If someone existed in antiquity and if that person were to leave a mark, we should expect it to be in the historical record. From Caesar, to Plato, to Herodotus, to Josephus, and to Jesus we see this. In fact, we can know a good few things about the Jesus of history that scholars deem to be historical.
1. Jesus is a well attested historical figure.
No scholar in the fields of relevant expertise doubts that Jesus once existed as a historical figure. In fact Jesus is, for a 1st century figure, very well attested in independent sources that are traceable to the earliest Christian Palestinian communities. So what is some of this evidence that makes Jesus such a very well attested figure?
Firstly, Jesus was crucified by 30 AD, and by the end of the 1st century we have four independent accounts (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) on Jesus based on early traditions that were circulating in different very early Palestinian Christian communities (each gospel has its own unique material, this is what I mean by “independent” accounts. It is not to deny that there is much cross collaboration between the synoptics Mark, Matthew and Luke). Sources that date 40 – 60 years after the described events are early if we are to judge by what we have for other historical figures and events. Thus Mike Licona, a prominent New Testament historian, explains that “A gap of sixty to seventy years between the writing and the events they purport to describe is quite early compared to what historians work with when it comes to other ancient biographies” (1).
In a similar way scholar Mike Bird, who is on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, says that “Paul’s letters are written about 20-30 years after Jesus’ death, and the Gospels about 50-70 years after his death. Our oldest piece of papyrus with a fragment of John 18 is P25 and is dated to about 125-150 CE. Authors like Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus from the late first and early second century wrote about Jesus too. That sounds pretty early to me, at least in comparison to other historical figures” (2).
Gary Habermas, philosopher of religion and biblical exegete, is quite enthusiastic in saying that “With regard to the historical Jesus, any material between 30 and 50 AD would be exemplary, a time period highly preferred by scholars like those in the Jesus Seminar” (3).
Furthermore, behind the gospels, via textual analysis, we have uncovered several hypothetical sources, commonly referred to as Q, M, L, and a pre-Markan formula. Q, M, L are sources that the gospels authors themselves consulted but that are no longer in existence. However, most historians believe that these hypothetical sources were once in existence. Hypothetical Q was one such source that the authors of Matthew and Luke had used for a handful of their narratives. L was material unique to the Gospel of Luke. L is unique content that Luke’s author used for his narratives that are not found in Mark or Q. The author likely made us of early and independent traditions. The same applies for the Matthew’s unique material, M. M is material that only the author of Matthew seemed to have used. Secondly, it has become obvious to scholars that Mark, our earliest gospel completed by 70 AD used a pre-Markan source for his passion narrative. The pre-Marken account could have even been based on eyewitness testimony, as exegete William Lane Craig observes in an interview, “That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony” (4).
Our final gospel, John, also used earlier sources. Scholar Bart Ehrman informs us that “scholars have long suspected that John had at his disposal an earlier written account of Jesus’ miracles (the so-called Signs Source), at least two accounts of Jesus’s long speeches (the Discourse Sources), and possibly another passion source as well” (5).
This, for the historian, is good data. What more validates Jesus’ historicity is that Q, M, L, pre-Mark, pre-John, some of which predate the gospel accounts, could have been multiple sources themselves (oral, written, or a combination of the two). This might explain Luke’s mentioning that “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (Luke 1:1-3. emp. added)
Secondly, we also find Aramaic traditions evident in some of our New Testament texts. The gospels were originally written in Greek yet various passages are left in the Aramaic; Aramaic was the language that Jesus would have spoken. This suggests that the traditions date to the earlier years of the Christian movement before it would have expanded into the Greek speaking areas. For this reason the gospel authors would have had to translate Aramaic sentences for their readers. We can see this in the episode where Jesus is begged by Jairus, the father of a very ill girl, to heal his daughter, of which Jesus agrees to do. But before Jesus manages to arrive she dies. However, Jesus still goes to the girl, grabs her hand, and says, “Talitha cumi.” These are Aramaic words of which Mark translates for his readers, “Little girl, I say to you rise.” Another example is seen in Jesus’ cry on the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani!” (Mark 15:34, also see John 1:35-52).
Thirdly, we have early creeds. A creed is specific tradition or source that is dated to much earlier than the text in which it is written. In this regard the most well-known creed can be found in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8. This creed is widely dated to within just five years of Jesus’ death in which Paul, our earliest Christian writer, attests to Jesus’ death, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances. For a historian this is good data simply because it is so early.
In addition we have independent sources from our Johannine epsitles, Petrine epistles, Hebrews, Revelation, and other New Testament literature – these additional sources stem from separate communities within 1st Century Palestine and house early independent traditions. Similarly, the book of Acts is embedded with speeches and oral traditions that would date prior to our gospels.
Therefore, it’s no secret that before the close of the 1st century we have sufficient independent attestation corroborating the basic fact of Jesus’ existence. And within these sources we find earlier traditions, oral, written or combination, that are dated to a few years after Jesus’ death. Thus we have a substantial body of literature from the New Testament corpus on the historical Jesus.
Moreover, the most authoritative extra-biblical sources (outside of the Bible) we have are from Josephus Flavius and Cornelius Tacitus. Both these ancient figures were prominent historians, and both of them were penning their accounts of Jesus within a century of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Ehrman explains “That Jesus lived recently is affirmed not only in all four of our canonical Gospels…. It is also the view of all of the Gospel Sources – Q…M, L – and of the non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus” (6).
One could look further and include content from the likes of Suetonius, Pliny, Serapion, Lucian, as well as the early Christian church fathers Papias, Ignatius, and Clement. Clement and Ignatius are taken to be important writers since they are relatively early in comparison to other ancient writes and they also had links to Jesus’ original disciples. Other data from the Gnostic Gospels as well as the Jewish Talmud can be considered although they are not s valuable as the above mentioned sources, probably because they pick up on later unreliable traditions. Exegete Habermas concludes, “When the combined evidence from ancient sources is summarized, quite an impressive amount of information is gathered concerning Jesus and ancient Christianity. Few ancient historical figures can boast the same amount of material” (7).
2. Jesus was a Miracle Worker.
Craig Evans, a specialist in historical Jesus’ studies and early Christianity, flat out says that: “It is no longer seriously contested that miracles played a role in Jesus’s ministry” (8)
In support of Evans’ claim Gary Habermas lays out the historical evidence that has proved quite convincing: “Several important examples might be provided. Of the five sources often recognized in the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ miracles are reported in all five, with some specific occurrences reported in more than one. Jesus’ crucial “Son of Man” sayings are also attested in all five Gospel sources. And the empty tomb is reported in at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources. This helps to understand why these items are taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars” (9).
And perhaps the most skeptical of scholars the late Rudolf Bultmann pens: “Most of the miracle stories contained in the gospels are legendary or at least are dressed up with legends. But there can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles, that is, deeds that were the result of supernatural, divine causality. Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons” (10).
Graham Stanton, a widely respected New Testament scholar at King’s College London, notes: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered” (11).
Stanton’s words are informative in this regard. My understanding of the scholarly landscape is that scholars agree that the evidence for Jesus’ miracles is good. However, since many scholars are not Christians, and often espouse an anti-supernatural philosophy they don’t actually go all the way to believe that Jesus was really a miracle worker. In other words, they pay lip service to the good evidence, but it stops there. However, we can be quite confident that we have good evidence for this side of Jesus’ ministry.
3. Jesus Thought of Himself More Than Human.
Jesus’ favourite self-designation was the Son of Man. We have Jesus referring to himself in this way in our earliest Gospel, Mark, as well as in the other gospel accounts. Since it is so prominently found on his lips, what does it mean?
Jesus is referred to as the “Son of Man” 88 times in the New Testament. A first meaning of the phrase “Son of Man” is as a reference to the prophecy of Daniel 7:13-14 that reads:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Here the description “Son of Man” is a Messianic title. Jesus is the one who was given dominion, glory and a kingdom by God, so whenever he used this phrase, he was assigning the Son of Man prophecy to himself. In other words, according to Jesus he will one day come in the clouds of heaven, that he is given sovereign power and authority over all people, nations and languages. They will worship him, and his kingdom will be eternal, and thus never be destroyed. Jesus refers to himself in this way multiple times in our gospel sources: Mark 8:31-32:38, Mark 2:27-28, Mark 8:11-13, Mark 10:32-34, Matthew 20:17-19, Matthew 8:20, Matthew 12:8, Matthew 12:38-42, Matthew 13:37,41-42, Luke 18:31-34, Luke 6:5, Luke 9:58, Luke 11:29-32, this list is not exhaustive. Professor Craig Evans notes that “Jesus existed, he was Jewish, he wasn’t out to break the law. He was out to fulfill it. Jesus understood himself as the Lord’s anointed, that is as the Messiah” (12).
Scholar Tomson articulates that “Although he apparently considered himself the heavenly ‘Son of Man’ and ‘the beloved son’ of God and cherished far-reaching Messianic ambitions, Jesus was equally reticent about these convictions. Even so, the fact that, after his death and resurrection, his disciples proclaimed him as the Messiah can be understood as a direct development from his own teachings” (13).
William Lane Craig agrees with Tomson: “Jesus’s self-concept as God’s son comes to explicit expression in Matthew 11.27: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (14)
4. Jesus Lead a Ministry.
Scholars are confident that Jesus had a ministry. Prominent New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders opines: “Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism” (15).
Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament Studies, is in agreement with Sanders writing that “there is a consensus of sorts on the basic outline of Jesus’ life” in that most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and over a period of one to three years debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, gathered followers, and was crucified by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who officiated 26–36 AD” (16).
It is the majority consensus among scholars that Jesus was a Galilean, that his activities were confined to Galilee and Judea, and after his death his disciples proclaiming his message.
5. Jesus’ Baptism.
Consensus holds that John the Baptist performed a baptism on Jesus in the Jordan River. Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion, according to James Dunn, “command almost universal assent” (17). Dunn goes on to say that these two facts “rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (18). What we find are various independent sources corroborating the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
For instance, Josephus Flavius, a 1st century historian in his work the Antiquities of the Jews writes about John the Baptist, his popularity among the crowds, and his death in Perea by Herod Antipas which is further independently attested in the gospel accounts. Josephus’ corroboration of John the Baptist gives us further confidence in our New Testament accounts.
Within the four gospel accounts Jesus’ baptism is attested (Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22, John 1:32), as well as in Acts 10:37-38. It is important to note that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s earlier gospel as a source narrative, so we have at least two independent sources (Mark, John) plus Acts. From the New Testament canon we have three independent sources attesting to the baptism.
Jesus’ baptism is reported in the hypothetical Q, as scholar Robert Webb points out: “…the weight of the evidence leads me to a conclusion of probability: the text of Q most likely contained an account of Jesus’ baptism and the theophany” (19).
And according to standard historical criterion Jesus’ baptism passes the criterion of embarrassment. This is a criteria scholars apply to the New Testament literature to separate what is deemed historical from what isn’t historical. Baptism was seen by the early Christians as the washing away of sins, yet the early Christians also saw Jesus as sinless. Therefore, Jesus’ baptism is not something the early Christians would invent out of whole cloth. Jesus’ baptism passes the criterion of embarrassment.
So in essence, Jesus’ baptism is multiply attested in seven historical sources: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Q, and Josephus. Of those seven sources at least four, if not five, are independent. Coupled with the criterion of embarrassment I think we can be confident that we’re dealing with historical fact. Scholar Dominic Crossan, of the radical Jesus Seminar argues that it is historically certain that Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan River (20). Webb concludes:
“…within the realms of historical probability, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. As such, the baptism was for Jesus a significant turning point in his life, from his former life as a peasant artisan in Nazareth to a life of ministry” (21).
6. Jesus Thought He Could Forgive Sins.
Jesus thought that he could forgive sins, as only God could do, and this would put him on equal footing with Yahweh, the God of the Bible. Jesus gives us his mission and purpose of why he came to Earth: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” On this point New Testament scholar Robert Grant writes: “Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins” (22).
In Mark 2:1-12 Jesus forgives a paralyzed man: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus also forgives a woman in Luke 7:48, and in Mark 2:10 says: “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” We find that Jesus tells Paul in his radical conversion in Acts 26:15-18: “that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” At the last supper we read: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28) Even the Jews accused Jesus of blaspheming in Matthew 9:3. We read:
“Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.” And some of the scribes said to themselves, “This fellow blasphemes.” And Jesus knowing their thoughts asked, “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts?”
So, we have attestation in all our gospels of Jesus forgiving sins. We see that Jesus thought he could forgive sins, that the Jews tried to stone him for doing so, and that it was his mission to call “sinners to repentance.”
7. Jesus Predicted His Imminent Death.
Jesus predicted his death and resurrection before it would occur, at least on multiple occasions. We find this in our of our gospel accounts (Mark 9:30–3, Matthew 16:21–28, Luke 9:22–27, and John 13-17), and is probably what led the late historian Maurice Casey to state quite plainly: “Jesus predicted his death and resurrection” (23).
John Piper, an evangelical Christian who did his doctoral work in New Testament Studies at the University of Munich, believes that “Our first evidence of the resurrection, therefore, is that Jesus himself spoke of it. The breadth and nature of the sayings make it unlikely that a deluded church made these up. And the character of Jesus himself, revealed in these witnesses, has not been judged by most people to be a lunatic or a deceiver” (24).
8. Jesus Thought That His Death Was Important.
If the Christian message is true, then there is nothing more important in human history than that of Jesus’ death on the cross to atone for mankind’s sins. This is the view that Jesus had; he knew that he had to die to make man once again right with God.
In Matthew 16:21 we read that “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.”
Scholar Maurice Casey writes that: “He believed that his death would fulfill the will of God for the redemption of his people Israel” (25). Likewise Professor Robert Grant says that “Jesus lived his last days, and died, in the belief that his death was destined to save the human race” (26).
Jesus was clearly sincere about his mission. He really believed this.
9. Jesus’ crucifixion.
Perhaps one of the best attested facts about Jesus is that he was crucified, an event that several independent sources affirm. According to James Dunn the crucifixion is of the “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent” (27) and that it “rank[s] so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (28). The prominent Bart Ehrman agrees that “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life” (29).
Furthermore, we find that all our gospels sources attest to the crucifixion as Jesus’ mode of death. Mark, our earliest gospel, utilized a Pre-Markan passion narrative source about Jesus’ last week, and his crucifixion. This is an important detail for it allows us to go back much earlier than our earliest gospel.
We also find Serapion, in his letter, refers to the crucifixion of the “wise king”, it is the majority scholarly opinion that Jesus is the one being referred to here. Robert Van Voorst, Professor of New Testament Studies, sees little doubt that the reference to the execution of the “king of the Jews” is about the death of Jesus (30). Bruce Chilton, a scholar of early Christianity and Judaism states that Serapion’s reference to the “king of Jews” may be related to the inscription on the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark (15:26) (31).
Josephus Flavius refers to Jesus’ crucifixion very vividly, “And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross.” Cornelius Tacitus in his work refers to Jesus’ crucifixion. Eddy and Boyd state that it is now “firmly established” that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus (32). Some later sources (Lucian of Samosata, Jewish Talmud) also attest to this tradition, though they don’t go much in the way of providing independent attestation.
Further worth noting are the early Church fathers Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement who all believed that Jesus was crucified on a cross. These three early church fathers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries had ties to the original apostles of Jesus, and their companions of whom testified to Jesus’ death.
Furthermore, Jesus even predicted his imminent death at least four different times in Mark 9:30–3, Matthew 16:21–28, Luke 9:22–27, and John 13-17. Paul in his epistles to the early churches ubiquitously also attests to the crucifixion. Paul would have known this since he had met with Jesus’ brother James, and Jesus’ favourite disciple Peter. All three attest to the fact of Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
Alongside the Gospel of Luke, we also find the crucifixion mentioned in the book of Acts. Acts is our most comprehensive narrative on the historical movements of the early church after Jesus’ death. Acts reports: “When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in the tomb” and “When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in the tomb.” William Lane Craig summarizes much of the data:
“From Josephus and Tacitus, we learn that Jesus was crucified by Roman authority under the sentence of Pontius Pilate. From Josephus and Mara bar Serapion we learn that the Jewish leaders made a formal accusation against Jesus and participated in events leading up to his crucifixion. And from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, we learn that Jewish involvement in the trial was explained as a proper undertaking against a heretic” (33).
We have Jesus’ crucifixion independently attested in the Pre-Mark Passion Narrative, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter 2:24, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, & Cornelius Tacitus. This amounts to at least 11 independent sources affirming the mode of crucifixion. Thus “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (34). Atheist historian Gerd Ludemann claims that “Jesus’ death as a result of crucifixion is indisputable” (35).
10. Jesus Burial in a Tomb.
According to John Robinson of Cambridge University: “the [Burial is] earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (36). That Jesus was buried is conceded by atheist writer Jeffrey Lowder who notes that “the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea has a high final probability” (37). Raymond Brown, a once prominent specialist in New Testament studies, writes that: “Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “very probable,” since it is “almost inexplicable” why Christians would make up a story about a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right by Jesus” (38). Historian and philosopher Gary Habermas, having reviewed some 3400 articles relevant to this subject, describes his efforts:
“My bibliography is presently at about 3400 sources and counting, published originally in French, German, or English. Initially I read and catalogued the majority of these publications, charting the representative authors, positions, topics, and so on, concentrating on both well-known and obscure writers alike, across the entire skeptical to liberal to conservative spectrum” (38).
According to this analysis the empty tomb is accepted by approximately 67 to 75% of the scholars in the field. Habermas argues that there are “23 reasons that favor the historicity of the empty tomb” (40).
Finally Michael Grant pens that “the historian… cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb” and that “the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty” (41).
11. Jesus’ Tomb was Found to be Empty.
It is of the vast consensus that Jesus’ tomb somehow became empty. One thus needs to explain how Jesus’ tomb became empty, and then why the disciples, and the skeptics James, and the enemy Paul claimed that Jesus had appeared to them in his resurrected body. Paul informs us in his early creed that Jesus also appeared to 500 others. This is a belief that several early followers were martyred for and never, as far as our historical data tells us, recanted their faith that Jesus’ had in fact appeared to them. Whatever the case, they certainly believed it. The Austrian scholar Jacob Kremer informs us that “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb” (42). Likewise van Daalen argues that “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions” (43).
William Lane Craig explains, albeit briefly, why he thinks the empty tomb is likely given the context of women being the first discoverers: “In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb” (44). N.T. Wright believes that it is very difficult to explain the rise of early Christianity apart from the resurrection: “That is why, as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him” (45).
Craig concludes that there is “powerful evidence that the tomb of Jesus was actually found empty on Sunday morning by a small group of his women followers. As a plain historical fact this seems to be amply attested” (46).
12. The Resurrection Belief was Early.
Arguably the most important line of evidence pertaining to the earliness of the proclamation of a risen Jesus comes from one of Paul’s epistles in a very early tradition cited in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8. This creed implies the fact of the empty tomb, which in turn implies that the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus was raised from the dead. Paul writes that Jesus “was buried and that he was raised”.
Paul fills us in with some more information by telling us that Jesus appeared to his chief disciple Peter, then to the inner circle of disciples known as the Twelve; then he appeared to a group of 500 disciples at once, then to his younger brother James, who up to that time was apparently not a believer, and then to all the apostles. Finally, Paul adds, “he appeared also to me,” at the time when Paul was still a persecutor of the early Jesus movement.
In fact, the prominent New Testament scholar James Dunn dates this very creed of Paul back to within 18 months of Jesus’ death. Even on the more skeptical end, this creed is dated no later than five years after Jesus’ death on the cross. That is extraordinarily early. Gary Habermas explains that “Reports from such an early date would actually predate the written Gospels. A famous example is the list of Jesus’ resurrection appearances supplied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Most critical scholars think that Paul’s reception of at least the material on which this early creedal statement is based is dated to the 30s AD” (47).
It was this early belief behind the reason why Paul was executing and persecuting the early Christians in the years 31-33 AD prior to his conversion. To Paul, any Jew claiming that somebody was God’s anointed one, in this case Jesus, after he was pinned to a cross was taken to be the height of blasphemy. Historian Gerd Ludemann concludes, “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.” (48)
13. Paul Had a Radical Experience of Jesus.
Paul was a rigid Pharisaic Jew of the 1st century. In fact, he was so committed to this belief that when the early Christians around 31-33 AD, a year or two after Jesus died, were proclaiming that he was raised from the dead, he personally persecuted, and executed them. We read that “Saul [this was Paul’s name prior to his conversion] was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”
We also read in Acts 7.57 – 8:1 that “they all rushed at him (Stephen), dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. . . . And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”
After Stephen was martyred, Saul went door to door in Jerusalem finding people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3). After putting these people in prison, Paul (Saul) found out that the Christian prisoners were sending letters to others in Damascus: “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished” (Acts 22:4-5).
But then something quite extraordinary happened to Paul (Saul) as he travelled to Damascus in search of more Christians to execute and persecute. According to him, God appeared to him in an unexpected way, “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, `Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ” `Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “`I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. ” `What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. ” `Get up,’ the Lord said, `and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me” (Acts 22:6-11).
We see that after this radical encounter Paul changed dramatically, “At once he (Saul of Tarsus) began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9:20-22).
On this point New Testament historian Michael Licona finds Paul’s conversion very interesting; Licona explains that “Paul’s conversion is especially interesting because he was an enemy of the church when his experience of the risen Jesus occurred. Therefore Jesus’ resurrection is reported not only by his friends but also by at least someone who was a vehement foe at the time of the experience. Paul’s belief that he had witnessed the risen Christ was so strong that he, like the original disciples, was willing to suffer continuously for the sake of the gospel, even to the point of martyrdom” (49).
Even the skeptic Bart Ehrman declares that “It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection” (50).
From persecutor to convert, and from convert to leader. What would account for such a dramatic conversion? Paul says it was the resurrection.
14. The Disciples Experienced the Risen Jesus.
It is accepted by the overwhelming majority of scholars that Jesus’ followers thought that he was raised from the dead. Lending credence to this conclusion would, of course, be their willingness to die for such a belief, and that they were the people who would have known Jesus personally. Whatever Jesus did they were there and would have seen it. Atheist Gerd Ludemann concedes that “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (51).
E.P. Sanders firmly believes that something convinced the disciples, “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause” (52).
Agnostic Bart Ehrman argues that “It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death” (53). This we can say “with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that … he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead” (54).
Even Rudolf Bultmann, known for his skepticism, once penned that “All that historical criticism can establish is that the first disciples came to believe the resurrection” (55).
Sanders rounds by noting the sincerity of the disciples’ belief; he writes that “we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it” (56).
15. Jesus’ Brother James Was Martyred.
Like many others that Jesus encountered who had rejected him, Jesus’ family and his brother James also did so (Mark 3:21). However, later when Jesus appeared to his brother James, like Paul, he ended up leading the early church, and was eventually martyred for his belief. This we have historical evidence for.
Firstly, according to a passage found Antiquities of the Jews penned by the 1st century historian Josephus Flavius we read: “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” met his death after the death of the procurator Porcius Festus but before Lucceius Albinus had assumed office.” (Antiquities 20,9)
Secondly, the church father Origen who consulted the works of Josephus around 248 AD, also related an account of the death of James. On this point, John Painter claims that “Origen twice asserts that Josephus said that the destruction of Jerusalem occurred because of what was done to James. The argument was that the destruction was a consequence of divine retribution because of what was done to James” (57). Wataru Mizugaki says that “Origen appreciates Josephus by noting that he has ‘researched on the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple’ and concludes that Josephus is ‘not far from the truth’ in concluding that the reason for the calamity was the assassination of James the Just by the Jews.”
The church historian Eusebius, also quotes Josephus’ account, but in addition records the lost passages from Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria, concerning James’ death. Nevertheless, according to Hegesippus (110 – 180 AD): “To the scribes’ and Pharisees’ dismay, James boldly testified that “Christ himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven.” This wasn’t taken well and they “… threw down the just man… [and] began to stone him: for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned, and kneeled down, and said: “I beseech thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
With Josephus as our authoritative source coupled with other historical lines of evidence, I think we can be fairly certain that James, the brother of Jesus, was martyred for his testimony. Regarding James, as well as the other disciples of Jesus, Mike Licona writes:
“The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. The case is strong that they did not willfully lie about the appearances of the risen Jesus. Liars make poor martyrs” (59).
16. Jesus Had a Mother Called Mary.
It is said that Mary is the mother of Jesus. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we find that she was a virgin, and that she gave an allegedly miraculous birth to Jesus without impregnation from any man, including her husband Joseph.
We find that Mary is independently attested in the gospel accounts. She is mentioned most often in the Gospel of Luke who identifies Mary by her name 12 times, all of which can be seen in the infancy narrative (Luke: 1:27, 30, 34, 38, 39, 41, 46, 56; 2:5, 16, 19, 34).
In Matthew’s gospel we see that he mentions Mary by name five times (1:16,18,20; 2:11), four times in the infancy, and once outside of the infancy narrative (13:55). In Mark’s gospel she is named just once (6:3), and he again mentions her, not by name, in Mark 3:31.
The last gospel, John, mentions Mary twice but never mentions her by name. John describes her as Jesus’ mother, and makes two appearances in his gospel. The book of Acts, another of Luke’s writing that follows on from his gospel, Mary and the “brothers of Jesus” are mentioned in the company of the Eleven who are gathered in the upper room after the Ascension.
We can learn a bit more about Mary from the gospels, but we can be certain that she was Jesus’ mother. She saw her son crucified on a Roman cross.
17. Jesus was Unique.
Contemporary scholarship unanimously rejects the notion that Jesus was a copy of pagan gods. Scholar Mettinger says that there is a lack of evidence to support such a theory: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct…” (59). Professor Ronald Nash, a prominent philosopher and theologian, rebuts that the “Allegations of an early Christian dependence on Mithraism have been rejected on many grounds. Mithraism had no concept of the death and resurrection of its god and no place for any concept of rebirth—at least during its early stages” (60). Nash then concludes noting that “Today most Bible scholars regard the question as a dead issue” (61).
Similarly, Professor Craig Keener writes that “When you make the comparisons, you end up with a whole lot more differences than you do similarities” (62). Smith, noted for his work on Hellenistic religions, agrees with Keener’s diagnosis: “The idea of dying and rising gods is largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts” (63).
Scholar Michael Bird appears annoyed by the amateurish nature of mythicism: ““Now I am normally a cordial and collegial chap, but to be honest, I have little time or patience to invest in debunking the wild fantasies of “Jesus mythicists”, as they are known. That is because, to be frank, those of us who work in the academic profession of religion and history simply have a hard time taking them seriously” (64). James Dunn rounds off by identifying that “Myth is a term of at least doubtful relevance to the study of Jesus and the Gospels” (65).
18. The Religious Jews Didn’t Like Him Much.
We see this in Paul’s writing where he confirms that he persecuted the early Christians around 32/33 AD for proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, as we’ve already amply noted. Jesus’ death on the cross was so despicable to Paul, and to many other Jews, that he viewed these early Christians as severe blasphemers, and hence his reason for executing and persecuting them. Anyone who was crucified, according to Jewish belief, is under condemnation from God, therefore Jesus, in Paul’s eyes, could not be the long awaited Messiah that the Jews were expecting to come and liberate them from opposition rule. It took something radical for him to change his ways.
The Pharisees by no means had a high view of Jesus either, in fact it was them that eventually got him pinned to the cross. The Roman authority only consented to their wishes. In the gospel traditions the Pharisees were threatened and appalled by Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus, as alleged in John 8:59, claimed to be equal with God they tried to stone him: “ Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.” Again, Jesus was nearly a victim of stoning when he claimed that he “and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
In Matthew 12:14 we read that there was a plot to kill him: “But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” This was to be done in secret: “Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.” (Mark 14:1) In Luke we are given the picture that the Pharisees were threatened by Jesus’ following: “and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people.” (22:2)
Essentially wherever Jesus went the Pharisees wanted to kill him. They also tried and trap him in his own words which would enable them to accuse him of blasphemy. In Matthew 22:15 we read: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said.” And that: “Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement.” (Mark 12:13). Also in Luke 11:54 the Pharisees were “waiting to catch him in something he might say.”
Another piece of evidence comes from the Jewish Talmud. The Talmud is an ancient record of Jewish history, laws, and rabbinic teachings compiled throughout the centuries, and makes several references to Jesus. The Talmud states in Sanhedrin 43a that, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray.” The Talmud accuses Jesus of being a sorcerer with disciples (b Sanh 43a-b), a son or disciple that turned out badly (Sanh 103a/b; Ber 17b), a frivolous disciple who practiced magic and turned to idolatry (Sanh 107b; Sot 47a), a worthy of punishment in the afterlife (b Git 56b, 57a). The Talmud is a late source and should be considered with caution. However, the traditions that are embedded within it match what we have in our gospels.
19. Jesus Faced Intense Rejection.
As we’ve noted above on several occasions, Jesus’ own family rejected him, including his brother James. In John 1:11 we read that his hometown rejected him: “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.”
In Matthew 8:34 the people of the city wanted him to leave: “And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw Him, they implored Him to leave their region” and in Mark 8:34: “Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.”
We also find out that many were offended by Jesus: “And he went out from thence, and came into his own country … And they were offended at him” (Mark 6:13). In response Jesus replies: “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (Luke 7:23).
In Mark 3:30 Jesus was also accused of having an “… impure spirit.” And the “teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”” In Mark 3:21 we see Jesus’ own family charging him for being insane: “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.””
At another time many disciples left him (John 6:66-67): “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” The famous German theologian, know for his opposition to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, remarks that “Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as one rejected and cast out. It was by divine necessity that Jesus had to suffer and be rejected” (66)
20. Paul Died for the Belief that Jesus had Appeared to Him.
Also, it is rather amazing that Paul, who persecuted and executed the early Christians, became a Christian leader, and church planter, himself. What does Paul say that this was? The resurrection. This belief would eventually result in his decapitation.
We read in 2 Timothy 4:6–8 that Paul (or a pseudo author) seemed to be anticipating his soon demise, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” This would certainly be an indirect reference to Paul’s approaching death.
Although Paul’s death is not directly recorded in the New Testament we find the early church father Ignatius, probably writing around 110, affirming his martyrdom. Ignatius was also connected personally to the disciples which gives reason to think that he might have had first-hand testimony of Paul’s death. Ignatius writes in Praise of the Ephesians that “Ye are initiated into the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred, the deservedly most happy, at whose feet may I be found…”
Further, we have First Clement (AD 95) who was most likely a disciple of Peter; Peter probably died around the same time as Paul. In 1 Clement Chapter 5 we read that “Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.”
Much later Eusebius, the well-known church historian of the 4th century, believed that Paul was beheaded at the order of the Roman emperor Nero or one of his subordinates. According to William Smith we have the following examination, “For what remains, we have the concurrent testimony of ecclesiastical antiquity, that he was beheaded at Rome, about the same time that St. Peter was crucified there. The earliest allusion to the death of St. Paul is in that sentence from Clemens Romanus… which just fails of giving us any particulars upon which we can conclusively rely. The next authorities are those quoted by Eusebius in his H. E. ii. 25. Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (A. D. 170), says that Peter and Paul went to Italy and taught there together, and suffered martyrdom about the same time. This, like most of the statements relating to the death of St. Paul, is mixed up with the tradition, with which we are not here immediately concerned, of the work of St. Peter at Rome” (67).
Historically it is not in dispute that Paul was martyred for his proclamation of the risen Jesus.
21. That Jesus was a Jewish man.
It is broad agreement among scholars that Jesus was a Jew of 1st century Palestine. The view that Jesus was a Jew is supported by Bart Ehrman in his work ‘Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium’ (1998), Joseph Stoutzenberger in ‘Celebrating sacraments’ (2000), and Murphy Frederick in his book ‘The religious world of Jesus: an introduction to Second Temple Palestinian Judaism.’ (1991)
Although we do not know what Jesus looked like as the New Testament is silent on it, James Charlesworth, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, notes: “[he] most likely dark brown and sun-tanned, and his stature may have been between five feet five [1.65 m] and five feet seven”.
22. Jesus Doesn’t Go Down Well with Atheists.
The issue of Jesus’ existence has been popularized by mythicists (who are almost entirely atheists). As quoted numerous times already, we shall quote Bart Ehrman (who self-describes as an “agnostic with atheist leanings”) in this regard. In reply to a question he says:
“Yeah, well, I do. I mean, that’s why I wrote the book (Did Jesus Exist). I wrote a whole book on it… so… there is a lot of evidence. There is so much evidence… I know in the crowds that you all run around with it is commonly thought that Jesus did not exist, let me tell you, once you get outside of your conclave there is nobody… I mean this is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity, this is not an issue. There is no scholar in any college, or university in the Western world who teaches classics, ancient history, New Testament, early Christianity, or any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed… The reason for thinking that Jesus existed is because he is abundantly attested in early sources, that’s why, and I give the details in my book. Early and independent sources indicate certainly that Jesus existed” (68).
Ehrman continues: “I mean… I’m sorry, I respect you disbelief. I think that atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism. Because, frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world. If that’s what you are going to believe you just look foolish, you are much better off going with historical evidence, and arguing historically rather than coming up with the theory that Jesus didn’t exist.”
References (coming soon).