By JadedAtheist ~
· The Development of Theology
o The Dying/Rising gods
· The Development of the Canon
o The Heretics Win
o …by Over 200 Years
· The Deterioration of Scripture
o What is Preservation?
o How Much Meaning Needs to be Lost?
Image by mattyp_ via Flickr
One thing that always annoyed me as a Christian was the general ignorance of most church folk about their Christian history. Then again, what can one expect when the very same folk are ignorant of the very scriptures they revere?
I have a very curious personality. Even as a child I would read encyclopedias for fun. As a teen I would go to the library once a week getting 5-6 books on various topics like history, science and religion and read them from front to back and then when I saw Wikipedia for the first time, I almost cried out in joy! I spent days searching and reading all the various articles on all the topics that caught my interest.
So, you can imagine that when I got “saved”, nothing much changed. I read furiously on Christian topics from the day of my conversion to this very day now as an ex-Christian. It didn’t take me long to realize that I knew more than most people did on topics like apologetics, theology and Christian history. Not long after I realized I knew more of the Bible as well, and I was only months into my conversion.
Anyways, my deconversion from Christianity was a result of many things but one of the keys to my deconversion was my study of early Christian history and tied to that, textual criticism. In this article, I just want to take a brief look at 3 areas that corroded away my faith and encourage you to research these topics as well. At the end of this article I will recommend some books on the topics presented. I will present both Christian and secular perspectives and encourage you to read both. Now to the article!
The Development of Theology
Christian theology is a work in progress. It wasn’t handed down to Christians at Christ’s ascension nor did he enlighten any of the NT writers to clarify things. Christ fought amongst each other viciously for centuries on various topics to determine what was orthodox. Even today new issues are brought up to be resolved and this will no doubt continue until the demise of Christianity.
I realize now in hindsight that the development of Christian theology is one of Christianity’s biggest weak points in its claim of divine origin but more on that shortly. Another weak point (and in my opinion a killer blow) in Christianity’s claim of divine origins is the fact that Christianity was far from a unique religion. It was a product of its time as we’ll now see.
The Dying/Rising gods
Christianity has a lot of common components to the religions of its genesis. Christianity’s main claim is that God the Father sent God the Son to Earth to die as atonement for mankind’s sins. To show his approval of this, he rose him up from the grave.
Rebirth wasn’t an uncommon myth amongst the pagan deities, neither was atonement, nor the fact that the firstborn was especially cherished as a sacrifice. All of these elements can be found in various mythologies and not even Irenaeus was bold enough to disagree, instead he attributed the similarities to the craftiness of Satan.
Other examples include important Christian concepts such as good vs evil (i.e. God vs Satan) are imports from dualistic religions like Zoroastrianism.
Not even the gospels are safe. The numerous stories of Christ’s miracles are simple rehashing of pagan myths. There are numerous examples to give but I don’t want to bog down this post with them, as with the rest of my post, I’ll back up my claims by referring you to recommended resources.
Dizzying Development of Doctrine
Christ wasn’t always held to be God co-equal with the Holy Spirit and God the Father. Christians didn’t always have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Penal Substitutionary Theory wasn’t always thought of as being the reason why Christ had to die. God did not always predestine man to salvation nor did man always choose God. Salvation was not always of faith alone. Each and every one of these doctrines developed well after Christianity’s DOB.
One would imagine that if God revealed himself through written documents he would make himself clear. For example, the early church held to Ransom theory of atonement. They believed that Jesus death paid Satan the ransom he demanded for the souls of humanity. The PST on the other hand states that Jesus’ death acts as a substitution to our own spiritual death (i.e. eternal torture in hell).
The PST didn’t even come into existence until a millennium after the death of Christ. It was first put forth by Thomas Aquinas and further refined by John Calvin a further 5 centuries afterwards. It took us this long to figure out the purpose of Christ’s death? Seems a long time for such a vital doctrine?
Salvation by faith and works gained traction very early on. Early Christians held to a very strong view of moral purity that most of today’s fundamentalists would fail horribly. They believed very strongly that faith without works is dead. If you ain’t backing up your faith with works you are not saved, period. No such thing as backsliding back then my Christian friends.
I could go on and on but there are numerous examples of vital Christian doctrines taking centuries to develop. Where was God in this? The reason these doctrines took so long to develop was because the writings within the Bible itself do not contain a clear message. They contradict each other or are otherwise silent on such issues but more on this shortly. This leads to our next section.
The Development of the Canon
Christ didn’t drop our Bible as we know it from the heavens as he ascended into them. In fact he left no writings at all. He was silent for many years, even conservative estimates say that the first writings didn’t even start coming about till about 20-30 years after his ascension.
All the writings as we have them were not completed until the early 2nd century and the collection of writings with our seal of approval were not put together until the 4th century. Up until that time most Christians used canon and non-canonical books side by side with little to no distinction.
So, with no further adieu will take a closer look at how we came to decide that our 66 books we have now are canonical.
The Heretics Win
Do you know who first said “Yo, only these books are inspired by God, son!” and then gave us a list? It was the one and only, the notorious, Marcion.
Marcion was the chief heretic of the 2nd century. He is considered the father of Christian Gnosticism. He rejected all of the OT and most of the NT. Of the NT he only used one gospel which was Luke’s and used only the Pauline epistles (rejecting the pastorals). He formulated this canon approx 130CE.
Christians at this point in time didn’t really pay attention to (or did not yet have the concept of) canonical and non-canonical writings. Some people rejected Revelations in favor of the Shepherd of Hemas whilst others rejected books like James, Philemon and II-III John and used instead I Clement, Epistle of Barnabas and the Apocalypse of Peter.
The earliest response to Marcion’s canon (if one takes a conservative dating) is about 50 years later and is fairly similar to today’s canon except it’s missing the Petrine, James’ and some of Paul’s (if you consider Paul to be the author of Hebrews that is) and John’s epistles. This canon is found in what is called the Muratorian fragment and is a 7th century Latin manuscript, a translation of an earlier document dated between the late 2nd to 4th centuries.
…by Over 200 Years
The Christian canon as found today isn’t listed as such until the year 367 by Athanasius. This was quite some time after Jesus’ ascension. It’s interesting that the development of theology up until the end of the 4th century was a free-for-all.
What I mean by that is that one’s theological beliefs were based on books both canonical and not. We can see that the hatred of Jews found in the early church was propagated by documents like the Epistle of Barnabas and the sexual repression found in the early church (and as a result found today) was mainly to do with works like the Acts of John.
The reason that it took many years for doctrines to develop as I was saying before is because they were working with unclear documents. Writings written by different people forced to be understood as a unified message many years after the fact.
Different authors with different intentions and beliefs were forced to be understood as a unified message because they were held sacred by people and due to their belief that these writings were inspired; they worked hard to make everything fit nicely. Contradictions were considered unacceptable for Holy Scriptures. As a result the intended meaning is often lost in order to force it into a predefined theology.
That’s why the debate still rages on between Calvinism and Arminianism. It’s because the authors contradict each other and Christians cannot see it. One book says God chose us and another says we choose him and because Christians must understand these 2 statements as being non-contradictory, we have this debate that probably will never be resolved.
The same applies for many other doctrines. The reason the Bible seems to be “unclear” on issues is mostly because people are trying to cram a square shaped piece into a circle shaped hole.
The Deterioration of Scripture
A commonly held belief about the Bible is not only is it inspired and infallible but it is also preserved. Now depending on which Christian you ask you may get a different answer to the question of what does preservation really mean?
What is Preservation?
The first church I attended was a King James Only church. They believed God preserved his word in the King James Version. Despite the fact that it was a translation they considered it to be perfect. In other words, you cannot fault it at all as a translation, if you got a Koine Greek scholar to compare the KJV with the Greek texts he would not find anything he could fault.
Of course, it is not a perfect translation. The problem generally with this mindset is that there is a great deal of ignorance in what is entailed in a translation. Most Christians who hold this view that I’ve met believe translation to be straightforward. They are unaware of issues like words or concepts not having parallels, tenses, articles and voices to be completely missing.
Some who are more aware of such issues believe the King James Version to have “corrected” the original documents. These people are aware of the inconsistencies and are unsatisfied with the view that scripture isn’t “perfectly preserved”.
You then have more moderate views that essentially state that the original Greek and Hebrew texts are perfectly preserved but you lose some meaning in translation. Finally, you will have people who not only admit that meaning is lost in translation but the documents themselves are not perfectly preserved. They however do not consider this a problem, though they should as we’re about to see.
How Much Meaning Needs to be Lost?
The more knowledge one gains about textual criticism the more they are forced to take a more liberal understanding of the doctrine of scriptural preservation. That’s why some preservationists accept that there are many, many copies of the original manuscripts (which we no longer have) and not a single one agrees completely with another.
That’s right, no 2 copies are identical. Now this isn’t to say that the differences are major (though some are) but it goes to show that no one is perfect, even God isn’t it seems. Most differences are accounted for due to spelling mistakes, others are changes in word order (word order isn’t as important in Greek as it is in English) or sometimes a scribe may lose his spot and skip whole sections of text.
The other differences are more substantial. Such differences are whole passages being inserted into a text (such as the ending of Mark, the adulterous woman in John 8 and 1 John 5:7 to name a few) or words being changed completely (did Jesus have compassion on someone or was he furious at them?).
The apologetical response is that these faults do not affect any major doctrine and thus shouldn’t be worried about. The thing is though it affects meaning, admittedly insignificant on the long run but meaning is nevertheless affected.
You can’t say that something is preserved and then admit that you don’t know whether or not certain passages are meant to be in the text or whether the writer meant to say X happened instead of Y happened. Why would God allow meaning to be lost? Without meaning you have nothing.
The fact is if we were unsure of the validity of even one word in the Bible it would show that it was not preserved. Instead we have many instances where this is the case.
I know I’ve gone through a lot here and it is by no means exhaustive but I hope I shed some light on the underpinnings of Christianity and that it will encourage you to take a closer look at them. You may see these underpinnings and find no problem with them but I exhort you to really consider them.
You really need to ask yourself why did God make Christianity look like every other pagan religion out there? Why are there so many similarities between the gospels and pagan myths? Why take hundreds of years to show Christians what important doctrines are to be believe? Why was the first canon put together by a heretic? Why did it take 4 centuries to put together a canon? Why don’t the NT manuscripts agree with each other? Why did God allow false passages in his preserved word? Why did he allow the meaning of certain passages to be lost for the rest of time? Why, why, why?
Listen to your doubts, don’t ignore them!
The following are books that I recommend by both Christian and secular authors:
Early Christian History
Christianity through the Centuries by Earle Cairns (Christian)
The Story of Christianity Volumes I & II by Justo Gonzales (Christian)
Heresies by Harold Brown
Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman
The KJV Controversy by James White (Christian)
Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman
Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowel (Christian: Covers a variety of topics included a critique of Higher Criticism)
The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert Price