Is there any evidence that early Christian historians "made stuff up?"

When reading historical accounts of famous and influential people (such as Roman Emperors, but NOT a ragtag preacher like Jesus) in approximately Jesus’ time, we have found evidence of political bias, where the authors deliberately invented stuff to lionize or vilify their subject. An example is of Nero indifferently playing his violin as the city of Rome burned. There’s no doubt that Rome had a major fire during his reign, but the account of the fiddle playing (it would have actually been a lyre) is surely fiction.

Yet, most people don’t automatically view Roman historians who write about Roman emperors as unreliable. Even though we have evidence that a lot of them were.

However, when people ask for historical sources about Jesus, they typically dismiss Christian historians as unreliable (there were 65 Christian historians who wrote about Jesus up to 150 years after his death, compared to just three for the Emperor Nero).

We are quite sure that Roman historians who wrote about Roman emperors simply made stuff up. Yet, they are regarded as reliable until demonstrated otherwise.

Is there any evidence that ANY of the 65 early Christian historians who wrote about Jesus (or Christian topics) simply made stuff up? I’ve been studying the Early Fathers for my entire adult life, and I have never heard such a claim or encountered any obvious fiction in their writing. I’m not talking about doctrinal accuracy - I’m talking about records of historic events (the martyrdom of Polycarp, for example).

This question would obviously not include “forged” documents of a later writing which were made to appear more ancient (and were long believed to be so).

We’ve caught Roman historians in lies about Roman Emperors. Has anyone caught any Christian historians in lies about Jesus or early Christian events?

If not, why do Roman historians tend to get a “pass” while Christian historians are automatically considered unreliable?

Your question itself is probably an anachronism to start with so thats a pretty serious difficulty to start with :eek:.

Just as we might sometimes spot an actor wearing a rolex watch in a Roman movie (an anachronism) so too the assumption that “historian” is an apt title for ancient writers of alleged “history”. History as we understand it today (being well researched and fully correct and objective without bias or hidden agenda etc etc) is a very recent phenomenon indeed. You simply won’t find any such beast beyond a few hundred years.

Yes, I realize that I am using term “historian,” which is a “job title” that did not exist in the ancient world. Nobody who wrote 2000 years ago could have imagined that we would be reading their stuff and discussing it today. They were not writing for “prosperity.”

Yet, the wrote, and we read their stuff today. It gives us our ONLY real insight into our past. They were “accidental” historians, but historians none the less.

I realize (and base my post) upon the assumption that ancient “historians” did not hold themselves to the scholarly standards we have today, and some simply made stuff up.

But, through the “miracles” of modern textual criticism, we can study these historic writings from hitherto impossible perspectives, and determine, with great clarity and certainty, what parts are true and what parts are complete nonsense. We can impose modern standards of scholarship upon ancient texts, and determine what parts are valid and which parts are bogus.

We have applied these tools to practically all ancient texts, as far as I know. And we have determined that a lot of ancient Roman “historical” accounts are bogus. That much is settled.

What I am asking here is if we have made any such similar determination about ancient Christian “historical” accounts. I am not aware of any at all. Not even one, even though the “surface area” of exposure of Christian historical accounts is far greater than that of Roman Emperors (as I noted, we have 65 Christian historians who wrote about Jesus or early Christian topics, and only three who wrote about the Roman Emperor Nero Caesar, up to 150 years after the death of either person).

Make that “posterity.” Grr, darn spell-checker. It’s like the post where I mentioned an alcoholically-ordained Bishop (instead of Apostolicaly-ordained). Which was actually hysterical, in a way.

The Protoevangelium of James comes to mind. There’s nothing contrary to faith or morals in it (except one particularly icky passage which sort of gives the game away), but the Church has never endorsed it as completely historical, or accepted every detail therein. Some still consider it historical, while others consider it an early, semi-historical work that testifies to important early Christian beliefs. Not sure if this is what you’re looking for. :slight_smile:

A little later, the Donation of Constantine comes to mind. Though not a “historical document” in the strict sense of the word, it was used and quoted authoritatively for a while before being dropped as a bad job. The Church self-corrects to an extent that most secular historians don’t.

OK, you understand 3/4 of the mindshift I was suggesting.
But when you keep using phrase like they “made stuff up” and “what parts are true and what parts are complete nonsense” then I do wonder what the point of this enquiry would be?

History is not really about giving me the facts and nothing but the facts is it?
After all that factual filtering what drips out the filter is pretty irrelvent and boring by and large eg Barbarossa did indeed have a red-beard. Does it really matter if Constantine’s wife didn’t really discover the true wood of the cross on her visit to Jerusalem? And even if Helen truly did find the cross - how does a single written historical document prove that anyway? A lot more is involved for that “truth” to reach you across the centuries and invoke certitude in your heart.

The more important things we search for in history seem to involve things one can rarely directly see or touch (eg why? how? for what purpose?) but can only infer. That will always be subjective and rarely incontroverttably “true”. In the Bible “made up stuff” can also tell us a lot of theological truth - obviously not visible “facts” though.

Clearly significant amounts of the Bible is “making stuff up” as you put it but in that time such writing was not “making stuff up” (for that connates a lot of implied disvalues such as lying, deceiving etc). These are accepted and understoof literary techniques for communicating the purposes of the author (which is not late 18?th century formal standards of European factual history/law) which the common mass of Europeans today seem to assume of authoritative writings.

I think the use of written “history” to prove the truth of miracles etc is a waste of time if those are the sort of facts you seek the 'truth" of.

I think that even in the world of science and reason and daily life we live by faith far more than we realise. The “facts” are pretty thin on the ground.

Spell-checker just checkes spelling; what is needed is grammer-checker. :smiley:

You seem to claim that today’s “history” is written without any particular perspective.
Why did they teach me in school that the reason Christopher Columbus had trouble getting funding was that they feared he would fall off the Flat Earth ?

Why did the passing of Princess Diana seem to be worthy of hours of TV programing praising her while almost at the same time the passing of one of the world’s greatest heroines, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, warranted one of the worst personal attacks I have ever seen.

Anne Carroll begins her history book with a very honest admission. She clearly points out how it is impossible to record history without an objective. An author has decide what to include and what to pass over with slight reference.

Many people today have an intellectual snobbery that is biased against anyone in centuries past.


John when I observed that:

“History as we understand it today (being well researched and fully correct and objective without bias or hidden agenda etc etc) is a very recent phenomenon indeed”

I didn’t say I agreed :eek:.
I simply observe that is the prevailing popular hegemony.

Which is why I concluded by saying:
"I think that even in the world of science and reason and daily life we live by faith far more than we realise. The “facts” are pretty thin on the ground. "

So no disagreement with you.

Sorry Blue H if I misunderstood.
Maybe you will like the following:

    **See         [         Mark Alder’s web site]("")         and notes from a new book: **
                  **Discover the hidden agendas in scriptural interpretation
        Scott W. Hahn
        Benjamin Wiker
        Politicizing the Bible**
         [INDENT]                 **Penetrating the pretense of objectivity often presented in                  secular studies, Hahn and Wiker bring to light the appropriation                  of scripture by politically motivated interests and trace the                  lineage of today’s theological approaches to the power-mongering                  of the late Middle ages. [See                  Text]("")

[/INDENT] For Troeltsch, the necessary effect of applying the **historical method to Scripture **was and is “the disintegration of the Christian world of ideas. . . .”

The reason for this disintegration (or explosion), according to Troeltsch, is the irreconcilable difference that exists between the earlier dogmatic method, which presupposes certain historical facts, like the Resurrection, that stand outside a purely secular understanding of history, and the modern historical method, which assumes “secular history reconstructed by critical historiography.”
Secular history assumes that miracles cannot happen or at least such miracles cannot be verified by the historical method. More accurately, secular history assumes that all alleged supernatural beings or events can be explained in natural terms. …

But the modern secular assumption that the supernatural must be excluded obviously makes belief in the Resurrection impossible. If that assumption becomes the guiding spirit that uses the tools of textual, philological, historical, literary, form, and redaction criticisms, then the critical use of the tools is defined by a secularizing aim. This union of tools with secularizing presuppositions constitutes what is almost invariably meant by the historical-critical method. …

With Machiavelliwe find an animus toward tradition, priesthood, and in general any otherworldly aims that deflected from the glory and power of secular power—an animus that played itself out in very clear ways in later centuries, contributing immensely to the pure secularization of politics. Significantly, Machiavelli interprets Scripture through a very specific secular framework, helping set the stage for the use of worldly philosophical and political frameworks as the means of exegesis. Thus, for Machiavelli, only the truly “enlightened,” that is, those with his secular framework, can understand Scripture properly….

Luther used the state as a force to counteract the power of the papacy, and thereby put enormous theological power into the hands of the state. …
. Hobbes’s biblical exegesis followed suit, justifying the absolute subordination of the Church to the state. …

Radical Enlightenment united in their attempts to deconstruct Scripture to serve a host of related political and philosophical ends. Through the Radical Enlightenment’s embrace of Spinoza, and the many eighteenth-century responses to Spinoza, we can see the influence Spinoza’s work had on future generations of scriptural scholars.

roots of the historical criticism that emerged in the later eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, and thus expose the secularization of Scripture that has walked through the halls of the academy and classrooms across the globe in the dress of objective science, impervious to critique.

It’s not clear to me who is doing the “considering” here. Not professional historians, for the most part, I think. Not the Christian faithful. So who? Certain anti-Christian polemicists?

Even skeptical scholars, in my experience, take the Gospels seriously as historical sources.


Neither of these examples concerns professional historians.

Anne Carroll begins her history book with a very honest admission. She clearly points out how it is impossible to record history without an objective. An author has decide what to include and what to pass over with slight reference.

Agreed. But there are norms, and while professional historians are flawed and often violate them, the worst violations are usually by non-professionals who gain the ear of the public.

Many people today have an intellectual snobbery that is biased against anyone in centuries past.

Very true

I don’t know how much stuff Eusebius, the Father of Church History, might have outright fabricated, but he apparently doesn’t enjoy the greatest of reputation for accuracy or comprehensiveness.

From an article on Eusebius:

The accuracy of Eusebius’s account have often been called into question. In the 5th century, the Christian historian Socrates Scholasticus described Eusebius as writing for “rhetorical finish” and for the “praises of the Emperor” rather than the “accurate statement of facts.”[8] The methods of Eusebius were criticised by Edward Gibbon in the 18th century.[9] In the 19th century Jacob Burckhardt viewed Eusebius as ‘a liar’, the “first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity.”[9] Ramsay MacMullen in the 20th century regarded Eusebius’s work as representative of early Christian historical accounts in which “Hostile writings and discarded views were not recopied or passed on, or they were actively suppressed…, matters discreditable to the faith were to be consigned to silence.”[10] As a consequence this kind of methodology in MacMullens view has distorted modern attempts, (e.g. Harnack, Nock, and Brady), to describe how the Church grew in the early centuries.[11] Arnaldo Momigliano wrote that in Eusebius’s mind "chronology was something between an exact science and an instrument of propaganda "[12] Drake in the 21st century treats Eusebius as working within the framework of a “totalizing discourse” that viewed the world from a single point of view that excluded anything he thought inappropriate.[13]

The thing to bear in mind is that everyone has their own bias, so a lot of these criticisms need themselves to be read critically. Burckhardt’s claim that Eusebius was the first thoroughly dishonest historian is just absurd in every way, as for that matter is Burckhardt’s own most famous thesis about the Renaissance. Talking about historians who have distorted our understanding of the past through their agendas–Burckhardt would be near or at top the list. The same is true of Gibbon. Teach history to undergrads and you are fighting all the time with their ghosts, although of course the undergrads don’t know their names and have absorbed this stuff from simplistic textbooks and from the whole atmosphere of contemporary culture. I would actually put both of them in the same category as Eusebius–they are intending to do honest history, but at the same time they have an ideological purpose that quite obviously shapes their selection and interpretation of material. I believe that Eusebius’ basic view of the world was truer than theirs, so I’m more sympathetic with him. But as a historian I’d say that all three were great but heavily biased historians, and that Burckhardt in particular had the wherewithal to know better, since by the time he wrote a meticulous discipline of professional history-writing was already in place. (I cut Gibbon more slack, since his history of the Roman Empire was a pioneering work in terms of the depth and care of his research.)

Of course Eusebius was writing apologetics. Of course he was uncritical by our standards. Most damningly, he may be the one who interpolated Josephus’ testimony to the historicity of Jesus in order to make it stronger (adding words like “this was the Christ” which Josephus almost certainly did not write), thus rendering the whole passage suspect. So there’s plenty to criticize about him.

The best evidence for his “making stuff up” is his account of Constantine’s vision in the sky before the battle of the Milvian Bridge, found in his Life of Constantine written after the emperor’s death. The reason this is suspect is that when Eusebius first told the story, in his church history, he didn’t mention any kind of miraculous sign, though he did credit God with Constantine’s victory and described Constantine setting up the Cross in Rome afterwards, and claiming that he had won “by this sign.” Lactantius, another Christian writer of the time, did mention Constantine having a dream and putting a “holy sign” on his soldiers’ shields, in an account written only two years after the battle. So even here it isn’t clear that Eusebius was just making stuff up. Maybe, as he claimed, Constantine really did tell him about this in private conversations, which he hadn’t yet had when he wrote the History. But even if he made up the private conversations, he didn’t make up the basic story, and it is really just a particularly dramatic version of the original story he had told.

One of the big gaps between professional historians and everyone else is that those of us who have been trained to read texts from the past critically approach every text, in principle, with a certain “hermeneutic of suspicion,” while being open to what we may learn from it. Obviously some texts are more reliable than others, and obviously historians make different choices based on their own personalities and biases (I tend to be much less suspicious than most–I will generally go with any reasonable alternative rather than assuming that a source is simply lying). My observation is that folks who aren’t trained in this way tend to assume that critical scholarship involves separating out sources you can trust completely from sources you can’t trust at all. But reality is just more complex than that.


My apologies to all. Anne Carroll didn’t say all historians write with an objective, rather she said that all historians write from a perspective. No one comes to the material with a blank slate.

Having clarified that I do encourage anyone who likes history to read her or her husband Warren Carroll’s books. Each chapter of his books comes with pages and pages of bibliography. They document everything. And she makes history especially interesting.

by Anne Carroll, published by Tan Books, Phone # 1-800-437-5876
It is one of the most interesting book that I have ever read. It shows how God has worked through history in His Church and it has a lot of apologetically useful information

** The Founding of Christendom **
**The Building of Christendom **
by Warren Carroll, six volume history book set

[Comments from unknown author] The author does an excellent job of drawing from an incredible amount of sources, they are well documented, considered objectively, and give the reader a full view of history.
Further, the author includes those things both flattering and unflattering to Christendom. The information helps to shatter myths of history that have grown over time. While there are truly events in history that give serious pause to the faithful, but inclusion of the good and bad also shows the un-mistakable hand of the God in guiding the Church. For it probably would not be standing today if it relied on humans alone.
I plan on completing all of the volumes. I fully recommend the volumes to anyone interested in a thorough un-biased view of Christendom.

Warren Carroll has a knack for taking history and making it into a fascinating gripping story. His thesis is that God acts through individual people making free will choices. At key points in time this effects the course of civilization for hundreds or thousands of years. These choices are what history is not huge impersonal “forces”. He backs this up with very impressive sources and logical deduction. If you want a well written story of how God has acted to bring about His plans and how humans have helped or hindered, you should read all of these books. Protestants and others who have never studied the early years of Christianity will find their beliefs challenged.

** The Glory of Christendom **

** The Cleaving of Christendom **


Thanks for your candid response in this thread and also in the “Hell” thread.

Been away…
Some good points here John.

In more recent years I have taken Aquinas’s counsel to heart, “With wisdom comes grief.”
I believe that intelligent Christians bear a special cross these days - a strong belief in absolute truth that cannot possibly be verified in this life.

Perhaps I have become pessimist as I once thought it hard but possible. Nowadays my own experience (and hopefully an attitude of “openness” to reality wherever it leads that I have always valued as well) tells me that trust and solidarity with others is necessarily at the heart of all understanding - even of “sensible” truths.

This necessarily means we are forced to rely on particular communities in order to possess knowledge (beyond our own very limited life experience) let alone any “truth” worth living by.

That means a truth seeker has to be good at filtering the wheat from the chaff.
And maybe that is best an individual can do. Adopt a critical attitude to the “truths” that society (and the church community) throw our way.

Everyone has a bias and an agenda even Jesus. The question probably is, which “god” do we want to follow. For surely whatever way we think we freely choose to go “objectively” we are in fact to some extent "fooled’ and “guessing.” We voluntarily are held captive to some extent by the tradition or community we accept as bearing “truth”. Noone progresses without a god.

In the end perhaps the most salient thing is the sort of “god” we choose to follow. Such a choice it seems to me says more about us personally than the cosmos objectively.
Sure, we might think we have penetrated to objective “truth” - that is the conscious “feeling”/experience when we discover a tradition that incarnates our own hidden values. Yet many others will not not have or see the same “objective truth”… why?

The traditional Catholic philosophical explanation is that such are too dumb to see objective Natural Law at work or their hearts are too corrupted to see clearly or they are simply too busy surviving to care/look.

In the end I believe we make our own truth in the sense that the cosmos is not quite so clear that we do not have to incarnate certain personal values in seeking truth. There seems to be a sort of 2way dance between nascent personal values and the “objective” truth we allegedly seek.

By the end of our lives it seems to me that the “objective” truths we hold to end up being a crystalisation of our own personal values wrt others and the world itself. Values which themselves are of course not objective but very personal, an expression of a personal faith of how we believe the world should be but isn’t.

Well that’s a real ramble and probably confusing to most readers.
Any way, that’s what your helpful post dredged out of the depths.
Whether I brought up food or furballs is in the eye of the beholder :eek:.

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