Has the text of the Bible been changed?

An Introduction to Textual Criticism and the Bible

“Why should I even consider the Bible? It was written so long ago, has had so many translations and revisions done to it – it is most likely that its original message has been altered and misunderstood over the course of time.” The young man who asked me this question was intent, wondering if there was any reasonable answer to his skeptical outlook about the Bible.

The question my inquirer was asking is fairly straightforward – many of us ask it, and rightly so! It stems from what we know about the Bible. After all, it was written two thousand plus years ago. For most of these millennia there has been no printing press, photocopy machines or publishing companies. So the original manuscripts were copied by hand, generation after generation, as languages died out and new ones arose, as empires crumbled and new powers ascended. Since the original manuscripts have long been lost, how do we know that what we read today in the Bible is what the original authors actually wrote long ago? As my resolute friend pointed out to me, many young kids often play a game called telephone, wherein a message is whispered into someone’s ear, and (s)he in turn whispers this message into the next person’s ear until the message has traversed all participants in the game. Then the last person says the message out loud and all participants note how it has changed so much from its start at the beginning of the human chain. Can this game be comparable to the passing of the Bible through time, so that what we read today may be substantially different from the original writings?

Principles of Textual Criticism

Naturally this question is true of any ancient writing. This figure illustrates the process by which any such writing has been preserved over time.

Example of Stages in life of a hypothetical ancient document
Example of Stages in life of a hypothetical ancient document

This simplified diagram shows an example of an ancient document written at 500 BC. This original however does not last indefinitely, so before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript (MSS) copy of it is made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying work. As the years advance, copies are made of the copy (2nd copy & 3rd copy). At some point a copy is preserved so that it is in existence (extant) today (3rd copy). In our example diagram this extant copy was made in 500 AD. This means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the document is only from 500 AD onwards. Consequently the period from 500 BC to 500 AD (labeled x in the diagram) is the period where we cannot make any copy verifications since all manuscripts from this period have disappeared. For example, if copying errors (intentional or otherwise) were made when the 2nd copy was made from the 1st copy, we would not be able to detect them as neither of these documents are available to compare against each other. This time period predating the origin of currently existing copies (the period x) is thus the interval of textual uncertainty.  Consequently, a principle used help answer questions about textual reliability is to look at the length of this time span. The shorter this interval (labelled ‘x’ in the diagram) the more confidence we can place in the accurate preservation of the document to our modern day, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.

Of course, usually more that one manuscript copy of a document is in existence today. Suppose we have two such manuscript copies and in the same section of each of them we find the following translated phrase:

With few manuscipts (MSS) the textual base is small
With few manuscipts (MSS) the textual base is small

The original author had either been writing about Joan OR about John, and the other of these manuscripts contains a copy error. The question is -Which one has the error? From the available evidence it is very difficult to determine.

Now suppose we found two more manuscript copies of the same work, as shown below:

The more manuscripts the greater the textual base
The more manuscripts the greater the textual base

Now it is easier to deduce which manuscript probably has the error. It is more likely that the error is made once, rather than the same error repeated three times, so it is likely that MSS #2 has the copy error, and the author was writing about Joan, not John.

This simple example illustrates a second principle we can use to verify manuscript integrity – The more existing manuscripts that are available, the easier it is to detect & correct errors and to ascertain the content of the original.

So now we know two indicators used to determine the textual reliability of ancient documents: 1) measuring the time between original composition and earliest existing manuscript copies, and 2) counting the number of existing manuscript copies. Since these indicators pertain to any ancient writing we can proceed to apply them to both the Bible as well as other works of antiquity, as done in the tables below (1).

Textual Criticism of accepted ancient documents

Author When Written Earliest Copy Time Span #
Caesar 50 BC 900 AD 950 10
Plato 350 BC 900 AD 1250 7
Aristotle* 300 BC 1100 AD 1400 5
Thucydides 400 BC 900 AD 1300 8
Herodotus 400 BC 900 AD 1300 8
Sophocles 400 BC 1000 AD 1400 100
Tacitus 100 AD 1100 AD 1000 20
Pliny 100 AD 850 AD 750 7

* from any one work

These writers represent the major classical writers of antiquity – the writings that have shaped the development of Western civilization. On average, they have been passed down to us by 10-100 manuscripts that are preserved starting only about 1000 years after the original was written.  From a scientific point-of-view this data can be considered our control experiment since it comprises data (classical writers) that are accepted and used by academics and universities world-wide.

Textual Criticism of the New Testament

The following table compares the Biblical (New Testament in particular) writings along these same points of interest (1).  This can be considered our experimental data which will be compared to our control data, just like in any scientific investigation.

MSS When Written Date of MSS Time Span
John Rylan 90 AD 130 AD 40 yrs
Bodmer Papyrus 90 AD 150-200 AD 110 yrs
Chester * Beatty 60 AD 200 AD 20 yrs
Codex Vaticanus 60-90 AD 325 AD 265 yrs
Codex Sinaiticus 60-90 AD 350 AD 290 yrs

The number of New Testament manuscripts is so vast that it would be impossible to list them all in a table. As one scholar (3) who spent years studying this issue states:

“We have more than 24000 MSS copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today… No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the ILIAD by Homer is second with 643 MSS that still survive”

A leading scholar at the British Museum (4) corroborates this:

“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers … yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of MSS whereas the MSS of the N.T. are counted by … thousands”

A significant number of these manuscripts are extremely ancient. I own a book about the earliest New Testament documents. The Introduction starts with:

“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text” (5)

This is significant since these manuscripts come before Roman Emperor Constantine (ca 325 AD) and the rise to power of the Catholic Church both of which are often accused of altering the biblical text. We can actually test this claim by comparing the alterations of the texts from before Constantine (since we have them) with those coming later. But when we do we find that they are the same. The message of the texts from 200 AD is the same as those from 1200 AD. Neither the Catholic Church, nor Constantine changed the Bible. That is not a religious statement, it is one based solely on scientific data.

Video of university presentation on reliability of the New Testament text

Video presentation on reliability of Old Testament Text

But what about the Old Testament?  The manuscipt basis for the Old Testament is different enough that it warrants its own discussion which is highlighted in the 7 minute video here.

Implications of Textual Criticism re. the Bible

So what can we conclude from this? Certainly at least in what we can objectively measure (number of extant MSSs and time spans between original and earliest extant MSS) the New Testament is substantiated to a much higher degree than any other classical work of antiquity. The verdict to which the evidence pushes us is best summed up by the following quote (5):

“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the N.T. is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no other documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament”

What he is saying is that to be consistent, if we decide to doubt the reliability of the preservation of the Bible we may as well discard all that we know about classical history in general – and this no informed historian has ever done. We know that the Biblical texts have not been altered as eras, languages and empires have come and gone since the earliest extant MSSs pre-date these events. For example, we know that no overly zealous medieval monk added in the miracles of Jesus to the Biblical account, since we have manuscripts that pre-date the medieval monks and all these pre-dated manuscripts also contain the miraculous accounts of Jesus.

What about translation of the Bible?

But what about the errors involved in translation, and the fact that there are so many different versions of the Bible today? Does this not show that it is impossible to accurately determine what the original authors actually wrote? Due to the vast classical literature that was written in Greek (original language of the New Testament), it has become possible to precisely translate the original thoughts and words of the original authors. In fact the different modern versions attest to this. For example, read the well-known verse John 3:16 in the three most common versions, and note the slight variance in wording, but consistency in idea and meaning:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” New International Version

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” King James Version

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” New American Standard Version

You can see that there is no disagreement between the translations – they say exactly the same thing with only slightly different word usage.

To summarize, neither time nor translation has kept the original ideas and thoughts as expressed in the original Biblical manuscripts hidden from us. We can know that the Bible today accurately reads what the authors actually wrote.

It is important to realize what this little study does and does not show. It does not prove that the Bible is necessarily the Word of God, nor that it is even true. It can be argued (at least from the evidence presented just here) that though the original ideas of the Biblical authors have been accurately conveyed to us today that does not prove or indicate that these original ideas are correct (or even that they are from God). True enough. But understanding the textual reliability of the Bible provides a start-point from which one can start seriously investigating the Bible to see if some of these other questions can also be answered, and to see what the theme of the Bible is. I hope that this introductory article may encourage you to take a good look at the ‘Book’.  You may have questions about Constantine and the role he played in how the Bible has come to us – take a look at this here.

Remember the saying – Don’t judge a book by its cover. You need to read it.  Good places to start in this website are the accounts of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac as well as the Passover account.  Both of these will introduce you to the theme of the Bible and will get you started to consider whether this message may really be from God or not.

Did Jesus have a wife?

I have been exploring the creation and fall of man and Lucifer in this series of posts. I plan to continue but some recent headlines in newsites around the world are beckoning a side post. A professor at Harvard University has announced the discovery of a business card-sized papyrus fragment dating from the 4th Century (300’s AD). The fragment (in Coptic) contains the phrase ”Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’”. Here is a smattering of headlines about this:

“An ancient scrap of papyrus makes explicit reference to Jesus having a wife, according to a renowned expert in Christian history.” BBC

“Papyrus fragment quoting ‘wife’ of Jesus raises questions for Christianity” – The Australian

“Was Jesus married? Papyrus fragment fuels debate” – Jerusalem Post

So what are we to make of this? Is this neo-narrative of Jesus really up for consideration? Well, let’s look first at the proximity of this ‘witness’ to Jesus life. The headlines and articles tell us it is ‘ancient’ and it is at that, but is it close to the time of Jesus? The articles themselves report the date of the fragment as 4th century, putting it about 300 years after the death of Jesus. Could such a document even be close to being a ‘primary source’? Well, just two hundred years ago, the war of 1812 raged between Canada and the US. I live  in Canada and if I claimed by my own authority to have a revision of events that transpired back then and have the ‘real story’ that has been kept hidden these two hundred years by our governments bent on keeping us in the dark – would you believe me? Of course not! How could I, two hundred years after the fact have any credibility as a source to set the record straight about what happened back then? It is so ludicrous an idea that it is beyond even contemplating. So how can a source, 300 years after the fact, be headlined in websites and Harvard professors as setting the real record – hidden all these years – straight? The websites continually refer to ‘church doctrine’ as standing in dogmatic opposition to this idea (that Jesus was married). For example the BBC article states

“Christian tradition holds that Jesus did not marry – but Prof King said in early years it was subject to debate. The provocative find could spark debate over celibacy and the role of women within Christianity, she added. But the announcement sparked scepticism from some theologians. “

The Jerusalem Post article opines that

Despite the Catholic Church’s insistence that Jesus was not married, the idea resurfaces on a regular basis, notably with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown’s best-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” which angered many Christians because it was based on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children.

King (the Harvard Prof announcing the discovery) said the fragment, unveiled at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married.

AsiaOne informs us that

Contacted by AFP, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi refused to call into question King’s competence as a historian but said that “we do not really know where this little scrap of parchment came from.”

“This does not change anything in the position of the Church which rests on an enormous tradition, which is very clear and unanimous” that Jesus Christ was not married, he said.

“This changes nothing in the portrayal of Christ and the gospels. This is not an event that has any influence on Catholic doctrine,” he said.

So is this a case of ‘narrow-minded’ churchmen blindly clinging to ‘tradition and doctrine’ in the face of contrary evidence? That is the impression one gets from these statements. But in point of fact ‘church doctrine’ has nothing to do with it. The gospels were written by three eyewitnesses and one investigative reporter (the Gospel of Luke) mere decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. And they are not found today on one business card fragment. I have a reference the size of an encyclopedia book that contains the transcripts of the many manuscripts of the New Testament that exist today that come before the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). That would put all these manuscripts earlier than mid-4th century. An encyclopedia-size of extant manuscripts written by primary source eyewitnesses vs. one business card size anonymous sentence 300 years after the fact! Why is it even making any news, let alone world headlines?

Gospel of Judas

But this is just the latest twist in a bizarre drama that is sweeping the world. It reminds me of the media attention paid a few years ago with the Gospel of Judas. The BBC opening sentence (bolded) was

Judas Iscariot’s reputation as one of the most notorious villains in history has been thrown into doubt with the translation of an ancient text.

But did the Gospel of Judas have any historical credibility? Further in their article the BBC informed us it also was a ‘4th century manuscript’ so we know that it was also 300 years removed from the events of Jesus. So it was not, for example, written by the ‘real’ Judas as his version of historical events. And there is only one extant Gospel of Judas manuscript, against the many manuscripts that claim primary eye-witness source testimony. Yet the BBC article would have us believe that it ‘throws into doubt’ what really happened. And it leaves you with the impression that it is more ‘progressive’ and ‘educated’ to have this doubt whereas it is ‘doctrine’ and ‘tradition’ that keeps the ‘credulous’ within the oppressive shackles of ‘church orthodoxy’.

Da Vinci Code

Then there was the Da Vinci Code book and movie, which were based off “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” – a self-proclaimed work of investigative journalism – that concluded that Jesus went off to France with Mary Magdalene and sired a ‘secret’ bloodline there. It is not necessary to examine all the claims of these books. Some are so easy to disprove that their lack of credibility should be as apparent as the sun rising before our eyes every morning. For example, the Da Vinci Code claimed that the Roman Emperor Constantine forced a vote of church Bishops to make Jesus ‘Divine’ as the Son of God. Really? So why does the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, writing to the pagan emperor of his day in 112 AD, – 200 years before Constantine – tell him this about the Christians?

“They also declare the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery …” Letters 10.6

The arch anti-Christian Lucian, writing satire against the gospel in 170 AD tells us that

The Christians you know worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account … it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers … worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.    The Death of Peregrine 11-13

Constantine in 325AD could not influence what happened two hundred years before his time, so the controversy of the divinity of Jesus definitely was not invented by him and thus one of the main ‘historical’ claims of this whole revisionary history is shown to be smoke and mirrors. Yet it was once again mentioned with a tone of plausibility in the Jerusalem Post article above as well as with this new 4th century Coptic reference to Jesus’ ‘wife’.

We live in an age when we claim that we are scientifically inclined – less prone to believe things unless compelling rational evidence is presented. I am not so sure. I meet many who tell me that the evidence to believe in Jesus is not compelling. Fair enough. But then I find many of these same folk embracing fantasies and beliefs that are far, far less substantiated than the Gospel. Why? Probably many factors are at play. Today many of us have not bothered to develop a baseline of historical understanding about the Bible so we are not in a position to have an informed perspective on the latest headlines that will greet us.

But at even a deeper level, perhaps ‘rational evidence’ is not our main metric in determining what we will believe.  Because behind our mind stands a more difficult beast to tame – our will.  Implicit in believing the Gospel Story is following it – and that is something we instinctively and desperately fight against. The Gospel Story demands our allegiance while these neo-narrative stories merely tickle our fancies – requiring no surrender to our deeply instinctive need for autonomy.  So deep down it is whether the story is preferable, rather than rational, that often drives our beliefs.   As the man famous for his wisdom, Solomon, wrote so long ago

“This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” (Ecclesiastes 7:29)

Considering the Septuagint: Today’s forgotten book that changed human history (Part 1)

In the Welcome Article for this blogsite I raised the remarkable phenomenon of how the gospel spread so quickly and pervasively when it burst onto Greco-Rome of classical times – even though it was met with ferocious and bloody opposition from that same world.  So what fueled such a forceful advance?  Several reasons stand out, but the one that I want to focus on for the next while has to do with what the people of that era saw in the Bible of their day.  But to better  appreciate what they saw, we need to re-discover their Bible since it has become a mostly forgotten book in our day.  So with this endgoal in mind, I introduce the Bible of that era – the Septuagint.  But first let’s back up abit in history.

Historical Background to the Septuagint

When Alexander the Great conquered the then known world he brought the Greek language, culture and philosophy to the civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia.  When he died in 323 BC at the age of 32 he left behind a world that almost universally adopted the Greek language, thought and culture (known as Hellenism), thus unifying the world so that ideas and writings could be exchanged by all in one universal language – Greek.  And the Roman Empire which succeeded his short-lived conquests continued to use, and thus increase the influence of, Greek.

Greek was the principal language of the classical world from about 300 BC – 300 AD, and thus a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek was made around 200 B.C. by a group of Jewish rabbis in Alexandria (a city in Egypt present till today and founded by Alexander the Great).  Known as the Septuagint (or LXX), it was widely used in the Greco-Roman world and was of critical importance in the development of the Gospel for several reasons.

Impact of the Septuagint

First of all, the Septuagint translation was made because in that Hellenistic world the Jewish people were slowly losing their grasp of Hebrew and many were becoming primarily Greek-speakers and the LXX thus allowed them to continue reading their scriptures in their new language.  But it also allowed the writings of the Old Testament to be read and assessed by basically all Gentiles (non-Jews).  And in the spirit of that age in which philosophy, history and religion of various cultures were read, for the first time many non-Jews were exposed to the writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets.

Septuagint impact on New Testament times

We see the impact of this in the New Testament historical accounts.  John 12:20 tells us that Greeks (i.e. non-Jews) were worshiping at a Jewish feast in Jerusalem and asked to meet with Jesus.  Why are Greeks ‘worshiping’ at a Jewish festival in Jerusalem?  It is the influence of the Septuagint.  The book of Acts records the travels of the apostles subsequent to the ministry of Jesus and it notes how they would come upon (and even look for) non-Jewish converts to Judaism.  Why are there non-Jewish converts to Judaism dotted around the Greco-Roman world in the period 30-60 AD (the period covered by Acts)?  Again, the influence of the Septuagint having been read, heard, and brought to the attention of non-Jews for more than two hundred years had fostered this development.

And what did these people ‘see’ in the Septuagint?  For starters they saw ‘Christ’ in the pages of the Old Testament because the word was used directly in it.

Septuagint in Modern Textual Criticism and Translation

The Septuagint is also significant in textual criticism.  We noted in the 2nd video of Session 3 (the one dealing with Old Testament textual reliability) that we basically have two families of Hebrew manuscripts with which we access the Hebrew Old Testament and translate it into a modern language.  The more traditional stream is the Masoretic family of manuscripts, which has extant manuscripts dating from about 900 AD.  This is the traditional source for the Old Testament in today’s Bible.  I noted that the second stream, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were only recently discovered in 1948 and are dated back to about 200 BC.  Thus in the DSS we have a much older family of manuscripts than the Masoretic text.  And I noted that these two families of texts are basically identical – showing how well preserved the Hebrew Old Testament is.

The Septuagint gives us a third stream of text to access the Old Testament.  Since the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew around 200 BC we can see (if in a sense we reverse translate) what these translators had in their Hebrew manuscripts that they translated from.  The most widely accepted view today is that the Septuagint provides an  accurate record of an early Hebrew text, now lost, that had some variance from the ancestors of the Masoretic text.  And so it is used as a supplemental source in translation today.  This is why you can see some footnotes in modern translations of the Old Testament where our modern translators tell us what the Septuagint says in some particular passage.  In other words, translation scholars use the Septuagint to this day to help them translate some of the more difficult passages of the Old Testament.  Greek is very well understood and in some passages where the Hebrew is obscure translators can see how the Septuagint translators understood these obscure passages.  As an example, when the New International Version translates the last phrase of Job 7:20 to ‘Have I become a burden to you?’ they are helped by the Septuagint. How do I know this?  The footnotes indicate it. The overall contribution then of the Septuagint to the Old Testament is that it provides another manuscript stream supporting the reliability of the Old Testament as well as providing insight for some more obscure passages.

Septuagint in the Orthodox

But even more than a supplement to translate the Old Testament, followers of the Gospel in Eastern Orthodox traditions (Greek, Coptic etc.) to this day use the Septuagint over the Masoretic text (either in reading from the LXX directly or in translating primarily from the LXX rather than the Hebrew text).  It is their preferred manuscript family.

Extant Septuagint Manuscripts

Of course, just like we do not have the originals of the Hebrew Old Testament, neither do we have the originals of the Septuagint (ie the scrolls that the original translators back in 200 BC developed).  We have manuscript copies of these.  The oldest extant manuscripts of the LXX include fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy dated to 2nd century BC (Rahlfs nos. 801, 819, and 957), and 1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets (Rahlfs nos. 802, 803, 805, 848, 942, and 943).  Complete manuscripts of the LXX are found in the Codex Vaticanus (325 AD) and the Codex Sinaiticus (350 AD). (See Session Three if you need a primer on what these Codices are.)

Summary of Old Testament development with Septuagint

We can summarize what we have covered of the Old Testament text using a timeline shown in the figure below.  The individual books of the Old Testament were written down in Hebrew over more than a thousand year period .  They were translated into the Septuagint (LXX) around 200 BC so from then on there was a Greek as well as a Hebrew text stream.  The Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (from early-mid 300’s AD) are extant copies of the LXX.  The Hebrew text was preserved by the Masoretes, from whom we have extant manuscripts dating approximately 900 AD.  The Dead Sea Scrolls was another Hebrew textual family dating to around 200-100 BC that was essentially identical to the Masoretic text.  Translations into English today primarily use the Hebrew Masoretic and Dead Sea Scrolls, but the LXX is also used to inform translators on meaning and choice of words.

History of the MSSs including LXX that give us modern BiblesBut these are not the primary reasons why the Septuagint ‘has changed human history’  We consider that in our next post.

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.

Your Common-Sense, Practical Test for the Reliability of the Bible

We are now in the closing hours of 2011.  One of the aspects of life today (and I am sure it will be true in 2012 as well) is that we rely so much on experts to address the various questions we face.  Health issue?  See a doctor, and if (s)he does not know, you can get a referral to a specialist.  Computer problem?  You find either a hardware or a software expert to help you.  In almost any area of life we turn to experts for advice and help Continue reading “Your Common-Sense, Practical Test for the Reliability of the Bible”

The Passing of Christopher Hitchens: Carrying misconception to the Grave

Last week news outlets worldwide reported the passing of noted journalist and author Christopher Hitchens.  Hitchens, a preeminent controversialist, was a prominent critic of the Gospel, especially noted for his book: god is not Great – How religion poisons everything.  I had read his book quite carefully, hoping to find well-balanced reasons for his hostility to the Gospel.  I found that though he had very pithy and witty lines, and that he could deliver with withering sarcasm, his hostility crowded out a sense of balanced reason.  He was also poorly informed on the reliability of the Bible.  Here are some of things he said about the Bible that the BBC reported in its obituary:

“(The New Testament) is a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.”

“Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did.”

I noted the following statements when I studied his book:

… the case for biblical consistency or authenticity or ‘inspiration’ has been in tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research…” (p. 122)

Though he had a reputation as an ‘intellectual’ these statements are simply that – sheer assertions without any supporting reasons – just as dogmatic and religiously held as the assertion ‘God is Great!’  Hitchens obviously never took the time familiarize himself with the information that are covered in Sessions 3, 4 & 5.  There are many reasons for a person to reject considering the gospel: atrocities have been committed in the name of Jesus, following the gospel is difficult, and a bewildering array of evil things continue marching on in this world, as if oblivious to the hand of a good God.  But the case for the reliability of the Bible is a solid one.  It is a pity that so few, Hitchens being a prime example, look into it.

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3. Assessing ‘The Book’ – Considering the Textual Reliability of the Bible

Have the books of the Bible been changed or modified over time such that their original message has been corrupted and, practically speaking, lost?  In the university environment I find that many almost assume that this must be so since these books were originally written so long ago.  Well-known advocate of atheism, Richard Dawkins, in his best-selling book, The God Delusion, confidently asserted this is indeed so to millions of his readers by writing of the books of the Bible that:

“All were then copied and recopied, through many different ’Chinese Whispers generations’ by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agenda”  (p. 92)

Is this true?  Is there even an academic discipline that can answer this question?  We look first at the books of the New Testament.


But what about the Old Testament?  The manuscipt basis for the Old Testament is different enough that it warrants its own discussion which is highlighted in the 7 minute video here.


Blog Posts Related to this Session

  • 30/09/2012 - Did Jesus have a wife?

  • 19/03/2012 - Considering the Septuagint: Today’s forgotten book that changed human history (Part 1)

  • 16/01/2012 - Did Constantine corrupt the Gospel or Bible?

  • 31/12/2011 - Your Common-Sense, Practical Test for the Reliability of the Bible

  • 21/12/2011 - The Passing of Christopher Hitchens: Carrying misconception to the Grave

  • [Click here for perspective on what Qur’an says about Reliability of the Bible]

    [Click here for perspective on what Sunnah teaches about Reliability of the Bible]