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Hostile Testimony Helps Prove the Truth of the Church

The enemies of Christianity are some of the best sources to confirm that the early Church was Catholic

The enemies of Christianity are probably the last sources you’d expect to confirm that the early Church was Catholic, but they are actually some of the best sources. The early enemies of the Church didn’t have a modern axe to grind in the Catholic-Protestant debate. They opposed Christianity for reasons of their own. Therefore, when they reacted to a Christian belief or practice, their reaction actually confirmed, in a backhanded way, those beliefs. In other words, these enemies can be helpful hostile witnesses to exactly what the early Christians believed.

Hostile witnesses go back to the very beginning of the New Testament and continue through Church history. In some ways, they make up a vast untapped reservoir for Catholic apologetics. They are especially rich in confirming key points contested today in areas of Christian apologetics—that Christ claimed to be God, that he performed miracles, that his body disappeared after the crucifixion, that his followers also worked miracles, etc.

However, they are valuable in Catholic apologetics as well. For example, many Protestants deny the real, substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Catholic defense of this doctrine begins with Scripture and traces it in the writings of the early Church Fathers down through the centuries. What most people don’t realize is that the reaction to the Real Presence can also be traced from the New Testament down through the centuries.

New Testament hostile witnesses

The earliest hostile witnesses were present at Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in John 6:22-71. In fact, it is a common approach to interpreting Jesus’ words in this chapter to appeal to the reaction of his audience. Was Jesus speaking metaphorically when he said we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, or did he mean in a very real and literal sense? The crowd’s reaction and Jesus’ reply helps us zero in on the true meaning of his words.

For example, when Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” his audience reacted, saying, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42). Jesus didn’t reply, “You’re right, I didn’t really come from heaven—it’s all a metaphor.”

Instead, he replied, “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). Jesus’s reply affirms that he did indeed come from heaven but did not specify whether he saw the Father with his human eyes.

Later in the discourse, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). At this the Jews quarreled among themselves saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Clearly, the Jews understood him to be speaking literally.

What was Jesus’ response? In the next four verses, he affirms and reaffirms the necessity of eating his flesh (and also drinking his blood) (John 6:53-56). However, Jesus does correct them on one point: he is not going to give his flesh and blood as flesh and blood. That would be cannibalism. Instead, Christ is going to give us his flesh and blood to eat and drink as “true food” and “true drink”—i.e., as a sacrament (John 6:55). After this, many of his own disciples respond, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (John 6:60).

Now, as a symbol or a metaphor, it shouldn’t be hard to accept. But they understood him literally, and Jesus didn’t correct them. “Does this shock you?” he replied (John 6:61). And John tells us the result: “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66).

The hostile witnesses at the Bread of Life discourse show us that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He was referring to his real presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Pliny the Younger

Fast forward in time to the beginning of the second Christian century. A pagan ruler named Plinius Caecilius Secundus, better known today as Pliny the Younger, was appointed governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor in what is today northern Turkey from A.D. 111 to 113.

During his governorship, he ran across a pesky group of religious zealots called Christians. There had been rumors about what the Christians did when they gathered, and Pliny felt that it was his duty to investigate and report to the emperor exactly what the Christians were up to. He completed his investigation and reported his findings in a letter to the emperor Trajan sometime around A.D. 112.

Before we look at the report, it’s important to note that Pliny had no love for Christianity. In fact, when it came to Christianity, he followed the letter of the law:

I put it to themselves whether they were or were not Christians. To such as professed that they were, I put the inquiry a second and a third time, threatening them with the supreme penalty. Those who persisted, I ordered executed. For indeed, I could not doubt, whatever might be the nature of that which they professed, that their pertinacity, at any rate, and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished (Letter 10:96-97).

Through numerous interrogations, tortures, and executions, he learned just what Christians were really doing when they worshiped. He wrote:

Those persons who professed to have been formerly Christian affirmed, however, that this had been the sum, whether of their crime or their delusion; they had been in the habit of meeting together on a stated day, before sunrise, and of offering in turns a form of invocation to Christ, as to a god; also of binding themselves by an oath, not for any guilty purpose, but not to commit thefts, or robberies, or adulteries, not to break their word, not to repudiate deposits when called upon; these ceremonies having been gone through, they had been in the habit of separating, and again meeting together for the purpose of taking food—food, that is, of an ordinary and innocent kind.

Pliny’s interest in the affairs of Christians may have been due to Roman law prohibiting unauthorized associations. Since the reign of Julius Caesar, unauthorized groups or associations (such as those who share a common trade or religious beliefs) were banned because they tended to evolve into political organizations that threatened the political stability of the area. When Pliny had earlier petitioned the emperor for permission to form an association of fire fighters in Bithynia, the emperor rejected his request for this reason.

Pliny’s report on Christian worship, however, suggests that there is something else going on behind his investigation. Let’s unpack some of what he found.

First, Christians met on a stated day. This is a likely reference to Sunday or the “Lord’s Day” being the day singled out to meet. Pliny’s letter confirms Christian sources that the Eucharist was celebrated on “The Lord’s Day” (Didache, 14.1; Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67).

Second, Christians during these meetings were “offering in turns a form of invocation to Christ, as to a god.” This could be a reference to singing ancient Christians hymns (such as the one preserved in Philippians 2:6-11). What’s more, his description of their “offering in turns” suggests that these hymns were orchestrated and antiphonal. In other words, their worship was liturgical.

Third, Pliny notes that these invocations were to Christ “as to a god.” Being a pagan, Pliny would not have said, “to Christ as God,” because he was a polytheist. Nevertheless, he recognized that Christians believed Christ to be a divine person worthy of worship.

Fourth, Pliny found that, within their liturgy, Christians bound themselves by an oath. The phrase “bind themselves by oath” (Latin, dicere secum invicem seque sacramento) can also be translated as “they involve themselves in a sacrament.” As theologian Scott Hahn notes:

In a tradition that dates back to the late first and early second century, the Latin word sacramentum was used to describe the binding “oaths” sworn by Christians in the eucharistic liturgy and the other sacramental liturgies. Among other ancient authorities, this usage can be found in Tertullian, Augustine, Jerome, Leo the Great, and Pliny the Younger. Sacramentum was also used to translate the early Christian term for the sacraments or “mysteries” (Greek, mysterion) (The Kingdom of God as Liturgical Empire: A Theological Commentary on 1-2 Chronicles, 163).

Swearing oaths was how the ancient Jews made a covenant. In Christian worship, therefore, believers renew their covenant with God by involving themselves in a sacrament.

Fifth and most important since it discloses the real reason for Pliny’s investigation: the Eucharist. Christians gather together “for the purpose of taking food—food, that is, of an ordinary and innocent kind.” The qualification at the end suggests that Pliny was expecting to find Christians eating food that was not ordinary food and unlawful.

But what kind of food would a pagan believe was not ordinary and unlawful to eat? Pliny doesn’t say, but another hostile witness from roughly the same time period can help us fill in the blank.

Marcus Fronto

Marcus Cornelius Fronto (A.D. 100-166), in a speech recorded by the pagan writer Caecilius, alleged that Christian worship involved “ritual murder and cannibalism.” How could Fronto be so wrong about the celebration of the Eucharist? If we look at contemporary Christian writings, we can see how a pagan such as Fronto could have misinterpreted what he heard.

Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 50-108), for example, was bishop of Antioch and a disciple of John the apostle. In his letter to the church in Smyrna, Ignatius warned Christians about heretics who “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6, 2).

Like the Jews in John 6:52, Fronto may have heard talk about the Eucharist being Christ’s flesh and blood and assumed that Christians were consuming human flesh and blood as flesh and blood—in other words, engaging in cannibalism.

What about the ritual murder? Christian documents around the same time as Fronto helps us fill in that blank as well. For example, the Didache (inter A.D. 148-155) says:

On the Lord’s Day of the Lord, gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. Let no one who has a quarrel with his neighbor join you until he is reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled. For this is that which was proclaimed by the Lord: “In every place and time let there be offered to me a clean sacrifice. For I am a great king,” says the Lord, “and my name is wonderful among the gentiles’” (Mal. 1:11) (Didache, 14.1-2).

As you can see, the distorted understanding of our hostile witness dovetails nicely with what we find in Christian writings. In fact, they are almost reverse images. Where Christians speak of the eucharistic Real Presence and the sacrifice of the Mass, Fronto’s distorted view speaks of cannibalism and human sacrifice. No wonder Pliny writes—likely with a sign of relief—that Christians eat food “of an ordinary and innocent kind” (i.e., sacramental bread and wine).

What Pliny and Fronto’s fears and misunderstandings show us is the strong sacramental realism Christians held concerning the Eucharist and its celebration. Only a Catholic understanding of the Real Presence could produce such distortions from nonbelievers.

We find a similar thing happening today. Which religious group today is accused of engaging in cannibalism when it comes to the Eucharist? I would doubt that any Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian congregation was ever accused of such a thing. Yet this is a frequent charge made against Catholicism by non-Catholics. Not only that, some even malign the Mass as “re-sacrificing” Christ.

Is this really that far from Fronto’s accusation of human sacrifice? If this is true today, it seems to be also true back in the early second century. In other words, the earliest Christians believed with the same realism Catholics do
today.

Other accusations

Fronto made other accusations. He charged the Christians with engaging in incest during gatherings and even murdering infants (see Minicius Felix’s Octavius 31, 1-2). These accusations may be too mangled to decipher their origins.

The incest accusation may have come from a misunderstanding about two common Christian terms. The first is an early name for Christian gatherings. They were sometimes called “love feasts” (Greek, agape). Its first known use is in Jude 12:

These are blemishes on your love feasts, as they boldly carouse together, looking after themselves; waterless clouds, carried along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted.

In Christian lingo, “love” here means chaste and modest covenantal love. But to pagan ears, “love feasts” sounded like licentious celebrations, perhaps something like those honoring the god Bacchus. If you combine “love feasts” with the idea that Christians are all children of God and brothers and sisters—well, you get the pagan picture.

As for the murder of infants, Minscius Felix says, “And now I should wish to meet him who says or believes that we are initiated by the slaughter and blood of an infant” (Octavius, 30.1). The origin of this may be too is difficult to decipher.

But since he is speaking of an initiation rite, it must be a reference to baptism. Scripture speaks of baptism as both a kind of death and a rebirth. Paul writes, for example:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. . . . For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him (Rom. 6:3-4, 7-8).

Baptism is also spoken of as a new birth (John 3:5, Titus 3:5). Perhaps Minscius Felix thought newborns were being put to death. Another possibility could be that the pagans knew that Christians were rescuing pagan babies from exposure and raising them as their own. Perhaps Fronto was plugging into a sinister pagan suspicion that these infants were being used as victims for their rituals.

This seems unlikely, given the specificity of Fronto’s claim—namely, the connection of infants with the ritual of initiation (baptism). A more likely scenario—but, again, not certain—is that pagans heard of infants being baptized and initiated into Christ’s death. An uninformed pagan could think that infants were being killed in this initiation rite. If this last scenario is true, it shows us two things about the beliefs and practices of the early Christians.

First, Christians held to a realistic view of baptism—namely, that something truly happens to the person being baptized: we truly die with Christ and are united to him through baptismal regeneration. But if the early Christians had held to a purely symbolic view of baptism, such symbolism would have been easily understood by the average pagan. Since pagan rites used symbolic rituals, there wouldn’t have been a misunderstanding. But the Christians’ realistic view of the sacrament could have caused nonbelievers to think that people (i.e., infants) were being put to physical death.

Second, Christians baptized infants. They would have been included in the household baptisms that took place in the New Testament (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16)—and in extrabiblical evidence as well (see sidebar to the left).

What Pliny and Fronto show us is that the earliest Christians held to a deep sacramental realism that mirrors that of historical Catholicism. It was a realism so strong that it could provoke many of the same misunderstandings that Catholicism is accused of today.

Conclusion

From the time of Jesus up to the third Christian century to even today, hostile witnesses over and over again attest to the presence of Catholic teaching by their common reactions. Their reactions perfectly pair, like a shadow conforming to the shape of a thing shadowed, with the New Testament texts and the writings of the early Church Fathers. Who would have thought the enemies of the Church could turn out to be some of our best friends?

Sidebar: Extra-Biblical Evidence of Baptism

The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written roughly around the time Fronto gave his accusations, reports St. Polycarp of Smyrna stating before his martyrdom, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He has never done me wrong. How, then, should I be able to blaspheme my King who has saved me?” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9, 3; A.D. 155-157).

Later in the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome (d. A.D. 235) wrote: “Baptize first the children; and if they can speak for themselves, let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (Apostolic Tradition, 21; AD c. 215). If infant baptism was the source of Fronto’s distortions, it certainly would cohere—in a negative way—with what we find in contemporary Christian sources.

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