Did you know that, a couple of generations ago, priests discouraged people from reading the Bible? “Ask us what’s in the Book,” they suggested, worried that discrepancies between the catechism and Bible verses could spark uncomfortable questions.
This issue goes all the way back to the roots of Christianity and the creation of the canon. Do you believe that the Biblical anthology1An anthology is a collection of literary works chosen by a compiler. was carved in stone during the First Nicene Council in 325? Well, that’s not the case. The Nicene Council is a bit of a blur and gave rise to wild rumors, e.g. that some participating bishop were simpletons2Sabinus of Heraclea claimed that, but he was controversial., and that divination3Blavatzki – another controversial claim. decided the Biblical canon.`
Here is a summary of the official record:
A) The formulation of the dogma of the nature of the Son of God and his relationship to God the Father
B) The formulation of the first part of the Nicene Creed
C) The dating of Easter
D) The publication of a first canon law – that’s catechism.
The Bible wasn’t on the agenda. What about the fifty copies Constantine ordered in 331?4https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifty_Bibles_of_Constantine They are lost and nobody knows whether that commission was part of the plan to create a canon. It isn’t even known what these compilations included, e.g. the Old Testament.
How was the Biblical canon established? That’s a blur too. Different Christian leaders proposed various compilations, e. g. Marcion of Sinope, but the Bible remained fluid during the first couple of centuries. Some scriptures, such as 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Diatessaron were first in, but got kicked out later on. The Book of Revelation and the Minor Catholic (General) Epistles were added in the last moment.
Who compiled, removed, and added scriptures is unknown. Fact is that there was no council that decided the Biblical canon. Wikipedia: “The first council that accepted the present Catholic canon (the Canon of Trent) may have been the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (393); the acts of this council, however, are lost. A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils were under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed.”
No official debate and consent? Strange, isn’t it? This could be the reason: At that time, the church wasn’t homogenous. Consider the Arian controversy during the First Nicene Council. That was a hair-splitting affair that boiled down to two Greek words pronounced the same way, but with slightly different meanings. The first was genetos with one n. It has the meaning of ‘originate’ and ‘coming to be as a result of a process’. The second word, gennetos – two n – means ‘to generate’ or ‘to beget’. Some Greek philosophers applied gennetos also to inanimate objects.
This was the religious standoff: One party believed that the Father was un-originated – agenetos (one n) – and that the Son was originated – genetos (also one n), or begotten, before the beginning of time, by the Father’s will. The other party claimed that the Son of God was begotten by God’s nature, not by God’s will. And that the Father and Son are un-originated – genetos (one n) – but the son was still begotten – gennetos (two n).
Let’s break at this junction and wipe the semantic sweat off our foreheads. Who on earth can tell the difference? Test: Which one was the Arian dogma and which one the Catholic?5The first position is that of the Arian, the second that of the Catholics.
On a side note, this hairsplitting affair was a matter of life and death. All those who stuck the Arian faith faced the death penalty. Semantic hairsplitting and execution isn’t religion, that’s politics! Anyways, the point is that clergymen at that time had a hard time agreeing on tiniest issues. If they fought tooth and nail over two words, how about a collection of books? It was clear that a council could never do the job of agreeing on a canon. It had to be compiled in a cloak and dagger operation.
The Catholics had another situation. The Aryan controversy was an internal power struggle. There were still many other Christian camps out there – likely in the hundreds – and their scriptures counted in the hundreds too. The Gnostics were the largest non-Catholic group. Likely, the Catholics counted more members, but the Gnostics constituted the intellectual elite of the Roman cultural scene, philosophers, scientists, teachers, etc. While it was easy to politically outdo the Gnostics (they had no interests in politics), to silence them was another thing. The church had to put the foot down.
Too Thin of a Book
When the priests behind the scenes worked on the compilation of the canon, they faced a serious dilemma. They couldn’t use any of the Gnostic or apocalyptic books. What was left? The New Testament turned out to be an embarrassingly thin book:
– The gospel or narrative of Jesus’ life
– The Acts of Apostles
– The Epistles – a collection of twenty-one letters
– The Revelation (which Is actually more of a gnostic book)
If the book should rule, it had to be a thick book! What now?
After including four different versions of the gospel, the New Testament already looked a bit thicker. We are used to the four gospels, but think about it – it’s odd. It’s like having four Exodus’ or four Genesis’ in the Old Testament. But even with the four gospels, the Bible was still skinny compared to the collection of Gnostic scriptures and the Torah. The Torah counts 993 pages, the New Testament 288 (192 with only one gospel).
What about Gnostic scriptures? The Gnostic Gospel has 54 texts, around 20 classical Gnostic books still exist, the Nag Hammadi library contains 52 codices, there are 15 Apocryphal acts, 8 Apocryphal texts, 13 Apocryphal gospels, and last but not least, the Dead Sea scrolls with 981 texts.
Do you see the problem? The priests behind the scene had no choice but to do the unthinkable, to include the Torah. It was unthinkable because the Torah was a Jewish scripture, the guys who nailed Jesus to the cross. At that time, Christians did anything to sever their Jewish roots.
Get the Job Done!
You have to break eggs to make an omelet. The Torah had to become a Christian book. First, the authors behind the scene gave it a new name: the Old Testament. Next, they replaced Jewish names with Greek names and all God-names (more than a dozen) with Theos (Greek for God). Next, they introduced the devil and the concept of evil which is alien to the Torah. And of course, the polished verses.
This was the work of a few priests who knew what they were doing. When they were done, the Bible confirmed the catechism. The rest is history. Well, not entirely, those who had the eyes to see could read between Biblical lines. But they could not talk between the lines without facing the death penalty. Or worse.
The Rest is History
Fast forward to the Early Middle Ages. The Bible was now Latin. Common people were illiterate and only the priests, monks, teachers, and aristocrats could read and speak Latin. People had no way of telling what was in the Bible and what was not. The book ruled and with it those who could read it.
This changed with King James and Luther. King James translated the Bible into English and Luther into German. More translations followed suit. Now, everybody could read the Bible and be, in fact, a priest – a Protestant tenet.
400 years after the Reformation, many churches still discouraged people from reading the Bible. In 1870, at a time when many spiritual and esoteric traditions re-emerged, followers of Charles Taze Rusell formed the Bible Student Movement. Sometime later, the Bible Student Movement became Jehovah’s Witnesses. I recently had a chat with one of these guys. He grew up in Africa. He told me that his priest and father discouraged him from reading the Bible. He was in his forties, so we’re talking 1990 – 2000. Maybe it’s still like that in some African countries.
Many people sense a discrepancy between the catechism and the Bible. That’s why literal translations are in fashion. People want to see for themselves.
While those literal translations work well for the New Testament, the translations of the Old Testament/Torah don’t go far enough. Most translations still use English names for Biblical characters and all the beautiful mystical God-names are still lost in translation. Not a big deal? These original names would remind people that Christianity and the Bible have a history. And history is always an enemy of dogmatism. For the same reason, some fundamental Christians oppose biology.
A lot of Biblical archeology remains to be done. Jeff Benner, an expert in ancient Hebrew, can give you an impression of what the Torah really looks like. You can research his work here: www.ancienthebrew.org.
Reading Jeff’s mechanical translations of the Genesis and Exodus is eye opening. This is his translation of Gen 1.1: “At the summit, Powers fattened heaven and earth.” Do you recognize the good Old Testament? Read the original text and you will find out that Eve wasn’t in the garden of Eden, but someone called Ashah. And surprise, there were two Adams!
Let’s close this post with a reminder that Jesus didn’t write, or did he? Did he refuse by purpose? What would the world look like today if he had?
Image attribution: copyright wavebreakmediamicro @ 123rf.com
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||An anthology is a collection of literary works chosen by a compiler.|
|2.||↑||Sabinus of Heraclea claimed that, but he was controversial.|
|3.||↑||Blavatzki – another controversial claim.|
|5.||↑||The first position is that of the Arian, the second that of the Catholics.|