Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


16. Were Christian Teachings Too Radical for Anyone to Buy?

Holding then throws in a hodgepodge of miscellaneous difficulties we might categorize under the general argument that "Christian teachings were too radical to be popular." That may be true--after all, Christianity wasn't, in fact, popular. In its first century, its scale of success was so small it was barely even noticed--a point we shall make in Chapter 18. For now it is enough to note that the Christians themselves routinely admitted they were a small, oppressed, and misunderstood minority, even after a hundred years of earnest preaching and recruitment. Thus, there is no need to explain some universal "popularity" of Christianity, because there was no such thing. Rather, what requires explanation is the attraction of Christianity to those few who flocked to it despite the distrust or condemnation of their peers. And we have already answered different elements of this question in nearly every chapter so far (see Table of Contents).

Some of Holding's grab bag of objections are simply nonsense. For instance, "the theme of being 'born again' was a real shocker," Holding claims--indeed "preaching a 'new birth' would have been inconceivable!" This is a typical foot-in-mouth kind of statement from a man who makes no effort to actually study ancient culture and check his own assertions against the evidence. For in actual fact, far from being "inconceivable," rebirthing was an accepted symbol in pagan mystery religion--that is surely a major reason why the Christians adopted it. For example, Apuleius gives us a detailed account of the ceremony of initiation into the cult of Isis and Osiris, which was one of the most popular religions of the day: the initiation, he tells us, resembles a "voluntary death" (instar voluntariae mortis) after which one is "reborn" (renatus). After you are baptized, the day of initiation became a new "day of birth" and the priest who initiated you became your new father.[1] So much for all this being shocking and inconceivable. To the contrary, it was a popular idea!

Some of Holding's notions are dubious. For example, he argues that "for Jesus to say [the Temple] would be destroyed, and by pagans at that, would have been profoundly offensive to many Jews," yet it was Jews who predicted that very fate in their own sacred scripture: Daniel 9:26. Why would it be okay for the Prophet Daniel to predict this, but not the Prophet Jesus? Holding's argument makes no sense. What's worse, many scholars reject these statements as having been added after the Temple was destroyed, and thus not originally spoken by Jesus, which completely moots Holding's argument, even if we could make sense of it. Likewise, in some cases Christians saw this as having nothing to do with the actual Temple anyway (John 2:18-22), and regarded its literal interpretation as a slander and not what Jesus really meant (Mark 14:57-59). If that were so, then the remark could only be "offensive" to those who didn't inquire as to its meaning--but all converts surely would have, so it would present no barrier. One can debate all these issues, but the fact remains that they are not resolved to any sort of consensus among experts, and so no strong argument can be built on such a point.

Some of Holding's arguments are circular. He asks, for example, "Why did the early Christians make such a bold political stand part of their established belief system?" and finds the only answer to be, "They must have truly believed that Jesus was the Lord of this world, and that His resurrection from the dead proved it." Indeed! By definition all Christians believed Jesus was Lord because he was raised from the dead.[2] That's what it meant to be a "Christian." The fact that Christians believed this cannot be used as proof it was true. That's circular reasoning--for it begs the question whether their belief was justified, by any respectable modern standard. Perhaps Holding means that Christians couldn't have locked horns with their peers and authorities in such a bold culture war if they were merely "pretending" to believe. That's debatable (see note above). But we could concede the point happily--for even Holding must admit that many Muslims really believe martyrs gain paradise, that many Hindus really believe they will be reincarnated, and so on, yet their belief is false. Thus, Christians could certainly throw themselves pell-mell into a dangerous culture war because of a false belief. The issue is whether their belief was false, not whether it was sincere.

Holding also misrepresents the arguments of Malina & Rohrbaugh. For example, though he quotes them saying "departure from the family was something morally impossible in a society where the kinship unit was the focal social institution," he curiously fails to mention that they go on to explain how Christianity offered an even better family to be loyal to and thus fulfilled the expectations of their society--proclaiming to do so, in fact, better than existing social institutions:

The household or family provided the early Jesus-group members with one of their basic images of social identity and cohesion. It is important, therefore, to understand what family meant to ancient people. In the Mediterranean world of antiquity the extended family meant everything.... Loss of connection to the family meant the loss of ... vital [social] networks as well as any connection to the land. Loss of family was the most serious loss one could sustain.
        Yet a surrogate family, what anthropologists call a fictive kin group, could serve the same functions as a family of biological origin. Jesus groups, acting as surrogate families, are the locus of the good news for all the Gospel writers. It quickly transcended the normal categories of birth, social status, education, wealth, and power.... Followers of Jesus are "brothers." For those already detached from their families of origin (for example, noninheriting sons who go to the city), a surrogate family could become a place of genuine refuge.
        For the well-connected, particularly among the city elite, giving up one's family of origin for the surrogate Jesus-group family, as the Gospels portray Jesus demanding, was a decision that could cost one dearly.... It meant breaking ties not only with family but also the entire social network of which one had been a part. Yet, as Jesus promises in Mark 10:30, the rewards could be unimaginably great: "a hundredfold now in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life." [3]

This is exactly what I have argued throughout my critique: Christianity was rarely appealing to the well-connected elite, but was often appealing to many lower down the ladder whose social circumstances were unsatisfying--like "noninheriting sons" and those who migrate to cities in search of a better life--and these people, Malina says, would find joining the Christian family to be quite attractive, not "impossible" as Holding misrepresents him as arguing.

Of course, in actual practice, Christians rarely asked people to depart from their families anyway, and often sought to recruit heads of household first so the rest of the family would follow (see Chapter 6, Chapter 10.2, and Chapter 18.4). Indeed, on every point Holding quotes them on, Malina & Rohrbaugh say much more than he lets on. They do not agree with Holding at all that these radical ideas (which were not unique to Christianity--similar proposals were advanced by various sects and philosophical schools) could not have won converts without "irrefutable" empirical evidence. To the contrary, Malina & Rohrbaugh's message, throughout all their commentaries, is that Christianity found a following because its progressive moral vision was actually appealing--it purported (and in many cases genuinely appeared) to solve real social problems. Holding will search Malina & Rohrbaugh in vain for any argument that evidence was a factor in Christianity's actual success. But they do remark in one way or another on the attractiveness of the Christian moral message as the real key to its success (as in the quote above), at least among those groups who were desperately eager for some solution to the failures of their own social institutions.

And this one-sided use of Malina & Rohrbaugh exposes the most pervasive error Holding makes: most of his observations miss the entire point of a culture war in the first place. For example, Holding argues that the "teachings and attitudes of Jesus and early Christianity" were "contrary to what was accepted as normal in the first century," but that isn't exactly true--ancient society was highly cosmopolitan, with numerous different cultures and value systems intermingling and living together. One man's "normal" was another man's anathema. Accordingly, in many ways Christianity gained an audience because it opposed certain values among the elite that were often despised by outsiders as producing a dysfunctional, unjust society. Obviously the elite didn't think so, which is why almost none of them joined up. Yet in other respects, Christianity actually appealed to popular values, religious beliefs, and cultural symbols and expectations--it was deliberately sold as their truest realization, against the corruption and failure of other religious sects. Both tactics are proven winners in the game of cultural warfare. So there should be no surprise that Christianity won many adherents.

Holding doesn't seem to grasp the multiculturalism of antiquity, or the nuances of just what the Christians were actually arguing. "Think of how people react when someone burns Old Glory," he asks, offering this as an example of radical behavior that breeds cultural outrage. But somehow he manages to forget the fact that there are a lot of people who don't care whether someone burns the flag (in fact, most people don't), and still a lot who see it as symbolically appropriate, and even many who actually cheer the flames. That is why the flag is burned. Thus Holding is engaging in yet another hasty generalization, pretending everyone was exactly alike in their values and beliefs, when in fact the Roman world, just like modern America, was awash with battles between numerous conflicting cultural values. And even then, most of the ancient culture war, again just like today, wasn't really a clash of different values, but a clash of different perceptions of whether those values were actually being realized. Most flag burners in the United States are patriots: they burn the flag to protest the fact that the present government is not living up to the very values it professes to serve. The same holds for any contemporary issue you care to mention--whether it's war, capital punishment, abortion, school prayer--in every case, there really isn't a difference in values, for both sides profess to value compassion, liberty, freedom from oppression, and equality before the law. Rather, there is only a difference in perception: one side says the other's behavior violates their own values--of compassion, liberty, freedom from oppression, or equality before the law. So it was in antiquity: Jesus and the early Christians believed and preached that their apparently "radical" behavior and teachings were actually a fulfillment of the ordinary and beloved values of the wider society, and that what others in that society thought was fulfilling those values was actually trampling and destroying them. It was a debate. Some cried poppycock. Some rubbed their chins and nodded. Some cheered. Christians recruited from the cheering section.

So, for example, it is certainly true the Christian movement was an attempt to supplant the Jewish Temple cult, as Holding details. Indeed, the Christians were not shy about this: their language on the matter was explicit. It was, in fact, their primary message. Many other Jewish sects also attempted exactly this--the Samaritans, for example, as well as the community at Qumran. But that was because the Temple cult, and the system it entailed, was seen by many as a major cause of society's problems. I elaborate on this point elsewhere.[4] Here it is enough to cite the fact that the Temple cult was perceived by many as commercialized and hypocritical, and it had become a focal point of violence. Thus it was a major social problem. So to get rid of it was often seen as a viable solution--to those who were locked outside of the system that controlled it. Insiders--like the Pharisees and Judaean Rabbis--were appalled, of course. But that's a typical elite response to popular unrest. Citing how shocked the elite were tells us nothing of how the discontented masses felt about the matter.

And that's really the most important point here. Holding can certainly claim that Christian teachings "would have shocked most" listeners, but that only serves to explain the actual fact that "most listeners" didn't become Christians. Even by the middle of the 3rd century A.D., after 200 years of vigorous missionary activity establishing hundreds of churches throughout the Roman Empire, the Church comprised less than 1% of the Empire's population (see Chapter 18), which means even then (much less in its first hundred years) 99 out of 100 people (and that is certainly "most") rejected the Christian message. The few who accepted it did so because they approved of its anti-elitist message in all the ways I have already explored in previous chapters. Flag burners in the United States serve as a perfect parallel: their numbers and motivations are largely the same--a tiny minority who believe the larger society has failed to live up to its own values. Ultimately, Holding cannot offer the fact that "by far most" rejected Christianity as evidence that Christianity had "irrefutable proof" that Jesus rose from the dead! Nor can he claim that the tiny minority who were persuaded converted only because the proof of this was irrefutable--for there were numerous other motives available, and as we have seen in several past chapters, the evidence shows those other motives were operating, fully explaining the actual scale of Christianity's success.


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[1] Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.21-25. Apart from the language just quoted, he describes the ritual in such terms: "I approached the border of death, and once the threshold of Proserpina was crossed, I was conveyed through all the elements, and came back" (ibid. 11.23). Proserpina is the Goddess of the Underworld, and as such is a personification of the Land of the Dead). All this is again called a "rebirth" in 11.16.

[2] Or maybe--as Malina & Neyrey explain--not all Christians would necessarily have to really believe this in order to find the movement worth every sacrifice. They could merely profess to believe it in order to support and promote its superior cultural agenda. See Chapter 10.

[3] Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (2003): p. 414 ("Surrogate Family") (emphasis added).

[4] Richard Carrier, "Whence Christianity? A Meta-Theory for the Origins of Christianity," Journal of Higher Criticism 11.1 (Spring 2004).

Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.