JESUS AND HISTORY
That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels.
Christianity in a Space-Time Dimension
Christianity is a historic religion. That means that it began and took shape at a particular time and place which can be located and verified in the framework of our historical past. Examining the evidence from history is an exciting and sound way to prove the claims of the Christian faith. At the close of one of my classes, a student gave me a book in which he had inscribed his gratitude for having learned the value and makeup of the historical context. His gratitude was due to his newly-acquired knowledge of the verifiable nature of history. He had just learned that there are documents of history, like those of the Bible, which can be verified to have recorded actual happenings in a real space-time dimension. There are records from the past which we have every reason to believe are true since both archaeology and contemporary documents from the same time zone have confirmed their general reliability. The student found that he could now go back into the past with a great deal of confidence. This became very meaningful to him when he observed for the first time that the New Testament was written in the same way-in the context of history. To him, the thought that Christianity was historical, not merely doctrinal, was a new idea altogether. It was a new and exciting discovery. Many, unfortunately, have yet to make that discovery.
A widespread concept of Christianity currently advocates that we can be Christians without believing in a historical Christ. This approach to religion is reminiscent of Julian Huxley's approach to God. Huxley did not believe in God, but recommended that we get along better with each other when we believe there is a God. The Christian religion without Christ would be much the same; it would offer only the ground rules by which we would be governed. Whether Jesus actually lived is not important to this philosophy since the thing that really counts is the Christian ethic, which, at least in theory, is supposed to bring out the best in our relationships with each other.
Does it really matter whether Jesus actually lived and was divine? Be assured that it does. Passionate human beings cannot be motivated to live morally without believing in a living Christ before whose tribunal we shall all stand to give account. If Christianity does not have at its base historically resurrected, ruling, and coming-into-judgment Lord, it is devoid of any power to motivate men to a good life. It would have no "teeth." Morals, in the traditional sense of an absolute standard of right and wrong, cannot exist in the personal economy and providence of one who does not believe in a punitive God. Most of us have figured out that if there is no divine justice beyond the grave, then there is little power to restrict the only lives we have to some otherwise outdated notions about self-denial.
Huxley was right, at least in this respect, that if society is to be morally restrained from going berserk there must be a belief in God who plans to bring every last one of us into judgment before him.
When we move through the New Testament back to the Christian faith as defined by those men who originally preached it, it emerges as God's own devised system of redemption from sin and death and certain judgment. For proof, men were pointed toward what they evidently considered to be contemporary facts: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To them, Christianity was eminently more than a moral system since the resurrection proved that Christwas more than a man.
While ancient Oriental cults linked the annual cycle of winter and summer to the death and resurrection of the mythical Adonis, Christianity deals with no such mythology. It offers a real historical founder, plus accounts of his remarkable death, burial, and resurrection in well-written documents which have passed the most severe tests known to us today for historical accuracy and authenticity (which we will elaborate on in the next two chapters). Christianity exists now because of what happened to the historical Jesus. It is not the result of doctrines and principles, but of events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Nature of Christianity
Apart from this truly historical base, the real Christian religion cannot exist. Its nature is historical and redemptive, not simply moral. Morality is certainly inherent in its nature, but its great thrust is redemption from the death penalty. Its promise is eternal life. No social gospel or moralistic doctrine can make good on promises like that. Only Christ's own sinless life, substitutionary death, and resurrection has power to bring that about. It is essential, therefore, that a truly sinless life, a real death by crucifixion, and a resurrection back to life in his own body be experienced by a genuinely historic Jesus in order to give power to Christianity's claim to a future life without end.
Here is the beginning place for an investigation into the genuineness of Christianity. It must begin with a real, historic, space-time Jesus; for apart from his own historical existence, neither redemption nor resurrection could amount to any more than pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by.
EVIDENCE FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS
Commenting on the uniqueness of the New Testament's claim for Jesus, Michael Green has observed,
It is all about the Jesus of history. Remove him from Christianity and nothing distinctive is left. Once disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ, and Christianity will collapse like a pack of cards. For it all depends on this fundamental conviction, that God was made manifest in human flesh. And that is a matter not of ideology or mythology but history. (1)
Just how well founded the claim for the historical Jesus is will be seen in the evidence as follows.
1. Michael Green Runaway World, Inter-Varsity Press, p. 12.
From Pagan Sources
Palestine of the first century has been referred to as an unimportant frontier province in the Roman Empire. Those provincial governors assigned to that region of the world were often thought to have received hardship posts. Too, those who wrote the history of Rome were in the upper strata of Roman society and usually had a personal dislike of Orientals, disapproved of their religions and looked upon their superstitions as very un-Roman.(2) This partially accounts for the little trickles of information that comes from their pens about the Christian religion. They wrote about it only as it forced its way into the mainstream of their view. Yet what they did write is proof positive that Jesus Christ was both a real person and that he had made such an impact upon society that the Roman world found it increasingly difficult to disregard him.
2. Ibid., p. 12.
Our initial witness makes a contribution of a unique sort inasmuch as he had no intention of making Christianity to appear genuine. To the contrary, Thallus, a Samaritan-born historian who lived and worked in Rome about A.D. 52, wrote to offset the supernatural element which accompanied the crucifixion. Though the writings of Thallus are lost to us, Julius Africanus, a Christian chronographer of the late second century, was familiar with them and quotes from them. In a comment on the darkness that fell upon the land during the crucifixion (Mark 15:33), Africanus says that "Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun."(3) Africanus stated his objection to the report arguing that an eclipse of the sun cannot occur during the full moon, as was the case when Jesus died at Passover time. The force of the reference to Thallus is that the circumstances of Jesus' death were known and discussed in the Imperial City as early as the middle of the first century. The fact of Jesus' crucifixion must have been fairly well known by that time, to the extent that unbelievers like Thallus thought it necessary to explain the matter of the darkness as a natural phenomenon. Will Durant observed that Thallus' "argument took the existence of Christ for granted."(4) Neither Jesus nor the darkness at his death were ever denied as factual. Durant summed up the matter of Christ's historical existence for himself by saying that it never occurred to the early opponents of Christianity to deny the existence of Jesus.(5) Ironically, Thallus' efforts have been turned into the mainstream of historical proof for Jesus and for the reliability of Mark's account of the darkness at his death.
3. F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents, Eerdmens, p. 113.
4. Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster, p. 555.
2. Mara Bar-Serapion
F.F Bruce, Rylands professor at Manchester University, tells of a manuscript in the British Museum preserving the text of a letter sent to his son by a Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion. In prison at the time of the writing, the father pleads with his son to be wise. He illustrated the folly of persecuting wise men like Socrates, Pythagoras, and the wise king of the Jews, which the context obviously shows to be Jesus.
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 king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger, the Samians were overwhelmed by the seas; 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. (6)
6. British Museum Syriac Mss., F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 31.
Some inaccuracies exist in the letter, says Bruce, about Samos and Athens, but the references to Christ and to the Jews are undeniably accurate, and there is no denying the historical existence of the three men mentioned. By the time this letter was written, Jesus had already received a place of recognition equal to the sages of the ages. Jesus was as real a person of history as was Socrates and Pythagoras.
3. Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius
Three Roman officials, who held stature with emperors as well as with the empire, wrote of Jesus in such a way as to take his historical existence for granted. Their writings appeared at the turn of the century.
The first of these, usually rated as the greatest of Roman historians, was Cornelius Tacitus, who was born about A.D. 52-54. At about the age of sixty, while writing of the reign of Nero (A.D. 54-68), he told how the Christians were made scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64. It had been rumored that Nero had himself started the fire so that he could attain to glory by rebuilding the great capital city in more glorious fashion. When Tacitus wrote about this, he mentioned Jesus by the name of Christus:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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. (7)
To Tacitus, a pagan who knew little or nothing of Jewish messianism, "Christus" was more than likely only a proper name; but to him, Christus was as real as the Roman procurator who executed him.
C. Plinius Secundus, called Pliny the Younger to distinguish him from his uncle, the elder Pliny, was governor of Bithynia about A.D.112. He often wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking his Imperial advice on how best to deal with the problem of the Christians in his province. According to him, they were causing trouble. In one of his letters, he spoke of Christ as he reported of some information which he extracted from some Christian girls by torture, "They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to commit any wicked deed … after which it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary kind."(8)
7. The Annals and the Histories, 15:44. From Britannica Great Books, Vol. 15, p. 168.
8. Epistles, 10:96.
Pliny seemed to be perplexed by the innocence of the whole matter, and perhaps to keep from countermanding any governmental policies about Christians, he thought it best to write to the Emperor before taking any action.
There is also a testimony to the historical Jesus from Suetonius, annalist and court official of the Imperial House during the reign of Hadrian. About A.D.120, he wrote the Life of Claudius. From this work comes his most famous statement: "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome."(9) The reason for the fame of this quotation is due to the fact that Luke, some sixty years earlier, had recorded this same incident as the reason for the apostle Paul yoking up with a Christian Jewish couple named Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-2). Again, the mention of Christ in the historical context is observed in extra-biblical literature.
After having referred to the above three Roman officials as an evidence for the actual existence of Jesus Christ, Durant explains that while these references prove the existence of Christians rather than of Christ, unless we assume that Christ did indeed live, we will be driven to the "improbable hypothesis that Jesus was invented in one generation; moreover we must suppose that the Christian community in Rome had been established some years before 52, to merit the attention of an imperial decree."(10)
9. Life of Claudius, 25:4.
10. Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 555.
When this evidence is compiled in the company of such an historian as Tacitus and with Roman officials of the stature of Pliny and Suetonius, it makes the historical reality of Jesus as certain as that of any outstanding figure of antiquity.
FROM JEWISH SOURCES
1. The Talmud
There are two separate books of writings dealing with Jewish law called the Talmud. The first of these is the Mishnah, which is the Jewish code of religious jurisprudence. It began to be compiled sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and was completed about A.D. 200. This great body of newly codified case law became the object of Jewish study from which grew a body of commentaries called Gemaras. Together, the Mishnah (the law book) and the Gemara (the commentary) are called the Talmud. Being Jewish, suffice it to say, all references to "Yeshu'a of Nazareth" in the Talmudic writings are unfriendly, but nevertheless sufficient in number to establish beyond doubt his historical reality.
The most important references to the historical Jesus from a Jewish source is from a former Jewish general turned historian by the name of Flavius Josephus. In his writings he tells us who he was, what he did, and his own evaluation of a historian. He wrote of many of the outstanding persons we read of in the New Testament: Pilate; Quirinius of Syria (during whose governorship Rome enrolled the Empire for taxation purposes); the Caesars; the Herods; the Pharisees and the Sadducees; Annas and Caiaphas, who had Jesus crucified; Felix and Festus, under whose governorships the apostle Paul was arrested and before whom he spoke of Jesus; Jesus' brother, James; and John the Baptist.
Most significant is his reference to Jesus himself in the following words:
And there arose about this time Jesus, a wise man, if indeed we should call him a man; for he was a doer of marvelous deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure. He won over many Jews and also many Greeks. This man was the Messiah. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross at the instigation of our own leaders, those who had loved him from the first did not cease. For he appeared to them on the third day alive again, as the prophets had predicted and said many other wonderful things about him. And even now the race of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out. (11)
11. Antiquities, 18, 3.3.
All attempts to discredit this reference to Jesus as having been dressed up by a Christian copiest have failed. The reference is included in all of the manuscripts of Josephus, including the copy from which the fourth-century historian, Eusebius, read and quoted.
At the close of his excellent book offering evidence for the historical reliability of the New Testament, F.F. Bruce has observed, Whatever else may be thought of the evidence from early Jewish and Gentile writers … it does at least establish, for those who refuse the witness of Christian writings, the historical character of Jesus himself. Some writers may toy with the fancy of a 'Christ-myth,' but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the Christ-myth'' theories. (12)
12. F.F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents. p. 119.
FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT
Whatever reasons may be given for accepting the testimonies of Josephus or of Tacitus or of any other writer from antiquity as reliable histories, to be fair and consistent, must be equally applied to the New Testament writers. Fairness demands that we give at least the same consideration to the New Testament books as we would to any other writing from the same period. All of the New Testament writers were contemporaries of Jesus. Five were eyewitnesses, three accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry, and all of their writings are in remarkable agreement. In addition to this, their writings continue to stand the tests of genuineness and historicity. These New Testament writings are by no means the least of the evidence testifying to the actual existence of Jesus as a real person of history. As a matter of fact, if the New Testament books were the only single source from antiquity which presented to us the life of Jesus Christ, that would be more than sufficient proof of his historical reality. It is stated in the Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem) that the fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have written of Jesus' life is conclusive proof of his reality. That admission from unbelieving Jews should satisfy the most skeptical doubter as to the trustworthiness of the evidence.
H. G. Wells rejected the supernatural element in the gospels, but nevertheless used them as his source material for writing about Jesus and the spread of Christianity in the first century. He admitted that the gospel accounts carried the conviction of reality and felt compelled to say of Jesus, "Here was a man. This part of the tale could not have been invented."(13) Will Durant wrote, "That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels."(14)
The fact of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, as supplied to us by sources both friendly and hostile, is seen to be an indisputable matter. It is conclusive that there was a real Jesus, a man of outstanding character and of unique personality and ability, whose life and teaching truly "constitutes the most fascinating feature in the history of western man."(15) We can be as certain of this fact as we can of any matter of history.
13. H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, Vol. I, p. 420.
14. Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 557.
THE PRACTICAL VALUE OF KNOWING THAT JESUS LIVED
He Lived, So What?
With the evidence before us, we can expect most atheists to admit that Jesus lived. But the fact that he existed does not convince us he is God. Practicality leads us to ask if there is any real value to modern men in knowing this single fact?
It Admits to the Reliability of the New Testament
We have all made admissions to one thing or another, while we were unaware that we had admitted to other things at the same time. If, for example, we say that the Bible is the word of God, we are admitting that there is a God. By the same token, if we admit that Jesus was a great man of history, as most of us certainly do, though we may not be aware of it, we have also admitted that the New Testament is historically reliable. To determine this, consider three things: First, Jesus has received a place of preeminence among the great men of history. Second, men do not receive such recognition merely because they have existed; they must either say or do something that is considered to be truly great. Third, the only source of information from which we can reproduce the great life of Jesus Christ is the New Testament. Beyond the New Testament books, we can know only that he lived and that he was crucified by Pilate in Jerusalem. To know of his works, his personality, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection, in short, what it was that made him great, we are totally dependent on the New Testament. It seems conclusive that a recognition of the greatness of Jesus is, at least to an appreciable degree, an admission of the historical reliability of the New Testament which tells us about him.
This conclusion is of great practical value to those who would know whether the New Testament expresses an outdated sentiment or whether it is actually a historical revelation from God for the redemption of ruined humanity.
THE HISTORICAL RELIABILITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT (1)
Mark's record had to survive the acid test of any journalistic or historical writing – being published at a time when it could be read, criticized, and if inauthentic, denounced by thousands of Jews, Christians, Romans and Greeks who were living in Palestine at the time of Jesus' ministry.
Historical Accuracy of the Records is Necessary
If it were ever proven that Confucius never lived, Confucianism could still survive. That's because Confucianism rests on what "Confucius say," not on what he did. But apart from history, Christianity could not have begun. That's because it is founded on who Jesus was and what he did while he was here. He was raised from the dead; therein lies the proof of his claim to be the son of God and his power to make good on his claims. The real power of the Christian religion is in the belief that we are going to be redeemed from our coffins in the cemetery. It doesn't take a Solomon to see that Christ's real resurrection is the historical proof of our own resurrection. But to produce belief in an event of that nature requires a sound and solid basis of convincing evidence.
That's where the New Testament comes in: it provides the historical evidence for Christ's life and resurrection. That is the reason why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their gospel accounts and the book of Acts, so that people to whom they could not speak personally could have a written testimony of the same things that the eyewitnesses were declaring to have seen and heard. The letters following Acts also contain a great deal of evidence of this kind, though it is usually of an incidental nature.
Since the evidence for Christ is deposited in these books, it is essential to be able to accept their contents as absolutely reliable, not as imaginary. And since belief comes from an honest consideration of the evidence, it becomes essential to demonstrate that the New Testament is a totally reliable account of those historical events that form the basis of that evidence.
People today should realize that they have a mind for themselves and that the New Testament is a reliable record of historical truth. It was never intended for Christian evidences to be confined to the so-called intelligentsia nor that it should be expressed in difficult theological terminology. From the outset, the gospel was preached to the people. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was declared to be a fact, and the evidence was brought to bear upon it. Whether a man could read and write was of no consequence, if he had presence of mind to reason the evidence to a conclusion. Today's people have that same evidence delivered by those first century eyewitnesses, the only difference being that we have their written testimony rather than their bodily presence.
THE NEW TESTAMENT IS NEEDED TO REPRODUCE THE LIFE OF CHRIST
Precisely here, at the point of this written testimony, we want to drive a nail of remembrance into the mind, that point being that the New Testament books contain nearly all of the information we presently have about Jesus Christ. While there is an abundance of literature coming down to us from first century Roman, Jewish, and Greek writers, the combined information from all these sources about Jesus amounts to precious little more than the fact that he lived and died at Jerusalem. We are, in fact, totally dependent on the New Testament to reproduce the life and teachings, the personality, and the multitude of events surrounding the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
What That Means to Us Today
What that means in terms of authentic representation of what Jesus actually said and did is this: no theologian, preacher, or historian can say with any authority at all that Jesus said or did anything different from what the New testament says he did. One may reject the New Testament as a reliable source of information about Christ, but since it is practically the only source we have, then, any statement that he said or did anything to any degree different from the New Testament account of it, is a statement which is purely conjectural and without evidence to sustain it.
Remember, if it is about Jesus Christ, it has to be in the New Testament, or you do not have to believe it-no matter who says it.
THE NEW TESTAMENT IN THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Skeptics often call the Bible a myth. But to read mythology and compare it with the Bible is to know the difference; there is no resemblance at all. Myths are like Peter Pan's never-never land–you cannot locate "once upon a time in a far away place" in either space or time. The New Testament, however, is written in the context of a space-time dimension, providing us with the check points for a confirmation. The historical manner in which the New Testament is written allows verification from other documents of that same period which reflects the accuracy of its statements in regard to the geography, economics, politics, culture, climate, language, morals, and religions of the time. This is the framework of history in which the written testimony to Jesus has been couched.
For nearly two centuries, archeology has been unearthing ancient artifacts which continued to corroborate the historical statements of the New Testament.
The "Acid Test"
When we understand that the New Testament has had to pass the "acid test," as one journalist expressed it, we will appreciate far more how firm the foundation for the Christian faith is. Mr. Louis Cassels of United Press International reported in the Nashville Banner (April 1, 1972) on the much publicized papyrus discovery by professor Jose O'Callagahan of the Pontifical Biblical Institute at Rome. O'Callagahan's discovery consisted of nineteen tiny papyrus scraps found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and has been identified as fragments from the Gospel of Mark. Excitement centered upon the date of the fragments which was established by scientific methods as having been in a Palestinian library in A.D. 50. Of course, this indicates that the Gospel of Mark would have already been in circulation only about a dozen years after Jesus' death. What is important to us is Mr. Cassel's observation.
This is very important because it means Mark's record had to survive the acid test of any journalistic or historical writing-being published at a time when it could be read, criticized, and if inauthentic denounced by thousands of Jews, Christians, Romans, and Greeks who were living in Palestine at the time of Jesus' ministry. That the early church chose Mark as one of the only four gospels (out of dozens in circulation) to be preserved for posterity in the New Testament also indicates the people closest to the events-Jesus' original followers-found Mark's report accurate and trustworthy, not myth, but true history.
That is what is meant by the "acid test," and all New Testament books have passed it. This is decisive inasmuch as the New Testament books were not written two or three hundred years after the events happened. They were all written a few years later and were circulated amid the very people among whom the events were reported to have happened while they were still alive to deny them. But rather than deny them, many became Christians and preserved the writings as the genuine accounts of what actually happened.
Unless we can prove that the writers of the New Testament were fakes, we have to accept their testimony for the same reasons we would accept the testimony of Tacitus or Josephus.
THE LETTERS OF PAUL
Among each new term of freshmen students, we have a momentary bit of confusion because of my placing Paul's letters ahead of the gospels in the Evidences Course Guide for an examination of their historical content and accuracy. Predictably, many of our freshmen think the gospels were written first because they appear first in the New Testament; first the gospels, then Acts, then the letters, then Revelation. This arrangement best fits the sequence of the history of Christianity; first the life of Christ (gospels), then the establishment and spread of the church (Acts), and then the correction and further instruction of Christians (letters). But it was Paul who wrote the first books of the New Testament (unless O'Callagahan's discovery about Mark's gospel is correct). Ten of his letters were written before the traditional date of Mark's gospel, which is A.D. 60-62. The other gospels came later, with John' gospel last.
Let's clear up another bit of misinformation about the letters and their historical content. Following a lecture on this subject in Huntsville, Alabama, a young man asked what kind of verification could be brought to bear on Paul's letters. He explained that it was plain enough to see the historical content of the gospels and Acts, but that kind of verification could not be made from the letters since, as he thought, "they are doctrine and not history." It only took a moment to point out several instances where Paul's letters abound in historical references which are inextricably bound up with the Christian doctrine. Very often the historical truth of Paul's letters determined the truth of his doctrine.
An example of this phenomenon is the Galatian letter. In the first two chapters, some major events in Paul's life over a period of seventeen years are painstakingly laid out as a solid basis of evidence to back up his claim (which had come under fire) that he was an apostle by direct appointment from the risen Christ, and that he had also received his gospel instruction from Christ. He made his defense by appealing to the Galatians' knowledge of four incidents in his life which were designed to prove to them that the accusations against him were false and his own claims were true. If the Galatians were not familiar with Paul's recollections, as he took for granted they were, his self-defense would have backfired. They would have said that they didn't know what he was talking about and didn't appreciate his trying to bamboozle them into thinking they did. The fact that the Galatian churches preserved the letter as apostolic is proof that they considered all of its historical references as accurate.
Paul told the Corinthian church that over five hundred Christians had seen the Lord alive after his crucifixion and that most of them were still alive at the time as ready references (1 Corinthians 15:6). That letter was written early, yet no one ever tried to gainsay the point, though there were critics from the beginning. Later, in another letter, he reminded them of the miracles he worked in their presence as a proof of his apostleship (2 Corinthians 12:12). How was he able to get away with such a statement if it were not true? The fact that he answered questions from the Corinthians concerning the purposeful use of miracles which he had enabled them to perform takes those miracles for granted (1 Corinthians 12). No effort was ever made by the apostles to prove that they could work miracles. Real miracles do not need proof; they are proof (Mark 16:19-20). In the letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians (3:5), miracles are taken for granted as a part of the facts in the case to which the apostle addressed himself. Keep in mind that the miraculous incidents are recorded in the same matter-of-fact style in which the other historical incidents are recorded. The miracles cannot be extracted from the context of the letters without destroying the continuity of thought and Paul's apostleship which is built upon them.
Paul's references to persons obviously known by his readers shows the true-to-life world in which Christianity was being practiced. (See Romans 16:1-23; 1 Corinthians 1:14-16; 16:17-18; Ephesians 6:21; Philippians 4:2-3; Colossians 1:7; 4:7-17; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 1:5). He referred to sister churches which were engaged in relief activities for the poor saints in Jerusalem during a famine crisis (Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-6). His sketches of intimate friendship with the young evangelist, Timothy, and of his yearning for personal fellowship (Philippians 2:19-20; 2 Timothy 1:2-5; 2:1; 4:4-13) lift the context of Paul's letters out of the realm of literary invention. In addition, his instructions involving the slave culture (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1), his delineation of the sickening morals which characterized his generation (Romans 1:24-32, which was corroborated by Gentile writers of that period), his warnings against false teachers preying on the churches (2 Corinthians 11), and the fact that his letters were preserved by the churches, all combine to produce a context which has that ring of historical certainty.(16)
16. Satisfaction can be obtained in this matter by reading Sir William Ramsay's, Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, Baker Book House.
Don't Forget the Point
Remember that in this book our method for proving the claims for Christ and for Christianity is the same method used by the apostles and New Testament writers. We are going to examine the same evidence which they offered for consideration and then reproduce their own reasoning from that evidence for believing in Christ. We are not fashioning new arguments; there are none. Our purpose in this book is to point modern man back to the only real evidence there is for Christ-the evidence of the eyewitnesses themselves as preserved for us in the New Testament documents. Our purpose is to reproduce their own case for belief. It is to date the most successful case for Christ ever advanced. But the record containing that evidence is going to have to be completely trustworthy; we must have complete confidence that it contains nothing but the truth, if we accept their evidence as real and not manufactured in their own imaginations. The point, then, of these early chapters is to produce sound reasons for trusting those New Testament records to be fully reliable. Then we can weigh the evidence for ourselves and draw our own conclusions about Christ, which is what was intended from the beginning. Since Christianity is an individual relationship to Christ by faith, each individual must make his own judgment in the matter. The purpose of this book is to point you toward the ground of that judgement.
The Gospels and Acts
In the first century, Christianity became a system of life and action with such a momentous impact that it invaded every social stratum of every culture in the Roman Empire. Historians who deal with those forces which they suppose contributed to the shape of civilization must concern themselves with the facts that gave Christianity its power to invade the Roman world, to powerfully touch the people in every social stratum, and to persist through the rigors of persecution and on through the ages to greatly affect our present time. To accomplish this task, the historian must turn to those ancient documents which furnish him the information he needs. Without exception they turn to the gospels and Acts for that information.
Examples from Luke
Consider Luke's opening statement to Theophilus as a contrast between mythology and history. Luke assured Theophilus that the material he wrote had been carefully researched, that it had been secured from the eyewitnesses themselves, that it was written with accuracy, and that the events which were to be recounted were chronologically arranged in the order in which they happened. Then he stated that the purpose of such painstaking detail and precision of writing was that Theophilus, who had already heard something of the gospel, might "know the certainty concerning the things wherein [he] … was instructed" (Luke 1:4). Now that is the language of the historian, not of mythology, not even of historical romance. (17) In what way other than a miracle could Luke or anyone else have confirmed to Theophilus the certainty of the events of Christianity? The only way to certify to others events which they have not seen is to record them in some manner, whether on film or tape or in written form. This allows for their verification. Both Luke and Acts abound in historical references which have been verified by men of exceptional expertise in archaeology and history. Sir William Ramsay's research confirmed Luke's accuracy and historical genius and assigned to him a place among the historians of the highest quality.(18 ) F.F. Bruce quotes the verdict of the present professor of classics at Auckland University in New Zealand as saying that "Luke is a consummate historian, to be ranked in his own right with the great writers of the Greeks."(19)
17. Historical romance is a skillful integration of fact and fiction which supplies a continuity of thought by linking real persons and places and events together with a story-telling of the author's own creation. But for all its historical references, it fails to be a documentary at all points, and for obvious reasons does not claim to be. For this reason, the New Testament bears no faint resemblance to historical romance; it claims to be a historically accurate document at every point, and confirmation to date is without exception to that claim.
18. Ramsay, Paul, Traveler & Roman Citizen, p. 4.
19. Bruce, New Testament Documents, p.91.
Also, Professor Bruce has shown how Luke has set his story in the context of imperial history. Three emperors are mentioned by name: Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius. The birth of Jesus is fixed in the reign of Emperor Augustus, when Herod the Great was king of Judaea and when Quirinius was governor of Syria. John the Baptist's public minnisms "in the Greek historical manner," says Bruce, "reminding the classical student of the synchronisms with which, for example, Thucydides dates the formal outbreak of the Pelopenesian War."(20) Outstanding names among both Jews and Gentiles of that day appear in Luke's account-Pilate, Sergius Paulus, Gallio, Felix, Festus, Herod the Great and some of his descendants, Herod Antipas the tetrarch of Galilee, the vassal kings Herod Agrippa I and II, Bernice and Drusilla, and leading members of the Jewish priestly caste such as Annas, Caiphas, and Gamaliel- all of whom are mentioned in other documents outside the New Testament.
The "acid test" was what Bruce had in mind when he wrote, "A writer who thus relates his story to the wider context of world history is courting trouble if he is not careful; he affords his critical readers so many opportunities for testing his accuracy"(21) Bruce continues: "He puts his picture in the framework of contemporary history in a way which would inevitably invite exposure if his work were that of a romancer, but which in fact provides a test and vindication on historical grounds of the trustworthiness of his own writings."(22)
20. Ibid., p. 8.
21. Ibid., p. 82.
22. Ibid., p. 92.
Christ's birth is set squarely in the context of first century Palestine, where it was affected by the decrees of Caesar. Luke records that historic event in the following words:
Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to enrol themselves, every one to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enrol himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child. And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)
Just a few years ago, Bible critics believed that Luke had made about as many mistakes as could be made in this short paragraph. It was charged that Luke was in error about the very existence of an imperial decree for the purpose of taxation; it was challenged that Quirinius was even governor of Syria at that time, and it was denied that everyone had to go to his ancestral home to be enrolled for such a purpose. Yet, Joseph P. Free, professor of Bible and Archaeology at Wheaton College, has confirmed, through the recent discoveries of archaeology, the absolute reliability of Luke's report on these very points. Professor Free documents the discovery of a number of papyrus writings which relate to Roman census taking showing that such a census was made every fourteen years, and he cites one made about 9-6 B.C. (23) He tells us of an inscription found at Rome in 1828 indicating that Quirinius was governor of Syria, not once but twice, and also that William Ramsay, just before World War I, had found a monument in Asia Minor likewise implying two governorships for Quirinius. One of these governorships has been established at A.D. 6. Free also says that archaeology has confirmed that the governor of Egypt during the Roman rule made an edict in A.D. 104, showing that at the very time of that census, the people were to return to their ancestral homes for the enrolling. Free states emphatically that, "it is evident that archaeological discoveries testify to the validity of Luke's statements."(24)
23. Joseph P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History, Scripture Press, p. 285.
24. Ibid., p. 26.
Matthew also records the birth of Christ and Herod's outrageous conduct in the slaughter of the innocent babies in his effort to protect his throne, as he thought, from the new messianic king (Matthew 2:1-16). All efforts of criticism to reflect against the trustworthiness of this account have been both conjectural and contrary to the evidence. Matthew's record of this horrible incident by Herod the Great is in character with all we know from ancient sources, especially from Josephus, about his murderous actions to secure his kingdom for himself. "A man who had his own wife and her mother put to death, his brother-in-law forcibly drowned in a swimming pool, and his own sons strangled-such a man would not have even so much as hesitated in giving the order that the children under two years of age in Bethlehem should be slain."(25)
25. Ibid., p. 289.
Not only does Matthew give us the account of John's prophetic message and boldness in preaching to both Herod and the Jews, but even some of the subtleties, such as his diet of locusts and wild honey and his clothing of camel's hair (Matthew 3;4). All the gospel writers locate his ministry from Jerusalem to the region round about the Jordan (Matthew 3:1; Luke 3:3), and from "Aenon near to Salim" to the River Jordan where he baptized multitudes (John 3:23; Matthew 3:5-6; Mark 1:4-5). Even Herod the Great knew John and held a certain distant respect for him (Mark 6:14-20). Such widespread activities and fame would have quite a lasting effect upon the residents of Palestine where John preached, especially since they regarded him as the Lord's prophet (Matthew 14:5) who had been slain (beheaded) by Herod (Matthew 14:1-11). It is inconceivable that any one of four gospels could have been circulated and accepted as reliable reports by so many persons in the Palestinian area if the things concerning John the Baptist were not actually true. Those people still living at the time of the writing would have known better and would have certainly discredited the account. Since John's ministry is mentioned at the outset of each one of the four gospel reports, it could not have been missed.
Luke dates and locates John's ministry with the precision of a historian:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)
It is quite confirming to know that every political and religious figure named here has also been mentioned in other writings from this same period of time. What half-smart forger would tie his literary tale to so many known persons and places with any serious intent to deceive? It would be futile.
This dynamic life embraced the great masses of the people in Palestine from Galilee to Judaea and can be definitely calculated to have transpired during the Roman occupation of Palestine, which began from 63 B.C., when the Herodian rule in Judaea was replaced by direct Roman administration in A.D. 6. Confirmations from contemporary writers like Josephus, together with the archaeologists' verifications of the accuracy of the geography, the cultures of the lands, the languages, and the religious and political peculiarities of both the Jews and Gentiles are sufficient proof to any honest investigator as to the reliability of the historical background during the life of Christ which is set out in the gospels.
Jesus' Death and the Beginning of Christianity
The last days of Christ on earth have been carefully detailed in the closing chapters of all four of the gospels. The matters of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, the beginning of the church and the spread of the Christian religion from Jerusalem to Rome in the face of Jewish hierarchial opposition, and events involving Roman governors and imperial decrees as recorded in the book of Acts could not possibly have been invented in a single generation and then successfully passed off as true on the people of that very generation who knew better. That would have been as impossible as for a writer today to fabricate a story of an unsuccessful Japanese attempt to invade California in the early months of World War II, to locate the invasion landing at Long Beach on December 27th of 1941, to invent speeches and events which were supposed to have happened among the residents of the city due to the invasion, and then to have repelled the invasion by some genius of strategy, and attempt to pass the story off as true on those very people while they were still alive to say otherwise! The New Testament writings could have had no better chance of survival than that if their contents were not true.
The New Testament is not a compilation of mythical stories. It was written in the sane and sober appearance of history and it comes up reliable on investigation. The New Testament records the activities of real people and of actual events. Even though the writers did not compose their books for today's critics, the unmistakable language of the historical context makes them so easily available for verification that the writers might well have said, "Here are the facts; check them out for yourselves!"