IBRI Research Report #1 (1980)
 

THE HISTORICITY OF THE BIBLICAL
NARRATIVES OF EASTER WEEK

Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary
Interdisciplinary Biblical
Research Institute

Copyright © 1980 by Robert C. Newman. All rights reserved.
 
 

EDITOR'S NOTE

Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

ISBN 0-944788-01-7



 

INTRODUCTION

Central to the message of the New Tesament are the events of Easter week, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If these events did not happen, then there is little to be said in favor of biblical Christianity, whatever one may think of modernized religions labelled Christianity by such theologians as Schleiermacher, Tillich or Bultmann.

Let us consider the question, "Are the Biblical accounts of Easter week trustworthy?" I am personally convinced that they are. In fact, I gave up a career in astrophysics to go into theology because I believed these accounts were reliable. My personal convictions and decisions, however, are no guarantee of truth. Many have even given up their lives for mistaken causes. But here we are not concerned about belief as a blind leap in the dark. The reliability of the Gospel narratives is based on excellent evidence, and this includes the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. There is as solid evidence for the reliability of these accounts as for any historical accounts that come to us from the ancient world.

Of course, there are some in academic circles who seem to have difficulty seeing the Gospel accounts as reliable. The problem, aas they see it, in these accounts is the presence of miracles. In the events of Easter week, the one miracle primarily involved is the resurrection of Jesus. Ever since the eighteenth century, many people have almost a priori discounted any narrative describing supernatural events. Since the Gospels report many such miracles, it is only natural that those who reject the miraculous should find the Gospels untrustworthy. I agree with them! If it can be said authoritatively that miracles do not happen, then they have not happened and the Gospel accounts are not trustworthy. If miracles are ruled out, then the resurrection of Jesus did not occur. Indeed, it would be foolish to call the narratives of Easter week "trustworthy" if the one central event they narrate is a myth, a legend, a delusion, a fraud or a lie.

Why do so many people today reject the reality of miracles? Certainly the rise of anti-christian philosophy among modern scientists has had an influence. Sir Isaac Newton, whose laws of motion and gravity brought order to a vast array of phenomena that once seemed mysterious, seemed to some to make acknowledgment of the Creator unnecessary. Yet Newton himself understood these laws better than anyone else of his time, and he saw no reason to reject miracles just because he had learned something of the system by which God providentially controls the physical world. Rather it was the science popularizers of his day -- the French encyclopedists and English deists -- who extrapolated the concept of natural law to the extreme that God became unnecessary, or at least unable to intervene in his universe.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE MIRACULOUS

Probably the classic argument against miracles -- judging by the frequency with which it is cited -- is that of the philosopher David Hume [1], first published in 1748. Essentially, his argument is the following:

Experience is our only guide in all our decisions regarding matters of fact. Because we cannot see connections between events, all our inferences about cause and effect are based merely on our observation that certain events consistently occur together.

Likewise our belief in the reliability of human testimony is derived from the usual agreement between facts and the reports of witnesses. But if someone reports an extraordinary or marvelous event, we tend to discount the value of his testimony in proportion to the extent to which the reported event is unusual.

Now a miracle, by definition, is a violation of the laws of nature. Yet these laws of nature are themselves established by firm and unalterable experience, so a miracle goes against the very evidence by which we determine matters of fact. Thus we conclude that no human testimony is sufficient to establish the occurrence of a miracle unless the testimony is of such a kind that its being false would be more miraculous than the fact which it seeks to establish.

For Hume, this argument led to the following methodology:

When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other, and according to the superiority which I discover, I pronounce my decision and always reject the greater miracle.

Apparently Hume never encountered a witness or a number of witnesses so reliable that he judged resurrection to be the lesser miracle.

There are three serious problems with Hume's argument: one of definition, another of epistemology, and a third of methodology. First, Hume's definition of miracle as a violation of natural law is at least questionable. In orthodox Christianity, Judaism and (presumably) Islam, a miracle is an action produced by a spiritual intelligence (God, Satan, angel or demon) intervening in the natural world to produce a result which would not otherwise have happened. In principle, then, a miracle need no more violate natural law then I (a physical intelligence) do when I intervene in the natural world to pick up a pen, causing it to rise from the desk -- an event which certainly would not have happened without my intervention. Human volition thus provides a simple analogy for a whole class of miracles which do not violate natural law. If God or other non-material personal beings exist, there is no obvious reason why they might not intervene in such a way.

Epistemologically, Hume claims that natural law is established by "firm and unalterable experience." Clearly, something we call "natural law" exists. There are many real advantages to discovering and using such laws, as our modern technology attests. But in saying these laws are established by "unalterable experience," Hume extrapolates far beyond anything our limited observations can establish. At most, we can list all events which we have actually observed, but not those which were not observed or which could happen but so far have not. Our natural laws are not based on a complete induction of what has happened, but only upon a subset of observations which are quite limited both in space and time. Within the subset of events known to mankind there are many reports of miraculous events. So even if we define miracle as a violation of natural law, we only know that natural law is established by "firm" experience if in fact all these reports of miracles are actually false. This we do not know, as no one has investigated each of these reports and found them to be false. Hume thus begs the question by importing his conclusion into his premises.

In fact, Hume's argument is really a methodology in disguise. In analyzing reports of events, Hume tells us to adopt any other explanation rather than the miraculous. But wait a moment! Do me the favor, if you please, of suspending your disbelief in miracles for a few seconds. Consider the consequences of Hume's procedure if in fact miracles do occur. Using Hume's methodology, we will never admit the reality of a miracle even if it has occurred. We will always assume it more likely that the testimony of any number of witnesses, indeed our own senses, is false, since witnesses can lie and our senses can be deceived. Hume's procedure will thus explain away a miracle even if it does occur. Therefore Hume has neither an argument against, nor even a real test for, the occurrence of the genuinely miraculous.

Of course, one may object that Hume's method is merely a special case of Occam's Razor, the principle that says explanations of phenomena should not be complicated beyond necessity. Wouldn't it undermine science itself to throw away Occam's Razor? I agree. We should be careful not to undermine the process of gathering and organizing knowledge, which has shown considerable ability to help us understand reality. Yet we must also be aware of two problems that face us here.

First, Occam's Razor suggests that theories should not be more complicated than necessary to fit the data. Hume, however, is ready to discard whatever data is necessary to eliminate miracles. Hume's method is therefore not really a proper application of Occam's Razor.

Second, Occam's Razor is a procedural rule; it has us start with simpler theories and move to more complicated ones as each simpler theory is elimated by the data. It is not obvious that non-miraculous universes are simpler than miraculous ones. But even if it is simpler to deny miracles than to accept them, what guarantee do we have that the universe is simple? What guarantee is there that it doesn't matter whether we reach certain truths before we die? Christianity claims to be a revelation from God, who says it does matter, and that we have only one life in which to find and embrace the truth. Perhaps, like any other razor, we should be careful how we use Occam's. We don't want to cut our own throats!

There are other arguments against the miraculous. Let us look briefly at three more. The theologian Rudolf Bultmann claims that science and history see the universe as a closed system of cause and effect which cannot be "perforated by supernatural powers."[2] Indeed many people think the universe is like this, but they may be wrong. Many more admit that the miraculous may occur, but define "science" and "history" as methods which do not consider the miraculous. I think such definitions only add to the confusion. Most people use the word "science" to mean the attempt to find out what the universe is really like, and they use "history" for the study of what really happened. If we confuse these two types of definitions -- explanation forced into agreement with a no-miracle axiom, and attempting to learn what really happens -- we beg the question of the miraculous without bothering to investigate.

Is the universe (or history) actually "a closed system of caused and effect"? Certainly we have evidence for the existence of cause and effect in the universe. Likewise we have reason to believe the universe is a system, in the sense that the same physical laws which operate on earth seem to be operating in distant stars and galaxies. But is this system closed in the sense that we know there are no external influences? This assumption is not only unproved, but two lines of evidence suggest it may even be unlikely.

First, discoveries in this century regarding the atom, its nucleus and subatomic particles show us that there are physical limitations on our ability to investigate small-scale phenomena. As smaller volumes are probed by scientists, larger energies are needed for the investigation. The point has already been reached where these larger energies disrupt whatever structure was there, somewhat as one would disrupt the structure of a china shop if he were to investigate it in the dark by throwing baseballs! Yet things are happening behind this epistemological barrier which the universe has put up. For instance, radioactive nuclei decay by spitting out electrons, neutrons, protons and alpha particles. These events are regular in a statistical sense, yet individually appear to us to be random. Are they actually random? Are they due to some deeper regularity? Are they influenced by spiritual forces? Competent scientists can be found advocating each of these views.

Second in turning to the large-scale end of scientific investigation, we find in cosmology, too, the closedness of the universe is an open question. There is a substantial consensus today that some form of the big-bang cosmology best fits the known data. Yet there appears to be no way, directly or indirectly, of investigating what may have preceded the big-bang "creation" event. Many would like to view this event as merely a "bounce" from a previously collapsing universe, but they must postulate very specialized unknown laws to stop the collapse and start the present expansion.[3] Robert Jastrow, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and professor at both Dartmouth and Columbia, suggests that even such a force would not solve this problem, but that an actual creation at the time of the big bang gives a better fit with the data.[4] Thus the claim that the universe (or history) is a closed system of cause and effect is a presupposition which may not actually be true. If we allow this assumption to control our investigation, it may very well keep us from reaching the correct answer.

Church historian Adolf Harnack has argued that miracles were accepted in ancient times because people then were scientifically ignorant, but today we know better than to believe such things. Harnack says:

In those days, the strict conception which we now attach to the word "miracle" was as yet unknown; it came in only with a knowledge of the laws of nature and their general validity. Before that, no sound insight existed into what was possible and what was impossible, what was rule and what was exception.[5]

With all due respect to Prof. Harnack, this argument is incredible! Though many ancients thought lightning, meteors and comets supernatural, they still had a good conception of what was natural and what supernatural, just as most of us have today.

Harnack's argument is especially weak with respect to Biblical miracles. Have scientists been able to show how Jesus' miracles described in the Gospels may be produced naturally? Do we find the Gospel crowds gaping at what are obviously natural phenomena or tricks in the repertoire of modern stage magicians? No! Even most liberal theologians have scorned the absurd attempts of some to see Jesus' walking on the water as really on a sandbar, his feeding the five thousand as getting them to share their own lunches, and his ascension as walking up a hillside into the clouds! We certainly have our share of 20th century chauvinism if we imagine the ancients were such fools as that!

In a somewhat similar vein, Harnack argues that miracles were thought to be common in antiquity, whereas today we know they don't occur. He says:

The Gospels come from a time in which the marvellous may be said to have been something of almost daily occurrence. People felt and saw that they were surrounded by wonders...[6]

Here again Harnack overstates his case. Certainly it is fair to say that the rejection of the miraculous has a stronger hold on our society than it did in ancient times, though at present the trend seems to be away from naturalism rather than toward it. Yet antiquity had its Sceptics and Epicureans who rejected miracle accounts, and we have our spiritists and charismatics who expect a miracle every day.

The Biblical picture of miracles is that of rare but real events, whose frequency is under the control of God and may vary considerably from age to age. According to mainstream Judaism of the first century, "big-time" miracles had ceased long ago, probably when the prophets ceased from Israel about 400 BC.[7] The New Testament likewise pictures Jesus' miracles as no commonplace events. We don't see the crowds or the disciples treating Jesus' activities casually. Instead they flock to him in such numbers that he must withdraw from the population centers to get any rest. In fact, Jesus' predecessor John the Baptist was recognized as a great prophet even though he worked no miracles (John 10:41), hardly likely if miracles were considered almost daily events. There is a false dichotomy made, then, in driving a wedge between antiquity and our own times, so that we may dismiss the ancients as credulous people unable to distinguish between natural and supernatural, or between charlatans and real miracle-workers.

Other arguments have been raised against miracles; we have tried to deal here in a limited space with the most important ones. Such arguments are by no means as strong as they at first appear to be. Typically, they tend to beg the question or overstate the case so as to invalidate the argument. This being so, we should not go into an examination of the New Testament accounts with a presumption against the miraculous. But setting aside such a presumption, we shall see that these accounts look very reliable indeed.

THE CHARACTER OF THE NEW TESTAMENT MATERIALS

The Biblical accounts of Easter week are found mainly in the canonical Gospels Matthew (chapters 21-28), Mark (chs 11-16), Luke (19-24) and John (12-20), which are our primary documentary sources on Jesus of Nazareth. Incidental notices also occur in the letters of Paul to various early churches -- principally 1 Corinthians -- with a little material in Romans, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 1 Timothy.

In considering the character of these New Testament materials, it is important to compare these with the major historical writings of antiquity rather than with modern histories written in a time of more sophisticated technology. If God chose to send his Son to an age without printing presses, television, telephones, aircraft and computers, we should not be surprised that he did not choose to have the Gospel writers use techniques now required in doctoral dissertations.

Here we shall examine not only histories from the same period but also earlier Greek histories. (A summary table is found in Appendix I). From roughly the same period as the New Testament come the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. His major works are his Antiquities of the Jews, narrating events from creation to the outbreak of the Jewish revolt against Rome in AD 66; and his Jewish War, describing the revolt itself and two centuries of background leading up to it. A contemporary Greek historian is Plutarch, author of some forty-six Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans. Among Roman historians, the most important are Tacitus, whose Annals narrate the history of Rome from Tiberius to Nero; and Suetonius, whose Lives of the Twelve Caesars include the careers of the emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

The major earlier Greek histories are: the History of Herodotus, describing the rise of the Persian empire and its wars with Greece; the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, narrating the epic struggle between Athens and Sparta; the Anabasis of Xenophon, relating the retreat of ten thousand Greek mercenaries across Asia Minor after their leaders were assassinated deep in Persian territory; and the History of Polybius, describing the rise of Rome from the Second Punic War to the conquest of Greece.[8]

THE TEXT

The first question we need to consider is the reliability of the text of the Biblical accounts. In contrast to our modern publishing technology, by which an author can check his work in page proofs and then have thousands of identical copies run off on a printing press, the ancient author was faced with the problem that each copy was made individually. For manuscripts of any substantial length, new errors were bound to arise in each copy. In addition, the passage of nearly two thousand years and the intervention of the Dark Ages have resulted in the loss of the vast majority of the copies actually made for any ancient published work. How, then, does the New Testament compare in textual purity with other ancient works? Is there an objective means of determining reliability?

The earliest complete manuscripts of the Gospels and Pauline letters which have survived date back to the middle of the fourth century, about three hundred years after the original works were written.[9] This date corresponds to the end of official persecution of Christianity and to the general adoption of more durable parchment in place of fragile papyrus as writing material. More or less fragmentary papyrus manuscripts have survived, however, from an earlier period. We have parts of ten manuscripts of Matthew, the earliest two from about AD 200; fragments of a manuscript of Mark from about 225 (possibly another from the first century)[10]; parts of four manuscripts of Luke, the earliest from about 200; parts of nine manuscripts of John, including a tiny fragment from about 130 and two substantial portions from about 200; and parts of two manuscripts of 1 Corinthians, the earliest from about 200. The total manuscript evidence for the NT up to the age of printing consists of more than 5000 Greek copies, over 8000 Latin copies, and several thousand copies in other languages, all in addition to thousands of quotations found in early Christian writers.

By contrast, the earliest substantial manuscripts for the text of our other ancient historians come from the ninth century AD, when a new style of Greek handwriting was introduced to the book trade to lower production costs. The best case is that of Suetonius, for which the first good surviving copy comes from more than seven hundred years after the book left its author's hands. The worst case among these is Xenophon's Anabasis; its earliest surviving manuscript is from the fourteenth century, over 1700 years after the book was written. Three of these historians were not even preserved in their entirety. The first few chapters of Suetonius on Julius Caesar were lost sometime between the sixth and ninth centuries. Only ten of Tacitus' 16 books survive complete, and two others in part. For Polybius we have only five complete books out of forty, though condensations of others have survived. The entire manuscript evidence for these ten ancient historians totals about two hundred manuscripts.

Thus, compared with the New Testament, the best attested of these secular histories is known by manuscripts more than twice as far removed from its author. The total documentary evidence for the worst attested history is thousands of times smaller than for the NT, and for the whole lot put together it is fifty times smaller. In fact, the NT survives in more manuscripts than any other work of classical antiquity. The runner-up is Homer's Iliad, which survives in about 650 manuscripts, still less than one-twentieth as many.[11]

How sure can we be that the texts we reconstruct from surviving manuscripts are close to what the author originally wrote? Without the actual manuscripts written or proofed by the author, there will always be a possibility of error. But exactly the same may be said for any modern author. However, the procedure called "textual criticism" was especially developed to deal with this problem in works written before the advent of printing. What may be said, then, about this?

Perhaps you have heard that there are 150 to 200 thousand variant readings in the New Testament, so how can anyone trust anything it says? This is true but misleading, as the phrase "variant reading" is a technical term. Each time a manuscript of an ancient work is discovered, its text is compared with some standard printed edition. At each place it differs from the standard, a "variant reading" is recorded. If ten manuscripts differ in the same way at the same place from the standard, ten variant readings are recorded. Thus, the more manuscripts which survive for a particular work, the more variant readings it will usually have. Our concern here, however, is what fraction of the text is debatable.

Prof. F. J. A. Hort of Cambridge, in his classic work on the New Testament text, notes that 7/8ths of the text is accepted by all as preserved just as penned by its original authors. The remaining 1/8th consists largely of matters of spelling and word order, both relatively trivial in ancient Greek. If scholars are correct in their consensus that the Alexandrian family of manuscripts preserves the best text, this area of doubt reduces to about 1/60th of the text, from which Hort estimates that substantial variants make up only about 1/1000th of the text.[12] Other estimates have been made; for instance, Prof. Abbott of Harvard suggests that only 1/400th of the text is doubtful.[13]

Detailed statistics on the classical texts are hard to come by. Remember that three of our ten secular histories have not even been preserved over substantial portions of their text. For Homer's Iliad, 750 to 1000 lines are in dispute out of a total of 15,600.[14] This makes for about 6% disputed material. By contrast, Hort's estimate of "substantial variation" for the NT is 1/10th of 1%; Abbot's estimate is 1/4th of 1%; and even Hort's figure including trivial variation is less than 2%. Sir Frederic Kenyon well summarizes the situation:[15]

The number of manuscripts of the New Testament... is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world. 

Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of Sophocles, of Thucydides, or Cicero, or Virgil; yet our knowledge depends on a mere handful of manuscripts, whereas the manuscripts of the New Testament are counted by hundreds and even thousands.

AUTHORSHIP

Of course, one may admit that the text of the NT is good -- that it is substantially what its original authors wrote -- and still claim that it is historically unreliable. This is commonly done in theologically liberal circles, where a rejection of the miraculous means that the Gospels must be inaccurate. Persons with such beliefs thus make strenuous attempts to deny that the Gospels were written by the traditional authors or depend on eyewitness testimony. Yet the methodology employed for such denials is sufficient to explain away many of the ancient historians as well. Let us see.

The Gospel narratives are anonymous in their texts, in that none of them says, "I, Matthew, wrote this," or something of the sort. The reason for this anonymity is unknown. Perhaps it was done to emphasize their subject, Jesus of Nazareth, by deemphasizing their authors. Even so, the authors were probably known to their original audiences. The prologue of Luke (1:1-4) indicates the author is known to its recipient and patron Theophilus. Likewise, the author of John's Gospel is known to some group which vouches for him in John 21:24. Thus at least two of the Gospels were not anonymous to their first recipients.

In this light, it is significant that early Christian tradition is unanimous in assigning the canonical Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; and that the earliest surviving papyri have titles also, all of which give the traditional authors only. This is most naturally explained if indeed these men were the authors and it was common knowledge in the early church. Otherwise, one must explain the complete loss of the correct names and their complete replacement by a single set of spurious names -- a set, moreover, in which three of the names are relatively obscure. One would have thought that, for invented names, any apostle would be more likely than Mark or Luke, and any of the major apostles -- Peter, Paul, James, Andrew, Philip or Thomas -- more likely than Matthew.

We give here a sketch of the historical evidence external to the Gospels for the traditional authors. Papias, bishop of the church at Hierapolis in Asia Minor and an old man by AD 130, names Matthew and Mark as Gospel writers, indicating that Matthew wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic and describing Mark as one who recorded Peter's reminiscences. Papias was himself a student of the apostle John.[16]

Justin Martyr, after studying many of the contemporary Greek philosophies, converted to Christianity sometime before 130. He speaks of the Gospels as "memoirs of the apostles."[17] He says they were written "by apostles and those who followed them,"[18] which matches the traditional ascription to two apostles (Matthew and John) and two followers (Mark of Peter, Luke of Paul). He quotes from or mentions matters found in each of the four Gospels, and apparently alludes to Mark's Gospel as Peter's memoirs.[19] Justin wrote in the 50s of the second century, but apparently his Dialogue with Trypho, in which much of his testimony occurs, actually took place in the 30s.

The anonymous Muratorian Canon, written in Italy late in the second century, is damaged at its beginning but lists Luke as author of the third Gospel and John as author of the fourth.[20]

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in southern France about 180, was raised in Asia Minor and studied under Polycarp, a student of the apostle John. He names each of the four Gospel authors and gives relative dates for the writing of three of these.[21]

Clement and Origen, Christian teachers in Alexandria around 200, mention all four Gospels and give the traditional authors.[22] None of these men give any indication that they are guessing, innovating or borrowing from one another. All this suggests that the information was common knowledge from the previous generation.

Internal evidence in the Gospels supports these identifications. Matthew is pretty obviously for those of Jewish background, for it emphasizes Jesus as the Messiah fulfilling Old Testament prophecy and it presents Jewish customs without explanation. Mark's Gospel fits the vividness and brusqueness of Peter's personality. The incident it reports in 14:51-52 -- of a young man who loses his clothing to the mob arresting Jesus -- makes good sense if it is a little touch from Mark's personal history, but it is quite puzzling otherwise. Paul tells us that Luke is a Gentile physician (Col 4:14); his Gospel shows special interest in the Gentiles and abounds with technical medical terminology.[23] John is the only Gospel that calls John the Baptist merely "John"; the other Gospels use the term "Baptist" to distinguish him from John the apostle, who is never named in the Gospel of John. Its author claims, however, to have raced Peter to the empty tomb on Easter morning, and to have seen and heard the resurrected Jesus on several occasions. Of course, one may claim that the original authors faked these details; that the early Christians were taken in by this deception; and that they unanimously agreed in guessing who wrote each one. Such procedures, however, will explain away any historical data whatever.

That the apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians is as certain as that he existed. Not even the radical criticism of F. C. Baur denied Paul this letter, and external evidence shows why this is so. Not only does the letter claim to have been written by Paul, but the earliest extrabiblical Christian writing still in existence affirms it. Clement's letter to the Corinthians, written about AD 95, quotes from it, names it, describes it, and assigns it to the apostle Paul.[24] All this within thirty years of Paul's death in a writing by the leader of the church at Rome where Paul had labored and given his life for the faith.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the ten classical histories we have been using for comparison has such external attestation as does 1 Corinthians or even the Gospels. Of course, none of these histories is anonymous, as the Gospels are. On the other hand, I have not been able to find any descriptions by ancient writers of the circumstances of their composition, as we have for the Gospels. Admittedly, I have not spent my lifetime in the study of secular classical literature, but the very fact that such things are not discussed in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, or the relevant volumes of the Loeb Classical Library shows how little modern historians studying the classical period share the scepticism so endemic to liberal NT studies.

Would the early church have accepted writings which were anonymous, or for which they could not check authorship claims, as liberal theologians believe? Not according to the evidence preserved in the NT and early Christian writers. The NT regularly rebukes lying, and it warns of the dangers of heresy, especially from false teachers and false prophets (Matt 7:15; Mark 13:22; Gal 1:8; 1 Thess 5:21; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 4:1). Though Paul had his letters written out by scribes (in accord with the usual practice of that time), he always wrote the final greetings in his own hand to guard against forgery (2 Thess 3:18; 2:2,15; also a common practice.[25] That this concern extended to "orthodox" forgeries is seen from the fact that a church in Asia Minor deposed one of its elders for writing the Acts of Paul and Thecla, even though he claimed to have written from love of Paul.[26]

The early church was also concerned to have multiple attestation for the narration of its history and teachings. Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim 2:2):

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.

It seems that the burden of proof is on those who deny the traditional authorship of the NT books to come forth with some real evidence to support their speculations.

Thus we take Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul as authors of the works ascribed to them and ask, "How do they compare with other history writers of antiquity?" We would very much like the historian to be an eyewitness of the events he narrates, but this is rarely possible for all the events involved. It is certainly important that he have access to eyewitness testimony.

We would like the writer to be unbiased, but he must also be sufficiently interested to write on the subject at an early time when eyewitnesses are still living. In fact we would have little history writing, ancient or modern, if we had to depend on totally unbiased writers. It is more important that the writer be concerned to report the truth even if it is not always favorable to his side.

In addition, it is most helpful to be able to test the historian's statements by corroboration from other sources. But for antiquity especially, it is too much to expect corroboration for all points of a narrative, especially when the narrative being tested is the most detailed or only detailed account of the events in question. Room must be allowed for a source to add to our knowledge of history.

Let us consider the matter of eyewitness testimony first. On the basis of Biblical information, John and Matthew were Jesus' disciples, the former from the very beginning of his public career, the latter thoughout his Galilean ministry. Mark probably had much less direct contact with Jesus, as he appears to have been young and living in Jerusalem at this time. Paul was probably older than Mark, but he says little about pre-conversion contact with Jesus. Probably he had seen Jesus only once or twice in Jerusalem. Unlike the others, Luke is a Gentile, probably a native of Antioch, perhaps converted during the work of Paul and Barnabas there in the 40s. He would have had the least direct contact with eyewitnesses, as the others were in Judea for five or more years immediately following Jesus' ministry. Yet Luke had considerable contact with Paul and Silas, stayed several days with Philip, and apparently spent two years in Palestine (c58-60) while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea. All five writers, then, had considerable opportunity to make use of eyewitness testimony.

Comparing the Biblical writers with the classical historians, the status of John and Matthew, as participants in many of the events they record, is parallel to that of Pliny the Younger, Xenophon, Polybius and Thucydides. Paul's situation, having been on both sides of the controversy, is parallel to that of Josephus during the Jewish revolt, with the notable difference that Josephus switched to the side with wealth and political power in order to save his life, while Paul endangered his life by changing to the side without these attractions. Luke and Mark are in positions comparable to those of Tacitus, Suetonius and Herodotus, in those cases where the latter report on events before their time but recent enough to have living eyewitnesses. None of these five Biblical writers are in the position of Plutarch for most of his material, or of Josephus, Suetonius and Herodotus for their earlier material, where eyewitnesses were no longer living. Thus the NT situation here is comparable to the best cases among ancient historians. In fact, if students of ancient history had to depend on eyewitness testimony alone, we would know little of antiquity.

What about bias? It is true that the Biblical writers are all Christians, and they see events from that perspective. This does not rule out the possibility that they were sincere and that they only reported events for which they had good evidence. Note the sketch that Luke gives of his methodology (Luke 1:1-4):

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were entrusted to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

It is also significant that each author reports events which reflect unfavorably on himself (except Luke, who was not present in the Gospel narratives) as well as on the apostles and early Christians in general. Only Jesus receives no unfavorable notice, in agreement with the Biblical picture that he is God incarnate and therefore sinless. No attempt is made, however, to remove seemingly harsh statments made by Jesus or charges against him by his opponents. Nor do the Biblical writers seek to hide the fact they are Christians by pretending to give an impartial account, as we see in the (Jewish) Letter of Aristeas and the apocryphal (Christian) Acts of Pilate. It is also significant that two of the five writers -- Luke and Paul -- were not on Jesus' side during his ministry. Paul, in fact, was a violent and high-ranking member of the opposition. Surely Paul knew whatever could be said against Jesus and his followers!

By comparison, we find that our classical historians had their biases, too. Josephus was very favorable to the Roman emperors and the Pharisees, but highly antagonistic to the Zealots who led the revolt against Rome.[27] Tacitus, on the other hand, was against the imperial system and longed for a return to the republic.[28] Suetonius found it hard to pass up a good scandal, no matter how unlikely the story.[29] Pliny, shocked by Roman vices, preferred to emphasize more pleasant matters.[30] Plutarch wrote his biographies to teach virtue and warn against vice. One writer characterizes him as "tantalizing and treacherous to the historian."[31] Herodotus is highly regarded for his careful work and reserve, yet he too is charged with "strong religious feeling, bordering on superstition."[32] Xenophon wrote the first part of his Anabasis under a pseudonym; the latter part is tense and agressive as he answers his critics. He was notably sympathetic to Sparta and other authoritarian regimes.[33] Polybius blasts previous historians in book 12 and was prejudiced against the regions of Aetolia and Boeotia, yet he is still regarded as having high standards of honesty.[34]

In spite of these evidences of bias, each of these secular historians is important for our understanding of the events of antiquity; each reports many events for which we have no other evidence. And these are the best ancient historians we have. As a result, A. N. Sherwin-White, classical historian at Oxford, remarks:[35]

It is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism that the more advanced exponents of it apparently maintain -- so far as an amateur can understand the matter -- that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious ...

THE EVENTS OF EASTER WEEK AND THEIR CORROBORATION

Let us now turn to the four Gospels and see what events are reported as occurring during Easter week. We will here briefly summarize all events reported in two or more Gospels and a few of those found only in one. For brevity, we use the symbols 4 = all; M = Matthew, m = Mark; L = Luke; J = John.

Five days before Passover (J), Jesus approaches Jerusalem with the crowds of pilgrims (4). He rides into Jerusalem on a young donkey (4), recalling Zech 9:9 as the crowds greet him with shouts of "Hosanna" (MmJ; Hebrew for "deliver us!"), "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (4), and acclamation as king of Israel (4). After looking around the temple, Jesus returns to Bethany where he is staying for the festival (Mm).

The next day he returns to Jerusalem, cursing a barren fig tree on the way (Mm). He then casts the merchants and their animals out of the temple courts (MmL). The following day, Jesus again returns to the temple, where his authority is challenged by the temple officials (MmL). The Pharisees and Herodians seek to trap him with a question on Roman taxes (MmL). The Sadducees pose a problem for belief in resurrection (MmL). Jesus turns each of these attacks back on his opponents (MmL) and then discusses God's greatest commandments with a lawyer (Mm). Jesus ends the debate by asking the Pharisees how the Messiah can be merely David's son when he is also his lord (MmL). This is followed by Jesus' scathing rebuke to the Pharisees for their hypocrisy (MmL). Jesus observes and approves a widow's sacrificial gift to the temple (mL), and then he leaves the temple for the last time (MmL). On the way back to Bethany, Jesus gathers his disciples on the Mount of Olives and gives them a detailed description of the coming destruction of the temple and his own return in glory (MmL).

Sometime during this period, Judas secretly makes arrangements with the chief priests to betray Jesus to them (4).

The next day or the following, Jesus sends some of his disciples to make preparations for their passover meal in an upper room in Jerusalem (MmL). He and the other disciples arrive (4), and he washes their feet as a lesson in humility (J). Judas is shown by a signal that his betrayal has been detected, but Jesus lets him go (4). Jesus then warns the remaining disciples of the dangers ahead in which they will fall away, Peter especially being singled out (4). The Lord's Supper is instituted, symbolizing his coming death (MmL), and Jesus speaks at length with his disciples (J). Finally they leave the room and cross the Kidron Valley to pray in a garden on the Mount of Oives (4). There Judas and the temple soldiers find them and arrest Jesus as the disciples flee (4).

Jesus is taken to the Jewish leaders (4), tried by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme court), and early the next morning formally condemned for blasphemy (4). Then he is taken before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who is reluctant to ratify their decision (4). After some stalling (4), the leaders apply mob pressure (MmL) and threaten to report him to Caesar (J). As a result, Pilate permits Jesus' condemnation for claiming kingship (4).

Jesus is crucified at a place called Golgotha (4) between two bandits (4) and dies that afternoon (4) after several hours of unusual darkness (MmL). His body is claimed by a wealthy Jew named Joseph of Arimathea, who buries him in his personal tomb (4), while women in Jesus' party look on (MmL). The next day a guard is set at the tomb on the insistence of the Jewish leaders, who recall predictions of Jesus' resurrection and fear the disciples will try to steal the body (M).

On the third day of Jesus' burial and the first day of the week (Sunday), a group of women come at dawn to anoint Jesus' body, but they find the tomb empty (4). The soldiers have fled the scene, but take a bribe to spread the story that Jesus' body was stolen (M). Angels announce Jesus' resurrection to the women and tell them to notify the disciples (MmL). On their way to do so, Jesus appears to some of them (M). Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene has notified Peter and John, who run to the tomb and find it empty (J). She follows them back to the tomb and there sees Jesus (J). Later in the day, Jesus appears to Peter (L(m)), then to two disciples on the way to a nearby village (L(m)). Returning quickly to Jerusalem, these disciples have just reported to the others when Jesus appears to the whole group (LJ).

Easter week ends at this point, but the Gospels and Acts (A) recount several other appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. The first is a week later in Jerusalem to the disciples including Thomas (J). Later he appears to seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (J), then to a large group on a mountain in Galilee which Jesus had specified in advance (M). Finally there are a couple of appearances in Jerusalem before his ascension (LA). Several years later Jesus appears to Stephen and to Paul (A).

CORROBORATION BY PAUL

The apostle Paul does not give us a detailed account of the life of Jesus, from which some have erroneously assumed he had no interest in the subject. Rather we should note that Paul's letters are written to established churches. They only deal with such basic matters when there is some confusion to clear up.

Thus when the Thessalonian church is disturbed over claims that the end of the age has come, Paul repeats the substance of Jesus' teaching regarding his return. This material, according to the Gospels, Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives after leaving the temple for the last time. There are at least 24 detailed points of parallelism between Paul's comments in 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Jesus' Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13 and Luke 21.[36]

When the Corinthians are abusing the Lord's Supper, Paul describes its institution for them in some detail (1 Cor 11:23-26), mentioning in passing that this occurred on the night Jesus was betrayed.

Paul speaks frequently of Jesus' death and its significance. Once he mentions that it was "the rulers of this age" who "crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Cor 2:8). Elsewhere he identifies these rulers as including Pontius Pilate (1 Tim 6:13) and the Jews (1 Thess 2:14-15).

The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are given by Paul to answer opponents in Corinth who denied bodily resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-11). Paul's list of six appearances matches no other list in the Gospels, but overlaps them all and is helpful in fitting them together.

Lastly, Paul speaks of Jesus' ascension in Rom 8:34 and 1 Tim 3:16.

CORROBORATION BY PAGAN SOURCES

References to Jesus are rare in surviving pagan literature from before (say) AD 150. Yet there are more references to Jesus than to Josephus or Pontius Pilate, two notable actors in first century Palestine. We have two brief notices in Suetonius, one of which is uncertain;[37] one reference in Tacitus;[38] and another in Pliny the Younger.[39] In addition, a letter from a Syrian Stoic philosopher Mara to his son Serapion makes reference to Jesus.[40] These passages are given in full in Appendix II.

From these sources we learn the following information about Jesus having more or less relevance to Easter week. According to Tacitus, Jesus lived in Judea when Tiberius was emperor and Pilate was governor of Judea (AD 26-36). He was a controversial teacher, as the Roman authors label his teaching "superstition" while Mara considers him "wise." A claim to be Messiah was ascribed to him: Roman historians know him only by his title "Christ," which they take to be his name; Mara calls him a king. According to Tacitus, he was put to death by Pilate; Mara blames the Jews. According to Pliny, who was conducting trials of Christians in Asia Minor before AD 115, Jesus' followers worshiped him as God, though they would not worship the gods. True Christians, according to Pliny, will die rather than curse Christ or offer incense to Caesar.

CORROBORATION BY JEWISH SOURCES

Among early Jewish sources, there are two references to Jesus in the Greek manuscripts of Josephus;[41] one of these has been questioned because it seems too Christian for Josephus (it affirms Jesus' messiahship). Recently an epitome of this controversial passage was found in a tenth-century manuscript of an Arabic church history,[42] which provides an apparently less Christian version. The Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of the traditions of the rabbis, contains a number of cryptic references to Jesus and one definite one.[43] The definite refence, to which we confine our remarks, is known to pre-date AD 200. These passages are given in Appendix III.

According to Josephus, Jesus lived in Judea while Pontius Pilate was governor. The Talmud is consistent with this, but not very definite, merely locating him in the Tannatic period (100 BC - AD 200). Jesus' character was controversial; he is viewed rather favorably by Josephus and negatively by the rabbis. Both Josephus and the Talmud report that he worked miracles, though the latter explains them as sorcery. According to both, he gathered followers, and Josephus notes these considered him to be the Messiah. Both the Greek and Arabic Josephus say Jesus was crucified by Pilate. The Greek Josephus also involves the Jewish leaders in his condemnation. The Talmud sees the whole proceeding as Jewish, even giving the traditional form of execution (stoning and hanging) instead of the pagan crucifixion (which, however, the rabbis also called "hanging"). The Talmud dates the execution on Passover eve, in agreement with the Gospel of John. The Talmudic charge against Jesus is "sorcery" and "enticing Israel to apostasy." Josephus notes that Jesus' disciples reported his resurrection on the third day.

DISCUSSION OF CORROBORATIONS

These corroborations are significant in judging the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts of Easter week. The accounts themselves give hundreds of details, many of which are reported by two, three, or all four of the Gospels. Yet the number of divergences among the Gospel accounts -- which opponents of their trustiworthiness regularly recount -- do not suggest that the writers tried to harmonize their accounts. In addition, the apostle Paul, though attempting no narrative himself, corroborates dozens of both major and incidental details found in the Gospel accounts.

The pagan and Jewish sources agree with the Gospels and Paul on the date of Jesus' activities, their controversial nature, his miracles, his Messianic claim, and his death at the hands of both Roman and Jewish authorities. This is especially important in view of the fact that many today seek to deny that Jesus worked miracles, made a Messianic claim, or was put to death by Roman-Jewish cooperation. The historical sources which touch on the subject are all against them.

At first sight, the Talmud's charges against Jesus seem to differ from those of the Gospel accounts. Yet the Gospels mention an attempt at Jesus' trial to convict him of offering to rebuild the temple in three days, which could easily be understood as sorcery. According to the Gospels, Jesus was actually condemned for blasphemy, because he claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God. This may indeed be the "apostasy" to which Jesus "enticed Israel," according to the Talmud. In Jewish usage, a phrase like "Son of God" would be a claim to deity, a blasphemous apostasy in the eyes of most Jews. Pliny's note that Jesus' followers worshiped him as God, though written by a polytheist, is in line with this suggestion.

There is no non-Christian corroboration for Jesus' resurrection having actually occurred (except Paul's!); but this is hardly surprising, as any believer in Jesus' resurrection would be considered a Christian. Of course, any source could report the disciples' belief in Jesus resurrection, and Josephus does. For a Roman, such a belief would merely be another Christian "superstition" (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny). A Stoic like Mara would also reject bodily resurrection, and the Talmud has chosen to ignore it. In any case, we know from Justin's debate with Trypho (130s),[44] from the anti-Christian polemic of Celsus (c180)[45] and from the Talmud [46] that the Jews were aware of the Christian Gospels, and from Matthew and Justin [47] that they sought to explain away the resurrection as a case of body-snatching by the disciples.

The one significant divergence of the non-Christian materials from the Gospels involves the manner of Jesus' death. The Talmud says Jesus was "hanged" and "stoned and hanged." The Gospels speak of crucifixion, along with Paul and all Christian literature. This is supported by Josephus (both versions) and less directly by Tacitus, who has Jesus put to death by the Roman Pontius Pilate, presumably by a Roman method. Since the term "hanged" is used by the rabbis for crucifixion as well as for the traditional hanging up of the body after stoning to death,[48] it is not unreasonable to suppose the Talmud gives a somewhat garbled account, perhaps based on the facts that Jesus had a religious trial and was "hanged," but supplying other details from traditional practices.

CONCLUSIONS

We have now looked at the four Gospel accounts of Easter week. We have noted the large amount of detail they have in common regarding the events of this period. The divergences they contain suggest they were not contrived to fit one another. To use the divergences to cast doubt on the historicity of events on which they obviously agree is a strange sort of historical methodology. These accounts find some detailed corroboration in the writings of Paul, a persecutor of Christians who himself became a Christian. In fact, significant corroboration occurs in several pagan and Jewish sources as well. This is more than can be said for most events reported from antiquity.

We have also examined the traditional authorship of the four Gospels -- that they were written by two apostles and by two apostolic disciples, all with substantial access to eyewitness testimony. The unanimity of substantial evidence for this tradition is impressive. This is more evidence than we have for the authorship of most ancient histories.

We have also examined the transmission of these narratives from their original writing to the advent of printing. It appears that they were copied with a care at least equal to that afforded the secular historians, and with a frequency so far exceeding these that a vast quantity of material exists for reconstructing their original readings. If there is any reason for confidence in having substantially the original texts for other ancient historians, we have more for the Gospels.

Of course, we can, if we wish, reject as untrustworthy any narratives containing miracles, but that is really to beg the question at the very places where the existence of miracle may be solved affirmatively. It is also possible to set our criteria for accepting the miraculous so high that no evidence from antiquity can satisfy us. This is surely unwise if our concern is to find out what really happened rather than to avoid a certain class of explanations because they are distasteful.

It is also possible to reject the Gospel materials as untrustworthy because of the controversial nature of the events they narrate. Remember, however, that the Gospels themselves make it clear that Jesus' words and actions were most controversial from the very beginning. If history is an attempt to find out what really did happen, we must investigate controversial events as well as mundane ones. We will often find that some of the most important events are also the most controversial, and that one side of a controversy, sincere or not, may be dead wrong.

We may also claim that the real picture of Jesus would be very different if we had more materials preserved from the opposition. Well, the various forms of opposition had over three hundred years to make their cases before those who claim the name of Christian ever had the political power to oppose them. This damaging evidence could have been buried in jars or taken out of the Roman Empire for safekeeping. Where is it? It is more likely that the opposition had no real case better than "Tell the people his disciples stole the body while you were sleeping," so they chose to ignore Christianity when possible, and ridicule or persecute it when not.

Indeed, it is possible to claim that Christianity is a lie or delusion, but only by the most drastic handling of the historical data. If the first disciples were credulous, they certainly were clever enough to make themselves look pretty sceptical in the Gospel accounts. If they were liars, they must have put together the most impressive plot in history, and (as a by-product) acidentally created in Jesus one of the most unforgettable characters in fact or fiction.

Are the Gospel narratives of Easter week trustworthy? On the basis of such historical tests as do not beg the question of the miraculous, they stand up as well as any accounts from antiquity.

APPENDIX I
A COMPARISON OF SOME ANCIENT HISTORICAL WRITINGS
AUTHOR & WORK AUTHOR'S
LIFESPAN
DATE OF
EVENTS
DATE OF
WRITING*
Matthew, GOSPEL c0-70 AD? 4 BC-30 AD 50-65/75
Mark, GOSPEL c15-90 AD? 27-30 AD 65/70
Luke, GOSPEL c10-80 AD? 5 BC-30 AD 60/75
John, GOSPEL c10-100 AD 27-30 AD 90/110
Paul, LETTERS c0-65 AD 30 AD 50-65
Josephus, WAR c37-100 AD 200 BC-70 AD c80
Josephus, ANTIQUITIES
200 BC-65 AD 95
Tacitus, ANNALS c56-120 AD 14-68 AD 100-120
Suetonius, LIVES c69-130 AD 50 BC-95 AD c120
Pliny, LETTERS c60-115 AD 97-112 AD 100-112
Plutarch, LIVES c50-120 AD 500 BC-70 AD c100
Herodotus, HISTORY c485-425 BC 546-478 BC 430-425 BC
Thucydides, HISTORY c460-400 BC 431-411 BC 410-400 BC
Xenophon, ANABASIS c430-355 BC 401-399 BC 385-375 BC
Polybius, HISTORY c200-120 BC 220-168 BC c150 BC
*where slash occurs, first date is conservative, second liberal
AUTHOR & WORK DATE 1st
MANUSCRIPT#
LAPSE EVENT
TO WRITING
LAPSE EVENT
TO MANUSCRIPT
Matthew, GOSPEL c200 < 50 < 200
Mark, GOSPEL c225 < 50 < 200
Luke, GOSPEL c200 < 50 < 200
John, GOSPEL c130 < 80 < 100
Paul, LETTERS c200 20-35 < 200
Josephus, WAR c950 10-300 900-1200
Josephus, ANTIQUITIES c1050 30-300 1000-1300
Tacitus, ANNALS c850 30-100 800-850
Suetonius, LIVES c850 25-170 750-900
Pliny, LETTERS c850 0-3 725-750
Plutarch, LIVES c950 30-600 850-1500
Herodotus, HISTORY c900 50-125 1400-1450
Thucydides, HISTORY c900 0-30 1300-1350
Xenophon, ANABASIS c1350 15-25 1750
Polybius, HISTORY c950 20-70 1100-1150
#for NT, these are fragmentary mss; earliest complete ms c 350; lapse to ms would be about 325 years

 

APPENDIX II
PAGAN SOURCES ON JESUS

Gaius Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars:

He expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus. [Claudius 25.4]

 Punishment was inflicted on the Christias, a body of people addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition. [Nero 16.2]

Cornelius Tacitus, Annals:

But neither the aid of men, nor the emperor's bounty, nor propitiatory offerings to the gods, could remove the grim suspicion that the fire had been started by Nero's order. To put an end to this rumor, he shifted the charge on to others, and inflicted the most cruel tortures upon a group of people detested for their abominations, and popularly known as "Christians." Their name came from one Christus, who was put to death in the principate of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate. Though checked for a time, the destructive superstition broke out again, not in Judaea only, where its mischief began, but even in Rome, where every abominable and shameful iniquity, from all the world, pours in and finds a welcome. [Annals 15.44]

Mara bar Serapion, Letter to His Son Serapion:

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. 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 after that 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 good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given. 

Pliny the Younger, Letters: to Trajan:

It is my rule, Sire, to refer to you in matters where I am uncertain. For who can better direct my hesitation or instruct my ignorance? I was never present at any trial of Christians; therefore I do not know what are the customary penalties or investigations, and what limits are observed. I have hesitated a great deal on the question whether there should be any distinction of ages; whether the weak should have the same treatment as the most robust; whether those who recant should be pardoned, or whether a man who has ever been a Christian should gain nothing by ceasing to be such; whether the name itself, even if innocent of crime, should be punished, or only the crimes attaching to that name. Meanwhile, this is the course that I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and a third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death... All who denied that they were or had been Christians I considered should be discharged, because they called upon the gods at my dictation and did reverence, with incense and wine, to your image... and especially because they cursed Christ, a thing which, it is said, genuine Christians cannot be induced to do. Others named by the informer first said they were Christians and then denied it, declaring that they had been but were no longer, some having recanted three years or more before and one or two as long ago as twenty years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods and cursed Christ. But they declared that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed. After the conclusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food; but it was ordinary and harmless food, and they had ceased this practice after my edict in which, in accordance with your orders, I had forbidden secret societies. I thought it the more necessary, therefore, to find out what truth there was in this by applying torture to two maidservants, who were called deaconesses. But I found nothing but a depraved and extravagant superstition, and I therefore postponed my examination and had recourse to you for consultation. [Letters 10.96]

Ibid.: Trajan's Reply:

The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not, that is by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Informations without the accuser's name subscribed must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to the spirit of the age. [Letters 10.97]

 

APPENDIX III
JEWISH SOURCES ON JESUS

Flavius Josephus, Antiquities:

He [Annas the Younger] convened a judicial session of the Sanhedrin and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ -- James by name -- and some others, whom he charged with breaking the law and handed over to be stoned to death. [20.200]

Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those who loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again at the third day, as the divine prophets had fortold these and 10,000 other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. [18.63-64 (Greek)]

Epitome from the Universal History of Agapius:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders. [Ibid. (Arabic)]

Babylonian Talmud:

On the eve of Passover Yeshua was hanged. For forty days before the execution a herald went forth and cried, "He is going to be stoned because he has practiced socery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of Passover. [Sanhedrin 43a]

 

REFERENCE NOTES

  1. David Hume, CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, section X.
  2. Rudolf Bultmann, JESUS CHRIST AND MYTHOLOGY (New York: Scribners, 1958), p. 15.
  3. For further discussion of this point, see my papers "A Critical Examination of Modern Cosmological Theories" and "A Critique of Carl Sagan's TV Series and Book `Cosmos'," IBRI RESEARCH REPORTS ##15 and 19 (1982 and 1984).
  4. Robert Jastrow, UNTIL THE SUN DIES (New York: Norton, 1977, chs. 1-4.
  5. Adolf Harnack, WHAT IS CHRISTIANITY? (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 25.
  6. Ibid., p. 24.
  7. Josephus, AGAINST APION 1.8; 1 Maccabees 4:46; 9:27; 14:41.
  8. Most of the material on these works comes from N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Sculland, eds., THE OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press , 1970); Henry Thurston Peck, ed., HARPER'S DICTIONARY OF CLASSICAL LITERATURE AND ANTIQUITIES, 2nd ed. (New York: Cooper-Square, 1965); or the relevant editions of each work in the Loeb Classical Library.
  9. Bruce M. Metzger, THE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford, 1968), ch. II; for details on the papyri, see pp. 246-256.
  10. Jose O'Callaghan, "Papiros neotestamentarios en la cueva 7 de Qumran?" BIBLICA 53 (1972), 91-100.
  11. Bruce M. Metzger, CHAPTERS IN THE HISTORY OF NEW TESTAMENT TEXTUAL CRITICISM (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 145.
  12. B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, eds., THE NEW TESTAMENT IN THE ORIGINAL GREEK, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1882), 2:2.
  13. Ezra Abbot, THE AUTHORSHIP OF THE FOURTH GOSPEL, WITH OTHER CRITICAL ESSAYS (Boston: Ellis, 1888).
  14. Metzger, CHAPTERS, pp. 148-150.
  15. Frederic G. Kenyon, OUR BIBLE AND THE ANCIENT MANUSCRIPTS (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941), p. 23.
  16. Recorded in Eusebius, CHURCH HISTORY 3.39.15-16.
  17. Justin, APOLOGY 1.33, 66, 67; DIALOGUE WITH TRYPHO 100-104, 105, 106, 107.
  18. DIALOGUE 103.7.
  19. DIALOGUE 106.3.
  20. Text in Henry Bettenson, ed., DOCUMENTS OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford, 1963), pp. 40-41; J. Stevenson, ed., A NEW EUSEBIUS (London: SPCK, 1963), pp. 144-147.
  21. Irenaeus, AGAINST HERESIES 3.1.2.
  22. Clement, OUTLINES, cited in Eusebius, CHURCH HISTORY 6.14.5; Origen, COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 1, cited in Eusebius 6.25.3ff.
  23. William K. Hobart, THE MEDICAL LANGUAGE OF ST. LUKE (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1954).
  24. Clement 47, 34.
  25. R.N. Longenecker, "Ancient Amanuenses and the Pauline Epistles," in R.N. Longenecker and M.C. Tenney, eds., NEW DIMENSIONS IN NEW TESTAMENT STUDY (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974).
  26. Tertullian, ON BAPTISM 17.
  27. F.J. Foakes-Jackson, JOSEPHUS AND THE JEWS (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), pp. xi, xv.
  28. OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY, p. 1034.
  29. Ibid., p. 1021.
  30. Ibid., p. 846.
  31. Ibid., p. 849.
  32. Ibid., pp. 508-509; HARPER'S DICTIONARY, p. 806.
  33. OXFORD, pp. 1142-1143.
  34. Ibid., pp. 853-854.
  35. A.N. Sherwin-White, ROMAN SOCIETY AND ROMAN LAW IN THE NEW TESTAMENT (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), p. 187.
  36. G. Henry Waterman, "The Sources of Paul's Teaching on the 2nd Coming of Christ in 1 and 2 Thessalonians," JOURNAL OF THE EVANGELICAL THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY 18 (1975), 105-113.
  37. Suetonius, LIVES OF THE TWELVE CAESARS, "Nero" 16.2; "Claudius" 25.4.
  38. Tacitus, ANNALS 15.44.
  39. Pliny the Younger, LETTERS 10.96.
  40. The text of Mara may be found in F.F. Bruce, JESUS AND CHRISTIAN ORIGINS OUTSIDE THE NEW TESTAMENT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 31.
  41. Josephus, ANTIQUITIES 20.200; 18.63-64.
  42. Shlomo Pines, AN ARABIC VERSION OF THE TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM AND ITS IMPLICATIONS (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, 1971), pp. 9-10.
  43. BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Sanh 43a; more cryptic passages are discussed in Bruce, CHRISTIAN ORIGINS, ch. IV; R.T. Herford, CHRISTIANITY IN TALMUD AND MIDRASH (Clifton, NJ: Reference Book Publishers, 1966); and Joseph Klausner, JESUS OF NAZARETH (New York: Macmillan, 1925).
  44. Justin, DIALOGUE 10.
  45. Origen, AGAINST CELSUS 2.27, 49, 74.
  46. BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Shab 116a.
  47. Matt 28:13; DIALOGUE 108.
  48. TOSEFTA, Sanh 9.7.

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