Thursday, July 30, 2015

Was Jesus' Message Corrupted?

Many think the message of Jesus was somehow corrupted. It is commonly thought he was just a human moral philosopher, though there are other options. The most common suspect is Constantine the Great, though there other possibilities. But does this really stand up to examination?

There are a great number of New Testament manuscripts, with a wide geographic distribution. A number of these date before the time of Constantine and contain the majority of the New Testament. These, when compiled, consist of preserved passages alternating with gaps. (Imagine a book that has been left out in the weather for a long period of time, and some pages are torn or stained and some pages are missing, and you get the idea.) One would not expect the parts missing to be of a substantially different quality than the parts that are there, because what is preserved is preserved by accident. Copies of the entire New Testament are found from soon after Constantine. It is difficult to see how Constantine could have changed the New Testament. Nor is clear why the Christians, who very shortly before had been willing to die for their faith and to preserve the Scriptures (which previous emperors had threatened to destroy), would have let him do it, without a preserved word of protest. Nor does it seem probable that anyone before Constantine would have been in a position to have the ability to change the Scripture, given the number of copies and their geographical distribution. There are, of course, textual variations in the preserved manuscripts, but they are minor and do not affect the substance of the text.

It may also be asked whether the books in the New Testament were chosen to distort the message. Christians from very early quoted and copied the books of the New Testament. Ireneaus says there are clearly only four gospels, and gives a detailed description of them and Acts and Romans. The Muratorian Fragment about the same time lists the books of the New Testament, though a few of them are not clearly included. Tertullian gives a detailed description of Luke and most of the Pauline epistles and mentions the other gospels, Acts, and the rest of Paul's epistles as Scripture. Athanasius and Eusebius, at the time of Constantine, both give lists. There were some doubts as to whether a few books should be included or others added, but the substance is the same. There was a later church council that made the list official and took a stand on the dubious books. But the idea that the Christian church went about 400 years without having a general idea of what belonged in Scripture is incredible.

Scripture, as well as all the earliest other sources, presents Jesus as God, who came in the flesh to pay the price for sin and conquer death. The idea that the original message was majorly distorted at some point does not hold water.

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