Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: the highlights, IV

Continuing our journey through the classic historical text from 324 AD.

Still in Book III…don’t worry it picks up as we go…

About 96 to 99 AD, there is a story of Yochanon, the talmid whom Yeshua loved—

—an aside, where do we get the idea that favoritism is wrong? Yeshua had a favorite disciple. Elohim has a favorite nation. He loved Ya’akov and hated Esav before either of them had done anything right or wrong, that is pure favoritism. I’m not saying that there isn’t a wrong favoritism, but I don’t think we can say all favoritism is bad—

Yochanon after being freed from Patmos, went about appointing bishops and establishing congregations. After appointing one bishop, he points out a young man for discipleship. The bishop undertakes the task, and trains him up. Eventually, he baptizes the lad—notice baptism did not proceed training—but the lad falls in with wicked fellows and becomes the chief of a band and renounces his salvation.

I’ll note more on the topic of salvation, elsewhere, but eventually Yochanon returns, to require the young talmid. Finding what had happened to the lad, and that the bishop had given him up for spiritually dead, he exclaims, “I left a fine keeper of a brother’s soul!” Yochanon (probably in his 90’s) saddles a mount and goes after the youth. Yochanon is caught by the band, telling them that’s the reason he came and to take him to their captain. What happens next is beautiful:

[The former talmid] stood waiting, armed as he was. But as he recognized John advancing towards him, overcome with shame he turned about to flee. The apostle, however, pursued him with all his might, forgetful of his age, and crying out, ‘Why dost thou fly, my son, from me, thy father; thy defenseless, aged father? Have compassion on me, my son; fear not. Thou still hast hope of life. I will intercede with Christ for thee. Should it be necessary, I will cheerfully suffer death for thee, as Christ for us. I will give my life for thine. Stay; believe Christ hath sent me.’

The lad stops, disarms, and weeping embraces Yochanon, “as if baptized a second time with his own tears.” Yochanon prays for him, tells him he has found pardon, and takes him back to the congregation, not leaving until he is restored.

I was moved to tears myself reading this. Imagine, the sense of brotherhood that Yochanon had to so hotly pursue for this boy’s soul? How weakly do we pursue those who fall away? And notice, he does not pursue with condemnation (at least when faced with shame), but tells him, there is still a way back.

Salvation though, as I read from these ancient authors is not seen as the absolutely assured thing that most American churches proclaim. There are two truths seemingly held in tension: on the one side, no sin is so great that it cannot be overcome by repentance. On the other hand, that salvation held with a loose hand can be lost. The idea that salvation can be lost is disturbing. I don’t like it—even though, I have had no problem with reward or loss of reward due to disobedience. I haven’t believed salvation could be lost. But after reading this history, and then re-reading the gospels as the gospel message (instead of the Epistles), I find the once and done idea of grace and salvation seems weak. You can point to the prodigal son, ahh, but the Father received him when he repented, not when he was still astray. What about the publicans and sinners? Yeshua said they repented. Where in the gospels, do you find the formula that a simple prayer seals your fate, regardless of how you choose to live afterwards?

To me, it’s not really a big deal. If your love Elohim, then you’re going to cleave to Him and also be able to trust His mercies outweigh your incidental sins, so long as you keep turning back to Him. The only reason to be concerned about losing salvation is if you’ve decided to live in sin (in which case, you don’t love Him, anyway), or that you don’t really trust His goodness and are afraid that you might have a moment of weakness and wake up in eternal fire.

But this is a blog about what they believed more than what I believe, so the historical view seems to be that salvation is unlimitedly strong, but must be worked out with fear and trembling. There should be enough fear that you take your fate seriously, and don’t be lazy. But not so much fear that you lose sight of love.

The Books of the Gospels

Eusebius tells us that only Mattityahu (Matthew) and Yochanon (John) left written record of Yeshua’s ministry, and even they ‘of necessity’. Mark and Luke were not part of the first disciples. So the Shellachim originally felt oral tradition was sufficient, and writing was almost an afterthought. That’s a very Jewish way of thinking, mind you. The teacher being integral to the teaching: merely transmitting textual data was not sufficient.

For my Protestant brothers, I must point out how this implies the necessity of tradition. If proper doctrine and understanding was sol scriptura as Luther insisted, then how was the Basar spread when there was no scriptura regarding the ministry of Yeshua? Yeshua’s ministry would have been tradition/oral instruction, were His words then of less value through the Shellachim than if they were printed in a book? We’ve already seen that at this time, there is no settled ‘canon’, thus we see that the Bible was a result of a process of the Ruach HaKadosh through men . . . a.k.a. we got the inspired word through tradition. Which means you have a balance of tradition and scripture. Tradition cannot violate scripture because it has already declared it authoritative. But neither is scripture without tradition. And this makes logical sense. The Bible alludes to many other acts that it does not contain, but if you had a book that had all the acts it would be unusable, so they are passed in tradition.

  • Interesting, Eusebius tells us as a matter of public knowledge that Matthew proclaimed and wrote his gospel in Hebrew. However, other sources will tell us that the language of the Hebrews at this time was Aramaic, so Eusebius may be referring to a gospel written in Aramaic.
  • As I’ve heard it, Yochanon’s Basar is considered to be primarily about the end of Yeshua’s ministry, but tradition in Eusebius’ time relays that Yochanon wrote to fill the gap of the beginning of Yeshua’s ministry. So most of what he writes is before Yochanon the immerser (John the Baptist) has been put in prison.
  • Yochanon is also written after the other three accepted accounts, therefore it is supposed that many acts are omitted or details such as geneology because Yochanon assumed his readers had already read the others.
  • The other details being established, Yochanon wrote to highlight Yeshua as being Elohim. I admit that Yochanon can be difficult to comprehend because the book takes such a different flavor, so that it doesn’t even sound like Yeshua’s words. However, understanding that what we’re seeing is settings others than those in the other three—notice how much of the discourses is in private as opposed to the public teachings in the other three? Notice how the ‘mysticality’ shows up more with only the close disciples or with the religious elite? Understanding different setting and audience explains much of why Yeshua sounds so different.

The Brit Chadasha in Eusebius’ Time 

At the end of chapter twenty-four of book III, Eusebius states that the Basar of Yochanon and the first epistle are considered genuine, so then he devotes chapter twenty-five to listing the accepted books, apparently in his own time. Which interestingly shows that the ‘canon’ has not been settled for the first three hundred years.

Skeptics will object to the long span of formation and the human machinations, but that assumes a god with a mind of metal. If God wanted robots, then simply emailing a PDF of perfect instructions would be ideal, and there’d be no good reason for God not to have done so. However, if God is a Father, then his desire is to raise up children like himself. He wants his imprint: like Father like son. Well, God chooses to do right because right is better, therefore his children likewise. God is also a teacher and doer of good for perfectly good motives, hence his children.

So if God is like a Father, He will leave some things undone—that He could easily do himself—so that we will do them and be like him. Famine comes to mind. People complain that God would standby while there is famine in poor countries, and yet America alone throws out more food than sub-sahara Africa produces. God has given the world the ability to feed all the starving, and it should be obvious that He is giving us the opportunity to be like him and feed them ourselves! Therefore, it would make perfect sense that the transmission of his word would be in part through his children. I as a father, do not teach each of my children the exact same lessons because they are different—yet, I’ve noticed that when I teach my eldest something and he does what I have commanded, his younger sister will learn from his example, and even from his instruction. Likewise, I use her to teach him. I teach them both individually and collectively, and they in turn teach each other.

So the real question isn’t whether humans ‘wrote’ the Bible, but whether the writing was of divine origin? That is a discussion outside the scope of this blog, but maybe later. But in short:

  • If God is a good Father, he has been teaching from the beginning: The texts we have today are nearly identical to texts from thousands of years ago (thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and others).
  • The texts have been preserved by an unpopular and generally impotent nation (Israel). We have more texts of scripture from little, scattered, hated Israel than we do from the Homer’s Iliyad which came from Greece and was quite popular in the Roman empire that ruled the world.
  • The faith of these scriptures has influenced more people across history than any other. Where is the influence of the ancient Egyptians cults? Where is Zeus’, Apollo’s, Aphrodite’s? Where is Shintaoism? Or the Hindu religion? Sure, they have some influence in one culture, but the faith of the Bible spread from a persecuted tiny people to having missionaries in every country, even where they are raped and killed. Hospitals, universities, charities, the end of the western slave trade, all find their roots in people who were influenced by scripture.
  • Scripture contains prophecies that can be verified to have been written before the events took place: the easiest example being that Israel was destroyed for 2000 years and came back. Technological advancements reflected in prophecy have come to pass (the ability for everyone in the world to see something happening at the same time, the ability to destroy the world, the acceleration of travel). Even concern over climate change is predicted in scripture. Or the sacking of Jerusalem, and the record of Yeshua’s followers avoiding the destruction because they believed his words.
  • In short, there’s plenty of reasons to agree the Bible has had a more than human origin—even if you believe that Elohim allowed human error to be present in a manuscript or in a translation.

So what was the generally accepted Brit Chadasha around 324? (those in bold are those that were generally accepted in the earlier record from 54):

    • Mattiyahu (Matthew) in Hebrew
    • Mark
    • Luke
    • Yochanon
    • Acts
  • 13 epistles of Paul (unclear if he includes Hebrews as a 14th)

 

    • 1 Yochanon (1 John)
  • 1 Kefa (1 Peter)

 

The following were disputed, but still believed inspired by many:

  • Ya’akov (James)
  • Y’hudah (Jude)
  • 2 Kefa (2 Peter)
  • 2 & 3 Yochanon ( 2 & 3 John)

A third rank of books, called spurious includes:

  • Acts of Paul
  • Pastor
  • The Revelation of Peter
  • Epistle of Barnabas
  • The Institutions of the Apostles
  • Revelation of Yochanon (Revelation)
  • The Gospel according to the Hebrews (apparently very popular with actual Hebrews…)

Apparently there were still more books that by consensus were altogether rejected (more than the spurious words which were partially accepted). Those includes gospels of Peter, Thomas, a gospel of another Matthew, acts of the apostles by Andrew, and others.

I won’t lie that considering the anti-Semitism that strongly shows up by the close of Eusebius’ history, I wonder at some of the ‘spurious’ rejections, the Gospel of the Hebrews in particular. We already have the author’s admission that Mathew was originally written in ‘Hebrew’ and that version has been lost to us at present (though it might be the origin of the ‘Shem Tov’ version or the Peshitta’s Mattityahu). So we see from the above list that all of the disputed eventually became accepted, and at least one of the spurious. The fact that that the book of Hebrews, the fairly Hebrew oriented book of Revelation, and the Gospel according to the Hebrews were resisted more than all the epistles of Paul is troubling, especially combined with the loss of the original Mattityahu and the anti-semitism of post Nicea. Especially when you factor in that many of the disputed works and Revelation which ended up in the final product—are also the ones that appear to be in strongest contrast to Paul. Is it a coincidence that those that seem least friendly to Paul are ‘disputed’ or ‘spurious’?

So while I accept the Brit Chadasha as is, the history suggests to me that valid books may also have been rejected. But in the end, if we trust Elohim, then we can trust that any needful truth has not been entirely lost—but it may be harder to find, left only for those who diligently seek Him.

If this seems a scandalous thought, just consider in our own day how many versions of the Bible there are and that there are many scholars from many different angles who would call this or that translation as spurious. If it is possible for a counterfeit translation to arise, why would it be so troubling to think that a counterfeit text or counterfeit canon could arise?

To be continued…

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