Sunday, October 04, 2009

Tertullian On Christianity And Paganism

James White recently posted a video on his blog concerning Dan Barker's misrepresentation of Justin Martyr, a misrepresentation that's common among modern skeptics. Similar passages are found in Tertullian, in which he draws some vague conceptual parallels between Christianity and paganism. Like Justin, Tertullian notes differences between Christianity and paganism as well, and he notes Christianity's superior historical credibility. Concerning the virgin birth, Tertullian writes:

"And so the supreme Head and Master of this grace and discipline, the Enlightener and Trainer of the human race, God’s own Son, was announced among us, born—but not so born as to make Him ashamed of the name of Son or of His paternal origin. It was not His lot to have as His father, by incest with a sister, or by violation of a daughter or another’s wife, a god in the shape of serpent, or ox, or bird, or lover, for his vile ends transmuting himself into the gold of Danaus. They are your divinities upon whom these base deeds of Jupiter were done. But the Son of God has no mother in any sense which involves impurity; she, whom men suppose to be His mother in the ordinary way, had never entered into the marriage bond." (Apology, 21)

Notice, too, that Tertullian refers to what's commonly supposed about Jesus, namely that He was conceived through Mary by normal sexual means. Elsewhere in the same section of his Apology, Tertullian comments:

"Then, too, the common people have now some knowledge of Christ, and think of Him as but a man, one indeed such as the Jews condemned, so that some may naturally enough have taken up the idea that we are worshippers of a mere human being."

Note, again, that Tertullian is describing how "the common people" view Jesus. Unlike Dan Barker and other modern skeptics who cast doubt on Jesus' existence, the non-Christians of Tertullian's day accepted His existence and the historicity of events like His condemnation by the Jewish people. It wasn't just a handful of non-Christian individuals who affirmed Jesus' existence (Josephus, Tacitus, Trypho, Celsus, Lucian, etc.). Rather, His existence, along with other details claimed about Him by mainstream Christianity, were commonly accepted by ancient non-Christians.

I recommend reading Tertullian's Apology, in addition to Justin Martyr's First Apology. They have a lot to say about how Christianity compared to paganism, not only conceptually, but also in terms of the evidence offered for their belief systems, their moral standards, etc. The comparison isn't as favorable to modern skepticism as people like Dan Barker would have us believe.

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