Friday, October 14, 2005

Skepticism and the Incarnation (Part 1)

Skeptics often radically underestimate the significance of the evidence for Christianity. They'll act as if the rise of Christianity can be explained without much difficulty by appealing to a series of widespread memory losses, hallucinations, unusual coincidences, and apathetic enemies, for example. Ancient people were highly gullible, they'll suggest, so shouldn't we be willing to conclude that they were able to believe and do things much different from what we would expect people to believe and do today?

One of the concepts that's often underestimated is the Christian belief that Jesus is God. People believed in all sorts of gods in the ancient world, didn't they? Isn't it to be expected that people who mistakenly thought that Jesus performed some miracles might conclude that He was God? What's so significant about that?

There are indications in the Old Testament that the Messiah, or some other future historical figure, would be God Himself. Isaiah 9:6, for example, refers to a future Davidic figure as God:

"Given the prevalence of divine kings in parts of the ancient Near East (De Vaux, Israel, 111; even Akenaton in 'The Amarna Letters,' 483-90 in ANET, passim), one sin to which Israel’s and Judah’s rulers had not succumbed (De Vaux, Israel, 113), one may question whether Isaiah would have risked implying that God would be Israel’s ultimate Davidic king if that was not what he meant…Tg. Isa. 9:6 [a Jewish commentary on Isaiah 9:6] deliberately alters the grammar to distinguish the Davidic king from the Mighty God." (Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], n. 135 on p. 295)

However, such passages in the Old Testament are small in number, and the general Jewish Messianic expectations around the time of Jesus didn’t involve a Divine figure. Non-Jewish religions weren’t expecting God to become a man either:

"It is indisputable that there was no Jewish expectation that God would become incarnate. Pagans believed that their 'gods' had taken human form from time to time; but their 'gods' were lesser gods with limited powers, not God, omnipotent and omniscient. There simply was no precedent, Jewish or pagan, for expecting an incarnation: God almighty truly taking a human nature. And that again is reason for supposing that the first Christians were not reading back into history something which they expected to occur." (Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003], p. 115)

"no second-Temple Jews known to us were expecting the one god to appear in human form" (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2003], p. 573)

Furthermore, not only were Gentiles not expecting God incarnate, but the concept even repulsed them. This is seen, for example, in Celsus, a second century pagan critic of Christianity:

"This assertion [the incarnation], says Celsus, 'is most shameful and no lengthy argument is required to refute it' (c. Cels. 4.2). God is not the kind of being who can undergo mutation or alteration. He cannot change from the purity and perfection of divinity to the blemished and tarnished state of humans." (Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 102)

When Jesus and the New Testament authors viewed Jesus as God, it most likely wasn’t because they were seeking to meet a societal expectation. Though people often suggest that it would be easy for a group to come to believe that its leader was God, the fact is that such exaltation of a religious leader isn’t common, especially if it would happen as rapidly as it would have to have occurred within early Christianity:

"Already for him [Paul] the eternal Son of God had become a real man in space and time, in Judaea, and only a few years previously. This is a quite incredible and revolutionary message, without analogy in the ancient world!" (Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], p. 151)

Craig Keener writes:

"While disciples often revered their teachers (though many also felt free to disagree respectfully with them in time), even among Greeks first-generation students rarely turned their teachers into gods, at least in the pre-Christian period. Neither Plato (who was quite interpretive) nor Xenophon deified Socrates, nor did they appeal to his resurrection and continuing presence. How much more implausible is it that Jewish monotheists would do so? That we hear of no early Christian reaction against such teaching in the period between Paul and John – that is, during the era from which most or all of our NT comes – suggests that a common understanding developed from something in Jesus’ own life or teaching, before or after the event of the resurrection….That a first-century Palestinian Jewish movement would within its earliest decades already hold a consensus that their founder rose from the dead and was divine Wisdom is remarkable, considering that we have no comparable evidence for the deification of other first-century Jewish messianic figures. It seems that something distinctive within the movement, rather than merely following a common first-century Jewish social pattern, produced this consensus. It is difficult to comprehend how, without the authority of Jesus’ teaching, so many monotheistic Jews in the early church would have simultaneously come to emphasize Jesus’ divine character, and, while debating circumcision, food laws, Jerusalem’s authority, and other points, fail to have deeply divided over this aspect of Christology." (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 301-302, 308)

The belief that Jesus is God, particularly appearing as early as it did and among people who were so close to Jesus and sometimes skeptical of Him (James, Paul, etc.) is remarkable. It suggests that He did some highly unusual things that would lead people to such a conclusion. Tomorrow, I'll address an attribute associated with deity, one that Jesus would have to have had in order to be God, and it's something often underestimated or even ignored by people considering the evidence for Christianity.