Thursday, September 22, 2005

What Happened at the End of the First Century?

Have you ever noticed that skeptical theories about the origin of Christianity tend to place a lot of weight on the period from 70-100 A.D.? Often, three of the four gospels will be dated to that timeframe, some of Paul's writings will be alleged to have been written pseudonymously at that time, doctrines such as the physical nature of Jesus' resurrection supposedly were originated or popularized during that period, etc. These closing decades of the first century are often referred to as a sort of silent period in church history. We don't have as detailed a historical account of the events of that time as we have for the earlier decades in the book of Acts or for later generations from Irenaeus, Eusebius, and other sources. Skeptics consider these decades fertile ground for their speculative theories, so a large degree of their criticism of the early church falls on the shoulders of the people living at that time. Mind you, these people held responsible for fabricating so much of Christianity often can't be named, since they're figments of the skeptical imagination. But whoever they were, they must have done their work sometime around 70-100, after the death of James, Paul, and Peter.

There are some elements of truth to this view. The leadership of the church was significantly diminished after the persecutions of the 60s, and eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles would die over time. And we have no detailed account of the history of this period like we have for the earlier decades from Luke or for the time of Constantine from Eusebius, for example. But is it plausible to use the 70-100 timeframe as a receptacle for so many skeptical theories?

One of the most obvious problems with putting such heavy skeptical weight on this period is the ignorance and contradiction of such theories by the generations that immediately follow. Papias speaks of New Testament documents written by individuals such as Mark, Peter, and John (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39; see also here). He doesn't refer to Petrine communities or Johannine communities. It would be difficult to disagree with Martin Hengel when he writes:

"Therefore nothing has led research into the Gospels so astray as the romantic superstition involving anonymous theologically creative community collectives, which are supposed to have drafted whole writings." (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], p. 81)

Papias and other second century sources give historical details surrounding the authorship of the New Testament books, and they know nothing of the many authorship theories put forward by modern skeptics. Clement of Rome will refer to 1 Corinthians as written by Paul himself (First Clement, 47), and Polycarp will tell the Philippian church to follow what Paul himself wrote to them (Letter to the Philippians, 3). There's no concept of Paul writing part of the letter, followed by the churches or later individuals adding more content to those letters as they saw fit. Rather, men like Clement of Rome and Polycarp refer to these documents as having been authored entirely and only by Paul. According to these men, Christians are to hand on what they received from the apostles, not change it or add to it. When somebody like Marcion would alter the text of the apostolic documents, he would be widely condemned for it (Dionysius of Corinth, cited in Eusebius, Church History, 4:23:12; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:27:4; etc.). As Glenn Miller extensively documents, the earliest apostolic Christians and the second century church were opposed to pseudonymity (writing a document such as Titus or 2 Peter under somebody else's name).

What many of these skeptical theories are proposing, then, is that a series of events occurred in the 70-100 timeframe that are known to have been opposed by the earlier Christians and are known to have been opposed by the later Christians. Those events were not only unknown to the generations that immediately followed, but were even universally replaced by false accounts of what happened. A document such as Matthew's gospel would be written by some Matthean community, not by the individual Matthew, yet the generations immediately following would universally be ignorant of the community authorship and universally attribute the document to the individual Matthew. What we would be led to believe, then, is that the church up until about 70 practiced one thing, then radically changed from 70-100, then went back to its previous stance around the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. It's far more plausible to conclude that there was no such change in the 70-100 timeframe.

As far as I know, none of the earliest opponents of Christianity use any argumentation that would suggest a knowledge of some of these skeptical theories. Trypho, Galen, Celsus, and other early enemies of Christianity show no knowledge of a document like 1 Timothy not being written until decades after Paul died (As if nobody would notice!), nor do they seem to be aware that Christians didn't originate a belief in a physical resurrection of Jesus until a few decades after His death, for example. And none of the earliest Christians write as if they knew of any enemies of Christianity who were using such arguments.

Who was alive during the closing decades of the first century? We often think of leaders like James and Peter dying in the 60s, but, from a logical standpoint, it's highly unlikely that all of the eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus would be dead by 70, and any suggestion that all of the eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the apostles would be dead by then is out of the question. Even if they had all been dead, they would have passed information on to the next generation, and that information wouldn't be likely to be as radically misunderstood or altered as skeptical theories require.

But we don't have to rely only on what seems logical. We know of specific individuals who lived past 70, and we know that some of them held church offices. The apostle John lived until the end of the first century (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:30:3; Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John, 10:11; Eusebius, Church History, 3:18:1). Polycarp, who was born around 70, is reported by Irenaeus (who had met Polycarp) to have personally known multiple apostles. People often associate Polycarp with the apostle John, since John is so often named as a mentor of Polycarp, but Irenaeus tells us that he had known multiple apostles:

"I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the 'Word of life,' Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures." (Eusebius, Church History, 5:20:6)

"Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth" (Against Heresies, 3:3:4)

Thus, John must not have been the only apostle, or the only eyewitness of Jesus, to have lived into the late first century. Hegesippus, a second century Christian who gives us some historical information about the church in the late first century, mentions that a cousin of Jesus by the name of Symeon was alive and was a leader in the church at the close of the first century (Eusebius, Church History, 3:32:6). Papias, who lived in the late first and early second centuries, refers to a man named Aristion who apparently was a personal disciple of Jesus and was still alive (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:4), and he refers to the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:8-9) still being alive in his day (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:9). Papias probably was a disciple of the apostle John (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:33:4), and he refers to himself consulting apostles and their disciples (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:4). Both Papias and Quadratus (Eusebius, Church History, 4:3:2) report that people who had personally been raised from the dead or healed by Jesus lived down to their own time.

There was no silent period of early church history that was so silent as to make skeptical theories of the origin of Christianity credible. We know a significant amount about what was happening during the closing decades of the first century. The church was being led by men like the apostle John, Jesus' cousin Symeon, Papias, and Polycarp. Any view of Christianity that involves radical doctrinal changes in the closing decades of the first century, or involves a large percentage of the New Testament books being written pseudonymously or anonymously at that time, for example, is unlikely to be true.