Monday, May 20, 2013

Were Early Non-Christians Apathetic About The Gospels?

It's common for critics of Christianity to suggest that non-Christians were highly apathetic about the religion in its earliest years. Christians were able to make up stories about Jesus and early church history, and largely get away with it, due to the apathy of the surrounding culture. Or when early opponents of the faith corroborate a Christian claim, it's suggested that they did so for no good reason, that they were uncritically accepting what the Christians of their day told them. I've responded to that sort of objection in the past. See here regarding the alleged apathy behind Jewish corroboration of the empty tomb, for example. Or here regarding apathy more generally. Something other than apathy, such as contempt, could be appealed to. Whatever motive is attributed to the early non-Christians, they supposedly were inactive in contexts in which they could have opposed Christianity. I'm referring to that inaction in general as a matter of apathy, though other factors could be involved as well.

There's an element of truth to the apathy objection. Many people in the ancient world, as in the modern world, would have been apathetic to some extent. Early on, a lot of people would never have heard of Christianity or would have heard of it, but dismissed it without much research. And so on. But the objection is often pressed too far. Take Bart Ehrman, for instance:

"Most problematic of all, it is nearly impossible to imagine any tangible historical context within which a Christian would write two such large volumes [Luke and Acts] (together, they take up approximately one-fourth of the entire New Testament) and deliver them over to a Roman official with any real expectation that he would read them, let alone be influenced by them. It is much more likely that these books, along with all of the other Gospels, were 'in-house' literature, written by Christians for Christians, rather than evangelistic or propagandistic texts. Who in the outside world would bother to read them? Who on the inside would be foolish enough to think they would? It is worth noting that the first reference to any outsider having any clue as to what was in these books does not come for nearly a hundred years after the production of Luke-Acts (the reference is in an anti-Christian writer named Celsus)." (The New Testament [New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012], 138-139)

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the Theophilus addressed by Luke was already a Christian. Let's also assume that John 20:31 is referring to strengthening the faith of people who were already Christians rather than leading people to become Christians. Still, what sense would it make to suggest that the authors of those gospels thought their appeals to eyewitness testimony, fulfilled prophecy, etc. could strengthen the faith of Christians, but not lead a person to become a Christian? It's not as though evidential concepts like an appeal to eyewitness testimony are only applicable to people who are Christians. One of the reasons why the gospels, Acts, and other early Christian documents are used so much in modern Christian apologetic and evangelistic efforts is that those documents have persuasive value for non-Christians, not just believers. Luke and John refer to wanting to produce knowledge and faith in their readers (Luke 1:4, John 20:31). Why should we assume that these were only a knowledge and a faith that would supplement what Christians already had? Why add such a qualifier when neither author states or implies it and there's no problem with reading their comments without the qualifier? Even if Luke and John were writing only to Christians as their original audience, it's doubtful that they thought their gospels could only be persuasive to Christians. It's also doubtful that they expected no non-Christian to ever read what they had written. It's even more doubtful that the early Christians in general held such a view.

The early Christians often refer to their own conversion through reading the Biblical documents, such as the Old Testament prophets, as well as the ability of those documents to lead others to become Christians. See the examples discussed here. I see no reason to think the same didn't occur with the gospels and Acts in particular.

Furthermore, it's ridiculous to suggest that non-Christians wouldn't have wanted to interact with Christianity in such depth, to the extent of reading Christian documents, until around the time of Celsus. Christianity became a significantly large movement long before then. Christians were interacting with Jewish and Gentile opponents in depth for a long time before Celsus wrote his treatise (e.g., the interactions mentioned in Acts, The Dialogue Of Jason And Papiscus, and Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho).

Ehrman's reference to Celsus is wrong. Christians were expecting non-Christians to read the gospels, and some knowledge of gospel material is reflected in non-Christian sources, well before the time of Celsus. Ancient Jewish tradition attributed to the first century reflects detailed knowledge of Jesus' teachings in Matthew 5 (see R. Travers Herford, Christianity In Talmud And Midrash [Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003], 146-147). Eusebius refers to Quadratus and many others around the time of the apostles distributing copies of the gospels to non-Christians they were evangelizing (Church History, 3:37). About half a century before Celsus wrote, Aristides expects non-Christians to have access to a gospel he cites and invites them to read it and be persuaded by it (Apology, 2). Trypho, a Jewish opponent of Justin Martyr, comments that he's read one or more of the gospels (Dialogue With Trypho, 10). Justin places his exchange with Trypho in the 130s, close to fifty years before Celsus' comments. Theophilus of Antioch, writing at about the same time as Celsus, expects non-Christians to be able to read the New Testament documents and encourages them to do so (To Autolycus, 3:15). Shortly after Celsus wrote, Tertullian encourages non-Christians to "examine our sacred books, which we do not keep in hiding, and which many accidents put into the hands of those who are not of us" (Apology, 31).

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