Friday, May 19, 2017

The Origins of the Christian Religion and Scripture

In July 2015 I wrote a blog about the Old Testament of the Bible (OT), which you can read here: The Horrors of the Old Testament

This blog is about the development of the Christian religion and the emergence of the second holy book of Christianity, the New Testament (NT). Both the religion and the scriptures took shape after the death of Jesus, who was born into a Jewish family. As a Jew he is said to have accepted the Jewish scriptures, believed in the Jewish Prophets of the OT and followed the Jewish religious law. At the time of Jesus’ death Christianity was little more than a sect within Judaism. Within a hundred years, however, Christianity had transformed itself into an anti-Jewish religion of gentiles.

The NT came into being decades after Jesus’ death. If a Muslim, with a good understanding of the Qur’an, is introduced to the NT he/she will be struck by its many contradictions and inconsistencies, and by the preponderance of statements which are insulting to human intelligence. This is quite bewildering for one who has been instructed in the Qur’an to use one’s powers of thought when reading the Qur’an and to think deeply when the same subject is illuminated from different angles in different parts of the Quran. Those who do not, are likened to cattle or to one who is simultaneously deaf, blind and mute. Needless to say, for a Muslim the NT is not an easy book to read, especially as wisdom and guidance are scattered through its pages, side by side with the convoluted theology and the confused thinking.

What is one to make of this amazing mix? I needed to understand the origins of Christianity, which I eventually did, thanks to this excellent book : “Jesus, Interrupted” by Bart D. Ehrman. The author started out as a staunch Christian who considered the Bible to be the immutable Word of God. His years of studying the Bible, and the origins of Christian religion, eventually led him to become an agnostic.

I learnt from Ehrman that there are numerous books which were, at one time or another, considered canonical but were later excluded from the Scripture. These books were not written by the followers of Jesus, who were all lower-class Aramaic speakers from Galilee. They would have been unfamiliar with the refined Greek in which the books were actually written. Most of these books were written by anonymous writers decades after Jesus’ death, who relied on oral traditions as their sources. To validate the anonymously written books, and to give them authority, it was decided to link them to established names. Hence the attributions such as “the Gospel according to Matthew”, etc. This explains why the books of the NT are so different from one another, full of contradictions, inconsistencies and discrepancies: the anonymous accounts were written by men who did not know each other and probably lived in different countries in the Roman empire, and they modified the stories in accordance with their own cultural traditions. None of the original copies of those books have survived. What we do have are copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered as the Christian religion took shape after the death of Jesus.

In summary, the NT consists of 27 books, which were written by 16 or 17 authors over a period of some 70 years (compare this with the OT, consisting of 39 books, written by dozens of authors over a period exceeding 600 years). Four of these books are Gospels (Jesus’ sayings, plus a description of events in his life) while the remaining books consist of writings by, or attributed to, Jesus’ disciples or apostles, or their companions. The 4 Gospels are those linked to the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Of the remaining books, one is a book of Acts, which describes what happened after Jesus’ death (his “ascension to heaven”). A large part of Acts is concerned with an early convert, Saul of Tarsus, who came to be known as apostle Paul, and who established much of the Christian dogma which later came to be accepted as official canon.  No less than 13 books simply comprise Paul’s letters to the churches he founded. These letters, which establish Christian religion in Paul’s image, are somehow considered as ”inspired”. Biblical scholars think that Paul wrote, perhaps, six of these letters, the remaining letters were written by others but attributed to Paul.

The first certain reference to the four Gospels included in the authorised NT occurred around 180 CE by a church father called Irenaeus. At that time lots of other Gospels were floating around, some claimed to have been written by Jesus’ disciples Peter, Thomas and Philip. These contained too many "heresies" unacceptable to church fathers in the Roman empire, and were excluded from Scripture.

John and Matthew were two of the 12 disciples of Jesus while Mark was said to be a companion of disciple Peter and Luke was a companion of Paul. In fact, the Gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were not written to be part of the Scripture. These Gospels were written anonymously from oral traditions: none of the writers claimed to be an eyewitness. They simply state what they think Mark, Matthew, Luke and John might have related after the death of Jesus. Hence the attribution: “The Gospel according to ….”. With the passage of time their accounts acquired a mystique and an aura of holiness, eventually becoming a part of the Scripture.

Here is a quotation taken from pages 267,268 and 279 of Ehrman’s book:

“Christianity, as has long been recognised by critical historians, is the religion about Jesus, not the religion of Jesus. The beliefs and perspectives that emerged among Jesus’ later followers were different from the religion of Jesus himself.

There were numerous Christians involved in these transformations, who reinterpreted the traditions of Jesus for their own time. Christianity emerged over a long period of time, through a period of struggles, debates, and conflicts over competing views, doctrines, perspectives, canons, and rules. The ultimate emergence of the Christian religion represents a human invention, arguably the greatest invention in the history of western civilisation.

It would be impossible to argue that the Bible is a unified whole, inspired by God in every way. The Bible is not a unity, it is a massive plurality. God did not write the Bible, people did. “

In the first century CE the Christian beliefs differed widely. These diverse Christian communities bickered among themselves concerning their rival theologies and they competed bitterly to win converts. They all claimed to be the true exponents of Jesus’ religion and they had books to back up their claims. The group that eventually won was the influential one based in Rome, the centre of the empire. It declared this Roman Christianity to be the catholic religion - universal religion – followed by the disciples and apostles of Jesus. Thus was born Roman Catholic Christianity, which re-wrote history to present itself as always having been the largest and truest Christian sect.

With the exception of Paul’s letters, the NT is essentially a collection of forged documents, written anonymously but attributed to Jesus’ disciples or apostles or their companions. Ehrman, again:

“A large number of books in the early church were written by authors who falsely claimed to be apostles in order to deceive their readers into accepting their books and the views they represented”.

This blog has dealt with the background to the established Christian religion and the authorised Scripture (NT). In the next blog I intend to comment on the contents of the NT and the fundamental Christian beliefs.

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