“The winners write the history books.” It’s a common enough saying and one that came up prominently when I was in high school and The Da Vinci Code was published. The story went that the Christians who came up with orthodox Christianity squeezed out the other legitimate (and less demanding) forms of Christianity at the Council of Nicaea and proceeded to write them out of the Scriptures. With Gnostic gospels coming to light due to continuing archaeological work, this seemed an attractive theory for those opposed to Christ’s divinity and lordship over them. Well, the adage may be old and trusted, but it is not correct.
At the time, I had read in Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus that Thucydides the Athenian wrote the most-cited history of the Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta defeated Athens. My teacher dismissed this as, “The exception that proves the rule.” Since then I have encountered many other “exceptions,” many of them from Biblical times. Our most reliable history of the rise of the Roman Empire was written by the Greek Polybius, who wanted to analyze for his countrymen how the Romans had been able to conquer them. In the case of the destruction of Samaria in 722 BC and the destructions of Jerusalem in 586 BC and 70 AD, for most of the time since, our main sources were from the Jews who were defeated and slaughtered/enslaved, be they the Old Testament prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah or the Jewish historian Josephus (although he and Polybius, it must be admitted, had joined the Romans by the time they wrote their histories).
Nearer to home, most anyone who is familiar with the Jacobite revolts in Scotland is caught up with the romanticism of Bonnie Prince Charlie and repulsed by the brutal, even genocidal, repression of his opponent the Duke of Cumberland (aka the Butcher). The problem is that it’s not exactly true and, more relevantly for our purposes, the Jacobites lost the war disastrously. The winners praised and lauded Cumberland at the time with honors and bonfires. Now their descendants call him the evilest Briton of the 18thcentury. Stuart Reid and Jonathan Oates in their writings do a good job of demonstrating how the Hanoverians’ suppression of the Jacobite revolt, while sometimes brutal, was nowhere near “genocidal” and in large measure motivated by revenge for earlier Jacobite brutalities against their comrades. These historians are in a marked minority, however, as the winners most definitely did not write those history books (or songs, romanticized Jacobitism being probably the most popular theme in Scottish folk music). The historiography of the Civil War and Reconstruction is complex, but for the longest time romantic notions of Southern gallantry in the war and Northern repression in Reconstruction had a hold on the popular imagination, as shown in the blockbusters Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation. Times have definitely moved on, but in 1940 you couldn’t argue against the crowds that the Northern winners had written the history books. Almost every Mutiny on the Bounty movie features the tale of heroic Mr. Christian overthrowing the tyranny of brutal Mr. Bligh even after the Royal Navy had promoted Bligh and the British public had lauded him as a hero.
So, the adage should be amended to say, “History is written by those who care enough to pass it on.” Today’s winners may be tomorrow’s losers, and an effective propaganda machine can turn even traitors and criminals into romantic heroes. Winners often do write the history books, but they can be overruled by those with a better story or a more literate group of descendants.
So, did the orthodox winners write the books in the Bible? Yes, but only because the orthodox party had been THE party from the start. I did a much more involved study of the New Testament’s authenticity as a first century account in my blog post https://deliberationsatmimirswell.blog/2017/10/03/lewiss-trilemma-defended/, so I’ll just summarize here. The earliest scrap of Scripture dates to 125 AD (and ironically enough it is from the book of the Bible that most emphasizes Christ’s divinity), but strong evidence indicates that many important books were written long before that. The most compelling reason that Acts ends with one of literature’s greatest anticlimaxes is that there hadn’t been the climax yet- that is, that Luke wrote Acts before Paul’s trial before Caesar. This would be sometime around 62 AD, and Luke clearly wrote his Gospel first, so that was written earlier. Then we back up to the Gospel most people think Luke drew on, Mark, and we have a New Testament book from the 50s AD referring to events of around 30 AD. There are well-respected Civil War memoirs that were written with a comparable separation of time from events, so this is clearly not unreasonable. No Gnostic gospel has anywhere close to that kind of pedigree.
So, did the orthodox winners write the books in the Bible? Yes, but only because the orthodox party had been THE party from the start.
So, if the original books were written by the first Christians, did the orthodox party change them in any way later to accord with its views? By the time of Nicaea, after all, almost everybody reading the Bible would have been reading a handwritten copy (not Xeroxes) of the previous copies copied from the originals. Well, this may seem odd for an orthodox Christian to say, but there is some evidence that tampering did take place. This is the most plausible explanation for many textual variants between the manuscripts. For instance, why did a scribe deliberately go to the trouble of changing references to “Jesus’s parents” to “Mary and Joseph,” other than to counter claims that Jesus was a mere human with only human parents? But in all the variations in the New Testament manuscripts, only an estimated 1% both actually impact the meaning of the verse and also have a reasonable chance of being the original reading. Changing 1 word in 100 over the course of 300 years doesn’t look like wholesale revision to me. And no one has ever found THE manuscript with THE textual variant that undoes the orthodox Christian doctrine, though the job never wants for volunteers. For every variant reading that casts the slightest doubt as to Christ’s divinity or perfections, there are multiple other verses on more secure footing that say the same thing. The authors of the Bible, while pursuing their own emphases and writing to their own audiences, wrote a very coherent book, often echoing the same points as their colleagues in another book. The winners wrote this book because they had been right all along!