other. John differs widely from the others, even down to the day of the crucifixion and who witnessed it. Because of this, John was considered the last one written; until that pesky fragment turned up. Now it’s the earliest document we have. Arguments still rage over the fragment’s palaeographic date.
Mark, deemed the first (and shortest) gospel, influenced Matthew and Luke. Early fragments are paleographically dated to 250 AD. Earliest fragments of Matthew are paleographically dated to 175-250. Fragments of Luke and Acts are paleographically dated 150 -200.
In 1958 a document was found dating to 1646. It quotes a passage from an early Church Father about a Secret Gospel of Mark, presenting Christianity as a mystery cult focusing on resurrection and initiation. Mark in both Sinaiticus and Vaticanus ends abruptly without mentioning the resurrection. In Vaticanus the rest of the page is left blank. In modern versions we have a various longer endings for Mark.
Many believe the original Matthew was the lost Ebonite or Hebrew Gospel. Quotes from the Church Father Papias show his version of Matthew is not the one we have today.
There is evidence the Gospel used by the heretic Marcion influenced Luke. Acts divides into the early history of the church in Jerusalem, Paul’s conversion and mission to the Gentiles; then abruptly shifts to a first person plural (we) narrative for long passages. This suggests different documents were collated.
15 other books detailing the acts of individual apostles never made it into the New Testament.
The earliest copies of the New Testament are the Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. (A codex is a book, not the usual Greek and Roman scroll.) Some think they belong to the 50 copies of the Bible the Emperor Constantine ordered, around 350 AD, for his new churches in his new city of Constantinople, when he legalised Christianity. If so they were written some 320 years after the crucifixion.
No one knows anything about the Codex Vaticanus until it turns up in the Vatican Library in 1475. It is a myth the Vatican Library hides all sorts of ancient documents. Rome was looted and burned so many times it is doubtful anything survived. It was due to a lack of books Pope Nicholas V spent a fortune founding the Vatican Library in 1448.
Sinaiticus was found in St Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai desert in the 1850s.
Although large parts are missing, it is the most complete early text in existence. It contains books excluded from the New Testament by the council of Bishops in 350. These include some of the oldest Christian writings such as the Letter of Clement, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermes: early books of church lore.
When it was found churchmen denounced Sinaiticus because it varied so much from Vaticanus. There are 3036 differences between the two gospel texts, not counting scribal errors. Experts say it is easier to find 2 consecutive verses that differ than agree. Perhaps this means there was not one version of the Gospels even then.
Christianity was fragmented right from the start. Something the church was reluctant to admit. 200 years after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, Christians were still killing each other over whether Jesus was God or similar to God!
A century after the crucifixion an early Church Father insisted there were only 4 gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, because there were 4 winds and 4 pillars of the earth. Yet he knew more gospels existed: Gospels of the Hebrews, Ebonites and Nazarenes – Jewish Christian sects believing Jesus was the Jewish Messiah; the anti-Jewish Gospel of Marcion; the Gospel of Peter that said Christ felt no pain when crucified and did not die, but was ‘taken-up’. Shocking as it sounds this may be the earliest account of the crucifixion.
These biographical gospels vanished when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire; probably because they did not toe the official line. Today they are mainly known from later writers quoting early Church Fathers condemning them as heresy and giving scraps as examples. Recent finds of papyrus fragments in the Middle East show there were other gospels telling Jesus’ story. They are similar to known gospels, but not from them.
There were Gospels of Thomas, Wisdom of Christ, Mary Magdalen and Philip, which only listed Jesus’ sayings. These were lost until a cache was discovered buried in the Egyptian sands at Nag Hamadi. The Gospel of Philip is famous because Dan Brown seized on a line in the Da Vinci Code: Jesus often kissed Mary on the… and here there is a hole in the parchment.
The Letters, or Epistles, of the New Testament throw little light on Christian history. James ignores the fact it is written by Jesus’ brother and gives a sermon on why Christians should be Jews. Jude claims he is James’ brother but not Jesus’ and is another sermon.
Peter comforts a persecuted group. Two of John letters are sermons and the third a short note warning against a heretic. All are believed written after the authors died.
Paul letters are mainly exhortations not to slip into heresy. 7 of them are considered genuine because they confirm incidents in his life quoted in the Acts of the Apostles and bear his name, 2 are undecided and 4 false. There is no supporting evidence for the 7 genuine letters other than writers quoting earlier authors.
Many books about the early Christian period (including Roman historians like Tacitus) went missing after Christianity became the official religion. Some went missing in the last few centuries. This led some historians to claim the Church was rewriting its past. After all, history is written by the winners.
Until something changes, like better dates, more discoveries or even a new way of thinking about early Christianity, we might never know the Gospel Truth.
About Paul Andruss
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul Andruss is the author of 2 contrasting fantasy novels
Thomas the Rhymer – a magical fantasy for ages 11 to adult about a boy attempting to save fairy Thomas the Rhymer, while trying to rescue his brother from a selfish fairy queen.
Finn Mac Cool – rude, crude and funny, explicitly sexual and disturbingly violent, Finn Mac Cool is strictly for adults only.
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