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The Way of the Church

Part 1:

   Controlling the Past -II

 by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.

Improvement Era 58 (Feb. 1955), 86-7, 104, 106-7



IN George Orwell's much cited and disturbing novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the tyrannical super-state of the future is operated by its masters on the proposition that "who controls the past controls the present, and who controls the present controls the future." That is the secret of power: If you can control people's ideas of the past, you control their ideas of the present and hence the future. The unhappy hero of the story works in a public relations office where the past is controlled. His task is to check all back newspapers kept in the official files of the state for any piece of news, no matter how old, that might embarrass the government if brought to light—old promises and prophecies that have failed, glorious deeds of men now out of favor with the rulers, friendly alliances with governments now odious to the state, and so forth:

When he comes upon such an item, our hero immediately cuts it out and burns it, substituting in its place a revamped version of the same story of exactly the same length but so rewritten as to make it seem that the present government has always been right, infallibly vindicated in the unfolding of events. It is a careful, deliberate controlling of the past, a rewriting of history in retrospect to suit the present interests and support the present policies of the Party, whose authority is thus confirmed by the verdict of history.

All this seems to us very cynical and sordid, and yet, appalling as it seems, Mr. Orwell has given a very fair description of what has been going on for thousands of years in the learned world! Except in its cold-blooded mechanics, wherein does the operation described differ from that of the learned Hebrew Meturgemen? In his business of rendering ancient Hebrew into contemporary Aramaic "the most difficult passages were simplified, or explained, the incidents of the past conformed to the ideas of the present ... and, finally, the laws expanded in accordance with the practice and teaching of later times ... the Meturgeman did not scruple to transform the text before him in the boldest fashion. ..." [1]

Ramses II. For many years scholars were convinced that he was just about the greatest builder and warrior king that ever lived. He planned it that way.

His motive in this, we are told, was "to gloss over or to modify everything which seemed inconsistent with the accepted view of the history of the nation, to magnify and expound everything which redounded to the credit of the heroes of the past ... to explain away the unworthy and to emphasize the pious motive which guided their conduct."[2]  These learned men felt it their duty in presenting the message of an ancient prophet to the unlearned, to restate it in such a way as "to draw out its implicit teaching; to harmonize the teaching of the prophet with the current interpretation of the Jewish schools ... to modify the language of the prophet where it seemed inconsistent with the traditional view of the nation's history and even, in certain cases, to reverse the plain meaning of the text."[3]

Whether or not all this busy revamping of the record is to be deplored as dishonest and unscientific does not concern us at the moment. What does concern us is the fact that the records have been manipulated in a deliberate attempt to control the past. For many years scholars were convinced that Ramses II was just about the greatest builder and warrior king that ever lived. Ramses planned it that way. While his stone-cutters conscientiously effaced from buildings and monuments the names of their real builder (that is, where other enterprising monarchs had not already beaten him to it) and substituted in their place the name of the ruling Ramses, his historians were busy writing up the accounts of battles that had turned out badly for the king in such a way as to transform them into glorious victories. That was controlling the past in the grand manner, a practice as old as Egypt itself. The Fifth Dynasty, for example, based its authority on an historical account of three brothers, which is a most palpable forgery.

By now some American college professors know that conventional Roman history is largely a pious party fiction, made-to-order history that bucks the evidence at every turn. Likewise the whole body of Greek literature that has come down to us has had to pass the scrutiny of generations of narrow and opinionated men: it is not the literature of the Greeks that we have inherited but a puree made from that fraction of their writings which the doctors have felt proper to place in the hands of students after much abridgment and revisal. In compiling their college omnibuses of "standard" plays, orations, and poems, and in preparing their College Outline Series of humanities and science, the professors of Alexandria effectively consigned to oblivion any writings not on the approved list: the Greek schoolmen destroyed the Greek heritage.[4]

Wherever we look in the ancient world the past has been controlled, but nowhere more rigorously than in the history of the Christian church. The methods of control, wherever we find them, fall under three general heads which might be described as (a) the invention, (b) the destruction, and (c) the alteration of documents. They deserve some attention.

a. Fabrication: Tertullian tells of a scholar in Asia Minor who "out of love for the Apostle" composed a fantastic miracle and adventure tale called "The Acts of Paul," which did great damage to the church.[5]  He meant well. "We write these things," the Apostles are represented as protesting in the Apostolic Constitutions, "that you might get things straight, and not receive books which are falsely circulated in our name. ... Simon and Cleobus have published books in the name of Christ and the Apostles, and there are all sorts of forgeries circulating in the names of the prophets and patriarchs."[6]  But the practice continued and grew: "Forgery was viewed by wide circles of the ancient Church not merely as an excusable fraud, but a thoroughly legitimate oeconomia (operation, administrative measure) in the war against the enemies of the faith. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Hilary, and John Chrysostom all recommend and use the kale apate ("fair deception"), and justify it by Jeremiah 4:10[7]   "—Ah, Lord God! surely thou hast greatly deceived this people."

Just as physicians must sometimes tell fibs to patients to help them along, and as those tending small children or the feeble-minded can handle them and help them more effectively by making up stories as they go, so the Christian priest was to cultivate a useful deception as an essential tool in dealing with the laity according to John Chrysostom.[8]  "When Jacob deceived his father," he explains, "that was not deception but oeconomia."[9]

Jerome admits to employing "a sometimes useful deception," and admires others for the same practice: "how cunning, how shrewd, what a dissimulator!"[10]  And he cites Origen as teaching that "lying is improper and unnecessary for God, but is to be esteemed sometimes useful for men, provided it is intended that some good should come of it."[11] But whoever lied with any other intent? In support of his contention, Origen appeals to Plato's doctrine of deception in the Republic—a thing which had shocked even the pagans.[12]

It was common practice for Christian scholars in the Middle Ages both "without scruple to put forward older texts, with slight alteration, as their own compositions,"[13]  and to put forth their own compositions without scruple as ancient texts.  For centuries the Medieval Church rested its claims to temporal power on the false Isidorian Decretals, though recognized from the first as a forgery, and its doctrinal and ritual structure on the Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagiticus, a most obvious fake.

"Whoever knows and understands the men of the Middle Ages," Bahmer writes, "how many of them, though excellent bishops, abbots, clerics, and monks by the standards of the time, practised falsification of documents, (here follows a list of important names) ... will answer with an unqualified affirmative" the question, "could Lanfranc have been a common forger?"[14]  The common purpose of such forgeries was to control the past, specifically to make it appear that certain episcopal sees, especially that of Rome, had from the earliest times enjoyed more powers and prerogatives for which in fact no real evidence existed.[15]

The zealous Thomas Comber finds that in the official editions of the Councils as in Baronius "there is such adding and expunging, such altering and disguising things in the Body of the Councils, and such excusing, falsifying, and shuffling in the Notes, that a Judicious Readed will soon perceive these Venerably Records ... do not favor them. But these Corruptions are carried on with such Confidence and Cunning, that an unexperienced and unwary Student, may be imposed on by this specious show of Venerable Antiquity."[16]

Now in such matters the general public shows no inclination to be either experienced or wary; even so, any faint stirrings of a critical spirit have been anticipated and forestalled by ample professional restrictions and taboos. On the whole the controlling of the past with the most reliable of all human traits, mental inertia, as its chief ally has been a strangely easy business. There is, as we have pointed out elsewhere, no such thing as a clever forgery—and there does not need to be, for while no forgery can succeed without public approval, no forgery (as the clumsy Piltdown hoax has proved) can fail if it has that approval. And public approval is as sure a thing as the mass ignorance and laziness that guarantee it.

A famous letter written by Innocent I of Rome to the Bishop of Gubbio in 416 provides a commentary on this theme, which is all the more enlightening for being unintentional. The pope is deploring the fact that the church of Gubbio (actually within the metropolitan authority of Rome) observes different rites for the mass from those found at Rome: "Where everyone feels free to observe not what comes by tradition, but whatever seems good to him," writes the Bishop of Rome, "we see established observances and ways of celebrating of diverse nature, depending on the location of the churches. The result is a scandal for the people who, not knowing that the traditions have been altered by human presumption, think either that the Churches are not in agreement with each other, or that the Apostles established contradictory things."[17]

Whatever usage they find, the people naturally attribute to the Apostles. Why not?—are they not instructed to do so? How can they be expected to know "that the ancient traditions have been altered by human presumption"? On the ignorance and complacency of the general public the religious innovator can always rely. Sometimes, however, the public itself forces the scholars to go farther than they want to. This is especially so in the case of church history, where the demand for immediate and definite answers is constant and pressing. What is the poor researcher to do? "The sources were very scarce and fragmentary," writes Linton of the great days of "scientific" scholarship in the field, "in order to derive any definite information at all from them, it was necessary to interpret these sources and to fill them out.... From the very nature of the thing the passages were read with modern eyes."[18]  The public could only be satisfied at the price of controlling the past.

Ramses II returning in triumph from Syria. (From the monuments of Karnak.)

b. Censorship: But forgery is a risky business. Much more safe and dignified, and equally effective, is the office of the censor. When the Septuagint was accepted by the Jews as the official text of the Old Testament it was declared to have been revealed from heaven, and all competing texts were officially destroyed. But later when "the Hebrew text was fixed again from old manuscripts rescued from the temple of Jerusalem," the Septuagint was found to disagree with this miraculous discovery and accordingly "was declared to be the work of Satan." So carefully was the order for its destruction carried out that "with the exception of ... two little bits of papyrus with fragments of a few verses of Deuteronomy," to this day "not a single line, neither of the 'Septuagint' nor of any other parts of the Greek Bible, written by a Jew, is so far known to be preserved."[19]  But with the passing of time grave differences arose regarding the correct readings of this Hebrew Bible as those readings underwent constant change at the hands of copyists and emendators, and so it became necessary to restore the text to its ancient purity. This was the work of Masoretes, and since they "had no model of classical Hebrew to which they could adapt the pronunciation of Hebrew... they tried to create an ideal pronunciation which they believed to be correct.[20]  To establish this new text all other—and older—Bibles were ordered destroyed, and before many years the fact that the Masorete text stood unchallenged was taken as clear proof that it must be the true and original version of the Bible, for people naturally forgot that the reason why it stood alone through the centuries was that its competitors had all been deliberately and systematically extirpated. Kahle compares this to the claims of the Roman church to pristine purity of doctrine in the Middle Ages: it was, or appeared to be, the oldest surviving doctrine only because the others had been suppressed or destroyed.[21]


[1] John Fredrick Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), x.

[2] Ibid., xi.

[3] Ibid., xiv.

[4] Wilhem Schmid, Gechichte der griechischen Literatur, 2 vols. (Munich: Beck, 1929), 1.1:2-8.

[5] Tertullian, De Baptismo, 17, in PL 1:1326-9.

[6] Clemens Romanus, Constitutiones Apostolicae, 4, 16, in PG 1:949-55.

[7] Robert Eisler, Iesous Basileus ou Basileusas, 2 vols. (Heidelberg: Winter, 1929) 1:44-5; von Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte 2:63, gives other examples of approved deception.

[8] John Chrysostom, De Sacerdotio I, 5, in PG 48:624; cf. his Homilia 56 in  Commentarius in Acta Apostolorum, in PG 60.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum 2, 73, in PL 23:371.

[11] Jerome, Epistolae 82, in PL 22:740.


[12] Jerome,  Apologia adversus Libros Rufini, in PL 23:412.

[13] Paul E. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, (London: Oxford Press, British Academy, 1947) 221.

[14] Heinrich Bohmer, Die Falschungen Erzbischofs Lanfrancs von Canterbury (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1902), 126.  For a fuller discussion see my article "New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study," Improvement Era 56 (1953): 919-1003.

[15] Ibid., 830, 859-62, 919-1003 . 

[16] Comber, The Church History Clear'd From the Roman Forgeries Introduction. 

[17] Innocent 1, Epistolae et Decreta, in PL 20:551-2.

[18] Olaf Linton, Das Problem der Urkirche, 10 (emphasis added).

[19] Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 138-9.

[20] Ibid., 86, 108, 118, 127.

[21] Ibid., 85.