“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell penned this in his classic novel, 1984. Can the same be said of God’s people regarding their knowledge of church history?
Perhaps the greatest battleground in apologetics today revolves around the early history of the church. Many students of the Bible are content to honor the authority of Scripture as God’s Word straight from Jesus Christ. Some say that if all you need is the Bible, why trouble yourself with church history?
However, the Bible as we have it today did not drop down out of the sky. During the early centuries of the church, Christians passed down the teachings of those earliest apostles to make up the New Testament. The Old Testament was borrowed from the Jewish community. Put together, the Scriptures as we have them arose out of the spiritual life of the early church. If we fail to grasp a hold on this earliest Christian history, we risk falling into a type of Orwellian trap that would make discussions about the Bible… sadly…. useless.
The Danger of Orwellian Distortion of History
Consider this example: Two years prior to the fictional date of Orwell’s classic, Michael Baigent co-wrote a controversial book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, that partly inspired Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code. Part of Baigent’s thesis is that the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were written perhaps by the early Christian community. Baigent claims these documents were suppressed by the Catholic church in the era following the 4th. century Roman emperor Constantine. The documents were considered dangerous because they allegedly undermine the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ, a doctrine which supposedly undergirds the political regime of the Roman emperor. The so-called “Bible” we have today is therefore incomplete at best, or even corrupted, according to this story, merely obscuring the real truth behind Christian origins. The real religion of Jesus, for Baigent, does not bother with the claims of the Incarnation.
Many believe these assertions. Do the words of Orwell haunt us? Yet contrary to the fanciful claims of Baigent and Brown, one of the five myths referenced by John Paine’s reblogging of Daniel Wallace via Veracity, the Dead Sea Scrolls have a very positive role in supporting the Christian faith. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been referenced before by John on another Veracity post. Here we consider who actually wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and why.
The Christian Historian’s Bonanza: The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by a Jewish sect sometime during or before the first century A.D., prior to the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 …. which is about 200 years before Constantine was even born. Most scholars have argued that it is was the Essenes that hid the scrolls. True, it is probable that the early Christian community knew of the Essenes, and that perhaps even John the Baptist was an Essene. While there was a possible small Gospel fragment (Mark 6:52–53) found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament was not found among the scrolls. Most scholars agree that the idea of any significant involvement by the early Christians in the community at Qumran lacks the evidence.
The Dead Sea Scrolls not only preserve a near complete copy of the original Hebrew Scriptures, they also include a large number of inter-testamental documents that give us a flavor of the cultural world where Jesus and His earliest disciples lived, what scholars typically call the era of late Second Temple Judaism. The original Solomonic temple had been destroyed during the period leading up to the Babylonian Exile, but then rebuilt and reincorporated after the Exile into the life of Jewish worship as described by Nehemiah and Ezra in the 5th century before Christ. The inter-testamental period refers to the time between when the last Old Testament book, Malachi, was written following the Babylonian Exile and when the New Testament first appeared. Most scholars argue that towards the end of this period, the Jews who sought to hide the Dead Sea Scrolls were anticipating God’s intervention into Pagan Rome’s occupation of Palestine, so rightfully they feared the Romans of Jesus’ day and sought protection for their sacred documents.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, first discovered starting around 1946, remain the most spectacular archaeological find demonstrating the reliability of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, but unfortunately they do not help us much to establish the text of the New Testament. As a result, there is nothing retrieved from the caves at Qumran that can be used explicitly to deny the divinity of Jesus, and therefore no evidence or need for a church-led conspiracy of suppression. On the contrary, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrates some of the most credible evidence for the integrity of the Christian faith. These amazing documents also have helped scholars to better interpret the New Testament by placing it within its original first century context.
Emerson Eggerichs, the founder of the Love and Respect ministry, has a short video that summarizes the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery in view of recent challenges to scholarly history (just a word of warning: this video is hard hitting!):
Sometimes people will get the Dead Sea Scrolls confused with another great archaeological find, the Nag Hammadi Library. The Nag Hammadi texts, found in Egypt in 1945, are the best record we have of Christian Gnosticism, a heretical movement in early Christianity — we covered this more in another Veracity blog posting. Here we find the greatest collection of early Gnostic writings, including the famous Gospel of Thomas. The Nag Hammadi texts date back to the 3rd or 4th century A.D. Separated by several hundred years after the Dead Sea Scrolls and large variances in language and culture, there is no direct connection between the Gnostic community behind Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the Jewish sect(s) behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. Furthermore, the ancient Gnostics behind Nag Hammadi were not concerned with questioning the divinity of Christ. If anything, many Gnostics questioned the humanity of Christ instead.
Thankfully, there are a number of resources available that correct some of the claims that Dan Brown made popular from Baigent’s original book. When the history of the Bible and the church gets retold in a way that disguises, distorts or reverses the real meaning of that history, my view is that lovers of truth need to stand up and correct such falsehoods. As I read George Orwell quoted above from 1984, I am inclined to think that Orwell might agree.
Was George Orwell Right?: The Persistence of Misinformation
If I had better sense, I probably should just end this post right here, but….
It has been several years since Baigent’s and Brown’s controversial works have first appeared. Nevertheless, I am continually amazed by how easily misinformation gets retold again and again…..
So, you would think that finally people would get their facts straight….. Apparently not.
I live out in the “boonies” where we do not have cable television. I am just not up on all of the 24-hour, round-the-clock television stuff, so please forgive me if I unnerve anyone’s political sensitivities. When it comes to anything but PBS and some sports, I have no clue what I am talking about when it comes to 99% of television.
When I am running through my “honey-do” list on Saturdays, I will often load up my Android phone with MP3s of various apologetics and church history podcasts while I pull weeds. A couple of years ago, several of these podcasters were having a “field day” over something said on national TV. Apparently, a famous conservative political news commentator had repeated a familiar fraudulent claim about the Dead Sea Scrolls being a collection of scriptural documents hidden by the early Christian community to avoid detection by the supposedly repressive Constantinian-church hierarchy. Wow. Furthermore, this television and radio news personality was trying to use this tale about the Dead Sea Scrolls ironically as an analogy about the need to preserve America’s Christian heritage in our children’s memory! Double-Wow. This celebrity in the national spotlight has been an active participant in many current and important political debates. But when it comes to church history, the mismanagement of facts was an embarrassment. Perhaps the out-of-context reference about the Dead Sea Scrolls was meant for the Nag Hammadi texts? Where was the “fact-checker“?
So, you would think that this pundit would eventually realize his mistake…. Apparently not.
Two years later, even though this popular personality no longer has a television news show on the original network, we hear statements like these made on a syndicated radio program (November, 2012 — starting at about 2:18 into the recording):
“Just like those Christians that rolled up the Dead Sea Scrolls and put them in pots. I don’t know what happened to those Christians but they hid them. They hid them and they preserved them because it was important. The Bible was never wiped out, but the people who originally wrote the Bible were scattered.”
What a jumbled up mess. Sometimes I do wonder if George Orwell is more and more right than I ever thought possible.
As the people of God, we need to become better informed about the history of the church and the history of the Bible. We simply can not rely on the misinformation we find being propagated by popular culture, even by those who claim to champion the values of the Christian faith. Otherwise, we risk the verdict delivered by George Orwell.
NOTE: I decided to write an email to this conservative commentator explaining my concerns. As of the date of this posting, I have yet to receive a response.
An odd thing about the Michael Baigent and Dan Brown relationship: Apparently, Baigent sued Brown’s publisher, Random House, for copyright infringement — and lost. Mmmmm…. so you peddle misinformation, then you claim that someone uses your misinformation without permission, so you sue them. Go figure that one out. Michael Baigent died in 2013.