Miracles: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 15 Part 3

Jesus turns water into wine

Edward Gibbon as an enlightened thinker has an issue with miracles.

By the eighteenth century miracles were off the agenda.  Galileo and Newton had provided detailed descriptions of the laws underlying what was making the world go round.  European sailors had sailed around the globe and while they revealed new lands that hadn’t been known before, none of them turned out to be magic.  Turning the newly invented telescopes on the skies the movements of the planets around the sun followed the same rules that governed the movement of canon balls on Earth.  The development of clockwork technology gave a neat analogy for the mechanisms that ran the Universe.  It all worked automatically, like, well like clockwork.  Subtle and hard to fathom maybe, but not beyond our understanding.  Gibbon and his contemporaries could look back on the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition compared to their own of science and reason.

I think it was this that was at the root of Gibbon’s problem with Christianity in general and miracles in particular.  The Church was backward looking and heavily associated with the ignorance of the Medieval world. But for all that, it was still a very powerful institution.  It must have seemed not so much like the relic it seems to us and more like a dead weight.

The comparison of his own time with that of the peak period of the Roman Empire, was not nearly as flattering.  In straight economic terms it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the wealth and population of modern Europe actually exceeded that of the empire under the Antonines.  It was still not possible to travel any faster than the Romans.  Arguably, Gibbon’s Britain was not yet able to match the engineering feats of Ancient Rome. James Watt was still doing his experiments on steam power while Gibbon was writing his book.

So it is not surprising that Gibbon would take an interest in the religious developments in the Roman world.  Seeped in classical literature Gibbon was well aware of the elite Roman’s approach to their culture’s traditional beliefs. In all the political machinations of the republic and later the empire it is hard to pick up any indication that any of them anticipated a life after death.  Vespasian is famous for joking that he was becoming a God on his deathbed. Religion was strictly for show and was only taken seriously by the people who lacked learning.  In what I think must be the most quoted lines from Decline and Fall he notes that pagan superstitions were regarded by the educated as equally false, by the ignorant as equally true and by the administrator as equally useful.  That quote is almost always taken out of context and applied to religion in general.  It isn’t hard to imagine Gibbon doing the same.

Although he never states it, I am pretty sure that Gibbon was indeed an atheist.  He has certainly be accused of being so in his own time. It was a pretty serious accusation with serious consequences but more on that later.  I would go further and hazard a guess that it is the issue of miracles that led him to lose the faith that he was, like everyone else at the time, brought up in.

In the modern world our communications are so good that we can be pretty confident that miracles don’t happen. If one did it would be on Youtube in no time.   But even in Gibbon’s time the miraculous had been pretty much squeezed out of people’s mental view of the world. Claiming miraculous powers was no longer credible.

So how could the miracles directly reported in the Bible and the subsequent ones attributed to saints and other similar interventions be accounted for.  This was a rather practical problem for Gibbon when he got to the point in his book where he had to mention them. And I think it speaks volumes that he puts it off until the last minute.  He has got past the Edict of Milan before he even brings the subject of Christianity up.  I can’t help thinking that part of him wanted to ignore it all together.

He obviously did not want to appear credulous in the eyes of rational skeptics like his friend the philosopher David Hume.  Peer pressure can rarely have come in so elevated a form.  But equally there were drawbacks to portraying the holy book as a fraud as well.  What to do?

He had two strategies.  One was to continually refer to the Church as the Catholic Church.  This played well in Protestant England. Portraying his sources as Catholics made rubbishing them much much easier.

The other was to use sarcasm.  That way all his clever chums would see what he meant while the less enlightened would take him at face value.  Neat, eh?   If he seriously thought this would work, then he was being optimistic.  Believing something stupid doesn’t make you stupid.  Indeed some stupid things are so stupid it really does take a lot of hard work and brain power to actually believe them.

But Gibbon had to contend not only with the genuinely faithful. It is easy to forget just how powerful a vested interest the church was in European society even this late in history.  At the time the assembly in France was divided into three interest groups, the people, the nobility and the clergy.  That is some level of influence. In Britain the Church was slightly less dominant, but even so Bishops sat in the House of Lords.  If Gibbon thought he could sneak a sideswipe at religion past an unsuspecting public he was wrong.  The reaction to the publication of Decline and Fall is probably worth a blog post to itself so I will leave off this train of thought for now.   But whatever the motivation behind it, the result was one of the greatest and most sustained bits of sarcasm in the English language.

Gibbon gets in early.  He points out how strange it is that the Jews have stuck to their religion so steadfastly in the face of persecution and without any support from a state.  And yet in Old Testament times the Jews were always falling away from the true path, despite all the miraculous evidence that Moses and others provided them with.  Most curious behaviour – the more evidence they had to believe, the less inclined they were to do so.

But strange as this might seem, the position with regards to miracles in the early church was even weirder.   Contemporary accounts make clear that the early Christians were not only witnesses to the miraculous, they routinely claimed to possess miraculous powers themselves.  They would often be able to speak languages that they had never learned – a handy and enviable skill in the multicultural Roman empire.  This gift doesn’t seem to have been bestowed purely pragmatically by the Almighty to help promote his message when language difficulties arose. The man who brought the Good News to Gaul for instance complained of the difficulties posed by not knowing how to speak with the natives.  The only conclusion is that it was a sort of party piece.

Expelling demons was routine, with the demons often confessing to being well known gods on departure.  But the most remarkable miracles were raisings from the dead.  This was a reasonably common event, common enough for a philosopher to tell a Christian friend that it would take only the sight of one of these resurrected individuals to secure an immediate conversion.  It was a reasonable offer, but for some reason it went unanswered.

Now, if you accept that the numerous miracles claimed by the early Christians are genuine there is an obvious historical question.   Miracles no longer take place.  So when did they stop?  Was there a specific cut off date like the end of the trial period of Microsoft Office when all the marvels you had got used to suddenly ceased to work?  Or did it slowly fade away until one day it just crossed your mind that it wasn’t there any more, like the career of Steve Martin?   In either event, how come the Christians at the time didn’t notice and make some kind of comment about it?

This concentration on the lack of plausibility of the miracles sounds like a bit like a debating point, and may well have started out as one.  But it does seem to be something that troubles Gibbon a lot.  He goes into great detail, and returns to the point later in the chapter.  Again going into industrial grade sarcasm mode he asks, with obviously bogus outrage,  how philosophers at the time of Christ could have failed to notice the miraculous augers of the new era that the crucifixion had initiated.  This was an age of science and history after all.  And even Pliny, who was in the region and took a special interest in astronomical phenomena failed to even note the event of the sky being darkened let alone pick up on its significance.

If anyone had any doubt that this was a thinly veiled attack on Christianity earlier, this final bit would have dispelled it.  How could the account of the Crucifixion given in the Bible possibly be true.  The Romans were extremely interested in what was going on in the sky.  The death of Julius Caesar was marked by a remarkable absence of light, which was duly documented.   Jerusalem was a large city in a populous part of the empire.  If a bolt of lightning could end a campaign against Persia, surely someone would have noticed several hours of darkness in the sky.

Of course, as Gibbon knew full well the darkened sky detail was added later because it was a literary cliche to mark the death of someone of significance.  It was as clear a sign that the whole thing had been made up as it is possible to imagine.  And no doubt plenty of people at the time were just as aware that it was a fiction.  How many of the early Church fathers colluded in this pious fabrication?  Who knows, but it would have been fascinating to know the opinion of someone as well read on the sources as Gibbon.

Three hundred years later this all seems mild enough.  Eloquent and well written, but hardly shocking. We’ve all heard a lot worse.  But this was heady stuff for the time.  Knocking the miracles performed by saints was bad enough, but for protestants that might be accommodated.  But even today, there are relatively few Christians who won’t defend the actual historical fact of Jesus actually coming back to life after being crucified.   A bishop of the Church of England, David Jenkins, who suggested that God hardly needed to do a conjuring trick with some bones attracted an outcry.  The traditionalists position hardened after York Minster was struck by lightning a few days later, a clear sign of divine displeasure.

There was some discussion of using the blasphemy laws against David Jenkins.  It was clear enough that technically he was in breach of them – though it was highly unlikely a jury would have found him guilty.  It is possible that Gibbon’s use of sarcasm might have been intended to keep him clear of charges under what are in effect exactly the same laws still nominally in force today.  If so he pushes his defence to the limit as the chapter closes.  Taken as a whole the chapter is no less than a devastating and highly successful attack on the history of Christianity.

It might be thought that by being evasive he was lacking in courage.  Why not come out and say what he really meant?  In reality I think that he stood a very real risk of ending up in court even with what he did say.  Taking an outright atheistic position would have been indefensible.  And to an atheist, martyrdom has not got much to be said for it.

He stopped just short of saying the story of the crucifixion was made up after the event.  Gibbon must have known it was going to stir up trouble.  And he was right.

As I have said, that I think, is another podcast.


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4 Responses to Miracles: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 15 Part 3

  1. Calvus

    Hilarious! Your best podcast yet. I'm still laughing at the thought of a free-trial period on divine intervention.

    It's debatable whether “atheist” would be a good word for Gibbon. In the days before Darwin, the argument that life must have had a creator was very difficult to refute.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Calvus and thanks for commenting. I accept that Gibbon never openly claimed to be an atheist, but it was illegal to do so at the time. I have heard that suggestion that theism was logical before – I think Richard Dawkins himself may even have originated it. But the Epicureans were largely atheist before Darwin, and you have people like Spinoza as well who questioned the existence of God.

  3. Yup, totally agree. My favourite moment was the comparison to Steve Msrtin's career . . . really interesting as well witty.

  4. David Crowther

    Yes, superb. But probably best not to let Steve Martin listen. And interesting to boot. And that theme music by the way; I'm getting images of David Caradine?

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