Sunday, August 8, 2010

Conspiracy as History?

At the end of last year I reviewed the book The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story ever sold by author Acharya S/D.M. Murdock. While I have only completed the review for the first six chapters, I believe the point has been made that the book is not a work of history. A historian must be conversant with historical method, the ancient evidence and scholarly discussions. Sadly, Ms Murdock fails on all three points.
I discovered that my review was recently shared with Murdock by one of her fans. Her response:
This person's opinion is irrelevant...They just make up whatever crap comes their way - whatever it takes to shore up the faith.
When legitimate historical issues are dismissed in such a way it is not hard to understand why her attempt at history has turned out so bad. In order to push a conspiracy theory it is essential that the theorist view the evidence as irrelevant or as it was so tactfully put by Murdock, "crap". While the historian adjusts their theory in light of careful consideration of the evidence, the conspiracy theorist picks and chooses the evidence to confirm their preconceived conspiracy theory. This is evident throughout the work, whether it be simply dismissing historical sources as forgeries (e.g. Tacitus) or by being oblivious to their very existence (e.g. numerous sources on persecution of Christians, early NT manuscripts and patristic citations, etc.)

An example I raised in the review has to do with Murdock on Augustine of Hippo. Without any attached citation Murdock writes:
Furthermore, the great “Christian” saint Augustine was originally a Mandaean, i.e., a Gnostic, until after the Council of Nicea, when he was “converted,” i.e., promised a prominent place in the newly formed Catholic Church, such that he then excoriated his former sect. (60)
Every point is  factually wrong. Augustine was never a Mandaean. Prior to his conversion to Christianity he was a Manichaean. There is no confusion about this in the primary historical sources- Confessions is filled with discussions and his experience with Manichaesim. Then there is the chronological impossibility of the claim. Augustine was born in AD 354 and converted to Christianity ~387. The council of Nicaea was AD 325. A yet to be born Augustine negotiating a prominent leadership position at the Council of Nicea is a hard picture to swallow. But this is what conspiracy theories masquerading as history demands of the reader.

The pre-existent Mandaean spirit of Augustine, Nicea 325
When her theories are chronologically plausible they often lack explanatory power. In the sentence immediately preceding the above on Augustine, Murdock writes that Ireaneus was actually a gnostic as there was apparently a zodiac on the floor of the church at Lyons. The problem is that Irenaeus is famous for Against the Heresies, a work defending orthodoxy against heresies including gnosticism. How does Murdock reconcile this difficulty? She just ignores it. A few pages later she writes that,  " Irenaeus's time, around 170, the Gnostics were still so powerful that Irenaeus felt compelled to spend a great deal of effort refuting them, even though he himself was Gnostic." (68) What are we to make of this?

Maybe D.M. Murdock should take her own words seriously: "They just make up whatever crap comes their way - whatever it takes to shore up the faith."


  1. The mind boggles! I was asked to read Gardner's 'Bloodline of the Holy Grail' a while back, so I feel your pain. I managed to wade through it, but like you, I ran out of steam (and almost the will to live) before finishing my review.

    BTW, I absolutely love Casper, I mean the pre-existent Mandaean spirit of Augustine!! Classic!

  2. It is mind boggling to read. What is worse are the reviews I have read that repeat something along the lines of "I checked everything in this book and it was true!!!!!!" What on earth were these people checking and where?!?

  3. I have to commend you on getting to the point and doing it well. I write refutations of this kind of nonsense every now and then, and it's so hard to keep it short. Invented history infuriates me.

    I may hold onto this blog just so that I can be reminded how to mix accurate refutation, brevity, and the judicious use of sarcasm. I *never* do this good a job.

  4. Thanks. I strongly believe images help convey the point quite effectively. Invented 'history' (an oxymoron?) is frustrating.

  5. I just came across your blog through this old post and I am glad to see that I was not the only one to notice the Augustine claim was chronologically impossible. My faith in humanity is now restored. I would also point out that, in the same passage, the zodiac on the church floor in Lyon is equally puzzling as Irenaeus was a second century bishop and we have uncovered no church floors in Lyon (or anywhere else) from the second century.