There’s been a lot of chatter about “fake news” this year. Some stories, even though they have no basis in fact, are told so often, and with such conviction, that large numbers of people end up believing them anyway.
Some of these fake news stories even dupe legitimate political figures who repeat the story without realizing it’s false. And once a mainstream political figure repeats a story, it becomes even more entrenched in the national psyche.
While some fake news stories are rather harmless, others are dangerous. Most famous perhaps is the 2016 “Pizza Gate” incident, where a man falsely believed a pizza place was host to a child sex-trafficking ring, so he shot it up (thankfully, no one was hurt).
“Fake news” isn’t a new phenomenon, though. There’s quite a bit of fake news out there regarding the person of Jesus, the origins of the church, and the development of the Bible. Even though such “news” has no factual basis, it’s believed by an uncomfortably large number of people.
Here’s a sampling of five leading stories.
1. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
Perhaps there’s no conspiracy theory about early Christianity more sensational and captivating than the claim that Jesus was married and had children. It’s not only fodder for books like The Da Vinci Code, but it seems to pop up again and again in the mainstream media (see a recent example here).
The problem, of course, is that this belief is patently false. There’s no evidence Jesus was married.
(For a fuller critique of this idea, see my article here.)
2. The deity of Jesus wasn’t decided until the Council of Nicea in the fourth century.
Another widespread conviction is that Jesus was merely an ordinary human who was exalted to divine status by the council of Nicea. They then suppressed (and oppressed) all who insisted otherwise.
Again, however, the evidence for an early belief in Jesus’s divinity is overwhelming. As early as the 50s of the first century, Paul applies the monotheistic creed of Israel to the person of Jesus, declaring: “For us there is one God, the Father from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6). There’s good evidence Paul is drawing on earlier tradition in this passage, indicating that such a belief was present at the beginning of the Christian movement.
(For more on the early divinity of Jesus, see Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the God of Israel.)
3. Christians didn’t have a ‘Bible’ until the time of Constantine.
Also making our top-five list is the oft-repeated claim that early Christians, at least for the first four centuries, didn’t have a Bible. They were reliant merely on ever-changing oral tradition. And this problem wasn’t resolved until Constantine commissioned the production of a Bible in the fourth century (containing only the books he preferred).
While this is yet another intriguing conspiracy theory, it lacks any historical foundation. The earliest Christians had a “Bible” from day one—what we now call the Old Testament. For them, the Old Testament was the undisputed Word of God, and they were deeply committed to its authority. Moreover, from an early point Christians regarded their own books as scriptural, and a core New Testament canon is evident by the early to middle second century.
4. The ‘Gnostic’ Gospels like Thomas were just as popular as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Ever since the discovery of the so-called Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945, it’s been popular to insist that these “lost” Gospels were once more popular than our canonical ones. During the first few centuries, we’re told, Christians read the Gospel of Thomas with equal (if not more) regularity than the books that made it into our Bibles.
This whole narrative has a clear purpose behind it: to convince people that all Gospels are pretty much the same, and no Gospel is more valid than another.
But this narrative quickly evaporates when one looks at the historical data. When it comes to nearly every line of evidence—frequency of citation, use as Scripture, number of manuscripts—it’s clear these apocryphal Gospels weren’t very popular after all. Indeed, all historical indicators show our four Gospels were, far and away, the most popular ones in the early church.
5. The words of the New Testament were radically changed and corrupted in the earliest centuries.
Rounding out our top-five fake news stories is the claim that the text of the New Testament has been so radically corrupted, edited, and changed that we can’t really know what the original authors said. Made famous by Bart Ehrman’s bestseller Misquoting Jesus, this story has been repeated ad infinitum.
But there’s no evidence for this level of radical corruption. Can we see scribal changes and mistakes in our New Testament manuscripts? Of course, but that’s true for every document of antiquity. The New Testament is no different.
And if there is a difference, it’s that the New Testament seems even more well-preserved than comparable documents in the ancient world. After generations of careful scholarship, and a wealth of manuscripts at our disposal, we can have great confidence in the words of the New Testament.
These five examples of “fake news” about early Christianity get repeated so often people believe they must be true. Just like in the political world, however, we need to carefully examine the facts before we repeat the claims.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at Canon Fodder.