Church Censors Bible!
61 Books Banned!
You've been hearing about it for some time now. It's all over the media. The horrible secret is out: Everyone has just learned that the Holy Bible was "censored" by the Roman Catholic Church in A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicaea. You can hardly turn on a talk show without someone repeating this claim. But is it true?
No... How could it be? One of the rulings of Nicaea was that Rome only ruled over Europe, while Alexandria had charge of Africa and Antioch had charge of Asia and the Middle East. The Roman Catholic domination we are now so familiar with was not officially declared until 55 years after the Council of Nicaea!
Okay, but what about all the changes in the Bible we keep hearing were made by that Council? Didn't the Council of Nicaea edit books or verses out of the Bible?
No... The subject never came up at that council! We have all the Council proceedings and rulings, plus reports by several attendees, to absolutely prove that the Council never issued any such rulings, nor even discussed such ideas as censoring or changing the Bible in any way.
On the contrary, the Arian debate was over whether or not to add a single word to the Nicene Creed, not the Bible. And that one word was disputed precisely because it was not found in the New Testament's vocabulary anywhere. (For the details on the Council of Nicaea, by a Jewish historian with no pro-Vatican bias, see: When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome by Richard E. Rubenstein.
In other words, everyone agreed on the wording of The New Testament (and Greek version of the Old Testament), right down to the intimate details of every single word used in its vocabulary. All the bishops of the church were using the same Bible in A.D. 325. No one every suggested "adding" a book or "changing" the wording as a way to help resolve the dispute over this one word.
Moreover, earlier canon lists and manuscripts show that the Bible in use before the Council was really the same one in use after it. The great Nicaean censorship we keep hearing about never happened. The story is a hoax.
In other words, we're being "had" by a modern religious legend—a myth repeated so often it has taken on a life of its own, being repeated in books and articles as if it has some sort of academic "source" somewhere. Yet there's not a word of truth in it. Of course, that does not mean the Council of Nicaea was free of scandal. On the contrary, hired gangs of thugs roamed the streets intimidating the bishops, beating some. Venal plots against the Arians and mob rule typified the real "Council." But censoring the Bible was one of the few evils that did not occur there.
Okay, you say, but maybe some other early church council censored the Bible and took books out. Did that happen at any council before or after Nicaea?
Surprisingly, it was mostly just the opposite. Although there were a few books—like the Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistles of Clement, and The Apocalypse of Peter—that had been read widely in the Church and thought to be genuine Christian writings (vs. books by heretics and outright confidence artists), the debate never really was over those texts. Christians were already reading them, but hardly anyone thought they were part of the New Testament handed down by the Apostles. The Shepherd of Hermas, for example, was known to have been composed in the last half of the second century. People read it, but they knew it was not Apostolic in origin.
Book binding wasn't very good then. So the four Gospels were usually bound separately from the rest of the New Testament to keep the Bible from being too big to bind. There were thousands of these Gospel books produced over the period from within a century after the Apostles down to the 16th century, yet we have no ancient New Testament manuscript with any other gospel but the familiar Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Old manuscript copies of "complete" Bibles—with both Old and New Testaments—remained very difficult to assemble until the time of the Crusades. Complete Bible collections were rarely made. Breaking the Bible up into smaller books was easier for research. They could refer back and forth between books, and more than one person could use a Bible if it were in multiple sections—a good thing in days when a local church had only one Bible for the whole congregation.
(Our book, "The Secret History of the Bible," contains a bibliography of hundreds of sources documenting the statements in this article.)
The Gospel of Thomas
The little dialogue called The Gospel of Thomas never seems to have made it into anyone's Bible. Not even the Gnostics at Nag Hammadi, where it was found, put it in with their collection New Testament books. No one did. The idea that this so-called GOSPEL OF THOMAS was somehow "taken out" of the Bible is another one of those myths people believe, but which has no evidence at all behind it.
A The Gospel of Thomas is mentioned by some early Church fathers, but never as a legitimate part of the Bible, and when they do quote from it, it is from a totally different text than the one found in the A.D. fifth century "Library" at Nag Hammadi. The text quoted by the very early Christian writers is about the Childhood of Jesus. This The Infancy Gospel of Thomas as it is now called, has no connection in subject, style or viewpoint with the other The Gospel of Thomas of Nag Hammadi. Nor is there much evidence for an early version of this The Gospel of Thomas Thomas. The few pieces of papyri that quote this Thomas cannot be with certainty dated earlier than around the start of the fourth century. They come from piles of fragments found at Oxyrinchus in Egypt. Again, while some would like to speculate about Thomas being as old as the late first century—and a popular myth even "dates" it to A.D. 30's!—all this is totally undocumented. Without quotations in early authors or datable fragments, The Gospel of Thomas remains a relatively late text compared to the four Gospels which are well-attested as existing by the late first or the very early second century (as even harsh critics would date them) when several eyewitnesses of Jesus were still living.
Nobody took The Gospel of Thomas seriously. Even the Nag Hammadi Library bound it together with the pagan Republic of Plato, but not with any New Testament books. On the other hand, fragments of the four Gospels exist from between A.D. 60 and 135—perhaps 200 years earlier than any fragments of The Gospel of Thomas.
Even if The Gospel of Thomas were genuine and as early as the day of the Crucifixion itself (and it obviously is not), it is a short, confused dialogue at an unstated time and place of little value for historical purposes. It simply contains no reference to the actual life of Jesus. It is merely a few rambling questions and answers. Hardly a chapter's worth of text. It is disappointing to anyone but a "scholar."
In fact, if we had never heard of Jesus, this "gospel" would be a real puzzle. It never explains who these people are, when the lived, or why we should care about this very strange discussion they are having, with its bizarre half-quotations from the four Gospels. Without the New Testament as a background, this ill-defined dialogue could have been attributed to some obscure ancient Gnostic sect whose ideas apparently never got far. Indeed, if the text of The Gospel of Thomas had not borrowed the names of Jesus and a few Apostles, it would be recognized as just another piece of arcane Gnostic philosophy and treated like the other Gnostic writings that were found with it. Of course, if the Gnostics could have stood on their own, they would not have ever needed to wrap themselves up in the authority of the New Testament by pretending to have been part of it.
Notice how you never see Christian books pretending to be part of some Gnostic tradition? John, for example, whose style of writing sometimes sounds much like the Gnostics, he went out of his way in his epistles to condemn the Gnostics so that no one would have any grounds for misidentifying him. Why is it that every heretic and Gnostic in the early Christian era was trying to use the New Testament to boost his authority, but none of them ever cited The Gospel of Thomas or other Gnostic writings as their authority? If the New Testament was later and less reliable than The Gospel of Thomas, why didn't anyone cite The Gospel of Thomas instead?
Scholars have found evidence for "Q"—a supposed original collection of "sayings" of Jesus shared by several of the New Testament writers. This may have been part of the first Hebrew Gospel of Matthew mentioned by several early Church fathers. But every word of "Q" as we now have it is found right in the New Testament itself... Every word. Speculation about hypothetical other parts of the original "Q" document that are now "lost" is a nice parlor game for some critical scholars, but—without any hard evidence—there is no proof a word of "Q" is lost.
The Real Bible Censors
You'd never guess who it was, but some Christians did in fact censor their Bibles. It was none other than that other popular group among our modern myth-makers, the creators of the Aramaic New Testament. Most people know this text from the English translation of it done by George M. Lamsa. What most do not realize—unless they read Lamsa's footnotes and Introduction—is that the "original" Peshitta Aramaic New Testament edited no less than five books out of the Bible: Revelation, II Peter, II John, III John, and Jude. Aramaic texts of these books did exist, but the churches under the Bishop of Babylon and the East did not like them because they criticized Babylon and other eastern churches. So they edited them out around A.D. 300. Another popular myth contends that this Aramaic text was the "original" New Testament and that the Greek text came later. Is that true?
Hardly... Anyone with a copy of the Aramaic New Testament —even in Lamsa's doctored English version—can see plainly that Matthew in his Aramaic text contains in the very first chapter the smoking gun that proves it is translated from a Greek original. It says: "Immanuel, which is interpeted, (translated) 'God with us.'"
Now why would an Aramaic (Hebrew dialect) Bible need to "interpret" the well-known Hebrew/Aramaic name "Immanuel" to an Aramaic readership? Interpretating is needed for a Foreign language. Obviously, this verse was not written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in another language, namely the Greek tongue. Its Greek readers needed an interpreation of Hebrew terms—something that occurs often Lamsa's New Testament, proving it was not originally an Aramaic text, but a Greek work.
Further proof is found in the epistles, which are often written to gentile Christians in Greek cities. They are sometimes instructed to read these epistles aloud in the church. Imagine the confusion if the text had been read in Aramaic to these Greeks in Greece!
Luke's Gospel and Acts are addressed to a Greek man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1)—who would hardly be written to in a language other than Greek, which Luke as a physician, was required to know well, since most medical texts and terms were written in the Greek language.
Moreover, the early church fathers specifically single out Matthew as the only New Testament book to ever have a Hebrew original, and that text obviously is not the one found in the Aramaic manuscripts available to Lamsa, who claimed to be using the oldest Aramaic text available.
The irony is that all the claims of antiquity for this Aramaic New Testament only serve to push back the date of the Greek text from which it is so clearly translated.
Lamsa and other defenders of the Aramaic text claim it is dated to the first century. Many scholars have smiled at this claim, but a few have taken it seriously. Even so, it is clear that the New Testament underlying the Aramaic is a Greek work—even in the case of Matthew. Since Matthew has been found in a few Greek fragments from the late first century, any translation into Greek must have taken place well before the end of the first century—that is, within the lifetime of John and other eyewitnesses of Jesus. The Aramaic text of Lamsa must date after that time.
The Pagan Critics Cite the Traditional New Testament
One of the most powerful proofs for the historical basis of the Greek New Testament is its citation by pagan Greek authors who attacked Christianity, beginning in the latter first century and continuing unabated until about 100 years after the Council of Nicaea. These pagans had no reason to endorse the Greek New Testament, yet they repeatedly cite it as having four Gospels, and as teaching a virgin birth, miracles, the atoning of sin by the Crucifixion, and a Resurrection for both Jesus and for His followers.
The pagans ridiculed these teachings they found in the New Testament—and thereby provided unassailable proof for the existence of these Gospels and their doctrines at very early times. Among the teachings being attacked centuries before the Council of Nicaea was the divinity of Christ—which the pagans could not believe possible in light of the Crucifixion's brutal suffering.
Celsius, a pagan critic of the second century, wrote:
The assertion that some God or Son of God has come down to the earth as Judge of mankind is most shameful... Is it that God wants to give us knowledge of himself for our own salvation in order that those who accept it may become good and be saved?
Porphyry, a third century philosopher and occultist, wrote:
(It is stupid) to accept that the Divine (One) had descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary, that He had become an embryo, that after His birth he had been wrapped in swaddling clothes, stained with blood, bile and worse... Why, when He was taken before the High Priest and Governor, did He not say anything worthy of a divine man? He allowed Himself to be struck, spat upon on the face, crowned with thorns... allowing Himself to be assaulted like some rabble from off the streets...
Lucian of Samosata in Syria, in the second century, tried to portray Christians as naive:
The poor wretches have convinced themselves... that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, as result of which they despise death... Furthermore, their lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once and for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified Wise-Man Himself and living under His laws..."
Porphyry, writing scarcely 200 years after the deaths of Peter and Paul, took pains to point out "contradiction" in the FOUR gospels, citing exactly the same four scriptures that have down to our day. Porphyry says nothing of any Gospel of Thomas (or any other outside gospel). He cites nothing of the apocryphal apocalyses or pseudo-epistles. Writing half a century before Nicaea, Porphyry quotes from a New Testament indistinguishable from our own.
The pagan critics and the early Church fathers haggle over the same verses in the same books in the same canon. There is no debate over the Gospel of Thomas or any other Gnostic text or apocryphal book. The pagan critics are not interested in such writings. Their total focus is on the New Testament text as we still know it.
How strange it is to read the pagan critics and realize they do not take seriously these silly Gnostic gospels our modern scholars now deem so important.
You'd think our modern critics would be embarrassed by the lack of interest their pagan forebears show these odd Gnostic ravings. How can it be the pagans knew so much of the New Testament and so little of these other texts? Did the pagans ignore the Gnostics because they were so few compared to the New Testament-toting Christians? Were the Gnostics a minor theological backwater not worth the time of pagan critics? It certainly seems our scholars have greatly inflated the importance of the Gnostics and their writings.
Indeed, if it were not for mainstream Christian works, we not only wouldn't know what the Gnostics were rambling on about so incoherently, we wouldn't even know who the Gnostics themselves were. Not only does the New Testament explain who Jesus and the Apostles are(which the Gnostics often fail to explain), but Church writers are often the only ones to preserve the names and works of the Gnostic heretics known to us. The pagans, on the other hand, do not pay any attention to these marginal heretics.
The Evidence of Ancient Scrolls
Some 20,000 manuscripts or fragments of the books of the New Testament are known. It is the best-attested of all the works of ancient literature, having more evidence in support of it than all the rest of ancient literature combined. It is in a class by itself. To deny the text of the New Testament is to dismiss the validity of the entire written ancient history of mankind—for none of it can pass the tests the New Testament passes.
Not only are there more copies of the New Testament, but the New Testament manuscripts are far closer to the times of their composition by the original authors than any of those manuscripts of other ancient writings that no one dares question. We have no manuscripts of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars copied within half a dozen centuries of his lifetime, yet we have Gospel texts written within decades of the Apostles. Was Julius Caesar literate? Is he really the author of his works? No one dares to ask such questions, yet the evidence for his authorship is puny, compared to the voluminous ancient attestation for those who wrote the New Testament books.
The New Testament is verified by quotations in the very writings of its enemies. Taking all the quotations of it by friend and foe prior to the Council of Nicaea, we could reconstruct better than 90% of it with little trouble.
More amazing still is the condition of the manuscripts found in so many old monasteries. These crumbling texts reveal an astonishing variety of book sequences, but the selection of books almost never exceeds the collection we now find in our modern Bibles.
The astonishing thing is how often our modern books are missing. That is, books like Revelation show up early in the Christian era, only to disappear during the Medieval period, and then return with the Reformation. Hebrews is another book that appears and disappears, but finally is rescued in the end.
The surprising conclusion is that our Bibles are not at all censored, but rather, they are Restored from a period of censorship that arose in the fourth century and continued off and on until the Reformation.
The Battered Bible
The canon of the Old Testament has never been in doubt. The Jewish people have preserved its books, even the order of the scrolls, extremely well. For a time, scholars had convinced themselves that Jewish rabbis fiddled with the text during the Middle Ages. Yet, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found to have so many copies of the Hebrew Scriptures in virtually the same text still used in the synagogues that no one but anti-Semites and the ignorant dares anymore to utter that old slander about rabbis changing the Bible.
The New Testament was also not in doubt at first. Those early church fathers who quote it have made it possible to not only determine that the list of books was virtually the same as we now have, but even the text itself can nearly be reconstructed in its entirety from their citations, they were so numerous and wide-ranging. Irenaeus (c. A.D.140-202), a disciple of Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, cites every New Testament book but Philemon in his writings. There can be no doubt that by the early second century New Testament books were regarded as a sacred collection, or canon, and at least John, if not other Apostles, must have had a hand in selecting which books belonged in this collection.
This is not to say that there was universal acceptance of this canon of books, but the dissenters stand out for their removal of books from the standard canon we now have. There are hardly any indications of additions to the canon which involve "heretical" texts. Instead, there were occasional efforts to add The Epistle of Barnabus or The Shepherd of Hermas or other "orthodox" Christian writings, but few took such efforts seriously.
Certainly no one wished to add the third century writings of Origen to the Bible, or any late documents; the books of the New Testament were limited to writings of Apostles and disciples of the Apostles under their direction (like Luke under Paul's direction). Clement was thought to have been Paul's personal disciple (cf. Phillipians 4:3), but his epistles were done after Paul's death (as Clement himself says); so Clement's epistles were not part of the canon, albeit one manuscript of the Bible (out of thousands) did append them to the text of the New Testament—probably for convenience. There is no mention anywhere of anyone actually believing Clement's epistles belonged in the canon itself.
Only one other book besides The Epistle of Barnabas, The Shepherd of Hermas, and Epistles of Clement has ever been found bound with the New Testament canon: The Apocalyse of Peter. So what was this book?
Our earliest reference to The Apocalyse of Peter is found in the Muratorian Canon, which is to be dated partly to about A.D. 160, at the earliest. Part of this document may date to a later period, for it seems to locate the book of Revelation in two different positions in the New Testament Canon: Before Paul's epistles (an early location) and at the very end (an apparently late development). So the reference to The Apocalyse of Peter which follows immediately after the latter mention of Revelation would suggest a later date than A.D. 160. However, if the date is A.D. 160, a time when disciples of the Apostles still ruled the church, then we should be aware that the Muratorian text says that The Apocalyse of Peter was not allowed to be read in some churches because it was deemed spurious.
It is clear that The Apocalyse of Peter was in doubt from the early church, by the middle of the second century. Yet many obviously were willing to take it seriously even though Apostolic church authorities had not given it their full endorsement, which would have silenced the doubters.
What was it about this disputed text that caused such conviction by so many that it might actually be genuine? Was it something in the text itself, or something else?
Was it something—a tradition—that everyone knew and accepted as true, something even the Apostolic leaders could not dispute, that led early Christians to believe Peter had had a special "Apocalypse"(ie "Revelation") and that this text just might be what Peter wrote down?
There was precisely such an early church tradition. It and this article are documented in "The Secret History of the Bible," our new book, which will be coming out soon.