I am currently working on Who Ever Heard of Jesus?: Jesus Beyond the New Testament, the seventh book in my series Is Jesus a Pagan God?: Refuting the Copycat Claims, that deals with discussions of Jesus and Christianity (or lack thereof) by authors from the first through fifth centuries AD. One subject touched is the supposed scandalous comments by various church fathers that allegedly expose either that Christianity was a fraud, the authors were liars who would do anything to advance their cause, or various other terrible things.
As I have been working through these “scandals,” a definite pattern has emerged: either the ones making the charge are blatantly lying, completely incompetent, or they merely copied the passage from someone else without ever verifying the quote in its original context for its intent or even its existence. Indeed, there are numerous citations that simply cannot be found. Those promoting them give no citation or, if they do, it is not to the Church Father named but to some anti-Christian polemicist who themselves give no source. In other words, for all intents and purposes, the quote likely does not exist.
There are numerous such cases within the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Given the huge corpus of writings by this famous Church Father that have come down to us and the variations that can occur in translations from the Latin, citations are essential to verify the truth of such accusations. When none are to be found among many who use the source, one can suspect such “quotes” are completely bogus. This is even clearer when the earliest appearance of the quotation occurs within the last decade or so. In the case of Augustine, there are a few such “quotes” that, unless someone can show differently, may be safely assumed not to exist.
One classic example is the following one that appears in numerous websites. If a source is given, it invariably points to the Australian conspiracy theorist Tony Bushby. Given Bushby’s track record of incompetence as a researcher, this is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Since Bushby never gives a citation in Augustine, one may already wonder if such a source exists. In this case, I think I have found Bushby’s “source” and it is one more to add to his legacy of incompetence.
First of all, there is the “quote” itself. It is usually presented in the following manner:
Toward the end of his life, St. Augustine confessed that Christianity was ‘a religion of threats and bribes unworthy of wise men’.
As mentioned, a citation to Augustine is never presented. Just one to Tony Bushby.
While the latter never mentions a source, there is a likely origin – and it only adds to the Bushby legacy of bungling. My candidate for the source is Llewelyn Powys, a rather strident atheist and opponent of Christianity from the previous century, who regularly wrote of how terrible was religion in general and Christianity in particular. However, Powys should not be blamed since what he wrote could only be construed in the manner illustrated above by someone who is completely clueless – like Tony Bushby!
Powys, in An Hour on Christianity was discussing the reign of Julian the Apostate, the post-Constantinian Roman emperor who unsuccessfully attempted to reestablish Roman paganism. Powys was not very accurate himself as he gave the impression that it might have succeeded when, for all intents and purposes, Julian’s efforts were ignored by all but a few and Christianity quickly was reestablished after his death without missing a beat. But that point is not the focus of our investigation here. Rather, it is the fact that Powys mentioned a later comment by Augustine in passing, then described the supposed reaction of others (without any citation) during Julian’s reigm, and Bushby appears to have mistakenly placed the latter in the mouth of Augustine! Given Augustine was a mere boy of nine when Julian died, it is unlikely he held such opinions at the time!
Here is the passage in Powys’ book:
In the figure of Julian we are privileged to see the embodiment of the old classical world move sadly away. “That goat” with his bland bearded face may be taken to represent Roman order and Greek reason. He had been in close contact with Christianity in his childhood and he had reason to hate this form of human oppression with a deep hatred. “The orator Libanius praises Porphyry and Julian for confuting the folly of a sect which styled a dead man of Palestine’s god. Of a philosophical and poetical trend, Julian turned back to the state religions of the great classical ages. He set himself with deliberate purpose to torment these fanatical spiritual maniacs who everywhere beset the kingdoms of the earth. To spite them he encouraged the Jews, whose “indistinct ravings” were so hateful to him, to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem. He ordered the Christians to reconstruct the shrines they had destroyed. By his personal example in every possible way he encouraged his subjects to study once more the wisdom of antiquity. The old classical writers, “those spirits in prison” as Saint Augustine called them, were again established in honour. “The superstition of the Galilean” was derided as a gallimaufry of incredible legends, “a religion of threats and bribes unworthy of wise men.”
Note that that last comment, which matches our alleged quote exactly, was not said by Augustine but supposedly by unnamed Romans. All that applied to Augustine was his identifying some classical writers as “those spirits in prison.” The latter referred to some philosophers and others who hand an inkling of monotheism without benefit of divine revelation.
It thus seems likely that Bushby used this as his source and completely misinterpreted Powys’ comments. There is no such comment by Augustine and those who search for one do so in vain. Just as pathetic are those who mindlessly copy such tripe without a source and without so much as a proper citiation.