Simon Greenleaf – Debunking Another Apologetic Fable


Simon Greenleaf (1783 – 1853),[1] an eminent lawyer and founding father of the Harvard Law School, helped lay the foundations for state and federal rules of evidence. He also wrote the seminal work of modern legal apologetics, The Testimony of the Evangelists.[2] Numerous apologists tell variations of an inspiring story about how evidence for Jesus’ resurrection supposedly convinced this eminent professor of evidence to convert to Christianity.

Y‑Jesus,[3] an online ministry, tells one of the most elaborate versions of the story.[4] I prepared the following composite to include all the key elements of this oft-told tale.

Professor Greenleaf was an atheist or, in some versions of the story, a Jew.[5] He often made fun of his Christian students at Harvard Law School.[6] He spoke openly and often in the classroom about how the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a made up fairy tale, a hoax that could only be believed by ignorant, unenlightened fools.[7]

One of his students[8] (or two,[9] three[10] or “a few”[11] students) challenged him to apply rules from his “previously defined atheist legal writing”[12] to the resurrection account. After much prodding, Greenleaf accepted the challenge and set out to disprove Jesus’ resurrection.[13]

However, Greenleaf was stunned by the powerful evidence that Jesus had indeed risen from the tomb. could not explain explain away the dramatic


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Greenleaf
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testimony_of_the_Evangelists
[3] http://jesusonlineministries.org/y-jesus-welcome/
[4] http://y-jesus.com/simon-greenleaf-resurrection/
[5] http://voice-wilderness.org/possibly-the-greatest-insight-on-the-resurrection-of-jesus-you-will-ever-find/
[6] Norman L. Geisler, Patty Tunnicliffe, Reasons for Belief: Easy-to-Understand Answers to 10 Essential Questions 109 (Bethany House Publishers 2013).
[7] https://scottsauls.com/2014/11/harvard-atheists-agnostics-turned-christian/
[8] http://biblocality.com/forums/content.php?122-Simon-Greenleaf-Testimony-of-the-Evangelists
[9] https://books.google.com/books?id=7Uz7F7MBT4sC&pg=PA53&lpg=PA53&dq=simon+greenleaf+student+challenge&source=bl&ots=CvDEzyXv9l&sig=7lr0wLt_kU5HerkYyiRUfexlTxQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj11Lfs7JrWAhVMx2MKHXT7Dns4ChDoAQgwMAI#v=onepage&q=simon%20greenleaf%20student%20challenge&f=false
[10] http://y-jesus.com/simon-greenleaf-resurrection/
[11] https://jamesbishopblog.com/2017/03/20/harvard-law-professor-simon-greenleaf-converts-to-christianity-after-trying-to-disprove-jesus-resurrection/
[12] http://www.teapartytribune.com/2016/01/20/atheist-lawyer-agrees-the-bible-is-truthful-testimony/
[13] http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/edn-t012.html


change in Jesus’ disciples, and their subsequent willingness to suffer and die for their belief that Jesus had risen.

In a shocking reversal, Greenleaf accepted Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation for all the evidence. He then became a Christian and wrote his apologetic masterpiece, The Testimony of the Evangelists.[1]

Greenleaf wrote The Testimony of the Evangelists, but the fanciful story of the student(s) challenging the atheist professor has all the earmarks of a popular evangelical meme, the atheist professor myth.[2] These supposedly true accounts describe plucky – and sometimes violent[3] – students who humiliate atheist and/or evolutionist professors by proving God’s existence or disproving evolution. Such stories go back at least to 1972,[4] when Jack T Chick[5] published the first version of Big Daddy?[6] – the most widely distributed antievolution booklet in history.[7]
Intelligent Christians believe these simplistic depictions of evangelical students schooling their atheist teachers give believers a false sense of security and superiority.[8] Nonetheless, the 2014 Christian film, God’s Not Dead,[9] devoted an entire movie to just such a conflict between an earnest evangelical student and an absurd caricature of an atheist professor.
Apologists never cite any historical evidence for the false claim that Greenleaf was an atheist.[10] The real Greenleaf believed the “law presumes that every man brought up in a Christian land, where God is generally acknowledged, does believe in him, and fear him.”[11] He was a lifelong Episcopalian who would be appalled and offended by anyone


[1] http://www.allaboutthejourney.org/the-case-for-christ.htm
[2] https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Atheist_professor_myth
[3] http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/marine-todd
[4] https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/big-daddy-chick-tract-the-most-widely-distributed-anti-evolution-publication/
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Chick
[6] http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0055/0055_01.asp
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chick_tract#Anti-evolution
[8] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/10/gods-not-dead-but-this-trope-is/
[9] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2528814/
[10] http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/2010/10/simon-greenleaf.html
[11] https://books.google.com/books?id=Fx0-AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA507&lpg=PA507&dq=%22law+presumes+that+every+man+brought+up+in+a+Christian+land,+where+God+is+generally+acknowledged,+does+believe+in+him,+and+fear+him.%22&source=bl&ots=yNUY015mlQ&sig=Q2TlG123VGwQ-HOYQcOHNMZ0OWc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjk3-7fq5vWAhVD8GMKHYpDCvgQ6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q=%22law%20presumes%20that%20every%20man%20brought%20up%20in%20a%20Christian%20land%2C%20where%20God%20is%20generally%20acknowledged%2C%20does%20believe%20in%20him%2C%20and%20fear%20him.%22&f=false


who called him an atheist.[1] Before he began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1834, Greenleaf was on the Standing Committee for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine in 1827[2] and attended the Episcopalian convention of 1831.[3]
Greenleaf could not have converted to Christianity after being challenged by a student. Not only was Greenleaf a devout evangelical Episcopalian before he began teaching at Harvard Law School, he also claimed legal evidence supported his Christian beliefs. On August 29, 1834, Greenleaf gave a speech when he was named the Royall Professor of Law at Harvard..[4] Before Greenleaf began teaching any students, he explained:

Christianity founds its claims to our belief upon the weight of the evidence by which it is supported. This evidence is not peculiar to the department of theology; its rules are precisely those by which the law scans the conduct and language of men on all other subjects, even in their daily transactions. … The Christian religion is part of our common law, with the very texture of which it is interwoven. Its authority is frequently admitted our statute-books; and its holy things are there expressly guarded from blasphemy and desecration.

The plain and indisputable fact is that Prof. Greenleaf was never an atheist, and the apologetic stories about him trying to disprove Jesus’ resurrection are pure fabrication.


[1] Daniel D. Blinka, The Roots of the Modern Trial, Greenleaf’s Testimony to the Harmony of Christianity, Science, and a law In Antebellum America, 27 Journal of the Early Republic 293 (Summer 2007).
[2] https://books.google.com/books?id=_WpJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA264&lpg=PA264&dq=simon+greenleaf++episcopalian&source=bl&ots=XK5uIhNIF-&sig=vjYh9dVz5kzk_F8jKHeb8Hw9oIE&hl=en&ei=G2irTLK7GNf6nwel5JjdBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAjge#v=onepage&q&f=false
[3] https://books.google.com/books?id=T-UgAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA319&lpg=PA319&dq=simon+greenleaf++episcopalian&source=bl&ots=6K_gewH0Ws&sig=mpyxAYDjgzjMjtLMepSHy8LO83k&hl=en&ei=o2WrTPT_LIycnAeZ5JG8Bg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] https://books.google.com/books?id=5nhPAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA339&lpg=PA339&dq=A+Discourse+pronounced+at+the+Inauguration+of+the+author+has+Royal+Professor+of+Law+in+Harvard+University,+August+29,+1834.+By+Simon+Greenleaf.&source=bl&ots=J1LQM8H32L&sig=0LaYGrc9SR_ujARSlaVDrwTuT3U&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi6s9yIiJnWAhVP6WMKHS49BQAQ6AEIJjAA#v=onepage&q=A%20Discourse%20pronounced%20at%20the%20Inauguration%20of%20the%20author%20has%20Royal%20Professor%20of%20Law%20in%20Harvard%20University%2C%20August%2029%2C%201834.%20By%20Simon%20Greenleaf.&f=false
Courtesy of Bob Miller

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6 replies

  1. Due to a number of complaints regarding the truth of Greenleaf’s conversion, one of which was yours, I’ve taken the testimony down from my blog. The result was more of me receiving my information from mistaken sources rather than attempting to deliberately mislead.

    • I hear you, same goes for me. 🙂

    • I very much this article! Only one problem, where the author discusses atheist professors. Does one really need to itemize the number of ignorant “professors” who have bought into all kinds of nonsense? I can’t recall – may have been Chesterton – who said something along the lines of :”there is nothing so stupid but that some professor, somewhere, believes it.” No, I don’t have the author or exact quote, but it is along those lines, and somebody from the 19th or 20th C… not do I care to look up the exact quote. But here is the thing: You talk about the God is Not Dead movie. I have not seen it, but I can tell you this, that during my graduate studies at Univ. of Illinois, one of my profs, on finding out I was a Christian said (close, if not ipsissima verba) “Gee that’s such a shame. All my smartest students seem to seem to be Chfristians.”

      I can’t prove this interchange aboe is true to anyone else but myself, of course; however, I have serious problems defending a lot of academia, and the God is Not Dead thesis may have a lot more truth to it than this article implied.. Then of course, anyone who is familiar with Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution ought to be too.

      Otherwise, I am so glad for this article. Well done.

  2. You call this a fabrication, but then what about the Book Mr. Greenleaf wrote himself about the actual studies he did on the testimony of the apostles? He found that the testimony would have been admissible.

    • That has nothing to do with the fact that the widely circulated story of students challenging him etc. was a fraud. So he wrote a book on the Apostles, so what? What does one have to do with the other?

Luke 21:36 "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man."

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