One post on our website is from Don in Illinois. His question and his comments expose very serious criticisms of the Christian faith. If these claims are true, then the traditional claims of Christianity really are on shaky ground. Let’s see what he says, and then consider some responses.
Don says: “What evidence is there that Jesus Christ actually existed? The only historical documentation of his existence is in the gospels, and it appears that if any gospels were written by actual witnesses during or shortly after Jesus’ supposed lifetime, they’ve been lost to history. The gospels we do have are copies of copies of copies of “originals” written long after Jesus would have been dead (and based, themselves, on the results of decades of oral tradition with all the twists and turns that implies.)”
Here is a response. Hopefully, they will be of value to Don and to others who have the same questions and thoughts.
Don, I appreciate your question and comments posted on our website. You have raised several very important issues. We have addressed some of them in a previous article HERE. However, because you have expressed some widely held notions that could be devastating to the Christian faith, I want to offer additional responses. For the sake of organization, I will break down your comments into three separate points.
1. “What evidence is there that Jesus Christ actually existed? The only historical documentation of his existence is in the gospels.”
- First, please take a look at another article on our website, Did Jesus even live or was he just a legend?. One thing it mentions is that even a notable scholar who has rejected historic Christianity has recently written a book that defends the existence of the person of Jesus Christ in history. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, published Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2013). Take a look at this book, and keep in mind that Ehrman is a religious skeptic, not some committed Christian. He is approaching the evidence of Jesus from a historical perspective.
- Second, it’s simply false to say that “the only historical documentation of his [Jesus’] existence is in the gospels.” This may be a popular conception, but it isn’t true. Notable references to Jesus from non-New Testament literature can be found in the Roman historian Tacitus (c, 56-117 AD), the Roman governor Pliny the Younger (c. 112 AD), the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, the Jewish Talmud, and the second-century Greek satirist Lucian. Here is an overview article on this subject.
- Third, other New Testament books testify about the historical Jesus whose existence is necessary in order to make any sense out of the origin of the faith of the new Christian church. Luke mentions Jesus 71 times, including several times in a historical context that occurred just 50 days after the crucifixion of Jesus (see Acts 1-2). The apostle Paul once killed the new Christians but was transformed into a Jesus follower. Paul refers to Jesus a combined total of 198 times in the books often attributed to him. (And this excludes Hebrews that mentions Jesus 15 times.) Galatians, one of Paul’s earliest letters, likely written by 56 AD and arguably as early as the late 40s, refers to Jesus 16 times. In one verse, he says, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” (Gal 3:1). That’s a pretty specific claim about the historicity of Jesus! These references to Jesus in other New Testament documents are very significant, especially when most, if not all, of these New Testament books were originally written within the first century. (I won’t bother to go into the hundreds of second-century quotations of these New Testament books.)
- Fourth, even IF the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were the only accounts that discussed in some detail the life of Jesus, this would be remarkable and arguably-sufficient testimony for his existence. If the historicity of Jesus cannot be justified by the textual evidence of the Gospels—much less all the rest of the textual testimony I’ve mentioned—then no person in ancient history could be demonstrated to have existed!
2. You also say that “if any gospels were written by actual witnesses during or shortly after Jesus’ supposed lifetime, they’ve been lost to history” because they are just “copies of copies of ‘originals’ written long after Jesus would have been dead (and based, themselves, on the results of decades of oral tradition with all the twists and turns that implies.)”
- First, it is true that we do not have any “original” Gospel documents available today. But I ask, Does this mean that it’s simply not reasonable to accept the accounts as trustworthy of what they say about individuals and purported events? If so, then we cannot accept anything about Homer, or Caesar, or Herodotus, or Thucydides, or Plato, or Aristotle, or any ancient figure or historical treatise.
- Second, the copies we do have of the Gospels and other relevant New Testament material are much closer to their originals than essentially every other ancient original text. The earliest copies we have of Homer are about 500 years after Homer, and the earliest copies we have of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, and Caesar are at least 1,000 years later than their originals. By contrast, the earliest “copies” of New Testament books or portions of them are much closer to their originals. The John Ryland’s manuscript (dated at about 130 AD) quotes from the Gospel of John. The Bodmer Papyrus II (dated from 155-200 AD) includes most of John’s Gospel. These copies are just 35-100 years after the original was written. (John is often thought, even by conservative scholars, not to have been written until the end of the first century.)
- In addition, we have many quotations of New Testament books by Christians in the second century. Clement of Rome, a leader in the church at Rome (AD91-101) cites from Matthew, John, and 1 Corinthians. Ignatius (about AD110) referred to six of the letters of Paul. Polycarp (AD69-155) cited from all four Gospels.
3. You also say that the Gospels are “based, themselves, on the results of decades of oral tradition with all the twists and turns that implies.”
- First, it’s easy to speculate about how “oral tradition” changed or even created things. After all, we’ve all played versions of “telephone” and have some idea of how communication can change when it’s transferred from person to person. But this is a very hard case to make for the Gospels.
- Let’s say Jesus was crucified in AD30 and ask two critical questions:
- When were the Gospels originally written? Typically, scholars think that Mark was the earliest, and a strong case can be made that Mark was written by the mid-60s in the first century—that’s just a little more than 30 years after the crucifixion. I believe that a good case can be made that Matthew and Luke were written before AD70. (One evidence of this is that they make no mention of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 when they could have benefitted greatly by incorporated this point as a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy [e.g. Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21].) Technically, then, if the Gospels originated when I claim, it would be “decades” after Jesus. But 30-40 years does not allow the kind of rampant revision we sometimes think of with oral tradition. For one thing, many people would still be alive who lived at the time of Jesus. (Paul even says this in 1 Corinthians 15:6.)
- How trustworthy was the “oral tradition” for the Gospels?
- One consideration is the fact that the Gospels are not the earliest written witnesses of Jesus. Even if they were not penned until the 60s (or 70s/80s for that matter), the earliest records are from St. Paul. 1 Thessalonians was likely written about AD50; Galatians by the mid-50s; and 1 Corinthians around AD56. Now we’re getting back to within about 20 years of the crucifixion! And it’s clear from the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the book of Acts that the basic message of Paul and the other apostles was essentially the same.
- Another consideration is that the first-century Jewish culture was an oral culture. People were used to transmitting things orally. They used all kinds of mnemonic techniques to help them.
- Another point is that those who orally transmitted the message about Christ understood it as having “eternal significance.” If you’re playing “telephone” and started a message about Bob who kissed a girl named Sally last Friday night while they were having ice cream at Culvers, and you ran that through 20 people, it’s quite possible you’re going to end up with a guy named Don who dissed Sarah at a hamburger joint. However, if you truly believe that your message is of eternal significance, it’s more than reasonable to think that one will be more careful with the content.
- Not only were Paul’s letters earlier than the Gospels, the internal referencing of the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the book of Acts allows us to determine that Paul’s conversion likely occurred about AD35 and he met with the apostles in Jerusalem by the late 30s (see Galatians 1:17-18). And, most reasonably, Paul’s message shared with the apostles in the late 30s is the same message that they all testified about later in their Gospels and letters.
- In sum, when we trace it back this way, the “tradition” or the “chain of evidence” takes us back to within 10 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. This is a much different picture than is painted by those who emphasize all the twists and turns that come with oral tradition.
The bottom line is this: Not only is there remarkable evidence for the historicity of Jesus, there is remarkable evidence that what we have access to today in the New Testament is a reliable witness to the message about Jesus. It simply cannot be so easily dismissed with the claims that Jesus wasn’t even a real person or that we can’t trust much of anything about what the Gospels or other New Testament books say about him. If Jesus was real, and if the New Testament documents reliably point us to him and his message, then it’s a message with eternal significance that deserves our most earnest attention.
I hope you’ll look more closely at some resources that attest to the points I have shared. If you’d like specific recommendations, let us know. Thanks again for raising such important issues!
–Dr. Rich Knopp, Program Director, Room For Doubt; Professor of Philosophy & Christian Apologetics, Lincoln Christian University.