The Power of Almost True

This post is in reference to this article, published in the Huffington post. Bernard Starr, the author, claims that the Catholics suppressed the reading of the Bible because they did not want individual members to see just how Jewish the apostles were.

I was particularly bothered by the arguments in this article because the author is obviously well-informed. This is not just a historian, but a historian who has devoted some time to his subject. He had either not devoted enough time, however, or else he has withheld information from his readers that it is deceitful to withhold.

The article justifies this with a lot of almost true statements:

1. The church “sanctioned” 27 books at the Council of Hippo in 393, which were confirmed by the Council of Carthage in 420.

I’m not bothered by this one. It’s only mildly inaccurate, and this claim is made in respectable secondary sources. Those two regional synods did confirm a New Testament canon of 27 books. They had no authority to enforce it anywhere but locally, but they did enforce it.

Proof of this can be found in St. Augustine’s words from A.D. 412, where he mentions that there are books accepted by some churches but not by others (ref). His testimony is important because he was the bishop of Hippo at the time. Had the council of Hippo “sanctioned” anything for the whole church, you would think the bishop of Hippo would know about it!

2. Prior to Hippo and Carthage “various churches and officials adopted different texts and gospels.”

This one is worse. The implication is that Hippo and Carthage brought in something new.

Hippo and Carthage changed nothing. The books being read by all churches in A.D. 150 were the same ones being read by all churches in 393 and 420. The books being argued by all churches were the same in 150 and 393. The books rejected were the same.

There may be one or two for which things changed. The Shepherd of Hermas was likely less accepted in 393. The Letter of James was likely more accepted in 393. For all practical purposes, though, my last paragraph is exactly true.

Proving that is difficult to someone not familiar with the writings of that period. The sources, though, are the writings of the church of that period. There are several lists of New Testament Scripture between 150 and 393, and quotes from Scripture, which are abundant in the writings of the early fathers of the faith, consistently rely upon the same books.

3. The Church “Sequestered Their Sanctioned Bible from the Populace”

Mr. Starr does give references for the claim that the Church prohibited Christians from reading the New Testament on their own. Of course, all of us who know anything about the history of the Roman Catholic Church know that they both prohibited people from reading and even put people to death for translating the Scriptures into a tongue “the populace” could read. In fact, when the RCC could not get its hands on John Wycliffe through his life, they resorted to burning his bones after he was dead!

However, none of that started until late in the medieval period, centuries after the synods of Hippo and Carthage. The earliest reference Mr. Starr gives is A.D. 1229, more than 800 years after Carthage!

The most famous and longest lasting New Testament translation of all, the Latin Vulgate, was translated by Jerome in the early 5th century, a hundred years after Carthage.

It was only much later, when the Roman Catholic Church had become so unscriptural and corrupt that anyone reading it could tell there was a problem that they began to forbid the Bible to their members.

Note: I have been called all sorts of names and accused of being a terrible historian for saying things like that, but that’s not questionable history. The article to which I’m responding provides a couple references. I’m working on saying nice things about individual Catholics, such as the great St. Francis of Assissi and Mother Theresa (may God have mercy on the morons who condemn her because I’m certain he’s furious with them) and some others I’ve met in my lifetime. However, because the RCC still claims “primacy” over all Christians, I am not going to gloss over the results of allowing him primacy. We call the Pope’s reign “The Dark Ages.”

4. “Everything Jesus Did as a Jew Was for Jews, as a Jew, and about Jews”

This statement is true enough in the Gospels. However, it ignores what Jesus said would happen after his death.

He told a parable about a king that went away and left a vineyard in the hands of hired servants. When he sent servants to collect the profits of the vineyard, the hired men drove them off. When he later sent his son, the servants killed the son.

The Pharisees were furious because “they perceived that he spoke of them” (Matt. 21:46).

In fact, what he said to them was, “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to another.”

5. “Later, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, initiated a rift between his brand of Jewish Christianity and the teachings of the Jerusalem-based disciples of Jesus.

A rift? Really? This is what Acts says? I thought Acts 15, the only report on earth of the conflict between the Judaizers and Paul, said that the apostles James and Peter stood up for Paul and they arrived at a consensus that pleased them all.

History says that Paul’s churches and Peter’s churches considered themselves completely one. I believe that history would testify the same of James’ one church, Jerusalem, had it not been destroyed by the Romans. Now that’s a questionable claim historically, but don’t imagine that all the churches didn’t have issues to work out.

Also, don’t imagine that Paul’s churches didn’t have a very Jewish, but very heavenly, understanding of the kingdom of heaven. It is not just the apostles in general that lived according to the Law (most of the time). It was Paul, too! (Acts 21:24-26). He took vows, shaved his head, offered sacrifices, and was willing to be a testimony that though the Gentiles were not required to keep the Law, and especially not required to be circumcised, Paul himself nonetheless honored and kept the Law.

Further, Paul understood the Law as “expanded, fulfilled, and brought to fullness” by Jesus (Matt. 5:17-48). So did the early churches. They did not abrogate the Law any more than Jesus did. They did, however, know the fullness of it. They knew that nothing going into a person–no food–could defile him or her. They knew that God called clean the person who ruminated on the Word of God and divided from the world. Paul clearly stated that he knew that God didn’t care about oxen, but about those who labor, that they deserved their wages (1 Cor. 9:7-10). (You can read a much fuller explanation of this very common early Christian doctrine here.)

Paul didn’t make that up. Jesus brought that way of thinking, the new law (a term commonly used by the early churches), in the Sermon on the Mount.

6. An Acknowledgment of What Mr. Starr Got Right

Mr. Starr says that John Chrysostom’s “Homily Against the Jews” is vicious. I haven’t read it, but I am certain that he’s right.

The statements against the Jews made when the Council of Nicea was deciding that Passover (now Easter) should be celebrated on Sunday are atrocious and offensive, even for someone who loves the Church at that time like I do. For that matter, even Ignatius’ statements about the Jews at the beginning of the second century are “over the top,” in my opinion.

I don’t believe the apostle Paul, who said that he would gladly go to hell if that meant his fellow Jews would not, would ever have spoken so negatively of the descendants of Abraham, those who are still beloved because of election.

Mind you, I’m a “replacement theologian,” if you will. I believe Jesus took the kingdom away from the fleshly nation of Israel and gave it to the church. I believe that Romans 2:28-29 means that we are Israel now, not the political nation in the Middle East.

Paul said that would provoke them to jealousy. Great. Let them be jealous and come to be grafted into the tree in which we are now grafted. We are grafted by grace, and they can be grafted the same way …

Into this kingdom; into this tree.

Anyway, Mr. Starr is right about the awful Christian attitude toward the Jews starting very early in Christian history. He is way off base relating it to the banning of the Bible that the Roman Catholics did in the late medieval period. He is even further off base trying to pin a false Gospel on the apostle Paul.

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