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Did Marco Polo Lie?
by Farrell Till

1996 / July-August

We often hear biblicists argue that there is as much proof for the historicity of Jesus and the events attributed to him in the New Testament as there is for the existence of Julius Caesar and other historical characters. They claim that those who reject biblical characters and events have no logical basis for accepting anything that we have learned through historical records. A recent controversy surrounding a well known historical character will illustrate the erroneous thinking of those who so argue.

The March 24, 1996, issue of the Peoria (Illinois) Journal Star ran an Associated Press story about recent challenges to the historical accuracy of Marco Polo's tales of his travels in China. In 1295, Marco Polo returned to Venice after 24 years of travels and told of his adventures in China. British historian Frances Wood, however, has recently published a book Did Marco Polo Go to China? in which she seriously questions whether the Venetian explorer's travels ever took him into China proper. "It is a terrific story," she says. "The only trouble is that there is no evidence to support it. Like so many other great historical legends, the story is a myth."

Marco Polo reported that he had spent years exploring China for the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, but Wood found evidence that this is at best an exaggerated claim. Among other flaws that she found in her critical analysis of Marco Polo's tales was his failure to mention the Great Wall of China, the Chinese tea-drinking ceremonies, and the widespread practice of foot-binding. The Associated Press article stated that other historians have also questioned whether Polo actually went to China but that it has been difficult to make inroads against the "prevailing view."

This challenge to a deeply en- trenched "historical" view illustrates how wrong biblicists are when they assume that scholars accept everything that has been taught as historical facts. True scholars constantly subject history to critical analysis and make intelligent judgments about which claims are credible and which ones aren't. The authorship of the plays traditionally attributed to William Shakespeare has been challenged by several scholars of English literature. In "Those Amazing Biblical Numbers" ( TSR, Winter 1995, pp. 5-8), William Sierichs, Jr., cited historians who have questioned the accuracy of the numbers that Herodotus attributed to the armies of the Persian emperor Xerxes. (See also Sierichs's letter on page 12 of this issue.) In our own times, we have witnessed challenges to the "official" versions of what happened in Dallas, Texas, the day President Kennedy was assassinated and at Waco, Texas, at the Branch Davidian Compound. In other words, historical scholars don't just pick on the Bible out of some devious "liberal" conspiracy to discredit a book that is important to Christianity. They apply their principles of scientific investigation to all historical claims in a scholarly search to determine what probably did and what probably did not happen.

When biblicists object to historical scholars who apply to the Bible the same investigative methods that they use in evaluating the accuracy of secular history, they are actually demanding that the Bible be granted some kind of privileged status. In the case of Marco Polo's silence on such matters as the Great Wall of China and the practice of foot-binding, historians like Frances Wood are recognizing the improbability of Marco Polo's not mentioning such unusual landmarks and customs if he had indeed traveled as extensively in China as he claimed. This silence is recognized as a legitimate reason to question the accuracy of his other reports. If such a method is proper in the critical analysis of secular history, why would Bible believers consider it improper to use the same method in the critical analysis of biblical history?

The answer is simple: biblicists know that critical analysis of the Bible will destroy its credibility. Let's consider a situation somewhat like Marco Polo's silence on Chinese landmarks and customs that surely would not have escaped his notice had he traveled in China as extensively as he claimed. The gospel of Matthew states that an earthquake struck Jerusalem at the moment Jesus died and that graves were opened after which "many saints who had fallen asleep were raised" (27:51-53). These many saints went into the city and "appeared to many." If such an event had actually happened, surely any other person present on the scene at the time would have included it in any account of that day that he himself might later write, yet the gospel of John (traditionally ascribed to the apostle John who was allegedly present at the crucifixion) said nothing at all about this remarkable phenomenon. Neither did he mention the three hours of darkness at midday, when the sun's light failed, that all three synoptic writers put into their gospels (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). How likely is it that references to events as remarkable as these would have been omitted in any historical accounts written by people who were present when they happened?

There are only two reasonable conclusions to reach in this matter: (1) If the apostle John was on the scene of the crucifixion, his failure to mention the three hours of darkness at midday and the earthquake that opened the tombs of "many" saints is reason to believe that neither event happened, or (2) if either or both really did happen, their omission from John's gospel is reason to believe that it was not written by an eyewitness to the phenomenal events of that day. In saying this, we are being no more critical of the Bible than historians are when they weigh what Marco Polo did not say against what he did say in order to evaluate the accuracy of his records.

The problem posed by the omission of these phenomenal events in some of the New Testament documents is further complicated by the failure of contemporary secular writers to mention either the midday darkness or the resurrection of "many" saints. One would think that the resurrection of "many saints" and their subsequent appearance to "many" in the city would have created such a stir that word of it would have spread abroad even in a time that had no rapid communication systems. When this event allegedly happened, Jewish communities existed all over the known world, so surely some of the "many" in Jerusalem who saw these "many" resurrected saints would have told about it in their visits and letters to relatives and friends in other countries, yet there is no known mention of it outside of Matthew's gospel and apocryphal works whose authenticity is rejected even by the church.

The three hours of darkness at midday poses an even bigger critical problem. One might conceivably imagine how that the resurrection of the "many" managed to go unmentioned in contemporary secular records, because knowledge of it in other regions would have depended on contacts with the "many" witnesses in Jerusalem who had seen these resurrected saints. Although it is highly unlikely that all who had had contacts with those "many witnesses" would have failed to leave written records of such a remarkable tale, we will concede that such historical silence could at least fall within the range of far-fetched possibility. The term many would not denote all, so let's try to imagine that these "many" and the friends and relatives they talked to about the event just all happened to be people who did not leave written records. Such a scenario, although very unlikely, may have been possible, and we will concede that point for the sake of argument.

The matter of the mysterious darkness at midday would have been entirely different. This would have been something witnessed not just by "many" but by all who were up and about that day. Furthermore, it would have been a phenomenon noticed not just by the people in Jerusalem but by people in other regions. The synoptic writers described this as a darkness that fell over "all the land" (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33). The Greek word for land in both texts was ge, which was the same word used to denote the entire earth, in the same way that the French language has one word, terre, for both "land" and "earth." It was entirely possible, then, that the synoptic writers meant to say that the darkness fell over all the earth. Indeed, the word ge in Luke's account (23:44) was translated earth in both the KJV and the NKJV.

At the very least, we have to conclude that the synoptic writers meant that this was a regional darkness. That being true, we must wonder why no one but the synoptic writers referred to it. In superstitious times when comets and brief eclipses often produced widespread panic, such a remarkable phenomenon as three hours of darkness at midday would have created such mass hysteria that records of it would have been left all over the hemisphere that had experienced it. But no such records exist. The Jewish historian Josephus, whose father was a priest in Jerusalem at the very time Jesus was allegedly crucified (The Life of Flavius Josephus, 2:7), mentioned nothing about a midday darkness that was followed by an earthquake and a mass resurrection from the dead. If such events as these had actually happened, surely Josephus's father would have talked about them enough in the family setting for Josephus to have known about them.

Inerrantists have made unconvincing attempts to claim that the midday darkness was mentioned by a writer named Thallus, but in actuality, the writings of this person have not survived. In A. D. 221 (circa), a Christian writer named Julius Africanus wrote the following statement that contains a reference to Thallus, who allegedly alluded to the midday darkness at the time of the crucifixion: "Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun--unreasonably, as it seems to me...."

This fragment from Thallus embedded in the writings of Africanus is much too abbreviated to determine for sure if it was indeed a reference to the alleged midday darkness mentioned in the synoptic gospels. Did Thallus indeed refer to a period of darkness at the time of the crucifixion, or did Africanus merely take a reference to an eclipse at some unspecified time and assume that Thallus was referring to a period of darkness when Jesus was crucified? Did Thallus declare as a matter of fact that such an event had happened or was he merely trying to offer a sensible explanation for something that had by that time (circa A. D. 52) become a part of Christian legend? We have no way of answering these questions, because we do not have the works of Thallus to examine the reference in context.

Christian "apologists" like Josh McDowell also cite a first-century writer named Phlegon as another witness to the midday darkness on crucifixion day. As it turns out, however, the writings of Phlegon have not survived either, and the only evidence we have that he ever wrote anything about this event are claims by Christian writers like Julius Africanus that "Phlegon mentioned the eclipse." Aside from the fact that the secondhand references from Africanus give only fragments of the original contexts, two other observations about these alleged testimonies seem in order: (1) it is rather strange that if such writers as Thallus and Phlegon really had referred to a three-hour period of midday darkness, the Christian community did not zealously preserve these works as non-Christian testimony to a significant event in the life of Jesus. (2) Both secondhand references say that Thallus and Phlegon called the darkness an "eclipse," but anyone who knows much at all about eclipses would know that their duration is measured in minutes, not hours. This would suggest that whatever these secular writings were referring to, they were not talking about a three-hour darkness.

In view of how remarkable a three-hour period of darkness at midday would have been, the uncertain testimony of secular historians whose works didn't even survive the vagaries of time seems flimsy indeed. Such an event would have been so phenomenal that firsthand testimony to it would surely have survived in various parts of the world that experienced the unexplained darkness. In closing the 14th chapter of his famous work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon said this about the midday darkness alleged in Matthew's gospel:

Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman Empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar... (emphasis added).

In a footnote, Gibbon said that the celebrated passage of Phlegon has been "wisely abandoned." Nevertheless, diehard inerrantists like Josh McDowell still resort to it in their desperation to find secular testimony to the phenomenal claims of the New Testament gospels. Critical students of the gospels, however, will apply to these phenomenal claims the same standards that historians like Frances Wood have applied to the tales that Marco Polo told about his travels in China. Through application of these critical methods, we can reasonably conclude that the failure of Seneca and Pliny, the two greatest natural scientists of that age, to mention a three-hour period of darkness at midday is compelling evidence that it did not happen.

To accord the Bible privileged status is intellectually dishonest. If any of its claims cannot pass critical scrutiny, they should not be believed.

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