It was a bright fall day. I walked into a history classroom on the very first day of my junior year of college. The class was about the end of the Roman Empire and beginning of the Dark Ages. I’d had this professor before today and liked her style of teaching, but knew next to nothing about this era except what I’d read in the Bible and heard from preachers. I’m not kidding. I did know a lot of mythology (my mom had had a copy of Bullfinch’s which I’d devoured as a young child), but I knew mythology wasn’t history. I know, I know: the irony!
The class was chock-full of Classics Studies majors. I don’t know what these folks look like at other colleges, but at mine, they were almost all young men looking to go into the ministry (and just a tiny sprinkling of women, at least one of whom by her own admission was there purely to find a minister husband before he launched into a pastoral position, at which point she’d have to compete with a slew of hot, slender church girls). I think this class was required for their major. And then there was me: the Pentecostal newlywed just hoping to find some evidence for all the stuff she’d been hearing in church. I’d labored for many years by now in the mistaken belief that all this stuff I’d heard from my preachers, Bible study teachers, and apologetics books had some basis in reality, but I just didn’t know what it was specifically yet. Well, I was here now ready to learn what it specifically was.
As Opus said in Bloom County, “You wanna yell ‘TIMBERRR’? Or shall I?”
The professor came in, a smiling woman with dyed red hair and an open demeanor. She handed out syllabus sheets and discussed what books we’d need, pausing to let us absorb the sticker shock of the cost and number of these, and then said something that blew my mind.
“I notice we have a lot of Classics majors in here, and it’s not hard to imagine that we have a lot of people in here who believe a particular religion’s mythology. We’re not going to get into religious discussions in this class. I’ll shut down any theological arguments. We’re going to talk about actual history, history that we’ve shown to be true, history with evidence backing it up, and not mythology. All right? Can we all agree to do that, please?”
Everyone, including the Classics majors, nodded uncomfortably. I remember being shocked at how matter-of-fact she seemed. She was clearly talking about Christianity in the context of its being mythology. I had no idea what to think. Christianity wasn’t a mythos. It was real, or at least I thought so at the time.
This class was a very challenging one for me. I remember at points being frustrated and scandalized when she talked about the cult of a sun god existing around the time of Jesus’ “supposed” lifetime; the things she was saying about this cult sounded very uncomfortably close to Christianity (when one of the Classics majors pointed that out, she replied with a thin smile, “Why yes, it does, doesn’t it?” and moved on without a single further comment). She talked about a lot of other topics like this cult, and I so badly wanted to argue about it and give talking points gleaned from apologetics books and Bible verses, except for one thing:
I had never even heard about all these religions that sounded just like Christianity. I’d never heard about how popular the risen-man-god-wizard idea was at the time of Jesus, how many half-divine wizards there were running around that part of the world in that time, or anything about mystery religions at that point. I didn’t know that Christianity was just one of many, many religions just like it, that it was unique mostly because it took Judaism and added some pagan touches and then whizzed it in a theological blender with a jigger of mystery. I didn’t realize how strikingly similar Jesus was to earlier mythic heroes like Odysseus, either, or how many aspects of his biography as presented in the Gospels were purely impossible.
Nor had I ever heard of just how historians know stuff is true. I thought it was kind of a consensus; once I found out how historians decide what happened when, it wasn’t hard to put together some uncomfortable truths about just how Christianity had evolved. In short, I learned how historians know what is and isn’t true, how they work from objective facts forward to a theory and not backwards from a theory to shoehorn any half-plausible thing they can into it, and I learned what forms of evidence I could trust and which ones I could not. Guess what category the Bible fell into?
When one of these bright-eyed Classics majors spoke up to argue about some obscure Christian bit of history, my professor effortlessly demolished them. She wasn’t mean about it, either. For all I know she was herself a Christian, but I never found out one way or the other because she studiously and explicitly refused to answer questions about her own religious leanings. Even so, she knew all their arguments, and more importantly she knew how those arguments failed. She cited studies and research; she quoted primary-source documents; she gently but inexorably drove home the point that the Bible’s account of early Christian history was nothing more than an imitation of other mystery cults’ ideas at best, and biased, untrustworthy propaganda at worst. It was humiliating to watch long-cherished illusions get so easily and thoroughly destroyed, with as much effort as she might have used to brush a lock of hair from her eyes.
The worst was yet to come, though. As part of the course, I had to read a number of primary sources (the term means roughly “stuff written at the time by people who saw the events they’re describing”–like a diary entry written by a girl who’d just attended a Richard Nixon campaign speech versus a survey of Nixon’s presidency written 50 years after the fact), and of course early Church history figured in here prominently. I found out just how uninspired the Council of Nicea really was. I found out how the papacy had arisen and how tightly it was entwined with temporal government; I heard about how early Popes and Church Fathers were totally cool with lying-for-Jesus; I learned how Christianity blatantly stole pagan holidays, re-purposed pagan shrines, and dressed up pagan saints as Christian ones to snag converts; I saw for myself that the stories of early persecutions and martyrs had no basis in evidence at all. I learned how ancient manuscripts changed over time and how we could actually see the evolution of now-canonical documents like the Bible. Not only was the Bible untrustworthy as a history of anything or a biography of anybody, but most of what most Christians think of as “Christianity” was cobbled together out of scare tactics, political expediency, and lies.*
The dichotomy in my mind between my faith and reality began to get a lot more uncomfortable. In the end, though, I decided that my faith didn’t need evidence. Why did I get so excited about evidence when I was supposed to walk by faith anyway? But what if there not only wasn’t evidence for Christianity, but evidence against it? How was I supposed to reconcile my faith with contradictory evidence like what I’d seen?
The doublespeak my Christian friends used after every class to try to reconcile belief with reality staggered me worse than the information I’d learned. “Jesus’ existence is more plausible than that of Julius Caesar!” (No, it isn’t, and besides, nobody’s saying “believe in Caesar or you’ll go to hell forever.” Nor are there loads of contradictory facts disputing Caesar’s existence.) “But Josephus!” (No, he wrote decades after Jesus’ supposed death and even his “testimony” is widely disputed today as a probable later insertion–and it doesn’t actually mention anything about Jesus beyond a throwaway line about what early Christians said.) “But we have Bibles written closer to the time of Jesus than the Odyssey to the time of Homer!” (So what? We have copies of “Harry Potter” fanfic written closer to the time of J.K. Rowling than we do of the Bible to Jesus–are we to assume that means Hogwarts is real?) It would have been better if they’d just left it alone, in retrospect; the hoops they leaped through to contort it all into making sense again wearied and saddened me. Years later I’d see creationism get popular and see the same sort of contortions.
The crazy thing is, the really bad part about all this doublespeak is this: it doesn’t matter if Jesus was a real person or not or if the early Christians were really persecuted or not, just as it doesn’t matter today if Genesis literally happened. It doesn’t matter at all. And it shouldn’t. With a primitive’s stubbornness I saw that clearly, but my friends had to have a historical Jesus and a historical New Testament for Christianity to make sense to them, just as creationists must have, must must must have, a literal Genesis for their religion to be valid. But just as creationism believers often struggle with Christianity itself when they learn the truth that’s been hidden from them, I was struggling with Christianity when I learned how untrustworthy the Bible is and how unlikely it is that Jesus existed. (I’ll be talking about the topic of his historicity at some point soon; it’s a big topic to unpack so I don’t really want to get into it much here now.)
Somehow I muddled through the class intact. It is easy to understand why seminary students must sign statements affirming their strong faith in the Christian god before being allowed to attend and learn actual facts about Christianity and the Bible. Even with rock-solid faith and true-blue belief, I trailed out of that classroom a very different creature from the bright-eyed girl who’d entered it. I was still Christian, still loved Jesus, but had some serious trouble with how he’d been packaged and presented to me as a believer. I was ready to see how other people saw things and to entertain other ways of worshiping and following Jesus. But one thing I could no longer do was trust that the Bible was in any way the accurate history of a deity’s interaction with humankind or an accurate record of that deity’s demands of and promises to us.
But surely I could still rely on God’s presence in my life and the power of prayer. Right? I still had that, at least. Right?
….Yeah, about that….
* Don’t feel compelled to take my word for anything. Here are a few sources:
How Historians Work. (Lessons for Historical Jesus Scholars)
Jesus Never Existed. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Why I Became an Atheist by John Loftus (book)
Excavating the Empty Tomb (YouTube series)