Genesis Of A Church

October 15, 2020 Category: History, Religion


Today, we are well aware of the omissions, additions, and embellishments (sometimes calculated, sometimes unwitting) that inevitably occur whenever a emotionally-charged story is orally-transmitted…even over the course of just a few days.  We may extrapolate the extent of such modification to, say, a few weeks…then to a few months…then to a few years…then to a few DECADES.

For the early stages of Jesus-oriented folklore, this extrapolation must be performed in the context of a primitive setting…amongst highly superstitious, mostly illiterate people…where nothing was written down for DECADES.  We must also factor in the tricks of memory at play whenever there is a staunch, vested interest involved in the transmission process.  Only then may we attempt to ascertain the degree to which fidelity was compromised over the course of those first few decades.  (Recall that people didn’t start writing down the folklore ABOUT the crucifixion until the 70’s.)  Bottom line: The metamorphosis from c. 30 A.D. to c. 70 A.D. would be quite profound.

Keep in mind: Any peasant who was older than a child at the time of the crucifixion had almost certainly died by the time “Mark” was finally cobbled together…unless he lived to be well over 50 years old.  But even in such a rare case, the memory of childhood events of such a person would be, to put it mildly, suspect.

What, exactly, would an old man in 1st-century Canaan have recalled after having been influenced by myriad social forces over the course of most of his life?  Undoubtedly, such a man would have imbibed whatever folklore happened to be prevalent his immediate environs.  By old age, no matter how honest he might have been, the man’s memory could not help but have been a product of the particular circumstances in which he lived.  At work was a decades-long process of which he himself would not have been fully cognizant.

The conditions at the time included rampant dogmatism, privation, and desperation.  The material was being circulated amonst highly impressionable peasants, who were dealing with a smorgasbord of competing savior-god narratives–each one vying for everyone’s attention.  Under these conditions, we must assume that the Jesus story underwent EXTENSIVE metamorphosis…especially after so much time had elapsed before the details of the story were finally written down.  As is the case with natural selection (in the memetic context), the vast majority of those mutations were dead-ends–and are thus lost forever.  Only the mutations that proved “fit” ended up surviving for posterity.

The extent of the alterations in the first four decades may be surmised by SUBSEQUENT alterations.  The profound changes that occurred between “Mark” and “John” (the latter composed after c. 100)  Later still, we can see what other modifications were introduced.  Every step of the way, people were re-telling the story in the ways that THEY WANTED to re-tell it.  That’s why there were at least TWENTY different Gospel accounts, at least SIX different versions of “Acts”, and no less than EIGHT different “Revelations” (Apocalypses)…not to mention various “Pauline” letters that were clearly not written by Saul of Tarsus.  (For an adumbration of these rejected texts, see Bart Ehrman’s “Lost Scriptures”.)

The stark juxtaposition between “Mark” and “John” is very revealing.  The composition of these two Gospels were separated by a generation.  The obvious embellishments that occurred during the intervening time (about three decades) could not be more blatant.  Such changes are illustrative of what had surely been going on in the four decades LEADING UP TO “Mark”.

In other words, “Mark” gives us a snap-shot of the story about 40 years after the alleged events.  “John” gives us a snap-shot about 70 years after the alleged events.  We can SEE the changes that transpired between those two snap-shots.  We can therefore extrapolate backwards to ascertain the degree of change that likely transpired between the alleged events and the first snap-shot.

Bottom line: Scripture underwent a metamorphosis from its earliest days.  The most flagrant example of this is the insertion of the resurrection into the Gospel account.  The oldest copies of the New Testament available (codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus from the 4th century) do not have anything past verse 8 in the last chapter of the original Gospel (Mark).  Mark 16:9-20 was not added until the beginning of the 5th century.  And even then, some manuscripts (e.g. the codex Bezae) continue without this addendum.

The original ending of “Mark” is rather un-impressive (which, of course, posed as a problem).  It is no wonder it was elaborated upon.  Initially, the end of the Jesus story involved a young man sitting in Jesus’ tomb, telling three Hebrew women (Mary of Magdela; JoN’s mother, Mary; and Salome): “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you.”  This is followed by a final sentence: “And afterward, Jesus himself sent out through [those around Peter] from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”  The End.

That was the entire ORIGINAL story about JoN–a Jew who spoke in parables and allegedly performed miracles…just like countless OTHER stories about OTHER Jews in Palestine who preached and exhibited feats of magic.

Read the original ending of “Mark” again.  Metaphorical?  Obviously.  Mention of JoN as god incarnate?  Nope.  Mention of a resurrection?  Nope.  All we find is a semi-provocative denouement–just a typical re-statement of extent Jewish lore.  That’s it. {8}  JoN’s message of salvation was “sent out through” Peter and those around Peter.  Splendid.  But nothing earth-shattering.)  And certainly not much for an institution to work with.  Hence the need for some narrative “sprucing up” if the movement was going to attract followers.  Resurrections are far more compelling than anti-climactic executions.

By the time “John” was composed, almost three generations had come and gone since the death of its protagonist…and the story had undergone a significant metamorphosis.  Unsurprisingly, “John” is the Gospel most quoted by Christian apologists today.  Why is that?  As it so happens, the latest Gospel is the most embellished.  And the most embellished Gospel is the one that is most conducive to institutionalization.  Moreover, THAT particular version makes the boldest claims.  Simply append the “Nobody comes to the Father except through me” line, and PRESTO: Any institution has a perfect sales-pitch for demanding obedience.  Never mind that the LATEST (most embellished) account is invariably the LEAST ACCURATE account.  It is the most USEFUL; and THAT is all that matters as far as Christianity would be concerned. {9}

The addition of a resurrection is only the most flagrant instance of embellishment.  There were various other modifications that were done later on…for any number of reasons.  Here are some notable examples of re-phrasings between Mark and subsequent Gospels:

  • In Mark 9:5, Jesus is addressed as “rabbi” by Peter; but then in Matthew 17:4, Peter refers to him as “Lord” during the same interlude.
  • Mark noted that JoN was crucified on the day AFTER Passover.  The latest of the canonical Gospels (that of “John”) is very explicit that JoN was crucified on the day leading up to Passover.
  • In Mark 8:29, Peter refers to Jesus as “the Messiah” (promised in the Hebrew Bible)…which makes sense, as Jesus refers to himself as the “son of man” referred to in Daniel.  However, in Matthew 16:16, “son of the living God” was inserted.
  • Compare Mark 3:31 to Matthew 12:46, where the latter inserts “my Father” into Jesus’ mouth when he refers to the godhead.
  • In Mark 4:38, the disciples refer to Jesus as “teacher”; but in Matthew 8:25, they refer to him as “Lord” during the same interlude.
  • John omits the scene in the Garden of Gesthamene–in which Jesus beseeches God to “save me from this hour”.

(For more examples of such alterations, see Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus Before the Gospels”.  For an account of the haggling over what the FINAL VERSION of the story would be, see his “Lost Christianities”.)

Similar modifications were introduced so as to abet the institutionalization of the creed.  The anonymous “Letter to Hebrews”, a late addition to the New Testament canon, helped inject the priesthood into a Christianity.  The (even later) addition of the notorious “Book Of Revelation” (penned in pure symbolism by a fanatical anti-Roman propagandist named “John” from the Greek island of Patmos) imbued the ideology with an ample dose of fire and brimstone–thereby giving the church rational for viciously persecuting “heretics”.  (Heaven was a cosmic carrot; hell then served as a cosmic stick.)  Such amendments helped consolidate the new church (i.e. the institutional power of the clerisy), and served as extremely effective “crowd control” measures.

The gospels are not–nor were they intended to be–historical documentation of JoN’s life.  NONE of the New Testament is a log of eyewitness accounts of JoN’s words and deeds–recorded by people who knew him…or even by anyone who was actually there.  In other words, the Gospels were not meant to be taken literally.   Rather, they are sacred testimonies of “Faith”.  They were cobbled together by devoted groups of adherents generations after the events they describe.  This was done based on things people had heard (i.e. the most compelling kerygma in the marketplace of kerygma)…and, subsequently, based on what those people WANTED to believe.  And on and on and on…until people actually started writing things down.  (And even then, the story CONTINUED to change, as people saw fit to embellish and edit in order to suit their purposes.)  NONE of the composers were disinterested parties.  

All those who sought to promulgate the sanctified folklore had a staunch, vested interest in the story being a certain way.  To say there was a flagrant conflict of interest in this promulgation process would be an understatement.  Those who didn’t have a stake in the movement had no incentive to investigate / record what “really happened”.  Only those who had invested themselves in the designated FAITH served as stewards of the lore.  Invariably, those who offered the most compelling narrative (the Pauline version) were the ones that prevailed.  The prevailing narrative was the prevailing narrative due to memetic logic; and had little to do with historical fidelity.  Back then, historical fidelity was ENTIRELY BESIDE THE POINT…as had already been demonstrated with the Torah.  To treat the New Testament, then, as literal history is to entirely miss the point of what the texts contained within the New Testament canon actually were and how the New Testament came to be what it now is.

And what of the late date of the Gospel accounts?  Note that there are allusions to the recent destruction of the (second) Jewish temple in the canonical “Gospels”–an event that did not occur until 70 A.D.  Hence even the earliest Gospel (that of “Mark”) was composed after c. 70–four decades after the alleged execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

What we now refer to as the “Gospels” were still being referred to as “memoirs of the apostles” by Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century.  It was not until c. 180 that Irenaeus of  Lugdunum (Lyons) referred to the “tetra-morph” (what would eventually be designated the four canonical “Gospels”) in his magnum opus, “Against Heresies”. {3}

As we saw, both the latest canonical Gospel (that of “John”) and the “Book of Revelation” were added to the official canon at the behest of the scheming bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria.  During the 4th century, the egregiously misguided, bull-headed cleric wielded prodigious influence.  Tragically, his machinations a significant role in defining the official canon…and thus establishing the rigidly exclusive orthodoxy that would define the Roman Catholic Church thereafter.

The earliest copies of the New Testament are from the 4th century–each in “uncial” Koine Greek: the codex Vaticanus and codex Sinaiticus. {11}  Also in the 4th century, the Arian, [w]Ulfila[s] purportedly created a Gothic version of the Bible–though the oldest surviving copy is the codex Argenteus [Silver], commissioned by the Ostrogoths in the 6th century.

Then, in the 5th century, there were:

  • Three more Greek renditions: the codex Alexandrinus, codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, and codex Bezae Cantabrigensis
  • A Vitas Itala (Old Italic) rendition: the codex Veronensis 
  • A Coptic rendition: the codex Glazier
  • A Syriac rendition: the Peshitta

As the story goes, a Latin rendition was finally created in the late 4th century, when Pope Damasus purportedly charged his chief scribe (Jerome of Stridon) to do a translation of antecedent copies.  This account is likely apocryphal, as there is no evidence for a Latin Vulgate until c. 716 (the codex Amiatinus from Northumbria, England).  But, incredibly, the Vulgate was not considered the official version of the Bible until the mid-16th century–pursuant to the Council of Trent. {13}

In 1407, a Latin Bible (now housed at Malmesbury Abbey in England) was drafted by Belgian scribe, Gerard Brils.  Then, in 1512, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam revamped extant Latin manuscripts, rendering the “Novum Testamentum Omne”.  In his letters (no. 273 and 337), Erasmus stated his reasons for doing so.  In “collating a large number of ancient manuscripts”, there is “one thing that the facts cry out, which can be clear–as they say–even to a blind man: Often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention, the Greek has been wrongly rendered.  Often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep.”  So he brought it upon himself to go back and re-do everything from Greek manuscripts (THEMSELVES suspect) that happened to be available to him at the time.

In 1527, the Tuscan Dominican friar, Sante Pagnini of Lucca did yet another Latin version.  His was the first New Testament to use verse numbers.  But even then, the Vulgate continued to be re-done again and again…until Pope Sixtus V finally designated an official version in 1590.  However, immediately after his death, the Vatican curia (at the behest of the Jesuits) voided that edition, and had all copies thereof destroyed.  Pope Clement VIII then designated yet ANOTHER official version in 1592 (which is the one that was used until 1979).

The timing of the Clementine Bible makes sense, as it followed shortly after the establishment of the “Tridentine Mass”: the Latinized liturgy that was initially formulated at the Council of Trent.  (Reference the papal bull of Pius V; as articulated in the Roman Missal of 1570.)  That precedent for the Roman Rite would be honored until 1970, pursuant to Vatican II (whereupon it was modified yet again).

The 16th century was a precipitous time for the Roman Catholic Church, as it was forced to respond to the unrest caused by the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther had translated the New Testament into German in 1522; and William Tyndale had translated the entire Bible into English in 1525. {14}

The Church also had to contend with the earth-shattering insights of the verging Scientific Revolution.  In the 1530’s, Copernicus had debunked the geocentric model of the universe (on which all three major Abrahamic religions had based their cosmogony).  Such profound disruption to conventional wisdom upset many a sacred apple-cart.  It is for this reason that the “Supreme Sacred Congregation” of the Roman Inquisition was established (in 1542) as a draconian enforcement arm of the Vatican.  The Inquisition would serve as the spearhead of the Church’s revanchist (counter-Reformation) efforts. {15}

In assaying the development of Latinized liturgy, we might keep in mind that JoN and his immediate disciples did not speak Latin…or even its scriptural antecedent, Koine Greek.  They spoke Aramaic.  So what we now have is translations of translations of translations of what might have been said (said, that is, according to hearsay that was generations removed from the actual events).

Accounts of any folklore in the era before printing is invariably spurious.  At each juncture, the narrative is adjusted according to the circumstances in which the teller finds himself, and the interests those he’s serving happen to have.  Here’s the catch: The transformation OF the narrative is never specified WITHIN the narrative.  (Narratives can’t serve as their own meta-narratives.)  So, in a way, to take the story TOO seriously is to refrain from acknowledging that which created the story in the first place.  After all, according to the story, the story is perfectly true.

The same goes for pictorial modifications.  JoN was soon assigned a distinctly Frankish (alt. Anglo-Saxon) pedigree…in roughly the same way that Abraham’s progeny would be assigned a distinctly Ishmaelite pedigree by the early Mohammedans.  As ever, religion is all about branding.  When appealing to certain audiences, semiotic adjustments are inevitable.  Thinking of JoN as a Palestinian Jew was not ideal for Europeans seeking to make the “Christ” their own.

Originally, JoN was depicted as a miracle-worker, and was thought of in terms of the ancient “Krio-phoros” idiom: a shepherd.  Eventually, he was rendered god incarnate–lifting the resurrected savior-god motif from antecedent traditions like Mithra-ism…and/or the Ptolemaic cult of Serapis…and/or the various Dionysian cults of the Greco-Roman world.  Meanwhile, the “son of god” / “son of man” idiom was also appropriated from Judaism.

And so it went: “The Way” as it originally existed was expunged from the historical record.  JoN’s following died because it didn’t serve those in power (i.e. those WITH power).  So it was eventually transplanted by something else–something that served the persecutors / oppressors rather than the persecuted / oppressed.

Throughout it’s 17-century history, the Roman Catholic Church has made a veritable art-form out of ignoring everything that JoN actually said.  Through elaborate artifice, it has mastered the art of concocting an ersatz legacy for itself, then fabricating divine Providence in order to justify its own existence.  We should remind ourselves that its prodigious power has come by fiat, not by merit.  If we juxtapose the Vatican’s checkered track-record against the statements made by JoN in the synoptic Gospels, we find almost zero parity.

“The Way” was no more.

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