The Value of the Writings of the Early Church Fathers

The Value of the Writings of the Early Church Fathers June 18, 2019

We recently explored what the writings of the early church fathers aren’t good for: they aren’t good for recreating the New Testament. But what are they good for? Of course, they’re useful for understanding the evolution of early Christian thought, but (surprisingly) they actually do have value in reconstructing the New Testament.

We’ve put to rest the popular claim that they could be used to reconstruct the entire New Testament with the exception of 11 verses. But in many cases, the copies of the writings of an early church father (these are called patristic writings) can be used alongside copies of New Testament books when trying to find the original text of a questionable verse. If you want to learn a bit about the detective work used in textual criticism, let’s go.

(As my source, I’ve used a series of articles by Bart Ehrman (partial paywall). I’m primarily distilling Ehrman’s content here and am adding little new.)

Codex Bezae and Luke 3:22

To see the value of patristic evidence, consider Luke 3:22b. After the baptism of Jesus, a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (NIV).

Or does it? Another source (let’s call it the variant reading) says instead, “You are my son, Today I have begotten you.”

This variant is wrong in several ways. Luke opens with the virgin birth story, so we’ve already seen that Jesus was divine from birth. But then at his baptism, God says, “Today I have begotten you”? Did God forget that Jesus was (1) already born and (2) already divine?

Problem two: the fifth-century Codex Bezae is the only copy of Luke that has the variant reading, and each of the hundreds of other Greek manuscripts of Luke has the other reading.

Those would be excellent reasons to reject this single, late outlier as an incorrect copy, but consider two more factors that argue that the variant is actually correct. Would a scribe be likely to convert “with you I am well pleased” (which is what Mark and Matthew also say) to the problematic “Today I have begotten you”? Obviously, the pressure on the scribe would be the reverse: to eliminate the crazy reading and harmonize it with the other two synoptic gospels. This is an application of the Criterion of Embarrassment, which says that the more embarrassing passage is likelier to be the original.

Second, and here we get back to our main subject, we see a very different picture when we bring in patristic evidence. When this verse in Luke is quoted or referred to in second- and third-century writings, it’s the variant reading that predominates.

The patristic evidence is essential in putting this strange variant reading in play as a viable candidate.

Patristic evidence

Scholars rarely know where the original of a New Testament book was written. Knowing when a New Testament book was copied can be known by paleography (the study of handwriting) to within fifty years or so, but this is art as well as science.

The patristic documents, by contrast, can give us more information. Irenaeus lived in Gaul (France). Tertullian lived in Carthage. You can guess where Clement of Alexandria lived. Not only do we usually know where they wrote, we also have trustworthy data on when most of them lived. With more reliable information on when and where the originals were created, scholars can put a date/location stamp on any New Testament quotes found in those documents.

Here’s how this might be used. Suppose there were two variants of a verse. Version 1 was found in manuscripts from Gaul while Version 2 came from everywhere else. Or maybe Version 1 was in manuscripts from the fifth century onward, while the earliest copies of Version 2 were from the third century. Each would argue that Version 1 is a corruption.

Problems with patristic evidence

While there are new opportunities with patristic evidence, there are new problems.

  • As with the New Testament books, we don’t have the original document but only copies. Copyists might have felt the need to “correct” any quote that didn’t conform to the scripture as they knew it, thus erasing that variant from history.
  • Was the quote copied accurately from a New Testament manuscript, or was it incorrectly quoted from memory? Was it even an attempt at a direct quote or was it meant to be just the sense of a New Testament passage?
  • “As the scriptures say” as an attribution doesn’t tell us what book it came from. Maybe it came from a book now seen as noncanonical like the Didache or the Diatessaron. Maybe it came from one of the synoptic gospels (which often contain variations on the same story, as seen above with Luke), but which one?

Despite the problems, scholars are often able to wring trustworthy information out of this source.

The original claim that started us on this journey (“The early church fathers . . . quoted the New Testament so much . . . that all but eleven verses of the New Testament can be reconstructed just from their quotations”) is wrong in many ways. But while this macro claim fails, the micro claim shows the value of patristic writings: they can provide date and location information to help in the detective work of evaluating competing versions of New Testament verses.

How can they tell [if a communion] wafer
is transubstaniated anyway?
Hold it up to a vampire—
if it’s trans the vampire will back off,
if not the vampire will bite you.
It’s basic theological science.
— commenter Bob Jase

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Image from Bill Tyne, CC license

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  • Norman Parron

    The vampire test for communion crackers is not valid, as the vampire is an atheist or jewish! isLame? hindodo?

    • “Are you Catholic atheist or Protestant atheist??”

      • Norman Parron

        Rabid atheist

  • To me, some of the most potentially “damning” admissions come from Papias (quoted by Eusebius in his Historia Ecclesiae), especially when he deals with Mark and Matthew (supposedly by quoting John the Elder):

    This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.

    and

    So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.

    (emphasis mine)

    Granted, it’s just Eusebius (4th century) quoting Papias (early 2nd century) quoting John (late 1st century), so they’re far from being established facts – but still, if I were an intransigent Christian, I’d be somewhat perplexed…

    • ThaneOfDrones

      So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language…

      I am not sure I understand this. Who or what are “the oracles” that Matthew wrote? Are they talking about the “Gospel of Matthew”? The best information we have is that it was written in Greek.

      link to Wikipedia

      • I think he meant Jesus’ sayings (logia)

      • Yes, Matthew was written in Greek, but Papias is saying that that was a translation from its original Hebrew. Scholars think Papias is wrong here.

        (Actually, scholars think Papias was wrong about lots of stuff, but as a cataloger of stories from the first century, his writings are uniquely valuable.)

        • Chris Jones

          Or another possibility is that Matthew was known at the time for having written *something* which Papias is referring to, but that thing wasn’t the gospel we have today which in no way matches to Papias’s description. And for the record, by “in the Hebrew language”, he means Aramaic, which in that era was colloquially referred to as “Hebrew”. No one was writing in Hebrew at that point and few could even read Hebrew. It certainly wasn’t spoken. It was more or less a liturgical language only, used only for reading the Tanakh.

          The late Maurice Casey speculates that what Papias was referring to could have been some part of what was circulating as the Q material (some of which might have been in Aramaic), which by integrating that material into this gospel, that might have been known to some, and the tradition that the gospel included some Matthean Q material could then have led to the misunderstanding that the entirety of the gospel was Matthew’s. So all that said, Casey does speculate a lot about a great many things, and he could well be wrong about all of it. It’s an interesting possibility anyway and not being a scholar myself, I’m not in a good position to either decide that it’s nonsense or to think that it fits the known facts.

          But what it does leave, going back to Papias, is that either Papias was somehow referring to this gospel that came to be called “according to Matthew” but was just wrong about everything, or he was right about some or all of those things but was referring to something else that we no longer have. The first possibility isn’t out of the question since Papias doesn’t seem the most reliable fellow from antiquity and himself is citing 3rd-hand hearsay. Personally I’m inclined toward the “referring to some other document that we don’t have” possibility but I’m not that strongly wedded to the idea.

          EDIT: Citation for Maurice Casey: “Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?”, 2014
          EDIT 2: I should add that Casey has an unusual view of Q in that he doesn’t see the Q material as being a single collection of sayings, but rather a diverse assortment of circulating documents, which he is reluctant to even label as Q.

        • Thanks for the input.

        • Pofarmer

          I think I’ll read this comment again when I haven’t been drinking.

        • Pofarmer

          Ok. Casey is, I think, another scholar that Raphael Lataster takes to task. He’s speculating on imaginary sources based on unreliable sources. Probably to me, the most likely scenario is that Papias is referring to a “Gospel of Matthew” that isn’t the Gospel that we have. And that the Gosple of “Matthew” that we do have, is more or less circularly named because of Papias mention of that other Gospel. The whole thing is basically a mess.

        • Chris Jones

          Yep, I do think it is likely that Papias refers to *something* which is certainly not the extant “Gospel of Matthew” — a document which definitely misattributed [[edit: by traditionalists — mainstream scholarship recognizes its anonimity]]. Agreed, the whole thing IS a big mess. Given how Papias’s description in no way describes the gospel we DO have, I have a hard time understanding how Papias continues to be cited as evidence for the traditional attribution. Though apologists do take up wacky arguments to defend this, like the Gospel of Matthew having originally been an Aramaic composition which was translated into Greek (with no evidence), which then requires a Matthean priority approach to the synoptic problem.

          To be clear, I mentioned Casey’s proposition as interesting but I don’t mean to imply that I buy it.

        • Pofarmer

          I was commenting on James McGraths blog one time and he mentioned that scholars had to come up with novel ideas to get published. Like Casey’s ideas with ‘Aramaicisms” going directly back to Jesus sayings, I wonder how much it the stuff is saying something novel just for the sake of having something to say.

        • Chris Jones

          I agree regarding the need for novelty to justify a publishing deal. In Casey’s claim regarding the Aramaicisms, he isn’t wrong about the likelihood of certain bits having been translated from Aramaic because of features that make no sense in Greek (Ehrman mentions some of these), but where he goes too far is in suggesting those “must” be an authentic saying of Jesus. I guess he was never able to conceive of a saying having been lifted from Aramaic sources that were NOT Jesus himself — those circulating in Judea from other popular figures, or even made up by Aramaic speaking Jewish Christians. If sayings can be made up in the Greek speaking regions, why not in Judea? To your point, I think Casey latched onto this “must’ve been an authentic Jesus saying” angle as his novelty (the Aramaicism part wasn’t actually that novel — having expertise in Aramaic, he only identified a few more of them) and used that angle to differentiate his own books.

        • Greg G.

          Publish or perish. It doesn’t have to be right as long as it doesn’t question the truth of the Bible or, at least, that it maintains that Jesus is historical in the article.

        • Greg G.

          But… but… but… but… nobody but Jesus spoke Aramaic back then. If it was originally spoken in Aramaic, it must have come from Jesus… We know this from the Gospel of John because people always had trouble understanding Jesus so he had to go into depth to explain himself… or something.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Ehrman thinks that Papias must’ve been talking about different gospels to the Mark and Matthew in the NT.

          Of course we are relying on the integrity of the pious fraud Eusebius on what Papias supposedly said or wrote.

          EDIT 2: I should add that Casey has an unusual view of Q in that he doesn’t see the Q material as being a single collection of sayings, but rather a diverse assortment of circulating documents, which he is reluctant to even label as Q.

          That’s not the only thing Casey has an unusual view of either.

          Amongst other things, Maurice Casey posits the author of Mark as being an Aramaic speaking Jew which, along with gMatt, gMark was originally Aramaic before being copied into Greek, and also a ridiculously early dating of that gospel too.

          Casey’s book was a complete turkey and a travesty of scholarship. Which seems to be par for the course when NT scholars brooch the subject of JM.

          In a review by an academically educated layperson, he concludes…

          Review by an outsider of ancient history and new testament studies of “Maurice Casey (2014): Jesus. Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths”

          It may be concluded that JEAMM is actually a rather hopeless book. Its evidence and arguments don’t stand up against basic logic and realism. While some “mythicists” can be over the top, professor Casey has been over the top as well. As Casey wrote this book at the end of his life and may have been aware of his end and thus have taken more liberty than usual – I am of course guessing here – we may regard this situation as special. There is no need to discard JEAMM, but let it be publicly available as PDF. This would be an invitation and also warning to the NTS community not to follow the same approach.

          http://vixra.org/pdf/1412.0244v1.pdf

          For a review of Casey’s clusterfuck of a book by someone qualified, see Raphael Lataster’s, “Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists”.

          https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jesus-Did-Not-Exist-Atheists/dp/1514814420

  • Michael Neville

    How can they tell [if a communion] wafer is transubstaniated anyway? Hold it up to a vampire—if it’s trans the vampire will back off, if not the vampire will bite you. It’s basic theological science. — commenter Bob Jase

    Bob fails to consider if the vampire isn’t Christian. A Jewish or atheistic vampire couldn’t care less if the wafer is transubstantiated.

    • What? If I’m a vampire, I can change what my weakness is depending on my religion?? How does _that_ work???

      Can I switch religions more than once, to maximize my chances of not meeting someone who can counter me? Or do I just need to pick jainism or druze or some other less known religion just to hedge my bets?

      • Michael Neville

        Since the Christians keep telling us that we make a conscious decision to not believe in their religion, then by that argument we can chose to be Shinto or Sikh or whatever.

  • JBSchmidt

    Before I comment on the article, I am confused on what you are claiming the issue is with Luke 3:22. Specifically with the word ‘begotten’. How do you believe that word is being used in the text? It appears you are using interchangeably with forgotten.

    • Greg G.

      “Begotten” is a past tense form of “beget”.

      Luke 3:22 is about the baptism of Jesus. In Luke 1:35, the angel told Mary that the Holy Ghost would come on her to knock her up. Why would a version of Luke 3:22 say, “Today I have begotten you” if he was begotten three decades earlier?

      • Whew! It’s good that you followed my straightforward logic. JB’s concern had me worried.

        I’m kidding, of course.

        • epeeist

          Strange how keen he is to respond on a new topic isn’t it. You would have thought he would have preferred to answer the questions that have been asked of him and that he has left dangling wouldn’t you…

      • Len

        Baptism was (is) seen as the point that you’re born again, so the verse is saying that Jesus is now born again. I guess the first time wasn’t good enough for him.

    • Michael Neville

      We already know that simple facts and logic confuse you.

    • The first MW definition is “to procreate as the father.” I think we’re on the same page.

      Where I’m confused is how “forgotten” could ever have fit into this conversation. Maybe it’s best not to explain.

  • A good example is the story of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. That’s not in the earliest copies of John. Yet this fact does not yet seem to have caused any revision or reassessment in scripture and Christian beliefs, though there are profound implications for it being an interpolation.

    • Ignorant Amos

      In all fairness, a number of versions of the NT place the Pericope Adulterae in brackets and add a footnote mentioning the absence of the passage in the oldest witnesses.

      • I know, but it hasn’t stopped people citing the passage or accepting its validity.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Aye…a was just addressing this part of your comment…

          Yet this fact does not yet seem to have caused any revision or reassessment in scripture…

          Not that it would matter anyway. The religidiots first have to read the friggin’ thing to know whether it had been revised, reassessed, bracketed, or even informed in a footnote. And we all know how much the average Christian has never read their holy burble, quite a lot.

        • That’s true. It was an eye opener for me to actually read the Bible, then see how much isn’t brought up at all.

        • Agreed. I do wonder, though, what they see as the point. That Jesus forgives? That he’s not a stickler for rules? That all that “Mosaic Law” nonsense isn’t really that important?

        • All of the above, in many cases. Especially the first, though the last one too.

        • The “Y’know what? That Mosaic Law is really a load of crap. Stay tuned for version 2” conclusion is pretty radical. It does rather undercut God’s authority.

        • TheNuszAbides

          Yeah but the perfect and eternal unmoved mover is totally allowed to change His mind*, cuz He makes the rules, bub.

          *or at least to arrange for His SonSelf to change it for Him by only informing SaulPaul.

        • NS Alito

          In any case, its greatest value may be as a prerequisite for the joke about Jesus inviting someone without sin to cast the first stone, and when a stone comes flying in from the crowd, Jesus says, “Mom, I’m trying to make a point here!”

        • I’ve used it to tell Christians that morality evolves over time, by pointing out that even though they were still under the Law of Moses, by the 1st century people knew that capital punishment for adultery was immoral.

    • Wikipedia has this:

      The first surviving Greek manuscript to contain the pericope [of the woman caught in adultery] is the Latin/Greek diglot Codex Bezae, produced in the 400s or 500s (but displaying a form of text which has affinities with “Western” readings used in the 100s and 200s). Codex Bezae is also the earliest surviving Latin manuscript to contain it.

      It’s curious that the Codex Bezae, mentioned in the post, plays a role here as well.

      • There are only a few codexes right? So it makes sense.

  • Pofarmer

    The problem is that the Gospel are Greek Literature. They have Greek forms, Greek Structure, etc, etc. I suppose you can imagine whatever you like.

  • Greg G.

    The Bezae reading “You are my son, Today I have begotten you” comes from Psalm 2:7. Acts 13:33 quotes it and cites it as coming from the second Psalm. It’s in a speech by Paul where he is going over the Old Testament as history and quotes the Psalm as a fulfilled prophecy about the resurrection. Luke must have really liked that passage.

  • Greg G.

    A characteristic of the Gospel of John is the way Jesus uses misunderstandings to expound on a subject. (see below). In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again/from above. In Greek, the words sound similar so Nicodemus interprets it as “again” and Jesus has to explain being “born from above”.

    I have seen an argument that there are a pair of Aramaic words that could have been used. But that isn’t the only Greek pun in John

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    Misunderstandings Instead of Parables in John
    ◦John 2:19-22 “this temple”
    ◦John 3:3-7 “born again”
    ◦John 4:10-15 “living water”
    ◦John 4:31-34 “food you don’t know about”
    ◦John 6:32-36 “bread of God”
    ◦John 6:41-51 “bread of God”
    ◦John 6:52-58 “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
    ◦John 7:33-36 “where I am, you can’t come”
    ◦John 7:41-43 “origins of Jesus”
    ◦John 8:16-19 “Where is your father?”
    ◦John 8:21-23 “Will he kill himself?”
    ◦John 8:24-25 “Who are you?”
    ◦John 8:26-29 “They didn’t understand that he spoke to them about the Father”
    ◦John 8:31-36 “the truth will set you free”
    ◦John 8:37-44 “Abraham’s children”
    ◦John 8:51-55 “keep my word, never see death”
    ◦John 8:56-58 “Before Abraham was born, I AM”
    ◦John 10:1-7 “shepherd”
    ◦John 10:30-38 “I and the Father are one”
    ◦John 11:11-15 “sleep”
    ◦John 11:23-27 “Your brother will rise again”
    ◦John 12:32-36 “The Son of Man must be lifted up”
    ◦John 13:33-14:3 “Lord, where are you going?”
    ◦John 14:4-6 “Lord, we don’t know where you are going”
    ◦John 14:7-12 “Lord, show us the Father”
    ◦John 14:21-23 “Lord, what has happened that you are about to reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”
    ◦John 16:16-22 “What is this that he says to us?”
    ◦John 21:22-23 “If I desire that he stay until I come, what is that to you?”

  • JBSchmidt

    Good topic, but I think you left a lot on the table. You relied to heavily on the work of others, rather than do some digging yourself.

    For example,

    1) Could the translation to begotten present a less than ideal meaning. Reason being, the church fathers prior to Codex Bezae used that phrase in their works. However, the church understood that Christ was fully God at conception. A fact that could have easily been passed down to them directly from an apostle.

    2) How does the Nicene Creed work into this topic? It uses begotten twice to describe Christ. It was written around the time of Codex and is still used today. That works against the Criterion of Embarrassment.

    3) What was going on in the Church at that time? They were dealing heavily with an Arian heresy. Understanding #1, they created #2 to combat those who chose to twist the passage of Luke.

    4) Knowing #3 and having #1 as the understanding, was a change made to prevent others from falling into the Arian trap. If #1 is the prevailing belief of the Apostles, then a change to Luke does not change the meaning or doctrine of the Bible.

    While we can only get about 60% of the NT via the writing of the Church fathers, there is more then enough to ensure the doctrine remains.

    (Quick shout out to Greg G., thanks)

    • While we can only get about 60% of the NT via the writing of the Church fathers, there is more then enough to ensure the doctrine remains.

      Huh? It’s a pointless thought experiment since we have the NT, but, as the previous two posts make clear, if you started with a blank sheet of paper and all the early Christian writings, the “NT” that you’d distill out would be a very, very poor copy of the canonical one as known today.

      The Luke 3:22 story to me is an exploration into how NT scholars do some fascinating and difficult detective work in getting a little closer to the originals. I don’t see how your points 1-4 are relevant to that.

      But perhaps you’re just going off on a complete tangent. In that case, good luck. Let us know if you make any interesting discoveries.

      • JBSchmidt

        “the “NT” that you’d distill out would be a very, very poor”

        There is no more proof for that statement than a Christian assertion of the opposite.

        “an exploration into how NT scholars do some fascinating and difficult detective work”

        True, when they confirm your bias. Which is why I challenge your assertion on Luke 3:22.

        • Greg G.

          “the “NT” that you’d distill out would be a very, very poor”

          There is no more proof for that statement than a Christian assertion of the opposite.

          Think about it for 15 seconds. If all of the writings of the NT had been lost a thousand years ago and nothing remained but the writings of the church fathers, how are you going to know which were NT quotes and which were not? They quoted other writings that were not canonized.

          True, when they confirm your bias. Which is why I challenge your assertion on Luke 3:22.

          The only bias we have is toward where the evidence points. If you are going to argue that the NT can be reconstructed from the church fathers, then you will put the Codex Bezae version in the reconstructed NT because that is what the early church fathers say.

        • MR

          Think about it for 15 seconds

          He just comes across as a contrarian 15-year-old. But even a 15-year-old can understand this with 15 seconds of thought.

  • wtfwjtd

    What happens when there is equally compelling evidence for the inclusion of two (or more!) versions of the same contradictory verse? And how would we be able to “re-create” the “original New Testament”, which never existed in homogeneous form to begin with? And how would this exercise demonstrate the veracity of either the re-created version, or the non-existent original?

    This all seems to be putting the cart before the horse…or an exercise in mis-direction. Or maybe I’m missing something?

    • Greg G.

      And how would we be able to “re-create” the “original New Testament”

      First, you must assume that one of the two versions is the original version. Then you assume the more difficult version is more likely to be original because a copyist is more likely to change that type of reading than to harden it.

      If there is a Synoptic parallel and one version is more like the parallel, it was more likely to have been altered to match the other gospel(s) so the different version is the harder reading.

      • First, you must assume that one of the two versions is the original version.

        But of course you’re hosed if yet another version is the original, but it’s lost to history.

        On one hand, I’m impressed at the clever thinking by which scholars try to resolve some of these problems. On the other, it’s simply making the best of an imperfect situation. When they’re done, they can only guess at how accurate their result is.

        • Greg G.

          Putting on my Speculating Hat, I think the Psalm 2:7 version would be fitting in Mark 1:11 since Jesus doesn’t seem to know he is anything special until the skies open up when he gets baptized. Matthew may have taken part of that out because of his nativity story. Luke may have favored Mark on that point. Copyists may have reconciled Mark with Matthew first, then reconciled Luke later to end up with the Textus Messus we got.

        • Lark62

          What amazes me is they never step back and realize that a deity this incompetent couldn’t dress itself, much less create the universe.

        • Greg G.

          a deity this incompetent couldn’t dress itself

          Moses saw his bum.

        • Ohyetwetrust

          Gawd was in a pique so he mooned him.
          Gawd got triggered by one unruly human.
          Gawd is a snowflake.

        • Nicely stated!

  • Reminds me of a poll in France some years back. Of all those who said they were “Catholic,” half didn’t believe in God.

    • Ignorant Amos

      Ayeee!

      Catholic atheism is a belief in which the culture, traditions, rituals and norms of Catholicism are accepted, but the existence of God is rejected. It is illustrated in Miguel de Unamuno’s novel San Manuel Bueno, Mártir (1930). According to research in 2007, only 27% of Catholics in the Netherlands considered themselves theist while 55% were ietsist or agnostic deist and 17% were agnostic or atheist. Many Dutch people still affiliate with the term “Catholic” and use it within certain traditions as a basis of their cultural identity, rather than as a religious identity. The vast majority of the Catholic population in the Netherlands is now largely irreligious in practice. However, a 2010 study failed to locate any atheist Catholic priests.

      Regarding the last sentence, it’s hardly surprising is it? Giving their penchant for secrecy and all that jazz.

      As for Protestants…

      In the Netherlands, 42% of the members of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) are nontheists. Non-belief among clergymen is not always perceived as a problem. Some follow the tradition of “Christian non-realism”, most famously expounded in the United Kingdom by Don Cupitt in the 1980s, which holds that God is a symbol or metaphor and that religious language is not matched by a transcendent reality. According to an investigation of 860 pastors in seven Dutch Protestant denominations, 1 in 6 clergy are either agnostic or atheist. In one of those denominations, the Remonstrant Brotherhood, the number of doubters was 42 percent. A minister of the PKN, Klaas Hendrikse has described God as “a word for experience, or human experience” and said that Jesus may have never existed. Hendrikse gained attention with his book published in November 2007 in which he said that it was not necessary to believe in God’s existence in order to believe in God. The Dutch title of the book translates as Believing in a God Who Does Not Exist: Manifesto of An Atheist Pastor. Hendrikse writes in the book that “God is for me not a being but a word for what can happen between people. Someone says to you, for example, ‘I will not abandon you’, and then makes those words come true. It would be perfectly alright to call that [relationship] God”. A General Synod found Hendrikse’s views were widely shared among both clergy and church members. The February 3, 2010 decision to allow Hendrikse to continue working as a pastor followed the advice of a regional supervisory panel that the statements by Hendrikse “are not of sufficient weight to damage the foundations of the Church. The ideas of Hendrikse are theologically not new, and are in keeping with the liberal tradition that is an integral part of our church”, the special panel concluded,

      The world is crazy.

      • I hadn’t seen all those stats–cool! Christianity is following Judaism, where being atheist in some congregations is (I hear) quite acceptable. That is, it’s not just that you’re a “Catholic” who’s also an atheist and maybe goes once a year for Christmas. These atheist Jews actually go to temple. They get the benefits of community, but no one expects them to believe the supernatural nonsense.

      • Michael Murray

        Maybe I’m old-fashioned but if they call themselves Catholic and attend the local church at all they are lending it support for all the shit it does. It’s a bit like:

        “Yes I call myself a Nazi. But it’s more of a cultural thing. I’m not into all that Aryan supremacy stuff. I just like to go to rallies and to feel part of a community. Yes I have to admit I click my heels and do the salute sometimes but it’s just for fun. The kids? Oh yes I’ve put them in Hitler Youth. It gives them a sense of purpose and teaches them discipline.”

        Latest bit of stupidity

        https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/20/catholic-archdiocese-indianapolis-school-brebeuf-jesuit

        • True. Nevertheless, better an atheist Catholic than a devout Catholic in the pews. The former is much more likely to tell Uncle Frank what he can do with his idiotic dictates.

        • epeeist

          Nevertheless, better an atheist Catholic than a devout Catholic in the pews.

          Does the atheist Catholic pay the same membership fee as the devout Catholic? If so, why should the RCC care, they get the income and are able to boost their declared numbers.

        • I guess it depends on how shallow they are. You’d think that they’d want to resist becoming a social club (because Jesus … and also Mary). But of course anything that makes them uncomfortable sounds like progress to me.

        • Pofarmer

          Exactly. The Church uses their numbers for power either day.

        • epeeist

          The Church uses their numbers for power either day.

          Exactly, while the RCC get about 800,000 people attending mass each week in England and Wales this isn’t the figure that there spokesmen use. Instead they claim over 4 million based on baptismal records.

          Similarly, Christians in general will claim that nearly 60% of the population of the UK is Christian based on the 2011 census. What they don’t mention is the British Social Attitudes Survey which gives only 40% of the population as Christian, nor the fact that only 6% of the population attend church each week.

        • TheNuszAbides

          this isn’t the figure their spokesmen use

          Their statisticians and/or spokesmen are initiated into the “soul sliver” (in Latin of course) mystery, which establishes that baptism siphons off an average of 0.89 % of each soul, thereby rendering all duly-dampened parishioners indefinitely “present” for all services at the same site.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Good.

          The church needs to expose itself as truly hateful and vile, and this is a step in that direction.

        • Greg G.
  • Len

    A big pile of steaming incoherent mumbo jumbo.

  • Like not being a racist but joining the KKK for the social gatherings, comradery and the BBQ’s.

    😀

  • jimvj

    When confronted by the variation, dissonance, and dubious provenance of the “early” church literature, the first question an honest researcher would ask is “Why”?
    Why isn’t there a simple, singular, and provably authentic record of events that, to believers, are the most important in all of human history?
    The overarching answer is that this is because this a human, not divine, endeavor.
    And, since humans can do better than what actually transpired, the second answer is that, the humans involved in founding the religion, did not have the foresight, knowledge or even desire to create such a record. Some, Paul/Saul certainly, knew that written arguments and responses were valuable. But even he never realized that there should be a singular authentic & comprehensive record of the religion’s history & tenets.

  • jimvj

    Well, yes!
    Well said.

  • Tom Hanson

    “Another source (let’s call it the variant reading) says instead, ‘You are my son, Today I have begotten you.’ ” etc.

    A little bit more knowledge tells a different story. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” is a quotation from one of the so-called “royal psalms,” specifically 2:7, in which words Yahweh addresses each Davidic king at his annointing. More than likely Luke’s intent is to make it clear to his audience that even though John the Baptist is doing the baptizing, Jesus is the one who is Lord– NOT the Baptist. Thus the baptizing becomes a symbol, saying that Jesus (You) is the Messiah, not you, Baptist.

    • I see the problem–what sense does it make for anyone to baptize Jesus? There’s no need to ritually cleanse a perfect being. It should be the other way around. The progression of stories in the gospels show the authors wrestling with this problem.

      The problem you’re focused on–which of these two guys is God referring to?–is a different problem. I don’t see how this phrasing from God solves either problem.

      • Tom Hanson

        As I see it, it clarifies at least part of your problem.

        • I agree that “the scribe likely copied that phrase” to replace “he invented it himself” adds important data to the story.

        • Tom Hanson

          Alternatively, the scribe got it from an earlier manuscript, which came ultimately by something from the hypothetical Q source which the other synoptics did not find useful. Or perhaps he…, or he…or he …or he…. From an historical viewpoint there is no methodological way of telling with reasonable certainty what happened and that can’t change until another older manuscript shows up with the same words in the same place. The synoptics were not historians as we think of historians today. Nor was our sense of history available for them 2000 years ago.
          .

        • Greg G.

          Mark 1:11 has the first part of Psalm 2:7 and I think the rest of the sentence from that psalm would fit better in Mark since there is no backstory about a divine birth narrative.

          When Matthew added a backstory with a divine birth narrative, he might have changed the line in Matthew 3:17 to “in whom I am well pleased”. Then a Matthean-priority scribe might have “corrected” Mark to match Matthew while Luke’s version of Mark was unchanged at that point but was lost to history. Then later scribes got around to bringing Luke into Synoptic agreement.

          The Transfiguration pericope in Matthew 17:5 also has “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

        • Greg G.

          We also find the Psalm 2:7 quote in Acts 13:33 in a speech by Paul referring to the resurrection, so the author has Jesus being begotten three times.

    • Greg G.

      That is interesting! I pointed out the Psalm 2:7 connection (here for example https://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2019/06/the-value-of-the-writings-of-the-early-church-fathers/#comment-4508812277 ) but I didn’t get the Royal Psalm connection. If I was a Bible manuscript copyist in an earlier incarnation, I might have been the one who changed it to what we have now.

      • Tom Hanson

        Thanks for the complement.