Back to the BOAP web page.

The Way of the Church

Part 1:

   Controlling the Past -III

 by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.

Improvement Era 58 (Mar. 1955), 152-4, 166, 168



WHEN Joseph Smith announced that the very first words of the Bible had been edited and their meaning changed by "an old Jew without any authority," he knew whereof he spoke.[1] Not that the manipulation of that particular passage has been definitely proven—there is not yet enough evidence, one way or the other—but that the common practice of such manipulation has of recent years become an established fact, thanks to the labors of Kahle and others. The work of the Masoretes, far from being, as it was meant to be, the final and definitive fixing of the sacred text for all time, simply laid the groundwork for new and daring "reconstructions."

For the Masoretic text in its turn suffered the usual process of deterioration until, in the sixteenth century, Jacob ben Chaiyim set himself to the task of rescuing it from the state of corruption into which it had fallen: "He was convinced that there was only one correct Masora—the Masora compiled by himself—and that the text arranged by him according to this Masora was the very text which had been established by the great Masoretic authorities of Tiberias. ..."[2]  And so scholars accepted Jacob ben Chaiyim's text as the one authoritative one; and when through the ensuing four centuries, older and better texts turned up and showed wherein ben Chaiyim had been wrong, what did the scholars do—correct him? Far from it: they corrected the ancient manuscripts to agree with ben Chaiyim! His hasty, superficial, and hopelessly out-of-date text "has been regarded as the only, authoritative text up to the present day."[3]  In the nineteenth century Baer made the most notable effort to restore the pure Old Testament. His method was simple and effective: from all the material before him he "selected ... what he regarded as 'correct' and what differed he declared to be 'corrupt,' 'incomplete,' or 'in confusion.' ... But Baer not only selected what he regarded as the 'correct' text from the material at his disposal, he also freely altered reading of his manuscripts when they did not give what he regarded as 'correct.'[4]  So when confronted by valuable old manuscripts or even by texts corrected by the great ben Asher himself, Baer's disciples firmly rejected them, since they differed from Baer's hypothetical reconstruction of them.[5]  It is not as one might suppose, the discovery of new and revealing manuscripts that controls and guides the thinking of the scholars; it is their thinking that controls the discoveries. "They approach the texts," wrote Father Deimel, the Sumerian expert, "with a preestablished and readymade system, and then force them to conform to this bed of Procrustes."[6]  Even when the scholars have "gnashed their teeth and accepted" new discoveries, according to Housman, they have been prompt to make it appear that such findings were no surprise to them, "and the history of scholarship is mutilated to save the face of those who have impeded progress."[7]

Anyone who thinks Kahle may have exaggerated should consult Goldschmidt's introduction to his standard edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Over 400 years ago Daniel Bomberg brought out the first complete printed text of the Talmud. It was widely circulated and became the "standard text." But in the ensuing centuries, as might be expected, vast numbers of ancient Talmud manuscripts have been discovered, texts entirely unknown to Bomberg and differing very widely from his text as well as among themselves.  Even without these discoveries it is apparent that the Bomberg text swarms with mistakes" obvious even to the casual reader.  In the face of this, one would expect all kinds of new and improved editions of the Talmud, since Bomberg claimed no more divine inspiration than any other editor.  But not a bit of it!  His text had been accepted by the doctors and that settled the matter forever. "All subsequent editions have been virtually stereotype copies of the first," Goldschmidt tells us, and so is his! He brushes aside all the great manuscript discoveries—out of respect for the received text he will not even consider them.[8]  If even the most obvious blunder in the Bomberg edition can possibly be justified by any argument, Gold-schmidt retains it without comment; if it cannot be justified he still lets it stand but makes a modest suggestion in a footnote. "The present edition," he announces with pride rather than shame, "is thus an exact reproduction of the first Bomberg edition; all other readings, even those which are obviously more correct, are put in footnotes as variant readings, the text itself remaining untouched. The official stamp of approval has so sanctified a text which the doctors themselves describe as extremely inaccurate and poorly substantiated that "no Talmud authority would accept as reliable any text 'improved' from the manuscripts or by scholarly judgment, or even recognize such as a Talmud text at all."[9]  Though it is hard for the layman to believe that such things can be, they are the rule rather than the exception.

A CAREFUL CONTROL JOB: Comparison of this with less damaged copies of the same text shows that we have here a studious inking out of any passage or word that might possibly be construed to cast disrespect on the Christians or heighten the prestige of the Jews.

HEAVY-HANDED CONTROL OF THE PAST: An official censor inked out a passage in a volume of Maimonides (Venice, 1551). The Jewish owner of the book then wrote what he could of the passage from memory in the margin on the left. Later a surprise inspection by another censor inked out this reconstruction, and probably cost the offender a heavy fine.

The Way of the Church

The rigorous and arbitrary censorship of ancient texts belongs to the common heritage of all the "people of the book," being an established routine in every age. Antiochus ordered all copies of the Jewish scriptures burned, and pronounced the death penalty on anyone guilty of possessing a copy.[10]  Diocletian passed a like law against all Christian writings, and Constantine followed his example by condemning to death anyone guilty of possessing writings by the heretics Porphyr or Arius.[11]  In 449 Theodosius and Valentinian passed a law that "all that ... any person may have written against the pious religion of the Christians be committed to the flames wherever found."[12]  Accordingly Bishop Theodoret of Cyprus can boast of having collected and destroyed in his diocese more than two hundred copies of the diatessaron New Testament.[13]  When it was officially decided (for party reasons) that Ephraim should be "regarded as the classical Syrian poet, all older forms of Syrian poetry were regarded as imperfect and were destroyed."[14]  The Arabs, raised up in the same tradition, upon fixing the final text of the Koran, so carefully destroyed all other texts that for 1200 years it was possible to maintain that the accepted text was the very one dictated by the Prophet, though today, we know that it was nothing of the sort.[15]  In this wholesale destruction of texts to control the past, it is precisely the religious who are least troubled by qualms of conscience, "for how" asks Eusebius, "could a man who writes against the Christians do anything but lie?"[16]

But usually the violent economy of wholesale book burning is not necessary to control the past. Skilful officials avoid it as the brutal and straightforward technique of soldiers and governors, and a risky business in the bargain—for there is no telling what slippery or forgotten pages might escape the flames, and the subsequent discovery of such has sometimes proved very embarrassing. The shrewd administrator can exercise an equally crippling censorship simply by condemning certain items wherever they appear, as when Theodosius ordered all his subjects to consider "any laws or rescripts alleged in the favor of heretics as either fraud or forgery."[17]

To prove that an order is fraudulent one needs no further evidence than that the party doesn't like it: it is not distasteful to the party because it is a forgery, but is automatically declared a forgery because it is distasteful. Acting on this principle, modern scholars tried to decide whether the account of the Council of Sinuessa was spurious or not solely on the grounds of whether its acceptance would do the Church more harm than good.

One school accepted it as genuine because it said something they thought highly favorable to the Roman Church; the other school condemned it because it said something else which they thought very damaging. The whole problem was whether the story was more favorable to the Church than otherwise—in which case it would be automatically accepted as true. Hefele finds the damage greater than the benefit, and so declares it false.[18]  With such principles to guide him, the clever scholar in his office of editor can make the past out to be pretty much what he wants it to be.

The voluminous writings of Ambrose are, according to Leander, full of things "that differ from the catholic sense," being "by no means in agreement with sound doctrine." Accordingly, every such statement was to be regarded automatically as apocryphal and removed from the text by a special committee appointed by the Pope in 1580.[19]  Does that sound naive? No less a sophisticated intellectual than Gilson begins his philosophical investigation of God with the announcement, "If we believe by faith that God has spoken, since what God says is true, all that contradicts the word of God can, and must, be at once excluded as false."[20]  Is it at all surprising then that M. Gilson ends up by proving his faith, since all his arguments must conform? He is in the position of a man who declares as an article of faith that any coin when tossed will always come down heads. This being the true faith, anything that contradicts it, such as those times when a coin comes down tails, "can and must be excluded as false." The religious censor is thus not troubled by conscience, and, once he is thoroughly conversant with the party line, has a very easy time of it.

A subtle and very effective form of censorship is the silent treatment. "It is permitted," writes St. Augustine, "for the purpose of building up religion in things pertaining to piety, when necessary, to conceal whatever appears to need concealing; but it is not permitted to lie, of course, and so one may not conceal by way of lying."[21]  The distinction is too fine, for silence can be very mendacious. The celebrated Duchesne, according to his biographer, M. Leclercq, was honest, open, and impartial in all the questions of church history that he treated, "but he would not handle all the questions: for example, he built a wall around the life of Jesus and the founding of the church, and he would not allow anyone to approach it. ... He would not tolerate any discussion or any hesitation on that subject." Yet the whole labor of his life was "to prove the validity of the Church's historic claims,"—and the whole burden of the proof rests in the life of Jesus and the foundation of the Church, the two subjects of which he would tolerate no examination, even by himself![22]  Recently (1952) the Knights of Columbus Foundation for the Preservation of Historical Documents in the Vatican Library sent out a brochure announcing its admirable project of microfilming the entire contents of the Vatican Library and housing the films in a special building in St. Louis. Only not quite all of the mighty collection was to be thus preserved: "The documents which the Church has been collecting for nearly 20 centuries," reads the announcement, "include, of course, the ecclesiastical records from the earliest Christian era. These are housed separately in the Vatican Archives and are not to be microfilmed." Why not? one asks with surprise; and the answer is a shocker: "... as they are not of general interest to scholars."

Now anyone who consults the card index of any of our big libraries can quickly discover that precisely "the earliest Christian era" has been the subject of more books and studies than all the other centuries combined. If "the ecclesiastical records from the earliest Christian era" cast anything like a favorable light on the case of the Roman Church, we could long since have expected to see them splashed on the covers of some national magazines, not "housed separately" and withheld from circulation. "Not of general interest to scholars," indeed! The editors of the Patrologia are more ingenuous when they explain their failure to include certain important texts in what purports to be a complete collection of sources: "The editors have not published these three letters because of certain calumnies against the pope."[23]

The silent treatment is recommended however, only in dealing with powerfully unco-operative documents. It is usually possible to control a text simply by weeding out the objectionable matter here and there instead of condemning whole books. Why destroy all the letters of Cyprian because some of them refute Roman claims? You only need declare the unfavorable ones forgeries, as Archbishop Tizzani did, and accept all the others. When Rufinus of Aquileia, translating early Christian texts at the end of the fourth century, comes upon passages presenting the peculiar and unacceptable doctrines of the early Christians, especially concerning God, he simply leaves those passages out, as he explains with disarming frankness.[24]  When he is translating Origen and finds his text saying something with which he does not agree, he just naturally assumes, he tells us, that Origen never wrote any such thing and either rewrites the offending passage or strikes it out altogether![25]  When Eusebius finds anything in the records of Constantine's life which might not make edifying reading (and there is plenty!), he deliberately omits such improper stuff, he explains, lest it detract from the glory of his subject.[26]  In the same way, the biographers of Mohammed boast that they have eliminated all offensive passages and accepted into their histories only such material as will cast luster upon the name and reputation of the Prophet.[27]

Sometimes, however, one can preserve an entire text almost intact simply by inserting a single syllable into it—the little word "not." Though a powerful censor, this tiny word comes so near to being nothing in itself, that editors apparently think little harm can be done by introducing it here and there where careless scribes seem to have a habit of leaving it out. Thus in the 127 Canons of the Apostles we read that the church has lost the power once enjoyed by the saints to drive out devils, raise the dead, and speak in tongues, though those powers were meant to be "signs to those who believe." This agrees perfectly with Mark 16:17” ... these signs shall follow them that believe," etc. but not with the conventional Christian thesis, that the loss of the signs was not serious since they were meant to impress only unbelievers.

And so our editor helpfully inserts the little word which the original writer somehow overlooked: "that they should be a sign to those who do not believe!"[28]  In the same spirit of helpfulness, when Justin Martyr propounds the doctrine (to which he refers a number of times) that "God created the world out of unorganized matter," Lange, editing the text in the Patrologia, is good enough to oblige with a useful insertion: "... God created the world not out of unorganized matter," to which by way of clarification he adds a further interpolation, "but out of nothing."[29]  Why bother to condemn Justin as a heretic when his words can be so easily controlled?

c) Emendation—the Rewrite Job: The excision of annoying passages and the insertion of useful ones is, after all, a surgery of last resort. Most scholars prefer to display their skill and ingenuity in the more cultivated art of emendation, the correction of purely scribal errors. The object of the game is to make the greatest possible change in the reading of a text by the least possible alteration of the written word; the smaller the alteration and the more striking the change of reading it effects, the more "brilliant" the emendation is considered. This, however, is a three-dimensional chess game reserved for the elite: the art of rewriting texts is practised with little enough subtlety by most churchmen, whose prime concern has ever been to do a pious rather than a convincing rewrite job. At a very early period, "when anyone, Catholic or heretic, found a statement in the New Testament which appeared to be wrong," according to Kirsopp Lake, "it would seem to him a moral duty to correct an obvious scribal error into a true statement. But who can say what are the limits of 'scribal errors'?[30]  Those limits are set by any pious reader whose duty it is to alter the text whenever he feels the scribe is off the track. This is an unlimited license to control the past.

In one of the very earliest postapostolic writings, Ignatius reprimands those Christians who won't believe anything that can't be proved from the archives, telling the Philadelphians, "My archives are Jesus Christ, and they can't be tampered with."[31] Which shows not only how soon the Church took to resting its case on documents, but also how soon those documents began to be controlled.

The original version of Josephus' Jewish War (II, 110) contained a very unflattering reference to Christ. For this reason the book was condemned. Yet the writings of Josephus had been raised to almost canonical rank by the Christians—how could this treasure be saved? In the oldest surviving manuscripts, the famous passage about Christ has been savagely inked out, rubbed out, or cut out, as if in hasty attempts to clear the owners of any charge of possessing illicit writings. In later manuscripts, however, this passage re-emerges, but this time wonderfully altered: by the changing of a few words and a little deft insertion and deletion the insulting paragraph has now become a glowing character reference for Jesus from the mouth of an infidel![32]

Coming down to our own time, we find the emendator still at work in the same old shop. When Pere Batiffol reads in the Odes of Solomon, "Thou hast introduced thy person into the world," he asks, "How could God introduce his person into the world which belongs to him? Let us rather say that God introduces his 'countenance' instead: not prosopon (person), but morphe (face, form)."[33]  Let us say, "indeed! And what has the author to say about it? "This passage," Batiffol obligingly explains, "calls for a rather energetic correction in order to have sense."[34]  Sense for whom? The second-year Greek student is constantly running into passages that make no sense to him, and which he feels strongly urged to "correct." But when a text fails to make sense to a reader, or makes undesirable sense to his church, the last thing he may do is to alter it to some form that he and his party can accept. And that is notoriously the first thing that religious scholars do—just look through the footnotes of almost any early volume of the Patrologiae.

In all his extensive writings, it is axiomatic with M. Batiffol that anything not satisfactory to his church can only be nonsense. Armed with this supremely practical and convenient rule of thumb, he has no difficulty or hesitation in perpetrating his "energetic corrections" whenever an ancient writing refuses to cooperate with him or his party. The Odes of Solomon, for example, repeatedly speaks of "the worlds" in the plural. In one place it declares of Christ, "In Him the worlds speak one to another," making him the common Lord of many worlds. Such was early Christian doctrine; but not modern: "One is surprised," writes Batiffol, "to see 'the worlds' speaking to one another; one would expect rather that it would be men. ... I would understand it to read 'men,' not 'worlds.' "[35]  To what purpose, then, does an ancient author say "worlds" if an editor many centuries later can substitute any word that suits him in its place? Is a poet writing some eighteen-hundred years ago under any obligation to put down what "one would expect" him to write today? Apparently he is.

[1] Joseph Smith, “King Follett Discourse,”  Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1977), 348.  Even the motive attributed to the scribe, that he “thought it too bad” to leave the text as he found it, is the authentic and conventional one.

[2] Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 71, 77; cf. 2nd ed., 130.

[3] Ibid., 71-72; cf. 2nd ed., 131.

[4] Ibid., 63-66; cf. 2nd ed., 115.

[5] Ibid., 66; cf. 2nd ed., 118.

[6] Anton Deimel, sumerische Grammatik (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institue, 1924), 8.

[7] Alfred E. Housman, Manilius, 5 vols. (London: Cambridge, 1927), 5:xxxiv.

[8] Lazarus Goldschmidt, Der babylonische Talmud, 12 vols. (Haag: Nijhoff, 1933) 1:13.

[9] Ibid., and 1:14.

[10] 1 Maccabees 1:56-7, 63.

[11] Sozomen, HE I, 21, in PG 67:861-2; Socrates, HE I, 9, 31, in PG 67:33-4.  The pagan Diocletian was milder against the Christians than they were against heretics, Eusebius, HE VIII, 11, in PG 20:768-9.

[12] Corpus Juris Civillis, vol. 2: Codex Justinianus, Paul Kruger, ed. (Berlin: weidmann, 1877), 1.1:3; and Novella 42, I, 2; lib. 3, de summa trinitate.

[13] Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 211.

[14] Ibid., 84.

[15] Ibid., 29; cf. 192-7.

[16] Eusebius, HE VI, 19, 9, in PG 20:561-72.

[17] Codex Theodosius XVI, 1, 16 tit. v leg. 6-23, discussed in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2 vols. (New York: The Modern Library, 1932) ch. 27, 2:956, 1001.

[18] Karl von Hefele, Concillengeschichte, 9 vols. (Frieburg: im Herder, 1856-90), 1:143-44.

[19] Leander, Praefatio (Preface) 1, in PL 18:89.

[20] E. Gilson, God and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University, 1942), 11.

[21]  Augustine, De Mendacio 1, 10, in Pl 40:500-2.

[22] Henri Leclercq, “Historiens du Christianisme,” in DACL 6:269-98.  That the motive for censorship was to cover up the adverse effect of the evidence is clear from Duchesne’s revealing explanation of why he did not leave the Catholic church in view of his discoveries: he could not, he explained, offend his aged mother as the price of being “true to himself.” Idem.

[23] Editorial note on Tertullian, Apologeticus adversus Gentes pro Christianis (Apology), in PL 1:1205.

[24] Rufinus, Preface to the Recongitiones Clementinae, in PG 1:1205.

[25] Rufinus,  Preface  to Origen’s Peri Archon (On First Things), in PG 11:111-4.

[26] Eusebius, De Vita Constantini, 1, 11, in PG 20:924-5.

[27] C. Snouck- Hurgronje, “Der Islam,” in Pierre Chantepie de la Saussaye, ed., Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (Tubingen: Mohr, 1925) 1:656.

[28] Jean & Augustin Perier, Les ‘127 Canons des Apotres’ 48, in PO 8:623-4.

[29] Justin Martyr, Apologia pro Christianis 1, 10, in PG 6:340.

[30] Kirsopp and Silva Lake, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper, 1937) 99. Cf. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 157: the “Targums had no authoritative text. Every copyist could try to improve the text he copied.”

[31] Or, “they haven’t been tampered with.” Ignatius, Epistola ad Philadelphenses 8, in PG 5:833: “hou parakousal prodelos olethros.”

[32] Josephius, Jewish War II, 110, 172; cf. Jewish Antiquities XVIII, 63-4.

[33] This famous Josephus passage is the subject of Eisler’s whole two-volume work, Iesous Basileus ou Basileusas. Cf. Kahle, The Cairo Geniza, 150.

[34] Pere Batiffol, “Les Odes de Salomon,” Revue Biblique 20 (1911): 163.

[35] Ibid.