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Competing Christianity

God does not inspire malicious thoughts and words. God wants us to love and build up one another.  If you are being influenced in such ways, you are not acting as Jesus taught.
God does not inspire malicious thoughts and words. God wants us to love and build up one another. If you are being influenced in such ways, you are not acting as Jesus taught.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Which type of Christian are you? For some reason this question seems to be forefront in many minds. People want to know which Church you belong to so they can “size you up", to them the sect of Christianity to which you belong defines who you are. In today’s world there are many variations of Christianity, each group thinking their version is the best and only they are correctly following God’s plan. Christians are casting dispersions on other Christians.

Lutherans distrust Catholics. Baptists think Universalist are occultic. Universalists are surprised to hear this because they feel they are Christian. Orthodox faiths believe theirs is the true way and all the rest are missing the path. Everyone is pointing fingers at one another trying to tear each other down.

Do you really think that was God’s plan? Does God want His children to constantly bicker about who he loves best? If He is like most parents, that answer would be a big fat no. Or, do you think, God might want us to all love one another, to build up and support one another? God does not inspire malicious thoughts and words. If you are being influenced in such ways, you are not acting as Jesus taught. You are not acting Christian.

It is hard not to get caught up in group-think from time to time. Especially when hanging around only like-minded individuals. God is creative, just look at the world around you, it is obvious. God is working through his children, guiding them where they need to go. Everyone is starting from a different beginning, so everyone is on a different path. Each path will eventually lead to Him. Your faith is the key, God knows what’s in your heart.

Many people grow up in their particular religious denomination do to their cultural identity. Irish, Italians and Latinos tend to be Catholic, Germans and Dutch lean towards Lutheran, the southern United States has the Baptist Bible Belt, and England has given us the Episcopalians. Is any one faith better than the other?

Would you consider any of these Christians to be heretical? Do their ways of worship deem them worthy of being wiped from existence? Should their versions of hymnals be destroyed and expunged from history? This is exactly what happened during the first few hundred years of Christianity however.

Ancient texts hidden in the desert sands for centuries are bringing to light some of these scriptures that were lovingly secreted away for safe keeping from those who were out to destroy them. These discoveries can give today’s Christian a glimpse into what is was like when all the ancient Christian denominations were politically unified under Roman rule.

When modern Hebrew Old Testament Bible chapters are compared to these ancient versions of the same text, they are identical. Rabbinic scribes tediously transcribed every Old Testament Bible without ever altering one single letter. No mistakes or substitutions were allowed. This cannot be said for the New Testament. When these ancient texts were transcribed, some of them contained versions of the Canon of the Bible that differ from our versions today. There is an inconsistency. This has happened on more than one occasion.

Early in Christianity there were many denominations of Christians, just as there are today. Each of these branches had their own version of the Bible, just as the various Christian denominations have spiritual material unique to their Church today. Everyone has a Christian Bible, but they each have their own traditions within the umbrella of the label “Christian”.

Egypt was a thriving center of ancient Christianity and in the 1800s early biblical explorers discovered it still held many ancient documents. One of the most important finds was the Codex Sinaiticus. Discovered in Monastery of Saint Catherine, this handwritten manuscript of the Christian Bible written in Greek is well over 1600 years old, and is the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.

The Codex Sinaiticus is comprised of over 400 leaves of animal skin. Written on these leaves are about half of the Old Testament and Apocrypha (the Septuagint), the whole of the New Testament, and two early Christian texts not found in modern Bibles. There is an Epistle by an unknown writer stating he is the Apostle Barnabas, and 'The Shepherd', written by early second-century Roman writer, Hermas.

When discovered this manuscript raised many questions about the accuracy of the Bible we have today. It was a bombshell to the theological world to say the least. Most Christians worship from the King James Bible, which was completed in 1611 for the Church of England. In 1881 a new version was created, it included 30,000 changes due to the translation of the Codex Sinaiticus. People discovered that many of the verses they held so dear were now relegated to side notes. Well known passages were being questioned. For Christians, the text of the Bible and the Word of God were one and the same. How could there be alterations?

A short while later another ancient Bible was discovered at St. Catherine’s, the Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus. These manuscripts preserve a very early Old Syriac translation of the Gospels and may go back as early as the early third century AD. Syriac is an ancient dialect of Aramaic very similar to the language Jesus himself spoke. In this version of the Gospel of Mark, there is a very different ending. There is no mention of Jesus appearing to anyone after the crucifixion. After Jesus is crucified it simply says, “This is the ending” and then starts with, “This is the Gospel of Luke.”

This version of Mark is profoundly troubling because there is no Resurrection, yet it does match the version of events as described in the Codex Sinaiticus. The questions surrounding the ending of Mark inspired a new generation of Bible explorers to look for further information about this central event of Christianity. Why do the two earliest known manuscripts of the New Testament say nothing about Jesus’ resurrection? The hunt for still older biblical manuscripts was on.

In 1897 old manuscripts were found in an ancient rubbish heap, Oxyrhynchus, among them were papyri with sayings attributed to Jesus. Some of these saying were the same as those in the Gospels, others had never been heard before. If these saying are genuine, then the Bible as we knew it did not include everything there was to know about Jesus’ ministry. But, since the Bible is the absolute word of God how could it be missing segments and why was this only true in the New Testament chapters? Are the Gospels infallible and what is the status of these newly discovered texts?

As the original followers of Jesus were dying out, people realized the importance of writing down Jesus’ words for posterity. The Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John represent the canon, or official scripture of the Christian faith, but do they accurately represent the entirety of Jesus’ teachings? Is our modern Bible incomplete?

The Bible is considered to be directly communicated by God to the individuals God has chosen to write it down. It is taught that to read the Bible was to access the word of God. The Gospels do tell different stories about the life of Jesus. Even if you forget about all these ancient biblical documents and only look at the modern version of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John you will still find discrepancies. The Gospel stories do not match.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke present basically the story of Jesus in very similar ways. The stories tell the same sayings of Jesus, the order of the material is consistent and even use many of the same words in parallel accounts. For this reason they are called the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John, though it resembles the other three Gospels, tells the stories of Jesus in significantly different ways. There is a different order of events, different points of emphasis, and it has a unique vocabulary style.

When you look deeper into the Synoptic Gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke further discrepancies arise. In the opening of Luke 4 Jesus goes into the synagogue and takes the scroll of Isaiah. He is literate and he's a scholar. He is capable of understanding the Hebrew scroll and is able to find the exact place he wants, reads it, and comments on it. Luke and Matthew give us the same wonderful scene for the Sermon on the Mount, which takes place on a mountain. There is no Sermon on the Mount in Mark, in fact there is no mountain on which to have a sermon. There is no scene in the synagogue at Nazareth where Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah either. None of this is in Mark, but one is in Matthew and the other is in Luke.

1906 art collector Charles Lang Freer purchased some incredibly old manuscripts which included an ancient Greek codex of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. This extraordinary codex is the third oldest Gospel collection in the world. Known as the Codex Washingtonianus (its display at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC ended Feb. 16) and dated to about the 5th century AD, this manuscript has a variation in the ending of Mark as well, but it differs from the two earlier codex’s ending. These early manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark had been systematically tampered with.

In this version of the Gospel of Mark there is a passage only found in this codex. This manuscript does contain what we know as the full version of Mark, which includes the resurrection and Jesus’ subsequent appearances. However, there is a passage known as the Freer Logion inserted into the traditional ending. In this passage Jesus reprimands the disciples for not believing in him and his resurrection. The disciples ask for forgiveness saying it is Satan who has caused them to behave this way. Jesus states that Satan’s days are over, "The term of years for Satan's power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death so that they may return to the truth and no longer sin, so that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness that is in heaven."

Early Church fathers had always stated the phrase, Satan’s days are over, was a saying of Jesus', but this is the first time there was evidence of it on paper. This was further evidence of ongoing changes to the Bible during the early centuries. What we see with the New Testament is accidental or deliberate altering of what they were writing, something never seen in copies of the Old Testament.

During the seventh century significant, deliberate alterations of the New Testament took place. A series of editors dramatically changed the character of the texts. Hearing the Word of God has been altered comes as a shock to most Christians, but it seems Christians have been continually attempting to improve the text in an attempt to make it a more readable story since the beginning. Why would God allow the New Testament Bible to be corrupted?

Continual discoveries of unheard of manuscripts remind us that the New Testament is a living document. A document, composed by many people, that chronicles the faith of a budding religion. It is comprised of stories of those whose lives were touched by the wisdom of Christ.

During WWII another spectacular stash of ancient manuscripts known as the Nag Hammadi library were discovered. One of these was the Gospel of Thomas, which begins with the statement, “These are the hidden words the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down.” This collection has 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, more examples of alternative Christian texts. It wasn’t until the 1970s until the actual location of where these texts were found was finally made known when a local farmer took scholars to the site of discovery.

One of the most controversial of the Nag Hammadi texts discovered is the Gospel of Mary. In this book we see women as Disciples of Jesus. Mary Magdalene traveled with Jesus, was present at his crucifixion, and was the first person to see him after the Resurrection. In this Gospel she is given a role of prominence. She speaks of visions and private teachings Jesus gave only to her.

This collection of Gnostic codices was written in the Coptic language. Gnosticism was part of a philosophical Christian denomination that was interested in secret knowledge. Gnostics were considered the scientific and intellectual Christians. There has always seemed to be a rift between Orthodox Christianity and Gnostic Christians.

When looking back at the early years of Christianity we see a wide variety of Christian groups develop. Depending on the location of the sect, various interpretations and rituals developed as well. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was poised to become the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

In order to unify all the types of people under their rule, Rome decided to unify the texts of Christianity. There could be only one official version deemed acceptable by the Empire. From that moment forth any interpretations that may have been unique to your denomination of Christianity were labeled unworthy and heretical. Verses that may have brought you guidance and comfort in the past were now being tossed aside. Manuscripts were confiscated and destroyed.

When the Roman Empire consolidated its power through the use of the Church, the Gnostic intellectual and freethinking interpretation of Christianity was forced out of official Church doctrine. It was the Orthodox version of Christianity that would shape the Church’s future. The Orthodox bishops were not as mystical as the Gnostics and were better at putting out a meaningful message that could be understood by the masses.

As they say, history is written by the victors. The Council of Nicaea decided on the 27 books composing the New Testament. A lot of political intrigue and power-play deals took place. The more rich and powerful a Bishop, the more influence he had on the committee, giving him a better chance for his favored books to be included in the Canon.

Ancient Christians did not want to be excommunicated, yet they could not bear to destroy their holy texts. Instead they tenderly hid them away, possibly hoping to one day return and worship with them again. Gnostics were being condemned as heretics and brutalized with extreme violence. Other early denominations of Christianity were also violently suppressed and lost. From the earliest developments of our faith, there was never been just one version of Christianity.

Modern technology may be able to finally put to rest some of the Church’s oldest debates. Multispectral photographs of these ancient texts are bringing remarkable discoveries normally invisible to the human eye to light. Previously unknown letters from Paul were unveiled when the ink in which they were written showed up under certain waves of light.

Today researchers are continuing their efforts to sort through and transcribe all the fragments found at the Oxyrhynchus rubbish heap dig site. Out of the million pieces discovered so far, 5,000 have been published. Images of the fragmented manuscripts are available on-line for public view. Through the public’s support, the identification process has sped up exponentially. New versions of the Coptic Gospels have been categorized in what is being referred to as one of the largest ongoing archeological projects in the world. It is said to complete the collection of fragments will take decades and possibly centuries.

Biblical exploration is ongoing and in 2005 Polish archaeologists working in Egypt discovered a fourth century codex called “The Acts of Peter.” This Christian text is not included in the modern version of the Bible either. All these biblical variations and rediscovered ancient Gospels give us a greater understanding to what it meant to be Christian in the early years of the Church.

For 2,000 years the Bible has offered comfort and guidance to those in their time of need and it has helped shaped civilization. By rediscovering forgotten ancient manuscripts we are beginning to discover Christianity started out with multiple types of Christians, and it continues with multiple Christian denominations today.