Christian Historical Claims Are Surprisingly Fragile: a Case Study (2 of 2)

Christian Historical Claims Are Surprisingly Fragile: a Case Study (2 of 2) January 17, 2019

early church manuscripts

Polycarp, an important second-century Christian bishop, was martyred in about 155. A letter, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, documented the appeal by the Roman proconsul to get Polycarp to avoid a death sentence by making an obligatory prayer to Caesar. Polycarp rejected the idea, saying, “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The lecture that prompted me to write about Polycarp was “Church History” from the Credo House ministry. In response to Polycarp’s famous line, one lecturer said, “I just read that and get chills. That needs to be a t-shirt.” The other replied, “That’s one of the most beautiful statements in all of church history. It really is.”

I’m not sure why. If Jesus helped Polycarp through life’s trials no more overtly than he helps people today, I don’t see what’s worth dying for. The Jesus who urged believers to pray in a closet instead of in public wouldn’t be pleased at a public show of devotion through martyrdom. The Bible doesn’t encourage it, and martyrdom for being a Christian (in the West, anyway) doesn’t happen. (I explore a modern version of this foolish sacrifice here.)

But that’s a tangent. Our goal here is to answer the question, Did Polycarp really say this? We’ve covered three glaring red flags already (in part 1)—the story contains miracles, Polycarp’s death reads like a deliberate imitation of Jesus’s death, and many decades may have intervened between the death and the documentation of the event. Let’s continue.

Problem 4

We have a series of copyists, though fortunately these are known. Unlike many manuscripts, the letter documents the earliest series of copies: someone wrote the original (in Greek), and then Irenaeus got a copy, which was copied by Gaius, which was then copied by Socrates, which was then copied by Pionius. Pionius noted that the copy he had to work with “had almost faded away through the lapse of time,” which raises the possibility that he used guesswork to fill in gaps.

Problem 5

But at least that initial series of copyists was documented. Our final problem is the unknown period between Pionius (assuming the accuracy of the letter’s appendix) and the oldest copies that we have today. We have seven Greek manuscript copies of the letter, but these date to the tenth century and later. That isn’t a reliable foundation on which to build our translation.

There’s also a Latin version from the tenth century and an Old Church Slavonic version from the fifteenth century. These are no improvement—not only are they late, but there’s a translation in there.

Finally, we have Church History by Eusebius (also known as Ecclesiastical History), written in Greek in about 320. He copied much of The Martyrdom of Polycarp into his book, including the “he has done me no wrong” quote.

The problem is similar here: there are seven Greek manuscript copies from the tenth century or later, six Latin copies from the eighth century and later, and two Syriac copies. The earliest Syriac copy is the oldest of all existing copies, with a (surprisingly precise) copy date of 462.

Which do we point to for our most reliable copy? We have a tenth-century Greek copy of the letter, and we have a fifth-century copy of a translation of Eusebius’s copy of the letter. Neither inspires confidence. One source characterizes the problem this way: “The letter as presented in extant Greek manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from the 10th century, is somewhat different from the account given by Eusebius, so that probably the work has undergone interpolation [change].”

The two options for the dates of Polycarp’s death are more evidence of problems with these two manuscript traditions. Each tradition gives a clear but contradictory date. The copies of The Martyrdom of Polycarp say 155 or 156, while those of Church History say 166 or 167.

(A similar analysis with a tenuous chain of evidence is the claim that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. I’ve responded to that with a blog post and video summary.)

Have we chosen a particularly poor example? Candida Moss argues in The Myth of Persecution that the martyrdom of Polycarp is one of the best martyrdom accounts, and yet it’s still unreliable.

Lessons

Admittedly, what Polycarp said, if anything, isn’t very important by itself. What is important is this as an example of the feeble foundation that supports many other claims that, collectively, are important.

Let’s review the problems that came up with this quote.

  1. Miracles. The story contains miracles. Sure, I’ll listen to miracle claims, but the hill to climb to show historicity has suddenly become huge.
  2. Fan fiction? It looks to be a deliberate parallel to the Jesus death story. That might make literary or theological sense, but it brings historicity into question.
  3. Time gap from event to autograph. The date of original authorship is unclear. Clues in the text suggest many decades between the event and the original letter.
  4. Time gap from autograph to our best copy. The letter documents three or four steps in the copying process, the last of which implies that creative license might’ve been taken to fill in the blanks in a tattered manuscript.
  5. And more time from autograph to our best copy. Next is the unknown period from that point to our best copies (a tenth-century original language Greek copy or a fifth-century translated copy, neither of which inspire confidence).

When confronted with a claim about early church history, be skeptical. Ask: How do you know? Any declaration about something that happened in the early church comes down to manuscripts. Are they plausible history? How long is the chain from original to our best copies (in years and number of copies)? Did anyone in the chain of copies have an agenda to “improve” the text? And so on.

Very few typical Christians will have answers. That shouldn’t be an invitation to dump a bunch of questions and insults on them and smugly walk away, however. These are complicated issues, and maybe you can each learn from the other.

The whole story of human history is:
the blasphemy of today is the commonplace of tomorrow.
— Ralph Nader

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  • Overly hagiographic purposes notwithstanding, I have no reason to doubt Christian communities were persecuted in at least some areas of the Empire at some given time, since Rome was well-known for dealing ruthlessly with any socially disruptive cults (from Bacchus’ festivals to Jewish nationalism).

    What really bothers me, actually, is some Western Christians’ attempts to equate past persecution (and/or present-day oppression in Asia and Africa) with whatever criticism they might face at home for their now largely unpopular beliefs.

    No, dear white American evangelists – you being slammed on Twitter isn’t so bad as being sentenced to death for “blasphemy”…

    • Grimlock

      Have you read “The Myth of Persecution” by Candida Moss? If not, I recommend it as it’s both well written and revolves around the subjects you mention there.

      • I’ll check it out, thanks!

  • Kevin K

    Seems to me that if he was relying on Jesus … then Jesus should have prevented him from being martyred for this to be anything other than a lesson in the futility of religious belief.

    • TheNuszAbides

      Nah, the afterlife-reward/punishment always has to supersede what any of this nonsense looks like to us puny creatures who dare doubt on purpose.

  • Tawreos

    Very few typical Christians will have answers. That shouldn’t be an invitation to dump a bunch of questions and insults on them and smugly walk away, however. These are complicated issues, and maybe you can each learn from the other.

    But usually when it comes time for the learning to begin christians toss out a “I will pray for you” and walk away.

    • Lark62

      Or, more commonly, a nice friendly threat of eternal damnation.

  • skl

    When confronted with a claim about early
    church history, be skeptical. Ask: How do you know? Any declaration about
    something that happened in the early church comes down to manuscripts.

    I’m not sure about that. It seems to me that manuscripts are
    preceded by the events written about. The experience of the events, and the
    subsequent spreading oral buzz, usually would come well before the relatively
    rare occurrence of that time of written reporting. In other words, the
    manuscripts follow the spoken and lived tradition/legend.

    Perhaps a way to try to confirm how things were long ago
    is to start with today and work backward. For example, investigate whether
    current Christian beliefs and traditions differ from those of 50 years ago, and 100 years ago, and 500 years ago, etc.

    In looking through the New Testament, I’ve been a bit
    stunned by how much the beliefs and traditions, and even organizational structures,
    back then are like those of some Christian groups today. For example,

    “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
    from Acts 2;

    “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been
    reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”

    from Acts 16.

    One last thought – you might call it Problem 6:
    The Jesus in the New Testament never instructs anyone to write this stuff down.

    • It seems to me that manuscripts are
      preceded by the events written about.

      Omigod! I just saw skl kill somebody!!

      There’s a manuscript that was not preceded by the events written about.

      • eric

        Don’t forget, it’s when multiple practitioners show consistent traditions and beliefs across time that he’s really confident the thing written about was true…

        OMG! I also saw skl kill somebody!!

        • Greg G.

          OMFSM! Bob and eric saw skl shoot somebody on 5th Avenue.

        • Doubting Thomas

          OMFSM! Bob and eric saw skl shoot somebody on 5th Avenue. But don’t worry, they came back to life.

        • sandy

          OMFSM! Bob and eric saw skl shoot somebody on 5th Avenue. But don’t worry, they came back to life…and it was witnessed by 500 people.

        • Praise Jesus! I think I’m seeing a legend develop right before my eyes.

          It’s like I’m in Palestine 2000 years ago.

        • sandy

          Exactly. Some/most Christians still like to bring up the 500 witness “fact”.

        • I always dismiss this and point to the gospel authors as my backup. Not one of them used this fact, so either they hadn’t heard of it (“500 witnesses” might’ve been a regional thing from where Paul wrote) or they had but didn’t think it was relevant, compelling, true, or something similar.

          That’s good enough reason for me.

        • Rudy R

          And what are the odds that there were exactly 500 witnesses? Had it been reported that the number was 493, I might give that piece of evidence more credibility.

        • Tangent: that reminds me of the miraculous catch of 153 fish in John. Who stayed behind to count them? “Yeah, you guys go hang out with the risen son of God. I’ll catch up, but I’ve just gotta count all these fish!”

        • Rudy R

          I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a deeper meaning to the 153 number.

        • I’ve heard that there was another fish-counting incident in a Pythagorean context, and some have speculated that that’s where it came from.

          153 is the sum of the integers 1 through 17. Cooler: 153 = 1^3 + 5^3 + 3^3.

        • Greg G.

          Pythagoras the vegetarian saw some fishermen hauling in some fish. He got them to promise to release them if he could tell them the number of fish they had caught. The story doesn’t give the number but he won the bet.

          I have read that 153 was an important number to the Pythagoreans. They didn’t have irrational numbers so they did their math with ratios. The most precise ratio that had to an irrational number that they used was 153/265 for the square root of 3.

          The fish symbol created by the intersection of two circles of the same size where the center of one is on the circumference of the other. If you erase all but the overlapping parts and a little for the tail, you have the fish symbol.

          If you draw a line from where the circles intersect and a line from one center to the other, the ratio of the length of the two lines is 153/265, as they would calculate it, as the line between the intersections is the square root of 3 times the radius of the circles.

          I have read that it was thought that there were 153 kinds of fish in the Lake of Galilee. I keep wondering if the Greeks thought there were 265 kinds of fish in the Mediterranean Sea so Pythagoras guessed that would be the denominator and 153 would be the numerator or something like that.

        • martin_exp(pi*sqrt(163))

          or (1+sqrt(3))*(1+2*sqrt(3))^4 = 265 + 153*sqrt(3)

        • Greg G.

          I was trying to work it out before the correction after subtracting the right side from both sides, then converting it to Javascript to see how close to zero it came and I wasn’t coming close.

          Then I saw your correction and still couldn’t get it. I worked it out by hand with a pen and the back of an envelope and it worked out exactly.

          Then I went back to debug the Javascript and realized that I was using the wrong method. Instead of Math.pow(), I was using Math.exp(). I blame your Disqus handle for screwing with my mind.

        • martin_exp(pi*sqrt(163))

          edited

        • Greg G.

          Who stayed behind to count them?

          Rain Man counted them in two seconds: “Fifty-one, fifty-one, fifty-one, one hundred fifty three.”

        • TheNuszAbides

          Whew, I was afraid I was dating myself/us.

        • TheNuszAbides

          Obviously, ‘John’ was an autistic savant. Remember Rain Man and the spilled matches?

        • Doubting Thomas

          How do you doubt something that 500 people witnessed? You gonna call them all liars?

          Sounds like a bulletproof story to me.

        • carbonUnit

          How do you doubt something that 500 people witnessed?

          Eyewitness testimony is very often flawed. Even if every one of those
          500 were scribes who promptly made a written record of the event, you
          would have all manner of variations.

        • Doubting Thomas

          Yeah, but some of them died for their belief. Surely that makes it true.

        • Greg G.

          Read up the thread. We are being facetious.

        • carbonUnit

          Read up the thread. We are being facetious.

          Of course, and very nicely. My point is that eyewitnesses aren’t as reliable as people think. They aren’t like video recorders. So even if their recollections are taken down immediately (not to mention in a few days), they will not agree. There will be dozens or even hundreds of variations. And this would be considered a best case scenario. Now do it under Biblical circumstances – nobody recorded it till decades later. Good luck with accuracy.

        • And the gospels agree with you, since none of them include the “500 eyewitnesses” claim. Either they hadn’t heard of it, or they had and thought it was BS. (Or it was added to Paul later, after the gospels were written.)

        • Greg G.

          and it was witnessed by 500 people.

          Some of them have fallen asleep.

        • Oh, that was the snoring sound. You’d think that the risen son of God would’ve been more impressive.

        • TheNuszAbides

          Oh WOW like I’ve actually HEARD of a 5th Avenue! Compelling supporting evidence!

      • Lark62

        One hopes.

    • Ficino

      No interest in whatever bible cult you are trying to promote on here.

    • eric

      …For example, investigate whether current Christian beliefs and traditions differ from those of 50 years ago, and 100 years ago, and 500 years ago, etc.

      In looking through the New Testament, I’ve been a bit stunned by how much the beliefs and traditions, and even organizational structures,back then are like those of some Christian groups today

      Some is clearly opening the door to cherry picking. If you’re going to use consistency of beliefs and traditions, then you should look across all. Compare vegan pacifist Egyptian Copts to Russian Orthodox to red-meat-eating gun-toting Protestant Evangelicals. Compare poverty-worshipping Christians like Mother Theresa to Prosperity Gospel Televangelists. Compare celibacy-practicing ascetic monks to quiverfull dominionists. Since their practices and beliefs are all wildly different (and indeed, some Chrsitians groups have fought others to the death over differences in beliefs and traditions), your own logic would seem to point to this undermining any truth in Christian doctrine.

      But wait, it gets worse for you, because this is terrible logic to begin with. The subject of the last two posts has been the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom, in which he is put to the torch yet his body, instead of burning, turns a nice golden brown and starts smelling like a wonderfully baking bread. And the logical argument you’re proposing is that we consider ‘consistency of modern christians beliefs and traditions’ to tell us whether this miracle actually happened or not? I have to ask, because that seems just ludicrous to me – is that really what you’re proposing? I think it’s pretty clear that everyone in the Heaven’s Gate cult was extremely consistent in both their traditions and their beliefs. So should I draw from that the conclusion that they really did board a spaceship hidden in the tail of comet Hale-Bopp? This is utter nonsense. Social practices of modern followers of some religion are a result of so many factors other than the truth of their doctrine that it’s IMO worthless to try and argue from one to the other.

      But wait! It gets even worse for you. Because Christianity has had sectarian splits for practically it’s entire history, and AIUI the Christian theological way of dealing with this is to blame our sinful nature, imperfection, plus a little temptation from the devil. By trying your argument, you’re essentially undermining all of that. Whew…it’s a good thing you aren’t Christian, right? Because if so, trying an argument that undermines over a thousand years of Christian theology just to try and save Christian theology might be problematic for you.

      • skl

        Some is clearly opening the door
        to cherry picking. If you’re going to use consistency of beliefs and
        traditions, then you should look across all… Since
        their practices and beliefs are all wildly different …, your own logic would
        seem to point to this undermining any truth in Christian doctrine.

        Bob S. asked the question: “When confronted with a claim about early church history, be skeptical. Ask: How do you know?”
        In your response above, your contention appears to be that you cannot know because a diversity of opinions/interpretations/practices arose many years after the fact, even thousands of years after the fact. I disagree with that contention.

        I contend that one could probably look across all beliefs and
        traditions and then investigate which of them are consistent through the 2,000 history. This could give one the most accurate view of what happened back then. (The “most accurate view” – as opposed to “knowing” what happened, as in “proving” what happened, which is likely impossible.)

        But wait, it gets worse for you, because this is terrible logic to begin with. The subject of the last two posts has been the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom… And the logical argument you’re proposing is that we consider ‘consistency of modern christians beliefs and traditions’ to tell us whether this miracle actually happened or not?

        Not really. It doesn’t demonstrate that the miracle happened. It better indicates what was believed back then.

        But wait! It gets even worse for you. Because
        Christianity has had sectarian splits for practically it’s entire history…

        “Sectarian splits” = “diversity of opinions/interpretations/practices arose”. See above.

        • eric

          I contend that one could probably look across beliefs and traditions and then investigate which of them are consistent through the 2,000 history. This could give one the most accurate view of what happenedback then.

          (a) Christianity certainly isn’t consistent taken as a whole. You have to cherry pick which sects you want to compare in order to arrive at a conclusion at consistency. Heck, Christians can’t even agree on who counts as Christian.

          (b) If your argument is that historical consistency is a good proxy for accuracy, then both Judaism and Hinduism are more accurate than Christianity, as they have more years of it (and probably less theological variation between sects, too).

        • skl

          (a) No, you don’t need to cherry pick which sects you want to
          compare in order to arrive at a conclusion at consistency. You pick ALL of them, then work your way back in history. (BTW, I noticed immediately that your blockquote of me was wrong. It omitted the word “all” in “I contend that one could probably look across all beliefs and traditions and then investigate…”)

          (b) We’re not talking about Judaism or Hinduism.

        • eric

          You pick ALL of them,

          Okay, what’s the consistent Christian answer to this question: is the Pope the leader of the Christian church?

          Or this one: does one’s actions impact whether you go to heaven, or only ones’ faith?

          Or this one: did Adam and Eve really exist?

          (b) We’re not talking about Judaism or Hinduism.

          You might not want to talk about the implications of your own logic, but that doesn’t make them go away. If you actually believed your own argument – rather than merely being a constant apologist for Christianity – then you would agree that ‘historical consistency is a good proxy for accuracy’ wouldn’t just support Christianity, it supports other faiths too, and in fact would probably support some other faiths better.

          But no, you won’t do that, because your totally I’m not kidding guys I’m telling the truth about not being a Christian self coincidentally only ever tries to defend Christianity.

        • skl

          Okay, what’s the consistent Christian answer to this question… Or this one… Or this one…

          We both would acknowledge that among the various Christian sects today no consistency exists in answering those questions. But that’s not my point. My point was consistency through history. Actually, 2000 years of history. If a particular sect or nouveau interpretation/answer doesn’t extend back that far, they drop out of consideration.

          If you actually believed your own argument – rather than merely being a constant apologist for Christianity – then you would agree that ‘historical consistency is a good proxy for accuracy’ wouldn’t just support Christianity, it supports other faiths too, and in fact would probably support some other faiths better.

          If it will make you happier, then, yes, I think the “most accurate” Jews and Hindus of today are those whose beliefs are consistent with the original Jewish and Hindu beliefs. (But we weren’t talking about Jews and Hindus.)

        • eric

          My point was consistency through history. Actually, 2000 years of history. If a particular sect or nouveau interpretation/answer doesn’t extend back that far, they drop out of consideration.

          This is circular logic. You can’t claim all of Christianity (remember – you complained I forgot your ‘all’?) is consistent if we only look at those sects of it that haven’t changed over the last 2000 years.

          Christianity has not been consistent. Not even in it’s earlier forms, where sects like Arianism and Marcionism and gnostic forms of the faith existed. The RCC successfully killed off many other variations in beliefs, but that brutal repression certainly can’t be taken as any proof that miracles actually occurred, nor even the less ridiculous claim that they all believed the same thing back then. Of course they didn’t, and we have records showing it. We have historical analysis showing they didn’t – that, for instance, the lines and words of the Nicene Creed were specifically formulated in order to rule out variations in theology that were floating around in different congregations at the time. It was, IOW, an effort to force theological consistency on a population that didn’t have it, to stop theological and sectarian squabbling among various churches and geopolitical areas.

          Trying to claim Christian ‘consistency’ across time is any sort of evidence of either a claim to truth or even a claim to a single uniform belief is IMO absurd.

        • skl

          You can’t claim all of Christianity …is consistent if we only look at those sects of it that haven’t changed over the last 2000 years.

          I’m not claiming that.

          Trying to claim Christian ‘consistency’ across time is any sort of evidence of either a claim to truth or even a claim to a single uniform belief is IMO absurd.

          Trying to claim Christian ‘consistency’ across time is NOT any sort of evidence of either a claim to truth or even a claim to a single uniform belief is IMO absurd.

        • eric

          Yes absolutely it’s NOT any sort of evidence of a claim to truth. Just as the Odyssey remaining the same over 3000+ years is not evidence that Achilles was born of a Greek goddess. Just as the babylonian mythos remaining the same over 4,000+ years isn’t evidence of a dragon named Tiamat. Justa as Islam remaining the same over 1400+ years isn’t evidence Mohammed rode a winged horse up to heaven.

          Do you think that in any of these other cases, historical consistency is evidence of the miracle account being true? Of course you don’t. Because you selectively apply your logic only to Christianity.

          Moreover, your logic is completely circular. By ignoring all the other sects of Christianity that have come and gone, you’re basically making the argument: “if we consider only those sects of Christianity which have remained relatively the same over a 1700 year history, then the remarkableness of their remaining relatively the same over a 1700 year history is evidence that their beliefs are true.”

        • skl

          Just as the Odyssey remaining the same over 3000+ years …

          is evidence of what exactly “Odyssianism” is.

          Just as the babylonian mythos remaining the same over
          4,000+ years …

          is evidence of what exactly “Babylonian mythianism” is.

          Justa as Islam remaining the same over 1400+ years …

          is evidence of what exactly Islam is.

          “if we consider only those sects of Christianity
          which have remained relatively the same over a 1700 year history, then the remarkableness of their remaining relatively the same over a 1700 year history …

          is evidence of what exactly Christianity is (but the number is more like
          2,000 years, not 1700).

        • eric

          It doesn’t demonstrate that the miracle happened. It better indicates what was believed back then..

          That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said all year. Now if only you would apply your own statement to miracle claims other than the Polycarp one…

    • Joe

      It seems to me that manuscripts are
      preceded by the events written about

      No, that would be a colossal assumption.

      • skl

        I thought it should go without saying, but I guess I’ll have to say it:
        By “manuscripts”, in the context of this article and
        discussion, I meant ‘writings intended to document history, or copies of such
        writings’.

    • Doubting Thomas

      I’m not sure about that. It seems to me that manuscripts are
      preceded by the events written about.

      Never heard of “fiction” I take it? It’s an entire section in most book stores.

      • skl

        Rerun from moments ago –

        I thought it should go without saying, but I guess I’ll have to say it:
        By “manuscripts”, in the context of this article and
        discussion, I meant ‘writings intended to document history, or copies of such
        writings’.

        • eric

          You mean like L. Ron Hubbard’s OTIII document? Or you mean like the Koran?
          Are they non-fiction?

        • Doubting Thomas

          Given the church’s record of constant lying, nothing like that “goes without saying” and when you do say it you sound extremely naive.

      • Greg G.

        There are even genres of fiction.

        • carbonUnit

          Including the highly redundant “Christian Fiction” (which should apply to a much larger swath of the store).

    • Lark62

      In looking through the New Testament, I’ve been a bit
      stunned by how much the beliefs and traditions, and even organizational structures,
      back then are like those of some Christian groups today.

      Likewise, compare today’s christians to Lucian of Samosata’s description of christians, circa 160 CE.

      You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.

      Yep, Christians are so gullible they will believe any unscrupulous conman.

      • epicurus

        And yet they suddenly become masters of logic and sceptical thinking when confronted by the claims of other religions.

      • skl

        Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.

        Such was the case from the very beginning. Or so it says in the New Testament.

    • Damian Byrne

      “Perhaps a way to try to confirm how things were long ago
      is to start with today and work backward. For example, investigate whether
      current Christian beliefs and traditions differ from those of 50 years ago, and 100 years ago, and 500 years ago, etc.”
      They do. Ever hear of a little event called the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II? Just one of the many changes to come out of that was formal permission to have Roman Catholic church services be conducted in the vernacular languages, instead of insisting on Latin. Or how about someone you may not have heard about, a dude going by the name of Martin Luther? He started teaching things about the religion of Christianity that went against the grain of then-current-day orthodoxy.

      …where do you get this notion that Christianity has what? Existed set in stone, unchanged?

  • epicurus

    I wonder what would have to happen in Polycarp’s life for him to say Jesus had done him wrong.

  • epicurus

    One of the many problems with starting off as a “within our lifetime” doomsday cult is there’s not a great desire to create and preserve records and well attested historical data for future generations because, well, there’s not going to be future generations. So when the end doesn’t come, future generations have to fill in the missing info – often by going on hearsay.

  • Michael Neville

    Since Eusebius almost certainly forged the Testimonium Flavianum his honesty is highly suspect. It’s possible that he made the martyrdom of Polycarp up himself.

    • I hadn’t taken it that far, but yes, that’s an intriguing hypothesis. Good one.

  • Polytropos

    It’s amazing that there are people out there who will happily accept fantastic stories from copies of copies of manuscripts written decades after the events they describe would have happened, but will reject vast quantities of scientific evidence showing, for example, that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, or that human sex differentiation is more complex than just male or female.

    • Jennny

      ‘…copies of copies..’ I’m aware, because I live in a celtic country which has a strong oral tradition, how fragile that is. Chinese whispers is a real thing. I understand that cultures that have oral traditions put checks and balances in, like repetition, poetry etc, but I really can’t believe stories didn’t/don’t get changed when told from one village to the next. There are two big legends, believed by many welsh folk here – intelligent educated people – about events in ancient celtic history…but both were invented (they have monuments to them) by innkeepers when the railway first came through in the 1860s and city tourists arrived for the first time, so money for the locals. Ancient Eisteddfoddau(well, not so ancient actually, choral festivals re-invented in 1792) have children’s competitions for choral speaking. My DD on a college project asked parents about the history of this and, again, they said they thought the poetry went back to the dawn of time almost. That year’s entry was a poem about a local soccer star who played for Manchester United…..the need for cultural identity is very strong…and sometimes very misguided. Or so it seems from my anecdotal position!

      • Polytropos

        I’m willing to bet it seems so from a position of scholarly expertise, too. It takes a special kind of ignorance to believe oral traditions can preserve information accurately, all the time. And although I’m not an expert in this field, I understand Christian sources like the gospels and hagiographc material do not contain the kinds of linguistic conventions that would indicate they were part of an oral tradition. Instead, they have more in common with literary conventions of the time.

        • Jennny

          An aside, there is a very famous 18thC welsh antiquarian who was a master forger. His tomes of celtic history, poetry and philosophy created the modern bardic movement and he was not exposed for many years. Some of his forgeries have greater credence with some people than the true versions. They were so good, that a professor of welsh history researched which documents were false, and which genuine. Sadly after a lifetime of study of Iolo Morgannwg’s large output, he died well before he could complete his task, the man was such an accomplished counterfeiter.

        • Jim Jones

          > It takes a special kind of ignorance to believe oral traditions can preserve information accurately, all the time.

          I come from a land where the natives had no written language and all history was memorization. As a result, I recognize bible myths as such and know why the bible contains long lists of ‘begats’.

    • We live in strange times. “A recent YouGov poll found that only around two-thirds of Americans aged between 18 and 24 believe that the Earth is round.”