Sunday, November 13, 2011

Were 1st Century Christians Smarter than Everyone Else?

I sometimes run across Christian apologists who deride skeptics for thinking that the supernatural stories in the New Testament were the product of ignorant and superstitious people.  They argue that it is elitist or condescending to suppose that 1st century Jews and pagans were incapable of understanding the events they observed and reporting them accurately.  The modern skeptic is simply being arrogant.

My response to this argument is that I am not skeptical because I think that 1st century Jews and pagans were any more naive or gullible than modern thinkers.  I am skeptical because I don't think that they were any less naive or gullible.  I think that 1st century Christians were probably just as credulous as the 19th century Mormons who were taken in by Joseph Smith's tales of golden plates and magic seer stones.  I think that they were probably just as credulous as 20th century Scientologists who were taken in by L. Ron Hubbard's fantasies.  People have always wanted to believe that their lives have some transcendent meaning and there have always been people willing to accept the most fantastic stories without any evidence whatsoever in the hopes of finding that meaning.

Many of the arguments that Christian apologists make seem to rest on the rather bizarre notion that 1st century Christians were somehow unique among all people throughout recorded history in that they were impervious to supernatural tales where those tales were not supported by convincing empirical proof.  Unlike people at all other times and places, they wouldn't have passed along such stories without carefully determining all the facts and they wouldn't have exaggerated the stories and added details as they retold them.  Moreover, unlike all other people, they would have promptly abandoned their religious beliefs if challenged with contrary evidence.


  1. "First century Christian," is a false premise. Oxford scholar James Parkes in "The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue," confirms for the Christian side that there was no such thing as Christianity, the man-g-d concept, for many years after the death of Ribi Yehoshua and that the students of the human Ribi Yehoshua (the Torah observant Jewish leader) were also Torah observant themselves. Ever wonder why Christianity seems so much like the idolatry of Egypt, Rome, and Greece to name just a few?

  2. I don't think that "first century Christian" actually is a premise in what I had to say.

  3. The sceptics who read Paul's account of 500 eyewitness were those good sceptics, who would not just have accepted what was in a letter, but would have wanted independent verification.

    Not like those bad hypersceptics of today who do not just accept what was written in a letter but want independent verification.

  4. Steven,

    Maybe they were good Christians who knew that they would be more blessed if they believed without seeing the proof.

  5. I have engaged in the following format on more than one occasion:

    Christian: Great story about Christian faith!
    Me: Err…have you looked it up on Not true.
    Christian: Well, it might have been true. Besides, I don’t care—I think it makes a valid point whether it is true or not.

    As you so accurately stated: It is not they were less skeptical; they were just as skeptical. I.e., not very much.

    Amazing with the technology and research tools available today, most people won’t even take the few seconds to google a quote, or wikipedia a topic—the very, very bare minimum. Yet we think some first century Corinthian would travel to Jerusalem and interview a coupla million people about what happened 20 years earlier with the keen eye of an investigative reporter.

  6. I suspect the apologists that use that argument are simply unaware of the usual ways of secular history and its methods, and in many cases they were persuaded by another apologist's "Scholars agree on X, Y and Z" argument. You must remember that any "Scholars agree on...." argument is FAR easier said than checked.

    Confirmation bias is also significant here.

  7. Although Richard Carrier's "Kook's and Quack's in the First Century" does make a pretty good case for gullibility during the 1st century.

    But, like you say, there are many people today who believe in the same Stone Age nuttiness that was readily accepted by the ancients!

  8. TOF,

    I think the argument works from either direction. If they were more gullible or as gullible, there is no reason to trust their supernatural stories. Only if it could be shown that the were significantly less gullible does the apologetic argument work.