Extraordinary Claims 2: The Historical Jesus
Was there an historical Jesus? Every few years someone comes along who proclaims that historically there was no Jesus. These claims are thoroughly refuted and then after the fuss dies down the whole process is repeated. Jesus is an historical person, this is based on sound and thorough historical claims. But what is history? What does the physical evidence tell us?
Let’s deal with the physical evidence first. Physical evidence is not history, history is based on documentation which I will deal with later. Physical evidence is presented by archaeology and the claim that there is no physical evidence for Jesus is disingenuous. There is little physical evidence for any person in history.
My wife’s grandfather fought in World War One, so we watch TV programs about that war. In one of them archaeologists were digging in trenches that had been occupied by the Canadian Corps. As the archaeologist dug a button out of the ground he carefully rubbed off the dirt, showed it to the camera and said “that’s the first evidence we have of Canadian troops fighting in World War One.” The Canadian Corps numbered over 100,000 men, 60,000 Canadian soldiers died in the war, but of the over 600,000 Canadians who served in that war that button was the first evidence in over 80 years that any Canadian formation served in that war.
Physical evidence is not what the critics of Jesus would make it out to be. It is something that is rare, especially where the sites investigated have been subject to warfare. We know the names of Roman governors and officials but with a paucity of a material that leaves us dependent on documentation, which is substantial.
The documentation supporting the historical Jesus is also substantial. First there are the four Gospels. These tend to be dismissed by critics from the beginning of their arguments. Little evidence is given for such dismissal other than “of course you can’t trust those.” Really? Why not?
When Dr. Edwin Yamauchi was asked what we would know about Jesus if the four Gospels did not exist he replied that we would know that Jesus was a Jewish teacher, people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms, some people believed he was the Messiah, he was rejected by the Jewish leadership, and he was crucified by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. That’s from the extra biblical evidence, Basically this material corroborates the bare historical facts about Jesus which means there was an historical Jesus.
If there is extra biblical evidence that verifies the existence of Jesus then we need to be cautious about simply dismissing the Gospels as evidence. There exists other evidence which corroborate the Gospels which means we have to pay closer attention to what the Gospels say, not simply dismiss them.
The Gospels claim that Jesus was born in the days of Herod the Great, somewhere between 6 B.C. and 1 B.C. We know that Herod the Great reigned in Jerusalem at that time (and yes, I’m aware that conventionally his death is believed to have taken place in 4 B.C.). During his reign he answered to the governor of Syria, a certain Quirinius. Based on physical evidence, the evidence from archaeology, we know there was a Quirinius governing Syria in 11 B.C., based on documentary evidence we also know that a Quirinius governed Syria as late as 6 A.D.
How many men named George Bush have been president of the United States? Were they the same man or two different men? Was it a continuous term or different terms? These are the questions that face us with Quirinius, was there one man or two? Was the same man appointed at different times to the same post? All we know is that physical evidence indicates there was a governor by this name at the time just before the Gospel account begins and the documentary evidence indicates a governor by this name at the time of the Gospels. So far the evidence corroborates the Gospels.
The Gospels report that a king named Herod ruled in Jerusalem at that time and shortly after hearing of the birth of Jesus ordered the deaths of all children under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem. We know this king to have been Herod the Great. Herod was an Idumean and not a Jew. He systematically put to death any and all that he even suspected of plotting against him. The account of the deaths of the infants is in keeping with his character, so much so that the death of the few infants in a region with a population of less than a thousand went unremarked except in the Gospel of Matthew. Again the evidence corroborates the Gospels.
The remarks recorded in the Mishnah regarding Jesus indicate that he performed great deeds by the means of sorcery. The deeds themselves are not disputed, but the means are. This is the same accusation that the Gospels record the religious leaders of the day making against Jesus. The Gospels are accurate in their records of Jesus opponents, the records of Jesus’ opponents corroborates the Gospels.
The histories of Roman writers of the time show that there were a people called Christians who worshipped a man who had been crucified. This crucifixion took place at the time when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea under Tiberius Caesar. As these histories are either complaining about the Christians or ridiculing them they cannot be considered friendly but they nevertheless corroborate the Gospels as time and events.
As the literature accumulates that supports the events in the Gospels the Gospels themselves become more important evidence for Jesus. In general the events at the beginning of the Jesus life have been shown to accurate and also the events at the end of his life. The character of the rulers at the time is also accurately portrayed.
Well what about the contradictions then? It is surprising that having answered some objections that there are still more and these contradict themselves. The claim is made that the Gospels cannot be trusted because they are too uniform and must therefore be later forgeries. Having shown that claim cannot be true the opposite claim is now made, they contradict each other? Really?
Legal experts have examined the testimony of the Gospels and have found that while there is variation (not contradiction) this is consistent with eye witness testimony! When the amount of variation is subjected to statistical analysis it corroborates the opinion of these experts.
Is it possible then that the Gospels are clever forgeries or simply legendary documents? When we look at the reasons writers have for producing such documents we have to say no. Writers will make contrived documents to impress patrons or to earn money. The writers of the Gospels did not earn even modest sums of money from their efforts. They gained no great political or organizational power. The material presented in the Gospels was offensive to the both the Jewish and Roman political and religious leadership and to the Greek intellectuals. The warts and all testimony of the Gospels is unlike anything seen in patronized literature.
It would seem that for a new decade Christians must once again present the reasons why the Gospels are trustworthy documents. That there is extraordinary evidence to support the extraordinary claims, and that this evidence has been known and repeatedly tested and found trustworthy since ancient times.
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