Biblical Fideism and the Demise of Modern Christianity

In Roman late antiquity, we observe the steady eclipse of classical mythology, and all of its pluralism, with a singular enforced “orthodox” Christian mythology. As anthropologist Franz Boas observed over a century ago, “mythological worlds had been built up, only to be shattered again, and new worlds were built from the fragments.” Many, including me in my own published work, have documented the survival of prior forms and their rebranded continuity in early Christian mythology. What is often lost on modern observers, the point this essay aims to correct, has been the continuity of the prior cultic doxastic indulgence through the system of myths and legends that provided the bedrock of the new religion; It is as though the D.C. universe had been replaced with the Marvel universe, both fantastical worlds intentionally elevated from the mundane quotidian world of realia known both to us and to the ancients.

Earliest critics of the religion (100-250 C.E.), as I have discussed previously, described the nascent religion as a fraudulent superstitio, a system of cultic tall tales, myths, and legends to be accepted despite lacking and contrary evidence. Converts willfully embraced the fantastical world presented by the cultic movement as a strategy for ascesis, the philosophical transcendence of base human drives and the societal structures configured to tailor to such primitive impulses. Modern interpreters who investigate the earliest Christian reception and use of the New Testament, upon initial exposure, consistently encounter the befuddling replete reality of the ascetical function of these writings, as well as the early Christian preoccupation with allegorical (non-literalist) readings. Epistemic “knowledge” argumentation and evidentialist ground for any rational propositional case were conspicuously absent (not merely non-central) in the early Christian apologetic tradition. But why???

The only rational and satisfying answer to this question comes as the first and most obvious: Earliest Christians did not proffer a knowledge system, but a belief system. Even in the esoteric recesses of the gnostic traditions, gnosis never came as an evidentialist case, but as a mythic framework to be embraced via a priori assertion, not the critical weighing of ontological proofs. The literary semeia (“signs”) presented in John’s Gospel narrative, moreover, were not proposed as a sufficient case for knowing that Jesus was an actual demigod in time and space. Rather, they were meant to encourage indulgence in such a belief, a categorical distinction that cannot be overstated. So, once Thomas asks for such a sign, the protagonist’s response makes the distinction rather explicit: “Blessed are those who believe without having seen [any evidence]” (Jn 20.29). Indeed, the grand New Testament “faith” chapter, defines the term pistis quite unambiguously:

Faith (pistis) is an assertion of things for which one hopes, the testing of matters not visible. (Heb 11.1)

The cultic instructor then provides a litany of examples (Heb 11), classical Hebrew patriarchal heroes setting out on various endeavors due to some mental assertion or indulgence predicated on what one would commonly identify as inadequate, often even contrary evidence (of the existence and intent of the classical Hebrew deity and related mythological constructs).

As with today and throughout the history of Christianity, early Christian conversion essentially arose as a fideist transaction, a willful indulgence in a fantastical alternate reality as a means or strategy of spiritual enlightenment. Early Christian converts were not presented with proofs or evidential cases for the historical or ontological veracity of their belief system. Rather, they embraced the cultic framework of tales and cast of metaphysical figures as their conversion rite into the cultic community. Many New Testament scholars today have utterly failed to recognize this radical foundation for the religion, instead supposing that the Gospels were written and utilized as historiae, projects in rational, authenticated portrayals of the past (also argued against in my own journal publication here). Western philosophical terminology has regrettably often served to compound this pervasive delusion, applying the term “belief” as the common epistemological operation inherent to common knowledge and the sciences. We may use the English term in that fashion, but this has obscured the New Testament term and the peculiar posturing of ancient cultic make-believe as integral to ancient religious pietas. Classical Greek pistis, in lexical terms, most closely denoted the dictional notion of “belief-in” rather than “knowing” or “comprehending” (e.g., belief in Santa or reincarnation), and entailed an a priori admission of content into one’s worldview apart from sufficient evidence.

Turning attention to Bayesian appraisal of New Testament mythology, perhaps one may see the problem. Bayesian logic is meant to evaluate the possibility of some knowledge proposition as being true. The cultic posture of the New Testament, however, has set forth faith propositions, not knowledge propositions. Indeed, such modern "proofs," when applied to New Testament “faith” claims, even if considered successful, invariably become self-refuting. The (deluded) mental success of the apologist merely serves to remove their one requisite “virtue,” that of belief, replacing their salvific pistis with evidentialist certitude, however ill-founded. In the very act of proving the religion to be true in any modern scientific rational sense, the apologist falls out of faith and thus out of salvific grace, a matter of devastating irony and incomprehensible self-deception. Nothing here should surprise anyone. All religions stand on that common ground, namely, that of willful belief rather than evidentialist authentication, as the mental ritual admittance to their respective cultic societies.

Dr. Miller, author of Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge, 2015), is a humanistic critic of contemporary religion and a trans-disciplinary research scholar exploring the cultural and literary nexus between classical antiquity and the social origins of earliest Christianity. His published work focuses on the mythological roots of the New Testament Gospel portraitures of Jesus, the sacralized founding emblem of the Christian religion.

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