Pagan Critiques of Scripture
Christian commentators were also pushed by pagan scholars hostile to their religion to examine several problematic aspects of Scripture. Three pagan critics were particularly important for early Christian exegesis: Celsus, the late second-century author of a book entitled The True Word; the third-century Platonic critic of Christianity, Porphyry; and the mid-fourth-century pagan emperor, Julian “the Apostate.”
Celsus debunked both the Old and the New Testaments. He claimed that the story of Jesus' virgin birth was a fabrication and that Jesus performed extraordinary deeds through the magical practices he had learned in Egypt. He compares the story of Adam and Eve unfavorably to the legends of human creation found in Greek writings. Some Christian teachings, Celsus argues, are just recycled versions of Greek philosophy: the injunction to “turn the other cheek” was derived from a passage in Plato's dialogue, the Crito. According to Celsus, both the ancient Jews and the present-day Christians were constituted from the lowest social classes and hence are highly superstitious—a point that makes ridiculous their claim that God cares for them alone. Nor does the Bible inculcate lofty morals, as the story of Lot's incestuous relations with his daughters demonstrates.
Porphyry, although his writings exist in even more fragmentary form than do Celsus', appears to have been a more serious scholar of the Bible. His criticism of the Old Testament focused especially on the Book of Daniel, and his general view is the one accepted by modern scholars: that the author of Daniel was not “foreseeing” Hebrew history from the vantage point of the sixth century B.C.E., but lived at the time of the Maccabean revolt four centuries later and described in “code” language the events of his own time. Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries, including the greatest Christian scholar of his age, Jerome, struck at Porphyry's revisionist thesis and opted for the traditional dating of Daniel.
Porphyry also attacked the New Testament, especially the inconsistencies in the Gospels, such as the discrepancies between the genealogies in Matthew and in Luke. He also notes the opposition between Peter and Paul (as reported in Galatians) as a means to discredit the apostles. Porphyry knew his Scripture so well that he could even point out passages in which the Gospel writers misidentified Scriptural quotations they took from the Old Testament.
The attack of Julian “the Apostate,” titled Against the Galileans, centers on the Christian deviation from Old Testament teaching: how can Christians claim the Hebrew heritage for themselves and appropriate its Scriptures when they do not observe Jewish traditions and laws? Jesus' healings are worthy of mockery, his moral teaching is inadequate. His followers kill those who disagree with them and overturn their temples: this is the treatment received by those who refuse to “wail over the corpse” (of Jesus) as the Christians do. Julian also pinpoints differences among the Gospels: why does only the Gospel of John report that Jesus made heaven and earth? Why do Matthew and Luke differ on Jesus' genealogy? Although Moses said that the Law was for all time (e.g., in Exod. 12.14–15 ), Christians try to rationalize their non-observance of its precepts by falsely claiming that God meant the Law to remain in effect only for a short period of time.
Christian writers struggled to answer these critiques. In many cases, the pagan critics had spotted problems for which only the research of the past two centuries has provided explanations. Yet Christian authors tried to turn the pagan attacks to their own benefit. Thus, for example, Origen replies to Celsus that it is one of Christianity's marvels that even the ignorant (he specifies women and children) are cured of bad living through its precepts—while sophisticated intellectuals are also won over to the faith by its pure worship of God.
Augustine, in his On the Harmony of the Gospels, directed in part against Porphyry's criticism, labors to show that the discrepancies in the Gospels are only apparent. Thus, for Augustine, the divergent genealogies in Matthew and Luke are both true, since Joseph had both a “natural” and an adoptive father. Moreover, the discrepancies between what we call the Synoptics and John are not really that: the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke chose to speak more of Jesus' earthly life, not of his divinity, while John took a different approach. These variations do not represent “discrepancies,” but merely the individual preferences of the Gospel writers.
According to Origen, the pagan critics mocked Christian Scripture because they adopted a strictly literal exegesis and refused to explore Scripture's mystical or allegorical meanings. Celsus put the point somewhat differently: intelligent Jews and Christians resort to allegorical interpretations “because they are ashamed” of the stories in the Bible. And he had a point: many texts had to be rendered more morally edifying and spiritually enlightening to be useful to the Church. Allegorical interpretation—the location of a “higher,” non-literal meaning for Scriptural verses—thus loomed large on the agenda of the early church's approach to the Bible.