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Did the Catholic Church invent Jesus, create legends about his life, write the New Testament which is more fiction than fact, and suppress the truth about the origins of christianity?
Claims like these have been made in comments on this blog and elsewhere, but is there any historical basis to them?
It turns out that the claims made recently in comments on this blog are almost all based on the writings of Tony Bushby. Tony is not a historian, and as far as I could investigate, it seems that the claims were almost totally invented – nothing less than outright lies and deception. He has invented books and authors, fabricated quotes, and misapplied genuine quotes so they are no longer accurate.
People who believe these claims are unwittingly being taken in. If you are interested in the details, please read on. (Otherwise, this may be a good place to stop!)
Dirty deeds done cheap?
It’s been a popular theme in recent years, on the web, in books and even in movies – the shocking secret origins of christianity revealed for the first time in some new “explosive” exposé of the evil deeds of the Catholic Church in the first few centuries of the christian era. In some cases it is claimed that the church down through the ages has known about these deceptions and concealed them.
In the discussion on one of my posts, How many christian denominations worldwide?, Doc, a regular visitor to this blog, has raised a series of points along these lines, so I decided to research the matter myself. I am a christian but not a Catholic, and I have tried to ascertain some objective facts.
The claims about New Testament origins
Fictitious resurrection narratives?
It was claimed (Bushby, p58) that “The final chapter of the Gospel of John (21) is a sixth-century forgery, one entirely devoted to describing Jesus’ resurrection to his disciples.”
I think this mistake may have occurred because Tony referenced the Catholic Encyclopedia saying that “the 21st chapter was afterwards added and is therefore to be regarded as an appendix to the Gospel”. This view is held by many scholars, but the additional chapter is considered to be part of the completed gospel, and the completed gospel is generally dated to just before the end of the first century.
Another quote: “The resurrection verses in today’s Gospels of Mark are universally acknowledged as forgeries and the Church agrees, saying, ‘the conclusion of Mark is admittedly not genuine … almost the entire section is a later compilation'”.
This statement is true, apart from the use of the word “forgeries”. It is well recognised that Mark’s Gospel lacks a satisfactory ending (perhaps it was never finished by Mark), and that chapter 16:9-20 was added later. Bushby suggests that the resurrection is missing from early manuscripts, but ignores the facts that (1) the resurrection is mentioned many times in Paul’s letters, which are dated earlier than Mark, (2) scholars conclude from the evidence that belief in the resurrection goes back to the very earliest days of christianity, and (3) Matthew, John and Luke all describe the resurrection.
No historical references to Jesus?
Bushby infers there are no historical references to Jesus in the first three centuries. Frederic Farrar is quoted as saying that there is not “one certain or definite saying or circumstance in the life of the Saviour of mankind … there is no statement in all history that says anyone saw Jesus or talked with him” and Dr Constantin von Tischendorf is quoted as saying “we have no source of information with respect to the life of Jesus Christ other than ecclesiastic writings assembled during the fourth century.”
It turns out that Frederick Farrar did write a Life of Christ in 1874, but this quote didn’t appear when I searched for it there. I can find no book named Codex Sinaiticus by von Tischendorf, as claimed. He discovered the New Testament manuscript named Codex Sinaiticus, but I cannot find that quote anywhere (e.g. the extract The Discovery of the Sinaitic Manuscript doesn’t contain it).
It seems these quotes are the invention of Tony Bushby. In any case, the references, if genuine, would be very old. Current scholarship holds a very different view. For example, New Testament textual critic Bart Ehrman says that ten separate sources within the books included in the New Testament, plus two non-christian sources, all from less than a century from Jesus’ life, provide good historical evidence.
Paul’s epistles were forged?
It was claimed, regarding Paul’s epistles, that “Cardinal Bembo (d. 1547), secretary to Pope Leo X (d. 1521), advised his associate, Cardinal Sadoleto, to disregard them, saying, “…. they were introduced on the scene later by a sly voice from heaven” and “the Church admits that the Epistles of Paul are forgeries, saying ‘Even the genuine Epistles were greatly interpolated to lend weight to the personal views of their authors'”.
The reference to Bembo and a book by “A L Collins” containing the quote seem to be an invention of Tony Bushby. Wikipedia makes no mention of any such letters, nor of the book the quote supposedly comes from. I found others on the web who had searched for these references and for the author A L Collins, and found nothing (apart from Bushby, and those apparently quoting him, such as this 2014 book).
The reference to the letters of Paul being spurious and highly interpolated is a correct quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia, but it refers to St Ignatius, not Paul. There is no way I can see that this could be the result of confusion, so again this appears to be a deliberate fabrication by Bushby.
Acts is unhistorical?
Another claim, again based on Tony Bushby, referencing a book in the Library of the Fathers, is that St Jerome, one of the early church fathers, said that the book of Acts was “falsely written”.
There is a Library of the Fathers, though Bushby’s reference to it is clearly wrong, but the Full text digitised by Google contains no such quote by Jerome or anyone else, nor does the quote appear in a modern book of Jerome’s letters.
So this appears to be another invention by Bushby.
Christianity was a fourth century construct?
Bushby says: “the construct of Christianity did not begin until after the first quarter of the fourth century, and that is why Pope Leo X (d. 1521) called Christ a “fable” (Cardinal Bembo: His Letters)”
As I have already explained, there appears to be no such book and no record of this quote. It appears to be another Bushby invention.
The gospels are not first century documents?
It is claimed that the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that the Gospels “do not go back to the first century of the Christian era”. This is another quote from Bushby, and another misrepresentation by him. The Catholic Encyclopedia does indeed say this, but it is referring to the titles of the gospels (i.e. the authorship by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), not the existence of the gospels. In fact, official Catholic teaching is that the books of the New Testament “appeared one after another in the space of fifty years, i.e. in the second half of the first century”.
Our friendly critic makes some other claims about the New Testament not being written until the fourth century:
- “christian NT documents …. date back only to 325 AD”.
- He also says the Catholic Church acknowledges “that the gospels were not written by MMLJ. They were written by priests but feel they were done so under the inspiration of God.”
- He apparently explains this: “The writing of the NT was a process of page by page rewriting of scriptures that were not complete or not acceptable to the council in many ways, much had to be filled in or interpreted by people/priests at Nicaea.”
Most of this seems to be a misunderstanding of how the New Testament was compiled. Here is a brief summary of what scholars have concluded.
- The New Testament documents were most likely all written before the end of the first century. It is uncertain who were the authors of the gospels – they could have been the traditional authors though most scholars doubt this.
- Copies, and copies of copies, were made, thousands of which have survived (far more than for any other ancient documents), which means the various versions can be cross-checked. As a result, we can be fairly certain that the text has been copied well, with very few doubtful passages.
- The Council of Nicaea didn’t re-write any books, and didn’t discuss the canon of the New Testament at all.
- The text of the 27 NT books was generally well established by the time of the Council of Nicaea, and most of the books broadly accepted, but it wasn’t formally adopted until much later.
Thus it is true that the actual copies of NT documents that have been preserved to this day are not originals, with only a few documents dated to the second and third centuries. But this isn’t unusual for ancient documents. In fact the New Testament is much better served by the number of copies and their dates than any other ancient text.
Strange events at the Council of Nicaea?
Bushby (p55) claims that this church council was asked by Constantine to choose a new God for the empire, and after 17 months they had narrowed down to a list of 5 (Caesar, Krishna, Mithra, Horus, Zeus). This and other information about the council are supposedly referenced in God’s Book of Eskra.
God’s Book of Eskra turns out to be part of a larger book named Oahspe, written in the 19th century. It purports to be a new Bible revealed by angelic “Embassadors”, and has no pretensions to being an historical account. I don’t know how much of Bushby’s claims are in that book.
When we turn to history, we find none of this – the Council ran for just one month (not 17), and it never discussed choosing a God (it discussed the theology of Jesus as son of God, the date for Easter, and other matters of church law).
It seems beyond doubt that Tony Bushby has deliberately invented apparent facts and distorted genuine information for his own purposes. Nothing he says can be taken at face value without checking. My friend Doc is not the first person to be taken in by an apparently credible writer – an internet search shows many people quoting his writings, apparently without any fact-checking.
I have tried to be careful in my choice of words when describing my investigation of his claims and references. If anyone reading this finds any references that I was unable to find, please include this in a comment here, so I can correct the record.
A full endorsement of Catholic doctrine on the New Testament?
This investigation doesn’t mean I endorse all claims made by the Catholic Church about christian origins. For example, Wikipedia says:
“The contemporary Catholic Church teaches that it is the continuation of the early Christian community established by Jesus, that its bishops are the successors to Jesus’s apostles, and the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope, is the sole successor to Saint Peter who was appointed by Jesus in the New Testament as head of the church”
I think this claim is historically problematic. There is no doubt that the first christian church was in Jerusalem, and composed almost totally of Jews. As christianity spread, church leadership became focused in a number of centres – e.g. Jerusalem, Alexandria, Caesarea, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome. It wasn’t until after several centuries that the Roman church became predominant, and at the beginning of the second millennium, the eastern church and the Roman church separated.
I therefore think all christian churches can claim spiritual descent from the first church in Jerusalem. I don’t think physical or organisational descent is important, but if it was, then eastern churches appear to have the greater claim.
But these doubts don’t change anything substantial that has been discussed here. The early church did exercise some control over what was written and taught, and did recognise some books and not others. But this is not the same as saying that the gospels were forged, not written in the first century, etc.
So we can answer our question. The church did not invent Jesus, the gospels were written in the first century, and the church didn’t suppress a hidden truth about Jesus. At least, not based on this evidence. But it did exercise control over what was included in the New Testament.
A hard but necessary lesson
It is becoming common to hear people say we are living in a post-truth age – meaning people sometimes care more for their opinions than for the truth.
But if we want to know truth, we need to be wary of believing what we read on the internet or in books, magazines or newspapers. We need to check everything – including what I have written here. Please check and verify, and let me know if I’ve missed anything.