Why I Don’t Believe: A History Mystery

This post is one in a series of reasons I don’t believe in Christianity.  You can check out the series index to see all parts of this sequence.

Over the summer, I read “The Mark of a Masterpiece,” an excellent New Yorker story by David Grann.  The piece has the feeling of a thriller, opening with the story of art historian Martin Kemp’s discovery of a possible drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and following him through his attempts at verification.  The article is well worth reading, blending together a look into an uncommon and secretive profession, a possibly amoral con artist, and a conflict between traditional scholarship and high-tech interlopers, all playing a game with multi-million dollar stakes.

As the article progresses, and evidence accumulates, the status of the drawing remains ambiguous.  I like a puzzle as much as anyone, but it was hard to imagine a test that could definitively establish the provenance of the painting, especially when history is littered with talented art forgers that are just as well versed in their craft as are the appraisers out to stop them.  For a great deal of art that was created sufficiently long ago, the source of a particular work is essentially undecidable.

And that’s essentially how I feel about historical arguments about Jesus’s divinity.

I’ve read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and I was unpersuaded.  (It doesn’t help that Strobel primarily interviews only believers and uses only the writings of critics without allowing them to comment on questions raised).

But I’ll admit, it’s hard for me to come up with historical evidence of Jesus as messiah that would be convincing to me.  The long historical remove at which we operate, other instances of miracle workers in recorded history that are not treated as true, the extent to which the life of Jesus might not have been found worthy of record by historians of that era all make it extremely difficult to uncover anything that looks like a proof.  And I should add that the quick expansion of Mormonism in the last 150 years (they’re apparently up to over 13.8 million converts worldwide) should cast doubt on the assertion that Christianity’s rapid success is proof of its truth.

I don’t think any truly persuasive evidence exists either way on the historical question of Jesus’s existence.  I’m glad to look at arguments on this topic, but to be honest, it’s frustrated to pour through conflicting secondary sources when I don’t have the training to evaluate their arguments or examine the primary sources myself.  Thus, I’m not ever likely to be moved by historical evidence for the truth of Christianity.

In fact, if I were only confronted with historical evidence, I’d be especially dubious about the proposed religion.  A religion whose effects have only occurred in the distant past could hardly be expected to change my life in the present.  Luckily, Christianity is pitched to be relevant in the here and now and can be scrutinized in the present.  About which, more tomorrow.

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  • Anonymous

    "A religion whose effects have only occurred in the distant past could hardly be expected to change my life in the present."One word: Eucharist.Jesus is happening NOW.

  • Great post. I agree that the historical debate is extremely frustrating. I've listened to so many debates on the resurrection… Craig, Habermas, Licona, Ehrman, Carrier… Smarter people than I abound.@Anonymous — anyway of differentiating how the Eucharist validates Catholicism from how thetans validate Scientology?

  • Anonymous

    Leah, First time poster here; I love the blog!I just have a minor quibble with this:"And I should add that the quick expansion of Mormonism in the last 150 years (they're apparently up to over 13.8 million converts worldwide) should cast doubt on the assertion that Christianity's rapid success is proof of its truth."I don't think that's the whole story. The claim seems more along the lines of: how could Christianity have spread so fast in the face of such wide-spread persecution? I could be wrong but I don't think believers in Mormonism were being persecuted at or near its' inception. That seems to me to be a salient distinction.

    • They were being persecuted.

  • @Anonymous:That's a good point. I've had my own wonders about how soon this persecution really even started, though. How long was it before anyone even took note of this? Pliny the Younger mentions Christianity as a "silly superstition." Carrier mentions that many of of the taken-for-granted martyrdom cases are not actually known to have been connected with matters of belief.Nero persecuted some Christians for setting fire to the city, but it is not clear that would they have renounced their faith if that would have done anything to spare them. Does that make sense?The bottom line is that one would need to identify that Christians were persecuted for simply being Christians. This might have been the case and I'm just not familiar with it.A good read is HERE. Search the page for the first instance of "martyr" and start reading a paragraph or two before.

  • Anonymous

    @ Hendy:Interesting read by Carrier. Thanks. WRT Nero I'm not exactly sure what you mean here. Could you clarify for me?Are you saying that even if the Christians had renounced their faith it's not entirely clear that that act would have rescued them from Nero's persecution? So, if that were true that would seem to cast doubt on Nero persecuting these Christians *specifically* because of their Christian beliefs?There are certainly accounts of individual early Christians being killed for their beliefs (James bar Zebedee, James the Just, and Peter for instance).

  • @Anon:Yes — that's what I'm saying: that there may be instances where Christians are killed but the evidence we have does not establish that they were actually killed for being Christians.I'd be interested in the timeline of the evidence you have for James, James, and Peter. My understanding is that these are quite late and suspect in the same way that the gospels themselves are suspect.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding the historicity of Mormonism:Even more troubling for Mormon scholars is a document called the Book of Abraham. In 1835, Joseph Smith, who was then living in Kirtland, Ohio, bought a wagonful of Egyptian mummies from a man named Michael Chandler. Inside two of the mummy cases, wrapped in linen, were scrolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphs. Smith gave the mummies to his mother, who charged visitors a quarter to see them. Meanwhile, he undertook a translation of the scrolls. Before long, he was telling fellow-Mormons that the scrolls contained the writings of two Old Testament patriarchs, Abraham and Joseph.In 1842, Smith published the Book of Abraham. It purports to be an unfinished fragment of Abraham’s autobiography, the very material from which the Book of Genesis was drawn. At the time that Chandler visited Kirtland, no scholar in America believed that it was possible to translate hieroglyphs; news had not yet reached America of the discovery of the Rosetta stone or of Champollion’s success at rendering the hieroglyphic language into French. The Book of Abraham is disconcerting, not only because its dubious authenticity reflects on Smith and the Book of Mormon but also because of what it actually says.The book describes a multiplicity of gods and posits the preëxistence of souls, and also delves into the subject of race. Pharaoh, Abraham says, was descended from Ham, whose line was cursed with black skin, and for that reason “he could not have the right of Priesthood.” On the basis of this statement, the Church denied priesthood to black members until 1978.After Smith’s death, the papyri were sold to a collector, and for many years it was thought that they had ended up in the Wood Museum, in Chicago, which was destroyed in the great fire of 1871. Then, in 1966, a retired professor of Middle Eastern studies from the University of Utah, Aziz S. Atiya, who was doing research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, decided to take a closer look at some fragments of papyri in one of the document cases. He said he realized at once that he had found the original scrolls for Smith’s Book of Abraham. (Museum officials maintained they knew that the papyri had belonged to Smith, and said they granted Atiya access to them in the hope that he would convey them to the Church.) When the Church showed the documents to four distinguished Egyptologists, however, each of them came to the same conclusion: the papyri were ordinary Egyptian funerary documents and had nothing at all to do with Abraham.This disclosure brought forth various defenses by Nibley and other Mormon scholars, who said, in effect, that not all the papyri had been recovered. They proposed that the Book of Abraham was more an inspired reading than an actual translation, but the fact that Smith had also produced a “grammar” of the Egyptian language weakened the theory. Gradually, the protests died down, largely, perhaps, because few members actually resigned from the Church over the issue. Today, even Nibley seems weary of the effort to authenticate the Book of Abraham. In his view, the controversy is of a piece with the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. “Very few scholars even believe that Abraham ever lived,” Nibley said.Read more http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/01/21/020121fa_FACT1#ixzz12jT0dzHz

  • "The claim seems more along the lines of: how could Christianity have spread so fast in the face of such wide-spread persecution? I could be wrong but I don't think believers in Mormonism were being persecuted at or near its' inception. "I'm a little late here, but yes, anonymous commenter, you are most certainly wrong. Mormons were persecuted intensely during their founding years – Joseph Smith was murdered by a lynch mob, for truth's sake. The reason the LDS church's headquarters are in Utah is because they were essentially expelled by mass violence from Missouri (and then again from Illinois).

  • Anonymous

    Right, Ebonmuse, I know that Mormons were persecuted. The purpose of the passage I quoted was to show that there is good historical evidence that Joseph Smith was a phoney – he "translated" some Egyptian hieroglyphs and developed a grammar for ancient Egyptian which was later shown to be totally bogus. If the New Yorker article is right, some of his own followers will admit this.But let's go back to what was written, "And I should add that the quick expansion of Mormonism in the last 150 years (they're apparently up to over 13.8 million converts worldwide." I've never heard anyone argue that the fact that Christianity expanded quickly demonstrates that it is true. Let's continue to consider Mormonism as compared to Christianity. In the case of Mormonism (and, I think, also Islam) the main thing that followers were asked to believe was that there leader was receiving divine inspiration. Now, divine inspiration is basically an internal thing – it's very different from resurrection. If someone tells you that they are receiving divine inspiration, and I write some things down and tell you that God told me them, how do you know whether God really told me? On the other hand, what if you see me killed and then a few days later I sit down for a meal with you? That seems like a different situation. I think it would be much easier to convince people that I've received messages from God than convince someone that they'd seem me killed and then seen me alive afterwords.

    • Darren

      Correct, however, recall that the early church was not being led by, taught by, ministered to by Christ, but by Peter, James, and most importantly by Paul. Definitionally, there was no Christianity during the actual life of Christ, only a messianic offshoot of Judaism.
      It was Paul who built the church we now know as Christian, and Paul who spoke at length of God’s commandments and the teachings of Jesus. Very similar, indeed, to J. Smith.

  • Darren

    A question for you, and I am genuinely interested in the reply. You have reviewed the evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus and concluded it is convincing. I have also reviewed the evidence, and found it unconvincing. Everything I have found amounted to – historical evidence that _Christians_ existed, and self-referential assertions that Christ arose (i.e. the scriptures and the writings of believers).

    I fall in line with Leah in my seeing many similarities between the “proof” of Christ and the proof of Mormonism. There is historical evidence that Mormons existed, they were persecuted for their beliefs yet did not waiver, and there are numerous documents from Mormon sources claiming the truth of their faith… So, pretty much the same level of proof as for Christ… better, actually, as we have better records that the Mormon communities existed and who was in them and their actions and so forth…

    So… Why not Mormonism? I would love to have your thoughts as to how the proof for Christ is more robust than the proof of Mormonism.

    • The fact that Joseph Smith clearly existed strengthens the case, IMHO, that Christ also existed.

  • Darren

    Oh, there _could_ be supporting evidence. Take one thing, at the moment of Christ’s death upon the cross, the temple veil ripping, the sky becoming black, a massive earthquake, and the bodies of the dead rising from their graves and walking around Jerusalem. One would think that any of these events might be remarked upon by non-believers. Perhaps the report of a Roman commander, explaining the loss of a certain percentage of his soldiers as he was required to wade into the streets of Jerusalem and hack apart a horde of undead zombies? This certainly does not seem like the sort of thing that would be overlooked, and yet we have no reports other than from believers half-a-world away and at a 50 year remove…
    Now, then if this event did really happen, Christianity would be only one of (presumably) several explanations (Roman pagan, Gnostic, Mazdian), and of course the theories of archeologists and historians. But certainly, modern scientists would have a bit of difficulty in explaining a documented case of masses of corpses ambulating around a city. By what method did this happen? How come it has never happened since? What was the metabolism of the corpses and how did they walk? Was it all of the dead, or only some? What if they were only skeletons? Did the corpses go back to their own graves after a certain time, or did they have to be reburied? Would family members have recognized passed loved ones?
    There could be supporting evidence, there just isn’t.

  • Why not Mormonism? Because Mormonism depends on the testimony of one guy. Joseph Smith. That is it. Everything can be explained if we assume he is deluded or lying. That is not an unlikely explanation at all. His own mother described him as a teller of tall tales.

    The truth of Christianity depends not on the testimony of one man but of many. The disciples saw Jesus. Paul saw Jesus. Paul claimed over 500 people saw him. This is something that would have been falsifiable. That is someone could have and likely many did interview the eye witnesses and assess their credibility.

    The other thing to consider was whether their statements were against their interests. In Smith’s case he benefited from his story. He became a religious leader. In the disciples case they got kicked out of their synagogue and got persecuted. Paul had the most to lose. He was a well educated pharisee. He had a great career ahead of him. Threw it all away because he encountered Jesus. He faced prison, torture, and possible execution many times. Did he do that for a lie? Would you?

    It is bizarre that Leah even says there is nothing truly persuasive even on the question of Jesus’ existence. Very few atheist historians doubt that. Some say the moon landing was faked. Some say the holocaust never happened. You can go there.

    Fr me it is about whether the falsification of the evidence is harder to believe than the truth of the story. Is the lying apostle story believable? Is the church fudging with the records believable? The motives don’t make sense. They were not really able to execute such a conspiracy. I mean they can’t even change the mass translations without an uproar. What are the odds they could do a world-wide bible swap and cover their tracks?

  • Michael

    Marcus Borg’s recent historicist account of Jesus provides some compelling evidence/arguments that some historical figure named Jesus did indeed exist. He points to non Christian sources like Josephus and Tacitus as well as a historicized reading of the Gospels (mostly the book of Mark), while at the same time he is willing to grant that not everything one reads in the Gospels is historically accurate. Plus his manner of writing is very accessible to the curious layman. It’s worth the read for anyone trying to come to grips with the historicity of Jesus.