Origins of Comparative Christology
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The beginnings of the science of comparative
religion should be traced to the first centuries of the Christian era, when
defenders of the new faith found themselves in contest with contemporary Greek
and Roman religions. Devotees of Zeus and Jupiter were not going to yield easily,
and three hundred years of persecution reflect the gravity of the conflict.
Since the foundations of Christianity
were laid on the person of its Founder, not unnaturally those who rejected the
claims of Jesus of Nazareth focused on His person and achievements to compare
them with what they believed were equally true of their own deities and demigods.
Moreover, since the center of the Christian faith was attribution of divinity
to Jesus, pagan apologists turned to their own religious culture to proclaim
similar attributes of persons whom they worshipped. In a word, Christianity
was no better than other mythologies of the Mediterranean world.
Thus we see that what has developed into
comparative religion began as comparative Christology, with the central dogma
of Christianity compared invidiously with pagan cults in the hope of discrediting
the unique character of a God-became-man. In order better to understand what
the Ante-Nicene writers had to contend with, it will be useful to review in
some detail the main features of Graeco-Roman religion, with special attention
to its belief in human-divine transformations.
Graeco-Roman Incarnations and Deifications
The human-divine transformations in the
Greek and Roman religion found expression in the only two ways possible: either
as anthropomorphoses, where the gods took on human shape and consorted with
men upon earth, or as apotheoses, whereby men became elevated to the status
of the gods. It is quite often hard to distinguish between the two. Thus when
Horace describes Pollux, Hercules, Augustus, Bacchus and Quirinus as assuming
their seat at the celestial board, and beginning to partake of the nectar of
the gods, the suspicion arises that merit so transcendent must have been of
heavenly origin, and a birth story is invented to show that the person who was
apotheosized was in reality, and antecedently, a god in human form.
However, there are numerous instances
where the gods are directly said to have been humanized, generally for the purpose
of gratifying their amorous desires. In this way the sons of Zeus by human mothers
were innumerable. Among them were Perseus, Castor and Pollus, who were specifically
called "the sons of Zeus," Hercules and Bacchus, Aeacus and Sarpedon.
Many too were the sons of Poseidon, most of whom were marked by gigantic size
and ruthlessness. Of three brothers who divided the world between them, Hades
alone seems to have been without issue of any kind.
The sons of the gods did not fail to
show their mixed ancestry, by also entering into union with mortal women. As
a consequence, a particular member of the human family might have attributed
to him or her a strain of the divine. Theseus for example was said to have been
the son of Poseidon, Troilus the son of Apollo, Meleager the son of Ares. Where
the attribution of divine origin may have begun with a purely legendary figure,
its terminus was not infrequently a real historical person. Thus the mythical
chieftain Hellen was reputed to have been the son not of Deucalion, but of Zeus,
which at once conferred the patent of divine nobility upon every Hellene. All
the Greek physicians claimed to be descended from Asclepius, the god of medicine
and son of Apollo. Along the same lines, Socrates is made to argue in the Euthyphro
that all sculptors were descended from Daedalus, and so from Hephaestus, the
Greek god of fire, corresponding to the Roman Vulcan.
Love was not the only motive which induced
the gods to take on human shape. It was anger at the gods which drove Demeter
to leave heaven and incarnate herself as a woman. Hera wished to gratify her
spite against Hercules and so assumed the form of an Amazon. On occasion the
operating motive was the censorship of human morals. We read that Apollo and
Poseidon assumed the figure of men in order to test the insolence of Laomedon;
and Zeus himself came to earth in the likeness of a laboring man to test Lycaon
and his fifty sons, who were notorious for their wickedness. The same reputed
motive underlies the well-known story of Baucis and Philemon, which was popularized
by the poet Ovid. And we know from Hesiod that the gods were believed to roam
the earth in the likeness of man to spy on their moral conduct.
Corresponding to divine incarnations
are the legends of deification. Among the Greeks, after Plato had achieved immortality
by his writings, he was reported to have been a son of Apollo. Incidentally,
he is the only philosopher among the ancients who thus attained the honor of
a birth story. The Spartan king Demaratus, according to Herodotus, was declared
by his mother to have been the son of the hero-god Atrabacus. Alexander the
Great was believed even in his life-time to be the offspring of the sun-god
Ammon. Similar apotheoses fill the pages of Roman history, from the founding
of the city to the time of Constantine. Romulus, the traditional founder of
Rome, was held to be the son of Mars and Ilia; and after death he was said to
have returned to his heavenly home by being carried up to the gods from the
Campus Martius. So too Aeneas is reported to have been deified and worshipped
as Aeneas Indiges on the banks of the River Numicus.
With the beginning of the Empire, the
deification of Roman rulers became an established practice of the nation. Julius
Caesar was declared to be a god-- Divus was the term used--the title
given him by senatorial decree and his worship was put on a full ceremonial
basis, with temple, priests and ritual. The same thing was done in the case
of Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, and Titus. As time went on, this phase of
the Roman religion grew apace. For while only four of the first eleven emperors
attained deification, from Nerva on almost all were made Divi. The last
of the Divi deified in 307, A.D. was Romulus, the son of Maxentius, whom
Constantine defeated at the Milvian bridge. There is no record of a member of
the imperial family being formally deified during his lifetime. But there is
ample evidence that the emperors were worshipped as gods in the provinces and
in various parts of Italy even before their death. Moreover deification was
not limited to emperors or members of the imperial household. The poet Virgin
attained a virtual deification, and there were many who believed that the magician
Apollonius of Tyana had divine powers, so that temples were erected in his honor.
Patristic Principles and Methodology
Confronted at every turn with gods in
human form, the Christian writers before Nicea were pressed to develop certain
norms of defence for the unique Incarnation of the Son of God.
Later on we shall examine some of these
writers more closely, but here we want to review the broad base on which the
Fathers answered the most critical challenge of contemporary paganism. First
there were premises on which they operated--appealing to reason and history,
and invoking the aid of a primitive revelation; then a program of refutation,
by turning the burden of proof on the pagans and demanding an account of their
claims that Jesus was no greater (more divine) than any one of a myriad people
in the Graeco-Roman pantheon.
Pagan Mythology and the "anima naturaliter Christiana."
The first explanation, which was used by Tertullian in his controversy with
the Romans, states that since "the soul is Christian by natural instinct,"
it is not to be wondered that at least some of the concepts of Christianity
should be found however vague and corrupted, in the religions of all nations,
even the most depraved. He stressed that alongside the divinized man and humanized
gods of Greece and Rome are to be found numerous expressions of belief which
explain these transmutations as the natural desire of the human heart for some
kind of communication with the deity.
At one extreme we meet such complaints
as that voiced by Achilles in the Illiad: "The eternal gods have assigned
to us unhappy mortals hardship enough, while they enjoy bliss idly without end."
(1) At the other extreme we find what has been rightly called the culmination
of Greek genius and the peak of natural religion, expressed by Plato as the
hopeful destiny of man. "What shall we think," he asks, "if it
should befall anyone to perceive very Beauty itself, simple, pure and undefiled--not
infected with flesh of men or human embellishment, or other such perishable
folly, but absolute divine Beauty in its simplicity." (2) Although destined
only for the highest minds, and conceived only as possible, Plato speculates
on what this vision of Beauty would effect in the human soul:
Do you think it would be a mean sort of life
for a man, if his gaze were directed on that goal, and he not only beheld it
in all its perfection but associated himself with the same? Do you not suppose
that there alone, contemplating the Fair as best it may be seen, it will be
his privilege to produce not the mere images of virtue but true virtues themselves,
since it is Truth which embraces. And after rearing true virtue which he begot,
shall he not become dear to the gods and immortal--if ever this lot may befall
a man? (3)
Between these two extremes, with varying
degrees of clarity, the poets and philosophers among the Greeks and Latins voiced
the common hunger of their fellow pagans to partake in some way of the good
things that were enjoyed by the gods. The gods would never die, so the people
conceived their heroes and great men as taken up to the heavenly regions to
receive the elixir of life which gave them immortality. The gods were very powerful,
so on occasion a deity came down to earth to beget an offspring of super-human
strength, as in the case of Hercules. The gods were very wise, so at times they
joined in marriage with mortal women to produce such men as Plato, who was deified.
The gods were handsome and the goddesses beautiful, so, in the case of Pandora,
Vulcan made her of clay, but Venus gave her beauty, and the art of captivating
was bestowed on her by the Graces.
Primitive revelation among the pagan nations. Another explanation for the human-deities and divinizations
among the Greeks and Romans is to regard them as fanciful corruptions of the
primitive revelation given to the human race through Adam and Eve. "In
spite of fantastic adulterations," argued Christian apologists, "the
persistence in popular pagan traditions of certain elements which agree with
the biblical narrative, indirectly proves the existence of a primitive revelation
from God to our first parents." Among these "certain elements"
should be included particularly the belief
in immortality as something which belongs essentially to the gods but which
the gods may, if they wish, communicate also to men. In the Graeco-Roman religion
there are visible strains of belief in a primordial state from which man fell
and in consequence of which he lost the title to godliness or immortality; belief
also in the fact that somehow, sometime, the gods would deliver chosen souls
from the bonds of death and take them to the heavenly repose, to happiness with
the deities without end. Even the concept of man's redemption, foretold in
primitive revelation, is not absent, though overlayed with fanciful debris.
Christian writers emphasized what seems
to be a contradiction in classical mythology. On the one hand it appears the
ancients believed that for man to attempt to bridge this was hybris,
and could only end in disaster. On the other hand there was evident belief in
a real kinship between the human and divine, which it was the duty of man to
develop so as to make it as close as possible, finally terminating in man's
immortality. The antimony may be solved by means of a distinction, noting that
the pagans would consider as impossible any effort on man's part to bridge the
gulf between himself and the gods, if he tried to span the distance on his own
initiative; but the same would be quite possible if a god condescended to make
the transit. As bizarre and even repulsive as were the expressions of this concept,
it remained substantially consistent through all the vagaries of the Graeco-Roman
It was also added that for the pagans,
and certainly for the Greeks, the concepts "god" or "divinity"
and "immortal" were considered equivalents. To say "gods"
and "men", the Greeks might use the words theoi and anthropoi,
but they might just as well use the terms athanatoi and thnetoi.
Athanatos (immortal) is an adjective, and may therefore be used in conjunction
with theos. But it can quite as well stand alone, and its meaning will
be unambiguous--meaning "god" and nothing else, just as theos does.
Consequently to believe that the soul is immortal was to believe it to be divine.
If a man was or hoped to become immortal, he had to become divine.
Relative to the residue from primitive
revelation, then, the Greeks and Romans believed that man is capable of divinization
by reason of potential immortality--the divinization having been accomplished
in a multitude of human heroes, some of whom received the seed of immortality
from the divinity of their parents, and others had this gift conferred on them
because of the greatness of their deeds. But all became divine, or immortal,
through condescension of the gods. If we parallel these concepts with the basic
texts in Genesis: the creation of man to the image of God, with intellect and
will capable of immortality; the temptation by the serpent telling Adam and
Eve, "You shall be as gods;" the fall of our first parents and the
consequent curse upon them that they would die the death; and finally, the promise
of redemption whereby God would place enmity between the devil, "who brought
death into the world," and the woman, "between her Seed and, thy seed,
and she shall crush thy head," it is not difficult to trace a similarity
close enough for the Fathers to teach that the human race, including the pagans
before the time of Christ, had received enough supernatural revelation in order
to be saved.
Radical difference. Having laid the basis for explaining Graeco-Roman deifications
and incarnations, the apologists were faced with the further problem of answering
the charge that Christianity as a system and its central dogma of the Incarnation
were natural developments from pagan mythology.
The charges of borrowing from paganism
were not easy to identify. They were often so vague or implicit as to defy analysis.
But on one point at least there seemed to have been general agreement, that
the pivotal doctrine of God becoming man, Verbum caro factum, was a natural
sublimation, derived by community consciousness from the ancient religions,
notably of Greece and Rome.
As men like Origen and his contemporaries
saw it, there were too many differences between paganism and Christianity to
allow for an equation like Christos = Theos to have grown in, the soil
of contemporary mythology
- Paganism is general and particularly its human divinities
were notoriously polytheistic,
whereas the Christian Incarnation is uncompromisingly monotheistic. Arguing
with the Romans of his day, Tertullian asked them in derision, "Shall I
quickly run through the list of your deities, one by one, numerous and important
as they are, the new and the old, barbarian and Greek, Roman and foreign, captive
and adopted, private and public, male and female, belonging to the country,
the city, the sailor, the soldier? It would be wearisome even to call the roll!"
- The character of the pagan incarnations, as in Greece
and Rome, was dissolute and immoral in the extreme. St. Augustine later described
the humanized deities of Rome as "so wanton, so impure, so immodest, so
wicked, so filthy, so foul, so detestable, so alien from every religious feeling,"
that when the people "saw that the gods delighted in the commission of
these things," they concluded the gods "wished them not only to be
exhibited (as in the orgies of the Bacchanalia), but to be imitated by the people"
in their daily lives. (5)
If we trace the origin of the pagan
gods and their human embodiments, we find that all is myth and legend, the product
of a fervid imagination under the stimulus of religious feeling. Whereas the
life of Jesus Christ is not only traceable to a definite historical person,
living and dying in historically authenticated circumstances, but His coming
was prophesied centuries before He was born, and the prophecies have been clearly
fulfilled. Jesus Christ, therefore, otherwise than Apollo or Hercules, actually
lived. His deeds are a matter of history and his words are recorded in documents
whose veracity is beyond reproach. Not only Christians, but everyone who is
willing to study the evidence without prejudice reaches the same conclusion.
Tatian challenged his pagan contemporaries
to a comparison between what Christians know to be facts and the legends of
gods in human form. "We do not act as fools, nor speak idle tales,"
he assured them "when we announce that God was born in the form of
a man. I call on you who reproach us to compare your mythical accounts with
our narratives." He then proceeds to retail one fable after another, of
gods and godlets consorting with men, in human shape, yet not a shred of historical
evidence for anything. (6)
In the last analysis,
a transcendent doctrine like that of a deity becoming man is beyond human credulity
unless the claim to a man's divinity is attested by real miracles worked in
confirmation of his name. Jesus Christ alone both made the claim that He was
God and proved the assertion by working not one but many miracles, terminating
in His glorious resurrection from the dead.
As regards the phenomena attributed,
to the gods, like Asclepius among the Greeks, or to men who were deified, like
Apollonius of Tyana, they were not genuine miracles. In the first place, historical
evidence for the cures and wonders reported is at a minimum. Documents are scarce
and centuries removed from the time of the supposed events; and the whole context
is so fantastic that any part of the narrative is immediately suspect. But
even granting the substantial historicity of the pagan phenomena, the question
still remains whether they really transcended the powers of nature and, if so,
whether by a special intervention of God or through the operation of some malignant
spiritual power. St. Augustine, summarizing two centuries of patristic evidence
admits that some of these events seem to transcend nature, but he denies they
could possibly come from God. "The end for which the (pagan) prodigies
are wrought," distinguishes them from the true miracles of the Gospel.
"For these prodigies commend the worship of a plurality of gods, who deserve
worship the less the more they demand it." But the miracles of Christ "commend
the worship of the one true God." (7) The marvels of paganism, therefore,
are either to be dismissed as poetical fancy and fraud, or admitted to have
happened through the agency of a preternatural power that is hostile to God.
- In order to claim that the Christian Incarnation is
a natural outgrowth of paganism, it is necessary to ignore or deny a whole body
of historical facts. Christ as man was born of a race opposed on principle to
the idolatry of Greece and Rome. The religion which He preached was far removed
from mythology. Where the pagans sanctioned promiscuity, He taught monogamy
and the ideal of virginal celibacy. They believed in gods and goddesses, He
made faith in the one Triune God an essential for salvation. They allowed murder,
cruelty and rapine, and had these vices symbolized in the mythologies of their
gods; He demanded meekness, humility, and charity, even to loving one's enemies
and laying down one's life for another. They had only the vaguest notion of
an after-life, whereas He proclaimed the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, where
man is destined to enjoy the beatific vision in a glorious eternity. Since it
is a cardinal principle of logic that no one can give what he does not have,
the Christian Incarnation and the doctrines of Christ could no more evolve from
the mysteries of paganism than a stone or a tree can generate a man.
If the Incarnation is a child of paganism, how explain the opposition between
parent and offspring, an opposition so violent it covers three hundred years
of early Christian history with blood, and did not cease until one of the parties
to the struggle was overcome? Evidence of the pagan opposition to Christ may
be found in all the contemporary documents. The letter of Pliny the Younger,
as proconsul of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, is among the best known.
Trajan's answer to Pliny commended his vigilance and technique.
"The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting
the cases of those denounced to you as Christian is extremely proper."
(8) The number of martyrs during the Roman persecutions is variously estimated,
but contemporary witnesses agree it was a magna multitudo. Describing
the tenth persecution under Diocletian, Eusebius speaks of "tens of thousands"
who died for their faith in God become man in Jesus Christ.
If the pagans saw nothing of their own
religion in Christianity and therefore opposed it as an intruder, the Christians
were taught to see nothing of Christ in paganism and therefore to avoid it as
an enemy of their salvation. Writing to the Greek Corinthians, St. Paul warns
them, "The things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils,
and not to God. And I would not have you become associates of devils."
(9) In like manner, the Romans are told that their pagan contemporaries, "while
professing to be wise, they became fools, (having) changed the incorruptible
God for an image like the corruptible men." (10)
Justin the Martyr was a convert from
Graeco-Roman paganism. After conversion he wrote the Apology to Emperor
Antoninus Pius who was persecuting the Christians. "We alone are hated,"
he declared, "because of the name of Christ, and, though we commit no crime,
we are executed as criminals," for believing that "Jesus Christ alone
is truly the Son of God." (11)
He then compares the crude immoralities
of the pagan religion which the converts had abandoned with the spotless purity
of the doctrine of Christ: "We who, from every nation, once worshipped
Bacchus, the son of Semele, and Apollo, the son of Latona (who in their lusts
for men practiced things too disgraceful even to mention), and Proserpine and
Venus (who were thrown into a frenzy for love of Adonis, and whose mysteries
you also celebrate), and Aesculapius, or any other of the so-called, gods, now,
through Jesus Christ even under threat of death, hold these in contempt, while
we consecrate ourselves to the unbegotten and impassible God." Justin concludes
that the Christians "feel sorry for those who believe these things, but
we know that the real instigators are the demons. (12)
Origen's Defence of Christ
The first extensive refutation of the
pagan assault on Christ was made by Origen, whose polemic Against Celsus
remains the great apologetic work of antiquity. It was written about 180
A.D. at the request of his friend Ambrosius against a learned Platonist whose
book, entitled Demonstration of Truth, sought to defend the national
religion by discrediting the foundations of the Christian faith.
Although the original has perished, Origen
incorporated about nine-tenths of the Alethes Logos in his own Contra
Celsum, quoting most of it verbatim. Unlike the Jews, Celsus attacks both
the miracles of Christ and those in the early Church. He frames most of his
arguments in the third person, ostensibly stating not His own mind but quoting
the mind of the Jews. His spokesman is a Jew well-versed in the Scriptures.
Celsus' line of reasoning is strikingly modern. After 1800 years of reflection,
it is still used by critics of the Christian faith.
According to Origen, Celsus claims that
by invoking certain demons and by the use of incantations the Christians appear
to possess miraculous power. But these are malicious perversions of the truth.
"For it is not by incantations that Christians seem to prevail over evil
spirits, but by the name of Jesus, accompanied by the reading of the narratives
which relate to Him. Such recitation has frequently been the means of driving
demons out of men, especially when the prayers were said with perfect confidence
and faith." (13)
The only "incantation" which
the Christians use is to pronounce the Holy Name. Indeed this name is so sacred
that even sinners have used it to miraculous advantage. "Such power does
the name of Jesus possess over evil spirits, that it has been effectual when
pronounced even by wicked men, which Jesus Himself predicted when He said,
"Many shall say to me in that day: In thy name we have cast out devils,
and done many wonderful works." (14)
Origen does not enter into further controversy on the
question, considering the charge refuted by demanding evidence that Christians
ever indulge in witchcraft or demonology.
The Miracles of Christ. Celsus' first argument against the miracles of Christ
was to say they are historically untenable. He offers no evidence, however,
except to repeat the claim in the person of the anonymous Jew. Origen points
out that we are here dealing with a matter of history, in which the opposition
makes a flat denial that certain events actually took place. On the one hand
nothing is easier than to deny a historical fact and bring up specious reasons
for the denial; on the other hand nothing is more difficult than to prove a
historical fact to anyone who is unwilling to accept the evidence.
Since the antagonist is a Jew, Origen
feels justified in meeting the accusation on the grounds of Sacred Scripture,
which the Hebrew presumably admits to be historically true. He reduces the refutation
to comparison between two personalities, Moses in the Old Testament and Christ
in the New. He further assumes that Celsus' Jew will not deny the narratives
about Moses in the Pentateuch. The point of his argument is a principle of historical
criticism, namely that external evidence to a historical fact is always preferable
to merely internal; and an outside witness to someone's actions, especially
if unusual, is better than the person's own testimony to himself.
In context, Origen's answer is a quotation
from a former debate which he had on the same subject "with certain Jews
who were reputed to be learned men." He asked them: "Tell me, since
there are two individuals who have visited the human race, regarding whom are
related marvelous works surpassing human power--Moses, your own legislator,
who wrote about himself, and Jesus our teacher, who has left no writings regarding
Himself, but to whom testimony is borne by the disciples in the Gospels--what
are the grounds for deciding that Moses is to be believed as speaking the truth,
although the Egyptians slander him as a sorcerer, and as appearing to have wrought
his mighty works by jugglery, while Jesus is not to be believed because you
are His accusers?" (15)
Origen urges the Jews to look into the
Old Testament which they recognize as authentic history. There they will find
a vindication of Moses' prophetic office and a prediction of Christ's miraculous
powers, fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Celsus then affects to grant that those
statements may be true about Christ healing the sick or feeding the multitude
with a few loaves, from which many fragments remained over. Addressing Christ
directly, he says, "Let us suppose you actually did these things."
He compares these reported miracles with the prodigies worked by jugglers and Egyptian
magicians who expel demons, cure diseases, invoke the souls of the dead, display
a whole table of delicacies that have no real existence, and set in motion statues
and manikins as if they were living things. And he asks, "if these men
can perform such feats, shall we conclude that they are 'sons of God,' or must
we admit that they are the works of wicked men under the influence of an evil
Origen's reply has become classic. He
allows there would be some ground for comparison between Christ and the charlatans
if He, like they, were moved by selfishness and pride. He asks with a counter
question: "Does any magician ever invite his spectators to reform their
way of life? Does he teach those who marvel at his deeds to grow in the fear
of God, or persuade them to live as men who are preparing to receive the righteousness
of God?" (17)
Jugglers and magicians do none of these
things because they would not reform the morals of others if they could, and
could not if they would, being themselves sinners and notorious for all kinds
of crime. Christ is the opposite. He set for His disciples the example of a
perfectly religious life; His great effort in teaching was to reform the character
of His disciples and of those who should follow them. The theme of His preaching
was obedience to the divine will, and the heart of His doctrine that men make
themselves pleasing to God. "If such were the life of Jesus, how can anyone
with sound mind confuse Him with the sect of imposters, and not rather believe
that He was God who appeared in human form to benefit the human race?"
After accusing the Christians of working miracles, through
the power of demons, Celsus brings the same charge against Jesus Himself.
Without trying to answer this sophism
directly, Origen goes back to a principle he had previously stated: genuine
miracles may be distinguished from their demonic counterfeits by the moral effects
that follow. If these are not only good but sublime, and tend toward the greater
service of God, the event is truly miraculous, otherwise it is simply fraud
or diabolism. Beyond this norm stands the promise of Christ that His followers
would do greater works than He had done, and its fulfillment in the many conversions
to Christianity, due to the power of Christ acting miraculously through the
hands of His disciples. "According to the promise of Jesus, His disciples
are to perform even greater works than the miracles of Jesus, which were perceptible
only to the senses. For the eyes of those who are blind in soul are being ever
opened; and the ears of those who were deaf to virtuous words, listen readily
to the doctrine of God and of the blessed life in His company." (19)
Resurrection of Christ. When he comes to the resurrection of Christ, Celsus
introduces the anonymous Jew who disqualifies the Gospel witnesses by accusing
them of delusion or conscious deception. The resurrection of Jesus, he says,
should be equated with the stories of heroes in pagan mythology; with the story
of Zamolxis who dwelt beneath the earth for three years and returned to the
surface alive, (20) of Rhampsinitus in Egypt who played at dice with Demeter
in Hades and returned to the upper world with a golden napkin which he received
from her as a gift, (21) of Orpheus among the Odrysians, Protesilaus in Thessaly,
Hercules at Cape Taeranus of Theseus (22) and other similar fables.
Has anyone who was really dead, ever risen with
a veritable body?
When others relate such stories, you brand them
as specious and mythical, and do you explain your own myth as beautiful and
believable, telling us how he (Jesus) spoke in a loud voice in dying on the
cross, how the earth shook and darkness fell and although unable to help himself
during life, arose from the dead and showed the marks of his punishment and
the place where his hands had been pierced? Who beheld all of this? A half-frantic
woman, as you state, and some other one, perhaps, of those who were engaged
in the same system of delusion. (23)
Origen answers the charge of delusion and fraud by turning
the burden of proof on the Jew. As an Israelite he is committed to defending
the incident related of the prophet Moses on Mt. Sinai that he entered into
the darkness where God was and he alone, above all others, drew near to God.
An Egyptian who did not believe in the miracles of Moses might credibly adduce
the instance of Rhampsinitus, saying it was more likely that he had descended
to Hades than that Moses should have conversed with God: "We who are the
disciples of Jesus, say to the Jew who urges these objections: What will you
say to those charges which you brought against our Jesus, but which also might
be brought against Moses first? If you try to defend Moses, as indeed history
admits of a powerful defence, you will unwittingly be establishing the greater
divinity of Jesus." (24)
Even on purely historical grounds there
is no basis of comparison between the resurrection of Christ and the temporary
descent to Hades reported of the pagan heroes. Each of these figures might have
secretly withdrawn from the sight of men and returned after some time to those
whom they had left behind. But Jesus was crucified before all the Jews and His
body slain in the presence of thousands of people.
Not only did Jesus really die, which
the demi-gods did not, but He truly arose from the dead, which they are not
even supposed to have done. Against the objection that perhaps His resurrection
from the dead was only a juggler's trick: "I hold that a clear and unmistakable
proof of the resurrection are the subsequent labors of His disciples, who devoted
themselves to the teaching of a doctrine which was attended with danger to human
life--a doctrine which they would not have taught with such courage had they
invented the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The disciples not only prepared
others to ignore death, but they were also the first to show how they despised
its terrors." (25)
A more fundamental objection raised by
Celsus is the supposed impossibility of a dead person coming back to life with
a real human body. But this is strange for a Jew to say, if he believed what
the third and fourth Books of Kings tell about the children raised up by Elijah
and Eliseus. In fact, Origen thinks this is the reason why Christ came to no
other nation than the Jews, since they had become accustomed to miraculous occurrences.
"By comparing what they already believed with the works performed and reported
by Jesus, they could see that He was greater than all the prophets who came
before, even as the deeds He accomplished were greater than theirs." (26)
Answering the difficulty that if Christ were truly risen
He should have appeared not only to His friends but also to His enemies, Origen
takes two positions, one negative and the other positive. On the one hand he
admits that if we read only the Gospel account of the resurrection, Jesus' manner
of acting differs considerably from the way He had dealt with all sorts of people,
freely and publicly, during His mortal life. But the Gospels are not the only
witness to the risen life of Christ. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that
He was seen, presumably often, during forty days, and no doubt,
quite publicly. Even in the Gospels it is not said that Jesus was always with
His followers to the exclusion of everyone else. Thus a full eight days elapsed
between two successive visits that He made to the Apostles in Jerusalem.
The first reason why Jesus selectively appeared only
to His friends was because of the weakness in spiritual vision among the vast
multitude who were incapable of beholding Him, now that He had "disarmed
the Principalities and Powers" by His resurrection. Evidence of this may
be seen in what happened at the Transfiguration, when He chose only Peter, James
and John, because they alone were capable of beholding His glory on that occasion,
and of observing the glorified appearance of Moses and Elijah, of listening
to their conversation, and of hearing the voice speaking from the heavenly cloud.
Even the Apostles and disciples were not privileged to enjoy the risen presence
for extended periods, "because they were not able without intermission
to behold the divinity" resplendent in His glorified humanity.
Furthermore the multitude did not deserve, on moral grounds,
to behold the risen Savior. Here we see how consistent is the action of Christ
in the new dispensation with the operations of God in the Old. "As it
is related in the Old Law that, 'God appeared to Abraham,' or to one of the
saints, and even this appearance was not constant but took place at rare intervals
and not to everyone, so we are to understand that the Son of God appeared according,
to the same principle of limitation." (27)
The Scriptures, therefore, which tell
us everything according to the appointment of God, have recorded that before
His sufferings Jesus appeared to all men, friends and enemies, believers and
unbelievers, without distinction. But after His Passion and Death,
He no longer appeared to all in the same way, but with a careful discrimination,
"which measured out to each according to his due."
The last reason
Celsus gives for rejecting the resurrection is "ridiculous." If
Jesus really wished to manifest His divinity, instead of allowing Himself first
to be slain and then rising from the dead, He should have miraculously disappeared
from the cross.
But what is possible is not always congruous. The sudden
disappearance of Christ's body from the cross would have contradicted the whole
economy of Salvation. "It was appropriate for Him who had resolved to
endure suspension on the cross, to accept all the consequences of the character
he had assumed, in order that He who as man had been put to death, might also
as a man be buried, and rise from the dead." (28)
Arnobius of Sicca
Late in the third century, the Numidian
rhetorician Arnobius of Sicca was converted to the Christian faith and asked
for baptism. His conversion was so sudden and unexpected that the local bishop
to whom he applied feared dissimulation and demanded a proof of sincerity
before admitting him to the catechumens. As we learn from St. Jerome, Arnobius
had been not only a pagan but a vigorous opponent of Christianity whose change
of heart was supposed to have come through a series of dreams which he had on
the subject. He furnished the pledge of his good faith by composing the first
two books of his treatise, Adversus Nationes, which
has been called, "the most intense and sustained of all extant counter
attacks upon the contemporary pagan cults. (29)
Familiar with the pagan denial of Christ's divine mission
on the plea that His miracles were only the work of magic, Arnobius quotes the
adversaries: "Jesus was a magician. He effected all these things by secret
arts. From the shrines of the Egyptians, He stole the names of angels or power
and learned the religious systems of a remote country." (30)
His answer is not unlike Origen's in appealing to the
sanctity of Christ, but he emphasizes two other points not touched upon by Origen:
the sublimity of Christ's miracles compared with the jugglery of the magicians,
and the ease by which He effected them compared with the incantations of the
sorcerers. He asks the pagans: "Can you point out to me any magician that
ever existed, who performed one thousandth degree of the wonderful things that
were done by Christ?" (31)
How different were the signs and wonders performed by Jesus of
Nazareth. Christ performed all His miracles with no help from external things,
without ceremonial, without even a fixed pattern of operation, but solely by
the inherent might of His authority. Consistent with His nature and duty as
true God, He never abused His great power to injure or harm anyone, but used
it only to bestow what was helpful and beneficient and full of every blessing
for mankind. (32)
At this point, Arnobius gives expression to the most
inspiring eulogy of Christ the wonder-worker to be found anywhere in patristic
theology. It is a unique confession of faith in the divinity of Christ based
on the works of power which He worked during life and after death. Given this
litany of miracles, asks Arnobius, are Christians still to be accused of worshipping
a mere man, "One of us," when they worship Jesus of Nazareth as true
Is He then a man, is He one of us, at whose voice
and command, raised in audible words, infirmities, fevers, and other elements
of the body fled away?
Was He one of us, whose very sight the
demons who took possession of men were unable to bear, and terrified by the
strange power, fled away?
Was He one of us, to whose order the
foul leprosy, at once checked, was obedient, and left sameness of color to bodies
Was He one of us, at whose
light touch the issues of blood were staunched, and stopped their excessive
Was He one of us, from whose hands
the waters of lethargic dropsy fled?
Was it His work, too, that the maimed
stretched forth their hands, and the joints relaxed for the first time since
birth; that paralytics rose to their feet, and persons now carried home their
beds who before were carried on the shoulders of others; the blind were restored
to sight, and men born without eyes now looked on the heaven and the day? Was
He one of us, who by one act of intervention at once healed a hundred or more
afflicted with various infirmities; at whose word only the raging seas were
still, the whirlwinds and tempests were lulled; who walked over the waters with
unwet feet; who with five loaves satisfied five thousand of His followers; and
who, lest it might appear to the unbelieving to be an illusion, filled twelve
baskets with fragments that remained? Was He one of us, who saw clearly
in the hearts of the silent what each was pondering, what each had in his secret
Was He one of us, who ordered the breath that
had departed to return to the body, persons buried to come forth, and after
three days to be loosed from the swathings of the tomb?
Was He one of us who, after His body had been
laid in the tomb, showed Himself in open day to countless numbers of men, who
spoke to them, and listened to them; who taught them, reproved and admonished
them; who lest they should imagine they were deceived by fancies, showed Himself
one, a second time, indeed, frequently, in familiar conversation; who appears
even now to righteous men of unsullied mind who love Him, not in airy dreams,
but in a form of pure simplicity; whose name, when heard, puts to flight evil
spirits, imposes silence on soothsayers, prevents men from consulting the augurs,
causes the efforts of magicians to be frustrated, not by the dread of His name,
as you allege, but by the free exercise of a greatest power? (33)
The implications of Arnobius' panegyric
are clear. He directly invokes the works of power which Jesus performed in proof
of His divinity, without first proposing the claims He made to equality with
the Father, and then showing these claims were divinely confirmed. Also in summarizing
the signs which Jesus worked, Arnobius emphasizes two elements of great value
in recognizing transcendence of nature: the facility by which Jesus effected
the wonders and the suddenness with which they took place. Thus we have a ready
index to distinguish the activity of pure nature from supernature, in the instantaneity
of miraculous cures; and another mode of distinguishing the operations of God
from those of merely human thaumturgs, in the spontaneous obedience of cosmic
forces to the will of their Creator.
Moreover he refers to the unique power Jesus possessed
of simultaneously curing a multitude of sick, and of feeding a multitude of
hungry persons--a power not duplicated in the annals of religious history. Again
in referring to the resurrection, he stresses the effort Jesus made to undeceive
His disciples about the phantom nature of His risen body, appearing to "countless
numbers...frequently... in open day...in familiar conversation." Finally
Arnobius appeals to the fact that even leaving the earth in visible form, Jesus
does not cease to affect the spiritual life of many people, appearing to them
in mystical experience or in the light of simple faith, and continues to effect
by the invocation of His name moral prodigies not unlike the wonders that He
worked in Palestine.
Apollonius of Tyana
About the year 217 A.D. the Greek sophist Philostratus
composed the Life of Apollonius at the request of Empress Juliana, wife
of Septimus Severus, to whose literary circle, he belonged. She put into his
hands certain memoirs of Apollonius, the sage of Tyana who died some one hundred
years before, and begged him to use them for a literary life of the man who
was already being worshipped as a god. The biography by Philostratus
is a rhetorical panegyric in eight books, which describe Apollonius as a veteran
traveler and philosopher whose principal title to fame was the number and variety
of prodigies associated with his name.
He professed to know all languages without
ever having learned them, and to know the inmost thoughts of men, to understand
the language of birds and animals, and to have the power of predicting the future.
He preached a rigid asceticism and condemned all dancing as immoral; he would
carry no money on his person, and recommended to others to spend their fortune
in the relief of the poor. Besides visiting in Asia Minor and Arabia, Persia
and North Africa, he made a long sojourn among the Brahmans in India, where
he came into contact with Oriental magic and sorcery. Several times arrested
by order of the Emperor as a fomenter of sedition, he was always acquitted and
died at an advanced age during the reign of Nerva. According to popular tradition,
he ascended bodily into heaven, appearing after death to certain persons who
entertained doubts about a future life. (34)
Towards the end of the third century, when the struggle
between Christianity and decadent paganism had reached its final stage, it occurred
to some of the enemies of the new religion to set up Apollonius as a rival to
the founder of Christianity. Temples and shrines had already been erected in
his honor in various parts of Asia Minor. The prodigies recorded in his life
especially the alleged power over evil spirits, made him in the minds of pagans
a formidable competitor to Jesus Christ.
Since the rise of deism in the sixteenth century and
up to modern times critics of the Christian revelation have used the Life
of Apollonius to help discredit the miracles of the Gospels. Renan placed
Apollonius above Socrates and equal to Jesus as a god. Sanday describes him
as "the most conspicuous example of a worker of pagan miracles," whose
integrity of life allows him to be rated on a proximate level with Jesus. Guignebert
believes there is an "essential similarity of means and results"
between the wonders of the man from Tyana and the miracles of Christ.
In historical context, the Life of
Apollonius would have remained buried with the shades of antiquity except
for the use made of it by a certain Hierocles, provincial governor under Diocletian,
who wrote a book called Philalethes (Lover of Truth), in which he attempted
to show that Apollonius had been as great a sage, as remarkable a worker of
miracles, and as potent an exorcist as Jesus of Nazareth.
Hierocles was promptly answered by the Christian apologists of his day, notably by Lactantius
in The Divine Institutes and by Eusebius of Caesaria in a special work
dedicated to that purpose.
in seven books constitutes the main work of Lactantius, and represents the first
attempt at a Latin summa of Christian thought. It has a double purpose, to demonstrate
the falsehood of pagan religions and to set forth the true doctrine of Christianity.
Among the current attacks on the faith, Lactantius singles out for special refutation
the assault of Hierocles, the governor of Bithynia and instigator of Diocletian's
persecutions. His first argument against the pagan is a reference to the latter's
cruelty against the Christians, appealing to the principle that hatred and injustice
are incompatible with a sincere pursuit after truth. Hierocles, says Lactantius,
wrote with bitterness. He was one of the pagan judges who "specially recommended
the enacting of laws of persecution. And not satisfied with this crime, he
also pursued with writing those whom he had persecuted."
Directly on the subject of Christ's miracles,
Lactantius recalls that Hierocles "tried to discredit His wonderful deeds
and, without denying them, wished to show that Apollonius performed equal or
even greater things." He answers this charge by an argument a fortiori.
"If Christ is a magician because He performed wonderful deeds, it is plain
that Apollonius, who, according to your description, when Domitian wished to
punish him, suddenly disappeared on his trial, was even more of a wizard than
He who was both arrested and crucified." (35)
Lactantius sees only two explanations
why Apollonius, otherwise than Christ, should have fled from the prospect of
impending death: either through modesty, as the pagans suggest, or through fear,
which Lactantius admits. The motive of modesty is proposed by the heathen to
make Apollonius "appear to have been more humble, who, though he performed
greater actions, nevertheless did not claim for himself" the supreme honor
of dying as a martyr to his claim of divinity. But this is extravagant. Apart
from his known arrogance on many occasions, "I say there is no one who
would not wish to have that befall him after death which even the greatest kings
desire. Why do men prepare for themselves magnificent sepulchres? Why statues
and images? It is naive to suppose that Apollonius did not ambition what he
certainly wished to attain if he could, because no one despises immortality."
(36) The real reason why Apollonius ran away from death was the fear of death,
which in itself is clear evidence that he was not a god.
Lactantius' final argument on the parallel
between Christ and Apollonius calls for some explanation. The early apologists
like St. Justin, laid more stress on the fulfillment on the Messianic prophecies
in Christ than on His physical miracles. Their readers and listeners either
accepted the Old Testament as inspired, or at least were more impressed by
the demonstration from prophecy. Hence the following unexpected line of reasoning
I want you to understand
that we do not believe Christ was God because He did wonderful things, but because
we saw verified in His case everything announced to us by the prophets. We
might have taken Him for a magician as you now and the Jews then supposed Him
to be, if the prophets had not all predicted that Christ would perform these
marvelous deeds. Therefore we believe Him to be God, not more from the prodigies
that He worked than from the cross which you like animals despise, since that,
too, was foretold along with the rest.
Consequently, it was not
on His own testimony (for who can believe when a man speaks for Himself) but
on the testimony of the prophets, who long before had anticipated whatever He
would suffer and do, that Jesus came to be accepted as divine. This never happened
to Apollonius or any magician or, in fact, anyone else. (37)
Lactantius does not completely rule out
the probative value of miracles. Even in his apologetic the prodigies of sorcerers
do not prove their divine commission because they have not been predicted,
whereas the miracles of Christ not only occurred but were foretold by the prophets--which
therefore makes Him a messenger of God and the wizards agents of the devil.
However Lactantius' preference for the prophetic argument miracles is still
a problem, and all the more surprising because his teacher Arnobius so strongly
emphasized the miracles of the Gospel.
Perhaps the best explanation is the general
weakness of his whole system of theology. For a man who relied on the Sibylline
oracles, on Cicero and Vergil, and seldom quoted the Bible; who defended the
thesis that the east and south of the earth were assigned to God and the west
and north to the devil, it is not surprising that he would also undervalue the
function of miracles. He was unsurpassed as a polemist, but as a constructive
theologian he was more clever than solid. Even in his main work, The Divine
Institutes, he defines Christianity only as a kind of "popular morality;"
which led Jerome to exclaim, "If only Lactantius, whose eloquence was like
a Ciceronic torrent, had witnessed as accurately to our doctrine as he easily
refuted the adversaries."
Apologia of Eusebius
The full title of Eusebius' apology reads: "Against
the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, written by Philostratus, occasioned by the
parallel drawn by Hierocles between him and Christ." It was composed around
313 A.D. or about the same time as the Edict of Milan which made Christianity
one of the accepted religions of the Roman Empire.
Certain critics like the Englishman Conybeare complain
that Christian writers have for the last three centuries wrongly supposed that
Philostratus intended his life of Apollonius as a counterblast to the Christian
gospel. But writers generally hold that the work of Philostratus does not necessarily
imply in the author the intention of polemicizing against the Christians. Eusebius
expressly tells us the contrary, that Hierocles was the first and "the
only one among all those who attacked the Christian faith" to institute
an argument against Christ by drawing a comparison between His miracles and
those of Apollonius of Tyana. It is clear, however, that Philostratus' romance
became the battleground of apologists. The Fathers commonly regard Apollonius
as a magician who was deified by an unscrupulous biographer, with the possible
exception of Augustine who credits the biography with some historical foundation.
Among the Orientals, Christian writers with Photius dismiss Philostratus' Life
as a fable, while the pagans have made of Apollonius a kind of Gregory Thaumaturgus.
Although Eusebius' answer is comparatively short, he
brought to bear on its composition the whole background of his genius and wide
erudition. He was one of the best read and most, indefatigable workers the Church
has ever known. He read everything--sacred and profane literature, large and
small treatises, even letters--and made excerpts of everything he could lay
his hands on. Since the doctrinal implications of Apollonius' life are valid
only if they are historical, Eusebius judiciously abstained from theological
speculation and confined himself to a refutation of Hierocles' claims on the
basis of history.
In line with his general policy, he gives the adversary
full scope for presenting his case, often in long quotations, before going on
to analyze whatever conclusions may have been drawn. Thus at the very beginning
of the treatise, Eusebius states the position of the pagans who appeal to the
life of Apollonius as a rival for Jesus Christ, quoting directly from Hierocles.
In their anxiety to exalt Jesus, they (the Christians)
run up and down prating how he made the blind to see and worked certain other
miracles of the kind.
Let us note, however, how much better
and more sensible is the view which we take of such matters and explain the
conception which we entertain of men gifted with remarkable powers.
In the case of our own ancestors, during
the reign of Nero, there flourished Apollonius of Tyana, who from mere boyhood...worked
any number of miracles of which I will omit the greater number and only mention
What is my reason for mentioning these
facts? That you may be able to contrast our own accurate and well established
judgment on each point, with the easy credulity of the Christians. For whereas
we reckon him who wrought such feats not a god but only pleasing to the gods,
they on the strength of a few miracles proclaim their Jesus divine. (38)
The argument was
simple: admitted that Jesus and Apollonius both worked miracles, yet, although
Apollonius worked more and greater wonders than Christ, the pagans do not regard
the Tyanian divine, while the Christians presume to call their founder a god.
Before taking up the main charge, Eusebius briefly reviews all the differences
between Christ and Apollonius, which alone, without further inquiry, would
prove that the miracles of Jesus were from God and those of Apollonius either
diabolical or not miracles at all.
Let us ask at once, not which of them was the
more divine nor in what capacity one worked more wondrous and numerous miracles
than the other; nor let us lay stress on that fact that our Savior and Lord
Jesus Christ converted to his sublime doctrine so many people; nor that he formed
a group of genuine and really sincere disciples, of whom without exaggeration
it can be said they were ready to lay down their lives for his teaching at a
moment's call; nor that he alone established a school of sober and chaste living
which has survived him all along; nor that by his peculiar divinity and virtue
he saved the whole inhabited world, and still rallies to his divine gospel races
from all sides by tens of thousands; nor that he is the only example of a teacher
who, after being treated as an enemy for so many years, has shown himself mightier,
thanks to his divine and mysterious power, than the infidels who persecuted
We further transmit the fact that he
still displays the virtue of his godlike power in the expulsion, by the mere
invocation of his mysterious name, of troublesome demons which beset men's bodies
and souls, as from our own experience we know to be the case.
To look for such results in the case
of Apollonius, or even to ask about them, is absurd. So we shall merely examine
the work of Philostratus, and by close scrutiny show that Apollonius was not
fit to be classed, I will not say among philosophers, but even among men of
integrity and good sense, much less be compared with Christ our Savior. (39)
The body of the refutation considers both aspects of
the problem posed by Hierocles, that the miracles of Christ were not divine,
and Apollonius' prodigies were not demoniac.
To meet the charge against Christ's miracles, Eusebius
argues from the permanent good accomplished as an index of divinity; and without
stressing the enduring benefits procured by the miracles of Jesus, he asks
to be shown anything remotely comparable in the work of Apollonius. It may
be conceded that Hierocles did not attribute strictly divine powers to his hero,
yet he did say they were divinely conferred. If this were true, Eusebius suggests
that "you point out to me some effects wrought by his 'divinity' enduring
to this day." Even the work of common laborers lives after them, and are
the works of a "darling of the gods" to die with his own demise? "It
is surely absurd that the works of carpenters and builders last so long after
the craftsmen are dead, but a human character claimed to be divine after shedding
his glory on mankind, should end in oblivion. (40)
Eusebius had already described the wonderful effects
of grace which the teaching of Christ had wrought on the generations that followed
Him. If the consequences of a man's actions are any measure of their moral worth,
Apollonius' reputation as a thaumaturge is a myth. At best
we have no evidence that his prodigies were from God. The signs and wonders
of Christ, on the other hand, have been confirmed by history as divine, in the
fruits of virtue and piety practiced by those who believe in them.
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life
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