Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Historical Nature Of Early Christianity (Part 2)

Oskar Skarsaune, a professor of church history who has specialized in the study of Justin Martyr, writes:

"Justin counters this by implying that the Gospel accounts are historically reliable in the ordinary way of such accounts. The gospels were written by Jesus' disciples or their successors, who faithfully and reliably remembered what Jesus had said and done. There is nothing more to it, and nothing more is needed. Justin evidently sees considerable argumentative value in the fact that these Memoirs [the gospels] were put into writing at an early stage, by Jesus' closest disciples, the apostles, or by their immediate followers. We therefore do not have to rely on oral tradition only, transmitted through a large number of intermediary transmitters....The biblical prophecies are shown to be divinely inspired by the fact that what they predicted in advance actually happened." (in Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, edd., Justin Martyr And His Worlds [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2007], p. 73)

In Justin's Dialogue With Trypho, we see his Jewish opponents corroborating some of the gospels' claims about Jesus, without any indication that a fictional genre is being addressed. For example:

"you [non-Christian Jews] have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilæan deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven." (108)

Justin repeatedly challenges Trypho by citing Jesus' uniqueness in human history: His virgin birth (66), the fact that there had been no Jewish prophet since Jesus (87), etc. But if the virgin-born prophet of Christianity was just a fictional figure, and Jews could duplicate the Christian accomplishment by writing their own fiction anytime they wanted to, what would be the significance of Justin's argument? You can imagine the dialogue:

Justin: "No other man was born of a virgin."

Trypho: "Give me something to write with and I'll change that."

Justin also thought there was a public record, which he calls "the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius" (First Apology, 34) that corroborated Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. The record he refers to might be the gospel of Luke, but his wording seems to be an unlikely way of describing a document that says so little of Quirinius. It seems more likely that he's referring to government records of the census. Multiple other sources refer to such a record as well. Why would people who thought things like Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the census of Luke 2 were fictional appeal to government records for corroboration?

Irenaeus frequently appeals to common evidential concepts, like the earliness of a source (e.g., Clement of Rome in Against Heresies, 3:3:3) and diversity of witnesses (e.g., churches throughout the world in Against Heresies, 1:10:1). Eric Osborn, a scholar who specialized in the study of the early church, noted Irenaeus' appeal to such common evidential standards in many places (Irenaeus Of Lyons [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], pp. 6, 23, 127-128, 199, 203). The patristic scholar John McGuckin refers to such standards put forward by Irenaeus as "commonsense rules" (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 185). Irenaeus was concerned about historical evidence and often appealed to it when arguing for his understanding of Christianity.

Regarding the gospel of Matthew, Irenaeus writes:

"The Gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews. For they laid particular stress upon the fact that Christ should be of the seed of David. Matthew also, who had a still greater desire to establish this point, took particular pains to afford them convincing proof that Christ is of the seed of David; and therefore he commences with an account of His genealogy." (Fragments, 29)

Notice the concern for evidence and the agreement with a traditional Jewish view of the historical fulfillment of prophecy.

Concerning the "we" passages in Acts, in which the author seems to have been present with Paul, Ireaneus writes:

"As Luke was present at all these occurrences, he carefully noted them down in writing, so that he cannot be convicted of falsehood or boastfulness, because all these particulars proved both that he was senior to all those who now teach otherwise, and that he was not ignorant of the truth." (Against Heresies, 3:14:1)

How could Luke have been present at these events with Paul if Acts is a work of fiction written in a later generation? If Acts had been written in Irenaeus' lifetime, as some argue, how likely is it that he and so many others around the same time would be so wrong about the book's origin and wrong in the same way? And Irenaeus' comments about Acts have implications for the gospel of Luke, since the two documents have the same author.

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