Monday, December 21, 2009

Jesus, the Gospels, Gnosticism and Historical Revisionism (Part 2)

(Continued from Part One)

Not many people are aware of the history of the New Testament documents. It is thus not too surprising that skeptics and conspiracy theorists would want to capitalize on the general ignorance of the masses by claiming all sorts of strange, unhistorical ideas regarding the formation of the biblical text. The conspiracy theories center around 1) The books that make up the New Testament, and 2) the actual text of the aforementioned books. So we shall concentrate on these two things

First off, there are two main reasons why we consider the four gospels to be the canonical gospels. First, there is the issue of dating: All four gospels are dated to around the second half of the first century, which makes them very close to the time when Jesus walked the earth, and situates them within the apostolic age. This means that they reflect the actual teachings and beliefs of Jesus' apostles better than any gospel text that has come afterward. By contrast, all of the apocryphal gospels (with the possible exception of portions of the Gospel of Thomas) are dated to later centuries, and some have even been found to be modern forgeries (eg. Secret Mark).

Second is the fact that the first four gospels have an identifiable Vox Dei due to their reflecting what the church has believed all along even before these traditions became "enscripturated." This is in contrast to many of the apocryphal gospels, that contain obvious legendary developments (eg. a talking cross) and lack any historical background (some of these apocryphal gospels don't even have a narrative, but are just "sayings" texts eg. The Gospel of Thomas).

Against this, it is claimed that the four canonical gospels really are on the same level or even inferior to the apocryphal gospels, and that it was only during the Council of Nicaea that they became canonical. First, there is the obvious problem that Nicaea had nothing to say on the canon of scripture. Second, there is plenty of evidence that the ante-Nicene church considered the four gospels to be the canonical gospels.

There is the muratorian fragment, which is widely considered to have been written around the late 2nd century due to internal cues within the text of the fragment itself. The text mentions Luke as the third gospel, and John as the fourth. The names of the first two gospels are cut off from the preserved fragment of the text, though there is very little doubt that it is Matthew and Mark.

There are also the writings second century church fathers Papias, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Papias refers to both Mark and Matthew, identifying them as accepted apostolic writings. Justin Martyr quotes from the gospels, though he doesn't mention them by name, and refers to them as the "memoirs of the apostles" (link). The most explicit statement, however, comes from Irenaeus. In Against Heresies, he writes,

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 principal 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, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.
(Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies. III:XI:8)

All of this furnishes abundant proof that the fourfold gospel was already well in place long before the fourth century. There is no historical evidence for the assertion that the four gospels did not become canonical until Nicaea.

Now that we have that out of the way, there is also the claim that the text of the New Testament has been deliberately tampered with, "embellished" as Dan Brown puts it, in order to make Jesus "godlike." Of course, this simply ignores the mountains of manuscript and patristic evidence to the contrary. We have dozens of manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and all of the major texts asserting the deity of Christ (eg. John 1:1 John 1:18, John 20:28, Titus 2:13, Hebrews 1:8, 2 Peter 1:1, etc.) are there, exactly as we have them in our present day New Testament text.

And even if we didn't have these manuscripts, we can still extrapolate these passages from the patristic quotations. Various early church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, etc. have commented on the scriptures in question and we can validate our current reading of the scriptures from their writings.

Given these two lines of evidence, there is no justification whatsoever for the claim that the modern day Christian New Testament is not the same text that the first and second century Christian Church had received from the apostles.

(Continue to Part 3)

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