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XVIII. THE CONDITIONS OF THE EARLY CHURCH

 

Was it possible to make this change?: Many may wonder how the change in Matthew 28:19 could come about, why would it happened and was it possible to make such a change? The answer to this is, yes it was possible, if we take into account the early conditions and environment of the times. The chaotic conditions of the early centuries provided an environment where such a change could be made. The change could have been done accidentally or on purpose, but when the change occurred then it was widely embraced and supported.  Below our ministry will try to explain the conditions of the times, the culture, the controversies, the testimonies and the reasons that led to the corruption of Matthew 28:19 in the best order possible.

 

There was no canon of the New Testament: Back then there was no such thing as the Bible, the writings of Moses, the Psalms and the Prophets (Luke 24:44) were all written in scrolls. Jesus at one time was given the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:17). When the disciples of Jesus begun writing their epistles they did it in scrolls, which were copied by different people and passed around. Early in the first century the epistles of the Apostles were copied by gentile converts who did not have a tradition of making faithful copies like the early Jewish believers had; many of those epistles were badly copied and we have plenty of proof of that. In the second century there was also a proliferation of apocryphal gospels and epistles. Such conditions continued in the third century. There were all kinds of epistles passed around and tampered with and some were outright falsifications. There was not one single bound book or scroll that could be called the Bible. There was no official canon so each church or sect would have a different set of accepted writings. Some Christian leaders realized the need to establish a New Testament Canon to control the chaotic situation. By a long process of selection certain books were accepted as canonical while others were rejected, it took centuries for the majority of the church to finally agree on the canon of the New Testament; but even after the official canon was establish, there were some who disagreed with that canon.

 

Bibles were expensive: Early Christianity was not like our modern society where a person can walk into a 99 cents store and walk out with a whole Bible. Few people could actually afford a complete bible. Most gospel writings were written in cheap papyrus paper which was of poor quality. Some used parchments which were made of animal skins and far more durable, but also more costly. It is estimated that about 360 animals were slaughtered for making the folios of the Codex Sinaiticus; this would be worth about the lifetime wages of an ordinary worker. The emperor Constantine displayed his generosity by paying for 50 bibles for the diocese of Constantinople; this should give an idea of how expensive they were. During the Middle Ages when there were monks actually dedicated to copying the scriptures; Bibles still were unaffordable, for it took a monk about a year to copy by hand the whole Bible. Bibles were so valuable that the priests chained the Bible in their pulpit to prevent thieves from stealing them. In the Middle Ages the priest would unlock the Bible read some verses and then give his interpretation to the people, of course a Catholic interpretation. The people were prevented from reading the Bible on their own lest they get “wrong” interpretations. Now trying to image even less favorable conditions than during the middle ages and you will realize how pricey Bibles really were during the first centuries. Quite often a whole congregation had one single Bible and sometimes that Bible itself was incomplete.

 

Most people were illiterate: In ancient times illiteracy was common, most of the people could not read or write, even some kings were illiterate. However the Jews were a little better than most other nations for they had the traditions of the Tanakh. The priests were well educated for they needed to know The Law. The reason the Scribes and the Pharisees were important is because they were able to read the scriptures and teach the people. The Scribes of Jesus’s time were more than simple secretaries, they also were consulted about the meaning of the Holy texts and their opinion was valued. Obviously the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time abused their privileged position; they were supposed to teach the people the laws of God, but they used their position for personal gain. The Apostles probably were semi-literate and Peter was perhaps illiterate but he had Mark and Silvanus (Silas) as his assistants and they definitely were educated persons. Paul was the exception to the group for he had an excellent rabbinical education, so he had no trouble composing his letters, but few Christians of that era were able to read or copy his epistles. Ancient Literacy (1991) by Professor of ancient history William Vernon Harris.

 

Oral transmission was common: Oral transmission was the traditional way most ancient people learned and memorized the scriptures and other things they knew. The Levites under Ezra “read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” (Nehemiah 8) Jesus could read and write, and he knew the scriptures, but he used mostly oral teaching when addressing the crowds or his disciples, only on rare occasions did he actually read the texts to the people. A common phrase of Jesus was “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” In the Oral tradition many people would hear a scripture and recited it a few times to memorize it by rote repetition and some were able to memorize a great amount of scriptures. The Apostles preached to the crowds the word of the Lord, which means they had to know the word of the Lord. Even Peter mentions many Old Testament scriptures, which he probably memorized by rote repetition. Even today in countries where illiteracy is high, the preacher is sometimes one of the few people in his village who can read and the people learn and memorize the scriptures he reads. Oral Transmission in Judaism and Christianity (2010) by Professor Thomas Meyer.

 

There were many different sects of Christianity: This was the perfect time for heresies and false doctrines to enter into the new born Church. Even during the time of Paul and Peter there were already false prophets infiltrating the church. The Apostles especially Paul, John and Jude warned us about these false deceivers which had entered the church and were deceiving folks. The church was attacked from outside and even from inside. A Companion to Second-century Christian “Heretics” (2005) by Professor of early Christian literature Antti Marjanen and Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Culture Petri Luomanen. In 308 AD Lactantius in his divine institutes argues for the toleration of religious freedom for all sects. In 360 AD Themistius “The king of arguments”, argued for the freedom of religion for all the different religious sects. Themistius and the Imperial Court by Professor of Roman History John Vanderspoel. The belief that there was one single main church in the 4th century is absolutely wrong, there were many sects, some had similar doctrines while others differed widely. Epiphanius in his Panarion written around 375 AD writes refutations against different sects and mentions 75 sects in existence and this was after 325 AD (The council of Nicaea).

 

The Persecutions of the Church: Constant persecution was a fact of life for early Christians; they often had to flee with just what they were wearing on their back, sometimes leaving their scrolls behind. There were at least ten major persecutions, which caused the death of many Christians and the destruction of many manuscripts. Some of the emperors cared not for religious matters and often tolerated Christianity or were even favorable toward it, however other emperors saw Christianity as a threat to the unity of the empire.

 

At first the magistrates tried to reason with the Christians and persuade them to perform at least outwardly the rites that the laws required and that they could in their heart continue to believe in their religious beliefs, but the Christians just would not go along. When gentle persuasion failed to make the Christians comply, then the governors resorted to the harsher means of fines, beatings, prison, torture and eventually death, but even that could not make the Christians participate in pagan rituals.

At the beginning the roman rulers tried to just prosecute the bishops, to set an example, but eventually the persecution was extended to all Christians. This persecution affected many of the most learned members of the church which also affected the production of biblical texts. Yes it is true that a few Christians recanted, but the majority of them refused to do sacrifices. A great many of the Christians escaped torture and death by buying certificates (Libellatici/Acta Facientes) without actually participating in the rituals, while others fled to other safer places. Those Christians who managed to escape lost their property and were forbidden to return under penalty of death. General History of the Christian Religion and Church (1854) Vol 1, p. 87, 131 by Augustus Neander


Around 52 AD The Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome because they were disturbing the peace on account of “Chrestus”; it seems Jewish Christians had arrived in Rome and had been having arguments and disputes about Christ. Book of Acts 18:2-3, Suetonius.

 

  1. The first major persecution begun on 64 AD by the emperor Nero. In the summer of 64, Rome suffered a terrible fire that burned for six days and seven nights consuming almost three quarters of the city. The Emperor then decided to blame the Christians of starting the fire and many of them were gathered to be put to death by many cruel means. This persecution was mostly confined to the city of Rome and according to legend the Apostles Peter and Paul were among those killed during this persecution.

  2. In 81 AD the emperor Domitian, a cruel man begun a period of persecution, he commanded all the lineage of David be put to death. According to legend it was during this persecution that Timothy was killed and Saint John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos.

  3. In 108 AD the emperor Trajan began another period of persecution of Christians. Pliny the Second, wrote to Trajan, certifying him that there were many thousands of them daily put to death, of which none did any thing contrary to the Roman laws worthy of persecution.

  4. In 162 AD the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, started another persecution. Several Christians were beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to the image of Jupiter.

  5. In 202 AD the emperor Septimius Severus issued an edict that forbade further conversions to Judaism and Christianity, although Severus had tolerated Christianity, he then decided he did not wanted it to grow any further. The edict was aimed, not against those already Christians, but only against new converts, the idea being to prevent the further spread of Christianity. However in some parts of the Empire many Christians were killed.

  6. In A.D. 235 the emperor Maximinus began a persecution. Seremianus the governor who ruled in Cappadocia, did all he could to exterminate the Christians in that province.

  7. In 249 AD the Emperor Decius began a persecution. He was angry that Christianity was increasing and the heathen temples begun to be forsaken. It was a great persecution with many Christians dead, but it was in the island of Crete where the governor, being exceedingly active in executing the imperial decrees, made that place run with blood.

  8. In 257 AD the emperor Valerian began persecuting the Christians. The martyrs that fell in this persecution were innumerable, and their tortures and deaths as various and painful. 

  9. In 274 AD the emperor Aurelian began a persecution, which only lasted a few months because soon the emperor was murdered by his own servants, at Byzantium.

  10. In 303 AD on February the 23 the last official persecution of the early church was began by the emperor Diocletian. The persecution began in Nicomedia, where the Roman officials entered the Christian churches and seizing all the sacred books committed them to the flames. This was followed by a severe edict, commanding the destruction of all other Christian churches and books; and an order soon came outlawing all the sects of Christianity under penalty of death. The persecution was general in all the Roman provinces, but more particularly in the east; and it lasted for almost ten years. This was perhaps the worst persecution of them all, for Diocletian was determined to destroy all the Christian writings, so there would be no more Christians.

 

The material used to write in the early centuries: Perhaps the Apostles may have written some of their writing in expensive parchments, but most of the earliest writings were probably done using Papyrus, which is a material that unless taken care of will deteriorate in a humid climate. Manuscripts, scribes and book production within early Christianity (2012) by New Testament Professor Michael J. Kruger, says: “the extant MSS in our possession indicate that papyrus was the material of choice in the construction of the earliest Christian codices.”

The small ancient fragments that have been found have been in the desert parts where there were few people living. “[the] Church continued using papyrus for its records and bulls into the eleventh century. The last document of this nature which bears a date is from the chancery of Pope Victory II, in 1057.” Testaments of Time: The Search for Lost Manuscripts & Records (1965) p. 87 by Dr. Leo Deuel.

Jerome recounts that Euzoius, a Caesarean cleric (first presbyter, then bishop from 369 to 380), ordered new copies made of deteriorated manuscripts in an effort to maintain the famous but damaged library of Caesarea. Many badly worn papyrus rolls were replaced with parchment codices. If many of the library books, less than 300 hundredth years old required replacements, what are the chances that they would still be readable almost 2,000 years later?

Because the gospels would be used often and wear out, they would be targeted for replacement before other books, so if any old papyrus texts of Matthew which had a different ending still existed in some churches, it is most likely that they were replaced with vellum copies after this time with copies containing the traditional baptismal text.

 

The scarcity of reliable texts: In our modern culture we have a great abundance of books, especially of Bibles. But during the early centuries, there was no printing press or mass production of texts so there was a scarcity of texts, also the culture and condition of those times contributed to the scarcity of reliable texts. Here is brief list of reasons why there is a scarcity of ancient texts.

 

1. All manuscripts were handwritten, so it took a long time to write a document.

2. Only a few individuals were educated and knew how to write and read well.

3. It was quite common for accidental mistakes to enter handwritten copies.

4. Some changed their copies to agree with some doctrine. (yes it happened)

5. The early gentile church (unlike the Jews) had no system to check for copying mistakes

6. There was no agreed canon of scriptures.

7. There were spurious gospels floating around.

8. The Bible was written in separate scrolls, not in one unified unit.

9. A complete Bible was not affordable, often costing more than a person’s life wages.

10. Extremely few owned a complete set of the scriptures.

11. An incomplete set often circulated among many congregations.

12. Early manuscripts were written using papyrus, a material that did not last long.

13. At first there was less reverence toward the Apostles’ writings than the Old Testament.

14. Christianity was often outlawed and its holy writings burnt by the Roman Authorities.

15. Some Christian sects destroyed texts from other sects that went against their beliefs.

16. The Catholic Church itself admits to having sought and burnt the writings of heretics.

The chaotic conditions of the early church history: We Christians need to realize that the culture of the first centuries was much different than our modern culture. They used a different language, which had its own grammatical rules and they had customs that may seem strange to us. Not only the culture was different but what many do not seem to take into account or understand is the turmoil and difficult conditions that the early Christians were living under. It was a time of constant change and confusion; it was a brutal time where life was short, with sickness, natural calamities, constant war due to invasion from barbarian tribes, and empire civil wars and other conditions very much different than our own. Below is a list of some of the things Early Christianity had to contend with.

 

1. The constant persecution of Christians caused a scarcity of texts for not only were texts destroyed but, many of the people who could make copies of the manuscripts perished.

2. Early Christianity was composed mostly of the poor slaves and uneducated classes. Christians often worshiped underground and in times of severe persecution they fled to the caves and the wilderness.
3. There was an influx of newly converted pagans who brought along some of their old ideas and superstitions; many of whom had no knowledge of the Old Testament teachings on monotheism.

4. Old pagan beliefs and traditions were brought into the church and mixed with the new faith; many already had a belief in a trinity from their former pagan religions.
5. False prophets abounded, there were many self-styled prophets that arouse in that time period and deceived many and many strange sects arouse even some that mixed pagan elements into Christianity.

 

Under all of these conditions, it is quite understandable why a few errors here and there entered into just about every text of the New Testament and why so few texts survived from the early centuries.

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