Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Supposed Gullibility of Ancient People

Critics of Christianity often suggest that we can't have much confidence in the claims of the early Christians or ancient sources in general, since they were so ignorant and undiscerning. Online skeptics use this sort of argumentation a lot. Richard Carrier, for example, has made some use of it. (See Glenn Miller's response and J.P. Holding's.) The argument is so common that J.P. Holding has referred to a general skeptical principle of APAS (Ancient People Are Stupid).

Of course, different critics will use this argument to differing degrees. Some will only use it to a relatively small extent, reminding us that many undiscerning people lived in the past and that past generations didn't know some things that we know today and didn't have some of the advantages we have. If the argument is only carried that far, it's reasonable, but many critics carry it much further. Some critics will even go so far as to suggest that hundreds of miracles could be reported in the New Testament, even by alleged eyewitnesses, with little or no investigation of the claims attempted by Christians or their opponents.

This suggestion that there was little or no concern for evidence in the ancient world not only runs contrary to modern human experience, but also runs contrary to some widespread themes we see throughout the Bible. What is prophecy, for example, if not a form of verifiable evidence (Isaiah 44:6-8)? The concept of apostleship involves the value of eyewitness testimony (Acts 1:22, 1 Corinthians 9:1), and the New Testament authors repeatedly emphasize the significance of the testimony of eyewitnesses (Hebrews 2:3, 2 Peter 1:16, 1 John 1:1).

We also ought to ask how much relevance this issue of gullibility has. A highly gullible person might accept a third-hand report that he shouldn't have accepted, but how much discernment is needed to know whether you saw a man walking on water or spoke with a man who had risen from the dead? Some of the claims about gullibility among the early Christians go beyond general gullibility. They would require a high degree of delusion, even the occurrence of multiple hallucinations or other psychological disorders, sometimes among large groups of people.

Ignorance, misinformation, and undiscerning people can be found in any age. In our age of science, technology, and medicine, billions of people believe in reincarnation, worship animals, trust horoscopes, and vote for Bill Clinton. Should future generations conclude that they can't have much confidence in twenty-first century sources? Should they conclude that they can't know much about the twenty-first century world? If Nancy Reagan consults astrology, should we therefore reject anything she says about conversations she had with Ronald Reagan? Should historians writing about Ronald Reagan ignore his wife's testimony on all subjects because of her lack of discernment on one subject? If an intelligence agency is wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, should we therefore not believe anything else from that source? Since there are so many false claims made in so many places in the modern world, such as on the web and by corrupt governments, should we conclude that nobody can arrive at much confidence in their conclusions about twenty-first century events?

Ancient methods of recording information and sorting through truth claims weren't as advanced as ours. And our methods today aren't as advanced as what will exist in future generations. Ancients did have some advantages over us, though. Many of them probably had better memory skills, given the oral nature of their culture, for example. But we're better off overall. The question is whether the ancient sources are sufficiently reliable, not whether they're as reliable as later generations.

The ancient Christians were aware of concepts such as naturalistic explanations of alleged miracles (Matthew 28:13), the significance of careful investigation (Luke 1:3), eyewitness testimony (2 Peter 1:16), distinguishing between the quality of different miracle claims (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2:31:2), comparing manuscripts (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:30:1), and corroboration from hostile sources (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:51). Early critics of Christianity, such as Galen and Celsus, criticized Christians for being ignorant and undiscerning, but they also acknowledged that other Christians were more knowledgeable and more discerning. Similarly, though Christians are often accused of being ignorant and undiscerning today, and sometimes rightly so, there are many Christians who are more reasonable. There was a lot of ignorance, misinformation, and lack of discernment among the ancient Christians, but there also was a lot of knowledge, truth, and discernment among them.

The historian Robert Wilken writes:

"Once it is recognized that what Galen says of the Christians could just as well be said of other schools, it must also be said that Christians had already developed a reputation among the Greeks and Romans for appealing to faith. Celsus, another critic of Christianity whom we will consider in the next chapter, complained that Christians sought out uneducated and gullible people because they were unable to give reasons or arguments for their beliefs. They asked people to accept what they said solely on faith (c. Cels. 1.9). What Galen and Celsus said about the Christian movement no doubt fitted the kind of Christianity that most people met with in the cities of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, precisely at the time that Galen and Celsus were writing against Christian fideism a number of Christian thinkers had begun to revise and correct this view of Christianity. Among the defenders of the reasonableness of the Christian tradition were such early Christian apologists as Justin Martyr and Athenagoras...Though Celsus might make rhetorical points against Christian reliance on faith instead of reason, his more serious arguments assume that Christian thinkers wished to be judged by the same standards as others....The question of the mythological and legendary character of the Gospels did not first arise in modern times. The historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus' life was already an issue for Christian thinkers in the second century....What Porphyry wrote about Daniel [dating it to the second century B.C.] was so revolutionary, and so disturbing to Christian interpreters, that his critics sought to refute him in detail and at length....Pagan critics realized that the Christian claims about Jesus could not be based simply on the unexamined statements of Christians...The question of faith and history, so much a part of modern theological discourse since the Enlightenment, was also a significant part of the debate between pagans and Christians in the ancient world....Christians and pagans met each other on the same turf. No one can read Celsus's True Doctrine and Origen's Contra Celsum and come away with the impression that Celsus, a pagan philosopher, appealed to reason and argument, whereas Origen based his case on faith and authority....Pagan critics realized that the claims of the new movement [Christianity] rested upon a credible historical portrait of Jesus. Christian theologians in the early church, in contrast to medieval thinkers who began their investigations on the basis of what they received from authoritative tradition, were forced to defend the historical claims they made about the person of Jesus. What was said about Jesus could not be based solely on the memory of the Christian community or its own self-understanding....When one observes how much Christians shared with their critics, and how much they learned from them, it is tempting to say that Hellenism laid out the path for Christian thinkers. In fact, one might convincingly argue the reverse. Christianity set a new agenda for philosophers. The distinctive traits of the new religion and the tenacity of Christian apologists in defending their faith opened up new horizons for Greco-Roman culture and breathed new life into the spiritual and intellectual traditions of the ancient world." (The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], pp. 77-78, 101, 112, 138, 147, 200-201, 203, 205)