Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Alleged Apathy Of Christianity's Early Enemies

One of the problems for skeptics of Christianity, when they address the resurrection and when they address other issues, is that the early enemies of the faith were ineffective in answering it. It's not that they didn't attempt to refute Christianity or didn't have the means of refuting it if a refutation was possible. They made attempts, and they had the means. From the arguments the New Testament authors respond to and from what we read in Josephus, Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, Origen's Against Celsus, the Talmud, etc., we have a lot of information about how the earliest enemies of Christianity responded to the religion. Their arguments were bad, and they weren't bad merely because of apathy or distance. The early opponents of Christianity weren't apathetic, and some of them were close enough to Christianity's origins (geographically, chronologically, and in other ways) to have made a better case against it if a better case could have been made.

Much of what's disputed by modern skeptics wasn't disputed by the earliest opponents of Christianity. While some modern skeptics will deny the existence of Jesus, the early enemies of Christianity assume His existence. While many modern critics will deny that something like half or more of the New Testament was written by the purported authors, such a large degree of skepticism about the New Testament's origins seems to have been unknown in the earliest centuries.

Other examples could be cited, but the point is that the modern skeptic not only has to propose widespread memory losses, hallucinations, etc. among the early Christians, but also has to propose widespread apathy, carelessness, or other forms of incompetence among the earliest enemies of Christianity. Typical are the following comments I was recently directed to in a skeptical forum:

"After their leader was crucified, they could have simply spread the word that he had arisen on the third day. Mighty Jesus had arisen, and they were his special disciples! Being an inconsequential group, nobody would have bothered to investigate them."

Notice the reference to Jesus' crucifixion, followed two sentences later by a reference to how the early opponents of Christianity might have been apathetic. Does crucifying a man suggest that you're apathetic about him and his followers? Would anybody reading the writings of Paul, including Paul's testimony about how he had persecuted Christians, come away with the conclusion that "nobody bothered to investigate" and that early Christianity was considered "inconsequential"?

The author goes on to comment:

"Later, as the cult gained in size and became 'respectable,' any serious investigation was out of the question."

We have reports of people who met Jesus living into the early second century (see, for example, Eusebius, Church History, 4:3:1-2). And people who knew the apostles lived as late as the second half of the second century (Polycarp). Multiple sources refer to written records kept by non-Christian sources, records relevant to the life of Jesus, into the late first century and beyond. We know, from sources like Justin Martyr and Origen, that the early opponents of Christianity had developed large numbers of responses to the religion on a wide variety of issues. Just as Christians had memories and the ability to pass on information from generation to generation, so did the early opponents of Christianity. The problem for the modern skeptic is that the early opponents of Christianity didn't have a good case. Thus, the modern skeptic finds himself not only trying to dismiss the early Christians as unusually undiscerning, but also trying to dismiss the early enemies of Christianity as unusually incompetent.

The author of the piece quoted above goes on to compare early Christianity to "cult groups" and Heaven's Gate in particular. So, the early enemies of the religion were apathetic about the followers of the man they had crucified, and the early Christians were similar to members of Heaven's Gate. He tells us that he has "plausible scenarios" like these that "easily" avoid the Christian view of early church history.

His reasoning is easy to accept, if you don't think about it much. When you read his article, you see a pattern emerge. Over and over again, he proposes theories that might sound plausible to people who are highly ignorant of the historical context of early Christianity, but fall apart on closer examination. It's the sort of reasoning that's appealing to people who are looking for reasons to dismiss Christianity without doing much to examine the evidence. There are too many errors in his article to address all of them here, but for those interested in more about the alleged apathy of Christianity's early enemies, see this article I wrote on the subject last year.

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