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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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Thursday, March 13, 2003

Skepticism and gullibilty in the ancient world

Just one more modern myth.

The assertion is often made by critics of the historicity of the Gospels that the people of the first century AD, like all people in the ancient world, were as a matter of course and of "fact" "particularly gullible and believed plenty of things that we would now consider strange." To the skeptical question "Would a dying-godman be any more different than believing in their pantheon of Gods?" the actual answer in the also skeptical Greco-Roman world in which the early Christians found themselves is a resounding "Yes".

The evidence that skepticism was alive and well among those who witnessed the actual miracles of Jesus, whether they be his opponents among the religious and political elites, the ordinary people, or the disciples themselves is found throughout the gospels. The most notable skeptic is “Doubting” Thomas, but he is only one in a long line of people who had trouble coming to grips with who Jesus was and what he did. At one time or another all the disciples were awed and amazed at the things Jesus did and had trouble accepting them. Many of Jesus’ followers on encountering him after his resurrection were still skeptical. Matthew records that even in his presence and knowing who he was supposed to be, still "some doubted" (Matt. 28:17). Note also how the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as well as Mary Magdalene at the tomb were so disinclined toward believing that such a miracle had occurred they that they did not even recognize Jesus when they saw him - a classic case of psychological disassociation.

The kind of systematised miltant, dogmatic, debunking skepticism - aligned with a fervent scientism - that particularly affects and obsesses a certain class of modern males, had to wait until the Enlightenment to become enshrined as the philosophical position of Metaphysical Naturalism. No matter how fervently it is defended, no matter how much it appeals to science for validation, now matter how successful it is at explaining the world, it is nevertheless still a metaphysical position like all others, based upon non-scientific, untestable assumptions and presuppositions. On the other hand, the phenomenon of skepticism itself is not some modern “scientific” discovery or invention, it is as old as Man himself, as old as the story of Eden...

The inference that peoples of ancient times were more gullible than modern people is a piece of chronological snobbery, a manifestation of historical ignorance which imagines that people who lived before our enlightened, modern age were, in general, never critically minded and were much more easily fooled than we would be into accepting tales of miracles. It is seriously mistaken. A person living in ancient Rome or Palestine knew just as well as any modern man or woman what is the difference between the normal, natural course of regular events and rare and unusual events. This is not just rhetoric, it is the view of a many scholars - historians, philosophers, etc.

For example:

‘No matter how events such as a parting of the sea or a resurrection are described, whether as "wonders" or as "miracles," it is clear that they were understood in Biblical times, as well as in contemporary times, to be in some remarkable sense "contrary to the normal course of nature." People living at the time of Moses or Christ knew just as well as we do that seas do not "normally" part and that people are not, in the normal course of nature, resurrected. What is required for a notion of the miraculous is not some sophisticated notion of what a law of nature is, but just a strong sense of what constitutes the normal, natural course of events. And this is something the ancients had just as much as those living in a scientific age have.’ Michael Levine, "Miracles", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

"In antiquity miracles were not accepted without question. Graeco-Roman writers were often reluctant to ascribe miraculous events to the gods, and offered alternative explanations. Some writers were openly skeptical about miracles (e.g. Epicurus; Lucretius; Lucian). So it is a mistake to write off the miracles of Jesus as the result of the naivety and gullibility of people in the ancient world."
Graham Stanton. The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford 2002 p235

"This period [Hellenistic] may well have been the least superstitious period of antiquity…

… Our brief outline of this development may have done something to correct the widespread picture of an ancient belief in the miraculous which has no history. What we have found here is not a rampant jungle of ancient credulity with regard to miracles, but a process of historical transformation in which forms and patterns of belief in the miraculous succeed one another. If we accept this picture, we must firmly reject assertions that primitive Christian belief in the miraculous represented nothing unusual in the context of its period."

Gerd Theissen, Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, T&T Clark: 1983 p269. 276

By the first century AD, Greco-Roman religion had developed far beyond the fanciful anthropomorphic myths of Homer’s day (ca. 750 BC) about 12 gods with human characteristics living on Mt Olympus. Even Plato in the fourth century BC had objected to the lack of positive moral values in those tales, which featured petulant gods and goddesses seducing mortals, deceiving one another, and behaving like children when they were offended by mankind. Few educated people took the old Olympian religion seriously by Plato’s period, and open skepticism prevailed among the upper classes by Roman times. Plutarch could advise his readers “not to believe that any of these stories actually happened” (Isis and Osiris 355b).

…Among the populace at large, belief in the old gods seems to have lingered into the last few centuries before Christ, although mixed with elements of magic, ruler cult, consciousness of the individual, and the syncretism of philosophy and religion which characterized the Hellenistic period…For most people…the worship of the Olympians was merely the official state cult, and conformity to it served as a test of an individual’s patriotism.”

Albert A. Bell, Exploring the New Testament World, Thomas Nelson, 1998 pp 125-126

"The self-conscious use by poets of a literary device known as 'the impossible' (adynaton) depends for its effect on widely held canons of the possible and the impossible, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Some such canons are implicit in the works, current in the Greco-Roman period, consisting simply of accounts of extraordinary phenomena. Labeled paradoxography by modern scholars…Aulus Gellius [mid 2nd century AD] characterizes the phenomena reports as 'unheard of' and 'incredible,' contained in books 'full of marvels and fictions.'"
Harold Remus. Pagan-Christian conflict over miracle in the second century. Patristic: 1983. p7

"It is in this light that we must judge the accounts we possess of other miracle-workers in Jesus' period and culture. We have already observed that the list of such occurrences is very much shorter than is often supposed. If we take the period of four hundred years stretching from two hundred years before to two hundred years after the birth of Christ, the number of miracles recorded which are remotely comparable with those of Jesus is astonishingly small. On the pagan side, there is little to report apart from the records of cures at healing shrines, which were certainly quite frequent, but are a rather different phenomenon from cures performed by an individual healer. Indeed it is significant that later Christian fathers, when seeking miracle workers with whom to compare or contrast Jesus, had to have recourse to remote and by now almost legendary figures of the past such as Pythagoras or Empedocles”
A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History, Duckworth: 1982 p103

"The rituals we studied [exorcism, love rites, alchemy, and deification] all point to the importance of the first three centuries [AD]. Ideas which only appeared in embryonic form before the turn of the millennium undergo tremendous development by the beginning of the fourth century [AD]".
Naomi Janowitz. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians. Routledge:2001.

"We must remind ourselves, of course, of the spectrum of temperament and the degrees of exposure to a diversity of ideas, already emphasized. It was not a world in which absolutely everyone trembled on the edge of believing absolutely anything."
Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400, Yale:1984. p17

“The philosophers’ opinions of the gods are littler more than the ravings of madmen. No less absurd are the spoutings of the poets, which are insidious because of their charm. The poets depict the gods as inflamed by anger and raging with lust, and have crafted, for us to see, their wars, battles, and wounds, as well as their hatreds, their feuds, their quarrels, their mourning, their licence, their adultery, their bondage, their couplings with humans, and the mortals born from immortals - all poured out in utter lack of restraint. With these mistakes of the poets can be linked the monstrosities of the Magi and the demented myths of the Egyptians, as well as the opinions of the crowd, which are a mass of inconsistencies based on ignorance.”
Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods 1:16

Greg Banshen sums up the actual situation well:
“When the gospel of the resurrected Savior was taken out into the ancient world, there was then - even as now - a general antagonism to the credibility of such claims. Paul proclaimed the resurrection of Christ before the Council of Areopagus in Athens, but the Greek poet Aeschylus many years before had related, in the story of the very founding of the Areopagus, that it was there declared that once a man has died "there is no resurrection." The ancient world knew its share of skepticism and denunciation of miracles. Luke writes that when Paul's address to the Areopagus brought him to the claim about Christ's resurrection, his audience could hardly be characterized by general gullibility and a predisposed willingness to affirm the miracle! Instead: "now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked," and others more politely put Paul off to another time (Acts 17:32). Ridicule of miracles did not begin in the modern world of enlightened science.

Just like our own culture today, the ancient world was an intellectually mixed-bag. Like us, it had its share of superstitious and mystically minded people; as we do, it had people whose thinking was ignorant, misinformed, lazy, stupid, illogical and silly. But also like our own age, the ancient world had plenty of people who were skeptical and cynical. (Indeed, those were even the names for two prominent schools of ancient Greek philosophy in the period of the New Testament!) Plenty of people in the ancient world were critically minded about reports of natural wonders and magical powers. Many not only doubted claims to miracles and found them incredible, but even precluded the very possibility that such things could occur.”

Greg Bahnsen, The Problem Of Miracles .

An excellent and thorough discussion and refutation of the canard about gullibility in the ancient world is available at Glenn Miller’s website.

4:44:00 pm