All those who take history seriously acknowledge the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ.
It’s an indisputable fact of history that there existed in the first century a man identified as Jesus of Nazareth. We possess detailed accounts of his birth, life, contemporaries, and his death. We know when he lived– 5/6 BC through 30/32 BC. We know where he was born—the town of Bethlehem. We know where he spent most of his life— in Nazareth of Galilee. We know about many historical figures of the same period of human history.
We know more details surrounding the death of Jesus Christ than any other person in the ancient world. We also know many details about the events leading up to his death—his betrayal, arrest, religious and civil trial. We know what was said to Jesus by the leaders of Israel and Rome; by the crowd and by those who were crucified with him. We know also what Jesus said to these people as well as what he said to his followers. We even know the name of an obscure person who carried his cross, and the names of those who assisted in his burial.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most famous death in history. Scholars debate its significance but they cannot honestly deny that it happened.
Of course not everyone believes the rest of the story about Jesus Christ told in the same historical documents. These documents present a clear picture of Jesus as one who existed prior to his birth and one who rose from the grave (John 8:58). The story in the New Testament consistently presents Christ as one who does not fit the normal categories for human beings. He is fully human but not merely human (Philippians 2:5-11).
But can we trust the historical account. Unfortunately some people choose not to trust the historical record despite its authenticity. They do this not because the texts cannot stand under normal scrutiny applied to historical witness but because of their strong bias against anything that involves the supernatural or miraculous.
But a exceptionally reasonable case can be made for the historical reliability of the New Testament. In fact, when the rules that guide standard criticism of historical witness are applied to the New Testament, a solid case can be made for its trustworthiness.
When evaluating the integrity of documents, historians look for internal and external evidence. This would include the following seven considerations:
- Eyewitness perspective – Does the author claim to be an eyewitness or that he uses eyewitness sources?
- Self-damaging material – Are the heroes of the account only presented in a positive light? When the gospels recorded a woman as the first witness of the resurrection, they risked rejection of the account. In the culture of that time, a woman’s testimony was not considered credible. Why would they risk a potentially damaging detail like this if the account was an intentional fabrication?
- Specific and irrelevant material – Authentic documents, unlike fabricated ones, tend to include details that are not necessary to the main story. Falsified accounts tend to generalize.
- Reasonable consistency and differences – Are the four gospel accounts consistent on the major points? Minor differences are expected in authentic accounts. If the four gospels were later products of the early church, a greater effort would have been made to iron out all differences.
- Features of mythology – C.S. Lewis once said, “…as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the gospels are, they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend, and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of things” (God in the Dock).
- Confirmation – Do contemporary documents or archeological finds substantiate or falsify the material?
- Character and motivation – Is there anything about the character or motivation of the author that would indicate that he fabricated the material? Would the author’s gain something from their story?
“The idea of a crucified god really did not make sense in the first century. It’s not a message you make up if you’re going to start a religion in the first century A.D.” (Ben Witherington).
If the New Testament gospels were written (centuries after the events recorded in them) as biased history by the early church, why would they portray the earliest leaders of Christianity as defectors? Why would they present the Apostle Peter as one who denied Jesus? Why wouldn’t they picture the apostles as eagerly expecting the resurrection? The main human characters are portrayed as fearful cowards hiding from the authorities. Surely this is not a self-serving account of history. And why would they use a woman as the first witness of the resurrection? Didn’t they realize that a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in the court of law?
Consistent application of the rules for testing valid history yields a firm case for the reliability of the New Testament documents. The good news is that we have reliable evidence for belief in the resurrection of Jesus. This means we have a strong basis for expecting that those who turn to Jesus for salvation will also be raised from the dead. Jesus said, “I was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I hold the keys that unlock the prison of death and the grave” (Revelation 1:18). Those who trust in him have reliable evidence for believing that they too will be freed from the power of death. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).
Do you understand why C. S. Lewis wrote: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”?
“The biblical presentation of Jesus refuses to remain nicely confined to any of our containers. One picture after another of Jesus in this long line of nontraditional portraits fails before one question dear to the hearts of all faithful Christians: ‘What about the Cross?’… Why would anyone crucify the reasonable Jesus of the Enlightenment? Why would anyone crucify the dreamy poet of Romanticism? Why would anyone crucify the Law-abiding, mild-mannered rabbi of revisionist Jewish scholarship? Why would anyone crucify the witty, enigmatic, and marginal figure of the Jesus Seminar?” A Jewish scholar says, ‘Theologians produced the figure they could admire most at the least cost.’ But the Cross stands amidst each such easy path, each attempt to avoid the heart of the matter and the cost of discipleship. The Cross remains a stumbling block for all who encounter this Jesus. He is perhaps not the person we want, but he is surely the person we still – desperately – need” (Allen)
“Jesus of Nazareth remains the most important individual who has ever lived. Nobody else has had comparable influence over so many nations for so long. Nobody else has so affected art and literature, music and drama. Nobody else can remotely match his record in the liberation, the healing and the education of mankind. Nobody else has attracted such a multitude not only of followers but of worshippers. Our claim, then, is not just that Jesus was one of the great spiritual leaders of the world. It would be hopelessly incongruous to refer to him as ‘Jesus the Great,’ comparable to Alexander the Great, Charles the Great, or Napoleon the Great. Jesus is not ‘the Great,’ he is the only. He has no peers, no rivals and no successors” (John Stott, The Contemporary Christian).