Harvard Law Professor, Simon Greenleaf, Converts to Christianity After Trying to Disprove Jesus’ Resurrection.

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Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853) was the acclaimed Royall Professor of Law at Harvard University. He was one of the most celebrated legal minds in American history with one of his works, Treatise on the Law of Evidence, still being considered “the greatest single authority on evidence in the entire literature of legal procedure” (1). He is now considered one of the most important figures in the development of Christian apologetics, specifically legal or juridical apologetics.

As a professed atheist, and while teaching law at Harvard, Greenleaf stated to his class that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a legend (2). This was obvious for him given that miracles were impossible. However, a few of his students responded to his skepticism and challenged him to apply his rules of evidence to the historical resurrection evidence (3). Greenleaf eventually accepted their challenge, and set out to prove that the resurrection of Jesus was false.

However, during the course of his examination into the historical evidence he found his atheism to be challenged on many fronts. Of primary concern to him was his inability to explain away the dramatic change in Jesus’ disciples’ disposition, and their subsequent willingness to suffer and die for their testimony.

I want to briefly flesh Greenleaf’s argument. As I argued elsewhere the historical evidence for this is fairly sufficient. The disciples feared that they would meet the same fate as Jesus did if they were found to be associated with him, which they were for a full three years. According to our gospel testimony we are told that they went into hiding behind locked doors following the crucifixion (John 20:19), they were also afraid to publicly talk about Jesus (John 7:13), and during Jesus’ arrest they fled (Mark 14:50; Matthew 26:56).

However, as Greenleaf observed, this group of fearful men had a radical transformation. According to the book of Acts we find that the apostles boldly proclaimed the risen Jesus with the resurrection was their central message. Both Jesus’ apostles Peter and John are imprisoned for this (Acts 4), and in Acts 5 we see that apostles are arrested, imprisoned, and flogged. Acts 12 informs us about the martyrdom of James, the brother of John, and another imprisonment of Peter. Stephen was stoned to death after his witness before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6–8). The first statewide persecution of Christians is reported as being under Nero in 64 AD as reported by Tacitus (Annals 15.44:2–5) and Suetonius (Nero 16.2). Although persecution was sporadic and local, from this point forward Christians could be arrested and killed for proclaiming the name of Jesus. According to Revelation John is said to be in Patmos where he was possibly exiled to (1:9). Clement of Rome (writing around 95 AD) attests to the persecution and martyrdom of both Peter and Paul. Therefore, according to the criterion of independent attestation, that the disciples and Paul underwent a radical change of heart and mind is widely considered historical. As Greenleaf himself observed:

“Their master had recently perished as a malefactor, by the sentence of a public tribunal. His religion sought to overthrow the religions of the whole world. The laws of every country were against the teachings of His disciples. The interests and passions of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them. The fashion of the world was against them… they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecutions, stripes, imprisonments, torments, and cruel deaths. Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay, rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution… They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted; and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency. It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact … If then their testimony was not true, there was no possible motive for its fabrication” (4)

I agree with much of what Greenleaf writes here though one needs to clarify one or two important details. For example, it is true that the historical evidence for the alleged deaths of some of the disciples is shaky at best and thus lacks apologetic value. However, there is evidence for the deaths of at least some early, and very important, Christians. Historically speaking we can be confident of the martyrdoms of the Apostle Paul, Stephen, Peter, James (brother of John) and James (brother of Jesus) for their proclamation of the risen Jesus. These men make a powerful case for their “undoubting conviction” that Jesus had been raised from the dead (5). This fact, which holds academic consensus (6), is what Greenleaf could not explain away if Jesus had not be raised from the dead.

Greenleaf went on to boldly claim that “According to the laws of legal evidence used in courts of law, there is more evidence for the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than for just about any other event in history” (7). We need to clarify this statement.

For instance, I fully agree that the historical evidence for the resurrection is compelling. However, I’d definitely contend that it’s going too far to claim that it is the best attested fact of ancient history. As I argued the evidence for the resurrection is sufficient enough to ground reasonable belief, and on that end I agree with Greenleaf.

Nonetheless, as a former skeptic who initially sought to disprove the resurrection, Greenleaf was obligated to conclude that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead. Not only did that prove to him that miracles do happen but that God also exists. He subsequently rejected his atheism and converted to Christianity, and ended up becoming one of the most important thinkers in the development of Christian apologetics. He reported his findings in his 1846 work An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice of which readers can access in PDF format here.

References.

1. Way of Life. 2013. Men Who Were Converted Trying to Disprove the Bible – Part 1 of 3. Available.

2. Y-Jesus. Harvard Law Professor Examines the Evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection. Available.

3. Y-Jesus. Ibid.

4. Greenleaf, S. 1874. Ibid.

5. Greenleaf, S. 1874. Ibid.

6. Bishop, J. 2015. 45 Scholar Quotes on Jesus’ Resurrection Appearances. Available.

7. Greenleaf, S. 1874. Ibid.

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7 responses to “Harvard Law Professor, Simon Greenleaf, Converts to Christianity After Trying to Disprove Jesus’ Resurrection.

  1. Simon Greenleaf was a lifelong Episcopalian. There is no evidence that he was ever an atheist or skeptic.

  2. If Grenleaf says he had been a skeptic/Atheist, that is proof enough for me. We can find numerous church-related people from among various denominations who themselves made it clear that they did NOT believe in God. Their church attendance was a fashionable thing to do, for them! James

  3. Christians should really consider this scenario:

    This morning you woke up and your car keys are missing. You tear the house apart and still cannot find them. You go out in front of your house to check the front door, the drive way, and your car but still do not find your keys. Your neighbor, who is a professional psychic, asks what is going on. You tell her about your missing keys. She consults her psychic tea leaves and they tell her that a group of space aliens took your keys last night. She says that a space ship hovered over your house at approximately 3 AM, two of the aliens descended onto your roof, entered your house, walked out with your keys, levitated back into the space ship, and then flew off into the night sky.

    Your neighbor publishes this story on her weekly psychic blog.

    Within days, several of your neighbors report having seen “something” above your house the night of your missing keys. Some even claim to have seen the aliens on your roof.

    There is no other evidence to suggest why your keys are missing.

    Question: Should you believe this very extraordinary explanation for your missing keys just because there are eyewitnesses and it is the only story that exists?

  4. I’m confused by the claim that James was Jesus’s brother. There were only 2 apostles named James. James the son of Alpheus (Luke 6:13-16) and James the son of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56 and Matthew 4:21).

  5. James, Since you enjoy testimonies, and Simon Greenleaf, I thought I’d share this with you: In Dec. 2003 I rec’d and email from a lawyer and former Religious Right advocate (who used to appear on TV to give the views of the Religious Right) named Pat Swindall (no relation to the evangelical author with the differently spelled but similar sounding last name). Pat knows everyone who is anyone in the Religious Right, and he and I had a long phone conversation. Pat related one story in particular about a pastor who phoned him after Pat had left the fold. The pastor told Pat about another lawyer who used to be a professed atheist but who converted due to the weight of the evidence, namely, Simon Greenleaf, who wrote the famed RULES OF EVIDENCE and also defended the veracity of a literal resurrection account. Today there is even a Simon Greenleaf school of Christian apologetics. Pat listened, and told the minister that he had indeed read THE RULES OF EVIDENCE by Simon Greenleaf, and that by Greenleaf’s own rules, the case for the resurrection never would have made it to the witness stand, because it is second hand information. The Gospels do not provide first-hand eyewitness information, but second hand information. The Gospels of “Matthew, Mark and John” were written anonymously, while the Gospel Luke admits it is repeating stories told by others, not something the author saw himself. And church tradition admits Mark and Matthew were later converts rather than eye-witnesses. Nor is the author of the Fourth Gospel mentioned by name in the Gospel itself, aside from mentioning in the next to last chapter that “we” wrote it, while in the last chapter it says it was written by “the beloved apostle,” and that chapter could have been added later, since the next to the last chapter features a perfectly natural ending, and the last chapter simply echoes the ending in the next to last chapter and tries to connect the Gospel with a singular yet very important unnamed “beloved apostle,” perhaps because readers felt that the “we” in the previous chapter was a bit unconvincing. [Theologians have suggested different identities for the “beloved apostle,” one theologian even suggested it may have been written by “Lazarus.” In any case, the Gospel itself says in the next to last chapter that it was written by “we” not by a single individual. Nor do we know who the “we” refers to, probably a later community of Christians, who again, probably were not first-hand eyewitnesses. Nor does the fourth Gospel contain a word about the transfiguration of Jesus at the top of an unnamed mountain that the first three Gospels say was a tremendous miracle but allegedly witnessed by only three apostles, one of them being John. But if that particular late-written Gospel was indeed written by John the apostle, it seems odds that John would fail to record a story about such an incredible miracle that only he and two other apostles were privileged to see.] That was what Pat Swindall and I discussed. But here are some of his own words from the original email he sent me:

    patswindall@juno.com writes:

    Ed:

    I’ve read so many of your websites that I feel as though I already know you. I, too, am a former fundamentalist. I became a Christian in 1972-73, while a first year law student at the University of Georgia.

    In March, 1975, I passed the Bar Exam in Georgia and began practice in the Spring of 1975. That same year I became active with two Christian ministries, Young Life and Prison Fellowship. I subsequently met Chuck Colson and, after many telephone and face-t0-face conversations with him and, after meeting with two several of his friends who were then in Congress, Mark Siljander and Dan Coats, I decided to run for Congress. Just before running for Congress, I married my wife, Kimberly Nan Schiesser, who was a graduate of Duke (where she was a Varsity Cheerleader. In 1984, I defeated a five term incumbent named Elliott Levitas.

    While in Congress, I became somewhat of a spokesperson for the religious right, appearing on occasion on shows like CNN’s Crossfire as the right-winger. While in Congress, as a result of being on the Judiciary and Banking Committees, I also had the privilege of meeting Barney Frank, whom I still consider to be a great friend.

    I hosted a live talk show on a local Atlanta Christian Radio Station (WNIV, 970). The format was a daily discussion of “Politics and Religion.” About two years ago, I quit doing the show because I began to rethink my fundamental beliefs, starting with the “inerrancy of Scripture” doctrine.

    If you’re interested in my story, I’d love to talk with you.

    Pat Swindall

  6. GREENLEAF AN ATHEIST/AGNOSITC? NO.

    All the evidence we have demonstrates Simon Greenleaf was a lifelong Episcopalian. Greenleaf’s letters and other written works have been preserved and digitized at Harvard. “Series IV.” relates to “Religious Matters,” 1826-1850: “Greenleaf’s extensive involvement with Christ Church in Cambridge, as well as other religious matters is well documented in this Series. The Series, arranged alphabetically and divided into two Subseries, also includes his correspondence with a variety of individuals discussing church activities as well as his activities and involvement with other local protestant denominations and religious organizations.”

    Simon Greenleaf reached the position of being on the Standing Committee for the Episcopalian diocese of Maine in 1827. He was at the Maine Episcopalian Convention of 1831 and at the Maine Episcopalian Convention of 1832. There are also 40 letters Simon Greenleaf wrote to James Henry Elliot from 1830-1837 concerning the importance of missionary work and maintaining Episcopalian traditions. This was all before Greenleaf became a professor at Harvard in 1833, let alone wrote his apologetic treatise in 1846, The Testimony of the Evangelists, Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice.

    Nor do I recall many if any “professed atheists” from the early 1800s in America, but there were quite a few deists. And Greenleaf attended and taught at Christian-run colleges, so it would have been scandalous if he had professed “atheism.” Merely questioning the NT authors’ use of OT passages as if they were “prophecies of Christ” caused great scandal in the early 1800s as in the the case of George Bethune English at Harvard. To be a “professed atheist” at that time and place would have been very out of the ordinary.

    Nor was Greenleaf ahead of his time in other matters. He delivered a public lecture “On the Legal Rights of Women,” in 1839. In it he approved denying women the right to vote, or hold political office, or join the military, because he viewed women as not being predisposed to such pursuits, just as he viewed men as not being suited for household chores. His lecture caused a stir among some local women, one of whom wrote a letter to Greenleaf asking him to see her side of the issue. Not sure he ever did, but there’s a collection of Greenleaf’s letters and other writings at Harvard that has been digitized

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