There’s been a lot of chatter about “fake news” in recent months. Some stories, even though they have no basis in fact, are told so often, and with such conviction, that large numbers of people end up believing them anyway.
And some of these fake news stories even dupe legitimate political figures who repeat the story without realizing it is false. And, of course, once a mainstream political figure repeats a story then it becomes even more entrenched in the national psyche.
While some of these fake news stories are rather harmless, others have become quite dangerous. Most famous perhaps is the “Pizza Gate” incident in 2016 where a man shot up a pizza place thinking it was host to a child sex trafficking ring (thankfully, no one was hurt).
Given this rash of “fake news,” I thought it might be interesting to observe that an analogous phenomenon can be seen in the study of early Christianity. There is quite a bit of “fake news” out there regarding the person of Jesus, the origins of the church, or the development of the Bible . Even though such “news” has no factual basis, it is believed by an uncomfortably large number of people.
So, here is a sampling of some of the leading stories:
1. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
Perhaps there is no conspiracy theory about early Christianity more sensational and more captivating than the claim that Jesus was married and had children. It is not only fodder for books like The Da Vinci Code, but seems to pop up again and again in the mainstream media (see recent example here).
The problem, of course, is that this belief is patently false. There is no evidence Jesus was married. For a fuller critique of this piece of fake news, see my article here.
2. The divinity of Jesus was not decided until the council of Nicea in the fourth century.
Another long-standing and widespread conviction is that Jesus was merely an ordinary human who was exalted to divine status much later in the history of early Christianity. In particular, it is claimed, the council of Nicea decided that Christianity needed a divine Jesus and suppressed (and oppressed) all who insisted Jesus was merely human.
Again, however, the evidence for an early belief in the divinity of Jesus is overwhelming. As early as the 50’s of the first century, Paul applies the monotheistic creed of Israel to the person of Jesus, declaring, “For us there is one God, the Father from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6). And there is good evidence that Paul is drawing upon earlier tradition in this passage, indicating that such a belief was present at the very beginning of the Christian movement.
For more on the early divinity of Jesus, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel.
3. Christians did not have a “Bible” until the time of Constantine.
Also making our top-five list is the oft-repeated claim that early Christians, at least for the first four centuries, didn’t have a Bible. They were adrift on the theological sea, we are told, without guidance from Scripture and reliant merely on oral tradition which was itself problematic and ever-changing. This problem wasn’t resolved until Constantine commissioned the production of a Bible in the fourth century (containing, of course, just the books he preferred).
While this is yet another intriguing conspiracy theory, it lacks any historical foundation. We must remember, first of all, that the earliest Christians had a “Bible” from day one, namely what we now call the Old Testament. For them, the OT was the undisputed word of God and they were deeply immersed in it and committed to its authority. Moreover, from a very early point, Christians regarded their own books as scriptural and a core New Testament canon is evident by the early to middle second century.
4. The “Gnostic” Gospels like the Gospel of Thomas were just as popular as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Ever since the discovery of the so-called Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945, it has been popular to insist that these “lost” gospels were really more popular than even our canonical ones. During the first few centuries, we are told, Christians read the Gospel of Thomas with equal (if not more) regularity than the books that made it into our Bibles.
And, of course, this whole narrative has a clear purpose behind it, namely to convince people that all gospels are pretty much the same and that no gospel is more valid than another.
But, this narrative quickly evaporates when one looks at the historical data. When it comes to nearly every line of evidence–frequency of citation, use as Scripture, number of manuscripts–it is clear that these apocryphal gospels were not very popular after all. Indeed, all the historical indicators show that that our four gospels were, far and away, the most popular gospels in the early church.
5. The words of the New Testament have been radically changed and corrupted in the earliest centuries.
Rounding out our top-five fake news stories is the claim that the text of the New Testament has been so radically corrupted, edited, and changed that we cannot really know what the original authors said. Made famous by Bart Ehrman’s best-seller Misquoting Jesus, this story has been repeated ad infinitum.
The problem, however, is that there is no evidence for this level of radical corruption. Can we see scribal changes/mistakes in our New Testament manuscripts? Of course. But, that is true for every document of antiquity. The New Testament is no different.
If there is a difference, it is that the New Testament seems even more well-preserved than comparable documents in the ancient world. After generations of careful scholarship, and a wealth of manuscripts at our disposal, we can have great confidence in the words of the New Testament.
In the end, these are five examples of “fake news” about early Christianity that get repeated so often that people believe they must be true. But, just like in the political world, we need to be careful to examine the facts before we repeat the claim.