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The Witness of the Anti-Christians

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The author of Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger and Hostile Witnesses explains why Christianity’s enemies actually give us a great deal of insight into how the earliest Christians lived and what they believed.

Cy Kellett: Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host.

Cy Kellett: One of the great resources for understanding early Christianity is the testimony of her enemies. That might seem counterintuitive, but certainly not everyone in the ancient world thought well of Christians or their beliefs, and some of the uglier things that were written about Christians were almost certainly the cause of pain at the time, but those anti-Christian writings that survive actually give us a great deal of insight into how the earliest Christians lived and what they believed.

Cy Kellett: Our guest is nationally known Catholic speaker, author, and apologist, Gary Michuta. Gary’s apologetics books include two from Catholic Answers, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger, and Hostile Witnesses, which we’ll be discussing today. The subtitle, How the Historic Enemies of the Church Prove Christianity.

Cy Kellett: Gary teaches online middle school and high school classes in apologetics for Homeschool Connections. He hosts a radio program called “Hands-On Apologetics” on Virgin Most Powerful Radio, and he has very fine guests there. I know that because Trent Horn’s been on. Hi, Gary.

Gary Michuta: Hi. And you’ve been my mentor. I have to learn how to be a host, so I’ve been stealing things that you’ve been doing here.

Cy Kellett: Wow. That is several layers of stealing then, because I have stolen virtually everything from either Patrick Hoffman or Jerry Usher.

Gary Michuta: Okay. So, multiple layers.

Cy Kellett: Congratulations on … We’re channeling. All Catholic radio goes back to Jerry Usher, in one way or another.

Gary Michuta: That’s true. Kind of like Kevin Bacon.

Cy Kellett: Yes, right. How many degrees of separation from Jerry? Hostile Witnesses. This is actually a brilliant idea, the idea that the things that your enemies say about you actually contain a great deal of information about you.

Cy Kellett: So you start in the Bible, because there are hostile witnesses reported in the Bible. Let’s start there. Who are the hostile witnesses within the New Testament?

Gary Michuta: Oh, well, there’s plenty of them.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, there are.

Gary Michuta: In fact, I was not sure whether to start with that, because my idea was for non-believers, but a friend of mine said “You want to show that trajectory, it’s the same ideas throughout history, it’s just changed a little bit.”

Cy Kellett: Right, right.

Gary Michuta: So we have the scribes and the Pharisees, you have the high priests, you have pagans, magicians, things like that. Just anyone who had an initial problem with Christianity, and then I look at what they say and I show how implicit in their words, they show a real phenomenon that couldn’t be denied is lurking there.

Cy Kellett: That’s what I find striking. If you go around saying things like, “Well, you cast out demons by the power of the devil,” there’s an important bit of information in there.

Gary Michuta: Yeah, absolutely.

Cy Kellett: Even if that’s not true … Go ahead.

Gary Michuta: Yeah, absolutely, ’cause think about it. You have this person who you think is pretending to be a Messiah, he’s really not, and he’s doing these healings and casting out demons. If it was fake, it was in their best interest to expose them. But they couldn’t for some reason. Instead, the best they could say was, “Well, he does this by the power of the devil.” So they couldn’t deny the miracles, but they had to change the source of the miracles.

Gary Michuta: You know what’s really cool, Cy, is it wasn’t just any old demon. But it had to be the prince of demons, the most powerful, which makes you wonder, how stunning were these miracles, that they had to go to “Well, this was just an incredibly powerful demon.”

Cy Kellett: And that continues throughout the long history of the Church, that you can get these insights from the enemies. They’re like confirmations. And a great deal of the confirmation around the person of Christ is, something extraordinary had to be happening, or you wouldn’t have these extraordinary responses.

Gary Michuta: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Among them, the claim that he is a Messiah or a king, that we actually get from the other sources as well, for example, again, the scribes and the Pharisees. Their complaint to Pontius Pilate is in fact that, that he’s claimed kingship.

Gary Michuta: Yeah, right.

Cy Kellett: And then as we move out of the Bible into those early pagan testimonies, I was really struck by something that I didn’t know anything about, and I didn’t see this coming, but the fact that … Now, you’re going to have to help me. Tacitus? Joseph-us or Josephus? How do I pronounce it?

Gary Michuta: Josephus.

Cy Kellett: Josephus and Suetonius.

Gary Michuta: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: They all say these Judeans were expecting a ruler or rulers to rule the whole world from them. And I was like, that … because we get a lot of contrary theories nowadays. Well, there wasn’t really that great a messiah, that expectation. But all of the non-Biblical historians all point to the same thing.

Gary Michuta: Yeah, yeah. And it was a widespread belief. I go through and I compare the points that they agree on, and they all agree that this was a widespread expectation throughout the East, that there would be this ruler or rulers who would come out of Judea. In fact, Josephus says it was that expectation that started the Jewish revolt.

Cy Kellett: Right, right.

Gary Michuta: Which makes sense, because the New Testament, you have people mentioning these false messiahs and so on, because that is the time. Everyone was expecting it, and of all people, right, it’s Roman historians that mention it, and the Jewish historian.

Cy Kellett: Right. So you have this sense, culminating in the revolt of the … I almost said 1860s. Of the 60s and the temple where the Romans actually killed, what, hundreds of thousands of Jews, probably, destroyed the temple, renamed Jerusalem, and all of that is a consequence of this rabid messianic expectation there in Judea.

Gary Michuta: Yeah. And like you said, today, people will poo-poo that idea. Oh, well, we didn’t really believe the messiah … This is Christians, they made it up. But the beautiful thing is that these witnesses who aren’t friendly at all to Christianity … In fact, they want to destroy it, or would like to, except for maybe Josephus … Nevertheless, they all say this is real. This really happened.

Cy Kellett: Right, right. This really happened, people really were expecting this. Now, Tacitus, I have to say, in writing about the persecutions of Christians under Nero, part of me is like, I don’t even believe this. I think that some medieval person wrote this and put it back in Tacitus, because it is such a perfect little history of early Christianity, even including a hint that the Christian belief was destroyed and then suddenly comes back. And you’re reading that going, come on. An ancient Roman historian said … It all points so perfectly. So you go ahead and walk us through it, Tacitus and what he wrote, and I’ll see if I believe you at the end.

Gary Michuta: I’ll try to convince you.

Cy Kellett: Okay, thanks.

Gary Michuta: From memory. Why I think it’s authentic is because no Christian would describe it that way, because it’s not flattering at all. He says that Christians are named after their founder, Christos. I forget what the name is … which he takes as a personal name, which is kind of funny. It’s really a title, it’s the anointed.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Gary Michuta: And he says that living in Judea, and “he suffered the extreme penalty under one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate-”

Cy Kellett: Which is like the creed, almost. It’s like your Tiberius.

Gary Michuta: Yeah. And then he says the movement was checked for a while, and then it broke out again and spread even to Rome. And you have to … One thing is we have to put ourselves in the shoes of pagans, because to him it is so absurd that a group would grow if their leader dies.

Cy Kellett: Yes. Right.

Gary Michuta: They’re following a dead leader. Why is it expanding? To him, it’s just total absurdity. He was put to death under an extreme penalty, and then it grew. Of course, the part he leaves out is that he isn’t dead. He rose from the dead. That’s the only explanation for the growth.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Gary Michuta: But you’re right, it’s almost like the creed, but it’s through pagan eyes.

Cy Kellett: Right. That’s what … It’s the Christian story if you didn’t really know the Christian story, but it exactly tracks with what we know through the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul of … That’s what happened.

Gary Michuta: And there’s another thing. Most people focus … historic Jesus research will focus on that little part. But if you continue reading, you find out that he starts talking about Nero, and Nero setting fire to Rome, and how he tried to pin it on Christians. Originally, Christians were persecuted why? Because they were the scapegoats for the fire. But the later they were charged with … I forget. It was being odious to humanity. I forget the exact words.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, I remember what you’re talking about, and I’ve forgotten too. Right. It’s not a charge of … Yeah.

Gary Michuta: Yeah, there’s a second charge.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, the second things that comes up, not that “You burned Rome,” but now it’s become, this is why we’re persecuting you.

Gary Michuta: Yeah. And the second charge is really interesting, because in Roman law, that charge was made against people who poisoned others, and against magicians, and he says that that second charge really stuck, that people were willing to persecute Christians because they were magicians.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Gary Michuta: In fact, the penalties square with what magicians would be penalized with. They’d be set to fire, they’d be fed to beasts, and instead of having their throats slit, they would be crucified. So why, what … You have to step back and say, what was it about Christians that made these pagans think, “Hey, they’re practicing magic?”

Cy Kellett: Yeah. What were they doing?

Gary Michuta: And the answer is miracles. That fits perfectly. So you have hostile witness on one side, and then you have the answers on the Christian sources. They tell you what’s going on.

Cy Kellett: Right. And then there’s the further charge that they’re practicing abominations, and that is a … I guess a pagan saying–well, we’re eating the flesh and drinking the blood of our founder, that would be the practice of an abomination. That seems like what they’re referring to.

Gary Michuta: Right. And Tacitus alludes to that, but he doesn’t explain what the abominations were.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Gary Michuta: But another hostile witness, Pliny the Younger, who’s kind of an erudite governor, and we have a series of letters that he has. He actually investigated Christianity, so I include that, because it’s really interesting, because we find out what those abominations are. Basically, he interrogates ex-Christians, he tortures some to get information. And he’s fine with that.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, that’s no problem for him. Right.

Gary Michuta: He says, he describes Christian worship, very early Christian worship where they meet together on a certain day of the week, they swear an oath to someone as God, and then they partake of ordinary food and drink. And you have to say, why did he qualify it with “ordinary, safe food and drink?” What did he expect us to be doing? And the answer is the real presence of the Eucharist. They thought we were literally eating flesh and blood as flesh and blood.

Cy Kellett: Right, yeah.

Gary Michuta: So he confirms in a roundabout way the Real Presence.

Cy Kellett: Right, and the Sunday worship. He doesn’t say that it’s on the first day of the week or anything.

Gary Michuta: Right.

Cy Kellett: But the weekly worship. It sounds remarkably like they’re going to Mass.

Gary Michuta: Right. In fact, another thing, he also confirms in a backhanded way miracles as well, because he figured, he’s writing to Trajan, the emperor, whether or not we should be … What should we do, as far as … “Should we torture Christians, kill them,” whatever. At the end, he says, it’s kind of working. This persecution thing is working because now people are starting to come back to the markets and buy sacrificial meats and things like that, which is really interesting, because there must have been a mass conversion to affect the economy-

Cy Kellett: Enough that you would notice that. Yes.

Gary Michuta: Yeah. So that they couldn’t sell sacrificial meats because everyone’s becoming Christian, they’re not offering sacrifices.

Cy Kellett: Indeed, right. And I was also … I wonder if you’re struck by this, but reading Pliny, the quotes that you have in the book Hostile Witnesses, by the way, available from Catholic Answers Press, Hostile Witnesses: How the Historic Enemies of the Church Prove Christianity from our guest Gary Michuta … Pliny is a pagan, and he has all the marks of paganism. But it’s a very Roman, almost mild paganism. He’s like, “I don’t want to kill these Christians. So I ask him once, are you a Christian? And if they say no, I let them go. If they say yes, I ask them again, and I threaten them a little bit. And if they say no, I let them go. And if they say yes, I ask them a third time. And this time, I really lay it on. ‘We’re going to kill you, we’re going to torture you.'”

Gary Michuta: Right.

Cy Kellett: And they still … So it’s testimony to the martyrs. It’s not some Christian saying this. It’s the actual Roman governor saying, “Here’s how we do it, and then if they don’t go along, we torture them and we kill them.”

Gary Michuta: Yeah, yeah. Very good.

Cy Kellett: Okay. But I want to go back to Tacitus, if you will. You got onto Pliny, and I haven’t finished with Tacitus, Josephus, and Suetonius.

Gary Michuta: Okay.

Cy Kellett: But Tacitus is writing, about when?

Gary Michuta: He’s writing, if I remember correctly, around 107, 117, I think. Somewhere around the first, second century.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So this is not 500 years later or something.

Gary Michuta: No, no. This is right after the turn of the century.

Cy Kellett: Right. And when he writes about Nero and the early Christians, again, we have this testimony that he slaughtered them in this way, he slaughtered them in that way. But what I was struck by, I wonder if you were struck by this, was this would’ve been in the 60s AD, about–almost exactly 30 years after the death and resurrection of the Lord. And he’s saying, there was a multitude of them to kill. There’s already a multitude of these Christians in Rome. Again, not coming from a Christian witness, coming from a Roman historian.

Gary Michuta: Right.

Cy Kellett: Were you struck by that?

Gary Michuta: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, there’s a thing of sufficient cause. Whenever I look at that, it’s like, well, what is a sufficient cause to explain, why so many so quickly?

Cy Kellett: Yeah, right.

Gary Michuta: And you have to … Of course, you can infer from that. But ultimately, you had to have been something so spectacular and obvious that people were willing to immediately convert and give their lives.

Cy Kellett: Yes, right.

Gary Michuta: To me, the only answer would be something like, miracles were happening.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. If you see someone you know to have been sick or crippled or in an accident or have some other … was blind … If you see that person healed, then that’s an immediate … And then there’s the other thing, about the Christians loved one another. I suppose that’s also pretty attractive.

Gary Michuta: Yeah, right.

Cy Kellett: Also, now, the next one we get to then is Josephus. Who is this guy?

Gary Michuta: Josephus is a Jewish historian. He wrote roughly about 100 AD. He originally was in the first revolt as a Jew, and he got captured, and he styled himself almost like a prophet, where he prophesied that Titus would eventually become emperor and so on; and he curried favor with the Romans, and they actually had him tag along. So he gives us eyewitness accounts of, say, the destruction of Jerusalem and the first Jewish revolt. He gives an enormous history of the Jewish people in the work he calls Antiquities of the Jews, where he starts from creation all the way to 70 AD.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. One striking thing is how the Romans are funny, that they’re willing to take a Jewish prophecy. Anybody who’s got a good prophecy about them, they’re willing to take. They appropriated the messianic prophecy. They said, well, that refers to Vespasian? Is that what they-

Gary Michuta: Yeah, Vespasian and Titus.

Cy Kellett: Those-

Gary Michuta: Vespasian is who you’re talking-

Cy Kellett: They said, oh yeah … They don’t go, “Oh, this is a crazy thing.” They say, “Well, these Judeans were waiting for their messiah. Clearly it was Vespasian and Titus, or one or both of them.”

Gary Michuta: Right.

Cy Kellett: “And then they’re crazy. They’re so nuts, they think it was this Christos guy.”

Gary Michuta: Yeah, right.

Cy Kellett: So you’ve gotta admire that about the Romans. They’ll take anything.

Gary Michuta: Right. Well, look at the Greek pantheon. They revamped it and made it into a Roman pantheon.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, right.

Gary Michuta: They were the original recyclers, I think.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, right. So they’re willing to take this Jewish religion if it benefits them. So what does Josephus tell us about these Christians? Writing as a Roman propagandist, really.

Gary Michuta: Yeah. Well, he actually has some sections on John the Baptist, and he talks about Jesus in one very controverted section.

Cy Kellett: And why is it controversial? What’s the problem?

Gary Michuta: Because it’s so clearly about Jesus, it can’t be … People say, “This couldn’t have been written by a Jew.” And true, there are some things there that seem a bit odd.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Gary Michuta: But he basically talks about Jesus as being a wise man who worked many mighty deeds. He actually, at the part he says that was the messiah, or “This is the messiah,” is what he says, and also that his followers, after his death, claim that he rose again, and that his followers are still sticking around, which I found was odd, because it’s just like Titus. “Why are these people still around? Their leader’s dead.” If you look in the first century, lots of people join these messiahs, they die, and they disperse, because why follow a dead guy?

Cy Kellett: That’s it.

Gary Michuta: So he’s like, they’re still around, 100 AD.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. They’re still around. I was kidding about … that I thought the Tacitus thing so obviously mirrors the whole early history of the Church that you almost feel it’s a medieval forgery, but there is some question that medieval people might have added something to Josephus.

Gary Michuta: Yeah, yeah. And there’s different views. Some say that it’s partially … There are a few interpolations in there. Some think it’s all authentic, others think the whole thing is an interpolation.

Cy Kellett: Do you have a view on that, or does it …

Gary Michuta: I’m good with the middle view, although the one thing that causes the most problem is where he says he’s the Christ. Of course, he didn’t believe that Jesus was the messiah. So that’s a problem. But to me, if you look in the Greek, he actually says “This one’s the Christ.” He uses a demonstrative pronoun. So I don’t think he’s affirming him as the messiah. I think he’s identifying him as the guy who was called Christ.

Cy Kellett: Oh, yeah.

Gary Michuta: Because he mentions Jesus elsewhere, and he usually says, “The one who was called Christ.” So I think he’s just saying “This is the guy that they called Christ.”

Cy Kellett: That’s the guy. Yes, I gotcha, okay. How about Suetonius? Who’s he?

Gary Michuta: Well, another Roman historian. He’s got a little line in there. I think it’s covered with the messianic prophecies. For me, he wasn’t as significant, I think, as Tacitus, because Tacitus is so explicit.

Cy Kellett: Right. And Suetonius is later.

Gary Michuta: Yeah, I think he is a little bit later.

Cy Kellett: I’m curious about this. Are there any ancient sources that you wish would be recovered, like … “Oh, I don’t have that source.” In your research, was there any, “Oh, I would like to hear what that guy had to say.” Are there missing histories that you can think of?

Gary Michuta: That’s tough. It’s like, pick something that you don’t know.

Cy Kellett: Right, right.

Gary Michuta: I’m sure there would be tons of stuff that would be fascinating.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, right.

Gary Michuta: Maybe…there was a very anti-Christian pagan called Porphyry who wrote several books against Christianity. We have fragments of the books, so that might … having the whole thing might be interesting.

Cy Kellett: Right, because again, it’s gotta have data in it.

Gary Michuta: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Even if it’s hostile, it’ll have all this data.

Gary Michuta: Right.

Cy Kellett: I guess I maybe took all that time on the early, ’cause it’s just fascinating to me, especially Tacitus. I don’t know why. Fascinating. But this continues. Throughout the history of the Church, we continue to have hostile witnesses. Can you say a little bit more about how that history … Do new ideas come up, or is it the same stuff recycled over and over again?

Gary Michuta: Yeah. That’s one thing that surprised me about the book. I thought this book would be a collection of counter-evidence that you can cite back. But as I was writing, I started noticing that they were all saying the same thing, they were reacting to the same phenomenon, the supernatural charity of Christians, the unity of the Church, miracles. What I found when I was done, it was almost like looking … The Shroud of Turin, I use that example. In ordinary light, it’s brown, it’s kind of vague, you can make out details. But if you do it a negative, like all of a sudden, all the details come out.

Cy Kellett: Oh, yes.

Gary Michuta: So when I wrote the book, it was like, yeah, Christianity makes all these claims. It’s kind of there, it’s a little vague. But when you do the flip side, that’s when all the details come out, because the pagans really react to certain things that’s just “square peg, round hole.” And not only pagans, but Jews, Muslims … I cover the whole history up to World War II.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Gary Michuta: And you get this picture of the Church that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, because certain things are highlighted by the enemies.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, by the enemies of the Church, and they continue … You went up to World War II, but I imagine that it continues today.

Gary Michuta: Oh, yeah.

Cy Kellett: Islam is interesting, because Muhammad knew Christians and Jews. He knows, he’s met them, so his … He draws upon that to create this thing which, within a few hundred years of his life, for Christians, is the greatest threat to the existence of Christianity.

Gary Michuta: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: What do you make of Muhammad’s witness to Christianity, or to the Muslim witness to Christianity, as a hostile witness that gives us data about the Christians that they encountered?

Gary Michuta: Yeah. What’s interesting is their view of Jesus and their view of Mary. In some ways, their views of both seem a lot higher than their theology should allow.

Cy Kellett: Oh, yeah.

Gary Michuta: And that’s peculiar. It’s like, why these two people more than any other? Only Jesus and Mary are sinless. They don’t believe in sin like we do, but essentially, they’re saying he’s not touched by the devil or something like that.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Gary Michuta: It’s like, oh, that’s really interesting, because many … Some anti-Catholics believe that all this Mary and theology stuff was in the Middle Ages, and tradition and all that. But here you have seventh-century Muslims who, like you said, there’s a Christian influence that … They’re getting this influence from somebody. What is it? It’s because Christians held a high view of Mary.

Cy Kellett: Right, Mary, and of course Jesus. Right. As a matter of fact, many people have said that the depictions in Islam of Mary are not only exalted, but they’re plentiful. They’re all through.

Gary Michuta: Yeah. Very high. One of my favorite things with the Muslim source is the Crusades.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Gary Michuta: Yeah. I also go into No Popery history as well. Ibn Jabar, who traveled to Mecca on his haj, travels through Christian lands, Crusader lands, on his way to Mecca, and he keeps a diary. The diary is amazing, because talk about crushing stereotypes. I have a quote in that passage where he says … He was dumbfounded because the Muslims who are living in Crusader-occupied territory were treated very well. They were treated justly, they could own property, they paid a light tax, and you contrast that to Muslims living under Muslim … And they were complaining, because it’s like, “Why is it that these infidels treat us so …” Supernatural charity!

Cy Kellett: Right.

Gary Michuta: And he actually says … I forgot what he says. “May Allah destroy them,” because he saw this as a great temptation, to think that Christianity might be true, I guess.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Well, Hostile Witness is fun, too. I should let the reader know that it’s just fun to go through and see, as you said, the negative image of Christianity. It gives you so much of an insight into what these Christians who are our forebears were actually doing at their times in history.

Cy Kellett: Hostile Witnesses: How the Historic Enemies of the Church Prove Christianity by Gary Michuta. Gary, thanks for taking the time with us.

Gary Michuta: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.

Cy Kellett: And thank you for joining us on Focus. Share it with your friends, tell them to go over to CatholicAnswersLive.com. They can sign up to be part of Radio Club and get Focus, get the details of Focus, as it comes out each week. We will see you next time.

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