Did Constantine corrupt the Gospel or Bible?

Over the years I have been asked rather frequently about Constantine. There is lots of misinformation and rumour that circulates about him.  Popular books/movies such as the Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail portray him as the Roman Emperor who basically invented the Gospel for his own political ends.  Is that true?  Let us start with some easy-to-verify facts about him.

Constantine the Great: Facts on-hand

Constantine was Roman Emperor from 306-337 AD.  Prior to his rule many of the Roman Emperors were openly hostile to the Gospel, killing and persecuting many of the followers of the gospel.  The Emperor Nero started this trend in 64 AD, when he took first century followers of the gospel, bound and dipped them in oil, and burned them alive as human torches for lighting in his palace gardens!  Successive Emperors Domitian, Marcus Aurelius (of Gladiator movie fame), Diocletian and others continued this kind of treatment.  But Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, granting religious tolerance to all views.  Constantine became sole emperor of Rome by being victorious in a series of military campaigns against other rivals.  During these campaigns he converted to Christianity (from paganism).  There is much debate today whether his ‘conversion’ was sincere, or whether he did so for political gain.

The Council of Nicaea

In 325 AD Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the first empire-wide meeting of church leaders to discuss various controversies.   People often wonder if the gospels were changed or corrupted, or even selected (in some back-room conspiracy) for inclusion in the Bible at this time.  In fact, the main point of discussion was the theological understanding of the relationship between Jesus and God.  One camp (led by Arius) held that they were of different essences, and the other camp (led by Athanasius) held that they were of the same essences.   Therefore we know that theological interpretations were staked out and the summary Nicene Creed was authored from this council convened by Constantine.

Corruption or Conspiracy?

But were the gospels changed and/or selected at this council?  As we saw in Session 3 and the introductory article on Textual Criticism of the Bible, there are many manuscripts on-hand today that come from up to two hundred years before the time of Constantine (and the Council of Nicaea).  If this council (or Constantine) changed the documents of the New Testament then we would see this change in the copies that pre-date the Council of Nicaea from those that come after.  But the copies show no such change.  We see this in the timeline in the figure below taken from an article on the King James Bible where the manuscripts for Bibles today predate Constantine and the Council of Nicaea by up to two hundred years.

manuscripts and times from which modern Bibles are translated

From where does the Bible come?

But were the ‘wrong’ gospels selected into the Bible at this point?  We also know that this was not the case because both sides of the debate (Arius and Athanasius) used the same gospels and epistles (the ones that are in the Bible now) to argue their case.  Arius and Athanasius did not disagree on what the scriptural documents stated, nor did they disagree on which documents should be ‘in’ the Bible.  They disagreed, with heated debate, on the interpretation of these same scriptures.  We know this because an account of the debates and intrigues of the Council of Nicaea and Constantine’s role in it is preserved for us in the reporting of Eusebius who was one of the delegates to this council.  The writings of Athanasius are also preserved.

Constantine vs. the Good News of Gospel

Constantine did have a huge impact on the development of Christianity.  Christian celebrations like Christmas on December 25, how the date for the Easter celebration is calculated, and a reversal of the gospel from being counter-cultural and viewed with mistrust by the government, to becoming the cultural standard of Europe, in alliance with government, started with Constantine.  But the Gospel is not about culture or government power.  It is about a good news message from God freely received in the hearts and minds of people – and then changing their hearts.  And just like barnacles collecting on the hull of a ship can distort the hydrodynamics of a streamlined keel – and must be removed for the ship to regain its ability to move gracefully in the water – so a lot of Christianity that has developed since Constantine might need to be scraped away so we can access the pure gospel.  But it can be done.  And the ‘scraper’ with which we can find the pure Good News is the Bible.  Since the books in the Bible were not invented, modified or corrupted by Constantine we can use them to get a view of Jesus and his Gospel that has been around since his disciples went forth proclaiming his message.  This also allows us to better understand the various conspiracy theories about Jesus, (like did he have a wife or was he ‘invented’ from the ancient Egyptian mystery religion of Osiris, Isis and Horus).  It also allows us to understand where terms like ‘Christ’ originate.

But what about the theology and creeds that came from the Council of Nicaea?  Are they corrupt?  The really good news is that since the scriptures upon which these interpretations were debated are open and available to us today, we ourselves can consider the scriptures, understand its message, and assess those very same interpretations and creeds.  What many people have not understood, is that all themes in the Bible have their origins in the Old Testament, which predates by hundreds of years the influence of Constantine and even that of the Church.  For example, prophetic themes about the coming of the Messiah, as well as themes predicting the development of the Jewish people are dotted through the entire Old Testament.

Whatever we conclude about creeds and theology we can then ‘own it’ if we examine it for ourselves.  We may decide for a multitude of reasons not to believe or accept the Gospel.  Or we may decide to embrace it.  But let us avoid the really foolish notion of bringing Constantine into the mix.  He would be a poor excuse whichever way we land.

Addressing objections to the Signs of Abraham & Moses

In my previous post I noted that a really good comment had been submitted on the External Evidence Session, basically questioning the value of external evidence.  The comment noted that external evidence does not tell us whether or not the gospel stories were legendary extrapolations built around a historical kernel of events.  I agreed, but submitted that at the very minimum external evidence can be used to weed out pretenders from contenders, similar to how first-year university courses are often designed to weed out students with insufficient motivation or aptitude.

First-year courses also serve as the foundational prerequisites upon which the more useful upper-year courses are built – the ones that give the knowledge and information that we really use.  In a similar way we are now in a position to integrate the External Evidence Session with that of Session 5 – where we opened a case to see if there is a Divine Mind behind the biblical account.

Abraham sacrifices his Son

In that 5th Session we looked at two very important stories in the earliest section of the Old Testament – in the Pentateuch of the books ascribed to Moses.  We first looked at the account of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, which (though many are not aware of it) we showed to be the place where the city of Jerusalem was eventually established.  And we saw that there are allusions in this account of Abraham that have fascinating parallels with, and point to, Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem.  It is the fact that the allusion predates the event it alludes to by thousands of years that makes it so especially intriguing.  It points to a drama/literary mind, but since no human mind can coordinate events far into the future it opens the possibility that there is indeed a Divine Mind coordinating these events.

Tacitus: External Evidence Corroborating where Jesus was crucified

Now the first (and most obvious) rebuttal to this is that the gospel writers simply made up the ‘detail’ of Jesus’crucifixion being in Jerusalem to make it ‘fit’ that Abrahamic allusion.  But now we know from external evidence that Tacitus (a historian not at all sympathetic to the gospel) places that event in Judea.  He says:

Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, … but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated…(Annals XV. 44)

Josephus: External Evidence Corroborating Jesus

Josephus, the Jewish historian from the same period agrees with Tacitus in saying that:

At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.  (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

And Josephus tells us in his Antiquities in the two paragraphs just preceding this quote that:

But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there …Pilate was the first who brought these [pagan] images to Jerusalem and set them there …But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

In other words, though the Roman center had previously been in Cesarea, Pilate was in Jerusalem when Jesus was executed.  So we have two external sources with unbiased or negative motives that corroborate the crucifixion of Jesus being under Pilate in Jerusalem.  Thus we know that the Gospel writers did not fabricate this detail to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Abraham.

Moses’ Passover Account

Similarly with the Mosaic Passover story we saw allusions pointing to the Passover as the time of year when Jesus was to be executed.  For Jesus’ death to fall on that same festival by chance is slim indeed.  Adding to that is that the Mosaic account tells us that this festival is a ‘sign for us’ and it comes with so many parallels to Jesus crucifixion.  Did the Gospel writers fabricate this link to the Passover to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Moses?

Jewish Talmud: External Evidence

We did not cover this particular item in the External Evidence session, but in the Jewish Talmud is preserved this statement about the execution of Jesus.

“Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve.  Forty days previously the herald had cried, ‘He is being led out for stoning because he has practised sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy.  Whosoever has anything to say in his defence let him come and declare it’.  As nothing was brought forward in his defence he was hanged on Passover Eve” cited in FF Bruce,  Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. 1974 p.56

So we have, once again, hostile witnesses, that though disagreeing on the meaning of Jesus, place Jesus’ crucifixion (ie hanging) at Passover.  They would be the last people to have any motive to do so because it strengthens the meaning of Jesus that they are vehemently at odds with.

So we cannot simply dismiss the fulfillment of these allusions that we looked at in Session 5 as simply fabrications on the part of the gospel writers.  We have to take it seriously as history.

And that does partially address an issue that was raised when Justin asked:

The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?

In other words, how can one verify the miraculous?  And we here are confronted with a strengthening case for a Divine Mind in these accounts since, using external evidence, we cannot dismiss their fulfillment simply by saying that the gospel writers made it up.  These particular details are verifiable.  And if there is a Divine Mind, i.e. God, then certainly miracles are possible.  Now, I titled Session 5 as an ‘opening case’ because I think if there are only these two allusions it is certainly conceivable that coincidence could explain them.  But it does open up a possibility that surely warrants further investigation.  Are there more, even ones that are more explicit?  Here is a good place to start to investigate.

Religious Evidence: From Flying Spaghetti Monsters to Mormons and Miracles

Justin, your comments in my Introduction to External Evidence were so insightful I thought conversation should continue around them with a post.  You summarized my intent by surmising

I guess your main aim was to convince us that the Bible’s content is not ‘mythical’ in the sense that it was not entirely made up, and I agree with that (except in the case of the creation story)…

And that indeed was my aim.  I was not trying to prove or state that the Biblical account is true, proven or inspired, but that it sits on a tight historical framework.  So why do I think that to be significant?  Permit me to draw upon my university experience to illustrate.

When I started out in Forest Engineering I took courses like statics, dynamics, physics and mathematics.  They were rather tough courses for us first year students so the failure rate was high.  “Why are they loading us down with so many hard assignments and killer tests?” we would complain to each other.  The word spread that in fact the professors intentionally structured things this way to ‘weed out’ students.  And in fact that is what happened.  We ended that year with about half the number of students that started.  Those of us who remained were still not ready to graduate and get our engineering rings – other difficulties lay ahead and not all would make it – but now the professors would continue our education with smaller, more focused classes.

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

This illustrates my first reason for looking at external evidence – it ‘weeds out’ many spurious candidates.  And you will find that there are many contestants in this ‘class’.  There are enough to make us wonder if we can make any sense of it.

For example, if you google ‘flying spaghetti monster’ you will find that the FSM (to use the acronym) is touted by some as a deity.  Now they do so in parody and satire (they are pastafarians of the church of the FSM!).  By their satire they are asking a very pointed question: “Why should anyone take a biblical account more seriously than how you take the FSM deity (which you dismiss)?  If you dismiss the FSM out-of-hand why not dismiss the Bible out-of-hand?”  Applying external evidence is my ‘first cut’ by which I rationally weed out pretenders from contenders.  Why do I dismiss the FSM?  There is not one shred of evidence that the FSM has interacted through history in any way.  This is not the case for the Bible.  FSMers, however, in their mockery, have never informed themselves enough of the Bible to see the difference.  Their scorn for the Bible has kept them in ignorance of its historical evidence.

Similarly, I have friends who claim that Jesus never existed.  External evidence shouts that this is nonsense.  Historical writers outside the Bible, living in the first century (ex. Josephus) , affirm Jesus’ existence.  I know others who worship pagan deities such as Thor.  External evidence allows me to ask, “Has this god/figure ever intersected with humanity in a historical way?”  External evidence allows me to dismiss Thor and accept Jesus at a purely historical level.  External Evidence is a great way to make a ‘first cut’.

The Mormon Claim

External evidence is also useful in assessing the claims of those who have added or interpret the Bible in an unusual way.  Mormons are a good example of that.  When I was a university student, Mormon missionaries met with me over multiple weeks to explain their message.  I learned that their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, had discovered scriptures in the early 19th century buried in the ground in New York State that told the history of a clash of civilizations in North America.  These civilizations stemmed from a small Jewish community that left Jerusalem around the time of its first fall (586 BC) and emigrated to North America.  This discovery by Smith was written in a book made from golden plates in a language of ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’.

External evidence allowed me to ask and assess some basic questions.  Why would Jewish people write in ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’ when in all their other (numerous) writings they used Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek?  In fact, there is not one shred of one historical document in existence anywhere in the world today written in ‘Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics’ (the gold-plated original that Smith discovered was ‘lost’ just after he translated it into English), so there is no external evidence, within a sea of data from that era, that even such a language ever existed, let alone that this gold-plated document existed.  All other writings from that era were written on scrolls made from animal skins or papyrus plants.  Why would these Jews start using gold plates?  No other gold plate documents from any culture in that era exist.  There is no archeological evidence of any civilization in North America having a Jewish distinctive (and remember that Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the world for millennia and have always maintained their Jewish distinctive customs and scriptures).  The lack of external evidence starts to scream against these claims.

Jews have existed in various countries around the world, living distinctive from the native population for thousands of years.  Whether religious or not they have always maintained the ritual of circumcision.  Mormons claim that the indigenous natives of North & South America are the descendants of these first Jews who came from Jerusalem in 586 BC.  Yet not one Native American tribe or civilization maintains in their culture any circumcision ritual.  Jews in India, Tunisia, Jamaica, Turkey, Morocco, Spain etc. have maintained the circumcision ritual.  Yet all the ‘Jewish’ Native American forgot it?  That makes no sense.  The Native Americans were not Jewish, and the whole Mormon story falls apart for this lack of external corroborating evidence.

Krishna and External Evidence

The significance of the external evidence supporting the Gospel may perhaps be better appreciated by comparing it with a non-Western scripture.  The central figure in Hinduism is Krishna who is the incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.  The pivotal event in his incarnate life was when he was a charioteer in the Kurukshetra War, and he gave wise advice and indispensable aid to one of the armies in this war.  So historically, when did this pivotal war for the central figure in Hinduism happen?  Wiki sums it up well:

The Kurukshetra War is believed to date variously from 6000 BCE to 500 BCE, based on the astronomical and literary information from Mahābhārata…. The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear… The reconstruction of the history of Vedic India is based on text-internal details.

There is no external evidence at all to help us find this most important event of the Hindu scriptures in history, and thus there is about a 5000 year range in (basically) guessing when this may have happened.  In comparison with this, the external evidence from both extra-biblical writers and archeological artefacts concerning the Gospel, as we saw in Session 4, is stunning.

Substantiating miracles in the Biblical record?

But perhaps you have already done your ‘weeding’ and have your ‘short-list’ and you are perhaps feeling stuck because external evidence does not help you further at this point.  In particular you are asking whether the biblical account is a “distortion of the truth, rather than ‘mythical’”, and whether (or not) the Gospel writers fabricated details around a historically verifiable kernel of truth.  I think you wonder about this because the Bible contains accounts of miracles.  As you ask:

The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?

It is at this point that the Bible itself introduces a specific and impossible-to-fake test to determine whether there is a supernatural or miraculous Mind behind it or not.  The test is to make precise long-range predictions about the future and see if they were fulfilled or not.  The reasoning is that though some humans may be clever or charismatic enough to draw a following (eg. Joseph Smith founder of Mormons) no human knows the future.  If there is a God, only He does.  So verifiable prophetic predictions inked out in black and white for all to evaluate provides an objective test to determine if there is a Miracle-working God or not.

Whether you approach the Bible and God with scorn as the Flying Spaghetti Monster people do, or whether you come from a biblical offshoot sect like Mormons do, or from another ancient religion with a different scripture, or just wonder if there is anyway to know, it certainly is worthwhile to be informed of the prophetic credentials of the Bible so that you can make an informed opinion.  My article here will introduce you to the basics.

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