Before discussing the beliefs or doctrines of any individual, I think that it is important to qualify what we mean when we say that they "believed such-and-such". Today, we speak of religious beliefs as a personal matter, typically of mental assent. Most of us are accustomed to acknowledging religious belief as a segregated part of our personal make-up, wholly separated from the restrictions of logic or factual evidence. Our culture, in stressing the liberty we have in our choice of religion, has helped pave the way for the sentiment that religious belief is purely a matter of preference or personal opinion, much like our preference of a particular flavor of ice-cream. This rationale would affirm that no one belief system is better than the other; just different. After all, no one can definitely say that "Cookies and Cream" ice cream is objectively better than "Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough", can they? It's just a matter of choice. Our institutionalized "pluralism" has thus contributed to the divorce of reason from spirituality. Consequently, the person who is lauded as a "true believer" today may confess that they believe in whatever their church teaches, whether it makes sense or not. When confronted by evidence that contradicts their professed beliefs, such a person may shrug if off by saying "You just have to take it on faith" or "Well that is what my church teaches" or even "Thats your truth". This is all purely a product of our relativistic or existentialist world-view that has arisen in the last few centuries.
The beliefs of the early church, however, was not based on a "have to take by faith" or a "your truth-my truth" mentality. The whole western world, to be more precise, was far more circumspect of their professed beliefs. If your livelihood and perhaps your very life rested on your religious convictions, you would certainly want some tangible evidence for your faith. In the early church, the apologists (defenders of Christianity) were prolific writers and passionate proponents of the fledgling religion, and they sought to provide that proof . They had what would be termed as an "essentialist" world-view, that is everything perceived had an objective essence, substance or nature. Whereas modern-day existentialist thinking does not wrestle with the issues of objective truth, but instead, subjective perception and "feeling, the world-view of almost the entire ancient world was concerned with the objective meaning and essence of things. Intense debate and research was given to definitions of words and the exact description of both the world and abstract concepts. Rhetoric, Logic and Grammar were some of the highest intellectual skills to which one could aspire. Generally speaking, our contemporary thinking rejects any possibility of intrinsic meaning in our words, and even our perceptions. We ask "what does this mean to me?" (centering on the subjective) instead of investigating the essential or objective meaning of anything. We would also need to mention that Platonic/Dualism was very prevalent as a world-view during the days of the early church. This will be discussed in more detail, particularly where it impacts the Apostle Pauls views on salvation, later in this book.
Returning to the convictions of the early church, one is struck by the drive that they had to establish an objective, rock-solid foundation to build upon. Many of these great orators and writers had been previously pagan scholars, and were won over to what was at the time the most despised and defamed religion of their world by the sheer magnitude of evidence, and the living demonstrations of virtue of the Christian community. The apologists published substantial amounts of writing intended to prove the superiority of Christianity over all other religions and philosophies. In their endeavors, they found that their most powerful weapon was the hundreds of prophecies that had been uttered hundreds of years earlier by the Jewish prophets with regard to the Messiah. This served the dual purpose of not only proving that Jesus Christ was decisively predicted by the Jewish prophets, but it proved the inherent inspiration of the Jewish Scriptures. They frequently cited the amazing instances of fulfilled prophecy as proof that Jesus was everything he said he was, and that his coming was clearly foretold. Even today, the most antagonistic critics of Christianity have not answered the serious questions raised by the existence of ancient prophecies all fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Following are just a few of the "Messianic Prophecies" that were frequently cited by the church fathers. I have listed six major prophecies, primarily because they played such a significant and pivotal role in the writings and beliefs of the early church.
1. Prophecies from the Bible:
a. Micah 5:2
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, although you are small among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from days of eternity.
The apologists (defenders of Christianity) long recognized this as a valuable proof of the Deity of Christ. Bethlehem, at the time that Micah spoke these words, was a small insignificant town. Even in Jesus' day, it was not a likely place for the advent of the coming of the Lord. Why not Alexandria? Why not Rome? Yet Micah was bold enough to name this small town as the site for Christ's birth. Moreover, to say that the future ruler would be pre-existent, even from eternity, is to declare in no uncertain terms that God Himself would come forth from Bethlehem. It is cited by Justin, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, and the Proto-evangelium of James.
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Many early Christians saw this text from Isaiah as being perfectly fulfilled in Christ alone. Just as the Ethiopian eunuch was converted by Philip as a result of seeing the purpose of God revealed through this text (Acts 8:32-39), then fulfilled in Christ, the church continued to use this ancient prediction as a summation of Christ's ministry as the sin-bearing servant. This picture of Christ, one who truly suffered for others, presents a line of demarcation for many of the heretical groups of the early church. The Christian church utilized this verse to show that his suffering was both real and necessary for our salvation. Several Gnostic and Docetics groups refused to acknowledge that God incarnate could suffer. This text is quoted at least in part as proof for the Lordship of Christ in the Epistle of Barnabas, the writings of Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian and Lactantius.
c. Daniel 9:24-27
"Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish transgression to make an end of sin to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy. So you are to discern that from the going forth of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Messiah the Prince, there will be seven weeks and sixty two weeks; and it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. Then, after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And it's end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. And he will make a firm covenant with many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who will make desolate, even until the complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate."
This text is one of the most remarkable of all messianic prophecies. It is not a complicated text, but there is some recent tradition in evangelicalism that has made the text more confusing than it really is. The essence of what was critical to the ministry of the apologists is that in this text, Daniel made a decisive prediction on the timing of the Messiah's advent. He said that from the time that the decree issued to rebuild Jerusalem (an event that was still over a hundred years in the future from Daniels perspective) there would be "seven and sixty-two weeks". Many translations use, instead of the word "weeks" use the literal term "sevens". With the understanding that each "seven" is a period of seven years, we can plainly say that from the issuance of the said decree (457 B.C., see Ezra 7) there would be 69 periods of seven years (483 years total) until the appearance of the Messiah. If we were to add 483 years from the year 457 B.C., we come to 26 A.D., the year that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. That is very specific and very simple. Some people recently have complicated the matter by introducing the unscriptural concept of a "prophetic year" of 360 days, and using a different date to begin the countdown. Those utilizing the more complex figures have never been able to harmonize that hypothesis with history. Again, the importance of this text is that it committed the prophets to one single year when the Messiah was going to appear. The prophecy found perfect fulfillment with Christ. (The rest of the elements of this prophecy and the various opinions in the early church on this will be dealt with in the last chapter on the Second Coming of Christ).
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
When Jesus died on the cross, he cried out in a loud voice "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!" Many who are casually familiar with this gospel story have pointed to this exclamation as proof of Christ's humanity, even to the point of saying that Christ was not cognizant of his purpose for dying! On the contrary, Christ said that it was for that very reason that he came. As a matter of fact, Christ's exclamation is one of the most dramatic examples of his efforts to show his identity as the Messiah, even while he himself was in the throes of death. The 22nd Psalm written here above was penned by David some 1000 years before Christ. The psalm begins with those same words "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Highlights of this same psalm describe a man who is encircled and tormented by evil men (Gentiles, indicated by the slang term "dogs"), having his hands and feet pierced, and having his clothes divided among his oppressors by "casting lots" (an ancient custom similar to our "shooting dice"). Even the small details, like Christ being thirsty, and people "wagging their heads", mocking him (see John 19:28, Mark 15:29) all find fulfillment in this prophecy. The description is exactly the circumstances that surrounded the crucifixion of Christ. The early church fathers saw the amazing fulfillment of this psalm in Christ's death, and frequently referenced it as proof of Christ's claims. Some of the apologists who quoted this psalm as a prediction of the passion of Christ are Clement of Rome, the Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Methodius, Lactantius, and the writer of Constitution of the Holy Apostles.
One unique feature of this prophecy is the phrase regarding having one's hands and feet "pierced." (verse 16) Since David made this prophecy centuries before crucifixion was an established manner of capital punishment, it stands as an incontrovertible piece of evidence of the Messiah-ship of Jesus. Some modern scholars today have tried to contest it by asserting that the word "pierced" is not there at all. Reasoning that Hebrew Masoretic text of the same Psalm says "like a lion are my hands and feet", such scholars have argued that the reference to being pierced is a corruption of the Greek version of the Old Testament, or even a later forgery of Christians trying to build a case for their religion in the 2nd or 3rd century. In July of 1997, however, the translation of the Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls were released, and have conclusively proven that the "pierced" was and always has been the accurate word in that psalm. (Christianity Today, 10/6/97)
e. Isaiah 7:14
"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel".
Once again, we have an early prophecy (made in the 6th century before Christ) that emphasizes that the Messiah would not be of normal or "natural" progeny. He would have a miraculous conception, being born of a virgin, and truly the offspring of God. Far from being a fanciful story, this fact of Christ's lineage was held in highest regard, not only by the Gospel authors, but is given special attention by Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Novatian, and Lactantius. This provided a particularly excellent apology for the Greek speaking Jews in the first century, since the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, used the Greek word "parthenos" which is unquestionably understood as "virgin", whereas the Hebrew could be possibly construed as "maiden". Since the Septuagint played so well into the hands of the apologists, the prominent rabbis in the early second century commissioned another Greek translation that could not be so easily be commandeered by the Christians. Aquila created a Greek translation in 130 A.D., which was soon followed by a translation from Theodotion, and then Symmachus. They all were made, at least in part, to counter the use of these Old Testament prophecies in the Septuagint as used by the Christians.
Interestingly enough, another source of opposition for the early church actually proves how well accepted the rendering the word "virgin" in this passage was, even among the Jews of the day. Some of the antagonists of the Christians who tried debunk this claim were the Jewish scholars whose oral tradition was later collected and compiled as the Talmud. These hostile sources claim that Mary was impregnated by a Syrian named "Panthera". This claim when closely examined, betrays that the name is merely a corruption of the Greek word "parthena" which means "Virgin". The best the detractors of Christianity could do was to turn the Greek word "virgin" into a proper name!
f. Isaiah 9:6
"For a child will be given to us, a son will be born to us. And the government will be on his shoulders; and his name shall be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace."
This often quoted text is utilized by virtually all the apologists (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Clement, Lactantius, etc). Who else could the author be talking of? What child could ever be called Mighty God, Eternal Father, were that child not actually the incarnation of God? In addition to the obvious reference to the deity of Christ, this verse also emboldened the early fathers in their struggle with the political powers of the day. This text assured them that, no matter how difficult the imperial persecution was, or how hostile a government was to the gospel, there would be a day when ultimately every power and authority would be in subjection to the reign of Christ. No matter how the kings of the earth railed, the victory of Christ was inevitable.
By pressing these prophecies as evidence of the superiority of Christianity, the apologists overcame many of the objections of their Jewish critics, and gained a hearing amongst the scholastics of the Greek and Latin civilizations.
The apologists also catalogued the errors and inconsistencies of all the popular mythologies and Greek philosophy of the day. Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Lactantius and others demonstrated that they were thoroughly acquainted with virtually every belief system from the Celtic religions in England to the variations of Hinduism in India, to all the specifics of the mystery religions throughout the empire. Sometimes the writers would mock the more absurd features of each belief system, and demonstrate the "reasonableness" of Christianity.
In addition to the appeal to fulfilled prophecy and reason as proofs of Christianity, early writers were able to also cite documented sources accessible to all to prove the historicity of the gospel. Justin for example, in his First Apology (150 A.D.) for the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, actually challenges critics to verify the gospel events surrounding the trial and crucifixion of Christ by appealing to the "Acts of Pilate" which was the procurator's report which Pilate had sent to the emperor. The report was at that time stored in Rome. It was said that sometime before Constantine's acceptance of Christianity, those documents were destroyed because the credence they lent to Christianity posed such a severe threat to the empire.
Even events which skeptics today might attempt to say were fantastic or allegorical, were easily verifiable in those early years. For example, one skeptic, named Phlegon the Trallian, wishing to attack the story of darkness covering the land after Jesus' death, sought to find a natural explanation as to why the darkness occurred at that moment. In his quest to discredit the gospel, he demonstrated that even skeptics acknowledged that it actually did happen. He tried to explain it as a solar eclipse, which, he said, just happened to coincide with Christ's death. Julius Africanus was able to rebut him and prove that no solar eclipse happened that day. The great apologist Tertullian, in reference to the same event in his Defense written to the Roman Senate, simply said that this "world-portent could be found in your own archives."
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