Christianity Doesn’t Have Early Sources

Rylands Library Papyrus P52I think the Bible is fascinating. It’s like the Iliad, but it consists of a bunch of short stories rather than one long, gorgeous narrative. And it isn’t nearly as interesting. But I do love the Bible in the same way. Ancient literature is awesome! It’s always interesting to see what stories different peoples tell themselves because of what it says about them. Just look at what postmodern literature says about us! Look at Waiting for Godot, which is a modernist work. It says that we are a people coming to terms with the fact that we have only each other to rely on and there is no God (or anything else) that will save us. Then comes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a postmodernist work. It says that we’ve given up on finding any meaning and we are going to just have fun playing word games and solving Sudoku puzzles.

Of course, not all of us feel this way. In fact, in America, the vast majority of the people have regressed and hang onto ancient religions to provide (mythical) structure and (mythical) certainty. I don’t especially have a problem with this. I know there are nice old people at Unitary churches throughout the nation who have concrete ideas of morality. They are better people than I am and I hope that I can become more like them over time. But they are a small minority. A very large fraction of Americans are people who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.

Let’s start with the language that God speaks: Greek. I still find it interesting that most American Christians never much think about the fact that they only know their religions through a translation. And which translation? That in itself shows you how cultural Christianity is. Protestants tend to like the King James translation. Catholics tend to like the Douay-Rheims translation. I tend to perfer the New American Standard translation because it is said to be the closest to the original Greek. But increasingly, I go with King James, especially when it is a well known passage. But just what does it mean to go back to the original text?

Consider Theseus’ paradox: if you have an ax and over the years you are forced to replace the handle and the head, is it still the same ax? The same issue is discussed in the movie Blow Up. At the end, the main character is left with his final enlargement. But without the sequence of “blow ups” it is meaningless. It only has meaning in context.

Well, the earliest complete Bible we have is the Codex Sinaiticus, which is from roughly 350 CE. That is over three centuries past when old Jesus is supposed to have been killed and rose up and all that stuff. What’s more, it is missing much of the Gospels. Of course, the biggest thing that is missing from it is the end of Mark when Jesus shows himself to everyone. This is because that wasn’t originally in Mark. It is a later interpolation.

But do you see that little fragment there at the top of this article? That little piece of papyrus that measures 9 square inches? That’s the Rylands Library Papyrus P52. It is a fragment from John 18. And it is dated at roughly 125 CE. That’s roughly a century after old Jesus is supposed to have been killed and rose up and all that stuff. This is the oldest New Testament Bible fragment in existence!

In fairness, it’s a pretty damned good fragment. It is from when Pontius Pilate is interrogating Jesus. But the front of it only says:

the Jews, “For us
anyone,” so that the w
oke signifyin
die. En
rium P
and sai
Jews?”

I just think it is odd that Christians think their religion can be traced all the way back to this guy Jesus. I have no problem with people being mystical and thinking that the “feel” Jesus. Who am I to say? But a religion that has only 41 words (several only fragments) a hundred years after the events that are central to the religion? That strikes me as very weak tea indeed.

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