Let’s assume Jesus of Nazareth existed. I know this doesn’t sit well with some, while with others it’s easy to believe. I could do more than one blog post about whether or not Jesus ever even existed. There’s evidence that many aspects of the stories told in The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were borrowed or adapted from other epic tales of heroic god-like men predating Jesus. Why would anyone attribute these same events to Jesus as well, if not to try to steal the fictional thunder of other heroes and apply them to the horse they wanted to ride? Whatever. And some argue that it’s not enough Luke had to fabricate a reason for Jesus of Nazareth to have been born in Bethlehem by blatantly lying about how the Roman Empire conducted their census. Whatevs. I split the difference. There was a Jesus of Nazareth. He’s not the son of any god. He was the illegitimate son of Joseph and Mary. Otherwise, Joseph’s blood lineage dating back to Abraham would have been unnecessary to also document.
So anyway, this guy lives and dies. Other people assume this guy’s death has some kind of magical significance. Prior to this point, people were sacrificing livestock (or maybe the occasional virgin) to their god. Their god never showed up to eat what they offered. It was believed that the aroma of the meat wafted up through the air into the heavens and god liked the smell. Really. This went on for thousands of years but then Jesus of Nazareth gets crucified. Some people took this guy’s death as a sign that their god didn’t want them to do that anymore. Cuz he was sacrificed, and they assumed he was the son of their god, so their god is somehow appeased by this.
And if that doesn’t convince you, well there’s the resurrection three days later right? They removed the big boulder from where his body was allegedly interned, and voila! No body! The only possible explanation is resurrection, right? I mean no one would have thought to hide Jesus’ body or bury it somewhere else. Judas was easily bought. Why do we assume the other apostles didn’t also have a price to look the other way? It wasn’t even the Apostles who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. It was Mary Magdalene, who of course is an ideal eye witness above reproach and no one should question her accounts, even though in all four books of the bible, her account changes.
So let’s assume the story happened. Jesus of Nazareth died. People believe he was reborn, and then there were eye witness accounts of him walking around for a few days until he ascended into the heavens. He just floated up into space several centuries before the invention of the airplane. Many people said they saw it. We have no evidence saying it did happen, and we have no evidence saying it didn’t happen. However, we have the laws of physics saying this is highly unlikely. Still, let’s assume that there were people who claimed to have witnessed these amazing things, and they told other people, and those people told other people and this story spread like wildfire across all of known Europe in the course of four centuries.
All by word of mouth? Not quite. Eventually these stories were written down but not immediately after they happened. We have no literal eye witness accounts that have survived the test of time. What we have are The Gospels According to Matthew Mark Luke and John; works of literature which were written down between 60 and 100 years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and also by the way long after the deaths of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So at best we got hearsay passing as gospels.
I’m getting de ja vu. I know I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll summarize it again here. There’s three kinds of information:
Primary – you witnessed it yourself and you write it down.
Secondary – someone else tells you they witnessed it and you write their story down.
Tertiary – someone tells you someone else told them they witnessed it and you write down what they said that other guy said.
Primary information is the least suspect, but even that could be a blatant lie, or the primary informant may believe he saw what he says he saw but he was crazy, or imagining it ,or was fooled by other people into thinking he saw what he did when it was really a prank or an illusion. Secondary information is more suspect because all the above with Primary information still qualifies, plus we’re dealing with two different humans, each of which could make different mistakes at any time.
After Tertiary, it doesn’t matter how many people’s hands the information has passed. Tertiary information is the most questionable, because it could have been altered many times from the actual event that objectively occurred. The upshot of this is that The Gospel According To Matthew was NOT written by Matthew. It was written by someone who said he got it from someone who said it came from Matthew, several decades after Matthew allegedly witnessed it. Same goes for Mark, Luke, and John, and pretty much everything in the bible.
In fact, most news we get nowadays is Tertiary information. Even if it’s a live feed. Cuz the cameraman is deciding what he shows, then people in a control booth decide what they’re going to broadcast. Before you get your hands on any kind of news source, it’s passed through scores of hands. You get news determined by committee, and the bible is no exception.
After word of mouth was written down a couple generations too late, these books were passed around from church to church, and many churches disagreed with which documents were legitimate and which ones were not. So early on one did not know from one church to the next whether or not they actually were preaching from documents you believed in. In fact, most common people were not educated as to what the books were, and unless you got into the clergy or had a wealthy family, chances are you weren’t taught latin or greek or any other languages which were slowly dying about this time anyway.
The epistles of Paul were circulated around communities early on, and were largely not in dispute. They were relatively as they are now by the end of the first century AD. However, there were other books collected together called “The Memoirs of the Apostles” which were more disputed even early on, and they showed up AFTER Paul’s teachings, around the second century AD. Although allegedly these stories had been passed down by word of mouth before eventually getting written and then compiled together.
Around this time a guy named Marcion of Sinope tried to make some sense out of these books, and his efforts rejected the Jewish god altogether which didn’t set well with his peers, and so they excommunicated him. Marcion’s argument is that the god of the Old Testament could not be the god that Jesus talked about cuz they behave remarkably differently. The jewish god was into war and was rather unforgiving. Jesus spoke of a loving and caring god who was (usually) peaceful and far more forgiving. Marcion couldn’t make that work. So some people followed him and I guess the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated them too, or at the very least sent them to their room without supper.
So to try and end the confusion between church communities in the Roman Empire / Catholic Church, a group of religious muckity mucks got together and debated over which books belonged in the official Catholic bible. This was the Council of Carthage in 397. We’re now talking centuries after the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth. A canon list was determined, but people still argued over whether or not this canon list was, well, canon. Cuz there were many more books running around than made it in the list, and different churches had their own favorites that didn’t make the cut. So these disputes went on for some time. It was not until the Council of Trent in the 1550s that the final canon list was accepted, and that’s largely what passes for the modern day Christian Bible. The books that didn’t make it into the New Testament became known as The Apocrypha. And there were many books that most people have never heard about, which were simply not popular enough to make it into the final cut. You can think of the canon list as the finalists on a talent show. You only hear about the winners. The losers are largely forgotten. As for what was used as acceptable criteria to achieve canonical status, well that’s up for dispute among historians. I don’t think anyone really knows. It certainly wasn’t authenticity, cuz none of these reports are primary. Even if you claim Mary Magdalene was a primary source for the resurrection (essentially the lynch pin upon which all of Christianity hinges) she told her story to the apostles, who then allegedly told their versions of her story to someone else, and then several decades after anyone involved in the event would have been dead, someone wrote these accounts down. Then groups of communities looked at these accounts and each decided which ones they liked and which they didn’t. Eventually a group of high up bishops judged which of those communities were right and which were not.
And just how were these future books of the bible passed on once they were written down? Not by printing press, cuz Gutenberg didn’t happen until the 1400s. Before that, books were copied by hand by monks, in relative obscurity and secrecy with no formal oversight. If one monk dedicated himself to the task, historians say it would have taken him the better part of a year to make one copy. “Bestseller” was more difficult back in those days.
Presumably these monks did their best to duplicate entire books by hand with no errors. Every effort possible at the time was made I’m sure to be true to the original works. Still, we’re talking about humans. Even if there was never any intent to falsify these documents or subtly change things, there’s still the possibility that an occasional word was misspelled or a punctuation mark was misplaced, and over centuries of little goofs happening here, dramatic changes could have happened to the work. None of the original texts survive, lost to the sands of time. The oldest known copy to still exist today is called the Codex Sinaiticus, circa 350 AD, and it’s not complete. So we can’t really compare it to modern versions and be certain they’re accurate. Also, it was written in greek, which opens up a whole new can of worms. Every time the bible was translated into a new language, count that as yet another place where these presumed infallible texts of The One True God speaking to his creation are altered and interpreted and adapted by human beings, presumably while under direct control by their lord almighty, who would of course never let his followers make honest mistakes.
Today you can read this blog post and be relatively comfortable in the knowledge that what you’re seeing is as I typed it. The same can’t be said about the psalms of David, much less the Book of Revelation.
So it’s now two thousand years after all this crap has happened and yet people still insist the bible is infallible. They read their english translations of greek texts written down from word of mouth and then copied and canonized and otherwise interpreted and edited by committees and they assure everyone that what god wants to say to you personally is already inside this book you just have to be open-minded and accept it’s infallible, in spite of the evidence I just gave that it’s not. The book of revelation talks about how Jesus is going to come back. He floated up into the stars after mankind crucified him, but he’s gonna come back someday to settle accounts and you can convince all your friends before Jesus of Nazareth returns, you can be sure they will join you in heaven on judgment day. The bible says Jesus will return soon.
Soon came and went several centuries ago. Even if he shows up, Jesus is more than fashionably late.