03 Aug The History of the King James Bible
The 39 books of the Old Testament form the Bible of Judaism, while the Christian Bible includes those books and also the 27 books of the New Testament. The list of books included in the Bible is known as the canon. That is, the canon refers to the books regarded as inspired by God and authoritative for faith and life. It was actually not until 367 AD that Father Athanasius first provided the complete listing of the 66 books belonging to the canon.
Let’s look first at the Old Testament. Obviously the first five books (sometimes called the Torah or the Pentateuch) were the first to be accepted as canonical. Of course, the Hebrews had the “Law” for many centuries already. It has been speculated that the work of the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah restored it to general use and fixed it once and for all as authoritative.
How about the rest of the Old Testament? The prophets’ writings were also not brought together in a single form until about 200 BC. The remaining Old Testament books were adopted as canonical even later. The Old Testament list was probably not finally fixed much before the birth of Christ. The Jewish people were widely scattered by this time and they really needed to know which books were the authoritative Word of God because so many other writings claiming divine authority were floating around. With the fixing of the canon they became a people of one Book, and this Book kept them together.
Nor is there a single date when we can say that the canon of the New Testament was decided. In the first and second centuries after Christ, many, many writings and epistles were circulating among the Christians. Some of the churches were using books and letters in their services that were definitely spurious. Gradually the need to have a definite list of the inspired Scriptures became apparent. Heretical movements were rising, each one choosing its own selected Scriptures, including such documents as the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas. By the end of the fourth century the canon was definitively settled and accepted.
The Bible in the Dark (Middle) Ages
The Dark Ages were considered by some to start in 410, by others in 476 when there was no longer an emperor in Rome, and to end about 800, at the time of the Carolingian Renaissance under Charlemagne, or alternatively to extend through to the end of the 1st millennium.
By the end of the second century A.D., classical civilization had come to an end. The Roman Empire was on the decline—weakened by corruption, economic disintegration, and the ever-present threat of barbarian invasion. The emperors became more despotic than ever—imposing military conscription and heavy taxes. And they persecuted Christians periodically, as they had almost from the beginning.
But by the fourth century, the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine signaled a dramatic shift in the relationship between Christianity and the state. The night before a major battle against his rival Maxentius, a vision told Constantine (who’d always worshiped the sun god) to put a Christian monogram on his soldiers’ shields. When he won the battle the next day, his attitude toward Christianity changed forever. He began to give Christians special favors, restored their property, and granted them religious freedom. At the end of his life, Constantine himself was baptized a Christian.
Constantine’s support gave the Church new strength. But it also introduced long-term problems for Christianity, particularly when Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople in his own honor. This move created a power vacuum in Rome, which was quickly filled by a strong line of popes who created a kind of “papal monarchy.”
Throughout the Middle Ages, this papacy was the ruling authority to which all Western Christendom was subject. The popes assumed not only religious but also secular control over much of the old Roman world. For all practical purposes, the Church of the Middle Ages was a church state—with absolute power to levy taxes, call up armies, make laws, and punish citizens who violated its laws.
With this secularization of the Christian Church, Bible study diminished dramatically. Gradually, the doctrinal teachings of the Church replaced the Bible in the hearts of Christians. As the people lost touch with the Scriptures, they moved farther and farther away from certain Christian practices—such as reading the Bible aloud in church services, preaching the gospel, and practicing spiritual healing. At the same time the actual text of the Bible became corrupted.
The Corruption of the Latin Vulgate Bible
Before the text of the Bible was translated into English, Christians used the Latin Bible known as the Vulgate. The Vulgate Bible was itself a translation, undertaken just decades after the Roman Empire legalized Christianity. Several different Latin versions of biblical texts had been produced during the early Christian period, but they were inconsistent in quality and accuracy. In 382, Pope Damasus asked Eusebius Hieronymus—better known as Saint Jerome—to revise the biblical text into a standard version using the everyday language of the Roman Empire: Latin. Jerome spent 23 years translating the text of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew. Jerome’s translation gradually was adopted by all of Western Christianity. During the Middle Ages (the 5th – 15th centuries | The Julian years 1401 – 1500), the Vulgate was the Bible used throughout all of Western Europe, including England.
Jerome‘s translation of the Bible—completed in the early fifth century—was a far better text than the jumbled “Old Latin” Bible that preceded it. Yet for a couple of centuries the Roman world fought against the Vulgate, clinging to the Old Latin text as somehow purer and holier than Jerome’s version. For this reason, people insisted on changing, or “corrupting,” the Vulgate as it fanned out from Italy and southern France into Germany, Ireland, England, and Spain. Some scribes, as they recopied the Vulgate, inserted the familiar Old Latin wording into Jerome’s text as they saw fit. Others continued to use the Old Latin text as their base but inserted some of Jerome’s passages.
It was this sad situation that made the Roman author and monk Cassiodorus try to standardize the Vulgate text in the sixth century. He turned out a new Bible that stayed as close as possible to Jerome’s original wording and the ancient Hebrew Scripture.
Unfortunately, though, this improved version of the Vulgate wasn’t popular. Instead, it was another text that Cassiodorus produced—one that was far inferior—that ended up having wide circulation. In fact, the British abbot Ceolfrid took it with him to England in the early eighth century. There it was recopied—with all its mistakes and corruptions—into another manuscript known as the Codex Amiatinus. And in that form, it found its way to monasteries all over Europe.
The Vulgate was also badly corrupted in Spain. Jerome himself had originally given his text to some Spanish scribes who’d come to Jerusalem to copy his Bible in 398. But the texts they copied didn’t include some of Jerome’s last and best revisions. Jerome may have sent these revisions on to Spain later, but they were never incorporated into the Vulgate text there. So, over the next two centuries, the Spanish Vulgate drifted even farther from Jerome’s original. Eventually, so many flawed texts were circulating in Spain that it was hard to tell which ones were reliable.
Charlemagne Tries to Reform the Vulgate
During the reign of the Frankish King Charlemagne, nearly every major monastery in Europe had an Irish monk-in-residence to guide its Bible studies. (The Irish monasteries specialized in Greek and Hebrew studies.) Charlemagne strongly supported this, since he felt that improving the Bible text would bring order and culture to his vast kingdom.
Encouraged by Charlemagne, two major scholars devoted their talents to correcting the Vulgate. The first was Theodulf, bishop of Orleans and one of the most brilliant theologians of the Frankish Empire. Under Charlemagne’s patronage, Theodulf turned out several exquisitely illuminated manuscripts of the Vulgate.
The other Bible scholar who worked to revise the Vulgate during Charlemagne’s reign was the king’s longtime religious adviser, Alcuin. Born and educated at York, in Britain, he met Charlemagne in 781 and soon became the king’s royal tutor and abbot of Tours in France. Charlemagne commissioned Alcuin to revise both the Old and New Testaments.
Using texts he’d brought with him from England, Alcuin trained the monks under his supervision to correct errors in grammar and punctuation, and to return to Jerome’s original wording. He produced a number of single volume Bibles, many of which were ornately decorated. But these were filled with Alcuin’s marginal comments, all of which explained the theology of the Church Fathers. Then later scholars incorporated his comments into the text. This corrupted the Vulgate even further.
Scholasticism Alters Jerome’s Bible
In the twelfth century, a book by Peter Lombard, an Italian scholar, inadvertently caused more corruption of the Vulgate. Lombard’s book, The Sentences, contained four volumes of teaching on theological subjects like the Trinity and the Sacraments. But the most striking thing about the book was its heavy quotation from the Church Fathers and its use of a complex method of theological reasoning that came to be known as “Scholasticism.” Eventually, this highly orthodox book became the standard statement of theology for the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.
Tragically, scholars in Paris interwove Lombard’s scholastic commentary into a new edition of Alcuin’s Bible in the early thirteenth century. The result was the “Paris Bible,” an edition with layer upon layer of scholastic theology built into the text, Students at the University of Paris soon disseminated this new one volume Bible all over Europe.
By the early fourteenth century, the condition of Jerome’s Vulgate was deplorable. Yet the seriousness of this situation was known only to the most elite scholars—those who had some knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The vast majority of lay citizens couldn’t understand these languages. Hundreds of years earlier, the Latin language had died out. And gradually, a family of new languages—they were called “vernacular languages”—took its place.
New Popular Languages
The new vernacular tongues included the modern languages we use now in Western civilization: Romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian; and Germanic languages like German, Swiss, and English. The important thing as far as the Bible is concerned, though, is that people who spoke these new languages in the Middle Ages were totally out of touch with Latin and with the Latin Bible that the Church doggedly maintained as its only official text—the one and only version of Scripture to be used in church services or to be read by the clergy.
But the fact remains that illiteracy prevailed among all but a few priests and nobles. And even if the common people had known how to read, the Church forbade them to read the Bible. At the height of its power in the early thirteenth century, Church authorities completely shut down any possibilities for the average person to become familiar with the Scriptures when they made it illegal for lay members to even own a Bible, much less read one.
The Early Gothic Bible
The first reformer to give the Bible to his people in their native tongue was the Gothic King, Ulfilas, in the fourth century. Born of a Gothic father and a Christian mother from Cappadocia (in what’s now Turkey), Ulfilas’s early education included the study of Greek and Latin, as well as Gothic. As a young man, he became involved in Christian missionary work. Later he was made a bishop. Often called the “Apostle of the Goths,” Ulfilas eventually translated most of the Byzantine Greek Bible into the Gothic language. His Bible is the only major work of literature left from the Gothic civilization.
The Anglo-Saxon and English Bibles
The one Bible the Anglo-Saxon people knew about—and their contact with it was only indirect—was the Latin Vulgate text that Augustine and Ceolfrid brought to England from Rome in the early eighth century. Yet only the monks had direct contact with these manuscripts, and most of them couldn’t read Latin.
People at that time felt it would profane the Scriptures to put them into common languages that anyone could understand—languages they believed simply weren’t worthy of communicating the Word of God. Latin, they thought, was the only holy language.
The story of the English vernacular Bible actually begins in the late seventh century with Caedmon, the first Anglo-Saxon Christian poet. A cowherd with the monastery in the Whitby area, Caedmon saw an angel one night who told him to write a song about creation. The next morning, according to legend, he found that he could—for the first time in his life—write exquisite lines of poetry in the complicated Anglo-Saxon verse forms that were popular in the England of that time.
After he finished his hymn on creation, Caedmon (or someone writing in his name) wrote a whole series of poems retelling Bible stories from Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, as well as from the Gospels. These pieces sing with prophetic and mystical inspiration, but they wander far from the Bible itself.
Later, in the ninth century, the Midland poet Cynewulf told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in an even freer and more imaginative way than Caedmon had. About that time, King Alfred the Great of Wessex sponsored a revival of learning that included translating parts of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon. According to tradition, the king himself began the translation of Psalms just before his death. But Alfred’s translations were only for the clergy and the nobility. He never believed that ordinary people should read them.
It took the priest and writer Aelfric—in the tenth century—to finally give the common people large chunks of the Bible. Inspired by his patron, Earl Ethelweard, Aelfric wrote a lively series of sermons filled with Bible quotations—all translated into good, clear Anglo-Saxon. And, with Ethelweard’s sponsorship, Aelfric put these sermons, as well as the Pentateuch, into book form so other priests could use them.
But Aelfric was a reluctant pioneer. He refused to translate the Gospels into English, fearing reprisals from the Church. And he told Ethelweard in the preface to his translation of Genesis, “I dare not and I will not translate any book of the Bible after this book.”
Fortunately, another Bible scholar (one who managed to remain anonymous) did dare to put the Gospels into English during Aelfric’s lifetime. This translation, known as the West-Saxon Gospels, was never used in church services and had to be circulated privately. But it finally gave people the entire gospel story in their native tongue.
With the Norman invasion of 1066 came an enormous setback for the infant English Bible. As the Normans swept over the land, they took over the monasteries and other centers of learning, imposing French and Latin as the dominant languages.
Even so, an irrepressible strain began to develop in English thought about this time. It was an ardent desire—especially among women and other unlettered people with no opportunity to learn Latin—to read the Bible in their native language. Quietly, but inexorably, this group of prayer-minded Christians grew. And eventually, in the fourteenth century, the fervor of these English men and women boiled over into strident expression. And in the last decades of that century, this movement of the common people found its first great champion in an Oxford professor named John Wycliffe.
Wycliffe (c. 1320-84) taught that the Bible provides inerrant truths that should guide religious and political government. He and his followers believed the Bible should be available to all people in their own language—in the case of the peasants and middle class, English (specifically, an earlier form of the language known as Middle English). Wycliffe, or members of his circle, produced a New Testament in the 1380’s, translated from the Latin Vulgate. Since the Wycliffite Bible appeared during a period of social, political, and religious unrest, authorities perceived English-language Bibles as symbols of heresy. Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned in 1382. In 1409 the Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited the translation of any biblical text into English as well as the reading of such texts. English-language Bibles were pushed underground for the next 130 years.
Running parallel to the development of a people’s Bible in England were similar movements in Germany, the Low Countries, France, Italy, and Spain. In Germany, for instance, the first vernacular Psalters came in the ninth and tenth centuries, in the wake of Charlemagne’s renaissance of learning. These appeared in a variety of dialects. Then, in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, a monastic schoolmaster named Notker turned out fine Bavarian German translations of the Psalter and the book of Job in a burst of affection for the newly developing German language.
In southern France, in the twelfth century, Peter Valdes, or Waldo, a well-to-do merchant with a passion for Bible reading, gave all his possessions to charity and launched a career as a preacher to the poor people of Lyons. Furious about the Church’s restrictions on Bible reading, Valdes commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the language of Provencal. Then he gave this text to the people through his followers, all of whom were “poor” preachers like himself. When the pope told these “Waldensians” to stop preaching and handing out Bibles, Valdes retorted that he had to obey God—not man. The Church excommunicated him in 1184.
Valdes’s followers branched out all over Europe and waged an underground campaign to give the Bible to the people. But eventually, the Waldensians—together with some related sects in Germany, Italy, and France—became the targets of a major inquisition by the Church. Dominican and Franciscan inquisitors traveled around Europe interrogating members of these Bible-reading sects and brought them to trial for violating Church prohibitions against studying Scripture. But the Waldensians who were able to escape took refuge in the valleys of Italy, France, Spain, and Germany.
In each of these countries, people influenced by the Waldensians joined together in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to demand complete Bibles in their own languages. The Vulgate, they argued, had become hopelessly corrupt and was incomprehensible to a public that couldn’t understand Latin. But more important, vernacular languages now had enough fluidity, precision, breadth of word choice, and beauty to support great and memorable versions of Scripture.
In the early 16th century William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536), inspired by the work of Martin Luther, wanted to translate the Bible into English. Unable to win the approval of English religious authorities, Tyndale moved to Germany and began translating the New Testament from Greek. This translation went to press in Cologne in 1525, but the print shop was raided and Tyndale had to flee. He resumed his work elsewhere, publishing a complete New Testament the following year; copies were smuggled into England. Tyndale next published portions of the Old Testament and revised his New Testament translation. Shortly after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, Tyndale moved to Antwerp, where many illegal English books were produced. There he was arrested and charged with heresy and provoking sedition in England. Tyndale was convicted and executed in August 1536.
In 1538, Henry VIII reversed the policy toward vernacular translations of the Bible, realizing that English Bibles were politically expedient for the new Church of England. A new Bible translation was endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Known as the Great Bible, this translation was based on the work of Tyndale and his successor, Myles Coverdale. It appeared in 1539.
Bible Wars: Competing Translations
During the reign of Mary I, Catholicism was reinstated as England’s official religion. A group of Protestant scholars fled to Switzerland, where they began work on an English translation of the Bible. Their version appeared in parts between 1557 and 1560. The Geneva Bible, as this translation is called, included marginal commentary and annotations that expressed Calvinist ideas.
The Geneva Bible was popular not only with Scottish Calvinists and English Puritans, but also with a broad English audience. The marginal commentary made the Bible text more accessible to the average reader. But to leaders of the Church of England, the Geneva Bible was highly suspect. Word choices within the text, as well as the textual commentary, challenged traditional church structure and beliefs. In response the Church of England authorized a new translation project, one that would reflect conventional religious practice and omit the commentary. The Archbishop of Canterbury chaired a committee of scholars (many of whom were Anglican bishops) who produced a Bible in 1568. However, the translation, known as the Bishops’ Bible, never gained the popularity of the Geneva Bible.
Why the King James Version?
When James I acceded to the throne in 1603, tensions between the conservative elements of the Church of England and the Puritan reformers were high. The Puritans hoped that the new king would be supportive of their reform efforts. In truth, James abhorred many of their views, especially their denial of the divine authority of kings. He believed the Puritans and the Geneva Bible were hostile to the monarchy, while the Church of England reinforced the king’s authority.
In 1604, James convened an assembly of leaders from the Church of England and the Puritan faction at Hampton Court to allow them to air their grievances and talk about ecclesiastical reform. James did not approve of the Puritans’ propositions, but when they mentioned a possible new Bible translation, James jumped at the suggestion. While the Puritans may have wished for a revision of the Bishop’s Bible, instead, James sanctioned a new translation entirely.
Translating the King James Bible
The translation project was overseen by Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London. He recruited qualified scholars and established rules to guide the translation work. He also arranged ecclesiastical posts for the translators, since neither the King nor Parliament paid for the project. The translators were divided into six companies, and each company was assigned to work on a portion of the Biblical text. They were instructed to base their scholarship primarily on the Bishop’s Bible, but were also to consider earlier translations, including Tyndale’s. Marginal notes were allowed only when necessary to explain Hebrew or Greek terms. Above all, the translators’ goal was to find the most accurate English words and phrases for the original text.
Little evidence exists today documenting the translators’ efforts. The companies appear to have completed their work at different points between 1608 and 1610. The translations were then assembled for a final review and were read aloud to a small group of delegates for approval. The final text was given to Robert Barker, the King’s printer (who held a royal patent granting him a monopoly on the printing of Bibles).
The King James Version did not gain overwhelming popularity for several decades after it first appeared. Many readers continued to use the preferred Geneva translation. As religious and political tensions soared during the reign of James’s son, Charles I, the Geneva Bible came to be seen as the Bible of the Puritans and the King James Bible as the Bible of the Royalists. The Puritans, who believed Parliament should have more authority than the king, criticized the King James Version because it had been commissioned by a monarch rather than Parliament. Puritans also objected to the inclusion of the Apocrypha in the King James Bible and questioned the accuracy and style of the translation. However, during the Puritan Commonwealth (1649-60), the King James Bible remained in circulation.
With the restoration of the English monarchy, backlash against Puritanism labeled the Geneva Bible as seditious while the King James Bible was embraced as a symbol of religious and political unity. Over ensuing decades, the King James Bible assumed its place as the definitive English translation of the holy scriptures.
The King James version was based on the 16th-century Textus Receptus (“received text”), which was a printed version of the best Greek New Testament texts known at the time. Many apologists point proudly to the thousands of New Testament manuscript copies we have today—roughly 5000 Greek manuscripts and lectionaries (collections of scripture used during church services) and close to 20,000 manuscripts in other languages (mostly Latin, but also Ethiopic, Slavic, Syriac, and more). This compares with 2000 copies of the Iliad, our second-most well-represented ancient book. These are impressive numbers, but too much is made of them. Many of these are incomplete fragments—especially the oldest and most important—and almost all are far removed from the early church period.
While there are fragments of gospels going back to the second century, for complete copies we go to manuscripts such as the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. These are our oldest complete copies of the New Testament, and each was written in roughly 350 CE, perhaps as part of the newly approved canon from the Council of Nicaea.
There are 400,000 differences between the thousands of New Testament copies—more differences than there are words in the New Testament. Almost all are insignificant, but thousands of meaningful differences remain.
Historians use several tools to resolve these differences:
- Criterion of Embarrassment. Of two passages, which one is more embarrassing? We can easily imagine scribes toning down a passage, but it doesn’t make sense for them to make it more embarrassing. The passage that is more embarrassing is likelier to be more authentic. For example, different copies of Mark 1:40–41 has Jesus either “moved with compassion” or “moved with anger.” A copyist changing compassion to anger is hard to imagine, but the opposite is quite plausible. The Criterion of Embarrassment would conclude that “moved with anger” is the likelier original reading.
- Criterion of Multiple Attestation. A claim made by multiple independent sources is preferred over one in a single source.
In addition, a contested passage in an older manuscript is preferred, the one contained in more manuscripts is preferred, and so on.
Notice that these tools need multiple manuscripts to work. They ask: given two manuscripts with different versions of a particular passage, which is the more authentic one?
Consider the long ending of Mark, for example. [Textual critics have identified two distinct alternative endings: the “Longer Ending” (vv. 9-20) and the unversed “Shorter Ending” or “lost ending”, which appear together in six Greek manuscripts, and in dozens of Ethiopic copies. Modern versions of the New Testament generally include the Longer Ending, but place it in brackets or otherwise format it to show that it is not considered part of the original text]. Given the manuscript of Mark ending with verse 16:20 (version A) and the manuscript ending with 16:8 (version B), the historians’ tools were applied to determine which was the likely older and more authentic version.
Of several manuscript categories, our oldest complete copies are Alexandrian manuscripts, including the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. The dry conditions of Alexandria, Egypt preserved manuscripts better than many other places where New Testament documents were kept—Asia Minor, Greece, or Italy. These are considered accepted manuscripts as any document that may refute them have crumbled to dust.
What Books Have Been Removed from the Bible?
The Bible is actually two compilations put together at separate times. The Hebrew Bible, called “the Old Testament” by Christians, is the Bible written in Hebrew and used in Judaism. The New Testament is the addition made by Christians to include the four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus, later history in Acts, and letters by the Apostles and other items. Various other books were considered for inclusion but ultimately not included in the official Christian tradition. These books are called Apocrypha.
In the year 1611 the Bible was translated from Latin into English. Back then the Bible contained a total of 80 books and the last 14 books, which today have been excluded, made up the end of the Old Testament and were as follows:
- 1 Esdras
- 2 Esdras
- The Rest of Esther
- The Wisdom of Solomon
- Baruch with the Epistle Jeremiah
- The Songs of the 3 Holy children
- The History of Susana
- Bel and the Dragon
- The Prayer for Manasses
- 1 Maccabees
- 2 Maccabees
In 1684 all of these books were removed from all versions except for a 1611 edition, which was the very first edition translated into English.
Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 800-900 documents, many containing ancient Biblical texts. Some are in tantalizing fragments (there are over 50,000 individual pieces in all). Others are substantial and complete, the longest scroll being eight meters long.
They were written over a period of around 200 years, and were evidently placed in the caves to hide them from the advancing Roman army at the time of the First Jewish Revolt, and hence no later than 68AD. Carbon dating puts the earliest of them at about 150BC. They may have been written out by the scribes of an ancient community living at Qumran, near the caves where they were found. However, their origins are the subject of much scholarly debate, and there are many different theories. What is clear is that the authors were Jewish, and disapproved of the Jerusalem priesthood of the time.
The dry climate on the shores of the Dead Sea, parts of which today are 400m below sea level – the lowest place on earth a human can walk – helped preserve the ancient documents.
In contrast to the Christian Bible, which survives in many manuscripts dating back to the fourth century, the oldest known source for the Hebrew Bible before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was only a thousand years old. They are therefore the earliest surviving sources we have for the Hebrew Bible by almost a thousand years.
What Do They Contain?
Of the scrolls found, about a quarter (220 in all) are books of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament: all the books, in fact, except Esther and Nehemiah. The most common books found are Psalms and Deuteronomy.
A further quarter are religious texts not part of a standard Bible, such as the book of Enoch or the book of Jubilees. The rest are other religious texts and a range of secular writings including lists of laws, advice on warfare, and a catalog of places where treasure was buried. About one in six of the scrolls have not yet been identified. Over three-quarters of the scrolls are written in Hebrew. The remainder are in Koine Greek and Aramaic.
Who Found the Scrolls?
One story is that a young Bedu called Muhammed, nicknamed edh-Dhib, found the first scrolls in a cave in 1947 while searching for a goat. Over the next ten years the site was thoroughly investigated. In all, 11 caves were found to contain scrolls, wrapped in linen and stored in jars. Caves 1 and 11 produced the most intact documents.
The scrolls are referred to by the cave they were found in, the letter Q, and a further identifying number. An example is the controversial shred of papyrus found in cave 7 called 7Q5: some believe it is part of the New Testament, specifically the Gospel of Mark. If this were true, it would be the earliest known Gospel text by a century. However, the only complete legible word is ‘kai’ – Greek for ‘and’.
This scroll contains part of the Psalms, the most commonly found book of the Bible among the scrolls. Of the 150 ‘standard’ Psalms in the Bible, 126 are found in the Dead Sea collection, plus 15 ‘apocryphal’ ones (that is, not found in the standard Bible). Some scholars believe that the psalm collection was copied out at Qumran, but was not compiled there.
The Gnostic Gospels
The Gnostic Gospels: The 52 texts discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt include ‘secret’ gospels poems and myths attributing to Jesus sayings and beliefs which are very different from the New Testament. Scholar Elaine Pagels explores these documents and their implications.
From the Gnostic Gospels
by Elaine Pagels
Vintage Books, New York: 1979
In December 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archeological discovery in Upper Egypt. Rumors obscured the circumstances of this find–perhaps because the discovery was accidental, and its sale on the black market illegal. For years even the identity of the discoverer remained unknown. One rumor held that he was a blood avenger; another, that he had made the find near the town of Naj ‘Hammádì at the Jabal al-Tárif, a mountain honeycombed with more than 150 caves. Originally natural, some of these caves were cut and painted and used as grave sites as early as the sixth dynasty, some 4,300 years ago.
Thirty years later the discoverer himself, Muhammad ‘Alí al-Sammán; told what happened. Shortly before he and his brothers avenged their father’s murder in a blood feud, they had saddled their camels and gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a massive boulder, they hit a red earthenware jar, almost a meter high. Muhammad ‘Alí hesitated to break the jar, considering that a jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But realizing that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the jar, and discovered inside thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. Returning to his home in al-Qasr, Muhammad ‘All dumped the books and loose papyrus leaves on the straw piled on the ground next to the oven. Muhammad’s mother, ‘Umm-Ahmad, admits that she burned much of the papyrus in the oven along with the straw she used to kindle the fire.
A few weeks later, as Muhammad ‘Alí tells it, he and his brothers avenged their father’s death by murdering Ahmed Isma’il. Their mother had warned her sons to keep their mattocks sharp: when they learned that their father’s enemy was nearby, the brothers seized the opportunity, “hacked off his limbs . . . ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge.”
Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house and discover the books, Muhammad ‘Alí asked the priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih, to keep one or more for him. During the time that Muhammad ‘Alí and his brothers were being interrogated for murder, Raghib, a local history teacher, had seen one of the books, and suspected that it had value. Having received one from al-Qummus Basiliyus, Raghib sent it to a friend in Cairo to find out its worth.
Sold on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo, the manuscripts soon attracted the attention of officials of the Egyptian government. Through circumstances of high drama, as we shall see, they bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books, called codices, and deposited them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. But a large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out of Egypt and offered for sale in America. Word of this codex soon reached Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Excited by the discovery, Quispel urged the Jung Foundation in Zurich to buy the codex. But discovering, when he succeeded, that some pages were missing, he flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955 to try to find them in the Coptic Museum. Arriving in Cairo, he went at once to the Coptic Museum, borrowed photographs of some of the texts, and hurried back to his hotel to decipher them. Tracing out the first line, Quispel was startled, then incredulous, to read: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” Quispel knew that his colleague H.C. Puech, using notes from another French scholar, Jean Doresse, had identified the opening lines with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1890’s. But the discovery of the whole text raised new questions: Did Jesus have a twin brother, as this text implies? Could the text be an authentic record of Jesus’ sayings? According to its title, it contained the Gospel According to Thomas; yet, unlike the gospels of the New Testament, this text identified itself as a secret gospel. Quispel also discovered that it contained many sayings known from the New Testament; but these sayings, placed in unfamiliar contexts, suggested other dimensions of meaning.
Other passages, Quispel found, differed entirely from any known Christian tradition: the “living Jesus,” for example, speaks in sayings as cryptic and compelling as Zen koans:
Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
What Quispel held in his hand, the Gospel of Thomas, was only one of the fifty-two texts discovered at Nag Hammadi (the usual English transliteration of the town’s name). Bound into the same volume with it is the Gospel of Philip, which attributes to Jesus acts and sayings quite different from those in the New Testament:
. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] . . . They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you as (I love) her?”
Other sayings in this collection criticize common Christian beliefs, such as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, as naïve misunderstandings. Bound together with these gospels is the Apocryphon (literally, “secret book”) of John, which opens with an offer to reveal “the mysteries [and the] things hidden in silence” which Jesus taught to his disciple John.
Muhammad ‘Alí later admitted that some of the texts were lost–burned up or thrown away. But what remains is astonishing: some fifty-two texts from the early centuries of the Christian era–including a collection of early Christian gospels, previously unknown. Besides the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, the find included the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel to the Egyptians, which identifies itself as “the [sacred book] of the Great Invisible [Spirit].” Another group of texts consists of writings attributed to Jesus’ followers, such as the Secret Book of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter.
What Muhammad ‘Alí discovered at Nag Hammadi, it soon became clear, were Coptic translations, made about 1,500 years ago, of still more ancient manuscripts. The originals themselves had been written in Greek, the language of the New Testament: as Doresse, Puech, and Quispel had recognized, part of one of them had been discovered by archeologists about fifty years earlier, when they found a few fragments of the original Greek version of the Gospel of Thomas.
About the dating of the manuscripts themselves there is little debate. Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them c. A.D. 350-400. But scholars sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts. Some of them can hardly be later than c. A.D. 120-150, since Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons, writing C. 180, declares that heretics “boast that they possess more gospels than there really are,” and complains that in his time such writings already have won wide circulation–from Gaul through Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor.
Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Thomas, suggested the date of c. A.D. 140 for the original. Some reasoned that since these gospels were heretical, they must have been written later than the gospels of the New Testament, which are dated c. 60-l l0. But recently Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University has suggested that the collection of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, although compiled c. 140, may include some traditions even older than the gospels of the New Testament, “possibly as early as the second half of the first century” (50-100)–as early as, or earlier, than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
Scholars investigating the Nag Hammadi find discovered that some of the texts tell the origin of the human race in terms very different from the usual reading of Genesis: The Testimony of Truth, for example, tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent! Here the serpent, long known to appear in Gnostic literature as the principle of divine wisdom, convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge while “the Lord” threatens them with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and expelling them from Paradise when they achieve it. Another text, mysteriously entitled The Thunder, Perfect Mind, offers an extraordinary poem spoken in the voice of a feminine divine power:
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin….
I am the barren one, and many are her sons….
I am the silence that is incomprehensible….
I am the utterance of my name.
These diverse texts range, then, from secret gospels, poems, and quasi-philosophic descriptions of the origin of the universe, to myths, magic, and instructions for mystical practice.
Why were these texts buried-and why have they remained virtually unknown for nearly 2,000 years? Their suppression as banned documents, and their burial on the cliff at Nag Hammadi, it turns out, were both part of a struggle critical for the formation of early Christianity. The Nag Hammadi texts, and others like them, which circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century. We have long known that many early followers of Christ were condemned by other Christians as heretics, but nearly all we knew about them came from what their opponents wrote attacking them. Bishop Irenaeus, who supervised the church in Lyons, c. 180, wrote five volumes, entitled The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-called Knowledge, which begin with his promise “to set forth the views of those who are now teaching heresy . . . to show how absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements . . . I do this so that . . . you may urge all those with whom you are connected to avoid such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ.”
He denounces as especially “full of blasphemy” a famous gospel called the Gospel of Truth. Is Irenaeus referring to the same Gospel of Truth discovered at Nag Hammadi’ Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Truth, argued that he is; one of their critics maintains that the opening line (which begins “The gospel of truth”) is not a title. But Irenaeus does use the same source as at least one of the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi–the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of John–as ammunition for his own attack on such “heresy.” Fifty years later Hippolytus, a teacher in Rome, wrote another massive Refutation of All Heresies to “expose and refute the wicked blasphemy of the heretics.”
This campaign against heresy involved an involuntary admission of its persuasive power; yet the bishops prevailed. By the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed. But in Upper Egypt, someone; possibly a monk from a nearby monastery of St. Pachomius, took the banned books and hid them from destruction–in the jar where they remained buried for almost 1,600 years.
But those who wrote and circulated these texts did not regard themselves as “heretics.” Most of the writings use Christian terminology, unmistakable related to a Jewish heritage. Many claim to offer traditions about Jesus that are secret, hidden from “the many” who constitute what, in the second century, came to be called the “catholic church.” These Christians are now called Gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, usually translated as “knowledge.” For as those who claim to know nothing about ultimate reality are called agnostic (literally, “not knowing”), the person who does claim to know such things is called Gnostic (“knowing”). But gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge.
The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (“He knows mathematics”) and knowing through observation or experience (“He knows me”), which is gnosis. As the Gnostic use the term, we could translate it as “insight,” for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. And to know oneself, they claimed, is to know human nature and human destiny. According to the Gnostic teacher Theodotus, writing in Asia Minor (c. 140-160), “the Gnostic is one has come to understand who we were, and what we have become; where we were… whither we are hastening; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what is rebirth.”
Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis. Another Gnostic teacher, Monoimus, says, “Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.” Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate . . . If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.”
What Muhammad discovered at Nag Hammadi is, apparently, a library of writings, almost all of them Gnostic. Although they claim to offer secret teachings, many of these texts refer to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and others to the letters of Paul and the New Testament gospels. Many of them include the same dramatic personae as the New Testament–Jesus and his disciples. Yet the differences are striking.
Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from Its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the Gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.
Second, the “living Jesus” of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal–even identical.
Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source:
Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out…. He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.”
Does not such teaching–the identity of the divine and human. the concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord, but as spiritual guide sound more Eastern than Western? Some scholars have suggested that if the names were changed, the “living Buddha” appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. Could Hindu or Buddhist tradition have influenced Gnosticism?
The British scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, suggests that it had. He points out that “Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians (that is, Christians who knew and used such writings as the Gospel of Thomas) in South India.” Trade routes between the Greco-Roman world and the Far East were opening up at the time when Gnosticism flourished (A.D. 80-200); for generations, Buddhist missionaries had been proselytizing in Alexandria. We note, too, that Hippolytus, who was a Greek speaking Christian in Rome (c. 225), knows of the Indian Brahmins–and includes their tradition among the sources of heresy: “There is . . . among the Indians a heresy of those who philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining from (eating) living creatures and all cooked food . . . They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise.”
Could the title of the Gospel of Thomas–named for the disciple who, tradition tells us, went to India–suggest the influence of Indian tradition?
These hints indicate the possibility, yet our evidence is not conclusive. Since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures at different times, such ideas could have developed in both places independently. What we call Eastern and Western religions, and tend to regard as separate streams, were not clearly differentiated 2,000 years ago. Research on the Nag Hammadi texts is only beginning: we look forward to the work of scholars who can study these traditions comparatively to discover whether they can, in fact, be traced to Indian sources.
Even so, ideas that we associate with Eastern religions emerged in the first century through the Gnostic movement in the West, but they were suppressed and condemned by polemicists like Irenaeus. Yet those who called Gnosticism heresy were adopting–consciously or not–the viewpoint of that group of Christians who called themselves orthodox Christians. A heretic may be anyone whose outlook someone else dislikes or denounces. According to tradition, a heretic is one who deviates from the true faith. But what defines that “true faith”? Who calls it that, and for what reasons?
We find this problem familiar in our own experience. The term “Christianity,” especially since the Reformation, has covered an astonishing range of groups. Those claiming to represent “true Christianity” in the twentieth century can range from a Catholic cardinal in the Vatican to an African Methodist Episcopal preacher initiating revival in Detroit, a Mormon missionary in Thailand, or the member of a village church on the coast of Greece. Yet Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox agree that such diversity is a recent–and deplorable–development. According to Christian legend, the early church was different. Christians of every persuasion look back to the primitive church to find a simpler, purer form of Christian faith. In the apostles’ time, all members of the Christian community shared their money and property; all believed the same teaching, and worshiped together; all revered the authority of the apostles. It was only after that golden age that conflict, then heresy emerged: so says the author of the Acts of the Apostles, who identifies himself as the first historian of Christianity.
But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi have upset this picture. If we admit that some of these fifty-two texts represents early forms of Christian teaching, we may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than nearly anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.
Contemporary Christianity, diverse and complex as we find it, actually may show more unanimity than the Christian churches of the first and second centuries. For nearly all Christians since that time, Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox, have shared three basic premises. First, they accept the canon of the New Testament; second, they confess the apostolic creed; and third, they affirm specific forms of church institution. But every one of these-the canon of Scripture, the creed, and the institutional structure–emerged in its present form only toward the end of the second century. Before that time, as Irenaeus and others attest, numerous gospels circulated among various Christian groups, ranging from those of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to such writings as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth, as well as many other secret teachings, myths, and poems attributed to Jesus or his disciples. Some of these, apparently, were discovered at Nag Hammadi; many others are lost to us. Those who identified themselves as Christians entertained many–and radically differing-religious beliefs and practices. And the communities scattered throughout the known world organized themselves in ways that differed widely from one group to another.
Yet by A. D. 200, the situation had changed. Christianity had become an institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, who understood themselves to be the guardians of the only “true faith.” The majority of churches, among which the church of Rome took a leading role, rejected all other viewpoints as heresy. Deploring the diversity of the earlier movement, Bishop Irenaeus and his followers insisted that there could be only one church, and outside of that church, he declared, “there is no salvation.” Members of this church alone are orthodox (literally, “straight-thinking”) Christians. And, he claimed, this church must be catholic– that is, universal. Whoever challenged that consensus, arguing instead for other forms of Christian teaching, was declared to be a heretic, and expelled. When the orthodox gained military support, sometime after the Emperor Constantine became Christian in the fourth century, the penalty for heresy escalated.”
Note: I am choosing to not include Sumerian Cuneiform Tablets or the history of the Anunnaki as there has been no definitive evidence that the Semitic Hebrew Language is older than the Sumerian language, or vice versa, though it is hypothesized as such. There is a large debate on the dating of the tablets in relation to Babylon and the timelines listed in the Bible during the fall of Mesopotamia after the flood. These tablets also narrate a very different version of God and for the purpose of this blog, I wanted to remain focused specifically on the Bible. I did, however, feel it necessary to address and include the Gnostic Gospels as there is no definitive proof that these were not sacred texts.