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Richard Carrier Improbable Humiliores

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


12. Did No One Respect the Opinions of Uneducated Laymen?

James Holding argues that “Peter and John were dismissed based on their social standing,” citing Acts 4:13, which “reflects a much larger point of view among the ancients,” of hostility to “country bumpkins.” But this is simply a repeat of Holding’s argument regarding “the problem of having Jesus hail from Galilee and Nazareth,” which we already addressed in Chapter 2. It certainly helps explain Christianity’s failure to recruit many elites. But it has nothing to do with Christianity’s success among non-elites, who did not share the same snobbish attitudes, but quite the contrary: disgusted by elite snobbery of just this sort, those among the oppressed would be even more receptive to a hopeful movement begun and run by their own. That is what the Christian movement was all about:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, who has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, and sent me to mend the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and sight to the blind. (Septuagint text of Isaiah 61:1, quoted by Jesus in Luke 7:22)

This would have been obvious had Holding actually looked at the context of his own quotation from the Talmud. Regarding “people of the land” (“commoners”), the Pesachim (49a-b) says:

To marry the daughter of a commoner is a repulsive and unacceptable thing. Let him not marry the daughter of a commoner because they are detestable and their wives are vermin and of their daughters it is said “cursed be he that lieth with any manner of beast.”… We do not commit testimony to them; we do not accept testimony from them;[1] we do not reveal a secret to them; we do not appoint them as guardians for orphans; we do not appoint them stewards over charity funds; and we must not join their company on the road. Some say, “We do not proclaim their losses too.”

The Rabbis taught: “A man should sell all his possessions and marry the daughter of a scholar … to be assured that his sons will be scholars, but he should not marry a daughter of a commoner … or his children will be commoners.”… Rabbi Akiba recalled, “when I was a commoner I said, ‘If I could lay my hands on a scholar, I would maul him like an ass!'”… Rabbi Eliezer said: “If the commoners did not require us for their own welfare, they would kill us!” and Rabbi Hyya taught: “A man who occupies himself with the study of the Law in the presence of a commoner evokes as much hatred from him as if he had stolen his bride…. For the enmity of a commoner toward a scholar is even more intense than that of the heathens towards Israelites, and the hatred of their wives even greater than that!”

What is clear here is that the snobbery Holding refers to is not an attitude the commoners themselves had. The commoners did not despise themselves as vermin, regard marrying each other as repulsive and detestable, or refuse to accept each other’s testimony or walk together on the road. No, this was an attitude held by the Jewish elite, which was so snobbish, arrogant, and contrary to the Torah that it was widely despised by commoners. The passages above prove this, since Akiba reports what his own opinion was when he was a commoner: he wanted to kick the living hell out of these snobby bastardsuntil he became one. The hatred commoners had for the Jewish elite is even more amply attested above. It is doubtful that all elites were such jerks, or that commoners were all so bloodthirsty and irate. But even if they all were, that would tell us nothing about how the Christians were perceived by the commoners and middlemen they actually converted.

Holding’s only piece of evidence confirms the point: in Acts 4 it is not the people or any converts who were bothered by Peter and John being “illiterate laymen,”[2] but the enemies of the Churchthe Jewish elite (Acts 4:1-6; for the same reason, Holding’s citation of the Pharisaic snobbery of the Talmud is also irrelevant). Instead, “the people” stood by them and prevented any harm being done to them (Acts 4:21; so also 5:26, 14:4; in fact, according to Acts 5:13, “the people praised them”). Moreover, the Christians then diatribe against the wicked elite (Acts 4:24-31), and immediately Acts goes on to praise the exemplary anti-elitist lifestyle of the Christians that the people so admired (Acts 4:32-37). We have seen in several chapters already how this anti-elitism was Christianity’s greatest asset. Thus, it is significant that here Acts celebrates that, instead of reveling in the strength of any other evidence of the movement’s “truth.” For the only evidence referred to is this “great power” with which the apostles delivered their witness of the Resurrection (Acts 4:33), meaning their passionate conviction and continuing miracles, not evidence the Resurrection itself was truefor which all anyone really had was the apostles’ word.

Accordingly, as Acts 4 says, it is not evidence of the Resurrection the Jewish elite “could say nothing against” (even though Peter appealed to it: Acts 4:10), but only the fact that Peter and John could heal the sick (Acts 4:9, 4:14). And it is only that which their enemies consider “a famous miracle, obvious to everyone in Jerusalem,” which they therefore “cannot deny” (Acts 4:16); and it is only evidence of this that they seek to suppress (Acts 4:17-18). Evidence of the Resurrection is never a concern: the Jews do not say that was a famous miracle they could not deny, nor do they bother attempting to suppress any evidence of it (even Peter appeals only to his own healing miracles as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus: Acts 4:8-10). Thus, it was continuing miracles in the Church that was considered persuasive, not any actual evidence of Christ’s resurrection. We shall discuss this appeal to ongoing miracles in Chapter 13. It suffices for now to point out that since pagan gods could heal just as well as the Christian God could, the efficacy of Christian healing is not “irrefutable” evidence that Jesus Lives.[3]

Ultimately, Holding presents no evidence that the illiteracy or lay status of Christian missionaries “would have hindered their preaching” among those whom they actually evangelizedprimarily, other illiterate laymen, but even beyond that, always those outside (or marginalized within) the elite power structure (I have discussed this point in numerous chapters already, and shall again in Chapter 18). So when Holding claims “the Jews themselves had no trust in such people,” he is yet again engaging in hasty generalization: as we just saw, even his own evidence proves that “the Jews” by and large did trust such people (and often distrusted the educated elite). It was only the tiny minority of those in power (and who thus had a vested interest in defending that power against the growing popularity of lay missionaries) who didn’t approveand even then Holding’s evidence doesn’t say these elites didn’t trust Peter, only that they didn’t like what he was saying. And as Acts intimates repeatedly, they didn’t like it because by preaching it Peter was usurping elite authority. Which means it must have been a fact that a great many Jews trusted men like Peterafter all, that was the problem.


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[1] This cannot be a reference to qualification to provide legal testimony, since we have countless examples of commoners testifying in court (even Acts shows Peter being allowed to testify in court, yet Holding makes a point of Peter’s status as a commoner), and the lists of disqualified witnesses never include being a commoner. If not a mere hyperbole, the reference is probably to seeking a witness to one’s own faithfulness to the law, under the provision of Leviticus 5:1 (see Chapter 11). In other words, in applying the “oath of testimony” under this law, they would not deign to ask a commoner to vouch for them, nor would they deign to vouch for a commoner. It is thus not a declaration that commoners were not trusted so much as a declaration that it was unseemly to associate with them (as it was unseemly to appoint them to respectable positions in the community, marry their daughters, let them in on their secrets, or talk to them on the street).

       This is further confirmed by the fact that the actual word used in the Talmud here does not actually mean “commoner” in Holding’s sense, but anyone who held no regard for Pharisaic purity laws, and thus the term frequently included even the High Priest himself. As the Encyclopedia Judaica says (s.v. “‘Am Ha-arez,” vol. 2: pp. 833-36), the “commoners” here referred to “cannot be identified exclusively with the peasant, since townsmen and aristocrats were included among them” (vol. 2: p. 835).

[2] The word agrammatoi literally means “without letters,” i.e. unable to read or write, hence “illiterate” (and by extension “uneducated”); and idiôtai literally means “one who is by himself” and thus “private person,” and by extension any nonprofessional. Thus “commoner” and “layman” both capture the sense. It generally indicated someone who had no skill or trade, hence it could carry the derogatory sense of “bumpkin,” etc. It did not mean “ignorant” in a sweeping sense of stupid or clueless, but in a technical sense of lacking formal knowledge (Greek had 31 words meaning “ignorant” yet idiôtai was not one of them).

[3] I have also discussed this appeal to miracles in Chapter 7: see The Problem of Differing Research Paradigms & Arguing from the Miraculous.

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.

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