It seems like an insult to say that people of biblical times were ignorant and superstitious. They certainly weren’t willfully so – they had no choice. With the exception of a handful of intellectuals and politicians, people of that day simply weren’t equipped with the necessary knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to distinguish chicanery from reality.
Even worse, no one – not even the intellectual elite – were equipped with the knowledge of biology, psychology, and neurobiology which today tells us how easily it is for the mind to be fooled. People weren’t even equipped with basic knowledge about the origins of the earth and the evolution of life.
So, most people believed in the power of souls, spirits, demons, and angels. They saw what they thought were “signs and wonders”, as the Acts of the Apostles show.
Clearly, we’re not discussing the same culture that we westerners live in today. Apart from the occasional self-proclaimed faith healer with dubious methods and credentials, we don’t generally have a lot of people gadding about town, performing signs and wonders, to the amazement of the crowds. Instead of apostles performing miracles in the public square we have Chris Angel performing illusions in Las Vegas.
Tellingly, when people see Chris Angel perform, they don’t say “Ah, he must be a god”, they say “how on earth does he do that?”.
But why is this? Is it just coincidence that the ancient Middle East was the locus of miracles? Or was it that the ancient Middle Eastern culture, more than any other since then, was steeped in beliefs and superstitions that made its people especially vulnerable to seeing apparent “signs and wonders”?
Consider this: would Christianity have gotten off the ground if it had begun in the twenty first, rather than the first? Try to imagine it. It’s the year 2011, and a young man grows up in Israel. When he graduates from high school, he wanders from city to city preaching to the passersby in public parks and on street corners. Over the clamor of cars and city buses, he shouts his message that God has sent him to save mankind from their sins, and that they must repent and follow him. The young man then goes on to claim that he can exorcise demons, and cast away evil spirits.
The most positive response such a person might get today is a quick glance from a pedestrian as she hurries on her way. Many people would wonder if he was mentally unstable.
Now, Christians might object that if Jesus really had come to us in this century, he would have used more effective methods of reaching out to people and demonstrating his power.
But why would he have done so? For the reasons already stated: we’ve become all too familiar with people who claim, from the street corner, to be God’s messenger – we’re simply not fooled by them anymore. We also know enough about the human body and mind to realize that people who suffer from, say, epilepsy, are in need of medical treatment, not exorcisms.
But if Christians agree that modern people are (rightly) hesitant to be convinced by the methods Jesus used 2000 years ago, then why are they convinced by the methods Jesus used 2000 years ago? Why aren’t they applying the same standards of assessment to the ancient Jesus as they would have applied to the Jesus on the street corner of twenty first century Jerusalem?
Furthermore, why would Christians consider it important that the biblical miracles were convincing to so many witnesses, when those witnesses held numerous beliefs about the world that we now know to be false, and when they were ignorant of biology, evolution, and neuroscience – critical bodies of knowledge when it comes to understanding perception and psychology?
The truth, I suspect, is that most Christians today don’t actually believe in Jesus purely because of the miracles reported to have been performed by him thousands of years ago. Most sensible people realize, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, that miracles reported in ancient books need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Unless, of course, they can be convinced that those books are holy and inspired by God.
And that, for sure, is one of the keys to keeping a religion going.