Many of you know that I’m a history nerd. If it’s old, musty and cobwebbed, I’m probably interested. So, I love watching documentaries on historical figures, cultures and events. I recently watched one put out by the Smithsonian on Marco Polo. I had not actually read much of anything about Polo, but Netflix recently released a new series called “Marco Polo” that I had just watched and thoroughly enjoyed, so the documentary piqued my interest.
What I learned was surprising and presented me with a fascinating parallel. Marco Polo is the explorer’s Jesus. What the fuck does that mean you say? Well as it turns out, there is about as much proof of who Marco Polo was and accomplished as there is for Jesus.
I would hope that anyone who keeps abreast of current academic writings in the Atheist community will be familiar with Mythicists, those who have examined the evidence for a historical Jesus and determined the evidence is either woefully lacking or just not there. Richard Carrier and David Fitzgerald are two of the most recent people to write on the subject. I’m not going to get into the evidential issues for Jesus here, but suffice to say, I am firmly in the camp that Jesus was purely a myth cobbled together over centuries into the figure people revere today.
As I was watching the Marco Polo documentary, it struck me just how the historicity of Polo paralleled that of Jesus. Granted, I’d never studied the story of Polo before, but I also accepted that the little bit I did know must have happened. Boy was I mistaken!
So what do we know for sure about Marco Polo? Well a guy named Marco Polo lived in Venice in the 14th century, died in 1366, left a will and a list of possessions. That’s it. So where did this fanciful tale of him being a great merchant who travelled all over China and Mongolia come from? Well in the words of Ken Ham, “we have this book…”
Starting c.1400, a book detailing the adventures of Marco Polo appeared, charting his journeys through Asia and all the amazing exploits he lived through before returning to Venice. The book is purported to have been written by Polo himself, but there is no actual evidence of this. The earliest known copy is c.1400, a minimum of 34 years after the only verifiable Marco Polo died. So we know *he* didn’t write it.
From there, the book runs into the exact same issues that plague the Bible. In the 14th century, the only way to copy a book was by hand. This meant scribes would spend weeks writing out the book with quill and ink, often illustrating it with beautiful paintings and illuminations. The other thing that scribes were known for doing is embellishing the text. Few, if any others would have ever seen the original text aside from whatever scribe of scribes were tasked to copy it, so there’s no way to know if anything was added or subtracted from the original.
Yet we absolutely know that things were added to the original, since there are now over 100 versions of the book, and the newer ones are often vastly larger than the earlier versions. The documentary showed an early version who described a key Chinese city in one paragraph, and by the 1930’s version that same description had expanded to three typed pages. There’s no way integrity has been maintained.
Even if we could accept the story at face value, there are other problems with the account given. There are descriptions of people and creatures that are obviously fantastical, such as headless people whose faces protruded from their chests, a creature that was part human, part unicorn and illustrated with a bluish-purple fur, and of course dragons. Seems legit right?
So what if we just look at the earlier, purer versions? Those stories should be more believable right? You might think so, except that there is absolutely no evidence that any of Polo’s adventures ever happened. We have no reason to believe the Polo we know existed ever left Venice. Some have pointed to goods listed in his possessions that must have come from Asia like silks and more pointedly a quantity of rhubarb, but it is pointed out in the documentary that people did not have to actually go to China to obtain these items.
In fact, Venice was cosmopolitan enough that these goods could have been purchased from within the city without ever having left. If the actual Polo did do some travelling, he still could have obtained the goods at any point along the centuries-old trade routes without having to go to China.
Then there is the problem of the Chinese records of Polo’s travels. There are none. Not one shred of evidence for Marco Polo or his uncle and father who supposedly traveled and did business extensively throughout the region. Polo is said to have served the Chinese Emperor for over twenty years, yet there is no mention of this anywhere. I would think that an Italian merchant serving in the Imperial court would garner some notice by someone, but that just isn’t the case.
The Chinese records aren’t the only one missing important things either. If we go back to the tales that Polo supposedly wrote about his time in China, he leaves out a few key details about Chinese culture, like chopsticks, tea and foot binding, things that were prevalent in the upper echelon circles Polo was travelling in. Yet he says nothing of these. He can tell you in detail about the dragons and headless people but not a peep about eating your food with two sticks? Hell, he doesn’t even mention the Great Wall, which was a technological and engineering marvel of the period. Surely he would have at least heard of such a magnificent architectural feature? Apparently not. He must have been overwhelmed by all those Tibetan nymphomaniac prostitutes he wrote about.
So we are left with a book that we can be reasonably sure Polo never wrote, centuries of embellishment and changes to said book, accounts of things we know couldn’t be true, no corroborating evidence and a lot of conjecture. Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? One thing that Polo has above Jesus; at least we know there was A guy named “Marco Polo”. Whether he ever left Venice or did anything of note at all, we’ll likely never know. However, I’m quite certain he never met a dragon.
The documentary is called “Mystery Files: Marco Polo” produced by the Smithsonian in 2011. It’s currently available on Netflix.
An illustration from an early version of the Marco Polo story, depicting the unicorn-man.