Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Historicity of Jesus Christ, The Gospels, and The New Testament...

Ellen Johnson, the former president for American Atheists, said the following in a 2005 CNN Interview with Larry King:

"The reality is there is not one shred of secular evidence there ever was a Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ and Christianity is a modern religion. And Jesus Christ is a compilation from other gods:  Osiris, Mithras, who had the same origins, the same death as the mythological Jesus Christ."

Was Ellen Johnson speaking the truth?  Is Jesus Christ a myth?  Is the New Testament (including the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) historically reliable?  Are there any secular historians who talk about Jesus as a historical person?      

The Historical Reliability of The New Testament:

There are four tests that I will be using to show the historical reliability of the New Testament, and I got these four tests from Cliff Knechtle, the host of the show Give Me An Answer.  I like these four tests because they can be used on any historical document, and each of the tests has a high degree of objectivity to them.  Here are the four tests:  literary style, internal consistency, manuscript evidence, and archaeological evidence.

When it comes to literary style, we have to take a closer look at the New Testament.  While Romans through Jude are clearly letters, and the book of Revelation is classified as apocalyptic literature, the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the book of Acts are clearly written in the style of historical narrative.  Here are two passages that most clearly show this literary style:

Matthew 2:1-2:  After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Luke 3:1-2:  In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 

The next test is Internal Consistency.  When you read the Gospels, you will find an amazing internal consistency between the four different perspectives on the life of Jesus.  Of course, there are people who like to point out that the bible is seemingly full of contradictions, and here is one site's list of 42 "contradictions" in the Gospels.  We'll go through three of them.

The first supposed contradiction that we'll look at occurs with the story of the centurion in Capernaum.  In Matthew 8:5-13, the centurion himself appears to be speaking to Jesus.  In Luke 7:1-10, the centurion sends some friends to talk with Jesus.  This seems to be a contradiction, but it really isn't if you think about it.  Since Luke is the most meticulous historian among the Gospel writers, his account is most likely what actually happened.  Why then does Matthew say that the centurion talked to Jesus?  First off, we need to look at the role of the friends of the centurion.  These guys are clearly playing the role of mediators, or messengers if you will.  They are relaying the message to Jesus that the centurion could have delivered to Jesus in person, but feelings of unworthiness prevented him from facing Jesus in person (as indicated in Matthew 8:8); it is unknown whether the centurion's feelings of unworthiness come from a high level of respect for Jesus, or if he felt too much moral guilt in Jesus' presence.  Regardless of the reason, Matthew clearly realized that the message came not from the mediators (the friends), but from the centurion, so Matthew chose not to acknowledge the mediators.  A difficult passage at first glance, but no contradiction.

The second supposed contradiction stretches into three of the Gospels.  In Matthew 20:29-34, Jesus heals two blind men sitting on the roadside while leaving Jericho.  In Mark 10:46-52, there is a blind man named Bartimaeus.  In Luke 18:35-43, there is an unnamed blind man.  This seems like a contradiction, but it's not.  Since Matthew says that there's two blind men, and Mark's description of the blind man is different from Luke's description, it is reasonable to conclude that there really were two blind men like Matthew says there were; Mark describes one of the blind men, and Luke describes the other.

When you read the link I posted where this supposed contradiction was found (it's number 19 on the list), you won't find the reference to Mark 10:46-52 listed.  My only guess is that the people/person who put together that list knows that if they included that passage, any reasonable person would be able to read all three passages and come to the same conclusion that I did.  Therefore, the people/person who made the list left out the reference to make it seem like there was a contradiction between two passages, when in reality there was a third passage covering the same story that helps clear up the supposed contradiction.  If the people/person who made the list intentionally left out the Mark passage, it was blatant intellectual dishonesty.

The third supposed contradiction also stretches into three Gospels.  In Matthew 11:1-18, while the author asserts in verse 2 that Jesus was the Messiah, John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah.  In Luke 7:18-35, John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah.  The website tries to assert that John the Baptist called Jesus the Messiah in John 1:29-36, but when you read the actual passage, John the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God, which is an entirely different title.  The Messiah is the savior of Israel (a people group), while the role of the Lamb of God is to be the ultimate sacrifice in order to cover over the sins of the entire human race, not just one people group.  Not only is this not a contradiction, this is clearly a blatant lie by the people/person who put together this list.  They seem to think the reader will just blindly accept what they say scripture says without reading it for themselves.

The next test is manuscript evidence; there are two major things to point out in this category.  The first thing to look at is the number of manuscripts.  According to Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM), we have 5,686 Greek manuscripts of the new testament.  CARM then proceeded to go into detail about how the manuscript evidence of the New Testament compares to the works of other ancient writers.  Dr. Ed Gravely, assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theology Seminary, discussed this topic in a YouTube video.

The second thing to look at is the textual purity rate of those 5,686 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, which is 99.5 percent.  On page 89 of his book Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman, a famous agnostic and New Testament scholar, asserts that the number of variants within the 5,686 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament comes out to around 400,000.  Of course, what Ehrman doesn't talk about in great detail in his book is the nature of those variants.  Dr. Michael J. Kruger, Associate Professor of New Testament Reformed Theological Seminary, talks about the nature of the variants in a YouTube video.  Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, Professor of New testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, does a great job of discussing the reliability of the New Testament in parts 1 and 2 in this video interview on YouTube.          

Because we have 5,686 Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament, and because the textual purity rate of those manuscripts is 99.5 percent, we can have a high degree of certainty that we really have what the authors originally wrote.

The last test we have to go through is the test of archaeological evidence.  In this test, we find that the New Testament has an abundance of archaeological evidence to support its historical claims.  The 2011 version of the NIV study bible lists 36 different archaeological discoveries that support the New Testament history; we're look at just a few of them.   

Archaeologists discovered a family tomb in Abu Tor (which was two miles south of Jerusalem) in 1990.  In this tomb, they found an ossuary, or bone box, containing the name of Joseph Caiaphas on its side, written in Aramaic of course.  This is the same Caiaphas that is mentioned in Matthew 26:3 and John 18:13.

For many years, bible scholars used to laugh at John 9:7, where Jesus told the blind man to go wash in the Pool of Siloam, claiming that no such pool existed.  However, in 2004, the pool of Siloam was uncovered by workers who were repairing an old sewer line in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The Los-Angeles Times wrote an article about it, as did NBC News.  

Much like the Pool of Siloam, the Pool of Bethesda that is identified in John 5:2 was once considered to be a fictitious place.  According to this websitethe pool was found during the repairs in 1888 near St. Anne's Church in the Bezetha quarter of Jerusalem not far from the Sheep's Gate and Tower of Antonia. It is below the crypt of the ruined fourth-century church and has a five-arch portico with faded frescoes of the miracle of Christ's healing.

In Acts 19:23-41, we read about a riot in Ephesus where the Ephesian god Artemis is mentioned, as well as the temple of Artemis.  As described by this article, the temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the world, and was discovered through archaeology in 1869.              
When we look at the evidence found in literary style, internal consistency, manuscript evidence, and archaeological evidence, it becomes clear that the New Testament is historically reliable.

Secular historians on Jesus and The Early Christians:

While the New Testament may be historically reliable according to the criteria listed above, it's important to figure out if there were any secular people who wrote about Jesus and the early Christians in order to collaborate the story.  Let's look at some of the secular people who mention Jesus and the early Christians.

The first one we'll be looking at is Flavius Jospehus.  Josephus was a Jew who became a Roman citizen later in his life, and he was a historian from the first century whose works covered Jewish History.  Josephus mentions Jesus in Antiquities of The Jews- Book XVIII, Chapter 3, paragraph 3, but because of its kind assessment of Jesus in the Greek version, many believe that the Christians who preserved Josephus's work altered his original text in order to make it appear less insulting than Josephus usually was in his writings.  The following passage is a reconstruction of Josephus's passage on Jesus that was created by Robert Eisler, an Austrian Jewish art historian and Bible Scholar who lived from 1882 to 1949.  Eisler's reconstruction was based on a less complimentary approach that lined up more with Josephus's writing style.  Here is the reconstructed passage:  

"Now about this time arose an occasion for new disturbances, a certain Jesus, a wizard of a man, if indeed he may be called a man, who was the most monstrous of men, whom his disciples call a son of God, as having done wonders such as no man has ever done.... He was in fact a teacher of astonishing tricks to such men as accept the abnormal with delight.... And he seduced many Jews and many also of the Greek nation, and was regarded by them as the Messiah.... And when, on the indictment of the principal men among us, Pilate had sentenced him to the cross, still those who before had admired him did not cease to rave. For it seemed to them that having been dead for three days, he had appeared to them alive again, as the divinely-inspired prophets had foretold -- these and ten thousand other wonderful things -- concerning him. And even now the race of those who are called 'Messianists' after him is not extinct."

We know a few things about Jesus from this passage:  Jesus had divine powers (Which Josephus, like the Jewish religious leaders who opposed Jesus during his ministry, attributed to sorcery), Jews and Gentiles alike became his followers, Jesus was regarded as the Messiah while he was alive, Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death on the cross, it was reported that Jesus had risen from the dead after three days, the followers of Christ claimed that Jesus fulfilled all the ancient prophecies about the Messiah, and the followers of Christ were still around at the time of Josephus's writing.

The next person we'll be looking at is Celsus, who was a second-century Greek philosopher and was famous for his attacks on early Christianity.  While all of Celsus's works are no longer extant, Origen, an early Christian Theologian from the third century, used this quote from Celsus in Contra Celsum 1:28:    

"...born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God."

While Celsus is clearly trying to discredit the virgin birth of Jesus as well as the divinity of Jesus in the passage above, he ends up confirming a few details from the gospels for us:  Jesus was born in Bethlehem (which is a village in Judea), Jesus's father Joseph was a carpenter, Jesus had divine powers, and Jesus claimed to be God.

Next up on the docket is Mara Bar Serapion, who was a stoic philosopher who lived in the Roman province of Syria.  Serapion was captured by the Romans, and was held captive in Seleucia in 72 AD.  Serapion wrote the following in the Epistle of Mara, which most scholars agree was composed around 73 AD:      

"For what else have we to say, when wise men are forcibly dragged by the hands of tyrants, and their wisdom is taken captive by calumny, and they are oppressed in their intelligence without defence? For what advantage did the Athenians gain by the murder of Socrates, the recompense of which they received in famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, because in one hour their country was entirely covered with sand? Or the Jews by the death of their wise king because from that same time their kingdom was taken away?  For with justice did God make recompense to the wisdom of these three: for the Athenians died of famine; and the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea without remedy; and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, are scattered through every country. Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor the Wise King, because of the laws which he promulgated."

What is Mara Bar Serapion confirming in this passage?  This is what he is confirming about Jesus:  That Jesus was called The King of The Jews, Jesus was a very wise person, Jerusalem and the temples were completely destroyed prior to the composition of his letter (a reference to what the Romans under Titus did in 70 AD), and the Jews were now without a country of their own.  Due to the fact that Mara Bar Serapion was a pagan, he did not affirm Jesus's Resurrection, and claimed that he only lived on through his teachings.

Pliny the Younger was a Roman Lawyer who lived from 61-112 AD.  During the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD), Pliny wrote a letter to Trajan concerning his prosecution of early Christians.  The following passage is from the fourth paragraph of that letter:      

"...They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food."

What is Pliny revealing about the early Christians?  They had gatherings once a week, they worshiped Jesus as God in human form, they took the teachings of Jesus seriously and put them into practice, and they had meals together as part of their fellowship.

Lucian was a Greek Satirist who lived from 125 to roughly 180 AD.  Lucian wrote a satire called The Death Of Peregrine, in which the lead character takes advantage of the generosity of Christians.  The following passage shows us what Lucian thought of the early Christians: 

"The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day,--the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account...You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them."

What is Lucian confirming?  That Jesus Christ was a historical person, and Jesus was crucified for what he taught.  Secondly, Lucian confirms that Jesus taught that all the early Christians are all siblings in Christ from the moment of conversion.  Lucian also confirms that the early Christians refused to worship the Roman gods, worshiped Jesus as God, and took the teachings of Jesus seriously.

Seutonius was a Roman historian who lived from 69 to roughly 122 AD.  Seutonius makes a reference to Jesus in Life of Claudius 25:4:      

"Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."

While it seems that Seutonius is not making a reference to Jesus, most scholars assert that Chrestus was simply a miss-spelling of Christus.  So what is Seutonius confirming here?  That Jesus was a real historical person, and because of the commotion that the Jews made when they brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate, Claudius kicked the Jews out of Rome (Acts 18:1-2 verifies this fact).

The following passage by Seutonius comes from The Life of Nero 16:2:

"During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale.  Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city."

What is Seutonius confirming here?  That the early Christians were persecuted by Nero, and while Seutonius saw their belief in Jesus rising from the dead as a superstition, he is confirming that the early Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead.

So, how exactly did the Romans prosecute the early Christians?  Pliny the Younger gave us a detailed description of this process in the second and third paragraphs of his letter to Trajan:  

"Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ."

Here is the process that Pliny used to prosecute the Christians:  He would ask the people if they were Christians or not.  If they claimed to be Christians, he would ask them again multiple times if they were Christians, threatening them with punishment if they maintained their faith in Jesus.  If they claimed to not be Christians, Pliny asked them to prove it by worshiping the roman gods and the emperor, and cursing Jesus.  If they maintained that they weren't Christians, they were discharged.  Pliny also confirmed that those who were real Christians could not be forced to curse Jesus.

Tacitus was a Roman Historian who lived from 56 to roughly 117 AD.  Tacitus points out some interesting things in The Annals: Book XV, AD 62-65:     

"The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess.  And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. 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, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.  Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed."  -Tacitus,

What is Tacitus confirming?  He confirms that Jesus was a real, historical person, and he was sentenced to execution by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Ceaser.  Tacitus confirms that the early Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and that their numbers grew not just in Judea, but in Rome as well.  He also confirms that the early Christians were sentenced to death for what they believed rather than what they did.  Tacitus also shows the horribly brutal and barbaric ways that the early Christians were killed in the reign of Nero.    

What do these secular sources have to say about Jesus when you put them all together?  They say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and his father Joseph was a carpenter.  He was a wise person who had divine powers (Which they attributed to sorcery to try and discredit Jesus), and Jews and Gentiles alike became his followers.  He was regarded as the Messiah and The King of The Jews while he was alive, and he was arrested and condemned for what he taught.  Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death on the cross, and it was reported that Jesus had risen from the dead after three days.  Every single one of these details about Jesus can be found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

What do all these secular sources have to say about the early Christians?  The early Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead, they worshiped Jesus as God in human form, and they took the teachings of Jesus seriously, putting them into practice.  They held gatherings on a fixed day every week, and they had meals together as part of their fellowship.  Their numbers grew not just in Judea, but in Rome as well.  The early Christians refused to worship the Roman gods, and were sentenced to death for what they believed rather than what they did.  As part of their sentence, the early Christians were killed in horribly brutal and barbaric ways by the Romans.  The Roman prosecution and persecution of the early Christians is not documented in the new testament, but everything about the early Christians' practices and beliefs that we can find in these secular writings can also be found in the New Testament.        


After looking over all this information, it has become crystal clear to me that Ellen Johnson had no clue what she was talking about.  Josephus, Celsus, Serapion, Pliny the Younger, Lucian, Seutonius, and Tacitus paint a clear picture of Jesus as a historical person.  To make matters worse for Johnson, the picture that those Romans paint of Jesus is the same picture that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John paint (in less detail, of course).

You might be wondering why I place so much emphasis on what these seven Romans have to say about Jesus and the early Christians.  When you read the complete works of these Romans, it becomes clear that their primary interest is in such people as Roman politicians, military leaders, members of the royal family, and other such important Roman people.  The general attitude of these Roman historians towards other people groups like the Jews and Christians is one of indifference; they just didn't frankly care much about them (An attitude that we can get a glimpse of in John 18:28-32), and even when you read all the quotes I listed, it becomes clear that they aren't trying to build up Christianity as some great religion.  The fact that Jesus, a Jewish man who had no ties to Roman society whatsoever, gets specifically mentioned is pretty amazing by itself, but when you start looking at how the details these secular Romans give about Jesus are all found in the Gospels, it is reasonable to conclude that the Gospels are historically accurate, and that the Jesus of the Gospels and the historical Jesus are the same person.

Because the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels are the same person, that means that Jesus Christ is exactly who he said he is:  the Son of Man (Matthew 8:20), the Son of God (Matthew 8:28-29), Son of David (Matthew 9:27), the Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3), the Bread of Life (John 6:35), the Light of the World (John 8:12), the Gate (John 10:9) the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25), the King of Israel (John 12:13), the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), the True Vine (John 15:1), the King of the Jews (John 19:19-21), the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5), Faithful and True (Revelation 19:11), the Word of God (Revelation 19:13), King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16), the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 22:13).

Jesus wants to have a personal relationship with you, and he wants to be your savior, but he won't force you or coerce you into salvation.  You can freely choose to accept his offer of forgiveness and salvation, or you can choose to reject his offer, and live your life, as well as eternity, separate from him.  It's your choice.                


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