This is a follow-up to my post on The Origin of Christianity is Coming into Focus. Reading time: 3-4 minutes.
From all I’ve absorbed from the hundreds of books I read about every aspect of Christianity; it’s pretty convincing that no eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life contributed anything in the New Testament. That doesn’t mean there were no Christians who wrote about Jesus in the first century. It just means that they don’t seem to have been eyewitnesses to his life, death, or resurrection.
If you see my breakdown of the various stages of Christianity’s origins in that post, there were writers who documented at least the Paul era and the Roman era. But how unbiased were those accounts? Most seem to have been written by either salesmen for Christianity or theologians trying to decipher the evidence. Most of the biographical writings about Jesus are thought by historical scholars to be fictional. They believe they were based on tall tales that were handed down to the authors. Many were even written fraudulently, using the name of a famous disciple as the author, rather than the author’s own name. Scholars have to sift through all these writings to find anything that might truly be historical.
Eyewitnesses we never hear from
We know that there had to have been eyewitnesses to first century Christianity and even to Jesus himself, but we don’t know what they taught and wrote. That’s because they were pagans and later Christians either destroyed their writings or left them to rot.
One example was the Greek philosopher Celsus. He lived in the second century, so he wasn’t an eye-witness to these events, but his case is indicative of how Christians treated pagan writings. The only reason we know about Celsus is through quotes provided to us by the third century Christian theologian Origen. He was living at a time when he still had access to Celsus’s writings.
Celsus had lots to say about the “invention” of the virgin birth, Jesus’s missing years (from age 12 to 30); Christianity not being welcoming to the learned, only the ignorant and stupid; along with many other accusations. The quotes attributed to Celsus showed that he had a good knowledge of the Old Testament and the writings that centuries later would become the New Testament. That all has to be taken into consideration in judging his writings.
Who knows if what Celsus wrote was true, but on the other hand, who knows if early Christian writers wrote anything that was true. I think all ancient literature, whether Christian or pagan, should be considered of equal value in deciphering the early days of Christianity. I’m sure the truth lies somewhere between the writings of the two poles.
Porphyry of Tyre
Then there was Porphyry of Tyre, another Greek philosopher, who lived in the late third century. This was still a time when it was safe for pagans to criticize Christianity because the Roman Empire was still pagan. None of Porphyry’s fifteen books in his series, Against the Christians, have survived. Like Celsus, everything that is known about his writings was extracted from written Christian refutations.
He wrote that the magic that Jesus performed was no different than that of other contemporary figures in Greek and Roman history. He also criticized the false dating of the book of Daniel to make it appear that it contained prophesies that later were interpreted to have came true. This seems to be in line with what present-day scholars are saying about the book of Daniel.
Several of the early Church fathers, including Augustine, wrote that Porphyry was a very learned philosopher who had once been a Christian. Unfortunately in AD 435 Emperor Theodosius II ordered all copies of Porphyry’s writings to be burned, and therefore his valuable life’s work was lost forever.
A very obscure past
Other than Celsus and Porphyry, we don’t know what other pagans wrote about Christianity in those early days. We don’t even know who those writers were because Christians dusted away their footprints and made it appear that they’d never even existed. If there are no surviving Christian criticisms of their works, they will never be known to us.
In church we were taught that everything in the Bible is true and undisputed, but that is far from the truth. All we have as evidence of that early period in Christian history is a white-washed version. New archeological evidence that is still to be discovered is immensely exciting because it will help paint a truer picture of that fascinating era.