Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Apathetically Crucified

One of the difficulties faced by skeptics like Dave Wave is that they not only have to dismiss the early Christians as undiscerning and mistaken, but also have to argue that the early enemies of Christianity were at least apathetic, if not worse. When discussing early acknowledgment of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem by non-Christian sources, Dave wrote:

"As for your cite of early Jewish tradition that a man's birthplace was important, you are now assuming that Jesus was important enough to motivate the local people to be investigated that far, when the only evidence for his importance to other people is a book written by biased zealots who have every reason to make as good an impression on their readers as possible."

The arguments of the early opponents of Christianity are weak, and they sometimes corroborate significant claims made by the early Christians. For example, the early Jewish opponents of Christianity acknowledge Jesus' performance of apparent miracles and the fact that His tomb was empty (Matthew 28:11-15; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian, On Spectacles, 30), and they either acknowledged or tried to avoid discussing Jesus' fulfillment of Micah's Bethlehem prophecy (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:51). As a result, critics of Christianity often suggest that not only were the early Christians highly undiscerning and careless, but so were the early opponents of Christianity. Supposedly, Christianity could have been refuted, but wasn't, because the early opponents of the faith didn't have the means and/or desire to do so.

There can be no reasonable denial of the fact that there were means to refute Christianity in its earliest generations, if its claims were false. Eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles would have been alive throughout the first century and well into the second century. Polycarp, for example, a disciple of multiple apostles, lived into the second half of the second century. Genealogical records, which would be relevant to Jesus' alleged Davidic descent, are known to have still been accessible at least several decades after Jesus' death. Other documents, including documents no longer extant, also would have been available. Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate probably would have produced some documents surrounding Jesus’ execution, and Luke knows of “many” accounts of Jesus’ life circulating (Luke 1:1). The gospel accounts of Jesus’ enemies looking into His background, asking Him questions, and trying to find witnesses against Him are both logical and consistent with what we know from ancient Jewish sources about how perceived false teachers were treated. Given the nature of the claims being made by the early Christians, including many public events witnessed by many people, the religion would have been refutable at significant points if it was false.

Considering their ability to refute Christianity if Christianity was fundamentally untrue, did the early opponents of the religion have much of a desire to refute it? Or were they more apathetic?

Nobody would deny that Christianity, being a Jewish religion, would initially have been unheard of in many Gentile regions of the world and would initially have been of less concern to Gentiles than to Jews. But what about the early Jewish opponents of the faith?

How was Jesus, the founder of the religion, treated? He was publicly opposed by the leaders of the nation, to the point of having Him tortured and crucified. That sort of response doesn't suggest apathy. Paul was a persecutor of the early Christians, and the book of Acts gives many other examples of extensive Jewish efforts to oppose the religion, with some Gentile assistance along the way. Stephen was stoned to death. James, son of Zebedee, was beheaded. The Jewish historian Josephus writes of James, the brother of Jesus, being murdered. The Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus write of Christian persecution under the emperor Nero. Paul writes of Christian persecution as if it was a widespread and ongoing issue (2 Corinthians 11:23-33, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16), as does Peter (1 Peter 2:12, 4:12-19). Paul and John write letters from prison, Paul is beheaded, Peter is crucified, Ignatius is given to wild beasts, etc. Many Jewish arguments against Christianity are handed down from generation to generation, as we see in the New Testament, Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho, Origen's Against Celsus (Celsus was a Gentile with Jewish sources), the Talmud, etc. Ignatius, writing early in the second century, refers to disputes he had with (apparently) Jewish opponents of Christianity (Letter to the Philadelphians, 8), and it's reasonable to conclude that such disputes were occurring frequently both before Ignatius' time and afterward, as we see reflected in Matthew's gospel and Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho, for example. Justin refers to how the Jewish opponents of Christianity "have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world" to argue against the faith (Dialogue with Trypho, 108). All of these facts, as well as others that could be cited, suggest that the early Jewish opponents of Christianity were far from apathetic about the religion.

What was the size of Christianity at this point in time? Christians would have been only a small percentage of the population early on, but nobody knows just how small. Some of the best indicators we have suggest a size significant enough to warrant a lot of attention from the Jewish leadership. Luke, who is demonstrably reliable on historical matters, cites thousands of converts in the book of Acts and refers to "a great many" of the priests converting (Acts 6:7).

Critics often try to undermine Luke's testimony in a number of ways. They'll suggest, for example, that ancient authors sometimes used numbers in symbolic or deliberately exaggerated ways. Thus, when Luke refers to three thousand converts at Pentecost, for example, he might not mean that there literally were three thousand. But a literal three thousand isn't unreasonable, as Ben Witherington explains:

"In the first place, the population of Jerusalem at feast time was quite large, perhaps even as high as 180,000 to 200,000, and interestingly enough careful estimates have shown that the temple precincts could even accommodate such a huge crowd. In the second place if there was even close to such numbers in the temple area, 3,000 would have been a distinct minority of the crowd....This [conversion of 3000 people] no doubt would have drawn the attention of the Jewish authorities rather rapidly, as Acts 3 shows." (The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998], p. 156)

Furthermore, the fact that ancient sources sometimes used numbers in a less literal manner doesn't justify assuming a less literal usage every time we encounter a number in an ancient source. We have to have a reason for thinking that a number is less literal. When the gospels refer to Jesus' twelve disciples, are we to assume that He actually had fifty-eight disciples? Or when Paul refers to going to Jerusalem after fourteen years (Galatians 2:1), should we think that he actually went there after two years? We can't just assume that every number used in every context in an ancient source can be dismissed as non-literal. We know from comparing Luke's work to that of Josephus, for example, that Luke was more careful with numbers, so we have good reason to trust him.

Another passage in Acts that's often criticized is 21:20. It's suggested that there couldn't have been so many Christians in Jerusalem at the time. But the passage doesn't limit its description to Jerusalem. The fact that the person speaking was in Jerusalem at the time doesn't logically lead to the conclusion that he's speaking with Paul about people in Jerusalem and nowhere else.

We have no good reason to doubt Luke's numbers. We have many good reasons to believe them.

Early in the second century, the Christian author Aristides would address the following comment to the Roman emperor:

"This is clear to you, O King, that there are four classes of men in this world:--Barbarians and Greeks, Jews and Christians." (Apology, 2)

Thus, Aristides not only considers Christians one of four distinct classes of men, but also expects the emperor to recognize them as such.

Apparently, the account of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem was so well known in the early second century that not only was the Roman emperor aware of the birthplace, but he also was aware of the specific location of the cave within Bethlehem. Early in the second century, the emperor Hadrian planted a grove of trees in honor of the god Adonis at the location of Jesus' birthplace, as a deliberate insult to Christianity:

"Both Jerome and Paulinus of Nola provide evidence that the cave in Bethlehem, under the present Church of the Nativity, was identified as the birthplace [of Jesus] before the time of [the Roman emperor] Hadrian - thus almost into the first century. Hadrian (117-38) marked the site by planting a grove of trees there in honor of the Roman god Adonis." (John McRay, Archaeology & the New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2003], p. 156)

It doesn't seem that the early opponents of Christianity were particularly apathetic about the religion. Some people would have been somewhat apathetic, and some wouldn't have even heard of Christ. But there wasn't nearly enough apathy to make skeptical theories about the origin of Christianity plausible. The nature of the early anti-Christian arguments suggests that there wasn't much apathy. Why claim that Jesus performed His miracles by the power of Satan if not many people were paying much attention to Christianity early on and thus people weren't confident that He performed any miracles to begin with? Or why refer to Jesus' tomb being empty because His disciples stole the body if not much attention was being given to Christianity and thus nobody knew whether the tomb was actually empty? Why not just respond to the Christian claim of an empty tomb by saying that nobody knew whether there was such a tomb or by saying that nobody knew whether Jesus' body was ever there? The fact that the Jewish authorities acknowledged the tomb's existence and its being empty after Jesus' body was placed there suggests that they had reliable evidence to that effect.

The best explanation for the weakness of the early arguments against Christianity is that a stronger case wasn't possible. The basic facts being asserted by the early Christians were true.