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Historical Christology

Chapter IV
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 culture.

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

  1. 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!" (4)

  2. 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)

  3. 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)

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

Mutual opposition. 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 spirit?" (16)

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?" (18)

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 God?

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 formerly diseased.
Was He one of us, at whose light touch the issues of blood were staunched, and stopped their excessive flow?
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 thoughts?
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 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.

Divinae Institutiones 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 against Hierocles.

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 a few.
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 him.
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
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