Monday, October 18, 2010

The Historical Nature Of Early Christianity (Part 1)

(This will be a three-part series.)

Papias described the origin of Mark's gospel as follows:

"Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely." (in Eusebius, Church History, 3:39)

If we don't begin with an assumption of a fictional genre, what's the most natural way of taking Papias' comments? He's referring to Mark's mediation of what was remembered of Jesus' actions and words by a historical witness who had contact with Jesus. He's discussing the historical memory of witnesses. Richard Bauckham discusses the evidence from Papias at length in his Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 12-38, 202-239. As he documents, Papias uses terminology that was part of the historiographical language of his day.

Bauckham also discusses a contemporary of Papias by the name of Quadratus (pp. 53-54). Here's what Quadratus wrote:

"But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were genuine:— those that were healed, and those that were raised from the dead, who were seen not only when they were healed and when they were raised, but were also always present; and not merely while the Saviour was on earth, but also after his death, they were alive for quite a while, so that some of them lived even to our day." (in Eusebius, Church History, 4:3)

Notice the interest in historical evidence. Notice that the people Jesus healed are historical figures. They aren't fictional.

Bauckham points out something else that should be noted. Quadratus is concerned with emphasizing that the people in question were "always present". He uses that phrase twice. The people who were the recipients of Jesus' miracles seem to have served as ongoing historical witnesses to the miracles. The early Christians were concerned with having such witnesses and emphasizing their presence.

Irenaeus refers to Polycarp as a historical witness who provided eyewitness testimony:

"I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse— his going out, too, and his coming in— his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received information from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures." (Fragments, 2)

"But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried on earth a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,— a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics." (Against Heresies, 3:3:4)


  1. Stephan Huller lays out an excellent argument for the character of polycarp being a creation of Irenaeous. See; the Stephan Huller link.


  2. Rich,

    The author of the series you've linked tells us that the series will be around three hundred pages long. I've read the first two segments of it and a little beyond that, and I see no reason to continue. He makes many false claims, doesn't offer documentation when he ought to, even when quoting somebody, and often makes comments that aren't even close to being coherent. He suggests that scholars have missed what he's seen, and he tells us that he'll inform us of "a towering figure in the history of ideas whose story has never been told before". Modern scholarship has missed this "towering figure in the history of ideas", but this blogger is going to inform us. He tells us that:

    "Patristic scholars from the last three centuries go out of their way of course to avoid accusing one of the revered Fathers of our Church of counterfeiting texts and identities"

    Apparently, even many atheists, agnostics, liberals, and other scholars who haven't been traditional Christians have had a desire to defend "one of the revered Fathers of our Church". In his second article, we're told:

    "You don't have to be a believer to want to maintain the status quo. There are a lot of scholars out there who just like to keep a tidy house."

    So, critics of traditional Christianity have been collectively more concerned about "keeping a tidy house" than they have been about the truth and refuting Christianity? Then why do they dispute traditional Christianity on other points, even rejecting such foundational concepts as God's existence and the resurrection of Jesus? They're willing to reject such concepts, but they keep Polycarp in place in order to "keep a tidy house"?

    (continued below)

  3. (continued from above)

    He writes:

    "Irenaeus was trying to found nothing short of a worldwide 'Catholic' tradition based on the claims and memories of this mysterious individual."

    No, Irenaeus' argument depends on not only the prior existence of his tradition, but also its widespread nature. That's why he names individuals other than Polycarp (Clement of Rome and Papias) and refers to others without naming them. See my discussion of Irenaeus' view of the church and tradition within my series on apostolic succession here. Irenaeus' general concept is corroborated by many earlier and contemporary sources and others living shortly after Irenaeus' time. Even if we ignored the earlier sources, the idea that all of Irenaeus' contemporaries and those who followed derived their views from him is absurd.

    The author you've cited makes a series of undocumented claims about how various New Testament and patristic documents are forgeries. He claims that "The false Pauline letters I and II Timothy and Titus are almost inevitably attributed to him [Polycarp]". Where's his evidence that those letters are "almost inevitably" attributed to Polycarp?

    He refers to alleged forgeries used to establish "the holy and great Catholic Church of Rome". Actually, Irenaeus didn't say much about Rome, and he sometimes disagreed with the Roman church. See my documentation in my series on apostolic succession linked above. Similarly, other sources that refer to Polycarp and corroborate his historicity don't say much about Rome and disagree with the ancient Roman church on some points (and disagree with Roman Catholicism on many points). See the examples documented here.

    Then we have the claim, in the second article in the series you've linked, that "If we disprove Polycarp we disprove St. John". What we know about John rests on what we know about Polycarp? No, it doesn't. There's some overlap, but most of what we know about John comes from sources other than Polycarp. For some examples, see here.

    You'll have to explain what's supposedly "excellent" about the argument in the series you've linked.

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  5. Richard,

    Why do you keep making so many disputed claims without supporting them? And why are you contradicting what you argued earlier?

    You initially said that there was no historiography or biography among the early Christians, that they weren't concerned with distinguishing their system from other systems in terms of veracity:

    "We really do not have any surviving historiography or biography from earliest Christian prose (from the first 3 centuries of the common era). They are all mythographies....The earliest writers make no visible effort to distinguish their tales from analogous stories and motifs recurring in the broader classical literary domain, except perhaps in terms of quality or degree of significance, never in terms of veracity or generics." (source)

    But now you acknowledge that they wrote in the genre of historiography and distinguished their system from others in terms of veracity:

    "All we get by then are folkstories that ever increasingly seek to root earliest Christian mythology in deep antiquity (to give it an ancient legitimacy or sheen, i.e. by commandeering the Hebrew prophetic tradition in service to early Christian propaganda and by claiming the distinctive status of specific texts as recording accurate history while all others were piled up fabrication)....Groups would denegrate the saints, apostlic legitimacy, and theological qualities of one group while assigning the highest veracity to those of their own. This was the political game of earlist Christian politics."

    You've changed your argument, and you've failed to support your revised position, just as you failed to support the earlier one that you're now contradicting.

    You write:

    "Quoting Eusebius will not help your case. He is far too late and he only cherry picks sources that signify and establish his own socio-religious program."

    Where's your supporting argument? Eusebius lived in the late third and early fourth centuries. You said that there was no historiography in "the first 3 centuries of the common era". How would Eusebius be "far too late"? Eusebius probably published the first edition of his church history before the year 300 (Paul Maier, Eusebius - The Church History [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1999], p. 16), and he would have begun preparing for it even earlier.

    Regarding Eusebius' honesty, see here.

    (continued below)

  6. (continued from above)

    You write:

    "If these were actual transactions in history, then the earliest Christians would forever have been obsessed with demonstrating, proving, and distinquishing that fact vis-a-vis the deluge of analogous tales bubbling up all throughout these periods in classical Mediterranean literature."

    As if there's no middle ground. Were men like Josephus and Suetonius "obsessing" about history, arguing in detail against every work that arose that they disagreed with? No, yet we recognize that they wrote works of a historical nature. Historians and those who do similar work are a minority in society. And the individuals who do that sort of work do it to varying degrees. Those who aren't doing work like that of a historian can still have some concern about historical matters, and that concern would vary among them as well, just as it varies among those who are more involved in historiography.

    You write:

    "Irenaeus, moreover, is too late to know or relay any facts about such matters."

    Too late to know what? He's not too late to be within the three-century timeframe you set. And he's not too late to remember his own experiences with Polycarp, to relay what he read in Papias, etc.

    You write:

    "You all behave as if such storytelling were either impossible or altogether alien to these ancient communities."

    That's a straw man that's already been answered. See my comments in the previous thread linked above concerning distinguishing among a book on history, a movie, and a comic book. I've never denied that there were ancient works of fiction and unreliable works of a historical genre. What I've denied is your unreasonable claim that there was no historiography among the early Christians, that you somehow know that Ignatius wasn't claiming that events like the resurrection were historical, etc.

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  11. Richard writes:

    "I have told you many many times now that I do support my claims. I simply have requested that you ask me for such support whenever or wherever you feel you would need it."

    As I explained in our initial discussion, you've repeatedly failed to support your claims after I asked you for evidence. Anybody interested can read the discussion here and see how often I disputed what you said without any evidence offered by you in response.

    You write:

    "If you really felt you could handle the discussion, you would address a point at a time in proper discourse like adults do. I have told you this now perhaps 5 times. Every time you do this, I shall not respond to your foolish arguments, but simply blow the bozo whistle on you."

    You just "blew the bozo whistle" on yourself. See our original discussion linked above. You repeatedly put up posts in which you addressed more than one point. You've done the same thing in this thread.

    You keep contradicting yourself.

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  13. Richard wrote:

    "bozo alert again... you have not asked for evidence. You just pop off with your aggressive effort to belittle and disprove what I have written, what we call 'contempt prior to investigation.' You are unworthy of my time, Jason, or the time of your readers."

    When somebody disputes what you say, that ought to be an indication that you need to support your claims. The idea that a desire for evidence has to be put in the form of a question doesn't make sense. Since you knew that you were entering a discussion with people who disagree with your position, in an apologetics forum in which evidence is expected to be given, why didn't you offer evidence on your own initiative? Why did you have to be asked for it? When I did ask you questions, you often ignored them.

    As for wasting people's time, I've been citing a lot of ancient sources and modern scholarship while you've largely been posting comments about what "bozos" you think your opponents are, how you think they need psychological help, etc. Do you think it's a good use of the readers' time for you to put up so many posts like your latest one above while ignoring the ancient sources and scholarship I've cited, ignoring the contradictions in your own claims that I've documented, etc.? If you're so concerned about the readers' time, why do you keep wasting it?

  14. Since Richard claims I haven't asked questions, let's consider some of the questions I've asked him in this thread alone (many more questions could be added from other threads):

    "And why are you contradicting what you argued earlier?"

    "Where's your supporting argument?"

    "How would Eusebius be 'far too late'?"

    "Were men like Josephus and Suetonius 'obsessing' about history, arguing in detail against every work that arose that they disagreed with?"

    "Too late to know what?"

    Those are five examples from one relatively short thread. And Richard was making claims he should have documented on his own initiative. But even when asked to support his claims, he didn't do it.

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  16. Richard,

    You still haven't explained:

    - why you didn't take the initiative to support your arguments without being asked to do so

    - why a desire for evidence would have to be expressed in the form of a question

    - why you kept ignoring questions I did ask you

    What you've done in your latest post is give us examples of questions I could have asked in response to comments made by you. Those examples don't address the three points above.

  17. Is this blog read, and commented on by Calvinists? I am getting the sense that some involved in the comments above are Calvinists to some degree.


  18. Rich,

    Most of the staff members are Calvinists and many of the readers are, but I'm not a Calvinist, nor is Richard. Since those are the only two people other than you who have been posting here, why would you refer to "some"?

    And what does "Calvinists to some degree" mean? Calvinists agree with other branches of traditional professing Christianity on the large majority of issues. There's some similarity between Calvinists and a lot of other groups.

    Why are you asking?

  19. Hello Jason,

    Ok, thanks for the info, I got the feeling that this blog was involved with Calvinism in some way. When I used the phrase “to some degree”, I was taking into consideration that some Calvinists might prefer the term “reformed” so if you ask if they are Calvinists they might say no, but they might say “yes” to being reformed. I was just trying to get a overall sense if the blog was in any way associated with Calvinism. Again, thanks for the info.


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  21. Richard wrote:

    "I do did not take the initiative at several points to support my arguments by primary textual citation because, just as I have stated now three or four times, I am unaware of just how familiar you are with the ancient data and to what extent you would need support of a statement."

    You've repeatedly acknowledged that you were arguing for a different view of early Christianity than we hold. It follows, then, that we didn't agree with what you were claiming. Why would you not offer documentation in such contexts?

    You wrote:

    "Questions are a non-aggressive way to assist with complicating and nuancing a position so as to establish clarity for the sake of subsequent critical discussion. Questions also imply an epistemic humility; they tacitly communicate to those reading 'Hey, I do not yet fully understand the position of my dialogue partner. I am polite and honest enough to make a gentleman's effort to have a clear understanding of the position being proposed.' This avoids ambushing strawmen, the rude behavior that you have displayed throughout our 'discussions'."

    As I documented earlier in this thread, I repeatedly asked you questions that you ignored. See my 4:13 A.M. post from October 20.

    Furthermore, go reread your own initial post at this blog, in the thread here. You didn't ask any questions. In later posts, you likewise frequently responded to other people's claims without asking questions. As I explained above, you keep applying standards to other people that you don't apply to yourself.

    You wrote:

    "I shall, however, endulgue your foolishness with but one last comment regarding Papias."

    And we know how reliable your claims about "one last" time are.

    You wrote:

    "Here again, you could have asked, 'In what way was Papias devalued or not preserved by that ancients, as you state?'"

    Or you could have said what you supposedly meant in the first place instead of expecting us to keep asking you for clarifications you could easily have included from the start. You don't ask us for such clarifications of our comments, but you keep expecting us to do it for you.

    And it would help if you'd respond to the Papias discussion in the right place. You're replying to comments I made in another thread, the one here.

    (continued below)

  22. (continued from above)

    You wrote:

    "To this I would simply state the obvious, why would we not possess many extant copies of Papias if he were the earliest great historian of the Apostolic period??"

    You keep expecting us to ask you for clarifications of your position, yet you ignore what we say about our own positions. We're supposed to anticipate qualifications you haven't yet offered, but you ignore qualifications we've already stated.

    As I've told you more than once, the issue isn't whether Papias was "the earliest great historian of the Apostolic period" or any such thing. Rather, the issue is whether he was engaged in historiography, whether he interpreted New Testament material in a historical manner, and other related issues. You keep changing the subject, which is a reflection of the weakness of the position you're abandoning.

    And people can fail to preserve a document for a variety of reasons. If you want us to believe that Papias wasn't preserved for reason X, then you need to make an argument to that effect rather than just asserting or insinuating it. There are many works of antiquity that have been lost, and for a variety of reasons. The failure of medieval sources to preserve a work doesn't necessarily coincide with how that work was perceived by earlier sources. Papias' historiography was surrounded with a lot of earlier, contemporary, later, and more significant historiography. The failure of medieval sources to preserve his work doesn't prove that Papias wasn't involved in historiography, didn't interpret the New Testament material in a historical manner, etc.

    You wrote:

    "Eusebius complains of his lack of precision and embellishment."

    In some contexts, but not in others. You need to address such distinctions, as I told you earlier. You keep bringing up arguments that have already been addressed.

    You wrote:

    "The fact that Papias only survives into the early Medieval period demonstrates how few manuscripts and how poorly curated the text actually had been down through ancient and late ancient times, which was my point, though delived in a far more abridged statement."

    Given how dishonest you've shown yourself to be, why should we believe your claims about what you supposedly meant to say?

    You'll have to explain why the survival of Papias' work well into the second millennium is equivalent to "the early Medieval period" and "ancient times". What you're doing is defining such terms in unusual ways in order to avoid admitting that you were wrong.

    You wrote:

    "This is just another sad example, one amoung perhaps 40 now, where my brief passing comment had years of thought and study behind it, yet you treated it as if it were sloppy and grossly misguided."

    When you repeatedly make false historical claims, refuse to explain why you made those claims when asked, repeatedly misspell words like "ante-Nicene" and "Origen", repeatedly resort to calling your opponents "bozo" and such without any accompanying argumentation, etc., I do come away with the impression that you're significantly ignorant.

  23. The Richard in this thread has since been identified as Richard C. Miller. You can read more about him and his unethical behavior here.