03 Sep

by Providence Crowder

“Who is Jesus of Nazareth?” is a question that has captivated the hearts and minds of both the learned and the lay for over two thousand years.  Science and religion agree that the biblical Jesus, the Christ, is a historical and anthropological figure whose influence on the human psyche should be critically examined.  Orthodox Christianity has built its faith upon the supposition that Jesus is “the very God of God  . . . By whom all things were made.”  Christians further believe that Jesus, “for our salvation came down and was incarnate, and was made a man: He suffered and rose again the third day and ascended into heaven; He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.”[1]  Christianity’s presumptions about Jesus of Nazareth have not come without its secular and religious critics. 

           Early on in Church history, the Jews, and other foes of the Church such as Pliny the Younger and Celcus, have sought to disprove Christianity.  Their criticisms in some instances were so problematic for the Church, that Church leaders were compelled to respond.  Christian apologetics[2] arose from the Church’s need to dispel the falsehoods, attacks, and heretical views which had become commonplace not long after the Church’s inception. Certain Christian apologists, such as Justin Martyr and Athanasius, responded to their opponents.  These apologists, as well as other notable defenders of the Christian faith, considered it necessary to respond to heresies such as Ebionism, Docetism, and Monarchian Modalism. 

Opponents to Christianity

            In the mid first and early second century, Roman senator and governor Pliny the Younger, was one of many staunch opponents of Christianity.  His opposition was not so much directed at the Christians’ religious beliefs as much as it was aimed at dismembering the Christian’s “secret societies.”[3] Pliny was gravely displeased with the Church’s influence on the Roman culture.  He witnessed the neglect of the pagan cults by the people of Bithynia and Pontus after Christianity had spread through both town and country.[4] 

           Pliny expressed his discontentment with Christians in a correspondence with Roman Emperor Trajan and wrestled with how to best deal with them.  Pliny stated in his letter to Trajan:

I was never present at any trial of Christians; therefore I do not know what the customary penalties or investigations, or what limits are observed . . .  Meanwhile, this is the course that I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians.  I ask them if they are a Christian.  If they admit it I repeat the question a second and third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death.[5]

 Pliny also complained to Trajan, “On an appointed day they (Christians) had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and breach of faith.”[6]  Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan detailed one of the earliest accounts of the practices and beliefs of the first century Church and revealed that the secular community of that time believed that Christians worshiped Jesus as God.  Pliny was not alone in his enmity toward Christianity.

            Pagan philosopher Celsus was another critic of Christianity, and was known only through the writings of 2nd and 3rd century biblical scholar and exegete Origen.  Celsus, as did Pliny, had many complaints against the Christians and their “secret associations.”  Origen reiterated Celsus’ accusations, in his discourse Against Celsus:

The first point which Celsus brings forward is that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws. And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the “love-feasts “ of the Christians, as if they had their origin in the common danger, and were more binding than any oaths.[7]

Celsus sustained a systematic attack on Christianity throughout his homily, which according to Origen was entitled True Discourse.  In such, Celsus labeled the Christians’ Judaic roots as barbaric,[8] portrayed the Christian’s belief in Jesus and one God as foolish, and indicted the disciples of Jesus for being devisers of fiction.[9]  Origen firmly countered each of the false assertions of Celsus and substantially weakened his claims. Secular critics Pliny and Celsus were not the first to trouble the Church for the Christians’ unconventional beliefs.

            Among the first opponents of Christianity spoken of in the Bible were the religious leaders from various Jewish sects.  Although Jewish and Christian hermeneutics were both rooted in the ancient Hebrew scripture and culture, some Jews believed that Christians had falsely identified Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah.[10]  According to the scriptures, Jesus himself made claims to be the Messiah and the Son of God: “The high priest said to him (Jesus) . . . ‘Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ ‘It is as you say,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’” (Mt. 26:63-64). 

           Jesus equated himself with God when he said, “You call me teacher and Lord, and rightfully so, for that is what I am” (Jn. 13:13).  The religious leaders understood that Jesus was likening himself to God by depicting himself as Messiah and Lord, and for that reason, certain ones accused Jesus and his followers of being guilty of blasphemy.  Paul in his epistles to the churches encouraged Christians not to be discouraged by the Jews concerning the promised Jewish Messiah.  He stated in one instance that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25) and in another “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6).  Aside the differing criticisms, the secular and religious opponents to Christianity held one commonality; they all believed that the Christians equated Jesus to God.

Christian Apologists

            Christian apologetics arose from a great need to expose false teachings and defend the Church against its critics in early Christendom.  Apologist Justin Martyr was the “first Christian author, — the founder of theological literature.”[11]  As conveyed in his treatise Dialogue with Trypho, Justin’s exegesis revealed that he was knowledgeable in Jewish Rabbinical teachings. Trypho, identified as a Jew in Justin’s address, challenged the Judeo-foundation on which Christianity was built:

And supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision; and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey His commandments.[12]

Justin used his proficiency of Old Testament scripture to appeal to the Trypho and stated:

Now, law placed against law has abrogated that which is before it, and a covenant which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one; and an eternal and final law — namely, Christ — has been given to us, and the covenant is trustworthy . . .And by Jeremiah, concerning this same new covenant, He thus speaks: ‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers.”[13]

Justin Martyr was a formidable 2nd century champion of the faith against Jews as well as Greeks, often using philosophic reasoning concerning the “Logos” to appeal to the Greeks.[14]  He was also one of several apologists that, despite all opposition, maintained that Jesus was “the very God of God.”

            Apologist Athanasius was a 4th century theological leader who “played a critical role in the fight against the Arians.”[15]  Concerning Arius, in whom he deemed an apostate, Athanasius stated in his polemical campaign against such: 

And the novelties they (Arians) have invented and put forth contrary to the Scriptures are these following: — God was not always a Father, but there was a time when God was not a Father. The Word of God was not always, but originated from things that were not; for God that is, has made him that was not, of that which was not; wherefore there was a time when He was not; for the Son is a creature and a work.[16]

            In his defense of the “Nicene doctrine of ‘homoosios,’ that the Father and the Son share the same essence,” [17] Athanasius responded to Arius and Arian sympathizers: “Who that has heard the words of John, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ will not denounce the saying of these men, that “there was a time when He was not?” Or . . . ‘By Him were all things made,’ will not detest their declaration that He is one of the things that were made.”[18] Both apologists Athanasius and Justin Martyr challenged heretics to abandon the falsehoods of heretical teachings and espouse the truth of the gospel, that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is the very God of God.


            Apologists saw the need to address several faulty religious and world views that had characterized themselves under the guild of Christianity.  Ebionism was a heretical form of Christianity that had flourished in the early centuries of the Christian era and taught that “Jesus was the human son of Joseph and Mary” and believed in an “over-emphasis on the binding character of the Mosaic Law.”[19] The Ebionites, those who practiced Ebionism, also rejected all of the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul, and adhered to only one New Testament gospel account, the Gospel According to Matthew.[20]   

            Justin Martyr saw the dangers in adopting an Ebionite world-view, as it denied the deity of Christ.  He confronted their unorthodox teachings with challenging questions in his Discourse with Trypho: “He will judge also the Ebionites; [for] how can they be saved unless it was God who wrought out their salvation upon earth? . . . And how could He (Christ) have been greater than Solomon, or greater than Jonah, or have been the Lord of David, who was of the same substance as they were?”[21] 

            Alongside Ebionism was Docetism, another unorthodox form of Christianity that required a polemical response.  Docetism was the belief that “Christ’s humanity and suffering was apparent and not real.”[22] The Church responded to Docetism as such: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 Jn. 2-3).  Docetism was also addressed in the writings of first century Apostolic father Polycarp in his Epistle to the Philippians: “Avoid the Docetae and their false doctrines . . . Let us return to the word that has been handed down to us from the beginning.”[23]

            Yet another heresy that had crept up in the early church era was that the belief that “in the Godhead the only differentiation was a mere succession of modes or operations.”[24]  This heretical belief came to be known as Monarchian Modalism.  The Modalists were also known by the name Sabellianists.  The Modalist’s aim was to “safeguard Monotheism and the unity of the Godhead,” but did not succeed in doing justice with the “independent subsistence of the Son.”[25] Out of the need to respond to and combat the multiplicity of heretical views such as, Ebionism, Docetism, and Modalism arose some of the most brilliant biblical exegetes of the Church era.  Historical reviews of their writings have left little doubt for the orthodox, that Jesus is truly God.


            The subsistence and essence of Christ has been argued, examined, and doubted.  Jesus of Nazareth’s historical existence is not disputed as much as whom he was in relation to humanity.  His life and teachings have inspired and enlightened some and brought others to scorn.  Both orthodox and heretical forms of Christianity are products of his mysterious existence.  For the Christian, “Jesus was truly born, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified, truly died, was truly raised from the dead, and is truly God,”[26] apart from whom we do not possess the eternal life.    

[1] Nicene Creed, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software), 1033.

[2] Apologetics is the “defense of Christian beliefs and way against alternatives and against criticism.” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Apologetics.”

 [3]  Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3.

[4]  Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Pliny.”

[5] Bettenson & Maunder, 3.               

[6] Bettenson & Maunder, 4.

[7] Origen, Origen Against Celsus. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software), 759.

[8] Ibid, 760.

[9] Origen, Origen Against Celsus, 847.

[10]  Some New Testament Jews were expecting more than one messiah, a messiah king and a messiah priest.

[11] Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software), 285.

[12] Ibid, 372.

[13] Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin, .373.

[14] Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2007), s.v. “Justin martyr.”

[15] Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, s.v. “Athanasius.” 

[16] Athanasius, Deposition of Arius. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second series, Vol. 4. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software), 348.

[17] Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, s.v. “Athanasius.” 

[18] Athanasius, Deposition of Arius, 349.

[19]  Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Ebionites.”

[20] Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin, 851.

[21] Ibid., 1009.

[22] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Docetism.”

[23] Polycarp, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippian, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software), 72.

[24] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Monarchianism.”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallian, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software), 140.

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Posted by on September 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


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