Archive for the ‘Christian History’ Category

The Dead Sea Scrolls

10/13/2010 2 comments

This Thursday I will have the honor to be in the presence of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Science Museum of Minnesota has been offering the exhibit since April and I will finally get to feast my eyes on these tasty pieces of history. As these scrolls rarely leave Israel, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. For those who don’t know, the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be among the most important archeological finds of the 20th century. Prior to their discovery, historians interested in Second Temple Judaism (the period just prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and ending with the destruction of The Second Temple in 70 C.E.) were primarily dependent upon a few Jewish and Roman sources. With the finding of the scrolls in the 1940’s and 1950’s in a series of caves in Qumran, Israel (a small region just East of Jerusalem along The Dead Sea), scholars were given access to a plethora of pasty, worn, crumbled documents that have since significantly increased our knowledge about the Hebrew Bible and about the vast diversity that existed at the time between the various Jewish sects. And while they give us little to no specific insight into the life of Jesus or the beginnings of Christianity, they do paint a vivid picture of the world that gave birth to that revolution, and as such, allows us to better place it in its wider context.

The Gospel of Thomas: Gnosticism or Early Christian Mysticism?

Link to an article in the recent issue of BAR:

What’s Up with the Gospel of Thomas by April DeConick


The type of religiosity found in the Gospel of Thomas is not all that unusual. You can find references to it in Biblical and nonbiblical literature. It is nothing more than an early Christian expression of mysticism that developed out of an earlier, apocalyptically oriented Christianity that wished for the immediate end of the world. When the end didn’t happen, the Christians were forced to rethink and rewrite their cherished apocalyptic teachings…

We can even locate this mystical form of Christianity historically. It is a form that developed in eastern Syria in the late first and early second centuries, a form of Christianity that was an heir to early Jewish mystical traditions and a precursor to later Eastern Orthodoxy. I think that Thomas’s “place” in early Christianity was misidentified originally not because it represents a type of Christianity unfamiliar to the canonical tradition or deviant from it. The Gospel of Thomas was wrongly identified at first because Western theological interests controlled its interpretation within a Western Christian framework that could not explain its unfamiliar, mystical structure. Yet we now know—in part from manuscript discoveries like the Nag Hammadi collection—that there was a multiplicity of groups, beliefs and traditions in the diverse early Christian communities. Scholars who misunderstood the Gospel of Thomas mislabeled it as Gnostic in order to lump it together with other traditions they thought to be strange, heretical and late.

The Conservative Bible?

So apparently Conservapedia has decided to construct their own version of the Bible. Their argument and motivation for doing this goes something like this. Bible translators are, by and large, university professors. The majority of university professors are political liberals. Therefore, the Bible has been shaped over the years by politically liberal attitudes. The aim of Conservapedia then is to combat this liberal influence by constructing a more conservative-oriented translation.

Those not familiar with the issues involved in biblical translation might wonder how translators could shape the text in such a way so as to promote their own political agendas. So let me address a couple of those issues that translators face and where Conservapedia thinks they have gone wrong.

First, there is the problem of deciding which English words to use in place of their Greek or Hebrew (original) counterparts. This is a problem any translator faces of any text, whether they are translating Spanish to German, German to Greek, or Greek to English. Conservapedia blames “defective” Bible translations for using various liberal-biased wordings. For instance, instead of combating harmful addictions by using the word “gamble,” some translations use “cast lots.” This and various other changes of a similar sort are unconvincing, however. For one, it is not the job of a translator to combat addictions. For two, if the purpose of using “gamble” instead of “cast lots” is to combat addictions, that is clear evidence that one’s language choice is based upon the promotion of a particular contemporary agenda. Thus, far from solving the problem that they set out to solve, Conservapedia is actually just adding to it. And third, would the use of “gamble” really help combat addictions? If we replaced “cast lots” with “gambling,” this would seem to promote rather than condemn gambling in light of the fact that the people of God do this quite frequently in the OT.

Another “corruption” said to be contained within some modern translations involves the usage of gender inclusive language, such as “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers” or “fisher for people” instead of “fisher for men.” (One might wonder why Conservapedia would so readily admit that the fight for gender equality that lies behind the decision to use gender-inclusive language was and is a fight instigated by liberals). For my part, I have no problem with including or excluding gender-inclusive language. Excluding it is certainly more faithful to a literal translation of the text, but then again, including it doesn’t affect much of anything, especially if the translators make note of when they are using it (as any good study Bible does). I should also mention here that Paul often uses “brothers” when referring to his congregations. But even he likely means “brother and sisters” seeing as he taught equality between the sexes in all facets of life. So in these instances, the gender-inclusive language is probably a more accurate rendering.

The second problem translators face is the problem of deciding what the original biblical manuscripts actually contained. For instance, we have over five thousand different NT manuscripts, some consisting of entire books, others consisting of small, hand-sized fragments. The problem is that these manuscripts are not the originals but copies of copies of copies, and so on. To compound the problem, these manuscripts do not agree with one another. When scribes copied these manuscripts, they often made unintentional mistakes and intentional changes. Translators have the difficult task of looking through all of these manuscripts and attempting to determine what the originals looked like and what later scribes added or subtracted. So when creating modern Bible translations, the translators have to make a decision whether or not to include a number of disputed passages. Any respectable Bible (usually study bibles) will always footnote or bracket the disputed passages.

Conservapedia’s claim is that liberal scholars encourage some of these disputed passages by including them in their translations. To use an example cited by Conservapedia, Luke 23:34a is a quote by Jesus that he says while looking down upon the crowd from the cross. The words are well known: “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This passage, they claim, is disputed and not found in some of our earliest manuscripts. That is true. But they then go on to claim that this passage is a favorite among liberals but don’t cite any evidence for this being the case or for why this would even be the case. Presumably, this is a favorite among liberals because it seems to support the view that people are ignorant of their evil deeds and should therefore be shown mercy and perhaps given a second chance. Of course, this is just silly. If liberals want to support that view using the Bible, they have plenty of other undisputed verses to choose from, many of them coming from the same author of the book of Luke. (cf. Acts 3:17; 7:60; 13:27; 17:30 for other instances of pardonable ignorance. It should be noted that the theme of pardonable ignorance found in Acts and the general character of Jesus found in Luke are actually arguments in favor of the authenticity of Luke 23:34a. Not to mention, this passage is found in some of our early manuscripts and may just as likely have been deleted by later scribes as it was added).

In any event, why is Conservapedia combating what they see as a form of deception (including disputed passages) by using a form of their own (not including the disputed passages)? Why not do what most study bibles do with disputed passages: mark them with a footnote or bracket and tell the reader that this or that passage is disputed?

One of the major problems of this entire project is the fact that it is not conducted by learned scholars who have worked with these various manuscripts for decades, who have studied the required ancient languages for decades, and who have conversed with one another for decades. Rather, this is a project conducted purely by amateurs: amateurs who will have to construct their newly revised conservative translation either by relying on the very English translations that they despise (which would be ironic) or by heavily utilizing Strong’s concordance.

As Timothy Paul Jones—professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky—put it, this is merely a misguided effort to read contemporary politics back into the text by a group of individuals “who have probably never looked at an actual ancient manuscript.”




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Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (Birth of Jesus)

This will be my last example (at least for now) as to why historians think that the NT gospels are primarily comprised of theologically driven myths.

Question: what events transpired around the birth of Jesus?

Only Matthew and Luke give us accounts of the birth of Jesus. Here’s a brief synopsis of Matthew’s birth narrative. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Three wise men from the East arrive in Jerusalem asking where this king of the Jews was born. Herod hears about this and asks his scholars to look into the matter. They tell him that the birth is to take place in Bethlehem. Herod then secretly meets with the wise men to find out the exact time when the star appeared to them. The wise men tell him and he tells them that Jesus is to be found in Bethlehem. So the wise men leave, find Jesus at the house of Joseph, bestow some gifts on Jesus, and then leave. Shortly afterward, an angel tells Joseph to flee to Egypt because Herod plans on killing Jesus. So they leave. Meanwhile, Herod has all the children in and around Bethlehem two years and younger killed because the wise men had informed him that the star appeared to them two years prior. After Herod’s death, Joseph and Mary attempt to return to Judea (apparently they were returning to Bethlehem) but then, out of fear of Herod’s successor, move north to Nazareth, Galilee.

In contrast, here’s a brief synopsis of Luke’s birth narrative. This story starts in Nazareth with Mary being told about the child she will give birth to. Joseph and Mary are then forced to leave because of an empire-wide consensus decreed by Augustus in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone is supposed to return to the place of his or her ancestors. Seeing as Joseph is said to be a descendant of King David, Bethlehem is their destination. They arrive; Mary’s gives birth to Jesus; and they place him in a manger because there is no room for them at the inn. Shortly after, an angel appears to some shepherds who are told about the child. They make a brief visit and then leave. After eight days, Joseph and Mary go up to Jerusalem (not far from Bethlehem) and present Jesus to the temple. They then return to their hometown, Nazareth.

It would appear that these two accounts differ quite significantly. In Matthew, it appears that Bethlehem is the hometown of Joseph and Mary. The narrative begins in Bethlehem without any implications that they had just arrived or that they were only supposed to be there temporarily. In fact, they must have been there for an extensive amount of time because the wise men had presumably been traveling for a couple years. Moreover, the wise men visit Jesus in his house, not at an inn or some backyard barn. Joseph and Mary then make a long journey to Egypt because of Herod’s infant hunt, finally relocating in Nazareth for reasons of safety.

Contrast this with Luke: Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth and only go to Bethlehem because of Augustus’ consensus, quickly make a stop at Jerusalem, and finally return to their hometown of Nazareth. There is nothing about a consensus in Matthew and nothing about Herod’s infanticidal actions in Luke. In Matthew, the journey from Bethlehem to Egypt, waiting for Herod’s death, and the journey to Nazareth would have taken a long time. In Luke, from what historians can devise, the entire journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Nazareth took around thirty days. In Matthew there is nothing about wise men from the East and in Luke there is nothing about shepherds. In fact, there are very few similarities whatsoever.

Furthermore, the accounts themselves are highly implausible. Take Luke’s story of the consensus. How would the men of the empire know who their distant ancestors were? Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem because Joseph is apparently a descendant of David, who was born there one thousand years earlier. But how would he know that David was his ancestor, how would Luke know, and how would the rest of the empire know where to go? If such a consensus were to happen today, would any of us know where to go? And why is there no record of this mass migration (for that matter, why is there no record of Herod’s mass infanticide in Matthew)?

Just as problematic is Luke’s historical knowledge. He tells us that his story is taking place in the days of Herod of Palestine. Because Herod died in 4 B.C., this means the story takes place at or around that time. But Luke also tells us this story takes place during the reign of the Syrian governor Quirinius. But according to Josephus and Tacitus, Quirinius was not governor until ten years after Herod, in A.D. 6. Many Christians consider Luke the first Christian historian. If so, he’s not a very good one.

His historical shortcomings notwithstanding, Luke was a good theologian. And so was Matthew. What can be said about their motivations for creating these mythological accounts of the birth of Jesus? What seems to be happening is that they are both aware the Jesus was known in his own day as being from Nazareth. The problem, however, is that some Jews thought that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). So both Matthew and Luke create an account that satisfies both of these facts. They need to devise a way for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem but grow up in Nazareth. Both authors accomplish this in different ways, Matthew telling us that Jesus’ parents were from Bethlehem but later relocated to Nazareth, Luke telling us that his parents were from Nazareth but were forced to Bethlehem for a short time, only to return to Nazareth.

The Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (The Death of Judas)

Here’s a second example as to why historians suspect that the gospels are not historically accurate narratives but theologically driven myths. This example not only reveals a theological motivation behind the text but is also an example of how authors will sometimes weave stories into their accounts in order to explain other well-known facts (like the name of a person or place).

Question: what happened to Judas?

In Matthew, after Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus, he tries to return the thirty pieces of silver to the Jewish leaders who paid him for betraying Jesus. But they don’t accept it. Judas then throws it on the ground and goes off to hang himself for his dirty deed. The Jewish leaders collect the money but refuse to place it back into the Temple treasury, for it is blood money. Instead, they use it to purchase a potter’s field. The author of Matthew then tells us that this is why the field is still, to this day, called the Field of Blood (because of the blood money used to purchase it). Matthew then claims that this fulfilled a prophecy spoken by Jeremiah (some manuscripts read Zechariah, some Isaiah), which turns out to be some odd conglomeration of some passages of Jeremiah and Zechariah (Jer. 18:1-3; Jer 32:6-15; Zech 11:13). As usual, Matthew is playing very loose with the Hebrew Scriptures in order to get them fulfilled.

In the book of Acts (the second volume of Luke) we get a different story. Here it is Judas himself who purchases the field with his “reward of wickedness.” He thus obviously makes no attempt to return it to the Jewish leaders. Furthermore, it does not appear that Judas hangs himself. Rather, he falls—presumably from a cliff of sorts—and bursts open in the middle, his bowels rushing out (it is unclear as to whether or not this insinuates a suicide). Luke goes on to tell us, contrary to Matthew, that this is the reason why it is called the Field of Blood (because Judas bled all over it). Luke also remarks that scripture has been fulfilled, quoting the Psalms.

As historical investigators, what are we to conclude? Did Judas return the money or not? Where did the Field of Blood derive its name? What scriptures were supposed to be fulfilled? Depends on what account you read. Furthermore, did Judas hang himself or burst open in the middle? Some scriptural reconcilers have argued that both are true: he could have hung himself over a cliff followed by the rope breaking and his midsection bursting open upon hitting the ground below. I suppose that’s possible, but neither account says this. Matthew mentions nothing about his bowels, nothing about falling, and it is difficult to even understand what Luke is saying.

Again, here are two different accounts that seem to construct their facts depending on the theological points they want to make. They are thus not historically reliable documents even if it happens to contain some historical data (e.g. the historical Judas may have actually betrayed Jesus).

The Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (The Death of Jesus)

Most Christians maintain that the NT gospels are historically reliable documents that were written for the very purpose of relaying the actual teachings and actions of the historical Jesus. Few biblical historians today accept such a claim. The prevailing view among historians today is that the gospels are primarily myths. However, most historians nowadays will not use “myth” as a descriptor for the gospels because of the connotations that have been linked to it in the twentieth century. In contemporary society, a myth refers to something that is false: usually a false claim made about something or someone. Thus, it would be a myth that Christopher Columbus and his fellow compatriots thought that the earth was flat before setting out on their famous expedition.

Traditionally, myths were not understood this way. Instead, myths referred to a story about the past (i.e. a history) that conveyed religious truths. These stories, however, were not actual historical accounts, not the sort of accounts we get from Tacitus or Edward Gibbon or professional historians of today’s society. Rather, they were made-up stories with the purpose of teaching a deeper truth. If taken as actual historical accounts, such myths could, I suppose, be considered false. But, in most cases, that wouldn’t be saying very much. How many thousands and millions of individuals have cherished the writings of Homer, of Virgil, of Dante, while at the same time knowing full-well that such accounts were not telling them what actually happened in the past? The fact is, most of us realize that such accounts are not historically reliable even though they may contain some historical datum (Archeological digs have shown that Troy actually did exist and that it may have been sacked by outsiders around the time of the traditional dating of the Trojan War). The problem is, most people don’t realize that the same is true of the NT gospels. While it is true that the gospels may also contain some historical datum, most of what they contain are theologically driven myths (understood in the traditional sense). Here is one example for why historians suspect that this is the case.

Question: when did Jesus die?

Before I address that question, let me explain something quickly. For Jews in the first century (as is still the case among contemporary Jews), a day did not begin at midnight or even at sunrise. The day began after the sun went down. Thus, the Sabbath (Saturday) begins Friday night and goes through the morning and afternoon and ends Saturday night (apparently at the moment you can see three stars).

With that in mind, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples to go ahead of him to prepare the Passover meal. The Passover meal involved the slaughtering of a lamb. This was done on the Day of Preparation on the afternoon just prior to Passover. So this is evidently what Jesus is telling his disciples to do. That evening (Thursday night) the Passover meal was to be eaten. Mark tells us just this: in the evening, the beginning of Passover, Jesus and his disciples have the meal (now called The Last Super). Afterward, Jesus goes to pray in Gethsemane, is eventually arrested, and tried before Pilate. This all happens the night of the Passover. Jesus is then sentenced to crucifixion and is crucified at 9am the next morning (Friday morning).

Things are a little different in John. In John, Jesus never tells his disciples to go and prepare a Passover meal. There is a Last Super but this is not the Passover meal but just a regular meal where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:1). Eventually, Jesus is arrested and put on trial before Pilate. Unlike in Mark however, the Jewish leaders refuse to enter Pilate’s (a Gentile) headquarters for worry that they will defile themselves before the Passover (18:28). Jesus is then convicted and crucified at noon on the Day of Preparation for the Passover (19:14). It appears then that Mark and John give us differing accounts as to when Jesus was crucified. Was it after the Passover meal (Mark) or before (John)?

Some will no doubt wonder why this is such a big deal. A difference of one day? That’s it? There is theological significance in this difference, however. For John, unlike the Synoptic Gospels and unlike Paul, Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Is it a mere coincidence then that John is the only gospel to have Jesus killed (sacrificed) on the Day of Preparation at or around the same time when all the actual lambs were being slaughtered for Passover? I doubt it. Here is a clear case where history is shaped (read: made up) by the author to make a theological point.

Peter: First Bishop of Rome?

The Catholic and Orthodox churches both claim that Peter was the first bishop of Rome. Both have theological doctrines that rest upon this claim. They use this claim to help establish apostolic succession–the idea that the lineage between the original apostles and the current church remains unbroken. This is an especially important issue for Catholics who claim that Peter was not merely the first bishop of Rome but the first Pope, the sole leader of the Christian church. But what evidence is there that the historical Peter held such a high ecclesiastical position in Rome? It turns out that there is none. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.

The earliest evidence that we have as to the existence of a church in Rome is the letter Paul wrote to them sometime in the mid 50’s. In that letter he indicates that it is a church primarily (exclusively?) made up of Gentiles (1:13) and thus it seem unlikely that Peter—the apostle to the circumcised—was the founder. Even more telling is the list of Christians Paul mentions at the end of the letter. Out of the twenty of so Christians he greets, he does not mention Peter. In fact, he doesn’t mention Peter anywhere in the entire letter. This is not something you would expect if Peter was the founder and leader of that church. In the late second century, the church father Irenaeus claims that the church in Rome was founded and organized by “the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” This is unlikely, however, seeing as Paul himself claims in his letter to never have visited the Roman Christians (1:13). There is little reason to assume Peter had either.

The fact of the matter is, we have no idea who founded the church in Rome. However, this doesn’t exclude the possibility that Peter arrived later and was eventually given the role of bishop. Is there evidence that this happened?

Polling Our Sources

According to Irenaeus (c. 180), the first bishop of Rome was not Peter but someone named Linus who had been appointed by both Peter and Paul. Shortly afterward, Tertullian (c. 200) tells us that it was actually Clement who was the first bishop, appointed by just Peter. A century later, Eusebius (c. 325) tells us that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and it was only after his death that Linus and then Clement became his successors. It’s clear that there is not universal agreement on this issue among the early church leaders. So what do our earliest sources tell us about this issue?

All of our early evidence points to a situation in the early Roman church in which there was no one leader. As mentioned before, Paul himself does not write to any one person but to the entire congregation. Forty years after Paul’s letter, there was a letter—entitled 1 Clement—composed by Roman Christians to the Christians in Corinth. It is assumed within Clement that the leaders of theses churches are not particular individuals but a group of individuals called presbyters. This seems a bit odd if these churches already had bishops.

Furthermore, sixty years after Paul the bishop of Antioch, Ignatius, writes a series of letters to the churches around the empire. In six of them he presupposes that a bishop presides over those churches. But when he writes to the Roman church, he does no such thing. Instead, he speaks to the entire congregation, never mentioning any one leader of the church.

Lastly, consider another document, cited as scripture by both Irenaeus and Tertullian, written after the life of Ignatius entitled the Shepherd of Hermas. Hermas was a Roman Christian living around the middle of the second century. It is interesting that in this document we find that Clement—the supposed bishop of Rome—is actually some sort of foreign correspondent for the church. Furthermore, Hermas speaks not of a single bishop who holds sole authority over the congregation but of presbyters and bishops (plural).

Let’s return to the question at hand: is there evidence that Peter was the first bishop of Rome? First, there is no agreement among the church fathers of the second, third, and fourth century that Peter was the first bishop. Irenaeus seems to flat out deny it and not until Eusebius do we hear it explicitly. Second, there is no evidence from Paul that Peter was the first bishop. Finally, and perhaps most telling,  there is no evidence that the Roman church even had a bishop until the later half of the second century. Thus, Peter could not have been the first bishop of Rome precisely because there was no bishop of Rome until one hundred or so years after his death.