The Council of Nicaea called by the Emperor Constantine met in 325 C.E. to establish a unified Catholic Church. At that point no universally sanctioned Scriptures or Christian Bible existed. Various churches and officials adopted different texts and gospels. That’s why the Council of Hippo sanctioned 27 books for the New Testament in 393 C.E. Four years later the Council of Cartage confirmed the same 27 books as the authoritative Scriptures of the Church.
Wouldn’t you assume that the newly established Church would want its devotees to immerse themselves in the sanctioned New Testament, especially since the Church went to great lengths to eliminate competing Gospels? And wouldn’t the best way of spreading the “good news” be to ensure that every Christian had direct access to the Bible?
That’s not what happened. The Church actually discouraged the populace from reading the Bible on their own — a policy that intensified through the Middle Ages and later, with the addition of a prohibition forbidding translation of the Bible into native languages.
Yet, a different model already existed in Judaism. Dating back to the Exodus, Moses ordained public readings of the Torah, according to Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus: “…every week men should desert their other occupations and assemble to listen to the Torah and to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge.” That practice later became standard in synagogue services, in which the Old Testament (Torah) is read over a year in sequence, covering the entire Bible. In fact, as a practicing Jew, Jesus read the weekly parsha (section of the Torah) at the Sabbath services that he regularly attended: “And he went to Nazareth where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up for to read” (Luke 4:16).
Since the Church sequestering their sanctioned Bible from the populace makes no sense, I was not surprised that some readers bristled when I recently wrote about the historic prohibitions against Christians reading the New Testament on their own, or worse, translating the Bible into a native language. One called me a liar. That too was not surprising. A few years earlier I gave a talk at an American Psychological Association meeting and afterwards lunched with a group of young Christians, some of whom also challenged my statements about the Bible prohibitions. I later sent them references documenting my claims, but never heard back from them. I’ve always wondered how they reacted to the citations I sent, which included:
Decree of the Council of Toulouse (1229 C.E.): “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.”
Ruling of the Council of Tarragona of 1234 C.E.: “No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments in the Romance language, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over to the local bishop within eight days after promulgation of this decree, so that they may be burned…”
Proclamations at the Ecumenical Council of Constance in 1415 C.E.: Oxford professor, and theologian John Wycliffe, was the first (1380 C.E.) to translate the New Testament into English to “…helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence.” For this “heresy” Wycliffe was posthumously condemned by Arundel, the archbishop of Canterbury. By the Council’s decree “Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed and publicly burned and the ashes were thrown into the Swift River.”
Fate of William Tyndale in 1536 C.E.: William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English. According to Tyndale, the Church forbid owning or reading the Bible to control and restrict the teachings and to enhance their own power and importance.
While I was writing my book “Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew,” it became increasingly clear to me that there was another more potent motive for keeping the New Testament out of reach for Christians: to conceal the Jewish foundation of Christianity and Jesus’ lifelong dedication to Judaism and Jewish practices.
Would the newly established Church want converts to know that Christianity began as a Jewish sect and that Jesus was a thoroughly dedicated practicing Jew who never suggested the launch of a new religion? Would the Church want it revealed that Jesus lived and died a dedicated Jew, as observed by Christian writer Jean Guitton in his book “Great Heresies and Church Councils”?
Jesus did not mean to found a new religion. In his historical humanity, Jesus was a devout Israelite, practicing the law to the full, from circumcision to Pesach, paying the half-shekel for the Temple. Jerusalem, the capital of his nation, was the city he loved: Jesus wept over it. Jesus had spiritually realized the germinal aspiration of his people, which was to raise the God of Israel…
Wouldn’t Church officials also want to conceal that the disciples, led by James, the brother of Jesus, and Peter, continued to maintain their Jewish identities but made Rabbi Jesus the centerpiece of their Jewish practices (Acts of the Apostles). Later, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, initiated a rift between his brand of Jewish Christianity and the teachings of the Jerusalem-based disciples of Jesus. That divide eventually drifted toward increasing separation of Christianity and Judaism. But Jewish converts to the new Jewish Christianity continued to worship in synagogues, a practice that was still proliferating as late as the fourth century. The vicious “Homilies Against the Jews” by Saint John of Chrysostom (386-387 C.E.) make that clear. Why would the Bishop of Antioch, and later Archbishop of Constantinople, spend so much time and energy excoriating Christians for continuing to attend synagogues and participating in Jewish practices? The Church was clearly stepping up its attack on Judaism to enhance and expedite a total break with Judaism. To accelerate that process the charge of “Christ Killers” against Jews was stepped up as well. The “blood libels” — the accusation that Jews ritually murdered Christian children to extract blood for religious practices — is evidence of the intensification of attacks against the Jews.
But there was that pesky New Testament, a thoroughly Jewish document, as Anglican priest Bruce Chilton has noted: “It became clear to me that everything Jesus did was as a Jew, for Jews, and about Jews.”
If Christians had access to the Bible in its entirety, not only the limited editions that the clergy presented, they might have noticed what leaped out at me: The word “Jew” appears 202 times in the New Testament, with 82 of these citations in the Gospels. The term “Christian” never appears in the Gospels at all, for the obvious reason that there was no Christianity during the life of Jesus — only Judaism, in which he and his family, disciples and followers were immersed. Readers of the Gospels might also have noted that when Jesus wasn’t addressing the “multitudes” (of Jews) he was teaching in synagogues and was attending Jewish holy day celebrations. And his disciples called him rabbi. Since the Gospel writers couldn’t keep Judaism out of Jesus’ life story and ministry — without the Judaism there would be no story — they invoked the ban on the Bible while Christianizing Jesus with selective and edited stories that they conveyed to the public.
The Christianizing process, along with erasing Jesus’ Jewish identity, continued throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is dramatically illustrated in classical artworks, in which Jesus and his family show no trace of a connection to Judaism. In this ethnic cleansing of Judaism they are pictured as fair-skinned Northern Europeans living in palatial Romanesque settings surrounded by later-day Christian saints and Christian artifacts and practices — images completely alien to their actual Jewish lives in a rural village in Galilee.
But today, in a new era of reconciliation, Christians and Jews are recognizing the strong connection between the two religions. Some Christians are adopting Jewish practices like the Passover Sederand the Jewish marriage ceremony under the chuppah (canopy), and couples are signing the ancient Jewish ketuba (marriage contract). Others are visiting synagogues to relive the experience of Jesus.
Several years ago 170 Jewish scholars and leaders from all four branches of Judaism issued a statement calling on Jews “to relinquish their fear and mistrust of Christianity and to acknowledge Church efforts in the decades since the Holocaust to amend Christian teaching about Judaism.”
When Timothy Dolan returned from the Vatican after his elevation to cardinal in 2012, he appeared on the popular TV show “The View.” Barbara Walters, one of the hosts, playfully said to the affable Cardinal, “I’m crazy about you. I’m thinking of converting. Do you take Jewish girls?” Dolan responded, “My favorite girl of all time was Jewish.” “Who is that?” Walters asked with a surprised look. “Mary” Cardinal Dolan answered softly. His casual remark suggests that the celebration of common ground can trump doctrinal differences.
Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor, and journalist. He is author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, which is available at Amazon (grayscale and color edition), Barnes and Noble, and other major outlets.