Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #5: did the Church hide other Gospels to bury the truth about Jesus?

 

In Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, a character named Sir Leigh Teabing makes a number of assertions about the history of Christianity, nearly all of which are completely wrong. At one point he says that “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion.” A bit later he adds, “any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible.”

A large number of Gospels from the early centuries of Christianity have been found, in whole or in part. Only four Gospels are in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When and how were these four selected, and why were the other ones omitted?

Conspiracy theories aside, the Church in those centuries had a simple process of selecting the books of the New Testament. It was not done quickly, nor was it done by a small secret group. The criteria for books of the New Testament were threefold. Each had to come from an apostle. Each had to agree with the doctrines that were being taught in the churches. And each had to be known in most of the churches, rather than just a few of them, or only one.

Matthew and John were apostles of Jesus. Mark was not, but he wrote what Peter taught, and so his Gospel was accepted. Luke also was not an apostle, but his badge of authority came through the apostle Paul, along with the likelihood that—as he researched for his writing—Luke spoke with other apostles.

Doubts were not expressed in the early Church about these four Gospels. Around the year 185, a Christian named Ireneaeus wrote, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars….” We can question his reasoning, but historically we see that the Church had settled upon Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four authentic Gospels long before Constantine and the Council of Nicea.

Other books in the New Testament required greater discussion. Christians had doubts about the unsigned Letter to the Hebrews. II Peter and Revelation were also questioned. Additional books were considered: a letter from Clement, one of the first pastors in Rome was highly regarded, as were the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. In the end, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were selected because they passed the tests of apostolic authority, agreement with the proper doctrine, and familiarity to all Christians.

The apostles received their authority directly from Jesus. They were messengers, not like mail carriers, but like corporate vice presidents authorized to negotiate and sign documents for the company. They recognized the authority of each other, as Peter wrote, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (II Peter 3:15-16). So, when they were first received, the four Gospels and the other books of the New Testament were already regarded as the Word of God.

The many other Gospels failed the Church’s test. They did not agree with the teachings accepted throughout the Christian congregations of that time. But Teabing was wrong when he said that the rejected Gospels described a more earthly Jesus. Quite the opposite: they described a more spiritual Jesus, a Jesus who was not at all human but who took on the appearance of humanity to bring a spiritual message to spiritual people.

The people who wrote those other Gospels and the people who read and believed them are now collectively called Gnostics. Only a few of them used that label in their own time, but it implies possession of a secret knowledge. Modern discoveries have uncovered various versions of the secret knowledge that was hidden in their extra Gospels. For the most part, they were trying to change the Christian message into something that matches Greek philosophy. That change requires rejecting the physical world, including the human body, and preferring the world of mind and spirit.

Douglas Adams wrote, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” The Gnostics would have agreed. They taught that the physical world was made by an inferior god. They further taught that specks of divinity, pure spirit, had fallen into the world and had become trapped as human beings. They said that Jesus was a messenger from the higher gods to rescue those specks of divinity and to tell them how to return to pure spirit. For the Gnostics, Jesus never became flesh and dwelt among us. He could not be killed; and if he did die, he certainly would not choose to raise his body back to life again.

One Gnostic Gospel depicts the body of Jesus hanging on the cross, and his disciples stand at the cross, mourning at his suffering. But then they look above the cross and see the true Christ, unharmed, laughing at his enemies for the thought that they could harm him.

Missing from the Gnostics is the goodness of creation, the Incarnation of the Word, forgiveness through his sacrifice, and a resurrection to life in a new and perfect creation. Instead of those key teachings, Gnostics were to deny the body—most by living ascetic lives, although a few said you could do anything you want in the body, since it doesn’t matter. They were spiritual without being religious. They looked forward to leaving the body, not to be in Paradise with Jesus awaiting the resurrection, but to be free from contamination from the physical world.

No conspiracy led to the selection of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for the New Testament. Those books are the clear Gospel which conforms to Moses and the prophets and to the other apostolic writings. The Church did not hide the other Gospels; it merely set them aside as valueless. Now that they have been rediscovered, they are easily available to researchers. And anyone who troubles to read the Gospel of Thomas, or any of the other Gnostic writings, will see clear difference between their sayings and Christian truth. J.

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Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #4: are the four Gospels unreliable since they are based on oral tradition and were written long after the events they describe?

When I was in elementary school, the teachers would sometimes have the class play this game: the teacher would whisper a short message to one student, that student would whisper it to another student, and the message would pass through a classroom of thirty students, one by one. When the last student heard the message, he or she was supposed to repeat it for the entire class. Invariably, the message had changed along the course of thirty transmissions.

One time a classroom wag added a dirty word to the message. He or she must have been thrilled to witness the vulgarity being repeated by all the rest of the students in the class. That was the last time we were ever invited to play that game.

Oral traditions are not highly respected in our society. They are treated as very unreliable. However, anthropologists have found that civilizations which do not depend on printed or digital sources for memory are highly successful in preserving narratives unchanged from generation to generation. These scientists have had enough decades to study oral traditions in Africa, the south Pacific, Siberia, and other nonliterate societies to be convinced that their professional storytellers learn the accounts delivered from previous generations and pass them unaltered to the next generation.

No doubt much of the Bible was oral tradition before it was written. The accounts in Genesis must have been passed from generation to generation before Moses put them into writing. Likewise, the four Gospels bear signs of being derived from oral tradition. Their brief narratives of events, their pithy teachings attributed to Jesus, and their use of keywords to build a framework for the entire account all show that these writings were originally designed to be spoken and to be heard.

Indeed, the custom among Jews of the first century was to have rabbis teach their disciples to repeat the rabbi’s messages. Committed disciples stayed with the same rabbi, hearing the same teachings repeatedly until they could speak them to others; then they were sent out to share the rabbi’s message. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is an example of teaching via oral tradition. The verses recorded by Matthew probably were memorized by Matthew through repeated hearings. Even before the death and resurrection of Jesus, Matthew and the other apostles had learned these lessons well enough to be sent to share them with others (Matthew 10:1-42). After his death and resurrection, Jesus again authorized his apostles to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). Clearly, they met together and devised a common framework so that, as they shared the message, the entire world—first the Jews and then the Gentiles—heard the same message from the twelve apostles and from those who learned from those apostles.

Therefore, Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (II Peter 1:16). John also writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—the life that was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard, we proclaim also to you” (I John 1:1-3).

The New Testament is based upon eyewitness accounts! Why, then, do the skeptics insist that the four Gospels could not have been written within forty years of the events they describe? One basic presupposition of the skeptics is that Jesus could not have known the future. His prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, found in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 and Luke 21, was fulfilled around the year 70. The words of Jesus match the history of the Roman siege and capture of Jerusalem so accurately that skeptics insist that those words must have been written after the events they describe. Without this presupposition, there is little reason to doubt that the Gospels were written a mere twenty to thirty years after the events they describe, rather than the more than forty years required by the skeptics.

Fourth century Church historians were far closer in time to the writing of the Gospels than we are. Moreover, they had access to full documents which we have now only in fragments. Those historians say that Matthew wrote the earliest Gospel in the Hebrew language or idiom. Indeed, Matthew’s intended audience clearly consisted of Jewish Christians, familiar with Moses and the prophets, and not needing any explanation of Jewish customs. Mark and Luke wrote for Gentile Christians. Both were indeed second-generation Christians, but Luke tells us that he researched his subject before he wrote. (Since he frequently mentions, in the first two chapters of his Gospel, the thoughts and feelings of Mary the mother of Jesus, it seems likely that she was one of his sources. He probably also interviewed several of the apostles, as well as other eyewitnesses to the work and teaching of Jesus.) Mark is said by the fourth century historians to have written the lessons that Peter taught about Jesus, so Mark’s Gospel is indeed based on an eyewitness account.

John’s Gospel differs significantly from the other three, which may indicate that he was aware of the circulation of those three Gospels and wanted to supplement them rather than repeating them. He includes some of the benchmarks of the oral tradition: the baptism of Jesus by John, the feeding of the five thousand, the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection. But John recalls longer discourses from the Lord. He departs from the oral tradition, not to deny its accuracy, but to share additional information. And even if John wrote fifty years after he saw and heard and touched Jesus, he was repeating lessons he had taught repeatedly over those fifty years. His position as an eyewitness is solid.

Many Christians feel no need to question the accuracy of the Gospels because they hold to the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture: “All scripture is breathed out by God” (II Timothy 3:16); “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). But one does not have to accept the doctrine of inspiration to consider the New Testament accounts about Jesus to be reliable. During the time of oral tradition, the spoken accounts of the apostles could easily have been challenged and corrected by other eyewitnesses to Jesus. Even as the first written accounts appeared, people were alive who could have set the record straight. The Bible is trustworthy, not only because of inspiration, but also because of its historic track record. J.

The Synoptic Problem

The “Synoptic Problem” can be summarized in two questions. Why are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke so similar? Given the similarities, why are there differences among those three Gospels?

Until 1786, the Church was almost unanimous in believing that the four Gospels were written in the order used in the New Testament. Since that time, attention has veered to the possibility that Mark’s Gospel is the oldest and that both Matthew and Luke used him as a source. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the three. Moreover, ninety percent of Mark’s material is also found in Matthew, and fifty-five percent of Mark’s material is also found in Luke. Mark uses more Aramaic words than Matthew or Luke. (Aramaic is the language Jesus would have spoken with family and friends, but the New Testament is written in Greek.) His writing style is generally considered rougher than the others, causing some students of the Bible to infer that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source but cleaned up his writing in their own books.

We know that Luke’s Gospel was not the first written. Luke reports from the very beginning of his book, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us.” Luke goes on to affirm that he has investigated what Jesus said and did. Luke must have interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus–probably including Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke’s account of the birth and childhood of Jesus appears to bear the imprint of Mary’s memories. Given that information, is it more likely that Matthew copied Mark or that Mark copied Matthew? Or is there another explanation that fits the facts in a better way?

Matthew was an apostle. He saw and heard Jesus and spent time learning from him. Mark was not an apostle. Early Christian writers say that his Gospel was based on the preaching of Peter. Matthew’s Gospel is written with Jewish believers in mind. Matthew assumes knowledge of the Old Testament and of first century Jewish practices. Mark and Luke both explain those practices. The Church began among Jews but soon grew to include Gentiles. Given that information, it seems likely that Matthew’s Gospel was written before Mark and Luke wrote.

Why, then, are the books so similar? Instead of insisting that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, some scholars say that the three Gospels had a common source. It did not have to be a written source. The apostles learned from Jesus and then went out preaching about Jesus. Quite likely they had a mutually accepted outline and even a way of describing various events that kept their message unified as they shared it with many listeners.

The common source of the three Gospels, then, is an oral tradition rather than a written document. This explains Luke’s statement that “many” worked to “draw up an account”–not many accounts, but one account. When Matthew preached about Jesus, and when Peter preached about Jesus, and when James and John and Thomas and Phillip preached about Jesus, their accounts were the same because they worked together to create a single story, a shared memory, which would encourage unity in the growing Church.

Why, then, are their differences among the Gospels? Matthew was a tax collector–a numbers man. He divides the ancestry of Jesus into three sets of fourteen. He divides the teachings of Jesus into five groupings, perhaps reflecting the five books of Moses. Writing for Jewish believers in Jesus, he frequently quotes the Old Testament and does not bother to explain Jewish customs. Yet his descriptions are terse and to the point.

Peter was a fisherman trained by Jesus to be an apostle. His natural style of preaching the same message tended to be more vivid, but also rougher, than Matthew’s writing. He skips over the teaching portions of the message (except for the parables) and produces a lively, active account.

Luke was a physician who traveled with Paul. Luke interviewed eyewitnesses, but he probably heard repeatedly the same oral tradition developed by the apostles. He arranges the teachings of Jesus differently from Matthew–but that is no problem, because Jesus probably taught the same messages repeatedly to different crowds. Luke said more than Matthew or Mark about the women who traveled with Jesus and the apostles. He also reported the parables of Jesus with the strongest characters–the prodigal son and his father, and the good Samaritan.

Jesus is completely God and at the same time completely human. In a similar way, the Bible is completely God’s Word and yet was completely written by humans. As the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can accept the Bible to be trustworthy and true. As the writing of humans, we can study it like any other human document, noting different styles among the authors, and even speculating about the sources of their information. As one of my professors used to say, “The Bible is more than literature, which means it is not less than literature.” J.

 

Sorting the New Testament–a different approach

The New Testament is traditionally described as containing four types of books. These are the four Gospels, one book of history, twenty-one epistles, and one apocalypse. This description is useful because it recognizes the different kinds of literature in the New Testament and because it lists the books in the order they are arranged.

A second approach to the New Testament also describes four types of books, but this description includes one Gospel in each set. The four sets are Hebraic, Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine. The point is not that the New Testament contains different or competing theologies. All the books of the New Testament proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of God, fully human, and the Savior of sinful humanity. However, this approach recognizes diversity in the authorship of New Testament books and in the intended audiences of the writers.

The Hebraic books are the Gospel of Matthew, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Letter of James. These three books are written with a Jewish audience in mind. They assume literacy in the Old Testament and familiarity with first century Jewish customs. (Other New Testament writers explain customs that these three books simply state.) The word “faith” is not often used in the Hebraic books; instead, James speaks of “wisdom” when he talks about faith and uses “faith” to talk about the content of the faith (the list of things that are believed) rather than the actual relationship of faith.

The Petrine books are the Gospel of Mark, the two epistles of Peter, and the letter from Jude. Peter was a fisherman who was trained by Jesus to be an apostle. The Gospel of Matthew is relatively terse and dry (after all, Matthew was a tax collector–a numbers person), but Mark’s accounts are lively and vivid. Early Church historians say that Mark wrote what he heard Peter preach, so the language of the book is that of Peter. Jude, brother of James (and therefore brother of Jesus), traveled with Peter. His short book is a summary of the second epistle of Peter.

The Pauline books are the thirteen epistles bearing Paul’s name and the two books by Luke: his Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles. While Paul’s readers included both Jews and Gentiles, the books of Luke definitely have a Gentile readership in mind. Luke is the only Gospel writer who provides a sequel, describing how Jesus and his Spirit worked in the Church during the first generation of Christians. Paul wrote nine letters to seven different congregations–a fact that Augustine of Hippo found fitting, given the number seven often signals completeness, and also given that John’s book of Revelation also is addressed to seven congregations. In addition, Paul wrote four letters to three different individuals. The letters to Timothy and Titus are written in a different style from Paul’s other epistles, leading some Bible interpreters to think they had a different author. Paul’s different style in those letters is caused, not by a different author, but by a different audience with different concerns.

The Johannine books were written by John the Apostle. They are the Gospel of John, the three epistles of John, and the book of Revelation. John, like Peter, was a fisherman trained to be an apostle. John lived longer than Peter and probably wrote these books toward the end of his career, when he had been a leader of the Church for many years. He writes like a pastor. The Gospel and epistles use a very basic vocabulary and grammar, whereas the book of Revelation is written in a far different style. Again, this probably does not indicate a different author, but rather a different subject, a different approach, and a different situation (since John wrote Revelation while imprisoned on the island of Patmos).

This approach to the New Testament helps to clarify some apparent contradictions among the writers. It also provides additional context for each book. Recognizing connections between the Gospels and the epistles may grant a reader of the New Testament new understanding of what it contains.

Tomorrow I will address the so-called Synoptic Problem. J.