Answering Attacks on Jesus
Nowhere in history are attacks upon the identity and work of a person and a religion more prevalent than over the identity and work of Jesus of Nazareth and Christianity.
The Bible gives us the only significant and trustworthy information about Jesus of Nazareth and His work. The significance of this information is apparent because of the inspiration of the Bible (1 Corinthians 2:1-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21); thereby, giving the Bible inerrancy and trustworthiness.
Liberals, Modernists, Post-Modernists, and Skeptics challenge the accuracy, reliability, and historicity of the inspired documents. Seemingly, the criterions imposed upon biblical documents by these scholars are never applied with the same intensity to other historical documents. While accepting almost verbatim, the manuscripts and the personalities of the Greco-Roman period, critics argue that the “the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of [H]is mission cannot be written” (Sherwin-White 187). Such efforts in attempting to destroy the historicity of Jesus are nothing more than a strong bias toward the supernatural.
The historical Christ cannot be ignored by any individual—schooled or unschooled. All men must answer Jesus’ question, “Whom do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Because of the biblical worldview, we consider attacks on Jesus cannot be separated from attacks on God, as Jesus is a co-eternal and co-equal member of the trinity. Likewise, attacks on God and Jesus are attacks on the Bible—the word or revelation of God. You cannot have an attack on one in isolation of the others! Men either accept Jesus as God in the flesh or reject Jesus in unbelief and that to their own eternal loss.
Modern-day attacks on Jesus and Christianity are not new. Careful study shows familiarity with earlier attacks, and consequently, they are nothing more than reinterpretation and modification with some new wisdom of men tossed in the mix. Some present day opponents, while arrogant in their expression, are smooth, knowing how to sell falsehood and caring little in trying to undermine and erode the precious faith of the uninformed believer.
The above thoughts are evident from the writings of Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is the James A Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
He is a leading authority on the Bible and the Life of Jesus. In defending his use of the historical critical method of study, Ehrman brazeningly brags of his scholarly ability to destroy the biblical faith in his students concerning the historical truthfulness of the Bible. “There is simply too
much evidence, and to reconcile all of these hundred of differences among the biblical sources requires so much speculation and fancy interpretive footwork that eventually it gets too much for them” (Jesus, Interrupted 6).
While attacks on Christ and Christianity will always occur, Christians, likewise, are responsible to “always be ready to give a defense [apologia] to everyone who ask you a reason for the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).
In this study involving “Answering Attacks On Jesus” we will set forth the following: (1) New Testament Attacks, (2) attacks on Jesus from the second through the fourth centuries, and (3) attacks on Jesus by Deists.
New Testament attacks on Jesus
Think it not strange that various individuals attack Jesus today, as we shall see in the latter section of this essay, for the biblical records show He was attacked from the beginning. We are limiting our materials mostly from the four Gospels with occasional reference from Acts through
Attacks in His earliest years. The first attack was the vicious opposition by Herod to destroy the Christ-child once he could find Him (Matthew 2:10-23). Herod was angry when the wise men failed to return and report the exact location of the Christ-child. Herod the Great, in his anger,
ordered the “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:8-18). God directed Joseph to take the Christ-child to Egypt until He called them out (Matthew 2:19-23). Archelaus, Herod’s son, ruled Judea (Matthew 2:22) and God directed Joseph to Nazareth of Galilee (Matthew 2:22- 23). Archelaus’s reputation was similar to his father (Roper 84).
All of this occurred before Jesus embarked on His ministry! The first attack by Herod is the result of jealousy and fear (Matthew 2:2, 16); the present-day attacks result from unbelief. Herod tried to murder the physical, historical Christ; whereas, the skeptics of today attack His historicity!
Attacks in His ministry. Not everyone during His ministry willingly heard Jesus, though the record states: “the common people heard Him gladly” (Mark 12:37). Various segments of Jewish society, though they over-lapped at times, attacked and opposed Jesus.
The Pharisees and Scribes. Because Jesus was unschooled in the rabbinical tradition (John 7:35) and taught with authority and not as the scribes (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22), the Pharisees and scribes repeatedly attacked, opposed, and challenged Jesus on His authority. Consequently, they kept Him under surveillance, not to learn, but to criticize and attack. His influence on the common folk was galling to them to say the least. Their most bitter opposition came because of Christ’s claim of a unique relationship with God; i.e. He “made Himself equal with God” (John 5:18; 7:33). The Jews—the patrician leadership—were “uniformly and strongly against Him (John 5:15, 16; cf. Matthew 12:14; Mark 9:6; Luke 6:11), the Sanhedrin two years earlier pledged to kill Him” (Culver 176) following His raising Lazarus (John 11:53).
The Sadducees. An analysis of the Gospels lists the Sadducees in the role of protagonists and opponents of Christ in Matthew 16:1, 6, 12; 22:23; Mark 12:18; and Luke 20:27. The Sadducees were the religious skeptics or “party of protest” (Stalker 32) of Christ’s day. They denied the resurrection and immortality of the soul. Stalker describes the Sadducees as being “sceptical, cold-hearted, worldly men. . . . [T]hey wished to live a life of comfort and self-indulgence” (32). Their life-style was completely opposite of the godly living set forth by Jesus in His ministry.
This resulted in their opposition and attacks on Christ.
The Herodians. Opposition to Jesus was not only religious, but it was political coming from the Jewish “political party” known as the Herodians. They joined with both the Pharisees and Sadducees in attacking Christ. “[T]he Herodians were politically affiliated with the Herodian house, but they were religiously and economically affiliated with the Sadducees” (Hoehner 325). They not only attempted to ensnare Christ in His words (Matthew 22:16; Mark 12:13), but they joined with the Pharisees to see “how they might destroy him” (Mark 3:6). What strange bedfellows (cf. Bowker 41).
The attacks on Christ during His ministry came from both the religious and political elements of the Jewish and Roman societies. In the 21st century, nothing has changed. Christ and Christianity are attacked and opposed. They are opposed as the result of unbelief! Robertson sums up the opposition to Christ in the first century and it is applicable at the present. “No amount of discounting for prejudice can remove the solid bases of real antipathy that remains, and that alone explains all that follows through the centuries” (62).
Apologists from the Second Century to the Fourth Century
Attacks on Jesus and Christianity continued after the death of the apostles. While a number of valuable writings are found during this Patristic period it was not until, “After the 1st quarter of the 2d century [AD 125] . . . [that] apologetics became the most characteristic form of Christian writings” (Dulles 22). This was a drastic change from the usual intra-Church literature. The opposition came from Judaism, Philosophy, Paganism, and Rome. We examine each section briefly, due to time limitations, leaving a more extensive study to be produced in another essay.
Judaism. With the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 (Matthew 24), the opposition of Judaism to Christ and Christianity did not cease. Some were anxious to persuade and oppose Christ and Christianity. They encouraged Rome to administer civil punishment, but this often failed to
dissuade the Christians from living their lives for Christ, and as Dulles states, attempt to convert the Jews to Jesus, who was fleshly Israel’s hope (22). It is apparent that the willingness of the first-century Christian to die a martyr’s death (Stephen, Acts 7; James, Acts 12; Antipas,
Revelation 2) was a vital element in their commitment and faithfulness in the centuries that followed.
JUSTIN MARTYR (ca. 100-165) was born in Samaria and lived briefly in Ephesus. Later he moved to Rome. Justin is considered “the greatest apologist of the second century” (Edgar and Oliphant 35). His goal was to defend Christ and Christianity against all opponents to the point of
becoming a martyr.
Justin wrote his major apology, Dialogue with Trypho, in circa AD 150. Trypoho was an educated Jew and is often “identified with a Rabbi Tarphon, who is mentioned in the Jewish Mishna” (Green 197). Justin’s writing is the first exposition of why Christ is the Messiah of the Old Testament and sets forth that the Jews in refusing to obey Jesus held a false position with regard to Jesus and Christianity. His Dialogue contains 147 chapters (159-308). There is no historical evidence Trypho was converted to Jesus.
Philosophy. Dulles writes, “From the 2nd through the 4th centuries the assault [on Christ and Christianity] became increasingly intellectual” (22). With the conversion of the schooled and the unschooled, controversy with philosophers required Christians to give adequate reason for their conversion to Christ and Christianity from their previous pagan philosophies and lifestyles. JUSTIN MARTYR, who engaged Trypho the Jew, also engaged in public defense of Christ and Christianity with the philosophers. After Justin’s move to Rome, “the philosophers, especially the cynics, plotted against him, and he sealed his testimony to the truth by martyrdom” (Coxe 160). He was capable of defending Christ and Christianity as he was previously trained in the leading philosophies of his time—Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Phythagorianism, and Platonism—enroute to his conversion to Christ. His First Apology was to Antonio Pius Augustus Caesar. He stated his reason for his defense was, “For if, whom ye have learned the truth, you do not what is just, you will be before God without excuse” (163).
Another Christian apologist was CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (ca. AD 153-220). Clement was the headmaster of the school in Alexandria, Egypt, from about AD 190 until his death. He succeeded Vantaenus, whom he had nothing but the highest respect (Eusebius 225). In his work,
The Stromata or Miscellanies, Clement speaks of philosophy as a handmaid given to the Greeks by God.
For God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as of the Old and the New Testament; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring “the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, “to Christ” Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ. (305)
Of course, Christians could never give full approval to any system of Greek philosophy, but as Green states, “When the Christians appeared on the scene, they did not offer a new philosophy supported by human reason but rather a sacred history, the ‘facts of the gospel.’ It was a report of good news which offered salvation to men” (199). The historical trustworthiness of the Bible enables any and all to read, study, and obey the words of Jesus which results in the grace of God bringing salvation to man (Titus 2:11; John 20:30-31).
Paganism. Opposition to Christ and Christianity from paganism never waned from the close of the first century. Paganism intensified its attacks on Christians by charging them with practicing immorality and advocating atheism. Christians opposed the immoral lifestyle of the pagan society. Cities throughout the Roman Empire were filled with temples—Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, etc.—where prostitution and idol worship was the norm of life. Peter wrote encouraging Christians to continue to abstain from immorality (1 Peter 2:11) and to live a Christian life apart from the pagans of Gentile’s immorality (1 Peter 2:11) because “they speak against you as evildoers” (1 Peter 2:12) and falsely accused their Christian lifestyle (1 Peter 3:16).
Pagans believed it strange that Christians had abandoned, as well as condemned, their former lifestyle (1 Peter 4:4). They would suffer for their faith (1 Peter 4:16), even to martyrdom if need be (Revelation 2:10), and bring glory to God through their suffering.
By the second century, paganism concocted three serious, evil charges against Christians: atheism, incest, and cannibalism. Consequently, Christians were considered haters of the human race. One of the earliest Christian apologists and philosophers to these charges was a Christian named, ATHENAGORAS (died ca. 185). In his lifetime, he founded the school at Alexandria. His work titled, A Plea For The Christians, contains thirty-two brief apologetics chapters. Athenagoras answers the various unjust charges from the pagans to his emperors, Marcus Aurelius and Aurelius Commodus. He argues that if any of these three charges—atheism, incest, and cannibalism—are true that the emperors should “spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like brutes” (130). JUSTIN MARTYR, likewise, answered these charges in his First Apology (164, 165, 171, 172) and in his Second Apology (189, 192, 193).
Rome. The charge of Christians being atheists was twofold. First, the early Christians refused to worship the various local pagan deities (cf. 1 John 5:21). To do so would have been fully contradictory with giving full honor, glory, and praise to the Godhead. Second, the charge of the early Christians of atheism is interesting, especially to those of us in the 21st century, as it involved the serious problem of emperor worship. Emperor worship or the Cult of Caesar existed before the entrance of Christ and Christianity. The Roman Emperor was worshipped as a god. When Augustus Caesar brought peace to the empire it was explained by Augustus as being divine (Ferguson 160). Christians defended themselves against the charge of atheism by explaining they were “atheists, so far as the gods of this world are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity” (Justin 164; Athenagoras 130-41). Temples had been dedicated to the Caesars as gods in Rome and throughout the empire.
Away from Rome honors advanced more rapidly. Even in the west altars at which a sacerdos officiated were erected to Roma et Augustus and from the time of Tiberius temples were dedicated to the divinized Augustus, presided over by a flamen. A temple to Rome and the emperor was ordinarily situated at the center of the province—at the provincial capital where the assembly (koinon, concilium; see p. 35) met and in the east often at other cities as well. The imperial cult was the chief function of the koinon. Divine honors (continuing Hellenistic precedents) included identification with some god, renaming old festivals, making sacrifices, erecting statues in temples and elsewhere, erecting temples, instituting games, naming months for the benefactor, etc.
The strength and popularity of the imperial cult is testified to by the large number of private associations that took as their pattern the emperor instead of one of the traditional deities. The extent of religious devotion is indicated by the presence in some places of mysteries as part of the imperial cult. The imperial cult was so strongly bound to the monarchy that the Christian emperors could not abolish its trappings—bowing, extravagant language of compliment, homage to the imperial insignia and images. (164-65)
Bruce writes that Caesar had gone beyond his proper sphere as a minister of God, to execute wrath on the evildoer (cf. Romans 13:1-7), when worship was demanded of the Christians they “refused to compromise their allegiance to Christ . . . they submitted to martyrdom, and their blood was like seed which produced a rich harvest in later generations” (59; Ehrhardt 107). For a comparative study between the divine titles belonging to God and Christ and those titles assumed and demanded by the Caesars see Wuest, pages 20-32.
Attacks on Jesus by Deists
The Bible is seldom unaffected by the intellectual studies of the Bible scholars. The Enlightenment of the Age of Reason (1700s) resulted in radically new approaches to all of life and especially with interpretation of the Bible. Beginning with Hermann Samuel Remarius (1694-1768) and his work Analogy for or Defense of the Rational Worshippers of God, which was published after his death by Gotthold Lessing (1729-1787), as Fragments. Remarius believed in God but not divine revelation, miracles, or providence. Remarius, and those following his line of interpretation, considered “the critical tents of historic Christianity . . . [as] no longer rationally viable or intellectually responsible” (Long 101).
By the late 17th century, England rose to the forefront in biblical and other intellectual studies. The Enlightenment had convinced society of “mankind as the infallible index of truth” (Dulles 135) and gave rise to Deism. A number of believers responded to Deism, but we mention two important post-Reformation responses.
JOSEPH BUTLER (1692-1752), the Bishop of Durham, who lived during the height of the Deist controversy. Deism accepted the existence of the creator God. The earliest use of the word Deism can be traced to 1564 and used by Pierre Viret, who while accepting belief in God,
rejected Jesus Christ and His doctrines (cf. Mossner 327). In 1704, Samuel Clarke set forth four distinct types of deists: “those who denied providence; those who acknowledged providence in natural religion but not in morality; those who, while denying a future life, admitted the moral role of deity; and finally, those who acknowledge a future life and the other doctrines of natural religion” (327).
Butler defended Christianity against the attacks of Deism in his The Analogy of Religion. Butler’s seventh chapter in his section “Of Revealed Religion” titled, “Of the particular evidence for Christianity” is still worth reading. His argument involves the affirmation that “the historical
evidence of miracles . . . [is] of great weight. . . . [T]his evidence . . . cannot be destroyed” (289, 316).
WILLIAM PALEY (1743-1805). Paley, the Bishop of Wearmouth, was considered “the last great apologist to write prior to the rise of the modern critical movements in philosophy and theology” (Bush 351). Paley’s apologetic works are: Moral and Political Philosophy (1785);
Horae Pauline (1790) or The Truth of the Scriptures History of St. Paul Evinced; and Natural Theology (1802).
Horae Pauline is his most important work. Paley argued for “the credibility of the Christian revelation, by shewing the numerous coincidences between the Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. . . . [as being able to] furnish numerous proofs of the truth of both of these works,
and consequently of that of Christianity” (xvi). His teleological argument of a watch proving a designer is one of his famous and persuasive illustrations.
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Bowker John. Jesus and the Pharisees. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973.
Bush, Russ, Ed. Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics A.D. 100-1800. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983.
Butler, Joseph. The Analogy of Religion. Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature. New York: Dayton & Saxton, 1841.
Clement of Alexandria. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1975. 10 vols.
Coxe, A. Cleveland. “Introductory Note to the First Apology of Justin Martyr”. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Eds.
Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1975. 10 vols.
Culver, Robert Duncan. The Life of Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981.
Dulles, Avery. A History of Apologetics. New York: Corpus, 1971.
Edgar, William and K. Scott Oliphant. Eds. Christian Apologetics: Past and Present. Wheaton: Crossway, 2009.
Ehrhardt, Arnold. “The Adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire”. Bulletin of John Rylands Library. September 1962.
Ehrman, Bart. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperOne, 2009.
Eusebius. The Ecclesiastical History. Trans. Christian Frederick Cruse. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958.
Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 1987. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Green, William H. “Early Defenders of the Faith.” Restoration Quarterly. 6:4 (1962).
Hoehner, H. N. “Herodian Dynasty.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Eds. Green, McKnight, and Marshall.
Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.
Justin Martyr. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975. 10 vols.
Long, V. Phillips. The Art of Biblical History. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Mossner, Ernest Campbell. “Deism.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. Vol. 2. New York: Collier Macmillan. 1967. 8 vols.
Paley, William. Works. Edinburgh: Peter Brown and Thomas Nelson, 1833.
Robertson, A. T. The Pharisees and Jesus. London: Duckworth, 1920.
Roper, David L. The Life of Christ: A Supplement. Vol. 1. Searcy: Resource, 2003. 2 vols.
Sherwin-White, A. N. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. 1963. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978.
Stalker, James. The Life of Christ. 1879. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1954.
Wuest, Kenneth S. Bypaths in the Greek New Testament for English Readers. 1940. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958.