The Writings of Revilo P Oliver 1908-1994

The Origins of Christianity

by Revilo P. Oliver

Professor of the Classics, Retired; University of Illinois, Urbana



WHEN PROFESSIONAL PRIESTS undertake to bolster the faith of their congregations by producing historical documents to substantiate their doctrines they face obstacles that are inversely proportional to the ignorance of their customers. The production of a passable forgery demands precise and exacting labor, and what usually happens is that the holy men, whether actuated by a high-minded yearning to disseminate their own faith or by a natural wish to augment their income, do only enough work to impose on their immediate audience. It is an odd fact, however, that if they have a nucleus of fanatical followers, they can enlist their services and skills in manufacturing a hoax to spread the glad tidings. Even so, however, success will depend on the general level of intelligence in the group or community to be evangelized.

One of the most interesting illustrations of this rule may be worth a paragraph or two here.

As everyone knows, Pythagoras, who was born on the Greek island of Samos early in the sixth century B.C. but may not have been an Aryan, was both a philosopher and the founder of a Puritanic cult, of which the doctrine may or may not have been largely derived from the religions of the Oriental lands which he was said to have visited. His sect was roughly comparable to the Masonic lodges today, since members had to undergo a fairly trying and expensive initiation before they were admitted to secret doctrines they had sworn never to reveal to outsiders, but there was the important difference that the Pythagoreans admitted women to equality with men. Everyone who has been in Rome has visited the subterranean basilica under the railroad tracks that converge on the central station, and, while express trains roared overhead, has stood in the hall, in which, two thousand years ago, pious

Neopythagoreans assembled for worship and earnestly contemplated the transcendental meaning of the allegorical figures sculptured in stucco on the walls. Pythagoras had, of course, been equipped long before with the usual paraphernalia of divinity, a virgin birth, a god (Apollo) as father, and an odd identification as an incarnation of his own father, who had taken on a mortal body to instruct his elite in the ways to salvation and a blissful immortality by proper conduct in their successive lives on earth.

Almost two centuries before that basilica was constructed underground, the Neopythagoreans at Rome made a remarkable effort to increase their influence or, perhaps, disseminate their faith. Two stone chests, about eight feet long and four feet wide, were carefully made, sealed with molten lead, adorned with incised inscriptions in both Latin and Greek, and buried in a spot where a farmer, ploughing more deeply than usual, would find them. One of the chests was, according to the inscription, the coffin of Numa Pompilius, the legendary successor of Romulus and second King of Rome, who, according to tradition, had established the official religion of Rome. That chest was empty, doubtless on the theory that Numa, having been a pious prophet, had ascended to Heaven to join his divine relatives. The other chest contained seven books in Latin and seven in Greek, written by Numa to describe the true structure of the universe, as it had been revealed to him by Pythagoras, and the true religion, which he had established at Rome and which, as everyone who read his holy books could see, differed enormously from the corrupted and perverted practices of the time at which the farmer, perhaps by divine instigation, had uncovered the chests. Precisely what Numa’s precious words ordained, and what political purposes lay behind them, we do not know,* any more than we know to what ethnic groups most of the members of the Pythagorean lodges at Rome belonged. Numa’s books, by the way, had been perfectly preserved, because he had taken the precaution of saturating the papyrus with oil of cedar to preserve them through the centuries.

* For one conjecture about the contents, see A. Delatte’s article in the Bulletin de l’Academie royale de Belgique, Lettres, 1936, pp.19-40.

In 181 B.C., the Roman aristocracy was still preponderantly Aryan, rational, and hard-headed. When they learned of the providential discovery, they were not deceived by the forgeries. Discounting the chances of human bodies floating heavenward, they knew that some remains of a corpse would be left in a sealed stone casket, even after five centuries. Oil of cedar would not have preserved papyrus so well for so long a time, and there were doubtless other signs of forgery.† The aristocracy regarded one religion as intrinsically as good as another, but they recognized the devastating effects of religious agitation and emotionalism on the lower classes and on excitable females and "intellectuals" in their own class. The religiously incendiary books were accordingly burned. Whether copies of them were surreptitiously kept is unknown, but the faith of the Pythagoreans at Rome seems not to have been shaken, for Cicero, in the second book of his De republica, thought it worth while to point out, ob iter, that it was chronologically impossible for Numa to have been a disciple of Pythagoras.

† Our sources (principally Livy and Seneca) do not inform us whether the devout Pythagoreans tried to reproduce the Greek and Latin scripts that were appropriate to the time of Numa or the orthography, which, especially in Latin, would have differed greatly from that with which they were familiar in their own time.

The difficulty of providing religious documentation may be further illustrated by two of the most recent Christian gospels, each of which is instructive in its own way.

When Joseph Smith, an enterprising young man in Palmyra, New York, found that swindling farmers by claiming that his magic stone monocle enabled him to see buried treasure underground resulted in unpleasant experiences in court, he turned his fertile mind to higher things and manufactured a whole new "New Testament" with the aid of an obscure book that had been published in a small town in Vermont some years before, and (probably) the manuscript of an unpublished novel, and (certainly) his thorough knowledge of the diction and contents of the English Bible and his own lush imagination. With the aid of his stone monocle, now put to godly use, he was able to translate into Biblical English the fifteen books of his supplemental Scriptures from the hieroglyphics inscribed on massive gold plates, which an obliging angel prudently carried off to Heaven as soon as he had completed his inspired task. Smith found a few perjurers, mostly members of his own family, who were willing to swear they had seen the gold plates before they were removed to God’s city in the welkin. Later, when Smith decided to write a "Book of Abraham," he tried for greater verisimilitude, but was less cautious. He procured part of one of the cheap papyrus copies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead from the wrappings of the Egyptian mummies that were being used at that time for fuel on the Nile steamboats, and exhibited it to the gawking True Believers as an autograph manuscript, the crudely drawn hieroglyphic text being one in which he could recognize Abraham’s own handwriting. On the basis of a drawing of the dead Osiris, which is usually found in such copies, Smith elaborated a fantasy about how the priests of the Egyptian Pharoah in Chaldaea (sic), after sacrificing a bevy of virgins, thought of popping young Abraham onto the altar in the posture shown by the picture with which Abraham had illustrated his holograph. This naturally called for prompt action by the Lord God, and the tale came to a happy ending. Now Smith was so reckless that he not only preserved the papyrus (which, after his death, was presented to the Metropolitan Museum as a priceless treasure by a True Believer with more faith than education) but had the tell-pictures, with only the head of Anubis crudely redrawn, copied on wood-blocks and printed with the text of his latest holybook to impress the yokels. The only reasonable explanation of such astounding indiscretion is that Smith was interested only in enjoying his eminence (and other men’s wives) during his lifetime, and cared not at all what would happen to his sect after his death.

Smith had a shrewd successor and thus became the founder of the most cohesive and strongest Christian Church in the United States, which has survived frantic persecutions by competing holy men and their followers, and almost succeeded in establishing a country of its own in what is now Utah. The major Mormon sect has more than three million members in the United States and at least a million in other parts of the world. The three minor sects, products of various schisms, probably number no more than two hundred thousand all together. And we should note that the members of the Mormon Church in its earlier days were almost exclusively, and still are predominantly, of English ancestry.

Another recent gospel-writer is a pleasing contrast to the Prophet of the Latter-Day Saints. One cannot avoid the impression that the prime object of Joseph Smith’s devotion was Joseph Smith, and it must require much Faith to like him, but the Reverend Mr. William Dennis Mahan is a sympathetic figure, a man whom we must respect for a deeply sincere Christian faith and his effort to defend it. I confess that I was prejudiced against him when I began to look into his career, but I ended by liking and pitying the man. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, born in 1824, and in 1879 he was the poorly-paid pastor of the local church in Boonville, a little town, scarcely more than a village, in central Missouri. For years, from his scantily-furnished parsonage in the boondocks, he had watched with sorrow and dismay as infidels, especially Colonel Ingersoll, blasphemed against his god and excited doubts that caused many of Jesus’’s sheep to stray from their folds. And then in 1879, Ingersoll expanded one of his famous lectures, "The Mistakes of Moses," into a book of 270 soul-destroying pages and published it. For years, America’s most eminent divines had screeched at the eloquent Beelzebub from their opulent pulpits and preached jeremiads about the apostasy of a nation in which it was not possible to flay Ingersoll alive or, at least, cut his tongue out – but they had appealed to god and man in vain. So poor Mahan girded up his loins to defend his faith. Mahan published A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court, a precious historical document that he had obtained from the Vatican through the good offices of an itinerant German scholar, whom he had befriended when snowbound in Missouri twenty-three years before. The book created a sensation and was promptly pirated by clergymen throughout the nation. In 1883, Mahan started all over, and produced a much improved version of the document, now called the Acta Pilati, and supported it in the following year with a whole passel of historical records that conclusively established the truth of the "New Testament," including "Jonathan’s Interview with the Bethlehem Shepherds," "Gamaliel’s Interview with Joseph and Mary," the authentic "reports of Caiaphas to the Sanhedrim" concerning (a) "the Execution of Jesus" and (b) "the Resurrection of Jesus," the speech given by Herod before the Roman Senate when he was prosecuted for his "conduct at Bethlehem," and other equally precious documents, making a total of sixteen. And then, of course, there were letters from strangely named European scholars who had helped Mahan find these treasures in the Vatican and the "Library of St. Sophia" in Constantinople, and letters from other scholars authenticating those letters. To this collection, Mahan gave a title too long to be quoted here, but some of the later publishers brought it out under the odd, but concise title, "The Archko Volume."

This collection enjoyed a considerable success; I do not know how often it was published and have not tried to find out, but I have noticed fourteen editions between 1884 and 1942, including some by Eerdmans, one of the most prominent religious publishing houses in the United States. The report from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius has been the most popular item in the collection and frequently reprinted separately, most recently, to my knowledge, in 1974, when the clergyman who published it claimed that his "transcription" had been verified from the original by the British Museum! I should not fail to mention a remarkable edition printed on a long strip of oilcloth attached to small wooden cylinders with projecting umbilici to resemble an ancient papyrus volumen.

One feels sorry for Mahan. He was a poor man, and although he made some money from his first hoax, despite the pirating by brother clergymen, he had to borrow $150 from a bank so that he could hide out in a village in Illinois called Rome to prepare his greater effort and to permit his wife to aver that he had gone to Rome, whence he was sending her letters regularly. He had so little experience of the world that his account of his voyage to Europe, his meeting with "Dr. McIntoch" and "Dr. Twyman" of the "Antiquerian (sic] Lodge, Genoa, Italy," their researches in the Vatican and St. Sophia, etc. would be ludicrous, if it were not pathetic. He was an ignorant man, knowing only what he had learned in a Presbyterian seminary and probably without even the most elementary works of reference at hand. He seems not even to have known that the early Christians had forged quite a variety of letters from Pilate to Tiberius or Claudius, reports on the Crucifixion from a Roman consul to the Senate, and letters written by Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and scores of other documents from which he could have assembled quite a bouquet of sacred blossoms, for which he could plausibly have claimed a respectable antiquity and exhibited texts in Latin or Greek. The great weakness of his imposture was that he had only English "translations" to show. The Reverend Mr William Overton Clough, who was one of the first of the holy men to pirate Mahan’s work, translated parts of it into Latin to make it seem more authentic to his readers, but Mahan evidently could not do as much. Mahan’s compositions are filled with wild anachronisms and grotesque errors of every kind, which only the eye of Faith could overlook, but he did his best for his religion, and perhaps that best required hard labor. And he undoubtedly did succeed in bolstering the faith and waming the emotions of many thousands of Christians who read his books.

There is no indication that Mahan sought profit or notoriety. There is evidence that he was a sincerely devout Christian and, unlike so many of Jesus’s shepherds, truly believed in the religion he professed. He tried to defend it when clergymen more learned and more prosperous than he failed to confute the infidels. And given his attachment to his faith, I see something tragic in his declaration in his edition of 1887: "I have as much reason for believing the genuineness of the contents of this book, as I have to believe the genuineness of the Scriptures, looking at the question from a human standpoint."

The way of the forger is hard, and poor Mahan attempted the impossible. A book recently published in England purveys a revised Christian doctrine, including the claim that St. Paul, instead of wasting much time in the Mediterranean, hot-footed it to London to announce the glad tidings to his fellow Anglo-Saxons on the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which, however, he is not credited with building. This is doubtless a doctrine that will be attractive to many Christians, but to be really effective, it would require the corroboration of a suitable gospel or, at least, an ’EpiotolÊ prÕj toÝj BrettanoÚj opportunely discovered. But that can’t be done. There are probably a score of scholars in the world (I am not one) who could compose to specifications a gospel or epistle in the somewhat peculiar dialect used by the writers of the letters now attributed to Paul. I hope that none could be hired to do it, but if a linguistically sound forgery were produced, it would be impossible to manufacture papyrus that could pass for ancient, and while a case could perhaps be made for a use of parchment in remote Britain, I doubt that it would be possible to prepare and chemically age parchment that would not betray its modernity, if subjected to rigorous tests. Ancient ink could probably be duplicated, but then we would face the enormous task of finding an expert palaeographer who could, after months of practice, simulate a script appropriate to the supposed date. Then we should have to manufacture an hermetically sealed container, indistinguishable from an ancient one, in which the document would have been preserved. And if that were done, it would still be necessary to plant the container somewhere – in the ground or in the wall of a building – and the techniques of archaeology are now so refined that there is no chance of a planting that would not immediately be identified as a hoax. And even if all these obstacles were overcome – and that would be the greatest of miracles – there would remain the radioactive isotope of carbon that would betray the date of the very best forgery!

Lying for the Lord is a normal exercise of piety, but it is becoming harder and harder.

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The Origins of Christianity by R.P.Oliver, to be published by Historical Review Press (160pp £10 inc p&p). Please order now via e-mail

Copyright ©1999 Kevin Alfred Strom. Back to Revilo P. Oliver Index