Saturday, April 22, 2006

"There Were Many Still Remaining Who Had Received Instructions From The Apostles"

Critics of Christianity, like those who have been using the opportunities provided for them by the Gospel of Judas and The Da Vinci Code, often suggest that there was a lot of disunity among Jesus and the apostles. The writings of Paul are contrasted with what Jesus taught, for example. I remember when Russell Moore and Peter Boyles debated the death penalty on Lee Strobel's television program "Faith Under Fire", and Moore cited Romans 13:4 in support of the death penalty. Boyles' response was to dismiss the passage as the opinion of Paul. He then asked for evidence of what Jesus taught on the subject. Skeptics often will propose theories about the origin of Christianity that depend on a large amount of disunity among the apostles and other early church leaders. Richard Carrier of, for example, argues that Paul believed in a different type of resurrection than other New Testament authors. I saw one skeptic on America Online argue that the reference to false apostles in Revelation 2:2 has Paul in view. And people will often set Paul's view of justification against James' view, for example. Sometimes Jesus will be set against all of the apostles, Paul will be set against the rest of the apostles, James will be set against the apostles, or some other theory of disunity will be proposed.

Much can be said against such theories of early Christian disunity. For example, the early Christians acknowledged disputes among themselves (Mark 10:35-41, Luke 22:24, Acts 15:35-40, Galatians 2:11-21), so it can't be argued that the absence of any mention of the disputes skeptics propose is due to an unwillingness on the part of the early Christians to mention disputes they had with each other. From passages like Acts 15:2, 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, and Galatians 1:6-9, it seems unlikely that Paul would have remained so silent about disagreements with men like James, Luke, and John if he had disagreed with them on important matters like justification, the resurrection, and the deity of Christ. When Judas betrayed Jesus, he acquired a reputation that left many historical ripples in many places. His betrayal is mentioned in the gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians 11, the church fathers, etc. Why, then, would there be an absence of evidence for other alleged disagreements of a highly significant nature among the earliest Christians? Why, instead, do we see the earliest Christians repeatedly affirming unity among Jesus and the apostles: Paul (1 Corinthians 15:11, Galatians 2:7-10); Peter (2 Peter 3:1-2, 3:15-16); John (Revelation 21:14); Clement of Rome (First Clement 5, 42, 44); Ignatius (Letter To The Ephesians, 11; Letter To The Magnesians, 13; Letter to the Romans, 4); Polycarp (Letter To The Philippians, 9); Aristides (Apology, 2); The Epistle of Barnabas (5); etc.?

So much could be cited against these skeptical theories. My intention in this post isn't to address the subject in a lot of depth. What I want to do is mention one line of evidence I've been reminded of recently. It's from Irenaeus (who has been mentioned a lot in relation to the Gospel of Judas, since he refers to such a document).

Sometimes skeptics will suggest that what the church fathers said isn't of much significance, since not many of them were disciples of the apostles. It's true that we can only speak of a few fathers for whom we have good evidence that they were disciples of the apostles (Clement of Rome, Papias, and Polycarp). But other men who knew Jesus and/or the apostles are named (Aristion and Symeon, for example), and others are mentioned without being named. Irenaeus repeatedly refers to disciples of John, including one passage in which he has more than two people in mind (Against Heresies, 2:22:5), so he can't just be referring to Papias and Polycarp. Irenaeus also refers to how there were "many" people alive at the time of Clement of Rome who had been taught by the apostles (Against Heresies, 3:3:3). The fact that Irenaeus doesn't name all of these people doesn't make it reasonable for us to conclude that they didn't exist. We know that Irenaeus was familiar with Ignatius of Antioch, because he quotes what Ignatius wrote (Against Heresies, 5:28:4), even though he doesn't mention Ignatius' name.

While it's true that we can only name a few church fathers who probably were disciples of the apostles, other disciples of the apostles are mentioned without being named, and it's logical to conclude that many such people would live into the second century. The presence of such witnesses makes skeptical theories of radical apostolic disunity more difficult to maintain. It's also evidence against skeptical theories of radical early departures from apostolic teaching.

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