Christian fundamentalists want us to trust them that their religion somehow sprang fully constructed from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth. I have tried to show (here and here) how untrue that claim is because it is a very important point. If, as they claim, the Bible in the inerrant word of God, it also must have sprung fully from the mouth of their god – in other words, any human influence voids the entire argument. This is why the issue of contradictions is such an important one. If the Bible contradicts itself – and it does, often – then how can it be the inerrant word of God? Does God have a personality disorder? A perfect being cannot change its mind, after all.
So the contradictions are argued away and trivialized. Four contradictory gospels are somehow melded together into a single gospel that smooth over the often serious disagreements of the authors. All four of them cannot be true as they come down to us. They disagree in matters both great and small, from Jesus’ genealogy to what he said, what he taught, where he went and when, where he was born to how and when he died, what his last words were, and so forth. It’s a mad jumble. But we are supposed to suspend belief and imagine that none of these problems exist.
Another issue that should trouble fundamentalists (and all Americans currently being lied to) is the manner in which their religion was constructed. Because manifestly it did not spring fully grown from the lips of Jesus. It was created by very fallible, argumentative and often violent men (as evidenced by the surviving accounts of Chrysostom, Augustine, Sozomen), who argued over every possible piece of minutiae surrounding Jesus – who and what he was, what he said, what his relation to God was, etc. Historian Ramsay MacMullen offers what is but a sampling of these issues in his book Voting About God in Early Church Councils (2006), positions that, as he puts it, were “seriously argued by someone of influence at some point in time” during the first Christian centuries at various church councils:
Did Christ exist before his incarnation?
Is Christ begotten the equal of God unbegotten?
Did Christ collaborate with the Father in the Creation?
Is God the Father before the Son’s existence?
Was the coming into being of the Son the same process as the Creation?
Is Christ’s divinity or humanity merely notional, an external seeming?
Was Christ man in flesh alone?
Is Christ’s human nature only in the flesh?
Is Christ’s likeness to the Father the same after incarnation?
Is Christ anointed as man or as God?
Is Christ begotten as other men, or made?
Is Christ begotten of the Father or of the Pneuma-Spirit?
If Christ is begotten of the Father, then by the Father’s will?
Is God one or two unbegotten beings?
Is Christ a copy of the Father or an image?
Is Christ a perfect copy of the Father?
Is Christ the Logos?
Was Christ created or born?
Is Christ, as God, God of his substance, or only made of his substance?
Is God’s substance increased or divided in begetting?
Is Christ of one will with the Father, or separate?
Is Christ of one substance with the Father?
Was Christ begotten once or twice?
Was Christ a man indwelt by God?
Is Christ one nature from two? Or one nature in tow, united?
Is Christ’s human nature separate from the nature of the Logos?
Is the Pneuma-Spirit the equal of Father and Son?
Is the Pneuma-Spirit of the same nature?
Did the Pneuma-Spirit take the place of a soul in Christ?
Is Christ’s soul/mind (psyche/nous) human and impure?
Is Christ one in properties, names, and operations, when incarnated?
Did/can Christ’s mind suffer? Or only his body?
Did the Father suffer on the cross?
Is there any separation in Christ between his self and his flesh?
In Christ are two natures resident in touch with each other, or fused?
Does “like” mean “identical”?
Is Christ who suffered the same Christ who performed miracles?
Is Mary the mother of God, or of Christ, or of Jesus?
Is Mary’s nature divine in any aspect?
Did Christ’s existence begin in the womb or at birth?
Was Mary of the same substance as human beings?
Must all theological understanding be supported by terms in Scripture?
These were the questions asked over a period of three centuries at Christian councils. MacMullen traces 255 of these councils over the two and a quarter centuries post-325 but there were earlier councils too, about twenty of them we can identify from the year 253 to 325. But to illustrate the true scope of the process of arriving at a consensus of belief, MacMullen points out that we can identify only about 250 councils out of some 15,000 that must have been held in that two and a quarter centuries between 325 and 553 – that “must more of the record has been lost than preserved.” All that debating, fighting and voting – and even sizable bribes – yet fundamentalists object vociferously to the idea of voting about what Jesus said – the Jesus Seminar.
Now obviously all these questions are not answered in the pages of the New Testament. They are not even imagined as questions at that early time. Jesus and his followers, in all likelihood, neither talked about nor thought about many of these issues (how many of us even now do so?). Most of these come from a more advanced theology, long after Jesus lived. A division of God, for example, cannot be imagined in Judaism. Since Jesus and his disciples were Jews, they could not have considered such issues.
Paul did not envision Jesus as John’s Logos; he did not envision Jesus as part of any Trinity. For instance, when Paul mentions baptism, it is not through the “father, son and the holy ghost” but “into Christ” (Rom. 6.3, Gal. 3.27) and in Acts baptism is “into” or “in the name of” Jesus (Acts 2.38, 8.16, 10.48, 19.5) without mention of the Holy Spirit. The word “trinity” does not even make so much as a single appearance in the New Testament. In short, Paul would not have recognized the message being spread through fire and sword amongst the Germanic peoples five centuries after his death.
The problem for fundamentalist Christians is coming to terms with a historic Jesus but not only that but a historic New Testament, a book which did not exist until the fourth century CE and then in several forms. We should note here also the opinion of New Testament scholar Francois Bovon, who argues that “we must learn to consider the gospels of the New Testament canon, in the form in which they existed before 180 CE, in the same light in which we consider the apocrypha. At this earlier time, the gospels were what the apocrypha never ceased to be.”
Athanasius (298-373) is the first Christian to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today (Festal Letter 39). This was in 367 CE. Damasus, Bishop of Rome, wrote a list identical to that of Athanasius in 382 and when the Third Synod of Carthage in 397 repeated both lists it was only ratifying the canon accepted previously at the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa, 393.
It was Irenaeus, writing in 180 CE, or 150 years after Jesus’ death, who first stated that there must be four gospels and four gospels only. It was not until the time of Justin Martyr, that is, the 150s, that we get our first references to the contents of the gospels, here called only “memoirs of the apostles,” but the quotations we get do not agree with the versions currently in our possession or are so vague as to give no indication as to which text they is meant.
This argues for the existence of gospel accounts we no longer have. Before this time, from 90 to 130, the forty or so years following the composition of the synoptic gospels and possibly John as well, we have no quote from any gospel source. Not by 1 Clement (c.95-96 CE), not from Ignatius (c. 110 CE), not from Barnabas (c. 130 CE) and not from Polycarp (c. 155-156 CE).
By contrast, when Christianity began, it had only the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and an oral tradition of the teachings of Jesus. Clement, the third or fourth pope (the Vatican assigns him the years 92-99 C.E.) knew nothing of any “Gospels.” For Clement, the Bible was the Old Testament and though he refers to some sayings of Jesus and to the letters of Paul, he does not refer to them as “Scripture” (First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians c. 96 C.E.). The first Christian “canon” does not appear until c. 100 in the Bryennios manuscript, a 27-book Old Testament which is written in Koine Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Irenaeus, (130-202 CE) added 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas but makes no references to Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John or Jude. Even Eusebius, writing c. 300 did not have a complete “Scripture” (Ecclesiastical History 3.3 and 3.25). Yet all the while we are supposed to believe that the New Testament has absolute veracity as the word of God. How is it that if God knew what was true and what was not, it took him almost 400 years to decide?
It is difficult to explain is Eusebius’ early fourth century discussion of New Testament canon (HE 3.25.1). The books Eusebius calls “acknowledged” are the four gospels, Acts, fourteen epistles of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter and “if it really seems right” the Apocalypse of John. Under “disputed” he includes some familiar (and currently canonical) books: James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. We notice here that throughout the existing witnesses that books currently accepted as part of canon are excluded in these early collections, which would seem to argue against a uniform and (early) New Testament.
So much for a fully grown Christianity dating to 30 CE. So much for a New Testament that is the inerrant word of God. Fallible humans voted not only on the nature of Christ in a democratic context based on the Roman Senate in church council after church council, but voted on which books should be included in the New Testament. If things are not so bad as Dan Brown presents in his fiction, they are certainly bad enough from a fundamentalist perspective. Which brings me back to my original point: The GOP wants us to believe that we must all collectively and individually do as their God wants or suffer the consequences, but how are we to know what God wants when the Bible was written – and what we are supposed to believe decided – by fallible human beings?
Trust them? I don’t think so. Look at the lies they’ve already told.
1 Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils (Yale University Press, 2006), 30-31.
2 MacMullen (2006), 2-7.
3 Francois Bovon, “The Synoptic Gospels and the Noncanonical Acts of the Apostles,” HTR 81 (1988), 20. Bovon who holds a doctorate in theology from theUniversity of Basel, taught at the University of Geneva Divinity School from 1967-1993, an institution founded by John Calvin in 1559. He is currently Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion at the Harvard Divinity School.
4 For instance, Dial 100.4: “And in having him described as Son of God in the memoirs of his apostles…” Charles H. Cosgrove, “Justin Martyr and the Emerging Christian Canon. Observations on the Purpose and Destination of the Dialogue with Trypho” Vigiliae Christianae 36 (1982) 224. For a full accounting of Gospel quotations in Justin Marytr see Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 360-402.