Before I go on, I promised back in the 2nd of this series that I’d talk about the problems of the early Catholic Church. I hope I have spent enough time discussing the Enlightenment era and the flaws in Western philosophy in general. But there are good reasons why I still choose them over Christianity. There are a few things that started gnawing at me about Christianity and the more I looked into them, the more I realized they were foundational problems that could not be solved. That is, they weren’t just cracks in the foundation of Christianity; they were demonstrations that there is no foundation.
The first is the consensus on the existence of Jesus. That’s it really. That is, the entire extent of the scholarly consensus on Jesus is that he existed, and maybe that he was crucified. The dates of his life are disputed, his name is in dispute, everything he said is debatable, let alone what he meant, his family life, if he was a spirit or a man who was inhabited by spirit or if he was born God. All of these questions are played out in the scriptures and some of them have led to wars and schisms (John 14). Holy wars are not cool as they used to be. Claims about what someone did in the past are expected to come with data that can be confirmed and facts that are agreed upon by a number of experts. Part of the statement of the consensus on Jesus is that we can’t recreate any of these details from the documents we have, not the four gospels or with the help of the apocryphal documents.
They spent centuries trying to work back to some original theme and what they discovered was there isn’t one. Instead, we get Peter arguing with Paul (Acts 10), Thomas painted as an unbeliever who repents (John 20), and a fourth gospel that is out of sync with the other three. This was expected and normal at the time the scriptures were written. Authors added to and reworked the stories to bring their new insights to them. But now we have modern history which is expected to be accurate and to let us know when something is uncertain. This leads to a confusing mixing of these two different genres. A historical fact like “Jesus existed” is used to claim that everything written using the name “Jesus” is also historically true. It may be true that Jesus died at the hands of the Romans but that says nothing about how that death washed away sins or the details of how he rose or who found him or who saw him later. The truth of one historical fact has very little effect on the truth of most of what is found in the New Testament.
This leads to the second thing, the order of the New Testament. If that collection of books was simply reordered to the order in which they were written, I think we would all have a very different view of the meaning they are attempting to convey. The first book in the New Testament, Matthew, begins with a birth narrative, connecting Jesus back to King David. That makes sense if you are attempting to tell a story that you think is real. But many believe the story of the virgin birth was concocted later to sell people of that time on the idea of Jesus being God. Gods of that time were born of virgins, so Jesus should be too, so you need a story.
If you want to follow how the stories began and were copied and embellished, start with the Book of Mark. It was written first. It has no birth story. It doesn’t have a resurrection story either. Maybe I should say it didn’t have a resurrection story. Many Bibles have footnotes telling you that the last verses of Mark were added on later, to harmonize it with the other gospels. Matthew and then Luke were written after Mark, sometimes copying, sometimes changing stories slightly, sometimes adding a new story. The gospel of John was written decades later.
To further correct the chronological order, all of the works of Paul need to be shuffled to the beginning. All of them were written and its author died before the first gospel was even heard of. Acts talks about Paul, but it was most likely written by the same author as the Book of Luke. Making sense of the different stories and contradictions is hard enough, but if you were to be presented first with a story of a man who only met Jesus in a vision and mentioned virtually nothing of a family or any earthly travels, it would be disconcerting indeed to then find out about Kings hearing of a virgin birth, to read of encounters with priests, of a man having meals, and telling parables. Was Paul unaware of all of this? For me, it’s led me to consider that this is a legend that developed, not a history that was poorly documented.
This project of ordering the books chronologically is complicated by the difficulty of assigning dates to the writings. That is an inexact science, and the authors sometimes attempted to mask who they were and when they were writing. The complete reordering might begin with the “undisputed Paulines”, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. These would be followed by Mark, Matthew, Luke/Acts then John. The job would get more difficult after that as we would need to sort out the psuedepigrpaha (like 2 Thessalonians), the works that were falsely attributed to Paul or other figures of the time. These were either assigned authorship in error by people who didn’t know any better, or deliberately claimed to be an author other than the actual one as a way to legitimize the message.
This is not just a New Testament problem either. Deuteronomy is the fifth book in the Old Testament, but is now known to have been written much later. Maybe most significant is the story of Eve tempting Adam with the apple. Besides simple facts like no apple appearing in the Bible, the story itself might not be a creation story. It may have been written earlier but it was given its place in the Bible by the people who assembled it, not some original author attempting to write a coherent narrative. It’s a folk tale, probably not intended to be an account of the first man and woman. So the entire reason for Jesus, to save us from the sin that got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden, is a mistake of some scholars in the centuries around the Fall of Rome who received a text and did not question its authorship or authenticity. They were told Moses wrote it and that was good enough for them.
With all of these competing narratives and a lack of scholarship, we arrive in 381 AD at the third thing. In that year, soon after Theodosius became emperor of Rome, he declared that he knew the correct version of all of this. Rather than honor other ancient traditions and allow for freedom of expression of a plurality of religions, it was time to get everyone under one system. To do that would require enforcement of these Catholic ideas using his military power and in many cases, the burning of anything and anyone who didn’t agree. This included not just pagan or Jewish places of worship, but Christian churches that didn’t preach the correct doctrine.
The page Theodosius gets at Catholic.com calls him a “just and mighty emperor” and puts it this way,
“In January, 381, the prefect had orders to close all Arian chapels in the city and to expel those who served them. The same severe measures were ordered throughout Theodosius’s dominion, not only against Arians, but also in the case of Manichaeans and all other heretics.”
This wasn’t just an establishment of a strong military rule or just a wedding of religion with government it was a closing of minds that had been developing philosophies of democracy and science for centuries. In his book, Confessions, from around 397 AD Augustine wrote, “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.” Granted I’m taking this out of context in this short piece. He was confessing his thoughts as a young man and how they led him away from a more pious life. However, from archaeology we can see that technology stopped advancing around this time and we see less works of literature over the next few hundred years. I’m not blaming the Fall of Rome on Christians, but they didn’t prevent it and didn’t even seem troubled by it.
You should check all of my facts here and draw your own conclusions. Nothing I said here necessarily cancels out everything the Church has ever done. It shouldn’t change your relationship to your favorite parable or the community you consider your spiritual home. For me, it led to questions and it was the reaction to those questions from church leaders that eventually led to my lack of a belief in the divinity of Jesus and ultimately anything supernatural.