“What I have written, I have written. (Quod scripsi, scripsi.)” Those were the words of Pontius Pilate after directing that a sign be affixed to Jesus of Nazareth’s cross. On it was inscribed, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews,” written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. The Jews protested, saying that the sign ought to read, “He said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’” But Pilate would not be moved.
The sign Pilate authorized didn’t reflect his own beliefs about Jesus. As prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, he certainly didn’t have the authority or the desire to proclaim anyone king. He did, however, wish to send a message: This is what happens to pretended kings. For those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah King, the placard proclaimed the Truth. For the Jews who didn’t believe, it was an insult and a warning. For Pilate, it was a useful tool to send a message.
If, centuries later, Pilate’s sign were the only record in existence about Jesus, we could still deduce a few things about the One Who hung on a cross at Calvary: His name was Jesus; He was from the town of Nazareth; and His execution was the result of a controversy over His kingship. Despite its intended purpose to ridicule, to warn, and maybe even to incite anger, the sign still says something true about the events that led up to Calvary. Pontius Pilate’s sign, therefore, is a hostile witness.
The Praise of Enemies
The Psalm says, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings You have perfected praise, because of Your enemies” (Ps. 8:2 LXX). Not only do the righteous praise Christ because of His enemies, but His enemies offer their own kind of praise. Their praise doesn’t come in the form of a compliment or some other sort of honor; it comes from the simple admission of the truth. Pilate affirmed the truth when his involvement in Jesus’ condemnation unwittingly produced the inscription. And that’s the curious thing about some of the historic enemies of the Church. When they were confronted with something about Christ or his Church that was too obvious to deny, they were forced to do one of two things: either concede the point and repackage it to suit their own purposes, or attempt to explain it away. Regardless of which action they took, the result remains the same: They still attest that they’ve encountered something about Christ or his Church that was real and needed to be dealt with. In other words, they attest to the Truth.
We call these unwitting corroborators of the truth hostile witnesses. They are, as the phrase suggests, witnesses who were hostile to Christ, his Church, or some aspect of his Church. Their testimonies are the best kind of evidence because they can’t be said to reflect bias in favor of the Faith or the Church—quite the opposite, in fact. Yet despite their probative value, these hostile testimonies haven’t been plumbed for all they are worth.
Direct and Indirect Evidence
Christian apologists naturally focus most of their attention on direct evidence in favor of their beliefs drawn from primary source material such as the New Testament, the early Church fathers, and a few extra-biblical sources. But indirect evidence can attest just as powerfully to a given fact or event.
Hostile witnesses sometimes provide direct evidence. They may speak directly about Jesus, where He lived, what He did, how and when He died, and so on. This information is very valuable. Indeed, “historical Jesus” research focuses almost exclusively on such statements. The real value of hostile witnesses, however, is when they provide indirect evidence. When confronted with some brute fact that was contrary to their belief system, they are forced to deal with it, and their evasive actions signal to us some truth about Christ and his Church that they are attempting to avoid.
It is true that direct evidence usually provides more detail about a certain fact or event than indirect evidence. The latter is like the shadows cast by an illumined figure—by themselves, they reveal little more than the figure’s broad outline. But something remarkable occurs when the figure and its shadow are viewed together: a fuller, more three-dimensional figure emerges. Such is the effect of studying direct and indirect evidence about Christ and His Church—including hostile testimony.
Studying Christ and His Church through the eyes of their enemies also has a practical benefit. Many of these opponents speak to issues that weren’t raised until centuries after they lived. In such cases, their value is doubled because they can’t be accused of harboring a bias; even if they were hostile to the Faith they had no knowledge of these future issues. Here’s an example: In modern times it became popular to claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. The pagan Roman historian Tacitus had no notion of this claim. His concern was to write about the persecutions under Nero. If Jesus was just a mythical figure fabricated by Christians, Tacitus would have had every reason to point it out—but he didn’t. Instead, he speaks about Jesus as someone who actually lived and was executed under Pontius Pilate—confirming that Jesus was no myth. Another example: a pagan graffito found in a building on Rome’s Palatine Hill, estimated to have been made around A.D. 200, depicts a man named Alexamenos worshipping a donkey-headed man crucified on a cross. What the ancient graffitist couldn’t have known is that centuries later a group called the Jehovah’s Witnesses would claim that Jesus was executed on a stake, not a cross. But this pagan’s attempt to mock Christianity provides evidence that they are wrong. Both Tacitus and the pagan graffitist, then, though hostile toward Christ and his Church, inadvertently vindicated certain truths about Christianity.
More to the Story
These historic foes of the Church also make wonderful allies when it comes to combating historic anti-Catholic and anti-Christian myths that have taken root in our time. Many of these myths are so thoroughly ingrained in the popular imagination that it is difficult to debunk them. The reason for this difficulty is that these myths provide simplistic, two-dimensional and easy-to-grasp explanations of complex events.
Here is where hostile testimony can be particularly effective. Hostile witnesses can be called upon in argument to give bite-sized counter-evidence that raises the possibility that the myth isn’t telling the whole story. For example, if someone asserts that the Crusades were genocidal attempts to forcibly convert all Jews and Muslims, they first have to explain the testimonies of the Muslim chronicler Ibn Jubayr and Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn, who speak otherwise. Again, if someone asserts that the Inquisition was a murderous tool of the Church that killed millions of innocent people, you can call to its defense the former inquisitor Llorente, who had an ax to grind against his former employer, or even a hostile letter to the pope written by King Ferdinand of Spain.
Thus, the main purpose of invoking testimony of hostile witnesses is to show that there is more to certain assertions about Church history than what most people have been led to believe. Since their hostility toward the Faith makes it impossible to dismiss their statements as Catholic propaganda, hostile testimony is able to cut through the facade of these anti-Catholic and anti-Christian myths, and opens the door for further investigation.
Laying a Foundation
Hostile Witnesses contains a veritable rogues’ gallery of the historic opponents of the Faith, beginning with those recorded in the New Testament. In many ways, this initial layer of hostile testimonies serves as a baseline for later ones. By reviewing them chronologically, it’s possible to see how certain assertions and accusations evolved over time. Cross-references are included to help the reader see these connections as the book progresses.
After the fourth century, our attention turns from individual witnesses to topics and events such as the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, the miracles at Lourdes, and events connected with the two world wars. These parts provide counter-evidence to various myths and slanders about the Church, and show how it survives with the same supernatural vigor that it had in its earliest centuries.
One oddity that will appear over and over again is the hostile witness’s inability to ask the obvious questions. They will supply all sorts of explanations and excuses to explain some aspect of Christianity that they’ve encountered, but they rarely ask why. Questions like: Why does the name Jesus heal? Why do Christians work miracles? Why are people following a dead leader? As these unasked questions begin to accumulate, an unexpected picture begins to emerge from the murk of their anti-Christian and anti-Catholic vitriol. At first it is difficult to make out, but it is there, lurking between the lines of their discourses, buried under their insults, and hiding behind their obfuscations. We have only to uncover it by asking the questions they chose not to. (Amen. Praise Him!!!)
Q. The concept for this book is different than any other Catholic apologetics resource out there. Where did it come from?
A. The idea started years ago while researching Church history. Every now and then I would stumble across a hostile quote or some other item that made me think, “Wow! That person just conceded a very important point,” or “This person doesn’t realize it, but he is inadvertently affirming something that anti-Catholics deny.” As these quotes accumulated, it dawned on me that putting these testimonies together in a book would not only be a fascinating read, it could prove to be an incredibly powerful apologetic tool that—to the best of my knowledge—has never been done on this scale.
Q. What is a “hostile witness” when it comes to talking about apologetics?
A. The term hostile witness is usually used in law courts, but the book uses it in its plain sense—namely, someone or something that is hostile or antagonistic to the Faith and yet bears witness to some truth about Christianity. In this sense, a hostile witness could be someone like the emperor Julian the Apostate, who tried to undermine and destroy Christianity; or King Ferdinand of Spain, who opposed papal interventions during the Spanish Inquisition but generally was a good Catholic. Hostile testimony also comes in other forms, such as a marble table known as the Nazareth Inscription or ancient anti-Christian graffiti or even Egyptian magical incantations. Each of these things reveals some truth about Christ and his Church in their own way. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions.
Q. You go through a pretty significant number of hostile witnesses in the book. Which grouping of witnesses gives the best evidence from an apologetic standpoint?
A. We cover testimonies from the New Testament era all the way through to World War II. What’s beautiful about this book is that its usefulness isn’t restricted to one subject. It has many different applications in several different apologetics fields. If you’re talking to skeptics or atheists, the earliest evidence will be very helpful in establishing things like the bona fides of miracles, Christ as a real historical person, the truth of the Resurrection, and debunking mythicists views, just to name a few. There is material that can be helpful in Christian-Jewish dialogues. Later in the book, chapters are dedicated to periods that are often misunderstood, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and even the myth of “Hitler’s pope.”
Q. With the large number of Protestant denominations and world religions out there, would it be fair to say that the number of hostile witnesses continues to grow every day?
A. I think that’s a fair statement. In fact, there were a lot of testimonies that had to be left out because they were too recent. I wanted to provide testimony where people died without recanting their statements so that we know what they wrote was their frank and unadulterated position.
Q. What apologetic points are strengthened most often by the testimony of these “Hostile Witnesses”?
A. It’s common today to reduce Christ to an idea shaped by opinion or view his Church as a mere personal preference. Using Scripture and the early Father fathers are helpful in dispelling these misconceptions, but the testimonies of hostile witnesses do something more. These historic enemies of the Christ and the Church were not dealing with an opinion or a lifestyle preference; they were dealing with what was for them a real concrete problem, a historical reality that they could neither ignore nor avoid. The best they could do was to attempt to dismiss it, paint it in the worst possible light, or explain it away. In this way, Hostile Witnesses strengthens practically every field in Christian and Catholic apologetics.
Q. You mention in the book that Hostile Witnesses surprised even you, the author. How so?
A. My original intent for Hostile Witnesses was to propose a new approach in Catholic and Christian apologetics and I believe the book does that. However, once all the testimonies were gathered and I began to read them through as a whole, I noticed something amazing. In fact, it almost knocked me off my seat. When you view Christ and his Church through the concessions of his enemies, a new and exciting picture emerges, not unlike, I imagine, the first time the Shroud of Turin was viewed as a photo negative. New features that were not very noticeable before (because they had become so commonplace) suddenly come to life. These testimonies show that something explosive and astounding happened in first century Judea surrounding Jesus of Nazareth and that the supernatural character of that event continues with the same vitality and vigor in the Church through the ages up to today. Many of the hostile witnesses tried to dismiss it. Some even tried to eradicate it. But in the end, their opposition only serves to highlight the supernatural character of Christ and his Church.
Q. How would you recommend using this resource when it comes to explaining the Catholic Faith to non-Catholics?
A. There’s an old Jewish saying, “a fool jumps into a well and a hundred wise men are needed to bring him out.” It is so much easier to raise an objection than answer it. Someone could make a remark about “The Inquisition” or the crusades in a sentence or two, but it would take an hour long lecture to explain why they are wrong. Hostile testimony can prove to be a short and effective rejoinder. For example, if someone says that the crusades were a genocidal attack by Christians to wipe out Islam and take over their lands, you could respond like this: “Really? Why did Ibn Jubayr – a devout Muslim with decidedly anti-Christian views – say that Muslims in Christian occupied lands were treated more justly and given more liberty than those in Muslim occupied territories?” Or if someone says that Pope Pius XII was silent against the Nazi regime, you could reply: “Why did Reinhard Heydrich’s office issue a communiqué stating the Pope attacked everything that the National Socialists stood for?” As you can see, hostile testimony won’t give the whole picture or a complete defense of a subject, but it is incredible helpful for exposing the fact that the objector hasn’t been told the whole story and that can be an opening for further discussions.”
Love & truth,