Why I Don’t Believe: A History Mystery

Why I Don’t Believe: A History Mystery September 29, 2010

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.

Why I Don’t Believe” will continue running every day this week.

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