This post is a part of a series I’m writing called: “Historical Hypotheticals”. My intention in this series is to create various thought experiments related to altering particular variables in history, and analyzing their potential ramifications. I’m creating this series not only to incite critical thinking by the readers, but also for some pure entertainment value. Enjoy!
What if Christianity had sprung up during a different time, specifically a time further in the future? For example, what if it had sprung up some time after the printing press had been invented by Gutenberg (or even after it had become commonplace)? How would the religion differ from what has been passed down to us today?
There’s obviously no way to know for sure what would happen historically if we were to change even one seemingly insignificant variable, let alone a complex variable such as a time shift. Obviously strong arguments could be made that a person like Jesus (i.e. a 1st century Jewish apocalypticist) would never have existed around the time the printing press was invented. My intent in this post is simply to point out some plausible effects that a cultural time shift would have on something as seemingly rock-solid and influential as the Christian religion. It goes without saying that Christianity, as well as the canon of scripture that accompanied it (i.e. The Bible), probably had more influence on Western civilization than any other religion (or book for that matter). If its theology, inception, and influence could be substantially altered by merely changing the time it came about, I believe that this demonstrates just how random the course of history (and the fate of a religion) really is. To help us analyze my hypothetical scenario, I think that we need to examine what I find to be two important elements therein. First, how would this invention (the printing press) have directly affected the preservation of these memes, that is, Jesus’ teachings and the testaments of his followers (both contemporary and posthumous)? Second, how would this invention have indirectly affected the religious movement, its creation, its acceptance, etc., via any societal changes that ensued after the printing press’ commonplace usage?
In order to address the first question, we must understand what types of people were living around Jesus when he was alive, that is, in 1st century Palestine – specifically those people living in rural Galilee. As it turns out, the majority of the people living in this area were poor, illiterate peasants. Out of those people, a smaller fraction spoke Greek, and those that did speak Greek more than likely spoke only enough to get by for the purposes of making simple business transactions with Greek-speaking traders. So, it is unlikely that any of Jesus’ disciples or early followers were able to read, let alone write (this was a much harder task taking several years of considerable effort and expense once a person was already able to read). It is even less likely still, that any of Jesus’ early followers living in rural Galilee could write in Greek.
Greek literacy (both reading and writing) is important because Greek was the only language used to write the earliest manuscripts we have found to date, specifically those manuscripts that would eventually constitute the Christian canon of scripture, that is, the New Testament. If it was unlikely that any of Jesus’ earliest followers could write in Greek, then the earliest canonical writings we have were not written by Jesus’ earliest followers, but rather by fairly well-educated people living miles away from rural Galilee and living years later (the earliest manuscripts we have are dated around 15 to 20 years after Jesus’ death). This means that the contemporary teachings of Jesus were most likely learned and passed on through oral traditions.
For those of us that have ever played the children’s game “Telephone”, it is easy to see how simple verbalized concepts, phrases, etc., can change even to the point of incomprehensibility. Now granted, when children play this game, they usually whisper in order to decrease the fidelity of what is spoken (otherwise the game would be much less entertaining). When Jesus’ earliest followers passed on their oral traditions, rather than whispering to a dozen people or so, they translated the stories into many different languages, modified the stories with hyperbole and exaggeration, and introduced various discrepancies as the oral traditions passed from one person to thousands more living in various regions of the world spanning over many years. So it is most likely that the earliest canonical texts we have do not accurately represent the earliest oral traditions. Certainly some things may have been preserved, but we cannot deny the high likelihood, if not certainty, that many things were indeed changed or permanently lost before any of these traditions were first composed in written form. This poor fidelity is simply a well-known and unavoidable drawback of oral transmission.
As soon as these oral traditions began to be written down in manuscript form, the propensity for errors dramatically decreased. However, there were still many errors introduced (some intentionally and others accidentally) by some scribes over the years. In fact, this can be seen by examining the more than 5800 Greek manuscripts of the books of the New Testament that exist today. Throughout the production of these manuscripts, there were several hundred thousand variations introduced. Now certainly the majority of these variations are spelling errors, slips of the pen, and other simple errors which are relatively insignificant. However, other errors, such as those caused by a misreading or mistranslation of the scriptio continua Greek style, an accidental occurrence of parablepsis and/or homoeoteleuton during the copying process, or even those variations that were intentionally made by scribes (whether intending to deceive or not) introduced significant changes into the text. Some of these changes have significant theological implications and are therefore noteworthy.
If several hundred thousand variations were introduced into the written forms of these supposed apostolic views of the teachings of Jesus, then how many variations were introduced in the prior oral traditions? After all, written language has far more fecundity, fidelity, and longevity than oral language. So, based on the variations we’ve seen in written form, it seems extremely likely that there were far more variations in the oral traditions that preceded them (at least more variations per transmission). With all of these variations, both written and oral, it is likely that the original teachings of Jesus varied significantly from what has been “preserved” to this day.
It should be clear that the fecundity, fidelity, and longevity of biblical manuscripts improved dramatically with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and at the point that the press became universally available, the process of writing duplicate manuscripts became obsolete, and the previous textual errors caused by the scribes writing them was no longer an issue (obviously intentional alterations made to the texts continued as before).
If Jesus’ ministry was around after the printing press was in circulation, the “inerrant word of God” would have been preserved quite well. Ironically, the bible is the most printed book in history (thanks to Gutenberg among others) with over 2.5 billion copies made over time, and yet what we see as the bible today, is certainly a far cry from what it would have been had the first oral traditions been printed as soon as they were created and spoken aloud.
In summary, it seems that the hypothetical belated emergence of Christianity, after the invention of the printing press, would have greatly improved the preservation of the original religious teachings. Furthermore, due to fewer variations in the teachings as presented in this scenario, the diversity of Christian sects, and the subsequent development of the proto-orthodox church may never have precipitated. We simply do not know which Christian sect would have won the battle over the others. It was largely a matter of chance, since those particular sects happened to be in the right place at the right time. To be sure, the specific combination of changes made to the oral traditions and early writings (due to the lack of universal printing and mass production of religious texts), had a considerable impact on which religious sect would be popularized by the Roman emperor Constantine. Without these circumstances, it’s certainly plausible that the pendulum would have swung in the favor of a sect other than that of the proto-orthodox.
Indirect Effect on Society
In order to address this latter hypothetical element, we must consider what types of changes occurred back in the 15th century, once the printing press became more universally used. The biggest factor I have read about and concur with is the view that the printing press was a catalyst for the Scientific Revolution. This can be seen by the fact that a printing press allowed for much faster publication of scientific experiments and results, and it also established a community of scientists who were able to easily communicate their findings through the formation of widely circulated scholarly journals. Prior to this, any discoveries made were tediously written down in manuscript form, thus creating a major hurdle for scientific progress.
After the printing press became widely available, large numbers of people were able to collaborate and exponentially increase the speed at which they were acquiring and refining scientific knowledge about nature. Eventually the chemical philosophy, the mechanical philosophy, empiricism, and an increase in mathematization dominated the philosophy underlying all scientific advances. Once these changes took place (thanks in large part to the printing press), the common view of nature and how it operated changed dramatically. An increasing amount of phenomena that were previously unexplainable and/or given supernatural explanations (e.g. “An act of God”), were now understood and explained by various mechanistic processes. More importantly, anything that was to be accepted as truth or proven to be true was now to be analyzed using various scientific methodologies. The value of physical evidence that was both observable and repeatable increased during this revolution and the scientific verification of any claim began to carry an extremely high weight. That is, extraordinary claims began to require an extraordinary level of scientific proof in order to be considered valid.
This leads me to talk about the implications that this scientific revolution would have had on the emergence of a religion such as Christianity. What would the public have thought when they were shown or told about the occurrence of “miracles” including but not limited to the claim of Jesus’ physical bodily resurrection from the dead? Would superstitious views have dominated the masses and encouraged them to believe what they were being told? Or would a scientific view, that which was continuously explaining away the previously unexplainable, encourage the masses to question the validity of these claims and hold them up to scientific scrutiny? The latter seems more likely, and this would have prevented Christianity from even getting its foot in the door, so to speak. After all, extraordinary claims would have required an extraordinary level of scientific proof in order to be considered valid or plausible.
At one point during this Scientific Revolution, Copernicus and Galileo (among others) began to perpetuate the idea of Heliocentrism, that is, that the Earth was not the center of the solar system (rather it was the Sun). Prior to this, the geocentric model of the solar system (and the entire known universe for that matter) was the cosmological consensus. This new view was also seen as controversial because Christianity had already gotten its foot in the door hundreds of years earlier (with its “flat earth” Geo-anthropocentric biblical cosmology). Had these events transpired in the reverse order as per this hypothetical thought experiment, the religious idea of a flat and position-fixed Earth, and one that was special in some way or the “center of attention” would certainly have been questioned. Instead, what happened was various religious organizations like the Roman inquisition tried to combat “heresy” by placing Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestrium on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books), as well as banning Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Can you imagine if Christianity had never even presented itself until after this era of the Scientific Revolution began? I don’t think we ever would have had any “Inquisition”, and as a result, scientific progress would have been hindered that much less.
When looking back at the Scientific Revolution and its relationship to religion, I find a comment from Galileo quite interesting: “With regard to those few mathematical propositions which the human intellect does understand, I believe its knowledge equals the Divine in objective certainty.” Here, Galileo appears to be illustrating how something as perfect and certain as mathematical knowledge can be compared to the perfection and certainty of God. When we recognize the relationship between mathematics and science, one could go a step further and say that the mathematization used in scientific methodologies serves as a form of authorization of its God-like qualities to obtain an increasingly accurate description of nature. Furthermore, one could also say that the more objective or God-like qualities of a mathematized philosophy like that of Science seems to have resulted from humans acquiring a certain threshold amount of data and thinking about nature more collaboratively. One could then look at Christianity as being as successful as it was/is simply because it came before we reached this threshold of data and level of collaboration. Once it gained traction, it was too late for it to be rejected so easily at the outset of the Scientific Revolution, and so Christianity and Science began to co-exist with Christianity acting as a hurdle for scientific progress. Even today, we have some scientists who claim to be Christians, despite the levels of exclusivity between that of Christianity and Science as history has demonstrated.
In summary, Christianity would more than likely have been significantly different simply because the printing press would have preserved its original teachings far better than the natural course of history was able to do. Even more importantly, it appears to me that Christianity would never have become well established (if at all) had the events surrounding its genesis been delayed until after the printing press was invented and used extensively, for the printing press catalyzed the Scientific Revolution, and this revolution would likely have rejected or inhibited such a religion before gaining any traction at all. That said, I also recognize that the success of religions are highly dependent on evolutionary factors and psychological factors (among other factors) including the incentives to their followers that may often outweigh or overcome any scientific evidence, at least from the perspective of those religious followers. For a related discussion regarding these factors that may mediate the success of religions or various religious beliefs, you can take a look at another post of mine here.