Biblical Alteration: Discussing the Canon
“Although our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.” –James D. Tabor (Biblical Historian)
“ …nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity. A survey of Hindus, Muslims, and Jews around the world would surely yield similar results, revealing that we, as a species, have grown almost perfectly intoxicated by our myths.” –Sam Harris (Neuroscientist)
It has been my experience that atheists and independent freethinkers walk the road less traveled by because they seek out pearls of truth and wisdom—whereas believers are contented with the assumption that they contain the only truth they will ever need—their faith. Yet time and time again I have made it a point to raise the question, “What is your faith based on?” And for Christians the answer would have to be “The Bible.”
Needless to say without the articles of faith there could be no devotional agreement as to the proper convictions a Christian should hold, or to say it more plainly, without a doctrine of faith their could be no collective agreement of what the faith should even be about. If you think about it, this is some heavy handed business, because what it all means is that without the Bible then there would be no reason for Christianity—regardless of whether or not Jesus was real.
But as far as I can tell, there was never really a revealed word of God, aka Bible, to being with! In this article I will take you through the history of the canonization of the Bible, what books were selected, by whom, and for what purpose. If you follow the progression backward, in reverse, then you’re logical conclusion will match mine: the Bible is 100% man-made! And what’s more, we have documented it every step of the way from a handful of scrolls and codixes to full fledged religious compilations and compendiums. Yet I should warn you, if you are a believer what I am about to share with you will probably test your faith more than anything you’ve ever experienced before. More than that, it will leave you asking questions and, well, that’s my hope. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Zealous belief in the Bible as a hallowed text, and the obvious example of how such a doctrine of infallibility can so easily corrupt and override common logic, can be characteristically summed up by suffering to listen to the biblical scholar John William Burgon, who over a century ago, dogmatically declared, “The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, ever Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it… every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!”
When debating Evangelical Christians I often get the whole schpeal about how the Bible matches all the old documents exactly, that the translations are inerrant, and that there are more copies and fragments of the Bible than any other ancient text! Well after setting the record straight you can inform these uncritical, blinkered, unthinking know-it-alls a thing or two. So as Sister Maria says in The Sound of Music, let’s start at the beginning, since the beginning is often the best place to start.
The Septuagint, denoted by the symbol LXX, is the Christian Bible (OT) translated from the Hebrew into the Greek. During the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BCE) legend tells of a massive undertaking in which seventy Jewish scholars in as many days translated the full compendium (hence the LXX).
While there were 2nd century BCE MSS fragments of the LXX among the Dead Sea scrolls (recovered in 1947) what should not be overlooked is that even though the LXX became the Bible of the early Christians, it wasn’t without revision. In fact, even as it included some books not in the original Masoretic Hebrew text (e.g. the Apocrypha) other books, such as Jeremiah, were much shorter abbreviated versions of the original.
After all this controversy there were even more repeated revisions and further translations by Aquila, Theodotion, Lucian, and eventually numerous evangelical redactors from the 3rd century onward.
In his brilliant book Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, the literary critic Harold Bloom brings up the most apparent, and regrettably the most ignored, of Biblical changes which should cause us to immediately doubt the divinity of the text as a whole. Bloom’s acute observations lead the scholar to write (p.47), “The New Testament frequently is a strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible, and certainly it has persuaded multitudes,” and goes on to inform, “The New Testament accomplishes its appropriation by means of its drastic reordering of the Tanakh.”
In his rather telling conclusion of his chapter regarding the futile attempt to find a purely historical Jesus, Bloom states in what might be the most telling and brutally truthful insight in regards to the alteration of Biblical text, relaying:
If the New Testament triumphed in the Roman mode, and it did under Constantine, then the captive led in procession was the Tanakh, reduced to slavery as the Old Testament. All subsequent Jewish history, until the founding more than half a century ago of the State of Israel, testifies to the human consequences of that textual slavery. (Bloom, p. 49)
Bloom reminds us in his book The American Religion, that this human design, since at the very least humans had to assemble the pages and put the book together, is something we must think about when we think of any holy scriptures. To show, that even before Christian history, that early on there were human artificers behind the creation of the supposed word of God, Bloom reflects, “…what we now call the Bible is the result of a complex process of canonization for which the criteria were surprisingly aesthetic, or at least reconcilable with the aesthetic. The Song of Songs is in the Bible because it had enchanted the great Rabbi Akiba…” (Bloom, p. 72)
(See: The American Religion and Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine by Harold Bloom.)
Variant Editions and the Protocanon
If you’ve ever looked at a Protestant Bible and a Roman Catholic Bible you’ll immediately realize that your Protestant version is missing a whole lot of books! Why is a Protestant version different from a Roman Catholic version? Well, to answer that we must look to the past.
The first canon formation stretches back to the two early Councils of Nicaea (325 and 787 respectively). Among Roman Emperor Constantine’s decree of establishing a Christian orthodoxy was also the formulation of both the “Nicene Creed” and the rough draft for the “orthodox canon.” Yet all of this revisionism, editorship, and emendation were just part of a much larger tradition of major rewrites in the history of Biblical canonization.
Before any set canon the Bible would undergo numerous other revisions. The rabbis of the 1st century who taught at Jamnia also finalized the Jewish canon (70 CE) but with the creation of the Septuagint (LXX) the Christian scribes would once again copiously alter the the Jewish canon and fit it to a remodeled Christian version. Not only were the Jewish list of books rearranged, but new additions which were excluded from the Hebrew canon (such as the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, 1 and 2 Maccabees, etc.) were subsequently added into the Christian canon.
The heretic Marcion (c.140 CE) issued his own version of the NT, and later Irenaeus (c.180 CE) would quote from other Hellenistic Christian writings further lending support for the growing popularity of what would come to be known as the Gospels (2nd century onward). Although it is true that some of the Gospels, such as the book of Mark, were written in the latter half of the first century, the earliest mention of it doesn’t exist till way into the second century. In fact, the earliest the four Gospels are ever mentioned together is in the Muratorian Fragment, from probably 190 CE, and no earlier. This suggests the other Gospels either came much later, written anywhere from 100 to 150 CE (see my article on the historical framework for dating the Gospels by clicking HERE), which means there couldn’t have possibly been eye-witness accounts or personal testimonies. Moreover, internal evidence gained via Higher Criticism suggests the Gospels and much of the New Testament writings are less history than actual imaginative interpolation, redaction, not to forget to mention fictional (see: The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert M. Price, Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? b y Dennis Ronald MacDonald, Lost Christianities, Misquoting Jesus, and Jesus Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman, and Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth by Burton L. Mack ).
Eusebius (d. 340 CE), on the other hand, devised a threefold classification; noting the accepted, disputed, and rejected books. Eusebius would reluctantly include John’s Revelation, which he considered overtly Gnostic, yet rejected the Didache, Acts of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the epistle of Barnabas, while the gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias weren’t even considered for inclusion (mainly because they were incomplete. A full copy of the gospel of Thomas wouldn’t be unearthed until the find at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 CE; over one thousand and six hundred years later!)
Athanasius of Alexandria created a list of twenty-seven NT books in 367 CE, providing the earliest list for a protocanon of fourth century Christendom. Augustine’s criterion followed suit, namely a universal acceptance of Athanasius’ prior listing, and Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate (c.405) from the list of twenty-seven books provided by Athanasius making it the decisive act of establishing the content of the Christian canon. Even so, Jerome admitted the epistle to the Hebrews and Revelation only on the grounds that they had been recognized by the early Church Fathers.
Compounding the issue, the Council of Carthage (397 CE) had forbade the reading of non-canonical books, meaning anything left out couldn’t make it back in and no additional works could be amended to the authorized list of twenty-seven books. The provision of the authorized canon was mainly a defense against the perceived heretical movements of Gnosticism and Montanism.
The Canon Finalized
In 1545-47 the first Council of Trent was convened in Northern Italy in the city of Trento. The early Church met not only to decide on what the canonical books of the Bible should be, including protocanonical (first level) books and deuterocanonical (second level) books, but they chose to omit some books (such as 3 and 4 Esdras) while keeping others (e.g. the Apocrypha). The Council of Trent would meet again to rule against Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, and simultaneously reject the Lutheran and Zwinglian positions on the Eucharist (1551-52). Luther meanwhile would, once again make amendments to his faith, this time by altering the Holy Bible, not only by translating it into German but Luther also relegated all of the deuterocanonical books to an appendix at the end—and eventually would get rid of them altogether. By the third session (1562-63) the Council of Trent would mark the start of the Counter-Reformation by handing all unfinished Protestant transcripts of the Bible over to the Pope to correct and re-translated (yet again) the Bible; this time doing a complete revision of the Vulgate (finally finished in 1592).
Luther, having amended the OT Apocraphal books to an appendix, relegating them as less authoritative, in so doing changed the authority of the Bible more than any revisionist before him. Not only this, but he also deemphasized the books of James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation therefore causing them to lose precedence among the growing community of Protestants.
New Testament Evolution
Biblical scholars and Historians, using the methods of Higher Criticism, including but not limited to Source, Form, and Redaction criticism have revealed that even the original authors of the NT may have been constantly changing and revising their texts as they wrote. For example, in their book The Masks of Christ Lyn Picknett and Clive Prince show how the original version of Mark depicts a Jesus who is described as being indignant and filled with anger upon having to heal a leper, where the later renditions of the text lighten the tone and changes Jesus’ character not at all in a slight way. Picknett and Prince cite that:
As part of their image damage-limitation, some early manuscripts of Mark have totally transformed ‘moved with anger’ into the much more acceptable ‘filled with compassion’. But while it is easy to see why early Christians changed anger to compassion, it would be very odd to do it the other way round. Nevertheless, many modern translations use the ‘compassion’ version, which is no doubt more comforting for their readers. (p. 97)
Seeing such a blatantly man-made progression with an obvious agenda every step of the way we must ask: are the Gospel accounts even historically reliable?
Unknown scribes who composed the original Gospels wrote down and pieced together the strands of Christian hearsay half a century or more from the events of the resurrection itself. Most of these writings, including the Gospel accounts, were composed in foreign countries hundreds of miles away from ancient Jerusalem, written in Coptic Greek, a foreign language of a dissimilar culture in a different region of the world decades after the supposed events of the life, death, and resurrection ever took place. Contrary to what the religious might espouse, this sort of “evidence” is the opposite of reliable.
Professor Price lends his significant insights once more, informing, “The Gospels come under serious suspicion because there is practically nothing in them that does not conform to this “Mythic Hero Archetype,” no “left-over” secular information such as we find with Caesar Augustus and a few others, which serves to tie them into the fabric of history.” (Price, p.21)
Even the early Christian leader Papias claimed that the Gospel texts of Matthew and Mark contained a “word of mouth” style may be grossly inaccurate as it is more likely Papias was mistaken, having quoted an early Ebionite work called the Preachings of Peter—thus confirming that, like the rest of the texts, there has been ongoing misreading and misinterpretations from the beginning to the end of Gospel ascendancy. Robert M. Price once again expounds:
Since we have no text of Papias at all and no manuscript of Irenaeus as old as Eusebius, it becomes reasonable to treat the passages we have quoted from Papias and Irenaeus as no older than Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History. For us, they are no more than apolgetical garnishes to that fourth-century treatise and may be no older. The same holds good for the famous Testimonium Flavium attributed to Josephus: it certainly did not appear in the edition of Josephus read by Origin in the early third century. (Price, p.38)
Other early Christian writings are often cited by apologists in order to bolster the credibility of the historicity of the Bible as well as Christ. Repeatedly I have heard the names from Tacitus (writing in 120 A.D.) to Suetonius (circa 138 A.D.), to Thallus who is only referenced by Julius Africanus some two hundred years later, and Plinly the Younger and so on, but all of them are spurious at best. Why? Mainly because they didn’t know who the Gospel writers were anymore than we do, with one big difference, they didn’t have the wealth of archeological, historical, and scientific knowledge to shed light on the matter as modern scholars and historians have, thus their views were largely inadequate, and much of what they *assumed is irrelevant today.
(See: The Masks of Christ by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, The Secret Gospel According to Mark by Morton Smith, The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield, and also the work of David Friedrich Strauss, F.C. Baur, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Adolf Harnack, Rudolf Bultmann, W.C. van Manen, etc.)
Continuation of Copious Canonical Change: Perpetual Translations
Today you’ll notice more than a few dozen or so variant translations of the Bible ranging all the way from the Authorized King James Bible (1611) to the evangelist translation of the NIV (1978) to the English Standard Version (2001) all the way to the linguistically interesting paraphrase called The Message by Eugene H. Peterson (2002). The revisionism of the Bible is ongoing as it continues even today!
That said, if you’re wondering what the most accurate and reliable translation of both the Old and New Testament is, I have it on good authority, that the New King James version and the English Standard Version are the best two out there. However, if you are like me and would rather just read the Bible for its literary value, and nothing more, then I suggest you go with the most beautiful and eloquent sounding translation by William Tyndale (1494-1536). Tyndale’s translation forms the basis for the Authorized Version, but for the crime of translating the Bible into English, Tyndale was martyred and burnt at the stake in Antwerp on the charge of heresy (1535). In fact, to read the Bible in English was considered a sin punishable by death.
Knowing is half the battle, and if you’ve ever played the phone game with a group of people, where you whisper something to someone and they pass what you said onto the next person and so on, by the time you get to the end of the line of people the message will come out inexact if not completely garbled. Such is the way of transmission and retransmission. There is always inevitably going to be data loss. This in turn will lead to miscommunication, and the only thing which is certain is that, the message you think you have is NOT the original message. It’s been changed. Now imagine over two thousand consecutive years of the phone game! That message is going to be so far removed from the original, so totally dissimilar, that it’s not even wrong. So the next time a uninformed Christian tries to tell you that the Bible is perfect and always has been, that it’s the inerrant word of God, that it’s inspired, and that it has been miraculously preserved throughout antiquity without the slightest alteration or amendment, by all means, feel free to set them straight.
The bottom line is the Christian Bible is, and has been, the handy work of men.
Notes: Traditionally reference materials such as dictionaries and encyclopedias are not cited in the sources because the information they contain is authoritative, and so is considered to be general knowledge which everyone should know or, at least, have access to. If not then other reference materials are surely available either via your local library or the World Wide Web (i.e. Wikipedia, etc.) I used the web link to the The Canon of Scripture at the Bible Research page to double check my facts since it’s always wise to get a second opinion. This page has excellent comparison sheets and lists. I then cross referenced this with a page from Columbia University which had an easy to follow summary time line of the canonization events. That said, much of the material I share here stems from a series of such sources, including: The Oxford Dictionary of the Bible, The Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology, The Oxford Dictionary of World History, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, and of course The Oxford Dictionary of English. Further references are included within the text. Consult them for more information. Happy investigating!