IS THE JESUS OF HISTORY THE JESUS OF FAITH?

HISTORY & ARCHAEOLOGY SAY YES!

Jesus mythicists can best be described as people who are “highly skeptical” if not completely doubtful that Jesus Christ ever existed. Of course, much of what we learn about the life and ministry of Jesus comes to us from the New Testament as well as other historical sources. For example, Jesus mythicist, Bob Price (whom I’ve previously debated on the historicity of the Exodus), wrote the following:

“It is quite likely, though certainly by no means definitively provable, that the central figure of the gospels is not based on any historical individual. Put simply, not only is the theological “Christ of faith” a synthetic construct of theologians, a symbolic “Uncle Sam” figure. But if you could travel through time, like Superboy, and you went back to First-Century Nazareth, you would not find a Jesus living there” [1].

Similarly, Jesus mythicist, Richard Carrier, in his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why Might Have Reason to Doubt, states that: “The Gospels generally afford us no evidence for discerning a historical Jesus.” And, that “Most of what Christians [i.e. “early Christians”] wrote were lies. We should approach everything they wrote with distrust.” Elsewhere Carrier noted that the NT book of Acts, “…reliability for demonstrating the historicity of Jesus is essentially non-existent” [2].

Yet, If history is at all knowable, with any degree of certainty, then the New Testament is one of THE most remarkable and reliable primary sources in the ancient world!

It is interesting that skeptics of the New Testament read quite a bit of material in order to “debunk” it as mythology, yet curiously don’t read about the history of biblical critics, whose theories have themselves been debunked and disproven. Through the years, New Testament has stood strong like a stone-clad lighthouse anchored to bedrock, while the waves, foam and torrents of the critics have crashed against it to no effect (John 10:35b).

What is History? How Can We Know It?

In the classical sense of the term, historiography is the science of writing history, where the scholars carefully analyze and vet primary sources. There are three primary sources for accurately reconstructing the past:

  1. Eyewitnesses
  2. Historical Records (which includes manuscripts, MSS, and historical inscriptions)
  3. Archaeological Remains.

Historians and scholars today have broad and varied views of the relative value and proper usage of these three primary sources, and these stem primarily from philosophical principles rather than historical, or archaeological ones. For a further discussion of the philosophical dimensions to history and archaeology see my article, Summa Archaeologica here.

EYEWITNESSES TO CHRIST & HIS RESURRECTION

Eyewitnesses are vital to historical events. Without them it is difficult to reconstruct an accurate picture of what happened in the past. Eyewitnesses from ancient history have been long dead so they can’t be consulted or interviewed. What we do have, however, are historical records they have left us, historical inscriptions, as well as archaeological remains.

The New Testament is a historical document of the finest caliber, written by eyewitnesses to the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ. As the Apostle John writes:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of Life….(1 John 1:1).

The Apostle Peter wrote;

We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty (2 Peter 1:16).

HISTORICAL RECORDS (MANUSCRIPTS & ANCIENT WRITERS)

There is no evidence for a historical Jesus…”

-Richard Carrier

The original manuscripts of the New Testament are called the autographa (or autographs). Most scholars are unanimous in the belief that the original NT autographs were written in the first century AD, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses of Jesus and His public ministry. The sheer number and quality of New Testament manuscripts (MSS) testifies to both the early source material and the accuracy of the central New Testament message.

New Testament Greek scholar, and Director of the Center of the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM), Dr. Daniel Wallace states:

“It would be safe to say that we have altogether about 20,000 handwritten manuscripts of the NT in various languages, including Greek….If someone were to destroy all of those manuscripts, we would not be left without a witness, because the church fathers wrote commentaries on the N.T. To date, more than one million quotations of the NT by the fathers have been recorded. ‘if all other sources for our knowledge of the New Testament were destroyed, [the patristic quotations would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament],’ wrote Metzger and Ehrman.” [3].

The above quote from Professor Wallace was from seven years ago. The number of New Testament Greek Manuscripts (MSS) as it stands today is around 5,800 (close to 6,000) Non-Greek NT Manuscripts (MSS) (Armenian, Latin, etc…) number to about 18,100, bringing the total amount of NT Manuscripts – 23,900 (MSS) [4].

In addition to the amazing number of manuscripts we have of the New Testament, and quotations from the Early Church Fathers, there are also contemporary non-Biblical accounts which confirm the existence of Jesus and the impact of Jesus on His followers, as well as the beliefs that the earliest Christians had concerning Him. Among those non-Biblical writers are the first century Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Mar Bar Serapion, and Seutonius.

New Testament historian Dr. Gary Habermas states that at least 10 truths can correlated about Jesus’ life between the New Testament and Josephus alone:

1. Jesus was known as a wise and virtuous man
2. Jesus had many disciples both Jews and Gentiles
3. Pilate condemned Jesus to die
4. He was executed by crucifixion
5. His disciples reported that He rose from the dead
6. He appeared to them the 3rd day after His crucifixion
7. His disciples continued to proclaim His teaching
8. He was perhaps predicted by the OT prophets
9. His brother’s name was James
10. He was called “Messiah” by some [5]

And this is just the tip of the iceberg! To date every single Roman procurator, governor, and official mentioned in the New Testament has been discovered either historically or archaeologically, some by accident by scholars not seeking to “prove the Bible!” In addition, every major NT town or village is known archaeologically! There are 31 historical figures mentioned in the New Testament that we have historical evidence for.

If Jesus didn’t exist, then neither did Julius Caesar, or Hannibal, Tiglath-Pileser III, or Cleopatra. If Jesus didn’t exist, then we must be skeptical of ALL history!

THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF JESUS

The third source for knowing ancient history is archaeology. Archaeology is a relatively new science, but since scholars have been excavating in Israel and Levant, the pages of the New Testament have been illuminated and confirmed as an amazingly reliable source for the life and times of Jesus!

Space here does not allow us to review in great depth all of the archaeological discoveries as they relate to the New Testament. Just a mere listing of what has been discovered concerning the life of Jesus is quite remarkable in itself!

According to the New Testament, Jesus’ public ministry spanned only about 3 years, yet within that short time span archaeology has illuminated and confirmed most of the people, places, and the culture in which He lived, as well as the impact of His life upon the people and geography of the region.

THE BIRTH OF JESUS

  • Herod the Great – Massive archaeological & historical evidence for Herod exists. Herod figures largely in the birth narrative of Jesus, and many of his buildings and works are the backdrop on which many of the events recorded in the NT take place.

Israeli archaeologist, Ehud Netzer kneels beside the fragments of Herod’s coffin discovered at Herodium

  • Nazareth (First Century) – Early historical scholars doubted whether or not the Nazareth existed in the first century. In the Twentieth century archaeologists have confirmed that Nazareth was indeed in existence and populated by Jews in the First Century AD, according to Roman records.
  • Bethlehem – The ancient cave (or creche) where Jesus was born has been well preserved in Bethlehem under the current structure (predicted by the OT prophet Micah in Micah 5:2). Both historical and archaeological evidence agree that Bethlehem was the place of Jesus’ birth. Even Muslims affirm that Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born.

EARLY CHILDHOOD/MANHOOD OF JESUS

  • Sephoris – Greco-Roman city very near Nazareth where Jesus was reared by Mary & Joseph. It is highly likely that Jesus may have worked here as a stone mason (carpenter) with his adoptive father, Joseph. It was the regional captial of the Galilee region in Christ’s day.

MINISTRY OF JESUS

  • Stone Quarry in Cana of Galilee – The very likely location of the construction of the stone water jars used by Jesus when He turned the water into wine has recently been discovered by archaeologists (Jn. 2:1-11) in Israel.
  • First Century Town of Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee – The first century Roman town of Tiberius named after the Roman emperor is well known to archaeologists.
  • Small Village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee – Capernaum has often been called the “City of Jesus” because He spent much time there in His Galilee ministry. Franciscan archaeologists have excavated much of the town whose levels reach down into the first century during the Roman occupation of Judea.
  • The Jewish Synagogue at Capernaum – Jesus taught on several occasions in the Jewish synagogue at Capernaum (cf. Jn. 6:25-59). The foundations of the same synagogue lie directly beneath a 4th Century synagogue built over the exact spot.

The “White Synagogue” (4th Cent.) built on the exact ruins of the synagogue of Jesus’ day (darker stones)

  • Simon Peter’s House – The foundations of an octagonal first century stone house have been excavated by Franciscan archaeologists who have have identified the site as the likely dwelling place of Simon Peter, the Apostle of Jesus, whose home was used as an early Christian meeting place.
  • Tabgha (Location of Jesus Miracle of Feeding the Five Thousand) – Geographical, historical and archaeological evidence point to this location as the site where Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand – It is also called Heptapegon – or “seven springs” – for more see our previous article 

Church of the Seven Springs was erected over the spot where Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand

  • Shechem (Jacob’s Well) – location where Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4) has been positively identified in the West Bank near the archaeological site of Tell Balata – Ancient city of Shechem has also been positively identified and is well known archaeologically.
  • Pool of Siloam (Jerusalem) – location where Jesus healed the man born blind (Jn. 9) has recently been discovered in Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukron.

Remains of the Pool of Siloam. Discovered in 2004 by Israeli archaeologist, Eli Shukron.

  • Destruction of Jerusalem (Arch of Titus/Vespasian in Rome) – In Matthew 24 Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. In AD 70 it happened exactly as He predicted. The Romans commemorated the event on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum.
  • Stones Along the Southern Wall – Stones from the First Century Temple platform razed by the Romans, have been uncovered along the base of the SE wall, confirming Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24.
  • Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Coverging lines of strong historical and archaeological evidence point to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the location of the tomb of Jesus and His resurrection.

THE TRIAL AND CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS

  • Pontius Pilate Inscription – Discovered in 1961, Italian archaeologists working at Caeserea uncovered an inscription containing the name of Pontius Pilate naming him as the Roman prefect of Judea exactly as he is mentioned in the New Testament Gospels.

Pilate Inscription now located in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. (Wikipedia)

  • The Caiphas Ossuary – In 1990 in Jerusalem, an elaborately carved limestone ossuary containing the name “Joseph ben Caiaphas” was discovered. The majority of Near Eastern archaeologists hold that it is the ossuary of the High Priest who presided over the trial of Christ (Mt. 26:57-75)

Ornate Limestone Ossuary of Caiaphas (Wikipedia)

Hebrew inscription on the side which reads, “Caiaphas”

  • Evidence of 1st Century Roman Crucifxion in Jerusalem – In the 1970’s archaeologists in Jerusalem recovered the remains of a foot bone containing nail used by the Romans for crucifixion. The ossuary dated to the first century and affirms that crucifixion was practiced by the Romans during the late Second Temple Period.
  • The Nazareth Inscription – A remarkable non-provinanced artifact was recovered in Nazareth inscribed in Greek with an edict from Caesar Augustus ordering capital punishment for anyone caught robbing or destroying tombs. The item was a marble tablet in which the epigraphy (style of writing) dates it to the first half of the First Century. Although the inscription does not mention Jesus by name, it is understood by some to indicate that the decree was written in response to the widespread belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, and to prevent other “so-called” rumors from spreading (a lie that was spread by the Pharisees – see Matt. 28:11-15).

Jesus Mythicism is Not Even False

Some years ago, I read an article written by Intelligent Design theorist and scholar William A. Dembski in which he quoted the late physicist, Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli was commenting on an opposing scholar’s viewpoint on some matter stated that his view “…was not even false.” There are categories of true and false for a respective postion, but when something is “…not even false,” then the thinking is so bad that it doesn’t even measure up to being “false.”

It is my view, that the view that Jesus never existed, held by many Jesus mythcists today, is “…not even false.” Not even the most radical of skeptical historical scholars hold to this view. “Jesus mythicism” is the flat-earth theory of New Testament scholarship.

This is not just my opinion. One of the most skeptical Biblical scholars of this century is Thomas Thompson of the University of Copenhagen. Thompson is known as a “Biblical Minimalist” – a position which combines the postmodern philosophy of Jaques Derrida with Martin Heidegger. Thompson is hardly friendly to the historical trustworthiness of the Bible!

In referring to one of Robert Price’s books on the historicity of the Bible, he states the following:

“In international scholarship today, I don’t see that your readings, oriented towards problems that are current in scholarship (and they are not accompanied with a discussion of either method or goals — other than the story’s lack of historicity), would arouse much interest. It is a very passive essay and I don’t really understand what you want to do with it [6]”

Billions of Christians around the world who own a copy of the New Testament, have little or no idea of how remarkable a record they hold in their hands, in terms of manuscript evidence, archaelogy, and historical geography! In its pages the New Testament records the cornerstone fact of Christianity: the life, death, burial and physical/bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Both the facts of history and archaeology affirm that the record has been well preserved!

Christians can rest assured that their faith is firmly planted in the facts of history and truth.

ENDNOTES

[1]. Robert Price, Christ is a Fiction, 1997, (https://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/price- rankin/price1.html) accessed, May 29, 2018

[2]. Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt (Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2014), pp. 506, 222, & 385 respectively (emphasis mine).

[3]. Daniel B. Wallace Ed., Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2011), pg. 27-8

[4]. There are two scholarly organizations that vet and record the newest New Testament manuscripts: The Institute for New Testament Textual Research (Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung, INTF) located in Münster, Germany. The other is The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (CSNTM), located in Dallas, TX.

[5] see, Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (College Press Publushing Company, 1996).

[6] Thomas Thompson, University of Copenhagen, Denmark (1993-2009)