The Historicity of Jesus Christ

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Often times the question whether Jesus existed or not seems to be a point many laymen and scholars have to contend with.  Most Christians will affirm this to be the case, however, this response must go much deeper, and providing accurate and reliable reasons for this conviction is necessary in this day and age.  While there is external evidence that Jesus existed, who initiated a movement into a growing community of followers shortly after His death and resurrection, the extant for this is minimal.  Although these sources can be used in conjunction with the New Testament as evidence to support the claim that He did exist historically, utilizing it alone could be contrasted as ineffective in arguing the case, even though often times it is asserted that in proving the existence of Jesus, one must start with sources outside of it.  What can be shown, however, is the reliability of the external evidence as viable historical sources, even though they don’t add anything new to the framework for the historicity of Jesus, and some even detract from it.  William Craig says, “References to Jesus outside of the New Testament tend to confirm what we read in the gospels, but they don’t really tell us anything new.  Therefore, the focus of our investigation must be upon the documents found in the New Testament.”[1]  Simply put, while although the New Testament is the central force in confirming the historicity of Jesus, it is also the underlying factor on whether one can reasonable ascertain His existence, but also solidify His purpose and propitiation for salvation for those who believe in Him.  In the end, once one has good reasons for believing He existed, the argument soon follows as to whether “truly this was the Son of God,” (Matthew 27:54b; cf. Mark 13:39b, KJV).  Skeptics will remain, and make every attempt to discredit the historicity of Jesus, but as they claim, it would behoove one to begin with sources that are not in the Bible, so that they have a starting point for their secularist apprehensions.

As far as external sourcing is concerned, there is a minimal amount of data, yet these sources do in fact preserve the reliability that Jesus did in fact exist.  Tacitus said, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus..”[2]  Likewise, Pliny the Younger, when corresponding with the Emperor Trajan’s reign, stated, “They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.”[3]  There are other sources which include Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Thallus, Lucian of Samosata, Suetonius, Mara Bar-Serpaion, and Talmudic citations.  What is striking from many of these, is the attestations of the Talmudic citations (circa 100-150 A.D.), whereby they assert multiple charges and characteristics, albeit some grossly inconsistent to His person and ministry, nonetheless, are a fundamental attestation for His existence and charges they presumed in adjudicating their justification by putting Him to death.  One excerpt says, “On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defense come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defense and hanged him on the eve of Passover.”[4]  Not only is this profound in many ways, it confirms His death as the Passover Lamb for believers, “for thou wast slain, redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation,” (Revelation 5:9b, KJV).  His death on one of the two most important Jewish days of the year, where the expiatory removal for sin was absolved, and that He, Christ Jesus, did so on that day, for the whole world, and not just the nation of Israel.

Obviously, people are going to try to paint the faith of Christianity to be founded upon a historical document subjected to being corrupt, and that it is too ancient of a text which has gone through thousands of transcriptions and translations into a multitude of copies spanning over nearly two millennia.  Some have even claimed that the Bible is simply a redaction, or albeit, copy of ancient religious and myths wherein the Christian faith is a forgery of sorts, and that there is no possibility of it being validated as the true faith centered on the God of the universe, or more importantly the reality that Jesus Christ is the sole benefactor for human salvation.  These claims are nonetheless meager attempts to smear the faith, and chalk it up to another facet for the desire to control human beings into a culture behooved into following a certain set of laws and commands so that they remain complacent towards an invented deity for people to worship and submit to, while falling short of humanistic evolution.

However, in conjunction with external, secular sources, the most invaluable contribution to the ill-fated assertion that the Bible was corrupt could be found in the Pauline epistles.  Because Paul did not have access to the Gospels which had not been written yet, he relied on information that had come from apostolic sources, that is, the direct disciples of Jesus.  He began writing his letters in the late 40’s A.D., just a little over a decade after Jesus’ death, attended the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) where many of the disciples were present, and “passes on information concerning Jesus about His teaching, the Last Supper, His betrayal, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection appearances,”[5] and “passes on in his first letter to the Corinthian church about Jesus’ resurrection appearances, has been dated to within five years after Jesus’ death,”[6] which greatly attests to the invaluable contribution of the eyewitness’ reports that the Gospels were immune to internal and external corruption.

Even though the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written after Paul began writing his epistles, they too are a fundamental aspect to proving the traditions and events that occurred in the Bible as truth claims to authenticity.  It is certain they were compiled before 100 A.D., primarily because there is no mention for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, but rather prophecies concerning it as a future tense.  It is also evident that in “the Olivet Discourse, whereby Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, is found in Mark 13,”[7] Matthew 24, and Luke 21, while making the “intersecting case that the prophecy in Mark 13 actually argues for a date prior to 66 A.D.”[8]    J.A.T. Robinson, in his book Redating the New Testament, says, “I fail to see any motive for preserving, let alone inventing, prophecies long after the dust had settled in Judea, unless it be to present Jesus prognosticator of uncanny accuracy.”[9]  Even though Robinson attested in his book that Mark 13 was not an exact fulfillment in this particular prophecy within the Olivet Discourse, it nonetheless asserts that “his fundamental point is solid; therefore increasing the likelihood that Mark was written prior to 70.”[10]  Furthermore, we are certain that “Matthew, Mark and Luke were not written in total isolation from each other; their authors engaged in literary borrowing,”[11] and what this essentially is implying that Matthew and Luke “were most likely written before 70”[12] as well, because they both borrowed from Mark’s Gospel, and Paul relied on their oral testimony “about the words and deeds of Jesus.”[13]

In this regard, it is also worth mentioning that because Paul received his information through the testimonies of the disciples, it can be rightly asserted that this transmission is reliable, since their memories of these events were “burned into their minds by the constant retelling of the story.”[14]  Because the disciples were followers of Jesus, and in rabbinical tradition it is known extensively that the Jews were profoundly immersed in a “culture of memory”[15] and “such a relationship memorizing the master’s words would have been completely natural.”[16]  Likewise, even though there were variables contrasting the different storytelling styles the Gospel writers used to tell these stories, “scholars point out that ancient historians were not concerned with quoting the very words of a person but were very much concerned with getting the gist of what he had to say.”[17]  Coupled with this information about the disciple’s ability to memorize large sections of Jesus’ words and events surrounding His ministry, it is likely that Mark’s Gospel is the first text in the early 60’s A.D., and Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark, along with now lost source known as Q.  It is also important to note that “Luke is in reality the first part volume of a two-volume work; Acts is the second volume.  And there is increasing evidence that Acts was written in the early 60’s, prior to Paul’s trial in Rome.”[18]  This is because it never mentions the death of Paul and simply fades out “in anticipation of the trial that never comes.”[19]

In comparison to any other ancient work prior to the printing press, the New Testament greatly outweighs them by a large margin.  “All told, the New Testament is represented by approximately one thousand times as many manuscripts as the average classical author’s writings.”[20]   Juxtaposed against this, people will claim that the data in the New Testament cannot be trusted, and we really don’t know what it said because we don’t have the originals.[21]  However, in light of not only the thousands upon thousands of manuscripts is available, the earliest papyri predates other ancient historical works, and the uniformity of the New Testament with minimal textual variants that are meaningful and viable, however, “do not affect foundational beliefs.”[22]

If Jesus Christ was a true, historical person, and the manuscripts are reliable and can be accepted as an incorruptible document, then what He said about Himself is nothing short of profound.  In multiple areas including those epistles and books outside of the Gospels, Jesus Christ is claimed to be equal with God.  Not to mention all the characteristics within His ministry, the most fundamental a priori is that He claimed to be God incarnate, and was going to give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in Him, whereby God would tabernacle with us in Spirit, amongst a now sacred space which before the efficacy of the cross, was unpurified and fallen.  He bridged the gap between man and God, wherein, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation,” (2 Corinthians 5:19, KJV).  However, if the Bible is corrupt and cannot be trusted, and Jesus didn’t really do the things the Gospel writers said He did, then “we are of all men most miserable,” (1 Corinthians 15:19b, KJV).

Yet, since it is evident that the New Testament is a reliable piece of evidence which has gone through a meticulous set of criticisms, then it is certainly reasonable to believe that the events in the New Testament are historical events.  Whether or not one wants to believe in the validity of miracles or the resurrection of the dead, it is clear that “from Paul’s letters that within twenty years of Jesus’ death, He was regarded and worshipped by His contemporaries as God incarnate.”[23]  Three attributes that Jesus Christ claimed was that He was the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man.  These titles are contingent upon His divine nature, and in the trial scene between the high priests and Jesus shortly after His arrest (Mark 14:60-64) “beautifully illustrates how in Jesus’ self-understanding all the diverse claims blend together, thereby taking on connotations that outstrip any single title taken out of context.”[24]  These aspects of Jesus are fundamental to Christians because without it, the atonement for man is for naught.  “Jesus carried out a ministry of miraculous healings and exorcisms as signs to the people of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom.”[25]  As God incarnate, the New Testament continuously asserts that “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,” (Ephesians 1:22, NIV).   Jesus’ efficacy has given all those who believe in Him freedom from death and sin, because “thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Corinthians 15:57, NIV).

The reliability for the historicity of Jesus and the New Testament is tantamount, and without it, then everything that has been built upon the Christian faith would be subject to intense scrutiny and can be rendered “that the divine Christ we read about in the gospels is a myth.”[26]  The faith would in essence be questionable as to whether mankind is a sinner and needed reconciliation with God, but instead be allowed to subjectively muster up any philosophical standard at the whims of hedonistic intellectualism.  However, with the rapid advancement of the faith within a few years of His death and Resurrection, there “was simply nowhere near enough time for mythology to thoroughly corrupt the historical record of Jesus, especially in the midst of eyewitnesses who still had personal knowledge of him.”[27]  Even then, theologian Julius Muller pressed the fundamental point outlining one sole example of a movement developing as fast as Christianity had, and up to this day, it has been met with silence.[28]  Yet, intellectualism, although effective in giving one good reasons for believing in the historical Jesus and the claims He had made about Himself, the most important aspect of this realization is belief.  After much time and effort in investigating the truth claims of Christianity, Lee Strobel finally submits, and takes “the experiential step”[29] into the faith, receiving all that has been given to him through faith.  “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” (John 1:12, NIV).

Citations:

[1] William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 185.

[2] Tacitus, Annals 15.44, Retrieved from Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/tacitus.html

[3] Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97, Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan, par. 4, Retrieved from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/pliny.html

[4] The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, “Eve of Passover.”

[5] William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 191.

[6] Ibid., 191.

[7] Komoszewski, Sawyer and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus:  How Contemporary Skeptics Miss The Real Jesus And Mislead Popular Culture, (Grand Rapids, Kregal Publications, 2006), 28.

[8] Ibid., 28.

[9] Ibid., 28.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11] Ibid., 22.

[12] Ibid., 29.

[13] Ibid., 265n. 4.

[14] Ibid., 33.

[15] Ibid., 34.

[16] Ibid., 34.

[17] Ibid., 35.

[18] Ibid., 28.

[19] Ibid., 28.

[20] Ibid., 72.

[21] Ibid., 70.

[22] Ibid., 63.

[23] Craig, William L., On Guard, (Colorado Springs, David C. Cook, 2010), 196.

[24] Ibid., 209.

[25] Ibid.,210.from

[26] Ibid., 183.

[27] Strobel, Lee, The Case For Christ, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 286.

[28] Ibid., 286.

[29] Ibid., 288.

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