Earl Doherty on the Patristic Writings

What is the core of Doherty's case concerning the second century apologists? He finds in them "a dramatic picture of continuing diversity in the Christian movement and, among most of them, a surprising and revealing silence on Jesus of Nazareth." In other words:

...almost all of them before the year 180 (Justin [Martyr] 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.

This contains a certain kernel of truth. Yes, certain second-century apologists whose works remain to us are (mostly) silent about Jesus and his life. But no, it is not true that the Gospels show "no sign" of surfacing until the time specified. As for the rest, Doherty fails to understand what Christianity was up against (as in, understand intimately, not merely have knowledge of): there was a why behind this "silence" - it was partly that these people lived in a high-context world; but otherwise, it was neither conspiracy nor indication against Jesus' historicity, but a manifestation of the Roman attitude towards Christian belief.

First to the matter of the Gospels and Acts in these writings, and in others of the Ante-Nicene writers of this period, also called the Apostolic Fathers. What signs are there of the Gospels and Acts? Metzger [Metzg.NT, 40ff] finds the following citations or echoes of the Gospels:

In several cases these echoes are composite quotations or are not precise - hardly any cause for dismay coming from an era where quotation by memory and lack of precision in citation was common, not to mention in light of imprecision of quoting the Old Testament and the rather minuscule and occasional amount of material we have from this time in the first place.

Nevertheless, this is the data that Doherty must deal with; simply shrugging it off is not sufficient, and saying that these quotes and allusions are fragments of independent tradition that later found their way into the Gospels is simply begging the question. (As for Acts, evidence indicates that Marcion was aware of it, some 40 years ahead of Doherty's late date for that book.)

Now to the core of our own study. We will begin by looking at two valuable sources which we have made use of in our work before. The first is Robert Wilken's classic piece, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [Wilk.ChrRom]. The second is Martin Hengel's short, yet very comprehensive, monograph on crucifixion [Heng.Cx]. It will be necessary to provide an accounting of what these two works contain before going on to address the arguments put forward by Doherty, for with the understanding given us by these two scholars comes a world of understanding of the second century apologists (hereafter, SCA).

Roman Attitudes Towards a Subversive Superstition

Any study of Christianity requires a full investigation into its social context in terms of how Christian belief was viewed by others. Wilken's comprehensive study remains an essential item for understanding in this regard. All quotes in this section are from his work [Wilk.ChrRom] and shall describe the keys for understanding the SCA methods of addressing their Roman critics.

What Romans Valued

Doherty in several places makes statements to the effect that we, in our own time, may have a hard time understanding how the ancients thought, because we do not think the same way. Though his specific applications are wrong, the concept is right: We are obliged to understand how the Romans thought before we can understand why the reacted to Christianity the way they did. In other words, we may agree with Doherty here in principle, but not in degree. It is somewhat inconsistent for the liberal to invoke "Lessing's Ditch'' to claim that we "really can't understand what the manuscripts are TRULY saying'' but then replace a supposedly unknown literary framework with another framework that we primarily work up ourselves!

The Value of Piety

We find through Roman literature that a chief value to Roman society was the virtue of piety towards the gods - appropriate reverence, appropriate worship. Piety was thought to encourage the well-being of a city; it encouraged responsibility and the kinship and binding of the citizenry. (58)

Custom and Tradition

Roman literature also tells us that "(t)he primary test of truth in religious matters was custom and tradition, the practices of the ancients." (62) In other words, if your beliefs had the right sort of background and a decent lineage, you had the respect of the Romans. Old was good. Innovation was bad.

Resultant Reactions to Christianity

The SCAs understandably had to react to specific charges against Christianity. Many charges have to do with answering rumors of licentious practices. Others had to do with the very novelty of Christianity itself, and this is a special key to understanding the methodology of the SCAs.

The Reaction Concerning Piety

Three Roman writers - Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius - refer to Christianity as a superstitio, or superstition - a word used to describe any belief system foreign or strange to Rome. The word as used had none of the connotations of today's lucky rabbits' feet or aversions to the number 13; it was applied equally to the beliefs of the Celts, the Germanic tribes, the Egyptians - and the Jews. (48)

The Romans naturally considered their own belief systems to be superior to all others. (57) They also believed that superstitions undermined the social system established by their religion - and of course they were right.

However, the point is that anyone who followed or adopted one of their foreign superstitions would be looked on not only as a religious rebel, but as a social rebel as well. They were breaking with the status quo, upsetting the apple cart, taking part in a 60s style rebellion against the establishment. They upset the Roman concept of piety and were thought to be incapable of it.

In those days, things were not pluralistic or "politically correct" and there were no champions of diversity on the college campuses: Today, atheists and theists can debate in a free forum, but back then one of the camps would have the state (and the sword!) on their side - and in the time we're talking about, that wasn't the Christians.

Those who adhered to superstitio therefore found themselves, as a matter of course, associated with bizarre and extreme behaviors - as the Christians did, and as Tacitus also reports of the Jews in his Histories. And it went further: "(B)ecause superstition leads to irrational ideas about the gods, the inevitable consequence is atheism." (61) Since "superstitionists" bucked the established cosmic order, their view of the universe was regarded as capricious and irrational, and this eventually led to the charge by critics like Crescens that Christians were actually atheists (68).

The Reaction Concerning Custom and Tradition

This was a big sticking point for Christianity, because the SCAs could only trace their roots back around 150 years, and thus Christians were regarded as "arrogant innovators" (63) whose religion was the new kid on the block, but yet had the nerve to insist that it was the only way to go.

The Jews, on the other hand, traced their roots back much further, and although some Roman critics did make an effort to "uproot" those roots, others (including Tacitus) accorded the Jews a degree of respect because of the antiquity of their beliefs.

This offers another sub-key for understanding SCA tactics. A concerted effort was made not only to defend what was solely Christian belief, but also to defend the veracity of beliefs held commonly with Judaism, notably the account of creation. The SCAs made every effort to link Christianity to Judaism, to make the latter a precursor of the former, and thus attain the same "antiquity" that the Jews were sometimes granted.

On the other hand, we can see where this factor might tend to lessen or completely eliminate attention on recent events associated with the life of Jesus. Critics of Christianity "caught on" to this trick and soon pointed out that Christians could hardly claim Judaism and at the same time observe none of its practices.

The Crucifixion Fiasco

We now move to the data presented by Hengel [Heng.Cx] regarding crucifixion in the ancient world, and how it was regarded. This will give us our last set of keys for understanding the SCA's methodologies.

Crucifixion was held in such distaste in antiquity that the Gospels end up giving us our most comprehensive description of a crucifixion - in spite of the fact that thousands of crucifixions were done at a time on some occasions. "(T)he cultured literary world wanted to have nothing to do with [crucifixion], and as a rule kept silent about it." (38)

It was recognized as early as Paul (1 Cor. 1:18) that preaching a savior who underwent this disgraceful treatment was folly; Justin Martyr later writes in his first Apology 13:4 -

They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God...

Celsus describes Jesus as one who was "bound in the most ignominious fashion" and "executed in a shameful way." Josephus describes crucifixion as "the most wretched of deaths." An oracle of Apollo preserved by Augustine described Jesus as "a god who died in delusions...executed in the prime of life by the worst of deaths, a death bound with iron." (4)

And so the opinions go: Seneca, Lucian, Pseudo-Manetho, Plautus. Even the lower classes joined the charade, as demonstrated by a bit of graffiti depicting a man supplicating before a crucified figure with an asses' head - sub-titled, "Alexamenos worships god." (The asses' head being a recognition of Christianity's Jewish roots: A convention of anti-Jewish polemic was that the Jews worshipped an ass in their temple. - 19)

Though in error in other matters, Walter Bauer rightly said (ibid.):

The enemies of Christianity always referred to the disgracefulness of the death of Jesus with great emphasis and malicious pleasure. A god or son of god dying on a cross! That was enough to put paid to the new religion.

The message of the cross was an abhorrence, a vulgarity in its social context. Discussing crucifixion was the worst sort of social faux pas; it was akin, in only the thinnest sense, to discussing sewage reclamation techniques over a fine meal - but even worse when associated with an alleged god come to earth. "A crucified messiah...must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish."

That a god would descend to the realm of matter and suffer in this ignominious fashion "ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people." (10, 4 -- this adds, of course, to the general absurdity of Doherty's thesis that Christianity took Christ out of the nether-heavens and brought him down to the earth; it would be akin to the Southern Baptist Convention announcing that they endorsed pedophilia!)

If Jesus had truly been a god, then by Roman thinking, the Crucifixion should never have happened. Celsus writes:

But if (Jesus) was really so great, he ought, in order to display his divinity, to have disappeared suddenly from the cross.

This comment represents not just some skeptical challenge, but is a reflection of an ingrained socio-theological consciousness. The Romans could not envision a god dying like Jesus - period. Just as well to argue that the sky is green, or that pigs fly, only those arguments, at least, would not offend sensibilities to the maximum.

What the SCAs Needed to Do

We are now ready to put together some general conclusions about what we would expect our average SCA to operate in light of the above data.

The above should be considered as general guidelines. Naturally not all of our apologists so restrained themselves, as we shall see; but we shall see that there is a direct correlation between a particular SCA's boldness and how the crucifixion in particular was handled.

Our three keys are therefore established, and with that we move to the material of the SCAs.

SCA Case One: Theophilus of Antioch - To Autolycus

Our debate begins with this statement of direction offered by Doherty:

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.

Now from this, Doherty finds support for his notion of a non-historical Jesus; but are we not pinning too much on too little here? How can the works of the SCAs, as little as we have left from them, be used for support of such an incredible counter-consensus position?

For there is much that we do not have today, but that once existed, that seriously undermines Doherty's essential position. The apologist Quadratus, who wrote very early but whose works are lost to us, seems by the quotes preserved from him to have been "firmly anchored in Gospel tradition." And what about Polycarp?

On the other hand it is not entirely true that after 180 we have what Doherty would consider a "firm" historical Jesus in every case: The Instructions of Commodianus, written around 240 AD, say almost nothing about the historical Jesus, and what little is said could easily be interpreted (under Doherty's rubric) as expressing the actions of a spiritual Christ. Later writers also demonstrate the same sort of loose citation practices found elsewhere with both OT and NT, the sort of "looseness" that Doherty makes capital of in Paul and elsewhere.

Our first subject in particular, Theophilus of Antioch, is credited with a rebuttal to Marcion, a commentary on the Gospels as a harmony, and another commentary on Proverbs. On the other hand, there is no indication from later commentators like Eusebius and Jerome that he was in any way out of the ordinary to them. Surely when we have so little of his work, dedicated to such a narrow cause, and with respect to this other data about his life, it is rather hazardous to suggest that his Christian belief was in any way contrary to accepted orthodoxy.

What, though, of what we have preserved from Theophilus, in his apology To Autolycus? Is his Christ there purely spiritual? Here is what Doherty has to say:

...(W)hat, 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.

By way of general summary: Theophilus here is pre-eminently occupied not with defending Christian belief, but the shared theological beliefs of Judaism and Christianity in terms of a Creator-God, against the claims of Autolycus, a worshipper of "gods of wood and stone" who has mocked Theophilus' belief in an unseen and invisible Creator; and, the antiquity of Jewish belief, addressed in Book III. Note that as predicted, Theophilus is engaging the necessary step of defending Christianity by garnering the antiquity of Judaism.

Jesus and the atonement are not part of this defense package because they are NOT relevant to the issues at hand! Doherty's case would be stronger here if he could prove that Jesus' life or deeds were germane to the conversation, but in every instance suggested he has failed to grasp the context of Theophilus' remarks. This work of Theophilus is irrelevant to Doherty's case for a non-historical Jesus.

SCA Case Two - Athenagoras of Athens: A Plea for the Christians

Our second SCA, Athenagoras of Athens, probably wrote at approximately the same time as Theophilus. Here first is a minor objection from Doherty: "He was a philosopher who had embraced Christianity, but he shows no involvement in any church, or interest in rituals and sacraments."

What of this? His work is designed as a defense of specific charges against Christians; where is there space for Athenagoras to talk about his personal church involvements? Does Doherty expect to find casual references to things like Sunday School picnics and Wednesday night potluck dinners in such a document? What relevance is there for a discussion of baptism or communion? None is shown.

Doherty continues, at any rate, by noting as follows:

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.

First, we see again where Doherty is presuming modern methods of citation on ancient authors; we have dealt with that already. As for the rest - what is the explanation for this "silence" on the incarnation?

Return again to the constraints of the SCAs - what is Athenagoras doing? He is, first of all, concerned with rebutting charges of atheism, cannibalism, and incest - charges associated with fanatics of superstition as a matter of course. He is trying, with his discussion of Platonism and philosophy, to say, "Our beliefs are like these beliefs" - a "just like us" argument, along with the appeal to antiquity made by identifying God as a source, two factors without which the Emperor would not even give Christianity a second thought.

And yes, he is avoiding the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, etc. - as Doherty does indeed show:

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." What kind of blatant dishonesty is this?

Dishonesty? Well, perhaps we living in the 20th century, in a free country, may see it that way; but let's get back into reasonable perspective. Athenagoras has recast Christian belief in totally philosophic terms that are, so he hopes, acceptable to the Romans, and has avoided the recent human Jesus in favor of the eternal God. Why? No doubt because he thought he would not get a hearing otherwise.

Again, let us stop to think: What reaction would Athenagoras get preaching the crucified Jesus to the Emperor? What, you believe that God descended to interact with gross matter in this "Incarnation"? What, you ALSO believe that this God submitted to our most disgraceful execution? What, you follow this man Jesus? Wasn't he executed as one who was a traitor? What, you really do affirm that he was King of the Jews? So you agree he was a traitor, then! And he appeared recently, at that! End of discussion.

In all of these epistles, these are the basic elements that Doherty utterly fails to notice. Paul rightly described the crucified Jesus as foolishness to the Gentiles. One may as well today try to convince someone that Charles Manson was a wise philanthropist: The Gospels themselves portray Jesus as freely admitting to the capital crime of sedition. Is this a smart thing to bring up in a defense to the Roman Emperor?

As for dishonesty - nothing that Athenagoras says is in the least incorrect, and Doherty would have done well to continue the quote re "particulars" - it goes on to say: "There, however, are only small matters taken from great, and a few things from many, that we may not further trespass on your patience."

Athenagoras was under pressure here: His response could mean life or death at the discretion of the Emperor, and you can be sure he was going to put the best possible face of Christian belief and make it as appealing to Rome as possible.

Dishonesty? It is an open question how the modern century critic would proceed when his own life was on the line. But as we shall see shortly, there were other tacks that other SCA personalities could take - with quite different results apparent.

SCA Case Three - Epistle to Diognetus

This short (10 chapters), anonymous work was, as Doherty writes, "addressed probably to an emperor, either Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius." Since we have already discussed the matter of addressing a Christian apology to an Emperor above, we may suppose that this Epistle gives us more of the same. And so it does, significantly so. As Doherty writes:

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.

Would such trivia as time, place, etc. really be unknown to the Emperor and needed to be repeated - much less would they help? Time? Quite recent - big black mark from the Romans. Place? Galilee/Judea - a hotbed of seditionists and rebels against Rome, the former being today's equivalent to "Rednecksville". Identity? A seditionist who pled guilty before a prefect. Is it any wonder our writer avoids these topics? No wonder at all!

Even so, we have in this work an indication of an earthly Jesus, which Doherty must explain:

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.

In conclusion, we see in this epistle a microcosm of exactly what we would expect an SCA to have to do when addressing a Roman critic: Enter discussion of Christianity by way of the back door. The front door, with the crucifixion and the undeniable admission of sedition, would offer no entry point that could be used against the Romans and their preconceptions.

However, this anonymous writer did take the step of introducing the Incarnation and the Atonement, and that is enough to dash any use of this work in support of Doherty's spiritual Jesus only thesis.

Interim: How Now?

This does not conclude Doherty's examination; we still have Tatian, Justin Martyr and Minucius Felix to go. But now, at the halfway point, time is taken to look at some explanations for this supposedly problematic "silence" on the historical Jesus.

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.

So Doherty does agree that there was a concern for preaching the God of the Jews; but it seems that he has not truly grasped the import of this fact. As noted above, one cannot preach God's Son without preaching God first - the double-barrel of trying to overcome objections to the nature of God AND the problem of antiquity. The SCAs had themselves over this double-barrel, for they had to defend not only Christian belief, but a goodly amount of Jewish belief as well - and first.

As for the second part, we have seen why the SCAs took this "Platonist" tack: It was the only way (they thought) to get a fair hearing. There is no "glaring anomaly" here, as Doherty puts it; this is how it would be for someone who had to fight every day of his life to survive, and deal with how the Roman reader would react to the "good news" of a ridiculous and capricious Jewish God who descended Himself to "touch" the material world and died the most disgraceful death possible as a confessed criminal.

Now Doherty has caught a sense of this explanation, for he writes: "Inevitably, commentators have been led to conclude that the omission-indeed, the suppression-of Jesus was deliberate." Yes, it was. "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." All correct, except for one key word: In place of "impolitic," try "impossible".

But does Doherty have any counter for this?

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.

Common sense? With apologies to Thomas Paine, let us frame the matter as it really was.

Rehabilitate Jesus? HowW? Jesus openly admitted guilt in a Roman court of law, by the testimony of Christianity's leading documents. The only way to "rehabilitate" Jesus in Roman eyes would be to show that he was indeed more than a man - and that is what this "Logos argument" is all about. All the talent in the world cannot get around the fact that the Christian writings themselves unequivocally show that Jesus committed a treasonous act against the Roman Empire and so "got what he deserved" when he was executed.

What "defense" does Doherty suggest for such a case? Saying that Jesus was not guilty of his crime would not work; he confessed guilt. Pointing to his teachings and actions as a model? Would it be enough to rehabilitate, say, Ted Bundy in our eyes if we were told that he had put together some nice teachings that were not terribly unique in the first place and concerned mostly points of law in an obscure religion that was also considered a superstition?

And what would keep the Romans from simply saying what modern critics do - that such words and actions were attributed to Jesus after the fact? Indeed, the Gospels were consistently rejected as testimony because they were regarded as presenting only the Christian side of the story. The Christians had only their word as proof, so how could the Gospels be of any worth? [Wilk.ChrRom, 110]

As for great works, the Romans had a ready answer for the miraculous deeds of Jesus: Celsus attributed them to the magical arts of Egypt - thus tying Jesus to yet another people rife with foreign superstition. Doherty simply fails to the appreciate the predicament of the average SCA - as is shown by this comment:

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?

This statement goes rather far in asserting that these presentations amount to "denial". "Gutting," perhaps to a certain extent, but not denial, and no more so than any treatise concerned with a particular topic "denies" anything by that concentration. I and others I know defend the faith regularly to all types of people, and can put together whole apologies without invoking "The Word became flesh" - and we live at a time where I could invoke the earthly nature of Christ and not turn off people more than I do already. Could Doherty claim that I didn't believe in a historical earthly Jesus?

But no one has said that the teachings do not come from Jesus; the SCAs have simply "failed" to live up to Doherty's 20th-century expectations of precision in citation, as indeed most writers of that time would have. No SCA has left out the possibility of a crucified Jesus, expunged the Name, nor said anything of the sort: "I have said all that there is to say."

Where is this in the texts? Where does Doherty think that a historical Jesus has been squeezed out of the picture and made impossible? In only one case to come does he even verge on showing this, and we will consider that in a few moments. The bottom line is that what the SCAs wrote is not mutually exclusive to the accounts of the Jesus of history, and is perfectly understandable in light of Roman preconceptions.

Horrified believers? Assuming that the mass of believers were able to get someone to read the material to them - we're not dealing with an age of high literacy here, remember - most of the works of the SCAs would likely as not go over their head, and even if they did not, we must assume that they, like Doherty, interpreted such works as "denials," and that is something for which we have not a scintilla of evidence.

In all of this, the problem is not our apologists, but Doherty himself - who, perhaps viewing the matter through rose-colored glasses, assumes that all the Christians had to do was show what a nice fellow Jesus was after all, and the Romans would slap their foreheads in amazement, yell "By Jupiter, you're right! Christianity is not a foreign superstition! All of our preconceived and highly cherished notions are wrong, and I see that now! What was I thinking???", and everything thereafter would be fine.

We are dealing with far more serious charges, and we are NOT, contrarily, dealing with men known for tolerance. All the wisdom of the ages could not save Seneca from Nero's death sentence; how does Doherty expect that simply laying out the moral teachings of Jesus or anything else would make the Romans think any better of Jesus or the Christians as a whole? (Some of the SCAs did try this, as a matter of fact - and apparently it didn't work too well, as the record of persecution demonstrates.)

Another point follows that does indeed carry a bit of wisdom, albeit misplaced:

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.

Re "who would they be fooling" - well, who says that they managed to "fool" anyone in the first place? And since when does the fact that an argument "fools" no one keep people (especially religious people, as skeptics are wont to point out!) from using it?

I daresay that the reason that beyond 180, no known Christian writer engaged the subject in the same way because it became obvious that they were NOT "fooling" anyone. The "back door method" might work when you were interacting with folks who were willing to give you a hearing (as, for example, Galen might have), but not with one-track minds of the sort found in the Roman political ranks and in everyday society.

On the other hand, as we have seen, 180 is no benchmark in this regard. But we may not see this tactic as much beyond 180 because the pagans did indeed catch on and start making a fuss: Porphyry in the second half of the third century is noted as having criticized Christian attempts to give "a Greek twist to foreign tales" - a clear indication that he knew what was going on - and it is doubtful that he was the first to level this criticism. See Wilk.ChrRom, 129)

A side note on Galen, since we have mentioned his name: In one of his own "side notes" on Christians, Galen, who wrote around 160-170 AD, refers to Christians as "drawing faith from parables, miracles, and yet sometimes acting in the same way as those who practice philosophy." This description serves as testimony that the philosophic/Logos arguments are just another side of the Christian coin which also believed in the historical Jesus. Galen obviously saw the matter this way and knew of Christians who argued from both ends of the spectrum - and there is no hint here that we are dealing with two separate movements.

On the other hand, Galen was quite generous in his estimation of Christianity, and treated it as a "philosophical school" rather than as a foreign superstition. That he did so is the flip side of apologists who approached from the Logos/philosophical perspective, for as Wilken notes [Wilk.ChrRom, 82-3]:

The idea that Christianity was a philosophical school helped Christian apologists to present the person of Jesus and the Christian way of life intelligibly and persuasively to outsiders.

Obviously no link can be established, but it could be that attitudes like Galen's encouraged some Christian intelligentsia to present Christianity in a philosophic light. Recall St. Paul: "I become all things to all people in order that they might believe.." In an academic or intellectual setting, one must often present Jesus in an intellectual and philosophical framework in order to even keep an audience. But, if someone is really seeking God, I am not going to talk about hypostatic unions, the ubiquity of Christ, the Real Presence, etc., but will present things much differently. These SCAs were only mimicking Paul in their actions. Nothing at all is inconsistent here.

We can see Doherty here as following the classic paradigm which says things like "The Christology of the gospels is lower than that of John", or "Paul's Jesus is different from Luke's Jesus". This is something of a misperception: The various NT books merely present different sides of Jesus, as any set of biographies may present different sides of any given person. These different sides were not at all exclusive, but complimentary. Of course, to many 20th century critics a person must always be described by one quality and that person must never be anything but the manifestation of that quality. Why can't Jesus be righteously indignant in the temple courtyard and later on talk as having a light yoke? Are we not this way -- possessing opposite attributes at different times?

Doherty seems to require that the SCA's think of nothing but "Earthly Jesus, Earthly Jesus, Earthly Jesus....". But if they did this, then one could say, "Now they are not saying anything about Jesus' deity, so they didn't think Jesus was God Incarnate, and thus the Trinity was not an early Christian doctrine." Whatever the SCAs say, it appears that the critics could raise the cry that the SCAs don't say something else.

As for Justin - sure enough he put Jesus at the center; and he is not called "Justin Martyr" because he was a member of the Macedonia Martyrs football team! He dealt with the matter through the front door, just like Paul - and look what happened to him. But there are also a few things that Doherty overlooks about Justin that might have helped him understand the overall direction of SCA methodology in his case. Justin was a particularly unusual individual - and it is no surprise to see him bucking the trend set by his comrades like Athenagoras.

Another point raised:

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.

Point as raised before: Attribute to Charles Manson a host of wholesome teachings and/or theology, and see if that gets you anywhere. I repeat again: In Roman eyes, there would be no means, short of defending Jesus' divinity in terms that the Romans would understand, of "redeeming Jesus in pagan eyes" - and even that would not work on the average Roman.

The SCAs had a choice when it came to the execution of Jesus: Either play it down through the back door, or just outright admit it, and revel in it. From a sociological perspective, any group that engages in a practice that is considered shameful to the rest of their society generally gravitates towards one of two extremes: Playing it down, or flaunting it. (Consider the examples of homosexuality and Mormon polygamy in particular.)

This is the conundrum that the Christians had to deal with, and we see in the SCAs examples from both perspectives.

SCA Case Four - Tatian: Apology to the Greeks

Returning to the apologists, Doherty appeals to Tatian's Apology to the Greeks. We will not examine that case in full here, for he merely repeats the same errors he has previously and elsewhere; we will look only at a few comments. Trying to find an answer to the "why" behind the supposed silence about Jesus in Tatian, he writes:

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.

We have already dealt with the why of dealing with the incarnation at length; and at any rate, why should Tatian have gone into any great detail on the matter? No requirement exists delineating how far one must go into a particular topic, and Tatian has no reason to get any more in depth than he has.

In terms of the pagans being "familiar" with the Gospels, I see no such implication required, and at any rate, we have no indication whether the familiarity is a passing or a detailed familiarity.

As for the rest, once again, Doherty would do well to finish the quotes he starts. In Chapter 21, Tatian writes:

Wherefore, looking at your own materials, vouchsafe us your approval, though it were only as dealing in legends similar to your own. We, however, do not deal in folly, but your legends are only idle tales.

"YOUR legends are only idle tales." I.e., OURS are not; we do not deal in folly. If this is not an "endorsement" or a way of pointing out that the Christian stories are "factually true" and not myths on the level of those of the Greeks, then one wonders what would qualify as such. To interpret Tatian's rhetorical invitation to suspend belief about Christianity relative to the Greek myths as some sort of equation of the Christian story with a Greek myth is an exegetical fallacy.

Nor can we do as Doherty does and simply brush off Tatian's later work on the Gospels as indicating a "change of mind" about the historical Jesus. This explanation, which Doherty will also apply to Justin, that Tatian "changed his mind" about the historicity of Jesus, is an obvious attempt to make the theory fit the facts, a case of begging the question.

This evidence, along with the social evidence, shows, rather, that the arguments offered by Theophilus, Athenagoas, etc. on the one hand, and by Justin on the other, are two sides of the same Christian coin. Appeal is made as circumstances and personalities warrant: And that is a lesson we will now learn by taking a closer look at the work of Justin Martyr.

SCA Case Five - Justin Martyr: Dialogue With Trypho

In Justin Martyr, we encounter an obvious change of pace - as both Doherty and I agree. There are ample references to the Crucifixion and other "essential elements" throughout Justin's work. Still and all, Doherty must explain this, and so suggests that Justin originally did not believe in a historical Christ, but rather in a spiritual one.

How so? Justin, he tells us, "left us an inadvertent record of the nature of the faith he joined before his encounter with the story of a human Jesus." To wit:

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.

A quick notice here - again, the expression of Christian belief in "Platonic terms" does NOT rule out a Jesus who walked the earth. Even if Platonism so abhorred the physical as to reject something like the incarnation, one must show that there is more than "terms" at work - the idea itself should be explicitly evident.

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 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.

Now here Doherty has rather given away the store: For if he supposes that the Dialogue represents accurately Justin's early beliefs, then they are still a belief in a historical Jesus, for the Dialogue is full of references to the virgin birth, the crucifixion, etc., and we have no indication as to the time between Justin's conversion and his conversation with Trypho. If Justin was born c. 110 AD, and the Dialogue took place in the 130s even if written about years later, then there is not a great deal of time for this supposed changeover from spiritual to historical Christ.

At any rate, Doherty supposes here that Justin first believed in a spiritual Christ before a historical one; but where is the evidence within the text for any such transition? The text implies that there was no such transition, because the belief is the same, and as we have said: Two sides of the same Christian coin. Christ was, as we maintain, both an earthly and a spiritual being. To say things like, "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" is to beg the question.

Doherty closes his section by repeating the "Trypho error" used by Drews and Wells, which we have dealt with elsewhere. We need say little else about Justin, other than our upcoming note: We do see in his first Apology that he appeals to Christianity's Hebrew lineage, in an obvious attempt to establish antiquity; it is also noteworthy that in his own explanation of resurrection (18-19), he does not appeal to Jesus' resurrection as proof, which leads us to suspect that this should pose no problem in regards to the other SCAs either.

And now we close with an answer to a possible concern.

One of Doherty's points of contention is that, since Justin has no qualms about reporting the historical Jesus, the crucifixion, etc., then certainly other SCAs should have had no problems with it either.

Now this is itself is unreasonable: The SCAs were not clones, they were individuals, and each individual has different reactions to different situations. We do not know as much about the other SCAs as we do about Justin (as Doherty notes, he is the one we know most about), but what clues we have indicate that Justin, like Paul, was inclined towards boldness. On the other hand, our other SCAs show less courage, and so it is no surprise to see them using the "back door" method.

How is this to be demonstrated? Let us step back to Athenagoras for a moment, and his message to the Emperor of Rome. He closes his work with this entreaty to the Emperor (32):

And now do you, who are entirely in everything, by nature and by education, upright, and moderate, and benevolent, and worthy of your rule, now that I have disposed of the several accusations, and proved that we are pious, and gentle, and temperate in spirit, bend your royal head in approval. For who are more deserving to obtain the things they ask, than those who, like us, pray for your government, that you may, as is most equitable, receive the kingdom, son from father, and that your empire may receive increase and addition, all men becoming subject to your sway?

Athenagoras gets in his two cents for the Christians, but my, what a tribute to the Emperor! On the other hand, take a look at the closing words of Justin in his missive to the Emperor - whom, let us recall, is regarded by the Romans as being much as a god. At the end of his extended treatise (note that Justin has no qualms re: cutting things short, and no worries about trying the Emperor's patience), our worthy soon-to-be-martyr writes:

And if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honor them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies. For we forewarn you, that you shall not escape the coming judgment of God, if you continue your injustice; and we ourselves invite you to do that which is pleasing to God. And though from the letter of the greatest and most illustrious Emperor Adrian, your father, we could demand that you order judgment to be given as we have desired, yet we have made this appeal and explanation, not on the ground of Adrian's decision, but because we know that what we ask is just.

Telling the Emperor what he ought to do? Practically dictating terms to him? Implying that he could DEMAND something of the Emperor? WARNING the Emperor about the judgment of God?!? Justin may or may not be within his rights here, but whether he is or not, he is obviously lacking in the graces displayed by Athenagoras. Is it any wonder that this man was the only one known to have been martyred among our batch of SCAs? It is exactly this sort of obduracy that made Christians particularly annoying to the Romans (cf. Pliny).

It is obvious, then, that Justin revels in the cross, rather than hiding it, because it would be his nature to do so - as it was Paul's. When we respect the SCAs as individuals, rather than asking that all they conform to our expectations, their actions and their writings become far more intelligible - and require no supposition of changed minds to become that way.

SCA Case Six - Minucius Felix: Octavius

Doherty informs us that he has "left until last the most fascinating of all the apologies, a document which could well be called a 'smoking gun'." These words are applied to a passage from a work called Octavius, authored by one Minucius Felix. Doherty describes this work: "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."

Before anything else, there is a matter to address which may make the whole point moot: Octavius may be reckoned to have been dependent on one or more works of Tertullian. As Doherty explains (and responds):

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.

Another paragraph goes on to point out that Jesus' resurrection is not offered as proof "in answer to the challenge (11): 'What single individual has returned from the dead, that we might believe it for an example?' " Once again, the context indicates a desire for a living specimen, not harkening back to the resurrection of Jesus and begging the question.

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...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?

Partly paraphrased? No: "Significantly edited." A full accounting of what is written in this passage shows not precisely "disreputable accusations which need to be refuted" but "half-truths mixed with disreputable accusations that need to be refuted." In all but the case of the allusion to Jesus, Doherty has eliminated the "truthful" half of the accusations.

Let's look at a much more informative version of this passage, although I shall not go to the length that Doherty has in the text:

And now, as wickeder things advance more fruitfully, and abandoned manners creep on day by day, those abominable shrines of an impious assembly are maturing themselves throughout the world. Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated. They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another. Everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters, that even a not unusual debauchery may by the intervention of that sacred name become incestuous: it is thus that their vain and senseless superstition glories in crimes. Nor, concerning these things, would intelligent report speak of things so great and various, and requiring to be prefaced by an apology, unless truth were at the bottom of it. I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, - a worthy an appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the virilia of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites; and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve. Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds.

So this passage consist of far more than just "a litany of ridiculous and unspeakable calumnies" - what we have here is a mixture of lies, half-truths and misinterpretations of fact:

So: Doherty's classification of all of these things, and the idea that "this reference to a crucified man is to be regarded as in any way different from the rest of the items" does not take into account the varied nature of the accusations and the fact that nearly all of them have some degree of truth behind them. He cannot simply classify all of these accusations as ridiculous calumnies, fully in need of refutation, although he left such an impression by making only selective quotes from the passage and/or not explaining the background of the accusations. The "crucified man" accusation is merely a truth with a negative spin on it.

So the argument of the critic provides no support for Doherty's position, but his "smoking gun" as it were is found in the reply by Octavius. But first a few preliminaries. Doherty brings up three passages in this work of which he asks:

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 totally discredited.

Do these three arguments actually "confute and confound" Christian belief? Let's have a look:

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 worshipping a god who is slain.

The context of this passage would tell us more, but there is really no need to look at it: Even if Octavius is castigating the Greeks for this belief, it has no relevance to Christians, for since Jesus rose from the dead, they do not "bewail" him at all. On to #2 -

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.

Our writer is ridiculing specifically the "dirty gods" like Jupiter who copulated like animals; he then goes on in this section to denigrate idols. This is an orange to the Christian apple. Finally -

Elsewhere (20) he scorns those who are credulous enough to believe in miracles performed by gods.

Actually, what our writer ridicules is SPECIFIC miracles and tales, such as reports of mythical creatures (like the Hydra) and men being changed into beasts and birds. He makes no statement against belief in miracles as a whole. Each of these three passages cited by Doherty is irrelevant.

But now to Doherty's "smoking gun." He begins by quoting Octavius' response to "the accusation that Christians worship a crucified man and his cross":

These 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. Moreover (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. Miserable indeed is that man whose whole hope is dependent on a mortal, for such hope ceases with his (the latter's) death. . .

Of this, he says:

...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? Octavius certainly does not provide it, yet the language here implies that the writer knows of some Christians who do believe such things, but he has no sympathy with them.

Actually, the language here implies no such thing, but let us pause for a moment. Most will suspect that the answer here is that Jesus was, by implication of this argument, neither criminal nor mere man, but God. But Doherty is aware of this answer, and says:

It is amusing to find the translator of this work in the 19th century collection of Ante-Nicene Fathers including 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 to verse 2 the translator offers this wishful footnote: "A reverent allusion to the Crucified, believed in and worshipped as God." What one cannot believe is missing, one will read into the text, no matter what.

Is such an idea to be "found nowhere" in the text? In point of fact, it is found, by quite direct and inescapable implication. In the section following, Doherty notes, our writer "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."

Indeed not: The folly is specifically that of the Egyptians, who "choose out a man for themselves whom they may worship" - one who "to others is a god, to himself is certainly a man whether he will or no, for he does not deceive his own consciousness." Octavius is arguing against a human who takes the role of a god, knowing that he is not divine, and this was not the case with Jesus by any account.

But, our critic will and has argued: "Where is the saving defence that in fact this crucified man was not a mortal, but was indeed God?" It is buried, quite simply, under the folly of crucifixion. As Hengel notes [Heng.Cx, 4]:

Octavius cannot deny the shamefulness of the cross...he is deliberately silent about the death of Jesus...(his) evasion of the point indicates the dilemma which all too easily led educated Christians into docetism.

Now of course, we know how Doherty would respond to this: He appeals to later apologists who had no qualms about the cross. He notes the work of Arnobius, c. 300 AD, saying that this apologist:

..was in no way reluctant or dishonest in admitting (the crucifixion), 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). In the case of Minucius Felix, can we really believe that any Christian apologist would be capable of this degree of-even 'apparent'-denial?

In point of fact, we can. Felix and Arnobius are not clones, but individuals, and Arnobius was (as well can tell from even the above) a much bolder personality than usual, in the spirit of Justin and Paul. The time and relative amount of persecution has nothing to do with it; even today Christians vary in their boldness in witnessing to the life they have gained from their Lord, and some in America, though they face no more persecution than a withering stare, are (to their shame) among those who hide the Lord in their heart.

On the other hand, some of the boldest witnessers are found in places like China and Saudi Arabia, where proselytizations equal death. So would "any Christian apologist" be capable of such denial? Absolutely - and I daresay we have our own modern and more severe parallels in preachers of the "health and wealth" prosperity gospels who cannot come to grips with a Jesus who lived as an impoverished Galileean peasant.

Such "apparent denial" is not impossible or unbelievable at all, and in fact, the "persecution factor" as a rule seems to have the opposite effect from that which Doherty implies.

We are then treated to a brief comment on the fact that Felix "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."

This is only half-true: Felix clarifies that Christians neither worship nor wish for crosses, and what he goes on to criticize is pagan worship of wooden idols, from which crosses can be made. He is pointing out the hypocrisy of the charge from his opponent, not defending the sacred significance of the cross, which at any rate would have the same "folly roadblock" as the crucifixion.

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.

Indeed? What we truly have is not desperate Christian scholars, but a waving away of the social context of the second-century apologists. He who admonishes us to let documents "speak for themselves" is one who has rather allowed the documents to speak for his theory of a non-historical Jesus, regardless of their context.


Doherty goes on to suggest again that the SCAs, being "versed in a wide range of ancient knowledge, in the intricate subtleties of contemporary philosophy,' could therefore "design careful and elaborate pieces of apologetic writing" that need not have contained "such devastating omissions and weaknesses as we have seen in Minucius Felix, in Theophilus, in Athenagoras, in Tatian". Doherty has failed to show how this is so, for he has severely underestimated the folly of the cross in Roman eyes. Intricate subtleties are no defense against hardened prejudice and preconceived notions entrenched for generations, as the folly-filled history of humanity amply demonstrates.

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.

And this, no doubt, is one reason who such apologies were scrapped. But then again, if Doherty thinks that Felix is being anything but tendentious here, he is wrong. Consider how our writer closes the debate, prior to reporting Caecilius' conversion:

When Octavius had brought his speech to a close, for some time we were struck into silence, and held our countenances fixed in attention; and as for me, I was lost in the greatness of my admiration, that he had so adorned those things which it is easier to feel than to say, both by arguments and by examples, and by authorities derived from reading; and that he had repelled the malevolent objectors with the very weapons of the philosophers with which they are armed, and had moreover shown the truth not only as easy, but also as agreeable.

I think that rather speaks for itself! Nevetheless: Intellectually, the Octavius is not at all convincing, and while it may have made converts among the lower-level and literate intelligentsia such as Felix was, the bottom line is that Octavius is little more than an emotional "propaganda piece" which would be given no truck by high-level intelligentsia like Galen and Celsus. On this level, I daresay Felix was hardly cognizant of how easily, indeed, his arguments could be turned against him. Being an advocate, rather than a theologian or philosopher, he was probably in no position to know better.

A few footnotes to our study in closing:

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 2000 years 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 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, would hardly have been accessible to someone who might think of undertaking such a task.

No documents doubting Jesus? No problem - they were all destroyed. One is reminded here of the old joke about the painter who presented a blank canvas as "A Cow Eating Grass." Where was the grass, he was asked? The cow ate it, he said. Then where was the cow? Why, there was no grass, so surely you didn't expect the poor cow to hang around, did you?

Such is an analogy to Doherty's method of arguing.

Finally, a few notes on two writers prior to the SCAs who cause Doherty's thesis particular problems.

First, the Apostolic Father Ignatius, who wrote around 110-125 AD and in his letters "urges belief in the historicity of the bare details of a life of Jesus, including that he was born of a mother named Mary and that he died at the hands of Pilate."

These remarks are normally regarded as a response to docetic tendencies of the sort Hengel notes; Doherty responds by saying that "There are good arguments, which some scholars support, for rejecting that these particular statements are part of an 'anti-docetic' stance."

What these arguments are, and which scholars make them, is left strangely unsaid and uncited.

"The fact that Ignatius never appeals to any Gospel as proof of these historical details is sufficient to establish that he knew of none, and this scholars generally admit."

Actually, this is a modern writer once again presuming modern methods of citation on his ancient subjects; and if we wish to be consistent, then let us say that the fact that Doherty never appeals to any scholar as proof of this interpretation of Ignatius is sufficient to establish that he knows of none.

Finally on Ignatius, it is said: "The one Gospel-like scene he does draw on (Smyrneans 3), to prove Jesus' resurrection in flesh, is not identified as coming from a Gospel and would constitute a very inaccurate rendering of a Lukan or Johannine passage."

I find it to be a quite reasonably accurate conflation of Lukan and Johannine passages, and certainly not particularly problematic in the context of an era where precise quotation was a practice generally limited to grammarians.

Second, the Epistle of Barnabas, usually dated 115-120 AD. We are told that "Barnabas (unlike Ignatius) spells out that it is scripture itself which provides details of Christ's life, a life he does seem to set in an unspecified historical past."

Hardly less specific than thousands of other documents of this type from the ancients; are we not always told of this sort of restriction on the letter of Mara Bar-Serapion?

"In 5:3...Barnabas praises God for giving information about the past through scripture, implying that this is the sole source for such information."

Barnabas implies no such thing; he says that "we ought to be deeply grateful to the Lord, because he has both made known to us things that are past, and hath given us wisdom concerning things present, and hath not left us without understanding in regard to things which are to come." Obviously since Barnabas sees the future as being to some extent explained in Scripture, this does not rule out other sources for future information: Certainly these folks did not lock themselves in their room content that what was going on outside was already reported for them in the OT. (This is furthermore only a continuing demonstration of the overarching authority of the OT, which we have referred to elsewhere.)

"He even seems to say (5:12) that 'we know' that the Jews were responsible for Jesus' suffering and death because scripture tells us!"

I see no such "seems" at all, much less a direct indication of this, in 5:12.

"Somewhere, too, he has gotten the idea (5:8-9) that Jesus taught the people of Israel and worked miracles (though he never gives examples of either), and that the apostles he chose 'were sinners of the worst kind', hardly a valid judgment from any Gospel picture."

This is another begged question. That "somewhere" is history; the lack of examples is no cause for objection and would in fact have been a digression in direct violation of the rhetorical principle of brevity (and besides, why SHOULD a specific example have been given?); and the judgment is no less valid than Paul's own estimation of himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15-16) and Peter's estimation of himself as a "sinful man" - both typical Semitic statements of excess designed to bring across the point that the disciples were unworthy and humble servants.

"In fact, he seems to deduce this from a line he quotes, that Jesus 'came not to call saints but sinners,' something he does not attribute to Jesus himself or any Gospel, and in fact interprets in a contradictory fashion to the way in which the Gospel of Mark uses it: applying it to apostles instead of people in general."

Bypassing the attribution argument, Doherty does not recognize this for what it is: A typical rabbinic-style exegesis and re-application of a sacred saying.



  • Heng.Cx - Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.
  • Metzg.NT - Metzger, Bruce Manning. The Canon of the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
  • Wilk.ChrRom - Wilken, Robert L. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1984.

    All quotes from the Ante-Nicene Fathers are taken from the multi-volume set, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, by T and T Clark and Eerdmans, reprinted 1994.