Simon Greenleaf was a luminary in legal jurisprudence during the early 19th Century. He became a lawyer in 1806, and advanced to become the reporter for the Maine Supreme Court. In 1833 he became a professor at Harvard Law School, retaining the position through the late 40’s. He is famous for writing two (2) works:
1) His Treatise on Evidence, written in 1844-46; and
2) Testimony of the Evangelists in 1847
The second work makes Christian apologists salivate. No less than Drs. Geisler & Turek’s book I don’t have enough Faith to be an Atheist makes the claim:
Simon Greenleaf, the Harvard Law professor who wrote the standard study on what constitutes legal evidence, credited his own conversion to Christianity as having come from his careful examination of the Gospel witnesses.
This is repeated and regurgitated on numerous internet sites:
Dr. Greenleaf is considered by many to have been one of the greatest legal minds we have had in the U.S. He was formerly an outspoken skeptic of Christianity and who set out to disprove the deity of Christ. In the end he concluded that the Resurrection was true “beyond any reasonable doubt.” Greenleaf became a Christian after studying the evidence for himself.see here
Of course the story grows to his being instigated by a student’s challenge. See Snopes for the common theme of student challenging professor.
Do a google search on Greenleaf being an atheist and you will hit literally 1000’s of sites (including the infamous Wikipedia.) And, this morning in my perusal of blogs, I saw this platitude repeated once more when Wintery Knight indicated, “[S]imon Greenleaf…assessed the evidence as [an] atheist and became [a] Christian.”
Having seen this so many times, I decided to verify.
Was Simon Greenleaf an atheist? Did he attempt to disprove the resurrection and become convinced by the evidence?
Ahh…in short…no. Some apologist seems to have leaped to this conclusion, and the next copied him/her, and the next copied him/her and so on, until each is copying the other, never attempting to verify it in any way. If 40,000 Google hits say its true—it must be, right?
First we should note Mr. Greenleaf’s own words about the subject. There are none. Nowhere that he claims to be an atheist (quite the opposite as we shall see in a minute), nowhere where he claims this started off as an attempt to disprove the Resurrection. Nothing. The testimonials and foreword in the 1874 version, edited by Tischendorf make no mention of Greenleaf’s desire to disprove the Resurrection, nor his theistic belief being changed by the study.
Nothing contemporary indicates he ever was an atheist, or even a theist who disbelieved the resurrection. All the evidence we have demonstrates Simon Greenleaf was a lifelong Episcopalian! He is reached the position of being on the Standing Committee for the Episcopalian diocese of Maine as of 1927. He was at the Maine Episcopalian Convention of 1831 And at the Maine Episcopalian Convention of 1832
Remember, this was all before he became a professor, let alone write his treatise on evidence.
But the nail in the coffin is this Christian who has reviewed Mr. Greenleaf’s writings and agrees this is nothing but a myth.
Simon Greenleaf was an early 19th Century lawyer who wrote a good book on Evidence. We don’t use it anymore. He used information which is now outdated to substantiate his own belief. He wasn’t an atheist; he wasn’t convinced by the evidence. He already believed and looked for support.
Time to let Simon Greenleaf rest in peace.