Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bible and Koran II

I’ve been carrying on a discussion with a reader of my book, The Gospel Truth, which details where the authors of the New Testament got their information.  The reader thought both the Bible and the Muslim sacred text, the Koran, were created through the compilation of written and oral documents, which enhance their historical nature.

I pointed out that while the Koran used that method, war interfered in the case of Christian compilers so that they had nothing left.  

 He countered with this comment: “I would still support the idea that in absence of a written history of Jesus during his life or immediately after, that the oral tradition and oral recording was far more powerful than we might suspect, and that the details of Jesus' life were maintained not only by a suppressed fledgling Christian religion, but also by those who either disregarded Jesus and Christianity, or opposed it entirely.”

In addition, he noted, “The truth of the existence of Jesus has some correlation to the historic events that are cited in that religious history. Likewise, what's known about Mohammad and the formation of Islam also has a correlation to other historic events, only more so because presumably literacy and the technology of recording history had advanced to capture greater perspective of whom Mohammad was and how Islam emerged.”

While the comments seem plausible, they are not.  Without understanding the depth of investigations that have taken place regarding the time of Jesus, anyone might think that that historical recording improved in time and that the Gospels contain historical truths which buttress the account of Jesus’ life. 

For starters, the recording of history was better in 1 AD than it was in 632 AD or in 1200 AD.  In reality, the Greeks and Romans did a far better job of recording history than any cultures prior to the advent of printing in the 1400s.  The Greeks had started the concept of history under Herodotus.  It flourished after that with Thucydides and many more. 

It’s hard to find historians once the Roman Empire fell.  The first Christian history was not written until the 4th century.  The Bishop Eusebius did not include any sources and, from all available evidence, was writing from a religious perspective, not an historical one. 

After him, there are few historians of any kind.  The Venerable Bede and Procopius are the most prominent.   Procopius, following in the Roman tradition, is better known for his secret history of Emperor Justinian’s reign, which contradicts his official account. 

Bede was a priest who wrote an account of Christianity in England from the beginning until his own day in the late seventh century.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia, his book serves as “the foundation of all our knowledge of British history.” Unfortunately, Bede considered the Scripture as a more important book and a valuable source, although historians today know it is very inaccurate.

The lack of any history is understandable.  People waiting for the world to end are not going to stress literacy.  The Catholic Church didn’t.  It wanted to dictate belief and fared a public that read the texts. Christmas carols, crèches and the like start in the Middle Ages as way to educate the illiterate masses.

In the 1400s, Luther took advantage of the Church’s reluctance to launch of Protestant Revolution.  He did so by using the written language to translate the Bible into German.

Actually, much of what we know from the fifth century to the 14th has been gleaned from deed transfers and other records. For example, we know a lot of about England after the French conquest because King William ordered a survey of all the towns now under his control.  The result was what became known as the Doomsday Book, a survey of the English land and resources in 1086.  That suffices for historical reporting. 

In contrast, a wide array of historians was busily documenting facts through the Roman Empire.  They include world leaders like Augustus Caesar and Julius Caesar, whose books on the Gallic wars are still read in schools (I know – I took three years of Latin in high school.)  Others include Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus and Sallust.  Many of their works survive; none mention Jesus.

Given the extensive historical documentation in the Roman Empire, the absence of any mention of Jesus becomes startling.  Not even Philo, an Egyptian-based Jewish philosopher who lived at the same time of Jesus and was immersed in the idea of a God and the word (which is where John got the idea), knew the "messiah" existed. 

No one did.  Not even Paul, who wrote the first recorded Christian documents, his letters, had any idea that Jesus was betrayed, performed miracles or said anything special.  To Paul, Jesus becomes the chosen one of God after dying innocently on the cross.  He was, Paul wrote, born in the normal way to a woman in Galilee. History in his writing disappears after that. 

Besides, history was not the Gospel writers’ concern.  In answer to my reader’s second concern, the Gospel authors used names and places to give their account an historical patina, not the other way around.  Historians know that because the New Testament accounts are inaccurate. For example, the description of the trial of Jesus contradicts all valid descriptions of a Roman trial.  In those trails, Judges are never seen.  They do not traipse back and forth to address a mob.

The mention of Pilate, the census and the like are probably nothing more than glosses to give that historic sense.   Pilate, like all Roman administrators, left detailed records; they have vanished.  Hmm.  Don't you think that, if they matched the religious stories, they might have been widely disseminated? 

Finally, the records of those opposed to Christianity did survive.  The Ebionites, for example, the first followers of Jesus, condemned Paul and his teachings, which is the source of Christianity.  Christians call the Ebionite belief the "first heresy." 

In reality, the only reasons the revelations of Mohammad were preserved are because the religion he founded endured and thrived.  The comments of other would-be prophets have vanished or are ignored.  For example, the Avista, which contains the thoughts of Zoroaster, the founder of the once-powerful Farsi faith, are nothing more than afterthoughts in religious history.

None of this means that Christianity is wrong and Islam is right.  Or vice versa.  That is a matter of belief, something no historian can counter.  All historians can do is show how a belief started and developed over the years.  Fortunately, with Islam, we have the historical documentation to do that.  That’s simply not true with Christianity.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  His latest book, The Gospel Truth, was published in February 2011 and is available via or on his website .  You can also write him via Jeanne.

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