The Corrupt Early Church

Posted: June 13, 2011 in Arguments, Conspiracy Theories
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

When you think about the Bible’s history as being passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years, it’s very reasonable to assume that there has been intentional alteration of the text over the years. That is, intentional alteration by kings or other authority figures, who wanted to use religion as their leverage over the people. This was a conspiracy theory I personally believed in the past, and books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion and Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief  build a case to support this theory of corruption. Christians like to think the massive copying of NT manuscripts was done via a motivation to preserve Christ’s divine message, but what if instead the motivation lie with men wanting to preserve their own power?

In the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown presents a story that asserts the early Church was power hungry. That they literally stole Jesus from His original followers, and modified the message to expand their own power and solidify their own political agenda. In the Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels writes of the Gnostic Gospels and other lost gospels that she learned in Harvard were “suppressed” by the early church.  Pagels concluded that the early Christians wanted to centralize power to one overseer (a bishop), so they preserved gospels that mentioned only one God, but suppressed all other gospels that spoke of multiple Gods.[1] Pagels also believed that early church leaders wanted power expanded in particular cities so that power would be given to overseers in those cities in which Jesus had once lived, so gospels that spoke of spiritual resurrections of Jesus were suppressed while other gospels that spoke of a bodily resurrection was preserved.[2] She also ascribed to church leaders wanting to exclude female leadership in Church, so manuscripts that referred to God as the Mother were suppressed while those that referred to God as the Father were preserved.[3] And when people tried to speak out against Gospels being suppressed, Pagels refers to text from the church leader Clement that says that they must receive the “death penalty.”[4] Let’s be honest, no conspiracy theory seems legit unless lives are being threatened[5]… This tactic was used in the pseudo-documentary Bloodline as well.

The one thing almost all these critics agree on is that the NT manuscripts were hand picked with bias among a multitude of manuscripts to incorporate into a Bible.[6] Some critics believe that no one in the first and second century considered the NT manuscripts sacred until a late second-century pastor named Irenaeus of Lyons declared Matthew, Mark, Luke and John the authentic author’s of Jesus’ life. Many others, like Dan Brown and the members of the Jesus Seminar, believe that what was considered scripture was in fact determined by Emperor Constantine during the Council of Nicea in the 4th century. Dan Brown goes further to suggest that the concept of Jesus being the Son of God wasn’t established until the Council of Nicea.[7] W.H.C. Frend writes in The Rise of Christianity, that the first time the 27 books of the NT are even mentioned together is in a letter written by a pastor named Athanasius of Alexandria in A.D. 367 years after the council of Nicea.[8] Since there is no prior mention of all 27 being deemed authoritative prior to the Council of Nicea, Rend concludes that it was the council itself that gave the scriptures authority. This would of course mean the Council could have corruptly chosen particular manuscripts out of the long list of available manuscripts, to decide which to give authority to, thus tying into Pagels’ earlier mentioned theories.

In other words, the motivation to create the Bible was not to safeguard and preserve the truths of Jesus, but to safeguard and preserve political agendas and the Church’s power. Anyone who tried to say otherwise was violently suppressed. Any manuscripts that said otherwise were suppressed. Corruption at it’s finest… If this isn’t a conspiracy I don’t know what is.

Conspiracy Theory vs. History

Ok, so you’ve heard all the conspiracies, now let us actually study history to get to the truth of the matter. The first thing we need to establish is what kind of corruption we are talking of. You’ll notice the critics above never suggest the manuscripts were rewritten to suit an agenda, but instead particular manuscripts were accepted and others rejected to suit an agenda. Yet, the average layman conspirer tends to think that the manuscripts were rewritten down the line to fit a personal agenda. This is actually the one case where I can say; that is impossible! The manuscripts weren’t a few copies you could locate and rewrite. Gospel manuscripts were all over Europe, the Middle East andNorth Africa being written and copied in massive numbers. There is a reason we have thousands of copies in existence today. It would be impossible during this time in history for anyone to track down every manuscript and rewrite them. The only possible way to corruptly alter God’s message would be to pick particular manuscripts to give authority too and suppress the rest. And that is the conspiracy the critics above prescribe to and accuse the Church of doing. So is that what happened?

Yes, the Church authorities did pick particular manuscripts as divine scripture and denounce the rest. But here is what everyone needs to understand: The manuscripts were not chosen based off of corrupted agendas, but instead based on their authenticity and accuracy, something that had already been established hundreds of years earlier by church leaders. After the NT manuscripts were written and spreading, Christianity was becoming popular in the Roman Empire. Understandably, cults and Christian spin-offs began to emerge and produced their own “gospels.” These other gospels, mostly from the Gnostics[9], strongly contradicted the original gospels. As time went on in the second and third centuries, more and more manuscripts started to appear in circulation. This of course became a great concern for the Christian Church.

So of course the Church eventually was forced to decide which manuscripts were the true testimony of Christ and which were false, to settle the matter once and for all. This would be the Council of Nicea in A.D. 327, the purpose behind which being to arrive at a consensus regarding what scriptures possessed the most accurate portrayal of Jesus.[10] The council was able to determine which manuscripts were accurate based on how closely the manuscripts were written to the lifetime of Jesus. Unlike the Gnostic gospels, the NT manuscripts were found in much larger numbers written much closer to the lifetime of Jesus. If you’re deciding which ones are the most accurate portrayal of Jesus, it’s a no brainer; go with the manuscripts written by eyewitnesses closer to the lifetime of Jesus. As you read on though, you’ll see that the NT manuscripts were actually decided long before the Council of Nicea.

Some other claims critics make about the Council of Nicea are straight up false. Brown claims the council was divided between Christians and Pagans. This is incorrect, the council was divided between two different sects of Christians, one believing Jesus was a creation of God (known as the “Arians”) the other believing Jesus was God incarnate. He also states that the final vote at the Council was a very close vote which decided whether Jesus was the Son of God. This is not true. Out of the more than 300 church leaders at the council, only two did not sign the Creed of Nicea which proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God.[11]

Based off that though, critics run with it to say that these beliefs were concocted at the council and finalized there. This is just not the case though. Take for example Pagels’ earlier claim that the bodily resurrection was used to expand the church’s power in particular cities. History tells us this is just not the case. In A.D. 155 Bishops Anicetus and Victor of the Roman church demanded that all Christians observe Easter, the holiday celebrating the bodily resurrection of Christ.[12] Ignatius of Antioch wrote of the bodily resurrection of Jesus in a letter to the church in Smyrna in the end of the first century.[13] This is important to know because the contrary text Pagels references that insists the resurrection was spiritual not bodily, she read from the Gospel of Mary (a rejected text), of which the authorship is still questioned to this day. But we do know it was written in the mid to late second century. In other words, she is siding with one gospel with questionable authorship written long after the four original gospels, which themselves testify to a bodily resurrection. Furthermore, other manuscripts from the NT written earlier than the Gospel of Mary also testify to a bodily resurrection. Acts 2:31, Galatians 1:1, and 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, 14 all testify to a bodily resurrection and were written during the lifetime of eyewitnesses to Jesus in the mid to late first century. This breaks down Pagels’ theory because history tells us that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was solidified with Christians long before the false Gospel of Mary and long before any council established the New Testament.

“The flaw in Pagels’ logic is [that] she uses an effect produced by an orthodox belief to explain the origin of the belief itself. She might as well argue that Elvis fans made up his existence because they like his music so much… Pagels declares in her conclusion that ‘it is the winners who write history- their way.’ Ironically she seems to miss the fact completely that orthodoxy ‘won’ because history was on its side.”

-Sophia De Morgan, Theologian.[14]

 

“When arguments over power began to plague the Roman church in the second century, Christians had already recognized the physical resurrection of Jesus as a crucial element to their confession of faith for several decades.”

-Timothy Paul Jones, Theologian[15]

Let us also recall that Pagels’ claim that the Church preserved gospels claiming there to be only one God, suppressing others that testified multiple Gods, in an effort to centralize power. Anyone who knows basic history, or has even read the Old Testament for that matter, can testify that the Jewish faith established their God to be one and only one God, thousands of years prior to Christ. Just flip back to Deut. 4:35-39, 6:4; 1 Kings 8:60; or Isaiah 45:5, 14, 18, 21-22; 46:9 and you’ll see that the Jews were pretty dead set on there being only one God. Obviously as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, non-Jewish converts that once believed in multiple Greek Gods would begin to later draw up their own manuscripts that were heavily influenced by the polytheism inRomeprior to Christianity. Naturally any manuscripts that declared there to be many Gods would be found contradictory to thousands of years of Jewish religion as well as contradicting the other NT manuscripts dated much closer to the lifetime of Christ, and therefore suppressed for good reason.

Even more damaging to the conspiracy theory of these critics has been the discovery of actual lists of divine manuscripts. Early church leaders, worried about the new Gnostic manuscripts floating around, compiled a list of what they considered divine authoritative texts. The deciding factor was based off authorship. Only texts written by eyewitnesses or apostles that consulted eyewitnesses were considered genuine. By the mid-second century, no more eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life were alive. This was known as the Apostolic Era. So a finalized list of authoritative books could then be recorded by Church leaders to be sent out to churches to prevent the infiltration of other false gospels written after the Apostolic Era. There is the Muratorian Fragment from the mid-second century in Rome; the Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History from the fourth century Palestine and Asia Minor; and the Athanasius of Alexandria’s Easter letter from fourth century Alexandria, all of which contain a list of manuscripts they considered to be the authoritative texts. Surprisingly, they all contain the same books in the list found in our NT today[16], except for Eusebius of Caesarea’s Church History which questioned the authenticity of James, Jude, 2nd Peter, and  2nd and 3rd John.[17] Yet their overall uniformity testifies to the overall standard of agreement among early church leaders as to which manuscripts were indeed the true portrayals of Jesus.[18]

Here is something many people also aren’t aware of either. Church leaders of the 2nd and 3rd century quoted the New Testament extensively in their own personal writings. Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) quoted the NT 330 times, Irenaeus (AD 120-202) quoted the NT 1,819 times. Clement (AD 150-216) did the same 2,406 times. Origen (AD 185-253) 17,922 times. Tertullian (AD 155-220) 7,258 times. Lastly, Hippolytus (AD 170-236) quoted the NT 1,378 times. In fact, you could destroy ever New Testament manuscript in the world, and re-create it from the quotes of these men alone! That’s how many times they quoted the NT.[19] This provides great evidence that what is in the NT today was already determined as authoritative long before the council of Nicea in that all these early church fathers quoted the scripture so often!

All and all, to believe that the power struggles in the past corrupted the true story of Christ today is to deny the historical facts that are out there. The NT manuscripts were always deemed authoritative divine texts long before the council of Nicea. As Timothy Paul Jones concludes, “The New Testament Documents were inspired, written, and recognized as authoritative over several centuries, yet a definite standard governed the entire process, and this standard wasn’t the word of a powerful emperor or bishop. It was a dogged determination to make certain that every authoritative text had its source in someone who witnessed the actual events.”[20]


[1] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, (New York, NY: Random House, 1979) Pg. 47

[2] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, (New York, NY: Random House, 1979) Pg. 27

[3] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, (New York, NY: Random House, 1979) Pg. 66

[4] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, (New York, NY: Random House, 1979) Pg. 34

[5] Pagels is guilty of misquoting Clement by taking his text out of context. Clement wasn’t stating that heretics need to receive the “death penalty,” he was describing what happened in the ancient Jewish temple when sacrifices were made improperly and not properly offered to God. From 1 Clement 41:1-3, The Apostolic Fathers I, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).

[6] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Orlando,FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) Pg 95

[7] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York,NY: Doubleday Publishing 2003) Pg. 231

[8] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (HarperOne, 2005) Pg. 36

[9] Before the time of Christ there was a movement known as the “Gnosis” which is Greek for “knowledge.” The Gnosis, which would be later named the Gnostics, lay claim to the story of Christ to be their own shortly after its initial expansion into the Roman world. They began to spread their own view about who Jesus was and what the bible really meant. Eventually they began to write their own doctrine and propagate it to people claiming it to be the true word of God.

[10] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies and the Cross (Lake Mary,Florida: FrontLine, 2008) Pg. 52

[11] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies and the Cross (Lake Mary,Florida: FrontLine, 2008) Pg. 52

[12] R. Cantalamessa, Easter in the Early Church: An Anthology of Jewish and Early Christian Texts (Collegeville, MN: Liturigal Press, 1993) Pg 34-37.

[13] Ignatius, Pros Smynaious, Pg. 186-187

[14] Sophia De Morgan, “Gnostic Gnonsense: A Critical Review of The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels,” Answering Infidels, www.answeringinfidels.com  Nov 2007.

[15] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies and the Cross (Lake Mary,Florida: FrontLine, 2008) Pg. 55

[16] These lists contained over 20 of the 27 NT books we have today. Clearly the texts had recognized authority long before any councils gave them authority.

[17] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies and the Cross (Lake Mary,Florida: FrontLine, 2008) Pg. 61

[18] It should also be noted that there were also lists written by early church leaders from the mid-second century with a list of manuscripts that were rejected. This all long before the council of Nicea.

[19] Alex McFarland, The 10 Most Common Objections to Christianity (Ventura,CA: Regal Books, 2007)

[20] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies and the Cross (Lake Mary,Florida: FrontLine, 2008) Pg. 67

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Comments
  1. matthew2262 says:

    “Another popular myth holds that the “custodians of orthodoxy” revised and edited the New Testament under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in the early 4th century. This allowed church authorities to rewrite their material to suit their tenets. Only then did Jesus take on divine status in the many manuscripts that postdate the council. However, this overlooks indisputable evidence from nearly fifty pre-4th century documents that correspond on all counts in their portrayal of Jesus as God. These verses refer explicitly to Jesus as such, in addition to the dozens of others that imply as much.”

    -Dr. Brian Janeway, Old Testament Archaeologist

    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2013/05/10/Reinventing-Jesus-Book-Review.aspx#Article

  2. matthew2262 says:

    “The charge has been made that the books included in the New Testament were not finally approved until as late as the 6th century. The word canon derives from the Greek term kanōn, meaning “rule” or “standard.” The earliest known list of accepted books was compiled by Marcion around AD 140. His activities prompted the church to further refine what constituted canon, with the result that 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament were admitted by the end of the 2nd century. By the end of the 4th century all 27 books had been enshrined as scripture.”

    -Dr. Brian Janeway, Old Testament Archaeologist

    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2013/05/10/Reinventing-Jesus-Book-Review.aspx#Article

  3. matthew2262 says:

    “Support for the early high Christology of the church comes from three other extra-biblical sources: secular historians, who were often at odds with the young faith, apostolic fathers of the early centuries like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, and the so-called apologists such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) and Tertullian (c. 160–225). These together form a continuous tradition of a high view of Christ from the apostles to the time of Constantine.

    Political leaders like Lucian of Samasota (c. 170) criticized Christians for their worship of Jesus, while the Roman philosopher Celsus (c. 177) scoffed at their worship of the man as God, as well as their belief in his position as the “son of God.” He saw this as a breach of monotheistic faith. Pliny the Younger (c. 112), as governor of Bithynia, condemned Christians for worshiping Jesus and ordered their execution if they failed to renounce their faith. The writings of the early church fathers also testify to their belief that Jesus was both man and God, as did those of the apologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. These all demonstrate that the core teaching of the church of Jesus as Lord was essential from the start, and was sustained and consistent for centuries prior to the Nicene Council.

    The real issue at Nicaea was not the divinity of Jesus, which had long since been established, but rather the nature of that divinity. The Roman emperor Constantine summoned bishops from across the empire to settle the question of whether Jesus was a divinely created being or coequal with the Father. This became known as the Arian controversy, since Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, held that Jesus, though of divine nature, was a created being. The adoption of the Greek term homoousios—meaning “one substance”—as part of the Nicene Creed, was a repudiation of the Arian position. It made official the long-held belief that Jesus was of the same substance and equal with the Father, yet distinct in person.”

    -Dr. Brian Janeway, Old Testament Archaeologist

    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2013/05/10/Reinventing-Jesus-Book-Review.aspx#Article

  4. matthew2262 says:

    “One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa—at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397—but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of these communities.” -F.F. Bruce, Biblical Scholar

    F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1981), 27.

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