APOLOGETICS – The Historicity Of Jesus
The life of Christ presents an enormous problem for the atheist. If the Gospel narratives are taken at face value, if they are historically accurate, they make it virtually impossible to deny that there is a God. The life of Jesus, his claims, his extraordinary miracles and, ultimately, his resurrection, provide the strongest possible evidence for the existence of God. When confronted with the extraordinary account of the life of Christ, a person who wishes to remain an atheist has only two options; either they claim that Jesus is completely mythical (that he never existed at all) or, alternatively, that he was an ordinary man whose life was subsequently embellished and deified by the Gospel writers.
The internet is awash with those who attempt to argue the former. Interestingly, this particular argument tends to be championed by those with little or no formal training in historical literary criticism. It is not an exaggeration to say that within the academic world of respected historians, there is almost universal agreement that Jesus Christ existed. The few dissenters within this community tend to be extremely outspoken atheists whose fanatical denials of the corroborating evidence for the existence of Jesus have left their colleagues somewhat mystified. American historian and social commentator, Neil Carter, who is an outspoken non-Christian, speaks out in defense of the historical Christ:
“I can’t believe I’m feeling the need to do this, but today I’d like to write a brief defense of the historicity of Jesus. When people in the sceptic community argue that Jesus never existed, they are dismissing a large body of work for which they have insufficient appreciation, most often due to the fact that they themselves have never formally studied the subject…. The earliest writings which attest to the existence of Jesus come from the apostle Paul, a leather worker by day and preacher by night … sometime in the mid-50s AD… The oral tradition which later came to inform the writing of the gospels predates the ministry of Paul by many years… Paul didn’t invent these stories…”(http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie/2014)
The corroborating evidence for the existence of Jesus is significant. Jesus is referred to by a number of hostile or neutral Jewish and Roman sources from antiquity: Tacitus, Thallus, Seutonius, Lucian, Flavius, Philegon, Pliny, Mara Bar-Serapion and Flavius Josephus. (These sources are dealt with in more detail in the PowerPoint presentation in the resources link at the bottom of this page).
The second option for atheists is to claim that Jesus was an ordinary man whose life was later mythologised by his followers. The deliberations of “The Jesus Seminar”, a group of approximately 150 atheists who met from the mid 1980s until 2005, sought to prove this by seizing upon the Gnostic Gospels as a more accurate version of Jesus’ life. This organisation produced a large number of books and films during this period depicting “the real Jesus”. Their conclusions, however, have largely been debunked by the academic community, who point to the undisputed fraudulent nature of the Gnostic Gospels and their complete unreliability for any serious study of that period of history. In recent years, the Jesus Seminar has received intense criticism from the academic world, resulting in a number of books being published totally discrediting the findings of the Jesus Seminar, and affirming the historical validity of the Biblical Gospels. (These include “Jesus Under Fire” by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, and “The Real Jesus” by Luke T. Johnson). The academic community also point out that the Jesus Seminar was predominantly comprised of lay people with little or no academic credentials as historians.
Of central importance to a discussion of the historicity of the events of Jesus’ life, particularly his miracles and his resurrection, is the question of the historical reliability of the Gospels. William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist, philosopher and historian, in his book, “On Guard”, comments:
“The most important of the historical sources for the life of Jesus have been collected into the New Testament. References to Jesus outside the NT 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 NT. Now I find that many laymen don’t understand this procedure. They think that if you examine the NT writings themselves rather than look at sources outside the NT, then somehow you’re reasoning in a circle, using the Bible to prove the Bible. But that’s not at all what historians are doing. We are not treating the Bible as a holy, inspired book and trying to prove it’s true by quoting it. Rather, we’re treating the NT just like any other collection of ancient documents and investigating whether these documents are historically reliable.”
Furthermore, Dr. Craig comments, “It’s important to understand that originally there wasn’t any such book called the “New Testament”. There were just these separate historical documents handed down from the first century. It wasn’t until a couple of centuries later that the church officially collected these documents under one cover, which became known as the New Testament. The church chose only the earliest sources, which were closest to Jesus and the original disciples, and left out the later, secondary accounts like the forged apocryphal gospels, which everyone knew were fakes. Only the very best historical sources were included in the New Testament. People who insist on evidence only from writings outside the NT don’t understand what they’re asking us to do. They’re demanding that we ignore the earliest, primary sources about Jesus in favour of sources that are later, secondary and less reliable, which is just crazy in terms of historical methodology.”
CRITERIA OF HISTORICAL RELIABILITY
When assessing the reliability of any historical document, there are a number of key criteria that are used. Among the most import are:
1.The criterion of time gap
2.The criterion of dissimilarity
3.The criterion of embarrassment
4.The criterion of multiple attestation
5.The criterion of absence of protestation
6.The criterion of corroboration by hostile critics
7.The criterion of author credibility
These criteria are discussed in detail in the PowerPoint presentation linked at the bottom of this page. However, it is worth commenting on a couple of them at this point.
The criterion of absence of protestation is particularly significant. This argument states that if something fanciful and inaccurate is written during the lifetime of those who witness an event, it would undoubtedly result in the publication of other documents debunking the fanciful claims. If, for example, someone today published a book claiming that Winston Churchill performed miracles and had supernatural powers, the textual world would be awash with rebuttals! Historians centuries from now would be able to read those rebuttals and conclude that the miraculous claims are, at least, extremely unreliable and unlikely.
The four gospels were written during the lifetime of eye witnesses to the life of Jesus, including those hostile to him. If the gospel writers had embellished their stories with fanciful inaccuracies, their stories would have been denounced and repudiated, and this would be evident in the existence of contradictory, hostile texts. But such texts simply do not exist. Instead of textual rebuttal, there is almost complete silence in the historical record. I say almost, because the few references to Jesus outside of the Bible tend to confirm rather than rebut the gospel accounts. The absence of protestation is a powerful attestation to the truth and historical reliability of the gospels. People living in first century Palestine simply could not deny the miraculous events of Jesus’ life, because thousands of them had witnessed the events with their own eyes!
The other criterion worth mentioning briefly here, is that of corroboration by hostile critics. Earlier in this discussion I mentioned the Roman and Jewish writers who refer to Jesus: Tacitus, Thallus, Seutonius, Lucian, Flavius, Philegon, Pliny, Mara Bar-Serapion and Flavius Josephus. These references are discussed in greater detail in the PowerPoint presentation linked below. It is worth pointing out here, however, that these references to Jesus not only confirm his existence, but, at several points, refer to the supernatural events of his life.
For example, Flavius Josephus (37-101AD), in his “Antiquities Of The Jews”, writes, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, (9) those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; (10) as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” Some atheists maintain that this text must be a later interpolation by a christian copyist, yet there is no unequivocal historical or textual evidence for this claim. Instead, the desire to discredit it appears to be driven by an almost fanatical unwillingness to consider anything of a supernatural nature having any kind of validity. Another corroborating text is provided by the Roman historian, Thallus, who describes the supernatural darkness that came over the land as Jesus was crucified and the momentous earthquake that shook the region as he died.
SKEPTICS WHO HAVE SOUGHT TO DISPROVE THE GOSPELS BUT HAVE BEEN CONVERTED IN THE PROCESS
- Sir William Mitchell Ramsaywas a highly respected archaeologist from Scotland. He set out to prove the historical inaccuracies of Luke and Acts. He spent 15 years researching and digging, only to end up being convinced of the incredible accuracy of the New Testament. He converted to Christianity, and called Luke one of the greatest historians to ever live. He wrote several books on the subject, which have yet to be refuted. His work caused an outcry from atheists because they had been eagerly awaiting his results in disproving the validity of the New Testament, and had even been funding his research!
- Albert Henry Ross was an English journalist and author who set out to disprove the myth of the resurrection. He was planning on writing a paper called “Jesus – The Last Phase”, but he became converted during the course of his investigations. He wrote the classic book, “Who Moved The Stone?” under the pseudonym Frank Morison. The book has led many people to Christ.
- Lee Strobel was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune who set out to disprove Christianity, focusing on the resurrection story. The overwhelming evidence he uncovered led to his conversion, and he went on to write the famous “Case for…” series, which has led many people to Christ.
- The evidence for the reliability of the New Testament documents is extremely convincing. When the New Testament documents are scrutinised using the accepted criteria of historical reliability, they stand alone, above all other documents from antiquity, as texts of the highest calibre. Dr. A.N. Sherwin-White (1922-1933), Greco-Roman historian, wrote, “The confirmation of historicity in Luke’s writings is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject their historicity must now appear absurd.” Sir William Ramsay (previously cited), wrote, “Luke is a historian of the first rank. This author should be placed alongside the very greatest of historians”
- The textual references to the miracles and resurrection of Jesus, when scrutinised using the most rigorous of legal and historical methods of assessing evidence, remain extremely convincing.
- The Christian faith, far from being a blind faith, rests upon solid historical events and reliable historical texts that have withstood the closest of scrutiny over many centuries.
For a more detailed discussion of these and related issues, click the link below:
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