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

The documents of the New Testament attest to exactly such doctrinal bedlam: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us…”(60) The churches are beset by “deceivers and antichrists,”(61) “false prophets,”(62) who in the “Last Times” will spread the “teachings of demons”(63) and “empty deceit.”(64) Therefore “not many” Christians should become teachers since they will be judged harshly.(65) The early Christian practice of “speaking by the spirit”(66) authenticated private revelation and unleashed a firestorm within the house churches, an idiosyncratic tempest that resulted in corruption of gospel texts, the emergence of ecstatic sects such as the Montanists of the late 2nd century, and the eventual suppression of gospels and sects that conflicted with proto-orthodox teaching.

Eusebius provides an additional witness to the adjustments made to Christian scripture as well as to the inadequacy of transmission:

   For this reason [confidence in “the techniques of unbelievers”] they fearlessly put their hands on the divine scriptures, purporting to have corrected them and that I make no false allegation against them anyone who wishes can learn, for if any man so desire, collect the copies to closely compare each with the other. He would find many discrepancies and variances between those of Asklepiades and Theodotus and it is possible to acquire an abundance of them since their disciples have copied them diligently, “set aright” as they call it, but in fact corrupted.

   Again, the copies of Hermophilus do not agree with these, nor do those of Apollonides even agree with one another, for the copies they produced first can be compared to those which later on they even further corrupted and they will be discovered to differ greatly.(67)

Even as Christians were busy tweaking the text of the gospels, the theology of their falsified biographies also changed. Exorcisms, which litter the text of Mark, lose the more lurid details in Matthew and Luke and disappear entirely from the gospel of John. As Fredriksen points out, “such key synoptic terms as righteousness, power, and good news all fail to appear in John; Kingdom (as in Kingdom of God), used more than 120 times in the first three gospels, occurs in John twice (3:3, 5; cf. 18:36). Conversely, the synoptics use truth 10 times to John’s 46; world (kosmos) 13 times to 78; and Jews 16 times to John’s 67.”(68)

Today some 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament books, produced before the advent of the printing press, are known. To the extent they have been compared one to another they are known to contain at least 300,000 variant readings—there are 138,000 words, more or less, in the New Testament. As textual scholar Bart Ehrman notes, “the earliest copyists appear to have been untrained and relatively unsuited to the tasks [of producing accurate copies].”(69) Besides the problem posed by untrained copyists, the gospels and occasional letters of Paul were being used in fierce doctrinal disputes, referenced obliquely in the New Testament books themselves—“[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”(70) Since we have no preserved text of any length of any New Testament document before the early 3rd century, we can only guess how editing or other forms of meddling may have changed them,(71) but the words of textual scholar Helmut Koester are certainly worth bearing in mind: “Textual critics of classical texts know that the first century of their transmission is the period in which the most serious corruptions occur. Textual critics of the New Testament have been surprisingly naïve in this respect.”(72)

One might expect that after several centuries of the textual study of thousands of manuscripts the ‘authentic’ text of the New Testament would be firmly established. But in that case one would be gravely mistaken. Commenting on the critical edition of the United Bible Societies, Lane Fox observed, “Their committee considered that there were two thousand places [in 1966] where alternative readings of any significance survived in good manuscripts…by 1975 their Greek text had had to be revised twice because no revision has yet proved free from error and improvement. The very aim, a standard version, is misleading and unrealistic…There are scriptures but no exact scripture within the range of our surviving knowledge…”(73)

Developments, or rather the lack of them, also left a mark on the gospel texts: “…the failure of the End to precede the death of the beloved disciple caused a further chapter to be added to his Gospel (John 21). Those who had predicted it in the plainest terms were wrong.”(74)