Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?
The five Main Articles following the Preamble present the basic case for the non-existence of an historical Jesus. Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," surveys the silence on the Gospel Jesus and Gospel events in the early epistolary record. Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?" examines that early record for a more realistic picture of the original faith and the context of its period. Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," presents the development of the Gospels (including Q) and their new Jesus figure as the founder of Christianity. The "Postscript" surveys the non-Christian record of the time and considers some general problems in current New Testament research. Finally, "The Second Century Apologists" examines the post-Gospel situation and the wider, non-canonical record of the second century. Discussions and arguments put forward in the Main Articles are developed in greater depth, with additional references and sources, in the Supplementary Articles (see Home Page), as well as in many Reader Feedback responses (see Reader Feedback Index).
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The Christian Apologists of the second century present us with
a dramatic picture of continuing diversity in the Christian movement
and, among most of them, a surprising and revealing silence on Jesus
The first 100 years of Christianity have received the greatest attention from Christian scholarship. Within the period up to about 130, so conventional wisdom has it, lie Jesus himself and the origins of the church, as well as all the documents which ended up in the canon of the New Testament. Also included are the surviving writings by that varied group known as the Apostolic Fathers, which reveal some of the internal conditions and conflicts within the growing movement. The period following, and running for another 100 years or so, was the age of the Apologists. These were men like Justin Martyr who presented and justified Christianity to an outside world which was largely hostile to the new faith.
In Parts One to Three of the Main Articles, I provided a picture of the origins and growth of Christianity which rejects the existence of an historical Jesus of Nazareth. One of the key features of that picture is the unusual diversity of expression to be found in the early Christian record: about the figure of Jesus, about Christian theology, ritual practice and views of salvation. This diversity points not to a human founder and single missionary movement proceeding out of him, but to a widespread and uncoordinated religious movement founded on various beliefs in a divine, intermediary Son of God, a wholly spiritual entity. A related feature is the virtually universal silence in that early record on anything to do with the human man and events known to us from the Gospels.
What do we find as Christianity enters its second 100 years? In fact, we find more of the same. Those who have studied the apologists have tended to make some surprising observations. They note how little continuity these writers show with earlier traditions. Their ideas often have nothing in common with those of the New Testament epistles and even the Gospels. There is no dependence on Paul. Moreover, such writers seem not to move in ecclesiastical circles. Even Justin, though he worked in Rome, has nothing to say about bishops and church organizations. And almost all of them before the year 180 (Justin being the major exception) are silent on the Gospels and the figure of Jesus contained in them. In fact, one could say that they pointedly ignore any historical figure at all.
This astonishing state of affairs, taken with the fact that the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles show no sign of surfacing in any other Christian writers until the middle of the second century, supports the conclusion that the figure of Jesus of Nazareth was a development in Christian thought which came to life only in the Gospels and gradually, throughout the course of the second century, imposed itself on the movement as a whole.
Let's take a closer look at the evidence supplied by the Christian apologists.
Scholars specializing in the second century have characterized the Christianity of the apologists as essentially a philosophical movement. Whereas the premier expression of Christian development in the first century, the one centered around Paul and his circles, was an apocalyptically oriented phenomenon with a strong Jewish flavor and preaching a dying savior, that of the apologists, who were all located in cosmopolitan centers across much of the empire, was grounded in Platonic philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism.
Justin, the apologist about whom we know the most, came to Christianity after having investigated all the other popular philosophies of his day: the Stoics, Peripatetics (based on Aristotle), the Pythagoreans. Finally, he was schooled in Middle Platonism, the predominant philosophical outlook of the era which colored everything else, especially in its strongly religious concerns about the nature of the Deity and its relation to humanity. When Justin encountered Christianity, he judged it the best version of contemporary philosophy. In Rome, he seems to have had no connection with any ecclesiastical body, but set up his own school, teaching Christian philosophy in the manner of pagan philosophers of the time.
And what was this 'Christian philosophy' as presented by the apologists as a group? There is no question that it had roots in Jewish ideas. It preached the monotheistic worship of the Jewish God, a God touted as superior to those of the pagans. For information about this God it looked to the Hebrew scriptures. It placed great value on a mode of life founded on Jewish ethics; again, something touted as superior to the ethical philosophy of the pagans. At the same time, it derived from Platonism the concept of a Son of God, a 'second God' or Logos (Word), a force active in the world and serving as an intermediary between God and humanity. This idea of the Logos was floating in the air of most Greek philosophies and even Hellenistic Judaism.
Thus the religion of the apologists has been styled "Platonic-biblical" or "religious Platonism with a Judaistic cast." It would seem to have grown out of Jewish Diaspora circles which had immersed themselves in Greek philosophy. (Justin and others, including the movement known as Gnosticism, provide evidence of heretical Jewish sects, with many gentiles attached, which had evolved a great distance from traditional Jewish thinking.) There is little to suggest that this religion proceeded out of the first century branch of Christian development surrounding Paul. There is none of Paul's or the Gospels' focus on the Messiah/Christ or the end of the world, and the apologists' views of salvation are rooted in Greek mysticism, not Jewish martyrology for sin. Instead, the two expressions seem like separate branches of a very broad tree.
Justin, and whoever recast the Gospel of John to include the Prologue, with its hymn equating the Logos with Jesus, came to believe that the intermediary Word, the spiritual Son of God, had been incarnated in a human figure as recounted in the Gospels. But is this true of the apologists as a whole? The amazing fact is, that of the five or six major apologists up to the year 180 (after that, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen are all firmly anchored in Gospel tradition), none, with the exception of Justin, introduces an historical Jesus into their defences of Christianity to the pagans.
Consider Theophilus of Antioch. According to Eusebius, he became bishop of the Christian community in that city in 168, but one has to wonder. In his treatise To Autolycus, apparently written toward the year 180, he tells us that he was born a pagan and became a Christian after reading the Jewish scriptures, a situation common to virtually all the apologists.
But what, for Theophilus, is the meaning of the name "Christian"? The Autolycus of the title has asked him this question. He answers (I.12): "Because we are anointed with the oil of God." (The name "Christ" itself means Anointed One, from the anointed kings of Israel.) In fact, Theophilus never mentions Christ, or Jesus, at all! He makes no reference to a founder-teacher; instead, Christians have their doctrines and knowledge of God through the Holy Spirit. Along with the pronouncements of the Old Testament prophets, he includes "the gospels" (III.12), but these too are the inspired word of God, not a record of Jesus' words and deeds. When he quotes ethical maxims corresponding to Jesus' Gospel teachings, he presents them (II.14) as the teaching of these gospels, not of Jesus himself.
And what is Theophilus' Son of God? He is the Word through whom God created the world, who was begat by him along with Wisdom (II.10). He is the governing principle and Lord of all creation, inspiring the prophets and the world in general to a knowledge of God. Yet Theophilus has not a thing to say about this Word's incarnation into flesh, or any deed performed by him on earth. In fact, he hastens to say (II.22) that this is not a Son in the sense of begetting, but as innate in the heart of God. Here he seems to quote part of the opening lines of the Gospel of John, the Word as God and instrumental in creation, but nothing else. Is this from the full-blown Gospel, or perhaps from the Logos hymn John drew upon? (The name "John", the only evangelist mentioned, could be a later marginal gloss inserted into the text; but see below.) Such writers, Theophilus says, are inspired men, not witnesses to an historical Jesus.
As for redemption, all will gain eternal life who are obedient to the commandments of God (II.27). There is no concept in Theophilus of an atoning sacrificial death of Jesus, a death he never mentions. And when challenged on his doctrine that the dead will be raised (Autolycus has demanded: "Show me even one who has been raised from the dead!"), this Christian has not a word to say about Jesus' own resurrection. He even accuses the pagans of worshiping "dead men" (I.9) and ridicules them for believing that Hercules and Aesclepius were raised from the dead (I.13). All this, in answer to an Autolycus who has asked: "Show me thy God."
Athenagoras of Athens, who worked in Alexandria, wrote around the same time, though one ancient witness places him a few decades earlier. He was a philosopher who had embraced Christianity, but he shows no involvement in any church, or interest in rituals and sacraments. In A Plea For the Christians addressed to the emperor, he says this of his new beliefs (10): "We acknowledge one God . . . by whom the Universe has been created through his Logos, and set in order and kept in being . . . for we acknowledge also a Son of God . . . If it occurs to you to enquire what is meant by the Son, I will state that he is the first product of the Father (who) had the Logos in himself. He came forth to be the idea and energizing power of all material things."
Unfortunately, in the course of 37 chapters, Athenagoras neglects to tell the emperor that Christians believe this Logos to have been incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He dissects contemporary Platonic and Stoic philosophy, angels and demons, as well as details of various Greek myths, but he offers not a scrap about the life of the Savior. He presents (11) Christian doctrine as things "not from a human source, but uttered and taught by God," and proceeds to quote ethical maxims very close to parts of the Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you . . . ." Other quotations he labels as coming from scripture, or from "our teaching." Are these ethical collections that are unattributed to Jesus? Athenagoras never uses the term "gospel"; he speaks of "the witness to God and the things of God" and enumerates the prophets and other men, yet he ignores what should have been the greatest witness of them all, Jesus of Nazareth.
With no incarnation, there is in Athenagoras' presentation of the Christian faith no death and resurrection of Jesus, no sacrifice and Atonement. Eternal life is gained "by this one thing alone: that (we) know God and his Logos" (12). In fact, the names Jesus and Christ never appear in Athenagoras. Yet he can say (11), "If I go minutely into the particulars of our doctrines, let it not surprise you." One might be forgiven for regarding this as blatant dishonesty.
The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus is often included with the Apostolic Fathers. But it is really an apology, a defence of Christianity addressed probably to an emperor, either Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius. Most scholars lean to the earlier date (c.130). The writer goes so far as to say that the ultimate God sent the Logos, his Son, down to earth, but no time, place, or identity for this incarnation are provided. The name Jesus never appears. The Son revealed God, but is not portrayed as a human teacher.
We find an allusion (9) to the Atonement: "He (God) took our sins upon himself and gave his own Son as a ransom for us," but his description of this act is based on scripture. No Gospel details are mentioned, no manner of the Son's death (if that's what it was), no resurrection. All this is in response to Diognetus' "close and careful inquiries" about the Christian religion. (The final two chapters of the sole surviving manuscript, which contain a reference to apostles and disciples of the Word, have been identified as belonging to a separate document, probably a homily from the mid to late second century.)
We turn now to Tatian, a pupil of Justin. He was converted to Christianity, he says, by reading the Jewish scriptures. At a later stage of his career, after apostatizing to the heretical sect of the Encratites and going off to Syria, Tatian composed the Diatessaron, the first known harmony of the four canonical Gospels. But while still in Rome, sometime around 160, he wrote an Apology to the Greeks, urging pagan readers to turn to the truth. In this description of Christian truth, Tatian uses neither "Jesus" nor "Christ" nor even the name "Christian." Much space is devoted to outlining the Logos, the creative power of the universe, first-begotten of the Father, through whom the world was made—but none to the incarnation of this Logos. His musings on God and the Logos, rather than being allusions to the Gospel of John, as some claim, contradict the Johannine Prologue in some respects and may reflect Logos commonplaces of the time. Resurrection of the dead is not supported by Jesus' resurrection. Eternal life is gained through knowledge of God (13:1), not by any atoning sacrifice of Jesus.
In Tatian's Apology we find a few allusions to Gospel sayings, but no specific reference to written Gospels and no attribution of such things to Jesus. Instead, all knowledge comes from God himself. Tatian says he was "God-taught" (29:2). He does, however, make a revealing comment about mythical stories, which I will return to in a moment. Finally, around the year 155, the first Latin apologist, Minucius Felix, wrote a dialogue between a Christian and a heathen, entitled Octavius. It too presents a Christianity without an historical Jesus, and in fact contains some startling features in this regard. I will examine it in some detail in the latter part of this article.
* * * *
Something extremely odd is going on here. If one leaves aside Justin, there is a silence in the second century apologists on the subject of the historical Jesus which is almost the equal to that in the first century letter writers. Commentators on these works, like those studying the earlier epistles, have scrambled to come up with explanations.
One is that the apologists were concerned first and foremost with preaching the monotheistic Father, the God of the Jews, while debunking the Greek myths with their all-too-human and morally uninspiring divinities. This is true. But it should not preclude them from devoting some space to the most essential feature of the faith, and besides, the apologists have no reluctance about bringing in the Son of God in the form of the Logos. In fact, the apologists as a group profess a faith which is nothing so much as a Logos religion. It is in essence Platonism carried to its fullest religious implications and wedded with Jewish theology and ethics. The figure of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of the Logos is a graft, an adoption which was embraced only by Justin.
Of course, the glaring anomaly which must be explained is this: how can an apologist be giving his pagan readers a meaningful picture of the Christian faith when he leaves out the most central of its elements, the figure of Jesus and what he had done for salvation? How was the reader to understand the history and origins of the movement without him?
Inevitably, commentators have been led to conclude that the omission—indeed, the suppression—of Jesus was deliberate. Pagan philosophers like Galen had challenged Christian thinkers that their faith was based on revelation rather than reasoned philosophical argument. They had ridiculed the idea of a crucified god. The heathen attitude had made it impolitic to speak of Jesus of Nazareth, and so he needed to be kept in the closet.
Too many common sense arguments tell against this 'explanation.' First, a writer like Athenagoras is quite adept at reasoned, sophisticated argument. Why not apply such talents to a justification of Christianity's principal tenet? If the world at large is maligning Jesus, surely the overriding need is to rehabilitate him, not hide him away. Second, this suppression of Jesus, the misrepresentation of everything from the name "Christian" to the source of Christian ethics, amounts to nothing less than a denial of Christ. The apologist is constructing a picture which excludes the central elements of the faith, falsifying his presentation, leaving no room for Jesus. He has gone beyond silence in stating, "I have said all there is to say." In an age when Christian pride and fortitude required that any penalty be faced—even the ultimate one—rather than renounce the faith, this gutting of Christian doctrine would have smacked of betrayal. It would have horrified believers and quickly discredited the apologists in Christian eyes. Could any of them really have chosen to defend the Name by expunging it?
And who would they be fooling? Any pagan who knew the first thing about Christianity would surely be familiar with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth as the movement's founder. An 'apology' for the faith which left him out would readily be seen for the sham that it was, thus foiling the whole object of the exercise. Besides, Justin, the most prominent of the apologists, felt no such qualms about placing Jesus at the center of his exposition. Tatian was someone who cared not a fig for the objections or sensibilities of any pagan. And beyond the year 180 no Christian writer felt any need or pressure to suppress Jesus.
Another important consideration is that the apologists are touting the superiority of Christian ethics and its monotheistic view of God. If Jesus had been the source of these teachings, their stature would have been raised by being presented as the product of a great teacher; while at the same time, the attribution to Jesus of this estimable body of ethics and theology would have gone a long way toward redeeming him in pagan eyes for whatever else Christians might have been claiming about him. The fact that no one but Justin has incorporated the teaching, human Jesus into his appeals to the pagan is too bizarre a situation. No, some other explanation for the silence of the bulk of the apologetic movement must be sought.
A clue to the solution of this puzzle lies in Tatian's Apology. In chapter 21 he says, "We are not fools, men of Greece, when we declare that God has been born in the form of man (his only allusion to the incarnation) . . . Compare your own stories with our narratives." He goes on to describe some of the Greek myths about gods come to earth, undergoing suffering and even death for the benefaction of mankind. "Take a look at your own records and accept us merely on the grounds that we too tell stories."
This may well be a reference to the Christian Gospels. But if he can allude to the incarnation in this way, why does he not deal with it openly and at length? His comment is hardly a ringing endorsement, or a declaration that such stories are to be accepted as history. The way Tatian compares them to the Greek myths implies that he regards them as being on the same level. Certainly, he does not rush to point out that the Christian stories are superior or, unlike the Greek ones, factually true. Nor can we get around the fact that Tatian pointedly ignores those Gospel stories in the rest of his Apology. (He was to change his mind by the time he composed the Diatessaron.) Furthermore, he ignores them even though his language clearly implies that the pagans were familiar with them.
There seems to be only one way to interpret all this. We can assume that the philosopher-apologists were familiar with the Gospel story and its figure of Jesus of Nazareth. But, with the exception of Justin, they have chosen not to integrate these elements into their own faith, not to identify this reputed historical founder-teacher with their divine Logos and Son of God, not to regard him as the source of Christian teachings.
This is possible only if the Logos religion the apologists subscribed to, especially at the time of their conversion, was lacking the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Only if they could view the Gospel story and its central character as a recent graft, a fictional tale like those of the Greeks, was it possible for them to reject it, to feel that they could be presenting the Christian faith legitimately. Only if they felt it were possible for pagans to accept the story of Jesus as a myth like their own religious myths, was it acceptable for the apologists to present to them a Christianity which ignored or rejected the figure of Jesus.
As a mix of Platonism and Hellenistic Judaism, the apologists' branch of Christianity had become prominent throughout the empire in the second century. (Paulinism had gone into eclipse until the ascendancy of the church of Rome and its rehabilitation of Paul as the latter half of the century progressed.) As we have seen, this Platonic Christianity defined itself in ways which had nothing to do with an historical Jesus. Nor is it likely to have grown out of Paulinism, as they have virtually nothing in common.
If development had been as the scholars like to present it, a shift in emphasis from the 'Palestinian' style of Christianity to one based on Greek philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism, the figure of Jesus would hardly have been dropped; he would have been integrated into the Platonic picture. This is not a Christian 'utilization' of Greek philosophy. The apologists' faith is the religious Platonism of the time brought into a Jewish theological and ethical setting (which rendered the Logos and the faith "anointed" or Christian). It is significant that none of them (possibly excepting Theophilus) have connections with a church.
Such a picture supports the view that Christianity, for its first 150 years, was a mosaic of uncoordinated expressions. It was a variegated organism which took root and flowered across the landscape of the empire, a widely divergent mix of Jewish and Greek features. As time went on, the distillation of Jesus of Nazareth out of certain pores in this organism spread inexorably across its entire surface, until by the year 200 he was firmly entrenched in every aspect of the faith.
Even Justin gives evidence of this picture. After reaching Rome in the 140s, he encountered some of the Gospels and embraced the historical man-god they told of. In his apologetic writings, penned in the 150s, Jesus and the Gospels occupy center stage. For Justin, the Word/Logos "took shape, became man, and was called Jesus Christ" (Apology, 5). But he has left us an inadvertent record of the nature of the faith he joined before his encounter with the story of a human Jesus.
The Dialogue with the Jew Trypho was written after the Apology, and the latter can be dated to the early 150s. But the action of Trypho is set at the time of the Second Jewish Revolt, in the 130s, and scholars are confident that this represents the time of Justin's conversion, which he describes in the opening chapters.
By the sea near Ephesus Justin encounters an old man, a Christian philosopher. After a discussion of the joys and benefits of philosophy, the old man tells of ancient Jewish prophets who spoke by the Divine Spirit. These prophets, he says, had proclaimed the glory of God the Father and his Son, the Christ. (This was the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Platonic terms.) Wisdom could come only to those who have it imparted to them by God and his Christ.
At this, says Justin (8:1), "a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets and of those who are friends of Christ possessed me." Justin does not even say (despite the best attempts of some commentators) that he felt a love for Christ himself, for in the Christianity to which he was converted, Christ was a philosophical concept. He was a part of the Godhead in heaven, a Logos-type entity. This Christ is a Savior by virtue of the wisdom he imparts (8:2). This is Justin's concept of salvation here, for he goes on to conclude the story of his conversion by saying to Trypho: "If you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may become acquainted with the Christ of God and, after being initiated, live a happy life." (Later, under the influence of the Gospels, Justin laid increasing emphasis on the redeeming value of Christ's death and resurrection, but in the basic Logos religion the Son saves by revealing God.)
Where is Jesus of Nazareth in all this? The old philosopher had not a word to say about him, nor about any incarnation of the Son. We are fortunate that Justin did not recast the memory of his conversion experience in the light of his later beliefs based on the Gospels. In those opening chapters of the Dialogue with the Jew Trypho we can see that all the apologists came to the same Christian faith: a Platonic religious philosophy grounded in Hellenistic Judaism which fails to include any historical Jesus.
Trypho himself may be a literary invention, but Justin puts into his mouth (8:6) a telling accusation, one which must have represented a common opinion of the time: "But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown . . . And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . . " Trypho also expresses the opinion that the incarnation is incredible and even Justin admits (Apology, 13) that "sober-minded men" are of the opinion that "Christians are mad to give a crucified man second place to God." As we shall see, even some Christians were in agreement.
In passing, I will mention that perhaps the earliest surviving apology, that of Aristides to the emperor Antoninus Pius, a short and minor work written in Syriac around 140, is clearly dependent on some Gospel account. It speaks of God born of a virgin, having twelve disciples, pierced died and buried, then rising after three days. This apology comes from a different milieu, one located in the Palestine-Syria area (where the Synoptic Gospels were written), for it has nothing to say about the Logos or Greek philosophical concepts.
* * * *
I have left until last the most fascinating of all the apologies, a document which could well be called a 'smoking gun.' The little treatise Octavius was written in Rome, or possibly North Africa, in Latin. It takes the form of a debate between Caecilius, a pagan, and Octavius, a Christian, chaired and narrated by the author, Minucius Felix, by whose name the work is now usually referred to.
There has been a long and seesaw debate as to when Minucius Felix was written. A clear literary relationship exists with Tertullian's much longer Apology, written around the year 200. But who borrowed from whom? A good general rule says that the later writer tends to expand on what the earlier writer wrote, not chop drastically, especially since in this case it would mean that Minucius Felix had cut out many important Christian dogmas and every single reference to the Gospel Jesus—and this, well into the third century, when no one else had any qualms about speaking of such things. This and other arguments considered, the earlier dating between 150 and 160 is much preferable. (See H. J. Baylis, Minucius Felix , p.273.)
In this debate, the names of Christ and Jesus are never used, though the word "Christian" appears throughout. Nor is there any allusion to the Son or Logos. Octavius' Christianity revolves around the Unity and Providence of God and the rejection of all pagan deities, the resurrection of the body and its future reward or punishment. In regard to the latter, no appeal is made to Jesus' own resurrection as proof of God's ability and intention to resurrect the dead. Not even in answer to the challenge (11): "What single individual has returned from the dead, that we might believe it for an example?" Much of Octavius' argument is devoted to countering the calumnies against Christians which Caecilius, representing general pagan opinion, enumerates: everything from debauchery to the devouring of infants, to Christian secrecy and hopes for the world's fiery destruction.
But here is where it gets interesting. For no other apologist but Justin has voiced and dealt with one particular accusation which the writer puts into the mouth of Caecilius. The list of calumnies in chapter 9 runs like this (partly paraphrased):
"This abominable congregation should be rooted out . . . a
religion of lust and fornication. They reverence the head of an
ass . . . even the genitals of their priests . . . . And some say
that the objects of their worship include a man who suffered death
as a criminal, as well as the wretched wood of his cross; these
are fitting altars for such depraved people, and they worship what
they deserve . . . . Also, during initiations they slay and dismember
an infant and drink its blood . . . at their ritual feasts they
indulge in shameless copulation."
Remember that a Christian is composing this passage. (The sentence in italics is translated in full.) He has included the central element and figure of the Christian faith, the person and crucifixion of Jesus, within a litany of ridiculous and unspeakable calumnies leveled against his religion—with no indication, by his language or tone, that this reference to a crucified man is to be regarded as in any way different from the rest of the items: disreputable accusations which need to be refuted. Could a Christian author who believed in a crucified Jesus and his divinity really have been capable of this manner of presentation?
In Octavius' half of the debate, he proceeds eventually to the refutation of these slanders. Here are some of the other things he says along the way.
In ridiculing the Greek myths about the deaths of their gods, such as Isis lamenting over the dismembered Osiris, he says (22): "Is it not absurd to bewail what you worship, or worship what you bewail?" In other words, he is castigating the Greeks for lamenting and worshiping a god who is slain. Later he says (23): "Men who have died cannot become gods, because a god cannot die; nor can men who are born (become gods) . . . Why, I pray, are gods not born today, if such have ever been born?" He then goes on to ridicule the whole idea of gods procreating themselves, which would include the idea of a god begetting a son. Elsewhere (20) he scorns those who are credulous enough to believe in miracles performed by gods.
How, without any saving qualification, could a Christian put such arguments forward, since they would confute and confound essential Christian beliefs in his own mind, and leave himself open to the charge of hypocrisy? It is one thing for the puzzled commentator to claim that silences in the apologists are due to a desire not to discourage or irritate the pagans with long and confusing theological treatises on subjects they are prejudiced against, or because they are not aiming to provide a comprehensive picture of the faith. But when an apologist makes statements which flatly contradict and even calumnize ideas which should be at the very heart of his own beliefs and personal devotion, such explanations are clearly discredited.
And how does Minucius Felix deal with the accusation that Christians worship a crucified man and his cross? As he did in Caecilius' diatribe, the author inserts his response into the midst of his refutation of other calumnies about incestuous banquets and adoration of a priest's genitals. Here is the manner and context in which he deals with the charge of worshiping a crucified criminal (29):
"1These and similar indecencies we do not wish to hear; it
is disgraceful having to defend ourselves from such charges. People
who live a chaste and virtuous life are falsely charged by you with
acts which we would not consider possible, except that we see you
doing them yourselves. 2Moreover (nam), when you attribute to our
religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far
from the truth in thinking that a criminal deserved, or that a mortal
man could be able, to be believed in as God. 3Miserable indeed is
that man whose whole hope is dependent on a mortal, for such hope
ceases with his (the latter's) death . . . ."
Before going on, we should first note that verse 2, following as it does on the sentiments of verse 1 (which the Latin word nam emphasizes), makes it clear that the writer regards this accusation as being in the same vein as the other "indecencies" he is at pains to refute. And what is the refutation he provides? It is to heap scorn on those who would believe that a crucified criminal, a mortal, should be thought of as a god. Where is the necessary qualification that no Christian could surely have remained silent on? Where is the saving defence that in fact this crucified man was not a mortal, but was indeed God? Some claim that this is what Minucius is implying, but such an implication is so opaque, it can only be derived from reading it into the text. Octavius' words certainly do not contain it, although they do imply that the writer knows of some Christians who believe such things, but he has no sympathy with them.
The translator of this work in the 19th century collection of Ante-Nicene Fathers (vol. IV, p.191) includes the following sentence in his summary preface at the head of chapter 29: "For they believe not only that he was innocent, but with reason that he was God." Such an idea is nowhere to be found in the text, and the context of the charge and its response cannot reasonably be said to imply it. Nor do the other things Minucius says which scorn different aspects of the Christian faith (such as gods being born in the present time or performing miracles) allow us to draw such an implication. To verse 2 the translator offers this wishful footnote: "A reverent allusion to the Crucified, believed in and worshiped as God." What one cannot believe is missing, one will read into the text, no matter what.
A more recent commentator, G. W. Clarke (Ancient Christian Writers #39, 1949) makes this observation in an end note: "A remarkable avoidance of any mention of the Incarnation. Indeed, so anxious is Minucius Felix to avoid admitting such a difficult doctrine that he gives the appearance of denying it." Indeed he does. And while Clarke compares this to Arnobius' "coyness" on the same topic, this later (c.300) Christian apologist was in no way reluctant or dishonest in admitting it, even though he lived at a time of greater persecution. "We worship one who was born a man. What then? Do you worship no one who was born a man? . . . But he died nailed to the cross. So what? Neither does the kind and disgrace of the death change his words or deeds." (Against the Heathen, I.37 & 40).
Minucius goes on in this passage to cite the folly of heathen peoples who do "choose a man for their worship," but he makes no such admissions for Christians. As to the accusation of worshiping crosses, he says dismissively: "We do not adore them, nor do we wish for them." And he goes on to admonish the pagan for being guilty of using signs of crosses in their own worship and everyday life. There is not a hint that for Minucius the cross bears any sacred significance or requires defending in a Christian context.
From this refutation of the calumny of Jesus and his cross, he proceeds ("Next . . .") to challenge those who accuse Christians of the slaughter of children. There is nothing in the way Minucius has dealt with the supposed heart of the Christian faith to differentiate it from all these surrounding horrors. The disparaging tone is unredeemed.
One commentator, H. J. Baylis (Minucius Felix, p.148), in addition to expressing his regret that the writer has been so silent in defending the person of Christ, also laments the fact that he missed a golden opportunity to refute the charge about licentious feasts and cannabilistic initiation rites by describing the Eucharist. He could have defended, says Baylis, the sacramental significance and pure conduct of this Christian agape (love feast) over Jesus' body and blood. Baylis finds it equally "odd" that in speaking of the sources of the "truth about the Godhead" (38), Minucius is silent on the teachings of Jesus himself, or Jesus' own status as Son within that Godhead.
The survival of this document, with its out-and-out dismissal of the central tenets of Christianity, is perhaps surprising, but it was no doubt possible only because a certain veiled ambiguity could be read into a verse like 29:2 above, and by letting this perception override the derogatory tone and jarring silence of the passage and document as a whole. Baylis has labelled 29:2 "oblique," but Minucius' stark language rules out any such escape route. This scholar, too, reads into Minucius' defense something which is not evidently there: "Yes, we adore one who was crucified, but he is neither a criminal nor a mere man."
Those who are capable of letting historical documents say what they obviously seem to be saying will recognize that Minucius Felix is a true 'smoking gun' pointing to a Christian denial of the historical Jesus. Even though this document indicates that there were others within the movement who believed in such a figure, and that there were historical Jesus traditions circulating, this does not automatically validate the historicity of such a figure, especially as the author is writing no earlier than the mid-second century. But the key consideration is this: such a denial as Minucius Felix voices would hardly have been possible within the context of a movement which had actually begun with an historical Jesus, and so we can say that this document does indeed provide strong evidence of the non-existence of this figure.
To the dispassionate eye, Minucius Felix is one Christian who will have no truck with those, in other circles of his religion, who profess the worship of a Jesus who was crucified in Judea under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, rumors of which have reached pagan ears and elicited much scorn and condemnation. To claim that a whole generation of apologists would falsely convey such an exterior to those they are seeking to win over, that they would deliberately indulge in this kind of Machiavellian deception, is but one of the desperate measures which modern Christian scholars have been forced to adopt in their efforts to deal with a Christian record that stubbornly refuses to paint the picture they all want to see.
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The apologists were not fools. Their literary and polemical talents were considerable. They were versed in a wide range of ancient knowledge, in the intricate subtleties of contemporary philosophy. That they could design careful and elaborate pieces of apologetic writing that yet contained such devastating omissions and weaknesses as we have seen in Minucius Felix, in Theophilus, in Athenagoras, in Tatian, is not feasible.
If an author like Minucius Felix is being silent for political reasons, why would he choose to place in the mouth of his pagan spokesperson accusations concerning the very thing he is deliberately silent on? Why would he allow the opponent such critical and derogatory declarations about the central object of Christian worship when he has already decided he must deny himself the luxury of answering them? Why would he place in the Christian's own mouth, as he does in chapters 21 and 23, sweeping and scornful statements which go against elements of the Christian faith with no possibility of offering saving qualifications? There is not even an attempt, through veiled language and implication, to assuage the 'knowing' Christian reader, to show that such saving exceptions are present in his own mind. In fact, his treatment of these faith subjects is tantamount to a denial of them.
At the end of Minucius Felix the writer has his pagan character converted to Christianity. But what is the use of converting someone like Caecilius to a religion which has had all its essential elements concealed? When Caecilius arrives "on the morrow" for his first lesson as a catechumen, will Octavius say to him, "Oh, by the way, there were a few details I left out yesterday." If a Christian is going to appeal to a pagan according to philosophical and logical principles, how will he then turn around and subsequently present the Christian mysteries and dogmas which he must be aware go counter to such principles? His own argumentation will then be in danger of being turned against him. And his dishonesty will place himself and his faith in a dishonorable light.
It must be stressed that nowhere in the literature of the time is there support for the standard scholarly rationalization about the apologists' silence on the figure of Jesus. Nowhere is it discussed or even intimated that these writers have in fact deliberately left out the essential elements of Christian faith in their defences of it, for reasons of political correctness or anything else. The occasionally quoted account of Origen in the third century, that he sometimes expounded his ethical views without labeling them as Christian, since he feared his listeners' hostility to the very name of Christianity and Christ, is not applicable here, for in such cases Origen was not identifying himself as a Christian at all, he was not offering a defence of Christianity, even in a limited way. If he had been, he would certainly not have left himself open to challenges he was not allowed to answer. His own writings are proof of this. Origen does not conceal Jesus or his resurrection. He counters every scoff and calumny of Celsus with all the resources at his disposal.
This is true also of Tertullian, writing his apology around the year 200 and borrowing, or at least using as inspiration, parts of the work of Minucius Felix. Tertullian indulges in no such cryptic concealment. In his own day, the hostility to Christianity was no easier than it had been a generation earlier when Felix wrote, or a mere two decades since Athenagoras and Theophilus had penned their defences. Tertullian's work is full of vivid references to Christ's incarnation, to his death and resurrection. Near the end of his account of "that Christ, the Son of God who appeared among us," he declares: "let no one think it is otherwise than we have represented, for none may give a false account of his religion . . . . We say, and before all men we say, and torn and bleeding under your tortures we cry out, 'We worhip God through Christ!' " Apparently, if we believe the commentators, the bulk of the second century apologists possessed no such conviction, no such courage. Certainly, Tertullian would have had no sympathy with their policy of concealment. The above quote may even be a veiled condemnation of them, if he were familiar with the likes of Athenagoras or Tatian or Theophilus. Or it may have been directed at Minucius Felix himself, whose work he would have felt constrained to expand on and fill in the painfully missing blanks.
As a final note, we might ask: where are the writers (for we might expect there to be some) who openly and in unmistakable words reject the figure of Jesus, with no possibility of ambiguity? Until we realize that no such document would ever have reached us through two millennia of Christian censorship. For probably the same reason, we possess no pagan writing which discusses the case for rejection of the historical Jesus. Even Celsus (who does not do this) survives only piecemeal in Origen's great refutation of him. On the other hand, it is likely that even leading pagan thinkers like Celsus would have had no way to verify or disprove the circulating Christian story and narrative accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, nor would they have possessed the exegetical tools and abilities to disprove Christian claims through a study of the documents themselves. In any case, all of these documents, given the poor state of communication and availability of materials in the ancient world, would hardly have been accessible to someone who might think of undertaking such a task.