You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books, You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams
There is no coming to consciousness without pain.
If the earthly Jesus didn’t authorize our Bibles, and if Christians argued for centuries over its makeup, how did history finally settle on “the” Bible? Well, as we shall come to see, it didn’t. But, to the extent that some modern Literalists believe that there is a single agreed-upon, infallible book of scripture, it is due, in their view, to the concept of “divine inspiration”—the idea that God’s hand directed both the writing and the compilation of the Bible over hundreds of years.
But, is this idea of divine inspiration a reasonable one? As suggested in the prior chapter, if God had intended for us to look to a history book for our spiritual salvation, he certainly should have, dare I say would have, made his intentions plainer, no? As Professor Ehrman notes:
It is one thing for believers to affirm, on theological grounds, that the decisions about the canon, like the books themselves, were divinely inspired, but it is another thing to look at the actual history of the process and to ponder the long, drawn-out arguments over which books to include and which to reject. The process did not take a few months or years. It took centuries. And even then there was no unanimity. (Lost Christianities at 230)
Because few lay Christians have ever done so, let’s examine this drawn-out process in more detail.
Much of the early arguments over the Bible centered upon which gospels should be included, and which excluded, from the New Testament. After all, as previously noted, there were far more gospels in circulation than merely the four known to our Bibles today:
The greatest difficulty was in choosing the Gospels, and after much controversy, four were chosen: three, those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are synopses of Jesus’ life, while John’s Gospel concentrates on a few specific miracles performed by Christ. (Solomon J. Schepps, Foreward to the 1979 edition of Lost Books of the Bible at 9)
Limiting the Gospels to only four was very important to some early Literalist leaders, although other Literalists and most Gnostics opposed this limitation, and the rationale for it was strained at best. Irenaeus, who we met in the last chapter, was one of the earliest and most vehement proponents of a four gospel canon, arguing that, “it is not possible that there can be more or fewer than four” for “ just as there are four regions of the universe, and four principal winds” there must be only four gospels. Though hardly compelling, this rationale has been frequently cited over the centuries.
Later orthodox Literalists, who ultimately assumed control over the selection process (as we will discuss below), did offer more rational justifications for limiting the gospels to four: They deemed some of the additional ones to be merely supplementary or redundant and therefore unnecessary, while they viewed others, particularly those without a Literalist bent, as outright heretical:
Of the accounts of the life of Jesus that were rejected by the Fathers, many were considered supplementary rather than false. Such was the case with the Gospels of Peter and Nicodemus and the two accounts of Christ’s infancy (I and II Infancy)….
Peter’s Gospel, which was once held as high as those of Matthew and Mark, and more highly than those of Luke and John, was ultimately rejected because it differs too much in its details from the three chosen synopses. The Gospel of Thomas, one of the Nag Hammadi documents, was rejected for a very different reason. It opens by saying that he who understand the words of Jesus will be saved. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the chosen Gospels…which say that it is he who believes that will be saved…. (Forward to the 1979 edition of Lost Books of the Bible at 9-10)
The last of the “chosen” gospels, often called the fourth gospel, was that of John. But the modern reader may be surprised to learn that many early Christians disapproved of it selection:
Even its first generation of readers disagreed as to whether John was a true gospel or a false one—and whether it should be part of the New Testament. John’s defenders among early Christians revered it as the “logos gospel”—the gospel of the divine word or reason (logos, in Greek)—and derided those who opposed it as “irrational” (alogos, lacking reason). Its detractors, by contrast, were quick to point out that John’s narrative differs significantly from those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. [A]t crucial moments in its account, for example, John’s gospel directly contradicts the combined testimony of the other New Testament gospels. (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas at 34-35)
Even so, because it can be bent to a Literalist interpretation, John’s gospel came to be accepted as canon.
By way of contrast, the Gospel of Peter--a book much prized by most early Christians, rivaling in popularity the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and exceeding Luke and John--was ultimately rejected because it lent itself to a potentially “heretical” interpretation known as docetism. Although it came in a variety of forms, docetism can be understood for purposes of this book as the belief that Christ’s divine nature kept him from experiencing true pain and suffering during his life and death. Serapion (c. 199), the orthodox Bishop of Antioch, (c. 199), concluded that because the Gospel of Peter could be interpreted in a manner inconsistent with orthodox teachings (which held that Jesus suffered in the ordinary sense), it could not have been written by the Apostle Peter.
While modern scholarship has confirmed that the Gospel of Peter was not written by the historical Peter, Serapion’s rationale for dismissing it should concern those who assert the Bible’s infallibility. Serapion discarded the book simply because he disagreed with it, not because he had any actual evidence or knowledge of forgery. Thus, in Serapion’s approach we see the beginnings of an orthodox “litmus test” for determining the authenticity of early Christian manuscripts—those that largely agreed with the orthodox position, or could be interpreted or easily edited to do so, were frequently held to be authentic, while those that outright contradicted orthodox views were always discarded as forgeries.
Renowned scholar Bruce M. Metzger, PhD, acknowledges that the compilers of the Bible applied just such a litmus test. According to Metzger, for a book to be considered canonical it must have met three tests:
First, the books must have had apostolic authority—that is, they must have been written either by apostles themselves, who were eyewitnesses to what they wrote about, or by followers of apostles.
[S]econd, there was the criterion of conformity to what was called the rule of faith. That is, was the document congruent with the basic Christian tradition that the [orthodox] church recognized as normative?
And third, there was the criterion of whether a document had had continuous acceptance and usage by the church at large. [Quoted in The Case For Christ at 66]
Other scholars have noted that the litmus test came in four parts rather than three, recognizing an additional requirement that the book be “ancient”. But regardless, it is the second test, the “rule of faith”, that is most intriguing to critical scholars.
The “rule of faith”, sometimes called the "standard of faith" rested on the now questionable assumption that the orthodox view of Christianity represented the exclusive authentic tradition. Under this standard, any early Christian document that contradicted the orthodox understanding was considered by the orthodox Literalists of the second and third centuries to be a forgery. For instance, the Gospel of Peter met every prong of the orthodox litmus test noted above save one—the “rule of faith”. After all, it was ostensibly written by the Apostle Peter and it was widely used and considered authentic by a great number of Christians, proving itself to be even more popular than Luke or John. The simple fact is that we don’t read the Gospel of Peter in our Bibles today only because parts of it could not be reconciled with certain orthodox teachings and, as we shall see, it was the orthodox who compiled our Bibles.
Perhaps this rationale for excluding the Gospel of Peter and other books is acceptable to those who take it on faith that the orthodox tradition was the true and complete one, but it is troublesome for those who know otherwise. After all, the reasoning employed by the early orthodox is circular: “We’re right and they are wrong”, contended the orthodox leaders who compiled our Bibles. “So those manuscripts that agree with us are obviously authentic, while those that do not are certainly forgeries. Therefore we shall create a collection of the ‘authentic’ teachings, and then we can point to the authenticity of this collection as proof that our interpretation of Christianity is the right one.” One doesn’t have to be a logician to find the holes in that reasoning.
Not surprisingly, the debate over the Bible wasn’t limited to the Gospels alone, but included the New Testament letters (epistles) as well. Several of the epistles in our present-day Bibles were not well respected by important early Christians, even some Literalist ones. In Origen’s (c. 210) catalogue of New Testament scriptures, the Epistles of James and Jude are omitted, and Origen notes that many Christians were skeptical of 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. More than a hundred years later, Eusebius (c. 315) states that some Christians of his time still doubted or outright rejected the authenticity of these same five books. Eusebius himself considered Revelation to be spurious. Jerome (c. 382) spoke dubiously of the epistle to the Hebrews. As late as the fifth century, the Syrian church venerated only 22 books, excluding 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation. By contrast, the present day Ethiopian church accepts all twenty-seven books of our present day New Testament, but adds four more.
The famous fourth century teacher known as Didymus the Blind was among those who believed that 2nd Peter was a forgery. Interestingly though, he cited the Shepard of Hermas and other noncanonical books favorably.
The last book of the Bible, Revelation, is not included in the various catalogues of the New Testament offered by such notable early Christians as Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (c. 340); the Bishops at the Council of Caudices (c. 364); Gregory Nazianzen, Bishop of Constantinople (c. 375); and Philastrius, Bishop of Brixia in Venice (c. 380).
In short, as late at 400 CE there was no accepted, universal canon of Christian scripture. And, as we shall soon see, there still isn’t even today.
Forgery, Forgery Everywhere
Forgery was commonly practiced in ancient times, so early Christians had reason to be skeptical when their opponents pointed to various manuscripts to "cinch" their argument. And as we shall see, we have even more reasons to be skeptical of these same manuscripts today.
Arguing in support of the integrity of our modern Bibles, Literalists often cite the research of critical scholars who have proven many of the excluded texts, such as the once-prized Gospel of Peter, to be forgeries (i.e., it was not really written by the historical Peter). But, these Literalists overlook the fact that these very same scholars have also shown several of our New Testament letters to be forgeries:
Scholars have long recognized that even some of the books accepted into the canon are probably forgeries. Christian scholars, of course, have been loathe to call them that and so more commonly refer to them as “pseudonymous” writings. Possibly this is a more antiseptic term, but its does little to solve the problem of a potential deceit, for an author who attempts to pass off his own writing as that of some other well-know person has written a forgery. That is no less true of the book allegedly written to Titus that made it into the New Testament (Paul’s Letter to Titus) than of the book allegedly written by Titus that did not (Pseudo-Titus), both claiming to be written by apostles (Paul and Titus), both evidently written by someone else. (Ehrman, Lost Christianities at 9)
In fact, all of Paul’s New Testament “Pastoral letters”--1 and 2 Timothy and Titus--are now known to have been written long after Paul’s death, very likely in the late first century. Among the New Testament books attributed to Paul, only Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Romans, and Philemon are universally recognized by critical and “faithful” scholars alike as authentic. Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians are sometimes disputed, but the definite consensus of critical scholars is that they are either fabrications or severely edited versions of some now lost originals.
Although I cannot document here all of the various, compelling reasons why critical scholars are so sure that many New Testament epistles are faked, I will take a moment here discuss the Pastorals.
In addition to the skepticism expressed by early prominent Christians and church fathers like those noted in the previous section above, the earliest extant catalogue of Paul’s letters makes no mention at all of the Pastorals. Indeed, there is no evidence of their existence prior to c. 190 when Irenaeus conveniently makes mention of them. And yet, even despite these references by Irenaeus, Eusebius (c. 300), the so-called “Father of Church History”, does not include the Pastorals in his catalogue of the books of sacred scripture, even though he definitely knew of them.
But modern scholars have many additional reasons for doubting the authenticity of the Pastorals. For one, they curiously reference aspects of church structure and hierarchical governance that, although favored by the orthodox, did not exist during Paul’s lifetime. The structure of church governance discussed in the Pastorals (a top-down hierarchy) is in many ways inconsistent and irreconcilable with the organizational structure of Paul’s churches described in his authentic writings (which took a more democratic, bottom-up presbyterian approach).
Additionally, the vocabulary and tone of the Pastorals is curious. They use a number of words not found elsewhere in Paul’s authentic writings, and specifically contradict the teachings of the known authentic writings on many points. Not surprisingly, these points of contradiction typically advance an orthodox understanding of Christianity, with the Pastorals apparently serving to “clarify” those parts of Paul’s authentic writings that lent themselves to a Gnostic, "heretical" interpretation.
For these and other reasons, critical scholars are in near unanimous agreement that the Pastorals are second century forgeries, and rather poor ones at that.
Circumstantial Evidence of Forgery
Although the most “faithful” of Literalist attempt to dispute the direct evidence of forgery noted above--rationalizing, for example, that the unusual vocabulary of the Pastorals might be attributable to the fact that Paul may have dictated his various letters at different times to different scribes who sometimes paraphrased him (while nonetheless perfectly preserving his "divinely inspired" message, we are assured)--there can be no dispute on the following point: To advance their cause, certain highly educated proto-orthodox forgers authored letters in the names of the Apostles or their followers, letters that their descendants eventually excluded from the Bible for one reason or another. For example, as mentioned previously, some orthodox sympathizer forged a letter from Titus, now called “Pseudo-Titus” (meaning “false Titus”), that is not found in our New Testament. Extra-biblical documents forged in the name of the Apostle Paul include 3 Corinthians (created in the second century largely in order to undermine the docetic “heresy”, it was eventually accepted as canonical only by the Armenian church and certain Syrian churches), several letters from Paul to the Roman philosopher Seneca (designed to cast Paul as a great philosopher), and at least one to the church at Laodicea. Yet other known Pauline forgeries are lost to history—we know them only because they are referenced in ancient writings that have been preserved.
Faithful readers should not be surprised that all these letters were being forged in Paul’s name. After all, 2 Thessalonians (2:2) records that Paul was concerned that people were forging letters in his name even in his own time. However:
In an interesting twist, scholars today are not altogether confident that 2 Thessalonians itself was written by Paul. And so we have a neat irony: either 2 Thessalonians was written by Paul and someone else was producing forgeries in Paul’s name, or 2 Thessalonians itself is a forgery that condemns the production of forgeries in Paul’s name. Either way, someone was forging books in Paul’s name. (Lost Christianities at 10)
Although these undisputed forgeries weren’t included in our New Testaments, to the relief of many Literalists, their mere existence casts additional doubt on many of the books that did. These extra-biblical forgeries prove indisputably that some early, highly-educated proto-orthodox sympathizers--members of the very group whose spiritual descendants ultimately organized and canonized the New Testament as Holy Writ (as we shall see)--were ready, willing, and able to employ deceit to advance their cause and to undermine the authority of their Christian opponents, going even so far as to forge letters in the name of key Apostles. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits as much: "Both Catholics and Gnostics were concerned in writing these fictions. The former had no motive other than that of pious fraud." Gnostic forgeries were then presumably "impious frauds."
Combine this known and admitted propensity for forgery with the doctrine-based litmus test later adopted by their descendants for purposes determining the authenticity of ancient Christian documents, and it would be a divinely inspired miracle indeed if some forgeries didn’t make it into our New Testaments.
So, even if we ignore the all-but-conclusive direct evidence of forgery within our New Testament, we have compelling circumstantial evidence as well: We know with certainty that the Literalist Church had the means to commit forgery, as evidenced by, among other things, their extant forgeries that did not make it into the New Testament. We also know that the Literalists had the motive to forge documents and include them in the canon (e.g., by forging documents in Apostles’ names and designating those documents as the infallible Word of God, Literalists would gain an advantage in the battles for the heart and soul of early Christianity). Finally, Literalists had the opportunity to include forged documents in the Bible: A century or two after these documents were forged, the spiritual descendants of these Literalist forgers attempted to "close the cannon" and adpoted a doctrine-based litmus test of authenticity that all but assured some forged documents would be canonized.
In light of this evidence, it is only the most “faithful” of Christians who deny that parts of the New Testament are obvious forgeries. Sadly, such “faithfulness” borders on irrationality: It is not merely “evidence of things unseen” (as Paul defined faith), but the irrational rejection of things seen plainly. It is not merely an acceptance of the unprovable, but acceptance in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Why should anyone have such faith? More importantly, why would a benevolent, loving God have made such irrational faith a precondition of salvation? I can think of no reason at all, but I can, and have, identified many reasons why less than benevolent, power-driven humans did so.
Bibles, Bibles Everywhere
Even if we ignore the known forgeries in the New Testament, there are many other problems with Literalist claims of the Bible's infallibility. One is that, as previously alluded, there is simply no such thing as the Bible. Over centuries what we now call the Bible has undergone numerous changes, and the church has never known a definitive version of the text. For example, the identity of the books comprising the Old Testament has changed over the years, the Apocrypha was dropped from the Protestant Bible altogether after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and, as we have seen, the books of the New Testament weren’t fixed until the late fourth century or early fifth century, and even then there still wasn’t complete unanimity in Christendom. The Catholic Encyclopedia admits, "The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning...has no foundation in history."
Another problem with claims of biblical infallibility is that, even today (and ignoring disputes over which books are canonical) we have numerous versions of “the” Bible. Just since the King James Version was first published in the early 1600’s, English speaking peoples have seen more than three hundred English translations of the Bible alone! A trip to the local bookstore will acquaint the reader with some of these, and a somewhat more comprehensive listing can be found here.
So, why the need for so many Bibles?
Well, different versions exist for two primary reasons: (1) scholars disagree about which of the ancient manuscripts should be translated into our modern Bibles, and (2) translators disagree as to how to properly translate a given manuscript into a language understandable by modern audiences. Let’s discuss each of these disagreements, beginning with the last one first.
Jesus and his immediate followers, like most Jews of Palestine for centuries before them, spoke Aramaic, a language that is all but dead today. However, the oldest complete New Testament manuscripts still in existence are all written in an ancient form of Greek, called “Koine”, and all of these oldest manuscripts are “uncials”, meaning that they are written in only capital Greek letters with no spaces between words, no line breaks, and almost no punctuation marks—i.e., no periods, no commas, no page breaks, and no exclamation points.
These facts are important for several reasons. First, they demonstrate that, with only a few exceptions, even the oldest existing copies of the New Testament capture the words of Jesus and the Apostles only in translated form. We do not know the actual words that were originally spoken by Jesus and his Apostles in Aramaic, rather we have only a Greek hearsay translation. And, unfortunately, something is always lost in translation: As Rabbi Judah eloquently stated, “He who translates a biblical verse literally is a liar, but he who elaborates on it is a blasphemer.”
The translator’s job is to express in language understandable to his audience the meaning of words originally spoken or written by someone else using a different language. Given linguistic differences in grammar, syntax, punctuation and figures of speech, this is no easy task under the best of circumstances—but, Bible translators face additional complications. NAMELYTHEYARECHARGEDWITHACCURATELYTRANSLATINGANCIENTMANUSCRIPTSTHATAREWRITTENINALLCAPSDEVOIDOFPUNTUATIONORSPACESANDTHATWEREWRITTENTHOUSANDSOFYEARSAGOINLANGUAGEORDIALECTSTHATHAVEBEENDEADFORCENTURIES.
If that last sentence didn’t make any sense, it is only because I wrote it in uncial form in hopes of giving the reader some appreciation for the difficult task of translating ancient uncials. Here’s a "translated" version: “Namely they are charged with accurately translating ancient manuscripts that were written in all caps, which are virtually devoid of punctuation marks or spaces, and that were written thousands of years ago in languages or dialects that have been dead for centuries." If the reader had difficulty making sense of the "all caps" phrase above (even though it was written in modernEnglish), imagine how much greater the difficulty of interpreting a dead, foreign language written in such a manner.
The first step in any translation of an ancient document is to develop an understanding of the original author’s intent. As anyone who has ever attempted to interpret a document knows, this is more art than science, especially when the original author has been dead for two millennia, came from a foreign culture, and spoke a dead language. Given the difficultly that each present day generation has in understanding the next one (and vice versa), imagine how much more difficult it must be for a modern translator to truly see the world through the eyes of a first century writer from another culture.
In short, despite their best efforts, a translator’s presuppositions (paradigms) affect his or her understanding of the original writer’s intent, and therefore taint his or her interpretation of the original writer’s words. The Preface to the New King James Version of the Bible, which is itself “the fifth revision of a historic document translated from specific Greek texts”, is to be commended for acknowledging as much explicitly:
[T]he most important differences in the English New Testaments of today are due…to the way in which translators view the task of translation: How literally should the [original] text be rendered? How does the translator view the matter of biblical inspiration? Does the translator adopt a paraphrase when a literal rendering would be quite clear and more to the point?” [parentheticals and emphasis added]
In other words, as the preface to the New King James version makes clear, the meaning of the translated Bible varies according to the particular translator’s presuppositions, including whether or not the translator presupposes that the Bible is a spiritual book written by mortals, or a divinely inspired book of history. Or, said another way, the Paradigm of Historicity affects the translation! In this manner, centuries of translator bias (until very recently, almost exclusively Literalist ones) have been not-so-subtly incorporated into the substance of the most Bible versions available to us today. We will expose many of these as we proceed.
Assuming a translator can overcome the first challenge of truly understanding the intent of the original writer, the second step in translation is to then render the that understanding in language comprehensible to the translator’s audience. The Christian William Tyndale was the first translator to offer an English Bible (c. 1526) derived from the most ancient Greek manuscripts available at the time (rather than later Latin manuscripts that had served as the basis for most previous translations). For this, he was eventually burned at the stake for heresy. Even so, many of his words survive to this day. It was Tyndale who, via artful translation, created from whole cloth many of the most memorable words and phrases found in our modern Bibles:
It was Tyndale who established …that the Bible should not be in the language of scholars but in the spoken language of the people. [H]e coined such words as “Passover,” “scapegoat,” “mercy seat,” and “long-suffering.”
Many expressions of Tyndale are also unforgettable, cherished by countless readers of the English Bible: “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2); “the pinnacle of the temple” (Matt. 4:5); “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13); “daily bread” (Matt. 6:11); “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow” (Matt. 6:28); “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29); “shepherds abiding in the field” (Luke 2:8); “eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19); “fatted calf” (Luke 15:23); “only begotten son” (John 1:14, 18); “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2); “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28); “God forbid” (Rom 3:4); “sounding brass” and “tinkling cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1); “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52); “singing and making melody (Eph. 5:19); “office of a bishop” (1 Tim. 3:1); “the pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb. 11:25); “an advocate with the Father” (1 John 2:1); and “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev 3:20). (How We Got the Bible at 178-179)
Despite their familiarity, the above expressions do not appear in the original Greek, at least not in so many words:
[I]t is noteworthy that these expressions could have been translated differently from the Greek text, yet because Tyndale had such an ear for the English language, these [para]phrases live on. [parentheticals added]. (How We Got the Bible at 179)
In short, as previously stated, something is always lost (and sometimes added)in translation.
An Important Diversion to Discuss Misleading Translations
Before moving on to discuss the second primary reason that there are so many versions of the Bible—namely, disagreements over which ancient documents to translate,--its worth pausing here to explore the significance of translator bias. Until very recently, virtually all Bible translations were overseen by committed Christians steeped in the Literalist, orthodox tradition. Even most of the so-called heretics of the last thousand years were, like William Tyndale, Literalists. Consequently, the Paradigm of Historicity, and all orthodox doctrines derived therefrom, weighed heavily on their efforts, and the biases of these original translators have influenced subsequent translations ever since.
Translators who presuppose that the Bible is the “inspired” word of God naturally “view the task of translation”, if only unconsciously, as supporting this idea. Such translators assume that God’s inspired Word simply can’t contradict itself or contain error. Thus, centuries of translators have adopted interpretations and translations that seek to reconcile or downplay inconsistencies or discrepancies that are evident in the original tongue. For example:
All of the Gospels present but one view of Jesus, that he is the Son of God. Yet in presenting this view their individual descriptions of him and his sayings often employ different words. Through the years, these verbal distinctions, either intentionally or unintentionally, tended to be “harmonized” by the scribes. Thus it is a sound conclusion that in parallel accounts the text which preserves the minute verbal differences is generally the [more authentic] text. (How We Got the Bible at 93)
The result of this translator and scribal bias for consistency is that some parts of our modern Bibles appear to modern readers to be more of a coherent whole than they actually are, while other parts appear to less of a whole than they should. The following pages will provide numerous examples of the former, but here I will note one very basic example of the latter:
“Jesus” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name “Joshua”, meaning “savior.” It was a very common name among first century Jews. And yet it has become customary among translators to render the name of the Old Testament hero of Exodus as “Joshua” and that of the New Testament hero of the same name as “Jesus”. Inconsistently translating these names adds to Jesus’ uniqueness while at the same time obscuring certain similarities in the lives and actions of the two biblical heroes that may otherwise be obvious. The differing nomenclature discourages the reader from drawing analogies between the lives of the two figures, analogies that the authors of the gospels almost certainly intended.
Translator bias has also served to obscure some striking similarities between the New Testament and other Gnostic scriptures. The Bible is almost always rendered in the familiar “church speak” originally adopted by Literalist translators over the centuries. However, it’s important to understand that identical Greek words and ideas appearing in surviving Gnostic writings are typically rendered in unfamiliar “pagan”, heretical language, or simply left un-translated altogether, making these works seem more foreign, bizarre, and incredible than they should. To illustrate the point, let’s consider just how strange, dare I say Gnostic, parts of the New Testament sound if we translate them from the Greek using the same principles often employed when translating Gnostic manuscripts.
The Greek word for wisdom is “Sophia”, which is also the name of the Greek goddess that personified the same. In Gnostic mythology, Sophia was the companion and lover of the Logos (often translated as “word’, which we will discuss more below), which all Christians equate with Christ (thanks to the opening chapter of the fourth gospel). This may be one reason why translators almost always translate the Greek word “Sophia” as simply “wisdom” in the New Testament, but as “Sophia” in most Gnostic texts. But is such inconsistent treatment justified? What happens, for example, when we translate some familiar Bible passages using principals of translation traditionally applied to Gnostic texts? Let’s begin with words attributed to Paul in Colossians 1:8 (highlighted words are those that have been reworded using more consistently applied principles of translation, as is done with non-canonical books from the time):
We proclaim [Christ]…teaching every man in the ways of Sophia that each may become an initiated member of Christ. (Colossians 1:28)
Translated in this manner, and remembering that in Gnostic theology, Sophia was the lover of the Logos (Christ), Paul sounds…well…radical. In essence, Paul teaches that we become one with Christ (that is, “members” of Christ) by learning the ways (i.e., assuming the role) of his mythical lover, Sophia. Though strange, this lesson is actually consistent with orthodox doctrine that the church is the “bride of Christ”, and it is also indistinguishable from the Gnostic teaching on this subject.
My purpose is that they may…become one in love, so that they may…experience the Gnosis of God’s mystery, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of Sophia and Gnosis. [emphasis added] (Colossians 2:2-3)
Here Paul teaches that mystical “oneness” is achieved through Gnosis (or experiential knowledge) of God’s “mystery”, which he defines as Christ. Christ is not discussed as an historical personage, but as a higher consciousness that, once identified with to the exclusion of our ego (i.e., once we become one with it), leads to spiritual insight—hidden wisdom (Sophia) and knowledge (gnosis). This is pure Christian Gnosticism, plain and simple. Only the common misleading translation keeps us from seeing it as such.
We speak of Sophia among the initiated; not the Sophia of this aeon, nor of the rulers of this aeon, who are passing away; but we speak of God’s Sophia in a mystery. (1 Corinthians 2:6)
It is central to our faith that in the end we will all attain Oneness through Gnosis of God’s Son, becoming fully initiated human beings, equal to nothing less than the pleroma of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13)
“God’s Sophia”, “initiated”, “mystery”, “aeons”, “oneness” and “pleroma”, all of these are quintessentially Gnostic terms, terms one would find repeated over and over in most any Christian Gnostic texts such as those found at Nag Hammadi. And yet, although they are expressed in the original Greek manuscripts of our Bibles, these terms are foreign to most Christians simply because bias, primarily the doctrine of divine inspiration and the Paradigm of Historicity, keeps translators from expressing Paul in this way. Rather than use the word “initiated”, which is a more proper and accurate translation of the original Greek, and one they surely would have used if translating the same word in a Gnostic text, translators substitute the word “mature.” Rather than use the Greek word “Gnosis”, which describes subjective, experiential knowledge (like knowing how to ride a bike) as opposed to objective, intellectual knowledge (like one plus one equals two), translators just use the more antiseptic (if somewhat misleading) English word “knowledge”, which has the added benefit of obscuring Paul’s Gnostic tendencies.
Another example of a translation that obscures the similarities between the Gnostic texts and the New Testament is the rendering of logos in many Gnostic texts as logos, but in the New Testament as “Word” (such as in John 1:1) The Greek word logos, which is the root of the English word “logic”, has no strict English equivalent. It can be alternatively translated as “word”, “reason”, or “idea” depending upon context, but it actually contains elements of all three, plus more. No one English word captures the true essence of the Greek logos.
In the centuries before and immediately after Jesus, "logos" was a term of art used by pagan philosophers and adepts of the Mysteries Religions, including the Christian Gnostics. They generally used it to describe the thoughts of God’s Mind through which God created and sustains the universe, or said another way, the objects of God’s consciousness. To put it in terms readily understandable to most present-day Literalist Christians, before God spoke the words “Let there by light” (Genesis 1:3), God had to first have the idea (logos) of light in mind, else his words would have had no meaning or effect. Because thought, which is made manifest in words, must precede action, Gnostics came to view God’s thoughts/ideas/words as the true source and sustainer of all Creation, present with God “in the beginning”, for creation could not exist prior to God conceiving of it. These divine thoughts or ideas, which are separate from God and yet one with Him (in the same sense that our thoughts are separate from our minds yet have no existence outside of them) are the divine logos. It will serve our purposes sufficiently if we conceptualize the divine logos for now as God’s consciousness.
In Gnostic mythology, which the reader will recall contains much figurative language, creation is the result of the one transcendent God becoming consciousness of Himself. Exactly how this happened is a mystery symbolized in numerous and varying myths, but Gnostics reasoned rightly that consciousness requires both a subject and an object—that is, there must be a witness (the person or thing that is conscious—i.e., the “mind”) as well as the witnessed (i.e., the person or thing of which on is conscious, or the “thought”). In the Gnostic allegorical myths that seek to encode this truth, Gnostics often referred to the original witness (i.e., the “mind” of God) as “the Father”. Likewise, they referred to the thoughts of that Divine Mind, the ideas which God’s Mind contemplates, as “the Son” or “the Logos” (Word). Thus, thoughts (the Son) were conceptualized as the “offspring” or “first born” or “begotten” of the mind (the Father), present with God at the dawn of creation. Before God thought, nothing was, for consciousness did not exist. Thus, Father and Son are as inseparable as thought is from mind. The Athanasian Creed expresses these ideas perfectly:
The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten, The Son is of the Father alone, neither made nor created, but begotten. [N]one is afore or after the other, none is greater or less than another.
And, as Origen once noted, “The Father did not beget the Son, but ever is begetting him.”
The experience of this simple idea was almost certainly part of the fundamental Inner Mystery taught by all Gnostic Mystery Schools in the centuries before and after Jesus. Centuries before Christ the pagan Gnostic Heraclitus (c. 600 BCE) wrote, “The Father and Son are the same.” According to Clement of Alexandria, the pagan Gnostic Euripides had years before “divined as in a riddle that the Father and the Son are one God.” The legendary pagan sage Orpheus, who lived, if at all, thousands of years before Christ, is quoted by the Christian Clement of Alexandria as having taught:
Behold the Logos divine. Tread well the narrow path of life and gaze on Him, the world’s great ruler, our immortal king. (Quoted in The Jesus Mysteries at 83)
Clement of Alexandria himself writes:
The Son is the Consciousness of God. The Father only sees the world as reflected in the Son. (Quoted in The Jesus Mysteries at 84) [parentheticals added]
Continuing with this idea for a moment, it is important to note that Gnostics sought to explain the mystery of human consciousness by characterizing it as fragmented, dispersed pieces of the One Divine Consciousness—that is, of the Son or logos, which Christians specifically equate with Christ. How portions of the One Divine Consciousness came to be dismembered and encapsulated within each of us, how we lost our ability to “access” or “rely on” it in our daily lives, and how we can regain it, are all mysteries described allegorically in many Gnostic and Christian myths. For Christians, the most important of these myths are those describing the Incarnation of Christ (God’s consciousness becoming encapsulated in man), the Fall of Man (man losing his ability to rely on that consciousness and instead being ruled by his unconscious paradigms and passions, which Paul called “the flesh”), and Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection (describing the way back to union with God, or oneness with the cosmic consciousness).
These Gnostic teachings about the dispersion of human consciousness, and its reunion with God, may seem quite strange to Literalists, so I will again remind the reader of just a few of Paul’s words on this subject:
For just as the body is a unity and yet has many members, and all the members, though many , form only one body, so it is with Christ….[i.e., the logos or Son]. For by means of one shared Spirit [or consciousness] we were all baptized into one [spiritual] body….
Now you (collectively) are Christ’s body [i.e., the Logos, the One Divine Consciousness], and individually members [i.e., dispersed pieces] of it. (1 Corinthians 12:11-27)
It is inherent in our faith that in the end we will all attain Oneness through Gnosis of God’s Son, becoming fully initiated human beings, equal to nothing less than the pleroma [fullness] of Christ. [Ephesians 4:13 as rendered in Jesus and the Lost Goddess at 149))
In Ephesians 4:25, Paul writes “[w]e are all parts of one body and members one of another.” In Colossians 1:25-28, Paul writes that his purpose in life is to reveal to us the Mystery that was hidden in past ages--namely, that Christ (i.e., the logos) is in us! In Galations 1:15, Paul writes that “God revealed his Son in me” [emphasis added]. Demonstrating that he had come to identify completely with this higher consciousness within him, and ceased identifying with his ego, Paul states, “[I]t is no longer I [i.e., my ego or "flesh"] who live, but Christ [the logos] lives in me; and the life I now live in this body I live by faith—by reliance on and complete trust in the Son of God….”
As we have previously noted, Jesus offers the same teachings, most explicitly in the Gospel of John (17:19-26). There, Jesus prays that his followers will come to know their true nature. He prays that they will be “sanctified by the Truth” so that they:
all may be One--just as You, Father, are in Me and I in you, they also may be One in Us. [I] in them and You in Me, in order that they may become One and perfectly united....
And nowhere is this pre-Christian, Gnostic teaching of creation emerging from the oneness of God through the facility of the logos (which is then dispersed among all peoples) better illustrated than in the opening Chapter of the Gospel of John (v. 1-4):
In the beginning was the Logos [i.e., Divine Consciousness, or thoughts of God, confusingly translated as “the Word”], and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things came into being by Him, and apart from him nothing came into being [i.e., nothing existed prior to God becoming conscious]. In him was the life and that life was the light [i.e., consciousness] of men.
I could continue with innumerable examples of how misleading translations, warped as they are by the Paradigm of Historicity and doctrine of divine inspiration, have served to obscure similarities between Gnostic and Literalist texts. But the above is hopefully sufficient evidence for now that, properly translated and freed of the Paradigm of Historicity, large parts of the New Testament support, indeed demand, a Gnostic interpretation.
Where’s the Original Bible?
Before our brief diversion into misleading translations, we were discussing how translator biases and disagreements over interpretation account for some of the diversity in our modern Bibles. But equally important, perhaps more so, is scholars’ and translators’ disagreements as to which ancient manuscript to use at the source text for those translations.
As previously alluded, there is no single ancient document that scholars or theologians can identify as the definitive, original source text for any book of the Bible. Instead, translators are left to choose between stunning variety of ancient manuscripts, many of which are incomplete and hopelessly irreconcilable. The preface to the New King James Version of the Bible hints at the true extent of these inconsistencies:
Since the 1880’s most contemporary translations of the New Testament have relied upon a relatively few manuscripts discovered chiefly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such translations depend primarily on two manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, because of their greater age. The Greek text obtained by using these sources and the related papyri (our most ancient manuscripts) is known as the Alexandrian Text. However, some scholars have grounds for doubting the faithfulness of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, since they often disagree with one another, and Sinaiticus exhibits excessive omission.
The Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest surviving complete copy of the New Testament. It dates to the mid 4th century CE and is presently housed in the British Library in London. Not only does the Sinaiticus exhibit “excessive omission”, but it also includes writings that are not represented in our modern New Testaments at all, namely the Epistle of Barnabas and the Sheppard of Hermas. In addition, it is replete with scribal “corrections” and alterations that scholars have painstakingly catalogued over the years.
Another early extant copy of the Bible, which dates to a few decades later than the Sinaiticus, is the Book of Alexandria. Interestingly, it likewise contains writings not found in our modern New Testaments, namely I and II Clement.
A third important early copy of the Bible is the Codex Bezae, which dates to the fifth century CE. It varies significantly from other early texts, to the great consternation of many scholars.
After comparing some of these various ancient source texts to the Alexandrian Text discussed above and noting some discrepancies in the ancient documents, the Preface to the New King James Version predictably attempts to minimize the significance of these differences:
[I]t is most important to emphasize that fully eighty-five percent of the New Testament text is the same in the Textus Receptus, the Alexandrian Text, and the Majority Text.
But how and why one should be comforted by this statement is a mystery, because it explicitly recognizes that the three cited original source texts, which themselves are a synthesis of numerous inconsistent manuscripts (for instance, the Alexandrian Text is a synthesis of the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and assorted incomplete fragments of papyri), are inconsistent as to a full fifteen percent of the New Testament!
Bruce M. Metzger, PhD, a noted Bible scholar often cited by Literalists, estimates that there are about twenty four thousand ancient New Testament manuscripts in existence, with tens of thousands of known variations between them (The Case for Christ at 63-64). Professor Bart Ehrman, has pointed out that the number of variations in our surviving source texts exceeds the number of words in the entire New Testament. To list but a handful of the “manuscript differences” one uncovers by reviewing these ancient New Testament source texts, consider the following ten:
1) Later manuscripts of 1 John 5:7-8 contain a phrase that earlier ones do not. Specifically, later versions say “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit…”. This phrase first appears in Miniscule 61, dating to the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The reader can see How We Got the Bible at 100 for an interesting discussion of how this verse came to be included in modern English Bibles, but to make a long story short, it was originally inserted by Literalists to bolster the doctrine of the Trinity.
2) Later manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark contain an ending that does not appear in the earliest versions of the book. Specifically, Chapter 16:9-20 of Mark, which describes Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene and others, do not appear in the earliest and bests texts, such as the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Likewise, they do not appear in the oldest known manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate or Old Syriac. The vocabulary used in these verses is highly suspect and generally does not fit with Mark’s style. Furthermore, many expressions found in them appear nowhere else in the entire New Testament.
Because all of our earliest versions of Mark simply end his account with the discovery of the empty tomb (Chapter 16, verse 8), we can be assured that the expanded ending placed in our modern Bible is almost certainly inauthentic. After all, consider which is more likely: (a) Early orthodox Christians (who argued vehemently that Christ physically resurrected “in the flesh” and who were the keepers of the Bible for centuries) inexplicably deleted Mark’s original account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances before compiling our most ancient texts and destroyed all older versions, thus accounting for its absence in our earliest manuscripts; or (2) these same orthodox Christians intentionally added references of Jesus’ post-resurrection to the end Mark to support their argument that he rose in the flesh and inadvertently failed to destroy all older versions. If we are to be fair, the second explanation is far more likely.
3) In Mark 1:1, many of the oldest manuscripts do not include Jesus’ title as “Son of God.” This “divine” title was added by the church to bolster its claim of Jesus’ divinity.
4) The oldest and best manuscripts mistakenly attribute the Old Testament quote in Mark 1:2 to Isaiah rather than to Malachi. Later scribes corrected this obvious error by altering the text to attribute the subsequent quotes simply to “the Prophets.”
5) Mark 11:26 does not appear at all in many ancient texts.
6) Mark 15:28 does not appear in many ancient texts.
7) Part of Luke 22:19 and all of Luke 22:20 do not appear in some ancient manuscripts.
8) The oldest manuscripts do not contain John 8:1-11, which records the only gospel account of the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus’ famous statement to “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. About a dozen of the ancient manuscripts (the “Family 13” miniscules dating to the ninth century) peculiarly place the story of the adulterous woman not in the gospel of John, but after Luke 21:38. However, based on the historical record, scholars are quite certain that this story was never part of John’s or Luke’s “original” account.
9) The oldest manuscripts do not contain Acts 9:37, in which Phillip apparently requires a eunuch to profess a certain “belief” that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” prior to being baptized with water. The eunuch’s confession of faith appears for the first time in the Codex Laudianus, which is dated to the sixth century. This spurious addition was inserted long after Acts was written, likely in an effort to bolster the orthodox position that specific “beliefs” were required in order to receive baptism and be saved.
10) Matthew 23:14 is not found in the earliest manuscripts.
And the Older Copies Weren't Really Any Better
One may be tempted to think that the early Church Fathers must surely have had "truer", uncorrupted copies of these books, copies that we may one day unearth or recreate through the aid of textual criticism. But if this is true at all, it is only marginally true. Even as early as the third century the church father Origen lamented:
The difference among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.
And, the so-called Father of Church History, Eusebius (c. 300) quotes the Bishop of Corinth, Dionysius, as similarly lamenting:
When my fellow-Christians invited me to write letter to them I did so. These the devils apostles have filled with tares, taking away some things and adding others.... Small wonder then if some have dared to tamper even with the word of the Lord Himself, when they ahve conspired to mutilate my own humble efforts.
Literalists Attempt to Rationalize Away the Problem
While Literalists are quick to point out that most of the manuscript differences among the source documents are relatively “minor” in nature, and they attribute many of them to errors in transcription by the scribes charged with making copies of the sacred documents, their mere existence is troubling. Even if all discrepancies resulted from scribal errors of a minor nature, they still provide incontrovertible proof that human error has corrupted what Literalist often argue is “God’s infallible Word.”
Furthermore, having conceded that its possible for humans to have “inadvertently” altered God’s word, if only in minor ways (they assure us), it seems to me that Literalists should have a hard time explaining why humans, especially ideologically motivated humans with a known propensity for forgery (like the early Literalist Christians) could not have also intentionally altered God’s word in material ways to suit their purposes. Said another way, why would God have permitted his Word to be corruptible by human error, but not by human intent? If it is corruptible at all, it is surely corruptible by both.
Despite the self-evident sensibleness of this contention, "faithful" Literalists have historically attempted to argue the contrary. Daniel Whitby, a prominent, Literalist theologian of the early 1700's, was one of them:
Whitby['s]...basic view was that even though God certainly would not prevent errors from creeping into scribal copies of the New Testament, at the same time he would never allow the text to be corrupted (i.e., altered) to the point that it could not adequately achieve its divine aim and purpose. (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus at 85)
And yet, after being confronted with a the work of John Mill, a fellow of Queen's College who spent the better part of his life analyzing surviving Greek manuscripts (cataloging more than thirty thousand textual variations among them), even Whitby was forced to admit:
I GRIEVE therefore and am vexed that I have found so much in Mill's Prolegomena which seems quite plainly to render the standard of faith [referred to as the "rule of faith" above and which, as the reader will recall was the method by which the orthodox distinguished "authentic" texts from forgeries when compiling the Bible] insecure, or at best to give others too good a handle for doubting. (quoted in Misquoting Jesus at 85)
Thus, if our modern Bibles are, as Literalists would have us believe, the infallible Word of God (at least in all material respects), they are so not because God has protected them over the centuries from human corruption, for the existence of manuscript differences and errors in translation is undeniable. Rather, if they are infallible, they are so only because the keepers of the Bible over the centuries have not made any material human mistakes in transcription or translation, nor have they intentionally perverted it in any meaningful way. And yet, like Whitby at his most honest, any fair contemplation of the evidence shows that this is not the case.
Not All Variances are Errors
It simply cannot be seriously maintained that all the known manuscript discrepancies in our Bibles were unintentional and immaterial. The most important of these differences, the additions that appear in later manuscripts which do not appear in earlier versions, can be directly traced to on-going and well-known debates within the early church on various theological issues, and perhaps not surprisingly, virtually all of these edits tend to bolster the orthodox, Literalist’s arguments. This tendency to add orthodox teachings to scripture is too consistent throughout the centuries to be merely the result of random scribal errors.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity was not an explicitly stated theological concept when the earliest manuscripts were written, and it was the subject of much heated debate as late as the 4th century CE (and actually much, much beyond that, as any moder day Unitarian would tell you). That later manuscripts contain Trinitarian words or phrases which are not found in the earliest versions of those same manuscripts is compelling evidence of intentional revision by orthodox editors, not simply scribal error. Even Bible scholars frequently cited by Literalists have had to admit this fact:
I think that these words [concerning the Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8] are found in only about seven or eight [source] copies, all from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. I acknowledge that this is not part of what the author of 1 John was inspired to write. (Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ at 65, quoting Bruce M. Metzger, PhD)
The insertion of Jesus’ title as Son of God in later versions of Mark 1:1 provides a second example of a spurious and intentional addition. Jesus’ exact nature continued to be debated into the Fourth Century, with many Christians viewing him as having been purely human, others as purely God, and yet others as both. Those who viewed him as in some manner divine ultimately won the day. That his “divine” title as “Son of God” appears in later versions of Mark 1:1, but not in earlier ones, again reveals the hand of editors intent on bolstering their theological case, and perhaps on harmonizing the Gospels. (As a side note, "Son of God" was not considered a divine title at all to Jews, as evidenced by various Old Testament personalities who, like Jesus, were called such. However, Greek culture, thanks to various pagan religious myths, did consider the "sons of God" to be divine.)
A third example is Paul’s supposed directives for women to be silent in church, found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12-15. 1 Timothy is a known forgery designed to, among many other things, advance anti-Gnostic, orthodox, misogynist views which were certainly not Paul’s own, so we will consider it no further. But what about 1 Corinthians, which scholars almost universally agree was indeed originally written by Paul?
There are good reasons for thinking Paul did not write the passage about women being silent in chapter 14 [of 1 Corinthians]. For one thing, just three chapters earlier Paul condoned the practice of women speaking in church. They are to have their heads covered, he insists, when they pray and prophecy [teach]—activities done out loud in antiquity. How could Paul condone a practice (women speaking in church) in chapter 11 that he condemns in chapter 14?
It has often been noted that the passage in chapter 14 also appears intrusive in its own literary context: Both before and after his instructions for women to keep silent, Paul is speaking not about women in church but about prophets [i.e., teachers] in church. When the verses on women are removed, the passage flows neatly without a break. This too suggests that these verses were inserted into the passage later. Moreover, it is striking that the verses in question appear in different locations in some of our surviving manuscripts of Paul’s letter as if they had originally appeared as a marginal note (drawn from the teaching of the forged letter of 1 Timothy?) and inserted as judged appropriate in different parts of the chapter. On these grounds, a number of scholars have concluded that Paul’s instructions for women to be silent in 1 Corinthians may not be from Paul, just as the letter to Timothy is not from Paul.
What, then, was Paul’s attitude toward women in the church? In his undisputed letters, Paul indicates that “in Christ there is no male or female” (Gal 3:28), that is, that men and women were completely equal in Christ. Moreover, as scholars of the late twentieth century began to emphasize, churches connected in some way with Paul appear to have had women leaders. Just in the greetings to the church of Rome, for example, Paul mentions several women who worked with him as Christian missionaries (Rom 16:3,6, 12), another who was the patron of the church meeting in her home (16:3), one other, a woman named Phoebe, who was a deacon in the church of Cenchrea (16:1), and most striking of all, yet another women, Junia, whom Paul describes as “foremost among the apostles” (16:7). (Ehrman, cite forthcoming)
This last comment by Paul, where he acknowledges that women were included among the apostles, was so difficult for orthodox translators (many of whom were staunch misogynists as we shall see) to stomach that, until recently, translations simply changed the name of the person in question to "Junias", presumably a man's name. But:
[W]hereas Junia was a common name for a woman, there is no evidence in the ancient world for "Junias" as a man's name. Paul is referring to a woman named Junia, even though in some modern English Bibles (you may want to check your own!) translators continue to refer to this female apostle as if she were a man name Junias. (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus at 18)
Yet, another example of intentional revision occurs in Luke 2:33. Originally this verse said, “And His [i.e., Jesus’] father and mother marveled at what was said about Him”, suggesting that Jesus’ father was Joseph, which could not be if Jesus were born of a virgin. Consequently, Literalist scribes altered later versions of the manuscripts to read, “Joseph and his mother marveled at what was said about him”, thereby preventing anyone from interpreting Luke as suggesting that Joseph was Jesus’ father. The altered version is the one that is preserved for us today in King James Version of our Bibles, although the New American Standard and New International Versions are among those that properly render the phrase as it was originally.
Orthodox editors also made revisions to Luke 3:22 to counteract the claim by some early Christians that Jesus was not truly divine until he was “adopted” by God at his baptism. This theory, known as adoptionism, was popular among certain early Christian groups and, at least originally, had biblical support. For example, the oldest surviving source texts of Luke 3:22 quotes God as saying from the clouds at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my son, today I have begotten you”, which is a paraphrase of Psalm 2:7. However, orthodox scribes, who opposed the adoptionist theory, were naturally uncomfortable with a quote from God suggesting that Jesus was not begotten of God until the day of his baptism, especially when such language was different from that offered in Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ baptism, and directly contradicted John’s account of Jesus’ pre-existent divinity!
So, was Jesus begotten of God before his birth, as suggested in the opening chapter of John, or only after his baptism, as taught by the authentic Luke, or only upon his resurrection as taught by Paul? All of these inconsistencies were too much for Literalist orthodox editors to bear. To prevent the faithful from being “misled”, Literalist scribes and translators simply altered Luke 3:22 to read, “You are my beloved Son; in You I am well pleased”, an apparent illusion to Isaiah 42. This alteration had the three-fold benefit of preventing an adoptionist interpretation, harmonizing Luke’s account of God’s words with the accounts of Mark and Matthew, and linking Jesus to Isaiah and his prophecies. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the altered version survives to this day in virtually every modern translation of the New Testament (though the authentic reading is sometimes footnoted).
In another striking example of orthodox alterations, a whole scene was inserted into Luke to counteract the docetic “heresy”, or the teaching that Jesus didn’t actually suffer during his passion due to his divine nature. The scene in question is the famous episode where Jesus, distressed over his impending fate, "sweats blood" in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke 22:43-44 describes the scene as follows:
Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in great agony, he prayed more earnestly. Then his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.
As dramatic and memorable as this scene is, it appears only in later versions of the Gospel of Luke! It does not appear in the earliest and most reliable versions of Luke and is absent from Matthew, Mark, and John altogether. Although it is an obvious and spurious addition, it is preserved even in our modern Bibles (though again, some translations provide the authentic reading via footnote).
One final example of Gospel alterations can be seen in their rather disingenuous anti-Semitism. It is exceedingly unlikely that the anti-Jewish sentiments expressed in the Gospels were written by first century Jews. It’s presence within them strongly suggests the influence of pro-Roman, non-jewish editors who, after the fact, offered up the Jews as scapegoats for the actions of the Roman authorities. As Professor Eisenman has noted:
It should be categorically stated…that a Jewish document can be sectarian, that is, anti-Pharisee or even anti-Sadducee, as the Dead Sea Scrolls most certainly are and the Gospels at their most authentic sometimes are, but it cannot be anti-Semitic. This would be a contradiction in terms. (James The Brother of Jesus at 59)
In this respect,
[I]t is an illuminating exercise to trace the treatment of Pilate [the Roman Governor] through our surviving Gospels. The more he is excused, the more the Jews are blamed. Our earliest account, Mark, shows Pilate and the Jewish people reaching a kind of agreement to have Jesus crucified. Pilate then orders it, and Jesus is taken off immediately to his death (Mark 15:1-15). In Matthew’s Gospel, written somewhat later, Pilate is warned by his wife, who has had a bad dream, not to be involved in the affair; Pilate then shows that he wants nothing to do with Jesus’ death by washing his hand of the business. “I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves,” he declares. The Jewish crowd then responds, “His blood be on us and our children” (Matt 27:25), a response doomed to wreak havoc in the hands of Christian persecutors of Jews throughout the Middle Ages.
In Luke’s Gospel, written about the same time as Matthew, Pilate declares Jesus innocent three times, to no avail, and tries to arrange for King Herod, in town for the Passover Feast, to do the dirty work for him. But again it is to no avail. With little way out, Pilate yields to the demands of the Jewish leaders and orders Jesus crucified (Luke 23:1-15). In John’s Gospel, the final canonical account to be written, Pilate again declares Jesus innocent three times, and then finally, when his hand is forced, turns Jesus over—not, however to the Roman soldiers but to the Jewish people. Jesus is then crucified. (John 18:28—19:16) (Ehrman, Lost Christianities at 21)
Thus, as time passed, the Gospels reflected ever increasing levels of hostility toward the Jews, and accommodation toward the Romans. This is exactly what we’d expect to see:
[The Jewish historian] Josephus notes that all historical works form this period suffer from two main defects, “flattery of the Romans and vilification of the Jews, adulation and abuse being substituted for the real historical record.” (James the Brother of Jesus at xxii)
In short, no document that offended Rome, not even the Bible, could long persist in the ancient world. Rome was brutal in its suppression of dissent, especially in persistent trouble spots like the land of the Jews. Furthermore, once Rome became Christianity’s sponsor in the time of Constantine, both Rome and the Church had every motivation to obscure the former’s role in Jesus’ death by offering up the troublesome Jews as scapegoats. Therefore, to the extent the Gospels vilify the Jews en masse (such as when the Jews amazingly and disingenuously cry out for the blood of Jesus to be on their heads and the heads of their children), and flatter the Romans in unbelievable ways (such as when the notoriously brutal and despised Pontius Pilate repeatedly declares Jesus’ innocence and is made to wash his hands of Jesus’ blood), we have evidence of late, non-Jewish editing of the Gospels. It should be remembered that most all the orthodox Church Fathers who selected and edited our Bibles were not Jews, and after Constantine many owed their livelihood to Rome.
Hidden in Plain Sight
One might wonder how it is that orthodox leaders could have expected to hide all these inconsistencies for so long. In this respect, we must remember that, after the fourth century, the laity was not permitted to read the Bible directly, but rather had it read to them by priests. For centuries, Priests could simply choose to read those portions of the Bible that advanced the Literalist, orthodox agenda (such as the spurious addition of “Paul’s” prohibition against women speaking in church), while failing to read contradictory passages, such as Paul’s statement of equality in 1 Corinthians 12. Having no access to Bible’s themselves, much less earlier versions of the work to serve as a basis for comparison, the laity never knew the difference.
Have We Found All the Alterations?
In cataloging some of the known alterations and revisions to the Bible above, I have mentioned only a few of the more significant ones that persist in our modern Bibles. But, in addition to these, scholars have also identified numerous historical alterations which are mostly invisible to the modern reader because they have since been corrected via updated translations and modern revisions of older ones. So, even if our modern Bible’s could by some miracle be deemed infallible, it is indisputable that centuries upon centuries of earlier Christians, the one's who developed our familiar Christian dogma, were denied this same benefit. And yet, we are to believe that the Atonement Theology that they developed by reading these faulty texts is nonetheless correct.
Can one be certain that scholars have catalogued all theologically-motivated alterations to scripture? Certainly not. We know that orthodox Christians intentionally altered the New Testament text to suit their agenda, we just don’t know how much they did so. The reason is that:
We don’t have “originals” of any of the books that came to be included in the New Testatment, or indeed of any Christian book from antiquity. What we have are copies of the originals or, to be more accurate, copies made from copies of the copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. (Ehrman, Lost Christianities at 217).
In short, given the extensiveness and importance of the theologically motivated alterations that have been detected, given that we don’t have anything close to the originals to examine, and given that those surviving New Testament texts that we do have were all compiled and translated by orthodox Literalists, there is no way to be sure that our Bibles don’t contain significant additional alterations which defy detection. Indeed, it seems exceedingly likely that they do.
Additional Literalist Rationalizations
Literalist Christians argue that we should dismiss all these alterations, revisions, additions and edits to the Bible as “immaterial.” They are immaterial, they argue, because they simply confirm the truth of whatever particular Literalist doctrine the additions support. In other words, Literalists argue that because what the additions say is true anyway, we shouldn’t worry about them. An alteration supporting the Trinity is immaterial because the Trinity is true. An alteration suggesting Jesus suffered is immaterial because Jesus did suffer. An alteration supporting the notion that Jesus was divine at birth is immaterial because Jesus was divine at birth. “No harm, no foul” is the rationale. However, this argument ignores the fact that many, even most, Literalist doctrines were not accepted as “truth” by a large portion of the earliest Christians, and very likely wouldn’t be accepted as such today but for the Literalists’ ultimate victory and recasting of the scriptures:
[I]f some other form of Christianity had won the early struggles for dominance, the familiar doctrines of Christianity might never have become the “standard” belief of millions of people…. The New Testament as a collection of sacred books might never have come into being. Or it might have come into being with an entirely different set of books…. (Ehrman, Lost Christianities at 6)
The “no harm, no foul” rationale proffered by Literalists also ignores the fact that many of these alterations also serve the purpose of reconciling discrepancies among the Gospels, making them appear to bear witness to the same facts or “truths” when they often don’t. In other words, read in the original tongue, the doctrinal positions of the Literalists are not self-evidently true. For example, as we have seen, in its authentic form, Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism suggests that Jesus was not begotten of God until the day he was baptized! This directly contradicts other biblical accounts, which suggest that Jesus was divine at birth, or even before birth, or only upon his resurrection. By altering Luke’s account of the words spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism so as to harmonize them with the other gospel accounts, scribes made sure that the orthodox view of Jesus’ divinity was emphasized in our modern Bibles, and also disguised an obvious contradiction in what is supposed to be God’s infallible word. If the orthodox didn’t hesitate to alter the actual words of God quoted in the scriptures, then there’s no reason to believe that they would think twice about altering, for example, Paul’s letters. I will have much more on this later.
Finally, given the tendency of Literalists to construct entire theological concepts from only one or two Bible verses, any alteration to God’s Word must be considered material and spurious. For example, the Literalist Christian theological doctrines of the Rapture, the Trinity, Original Sin, Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death, and the subservient status of women (just to name a few) find New Testament support in only a handful of verses oft cited by Literalist. If some or all of these verses are spurious, then these theological concepts are themselves questionable at best and fraudulent at worst. Any alteration to a supposedly infallible, God-inspired document must be considered substantive, meaningful, and unacceptable, Literalist justifications notwithstanding.
Educated Literalists who are aware of the above problems with their position sometimes resort to arguing that, biblical alternations not withstanding, the very survival of their faith is evidence of its authenticity:
Why of all first-century figures, including the Roman emperors, is Jesus still worshiped today, while the others have crumbled in to the dust of history? It’s because this Jesus--the historical Jesus—is also the living Lord. That’s why. It’s because he’s still around, while the others are long gone. (Ben Witherington, III, PhD quoted in The Case for Christ at 141)
Elaine Pagels sum up this particular Literalist argument beautifully:
Traditionally, Christian theologians have declared that “the Holy Spirit guides the church into all truth”—a statement often taken to mean that what has survived must be right. Some historians of religion have rationalized this conviction by implying that in Christian history, as in the history of science, weak, false ideas die off early, while the strong and valid ones survive. The late Raymond Brown, a prominent New Testament scholar and Roman Catholic Sulpican priest, stated this perspective baldly: What orthodox [Literalist] Christians rejected was only “the rubbish of the second century”—and he added, “it’s still rubbish.” ( Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas at 76-77)
But, the flaws in these “survival of the truest” arguments should be apparent to all. First, if indeed the Holy Spirit guides the decisions of the church “into all truth”, how do we explain the mistakes that churches of all denominations and persuasions throughout the centuries have made and now acknowledge? In the Catholic tradition, Crusades, witch hunts, inquisitions, corruption, Papal incest, the peddling of indulgences, and outright purchase of the throne of St. Peter are all documented facts of church history. To name a few more specific examples of Church mistakes, the Catholic Church burned Joan of Arc at the stake for heresy, only to name her a Saint some 500 years later. In 591 CE, the Vatican, via Pope Gregory the Great, declared that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, only to recant this teaching more than one thousand years later, in 1969. In the 16th Century, Pope Paul the 4th banished the Jews of Rome to live in a ghetto, where they were confined from sunset to sunrise, and the Middle Ages are replete with examples of church-sponsored persecution of Jews, including the Spanish Inquisition. It was not until this century that Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged how misguided the Catholic Church had been in persecuting the Jews, apologizing for it publicly.
The history of Protestant Churches is likewise riddled with mistakes which they now only reluctantly acknowledge--the Salem Witch Hunts, support of slavery, and collaboration with murdering dictators just to name three.
Given this, how can anyone seriously assert that the “Holy Spirit guides the church into all truth” or, if it does, that the Church has at all relevant times been guided by the Holy Spirit? More specifically, are we to believe that the Church was temporarily misguided when it did the horrible things noted above for which it later apologized, but was perfectly guided when it designated some Christian writings as canonical (biblical) while brutally suppressing those Christian writings that it deemed “heretical”?
Second, the Literalist contention that in the marketplace of ideas truth ultimately prevails, is likewise unpersuasive. Even if we accept the doubtful premise that, if ideas are permitted to compete for the heart and sole of humanity, true ones generally become accepted over time while false ones fall away, the same cannot be said where coercive and suppressive techniques such as those discussed above, and many more that will be detailed below, are used to prevent the competition of ideas in the first place! For anyone to now assert that, after a fifteen hundred year history of propaganda and suppression of so-called heresy through book-burnings, inquisitions, forgeries, torture, burnings at the stake, misleading translations, and brain-washing on a massive scale, we are to accept the Literalist Church’s present-day existence as evidence of the truthfulness of its message is simply absurd.
Third, Buddhism and Hinduism are both older than Christianity and have, by comparison, almost no history of coersive proselytizing, yet their membership rivals that of all Literalist Christian churches combined. If the Literalist “survival of the truest” argument is to be accepted, then these religions must share the title, but I don’t know many Literalist who would willingly concede this point.
And finally, the idea that the “heretical” ideas of the past have not survived to the present, while those of Literalist Christianity have, is simply a false premise to begin with. Although, the “heretical” spiritual ideas of our Christian ancestors do not exist today in any large-scale, institutionalized form (except perhaps in secret societies that developed during the time they were actively suppressed), they nonetheless have persisted to the present as evidenced by the popularity of so-called “New Age” spirituality, which has much in common with the Gnostic and pagan ideas that were suppressed for centuries. Even many of our most popular movies--such as The Matrix and the Star Wars series, just to name two—are replete with Gnostic ideas. Indeed, these ancient, “heretical” teachings have survived every century’s attempts at repression:
In all periods of the world’s history, and in every part of the globe, secret orders and societies have existed outside the limits of the official churches for the purpose of teaching what are called “the Mysteries”: for imparting to suitable and prepared minds certain truths of human life, certain instructions about divine things,…about human nature and human destiny….
[B]ehind all the official religious systems of the world, and behind all the great moral movements and developments in the history of humanity, have stood what St. Paul called the keepers or “stewards of the Mysteries” [1 Corinthians 4:1]. From that source Christianity itself came into the world. From them originated the great school of Kabalism, that marvelous system of secret, oral tradition of the Hebrews, a strong element of which has been introduced into [the] Masonic system. From them, too, also issued many fraternities and orders, such for instance, as the great orders of Chivalry and of the Rosicrucians, and the school of spiritual alchemy. Lastly, from them too also issued, in the seventeenth century, modern speculative Freemasonry. (W.L. Wilmshurst, The Meaning of Masonry at 22-23.)
If “survival” is the test of truthfulness, the “heretical” ideas of our Gnostic ancestors have at least equal claim to the “orthodox” idea of our Literalist ones.
To conclude this chapter, we have seen how the battles for Christianity shaped our New Testament. To quote Professor Ehrman:
[T]hese confrontations were waged largely on literary grounds, as members of the proto-orthodox group produced polemical tractates in opposition to other Christian perspectives, forged sacred texts to provide authorizations for their own perspectives (forgeries, that is, claiming to be written by Jesus’ own apostles), and collected other early writings into a sacred canon of Scripture to advance their views and counteract the views of others. It is out of these conflicts that the New Testament came into being, a collection of twenty-seven books taken to be sacred, inspired, and authoritative. (Ehrman, Lost Christianities at 7)
[W]hen we talk about the “final” version of the New Testament, we are doing so in (mental) quotation marks, for there never has been complete agreement on the canon throughout the Christian world. (Ehrman, Lost Christianities at 231)
What Literalists today consider the divine, infallible Word of God is indisputably a compilation of various inconsistent source texts that have, at best, been subjected to the unconscious biases of translators throughout the ages and, at worst, have been intentionally altered and relentlessly edited to serve the objectives of those in power, namely orthodox Literalists. As one Christian scholar has noted:
Our modern Greek text [from which our modern English translations are derived] may be described as a reconstructed or restored text. Only two alternatives are available if we seek to print a Greek text. Either we can select one manuscript and make it the standard text, or we can consult a number of manuscripts and authorities and by comparison reconstruct a text which we feel is like the original. If we choose the former course, we are destined to failure, for no one manuscript is free from obvious scribal errors. If we choose the latter course, we will be assured of getting much closer to the original New Testament autographs. For this reason the latter course has always been followed in the printing of the Greek New Testament. This means that our modern text is an edition of the New Testament text restored through all the aids of textual criticism. (How We Got the Bible at 104).
Thus, if there ever was an infallible version of the Bible, it is undoubtedly lost to us today, and has been lost for almost two thousand years. No fair-mined, rational, and knowledgeable person can conclude otherwise. We have no Gnostic Bible’s today only because the orthodox Literalists were the one’s who compiled our Bibles, suppressing all other scriptures and disguising the Gnostic ideas in those they retained. How Literalist gained their power over the Bible is the subject of the next chapter.
(CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 6)