Historical Myths Concerning Christianity — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

The historical record has more than its fair share of falsehoods. One of the most famous—and pernicious—is the tale about George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, later confessing to the deed by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” Another is the infamous Piltdown Man hoax, in which amateur geologist Charles Dawson claimed to discover fragments of bone belonging to the missing link between apes and early humans. Initially presented in 1910-1912, it took decades for scientists to detect the ruse.

Many people may be surprised to discover that many other events of history never happened. The Salem Witch trials never sentenced anyone to be burned at the stake. No apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head. Rats probably never spread the Black Plague. Pocahontas never had a love affair with John Smith.

We will examine three of the more egregious claims made to undermine Christianity. Each one can be found at virtually every level of education, from the relatively uninformed critic to the militant atheist to even professional historians and theologians in the ivory tower of academia.

The Bible is Anti-Semitic

Anti-Semitism was nothing new at the time of Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. For centuries, Europeans had accused Jews of being responsible for the death of Christ as well as “blood libel” (the belief that they used the blood of Christian children in religious rituals).  The Nazis seized upon this and began to blame Jews for the problems Germany faced. In Mein Kampf, Hitler called this “the big lie,” claiming that “colossal untruths” would work because people “would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” 1

Critics frequently use Nazi Germany against Christianity. Militant atheist Sam Harris, who is himself Jewish, claims that anti-Semitism is “intrinsic to both Christianity and Islam,” and as “integral to church doctrine as the flying buttress is to a Gothic Cathedral.”2 Further, the Nazi hatred of Jews was “a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity.”3 Many other modern writers make similar claims, arguing that anti-Semitism was a product of the early church and quickly became an integral part of the Christian faith.

Numerous ancient writers expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in their writings. Such esteemed Romans as Seneca, Cicero, Tacitus were guilty of holding such views. Greeks such as Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Apion expressed similar anti-Jewish sentiments. Roman emperors bore even more guilt. Claudius expelled Jews from the city of Rome around AD 49 (cf. Acts 18:2). Vespasian passed a tax on Jews throughout the Empire in AD 70. Domitian executed several people—including his cousin—in AD 95 for adopting Jewish ways. As is evident from the historical record, anti-Semitism did not originate in the church. But did the church hold similar views as the surrounding culture?

Critics often read passages in the Gospels as containing anti-Semitic sentiments. These include the Jewish populace taking responsibility for Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:25), statements that the Jews persecuted Jesus and attempted to kill him (John 5:16-18), and Jesus labeling Jerusalem as a city that killed the prophets (Mathew 23:37). We could cite many others, many coming from John’s Gospel in particular. In many of these cases, statements made by the biblical writers use the phrase “the Jews” as a kind of shorthand to refer to the Jewish religious leadership. As virtually all of the biblical authors were themselves Jews, it makes it almost impossible to imagine that the early church assembled such a collection of self-loathing Jewish writers to compose the New Testament documents and criticize their fellow countrymen.

The Dark Ages

One of the most obscene myths of history concerns the existence of the so-called “Dark Ages,” in which the Roman Catholic Church supposedly dominated Europe and suppressed scholarship and scientific advancement. Not only are the Dark Ages a total fiction, but this was also a time of unprecedented technological progress.

French historian Jean Gimpel identified this period of European history as one of innovation and progress that employed technology “on a scale no civilization had previously known.”4 Far from being a benighted period of barbarism, superstition, and decay, the Middle Ages witnessed numerous developments such as the heavy plow, chimneys, eyeglasses, the stirrup, and the proliferation of watermills and windmills. Contrary to popular belief, virtually all educated people believed the Earth as a sphere, and scholars knew its approximate circumference.

In addition to technological progress, Europe witnessed advances in many other areas.  Massive opposition to slavery grew in Europe due to Christianity’s influence.  Music, art, literature, science, and education all developed to such degree that professional historians no longer use the term “Dark Ages” — although it continues to appear in the works of Christianity’s critics.  The esteemed Medieval historian Warren Holister impolitely stated that anyone believing “that the era that witnessed the building of Chartres Cathedral and the invention of parliament and the university was ‘dark’ must be mentally retarded — or at best, deeply, deeply ignorant.”5

Crusades

In the popular mind, the Crusades were wars of conquest prompted by European imperialism. Modern Muslim apologists claim that the Crusades were a veritable onslaught against the Islamic world. Many politicians on the political left have argued similarly. In a 2015 speech, President Barack Obama went so far as to compare the activity of the Crusades to those of the Islamic State. Only a month after the September 11 attacks, Bill Clinton stated, “Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless,” after which he proceeded to recount the details of Jerusalem’s conquest in 1099.

Critics paint a portrait of bloodthirsty crusaders descending upon the peaceful Muslim populace in the hopes of finding wealth and war. This stereotype is just as false as it is fashionable. These criticisms are nothing new—writers such as Voltaire, David Hume, and Denis Diderot condemned the Crusades as examples of utter barbarism. Yet we must also observe that these writers all denounced Christianity in general. Voltaire condemned the faith even though he found some merit in its morals when it came to daily living, but Diderot and Hume were virulently anti-theistic.

Modern historians understand several fundamental truths that many people have not grasped. First, the crusades were a response to Islamic aggression. In the first three centuries of its existence, Islam came to dominate lands once occupied by Jews and Christians through conquest. In the history of the supposed Andalusian “paradise” when enlightened Muslims ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula for eight centuries (711-1492), one does not have to go very far to find a multitude of draconian laws punishable by death, senseless beheadings of noteworthy—and completely innocent—members of society, and subjugated those under their rule as second-class humans known as dhimmis.

Second, the crusaders did not go off to war for profit. In a sense, the Crusades were a money pit into which European nobles poured their resources. The crusader kingdoms remained continually dependent upon cash from Europe. When funds dried up, these kingdoms withered and fell to their previous occupants.

Third, the outrage of modern Muslims against the Crusades is a recent creation. Politicians commonly cite the Crusades as the leading explanation for America’s troubles in the Middle East. Until a century ago, Muslims had forgotten about the Crusades for one reason: they won. Islamic theology divides all of creation into the “House of Islam” and the “House of War.” From an Islamic viewpoint, Muslim forces had done Allah’s will when they conquered Jerusalem. Their reconquest of the city confirmed this.

The Importance of Understanding History

Studying history does more than offer insights into the connection between the past and present or help us avoid repeating the same mistakes made by others. It is also a powerful tool in defending the Christian faith. Critics have a habit of distorting the historical record. Creating straw men is a particular talent of the most militant atheists, who seem to have little interest in giving Christianity any credit. Even on the popular level, we often see spectacular untruths preceded by the phrase, “Everybody knows.”

Historical myths have incredible staying power. Some enter our culture through the work of agenda-driven critics, others through anti-Christian polemic. Regardless of their source, Christians will have ample opportunities to defend the faith from these gross abuses of history.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research. 

Endnotes

1Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated by James Murphy (), .

2Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 92.

3Ibid., 101.

4Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (New York, NY: Penguin, 1976), 1.

5Warren Hollister, “The Phases of European History and the Nonexistence of the Middle Ages.” Pacific Historical Review 61 (1992): 8.

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