A kind correspondent drew my attention to the following volume: Michael Svigel and John Adair, Urban Legends of Church History: 40 Common Misconceptions, B&H (2020). The book appeared at the end of last year, and is some 340 pages long. It is issued by a publisher in Nashville, who does not seem very clued-up about how to promote the book. There is no Google Books preview, for instance. It has started to trickle into Christian publishers, I see. As such it probably doesn’t have that long a shelf-life, as Christian paperbacks often do not, which is a pity. I have access to some of it, and I’ve had a quick look at those sections that I know something about.
But before I do, I think we need to say that all such books are very welcome. The internet is drowning in false information about Christianity. Ordinary people have no way to know that they are being misled, or crudely lied to. When someone says, as some people do, that “Easter is borrowed from an ancient pagan festival long predating Christianity”, then educated people rub their eyes and wonder how anybody can know so little history. But most people do not know any history. Such a claim is not instantly recognisable as a crude falsehood. There are various people on Twitter who make an effort to combat this sort of thing, but the major news channels do not. Indeed they often amplify it. Lazy journalists scoop this rubbish up and repeat it.
There has always been a trickle of such stuff. Some of it comes from fringe protestant groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it comes from atheists, or neo-atheists. I noticed in 2018 that there was a sudden upsurge: suddenly there was a mass of posts, jeering that every single Christian holiday was “pagan”. It is possible that this is related to the rather horrible US politics of our day, and the organised online campaign against President Trump. Whatever the reason, it is there, and getting worse.
Academics do not tend to write such books. There is a very good reason for this, which we see as soon as we look at the list of topics covered by Svigel and Adair. It covers the whole range of church history from 50 AD right down to our own day. Few specialists would feel comfortable, or qualified, to write over all those fields.
But it does mean that those with the authority to demolish such claims are leaving the field open. Svigel and Adair are writing for the Christian constituency in the US, and apparently with fringe protestants mainly in mind. The style of the book is intended to be read by that audience. The references are to books which, if not commonplace, may be accessible to them. So they refer to the Theodosian Code, the legal compilation of late imperial rescripts from 450 AD. But in doing so the footnotes refer to “Oliver J. Fletcher, in The Library of Original Sources, vol. 4, Early Mediaeval Age (Milwaukee: University Research Extension, 1907), 70″ – never heard of it – rather than the standard translation of the whole Code: Clyde Pharr: The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. A Translation with Commentary, Glossary, and Bibliography. (The Corpus of Roman Law, Vol. I.) Pp. xxvi+643; map. Princeton: University Press (London: Oxford University Press), 1952. Then again, who has access to Pharr? I certainly did not for a very great period. So this is not a vice, but rather a way to serve their chosen constituency. All the same, the book loses utility when handed to someone outside that constituency. This is why a range of books is necessary.
But let’s return to Svigel and Blair. They try to find the original of each legend. Reading the book, you realise what an influence the Da Vinci Code has been in spreading misinformation. Again and again I find that online false claims go back to that novel.
Looking at the first chapter, on the idea that the first Christians worshipped on Saturday rather than Sunday – clearly a fringe protestant claim – they rightly quote the apostolic fathers – the Didache, Barnabas, and Ignatius of Antioch. More would have been better, but might not have suited their audience. I’m not quite sure that the Didache is usually dated as early as 50-70 AD, as they suggest, although that date seems reasonable enough to me. The chapter ends with some “resources” for further reading. The pages that I have place the footnotes as endnotes – an evil practice – although as they seem to be printed from a Kindle version, possibly this is not so in the book itself.
Chapter 8 on the Trinity addresses the claim that the Trinity is a late addition. It ought to make clear Tertullian’s role; and also his claim that what he says is what the church believed from the first. But again the book is probably addressing Mormons or the like. Their concern is to show from the bible that the teaching is what the bible says. I think they do this quite well.
Something that comes across from the book is that, in order to refute the false ideas, they have to explain to the reader some very basic facts about the history of the church. At points this will seem babyish to most readers of this blog; but they are right, and it is clearly absolutely necessary. The critics who are so sure that this myth or that is history – “research it!” the myth-repeaters often smugly say – in fact don’t know the most elementary things. It makes such a book very hard to read, for me. But it probably is the only way.
I do not envy the authors. They have grappled with a difficult task, and done it well. Some of the legends were unknown to me, and I learned something from their chapter on it.
All the same, there is a need for more books like this. There needs to be such a book, written by an atheist for atheists; by Hindus for Hindus, and so on. None of this is, or should be, a question of religion. These are matters on which there should be no disagreement, because they are simple matters of fact that can be looked up.