Did the Orthodox Winners Write the History Books?

“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!

Lewis’s Trilemma Defended

C.S. Lewis created a famous “trilemma” in his Christian apologetics. He had to deal with many people who admitted Jesus Christ was a great moral teacher but did not want to believe He is God. Lewis pointed out that, in addition to the commands of love and kindness the moralists readily accepted, Christ said some very radical things. He claimed that all of His words would remain true for all eternity, He claimed to forgive sins, He claimed to be the only way to God, and He claimed a connection to God the Father so close that the Jews executed Him for blasphemy.

Lewis observed that no mere moral teacher would say such things. For someone to claim such preeminence over the entire universe, He would either have to be insane, an evil deceiver, or someone who really had such preeminence over the universe. The one thing He couldn’t be was a merely mortal moral teacher.

Lewis’s argument is unassailable if Jesus really said everything the evangelists attributed to Him, so anti-Christian scholars try to chip away at that if. Their basic design is for Jesus and the New Testament writers not to have said what they say in our current editions of the Bible. Basically, they have to contend that later writers made up the extraordinary things Jesus said as part of a developing legend around Him. In other words, “Yea, hath God said?” Now where have we heard that before?

The lengths they go to when crafting their arguments vary from mildly cunning to downright farcical. They set the dates of composition for Biblical writings so late as to admit of the wildest fabrications having seeped in. I can’t think of a New Testament book that someone somewhere has not denied its being written by the author the Church has traditionally ascribed it to. Christianity is accused of ripping off any number of Eastern mystery religions of the day. The authenticity of our manuscripts receives scathing criticism. The attitude of Bart Ehrman, one of the leading assailants of Lewis’s trilemma, towards the New Testament can be summed up in a phrase he belabored in Misquoting Jesus: “error-ridden copies.”

Let’s start with the date of composition for the New Testament. Unfortunately, Paul and the other writers left no notices of “© 55 AD, the Apostle Paul. All Rights Reserved,” on their manuscripts for us to go on. The earliest manuscript we possess is a fragment of John called the Rylands Manuscript (verses 13:31-33 and 37-38) dating to about 125 AD, but that’s almost certainly a copy and not the original (it came from Egypt, not Ephesus where tradition places John). I find God’s irony here delightful that the book that’s most explicit about His Son’s deity is the earliest one we have. However, even though that’s an earlier date for John than many critics want, I think we can go even earlier. I posit there are three books at least that we can be fairly certain were written before Jesus’s generation had passed away and were thus open to contradiction from other eyewitnesses.

Consider Acts. Is there a book in history with a more anti-climactic ending? Luke concludes with a succinct, “And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (28:30-31, KJV). This is hopeful to be sure, but it is a massive letdown nonetheless. Luke has been building up to his friend and hero Paul’s arrival at Rome for eight chapters (out of twenty-eight): through prophecies; through riots; through testimony before crowds, the Sanhedrin, governors, and a king; and through the defying of death by assassination, shipwreck, and snake venom. He has even received a divine command that he preach in Rome. Yet to this day, we do not know what exactly happened to Paul in Rome. (Most likely, Nero acquitted him, he evangelized for a couple more years, and then Nero changed his mind and had him executed in 67 AD, but this is based off of hints in the Pastoral Epistles rather than any historical book of the Bible.)

What could possibly account for this? Luke delights in recounting apostolic apologetics, especially before those in authority, as in Peter’s speech to the population of Jerusalem at Pentecost, Deacon Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin, Paul’s speech to the Athenian Council at the Areopagus, his account of his conversion to the mob of Jerusalem, and his later defense before King Agrippa and Governor Festus. Why did he not crown them all with an apostle’s apology before the Roman Emperor? Had something gone wrong that Luke was trying to hide?

Did Paul have a bad day? Most unlikely. He had more experience in apologetics to the Greco-Roman culture than anyone and had had two years to prepare. Even if Nero had somehow gotten the better of him, wouldn’t a later writer making things up as he went gone ahead and written the crowning speech of the book? Did Nero conclude the trial by martyring Paul? Luke would certainly have given him a hero’s death like Stephen’s. In fact, what would have been more poetic than for the former persecutor of the Church who is introduced in Luke’s story while participating in the first Christian martyrdom concluding the book with his own martyrdom for Christ?

Luke is one of the finest authors in history. He would have known better than to leave his readers hanging for all time like that- unless, of course, he didn’t know what had happened because the trial had not taken place yet. There’s really no other plausible explanation for this otherwise unforgivable literary error than that Luke wrote Acts before Paul’s trial before Nero. Based on Festus’ governorship of Judea, the end of that two-year period brings us to 62 AD, which is only thirty years after Christ’s death. Luke refers to his Gospel at the beginning of Acts, so he must have written it earlier (very possibly during Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea a couple of years earlier). The majority report posits that Luke drew on Mark’s Gospel for inspiration, so Mark dates to at the latest the 50s AD, twenty years after Christ’s death.

So, does Mark (who may have been an eyewitness as the young man in a linen garment on the night of Christ’s arrest) present Jesus as saying the kinds of things that make Lewis’s trilemma ineluctable? In Mark 1, God the Father calls Him His “beloved Son.” In Mark 2, He claims and then proves He has the authority to forgive a man’s sins in the face of objections that only God can do that. He claims to be Lord of the Sabbath, the day God Himself has blessed as His special day, at the end of that chapter. After He heals the Gadarene demoniac in Mark 5, He tells the man, “‘Go home to thy friends and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee’” (verse 19, KJV). When He calms the disciples during the storm in Mark 6 while walking on water, He introduces Himself with literally, “Be of good cheer- I am” (verse 6). Any Jew would have known that I AM is how God introduces Himself in Exodus 3, and it’s rather a unique way of announcing your presence anyway, I’m sure you’ll agree. Peter, who in all likelihood supervised this Gospel, calls Him the Christ in Mark 8:29, and Jesus soon after makes reference to coming “in the glory of His Father” (8:38, KJV). He poses a question in 12:37 about Himself that proves He transcends human nature and conventions by ruling over David when He is his son. He calls the angels and the Elect His own in 13:26 and makes His statement that His words will never fail no matter what in the Olivet Discourse. Finally, when the Chief Priests asks Him if He is the Son of God at His trial, He makes the astounding claim, “‘I am, and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of Heaven” (14:62), which the religious authorities without hesitation denounce as blasphemous.

These are some pretty outrageous claims for a mortal moral teacher to make. Anyone who tries to water them down into something acceptable for a mere human to say (somehow diluting every last claim to superhuman power and authority) has to bend over backwards to rationalize them all. They then must do so all the more when the Bible gets more explicit about Christ’s deity elsewhere, as in Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13, and II Peter 1:1 (though I must admit the task never wants for volunteers). So, basically, we have everything we need to render Lewis’s trilemma inescapable in a book written at most two decades after the events. Sam Watkins’s memoirs of his time in the Army of Tennessee, which remains a favorite source on the Civil War with historians, were written about the same amount of time after the war, so evidently this is a perfectly acceptable separation from events. It would have been hard for legends to creep in in that space of time, and there were no doubt plenty of scribes and Pharisees who had been present at Christ’s ministry and especially his trial who could have written a refutation of Mark’s account of Jesus’s words. Given the hostility between the majority of Jews and the Church, such a refutation would very plausibly have been handed down to us if it had existed through the efforts of those Jews who rejected Christ. Josephus’ Jewish history of the time, however, accords with Mark’s version.

The New Testament also demonstrates that it is not merely a later fabrication through what it records. The Apostles in the Gospel look like idiots, constantly misunderstanding and doubting Jesus and getting rebuked for it. Would someone pretending to be an apostolic writer with authority really make his sources (or even himself) look so stupid? It gives a place of preeminence to a tax collector (Matthew), something not calculated to win many friends in the first-century Roman Empire. All the Gospels say that women first discovered the empty tomb, something which no one would have made up because their statement would not have been admissible in a Greco-Roman court. Who would have tried to base a religion on the teachings of an impoverished carpenter who died the most despised death of His day if he had been free to select anything he wanted?

Of course, Lewis’s trilemma is a moot point if Mark and Luke did not actually write those words. We come to Bart Ehrman’s “error-ridden copies” criticism. The New Testament has vastly more hand-written manuscripts than any book in history, and together those manuscripts have more textual variations than there are words in the text! It’s nearly three variants to every one word. An error in the manuscript back then would be like a snowball rolling down a hill; every copyist who followed that manuscript would make that error, as would those who copied the second-generation text, and so on up until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, when that error would be copied en masse until it would appear in many people’s Bibles today. Besides the obvious potential for scribal errors on the part of fallible human writers, what of devious schemers who might alter the text to get it to say what they wanted it to?

Well, in all honesty, the manuscripts indicate that there was some of both of those going on. Any textual variation by definition means that a scribe changed the text he was given (intentionally or otherwise), and Ehrman is more than happy to point out some famous variations where the most plausible explanation is that those pressing for orthodox Christianity altered passages that heretics were using for their version of doctrine (and also some more where that is not the most plausible explanation).

But, from the big picture point-of-view, how much damage did these variations cause to Christianity? The overwhelming majority of textual variations, as much as four out of five, do not survive translation into English. A name might be spelled a different but perfectly recognizable way (understandable at a time when the vast majority of people couldn’t write their own names), or the detachable ν might be added or removed from the definite article without in any way confusing the reader (this harmless variant is actually the most common one). Greek, as an inflected language where spelling determines a word’s meaning and role in the sentence, can present words in different orders, as many variants do, without changing the English translation, where word order does count. (To give the example I learned in Latin, another inflected language, “The dog bit the boy” will assume an entirely different meaning in English if you change the word order, but, provided you spell all the words right, in Latin they can go in another order and mean the same thing. To this day, I don’t know if Porcius Cato was famous for saying, “Delenda est Carthago,” or, “Carthago delenda est.”)

Other errors are obviously typos that no one in their right mind would confuse doctrine over. While we’re on the subject of typos, there are examples of scribes who deliberately copied obvious errors in Galatians 2:12 and Philippians 2:1 or who kept the section numbers of the Pauline Epistles in the Codex Vaticanus after the shift of Hebrews from between Ephesians and Galatians to the end of Paul’s writings had made them obsolete, rather than alter their version of the manuscript. Another common variant is using Jesus’s name when breaking up the Gospel into daily readings rather than the original “He,” which obviously does not change the meaning but is instead necessary to understand the text in its divided format.

What changes there are indicate only the barest tinkering with the text. From the manuscript evidence, no one ever succeeded in wholesale revising any book of the New Testament; at best they might shift around, insert, or delete a couple of paragraphs or verses.

In fact, looking back on the thousands of manuscripts, the textual critic finds only one variant in one hundred where the original wording is in question and where the variation matters to the meaning of the text. The bungling or dishonest scribes who made the “error-ridden copies” only managed to add two percent to the New Testament, which means it survived substantially all intact. We have traditions from the Church Fathers about what happened to Paul after Acts ends, but no scribe ever dared to append them to Acts posing as Luke’s words to cover his seeming error.

There are only two substantial passages that we can’t be certain were in the original: the long version of Mark 16 and the story of the Jews wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Mark 16 provides material that, with the exception of apostles surviving drinking poison, can be found elsewhere in the Bible. Meanwhile, John 8 doesn’t appear too different from Jesus forgiving the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s home in Luke 7. It doesn’t look to me like they would endanger any Christian doctrine whether they were left out or kept in. Bart Ehrman might get points for effort in his attempts to alter our perceptions of Jesus in individual Gospels through variant readings, but he gets deductions for gross exaggeration.

I’ll give an example. When Jesus heals the leper in Mark 1, there is a variant, potentially reliable, reading that He was “moved with anger” rather than “moved with compassion.” Ehrman likes this reading and prefers to translate the Greek as Jesus then “casting out” the man rather than “sending him away” (because He was annoyed at the man bothering Him, perhaps?). Anyway, it’s hard to claim, as Ehrman does, that we should interpret Mark differently based on one word. Mark presents Jesus as uniformly compassionate (except when provoked by vicious unbelief) throughout the rest of his Gospel. Was he really trying to put a dent in that image with one example of a “sin” on Jesus’s part?

Well, in the first place, it’s not always a sin to be angry. It can easily be a sin and lead to more sins, but not always. The Scriptural admonition to a person with righteous indignation is, “Be angry, and do not sin,” not, “Never be angry at all.” Second, who says Jesus was angry at the leper? He could have been angry at the Devil oppressing this man with a condition that kept him away from God’s people or just at the sin in the world that made it possible for this to happen. If He was angry at the man for bothering Him, I doubt He would have said He was “willing” to cleanse him. Ehrman strains with other similar one-word or one-verse variants to chip away at the orthodox doctrines of Christianity, but that’s really all he has to work with. Out of potentially 400,000 textual variants, no one has ever found the “smoking gun” variation that proves that Jesus never claimed divine authority. That aspect of His teaching just permeates the New Testament too thoroughly for every reference to it to be a mistake.

But wait a minute, cries the critic! Jesus Himself denied being God when the rich young ruler came to Him and called Him Good Teacher. Didn’t He say, “Why callest thou me good? There is no man good, but one, that is God”? They read it as Him saying, “No, I’m human just like you and make mistakes like everybody else.” But did He say, “Don’t call me good; I’m not good”? Taken with the rest of the testimony of the New Testament, it makes more sense that Jesus is actually anticipating Lewis’s trilemma and saying, “Knock off this ‘good moral teacher’ nonsense. If I’m good, it’s because I’m God.” For someone to say their words will be true for all eternity or that God has put Him in charge of His holy day or that the angels are His own but then to say He’s error-prone like anybody else makes no sense. Moreover, I don’t see any footnotes with variant readings in my Bible at this verse. If a conspiracy of orthodox Christians were rewriting the Bible like the critics claim to push their version of doctrine, I think they would have started here, as easily as a critic can misinterpret it.

Speaking of mistakes, and since I love history so, does the New Testament ever make a historical mistake? Well, the historians of the time outside the Bible didn’t really care too much about what was going on in Palestine, but they largely concur with the Bible. By the time of Trajan, just before the first New Testament (fragmentary) manuscripts we possess were copied, Pliny the Younger already records Christians singing hymns to Christ like He was a God. Suetonius agrees with Acts 18:2 that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, Tacitus states that Jesus was crucified and believed to have been resurrected, and Josephus’s account of Herod Agrippa’s death accords well with Acts 12. A controversial passage in Josephus also recounts how the Sanhedrin handed Christ over to Pilate for execution but then suffered the embarrassment that His followers claimed He was alive. How much of that Josephus actually wrote and how much a Christian scribe inserted remains hotly contested, but evidently he was familiar with the orthodox Christian depiction of Christ. He also made mention of Herod Antipas’s murder of John the Baptist.

Luke comes across as none the worse for scribal wear. His depiction of geography, which refers to nearly one hundred places all over the eastern Mediterranean, is flawless. Some have tried to criticize his depiction of his voyage with Paul to Rome as a landlubber’s invention, but it passes the standards of meteorology and ancient seamanship. Similarly, John and Mark received some criticism for their architecture and geography, until archaeologists unearthed John’s porticoes at the Pool of Bethesda and one factors into Mark’s account the different conditions for travel in first century Palestine than in an industrialized society with automobiles.

I’ll wrap up by briefly addressing the claims that Christianity plagiarized Eastern mystery religions like Mithraism. The answer the Church Fathers gave to that charge is that God let humans believe such things in a false religion so they could not raise an objection when He did it for real. “You think such and such about Christianity is ridiculous? Well, you already believe such and such about your own religion.” Lewis knew this point better than anyone. He studied mythology extensively in the days before his conversion, and his fellow mythology student J.R.R. Tolkien showed him that the human dreams and hopes he loved in mythology actually did find fulfillment in a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. This historical person made the most outrageous claims anyone has ever made and then backed them up with His miracles and Resurrection.