There’s been a lot of chatter about “fake news” this year. 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.
Fake news is all around us. There are SO many that Snopes.com and hoax-slayer.com, among other sites, have become necessary. Fake news didn’t start with President Trump, it’s been around forever. There was a lot of fake news around the early church and Christianity regarding the person of Jesus, the origins of the church, and the development of the Bible. Even though such “news” has no factual basis, it’s believed by an uncomfortably large number of people.
Here’s a sampling of fake news stories. And see below for what the church father’s view of the Bible was.
Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
Perhaps there’s no conspiracy theory about early Christianity more sensational and captivating than the claim that Jesus was married and had children. It’s not only fodder for books like The Da Vinci Code, but it seems to pop up again and again in the mainstream media. The problem, of course, is that this belief is patently false. There’s no evidence Jesus was married.
The deity of Jesus wasn’t decided until the Council of Nicea in the fourth century.
Another widespread conviction is that Jesus was merely an ordinary human who was exalted to divine status by the council of Nicea. They then suppressed (and oppressed) all who insisted otherwise.
Again, however, the evidence for an early belief in Jesus’s divinity is overwhelming. As early as the 50s 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). There’s good evidence Paul is drawing on earlier tradition in this passage, indicating that such a belief was present at the beginning of the Christian movement.
Christians didn’t 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 reliant merely on ever-changing oral tradition. And this problem wasn’t resolved until Constantine commissioned the production of a Bible in the fourth century (containing only the books he preferred).
While this is yet another intriguing conspiracy theory, it lacks any historical foundation. The earliest Christians had a “Bible” from day one—what we now call the Old Testament. For them, the Old Testament was the undisputed Word of God, and they were deeply committed to its authority. Moreover, from an early point Christians regarded their own books as scriptural, and a core New Testament canon is evident by the early to middle second century.
The ‘Gnostic’ Gospels like 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’s been popular to insist that these “lost” Gospels were once more popular than our canonical ones. During the first few centuries, we’re told, Christians read the Gospel of Thomas with equal (if not more) regularity than the books that made it into our Bibles.
This whole narrative has a clear purpose behind it: to convince people that all Gospels are pretty much the same, and 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’s clear these apocryphal Gospels weren’t very popular after all. Indeed, all historical indicators show our four Gospels were, far and away, the most popular ones in the early church.
The words of the New Testament were 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 can’t really know what the original authors said. Made famous by Bart Ehrman’s bestseller Misquoting Jesus, this story has been repeated ad infinitum.
But there’s no evidence for this level of radical corruption. Can we see scribal changes and mistakes in our New Testament manuscripts? Of course, but that’s true for every document of antiquity. The New Testament is no different.
And if there is a difference, it’s 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.
What did the Church Fathers think about the Bible?
Clement of Rome
Clement was a first-century Christian who became the leader of the church in Rome. We know from Irenaeus and Tertullian, that Clement personally knew the apostles and was ordained by Peter himself. In fact, it is possible that he is the very “Clement” mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. (Church Father Origen and historian Eusebius thought so!) Here’s what he said about the Bible:
Let us act accordingly to that which is written (for the Holy Spirit saith, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom)…. Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Clement equated the words of Scripture with the very words of God.
Justin was a philosopher who lived in the early second century. He came to faith in Christ and became one of the first apologists for Christianity, even writing a letter to the Roman Emperor defending Christianity after persecution broke out against it. He was ultimately arrested for his faith and beheaded—thus earning him the name “Martyr.” Justin understood that the Bible was written by men, but it was God speaking through them.
But when you hear the utterances of the prophets spoken as it were personally, you must not suppose that they are spoken by the inspired men themselves but by the divine Word who moves them.
Irenaeus was a late second-century theologian and apologist who learned from Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John. He is most famous for his seminal work, Against Heresies, in which he refuted one of the earliest heresies to invade Christianity—Gnosticism. Even though the doctrine of inerrancy hadn’t been hammered out, Irenaeus knew that the Scriptures were without falsehood.
The Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God [Christ] and His Spirit; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than, the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destitute of the knowledge of His mysteries.
Like Irenaeus, Tertullian was another late second-century theologian and apologist who refuted Gnosticism. A prolific writer, he was known as the father of Latin Christianity. Tertullian believed that the Bible had authority over him… that the truths of God’s Word were not suggestions, but commands.
Apostles have the Holy Spirit properly, who have Him fully, in the operations of prophecy. . . . Thus he attached the Holy Spirit’s authority to that form [of advice] to which he willed us rather to attend; and forthwith it became not an advice of the Holy Spirit, but, in consideration of His majesty, a precept.
Almost no one in the history of the Church has had a more profound influence on the way Christians think. So much so, that you’ll often find two people on opposite sides of a theological debate both using Augustine to make their point! Augustine loved Christ and he loved the Bible.
Therefore, whatever He [Christ] wanted us to read concerning His words and deeds, He commanded the disciples, His hands, to write. Hence, one cannot but receive what he reads in the Gospels, though written by the disciples, as though it were written by the very hand of the Lord Himself….For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books.
If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, the author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.
Clearly, these Church Fathers had a deep love, reverence, and respect for Scripture. They believed that it was inspired by God, fully authoritative, and truthful. This is the legacy that has been passed down to us, and we would be wise to embrace it.
Gathered from these two articles: