Last year, I wrote a series of articles tagged ‘Christmas Specials’ which ran through the four Sundays of December, 2017.
My intention then, as it is now, is to shed some light on Christmas, the central figure we celebrate annually, and us.
But before all that, I’d like to offer my sincere apologies to my readers for being away from my computer for a while, it was due to circumstances beyond my control, and I hope and pray for the grace to maintain this space for as long into the future as possible.
As we brace up to celebrate another round of festivities, I like to say the series you are about to read is an improvement on my previous thoughts the subject, a thing that has not changed.
Echoes of ancient scrolls heralding Christmas started long before 1844, when 36 year old Constantin Tischendorf, a German specialist of ancient languages, led a group of men on Camel backs to the Monastery of Saint Catherine, caught within the thoroughly biblical desert of Sinai in modern day Egypt, in search of answers to Biblical truth about Jesus and his birth.
Tischendorf’s quest for evidence, not only for the earliest records of Jesus’ existence, but also for a historical backing for the stories written about him, eventually paid off.
Since its building in early 6th century AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, the fortress-like building, walled on all sides by 4-storey high fences, sandwiched in the very same harsh terrain in whose granite cliff Moses received the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, had changed very little.
Worthy of note is that, in 1517 in Wittenberg, some type of upheaval had rocked the Roman Catholic Church, so that a number of issues had been raised by the Reformation which aroused public interest in some of the teachings and traditions –which included Christmas celebration- of the Church, the question of the person of Jesus Christ and the originality of texts of the New Testament.
In fact, at that time, when Biblical criticism reached new heights led by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, the Dutch scholar and Catholic priest Erasmus Rotterdam, had already compiled the first-ever printed edition of the New Testament in original Greek.
Before his trip to Sinai, Tischendorf took time to study Erasmus’ work, the documents known as Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, one of the four great uncials, and even travelled to Rome where he was warmly received by Pope Gregory XVI, to study the 4th Century Codex Vaticanus.
These documents, the sheer quest for knowledge and scholastic passion led Tischendorf like many New Testament scholars before and after him, to the great monasteries of the East.
After 15 years of several failed attempts, a presentation of credentials from Tsar Alexander II of Russia led to unrestricted access to the library of this great monastery.
It was one fateful night during this visit, that Tischendorf discovered what he called “…the most precious Biblical treasure in existence, a document whose age and importance exceeded that of all the manuscripts which I had ever examined during 20 years’ study of the subject”, and which many experts describe as one of the ancient witnesses or echoes of the gospels.
Today, almost all expert are in agreement regarding the authenticity of this manuscript -which by the way includes the lost ‘Epistle of Barnabas’ and ‘Shepard of Hermas’- called Codex Sinaiticus.
Tsar Alexander II bought the manuscript from the monastery, and by 1933, the British museum paid a whopping 100,000 pounds, the highest ever paid for a manuscript at that time, to purchase the document.
Scholars agree that both the Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are twin sisters, and that they remain the oldest near complete ancient texts containing most of the Old and New Testaments in existence today.
Because of finds like these, archaeologists and scholars like Tischendorf have helped to push the antiquity of Christian documentation further back to more than 2 centuries before the Council of Nicaea and authenticated many of the teachings of the Church today.
The point I am making is that these documents and many like them that have been found over the years are echoes from antiquity, and they have told us a great deal about the veracity of the books written about the figure we would be celebrating this season, Jesus Christ himself.
From comparing the documents with many other discovered manuscripts from the time immediately after Jesus and his disciples, from examining their handwritings, punctuations, spacing, and even the reign of the emperors mentioned in them and comparing the information gathered with non-Christian history, scholars established that their stories could be relied on.
Tischendorf’s findings further inspired subsequent digs around Egypt that exhumed other documents like private letters, contracts and other legal and official transactions, which enabled scholars to learn a great deal about the everyday life of ancient people in the near east, especially early disciples of Jesus.
For example, in one of the finds, American archaeologist Patrick Hunt’s eyes fell on the word ‘karphos’ on one of the papyrus. It was the ancient Greek word translated ‘mote’ in Saint Matthew’s gospel chapter number 7:3 and Saint Luke’s 6:41, “…then you will clearly see to cast the ‘mote’ from your brother’s eye…” spoken by Jesus Christ.
After countless digs, archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Hunt, placing their works side by side the works of many other experts, even those from non-Christian sources, found that ‘the evidence supporting the gospels from less than 150 years after Jesus was overwhelming’.
In 1930, American mining millionaire Alfred Chester Beatty announced the acquisition of some manuscript from Egypt. Again, from the manuscripts, experts found that almost all of New Testament, including most of Apostle Paul’s letters, was bound as a codex or booklet in the 1st Century, just like the documents discovered by Hunt and Grenfell. And that the document showed that Apostle Paul’s writings and the gospels were contemporary documents.
In 1950, Swiss collector Martin Bodmer announced the acquisition of substantial portions of a papyrus codex of Saints John and Luke’s gospels, again datable to less than 200AD.
Some scholars say by far the most substantial discovery in modern times is the one made near the town of Nag Hammandi in modern day Egypt, of manuscripts, written in Greek characters Coptic, the original language of Egypt, which has greatly illuminated scholars on the works of non-orthodox followers of Christ within the century of his death.
Today, in the British museum there exist a collection of 3 papyrus fragments called Egerton Papyrus 2, and recognizable from this work are near identical versions of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke’s account of the healing of a leper together with the story of Jesus escaping stoning. Together, they comprise one of the oldest surviving witnesses to, and echoes of any gospel or codex.
Similarly, in John Ryland’s library, Manchester University, there is a papyrus originally discovered in Egypt in 1920. From careful study, scholars say it was produced well within less 100 years of Jesus lifetime.
There are countless ancient documents like these, some of them datable to 94AD, less than a century after Jesus Christ, like the Dead Sea scrolls and all the other documents that have been discovered and are still being discovered, scholars have found that without any shred of doubt, all the works have proven the following about the Holy Bible in general and the New Testaments in particular;
That contrary to the claims of some, the Holy Bible has suffered very negligible or no change at all over the centuries.
That all the manuscripts, from the Caesarean, Byzantine, Western to the Alexandrians, just name it, are all in one large family in terms of their preservation, and their thorough authentication of the scriptures we have today.
British scholar Ian Wilson puts it thus’ “…as a whole, errors and textual variations are relatively minor, and the gospels can be judged to be very much as the authors wrote them…”
Now these are just scholastic witnesses, but the Holy Bible’s witness itself that “…all scriptures is inspired of God and beneficial…” in 2 Timothy 3:16 carries more weight for the Christian today.
Since the Nigeria’s Christian leadership draw the authority for their every actions today from this same Holy Bible, and since the great Roman Catholic Church, falling back on it, has picked this season as one in which to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, I ask; from what we know of the real Jesus from a historical perspective, would he have given his blessing to everything we do in his name today?
In the coming days, in my subsequent articles, we will address this question and many more.
May the treasures and traditions of Christmas fill your heart with hope and happiness and may the sacrifice of Jesus Christ abide with us all, amen.