I do indeed think that we can now
know almost nothing concerning the life and personality
of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no
interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Jesus
and the Word
Christian Churches have generally been successful in fostering
the impression that the New Testament represents a divinely
inspired, consistent, authoritative, factual account of historical
events, dating from the earliest days of the Church and written
by those most closely connected with the life of Jesus. In the
following sections we shall look at how well these ideas match
up with modern scholarship. We shall also look at the books
of the New Testament. Has the present selection of books (the
"canon") always been accepted? Alternatively, is the
idea of a canon a later and arbitrary concept? Does the canon
include questionable material? Does it exclude material that
has a better claim to inclusion? Does it contain errors, contradictions
or inconsistencies? Does it contain additions or amendments
to the original text? Does it contain errors of translation?
The New Testament consists of 27 books: four gospels, The Acts
of the Apostles (which is really a sequel to the Gospel of Luke),
21 letters, and the book of Revelation. This much is agreed
by all. Hardly anything else is. The following attempts to present
the views of the majority of Christian scholars.
For the first century AD there was no New Testament. Authority
rested solely in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the
Septuagint) and in oral tradition about Jesus. When early Christians
referred to scripture they were talking about the Jewish scriptures,
not to the writings that we now know as the New Testament. The
earliest known fragments of New Testament books date from the
second century AD, although these are scraps. The earliest substantial
texts are fourth century copies. The originals were probably
written towards the end of the first century AD. All of the
books were written in Greek, not the everyday language of Jesus
and his immediate followers, which would have been Aramaic.
The quality of the Greek is frequently poor.
None of the New Testament gospels is believed by modern scholars
to have been written by the man to whom it was traditionally
ascribed and whose name it bears. Neither is it likely that
any of the authors were eyewitnesses to the events described.
Modern scholars are agreed that the gospels were written at
different times, in different places and for different audiences, and that they are not attempts at an historically true record,
but vehicles for impressing potential converts. They are propaganda
to assist in proselytising, often citing supernatural events
in an attempt to vindicate their claims. Some of the differences
between the gospels may be attributed to the Jewish tradition
of free interpretation, others to a simple marketing strategy,
tailoring the product to look like what potential converts might
want to hear. The John gospel in particular is drama rather
Not a single original manuscript of any book of the New Testament
survives. In the various copies that exist there are numerous
disagreements, and later copies have new chunks of text added
by editors. Of the 5,000 or so early manuscripts now known,
no two agree exactly. They can however be arranged into families
since each copy naturally incorporates all of the changes made
to the version from which it was itself copied, as well as the
new changes peculiar to itself. Changes can thus be traced through
all later copying of the first manuscript to be tampered with.
Modern translations are not translations of a single reliable
manuscript but composites of a number of different manuscripts,
enabling translators to select variant readings (which, cynics
claim, frequently happen to agree with the translator's own theology). As the preface to the New International Version
(NIV) of the Bible says:
The Greek text used in translating the New Testament was
an eclectic one. No other piece of ancient literature has
such an abundance of manuscript witnesses as does the New
As another authority says1:
Reconstructing Christian origins from the New Testament depends
on establishing a reliable text. None of the original documents
is extant, and the oldest existing copies, made by hand before
the invention of printing, differ at some points. We know
from apocryphal gospels, as well as from statements of orthodox
and heretical Christians, that in the second century gospel
texts were altered and combined. This was particularly likely
to occur in those early days, when the documents were not
regarded as authoritative and definitive, and when there was
no central organisation to secure and enforce uniformity.
Until the nineteenth century the textus receptus (received
or accepted authoritative text) was in essence a Byzantine text
based on manuscripts whose origins probably date from the third
century. Two other families of manuscripts, the Alexandrian
and the Western, are earlier than the Byzantine and arguably
therefore more authoritative.
It is reported in the supplement of the Council of Nicæa
that the Fathers, being very perplexed to know which were
the cryphal or apocryphal books of the Old and New Testaments,
put them pell-mell on an altar, and the books to be rejected
fell to the ground. It is a pity that this elegant procedure
has not survived.
Voltaire (1694-1778), Philosophical Dictionary
If the canon of the New Testament were divinely sanctioned
then we might expect that it would have been established at
an early date, by a competent authority, and have always been
universally accepted. The canon would be internally consistent
and comprise books "whose authority was never in doubt
in the Church" as Article 6 of the Anglican 39 Articles
puts it. On the other hand, without divine sanction, people
might well disagree about the canon, and it could take a long
time for rival interested parties to reach a compromise. Moreover,
the compromise could well incorporate mistakes for example
including books that do not really meet the stated criteria
for acceptance, or excluding those that do. We might also expect
the original manuscripts to have been lost not being
divinely authorised there would be no reason to take special
care of them. We might also expect a certain degree of editorialising
in texts, for example tailoring the story to the potential audience,
or adding supernatural detail to make the story more impressive.
Which pattern best matches the known facts: divine sanction,
or human compromise?
The first thing to say is that the current books of the New
Testament were not the only contenders for inclusion in the
canon when a canon was first proposed (by a man now considered
heretical) around 150 years after the crucifixion. There were
many contenders, even among the gospels. Indeed the author of
the Luke gospel indicates that there were "many" accounts
already in existence before he wrote his (Luke 1:1). It is now
known that more than 80 such works existed.
When various writings eventually came to be collected together
to decide which were canonical, the existence of numerous incompatible
gospels posed uncomfortable problems. Why were there a number
of gospels, not just one definitive one? Or if there was one
true gospel, which one was it? God could easily have arranged
for there to be a single authoritative gospel for the benefit
of Christians, but he had not done so. Christians had to select
the versions they thought most reliable or that best suited
their own beliefs. The Church Fathers who first attempted to
assemble the canon of the New Testament soon discovered that
the numerous gospels available did not agree with each other.
No attempt had been made to ensure consistency between them
since each was written for a different audience, and that audience
was intended to regard their gospel as the gospel.
The four familiar gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were
the specific gospels of specific factions. For example we know
that the Ebionites used Matthew, certain Gnostics used Mark,
the Marcionites used a form of Luke, and the Valentinians used
John2. In some cases gospels
may well have been written by and for such factions.
Accepting two or more gospels invited problems because any
two of them would contradict each other. The obvious solution
was to accept only one gospel into any "canonical"
body of writings. When Marcion had first proposed a version
of the New Testament in the second century, he had solved the
problem in exactly this way, by adopting the Luke gospel and
rejecting the others. Different people adopted different canons.
A list called the "Muratorian Canon", dating from
around AD 170, includes some texts now "lost" and
omits a number of books that are now included in the canon3.
The Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons produced an alternative list soon
after, around AD 180, but individual Churches continued to
use whichever books they happened to like. For example, some
included a gospel attributed to St Thomas, and some excluded
the John gospel. In a pastoral letter of AD 367, Bishop Athanasius
of Alexandria specified 27 books to be read in churches. This
list eventually came to be generally accepted as the canon of
the New Testament, although the matter was not finally settled
until the fifth or sixth century, and even then was not accepted
The basic problem was to find a selection that contained all
details church leaders wanted to include, while omitting everything
they wanted to exclude. But no one gospel contained all the
material that was considered acceptable, yet as soon as two
or more were brought together they started contradicting each
other. The more gospels were accepted, the easier it was to
include all the teachings currently approved of, but the more
difficult it was to justify the mutual contradictions. Even
with four gospels, it was still not possible to include all
of the teachings currently approved of. For example, the doctrine
of Christ's descent into Hell is not to be found in any
of the four canonical gospels. It comes from the non-canonical
Gospel of Nicodemus. So too, the perpetual virginity
of Jesus' mother cannot be established from the canonical
gospels, only from apocryphal ones.
In practice there must have been numerous competing pressures
affecting the choice of what was and what was not to be regarded
as canonical. Writers of later gospels clearly used earlier
ones as sources and had few qualms about embellishing them,
so that stories became more and more impressive, and events
acquired an increasingly supernatural nature. As a result of
this trend, some of the later gospels were far too fantastic
to be included in the canon. Others were apparently excluded
because rival Christian groups, such as the Ebionites or Gnostics,
favoured them. Each Christian group had its own favourites.
One famous early Christian, the Carthaginian theologian Tertullian,
observed that scripture would never convince heretics because
they have their own canon4.
He is himself now considered a heretic.
Here is how an acknowledged authority on the subject, Elaine
Pagels puts it in her book, The Gnostic Gospels:
.... what we call Christianity and what we identify
as Christian tradition actually represents only a small
selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of
others. Who made that selection, and for what reasons? Why
were these other writings excluded and banned as “heresy”?
What made them so dangerous?
A brief account of some of the gospel contenders for inclusion
in the Christian canon follows, starting with the candidates
that proved successful:
This gospel was written, probably between AD 70 and AD 80,
in koine, a form of Greek. The work is traditionally attributed
to Matthew, or Levi, a disciple of Jesus who had previously
been a tax collector. There is no evidence for this, and almost
all biblical scholars now discount it. It is now widely recognised
that for centuries Christians were in the habit of attributing
their favourite texts to people they believed to have been close
to Jesus, in order to give these works an air of spurious authority.
As in this case such attributions were often first made generations
after the work was first circulated.
According to tradition the Matthew gospel is the oldest, but
most scholars accept that its author used the Mark gospel as
a source, which implies that the traditional dating must be
reversed (the order of the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke,
John represents ancient ideas about their relative ages)5.
The rhyme and rhythm of the Sermon on the Mount shows that at
least some of the Matthew gospel was originally phrased in Aramaic.
This gospel may well have been adopted from a list of sayings
written in a Semitic language and then fitted into a narrative
framework6. The Jerusalem
Bible describes this gospel as a "dramatic account"
in seven acts. It is essentially propaganda for Jewish Christians.
Its author may well have been a Palestinian Jew, perhaps representing
the views of Jesus' followers in Jerusalem. He repeatedly
mentions that Jesus was sent only to the Jews, not to the gentiles,
and emphasises Jewish Law. He represents Jesus as a majestic
sovereign, descended from an ancient royal line, who comes "not
to bring peace, but a sword". The author also makes much
of Old Testament prophecies and their fulfilment.
The Mark gospel is the shortest and almost certainly the oldest
of the canonical gospels. It was written in poor koine, probably
between AD 60 and 70. The gospel stresses Jesus' humanity
he gets tired and fed up, disappointed and even desperate.
It even says explicitly that those close to him tried to take
control of him, believing him to be out of his mind (Mark 3:21).
The authors of the other gospels used Mark as a principal source,
but increasingly toned down Jesus' human weaknesses and
developed an increasingly divine persona for him.
According to tradition this gospel was written in Rome by Mark,
a companion of the disciple Peter, from Peter's own verbal
account. Although it may have been written in Rome, the tradition
is otherwise discounted by most biblical scholars. Whoever the
author was he seems to have known little of Jewish life or culture,
or of Palestinian geography. He often attributes Roman customs
and artefacts to Jesus and his followers. He was writing for
a Roman audience, and his narrative is tailored accordingly.
He takes pains to explain Jewish customs (e.g. Mark 7:3-4) where
he knows about them.
The gospel may have been written as a protest by gentile Christians
against the influence of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The
author consistently denigrates the Jews. Jesus' Jewish
followers are made out to be dull, quarrelsome and cowardly.
They desert him at the first sign of trouble. The Jewish establishment
is presented as trying to trick him and kill him. By contrast
the Romans are presented as models of civility and justice.
Pontius Pilate, for example, makes every effort not to condemn
Jesus, despite Jewish demands. This was a politically correct
account during a period when thousands of Jews were being crucified
for rebelling against Rome, and it helped earn Pilate his sainthood
in the Coptic Church.
The author of this gospel is traditionally identified with
a Greek physician who accompanied Paul on his travels, though
there is no evidence for this, just the customary late attribution.
This gospel may have been written at Antioch some time around
AD 85. Unlike the other canonical gospels, which were written
in koine, this gospel was written in literary Greek. The author,
whoever he was, was much more urbane than the authors of the
other gospels and other early writers, so it is sometimes possible
to see in the original Greek where he has incorporated the writing
of others. The text contains some parables that are not mentioned
by other gospel writers7,
and the nativity story, added later, may have been translated
from an earlier Hebrew text. When translated back into Hebrew
it is claimed to resemble typically alliterative Jewish poetry.
This gospel was written for, and angled at, an Hellenic gentile
audience. It represents the views of Paul, on his mission to
the gentiles, and so omits much of the specifically Jewish material.
Here Jesus is represented as a gentle lamb-like teacher of modest
birth the "Gentle Jesus meek and mild" of childhood
prayers. This author has humble shepherds visiting the baby
Jesus where the Matthew author has high dignitaries bringing
gifts to a new-born king.
The gospel is really only the first volume; the second volume
is called The Acts of the Apostles. One of the author's chief motivations for writing Luke and Acts was clearly to represent
Christianity as a movement that carried all before it. Another
important motivation was to stress that it did not constitute
a threat to the State.
This gospel is substantially different from the other three
canonical gospels. Indeed apart from the passion story (thought
to be a late addition), its presentation bears no relationship
at all to them. The few incidents that are common to the other
gospels occur at different times, or in different places, and
in different circumstances. The other three gospels are together
known as the synoptic gospels. (The word synoptic means
"seen-together" and is applied to Matthew, Mark and
Luke because they share a common point of view.)
The John gospel purports to be an eyewitness account, although
most scholars agree that it was the latest of the four canonical
gospels, having been written, in koine, between AD 90 and AD
100, several generations after Jesus lived. The author is not
identified and there is no reason to believe that he was the
apostle John, or even that his name was John at all. The traditional
ascriptions seem to have been based on ambiguous passages such
as John 19:35 and 21:24 (part of a late addition ).
For centuries there was controversy as to whether this gospel
should be admitted to the list of canonical books. The Church
Father Irenaeus of Lyons stated that the book had been written to refute
the arguments of Cerinthus, a well-known Gnostic who had lived
a few years earlier. On the other hand the gospel was itself
used by Gnostics one reason why "orthodox"
Christians wanted to reject it from the canon. Most biblical
scholars accept it represents an interpretation of Jesus that
developed late in the first century AD, probably in Ephesus.
Its opening verses express ancient Middle Eastern views, personifying
the Word (logos), but they are adapted to
a new emerging theology.
The gospel's target audience appears to be educated, middle-class
and Hellenic. The author, like the author of the Mark gospel,
takes trouble to explain Jewish words, names and attitudes (e.g.
1:41-2 and 4:9). As in other late documents, the gospel is consistently
anti-Semitic (the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers is underplayed,
even implicitly denied8
while his enemies are referred to about sixty times as
Of the four canonical gospels John stresses Jesus' divinity
most strongly and also plays down his human weaknesses most
strongly. The miracles are consistently more impressive, and
may have been taken from a source in which they served simply
as demonstrations of Jesus' power9.
This gospel has been described as a meditation in dramatic form.
seems natural to us that there should be four gospels, but it
was not at all obvious in early times. It took a long time for
the four described above to be accepted. One problem was that
they contradicted each other on many points. A solution to this
problem, adopted by Tatian in the 170s, had been to create a
new comprehensive gospel, which harmonised them (and reflected
the editor's hatred of women). This gospel (the Diatessaron,
literally “Fourfold”) was widely accepted in
the East but did not gain acceptance in the long term.
Incidentally, it was only when the four well-known gospels
were considered for acceptance into a New Testament canon that
they were ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These second
century guesses sound more homely than say anonymous names like
1, 2, 3 and 4 or A, B, C and D, and give the impression that
the authors were known, which they were not.
Today, it is not commonly realised that there were more than
just four candidates for inclusion in the canon. There were
many others, each of them purporting to be the one true gospel
and contending for primacy. The decision to select the four
that are now so familiar was largely arbitrary. One of the reasons
given by Irenaeus of Lyons for his selection is that four is a natural
number. He cited the four winds and four corners of the Earth
as evidence for this10.
Other contenders enjoyed various degrees of acceptance in early
times, but they ultimately failed to win a place in the orthodox
canon. The following are a few of the more interesting failed
manuscripts of this gospel have been in circulation for centuries,
their authenticity was doubted until 1946. In that year a fourth
century Coptic manuscript of the gospel was discovered at Nag
Hammadi in Egypt.
This gospel is simply a collection of Jesus' sayings.
Most, but not all, of these agree with the canonical gospels.
The text includes additional storyteller's details omitted from
the later gospels but lacks their later allegorical interpretations.
Some of the sayings that appear here, but not in the canonical
gospels, had been attributed to Jesus by some sections of the
early Church. Although the Coptic manuscript of this gospel
dates from the fourth century, the text is known to be older,
since fragments of a second century manuscript have also been
discovered. It is possible that the canonical gospels were partially
created from the Thomas gospel with a generous padding of background
detail to make the story more interesting and convincing.
The Thomas gospel was probably omitted from the canon because
it was used by Gnostics. Significantly, the gospel gives no
special titles to Jesus and is silent about the Resurrection.
It was known to the earliest Church Fathers, accepted by the
Valentinians, and arguably has a much better claim for inclusion
in the canon than the gospel attributed to St John.
This gospel stresses the prime position among
the apostles of Jesus' brother, James the Just. James led
the Jewish Christians based in Jerusalem, which made him unpopular
amongst Pauline Christians. In the canon of the New Testament,
James's role is generally played down and Peter's played up, which may well explain why this book was not included.
It was allowed by the orthodox to become "lost", possibly
deliberately destroyed, though a copy of the gospel survived
in a Coptic text.
This is a work used by Jewish Christians, followers of James
the Just, who fled to Syria. It is known only from fragments.
It apparently contained material similar to that in the synoptic
gospels. St Jerome noted that it was believed by some to have
been the original version of what we now know as the Matthew
gospel. This may be the same as The Gospel of the Ebionites,
according to which it was Jesus' principal aim to stop
all sacrificial practices at the Temple at Jerusalem.
This book is mainly concerned with the life of Mary and birth
of Jesus. It is sometimes called the Infancy Gospel of James.
Its account of the birth of Jesus embellishes the account in
the Luke gospel. The gospel was accepted as genuine by many
of the Church Fathers. It gives an account of Mary remaining
virgo intacta, after the birth of Jesus, and it is
from this source, not the canonical gospels, that the idea of
Mary's perpetual virginity developed. Indeed this book
was largely responsible for the development of Mariology, and
for providing such incidental details as the names of Mary's own parents: Joachim and Anna. This book explained away Jesus'
brothers as step-brothers, Joseph's children by an earlier
marriage. Among Western Christians, this ensured that the work
would be rejected from the canon as the Roman Church was trying
to justify the explanation that the brothers were really cousins.
This was a fuller version of the conventional Mark gospel.
No copy of it has survived, though it is referred to in a letter
from Clement of Alexandria (AD c.150-c.215). In
1958 Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University discovered
in a monastery near Jerusalem a copy of a letter from Clement,
one of the most venerated of the Church Fathers. The letter
admitted that the author of the Mark gospel had written material
that did not appear in the usual version of the gospel. Clement's correspondent is instructed to lie about the existence of this
missing material, even on oath11.
The letter quotes passages from this lost gospel, including
an account of Jesus raising a dead youth. The youth "loved
him and beseeched him that he might be with him". Wearing
nothing but a linen cloth, the youth visited Jesus in the evening,
and spent the night with him. The letter reveals that there
were rumours current at the time that Jesus and the youth had
been naked together. It appears that one group of Christians
(the Carpocratians regarded as heretics by Clement) knew
about this secret information and deduced from it that Christians
were granted permission to engage liberally in sexual activity.
The canonical Mark gospel is an expurgated version of this
longer gospel12. It is
not difficult to see why people like Clement might want to promote
the edited version as the true one: the fuller version was powerful
ammunition not only to Carpocratians but also to a range of
Gnostics13. Whatever the
reasons for its exclusion, the fact is that The Secret Gospel
of Mark had a strong claim to be in the canon in place
of the expurgated version.
Gospel of Philip
Gospel of Philip is one of the Gnostic Gospels, dating back
to around the 3rd century but lost to modern researchers until
an Egyptian peasant rediscovered it, buried in a cave near Nag
Hammadi, in 1945. The text is not related to the Canonical Gospels.
It is a collection of gnostic teachings and reflections, a "gnostic
anthology,". The text is perhaps most famous as an early
source for the popular theory that Jesus was married to Mary
Magdalene. The Ancient Greek manuscript describes Jesus as Mary's
"koinonos," meaning spouse, partner, or "companion,"
which may imply an intimate sexual relationship.
The PhilipGospel contains a memorable line about Jesus and
Mary Magdelene, saying that "he kissed her often on the
....". We do not know where Jesus kissed her because the
word is missing (see damaged page, right). The line is often
cited as "he kissed her often on the mouth", but that
is no more than a guess.
One of the charges lvelled at the Cathars in the thirteenth
century was that they taught that Mary Magdelen had been been
the wife or concubine of Jesus. Since they claimed a long Gnostic
tradition, they might well have retained this belief from the
earliest Christian times.
gospels, many of which were known to the Church Fathers, include
the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Matthias
(lost), the Gospel of Basilides (lost), the Gospel
of the Twelve Apostles, the Gospel of Nicodemus,
incorporating the Acts of Pontius Pilate, the Gospel
of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Truth. In
addition there are known to have been a number of other Gnostic
gospels, but these were sought out and destroyed by upholders
of the Pauline line. According to the Secret Book of James
1:7 the 12 disciples each recorded their recollections and organised
them into books, yet not a single one seems to have survived14.
Gospels were not the only problem. Disagreements raged over
other books as well. Different Church leaders favoured different
books, and their selection seems to have been largely a matter
of personal taste. A number of Churches, for example, admitted
the anti-Semitic Epistle of Barnabas. Many of the early
Church Fathers regarded the Teaching of the (Twelve) Apostles,
or Didache, as scriptural, though it was later omitted
from the canon. Likewise, Clement of Alexandria and others admitted
the Apocalypse of Peter, which was also later omitted
from the canon. Well into the fourth century an influential
churchman could include the Wisdom of Solomon amongst
the books of the New Testament. On the other hand some books
were later admitted that had previously been regarded as non-scriptural.
Irenaeus of Lyons himself had excluded the third Epistle of John,
the Epistle of James and the Second Epistle of
Peter, all of which are now included in the canon. Eusebius
of Caesarea also declined to classify them with his "recognised"
books and described them as disputed along with the Second
Epistle of John and the Epistle of Jude15.
One of the main criteria for acceptance was a direct link with
the apostles. So out went the Shepherd of Hermas and
an Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, which had
previously been counted as scriptural. The Mark gospel stayed
in because of Mark's supposed link with Peter, and the
Luke gospel because of Luke's supposed link with Paul.
The Epistle to the Hebrews presented a problem. As
Eusebius said "Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone"16.
Some Church Fathers, notably Clement
of Alexandria and Origen of Alexandria (AD c.185-254) had known on stylistic
grounds that this letter could not have been written by Paul
but were prepared to pretend that it was apostolic in order
to allow it into the canon. By the terms of a deal done at the
Council of Carthage in 419, it was accepted as being Paul's work. Eastern Churches accepted this conceit, but the Church
at Rome refused to, and rejected the epistle on the grounds
that it was not apostolic. Rome relented some time in the fifth
or sixth century and fell back into line with the Eastern Churches.
Modern scholars agree with the original Roman view that the
work was not written by Paul.
Many works hung in the balance. The epistles of James
and Jude, the Second Epistle of Peter, the
second and third Epistles of John, and the book of
Revelation were disputed but were eventually successful.
The book of Revelation, which early Christians had
considered the work of a known heretic17,
was admitted on the grounds that its author was St John the
apostle, though later the story was changed and it was attributed
to a mysterious St John the Divine.
A number of letters purportedly written by St Paul were excluded
from the canon at an early stage for example the fake
Third Epistle to the Corinthians. Fourteen letters
were eventually accepted. Of these, it is now widely accepted
by scholars that at least four (including Hebrews)
were not written by Paul. Some scholars hold that as many as
seven of these letters are not his. A comparison of writing
styles shows that the three pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy
and Titus) were all written by the same hand, however that hand
was not the one responsible for the other letters18.
Conversely, textual critics have evidence that at least three
genuine letters by St Paul never made it into the canon and
have since been lost19.
Of the letters that did make it into the canon, it is widely
accepted that some of them are not original works but edited
versions of selected passages from two or three separate writings,
When we turn to the seven catholic (or general) letters the
position is even worse. Not one was written by its supposed
author. Furthermore, the Church Fathers excluded a number of
similar letters from the canon, although their claim to be included
is at least as good as those that were successful. The second
letter of Peter is generally accepted to have been written by
someone other than the author of the first letter of Peter.
Much of it is a reworking of Jude, probably attributed to Peter
in order to enhance its status.
Other writings rejected from the canon include Acts of individual
apostles: the Acts of John, Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter,
Acts of Andrew, and Acts of Thomas ; various apocalypses:
the Apocalypses of Peter, of Paul, and of Thomas
; the Infancy Gospel of James already referred to;
and the Epistles of the Apostles, also called the Testament
of Our Lord in Galilee. Some well-known "Bible stories"
are not from our present canon, but from these works21.
Another indication of how uncertain the canon really was may
be seen from the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest
and most authoritative copies of the books of the New Testament.
It includes the Epistle of Barnabas and part of the
Shepherd of Hermas.
The works that have been admitted into the canon are not presented
in chronological order, though it is still sometimes assumed
that they are. The order gospels, Acts, letters, Revelation
is often taken to mean that the gospels are the earliest
documents, though in fact some of the letters were the earliest
documents. This is significant because many ideas now considered
characteristically Christian were unknown to the authors of
these early letters, a fact that is concealed by the failure
to list the works in chronological order. The arbitrariness
is demonstrated by the order in which the letters are presented.
First are those supposedly written by Paul, then those written
by others. Those ascribed to Paul are divided into those addressed
to Churches (in descending order of length) followed by those
addressed to individuals.
No god was ever in advance of the nation that created him.
Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), Oration on the Gods
Even in mainstream churches, congregations still chant "This
is the word of the Lord" after Bible readings. This view,
that God was involved in the production of the New Testament,
is undermined by numerous errors in the text. Some are simple
errors of fact; others look like interpolations designed to
make the text understandable to audiences unfamiliar with the
Middle East. Yet others apparently stem from linguistic confusion.
First, simple geographical errors. The original text of Matthew
(2:6) speaks of " Bethlehem, the land of Juda". The
error was corrected by the translators of early English versions
who knew that Bethlehem was a town, not a land, so that it reads
" Bethlehem, in the land of Juda". The word
in is italicised to show that it is an interpolation.
The more honest German translation retained the error up to
the latter half of the twentieth century. Again, the writer
of the Mark gospel is apparently ignorant of Palestinian geography.
He says that Gerasa was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee22;
but Gerasa (modern Jerash) is more than 30 miles away to the
south east. The Matthew author must have known that this location
was not feasible, so he changed it to Gadara (Matthew 8:28),
which was a mere eight miles from the lake. Mark also suggests
that Jesus passed through Sidon on his way to the Sea of Galilee
from Tyre (Mark 7:31). In fact Sidon is in the opposite direction,
and at the time there was no road from Sidon to the Sea of Galilee
anyway, though there was one from Tyre.
As in the Old Testament, many errors reflect the author's limited perception of the world. It might have been possible
to see all kingdoms on Earth from a great height if the world
really was flat, but climbing a mountain doesn't help much
on a spherical planet. Cosmology too reflected contemporary
ideas. The third heaven referred to by Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2)
only made sense when concentric crystal orbs were believed to
circumscribe seven physical heavens. Again, it was not unreasonable
for someone to hold seven stars in his hand (Revelation 1:10-16)
when the nature of stars was not understood and gods
or angels were thought to steer stars around their appointed
Biblical natural history is also fallible. Paul calls someone
a fool for not knowing that a seed must die before it can come
to life (1 Corinthians 15:36). Paul is apparently party to a
contemporary misunderstanding about seeds, despite his divine
the New Testament it is assumed that illness is caused by unclean
spirits, prompted by sin. Cures can therefore be effected by
forgiving sin and ejecting the unclean spirit. Such beliefs
were common in biblical times and remained a central Christian
belief well into the nineteenth century, but only a few sects
espouse such ideas now, and Churches are ever more embarrassed
by their traditional attachment to the practice of exorcism.
Again, biblical characters like Simon Magus could be credited
with magical powers in early times that now seem more than a
little unlikely to most mainstream Christians. Even a person's shadow was believed capable of working miracles (Acts 5:14-16),
since shadows were thought to be part of their owner's being in ancient times.
As in the Old Testament there are anachronisms. In Acts 5:36
a famous Jewish teacher called Gamaliel refers to events as
though they occurred in the past, when in fact they happened
after his death. Again the Jewish Council described in the gospels
matches the council after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, not
the council of Jesus' time. This suggests not merely that
the gospels were written after AD 70, but that they were written
a sufficiently long time after AD 70 for people to have forgotten
that it had ever been different. Sometimes the authors have
doctored the text to make it accessible to their target audience.
Mark (10:12) quotes Jesus as saying:
And if a woman shall put away [divorce] her husband, and
be married to another, she commiteth adultery.
But the idea of a woman divorcing her husband was unknown to
the Jews. The concept simply did not exist. The author of Mark
has apparently found it necessary to allow for this eventuality
when speaking to his Roman audience. Without it the text would
appear to prohibit men divorcing their wives, but not wives
divorcing their husbands. One might sympathise with the author's dilemma, but the fact remains that he must have added his own
words. Again, Luke 5:19 refers to a tiled roof. Such roofs would
be familiar to Luke's Hellenic audience, but in Galilee
where the story is set the houses would have had thatched roofs.
Sometimes the text disagrees with what is known about Jewish
Law24. For example, the
story of Jesus' trial is flawed in a number of respects.
The Sanhedrin is said in the three synoptic gospels to have
met during the Passover, but this was not permitted under Judaic
law. It is said to have met at night, but again this was not
permitted. It was said to have met in a private house, yet it
was forbidden to meet outside the precincts of the Temple. Also,
it is claimed that the Jews were not permitted to pass the death
sentence (John 18:31), but this cannot be true. Earlier, the
chief priests had considered putting Lazarus to death (John
12:10) and Jews were responsible for other killings both
formally and informally25.
The Jews appear to have regarded blasphemy as a capital offence,
but only if it involved worshipping idols or using a name of
God (and Jesus had not been accused of either). Again, the custom
of allowing the people to have a prisoner of their choice released
for the Passover festival appears to be a fiction. No such custom
Another sort of error is the misquotation of the Jewish scriptures.
Luke 3:36 refers to Sala "which was the son of
Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad", but in Genesis
11:12 Sala was the son, not the grandson, of Arphaxad27.
As we shall see, Old Testament passages were selectively quoted,
taken out of context and amended to meet the needs of the New
Testament (for example 1 Corinthians 2:9 misquoting Isaiah 64:4)28.
Occasionally it is possible to deduce that an error was made
in interpreting an original Aramaic term. Luke 11:39-41 contains
a curious injunction by Jesus:
...Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup
and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening
and wickedness. Ye fools, did not he that made that which
is without make that which is within also? But rather give
alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are
clean unto you.
This is saying that one can become clean by giving alms. Interestingly
in Aramaic the word meaning to give alms (zakkau) is
easily confused with the word meaning to cleanse (dakkau).
Although the New Testament is mainly written in a type of Greek,
Jesus himself would have spoken Aramaic so it is apparent that
the wrong word has been used. This explanation is supported
by a parallel passage in Matthew (23:25-26), which does not
mention alms at all, but states that one must clean the inside
in order to clean the outside.
As we shall see later, there are many examples of the New Testament
misquoting passages from the Old, especially in relation to
supposed prophecies. St Paul engaged in some deliberate manipulation,
for example substituting the word "Lord" (i.e. Jesus)
for "Lord" (i.e. God), in order to give the impression
that the Old Testament had been talking about Jesus.
If Matthew speaks truth, Luke speaks falsehood, and if Luke
speaks truth, Matthew speaks falsehood; and as there is no
authority for believing one more than the other, there is
no authority for believing either.... Thomas Paine, The Age
of Reason, Part II
The traditional Christian claim is that the books of the New
Testament complement each other to give a unified narrative.
In particular the gospels are represented as giving four consistent
views of the same events. In this section we shall see how valid
this view is. In general, we shall restrict ourselves to the
four canonical gospels plus Acts and see if they agree or disagree
with each other in describing Jesus' birth, life, death
It is now generally accepted that the authors of both Matthew
and Luke used the Mark gospel as a primary source. They include
many of the same incidents, but change the words to suit their
own needs. For example Mark suggests that believers should be
prepared to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs "let
him .... take up his cross, and follow me"29,
but the urbane author of Luke adapts this to suggest that believers
should suffer something different "let him .... take up
his cross daily, and follow me" (Luke 9:23). The insertion
of the word daily has completely changed the meaning
from a nasty death to a persistent inconvenience.
The Matthew and Luke authors give conflicting versions of Jesus'
ancestry (Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38). These versions bear
virtually no relationship to each other and are irreconcilable.
According to the Luke gospel, Jesus had 41 ancestors since David,
according to the Matthew gospel only 26. Nearly all the names
in the two lists are different. Even the name of Jesus'
paternal grandfather is different. According to Matthew he was
called Jacob, while according to Luke he was called Heli.
The rest of the nativity stories in the two gospels bear virtually
no resemblance to each other, and contradict each other on a
number of points. According to Luke, Jesus' family had to travel
to Bethlehem for a tax census that took
place when Quirinius or Cyrenius was governor of Syria (Luke
2:1-3). This census is stated to have been the first during
his governorship (Luke 2:2). Such a census is an historical
reality and is known to have been carried out in AD 6 or 7.
Furthermore, we may accept that the census was carried out for
taxation purposes, since the Romans carried out such censuses
for taxation and conscription, and the Jews were exempt from
But now the problems start. Luke says that the census was the
result of a decree from Caesar Augustus to the whole world,
but this must be an error. The real census affected Roman Judæa
only. Galilee was not part of Roman Judæa, so Joseph,
a Galilaean, would not have been affected. Even if he had been
affected, he would not have had to travel to another town. Like
the tax it was related to, the census was based on property,
so people registered where they lived. The Romans did not care
about genealogies, and neither did they require mass migrations.
Furthermore, such taxes would have required only Joseph to register
even if a census had been carried out in Nazareth, Mary
would not have been required to stir herself, heavily pregnant
or not. Luke's story does not hold water. Worse, it cannot be
squared with that of Matthew. Matthew does not mention the census
at all. According to him Jesus was born before the death of
Herod. The only possible Herod is Herod I (Herod the Great)
and he died in 4 BC31.
Thus there is a discrepancy of some ten years between the two
According to the gospels Jesus often contradicted himself.
He claimed to uphold the traditional laws unreservedly (Matthew
5:17-19, cf. Luke 16:17). He then addressed a number of questions
and in each case overturned the traditional law. These questions
concern subjects such as murder, adultery, divorce, swearing,
punishment (an eye for an eye), and loving one's enemies.
On the question of divorce the accounts in both the Matthew
and Mark gospels contradict the traditional laws, under which
divorce was a simple matter for men32.
Not only that, the two gospels are incompatible with each other.
Mark 10:9 forbids divorce in any circumstances. Speaking of
man and wife Jesus says:
What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put
These words are familiar from their use in Christian marriage
ceremonies (cf. Luke 16:18). Matthew 19:9 however puts a rather
different slant on the matter:
...Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication,
and shall marry commiteth adultery ...
This clearly sanctions divorce and remarriage for men whose
wives have been unfaithful. But these are not the only versions.
Paul had his own quite different ideas. A plain reading of the
text shows that he allowed men to divorce ("put away")
unbelieving wives and women to leave their unbelieving husbands.
The text in question (1 Corinthians 7:10-17) was later to justify
the so-called Pauline Privilege, allowing the Church to grant
God insisted on the death penalty even for such minor misdemeanours
as collecting sticks on the Sabbath, but Jesus abrogated this
law when his own followers picked ears of wheat on the Sabbath
(Mark 2:23-27). According to a passage inserted in later manuscripts
at John 8:3-11, he abrogated the law requiring an adulteress
to be stoned.
On some occasions Jesus tells his disciples that his message
is only for the Jews, on others he says it is also for the gentiles.
In Matthew 10:5-6 Jesus tells his disciples not to go among
the gentiles, and at Matthew 15:24 he says: " ...I am not
sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel". In
the next two verses he likens the gentiles to dogs eating crumbs
at their master's table. To call anyone a dog in the Middle
East at that time was as grave an insult then as it is now.
On the other hand at Matthew 28:19 Jesus takes a contradictory
view and tells the disciples to "teach all nations, baptising
them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy
ghost". (The explanation may well be later tampering. Many
scholars regard the end of Mark as a later addition made to
the original gospel, which apart from this passage is clearly
written by a Jew for a Jewish audience.)
The sermon on the mount related by Matthew differs substantially
from its counterpart given in Luke. The one in Luke is similar
to that in Matthew, but its text differs in a number of respects.
Furthermore it occurs later in the story than it does in Matthew,
and is reported as having been given not on a mount, but a plain
(see Matthew 5:1-7:27 and Luke 6:17-49). There are other cases
where the same story is told more than once, with minor alterations.
The story of the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-10,
Matthew 15:29-39) varies only slightly from the same story told
elsewhere, when five thousand were fed (Mark 6:30-44, Matthew
14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, cf. John 6:1-15). That it is really
the same story told twice over is confirmed by the fact that
on both occasions the disciples cannot imagine how the crowd
is going to be fed. If the disciples had already seen the miracle
once, then they would hardly be at a complete loss to work out
how the second (smaller) crowd might be nourished.
When he lists the commandments, Jesus mentions rather fewer
than ten. According to Luke he cites only five. According to
Matthew and Mark he cites six, but the extra commandments cited
are different and include one (do not defraud) that is not one
of the Ten Commandments at all. In summary they are:
No false testimony
No false testimony
No false testimony
No fraud (!)
Love thy neighbour
There are even disagreements over the wording of the Lord's Prayer. Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 give different versions
(neither of which match the version in common use today).
Again, lists of the 12 apostles are not consistent (see Appendix
B). Matthew 10:2-4 and Mark 3:16-19 give a list including Thaddaeus,
Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13 give a similar list except that it
excludes Thaddaeus, and includes a second Judas Judas
son (or brother) of James. Many inconsistencies like this have
traditionally been explained by the suggestion that the same
person might be known by more than one name. So it is that the
Matthew mentioned in the Matthew gospel is traditionally
identified with the Levi mentioned in the Mark gospel.
Bartholomew is identified with Nathanael in
the same way. There remains, however, a suspicion that up to
16 disciples (not counting Judas Iscariot's replacement)
may have been condensed in order to arrive at a number with
an appropriate Old Testament resonance. It could be mentioned
also that the names of individual disciples are mentioned remarkably
infrequently; that Jesus is generally seen appointing only four
or five disciples; that only those four or five play any significant
role; and that the lists of 12 given in the gospels, for example
at Matthew 10:2-4 and Luke 6:14-16, are not in the earliest
When he sent out the Twelve (or Sixteen, or however many) Jesus
gave contradictory instructions to them according to the gospels.
According to Mark 6:8 they were told to take a staff, but according
to Matthew 10:10 they were instructed not to take a staff. The
gospels frequently disagree about the order of events. According
to the Mark gospel Jesus cured Simon's mother-in-law after
he called the first disciples at Galilee, but according to the
Luke author he did so before he called the disciples. Other
minor details are also inconsistent. The John author manages
to contradict himself within a chapter. First he claims that
Jesus baptises people (John 3:22) then, when Jesus is accused
of baptising people, the author of the gospel says that although
his disciples do, Jesus himself does not baptise people (John
When it comes to accounts of Jesus' arrest, trial and
death, it is clear that a great deal of creativity has been
employed. According to the synoptic gospels Jesus was identified
to his captors by a kiss. According to John he simply owned
up33. The gospels also
disagree about the trial to such an extent that some
apologists have been obliged to conclude that there were at
least five hearings: before Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod Antipas,
and then Pilate again34,
but even this is impossible to square with all the gospel details.
According to the synoptics a crowd of Jews were there at the
main trial before Pilate, according to John they waited outside.
Matthew 27:12-14 asserts that Jesus was silent when accused,
but John 18:19-37 quotes the words that he used to answer his
The author of John disagrees with the other three gospel writers
about the day on which Jesus was crucified. The John author
says that the crucifixion took place on the day of the preparation
of the Passover (John 19:14); the others say that the Last Supper
was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-20; Mark 14:12-17; Luke 22:7-14),
which means that the crucifixion must have occurred after the
start of Passover. The gospel writers disagree about the time
of day that Jesus was crucified. Mark 15:25 says that the crucifixion
occurred at the third hour (9 am), while John 19:14 says that
sentence was not passed until the sixth hour (12 noon), so that
the execution must have taken place in the afternoon. According
to Matthew 27:44 both of the malefactors crucified with Jesus
reviled him, but according to Luke 23:39-43 only one of them
did so, and the second malefactor rebuked the first. According
to the synoptic gospels (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26)
Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus' cross, but according
to John 19:17 Jesus carried it himself. All four gospel writers
have a different version of what was written on the titulus
The King of the Jews Mark 15:26
This is Jesus, the King of the Jews Matthew 27:37
This is the King of the Jews Luke 23:38
Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews John 19:19
According to the Mark author, the veil of the Temple was torn
after Jesus died. According to the Luke author it was torn before
he died. There are also inconsistencies between the various
accounts of Jesus' last words. The Mark and Matthew authors
favour a quotation from the beginning of Psalm 22:
My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? Matthew 27:46
and Mark 15:34
The Luke author prefers these words, which appear to be derived
from verse 5 in Psalm 31:
Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. Luke 23:46
The John author is more prosaic:
It is finished. John 19:30
Two different accounts are given of the death of Judas. According
to Matthew 27:5 he hanged himself, but according to Acts 1:18
he fell headlong, burst asunder in the midst of a field, and
all his bowels gushed out. Again, the authors of the gospels
give contradictory accounts of the discovery of Jesus'
According to Mark 16:1-9 three women visit the tomb just after
sunrise: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
They go to anoint the body. There is no mention of any earthquake.
The stone has already been rolled away from the entrance to
the tomb. No one sees Jesus, but sitting in the tomb the women
see a young man in a white robe. He says that Jesus is going
on ahead to Galilee (as predicted by Mark 14:28). Terrified,
the women say nothing to anyone about what they have seen at
the tomb, despite having been instructed to do so by the young
man. Of the three Mary Magdalene alone subsequently sees Jesus.
According to Luke 24:1-10 Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of
James, Joanna, and some other women visit the tomb early in
the morning, with spices and ointments. There is no mention
of any earthquake. The stone has already been rolled away from
the tomb. Two men in shining garments suddenly appear (standing).
No one sees Jesus. No one mentions that Jesus has gone on to
Galilee. The women go off to tell the disciples what they have
According to John (20:1-14) Mary Magdalene visits the tomb
alone while it is still dark, for no stated purpose. The stone
has been removed from the entrance. There is no mention of any
earthquake. She sees no one, but when she returns to the tomb
later she sees two angels in white (seated) as well as Jesus
(standing). No one mentions Galilee.
According to Matthew (28:1-9) Mary Magdalene and another Mary
visit the tomb at dawn. Their purpose is not to anoint the body
but to see the tomb. There is a great earthquake. An angel descends
from Heaven, rolls back the stone from the tomb, and sits on
it. The guards (not mentioned by the others) are badly shaken.
No one is seen inside the tomb. The angel tells the women to
tell the disciples to go to Galilee. In awe and joy the two
women, following the angel's instructions, run to tell
the disciples what has happened. Both women encounter Jesus,
apparently while on their way back to the disciples.
The four gospels then go on to disagree about who the resurrected
Jesus appeared to subsequently all of them also disagreeing
with another account in 1 Corinthians, which does not mention
any women at all. Even when the accounts agree about who Jesus
appeared to, they disagree about the order in which the appearances
happened or where they happened. Did he first appear to the
Eleven in Galilee (Matthew) or Jerusalem (John) or did
he appear to Twelve rather than Eleven (1 Corinthians)? Curiously,
one of the appearances recounted by the John author is a reworking
of the miraculous fishing incident, which according to the Luke
author occurred before Jesus' death35.
Again the Luke author claims that Jesus ascended into Heaven
on the day of the Resurrection, but the same author has him
appearing to his disciples for 40 days (Acts 1:3).
Whatever mental gymnastics are performed, these contradictory
accounts cannot be reconciled (To rub in the point, some websites
critical of Christianity offer substantial cash prizes for anyone
who succeeds in reconciling them). It is clear that a few basic
facts have been added to in order to make a good story. Significantly
the earliest report, the one in Mark, is the most straightforward.
The Luke and John authors have introduced suggestions of the
supernatural, but the author of Matthew has added a heavy dose
of the supernatural. Thus Mark refers to a man dressed in a
white garment. Luke refers to two men in glowing garments who
appear suddenly. According to John the two are not men but angels.
Matthew has only one angel, but he is seen to descend from Heaven
and roll away the stone. The story is becoming more impressive
with the retelling.
sort of progressive improvement is common in the gospels, although
it is usually John with the trump hand. Miracles for example
generally become more impressive in the later gospels. To take
an example, Jesus' healing ability improves in later accounts.
The Mark author has all the sick brought to Jesus and many of
them cured (Mark 1:32-34). Matthew 8:16 has many brought and
all of them cured. Luke 4:40 has all brought, and all of them
cured. The tale is becoming more impressive all the time. The
story of the feeding of the five thousand is similarly an improved
version of the feeding of the four thousand. The four thousand
were fed with seven loaves and a few fishes, with seven baskets
full of left-overs: but the five thousand were fed with only
five loaves and two fishes, yet there were 12 baskets full of
left-overs. What seems to have happened is that a more modest
Old Testament miracle (the feeding of the one hundred with twenty
loaves) has been inflated over time: ever fewer loaves, ever
more people, ever more leftovers, and the gospels have recorded
the story at different stages of its development36.
(Incidentally, the error of incorporating different instances
of the same story provides one of many pieces of evidence that
the author cannot have been an eyewitness, since an eyewitness
could not have made this sort of mistake.)
In Acts, we find the same stories are frequently told about
both Peter and Paul. Some of them are repeated with different
details. There are no fewer than three versions of the story
of Paul's conversion. In
one, Paul's companions see a heavenly light but hear nothing
(Acts 22:9). In the second, they hear a voice but see no one
(Acts 9:7). In the third (Acts 26:12-14), there is no specific
mention of what his companions hear or see, only that they fall
to the ground along with Paul. And did Paul take Trophimus with
him when he left Miletus for Jerusalem? Acts says he did (Acts
21:29), but this flatly contradicts one of the last few verses
of Paul's second Epistle to Timothy, which claims that
Paul had left Trophimus at Miletus because he was ill.
Paul's letters (if they are his) also contradict each
other. In 1 Corinthians 3:11 Paul says the Church has no foundation
other than Christ himself, but in another purported letter (Ephesians
2:20) the apostles and prophets provide the foundation, and
Jesus is the cornerstone. Another example concerns the end of
the world. According to different accounts, will this come soon,
during a period of peace and security "like a thief in
the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2) or will it come at some
later time after, following a rebellion and revelation, and
other spectacular signs and wonders (2 Thessalonians 2) ?
The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses
do not have Mark 16:9-20.
Note in the New International Version of the Bible
The evidence that early Christians tampered with their holy
texts is overwhelming. We have every sort of evidence that it
First, we have the evidence of non-Christians such as Celsus
who observed in the second century that the Christians were
perpetually correcting and altering their gospels. We also have
supporting testimony from influential Christians themselves:
the scholar Origen of Alexandria remarks that both Jews and
gentiles reject Christianity on the grounds that it was impossible
to determine which faction was telling the truth. Origen mentioned
explicitly that the factions disagreed not only on minor questions
"but also in the most significant matters of great consequence"37.
Second, we have the evidence of Christian sects, who routinely
accused each other of such tampering. Each sect, including the
one we now regard as orthodox, was inclined to "correct"
existing texts to confirm the orthodoxy of their own views.
Christians are known to have rewritten works to suit their own
beliefs and prejudices (e.g. Marcion's dislike of Jews
and Tatian's dislike of women ). We have no reason to believe
that the texts favoured by the group now regarded as orthodox
were any more reliable than others. It is known, for example,
that the Matthew gospel was attacked as unreliable38.
We know that people saw the need to correct the versions that
are now regarded as orthodox39.
All in all we have ample evidence from early Christians of texts
being edited, added to, otherwise manipulated, and in many cases
"lost". In some cases we know that the "orthodox"
faction accused an "heretical" faction of tampering
with the text, when it was in fact the "orthodox"
faction who had been guilty of tampering40.
Third, we have circumstantial evidence concerning the state
of mind of early Church leaders. They believed that Jesus was
the Messiah, and they believed that the Messiah would satisfy
a number of prophecies. It followed that Jesus must have satisfied
these prophecies. If there was no evidence of his having done
so, it was of little consequence, because the writers knew,
or thought they knew, that he must have fulfilled these prophecies.
If this meant that gaps had to be filled in, then true believers
would happily fill them in. Christians were not exactly lying.
In their own minds they were merely supplying missing details.
As we shall see, it is sometimes possible to see where the gaps
have been filled, for example where the authors were mistaken
about the meaning of supposed prophecies. Gospel writers were
remarkably free with the concept of truth. Stories could be
amended to make them more convincing or more impressive. The
John author makes it absolutely clear: "But these are written,
that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God;
..." (John 20:31). So were other New Testament writers.
Paul admits lying quite openly and wonders why people criticise
him for it: "For if the truth of God hath more abounded
through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a
sinner?" (Romans 3:7). What he is suggesting is that it
is perfectly acceptable to make up lies if the effect is to
make people believe what he believes. Church Fathers shared
his views. One of them, Origen of Alexandria, believed that the prime purpose
of scripture was to convey spiritual truth, and that the recording
of historical events was secondary to this. It was quite acceptable
for intelligent Christians to tell white lies to less intelligent
Christians. After all, as Origen of Alexandria noted, God had caused the prophet
Jeremiah is known to have lied41.
As we have seen, Clement of Alexandria is known to have suppressed
material that he knew to be authentic, and we have no reason
to believe that he was less trustworthy than other Church Fathers.
Both he and Origen of Alexandria were prepared to pretend that Hebrews
was written by St Paul, when they knew that it was not. Texts
were frequently edited to bring them into line with current
requirements. As doctrines developed, texts were amended to
make them comply unambiguously with the latest version of "orthodoxy"42.
Biblical writers were clearly aware of the likelihood of their
work being tampered with and often took the trouble to give
warnings about doing so (e.g. at Revelation 22:18-19).
Fourth, we have the opinion of scholars. Even Christian scholars
overwhelmingly accept that there is evidence of editing throughout
the texts. Introductions and conclusions were added to existing
stories, passages were excised, other passages were inserted,
text was added to cover up the joins, key words were altered,
and so on. They may be reluctant to advertise the fact, but
almost no academic biblical scholars would now dispute any of
this. It is often admitted in a roundabout way. Here for example
is part of the Introduction to the John gospel in the Jerusalem
Bible, skirting around the issue of its authorship:
It was published not by John himself but by his disciples
after his death, and it is possible that in this gospel we
have the end-stage of a slow process that has brought together
not only component parts of different ages but also corrections,
additions and sometimes more than one revision of the same
Fifth, there is the circumstantial evidence of stories not
making sense. Time and again people are surprised at events,
even though they ought to be expecting them. As we have seen
the disciples are at a loss to imagine how a crowd of four thousand
is to be fed, just a short time after a similar crowd of five
thousand has been fed with a few loaves and fishes. Again, Peter
is mystified when in a vision God tells him that all foods are
clean (Acts 10:13-16), even though Jesus has already told him
the same thing (Mark 7:18-19). Later, the disciples are thrown
into confusion by the arrest of Jesus, yet they have previously
been told several times quite specifically that this will happen.
The Mark author spells out the prediction clearly:
...Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall
be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes;
and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him
to the Gentiles. Mark 10:33, cf. Matthew 20:18-19 and Luke
In each case it appears that editors have inserted a passage,
but failed to adapt it to its new environment.
Sixth, there are the many cases where the biblical account
ought to be confirmed by independent testimony, but is not.
This is particularly common for the nativity and crucifixion
stories, which, as we shall see, there are good reasons for
regarding as being of dubious provenance. Why should the Romans
introduce a bizarre, novel, and inferior method of taking a
census, involving mass migrations, without leaving a record
of it? Why did no astronomer note the wondrous star in the East,
when there were a number who could have done so? Why is there
no independent record of such a monstrous act as Herod's massacre of the innocents, especially since the historian Josephus
was a keen recorder of Herod's atrocities ? Again, why
is there no record of the darkness over all the land for three
hours on the day of the crucifixion (Matthew 27:45), and why
no mention of the earthquake during the crucifixion or the one
when the women visited Jesus' tomb (Matthew 27:51 and 28:2)?
Also, why is there no independent record of such a wondrous
thing as the dead rising from their graves as many supposedly
did (Matthew 27:52-53)? Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was fascinated
by events such as these, yet he seems to have remained entirely
ignorant of them, as did Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) who was also
interested in unusual phenomena. Thomas Paine found it odd that
only Matthew mentioned fantastic events like these, especially
since the other gospel writers were apparently as ignorant of
them as Pliny and Seneca. This was his comment on the dead rising
from their graves, given by the Matthew author:
It is an easy thing to tell a lie, but it is difficult to
support the lie after it is told. The writer of the book of
Matthew should have told us who the saints were that came
to life again, and went into the city, and what became of
them afterward, and who it was that saw them for he
is not hardy enough to say he saw them himself; whether they
came out naked, and all in natural buff, he-saints and she-saints;
or whether they came full dressed, and where they got their
dresses, whether they went to their former habitations, and
reclaimed their wives, their husbands, and their property,
and how they were received; whether they entered ejectments
for the recovery of their possessions, or brought actions
of crim. con. [adultery] against the rival interlopers; whether
they remained on earth, and followed their former occupation
of preaching or working; or whether they died again, or went
back to their graves alive, and buried themselves43.
His point is that the story is impressive only if one does
not think about it too deeply. As soon as one does think about
it, it becomes implausible. Also under this heading we might
include incidents that simply do not stack up. They smack of
fiction that has not been properly thought through. How were
the gospel writers able to quote Jesus' prayer in the garden
of Gethsemane, when according to them he was alone? (His followers
deserted him before he could have reported his words to them
himself. Again, could the chief priests have been so stupid
as to bribe guards to say that they had slept while Jesus'
body had been stolen by his disciples (Matthew 28:11-15)? Wouldn't
someone have seen the flaw in this that if the guards
had been asleep they would not have known who stole the body?
Again, if the priests were so annoyed about Jesus raising Lazarus
from the dead, why would they plan to kill him again and provide
Jesus with the opportunity to repeat his miracle (John 12:10)?
Seventh, we have both circumstantial and hard textual evidence
that alterations took place. When early writers quote New Testament
texts they rarely use the exact words with which we are familiar.
Sometimes the meaning is significantly different. Sometimes
passages have been removed altogether. Worse still, extant early
manuscripts simply do not agree with each other, and later manuscripts
display more and more alterations. For example Acts exists in
two different early versions one about 10 per cent longer
than the other44.
Early editors attempted to cover up some of the contradictions
between the gospels. For example how could Jesus have been born
of the house of David if Joseph were not his father? One not
very satisfactory solution was to try to make Mary a member
of the house of David too. Luke 2:4 reports that Joseph went
to Bethlehem "because he was of the house and lineage of
David", but a few manuscripts were altered to "because
they were of the house and lineage of David".
It was a clumsy attempt, and has long since been abandoned,
but it illustrates the sort of technique adopted.
Accounts of the Resurrection are especially suspect. The earliest
known manuscripts of the gospel attributed to Mark finish before
the account of the Resurrection. The Resurrection story is thus
the work of a later writer. The important Codex Sinaiticus
in the British Museum and the Codex Vaticanus in the
Vatican, both dating from the fourth century, lack these passages.
Some modern versions of the Bible acknowledge that they are
additions these passages are the ones referred to in
the quotation at the head of this section. As well as confirming
that the text included in the Bible contained additions, this
particular example supports the theory that the story of the
Resurrection was invented some time after Jesus' death.
Additions appear to have been made to the end of the John gospel
as well. Many scholars believe that the original finished at
the end of chapter 20, which certainly has the ring of a final
paragraph. Also, the Greek of the final chapter is in a noticeably
different style from the rest of the text. To clinch matters,
the final chapter is missing from a surviving Syriac manuscript.
The story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8:1-11 is
also missing from the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex
Sinaiticus. It too is the work of a later editor and breaks
the flow of the text. In some other manuscripts it occurs not
only in the John gospel, but also in the Luke gospel at the
end of chapter 21, and may have been plagiarised from the "lost"
Gospel of the Hebrews45.
In at least some early manuscripts it was Elisabeth, not Mary,
who spoke the words of what is now known as the Magnificat.
The manuscripts are lost but Irenaeus of Lyons himself confirms them,
and he is not the only one to do so46.
Incidentally, the Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-55) is obviously
based on the song of Hannah in the Old Testament47
}. That Jesus had 12 disciples might seem clear enough, but
the question is not at all clear cut. In the first place they
are mentioned remarkably infrequently. Also, Jesus is generally
seen appointing only four or five disciples, and only they play
any significant role. On the other hand at least 16 different
disciples' names are listed in different places. The lists
of 12 given in the gospels, for example at Matthew 10:2-4 and
Luke 6:14-16, are not in the earliest texts, and their mention
in 1 Corinthians is also an interpolation. Why it should have
been thought appropriate at some late date to give Jesus exactly
12 disciples is not obvious, though the number does have a satisfying
Old Testament resonance
When the idea of the Trinity was being developed, Church leaders
must have been curious as to why the concept did not clearly
exist in the Bible. No matter, the omission could be remedied.
In the Authorised Version, 1 John 5:7 refers to the Holy Trinity:
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father,
the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
These words come from the Vulgate, but are not in any early
Greek text. The passage is now universally accepted to be an
addition. Along with a few other words added to disguise the
insertion it is known as the Johannine comma.The
Holy Office declared it to be genuine scripture in 1897 and
forbade Roman Catholic scholars to say otherwise. Nevertheless
it has been quietly dropped from modern translations. It does
not warrant so much as a note in the Jerusalem Bible. The reason
for its introduction is clear: it confirms the doctrine of the
Trinity. Indeed it was once regarded as an essential part of
the Church's case against Unitarians. Biblical passages "proving"
Christian doctrine are called prooftexts, and the Johannine
comma is still the most frequently cited prooftext for
the doctrine of the Trinity, despite the fact that it is universally
acknowledged to be bogus.
It is clear that passages from the Old Testament were sometimes
used to bolster the story being told in the New. For example
the account of Jesus' baptism in Luke 3:22 contains the
line " ... Thou art my beloved Son ...", which is
taken from Psalm 2:7. The psalm continues "this day I have
begotten thee", and sure enough, so do some manuscripts
of Luke. As in Mark 1:11, Jesus was not born a son of God in
the original text of Luke, but was adopted at his baptism. But
his adoption was no longer needed once the nativity story had
been added to the gospel, so the phrase "this day I have
begotten thee" was no longer needed, and was duly dropped
from later versions of the Luke text.
Manuscripts betray a consistent pattern of amending the text
to make Jesus less human and more divine. His miraculous birth
is played up, while evidence of a normal birth is played down.
Passages that claim that Jesus was God are inserted: passages
that show him to have human weaknesses are amended. Orthodoxy
is affirmed: heterodoxy is eliminated48.
In many places it is also easy to see why additions or deletions
have been made. Sometimes it is to confirm Jesus' status
by calling him God (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:16 ), or by bracketing
him with God49 or to
identify him as the son of God50.
Sometimes angels are introduced to make events more impressive
than the original writer had made them51.
Occasionally we catch someone in the act of matching up events
to scripture52, or casting
the Jews in a bad light (Acts 28:29, which is an addition to
the earlier text), or enhancing the status of the apostles (Mark
3:14-15). Uncomfortable uncertainty is removed. The original
text of 1 John 2:28, for example, was somewhat vague about the
Second Coming "if he should appear", but later manuscripts
are much more positive "when he shall appear". Other
changes explain Jesus' purpose (Matthew 18:11), or improve
the details of a miracle (Luke 8:43), or reduce signs of Jesus'
human weakness (Mark 15:39), or make him less dismissive of
his mother and family (Matthew 12:47). Sometimes the changes
have been made to bring different gospel accounts into line*.
These and many other discrepancies between manuscripts are confirmed
by the NIV, which mentions them in footnotes*.
Finally, hard scientific evidence exists of alterations. Infrared
photography has revealed numerous examples of the text being
changed after it had been first set down. Including simple corrections,
there are about 14,500 such changes in the Codex Sinaiticus
alone. This is not untypical. And it is therefore not surprising
that of the thousands of Greek manuscripts that have survived,
no two are identical55.
The oldest texts of the gospels date from the fourth century.
Christians had already had over 200 years to doctor them and
there is currently no way of establishing all the additions,
deletions and amendments made. Whatever the original writers
set down, probably towards the end of the first century, is
irretrievable. What we do have is encrusted with additions designed
to make Jesus, his birth, life and death more impressive. All
that can be said for certain is that we do not possess a single
reliable version of any book of the New Testament.
Priests and conjurers are of the same trade.
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part II
Despite their divine inspiration, the versions of the New Testament
used by the mainstream Western Churches have always contained
errors of translation, sometimes accidental, sometimes not.
The Eastern Church does not have this problem because it remains
loyal to the original Greek. Yet there is still scope for error.
The everyday language of Jesus and his followers was Aramaic,
so there is also the possibility of errors of translation between
the oral Aramaic and the written Greek, but of course, the evidence
for these errors must be circumstantial. For example we have
already noted that the Luke gospel appears to reflect someone's confusion over the Aramaic zakkau (to give alms) and
dakkau (to cleanse). Even the Greek is not always straightforward.
For example the familiar line from the Lord's Prayer: "Give
us this day our daily bread" is only a guess. The Greek
word epiousion has been translated as "daily",
but this may not be its real meaning (another guess is "Give
us this day tomorrow's bread", and another possibility
is "extra bread" or “additional (spiritual)
are literally thousands of words and passages in the Greek text
that are uncertain.
When St Jerome was asked to prepare a new translation of the
Bible he was worried about how to reconcile the many different
texts that already existed. As he anticipated he was widely
and heavily criticised for his work. How much Jerome changed
the previously existing texts may be judged by the fact that
cultured pagans regarded his translation as readable, whereas
the numerous versions before it were regarded as crude and barbarous
a view shared by St Augustine (354-430) and indeed St
Jerome himself. Jerome had been criticised for tampering with
existing texts, which though flawed had already acquired a gloss
of respectability and indeed sacredness. In time the Vulgate
acquired a better gloss. For centuries it was held by western
Christians to be the only valid translation of the Bible.
Unfortunately St Jerome had sometimes preferred his own preconceptions
to the New Testament Greek. We have already seen how he amended
the text of Old Testament passages, and he did the same with
the text of the New Testament. For example, Jerome did not care
much for the idea that believers could be "sons of God
.... born not of the blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor of
the will of man, but of God". He therefore followed an
unreliable tradition for the text of John 1:12-1357.
He thus made the "born not of the blood, but of God"
description fit not just any believer but only Jesus
as it still does in the Jerusalem Bible.
Some mistranslations have had profound consequences, often
influencing doctrine. For example the idea that Mary was "full
of grace" (gratia plena) has been developed into
a vast body of doctrine, yet it is an error. Gratia plena
is a mistranslation of kecharitomene, a Greek
word indicating merely that Mary was pleasing to God, as Erasmus
knew58, and as modern
translations of Luke 1:28 confirm.
Worse still, Jerome's text was altered, either deliberately
or by mistake. Various errors and tamperings crept into copies
of the Vulgate, so that soon the position was little better
than it had been before St Jerome. There were numerous conflicting
versions of his work, all purporting to be divinely inspired.
The lack of a single authoritative text was a constant problem
during the Middle Ages, as copyists multiplied textual variations
by a combination of honest error and deliberate tampering.
In the sixteenth century Pope Sixtus V authorised the production
of a version of the Vulgate. He grew impatient with progress
and took over the work himself, claiming to be the only proper
person to do so. His version issued in 1590 was riddled with
errors. It contained whimsical additions to the text and omitted
entire verses. The Roman Church then had to try to buy back
all copies of the pope's disastrous effort. To the delight
of Protestants his successors were obliged to issue a corrected
God does not seem to have been excessively concerned about
ensuring that his divine word was delivered free from error.
As well as allowing scribes to add, change and delete text,
he allowed printers to make mistakes. Printers responsible for
even the most minor errors were fined heavily, and occasionally
bankrupted. The following all seem to have been accidental.
The so-called Placemakers' Bible of 1562 (the Second
Edition of the Geneva Bible) says "Blessed are the placemakers
..." instead of "Blessed are the peacemakers
..." (Matthew 5:9). The Judas Bible of 1611 refers
to Judas instead of Jesus in Matthew 26:36. In the Printers'
Bible (King James' Version of 1612) David complains that
printers have persecuted him, when he should have been complaining
about princes (Psalm 119:161). In the Wicked
or Adulterous Bible (The King James' Version of 1631),
the word not was omitted from one of the commandments
making it say "Thou shalt commit adultery" (Exodus
Highlighted text from the Wicked Bible
The Sin On Bible of 1716 instructs a sick man to
"sin on more", instead of to sin no more
(John 5:14). In the Fool Bible printed during the reign
of Charles I, Psalm 14:1 claims that the fool hath said in his
heart there is a God, instead of no God. The Lions
Bible (King James' Version of 1804) referred to "thy
son that shall come forth out of thy lions", instead of
out of thy loins (1 Kings 8:19). In the Camels
Bible (King James' Version of 1823), Rebekah arose with
her camels rather than with her damsels (Genesis
24:61). Neither was God much exercised by the divine law appended
to Bibles. The Affinity Bible of 1923 contains a table
of affinity, which asserts that a man may not marry his grandmother's
wife. Occasionally errors were made deliberately, for doctrinal
reasons. For example, in the Bad Bible of 1653 the
ordination of deacons was ascribed to the disciples, not to
the apostles (Acts 6:6).
Translations often incorporated political as well as doctrinal
spin to suit those who commissioned them. For example Calvin's
Geneva Bible of 1560 justified disobedience of an unjust ruler,
even though this contradicted the biblical text. Romans 13:5
says that one must obey a ruler, but a marginal note adds a
caveat that "So far as lawfull we may: for it if unlawful
things be commanded of us, we must answer as Peter teacheth
us, It is better to obey God than men". Catholics commissioned
another English version, the Reims-Douay Bible, more sympathetic
to Catholic doctrine and in England, King James I commissioned
a version suited to Anglican ideas. James had considered the
Geneva Bible the worst of the various English translations.
He called it "very partiall, vntrue, seditious and savouring,
too much, of dangerous, and trayterous conceipts".59.
The earliest complete translation into English had been made
by John Wycliffe from the Vulgate around 1384, but the best
known is undoubtedly the Authorised Version, so called
because it was authorised by King James I of England (VI of
Scotland). For this reason it is sometimes called the King
James Bible. It was produced by 47 scholars at the command
of the King and published in 1611. It was not based on the Vulgate,
but on the original Hebrew and Greek, although the translators
drew heavily upon a translation by William Tyndale, as well
as other existing English translations including Coverdale's
Bible (first printed 1535), Matthew's Bible (1537), and the
Bishop's Bible (1568). It is adapted to the needs of the time.
For example the passages that describe kings and their courts
are consistently made grander and more impressive, just like
God the King and his heavenly court.
Other changes were made to conform to current fashions. Luke
relates a story of a woman of Capernaum who washed Jesus'
feet as he "sat at meat" according to the Authorised
Version (Luke 7:37). "Sitting at meat" is a medieval
expression meaning "sitting down to eat". The original
text actually says that he "lay down at table", which
is how people ate meals in the Hellenic world. This sort of
editing goes on in the Bible all the time to make things intelligible.
Women's nose rings, for example, were routinely converted
into earrings before nose rings became fashionable in the West.
Other errors are genuine mistakes. In the original Greek, Simon
the Zealot (one of Jesus' disciples) is called kananaios,
a title derived from a Hebrew word qana meaning "zealous".
In the Authorised Version (Matthew 10:4 and Mark 3:18) this
is mistakenly translated as Simon the Canaanite60.
Again, such errors are not very important, except for those
who believe that the translations are divinely inspired and
Translations provide the opportunity to take the most orthodox
option when there is a choice. It sounds slightly less impressive
for the centurion at the crucifixion to say that Jesus was surely
a son of God, so translators prefer the option the
Son of God (Matthew 27:54). The change of article, along with
a capital s, makes a considerable difference. Names
are not always translated consistently. Jephthah in Judges 11
is the same as Jephthae in Hebrews 11:32, and one of Jesus'
brothers is sometimes Juda (Mark 6:3) and sometimes Judas (Matthew
13:55). All this is innocent enough, but sometimes there is
an obvious reason for name changes, for example a judicious
name change can be used to disguise inconvenient facts. It was
inconvenient to have a woman called Junia being of note among
the apostles (Romans 16:7) so she has became a man called Junias
in later translations61.
Again, Christian ideas can be reinforced by appropriate translations.
Protestant versions of the Bible seem to suggest that saints
existed in Old Testament times, as implied by the sentence "Precious
in the sight of the L ord is the death of his saints" (Psalm
116:15, Authorised Version). However, according to Roman Catholics
only the Pope can create saints. In some Roman Catholic versions
of the Bible it is not saints but the devout
or faithful whose death is precious.
Modern translations continue to be selective about how particular
words are translated. For example the NIV, written largely for
sects that do not have bishops, avoids the word for a bishop.
For example Philippians 1:1 addresses "overseers and deacons"
rather than "bishops and deacons". Protestants have
no problem about married clergy, so in Protestant versions of
the Bible the apostles have "wives", while in Roman
Catholic ones they have female helpers. So too, the Roman Church
holds that Mary and Joseph never had sexual intercourse, so
instead of Joseph and Mary coming together they merely "came
to live together" (Matthew 1:18). Again, the fact that
Jesus and his followers clearly held some Gnostic views that
Paul did not share can easily be disguised by translating the
word gnosis as knowledge, instead of rendering
it as Gnosis (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8ff, 13:2).
Apart from translating words to suit the Church's needs,
meanings can be manipulated in numerous ways, as we have already
seen. For example when terms are applied to Jesus they are rendered
Christ and Son of man, but when the same terms
are applied to other people they are rendered as anointed
and son of man (without capitalisation). Again, capital
letters can be used to indicate whether the text is referring
to Jesus' father (Joseph) or his Father (God), as in Luke
2:48-9. By translating a word as Father instead of
father, translators can completely change the sense
of the text.