Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Essay: Christianity Proved by the Nature of the Jewish Nation by Anthony Horvath

Christianity Proved by the Nature of the Jewish Nation by Anthony Horvath
Much ink has been spilled in defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, and I myself have spilled my fair share. Similarly, the stunning explosion of the Christian Church within the Roman Empire has been raised as a phenomenon that requires explanation and a dead man rising from the dead is the best one. These efforts are valid, but their weight cannot be appreciated without first knowing the context behind the arguments. We must understand the Jewish people, their history and religion.
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This understanding in turn fuels further arguments for Christianity, one of which was presented by C. S. Lewis, who said,
“[One approach to explaining the rise of Christianity is to say] that His followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that He had said them. This is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God- that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary, we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily.”  “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ,” an essay found in God in the Dock.
We can imagine that a God-Man claim would be natural if it emerged in Hindu territory, where avatars are a dime a dozen. It is something else if the claim emerges among the Jews, a people that were fiercely monotheistic. Yet it is more amazing than that:  the claim not only emerged among the Jews, but its first adherents were Jews, and it spread first in Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire and only afterwards turned gentile.

That Jesus' followers didn't embrace the doctrine easily is an understatement; the fact that they embraced it at all is a historical reality that strains credulity.

(Consider the wisdom, if you are God, of incarnating in such a setting if you want people to accept your stated credentials. It is easy to prove your case among friends. Not so much among your enemies. Imagine now that friends and foes alike constitute a hostile audience!)

Given the prevailing skepticism of the New Testament, it is worth noting that all of the salient ingredients to this argument can be generated from documents outside of it. Philo, Josephus, Tacitus, and others all corroborate how fiercely monotheistic the Jewish people were. And when we say, 'fierce,' we really mean it.

It is often argued that Christians tampered with Josephus and other ancient writers. Upon examination of what these documents tell us about first century Judea, we learn that it was filled with red hot nationalism, intense chafing at Roman oppression, roiling anticipation of a Messiah-King, full blooded devotion to religious purity, supreme devotion to the temple, and the eventual destruction of the Jewish people by the Romans for their insubordination. Can we dispense with any notion that ancient Christians stooped so low as to fabricate even these aspects of the historical record?

If so, let us consider one example from Josephus, the account of Pontius Pilate and the Standards (War 2.169-174, Antiquities 18.55-59). In this event, Pilate, under cover of darkness, had Caesar's effigies placed in Jerusalem. Jews flocked to Caesarea at the horror of having any kind of image present in their city. Pilate rejected their pleas, and when the Jews didn't disperse, he surrounded them and, "he gave a signal to the soldiers to encompass them … and threatened that their punishment should be no less than immediate death, unless they would leave off disturbing him, and go their ways home. But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly…"  Pilate relented in the face of this fanaticism.

Numerous accounts are also given of messiah claimants in Israel during this time. Since 'messiah' refers to an 'anointed one,' or a Jewish King, the Romans were naturally inclined to squash these individuals quickly. Israel's violent nationalism would eventually lead to open rebellion, prompting a Roman invasion in c. 70 AD that destroyed Jerusalem and decimated the temple.

In the face of the Jewish abhorrence to graven images, idolatry, and blasphemy against God, a man came who claimed to be God: the ultimate blasphemy. Jesus was a Jew and all of his disciples, followers, and enemies were Jews. Moreover, among this fiercely nationalistic people, there arose a great mass of women who said, along with their founder, "His kingdom is not of this world."

Few today know the names of any of the dozens, if not hundreds, of other warrior 'messiahs' trying to establish a Jewish Kingdom. The one that is remembered, in defiance to the times, called for a spiritual kingdom. He was crucified like other 'messiahs' were, but not forgotten like they were. Perhaps it is because this messiah did not stay dead?

What would happen in Tehran, Cairo, or Riyadh to the man claiming that he was, in fact, Allah?  The Mahdi himself would have to do some pretty remarkable things to convince his fellow Muslims- by the tens of thousands- that he was, in reality, God incarnate!  We couldn't help but notice such a thing. First century Palestine presents a similar scenario.

These historical nuts need to be cracked:  How is it that the Jewish people of all people gave sudden and rapid birth to a religion such as Christianity?  How did this Jewish cult manage to eventually conquer Rome before the barbarians did?  These questions arise even if you exclude the New Testament as sources. Integrity and curiosity would seem to demand an explanation that fits all of the facts.

The New Testament does provide one explanation. If you do not like it, what is yours?

18 comments :

Ken Pulliam said...

Anthony,

Thanks for your essay. It is definitely one of the strongest presented so far, IMO. You make a good point tht one would never expect the monotheistic Jewish people to be receptive to the claim of a person as being divine. If there was one thing that all the Jewish sects agreed on, it was the Shema in Deut. 6:4.

However, as you might suspect, I do have some counterpoints to make.

1)Its not clear to me that the early disciples thought of Jesus as fully God and many bible scholars would argue that Jesus never declared himself to be. I realize that a case can be made from the gospels based on Jesus having the ability to forgive sins and doing other things that only God has the authority to do but I think that can be explained by my next two points.

2) There was a precedent in the Hebrew Scriptures for a "representative of Yahweh" who essentially had the same authority as Yahweh when he came to earth, i.e, the Angel of Yahweh, and the Son of Man. There was also the personification of wisdom and of the word or breath of God.

3) It is thus possible, IMO, to think that this may be how the early Christians initially thought of Jesus. Not as a separate person as defined by Nicea but as a representative of God functioning on earth with the same authority of God. The Jews could have handled that idea. Eventually after much theological discussion and debate of course, the church gave birth to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Anthony Horvath said...

Hi Ken,

Allow me to pause here briefly to provide a link to one of my blog posts where I catalog messiah claimants throughout history.

This is good corroboration for my paragraph beginning "Numerous accounts..."

Regarding your points.

Let me start with number #3. You say, "It is thus possible..." but I am confused as to why you feel it is necessary to explain away what the data suggests on its face. This approach is also implied in your previous two objections, ie, "I think this can be explained by..." But what is wrong with the prima facie view of the matter?

To keep the argument short and simple, setting aside what some Bible scholars say about whether or not Jesus claimed to be God, let us consider what his enemies thought: "We are not stoning you for any of these but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God." (John 10:33)

Bible scholars may have trouble picking out of the text assertions by Jesus that he was God but his enemies seemed to get the picture pretty clearly. :)

Of course, that was probably invented by the Gospel writer because he anticipated that 1800 years later people would dispute whether or not Jesus claimed to be God, so maybe we should look for another verse. :)

Now, I like your #2, but don't believe that it hurts my case. I would even go so far as to say that the Angel of The Lord is not merely held to represent God, but was presented AS God. Jacob, for example, did not think he was wrestling with God's representative. He seems to think he was wrestling with God himself.

Similarly, the John passage I just referenced is followed by Jesus citing Psalm 82 where it reads: "I have said you are gods..." In other words, Jesus himself is making the same sort of case that the strict monotheism of Judaism is not incompatible with the idea that God could incarnate himself. Obviously, we must allow that since many Jews came to believe in Jesus- as God- that this sort of argument persuaded.

But even if that evidence is there to help explain how in point of fact the Incarnation is not incompatible with Jewish monotheism, it is a historical fact that it was widely held at the time to be just that, giving rise to the premise of this essay.

Ken Pulliam said...

Anthony,

You ask why I don't just accept the prima facie position that its all true? Probably for the same reason you don't accept the prima facie position that Islam's miracle claims are true. I think that the miracle claims of Christianity are incredible and do not hold up to careful scrutiny. I do think there is a historical kernel of truth in the gospels but I believe one can explain how this kernel grew and morphed into the Christian beliefs that swept across the Roman empire.

As for the passages in John and the other gospels which indicate that Jesus' enemies knew he was claiming to be god, I think these are later additions to the tradition. One can see the development from Mark's gospel which has little of this to the very high Christology found in John's gospel. Beliefs were evolving and developing until they reached the standardization of Nicea.

Shelby Cade said...

Hi Ken,

I am curious how you handle the Mark 14:62 passage where Jesus references Daniel 7 (especially Daniel 7:14)? This seems to really set the Jewish leaders off because Jesus implies that he is essentially on par with God.

Jan said...

Hi Ken,

so you are saying that the evidence Anthony presented suggests that the best explantions is what the New Testament tells us, but you cannot accept it, because of the miracle claims?

What do you mean by that "miracle claims of Christianity are incredible and do not hold up to careful scrutiny" ? How do you evaluate the miracle claims?

Jan

Anthony Horvath said...

Hi Ken,

You said: "Probably for the same reason you don't accept the prima facie position that Islam's miracle claims are true."

This is a huge overstep. You may frequently encounter other Christians who make such leaps but I am not one of them. More to the point, it is useless to argue from what you think my position is and point me to what you think I think and pass that off as an argument. :)

Never mind me. This was about you! I am unsure if the rest of your answer is relying on your assumption that I automatically dispense with the miracle claims of other religions, but I shall respond anyway.

"I think that the miracle claims of Christianity are incredible and do not hold up to careful scrutiny."

But I am not submitting miracles and what I am submitting is a simple matter of the historic record which you do not dispute. The fierce monotheism of the Jews was not miraculous- it is history. The rise and fall and forgetting of dozens if not hundreds of messiah claimants- apart from one, Jesus- is not miraculous, it is straight forward history. The rocketing of the Christian Church from a 'Jewish sect' to an Empire wide phenomena is again simple straight forward history and is not in itself supernaturalistic.

I happen to think that the Resurrection of Jesus is a pretty good explanatory model for these things and I think the reasonable inquirer, if he does not like this model, ought to seek his own. However, inventing plausible possibilities for why these historical realities may not appear to be precisely what they appear to be- when they are not even inherently miraculous in themselves- doesn't seem like the reasonable route to go.

"I think these are later additions to the tradition."

And do you have evidence for this view? Or is it that this view is demanded by your model?

How late are you thinking? Tatian put together the Diatessaron c. 165 AD. The Gospel of John is generally agreed to have been the last of the Gospels, with conservatives ranging between 70 and 90 AD. This accretion could not have popped up any later. Here is the text from this harmonization of the four Gospels:

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diatessaron.html

If you will kindly scroll to SECTION XXXVII verse 34, you will see that Tatian has already incorporated this 'accretion' into his harmonization. In short, the belief that Jesus was God and that the NT contained passages where Jesus was accused of claiming to be God had to have sprung up lightning fast. If not the first generation, which of course is what I believe, than certainly no later than the second generation, for Tatian received the four-fold Gospel as presented to him by others.

So, when you say that this belief sprung up later and that this particular passage in John was a later accretion, just how late were you thinking? The Time of Constantine? By my reckoning, it would have had to have happened within the first 75 years of the writing of John and the first 120 years of the rise of Christianity. Tatian gives us a hard cap on such speculations, does he not?

Ken Pulliam said...

Shelby,

Note I said there was a "little of this" (divine claims) in Mark but nothing to the extent that we see in later gospels. I think the passage in Mark that you mention simply has Jesus claiming to the the Messiah with an implication that he might be divine. In addition, you have to keep in mind that these stories about what Jesus were passed along and told and retold. How can we be sure that this is what Jesus actually said? BTW, where did Mark get this quote? None of the disciples were present at this interrogation. How do we know that this was not must made up by the story tellers? We don't. Here again is where a person's faith enters into the picture.

Ken Pulliam said...

Jan,

I approach miracle claims with a great deal of skepticism. They are a dime a dozen in the ancient world. Unless there is overwhelming evidence I remain unconvinced, especially if there are viable natural explanations which I think there are.

Ken Pulliam said...

Anthony,

I agree that the gospels were all written in the late first century and that by the time John was finished, it was widely believed that Jesus was God. However, it remained to be explained how he could be God and man and how his being God could be reconciled with the idea that there was only one God--this is what was not standarized until Nicea. Until that time there were a lot of different ideas floating about in Christendom on the precise nature of Jesus.

I agree that a belief in the literal resurrection would explain everything but so would a belief in Muhammad's being a true prophet of God explain everything related to the rise of Islam. The question becomes is that the best explanation?

Anthony Horvath said...

Hi Ken,

Don't get too hasty! I don't agree at all that the gospels were all written in the late first century. I only said the Gospel of John. My own personal opinion is that they were all written prior to the fall of Jerusalem, c. 70 AD. Conservatives, though, have often put John as later.

But we are apparently now in agreement that the idea that the early Christians believed that Jesus was God. The fact that this was not understood in a standardized fashion until Nicea is really irrelevant. Darwin published his Origin of the Species c. 1850 and scientists are still trying to sort out the whole picture. The Bush 43 presidency is over, but that doesn't mean we understand all of its ramifications and implications for history. Indeed, we're still feeling the effects of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Jackson, etc...

It often takes many years, even centuries, to come to grips with the significance of important events. That doesn't change the fact that the events happened and it doesn't change what people were thinking when it actually happened.

So, all that is important for my presentation is that it is conceded that the first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus was God. What persuaded them? The question becomes even more hard to answer when we understand that the Jews were fiercely monotheistic. It would be like portions of the Muslim world all of a sudden starting walking around claiming that Allah had become incarnate. It would require explanation.

But I object to dismissing the historical facts themselves as they present themselves, especially on account of latent anti-supernaturalism, since the historical facts themselves are not really supernaturalistic, are they?

So, rather than take, on its face, that the first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus was God, you submitted the POSSIBILITY that maybe these Jews did not actually believe that Jesus was God.

Well, I agree that we're looking for the best explanation, but frankly positing possibilities in the place of evidence is not a tenable route in my view. It is also possible that c. 100 AD an alternate universe sprung up replete with the appearance that much time had already gone by with even the people themselves believing that they had been alive already for many years. In fact, they had only been alive for a second- their memories themselves created by the creation of the universe.

Hey, maybe this has happened to us! It is logically possible that a split second ago the universe sprang into existence giving the appearance it has been going on for some time!

You see, this is really solipsism. We take as our presupposition that such things are logically possible but if taken seriously would ruin our epistemology. We therefore set aside mere possibilities and engage the evidence. We follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Or do we? Do some of us assume that all evidence for the supernatural must be given some other interpretation? But then on what basis did we determine that there was no supernatural in order to be confident that we can properly explain away evidence for the supernatural?

This ended up longer than I intended, but do you see what I am saying? You submitted possibilities that essentially amounted to saying that the historical record is not as it appears. Well, if you have evidence for those possibilities, I'm happy to hear them. On the other hand, I don't think that being uncomfortable with the 'on the face of it' implications is itself evidence.

On that basis, we may as well shoot history in the head and live ever in the present.

David said...

AH,

I'm not sure how you are "not submitting miracles". Dead bodies coming back to life would seem to be pretty miraculous to me.

Anthony Horvath said...

David,

What am I submitting? I'm submitting that certain historical realities need explanation. That is what I submitted. Obviously, I believe that the resurrection is the best explanation for them, but you will note that I did not dwell on that in the essay. There were good reasons for that. Space didn't allow it, for one, and secondly it was off the point, which is that the historical realities require examination. A reasonable person can't dodge these realities.

But Ken did dodge them. While agreeing that the resurrection would explain the phenomena, he then proceeded to advance an explanation that re-writes the historical facts, such as denying that the first Christians believed Jesus was God. There is nothing miraculous about having a belief. Everyone has beliefs.

I did not submit miracles. I submitted historical realities. I don't particularly think that creating imaginative POSSIBLE historical realities is a very sound thing to do.

At the very least, it would seem to me that if Ken concedes that on the face of it my historical submissions are what they are and that the resurrection does in fact explain those historical realities, than I am justified in saying that I have a reasonable basis for my faith.

If one must reject the 'on-the-face' evidence and entertain multitudes of unsupportable, unsubstantiated mere logical possibilities, can it be said that this is a reasonable basis for no-faith?

David said...

"I submitted historical realities."

I want to see if I understand this. When you say "historical realities", you're talking about the fact that there are documents whose origins trace to the first century, and these documents state that there were people who said that a dead guy came back to life. So, there's no miracle here, because the "historical realities" refer to the documents and not the events.

Ken Pulliam said...

Hi Anthony,

You say: we are apparently now in agreement that the idea that the early Christians believed that Jesus was God.

I don't think we are in agreement. I would agree that the early Christians all believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God (as Peter said in Matt. 16) but they were not in agreement on what it meant for Jesus to be the Son of God. There were a number of different theories until Nicea set a standard.

You say: all that is important for my presentation is that it is conceded that the first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus was God. Some no doubt saw Jesus as equal with Yahweh but many did not as the various Christologies of the first 3 centuries demonstrate. The Ebionites for example were Jewish Christians who accepted Jesus as the Messiah but not as God.

As for those that did accept the full deity of Jesus, some were modalistic. It seems that it was those influenced by Greek philosophy who first formulated the doctrine of the Trinity.

You say:I object to dismissing the historical facts themselves as they present themselves, especially on account of latent anti-supernaturalism, since the historical facts themselves are not really supernaturalistic, are they?

As I have said on other posts, I do not rule out the supernatural a priori . I do require very strong evidence though to believe a miracle happened. The so-called "minimal facts" are not supernatural and I don't have a problem granting each of the 5 points, although I am dubious about the empty tomb and the appearance to James. Even granting those 5 points, however, does not force me to accept a literal resurrection. I think there are a couple of alternative theories that explain the minimal facts without resorting to the supernatural.

I agree that theories have to be plausible and not ad hoc. I think that the two theories I have advanced are plausible and not ad hoc.
I reject ad hoc theories like aliens took the body, etc.

You say: We follow the evidence wherever it leads. Or do we? Do some of us assume that all evidence for the supernatural must be given some other interpretation? But then on what basis did we determine that there was no supernatural in order to be confident that we can properly explain away evidence for the supernatural?

Again I do not reject the possibility of the supernatural a priori . I just require very strong evidence and I don't see very strong evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Now, while you think that people such as me are guilty of bias, I think people of faith such as you are guilty of bias. Since you have already "experienced" the grace of Jesus in your life and committed your life to him, you are going to be biased in favor of the supernatural when it comes to him. I really believe its the Christian who has the most bias when studying the evidence for the resurrection.

I am not rejecting all of history but neither am I accepting everything that ancient historians wrote uncritically. If one does that, then one is going to believe a lot of supernatural events took place in ancient times.

Ken Pulliam said...

Anthony,

I would highly recommend the following book by James McGrath,The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context .

Ari Goldberg said...

As a Jewish believer in Jesus, I welcome apologetics arguments based on the “nature of the Jewish nation”. I have been immersed in the world of apologetics for some time now, and I get the sense that for Christians, Christianity is a new religion, wholly different from Judaism, which spawned it, and its ‘founders’ were Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Therefore, most of the historical arguments for the truth of Christianity begin and end with events in the first century. However, this view of Christianity is not Biblical, in my opinion. The term Christianity connotes a Gentile-centric view of the religion of the Bible, and Messianic Judaism connotes a Jew-centric view. I don’t have a better term for the religion of the people of God – the commonwealth of Israel - both Jew and Gentile. I can think of a few lame and useless offerings, though: One-New-Manism, Messianic Jew and Gentilism, or the more familiar Judeo-Christianity. I don’t have a problem with the terms Christian or Christianity, as long as they are properly understood to mean the ‘ongoing continuum of God’s revelation to mankind: first to the Jews and then to all mankind. ’ I would not even go so far as to say that Jesus was the final revelation and fulfillment of Judaism, since His first coming fulfilled only his prophetic and priestly mission, but He has not yet fulfilled His royal mission, which awaits His second coming.

Anthony centers this particular proof of Christianity on the foreignness of the incarnation of God to the religion of Judaism. This is not the best way to view the situation, in my opinion. Judaism was not monolithic then, just as Christianity was not monolithic during the Protestant Reformation. Although the Roman-appointed religious leaders did call Jesus’ claims to divinity blasphemy, there was a sect of Judaism which believed in a divine Messiah, in accordance with the Son of Man figure of Daniel 7: 9-14, according to renowned Talmudic scholar, Daniel Boyarin, in “The Jewish Gospels”. During the Protestant Reformation, there was a sharp difference between Luther’s belief in salvation by grace alone vs. the majority Roman Catholic belief in salvation by grace plus works. This division went to the very core of Christian doctrine – it was a non-negotiable. In the same way, the majority Jewish belief in God as a solitary spirit was in sharp contrast to those who held to God as a complex unity, who could ‘localize’ Himself in time and space, as it suited Him. Luther was right, and the Roman Catholic authorities were wrong. The Divine-Messiah Jews were right, and the Rabbinical authorities were wrong.

Rather than view Christianity as fundamentally foreign to Judaism, I prefer the analogy made by Michael L. Brown, the great Messianic Jewish apologist, of a ‘whodunnit’ mystery. In a Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie novel, no matter how carefully one pays attention to the story as it unfolds, most people will not see who the ‘perpetrator’ is until it his identity is revealed at the end. Once the revelation occurs, then looking back at the story in hindsight, one can see all the clues that pointed to him all along. In the same way, Jesus’ coming was not foreign to Judaism, but rather, according to the scriptures, the Messiah had to come at that time, at that place, in that lineage, doing those miracles, saying those words, undergoing death, burial, resurrection, and ascension; and only Jesus accomplished those things. “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:27)

Ari Goldberg said...

Instead of viewing the Jewish nation’s apologetic significance in the foreignness of Jesus, I would like to see Christian apologists develop other Jewish historical arguments to supplement existing historical arguments centering around the birth of Christianity. For example, the unique devotion of the Jews to preserving and transcribing the written word, especially in view of the many historical details therein. It’s hard to explain why a people would consider their scriptures holy if they contained prophecies written after the fact, or miraculous events which they knew to be false. The ongoing celebration of the Passover by Jews worldwide, as the observance of an actual historical event – the Exodus. The many Messianic prophecies themselves, especially concerning the suffering and priestly mission of the Messiah. The timeline of the Messiah’s coming in Dan. 9:25, and how it coincides with Jesus’ birth. The Talmudic expectation that the Messianic period would begin 2000 years after Abraham (Sanhedrin 97a). The glory of the second temple being greater than the first (Hag. 2:9) – the best explanation being the presence of the Lord Himself (Messiah) in the second temple. The destruction of the second temple, and the Talmudic records regarding the high priest’s scarlet thread remaining white, the temple light self-extinguishing, and the temple doors self-opening, all 40 years before the destruction of the temple (i.e. the year of Jesus’ crucifixion)(Yoma 39b), the dramatic expulsion and long exile of the Jewish people from the land, due to the magnitude of the sin of rejecting their Messiah, the regathering of national Israel a second time (Babylonia was the first) from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:11-12) in the 20th century, the ongoing irrational and Satanic hatred of the Jewish people by the unsaved nations, which is best understood in light of Satan’s knowledge of Israel’s future glory, the increasing numbers of Jews believing in Jesus, in fulfillment of Romans 11:25-26, the beating war drums of the nations surrounding Israel, the fulfillment of Israel’s and the Messiah’s purposes in the Jewish calendar and feasts, and many other historical events.

These events regarding the Jewish people are the context that makes the historical evidence of the resurrection so convincing. By leaving those things out, we apologists make our job much more difficult. By including them, we make our job easier, we deepen our understanding of the Judaic roots of Christianity, help bring about reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, and make the Jews jealous for their Messiah due to the love Gentile Christians have for one another and for their Jewish cousins.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Ari, you've inspired me to learn more.

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