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Biblical Canon – A Problem On Navigation

December 30, 2012

Biblical scriptures need to be carefully sifted – academia’s historical critical approach is crucial.

The Old Testament tells a threaded story, extrapolated in certain key areas from ancient Sumer/Akkad base stock, that to great extent is of an anthropomorphic being known as Yahweh and his interaction with the Hebrew tribal people. My two prior writings discuss this: I wish the world was flat like the old days (Cosmological Dualism and Delitzsch’s Dilemma) and Heiser vs. Sitchin

Douglas Elwell’s book, “Planet X – The Sign of the Son of Man” is a useful reference from the point of view of detailing specifically (down to passages found in Biblical verses) of how literature of Sumerian origin was incorporated into Old Testament writings. Text from such as the Enuma Elish will appear literally in the Bible but somewhat transliterated to remove proper names of lessor gods and then imposing Yahweh as chief god – just as the Babylonians similarly imposed Marduk as their chief god. The Hebrews differ from the Babylonian editorial approach in that they attempt to apply a monotheistic revision by scrubbing out the lessor deities.

[For the record, I don’t personally endorse the arch thesis that Elwell puts forth in his book, but his book is certainly worthwhile in respect to the manner I cite here.]

Moving on to the New Testament – for starters, only seven of the thirteen writings of Paul are these days attributed to him. The others are pseudo Pauline, i.e., impersonators. This was typical of the day for this is how one latched on to the coat tails of authority in order to have one’s writings paid attention to. The 2nd through 4th century compilers of the various New Testament canons were not very astute, in comparison to the methods employed in our modern era, in how authenticity was decided.

The New Testament canon that comes down to us doesn’t even begin to appear until the 4th century:

The first time any author from Christian antiquity lists our twenty-seven books and indicates that they are the only twenty-seven books of the canon comes in the year 367 CE. The author is Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.[1]

Hence many items incorporated are either very late 1st century (Gospel of John) or of 2nd century (pseudo Pauline letters) perspectives. The further in time removed from the period in which Yeshua actually lived and died, the more problematic the value and trustworthiness of what is purported to be historical information. This is the general rule in any historical analysis – it is illogical to exempt the Bible from the same methods.

As to the gospels, Mark is the earliest gospel written and for that reason probably is the most useful for getting at actual historical nuggets about Yeshua. Matthew and Luke were written about 15 to 20 years later than Mark, they incorporate Mark and then do their own respective elaboration on it. German scholars in the 19th century also discovered that Matthew and Luke had another base text that they each incorporated – this became known as the Gospel of Q. Its text is made up of wisdom sayings of Yeshua and hence very much resembles The Gospel of Thomas. So the two earliest of writings (other than Paul’s seven) are Mark and the Gospel of Q. The Gospel of Thomas might be a fairly early writing too given that it is structurally similar to the Gospel of Q and has some verses that are very similar to that found in Q. Elaine Pagels also examines the possibility that the late 1st century writing (or early 2nd century) – the Gospel of John – may have had an agenda of slighting the followers of the Gospel of Thomas. (Among early Christianity, various groups had their preferred apostles. If Thomas was the spiritual twin of Yeshua, well a one-upmanship would be the apostle that Yeshua loved.) If that were the case then this too would point to the Gospel of Thomas possibly being a fairly early 1st century writing.

A problem with Matthew and Luke is they each introduce a nativity story of Yeshua’s birth and parentage that is not at all touched on in Mark, Gospel of Q, Paul’s seven authentic writings (or the Gospel of Thomas). None of the earliest materials thus deal in this subject area whatsoever. Then the details of the respective Matthew and Luke nativity accounts differ. There are many items of information in the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, that archeological evidence has eventually reinforced. However, the Census of Augustus Caesar or King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents are two very significant events (in characteristic) that have not been backed up by archeology or other non-Biblical historical references.

Luke relates that there was a world-wide (that is, Roman empire-wide) decree for a census; from the Wikipedia on the Census of Quirinius:

In Christianity, the Gospel of Luke connects the birth of Jesus to a census of the entire Roman world in which individuals had to return to the birthplace of their ancestors. It describes how Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, travel from their home in Nazareth, in Galilee, to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born. This explains how Jesus, a Galilean, could have been born in Bethlehem in Judea, the city of King David. There is no evidence of the Romans requiring people to return to their ancestral homes for a census and there is skepticism among scholars that such a custom existed or would have been practicable.

The key problem to be solved was to get Yeshua to be placed in Bethlehem for the event of his birth so as to fulfill prophecy pertaining to the Messiah. It imposes a mechanics for the taking of the census that would be exceedingly difficult to implement in practice and no account of any census conducted by Augustus relate any such imposition of having to return to the ancestral homes.

From Wikipedia entry on Matthew’s account of the Massacre of the Innocents:

The Massacre of the Innocents is the biblical narrative of infanticide and gendercide by Herod the Great, the Roman appointed King of the Jews. The historicity of the incident is “an open question that probably can never be definitively decided”, but according to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. In typical Matthean style it is understood as the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy.

The core slant of the Gospel of Matthew is to illustrate the life of Yeshua fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. So in both the Luke and Matthew nativity account there is an underlying agenda afoot in respect to insuring such a tie – yet the actual historical record has not accommodated.

Another component of these nativity accounts is the matter of divine parentage. There were many claims in the ancient Hellenistic world of personages being descended from divine parentage. Alexander the Great’s claim is perhaps the most well known to lay history readers. Based on accounts of Alexander’s time in Egypt, it would appear that at least from his own personal perspective he was entirely serious in making this claim. That the authors of Matthew and Luke gospels introduce their divine parentage accounts, where these appear for the first time at such a late point in the development of Christianity, that this practice of claiming divine parentage was centuries old in the Hellenistic world – and widely employed, it smacks a bit much of being a marketing ploy. In my mind it is that this manner of “crucial” information is completely absent from the much earlier Mark gospel that is the most telling.

We finally chronologically come to the Gospel of John, a writing that is very dissimilar to the prior gospels. It ups the ante by proclaiming that Yeshua and the most high God of all creation are one and the same. Before then the claims were that Yeshua was the Son of Man or Son of God (as employed in prior scripture, this phrase did not imply divine parentage) figure or the fulfillment of the Messiah prophecies – a human figure carrying out a godly (or spiritual) mission. The author of John’s gospel promotes Yeshua to full godhood, which introduced a metaphysics conundrum that continues to perplex to this day. John’s gospel also had some basic factual differences with prior materials. The Gospel of John author has Yeshua clearing the temple of money changers (and employing a whip to lash them with no less – the one act of violence by Yeshua that is noted in the canon literature) happening chronologically as the first significant event in Yeshua’s ministry. The other gospels place this event at the end of his ministry and strongly suggest that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in respect to Yeshua’s enemies finally deciding to deal with him decisively. Even though early Christians recognized these fundamental deviations in the Gospel of John, its backers thought it was none-the-less a spiritually true (thus inspired) writing even if not factually true, and should therefore be included in canon. It should be noted also that the Gospel of John upped the ante in that it goes so far as to implicate that Judas was possessed by Satan – as such this gospel would specifically later figure into anti-Jewish pogroms.

Both proto-orthodox and Gnostic Christians alike had those that viewed the Gospel of John with affection. Yet by appearing so much later on the scene, having clear contradictions with earlier writings, and presenting totally new theistic concepts for the first time, it is definitely a gospel that has to be dealt with very carefully in respect to possible contribution of any historically reliable information. It’s theological presentations then become a matter of subjective opinion.

This was a very cursory overview. A next stop might be the various writings on this subject by academic, Bart Ehrman. He specifically writes in a manner to present the historical critical approach to the lay reader – vs., say, an audience of academic peers. Hence his books are easy to read yet informative as they are ultimately undergirded by rigorous seminary scholarship.

1) Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (p. 220). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

MyCoreArticles (and some related links)
[awakening, synchronicity, Gnosticism, AAT, nature of reality/consciousness, etc.]


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