What is an infidel?
Question: "What is an infidel? What is GotQuestions.org's response to infidels.org?"
Answer: The word infidel simply means “without faith” or “against faith.” An infidel is a person who rejects religion. More famously, though, the term infidel has been connected to a website which attacks the Christian faith – infidels.org. Internet Infidels, which also goes by the name Secular Web, is one of the principal websites for atheists and naturalists on the internet. Its stated goal is to defend and promote a naturalistic worldview on the internet. Christian apologist J.P. Holding has stated, “The Secular Web has a few intelligent people, but overall has long been a haven for every skeptical know-it-all to pronounce judgments upon matters outside of their expertise.”
The purpose of this article is not to provide a comprehensive rebuttal of every issue that the Internet Infidels raise. Rather, the purpose is to point out just a few of the multiple fallacies behind the Internet Infidels website.
What is an infidel? – denying the existence of Jesus
Among the claims of the Internet Infidels is the thesis that Jesus never existed, a hypothesis which has long hovered around the fringes of scholarly New Testament research, but which has never been able to attract support from a significant body of scholars. Marshall J. Gauvin in his article “Did Jesus Christ ever live?” states categorically that “miracles do not happen. Stories of miracles are untrue. Therefore, documents in which miraculous accounts are interwoven with reputed facts are untrustworthy, for those who invented the miraculous element might easily have invented the part that was natural.” If one is to assert a naturalistic worldview by assuming that miracles are impossible, then one might just as easily attempt to prove a theistic worldview by assuming the existence of God. Either way, the argument is self-refuting.
Gauvin’s incompetence and utter misunderstanding of the issues at hand is further illustrated in the following paragraph:
On the theory that Christ was crucified, how shall we explain the fact that during the first eight centuries of the evolution of Christianity, Christian art represented a lamb, and not a man, as suffering on the cross for the salvation of the world? Neither the paintings in the Catacombs nor the sculptures on Christian tombs pictured a human figure on the cross. Everywhere a lamb was shown as the Christian symbol--a lamb carrying a cross, a lamb at the foot of a cross, a lamb on a cross. Some figures showed the lamb with a human head, shoulders and arms, holding a cross in his hands--the lamb of God in process of assuming the human form--the crucifixion myth becoming realistic. At the close of the eighth century, Pope Hadrian I, confirming the decree of the sixth Synod of Constantinople, commanded that thereafter the figure of a man should take the place of a lamb on the cross. It took Christianity eight hundred years to develop the symbol of its suffering Savior. For eight hundred years, the Christ on the cross was a lamb. But if Christ was actually crucified, why was his place on the cross so long usurped by a lamb? In the light of history and reason, and in view of a lamb on the cross, why should we believe in the Crucifixion?
Arguments such as that ought not require any commentary for the Christian who has even a basic knowledge of his Bible. Gauvin doesn't even address the Passover lamb icon of Christianity; surely it is at least worth a mention?
Let’s focus primarily on three points raised by the articles of the Internet Infidels. These are the lack of secular references, the comparison of the legitimate Gospels to Gnostic sources, and the alleged similarities to paganism.
First, let us consider the reference to Jesus by Josephus. Gauvin writes:
In the closing years of the first century, Josephus, the celebrated Jewish historian, wrote his famous work on "The Antiquities of the Jews." In this work, the historian made no mention of Christ, and for two hundred years after the death of Josephus, the name of Christ did not appear in his history. There were no printing presses in those days. Books were multiplied by being copied. It was, therefore, easy to add to or change what an author had written. The church felt that Josephus ought to recognize Christ, and the dead historian was made to do it. In the fourth century, a copy of “The Antiquities of the Jews” appeared, in which occurred this passage: “Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works; a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
It is true that it is seldom questioned that this passage from Antiquities of the Jews contains some interpolations which have been inserted by later scribes (a very small minority of scholars hold that the entirety of this passage is genuine). But the Internet Infidels apparently hold to the “total interpolation” theory.
What are some of the reasons for accepting this passage as partially genuine, once the clear interpolations have been removed? Perhaps the most important factor leading most scholars to accept the partial authenticity position is that a substantial part of the passage reflects Josephus’ typical language and style. Further, when the clear scribal interpolations are removed, the remaining core passage is coherent and flows well.
A substantial amount of this reference to Jesus is regarded by the majority of scholars as characteristic of Josephus, and only a few phrases are obviously Christian. Moreover, many of Josephus’ phrases are absent from early Christian literature, and phrases or terms that Christians would likely not have used are present. Then there is a phrase that any Christian scribe would have known to be in error (“he gained a following among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin”).
It is interesting that Gauvin neglects to mention the other reference to Jesus in the writings of Josephus – the authenticity of which almost all scholars accept nearly in its entirety:
But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.
The majority of scholars regard this as an authentic passage for reasons such as the following:
1. There is no textual evidence against this passage. It is found in every single manuscript of the Antiquities of the Jews. This also, incidentally, applies to the aforementioned passage.
2. There is a specific use of non-Christian terminology. For instance, the designation of James as the “brother of Jesus” contrasts with Christian practice of calling him the “brother of the Lord.” The passage therefore corresponds neither with New Testament nor with primitive Christian usage.
3. The emphasis of the passage is not on Jesus, nor even James, but on the high priest Annas. There is no praise for either Jesus or James.
4. Neither this passage nor the larger one connects Jesus with John the Baptist, as would be expected from a Christian interpolator.
Gauvin goes on to argue:
In the “Annals” of Tacitus, the Roman historian, there is another short passage which speaks of “Christus” as being the founder of a party called Christians--a body of people “who were abhorred for their crimes.” These words occur in Tacitus' account of the burning of Rome. The evidence for this passage is not much stronger than that for the passage in Josephus. It was not quoted by any writer before the fifteenth century; and when it was quoted, there was only one copy of the “Annals” in the world; and that copy was supposed to have been made in the eighth century--six hundred years after Tacitus' death. The “Annals” were published between 115 and 117 A.D., nearly a century after Jesus' time--so the passage, even if genuine, would not prove anything as to Jesus.
This is simply to miss the point. The existence of Jesus was not contested in first-century Palestine, and the negative references to Jesus by Tacitus and others provides powerful evidence that at least Jesus was known to have been a real, prominent figure in the first century. Why did these negative commentators not deny His existence? From where did they derive their information? Moreover, careful enquiry is one of Tacitus’ most famous attributes. His reliability as a historian militates against his having borrowed information uncritically from any source. That Tacitus got his information from Christians is disproven by the negative tone of the reference.
Would Tacitus have been inclined simply to repeat what he was told by people whom he disliked? After all, when reporting on the history and beliefs of the Jews, whom he despised as much as the Christians, it seems fairly obvious from his disparaging descriptions that Tacitus was not inclined to consult the Jews’ “own view” or even that of “Jewish informants.”
Gauvin omits mention of the other early secular references to Jesus, including what is found in the Talmud and in the writings of Lucian, Pliny, Seutonius, Tacitus, and Thallus. But even if we were to assume no first- or early second-century secular references to Jesus, we would still have a very powerful case for His existence. Why? Had Jesus’ followers decided to manufacture a mythical Jesus and attribute sayings to Him in an effort to paint Him as someone who claimed Messianic authority, a number of problems arise. First, they certainly seem to have done it in entirely the wrong way. Had their goal been to initiate a new religion, it may have been advisable to frame it in accordance with the expectations of those whom they were seeking to convince. The Jewish concept of a Messiah was a great military leader, who would lead a conquest against their Roman oppressors. Second, modern scholarship is unanimously agreed that the disciples sincerely believed in what they were proclaiming (they were willing to suffer inhumane deaths for it, without renouncing their cause, among other reasons). Third, given that the earliest Christian proclamation following the resurrection was in Jerusalem (where Jesus’ public ministry had been based), they were somewhat limited in terms of the material available for fabrication. Had Jesus’ existence been a fabrication, assuredly they would have preached in Rome or elsewhere, as far away from the eyewitnesses as they could get.
Moreover, consider the situation facing the disciples following the crucifixion. Their leader was dead. And Jews traditionally had no belief in a dying, much less rising, Messiah. In fact, orthodox Jewish beliefs concerning the afterlife precluded anyone rising bodily from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection at the end of the world. Rabbinic interpretation with regard to the prophecies concerning the resurrection of the Messiah was that He would be raised from the dead at the end of time along with all the other deceased saints. It is thus significant that the disciples had no necessary disposition toward a bodily resurrection, for it was counter-cultural, given the prominent Jewish mentality. This is perhaps why, as John testifies in his account (John 20:9), that upon discovery of the empty tomb “they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” If the disciples had been fabricators of an ideal, they would undoubtedly have posited at best a spiritual resurrection, for a physical and bodily resurrection could have been relentlessly exposed with the presence of a corpse. Instead, they talked of the resurrection of the actual physical body which, if untrue, was an enormous risk to take should the body have ever been detected. Rather, they believed in a literal resurrection because they had witnessed it for themselves. The religious leaders of the day wanted nothing more than to stifle Christianity.
A final reason why Jesus’ followers are unlikely to have fabricated a mythic Jesus concerns His death by crucifixion. According to Jewish law, Jesus’ execution by hanging on a tree showed Him to be a man literally accursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23). The crucifixion was undoubtedly a catastrophe to the mindset of the early church, for it had effectively shown that the Pharisees and the Jewish council had been right, and that the disciples had left their homes, families and possessions to follow a heretic, a man literally accursed by God.
What is an infidel? – Misleading statements
According to Gauvin:
There were many Gospels in circulation in the early centuries, and a large number of them were forgeries. Among these were the "Gospel of Paul," the “Gospel of Bartholomew," the "Gospel of Judas Iscariot," the "Gospel of the Egyptians," the "Gospel or Recollections of Peter," the "Oracles or Sayings of Christ," and scores of other pious productions, a collection of which may still be read in "The Apocryphal New Testament." Obscure men wrote Gospels and attached the names of prominent Christian characters to them, to give them the appearance of importance. Works were forged in the names of the apostles, and even in the name of Christ. The greatest Christian teachers taught that it was a virtue to deceive and lie for the glory of the faith. Dean Milman, the standard Christian historian, says: "Pious fraud was admitted and avowed." The Rev. Dr. Giles writes: "There can be no doubt that great numbers of books were then written with no other view than to deceive." Professor Robertson Smith says: "There was an enormous floating mass of spurious literature created to suit party views." The early church was flooded with spurious religious writings. From this mass of literature, our Gospels were selected by priests and called the inspired word of God. Were these Gospels also forged? There is no certainty that they were not. But let me ask: If Christ was an historical character, why was it necessary to forge documents to prove his existence? Did anybody ever think of forging documents to prove the existence of any person who was really known to have lived? The early Christian forgeries are a tremendous testimony to the weakness of the Christian cause.
Given that the Gnostics were attributing their "gospels" to prominent key players in the first-century church such as Peter, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene, one would think that this would give weight to the case that the early church was faithful in attributing their documents to the correct people. Why attribute the gospels to second-rate people like Mark and Luke? After all, the early church readily affirms that Mark obtains much of his information from Peter, so why not attribute it to Peter if this is all about credibility? There is no mention of any of this in the article. Also, the Gnostic gospels were NOT written to prove the existence of Jesus. The Internet Infidels show absolutely no understanding or appreciation of the background of Gnosticism, nor the relevant agendas behind the documents being propagated. There was not even really any dispute in the early church with respect to the authorship of the four canonical Gospels. To anyone even vaguely familiar with early church history, this argument is hardly convincing.
What is an infidel? – Claiming “copycat” plagiarism of pagan religions
One claim which surfaces frequently on the Internet Infidels website is the allegation that Christianity is an adaptation of various pagan religions and mythology, a claim which has long been rejected by majority scholarship. In view of this allegation, it makes no sense why sincere, monotheistic Jews, entrenched in Palestinian culture, would have borrowed from pagan “mystery religions” and subsequently have gone to their deaths proclaiming what they knew to be an outright conspiracy.
Nonetheless, James Still writes in The Virgin Birth and Childhood Mysteries of Christ:
"As time went by it could be seen that the Kingdom of God was delayed. Among the Hellenized Jews and the Greek pagans who were considering conversion to Christianity, this delay posed more questions than answers. Additionally, Greek pagans, from which Christianity was to draw its converts and eventually thrive, were naturally skeptical of any new savior and the heavenly rewards they might promise. These Greeks had to pick and choose among the dozens of mystery cults and gods that had sprung up, each promising riches and eternal bliss in a heavenly afterlife. Jesus had little to offer these Greeks. He was, by all accounts, a mortal Jewish messiah, speaking only to the sons of Abraham and telling them to prepare the way of the Lord who would build a new Jerusalem especially for his chosen people. The Marcan Jesus that was known to his followers during the middle-to-late first-century (before the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John) shared none of the attributes of the time-honored moral-savior deities of Dionysus or Herakles. Jesus' later-added attribute of virgin-birth [was] necessary if Jesus was to be made acceptable to the pagans of the Hellenized world."
But then, neither of the two birth accounts concerning Dionysus suggest a virgin birth. According to one legend, Dionysus is the product of Zeus and Persephone. Hera becomes insanely jealous and tries to destroy the infant by sending the Titans to kill him. Zeus comes to the rescue, but it is too late. The Titans had eaten everything but Dionysus’ heart. Zeus then takes the heart and implants it into the womb of Semele. In the second legend, Zeus impregnates a mortal woman, Semele, much to the jealousy of Hera. Hera convinces Semele to ask Zeus to reveal his glory to her but because no mortal can look upon the gods and live. Semele is instantly incinerated. Zeus then takes the fetal Dionysus and sews him into his own thigh until his birth. As we can see, no virgin birth takes place, but this is how Dionysus is said to have become a rebirth deity, as he is twice born in the womb.
Richard Carrier makes the case elsewhere that “Horus of Greece is described as first reigning a thousand years, then dying, then being buried for three days, at the end of which time he triumphed over Typhon, the evil principle, and rose again to life evermore.” But Carrier is wrong. The only connection we can make to Horus being resurrected is if we consider the eventual merger of Horus and Osiris. But such a theory is full of contradictions, apparently noticed by the Egyptians since they later altered their beliefs to fix the contradictions. In the Egyptian tale, Osiris is either dismembered by Set in battle or sealed in a chest and drowned in the Nile. Isis then pieces Osiris’ body back together and resurrects Osiris to conceive an heir that will avenge Osiris’ death (although technically Osiris is never actually resurrected, as he is forbidden to return to the world of the living).
The Infidels site is peppered with other such misinformation concerning pagan deities and the frequent allegation that the Christians “borrowed” material from them. Such a claim remains to be proven or even supported by the slightest evidence.
What is an infidel? – Conclusion
The Internet Infidels website is merely a repackaging of old conspiracy theories, as well as blatant misinformation and overstatements, almost all of which have long since been abandoned by the consensus of scholarship. Nonetheless, the infidels continue to attract a substantial volume of internet traffic. In history there is little that is certain, but there is also a level of skepticism that makes the task of the historian impossible. Moreover, the thesis that the early church borrowed material from ancient pagan religions and that Jesus never existed requires a selective skepticism about which sources are reliable and how others are to be properly interpreted. In the end, if the Internet Infidels are right in their contention that Jesus never lived, it makes Christianity a much more incredible phenomenon than if He did live. As the psalmist correctly testifies, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).
Recommended Resources: I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norm Geisler and Frank Turek.
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Questions about Apologetics and Worldview
What is an infidel?