Reason for a New Age

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A History of God – Part 3

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/05/01

The game of telephone works such that person 1 whispers something to person 2, that person then whispers what he heard to person 3, and so on. When one does this, you will generally find that what comes out the end has little-to-nothing to do with what was first said.

When a person hears something, he might mishear it, but his brain covers over the lapse with something else that sounds plausible; he might misunderstand what was taught to begin with, and so his explanation comes out different; he might have had some particular thoughts or ideas float in his head while he was listening, and his memory attributes these thoughts to the original speaker. Sometimes he might simply lie. For whatever reason, it’s a given that an account of lessons or of an event that was witnessed will be to at least some extent, original. Only some percentage will be an accurate rendition of the truth.

Below, I have an example where we assume that there is some wise philosopher on the left. He tells two students everything he has to offer. Those students tell someone else — but with their own information overwriting what their teacher said — who then teach their own version yet again, and so on. Each time, the data changes just ever so slightly.

Multiple Attestation - Example

I have also drawn a black bar vertically along the image. Pretend that the personal version of the truth has been recorded for each of the people in our diagram, but all of the records to the left of the black bar were lost. All of the records to the right, while the diagram shows them in relationship to one another — who was whose teacher — we haven’t received that knowledge. We have all of these records, but we don’t know which are closer or further from the truth. The record second down on the far right, for example, is nearly entirely wrong.

To some degree of accuracy, via a sort of puzzle game, one can reconstruct not only what the hierarchy of teacher<->student connections are, but also what the original true recording was. In Biblical study — e.g. in the reconstruction of Jesus’ teachings — this process is called the criterion of multiple attestation. You try to find the commonalities, and through that to discover what was original, and what was interpolated.

But while this is a scientifically rigorous methodology, it must be noted that it can only give answers about the probability of a thing.

The principal issue is the loss of data. Take for example that the top 3 records on the right side were also lost. This means that no surviving record contains the top purple box. The assumption will be that the top brown box is the most likely truth based on the available evidence. And with the grey colors more prevalent in the second, fourth, and sixth positions, it would be likely that we would assume these were the correct version compared to the purple. In total, 4/6ths of our presumed correct version would be wrong.

If the question of which records survive through history is open to random happenstance, so long as there is a wide enough spread of records from all branches, you will quite likely be able to accurately reconstruct the truth. But if there was a dedicated movement to destroy all records which, for example, contained the topmost purple element, then the truth is for ever after perverted. It’s only when you have some amount of information from all of the branches that the truth can actually be reconstructed.

The Question of Heresy

Heresy is, essentially, the spread of ideas that go against the “offical” statement of truth. For instance, if President Obama asserts that he was born in the US and someone else asserts that he was born in Israel, one of these positions is the orthodox belief and the other the heretical. But, at day 1, neither statement is primo facie the truth. One party must win a sufficient majority of adherents to declare itself orthodox, leaving the other party as the heretics. In the case of President Obama’s birth, this can be accomplished by allowing official documentation and records to be studied by an impartial third party to determine the truth. If it’s a question of what a philosopher said and meant, and that man is dead and can’t provide the evidence, then it becomes a battle among his students over who had the greater understanding. Obviously, if they were scientifically minded, they would all make record of their position and use the process of multiple attestation to reassemble the truth. It’s unlikely that the original Christians did this.

The process of becoming the orthodox is simply to gain the greatest number of adherents. That only requires the skill of popularity if there’s no other way of proving anything.

Now, when Jesus died, he left behind a small group of followers. They might number anywhere between a dozen or a hundred or two. Personally, I would guess that it was in the range of 30-50. Taking his place as the leader of this group, upon his death, was either Simon Peter (The Rock) or his brother James the Just. Presumably, this person would have a sufficiently accurate idea of the truth that he could continue to preach it without any major elements of incorrect data getting substituted in. Besides Peter or James, however, Jesus is purported to have appeared to another man near Damascus and revealed the truth directly into his mind. This man was Paul of Tarsus.

Now, according to Paul, everything he knew about Jesus and his Message was provided to him via direct revelation (Gal 1:11-12):

But I make known to you, brothers, concerning the Good News which was preached by me, that it is not according to man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ.

But on the other hand, Paul also states — within the very same paragraph — that he had acted as the legal prosecution against Christians (Gal 1:13-24):

For you have heard of my way of living in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the assembly of God, and ravaged it. I advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I didn’t immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia. Then I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. But of the other apostles I saw no one, except James, the Lord’s brother. Now about the things which I write to you, behold, before God, I’m not lying. Then I came to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. I was still unknown by face to the assemblies of Judea which were in Christ, but they only heard: “He who once persecuted us now preaches the faith that he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God in me.

Not to mention that Paul also claimed to have been staying with a Christian evangelist at the time of his conversion (Acts 9:10-21):

Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He said, “Behold, it’s me, Lord.”

The Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”

Ananias departed, and entered into the house. Laying his hands on him, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized. He took food and was strengthened. Saul stayed several days with the disciples who were at Damascus. Immediately in the synagogues he proclaimed the Christ, that he is the Son of God. All who heard him were amazed, and said, “Isn’t this he who in Jerusalem made havoc of those who called on this name? And he had come here intending to bring them bound before the chief priests!”

Even if we presume that divine revelation is possible, Paul still doesn’t come across as a particularly trustworthy source of information. Taking magic off the table, Paul is a very poor source of information. By his own admission, he never met the living Jesus and its impossible to say how much study he actually put into discovering what the real Jesus taught. By professing direct revelation, he had no large impetus to do so, which means that he may very well have taken but a few scraps of knowledge from Ananias — and other less-knowledgeable sources of Jesus’ teachings than James the Just, Simon Peter, or other high level apostles — and simply run with it.

As it turned out, however, Paul’s version of Christianity became the orthodox.

A large reason for this, and for which we can’t blame Paul, around the year 70 AD, Jerusalem was largely demolished by the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War. The church in Jerusalem was largely destroyed.

More importantly though, it seems likely that Paul was simply a much better vessel for preaching a message. His church, based in Antioch, was able to support the church in Jerusalem through a famine (possibly, this was also the first occasion that he ever journeyed to Jerusalem to meet the church there). Paul is also noted as bringing further financial aid the last time he comes to Jerusalem before being arrested and taken to Rome. Both of these attest to his ability to gather a flock and gain decent coinage from them. We also know that he was a professional lawyer and orator. Point in fact, a pre-revelation Paul of Tarsus was supposedly the leading proponent of having Saint Stephen driven out of town and stoned to death (Acts 6-8), and that this act was so destructive that it caused the people of Jerusalem to flee out of the city in fear and (in result) spread the word of Christianity farther.

If nothing else, the fact of Paul’s being the largest author of the New Testament is fairly good evidence of his ability to take control and lead a church — even while on trial in Rome. His influence is so great that, in fact, it is nearly just as likely that the character of Jesus and his church were the products of Paul’s imagination. There is no source of information that can be shown to be independent of Paul’s influence.

So, Paul’s vision of Christianity became the orthodox. That’s not necessarily bad, but it means two things. Firstly, if the Jerusalem church had any records, these may well have been destroyed with the sacking of the city. If they didn’t they may have been too scattered and disorganized afterward to actually compile them. And thirdly, even if they did get out of Jerusalem and make records of Jesus’ teaching, if those views were held to be heretical according to the Pauline orthodox, those records may very well have been suppressed and destroyed.

In point of fact, the church’s position for a thousand or more years, was to kill heretics and burn all of their documentation. Later heresies, from the middle ages or whenever, are of course only interesting to a historian interested in heretics, but the very earliest heresies from the first and second centuries may well have contained a significantly different and more complete view of the real Jesus and his teachings. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, in fact, the only source of information about early heresies was from the writings of early, orthodox writers elaborating on why some of the heretical viewpoints in existence, at the time, were incorrect.

Specifically, these are:

Justin Martyr – (103 – 165) Writing from 150, but relevant works almost entirely lost
Hegessippus – (110 – 180) Works almost entirely lost
Tatian – (120 – 180) Writing from 160 (but mostly off-topic)
Irenaeus – (? – 202) Writing from 180
Origen – (185 – 254) Writing from 240

We also have the Bible (the dating of which varies by section) and the writings of Josephus (37 – 100, writing around 94 but largely off-topic). So, as you can see, our earliest (and hence best) sources of information seem to have also had their information disappeared.


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