A. Written evidence
Intro: Reference about the New Testament writers
Many references are made about Jesus and the early Christians. Do these references corroborate what is written in the New Testament or do they contradict it? Let us discover this together.
i. Christian Evidence
a. The Apostolic Fathers
The church fathers, the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament, wrote a lot about Jesus and the Christians. They never questioned the authorship of the New Testament books. Why would they? Mark and Luke were not even apostles, and Matthew used to be a hated tax collector! Apocryphal gospels, written many centuries later, chose well-known names to be the authors of these fictitious writings, names like Mary, Peter and James. The only well-known name is the gospel written by the apostle John (the only disciple present at Jesus’ crucifixion!). But even his authorship is not even questioned.
Let us read what the early church fathers had to say about the authorship of the New Testament books. We will limit all quotes from the apostolic fathers, as to quote them all would take volumes and they all basically say the same thing.
” For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence. And when Mark and Luke had already published their Gospels, they say that John, who had employed all his time in proclaiming the Gospel orally, finally proceeded to write for the following reason. The three Gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his own too, they say that he accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but that there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III, chapter XXIV.
“Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language.” Papias, Fragments of Papias, VI.
“That Paul preached to the Gentiles and laid the foundations of the churches “from Jerusalem round about even unto Illyricum,” is evident both from his own words, and from theaccount which Luke has given in the Acts. And in how many provinces Peter preached Christ and taught the doctrine of the new covenant to those of the circumcision is clear from his own words in his epistle already mentioned as undisputed, in which he writes to the Hebrews of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III, chapter IV.
“So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours to establish his own peculiar doctrine.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Volume III, Chapter XI.
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews3 in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Volume III, Chapter I.
The church Fathers also validated the writings of the New Testament, as confirmed by the following quote from Ignatius. Jesus indeed came with the sole purpose to bring us salvation.
“Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.” Ignatius, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chapter IX.
Question: Was there any question about the validity of the authorship of the New Testament books among the apostolic church fathers?
ii. Non-Christian Evidence
Jospehus, a renown Jewish historian from the first century, wrote books like “Wars” and the “Antquities of the Jews”. He worked under Roman authority and took great care not to offend the Romans. His writing about the Jewish wars proved highly accurate and was corrobated by Tacitus and archaeological excavations at Masada. He wrote concerning the following New Testament topics:
“He assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” Antiquities of the Jews, book XX, Chapter 9.1
Jospehus confirms that Jesus was a real person. He was called the “Christ” and had a brother James who died a martyr’s death under the hands of the high priest Albinus.
· John the Baptist
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” Antiquities of the Jews, book XVIII, Chapter 5.2
This confirms John the Baptist’s existence and his role of encouraging Jews to repent and be baptized. He died a martyr’s death under Herod’s hands.
“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.” Antiquities of the Jews, book XVIII, Chapter 3.3.
There are some controversies about this text. However this text was quoted as is by Eusebius (325 A.D.) in Ecclesiastical History, 1.11. It also exists in all the existing copies of this text. Some considered this an interpolation, since they think it is unbelievable that a Jew would acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah and fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. Others consider this quote as a mockery concerning Christian’ beliefs.
In any case, Josephus acknowledged the existence of Jesus and that he did marvelous work among the crowds, attracting both Jews and gentiles. He was condemned by Pilate to die on the cross. Christians, named after him, thrived and believed he was resurrected.
Tacitus was a first-century Roman and is considered as one of the most accurate historians of that time period. Giving account about the fire of Rome, he wrote:
“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.” The Annals, book XV 44.
Tacitus confirmed as well that Christians were named after Jesus and that they were spreading even up to Rome. Tacitus declares as well that Jesus died under the hands of Pontius Pilate. The “mischievous superstition” probably refers to Jesus’ resurrection.
d. Pliny the Younger
He was a Roman writer and an administrator. He describes the early Christian worship practices in a letter to the Emperor Trajan.
“They (the Christians) asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that 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.” The Letters, 10:96.
Here Christians are referred to meet together on a regular basis and acknowledging Jesus as being God. Following Jesus meant to be a person of moral integrity (“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”).
e. Emperor Trajan
The emperor Trajan replied to Pliny the Younger with the following guidelines for punishing Christians:
“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” Pliny the Younger, The Letters, 10:97.
He is a writer from the first century. However none of his writings are still in existence. Only a few citations are found in other writers’ books. Julius Africanus (220 A.D.) quoted Thallus when discussing the darkness that followed Jesus’ crucifixion.
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness, and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.” Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18.1 in Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, ed. Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers. Vol. 1 Edingburgh: T & T Clark, 1867.
This confirms the darkness that enveloped the area where Jesus died as mentioned in the gospels.
He was the chief secretary to the emperor Hadran. He wrote the following, confirming Acts 18:2 that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome in 49 A.D.
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” De Vita Caesarum–Divus Claudius, XXV.
iii. Adverse Evidence
The Talmud contains a vast collection of Jewish laws and traditions. It also contains some quotes written by Jews who were opposed to Christianity; and offers indirectly some insights about Jesus, especially in its writing between 70 A.D. and 200 A.D., in the so-called Tannaitic Period. Their most renowned text is:
“They hanged Yeshu on the Sabbath of the Passover. But for forty days before that a herald went in front of him (crying), “Yeshu is to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and seduced Israel and lead them away from God. Anyone who can provide evidence on his behalf should come forward to defend him.” When, however, nothing favorable about him was found, he was hanged on the Sabbath of the Passover.” Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a.
It is amazing that those adverse to Jesus Christ could not contradict what His followers were proclaiming. Instead they called Jesus a sorcerer who led Jews astray, which in all reality acknowledges that Jesus really performed wonders, although they disputed the source of his power.
Nowhere can you find among the Jewish writings in the first and secondary centuries that Jesus did not perform any miracles. Nowhere can be found someone proclaiming that Jesus’ body was still in its tomb for all to see.
How could this Christian movement have started right in Jerusalem, where so many were opposed to the teachings of Jesus, and where so many people witnessed personally Jesus’ ministry, his arrest, his crucifixion, if people knew that Jesus’ disciples were exaggerating the facts? There would have been no way. That movement would have died right in it’s tracks. This movement expanded so quickly, although many persecutions arose. There had to be a reason for this. Could it be that it was because what they proclaimed really was true?
i. Lucian of Samosata
Lucian, a Greek writer from the second-century, loved to offer sarcastic remarks about Christianity. Although he is sarcastic, he confirms indirectly what is written in the gospels.
“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 faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” Lucian of Samosata, Death of Pelegrine.
We can conclude with a question from Lee Stroebel: “Let’s pretend we didn’t have any of the New Testament or other Christian writings…Even without them, what would we be able to conclude about Jesus from ancient non-Christian sources, such as Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and others?”
And the answer being given from Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi: “We would still have a considerable amount of important historical evidence; in fact, it would provide a kind of outline for the life of Jesus…
We would know that first, Jesus was a Jewish teacher; second, many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; third, some people believed he was the Messiah; fourth, he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; fifth, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; sixth, despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by A.D. 64; and seventh, all kinds of people from the cities and countryside-men and women, slave and free-worshiped him as God.”
Lee Stroebel. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, p. 87.
Question: What was the worst that the first century critics could write against Jesus and his followers?
Question: Do all of these external written documents confirm or deny Jesus’ existence? Why?