The Evolution of the New Testament

Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine

When Christianity was sanctioned as the official religion of the state by Constantine the Great (306–337), it needed a consistent dogma and orthodoxy, i.e., a book and it also needed to suppress competing sects. This was the genesis of the New Testament as we know it today.

The Formation of the Catholic Church

Before the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, a common testament did not exist and there were many Christian sects with different Gospels that were viewed as sacred. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were accepted by the Catholic Church as canonical and the others rejected.

In recent times, however, non-canonical gospels, known as The Nag Hammadi document have been uncovered and they shed a different light on the events of early Christianity. Although the life of Jesus comes to most of us through the lens of the four Canonical Gospels, up until the 4th century CE there were other Gospels available to Christians that the Church later viewed as non-canonical.

Among the more popular non-canonical gospels are the Gnostic Gospels of Mary, Thomas, Phillip, Judas and Truth. Like the canonical gospels, they were also written pseudonymously and were an integral part of the Christian movement before the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The apocryphal labeling of these scriptures, as viewed by the newly formed Church, may have had more to do with the politics of the day than the teachings of Jesus.

Furthermore, the 27 canonical books of the New Testament were first enumerated by the Bishop (Athanasius) of Alexandria (298-373 CE) and are closely related to his overall theology. Those that did not subscribe to his theology (which became part of Church doctrine)were labeled as heretics. He was the gatekeeper and interpreter of what was inerrant and what was not.

While the four Gospels form a composite view of the life and times of Jesus, some have asked the following questions: Why four Gospels and not three or five, and why this group of four? Such decisions rested in the hands of one man, as the 27 books that Athanasius recommended were eventually accepted. It is also worthy to note that not all of the Canonical Gospels or the Epistles were unanimously accepted but instead ratified by consensus after the Council of Nicaea was convened. Scholars, past and present, have disagreed with Athanasius’ assessment. Chief among them were Martin Luther and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote his own Bible in which he deleted the Epistles of Paul and the miracles of Jesus.

Before the Council of Nicaea, the two important rival sects were Marcionism and Gnosticism. Marcionism was centered on the letters of Paul and Gnosticism had several different Gospels. Both sects were viewed as heretical by the newly formed Church. To some within the Christian movement, Marcionism with its emphasis on Paul was viewed as a threat, not only to them but to their interpretation of the role of Jesus in the formation of the Christian faith.

Christianity had to be seen as a religion of Jesus and not one of Paul in which Jesus was the subject of Paul’s religion. The Gnostic movement was also seen as a threat and its Gospels rejected by the Church. Although Peter’s influence on Christianity was not as great as Paul’s, the newly formed Church was centered around Peter and not Paul.

Even though Christians were persecuted throughout the Roman Empire in the nascent days before Constantine, Christianity was not a monolithic religion organized around a Bible, as we know it today. It emerged as the result of a power struggle within the Christian movement, sanctioned by Constantine, as a means of developing a common orthodoxy and exegesis. Some scholars question Constantine's religious epiphany and motives and believe he saw Christianity as a means to gain control of an empire in decline. No longer the persecuted, the Church under Constantine became persecutors of others.

Rome eventually collapsed under the stress of its empire and when it did, it fell into the waiting arms of Christianity. When Constantine died and was finally baptized on his deathbed, the power transferred to the Pope and subsequent kings were subservient to him. The Pope became Vicarius Christi (Christ on earth) and had the power to excommunicate those that did not agree with his doctrine or exegesis. To quote the historian Will Durant author of Caesar and Christ:

“When Christianity conquered Rome the ecclesiastical structure of the pagan church, the title and vestments of the pontifex maximus… and the pageantry of immemorial ceremony, passed like maternal blood into the new religion, and captive Rome captured her conqueror.”

The Roman Empire was transformed into the Holy Roman Empire. Christianity could not have spread without the monolithic structure of the Roman Empire. Its roads, its currency, its institutions and hegemony over foreign lands served as a catalyst for this new monotheistic religion center on one God and his begotten son. The transformation was completed with the coronation of Charlemagne (748–814) on Christmas Day, 800 CE, by Pope Leo III.

Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach

Church Dogma

Some scholars contend that the New Testament represents a nexus between Jewish religious belief and prevalent Greek (Hellenistic) thought which draws upon pagan religious practices. The more and more the Catholic Church evolved, the more and more it became pagan in its motifs, ideology and its rituals that were present in the popular mystery cults throughout the Roman Empire. So much so that it was difficult to discern statues of Horus and Isis from Jesus and Mary. Titles and attributes of Isis such as the Virgin Mother and Queen of Heaven were also assigned to Mary along with the Madonna and child motif.

Statue of Isis nursing Horus

Many biblical scholars argue that Jesus’ siblings and his parents viewed Jesus as human and not the son of God. Over time the siblings of Jesus were reduced, and Mary was raised to the mother of God untainted by sin. After Jesus’ death, his brother James became the leader of the Christian church, yet three hundred years later we find his role greatly reduced. In Mark, the first gospel written, (65 CE) Jesus dies a lonely death without any of the disciples present, and it is left to a Roman centurion a pagan to watch Jesus die. In Mark’s original conclusion, the disciples are never informed of the resurrection and thus are never reconciled with Christ.

The Virgin Mary, National Gallery, London.

In reading the Canonical Gospels, in the order that they were written according to biblical scholars, Jesus becomes more divine as the Gospels progress. In Mark, he is the “Son of God”, a person that mediates God’s will on earth and not a divine being. In Mark, the assumption is that Joseph is the father of Jesus and Jesus has sisters and brothers. Mark’s Gospel is the only one in which the people who should understand him best, his family and his disciples, fail to recognize him as the Messiah.

Moreover, some ignore or fail to recognize that from the beginning, according to the virgin birth narrative in Luke, Mary knew that she was impregnated by God. So why is she surprised to find Jesus in the temple and his response that it is logical for him to be found in his Father’s house? (Luke 2:39–52). For example, Alexander the Great believed that he was the son of god because his mother Olympias constantly told him so. Why is Mary surprised to see Jesus do something that she knew he was born to do?

By the time John is written, about 60 years after Jesus’ death, the evolution of Jesus into a divine God is complete. To put it succinctly, the progression is as follows: human in Mark, a demigod in Luke and a God in John. This progression is perhaps best illustrated in the different crucifixion scenes in Mark and John. In John, the Son of God is in complete control and carries his cross and dies in the company of the beloved disciple. He accepts his death.(John 19:17–42) In Mark, and the other Synoptic Gospels, he is too weak to carry his cross and dies in despair and without any disciple present. He cries: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 27:46)

Christ Crucified (c. 1632) by Diego Velázquez. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Perhaps this progression indicates a movement within Christianity that is more consistent with the belief of the gentile (Hellenistic) populace and as we have seen in the development of Paul’s theology a need to appease and appeal to the gentile community by removing such restrictions as kosher food and circumcision.

The pseudonymous writers of the New Testament were not only familiar with the Old Testament, but with Hellenistic philosophy and the Greek mind. Many scholars have pointed to the similarities between Christianity and mystery cults (pagan practices). The cult of Isis was the most popular cult in the Roman Empire and the Virgin Mary assumed the role of Isis. What many Christians fail to realize is that a different story could be told around the same idea or motif. In fact, this is what myth is often about. When one idea precedes the other, it is logical to assume the former influenced the later and not the other way around.

Many scholars contend that in support of their ideologies, the New Testament writers used the Old Testament as a reference and a prophetic tool for the prognostication of events to be fulfilled in the New Testament. This was particularly true of Matthew and Luke and was germane to the final product because it gave Christianity a history far beyond its times. Hence, the different versions of the genealogy of Jesus used in Matthew (Matthew 1)and in Luke (Luke 3:23–38) to confirm the prophecy of the Old Testament, and Isaiah 7: 14 regarding the birth of a child from a virgin.

Some scholars have pointed out that the verse in Hebrew says “young woman” which was interpreted in the Pentateuch as an “unmarried woman” which is later interpreted in the Septuagint and King James Version as “virgin”. It is important to note that the Septuagint was the Greek version used by Luke and most of the elite Jews within the diaspora, many of them were unable to speak Hebrew. Moreover, the use of virgin instead of a young woman aligns Mary with Isis and the virgin motif prevalent throughout the Hellenistic world.

In this regard, being born of a virgin may have been a prophecy in search of a home and the book of Isaiah was used to give the virgin birth a home. Furthermore, some scholars have argued that the words in Isaiah apply to a contemporary messiah and not someone that would be born centuries later.

What is often overlooked is that the Gospel writers wrote Jesus’ biography in the shadows of the Old Testament. The fact that the Jews were looking for a messiah is confirmed by contemporary sources. However, exactly who was the coming messiah remains uncertain, but we must remember that the Persian king Cyrus the Great was referred to as a messiah by Jews.

Painting of Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel

Furthermore, during the reign of Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE), there were several Jews in Judea that claimed to be the messiah. Moreover, the unrest in Judea best exemplified by the uprising recorded by Josephus illustrates that Jews were not satisfied with Rome. In this regard, Christianity could also be seen as a rebellion of a different kind, one in which martyrdom was integral to its movement and a promise of eternal life was offered. As Tertullian (160–240 CE)would later state: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Contrary to the Jewish revolt, Christianity was a rebellion of peace and not of war, with rewards offered in the hereafter at its core. Therefore, one can ask the question: Did the events fit the prophecies or were the prophecies made to fit the events?

Many biblical scholars have argued that although the New Testament and the Old Testament are similar in many ways; the God and the prophets differ in the way they behave. For example, the God of the Old Testament at times is jealous and at other times brings His wrath on the enemies of Israel and its people when they do not obey His laws. Contrary, the God of the New Testament does not frequently bring His wrath, and Jesus, unlike Moses, prefers to turn the other cheek.

Examples such as God telling the Israelites to murder all their enemies in Jericho (1 Samuel 15:2–3) and the God of Jesus teaching to love thy enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27–36) Elisha calling out bears to kill all of the children (2 Kings 2:23–25) and Jesus saying: “Let the little children come to me, (Matthew 19:14) can be cited to illustrate the contradictory nature of the two Gods. This was a key point made by Maricon.

Painting of Serapis, who was considered the same god as Osiris, and Dionysus in Late Antiquity. 2nd century CE.

Furthermore, Moses was assumed to be the author of the Torah; Christ was not the author of the New Testament but rather its subject, symbol and article of faith. Moses brought God’s wrath upon the Egyptians. Jesus surrendered to the Romans without a fight. It was clear that Jews were looking for a savior (messiah) with the attributes of a Moses or a Cyrus the Great and probably when the Historical Jesus failed to act in the same vein of Moses or Cyrus, they offered him up to be crucified. Additionally, if Jesus was not crucified, he would not have fit into the Crucified Savior motif (death and resurrection) of Dionysus and Osiris prevalent throughout the gentile population. Moreover, his resurrection would be inconsequential. The belief that a man could be born of a “human mother” and still be a god is a Hellenistic idea that was established with Dionysus which has its roots in Osiris.

Without such beliefs in place for centuries along with an established paradigm in the form of the Old Testament, it is doubtful that Christianity would have succeeded. So, few Christians are aware of the background from which their religion emerged or the antecedent paradigm based on a Crucified Savior or Redeemer that died and was resurrected.

Moreover, Jesus died like Socrates and the cross became his hemlock. Like Socrates, he didn't leave any written words but left it up to others to interpret his message. In this regard, Paul was to Jesus what Plato was to Socrates. The Hellenization of the Roman Empire and the incorporation of motifs conceived millenniums ago in the pagan world and reinforced by Greco-Roman history were essential to the acceptance of Christianity as a universal religion. With Jewish dietary and circumcision restrictions removed by Paul, this new religion, founded in the name of Christ gained traction throughout the Roman Empire.

Gentiles recognized that in Christ, there was a contemporary figure that matched the savior motifs of the past. Was Paul, like a good politician, telling the gentiles of the Roman Empire something that they wanted to hear? Unlike the disciples, Paul was uniquely qualified because he knew the Jewish and the Hellenistic worlds. Many argue that although the Historical Jesus provided the clay, it was in the hands of Paul that the Historical Jesus was molded into the Mystical Christ.

What is interesting is that although Paul spoke little about the life of Jesus in his writings and was much more concerned with the meaning of Jesus’ death, the author of Acts knowing of the death of Paul does not write about it at all. Instead, he ends his narrative with Paul spreading the word under house arrest as if to indicate that the word cannot be bounded, nor can it ever die.

Unlike the other Gospel writers, Luke is the only one that provides a biography of Jesus (The Gospel of Luke) and a history of the early Church (Acts: which is essentially a biography of Paul). Little is told about the acts of the twelve disciples, except for Peter, who knew Jesus in the flesh and were taught directly by him.

Many scholars contend that Christianity is the product of two men, born about two years apart in two separate parts of the Roman Empire under the reign of Augustus Caesar. These two men, Jesus and Paul, were products of their time and they altered the course of world history for over two thousand years. One taught for three years the other for thirty years. They lived in a time that was about two thousand years after Abraham. Their gift to the world was the 27 books of the New Testament.

This essay is not an article of faith, but a history of how the New Testament was developed and how it evolved over time. Some may argue that the power lies not so much in the history, but in the story.

Author, educator, historian, former engineer at General Electric. Interested in the origins of all things. Author of A New Perspective richardlsingley@gmail.com

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