Existence of Jesus Answering Bertrand Russell

Many years ago a humanist friend gave me a copy of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian”. For my friend Russell was the epitome of 20th Century man. I suppose he thought the book would challenge me, maybe even persuade me, that my faith in Jesus Christ was misplaced. Perhaps I would become an agnostic, even an atheist.

I found much in the book that I agreed with because many of Russell’s concerns and criticisms of orthodox Christianity, particularly the Catholicism of his day, I shared. However, as my faith is centred in Jesus Christ, and not in the church and its teaching, I was not persuaded.

However, there were other parts of the book that amazed me. For example, on page 21 Russell wrote:

Here I may say that one is not concerned with the historical question. Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know much about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one.

Is this correct? Is it “quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all”? And is the historical question “very difficult”? It amazed me because it appears that a man of Russell’s standing and intellect was either unaware of the wealth of historical evidence relating to Jesus of Nazareth, or chose to ignore it. So what is the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ?

In this series I shall be looking at a variety of evidence. Clearly the Bible is the major historical source for the existence of Jesus Christ, but it is not the only one and we shall look at others first. There are references to him in both ancient Jewish and Gentile histories.

A letter from a Father to a Son

The first one we shall look at is a personal letter from a father to a son, a letter from Mara Bar-Serapion, which he wrote to his son Serapion. This letter was written sometime after AD 73 and a copy is in the British Museum. Mara-Bar Serapion was in prison and he wrote to encourage his son in the pursuit of wisdom, and not to be downcast that his father was in jail.

He pointed out that those who persecuted wise men were overtaken by misfortune, and he instances the deaths of Socrates, Pythagoras and Christ. Part of the letter is on the next page, but look at the historical company Christ has here! Socrates and Pythagoras! What philosopher today would doubt the historical existence of Socrates? And what mathematician would doubt the existence of Pythagoras? Then why should Bertrand Russell, or anyone else come to that, be in doubt about the historical existence of Jesus Christ?

But what sort of witness is Mara-Bar Serapion? Is he a biased Christian? No! He is clearly not a Christian. If he had been, he would have said that Jesus Christ had lived on by being raised from the dead, and not in his teaching. F. F. Bruce suggests he was probably a pagan Gentile philosopher, who “led the way in what later became commonplace – the placing of Christ on a comparable footing with the great sages of antiquity.”

From Bar-Serapion to his son Serapion

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgement for their crime. And 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 wise King? It was just that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; 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 God; He lived on in the teachings He had given.

The Greatest Roman Historian: Tacitus

This is also the case with Tacitus who has been described by F F Bruce as “the greatest Roman historian”. He was born in about AD 53 and wrote the history of the Roman emperors. When writing on the reign of Caesar Nero (AD54 – 68), he describes the great fire that ravaged Rome in AD 64. He wrote that Nero instigated the fire, in order to gain great glory for himself in rebuilding the city. However, Nero tried to put the blame on another group of people, those termed Christians. His account is on the next page.

From this account it is clear that Tacitus, himself, is not a believer in Jesus Christ. For the pagan Tacitus, Christ was but a name. However, to both Jews and Gentiles it was a title. Thus his sources do not appear to be either Christian or Jewish. If they had been Christian, they would not have used such terms as “pernicious superstition” and “plague” to describe themselves. On the other hand, if the sources had been Jewish, they may well have used such terms, but they would not have referred to Jesus as “Christus”, for “Christ” is the equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah” and the Jews did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, and would not have honoured him with that title.

It is also interesting to note that not only does Tacitus refer to Jesus Christ, he also refers to His execution under Pontius Pilate. Thus not only do we have historical evidence from the “greatest Roman historian” as to the existence of Jesus Christ, we also have evidence that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Tacitus was in a position to have access to the official documents of Rome. His father in law, Julius Agricola, was governor of Britain from AD 80 to 84, thus Tacitus’ source may well have been official Roman archives, maybe even the very report that Pilate sent to Rome.

Tacitus Annals 15.44

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, from whom they got their name, had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberus was emperor; and the pernicious superstition was checked for a short time, only to break out afresh, not only in Judea, the home of the plague, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home.

We are considering the very existence of our Lord Jesus Christ. Did He really exist? We need to discuss this because some people, like the late Bertrand Russell on page 21 of his book Why I am not a Christian, wrote.

Here I may say that one is not concerned with the historical question. Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know much about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one.

However, we have already seen two historical references to Christ, from two very different types of people. The first was a very personal letter, written by a father in prison to comfort his son. The second was by Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian, who mentioned Christ’s execution under Pontius Pilate. He also mentioned the fire in Rome. This is also referred to by another historian.

Suetonius and the Great Fire of Rome

Suetonius wrote about the lives of the first twelve Caesars, from Julius Caesar onwards. In his Life of Nero (16.2) he also mentions the Great Fire of Rome and to Christians being punished for it. An extract is given on the next page where we can, again, see that this evidence has not come from a Christian source, thus giving greater weight to the historical existence of Jesus Christ. However, this is not the only reference of interest to Christians that we find in Suetonius’ writings. He also mentions something which is referred to in the Acts of the Apostles.

Seutonius and the expulsion from Rome

In Acts 18:1-3 we read the following:

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them.

This ties up very well with what Seutonius wrote, but who is this “Chrestus” he referred to? In certain Gentile circles Chrestus was a variant spelling of Christus, and so this is another reference to Jesus Christ. However, it seems here that Seutonius is a little mixed up.

It appears that Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome because of discord and dissension among them, causing tension and trouble in that city. It is likely that the strife among the Roman Jews was caused by the recent introduction of Christianity into Jewish circles there. Seutonius, finding some records in the Roman archives of Jewish quarrelling over one Chrestus, inferred, wrongly, that Chrestus was actually in Rome at the time of Claudius. However, in spite of him being wrong on that point, Seutonius gives us clear indication that this Chrestus, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, did actually exist and had an influence on the affairs of Rome.

Of further interest is a section in his Life of Claudius (18.2). There Seutonius states that during Claudius’ reign there were famines, “constant unfruitful seasons” as he puts it. This is exactly what we read in Acts 11:2:

One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)

Not only are we seeing that there is much historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ, we are also seeing ancient documents confirming the accounts of historical events referred to in the Bible.

Seutonius Life of Nero (16.2)
Seutonius Life of Claudius (24.4)
Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition.
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

The Governor of Bithynia and his problem

We now look at another Gentile source, not an historian, but a Roman Governor. C. Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Younger, was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In AD 112 he wrote to the Emperor Trajan with a problem. He asked the emperor for advice on how to deal with a troublesome sect called Christians, who were extremely numerous in his province, and who were causing him some embarrassment. He had questioned many, and tortured some, to find out their practices, and the evidence he secured is on the next page.

Although these Christians were a problem to Pliny, and although he tortured some of them, his report does seem to be true and fair. This appears to be especially so in the closing words: “they meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.” These words allude to the charge of ritual murder of which both the Jews and Christians were accused; (see Josephus, Against Apion¸2.8, for charges against Jews, and Tertullian, Apology¸7, for charges against Christians.)

Resumé

So far we have looked at four different writers and the evidence that they have presented as to the historical existence of Jesus Christ. Two of them were historians, one a Roman Governor and the fourth an ordinary father. Surely such evidence would stand up in a court of law, but there is more to come, as we shall see in the next edition of Search.

Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia

Epistles 10.96

They [Christians] 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 (sacramentum) not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all fraud, theft and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called upon to honour it; after which it was their custom to separate and then to meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.

We are putting together the historical evidence for the existence of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some people, like Bertrand Russell in his book Why I am not a Christian, have questioned the very existence of Jesus Christ, stating that “it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all”. However, it is interesting that none of the people who propagate the “Christ-myth” theories, as they are called, are historians!

So far we have looked at documents that specifically mention Christ or Christians. However many there are, we would wish for more, but the Romans were not very good at keeping archives. It was an empire which preferred to build roads and bridges, rather than write records. They were soldiers who kept the peace and raised taxes, rather than preserve documents. However, a number of ancient writers do refer to Roman documents which mention Jesus Christ. Even though those manuscripts have not yet been discovered, and may never be found, it is evidence that they did at one time exist.

Justin and Tertullian and the birth of Jesus

In Luke Luke 2:1-5 we read:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

Both Justin, in Apology 1.34 written about AD 150, and Tertullian, in Against Marcion 4.7,19, believed that the record of the above census, including the registration of Joseph and Mary at Bethlehem, would be found in the official archives of the reign of Augustus. They referred any of their readers who wished to be reassured of the facts of Jesus’ birth to these archives. Whether they, themselves, had consulted and seen such documents, we do not know. However, it shows that such documents did exist at that time, and that what was recorded in them did support the account given by Luke.

Justin and Pontius Pilate

A number of ancient writers believed that Pilate did send a report to Rome, documenting the trial and execution of Jesus. In his Defence of Christianity to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, Justin referred the emperor to Pilate’s report (Apology 1.35). One interesting part is given on the next page. Justin would hardly have referred the emperor to a report which did not exist! Thus this is further historical evidence as to the existence of Jesus Christ, and to him being executed under Pontius Pilate. However, but this is not the only reference in Justin to Jesus Christ and the “Acts” of Pontius Pilate, Later he says:

That He [Christ] performed these miracles you may easily be satisfied from the “Acts” of Pontius Pilate. (Apology 1.48)

Thus it seems that Pilate not only wrote about Christ’s trial and execution, but also mentioned His miracles. It would be interesting to know what he wrote but those documents have never been found. None-the-less, we are acquiring a lot of evidence which those who hold to the ‘Christ-myth’ theories seemingly ignore.

Justin Martyr Defence of Christianity

But the words “They pierced my hands and my feet” are a description of the nails that were fixed in His hands and His feet on the cross; and He was crucified, those who crucified Him cast lots for His garments, and divided them among themselves; and that these things were so, you may learn from the “Acts” which are recorded under Pontius Pilate.

Police Records

However, there is another reason that may explain the lack of records pertaining to Christ and Christianity in the annals of ancient Rome. From the standpoint of imperial Rome, Christianity was not very important. More than that, for the first hundred or so years of its existence Christianity was considered a somewhat obscure and disreputable superstition, and those practising it were classed as criminals. If it found its way into the official records at all, these would most likely have been the police records! And there is some evidence to suggest that a number of important people were charged with the crime of becoming Christians, as mentioned by F F Bruce in The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable? (See the next page.)

Such police records would not have been seen as important historical documents, such as some of those mentioned above, and so it should not surprise us that they disappeared and became “the stuff of history”. Many may have even been destroyed. None the less, what little evidence we do have shows us that even as far back as AD 57, the wife of the conqueror of Britain knew of Jesus Christ. He was much more than a figment of her imagination. He was a real thorn in the flesh to the first century Romans, and that makes Him an historical figure of stature.

The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable?

The “foreign superstition” with which, according to Tacitus (Annals 13.32) Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Aulus Plautius, the conqueror of Britain, was charged in AD 57, was probably Christianity. Christianity, too, seems to have been the crime for which the Emperor Domitian had his cousin Flavius Clemens executed and the latter’s wife Flavia Domitilla banished, AD 95 (Seutonius, Life of Domitian 15.1; Dio Cassius, History 67.14). When the accused were distinguished enough, the police records became part of the stuff of history. The probability that both Pomponia and Flavia Domitilla were Christians is supported by the evidence of early Christian cemeteries in Rome. See F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame, pp 137, 162.

We have been collecting historical evidence for the existence of our Lord Jesus Christ since some people question His very existence. So far we have looked at evidence from some Gentile historians. We now turn to the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus.

Who was Josephus?

Josephus ben Mattathias was born in 37 or 38 AD, less than 10 years after the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus. He was a Jewish aristocrat and the arguments within the Jewish community about Jesus of Nazareth must have surrounded his upbringing. He was a priestly politician, and became a reluctant commander of rebel Jewish troops in Galilee during the first Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73 AD). He was captured by Vespasian in 67 AD and became a turncoat, serving the Romans as mediator and interpreter in the remaining years of the revolt. To put this in perspective, Paul was in prison in Rome, at the end of Acts, in the early 60s AD.

Josephus was then taken to Rome and became a Jewish historian in the pay of the Flavian emperors, and thus some of his works portray Rome in a better light than perhaps they should. He wrote two great works: Wars of the Jews, composed in the early 70s, and the much longer Jewish Antiquities, finished in about 93-94 AD. In the latter work there are two references to Jesus Christ.

The Antiquities of the Jews; 18,3,3

From the first quotation on the next page we can see that Josephus does not associate himself with the ‘tribe of Christians’. Thus this is not written from a sympathiser’s point of view. It tells us a number of things about Jesus, including His “wonderful works”, His teaching and His crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, although Josephus is quick, and correct, to add that this was “at the suggestion of the principal men among us [Jews]”. I am aware that I have omitted a few details, but I will return to these later.

The Antiquities of the Jews; 18,3,3

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 [Messiah]; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, 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 to this day.

The Antiquities of the Jews; 20,9,1

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator; but the king deprived Joseph of the high-priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus.

Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of the high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests; but the younger Ananaus, who, as we have told you already, took the high-priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadduccees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority].

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was also called Christ [Messiah], whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when they he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

The Antiquities of the Jews; 20,9,1

In this second quotation, Jesus is mentioned simply as a means of identifying His half-brother James: they had brought before them “the brother of Jesus, who was also called the Christ [Messiah]”.

The Antiquities of the Jews; 18,3,3

Returning to the earlier passage: I am aware that in my summary I left out some of the statements Josephus made relating to Jesus Christ. For example, I omitted that Josephus stated that, “He was the Christ [Messiah]”, that “He appeared to them again the third day”, referring to the resurrection, and the reference to the fulfilments of what the prophets said. The reason for these omissions is that some scholars have questioned these statements. Some claim that these words are interpolations [additions to the texts] made by Christians. Are such assertions correct? We shall look at this next time.

Authenticity

In the last article, we cited two quotations from Josephus’ The Antiquities of the Jews which referred to our Lord Jesus Christ. However, I mentioned that some of what Josephus wrote has been queried by certain scholars who suggest that Christians added to the original text of Josephus. What do they think has been added, and what is the evidence for such a view?

On the next page we reproduce a more modern translation of The Antiquities of the Jews by John P Meir. The words in italics are words which he, and various other scholars, consider to be Christian interpolations; i.e. additions to the original text. Now our initial reaction, when we see Meir wanting to remove those passages in italics, may be one of instant opposition, but we need to think carefully about it.

First of all I am not convinced that we should simply accept what Meir suggests. However, there is a seemingly clear Christian interpolation elsewhere in some translations of Josephus. There is a section in Wars of the Jews which refers to Jesus, but which I have not quoted. This is because it is not in any of the early Greek manuscripts of Josephus, but only in a 10th or 11th century translation into Slavic. Rightly, this addition is disputed and correctly omitted.

However, as far as I am aware, the words italicised by Meir in the quotation from The Antiquities of the Jews are in all those early Greek manuscripts and Eusebius (260-339) quotes it in full. So why question their authenticity? As F F Bruce puts it:

Yet there is nothing against the passage on the grounds of textual criticisms; the manuscript evidence is unanimous and ample as it is for anything in Josephus. (p 108, The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable?)

The Antiquities of the Jews; 18,3,3

Translated by John P Meir:

Words in italics are considered interpolations

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And then Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.

Thus all the words may well be authentic. The main reason for doubting their authenticity is nothing to do with textual criticism. Rather it is because Origen (185-254 AD) stated that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ [Messiah] nor proclaim him as such. And some scholars question whether a person who was not a Christian would have used the italicised expressions printed above of Jesus. To me, that depends. Was Josephus simply recording some of the things he had heard in his upbringing as part of his account? Clearly Josephus was not a Christian, for if he had been he would have recorded a whole lot more, and that is an argument few critics seem to consider.

However, is it possible that some of the italicised words are interpolations?

“If indeed one should call him a man”

Could this be a Christian addition to Josephus? It is possible, as the early Gnostics did have a problem with the humanity of Christ. Seeing all flesh, indeed all matter, as evil, they struggled to comprehend how the holy God could take on human flesh and one of their views was that Christ was not human, but simply appeared human. However, orthodox Christianity has always seen Jesus as fully human, as God manifest in the flesh. Thus if this is an addition, it must have been made by a Gnostic Christian, one of the few who belonged to a minority group, and this seems unlikely. However, it may not have been an addition. Josephus may simply have been recording what some people thought.

“He was the Messiah”

Now why Meir and others should object to this statement in Antiquities 18,3,3 but not to the statement “Jesus, who was also called Christ [Messiah]” in Antiquities 20,9,1 I do not know! The latter statement is seen as authentic by nearly all critics. In that case, why not accept the former, for the latter presupposes that Jesus has been mentioned before. The bald, but very important, statement that he “was also called Christ [Messiah]” would demand some sort of explanation. That explanation is not found in the latter passage. However, it is there in the former where it states ….. He was a doer of wonderful works, startling deeds – He was the Messiah. Thus I cannot see why this earlier statement should be queried and seen by some to be a Christian addition.

“For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him.”

When we remember how the pagan world struggled with the idea of the dead being raised, we can, perhaps, see that this could be an addition to the text. When Paul appeared in Athens and spoke to the philosophers there, they listened to him attentively, but “when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered” (Acts 17:32). Thus if Josephus had included this statement, he may well have lost some credibility among his pagan paymasters.

None the less, having been born within a few years of our Lord’s death and resurrection, and having been brought up in Judea and Galilee and been around when Peter, James, John and the others, to say nothing of Paul, were preaching and teaching, Josephus must have heard of the resurrection of Christ. Clearly he did not believe it, but was it credible enough or important for him to include it in his history?

We might never know, but what we do definitely know from Josephus is that Jesus existed, that He had a half-brother called James, that He was a teacher and doer of startling deeds, that He was the Messiah, and that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

Post Script:

For me, I would be quite happy to accept the whole of Josephus’ testimony. It certainly does not have the flavour of other interpolations, such as the one in Josephus’ The Jewish Wars.

Also, in previous articles we referred to early writings which mentioned Pilate’s account of the crucifixion. The authentic documents have never been found but there are numerous Acta Pilati in existence, none of which is considered to be genuine, and when these are read, like the spurious Acts Chapter 29, it does not take an expert textual critic to see that they do not have the ring of truth and should be not be accepted as authentic. However, Josephus’s testimonies about Christ are not like that.

Because some people doubt whether Jesus Christ ever lived, we have been looking at the non-biblical historical evidence supporting the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

Summary

We looked first at a personal letter from a father to a son, a letter from Mara Bar-Serapion, which he wrote to his son Serapion. This letter was written sometime after AD 73 and a copy is in the British Museum. Mara-Bar Serapion was in prison and he wrote to encourage his son in the pursuit of wisdom, and not to be downcast that his father was in jail.

We looked at the mention of Jesus in the writings of Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian, who was born in AD 53 and who wrote at the end of the first century.

We looked at the two references in the writings in Seutonius, in his Life of Nero and in his Life of Claudius.

We then took a look at another Gentile source, not an historian, but a Roman Governor: C. Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Younger, who was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. He wrote in AD 112.

None of these were Christians, so could not be accused of falsifying the evidence. However, we then did consider two Christians, Justin and Tertullian, and what they had to say about the birth of Jesus in Roman records, and we also considered the criminal records of Rome and how they supported the existence of Jesus and His followers.

Lastly, we considered the two references to Jesus Christ in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus.

Comparison with Muhammad

Now many of these writings date from the first century AD, that is within 50-70 years of the crucifixion of Christ, and the rest are within 100 years. If we extend that to within 150 years, i.e. up to AD180, there would be many more sources we could quote. But how does this compare with other great people of ancient times?

    Let us consider the religious leader Muhammad, who lived hundreds of years after Christ (AD 570-632). One would expect more evidence for someone of more recent times. However, there is not one reference to Muhammad neither in the secular history of his day nor for some time afterwards. The earliest references to him come at least 150 years after his death and all are from Muslim sources; there is not one non-Muslim source.

A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Islam

Patrick Sookhdeo

The earliest accounts of Muhammad’s life were written at least 150 years after his death. All are Muslim sources, and there are is no external (i.e. non-Muslim) supporting evidence.

How different this is for Christ. Not only are there many non-Christian sources, as we have seen, but there are many Christian sources well within 100 years after His death and resurrection.

Early Church Fathers (AD 90-160)

The Early Church Fathers were Christians who lived at the turn of the first Century. In their writings we find references to Christ and quotations from the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament. Not only does this testify to the existence of Christ, but also to the authenticity of the Bible, the Book which supplies the greatest evidence for His existence and at which we shall look next time.

    The earliest writings of the Fathers are dated about AD 100. They include The Epistle of Barnabas, probably written from Alexandria in Egypt, the Didache, the ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’, written from Syria or Palestine, and a letter sent from Clement, bishop of Rome, to the church at Corinth. In these three there are many references to Christ and many quotations from the Gospels.

Clearly His existence was not doubted at that time.

If we move on a few years we come to the letters from Ignatius, as he journeyed to his martyrdom in Rome, which took place in AD 115. Then comes his younger contemporary, Polycarp, and his letter to the Philippians, written about AD 120. Again, there are references to Christ and quotations from the Gospels.

Historical Figure

Christians need have no doubts. They do not follow a mythical character. In terms of historical evidence Christ is a giant. His existence is well attested, and those who have cast doubt on it have done for reasons other than those of history.

As Christians we follow someone Who not only did exist but who still does exist. Following His resurrection back to life, He ascended into the heavens, and now sits at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly places far above all (Ephesians 1:20). There is no historical evidence for Him being seated there; that is something over which we exercise faith. However, his walking and talking upon this earth, that is a different matter. That is historical fact.

Because a number of people question the very existence of Jesus of Nazareth, we have been looking at the historical evidence. We have considered non-Christian sources: Greek, Roman and Jewish. We looked at the ancient Christian sources, the early church fathers, as they are called. And we have made a comparison with evidence for the existence of Mohammed, who lived centuries after Christ. In all of these, the testimony supporting the existence of Jesus Christ was outstanding. If we doubt His existence, then we have to doubt the existence of many other ancient people: Anthony and Cleopatra, perhaps; Nero and Julius Caesar, maybe. Yet who, in their right minds, would deny that these once lived?

However, there is another source of evidence which speaks volumes about Jesus Christ being here on earth. It is, undoubtedly, the greatest testimony to Him and that is the New Testament of the Bible. Yet some will simply dismiss the Bible, claiming it to be biased, but it is not. The New Testament is an historical document and as such it should be treated as equally and fairly as other historical documents. Is it as reliable and authentic as other ancient documents from around the same period? We shall investigate.

The New Testament and Caesar’s Gallic Wars

The way experts give credibility to ancient manuscripts is to compare the number of copies they have of those manuscripts, and their ages. The greater the number of copies and the older they are, the more credence that manuscript has. For example, most people have heard of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, written about 50 BC. There are 10 copies and the oldest is dated about 850 AD; i.e. 900 years after it was written.

Now if we compare this with the New Testament, which was written about 50-100 AD, what do we find. Instead of 10 copies we have 5,000 copies. Instead of the oldest being dated 850 AD, it is dated 350 AD. Instead of the oldest being 900 years after the original, the time lapse is just 250-300 years. Which should have the greater credence? The New Testament or Caesar’s Gallic Wars?

Document

When written

Earliest copy

Years elapsed

Number of copies
Catallus
50 BC AD 1550 1,600 3
Caesar’s Gallic Wars 50 BC AD 850 900 10
Livy
30BC AD 1550 1,580 20
New Testament AD 50-100 AD 350 250-300 5,000
Tacitus Minor works AD 100 AD 1100 1,000 1
Tacitus Annals AD 100 AD 1100 1,000 20
Pliny the Younger AD 60-110 AD 850 740-790 7

In the above, the dates are approximate, but we can see we have 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament and the manuscripts in second place, by Livy and Tacitus, claim but 20 copies.

Similarly, the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament are dated just 250-300 years after the original. Compare that with the next placed manuscript by Pliny the Younger; its oldest copies are dated 740-790 years after the original. Clearly we can rely on the New Testament and give great credence to it, and we can know that it’s central character, Jesus Christ, did exist.

It is very true that no classical scholar would doubt the authenticity of the writing such people as Caesar and Pliny, yet there are just ten copies in one case and seven in the other. How different with the New Testament which has 5,000 copies. If this is the case, and it is, why is it that people wish to cast doubt on the credibility of the New Testament as a reliable historical document and on the existence of its leading character, Jesus Christ?

Jesus Christ

The problem with the New Testament and Jesus Christ, for some people, is that they claim to come from God. They teach what is right and wrong. The one is a moral book, the other a moral Person. And both require a response; either you accept, and so have eternal life, or you reject, and perish (John 3:16).

The New Testament Documents, Are they reliable?

F F Bruce

No classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authority of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals.

To many people, in either a rationalistic world or a post modern one, such a predicament is unacceptable. They wish to establish their own morals. They want situation ethics. They do not want to be told what is right and what is wrong.

They do not want to be told that they are sinners; that Jesus Christ died for their sins. They find it intolerable that they have to repent and accept Jesus as their Saviour. Thus when it comes to dealing with the historical evidence for the existence of Christ there is a built in hostility towards Him, and so the evidence is not treated fairly. However, we can rest assured not only that Jesus Christ existed, but that He still exists today.

Following His death under Pontius Pilate (for which there is historical evidence) He rose from the dead (for which there is historical evidence). He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the Father’s right hand (for which there is no historical evidence). He is also dwelling in the hearts of Christians, but there is no historical evidence for that either. The evidence for that is by faith and by experience.

By Michael Penny

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s