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Evidence for the Historical Jesus

Recently, I watched a debate where a critic of Christianity made the statement that there was no historical evidence to support the Jesus of the Bible that existed in Jewish literature.  The Christian in the debate made a tolerable answer, but I felt that he had missed a major point of the argument.  In this essay, I would like to do two things.  First, I would like to pose the question as to just what does constitute historical evidence and second, what historical evidence is there in the world?

To begin with, we need to ask what constitutes “historical evidence” before we can honestly set evidence on the table for discussion.  The Historical Method, which is the method used by historians to relate the history of peoples, events, and cultures can be summarized by a series of principles[1]:

  1. Archaeological Relics are the most reliable witnesses to an event because they were actually present at the time the event took place.
  2. Primary source material is the most reliable witness, followed by secondary sources and then tertiary sources, etc…
  3. The more independent sources testify to an account, the more credible the account becomes.
  4. When looking at source data, one must take into account the sympathies, biases, and agenda of the author.
  5. The less biased a witness is, the more credible the witness.

These are the criteria of those who practice what is called the “Historical Critical” method, which is dominant in historical evaluation today.

In light of the above criteria, I would begin by suggesting that the Biblical text itself satisfies all of the above requirements to be considered reliable primary source data of the most credible degree.  Manuscript evidence of the Bible dates back to the first century AD, during the lifetime of some of the original 12 Apostles.  It is primary source data in that it records first-hand accounts of the life, the works, the teachings, the miracles, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  These early witnesses are also testified to by first and second century manuscripts, themselves constituting either primary or secondary witnesses.  Given the large amount of independent sources that corroborate the Biblical account, the biases can be recognized as minimal.  In additional, since all of the Biblical writers, save perhaps Luke, were Jewish, even the New Testament counts as primary Jewish source evidence.  Those who reject the Bible because of its religious nature have allowed their own biases to cause them to be inconsistent in their methodology.  Yet, in addition to the primary source material contained in the Bible, we additionally have references like the following to support the life and ministry of Jesus Christ:

  • Josephus (a Jewish historian in the Roman court) in Antiquities, Book 18, Chapter 3 mentions Jesus as “a wise man” and a doer of “wonderful works.”  Though this text is debated, here Josephus also attributes Jesus as a teacher and Christ who was executed.
  • In Book 20, Chapter 9 of Antiquities, Josephus also mentions James as the brother of Jesus “who was called Christ.”
  • Tacitus (a late 1st century Roman Historian) in his Annals 15.44 mentions “Christus” as the namesake of the Christians and that this Christus was executed in Judea during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of Pontius Pilate.
  • Thallus (a Roman historian writing in the mid first century) records an unusual eclipse as well as an earthquake during the time of Passover in Judea.  The eclipse was unusual because Passover was held at the time of the full moon where eclipses do not take place naturally.
  • The Babylonian Talmud (Hebraic tradition and commentary) records that on the eve of Passover “Jeshu” was hanged.  Jeshu is a Jewish name for Jesus.
  • Mara Bar-Sarapion (a Stoic Philosopher in the mid to late 1st century AD from Syria wrote the following in a letter to his son: “What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given”

It should be noted that this list contains only a small sampling of the extra-Biblical evidence to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  We have not begun to talk about some of the archaeological evidence like the “James Ossuary.”  We also have deliberately kept Christian writers out of the discussion, though there are many.  The bottom line is that there is an abundance of evidence to support the existence of the Historical Jesus—even in the Jewish writings.  If we were to include Christian writings, layers upon layers of textual evidence would be added. Ultimately, to deny the historicity of Christ is like trying articulate a new scientific law without ever having taken the time to test it in the lab; it is intellectually dishonest.  Those who deny the Bible as Historical evidence are not being honest with their methodology and the evidence that is available.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_method — footnote 1: Thurén, Torsten. (1997). Källkritik. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.

First Importance (1 Corinthians 15:3)

 “For I delivered to you of first importance that which I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;”  (1 Corinthians 15:3)

 

Paul now is about to lay out for the Corinthians once again the essentials of the faith.  Please note, these things that he lays down are what he calls things of “first importance.”  As you read through the writings of Paul, you will find other doctrines that are of high importance for a Christian to hold to, but the doctrine of Christ’s death and resurrection is the first and most important of all doctrines.  Regardless of what other things you may or may not hold to, if you do not hold to this doctrine you cannot call yourself a Christian.  It is of first importance.

Through the history of the church, there have been those who have tried to deny this doctrine.  Even in our own day, there are those who would teach that there was no historical Jesus.  Friends, these people are heretics and blasphemers and we should never allow ourselves to be swayed by their arguments; rather, we need to call them to repentance.

Why is this doctrine so important?  To understand the doctrine’s importance you need to unpackage what Paul is saying.  In this verse, Paul lays before us one half of the doctrine; namely, that Christ died for our sins.  There are three elements that come out of this statement.

The first element is that Christ died.  To die, Christ had to be fully human.  Were Christ some kind of legendary Greek god-man or demi-god, being part human and part God, there would have been no real death, for an immortal God cannot die.  Christ did die, and that means he had to be fully human by definition.  Were Christ not fully human he could not have identified with us, he could not have suffered like we do, and no sacrifice would have been made.  For atonement to be made, blood needed to be shed; this is the purpose of all of the Old Testament sacrifices.  Jesus offered himself up as the sacrificial lamb, which means his blood needed to be shed for our sins.

The Apostle John would later write that Christ is our propitiation (1 John 2:2).  Though sometimes this word is translated as “atonement,” there is a difference between atonement and propitiation.  Atonement is the bringing of two parties back into harmony after they have been separated.  Christ certainly did just that, becoming a bridge to cross the gap between a sinful mankind and a Holy God.  But, propitiation is the act which brings atonement.  Jesus’ act of propitiation was his death on the cross, where he took the just punishment for the sins of the elect upon his own head.  This required his sacrifice, which required his death, which requires that he be fully human.

Secondly, the sacrifice is for our sins.  The only one who had the ability to make a perfect sacrifice for sinful man was God himself.  Because of the fall, sin tainted all that we are and all that we do.  We are not capable of satisfying God’s righteous judgment.  This is why God sent his son, that those who believe in as their Lord and Savior would be saved.  That means that Jesus, by definition, was also fully divine.  He had to be fully human to make the sacrifice, but he had to be fully divine for that sacrifice to be effective.  Oh, the heresies of the church that would have been avoided had people listened to the Apostle Paul’s words!

Thirdly, all this happened in accordance with the scriptures.  God had proclaimed in his word the promise of a coming redeemer.  He did so as far back as the fall (see Genesis 3:15).  And, throughout the scriptures, particularly as you read the prophetic writings, there is a clear hand that is always pointing to Christ.  And Christ fulfilled all of the prophesies that point toward him.  This is an amazing fact.  This means two things for us.  First, it means that God is in complete control of all of human history.  Were God just influencing things as they went along (making good guesses as the “Open Theists” would say) then some of the prophetic statements would have necessarily fallen through the cracks—none did.  The only way that hundreds of statements about Christ could have been fulfilled in Christ was if God had intimately controlled history, and indeed, he wrote the book.  Second, it also tells us that the entirety of the Old Testament is about Jesus.  Jesus is directly or indirectly the subject of all of scripture!  What an amazing statement that is, dear friend.

And these things only represent one half of the doctrine of first importance.  Paul is essentially telling the Corinthians that until they get this doctrine right, they will never make any sense of the other doctrines of the church.  As I said earlier, this is not the only essential doctrine of the Christian faith, but this is the doctrine that will provide the foundation for the other doctrines clearly taught in scripture.  Friends, grasp a hold of this doctrine and cling to it.  It is the foundation of your hope.  Without Christ’s shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, and as we will soon see, without his resurrection, there is no hope of life beyond the grave.  Be encouraged by all God offers to you in Christ.