Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus (Part Four)

The Epistle of Barnabas (late 1st century or early 2nd) illustrates the extremity to which Christians would go in raiding the Jewish scriptures, which they read in Greek, not Hebrew, for proof texts: “For it says, ‘From his household Abraham circumcised eighteen men and three hundred (andraj dekaoktw kai triakosiouj)’(42)…The eighteen first, and pausing, he says three hundred. The eighteen is I and Hyou have Jesus! (eceij Ihsoun).”(43) The Greeks used the letter iota (I) to stand for ten, the letter eta (H) stood for eight—thus iota plus eta, and voilà, the first two letters of IHSOUS (Jesus)! According to the author of Barnabas, the Hebrew prophets were Jesus’ disciples, and when Jesus finally came he raised them from the dead, likely an claim derived from Matthew—“The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”(44) The writer, basing his fatuous numerology on a Greek translation of a Hebrew text, conveniently overlooked the fact that the Old Testament prophets had not written in Greek. Little wonder Romans found Christian preachments so simple to refute.

Textual criticism since Westcott and Hort (1881) has clearly shown that Christian scribes were not merely passive (or even accurate) transmitters of text—“it has even been shown that a copyist could presumably reproduce a text even when he could not read or understand it. Sometimes, however, scribes took on the unsupervised role of creative consultant…the scribe’s pen was mightier than the evangelist’s word…an intentional variant, it may be argued, is no longer the act of a scribe but an author.”(45) Given this reading of the abundant evidence of textual manipulation, one could affirm that the New Testament had, in fact, a multiplicity of authors, nearly all of them unacknowledged.(46) In the majority of cases the copyists, as users of the text, had a vested interest in its meaning: “Their ability to write meant they could correct, clarify, buttress, or interpret a text, and, in so doing, impose with enduring effect their own ideas into their exemplars and, in turn, those controversies that sought out authority or information…Christian scribes engaged in the act of transmitting the text of the New Testament occasionally changed their exemplar in order to produce a text that resonated with the tuning fork of the copyist’s own ideology.”(47) Noted textual scholar Eldon Epp has proposed no less than four classifications of texts: (1) an “autographic text-form,” i.e., the text as originally composed, (2) a “predecessor text-form,” the form(s) of the text discernible behind the form we now possess, a “canonical text-form,” the text at the time it was declared authoritative by the Church, and (4) an “interpretive text-form,” the form the text acquired during “any and each interpretive iteration…as it was used in the life, worship, and teaching of the church.”(48)

Irenaeus also admitted that Christian factions were altering the gospel texts to suit their theological ends: “[Marcion] mutilated the Gospel according to Luke, discarding all that is written about the birth of the Lord…” Irenaeus also informs us about a “fiction [the Cainites] adduce, and call it the Gospel of Judas.”(49) As a matter of fact the “Pastoral Epistles” may contain an allusion to something like Marcion’s revision of Christian scripture: “Timothy, guard what God has entrusted to you. Avoid godless, foolish debates with those who oppose you with their falsely-called knowledge (yeudonumou gnwsewj)”(50)

It seems quite clear that by the end of the 1st century a bitter debate raged over ‘true’ and ‘false’ gnosis and gospels were being composed or revised to provide ammunition for the opposing sides. The Christians of the first centuries were not writing scripture as currently defined. “Different writers felt free to rearrange and alter the information they inherited—a simple comparison of the first three canonical gospels reveals this—because they did not see themselves as writing scripture…The four gospels collectively stand as the survivors of a process whose principles of selection had more to do with competition between different Christian groups than with a disinterested concern for history.”(51) It has been suggested that the earliest gospel, Mark, “is the synthesis of several stages of composition and written, plausibly, in different locations.”(52) “In Alexandria a Carpocratian élite among the Christians may have used a ‘secret Gospel,’ perhaps the original form of Mark.”(53)

The first century was likely marked by a profusion of gospels—“many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us.”(54) “In the course of time, the traditional material had not only swollen greatly, but it provided quite diverse pictures. Alongside the synoptic type of picture, there came John; alongside the canonical gospels were many apocryphal gospels which were often pronouncedly heretical.”(56) Nearly every Roman critic familiar with the gospels seems to have noted their inconsistencies and contradictions. Julian again: “For Matthew and Luke are refuted by the fact that they disagree concerning [Jesus’] genealogy.”(56)

In addition to the problem of forged apostolic letters and heretical gospels, the house churches swarmed with “prophets” who at any moment might blurt out some extraordinary nonsense. The faithful are “not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from uswhether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letterasserting that the day of the Lord has already come.”(57) Late in the 1st century the Christian message was still subject to the whims of soothsayers who could claim divine inspiration: “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols…And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.”(58) “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’”(59) It takes no great imagination to picture a loosely organized ecstatic sect in which any attention seeker or any person who was mentally unbalanced could claim a personal revelation, thus sowing further chaos in the ranks.