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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Has the bible ever been changed?

Deuteronomy 4:2

"Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish [ought] from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you."

The fact that the books of the bible, both the Old and New Testament, have undergone change throughout the centuries, is undeniable. The Dead Sea Scrolls prove this. The Scrolls, dating to about the first century C.E., demonstrate that there were several versions of scripture in distribution-- some that are claimed by scholars to be even more extensive, and of better quality, than those found in our modern bibles.

Most Christians seem to think that the bible (as it is now, with its sixty-six or so books, divided into chapters and verses) has existed for thousands of years. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the bible that most Christians are familiar with is a fairly recent contrivance. The religious term "canon" refers to the divinity of a specific set of writings. Just which books are canonical and which are not has been the subject of debate among Judeo-Christian leaders for the last two thousand years. The Protestant Church did not agree on which books should be contained in the bible until as late as 1647, at the Assembly of Westminster.

New Testament Books which are now accepted by Christians, but which were for a time rejected, are Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation.

Books now excluded from the canon, but which are found in some of the older manuscripts of the New Testament, are Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Paul’s Epistle to Laodiceans, Apostolic Constitutions.

Books accepted as canonical by some Jews, and for most part by the Greek and Roman Catholic churches, but rejected by the Protestants, are Baruch, Tobit, Judith, Book of Wisdom, Song of the Three Children, History of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Manasseh, Ecclesiasticus, 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 5 Maccabees.

The only books of the bible which are accepted as divine by all Jews and all varieties of Christians are the first five books of the Old Testament: the Pentateuch.

There are lost books of the bible, which should have been included into the canon. These books are cited by writers of the Bible, and they are: Book of the Wars of the Lord, Book of Jasher, Book of the Covenant, Book of Nathan, Book of Gad, Book of Samuel, Prophecy of Ahijah, Visions of Iddo, Acts of Uzziah, Acts of Solomon, Three Thousand Proverbs of Solomon, A Thousand and Five Songs of Solomon, Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, Chronicles of the Kings of Israel, Book of Jehu, Book of Enoch.

What ever happened to the Gospels according to Thomas, Jade, James, Peter, and the Gospel of the Hebrews, of the Egyptians, of Perfection, of Judas, of Thaddeus, of the Infancy, of the Preaching of Peter, of the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Pastor of Hermas, the Revelation of Peter, the Revelation of Paul, the Epistle of Clement, the Epistle of Ignatius, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Nicodemus and of Marcion? They were all not considered inspired (or inspired enough). They did not get voted in. There were also the Acts of Pilate, of Andrew, of Mary, of Paul and Thecla, and many others. If the bishops at the Council of Laodicea in 365 had voted differently, millions of Christians would have believed differently. The vote of the one is the belief of all the others.

Let us review the history of the creation of the bible.

The Pentateuch or Torah was accepted as Law very early--according to tradition, since the time of Moses, around 1250 BC, give or take a few decades. Most documentary scholars say bits and pieces were accepted as Law from early times, but that the books did not take final form until around 400 BC. Most traditionalist scholars say the whole Law dates to Moses, but agree that Ezra did some "editing" or clarification of minor discrepancies that had arisen, thus would also agree (roughly) on the date for final form. Whenever it was finalized--or possibly even before it was finalized--the Torah was accepted as canonical. For Judaism, it is the foundation.

The other Old Testament books were all generally accepted as sacred by Jews from the time of their writing, but for a long time there was no formal determination of which books were essential (canonical), which were simply pious (though still sacred), and which were not sacred or divinely inspired at all.

In 70 AD, as a result of continuing tension between the Jews and their Roman overlords, Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed along with the Temple. The destruction of the Temple in 70 AD was a turning point in Jewish history. It remade Judaism. Where before Jewish life revolved around the Temple, sacrifice, and the priests, it now became more fragmented, centering on local communities and prayer, led by rabbis. Fragmentation meant that there was no longer any central authority to which Jewish leaders could refer.

Around the time that Jerusalem was under siege, Rabbi Johannon ben Zakkai asked and received permission from the Romans to withdraw from Jerusalem and establish a place for Jewish study in a town near Jaffa that in Greek was called Jamnia (Jabneh in English, Yavneh in Hebrew--the current town of Yebna in Israel is built on the ruins). After Jerusalem fell, the academy became the center of Jewish learning. Scholars came there both to escape the destruction of Jerusalem and to debate how Judaism was to survive the loss of centrality. Naturally, a major point of discussion was what parts of Jewish literature were to be considered the word of God.

The Torah was accepted as the writings of Moses, and hence the basis of Jewish life. For the other books, the issue was primarily whether each agreed with Jewish law and history as found in the Torah. Each book had to be meticulously read and dissected and any anomalies resolved before it could be accepted as having the authority of Scripture. For some books, like Joshua, Judges, Kings, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, the discussion was brief. For other books, like Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, the discussion was lengthy.

One inevitable result of such critical investigation of existing material was the establishment of an officially recognized text, even if there weren't one before.

Finally, around 90 AD, after much debate, 39 books were declared to comprise the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the "Old Testament." To Jews, of course, it's just the Bible. In one of the greatest successes of Jewish tradition, the list of canonical books has remained constant to this day. There are three large sections: Law (Torah or Pentateuch), Prophets (books telling the history of Israel, both histories and prophetic works) and Writings (psalms, proverbs, and wisdom literature).

Today, there is considerable disagreement about the importance of the rabbinic school at Jamnia in the canonization of the Hebrew Bible. The process certainly began long before, and there is no doubt that some sections (like most of Prophets) were closed and accepted as canonical by the second century BC--the writings of the grandson of Ben Sirah, around 130 BC, clearly mention the Law, Prophets, and other writings as the divisions of sacred text. The school at Jamnia may have done little more than formalize decisions made long before, rejecting "newer" books such as the Book of Maccabees, despite the popularity of the holiday of Hanukkah that it commemorated.

Jamnia didn't settle matters once and for all. It's known that texts with slight variations persisted until the second century AD, such as the Septuagint and the Samaritan versions. Furthermore, long after 90 AD, there were still debates about the canonicity of some of the sacred writings (again, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon). Even today, Ethiopian Jews include some books in their canon that mainstream Judaism excludes as apocrypha, such as Jubilees and Enoch.

We don't know much about how the debate over canonization progressed. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, dated from 100 BC to 70 AD, include all the books of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. Is that coincidence? Does that mean that the Qumran sect rejected the book of Esther? We will probably never know, but it's interesting that all other Biblical books (plus some others) were stored in the caves, long before Jamnia.

At one time scholars thought there were two Jewish canons, one from Jerusalem and one from Alexandria in Egypt. However, it's now clear there was never a rival canon--an indication of how little we know about the canon's history.

All we can say is that many scholars look to Jamnia and 90 AD as the point at which the Hebrew Bible was fixed. Others point to dates anywhere from 200 to 400 years earlier. We can only assert, with a fair degree of confidence, that the Hebrew Bible was certainly fixed by 90 AD and probably before that.

The first part of the Christian Bible is called the Old Testament, and is largely the Hebrew Bible. However, knowledge of Hebrew was rare among the early Gentile Christians. Rather than attempt to create their own version of the Hebrew canon, they seem to have adopted what is called the Septuagint translation--a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible plus some other books, dating from around 250 BC. The Septuagint apparently was the Greek version most commonly available (it was the basis for the earliest Latin translations as well).

Manuscripts of the Septuagint include texts in Greek for which no Hebrew versions exist. These are now called the Apocrypha.

Origen was one of the very few early Christian scholars capable of working with Hebrew texts. He recognized that there were minor differences between the Septuagint text familiar to Christians and the Hebrew text used by Jews. He created the Hexapla, a massive "parallel columns" document comparing the Septuagint, other Greek translations, and the Hebrew versions.

Jerome, when he came to work on his translation (known as the Vulgate or "common tongue" translation), denied that any text other than the Hebrew canon was an authoritative basis for the Old Testament. But his view did not prevail.

The road to canonization of the New Testament was quite a bit rockier and quite the reverse of the Old. What ended in orthodoxy actually had its roots in heresy. While the Jews examined books to see if they were consistent with the main religious text (the Torah), the early Christians engaged in a more fundamental argument about what constituted Christianity and especially about the nature of Christ. Judaism was a centuries-old ancient religion with clear traditions. Christianity was new, had no tradition, and was torn with disagreement about what it was and what it should be.

The chief competitor to what would become mainstream Christianity was Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that one did not need the intermediary of the church to experience God; that one could and should experience him firsthand if one knew the "secret tradition." One can easily see how this would threaten the orthodox church.

But the Gnostics did give one important idea to the church. A second century Gnostic named Marcion gave us the first list of books he felt appropriate for a New Testament. It was very short, including only an edited Gospel of Luke and some of Paul's letters. Marcion was also extremely anti-semitic and thought that Christianity should be completely divorced from Judaism, going so far as to say that Jesus was not born of Jewish parents but sprang full-grown from the mind of God.

None of Marcion's writings survived, having been expunged by the orthodox church. The only record we have of his activities are the church's attacks on him. But in setting out a canon he had planted an important seed. A literary fragment known as the Muratorian canon (named after Lodovico Muratori, who first recognized its importance) gave a list of possibly four Gospels and a major part of the rest of the New Testament. Other early Christian writers compiled other lists. Eventually church councils were held to determine a single set of books.

There were many Gospels in circulation in the early centuries, and a large number of them were forgeries. Among these were the "Gospel of Paul," the Gospel of Bartholomew," the "Gospel of Judas Iscariot," the "Gospel of the Egyptians," the "Gospel or Recollections of Peter," the "Oracles or Sayings of Christ," and scores of other pious productions, a collection of which may still be read in "The Apocryphal New Testament." Obscure men wrote Gospels and attached the names of prominent Christian characters to them, to give them the appearance of importance. Works were forged in the names of the apostles, and even in the name of Christ. The greatest Christian teachers taught that it was a virtue to deceive and lie for the glory of the faith. Dean Milman, the standard Christian historian, says: "Pious fraud was admitted and avowed." The Rev. Dr. Giles writes: "There can be no doubt that great numbers of books were then written with no other view than to deceive." Professor Robertson Smith says: "There was an enormous floating mass of spurious literature created to suit party views." The early church was flooded with spurious religious writings. From this mass of literature, our Gospels were selected by priests and called the inspired word of God. Were these Gospels also forged? There is no certainty that they were not. But let me ask: If Christ was an historical character, why was it necessary to forge documents to prove his existence? Did anybody ever think of forging documents to prove the existence of any person who was really known to have lived? The early Christian forgeries are a tremendous testimony to the weakness of the Christian cause.

The first officially sanctioned canon of the New Testament was attempted by Irenaeus of Lyon. Irenaeus saw the effect Gnosticism was having on Christianity and feared that the church was splintering into factions. Formalizing doctrinal authority seemed to be the answer. He felt there were two sources of authority: Scripture and the apostles. A work could be accepted as canonical if the early church fathers used it. He never really compiled a list of books, but he did establish the basis for subsequent determinations of orthodoxy.

The work of Irenaeus was solidified by Bishop Eusebius some 150 years later, early in the 4th century AD. Eusebius was a prolific church historian who gave us most of what we know of early church history. He also gave us the first surviving list of New Testament books that matches what we have today, putting them in thematic order as well. Relying on the tradition of the church, Eusebius created what was probably the first Christian Bible as we know it today.

In 367 AD, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria under Constantine the Great, set forth what proved to be the final canon of New Testament books in a letter listing 27 works. In 382 AD, at a synod held at Rome under Pope Damasus, church leaders influenced by Jerome adopted this list. The list was affirmed in councils at Hippo in 393 and 419 AD under Augustine and was officially ratified at a council in Rome around 473 AD. However, that council added no books that had not already been included in most earlier lists, and excluded no books that had not already been excluded by most lists.

The Greek Orthodox Church did not finalize its canon until the tenth century (primarily in doubt was inclusion of the book of Revelation). The Syrian Church had an even more complicated debate, and today recognizes only 22 books in its New Testament (excluding 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation). The Copts and Ethiopians have a few additional books included in their New Testament.

When Martin Luther reviewed Scripture during his break from Catholicism, he judged the contents of the Bible in the light of his convictions. He found a number of books difficult to reconcile with what he understood of the Gospel--specifically, II Maccabees, Esther, James, Hebrews, and Revelation. As the Cambridge History of the Bible puts it, "The test was whether a book proclaimed Christ. 'That which does not preach Christ is not apostolic, though it be the work of Peter or Paul; and conversely, that which does teach Christ is apostolic even though it be written by Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod.'" Thus the differences between the Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox bibles.

Some English Protestants--specifically, the Presbyterians and Puritans--took matters a step further and rejected the Apocrypha. Article VI of the Anglican "Articles of Religion" says of the Apocrypha that "the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners, but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine." The Westminster Confession, on the other hand, says the Apocrypha shall be "of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be otherwise approved, or made use of, than any other human writings."

Consequently, Protestant bibles in English are most often printed without the Apocrypha. As a result, most Protestants in the U.S. are unfamiliar with the Apocrypha and consider it part of the Catholic Bible.

Contrary to the commandment in the bible, Christians have been adding to it and diminishing from it since the books were first written.

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