Friday, November 27, 2009

Whatever is not proclaimed is lost

Have you ever looked at countries where civil unrest is common and thought to yourself, "What is wrong with this place?" There are countries where angry mobs are among the realities of life, always just one step away from forming, where people on the wrong side live in fear of their lives. Have you ever watched TV footage of a screaming, enraged mob and thought to yourself, "How do things get this bad?" These people have probably never heard it proclaimed, "Do not let the sun set on your anger" (Ephesians 4:26) or "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice." (Ephesians 4:31). They may have never heard, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who mistreat you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Luke 6:28 & Matthew 5:44-45). These words are touchstones of life, words that keep us sane and steady. Without them, entire cultures can become prisoners of hatred and rage. It happens when we fail to proclaim God's word to them, which could heal their land.

In our own land, the political parties have sunk to new lows of mutual hatred. The rhetoric on each side routinely dehumanizes people who disagree with the party line. "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice" needs to be proclaimed again in our own lands, and boldly.

Whenever we see personal or cultural self-destruction, erosion or decay, one of the fenceposts of sanity has been uprooted -- or has never been planted. When we proclaim the words that Christ and his followers spoke, we are working to reclaim lives from despair and anger, from bitterness and malice, from lust or greed, from being swept along by our lowest passions which are unthinking, unloving, and destructive. "Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" are words that need to be proclaimed from the rooftops again. "Everyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell" needs to become part of our national conscience again. I have trouble remembering the last time I heard a heated argument where the language was as mild as "You fool"; worse insults than that are now passed off as jokes, and mocking those who disagree is routine. God help us.

I have seen that many Christians face a crisis of confidence in proclaiming God's word. And so the decay continues wherever the Christians lack confidence, or wherever Christians have not yet ventured to proclaim Christ's words. The words of Christ bring healing to the land; knowing God is a blessing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What is the right response to "sell your possessions and give to the poor"?

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21)
I have heard much effort put into interpreting this verse, and much of it centers on justifying us as we ignore what was said. Was Jesus talking to us? Was it meant for everyone? What about other examples of other people he spoke to? If everyone did this, wouldn't everyone be poor?

I'd very much like to see this trend turned around. If we took it as seriously as the instruction to pray, we'd sell something of ours daily. If we took it as seriously as the instruction to come meet together to encourage each other, we'd sell something of ours weekly. With consignment stores, eBay, garage sales and so forth, it may never have been easier to live out these particular words of Christ.

How should we envision this teaching of Jesus in our day?

Should each church have an annual garage sale with 100% of proceeds going to the needy? Should each child think of that as part of their Christian experience, that at least once a year they literally take a thing of theirs and sell it and give the money to the poor?

Should charitable causes have places where you can list your goods on eBay and they receive the proceeds? Should churches help make the arrangements?

Let me know if you all can envision other ways this might work out. I'd like to mull over some proposals and present them to some of the elders at our church.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Breaking boundaries: Jewish "exclusivist" prayers and Christian evangelism

I know, I'm behind on updating. I got sick, & today is the first day I'm feeling up to par again. I hope to be back on schedule now. This is more of a low-weight piece than I'd intended for this weekend, but I wasn't doing the "serious research and concentration" bit the last couple of days. :)

While reading up on the history of the liturgy (same book by Elbogen that I referenced a few posts earlier), I came across an intriguing thought. Here a Jewish author looked at some of the traditional Jewish prayers. One traditional Jewish prayer includes giving thanks to God "who has made me a Jew, who has not made me a woman, who has not made me an ignoramus" (or, in some versions, "who has not made me a slave" rather than "ignoramus").

He reads Paul's letter to the Galatians as taking on that prayer, targeting it (and thereby in part helping establish a date for it): "There is now no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). I wonder if Jesus' own teaching about the Pharisee and the publican -- where the Pharisee prayed about himself, "I thank God I am not as other men" -- may also target this same type of prayer.

I am not so much speaking here about the history of the prayer or the specters of hatred and oppression we see when we read it; there is something else I'd like to point out. We have read from the Hebrew Bible that the reason God blessed the Jews -- and for which the Jews had every cause to give thanks -- was that they might be a blessing to the Gentiles, for the sake of Abraham and for the glory of God's name. Human nature being what it is, for some people that Jewish pride became simply a form of racism against Gentiles. Whenever racism ruled, the mission to be a blessing was forgotten. Or consider the example of men and women, also mentioned in the same prayer: back in the days when so many jobs required size and strength, the man's generally greater size and strength put him in a unique position to be a blessing to the family. Or its greatest oppressor, on occasion.

I have no interest in pointing fingers at this Jewish daily prayer; the application I would like to make here is about Christians. There's a lot of resentment against us in some quarters. Some is stirred up by people who hate us without cause; that is not my point at this moment. Some resentment is stirred up by ourselves whenever we take on the attitude that our religion is blessing for us and not for them, that it makes us better than the next, holier than the next, more moral or ethical than the next, better in God's sight than the next. In Christ, there is a call to reach out and be his ambassador: that if we are blessed, it is not instead of them but for them that they, too, might know the blessings that come only in Christ. Is knowing Christ a blessing? Absolutely. The question is what we make of it, whether we present ourselves to the world "I give thanks that I am not as other men", or whether we remember that we are, first and foremost, beneficiaries of God's mercy that we are to proclaim to all.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Little-known facts about some non-canonical gospels

This post should wrap up my current series on objectively observable differences between the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels. Thank you all for your patience with this; it's an interest of mine.
Many people are familiar with the canonical gospels; that is, familiar with the type of material they contain. The canonical gospels exist to convey accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. They have a biography-style presentation. Matthew and Luke start just before Jesus' birth and quickly move on to Jesus' entry onto the public stage; Mark and John begin with Jesus' debut as a public figure at his baptism. From there, all four canonical gospels relate a series of teachings and events. Large parts of the narrative are event-driven, particularly the confrontation with the religious and political powers, a trial on capital charges, and an execution recounted in some detail including Jesus' death and burial. All four continue with an empty tomb and the announcement of Jesus' resurrection; three continue with additional events past that point. When we hear the word "gospel", we therefore tend to think of that type of document: a narrative of Jesus' life and teachings recounted in the form of biography.

A little-known, little-acknowledged fact about the "alternative" gospels is that many of them are not this sort of document at all. The best of the lot are probably the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas, which is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, and the Gospel of Peter which does follow a narrative framework. These documents have certain problems, but at least they intend to recount the life or teachings of Jesus.

One other gospel does intend to give a sort of account of part of Jesus' life. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is supposed to be a retelling of Jesus' childhood. It could nearly be subtitled, "Bad-tempered child with superpowers terrorizes village" -- at least for the first half. By the end, he has learned to use his powers for good instead of evil, and it finishes with "the boy Jesus at the Temple" account known to us from Luke's gospel. Quotes from bad tempered little Jesus include, "You godless, brainless moron" (right before he strikes another child dead) and "I taunted you! For I know that you are amazed by little things and have minuscule minds." The people of his hometown are in awe of him and his many miracles. An interesting feature comes to light when studying the text: the part borrowed from Luke contains the only mentions of events occurring in a specific geographical place (Jerusalem) and the only mention of the name of his mother, Mary. It is also the scene with a noticeably stronger Jewish context: we see the Pharisees and the Temple, along with the Feast of Passover, here and only here in the narrative. I find it interesting that a number of tangible and realistic supporting details are found only in the part that is borrowed from the canonical gospel of Luke.

Of the other well-known alternative "gospels", most show relatively little interest in giving a biographical account of Jesus' life or in giving a collection of his sayings. Based on what they actually contain, these other gospels may not have been intended to convey accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus.

  • The Gospel of the Savior briefly recounts a couple of events from a single night of Jesus' life. The text never identifies Jesus by name. The events recounted are part of the Last Supper and the prayer afterward. In keeping with the non-geographical nature of the actions recorded in the text, the trip to Gethsemane from the canonical gospels is replaced here with a vision of heaven, where the prayer occurs before the Father's throne. Those are the only events from the life of Jesus that are recounted. A good section of the text consists of the main character -- presumably Jesus -- leading a responsory prayer largely centered on himself and his importance as their leader. The responsory prayer looks like an excerpt from an early Christian worship service; that section may be of more interest in the field of the history of worship than in the events of the life of Jesus.
  • The Gospel of Mary, like the Gospel of the Savior, never identifies Jesus by name; but here the unnamed "Savior" is not the central character. Granted, again we are working with fragmentary pieces of surviving text, but the surviving pieces mainly consist of a vision that Mary is supposed to have seen. No events from the life of Jesus are recounted. In certain places there are some sayings attributed to the unnamed Savior, which can be divided into two categories. Many of the things attributed to the Savior are generically applicable known sayings of Jesus; "he who has ears let him hear" is used twice within the space of a few verses, and the variant "he who has a mind to understand, let him understand" makes an appearance too. In between such stock and generic phrases from the canonical gospels, the Savior's other sayings sound as though they were taken from Greek philosophy, such as "the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its nature alone."
  • The Gospel of Philip may possibly recount Jesus' baptism, though even that is uncertain because the text is only partially complete. That is the only event from the life of Jesus that may have been recounted in the way that we would have expected from the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Philip consists of more general discussion of religion and philosophy from its own perspective, and is not particularly centered on Jesus. In the surviving text, the phrase "bridal chamber" appears more often than the name "Jesus". As a point of interest, the author of the Gospel of Philip quotes Matthew, John, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Peter, expecting the readers to be familiar with them and to consider them authoritative.
  • The Gospel of Truth is fairly long as non-canonical gospels go; it is roughly 40% of the length of the Gospel of Mark, or 1/4 of the length of the Gospel of Luke. The name "Jesus" occurs a mere four times in the translation I've found. It does not give an account of any events in the life of Jesus. It is largely a theological interpretation, not what we would think of as a "gospel."
  • The Protoevangelium of James mostly follows the story of Mary in the years leading up to Jesus' birth. It ends shortly after Jesus' birth and the visit of the astrologers. As most of the narrative happens before his birth, its purpose is not to record the life of Jesus.

I've had to rein myself in, to make myself stop here. The measurable differences in quality between the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels are many, and the differences run deep. The non-canonical gospels are generally shorter, generally later, generally less Jewish, generally have less context as far as place and time, and are often less interested in recording the life of Jesus. For some of them, I think the appropriate genre is not "gospel" but "fan fiction". For others, I think the appropriate genre is not "gospel" but "theological interpretation". Some never identify identify Jesus by name in the surviving text. One is a sayings-only collection without enough background on the conversations from which the sayings are taken.

I'm not saying the non-canonical documents are without any merit; I have found points of interest in them. I may yet do a write-up on my favorite parts of the non-canonical gospels. But I am saying that even the whole collection of them together tells you measurably, objectively less about the historical Jesus than, say, the Gospel of Luke by itself.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The historical Jesus' movements can be mapped: Gauging a gospel's historical view of Jesus

Another thing that struck me as a point of difference between the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels is how they handle geography: that is, the question of where things happened. The canonical gospels we have these days usually come with maps. The Bible I have in hand right now has a detail map of the region described in the gospels with the location of a number of towns, cities, rivers, and lakes. The maps are necessary because the canonical gospels name so many places in a region where very few of us have lived. These places are already familiar to us from the events recorded in the canonical gospels: Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethphage, Bethsaida, Cana, Capernaum, Galilee, Jericho, Jerusalem, the Jordan, Nazareth, Sidon, Tyre, and others. My Bible also has a detailed map of the Jerusalem area showing the location of the Temple, various named gates and pools, and the Mount of Olives. This detailed map also helps the reader find the places mentioned by the writers of the canonical gospels. The canonical gospels have actions that you can trace on a map.

Maps would be little help in studying the non-canonical gospels. In the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Truth, I have not found a reference to any city, town, river, or lake in that region. What is recorded in these gospels does not have a specific location. These particular non-canonical gospels do not have much connection to any geographical context; they show no interest in the question of where things may have taken place.

Other non-canonical gospels may not be completely silent about where things took place, but they fall far short of the level of detail found in the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Philip mentions Jerusalem and the Jordan; the Protoevangelium of James mentions Jerusalem and Bethlehem; the Infancy Gospel of Thomas mentions Jerusalem. None of them mentions Bethany, Bethphage, Bethsaida, Cana, Capernaum, Galilee, Jericho, Nazareth, Sidon, or Tyre. The complete lack of mention of Galilee in these seven non-canonical gospels is especially remarkable when we compare those seven to the four canonical gospels, which mention Galilee sixty times all together.

This is not yet an exhaustive study; it is more just checking my general impression against readily available facts. I hope to do a more comprehensive study in the future with an actual read-through of all the canonical and non-canonical texts to make sure every angle has been covered. Still, what is available through on-line text and searching is enough to confirm the general impression: the non-canonical gospels have relatively little interest in where things happened. I expect a more thorough study would show the difference to be greater than the initial review, as the canonical gospels at times even locate the action not just within a city, but even in the home of a particular person or near a particular landmark.

Here again, if we have an interest in the historical Jesus, we have to ask ourselves which sources are better: the sources that make more effort to identify the location where things happen, or the sources which rarely (or in some cases, never) identify the location where things happen. Once again, the canonical gospels have more to say about the historical Jesus in an objectively measurable way.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The historical Jesus is Jewish: Gauging a gospel's historical view of Jesus

It has become increasingly common for skeptics to say that there is no real difference of quality between the canonical gospels -- the ones in the New Testament -- and the non-canonical gospels. The claim is increasingly made that equally viable gospels were "suppressed" by political means as an exercise in the winners writing the history books.

When I first decided to see whether there was anything to this, I set out to read the non-canonical gospels. I was forcefully struck by an impression that these were very different in general quality from the New Testament gospels. But I wanted to be sure, and I asked myself, "Is it simply a matter of my familiarity with the canonical gospels, or is there something objectively, measurably different about the non-canonical gospels?" I set about seeing if there was a way to actually measure differences in a way that anybody could fact-check for themselves.

In this post, I'll cover one of the first things I noticed: the non-canonical gospels, by and large, have a Jesus who is not particularly Jewish, and disciples who are not particularly Jewish. I've done a more thorough write-up previously; for now I want to mention that I'm hardly the only one to have noticed this.

As a case in point, I'd like to introduce a book to you that demonstrates this fairly well. It's a Jewish book on the history of the liturgy. My regular readers will know I'm very fond of liturgical prayer. In my research on the history of the liturgy, I came across a book described by its dust jacket as "the most complete scholarly study of Jewish liturgy in existence today." Naturally, I couldn't resist getting a copy. The book is Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Ismar Elbogen. The original edition (1913) was in German. At the time of the 1993 English translation, it was noted (again, from the dust jacket), "Eighty years after its first appearance, Elbogen's magisterial work remains the most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written." His primary sources are many and varied, including the Talmud, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, a host of Jewish writers through the ages, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul's letter to the Galatians, the Didache, Justin Martyr, and the Apostolic Constitutions, among others. Curiously (or not so curiously), I have not been able to find any references in this book to the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Philip, or any of the non-canonical gospels.

Before we look at why this might happen, I should mention why this work takes so much notice of certain Christian writings: it uses them to establish historical facts about Jewish liturgy and worship, especially as it is practiced in the synagogue. The canonical gospels contain first-century evidence of what Jewish worship was like. There is a record of Hanukkah being celebrated in Jerusalem under the name the Feast of Dedication; it is applicable to the discussion of the history of Hanukkah. The book considers parallels between traditional Jewish prayers and other prayers recorded in the canonical gospels, and uses that to show how far traditional Jewish prayers were already developed at that point in time. The canonical gospels were referenced for peoples' reactions to the practice of giving scholars preferred seats in the synagogues, for whether the Jewish synagogue worship already included readings from the prophets and sermons on those readings, for whether the twice-weekly fast was already in place before the fall of the Temple. There is evidence on the development of the role of the synagogue leader in speaking to people who were out of order; when Jesus heals on the Sabbath, the fellow who objects has the proper title for the person who was supposed to maintain order in the synagogue. There is even evidence in the New Testament for some very detailed aspects of the Jewish liturgy: that the person who gave the sermon was first called to read, that the reading occurred while standing, that the sermon occurred while sitting. The gospels are used as evidence for the location of certain particular synagogues, and for the practice (also known elsewhere) that non-Jews might contribute to building a synagogue. All these very Jewish facts in the New Testament are placed alongside a continuum of Jewish writings to form a coherent whole of which they are an integral piece. Here I have focused only on the gospels, but the book takes the same approach to the book of Acts and Paul's letter to the Galatians.

So this author's interest in the New Testament comes down to this: how much historical information can you learn about first-century Jewish worship in general, and in particular the liturgical worship common in synagogues? The Jesus in the canonical gospels is a regular at the synagogue.

As for the non-canonical gospels, I have looked through the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the Protoevangelium of James; I have found on-line electronic editions of these to double-check my searches. I have not found a reference to a "synagogue" in any of them. Exactly how Jewish is a Jesus who never goes to a synagogue?

If the historical Jesus is a Jewish figure of interest in the area of religion, that's a huge point, that some gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) can be used by historians of Jewish liturgy and provide useful data on first-century Jewish worship, while other gospels do not even mention a synagogue, much less provide detailed information on first-century Jewish worship practices. That is a measurable difference in the quality of the works. The works that are measurably better in telling us about first-century Jewish religious life just happen to be the ones that the early Christian church found to be better sources in general. Large numbers of non-canonical gospels have a Jesus who never goes to a synagogue; the works are of no historical interest for scholars of first-century Judaism. Their Jesus seems ... out of context for a first-century Jew. If we grant that the historical Jesus is Jewish, then here is one objectively measurable point in favor of the canonical gospels having more to say about the historical Jesus.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Did the gospels retroactively invent Jesus' prophecies to fit the facts?

Another common claim of your basic internet skeptic is that the gospels retroactively invented Jesus' prophecies to fit what later happened. In particular, the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple is a favorite target for such a claim. The prophecies are fairly specific about the Temple building being desecrated and ultimately completely leveled, the urgent need to flee when the time comes and the intensity of the suffering when the city comes under siege. Based on the very specific details of the prophecy that were fulfilled, skeptics naturally assume that it was retrofitted.

When I weigh this claim to see if it has any merit, I have to notice how often the gospels mention prophecies being fulfilled. I actually did a fairly in-depth study of that at one point. Luke is almost compulsive about it, once you put Luke and Acts side by side and consider them both. If he mentions a prophecy, he's going to mention the fulfillment if he's aware of it. He'll even go out of his way in the narrative to mention the fulfillment. I wonder if people these days have any idea what a big thing it was for the people of that day and that culture for Jerusalem to be sacked and the Temple leveled. It was their 9/11. I can't see any way that someone would record the prophecy of it at so much length, then not even mention the fulfillment of it.

The Gospel of John is a case in point. Nearly everyone agrees that it was written after the fall of Jerusalem (probably 25 years after, give or take a few years). It is the one gospel in the New Testament that doesn't go on and on about the prophecy of Jerusalem's upcoming destruction; it no longer mattered so much, twenty-five years after its fulfillment. When it is mentioned, it is lumped together with other things in the past. If someone wanted to retroactively invent a prophecy, the Gospel of John would have had all the opportunity in the world -- but it doesn't show much interest in the prophecy. It's old news.

The other three gospels go on at great length about the prophecy, but despite their track record (especially Luke's) of making a point to mention the fulfillment, there's no mention of the fulfillment here. None. After they make a point of recording prophecies and their fulfillment, and after basically whole chapters devoted to this particular prophecy, still no mention of the fulfillment.

I don't really buy that the prophecies were retroactively invented to point to a fulfillment. If that's the case, why in the world not mention it?

A note on the dating of the gospels: I would bet on Mark and Luke being written before the destruction of the Temple. This is based partly on a detailed study of how prophecies are used in each of the gospels, but also on the fact that Luke gives a play-by-play of certain figures in the early church -- and has it on his agenda to record early martyrdoms -- but suddenly stops in the early 60's A.D. without mentioning the martyrdoms of Peter or Paul. What are the odds that he'd stop where he did, given his agenda, if he knew of Peter's and Paul's martyrdoms? The most plausible explanation is that the narrative was up to then-current times when he stopped. Mark was a source for Luke, so Mark would have been completed before that. However, since we have evidence that Mark and Luke knew each other in person, it need not have been much earlier.

I would also bet on the first edition of Matthew -- the Hebrew/Aramaic one -- being written before the destruction. I have not found any details on when the translation and/or second edition of Matthew was written, but based on the deeply Jewish nature of that particular gospel and the non-mention of the destruction, I'd give decent odds that the main sayings of Jesus in Matthew were already in a set form (if still possibly in another language than the received text) before the destruction.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Did the early church have any critical scholarship of Biblical texts?

Many people speak as though critical scholarship of Biblical texts is a recent phenomenon, something of which the early church knew nothing. Some familiarity with scholars of the early church should serve to make our impressions more accurate.


Origen (d. circa 254 A.D.) was a textual scholar with exceptional devotion to the task. His passion was largely directed towards ensuring that an accurate translation of the Old Testament existed in Greek. To the best of my knowledge, he is the first Christian scholar to mark up Biblical texts to show comparative additions and omissions with respect to another edition of the same text. He writes to Julius Africanus about his marked-up version:
Again, in Genesis, the words, “God saw that it was good,” when the firmament was made, are not found in the Hebrew, and there is no small dispute among them about this; and other instances are to be found in Genesis, which I marked, for the sake of distinction, with the sign the Greeks call an obelisk, as on the other hand I marked with an asterisk those passages in our copies which are not found in the Hebrew. (From a letter from Origen to Africanus, see #4 on the linked page.)
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first critical edition of a book of the Bible by a Christian scholar; it was made in the 200's A.D. Africanus' letter which drew this response is worth a read also. While he doesn't mention comparing editions side-by-side, he does direct a keen mind to the question of the authenticity and originality of certain passages. The correspondence of these two is the earliest instance I have been able to find of Christian scholars discussing the originality of and evidence for (and against) Biblical passages which are considered questionable. The greetings in their letters suggest that a scholarly community may already have existed that was interested in the topic at hand.

Origen's contributions to comparing the Biblical texts extended far beyond comparing two individual texts and marking additions or omissions. He also completed the monumental task of compiling a side-by-side comparative study of the Old Testament in its entirety, including four Greek translations of the Old Testament together with a Hebrew and a transliterated Hebrew edition. This resulted in a total of six editions laid out side-by-side to allow for easy comparisons among them; the work was known as the Hexapla.


Pamphilus (died 309 A.D.) was an influence on Eusebius and Jerome; Eusebius is sometimes known as "Eusebius Pamphilus" or "Eusebius Pamphili" as a tribute to this scholar. Pamphilus created one of the more well-stocked libraries of the early church at Caesarea in a day when not only was there no, there was also no printing press. Jerome remembers him as the one who had obtained a copy of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew which still existed in Jerome's day in the library (On Illustrious Men, comments under #3). Jerome relates that Pamphilus was also impressed with Origen's scholarship: "he transcribed the greater part of the works of Origen with his own hand and these are still preserved in the library at C├Žsarea." (On Illustrious Men, #75.) Anyone who is familiar with the volume of Origen's works will appreciate the size of effort taken to make copies of the majority of Origen's works. Pamphilus is said to be, along with Eusebius, "a most diligent investigator of the Holy Bible" (On Illustrious Men, #81). He provides a historical link in collecting, preserving and transmitting the scholarship of earlier Christians for the next generation of scholars. He also wrote an Apology for Origen, who was apparently rash enough to have needed it.

Eusebius the Historian

Eusebius (died circa 339 A.D.) was another prolific scholar in the early church, and another admirer of Origen's work. Though he is best remembered for his Church History, he also tried an ambitious project to compile the known histories of various nations into a more comprehensive world history. The general historian may be interested in the early histories he has passed on from various nations. For our present purposes, when he tries to chronicle the events from Jewish Scriptures, he decides to make separate treatment of the Hebrew text, the Septuagint translation into Greek, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. Eusebius mentions in his introductory notes to the Hebrew chronicle:
There is considerable disagreement among the Hebrews about their own chronology, so it will be good to commence by examining their differing accounts. By evaluating and comparing all of them, the truth will be arrived at. The five books of Moses describe the creation of the world, life before the flood, the history of the ancients after the flood, the generations of the Hebrews, and the passing of Moses. The Jews and the Samaritans, who were foreigners who came to live among the Jews, have differing versions of the books of the law. The characters of the Hebrew alphabet used by the Jews differ from those used by the Samaritans. The correct and original [alphabet] is not the one used by the [contemporary] Jews, because their descendants corrupted it. Yet there was no conflict between them [the Hebrews and the Samaritans] until the alteration of the letters. Furthermore there are numerous disagreements between the two with respect to chronology, as will become clear in the comparison below.

The Greek translation [of the Bible] also differs from the Hebrew, though not so much from the Samaritan [version]. There is disagreement [in chronology in the versions] up to the flood, but thereafter, until the time of Abraham, the versions are in harmony. The text we use was translated collectively by seventy Hebrew men from their language into Greek during the reign of Ptolemaeus Philadelphus. [Their translation] was placed in the library in the city of Alexandria, where it was carefully preserved. Now we shall set forth historical information from each of the versions, one after the other, so that it will be easy to distinguish the discrepancies.
At some point since Origen's Hexapla, Christian scholarship of the Old Testament had expanded to become aware of the Samaritan Pentateuch.

Eusebius is also the probable creator of a valuable textual study tool, now known as the Eusebian Canons, for locating parallel passages among the four gospels. This became a standard research and reference tool for those studying the gospels. Here, Eusebius built on and acknowledged the earlier work of the scholar Ammonius (probably early 200's A.D.). It should be difficult to imagine that nobody had noticed the parallels among the gospels in ancient times, given that reference tables had been compiled to locate parallel passages.


Jerome (died 420 A.D.) stood in what is, by now, a long line of Christian scholars with an interest in the text. He stands as a bridge between the rich history of Greek-speaking scholars of the text and a new generation of scholars who spoke Latin. Jerome is most famous as a translator, producing the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible which was used in western Christendom for many centuries. Rather than belabor all the work which would go into translating the entire Bible into Latin, it should be mentioned that he also prepared critical editions of some books, using the same system of marking that we already saw in Origen two centuries before. Here we see none less than St. Augustine writing Jerome about two critical editions/translations of the book of Job, one prepared from the Greek (with comparative critical marks to the Hebrew) and the other straight from the Hebrew:
In this letter I have further to say, that I have since heard that you have translated Job out of the original Hebrew, although in your own translation of the same prophet from the Greek tongue we had already a version of that book. In that earlier version you marked with asterisks the words found in the Hebrew but wanting in the Greek, and with obelisks the words found in the Greek but wanting in the Hebrew; and this was done with such astonishing exactness, that in some places we have every word distinguished by a separate asterisk, as a sign that these words are in the Hebrew, but not in the Greek. Now, however, in this more recent version from the Hebrew, there is not the same scrupulous fidelity as to the words; and it perplexes any thoughtful reader to understand either what was the reason for marking the asterisks in the former version with so much care that they indicate the absence from the Greek version of even the smallest grammatical particles which have not been rendered from the Hebrew, or what is the reason for so much less care having been taken in this recent version from the Hebrew to secure that these same particles be found in their own places. I would have put down here an extract or two in illustration of this criticism; but at present I have not access to the Ms. of the translation from the Hebrew. Since, however, your quick discernment anticipates and goes beyond not only what I have said, but also what I meant to say, you already understand, I think, enough to be able, by giving the reason for the plan which you have adopted, to explain what perplexes me. (Letter from Augustine to Jerome, from #3 in linked page)
To this Jerome replied rather sharply that Augustine should "desist from annoying an old man, who seeks retirement in his monastic cell," and that "As for me, a soldier once, but a retired veteran now, it becomes me rather to applaud the victories won by you and others, than with my worn-out body to take part in the conflict." (Letter from Jerome to Augustine, see #3 on the linked page.) Augustine's marvel over the "astonishing exactness" of the young Jerome's critical editions may have led to his disappointment when, in his old age, Jerome no longer had the time or energy to produce new critical editions on the same level as before. For my part, I can't help but feel that Jerome's rest was well-deserved; he had already made enduring contributions to the life of the church.


Here I have surveyed the early scholars who are familiar to me, or who are friends or key sources of those familiar scholars. I cannot imagine how anyone familiar with these men and their work could say that early church had no true scholars of the texts. The modern scholar assumes study tools and critical approaches to the text that the early church helped to develop. While we may disagree with them at points, we still stand in the debt of the textual scholars of the early church.