An Incomplete History
Origins of the Earliest Scripture and the Story of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Issac, and Jacob (Israel)
Prehistory to 1850 B.C.E.
Hebrews do not appear in the historical record until between 1220 B.C.E. during the reign of the Egyptian king Marniptah. The granite inscribed account of Marniptah's military campaign in Asia lists Israelites as one of the conquered peoples and says that they had moved to "Canaan." Genesis 12-50 provides the only other historical account of the Hebrews, wherein they trace their origins back to a single man, Abraham, from Mesopotamia. The pre-Egyptian Hebrew history is called "the age of the patriarchs ." It is virtually impossible to date this age. The Hebrew history of the times was written down over a thousand years later, and no other peoples had an interest in the Hebrews. Historians estimate that the account is of the times between roughly 1950 and 1500 B.C.E.
The area where historians believe the Hebrews lived, Mesopotamia, is one of the earliest cradles of civilization. "Mesopotamia" is Greek for "between the rivers." Mesopotamia lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which flow through modern Iraq and (the Euphrates) Syria. Mesopotamia is made up of two different geographical regions. Northern Mesopotamia consists of fertile hills and plains carved by streams and rivers feed by seasonal rains. It supported farming, provided timber, and the mining of metals and stone. Southern Mesopotamia consists of plains punctuated by marshy areas. Farming was limited along the banks of the rivers and trade was important.
One must resist the urge to consider Mesopotamia as a single, coherent culture. Instead, Mesopotamia hosted diverse cultures, even during great empires like the Sumerians (a mysterious group of people, speaking a language unrelated to any other human language, who began to live in cities, which were ruled by some sort of monarch, and began to write) and the Akkadians (a Semitic people living on the Arabic peninsula during the great flourishing period of the Sumerian city-states around 2340-2125 B.C.E.). Mesopotamia consisted of largely independent city-states, each having their own cults, languages, kings, and administrations.
In this land, religious myths regarding creation and the powers and workings of nature abound. In fact, the oldest complete literary work, The Epic of Gilgamesh, comes from Ancient Sumeria, written on 12 clay tablets in cunieform script. The Epic recounts the adventures of the historical King of Uruk (somewhere between 2750 and 2500 BCE). The Epic's heroic mythology that incorporates many of the religious myths of Mesopotamia.
The authors of Genesis incorporate many of the stories in The Epic of Gilgamesh into the books of Genesis. For instance, the creation of man in a plentiful garden, evil's introduction into a naive world, and a great, worldwide flood brought caused by the wickedness of man.
The Hebrew history of the patriarchs indicates that Yahweh selects Abraham and his descendants as his chosen people. Abraham, a Semite living in the nothern Mesopotamian city of Haran is the son of Terah, who comes from the city Ur in southern Mesopotamia. Yahweh visits Abraham around 1950 B.C.E., telling him to leave Haran around 1950 B.C.E.. At that time the Mesopotamian region heading into chaos. Abraham travels west to Shechem, where Yahweh visits again, giving the land to him and his descendents.
The early Hebrews were nomadic tribal groups whose society structure their society around around a rigid kinship hierarchy. Their relationship with God is also a kinship relationship: anybody outside the kinship structure (anybody who isn't a descendant of Abraham) is not included in the special relationship with God. Atop the kinship hierarchy is the tribal leader, or "patriarch," meaning "father-ruler."
The early Hebrews, it is generally believed, did not practice a religion having to do with the Yahweh cult. Moses, the Hebrew history says, is the first to hear the name of God, Yahweh. Hebraic accounts of the patriarchs refer to "Elohim" (God), "El Shaddai" (God Almighty), and other variants. Though controversial, it is thought that several of the religious practices described in Genesis indicate a belief in animistic forces , possibly, even polytheism.
At the end of the patriarchal age, several tribes claim a common ancestor and a common identity, though their name is not known. The term Hebrew likely comes from the Egyptian word, "apiru," or "foreigner."
One problem with the Hebrew history is the dearth of good archaeological evidence to support the Abraham story, and the richness of contradicting archaeological evidence. As Gary Greenburg notes, "while it used to be almost universally taken for granted that the Patriarchs and the sons of Israel where historical figures and that Genesis mixed some basic historical truths with a variety of legends, a growing segment of the scholarly community accepts that the patriarchal stories may have no historical core at all." (Greenburg p. 112) Among the problems with the stories are the following:
Abraham could not have visited the city of Ur when it was the land of the Chaldees since the Chaldeans did not control the area until about the 8th century B.C.E.. Additionally, the passage was mistranslated for the King James version of the Bible from the Greek translation of the Bible. The actual language of the passage as well as other textual and historical considerations suggest that the stories were not written until about the 5th century B.C.E.. Most academics date the writing of the texts between the 10th and 6th century B.C.E.. The southern highlands of Palestine (from Jerusalem south the the Valley of Beersheba), where Abraham supposedly settled, is very sparse in archaeological evidence from this period, indicating only a few hundred nomadic pastoralists. Moreover, the Phillistines never entered the region until the 12th century B.C.E.. The "city of Gerar" in which Abraham's son Isaac encounters Abimelech, the "king of the Phillistines" (Genesis 26:1) was a tiny, insignificant rural village up until the 8th century B.C.E. It couldn't have been the capital of the regional king of a people who didn't yet exist.
Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah probably never existed. Despite much searching, no archeological discoveries are candidates for the cities. Indeed, the bible locates them in an area covered by the Dead Sea. In fact, the bible seems to suggest that the area covered by the Dead Sea was a beautiful pastoral region at the time. Since the story of Lot depends upon these details, it is likely fabrication.
The Hebraic account of the Age of the
Patriarchs includes the mention of camels. Archaeological evidence
indicates the domestication of camels occured long after the age of the Patriarchs,
sometime late in the 2nd century BCE. Likewise, no one used camels as beasts of burden until
around the 1st century B.C.E., nor would camels have carried "gum, balm and myrrh,"
since trade with Arabia didn't begin until early in the 8th century B.C.E..
Also, Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, and has an uncle, Laban, all of whom are Arameans. Arameans do not appear in the archeological record at all prior to 1100 B.C.E., and have no significant numbers until the 9th century B.C.E..
The Exodus Story and the First Great Revision of Judaism
about 1200 B.C.E.
Like the uncertainties surrounding Hebrew history of the the age of the patriarchs, history is largely devoid of accounts of the Hebrews in Egypt, even Hebrew history says little. The Egyptians do not seem to have noticed the Hebrews or to even know that they were living in their country. Egyptian writings record foreign groups during the New Kingdom, mostly these writings chronicle the active expulsion of groups threatening the the Egyptians or becoming overly powerful. Hebrews never appear in the Egyptian records, nor do any of the events of the Hebrew history of the the Exodus. Hebrew texts focus upon the events surrounding the migration, saying little about the events in the centuries preceding the time of the migration.
There are three candidate theories about inspiration for the the Exodus stories. The first is possible the least plausible: The first datable reference to Israel occurs in 1200B.C.E. in the the "Victory Stele" which recounts the victories of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah. Among the victories the text states that "Israel is laid waste; his seed is not". Egyptian rule of the area referred to in the text continued until the 10th century B.C.E. Some researchers have forwarded the hypothesis that the stories of Exodus recount the liberation of Israel from the Egyptian control noted in the passage from Merneptah's Victory Stele. However, the historical integrity of the Stele's claims of victory is questionable.
The second theory is that Israel evolved peacefully from roving nomads. During the period between 1800 and 1250 B.C.E., the area running from the northern highlands between the coastal plain and the Jordan river, had dense forests of oak and terebinth trees, but few people. Two groups lived there, the Apiru and the Shoshu. The former were intinerant nomads, occupying the fringes of lowland society. The Shosu are a more cohesive, well-defined group. The linguistic association between Apiru (sometimes Habiru) and "Hebrew" has suggested to scholars that the Apiru eventually became the Hebrews, but it remains unclear. This more peaceful account is suggested in Exodus, and is supported by Donald Redford's research in Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Redford suggests that the Yahwistic factions were present in the Shasu which could explain origin of the nation of Israel.
Finally, there is the story of the Hyksos. On this account, a group of people who were expelled from Egypt, the Hyksos, at a much early time and without divine intervention are the basis for the stories of Exodus.
Historians suspect that Hebrews lived in northern Egypt, or what is now called Palestine, from about 1500-1250 B.C.E.. They probably were part of a large number of tribal groups, mostly Semitic, that settled in northern Egypt starting around 1800 B.C.E..
During the period between 1800 and 1250 B.C.E., the area running from the northern highlands between the coastal plain and the Jordan river, had dense forests of oak and terebinth trees, but few people. As noted above, two groups lived there, the Apiru and the Shoshu. The former were intinerant nomads, occupying the fringes of lowland society. The Shosu are a more cohesive, well-defined group. The linguistic association between Apiru (sometimes Habiru) and "Hebrew" has suggested to scholars that the Apiru eventually became the Hebrews, but it remains unclear. The region was subject to famine, which when trade proved inadequate lead people to flee to the Nile delta in Egypt.
Famines in Judah, Israel or Canaan resulted in refugees heading for Egypt, so often that they eventually became a substantial minority group, influential in Egypt, where they were known as the Hyksos. The Hyksos eventually controlled a large region of northern Egypt. The Hykos rule over Lower Egypt lasted from 1674 B.C.E. (the conquest of Memphis by Salitis) to to 1567 B.C.E., when the Egyptians expelled them. It was mainly thought to be a peaceful and prosperous period. Major Hyksos cities or camps were at Tell el-Yahudiyeh, Heliopolis, Tell el-Maskhuta and Tell ed-Dab'a (Avaris).
Ahmose I (1570-1546 BCE), was the founder of the 18th dynasty, one of the most outstanding in the history of ancient Egypt. His principal achievement was to weaken the Hyksos' 300 year domination of Lower Egypt, by capturing Avaris. Ahmose pursued the Hyksos into southern Palestine and laid siege to Sharuhen for three years.
To control the lands from such unwanted migration, the Egyptians
of the the New Kingdom period built garrisons their borders in the north and east.
Seti I (1305 to 1290), relocated his capital to Avaris to the northern most edge
of the Nile delta. The Garrisons were likely built using taxes of the local
populations in the form of labor, with the heaviest taxes falling on foreigners,
which likely includes the Hebrews. Historians suppose that these labor taxes are
the source of the stories of oppression found the the Exodus stories. The Egyptian records
indicate tribute taken from the various towns and cities in Canaan, and archaeological evidence
shows a number of Egyptian military outposts.
The expulsion of the Hyksos from northern Egypt is easily the closest parallel we have from either the Egyptian record or the archaeological record to the story of the Exodus as recorded in the Bible. The historical events of the Hyksos, of course, do not support the details of the Biblical story, nor do they occur at the time suggested by the Bible. The Biblical Exodus occurs around 1200 B.C.E., but the Hyksos rule and subsequent expulsion ends in 1567 B.C.E..
In addition to the questions about the actual Exodus, extensive archaeological research surveys of the Sinai have failed to corroborate a "wandering in the desert for 40 years." No encampments dating from the time of the Exodus (i.e., either before, during or after the Ramsean pharaohs) have been unearthed. Two or more sites positively identified by scholars from the Exodus story have failed to yield any signs of late bronze-age artifacts from encampments. Further, the Egyptians maintained military outposts throughout the Sinai Desert, making it unlikely that they could have lived undetected by the Egyptians for any length of time.
In their recent book, The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein and Silberman argue that Israel developed slowly around 800 B.C.E. from the indigenous nomadic herds people that comprised the Canaanite population. The Israel came to consist of two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. The division of the area into two political entities, one at Jerusalem, the other at Nablus, dates to the Egyptian rule of Palestine in the 10th century B.C.E.. The two kingdoms had hostilities towards one another for about 200 years. Eventually around 730 B.C.E the Assyrians conquered the the northern Israel and refuges contributed to the further development of Judah. Judah had monumental architecture, trade-based economy, and other trappings of a state until the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586B.C.E.. Israelite elites were forcibly relocated to Babylon during this time. Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BCE. The Persians allowed the Israelites to return to Cannan.
The punch line of this history is as follows: The Israelites did not conquer Canaan militarily with divine assistance, nor was it inherited by the twelve tribes of Israel. There may never have been an actual kingdom of David and Solomon, and if it did exist, it was a small tribal kingdom. Furthermore, on the account forwarded by Finkelstein and Silberman the account of the Kingdom of David and Solomon was likely written or edited some 300 years later by King Josiah in order to use a national scripture to enforce strictly monotheistic religious orthodoxy and to promote himself, a king of Davidic lineage, as the only person who could reunite a lost empire and recapture a lost golden age.
So something like the following is probably a more likely
history of the Hebrews. The Hebrews assumed an identity by the 12th century B.C.E.
at which time they inhabited the northern mountains and plateaus Canaan.
The people were probably poor. Their pottery has very little decoration.
They did seem to prohibit eating pork, as no pig bones have been found.
The adaptation of god "El" into "El-ohim," the god of gods, the god of Israel
probably begins at this time. "El" is the Mesopotamian god, who
is adapted by one of the five or so Biblical authors denoted as
"E." E's version of the life of Abraham has El appearing to Abraham as "El Shaddai" (El of the Mountain).
El also appears as El Elyon, or El of Bethel in other, non-canonized scripture, and his name is also preserved in such Hebrew names as Isra-El and Ishma-El. The word Elohim was originally a plural of
El. Elohim does not appear directly, choosing instead to direct the show
through vocal revelations.
In the south the author known as "J," writing at roughly the same time adapts the Canaanite god Yahweh The God adapted by J is probably first included in Genesis 18 where he introduces himself on the plain of Mamre. This God is the cruel and vindictive God who commands the sacrifice of Abraham's first born when he appears to Abraham in Genesis 22. Many of the pagan religions of the time considered the first-born to be the seed of a god. Because of this, they were often sacrificed to the god who presumably sired them.
Evidence of the emergence of a Hebrew alphabet dates to the 8th century, B.C.E.,
and literacy spreads among wealthier Hebrews. At this point a reconciliation of
the various traditions must occur.
The Deuteronomist and the Second Great Revision, With the Rise of the Temple State and the Third Great Revision
It is at least a century after the first books of the Pentatuch was written that the gods of the Old Testament are harmonized into a singular being, this having been done by the third major writer of the Old Testament books, a writer (or more probably group of writers) called by scholars, "D" the Deuteronomist. If we are going to have a monotheistic religion here, we can't go around having two competing gods, so something must be done. The tribes of Israel and Judah had a choice to make, and Joshua warned them that Yahweh was a jealous god. Which god would it be? In essence, there was no difficulty making a choice. Yahweh was the more powerful, having demonstrated his power by intervening on their behalf in Egypt, and in the desert at Sinai. The choice was easy. It was Yahweh.
So the second great revision of Judaic religion has happened. In the original Pentatuch, written in the 8th century B.C.E., there isn't a clearly monotheistic statement to be found, but by the time of the writings of the Deuteronomist, a century or so later, the Deuteronomist has Joshua threatening the Israelites and making sure they became monotheistic under threat of being destroyed. The Deuteronomist pulls off this neat harmonization of two competing gods by having the Israelites reminded that their fathers had promised Yahweh that he would be their god, and so they made him their elohim, their high God. So now, Elohim, who originally was the king of the gods of Fertile Crescent, is now Yahweh, the god of Israel. If you have two conflicting gods, its a neat trick to just get rid of the conflict by declaring they're the same being.4
A god has to have a home, and the home of the god Yahweh was in heaven. But his priests on earth had to have a place for the ritual sacrifices that were handed down as part of the ritual of the "El" pantheon, as well as the original pagan Canaanite god, Yahweh, which of course had been descended into the Hebraic monotheism. This place was the temple, of course, whose construction was attributed to Solomon, a mythical king. The reality is that it was built at least a century later than the period attributed to the rule of Solomon. The whole story of Solomon, his father David and the events surrounding that dynasty were created during this era to explain the fading splendor of Jerusalem and provide a centering myth around which to rally the culture towards a monotheistic religion, under assault from the Assyrian culture that politically was hegemonous in the region.
In the year 742 B.C.E., while the Deuteronomist writers were still busy getting rid of Elohim, a member of the Judean royal family had a vision. In it, he saw Yahweh sitting on his throne, directly above the temple in Jerusalem. In the vision, Isaiah is commanded to bring a new message to Israel. Isaiah is filled with foreboding and with good reason; King Tigleth Pilesar, who had recently ascended to the throne of Assyria had designs on Israel, and now the god of Israel had to take up the duties of defending the people of his covenant.
Isaiah was commissioned by his god to carry the message to Israel that he is the only god there is; this comes as a great problem to the Israelites who see Isaiah's concept of God as being the very god who had aided the Assyrians in their victories against them. Isaiah is largely rejected with his message, and Yahweh becomes a pensive, introspective god, who invites his followers to enter into a dialogue with him. Isaiah's second innovation was the notion that the commandments of the god should be integrated into the very lives of those who follow him, and not just be restricted to temple observance and ritual. Only by doing so would Yahweh be appeased and Israel saved. This also did not have much resonance in the lives of the average Hebrew.
In punishment for disregarding the prophet's message, Yahweh conveniently permits King Sargon II of Assyria to occupy the northern portion of Palestine and deport the population. Suddenly, the warnings of Isaiah are taken a bit more seriously as the ten "lost" tribes of Israel are marched off into forced assimilation in Assyria and Palestine becomes the land of the Jews. The reality of course, is that Sargon was punishing Israel for its insurrection and refusal to pay tribute. Israel, with a wetter, more productive climate and much easier geography was much easier pickings than the dry, rocky, thinly populated and more distant Judah. So it was only natural that Sargon would choose to occupy Israel rather than Judah. Yet even as Sargon occupied Israel his own empire was beginning to crumble. Assyrian power was fading, but Babylonian power was increasing.
In the south, to ensure that the people of Judah hear his message, Yahweh sends a succession of prophets to them. They preach from the temple and ally themselves with the political power of the Jewish kings. In so doing, the temple and the political process become allied in the fight against the military power of their neighbors. There is no longer an Elohim cult, and the Israelites are long gone. The Hebraic religion and culture becomes a Jewish one. Amos and Jeremiah were the prophets of note from this period.
Jeremiah's Failed Prophesy of Exile in Babylon and The Fourth Great Revision
586 B.C.E. to 538 B.C.E.
Jeremiah's message was that God is dependent on man to carry out his wishes in the world, a view very much in contrast to the writers of Exodus, who had Yahweh being a powerful, independent and even capricious god. And Jeremiah warns that only following the dictates of God would keep the newly ascendant Babylonians at bay. But it was not enough. He predicted that Babylon would conquer Palestine and the occupants of that land would spend 70 years in captivity by the rivers of Babylon. Well, the captivity happened, but it didn't last 70 years. We know from secular sources that it actually lasted from 586 to 538 B.C.E., a period of only 48 years.
By 600 B.C.E., the Babylonians were capturing bits of Palestine. By 586, Jerusalem itself was conquered and the temple destroyed. But as conquests of the period went, it was not a bitter one, as only some of the Hebrews were taken into captivity and those who were, were not forced to assimilate. Many were allowed to remain in Palestine. Archaeological surveys indicate that at most, about 10% of the population was forced into exile, most of them being the most economically and politically useful.
Among the first batch of deportees, in 597 B.C.E. was a young priest known as Ezekiel.
Ezekiel claimed to have had a great vision. It was a typical Yahwehian affair, a great and horrible thing, in which was revealed a plan of action. And in Ezekiel's case, the plan of action was unique, indeed. He first had to eat the word of God. Yes, he was required to eat and swallow the scroll containing the word. This was to make it a "part of" himself.
Then his wife died, and Ezekiel was forbidden to mourn. Instead, he had to lie down on one side for 390 days and then on the other for 40. On another occasion, he was required to eat excrement. For a period of five years, he spoke to no one.
Yahweh had not just become a violent and jealous god, he was also demanding and irrational at times. No wonder Ezekiel complained about the burden of being a prophet.
It seems that Yahweh could not only allow his chosen people to be taken captive, he seemed to have made a circus performer out of his prophets. The irrationality of all this was not lost on the Jews. Exiled as many of them were in Babylon, it seemed that the whole world was topsy-turvy, and practice of their religion, based as it was in a destroyed temple, was impossible outside their homeland. They resented their captivity and relished the thoughts of dashing out the brains of Babylonian babies.
But a new prophet preached tranquility.
Scholars know him as Second Isaiah, as his true name is lost to history, and his message was much like that of the first Isaiah. Second Isaiah also preached that God was unknowable, hence the irrationality of trying to understand him as Ezekiel had gotten in trouble for. Yet this newer incarnation of Yahweh was a more tranquil god, who transcended the pettiness of human politics, and declared himself to be the god that Egypt and Assyria would ultimately worship alongside Israel. So Yahweh's jurisdiction seems to be transformed once again, from the god of the Jews, then all of Israel, to the whole world, and now back to just Palestine, Egypt and Assyria.
The numerous writers of this period became known to scholars as the Priestly writers, or "P." They gave us the books of Numbers and Leviticus, and also gave their interpretations to the events described by "J" and "E," including the account of the creation, taken from the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, a decendant from the Epic of Gilgamesh. "P" subscribes to the Ezekielian vision that God is unknowable and unseeable; it is from this revision that we now have Moses shielding himself from the sight of God by hiding behind a rock. It is also from this period that we have the Levitical proscriptions, the cleanliness laws, which do not define sin, but instead define simply what is Hebraic as opposed to the hated paganism (read: Babylonian) religions (it would only be the Christians centuries later who would assume the Levitical proscriptions to have been descriptions of sin). All this new material was inserted into the Pentatuch about the time Cyrus conquered Babylon in 538 B.C.E. and allowed the Jews to return to Palestine.5
The returning Jews wished to rebuild the temple and reestablish the kingdom it all its glory, but they had a problem. Being still governed by foreigners, they weren't allowed a king.
They solved this problem by simply denying that a king was even necessary, instead heaping their veneration on the high priest of the temple, which they were allowed to have. This would be the pattern of religious practice they would maintain, even during periods when they escaped foreign domination and were able to have their own kings, until the destruction of the Second Temple, centuries later. It was during this period, about 400 B.C.E., that the Torah finally became canonized as scripture.
Greek Influence and the Fifth Great Revision of Judaism
323 B.C.E. to 45 C.E.
Hellenism by now was becoming a major cultural influence throughout the middle east. Successive waves of Greek influence, first brought by Alexander the Great, had brought with it a knowledge of the great Greek philosophers. For several centuries running, right up to and including the time of Christ, the major cultural influence in the region was Greek. The Roman Empire was primarily a political affair, relatively unconcerned with culture. It brought the Roman form of government, but it was the Greeks whose ideas were spreading with the Romans, which brought to Palestine a systematic philosophy the likes of which the Jews had never seen.
And Greek philosophy, skeptical and secular in many ways, made a great deal of sense. So again our Hebrew culture is presented with a problem.
How can the Jewish god, who by now had acquired a great deal of mythological and philosophical baggage, be reconciled with the unspeakable, unknowable god(s) of the Greek philosophers?
The first to sense the tension were the authors of Wisdom of Solomon and the other Wisdom books. The author of Solomon, a Jew living in Alexandria, warned Jews to be true to Yahweh, and that it was fear of Yahweh, not Greek philosophy that constituted true wisdom.
Yet the logic and reason of Greek philosophy was too great to be ignored.
The first major attempt at a reconciliation was by Philo of Alexandria (30 B.C.E. to 45 C.E.). Philo was a thoroughgoing Hellene who wrote in elegant Greek, but was probably ignorant of Hebrew and Aramaic, as the Jewish lingua franca had by now become, yet he was also an observant Jew. In his own mind there must have existed a microcosm of the conflict so evident around him.
Aristotle had considered history to be unphilosophic. It had nothing to tell us about the nature of God, he said. And to Plato, God was so unknowable and unreachable, it was only man's gift of reason that made him kin to the Gods. How then could Philo reconcile the humanist nature of Aristotelian historical interpretation with great epic of Exodus? And how could Plato's unknowable, unreachable God be manifesting himself with such drama as to terrify the Exodian Hebrews at Sinai?
Philo gets around the problem by creating a distinction between the essence of God (ouisa), and God's activities in the world (dynameis or energeiai). The essence of God, as Plato had said, is shrouded in impenetrable mystery. But the power, and evidence of God's existence is everywhere in evidence.
To Philo, the stories of the Pentatuch were allegorical, in keeping with the secular nature of history as Aristotle had taught. So the great myths of Genesis and Exodus should not be taken literally. What they had to tell us was hidden in inner meaning; and the spirit of intuitive apprehension was the way of knowing that meaning.
It was a neat theological trick, but none of this made any sense to the Semitic Jews. But to the enthusiastically Hellenized Romans of the era, searching as they were for a highly moralistic philosophy of living, and attracted as they were to Judaism for that very reason, it made a great deal of sense. They didn't have to have a literally jealous, blatant, thundering God, but one of unknowable subtlety would do quite nicely. Just give us a plan for living, they seemed to be saying, and we'll forget about thundering avengers. And so Jewish schools of thought based on Philo's interpretations of the scriptures began to spring up all around the Mediterranean basin. This dichotomy between the ethnic Jews and the converts to Philo's school of Judaism was to have important consequences for development of Christianity a couple of centuries later.
The Christian Era and the Last Great Revision of Judaism
30 C.E. to appx. 73 C.E
The conflict between the Hellenism and the traditions of ethnic Judaism was nowhere more obvious than in the northern part of Palestine, which had been so often subject to conquest and which, being on the major trade route between Asia Minor and the Transjordan, was constantly subjected to foreign influence. This northern region apparently didn't even consider itself to be Jewish, but rather a separate nation that had been annexed, apparently involuntarily, by the Maccabean kings of Israel. So here you have Hellenized Semitics under the influence and control of Jewish kings, looking elsewhere for philosophical guidance. It was a volatile mix.
Into this little region, called Galilee, was born a stubborn iconoclast. He resented the Roman occupation but accepted its rule. He was an intellect who understood at least the rudiments of the Cynic school of Greek philosophy and the complex theology of the Semitic Jews around him. But he would have none of it. He felt that there had to be a better way to live. He grew up a suburb of the capital of Galilee, in a place called Nazareth. His name was Jesus.
At least, that's the mythology that has grown up around this figure. For all his influence on the world, there's better evidence that he never even existed than that he did. We have absolutely no reliable evidence, from secular sources, that Jesus ever lived, or that any of the events surrounding his life as described in the four Gospels ever happened.
Indeed, when scholars apply the Negative Evidence Principle, it begins to look like the Jesus we know from the New Testament is the result of late first-century mythmaking.
The Negative Evidence Principle is, of course, not foolproof. It is not a proof in itself, but is rather a guideline, a good rule of thumb. How useful and reliable it is, of course, is subject to debate among logicians. Here's how the N.E.P. works - it states that you have good reason for not believing in a proposition if the following three principles are satisfied: First, all of the evidence supporting the proposition has been shown to be unreliable. Second, there is no evidence supporting the proposition when the evidence should be there if the proposition is true. And third, a thorough and exhaustive search has been made for supporting evidence where it should be found.
As for the first point, the only somewhat reliable, secular evidence we have for the life of Jesus comes from two very brief passages in the works of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian. And Josephus was a prolific writer - he frequently wrote several pages on the trial and execution of individual common thieves, but on Jesus, he is silent except for two paragraphs, one of which is a known interpolation, and the other is highly suspect. Other references to Jesus in secular writings are ambiguous at best, or known to be later interpolations, or both. The earliest references to Jesus in the rabbinical literature come from the second century, even though known historical figures such as John the Baptist merit considerable discussion, even though his impact on Judaism was minimal. There are no references to Jesus in any of the Roman histories during his presumed lifetime. That he should be so thoroughly ignored is unlikely given the impact the gospel writers said he had on the events and politics of the Jewish kingdom.
So we have to turn to Christian literature for help.
At this point, caution is called for in examining first century Christian literature. This caution is made necessary by the fact that during this era, it was not considered wrong to write your own material and ascribe it to someone else, someone you consider your philosophical mentor, in whose name and style you are writing. Indeed, not only was this a common practice, but it was actually a skill taught in the schools of the day. This practice has made modern scholarship enormously difficult in dealing with who actually wrote the New Testament books and when. The problem, though difficult, is not insoluble, and modern scholarship has developed techniques which have been applied to early Christian writings, to find out who is saying what, when and why. When these techniques are applied to these early Christian writings, the results have been quite surprising.
The writings of Paul accepted as genuinely his (Galatians I and II and Thessalonians I and II, Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, Phillipians, and possibly Colossians) are by far the most pristine of any early Christian literature we have. They were probably written beginning in the fifth decade of the first century - well after the events of Jesus' life. When the letters are examined in isolation, it becomes apparent that Paul was ignorant of the doctrine of the virgin birth, that he never spoke in terms of having lived in Jesus' time, nor does he mention that any of his mentors were contemporaries of Jesus, nor that Jesus worked any miracles and he appparently did not associate the death of Jesus with the trial before Pilate. Only in Galatians 1:19 does he make reference to a contemporary Jesus, and then only in terms of James being the "Lord's brother." The use of the term "Lord's" even makes that single reference somewhat questionable to scholars, as the word "Lord's" did not have currency until the late 2nd. century. So the Pauline letters, at least the reliably Pauline letters, aren't good witnesses for a Jesus of the first half of the first century. What makes this particularly interesting, is that other non-Canonical early Christian pre-Gospel literature make the very same omissions.
Later Christian writings were written well after the events they describe, none earlier than at least the seventh decade at the earliest. And none of them are known to have been written by the authors to which they are ascribed. Most are second or third-hand accounts. There was plenty of time for mythmaking by the time they were written, so they're clearly not reliable witnesses.
The next stricture of the Negative Evidence Principle is that there isn't any sound evidence where there should be, and here again this stricture is met. First, there are no records whatever of Jesus' life in the Roman records of the era. That's surprising, since he stirred up so much unrest, at least by Biblical accounts. There at least ought to be a record of his arrest and trial, or some of the political notoriety the gospel writers describe. Yet the Roman histories are silent, even though they are quite thorough (Flavius Josephus alone wrote dozens of volumes, many of which survive, and he is far from the only historian of Palestine in this period whose writings have survived in some form). Second, as mentioned, there is no reliable account in Josephus.
Josephus was a historian who was so very thorough he would write a three page history of the trial and execution of a common thief, and wrote extensively about John the Baptist, but on Jesus, his two small references are seriously doubted by scholars as being genuine. Unfortunately, the writings of Josephus have come down to us only through Christian sources, none earlier than the fourth century, and are known to have been revised by the Christians. There are a number of reasons why the two references in Josephus are doubted: As summarized by Louis Feldman, a promient Josephus scholar, they are, first, use of the Christian reference to Jesus being the Messiah is unlikely to have come from a Jewish historian, especially from one who treated other Messianic aspirants rather harshly; second, commentators writing about Josephus earlier than Eusebius (4th Cent. C.E.) do not cite the passage; third, Origen mentions that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the messiah. There is a full account available on the Internet that describes the whole long list of problems with the "Testimonium Flavium" as scholars call it.
The earliest secular literary evidence for a religion based on the man we call Jesus comes from many decades after Jesus' supposed death (from about 70 C.E.). Why, if he had as much influence, and caused as much a stir as the Bible says he did, do we not know of him at all from reliable, contemporary testimony?
The third stricture of the N.E.P. holds that we must have conducted a thorough and exhaustive sweep for evidence where there should be evidence. Indeed, thousands of scholars, religionists, crusaders, apologists and skeptics alike have searched for such evidence since the earliest days of the Christian era. That they haven't found any reliable evidence that should have been there says that the third stricture has been clearly satisfied.
So based on the Negative Evidence Principle, we have good reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus and that lack of reliable evidence suggests no good reason to accept it.
How is it, then, that the movement began? Why did it grow as it did?
As discussed above, there was considerable intellectual ferment in Palestine at the time of the beginning of the Jesus movements. Many secular scholars and scholars from non-Judeo-Christian traditions have proposed, and I tend to agree, that it is likely that the Jesus myth began as a social movement to 'reJudify' Judaism. Remember that at this point, the temple was thoroughly corrupt, the high priest was a Roman political appointee, and many Jews felt that their culture and religion were under threat.
An excellent survey of current scholarship on the Teacher of Righteousness theory of the origins of the Jesus myth, this slim book offers a lot of evidence for this theory, and is also an easy read!
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The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Israel Knoll, published 2000.
This book is considered seminal in its discussion of the Jesus Movements. Its detailed description of the development of the movement and its transformation into a church is scholarly without being opaque. Highly recommended!
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The Jesus Movement by Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, published 2001.
The most prominent of the many movements to 'reJudaify' Judaism was the Essene Movement. Founded in the second century B.C.E., the Essenes were either founded by or greatly influenced by a "Teacher of Righteousness," to which the Dead Sea Scrolls make constant reference without ever naming. One individual who fits the scanty evidence is a Jesus or Jesua or Joshua ben Pantera, Pentera or Pandera, who apparently had some influence with his movement, but may have been much more than that; we simply don't know. Apparently he had enough influence that he became a political threat; sufficient that he was declared a heretic by a temple court and was stoned to death and his body hanged from a tree on the eve of Passover in 88 B.C.E. It is my opinion, though that his influence didn't die with him. Within a few years, mythmaking began around this Essene, attributing to him miracles and a resurrection. Indeed, there are even several first-century Christian references to this supposed miracle worker.
If he was the Teacher of Righteousness referred to by the Dead Sea Scrolls, as some have suggested, his impact on the movement towards Jewish reform was considerable. And if he was the Teacher of Righteousness, it would answer a lot of interesting questions, such as the scattered first century Christian and Talmudic references to a miracle worker named Jesus ben Pantera. Among them are a quote from Origen, saying that his arch-rival Celsus had heard from a Jew in Jerusalem that Jesus Ben Pantera was born of Mary as the result of a rape by a Roman soldier named Pantera, and had borne the baby in secret. There may be something to this rumor, which would account for Mark's obvious embarrassment regarding the origins of Jesus; Mark never mentions Joseph as the husband of Mary. Note also that it was both the Roman custom and the custom of the Jews to include a patrilineal surname as part of a person's full name; yet nowhere in the New Testament does the surname of Jesus, (or Joseph, for that matter) appear. Jesus is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth, a geographical surname that was usually reserved by Jews for illigitmate children of unknown patrilineage (Romans used the surname of the father, regardless of the legitimacy of the birth). The Talmud refers to Jeshu as being the illegitimate son of an adultress named Mary Magdala. There are numerous rabbinical sources from the early Christian period which refer to the Jesus of Christian fame as Jesus ben Pantera. There are several interesting references to a Jeshu ben Pandera from Nazareth who traveled around and practiced magic during the reign of Alexander Janneus, who ruled Palestine from 104 to 78 BCE. As these references are Talmudic, and therefore presumably anti-Christian, scholars have simply dismissed them as referring to someone else or being fabricated propaganda. But if they really do refer to the Jesus of whom the Christians speak, they add evidence to the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is really Jesus ben Pantera, possibly the Essene Teacher of Righteousness, who died in 88 B.C.E.
The Essene movement was one based on a very strict asceticism. Followers were expected to live in monastic isolation, eating a rough diet of hard, primitive foods and living in very simple accomodations. Since not a lot of people had a taste for that kind of harsh, strict living, it was not exactly a wildly popular movement, yet its social ideals had a great deal of popular appeal. The result was that many people began to adopt the social ideals if not the religious asceticism, and began to associate with each other, much like the modern Hippie movement borrowed heavily from Eastern mysticism and spawned a social movement in our own times. Many organized themselves into small groups for social sharing and discussion.
The Jesus Movements, as scholars refer to these groups, appeared as isolated groups in widely separated towns and villages throughout the region. What they had in common was that they were a social reform movement, probably based loosely on the Essene ideals, and often refered to a 'Jesus' as their inspiration, but we know from contemporary descriptions that they were clearly not a religion, even though they incorporated many religious values.
Each of these Jesus Movement groups had its own ideas, often networking with others of a like mind, often disputing with others of conflicting ideas. While we have no writings from them directly, we have many quotes from them by contemporary historians, so we have some awareness of what they believed and practiced, if filtered by others. By the time of Paul, the Jesus Movements had become extraordinarily diverse. Some were bands of internent preachers, others were guilds of settled craftspeople. Some were simple study groups, others were formal schools of scholastic research. As mentioned, there was great philosophical ferment in first century Palestine, and the Jesus movements were not immune. Rather, they were very much a part of it. While none of what they wrote has survived intact, scholars are reasonably certain of a "Sayings Gospel Q" (subsequently revised at least three times), which is lost to us except where Mark quoted from it much later in "his" gospel, and a Gospel of Thomas, which has survived to the modern era in at least two versions, contain if not the pristine writings of Jesus Movements, at least quotations from them.
The destruction of the Second Temple which occurred during the Roman-Jewish war of 66-73 C.E. also greatly impacted Judaism. The destruction of the Temple-based priesthood made central authority for doctrine and ritual impossible, along with the ability to perform temple-based ritual. So now every local rabbi was on his own. Each had his own response to the rise of Christianity and the diaspora into which Judaism was forced. In certain places at certain times, various rabbinates established local schools and influenced local movements, but as a whole, Judaism split into local factions, each struggling to maintain the tradition as best it could. In the main, the maintenance of a Jewish identity and the basic cultural traditions was possible, but the rigid adherence to a single doctrinal viewpoint was not, since there was no central authority against which to measure local ideas. So its not surprising that nearly as many schools of thought arose in the Judaism of the diaspora as occurred in Protestantism, a millenium and a half later.
The impact of the destruction of the temple on the Jesus movements was to galvanize them into activism, trying to reform Judaism in order to save it from forced Romanization and the developing diaspora. For most of the Jesus movements, there was no effort to reform the religion as much as the culture, but as we will see, for one Jesus movement, things were quite different.
The Road To Damascus And The Origins of Christianity
Appx. 50 C.E. to 140 C.E.
In about 50 C.E., a remarkable event occurred, which ultimately changed the course of human history. In Antioch, the Jesus Movement suddenly and quickly transformed itself from a social and political reform movement into a full-blown religion. As this occurred, a remarkable conversion happened - or maybe the transformation occurred because Saul of Tarsus was converted and evangelized the group as Paul the Apostle. Whichever way it happened, we will probably never know. But secular scholars are pretty much agreed that this group included the first true Christians and that Paul was one of the first if not the first convert. And the Antioch Jesus Movement became the first of what scholars now refer to as the Christ Cults.
His writings are the earliest Christian writings that have survived intact. They date to within two decades of the presumed date of the crucifixion. Of the books in the New Testament that are attributed to Paul, there are only a few that are generally agreed by scholars to be the product of his pen. Among these are Galatians I and II and Thessalonians I and II, Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, Phillipians, and possibly Collosians. The rest of the New Testament books attributed to him were written by later authors seeking to ride on his credibility.
What's remarkable about these writings is that they paint an interesting picture of Paul and of very early Christianity when taken as a group. Among the possibilities that have been presented to account for this are that Paul was ignorant of many of the important details of the life of Jesus or perhaps those details are myths that were incorporated into Christianity after Paul wrote those letters.
The foremost proponent of the Paul-as-repressed-homosexual theory is none other than a Christian bishop himself! Spong's controversial theory is widely reviled by conservative Christians - but it certainly fits the evidence!
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Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism by Bishop John Shelby Spong, published 1991.
The reasons for Paul's conversion is a question that deserves discussion here. Saul, the pre-conversion Roman Jew, was a man with an intense self loathing. He doesn't tell us why, but time and again, he describes himself as a sinner who was far beyond any possible redemption. A man who stood condemned in the eyes of God. A man clearly destined for hell, and there's nothing he himself could do about it, especially since his body's 'member' would not cooperate. its not his persecution of the Christians that creates the self loathing; rather it is the other way around. Something was eating at Saul. It clearly related to behavior, because he describes himself as being a sinner. Over the centuries, many suggestions have been made as to what might have been the source of that self loathing. Few of them are really convincing, they all seem to have serious problems - except for one: the suggestion that Paul was a repressed homosexual. Homosexuality was not widely condemned in this region at the time, yet it could possibly have been a personal interpretation of Levitical proscriptions that drove him to consider himself a sinner for being a homosexual. Yet when he experiences his conversion, he realizes that by the grace of God, his homosexuality no longer matters, for God loves him the same as all men. I say this after having read the references in the New Testament in which Paul speaks of his shame and his self loathing: his words have a startlingly deep resonance with every gay man who was ever brought up in a Christian environment. This theory alone to the exclusion of all others I've seen explains all the strange aspects of Paul's attitudes towards sexuality - the proclivity to a monastic degree of chastity, the extreme mysogony, the fact that he remained single and urged others in his situation, whatever that was, to do likewise, and the frequent discussions of how the 'members' of his body do not cooperate with his spiritual goals, and his despair over his inability to effect the changes he would like. All of these evidences are consonant with the repressed-gay theory; few other theories account for them all.
I hasten to add here, that there is no factual evidence to indicate that Paul was gay. The evidence is circumstantial, as is much evidence widely accepted in Biblical scholasticism. I have been charged with including this theory because "it irks Christians." This is simply not true. I have included it, because, first, it fits the evidence better than any other theory I have seen, and second, because the writings of Paul in this matter have a great deal of resonance with this theory. They "fit." They make sense in this context. On a personal note, here, I don't happen to care a whit whether Paul was gay or not; I'm only trying to arrive at a theory that fits the evidence better than any other, and so far, I have yet to find one that does. If the reader can offer one, I'd be delighted to entertain it. The search for truth is a search for the best evidential fit, not the search for comfort, so whether Christians find the theory irksome, or whether the author of this essay is gay, is really irrelevant.
If this theory is true, it may well be that the whole of the Christian edifice is built on the foundation of the self-loathing of a repressed gay man, unable to change himself or find salvation within himself, but finding salvation only in the grace of God. Again, if this theory is true, try to imagine how world history might have been different had Saul not been born gay and suffered the self-loathing that resulted from that circumstance of his birth.
Paul speaks, then, from the perspective of a self loathing, pre-mythologized Christian. He utters the doctrines that pretty much will shape Christianity in the centuries ahead, but does not relate any of the 'faith promoting' miracle stories or details of Jesus' life that one would expect of an evangelist seeking converts. This is, of course, because the stories didn't yet exist. Those stories would come from the gospel writers.
The Gospels: Mythmaking Begins in Ernest
65 C.E. to appx. 120 C.E.
This book is by a 2nd century critic of Christianity; one who provides damning evidence of how the gospel writers ripped off the religions around them for the myths, doctrines and rituals that became incorporated in the gospels. A fascinating story by a first-hand witness!
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CELSUS On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against The Christians Translation and commentary by Joseph Hoffman, published 1987.
The Jesus Mysteries is a serious scholarly investigation of the source of the gospel myths. The dust cover has a photo of an ancient artifact showing a god dying on the cross - but it isn't Jesus!
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The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, published 1999.
The Jesus Puzzle has become a classic in the study of the historical Jesus in the short time it has been out. Scholarly, but highly readable, it is the best survey of the problems of the Jesus myth.
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The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With A Mythical Christ? By Earl Doherty, published 1999.
This book is a classic in the study of the creation of the New Testament. Mack has become one of the most respected of New Testament scholars due in large part to this book.
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Who Wrote The New Testament? Making of the Christian Myth By Burton Mack, published 1989.
Richmond Lattimore is considered to be the greatest living translator of classical Greek. This translation of the New Testament is widely considered his magnum opus. Without a doubt, the most reliable New Testament translation out there.
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The New Testament Translation by Richard Lattimore, published 1996.
The gospel writers were converts to the new Christ cults. Whether any were converts of Paul, we don't know, but it has been 20 years since Paul's conversion, and the new religion has been spreading like wildfire among the Jesus movements of the Eastern Meditteranean.
We do know that Paul traveled to Jerusalem to discuss with Peter the doctrines of the church, and how they should be applied to gentiles as well as Jews. We can only speculate as to the details of what was discussed during this meeting, but one thing is clear: Peter and Paul had a heated discussion as to just who this new gospel should be preached to, whether gentiles should be included with Jews. He returned to Antioch satisfied that he had convinced Peter and James of his point of view.
It is also quite clear that this meeting was one of several (there was at least one other, where Peter was publicly humiliated by Paul) that must surely have occurred among the early luminaries which took up the general outlines of how proselytizing should be done, how the church should be structured and what doctrines should be promulgated in order to appeal to as many people as possible, and whether they should include gentiles as well as Jews. The reason why was that there was a serious problem: Judaism was under direct threat from Roman persecution of the priestly class (seen as a political threat resulting from the uprising against Roman rule) and a new version of Judaism had to be concocted that would be so appealing that people would want to belong to it, and so captivating that people would not want to abandon it, even in the face of persecution. It had to abandon the temple worship since there was no temple anymore, and it had to be able to survive the onslaught of foreign ideas which were widely available, from Roman, Hellene and oriental sources. The result is that the new religion had the features of what in our day is called a meme - an idea that actually behaves like a virus - it infects, reproduces and spreads itself, and has the ability to evolve to adapt to changing situations. As a response to Roman persecutions following the failed uprising against Rome, Paul and the other founders of Christianity deliberately set out to create a religion that would behave in this way, so as preserve at least some form of Judaism from the Roman persecutions and do so in the absence of a highly organized priesthood. They succeeded, of course, beyond their wildest hopes, creating a cult that not only survived the Roman persecutions and the diaspora, but would survive, evolve and grow to become one of the world's major religions.
The ideas of Paul, with the contributions of Peter, James, and other early conversants apparently communicated back to the local Jesus movements which had been converted to the members of the new Christ cult. These local Christ cult converts included the gospel writers.
The myths surrounding the life of Jesus were borrowed by the gospel writers from the pagan religions that surrounded them. Everywhere were to be found religions that had as major features one or more of the myths that eventually came to be associated with Jesus. Virtually every story surrounding Jesus, whether it be the virgin birth, the miracle stories, the betrayal and crucifixion, were part of one or more of the pagan religions of the time. Among the religions of the day incorporating a crucifixion myth, for example, were the mystery religions of Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, and others. Dionisus, for example, was depicted as being given a crown of ivy, dressed in a purple robe, and was given gall to drink before his crucifixion. The depiction on a Greek vase from the 5th century B.C.E. even shows a communion being prepared. The fact that these stories are today almost exclusively associated with the myth of Jesus of Nazareth, show how history is always rewritten by the victors - their way.
There are literally dozens of gospels, most of which have been lost to us, but significant numbers survive, and not just those included in the canon. Most of the non-canonical gospels are polemics and are easily dismissed. But because the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are so important to the development of Christianity, we'll examine each of them and the effect they have had on the Christian church.
The first of the canonized gospels to be written was that of Mark. We don't know much about the author of the Gospel According to Mark, but we do know that the author was a simple man, not highly literate in Greek (for whom it may have been a second language), and not particularly well educated, but a man who was thoroughly steeped in Jewish mythology and religion. Not being particularly well educated, his was a world of superstition, demons, of possession, of miracles and gods of the Roman world, and all these had an effect on how he wrote his gospel. It is also clear that his gospel was greatly influenced by the stories circulating in the Christian community as to just who this Jesus was.
If Jesus existed, Mark never knew him, but claimed to have been a follower of Peter instead. So much so that his gospel was known for a time as the Petrine gospel. Mark wrote his gospel in Syria (probably in the early 70's C.E.) for an audience of Roman Christians. They were suffering intense persecution at the time at the hands of Nero who was scapegoating them for the Roman fire and other problems, and so Mark wrote what he hoped would be a gospel to strengthen the Christian community and give it hope in times of trial. In so doing, he wrote a gospel that was long on the suffering of Jesus and those who follow him, and short on temporal salvation. Jesus was mythologized not a carpenter, but rather a carpenter's son - a blatant attempt to confer social status, by not relegating him to the status of a simple craftsman, but someone who rose above his birth. Joseph is not mentioned in the story of Jesus' birth, but Jesus is rather referred to as "the son of Mary," a description normally reserved for the illegitimate - so it is clear that Mark is intent on telling what he regards as the truth, even if he has to tell half-truths to achieve his goal. Mark never explains the circumstances of Jesus' birth, but merely says that Jesus came from Nazareth. Nothing about virgins or wise men or being born in a manger with angels talking to shepherds. This is because as Mark writes, the myths surrounding Jesus' birth had yet to be incorporated into Christian mythology, and Mark has not done so. Many other myths of the Christian community, including several of the miracle stories, were included by Mark in his gospel. This is because Mark was a simple man and tended to accept these traditions at face value, and because they elevated Jesus in the minds of his readers.
The next of the canonized gospels to be written was Matthew. The author of Matthew was a well-educated conservative Jew, trained in the nuances of the Levitic tradition, and was intent on showing the Hebraic world just what Jesus had to offer them. Writing a decade or so after the Second Temple was destroyed in the abortive Jewish uprising, Matthew was determined to explain to the Jewish world just who Jesus was and to show Judaism that there was an alternative to the Rabbinic tradition that was developing; i.e., that salvation through Jesus was possible.
Matthew's conservatism is the source of the hellfire and damnation in Fundamentalist Christian conservatism. Indeed, without Matthew in the canon, there would be few other biblical references to it. Matthew had a fire and a passion about him that well outran his qualifications as a scholar of Jewish law. Even though he was well versed in it, the attempt to prove his case by quoting Jewish law proved to be, well, disastrously badly done.
Matthew used as his primary source the gospel of Mark. In doing so, he incorporated many of Mark's myths and added a few of his own, changing bits of the story line here and there to better make the points for his Jewish audience. For example, to make his case that Jesus was the promised Messiah, he heightened the miraculous and altered detail, to the point of obvious error. A case in point is the geneology with which he begins his narrative: he deliberately left out detail in order to have seven generations each from Abraham to David and David to the Exile, and the Exile to Jesus. This has left some to suggest that Matthew couldn't count very well, as his geneology conflicts with other genealogies in the Old Testament. If he was aware of these discrepancies, his attempt to deify Jesus for a Jewish audience certainly overruled them.
What Matthew was to the Jews, Luke was to the gentiles. Luke, unlike Matthew, was the consummate scholar. Fluent in Greek, almost certainly a gentile himself, Luke saw the need to write a gospel to explain the new religion to the gentile community, and so he wrote one. Like Matthew before him, he had a copy of Mark and used it liberally, quoting long sections and adding twists of his own to suit his needs.
Above all else, Luke was an evangelist. His mission was to make this Jewish sect a relevant religion for the gentiles who had nowhere else to turn in the search for a strict moral code by which to live. Judaism required circumcision, an obvious disadvantage, and besides, it was a tribal religion whose members tended to view gentile converts with skepticism, if not outright racial discrimination.
With the ascent of Domitian to the Roman throne in 81 c.e., the fires of persecution began to be stoked once again, and Luke saw the need to address Roman concerns by showing that Christianity was simply a natural and harmless outgrowth of the respected Jewish tradition. Hence his address of the document to "The most excellent Theophilus."
Because Luke was writing for an official Roman audience as much as for an audience of prospective gentile converts, he was careful to portray Rome in as good a light as possible. For example, Luke has Herod's soldiers scourging Jesus, not Rome's soldiers as does Mark. The Kingdom of Christ is proclaimed as being "not of this world," an obvious attempt to assuage Roman suspicions of a conspiracy at work. There are many other examples, which, like the above, bring this gospel into conflict with the others in Luke's attempt to dress up the story for an official Roman audience.
The last of the four gospels is, of course, the Gospel of John. Though a favorite of the literalists, this gospel ironically takes great delight in poking fun at literalism. Chapters 3, 4, 6 and 8 all have stories in which those who have taken the word literally have been made fun of. John's gospel is skillfully crafted, the work of a true scholar, a deeply religious man, who well understood that myth and meaning are the substance of scripture, not the literality of the words themselves. Who John was we are not sure, but it appears he could have been a disciple of the two Johns of Ephesus, one of which was John Zebedee, spoken of by Mark, or John Zebedee's son. John wrote his gospel in the early years of the second century, nearly a century after the events he recorded allegedly transpired.
John wrote his gospel with an eye to the growing rift between Judaism and Christianity, and sought to heal it by bringing the two together. He tried to do so by fashioning a mythology that would be acceptable to both: quoting liberally from respected and appreciated Jewish literature and by incorporating a mythology of Jesus that sought to fulfil Jewish law and prophesy. In so doing, John created a gospel that broke so completely with the gospels that proceeded it, that it is directly appealing to the Jews who found themselves uncomfortable with the tightening screws of Jewish orthodoxy that was the result of the destruction of the Second Temple. The apocalypic vision of the narrative was meant to appeal to the Jewish sense of destiny while being true to the Christian ideal. Here we have a prophetic vision in a Christian setting, completing the foundations of later fundamentalist Christian doctrine. The result, along with the book of Acts, believed to have been written by the author of the gospel of Luke, writing this time for a Christian audience, gave us the complete set of myths that are so central to the beliefs of Christians. Unlike Mark, whose mission of Jesus as the Messiah is revealed only at the end of Mark's narrative, here is a Jesus whose very being seems to shout, "I am the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets." Both the audience and the resulting mythology couldn't have been more different, and of course many factual and contextual conflicts were the result.
The Great Heresies of Gnosticism and the Revisionism of Marcion
140 C.E. to 312 C.E.
The philosophical ferment of the time, caused by the cosmopolitan nature of Roman empire, meant that everywhere there was a philosopher or preacher and everywhere novel and unfamiliar ideas. This ferment, caused by the Greeks, spread by the Romans, which spawned the Jesus Movements, continued unabated as part of the Jesus Movements transformed themselves into the Christ cults. Right from Paul's time, the Christ cults themselves grew disputatious, with new ideas and heresies spreading through the cult like wildfire as each local bishop had his own ideas and sought to see them accepted. The cult became cults as "heresies" spread.
By the end of the first century, Romans hungry for a workable moral code began to look to the transforming Jesus movements and Christ cults for a spiritual home. Judaism still had appeal, but required circumcision, an obvious disadvantage. The Christ cults made no such demands. Indeed, membership in the Christ cult was a pleasurable affair, not requiring much in the way of embarrassing ritual and offering much interesting discussion and amiable camaraderie amidst the ritual of the table fellowship (the probable source of the Last Supper myth).
Soon Christ cult congregations were spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. They offered, with careful calculation, a way out for the Jews of the Diaspora, who could not accept the Hellenized Judaism of Philo and his Hellenist predecessors, but were too distant from Jerusalem to engage in rabbinical study, or were misinclined to accept local rabbinical authority. Here was a religion all could be a part of, without regard to ethnic origins or circumstances of social status or location.
But which cult to join? Each local group, under the influence of local bishops had generated its own local traditions and doctrinal ideas. Christianity had by now become a significant social force in spite of Roman efforts to stop it; in Asia Minor, disputations between the followers of various Christ cults was as common a pastime as discussion of football is today.
By the end of the first century, the smug confidence of the local bishops in their own ideas was about to be shattered. The doctrinal gulf between groups calling themselves Christian had grown too great to be ignored. So when intellectuals among these movements began to appear, it became obvious that something needed to be worked out. Finally, Valentinus of Alexandria, Justin of Samaria, Irenaeus (from Asia Minor, but writing from Lyons and a thoroughly loyal Roman), Marcion of Sinope (a small town in Asia Minor), Clement of Alexandria, and a few others all converged on Rome in 140 C.E. with ideas of what Christianity was, that could hardly have been at greater odds.
The church was never to be the same again.
The firebrand intellectuals brushed aside the watered down ideas of the local bishops and looked at the foundations of the church, to discover that the stones of that foundation were not sound. So they set about revamping the entire doctrinal basis of the church.
One of the problems as Marcion saw it was that Christians were expected to be loyal to the Jewish god, even though they did not have to keep his law. Marcion's vision of God was as it was taught by Paul, his major influence. God was a god of mercy and compassion, a god for all mankind, not proprietary to a "chosen people."
The Jewish god, according to Marcion, was not worthy of worship. He was to be replaced by Christ, who had revealed the law that Christians should follow, as interpreted by Paul. He was a god of justice and salvation, very unlike the Jewish concept of Jahweh.
By now, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as many others had long since appeared, written by followers of the new Christ cults, and Marcion brought an abbreviated version of Luke together with ten letters of Paul to form the first canon of the New Testament. It was the first Christian scripture.
The other intellectuals rejected Marcion's ideas, primarily because he rejected the Apostolic myths outright and because he pointed out some unresolved problems left them by the bishops. But even more radical was his flat-out rejection of early "apostolic" writings where it was obvious that the writer did not share the current vision of the mission of Jesus as the savior of mankind. One of the intellectuals, Polycarp, called Marcion "the first-born of Satan" and others, especially Tertullian and Justin wrote extensively against his views.
But that opposition did not stop Marcion. He went on a preaching tour that was spectacularly successful. Congregations of Marcionite Christians were organized in Ephesus, Rome and Pontus in Asia Minor. Even whole villages soon became converts.
The Marcionite appeal lay in the fact that the doctrine was simple, understandable, but more than that, doable. Even though it had its own share of contradictions, it was clearly resonating with the masses, and the other bishops could see that.
About this time, a strangely introspective group of the Jesus movement in Alexandria became involved in Jewish mysticism and the result evolved into a Jesus cult known as Gnosticism (to know). It was a religion that held Jesus to have been a divine teacher, but rejected outright the resurrection and doctrine of atonement. Almost as bad was the total rejection of the Apostolic myth and the doctrines surrounding the mission of Jesus as taught by mainstream Christianity. Even worse was the idea that the divine was actually the source of misery and shame. But the worst by far was the basis of the name: the idea that personal knowledge and experience was the key to understanding the message of Jesus. It rejected outright the authority of local bishops.
Gnosticism took hold rapidly in Egypt, and began spreading to the other Roman provinces. The bishops were horrified.
By the dawn of the fourth century, the local bishops could no longer rely on their watered-down doctrines, and feeling the threat from Gnosticism, began to contend with each other regarding doctrine. The bishops of the principal sects headquartered in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Caesaria, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Carthage continued to squabble with each other incessantly.
The attempt by the Rome conference to deal with the problem a century and a half earlier, had been a complete failure. Worse, it had spawned the development of the Marcionite church, a movement, widely regarded as heretical, with broad appeal.
And now there was even that rapidly spreading heretical cancer of Gnosticism to contend with. There was such fierce, intractable doctrinal turmoil within the church, it appeared the church was doomed. And with continuing Roman persecution, how could the church survive?
An Unlikely Savior Saves The Church -- And Spawns The Greatest Revision Yet
313 C.E. to appx. 430 C.E.
In 313, Emperor Constantine and his co-emperor Lucinius sent a series of rather flowery letters to their governors, in which they said it was "salutory and most proper" that "complete toleration" be given to anyone who has "given up his mind to the cult of the Christians" or any other cult which "he personally feels best for himself." The Edict of Milan, as this series of letters were called, had the effect of legalizing Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The question history has never adequately answered is why the Edict of Milan was issued in the first place, but it was probably due to the growing political power of the Christians of various stripes.
Emperor Constantine was a deeply superstitious man, but also a consumate politician. He was a practitioner of several religions, trying to keep his bases covered, even after his 'conversion.' He was arbitrary and capricious. He sent prisoners of war to the lions, committed wholesale acts of genocide in his campaigns in North Africa, and was known for his overbearing, egotistical, ruthless and self-righteous behavior. His nephew Julian said that his appearance was strange, with stiff garments of Eastern fashion, jewelry on his arms and it was all set off by a tiara perched on a dyed wig. Constantine apparently viewed Christianity as just one of the many cults of his realm, and he seemed to practice them all, apparently with roughly the same depth of commitment. He wasn't actually baptized until he was on his death bed.
Emperor Constantine, for all his strangeness, was nothing if not a good politician. He understood well the fact that the Christians were becoming so numerous as to represent a considerable political threat should they get their act together and become organized. Seeing the handwriting on the political wall, he conveniently had a 'miracle' which led to his 'conversion' so he could become their ally. In 312, a year before the Edict of Milan, he fought the battle of Milvan Bridge, against a rival claimant to the emperor's throne. Among his soldiers were many Christians and they were already carrying on their swords and shields the Christian Chi-Rho sign. Well, to hear the stories, the heavens opened up, and the Emperor had a vision. And he was granted victory in his battle. At least this is the story the Christian apologists tell.
Unfortunately, we don't know what exactly happened at Milvan Bridge, because the dear Emperor kept changing his story and telling different versions of the events to different people. At least six different, contradictory versions have survived from different people who claimed to have heard it from the emperor himself. As he kept telling these conflicting stories, he still apparently remained personally converted to the Mithraic sun-cult common in the Empire at the time. As a monument to his victory at Milvan, some years later, he raised a triumphal arch, which survives to this day. It bears on it a testimony to the "Unconquered Sun" (a reference to Mithra) and referred to Jesus Christ "driving his [the sun's] chariot across the sky." He commanded the Christians to hold their services on Sun-day.
Constantine became the sole Roman emperor in 324 and convened the First Council of Nicea the following year. His commandment to the bishops: Get your act together and quit squabbling. Come up with a consistent doctrine that would be universal, i.e.catholic - note the small "c", and could be understood and practiced by all.
Of course, the bishops complied. Rather than risk Imperial disfavor, they all met at Nicea, squabbled, squabbled some more, hammered out a few common doctrines (mostly with regard to the creation and the nature of the universe, and the first version of the Apostolic Creed), declared themselves in agreement on it, and departed totally unconverted to each other's views.
The emperor who himself was totally ignorant of the issues, hearing that his bishops had finally agreed on a common doctrine, was pleased. The bishops were certainly pleased to hear that the emperor was pleased. And then they went about preaching the same old contentious doctrines as before.
Argument and dissension continued for the next six decades with various factions finding themselves in and then out of Imperial favor at various times. Athanasius, the actual author of the original version of the Apostolic Creed, found himself exiled and 'rehabilitated' on no fewer than six occasions. It was eventually Imperial politics and the wealth of the Roman church, which it shared with the smaller congregations along with instructions for its use, more than theology, that finally governed the form that Christian doctrine would take, as various bishops found themselves in and out of imperial favor at various times. By 430, the council of Nicea had become an ongoing affair, designed to stamp out "heresies" (read: dissent from the Imperial view), and create a formal, universal, i.e. catholic church organization, organized in a manner similar to the political structure of the Roman Empire itself.
The Council of Nicea became, in essence, the enforcer of the Imperial view of how things ought to be. This is why the Catholic Church today resembles in its government the government of the Roman Empire of the period. The headquarters of the church was eventually established at Rome, and the head of the church became known as the Pope. New basilicas dotted the landscape, all built with the blessing of the Emperor, and all aligned to the new, imperially blessed, church headquarters in Rome. Constantine sent expeditions off to Palestine to "find" and build basilicas over the sacred sites of the church's early history, and return with faith-promoting "relics" which of course they were happy to "acquire," or more accurately, produce. The newly established headquarters in Rome set about persecuting the Gnostics (crucifying many of them and sending many others to the lions), and suppressing the Marionite heresy.
In order to popularize the church with the masses, the doctrinal emphasis was changed significantly. These changes were reflected in the art of the Christian church. When early, pre-Constantine Roman Christians met secretly in Rome, the art they produced reflected the pastoral nature of Jesus' teachings. Scenes of Jesus feeding the multitudes, blessing the children, and healing the sick were the themes in the art of that period. After the conversion of Constantine, the character of the art suddenly and dramatically changed to reflect the change in doctrinal emphasis. Gone are the sweet, pastoral scenes of a meek Jesus patiently ministering to his followers. Instead, images of the crucifixion and the scourging of Jesus in the court of Pilate become common. This was to help the suffering masses identify with Jesus who was said to have suffered on their behalf. The church had became a political instrument -- be patient with your suffering under Roman rule, the masses were told, and a better life for you is prepared for you if you believe in Jesus the Savior. The emporer may not provide good living in this life, but Jesus would in the next.
It is at this time that the Chi Rho and the symbol of the fish, representing the miraculous nature of Jesus' message (at least as formulated by the gospel writers), is replaced by the cross, at the time a symbol of death and suffering, as the principal emblem of Christianity. The political message of the new symbol couldn't have been clearer at the time. Join up and Jesus will relieve your suffering in the next world even if the Emperor doesn't in this. Fail to join, and you're on your own, politically as well as spiritually.
Creation Of The Bible As We Know It and Yet Another Revision
320 C.E. to 1330 C.E.
In the midst of all this intellectual turmoil, Constantine gave to Eusebius, the bishop of Caesaria (a Roman port on the coast of modern Israel), a little assignment. Put together some scriptures for the emperor to present to the new churches he was constructing at his new capital of Constantinople in time for his new festival of the resurrection, to be called "Easter." Fifty copies, please.
Eusebius, one of the most notorious historical revisionists of ancient times, thoughtfully complied. We do not know which books of the hundreds available that he supplied the emperor, nor how much he revised them (since many are not known from texts earlier than Eusebius), but we do know that Eusebius realized that it was only a matter of time before the "inspired oracles" as he called them, would have to be gathered together for Christians to study in common worldwide in the form of a scriptural library, a bible. We also know that Eusebius was deeply worried about the contradictions they all contained and the political dynamite that could ensue should those contradictions become a matter of dispute among the masses, or, far worse, in the mind of the Emperor. We know that Eusebius did, in fact, do some modifications of the works he was concerned about, as we have a few earlier texts with which to compare his work. As correlation and standardization were the orders of the day (under the less-than-gentle hand of the Council of Nicea), Eusebius could clearly see a very Imperial problem was brewing, and was determined to head it off if he could.
Everyone had their list of favorites; the various factions, with headquarters in Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Caesaria, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Carthage all had their own ideas as to what was or should be scripture. And they certainly didn't agree, in spite of the heavy hand of the Council of Nicea. Eventually, after the split with Rome, the compilation of Eusebius became the standard bible of the Eastern church.
We're not quite sure how the task of compiling and translating a bible for the Roman, or Western church fell to Bishop Jerome of Dalmatia (340-420 C.E.), a few decades later, though imperial politics quite likely played a role. Jerome was highly educated and had devoted his life to the study and translation of scripture. He was a deeply devout adherent to the Roman faction, and the fact that the Roman church was wealthy and influential probably had something to do with his being the choice, since he had spent years in the cause of translating scripture into Latin and standardizing what are now New Testament texts for the benefit of the Roman church at the request of Damasus, the bishop of Rome. We can presume from the politics here that this certainly colored his choices.
Melito of Sardis, one of the disputants at that infamous Council of Rome of 140 C.E. that had spawned the Marcionite Church, had compiled a list of Hebrew scriptures that Jerome is known to have much admired. Yet Augustine, himself a rather nasty piece of work (the first known advocate of forced conversion and forced celibacy, among other things) intervened and convinced Jerome to include works on a list compiled by himself (Augustine), which was similar to one compiled by Athanasius, the author of the first Apostolic Creed. We don't know all the intrigues which convinced Jerome to accede, but some were almost certain to have been political, with Eusebius' earlier imperial commission among them. Jerome's choice of New Testament works was governed by his choices in the works he'd already translated and standardized for Damasus at Rome.
Jerome's compilation and translation into Latin became known as the Vulgate (popular [language]) Bible. It was to become the standard Bible of the Roman Catholic church till the sixteenth century. It is still available, published by the Catholic Church in the original Latin, and as the Douai Version, one of the numerous English translations of the Vulgate Bible to appear in the 16th century as noted below.
The curtains fall. Centuries pass as Christianity slowly spreads across Europe. The curtain rises on the eighth century.
While the Latin bible was widely available, Latin as a spoken, understood language eventually had died out among the peoples of what had been the Roman Empire. So, with that dying out, access to the bible by the common man died out as well, for bibles were available in Latin, but were not being translated into diverging local languages.
This fact greatly enhanced the power of the local clergy and the church heirarchy. Not only did they have the political power of Constantine's legacy behind them, they also now held the keys to the church in their hands, both figuratively and literally. They couldn't have been more happy with that situation. They could often engage in acts of cruelty or corruption and not be called to account by an ignorant and often superstitious congregation. Nevertheless, there were occasional attempts made to get at least small portions of the scripture into the hands of the masses.
The first attempts at an Old English translation appear with Aldhelm, who in 709 published an Anglo-Saxon translation of Psalms, and the Venerable Bede, who is said to have finished a translation of the Gospel of John on his deathbed 26 years later. Unfortunately, the latter translation has not survived.
The Protestant Revision and the English Bibles
1330 to 1611
In the 13th and 14th centuries, translations of Psalms appeared by William of Shoreham and Richard Rolle, in Middle English. Their popular translations would plant the seeds for the struggle to come to break the clout of the clergy and put the Bible in the hands of the people.
John Wycliffe (1330-1384) was repulsed by papal corruption and its demands on the English for money. A true man of the people, he decided that the best way to cop a snook at the Pope would be to publish the Bible in English. By the time of his death, the translation from the Vulgate was done, and John Purvey, a close associate, thoroughly revised and 'corrected' it, with a view to publishing it. It became the first and was the only English-language bible till the 16th century.
In 1516, a monk-scholar by the name of Erasmus at Oxford published the first Greek translation of the New Testament. What his source documents were, we do not know, but it was probably the Vulgate.
William Tyndale had the ambition of translating into English the entire bible, not from the Vulgate, but from the original Greek and Hebrew. This became his life's work. Tyndale learned his Greek from Erasmus. His study of the Greek New Testament probably influenced his later work.
Because the Roman Catholic church opposed his translation of the Bible into English, Tyndale was forced to leave England for Germany in 1524. For the next two years, staying one step ahead of Papal persecution, he managed to complete his first translation of the New Testament, which was then printed and smuggled into England and snapped up by an eager public.
Tyndale worked for years on his Hebrew translations of the Old Testament, finally completing them in 1534 and revising his New Testament in 1535. While not as violently opposed as were the earlier works, he was still betrayed by the Romanists, and was strangled and burned at the stake after months in prison in 1536. His last words were reputedly, "Lord, please open the King of England's eyes!"
Miles Coverdale, an associate of Tyndale, was the first to publish an officially approved bible in English. Coverdale was no scholar, but had based much of his work on that of Tyndale who was. A flood of translations and revisions followed, the most notable being the Rogers bible appeared in 1537 and the Taverner's Bible in 1539.
King Henry VIII was the first English king to ask that a bible be placed in the hands of the common man. The bible chosen was The Great Bible, a work edited by the less-than-scholarly Coverdale.
Another bible was to become the family Bible. Called the Geneva Bible, because it was cheaply mass produced in Geneva, Switzerland, it was a decidedly one-sided translation favoring the views of the notorious French religious tyrant of that city, John Calvin. Its one virtue is that it was cheap, and could thus be afforded by the masses. It became popularly known as the "breeches bible" because of Genesis 3:7, where Adam and Eve "sewed figge leaves together and made themselves breeches."
The King James Version
1604 to the present
In 1604, King James of England called a conference at Hampton Court. In attendance were 47 scholars and clerics. The agenda was to produce a bible that would satisfy the needs of all -- the clergy, the king, the common man. An ambitious goal, considering the widely disparate points of view each with a political investment.
The King James Version first appeared in 1611. Though the frontispiece written by the conference declares it to be a new translation, that's not really what it was. In fact, it was a revision of the Bishop's Bible of 1602, which itself was a revision of the Bishop's Bible of 1568, which was a revision of Coverdale's less than scholarly Great Bible, which was a rewrite of the Tyndale and Wycliffe bibles which had been translated on the run.
The King James Version did not gain immediate acceptance. It took a half century to displace the bibles that came before it, especially the Great Bible from which it was descendant, and the notorious Geneva bible of the masses which influenced it.
Yet it retains much of the beautiful English prose of the Tyndale and Wycliffe bibles, and hence its enduring popularity. The spectacular quality of its prose, not the accuracy of its translation, is why it endures. Consider the following translations of the same passage from Matthew 6:28-29, first from the King James Version, then the popular "Good News Bible" and finally from what I consider to be the translation most faithful to the original Greek, the Richmond Lattimore translation:
* King James Version of 1611: "Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they do not toil, neither do they spin, yet I say unto you that even Solomon, in all his glory, was never arrayed like one of these."
* Good News Bible (American Bible Society, 1976): "And why worry about clothes? Look how the wild flowers grow, they do not work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that not even King Solomon, with all his wealth had not clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers."
* Richmond Lattimore Translation (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996): And why do you take thought about clothing? Study the lilies of the field, how they grow. They do not toil or spin, yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these."
Which is the more accurate translation? The scholars will have to decide, but the beauty of the KJV's language and the power of its prose has seldom been equaled in English literature. The power of Tyndale's and Wycliffe's prose has been called some of the best in all of English literature.
So this is one the principle reasons, that for all its faults, the King James Version endures. It sounds like scripture. It truly sounds like it could be the word of God whether in reality it is or not. As we've seen, prose aside, the legacy of its creation alone is enough to question its authority as scripture. But it just sounds so good!