Virtual Reality Christianity: The Da Vinci Code and the "Brown-Out" of Historical Christianity, Part Five (Cont.)Friday, June 16, 2006
3. How Many Gospels Are There Really and How Did They Make it Into the Bible?
With the evidences given then regarding the biblical gospels and the Gnostic writings, let’s turn our attention in closing to the question of how many real gospel accounts of Jesus Christ are there.
One of the most misleading statements in all of the book is the character Teabing’s statement that there were “more than eighty gospels” considered for the NT but only four of them were chosen. Consider a few facts which clearly say the opposite. The Nag Hammadi Library discovered in 1945 and published in 1977 consisted of 45 separate titles or works, and only five of them are named as gospels: Testimony of Truth, The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians, and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Later, another author published his own collection called The Gnostic Scriptures (Bentley Layton) and his list contains only three gospels out of less than forty writings, and these gospels just have the word gospel in the title but bear little resemblance to a gospel as such. Even Professor Helmut Koester’s Introduction to the New Testament lists some sixty writings, not counting the 27 in the NT, and a large number of these were not gospels either.
The point I wish to make here leads into a discussion of just exactly how the books of the Bible we have today were included in it. One important point in assessing whether or not a book was considered authentic and authoritative was how close it was written to the time of Christ and who wrote it. As I’ve stated a number of times before, the Nag Hammadi writings contain works which date at their earliest from the second century. Anything entitled a “gospel” or letter from an apostle which was written so far after the first century was rightly considered suspect then because everyone who was close to Jesus had died by that time. A second important point centers on what these writings taught. And when we read them as compared to the NT we have today, they are vastly different, teaching something entirely foreign to what the writings of the NT reflect. They espoused a different kind of Christianity than the kind which was lived and reflected before these writings began being written and circulated.
The process of canonization was not a superficial one in which a bunch of religious leaders got together one week to decide which writings would constitute a Bible from that point on forevermore. Canonization was a process, one which clearly began from the moment an apostle or early church leader first penned and sent his letter. As one scholar notes,
“When the canon of the New Testament was finally decided upon, it was not a matter of selecting four books arbitrarily from a list of several dozen. It was a matter of noting that these four Gospels had been known from very early onto have been the core testimony to Jesus.”
When the letter or writing arrived at its location, those who received it knew who it was from, had no reason to doubt it as being authentic, found its ideas and concepts and teachings to be familiar as compared to other letters they had received (even if from other apostles or church leaders), and concluded it to be as authoritative in their lives as the other material they’d read. Afterwards, it was normal for some to copy the letter, and send it to others. In a day when there were no copy machines or digital scanners, people had to copy by hand what they received, then pass it on to others, who would then also copy it and pass it on to others.
What we have then, by the end of the first century, are what amount today to be thousands of manuscripts, minuscules, fragments, papyri, etc. which are probably just a fraction of the copies that were actually circulated by that time. And the point here is that Christians copied what they thought and knew and believed to be authentic and authoritative, or as Christians say in the language of Scripture, “inspired” by God (2 Tim. 3:16).
The sheer weight of ancient documentary evidence reflecting what is termed orthodox Christianity, as compared to the ancient evidence reflecting what is considered unorthodox, is simply amazing. They are incomparable, reflect incredible continuity of thought and belief even from different parts of the world at different times in history during the first three centuries. The only reasonable explanation for this is the fact that Christians knew what was true and what was fluff. Sure there were doctrinal conflicts and controversies maintaining confusion for many Christians at various points during this canonization process.
But if we exclude the complete lack of reasonable, historical evidence behind Brown’s conspiracy theories of the early church world, the most reasonable explanation for the Bible that we have today is that it was and is a product of a three-century long process of Christians and churches affirming what they knew was true and trustworthy, authentic and authoritative. The mere fact that none of the supposedly named gospels and writings of the recently discovered Nag-Hammadi library made it into the Scriptures is not so much a testimony to conspiracy and cover up (one which if examined even superficially will turn such a conspiracy theory on its head) as it is to the fact that none of them is consistent with what the early church Christians knew to be divine in nature.
Now to pick up with some history, as I indicated the process of canonization began when a letter was written and sent to a church. Immediately I’d point your attention to the historical fact that the four gospels included in the NT are the oldest documents formally called “gospels.” They date between 70 and 100 A.D. So the claim that the four gospels are actual older than the writings of Nag Hammadi is patently false.
But back to the point, when a letter, gospel, epistles, writing or whatever was written and sent, the local church recipient recognized it, copied it, circulated it, copied it some more, circulated it some more, and the process continued. Around 140 A.D., a Gnostic leader named Marcion began arguing something that is commonly perpetuated even to this day: the OT God is a God of wrath and the NT Jesus is a God of divine love. As a result, being moved to want his perception of love rather than his perception of wrath, he rejected any overtly Jewish writings which included all the OT as well as the letters of Mark, Acts, and Hebrews. He also fell prey to manipulating other NT letters in order to excise or downplay any Jewish reflections or tendencies. Four years later, in 144, the church declared him heretical, rejected his collection of writings, and began declaring in response their own views on what writings were of God and which were not. Their list includes today almost every single one of the writings in the Old and New Testaments.
Fast forward about a hundred to a hundred a fifty years later and we come to a new challenger on the scene named Montanus. He is famous in church history as being the first publicly infamous person to declare the end of the world. It is noteworthy that by the mid to late second century the NT gospels as well as all the letters of Paul had received unquestioned authoritative status in the church. And herein Montanus saw a chance to put his own new revelation alongside these writings, declaring them as equally authoritative as the others. Church leaders were as much up to this challenge as ones who met Marcion’s challenge. In 190 A.D. they circulated a definitive list of apostolic writings in what is referred to today as the Muratorian Canon, something I’ve already drawn your attention to. What is amazing is that the resemblance between this Canon and the NT is striking. It is almost identical except for the addition of two others writings which were later excluded from the final version we have today.
Now fast forward one final time to the early fourth century. By the time the Nicean Council met the legitimacy of only a few writings remained in question, the primary ones being Hebrews and Revelation. Why was this? Because the authorship remained in doubt, and this shows us that one of the primary considerations for inclusion in the canon we have today was who exactly penned the writing. Listen to one author whose analysis is helpful:
“Early church leaders considered letters and eyewitness accounts authoritative and binding only if they were written by an apostle or close disciple of an apostle. This way they could be assured of the documents' reliability. As pastors and preachers, they also observed which books did in fact build up the church—a good sign, they felt, that such books were inspired Scripture. The results speak for themselves: the books of today's Bible have allowed Christianity to spread, flourish, and endure worldwide.”
What this means this is that Constantine, though the emperor under whose reign the council took place and who raised funds for copying a number of Bibles, was not the originator of the divinity of Jesus nor of the final version of the Bible we have today. There is simply no historical record whatsoever that he manipulated anyone on the council to do what he wanted, that the divinity of Jesus was declared under his reign, or that the Bible as we have it today was put together at his request. Why is the historical evidence strangely missing from The Da Vinci Code and replaced instead with fabrication based on a mind in love with conspiracy theories?
I don’t question Brown’s motivation at all. As I stated earlier, he has a keen mind for writing, and his writings all reflect a fascination with conspiracy theories. All that is fine and well, I guess, when it comes to government and what not, especially in light of the fact that there are as many fictional reports circulating as there are factual ones. But when it comes to the historicity of Christianity, there are plainly not as many fictional reports circulating as there are factual ones. The historical documented evidence speaks plainly the opposite of Brown’s fanciful, fictional conclusions.
 Bock, Darrell. Breaking The DaVinci Code (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2004), p. 121.
 Hansen, Colin. “Breaking the Da Vinci Code”, in Christianity Today at http://www.christianity today.com/history/newsletter/2003/nov7.html).