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The Reality of the Christ: Part 2

savior

Matthew and Luke are the only two Gospel writers who include an infancy narrative in their biographies of Jesus. According to the most widely accepted theory about how the Gospels were composed, Matthew and Luke wrote independently of one another. That is, Matthew did not have a copy of Luke’s Gospel on his desk when writing his Gospel, as it were, and vice versa.

Having said that, it is amazing that these two birth narratives almost never cover the same events! But in the few instances that they do, they are in agreement. The famous biblical scholar Father Raymond Brown pointed out eleven points (reproduced in Monette, The Wrong Jesus, pp. 108-109) at which Matthew and Luke’s accounts are in accord with one another:

1. Mary and Joseph are legally engaged but haven’t lived together (see Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27,34).
2. Joseph is from King David’s lineage (see Matthew 1:16,20; Luke 1:27,32; 2:4).
3. Angels announce the forthcoming birth of the baby (see Matthew 1:20-23; Luke 1:30-35).
4. Mary becomes pregnant as a virgin (see Matthew 1:20,23,25; Luke 1:34).
5. The child is conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 1:18,20; Luke 1:35).
6. An angel proclaims that the child’s name will be Jesus (see Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31).
7. An angel states that Jesus is to be the Saviour (see Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11).
8. The birth of Jesus happens after Mary and Joseph began living together as spouses (see Matthew 1:24-25; Luke 2:5-6).
9. Jesus is born in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).
10. Herod the Great is in power during the time of the birth of Jesus (see Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5).
11. Jesus is raised in Nazareth (see Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39).

The fact that these two independent sources on Jesus’ infancy are in agreement on all these major details gives us greater confidence that we can trust these accounts.

The Reality of the Christ: Part 1

nativityDuring the Christmas and Easter seasons in particular, many skeptics appear in the media who insist that these celebrations are meaningless, because Jesus never actually existed. How can we respond?

It’s important to understand that people who doubt the birth and existence of Jesus of Nazareth are extremely few. Their claims are, quite frankly, not credible. They are not accepted by any legitimate historian. In fact, no credible professor of history who holds a university teaching chair denies Jesus’ existence as a historical figure.

One such professor has truly thrown down the gauntlet in this regard. Scholar Greg Monette notes that “John Dickson, who holds a PhD in ancient history and is senior research fellow of the department of ancient history at Macquarie University, is so sure of the evidence for the historical Jesus that he’s recently put forward a challenge on Facebook: If anyone can provide the name of a single university professor holding a PhD in ancient history who denied the existence of Jesus, he’d eat a page from the Bible! So far, Dickson’s Bible is safe, and I believe it will stay that way” (Monette, The Wrong Jesusp. 28).

In actuality, there are many historical references to Jesus from pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources. Let’s focus for now on the pagan Roman sources. These are valuable in part because they are essentially “hostile witnesses”, who have no interest in promoting Christianity – often quite the contrary. Yet, they affirm the existence of Jesus. Here are a few of the most important Roman citations (cited by Monette, pp. 28-29):

1. PLINY THE YOUNGER (AD 62–113), Epistles 10.96:

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light [Sunday], when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food, but of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

2. TACITUS (AD 60–120), Annals 15.44:

“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”

3. SUETONIUS (AD 75–160), Life of Claudius 25.4:

“Because the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”

4. MARA BAR SERAPION (2nd or 3rd century), in a letter:

“The Jews in executing their wise king were ‘ruined and driven from their land [and now] live in complete dispersion. . . Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.’”

Even the skeptical scholar and ex-Catholic priest, John Dominic Crossan, has written: “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” If Jesus was a historical figure who was crucified, he was of course born into our world as well. And this is what we commemorate during the season of Christmas.

Is the Ossuary of St. James a Forgery?

In this clip, as I guest host Catholic Answers Live, Dr. Michael Barber and I discuss the controversial case of the ossuary of James. Specifically, we look at the question of whether or not it’s a forgery (I think it’s legit), and how it relates to (of all things) the O.J. Simpson case (!). You’ll see what I mean…watch the video, and enjoy!

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: Pliny the Younger

Pliny the YoungerPliny the Younger is another valuable historical source for information on Jesus and the early Church. Pliny was the governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, located in Asia Minor. In the year 112 AD, he wrote to the Emperor Trajan, asking how he should deal with those in his region who have been accused of being Christians.

In the letter, Pliny describes the practices of these “criminals”:

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

From this passage, we can ascertain a number of facts about the early Church in Asia Minor:

1.Christians met on a “certain fixed day, before it was light”. This is undoubtedly a reference to Sunday worship.

2. The also “sang…a hymn to Christ, as to a God”. This worship involved worship of Jesus Christ. This is early, extrabiblical evidence of Christian belief in the Deity of Christ. In other words, the Divinity of Jesus is not a later “creation” of the Church. Who knows? Perhaps the hymn they were singing is the one St Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-11.

3. Catholic Christianity, then as now, required adherence to the teaching of the Church on both faith (what to believe) and morality (how to live). We see the latter in Pliny’s description of the 2nd-century believers: they “bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up”.

4. They celebrated the Eucharist. In all likelihood, that explains the reference to their “partaking of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind”. Why did Pliny stress that last point? It could well be a reference to the fact that Christians were thought to be cannibals, because it was said that they ate the flesh and drank the blood of a certain individual when they met for their sacred meals. Some in Pliny’s day even spread rumors that babies were sacrificed for this purpose. This is, of course, a colossal misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Early Catholics did (as we continue to do) eat the true flesh and drink the actual blood of Christ in the Eucharist, albeit in a sacramental, unbloody manner.

All of this corroborates what we know of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, as presented in the New Testament.

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: Flavius Josephus

Josephus

One of the greatest non-Christian historical references to Jesus was made by Josephus, the great Jewish historian. He lived in the first century (c. 37-100 AD), and was a contemporary of many members of the nascent Church.

There are two mentions of Jesus in Josephus’ great work entitled “Jewish Antiquities”. One refers to the condemnation of James, the relative of Jesus who became the Bishop of Jerusalem after Peter’s departure from the city: James was “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”, according to Josephus (Ant. 20.9.1). Few question the authenticity of this passage.

Of course, there is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” (so named because Josephus took on the Roman name of “Flavius”, being known as “Flavius Josephus):

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared” (Ant. 18.3.3).

Scholars believe that Josephus did write this passage, but that it was later edited by Christian interpolators, who added the phrases like “if indeed one ought to call him a man”, “He was the Christ”, and “On the third day he appeared…restored to life”. Josephus was not a believer in Jesus, and certainly would not have written those things.

However, the bulk of what he wrote can be trusted as authentic. This is made even more sure by the fact that an Arabic version of Josephus’ “Antiquities” has been discovered, where the passage in question is present, minus the interpolations.

Josephus corroborates much of what we know from the New Testament’s portrait of Jesus: that he claimed to be the Messiah, was a wise man who was thought to have performed “surprising feats” (miraculous deeds), and that his followers continued to be his disciples in a movement that continued despite his death.

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: Tacitus

Tacitus

In this series, I’ll be sharing some ancient, non-Christian literary evidences for Jesus. This extrabiblical evidence corroborates much of what we know about Jesus’ life, teaching, and activities that is recorded in the New Testament. This is helpful material to cite when we are dealing with a person who doubts the existence of Christ, and who also refuses to take the New Testament documents seriously as historical sources.

These non-Christian sources had no agenda to promote faith in Jesus. In fact, some of them are outright hostile to the Christian message. This is actually the best type of evidence one could hope for: enemy attestation. When one’s opponent concedes that these events in the life of Jesus did occur, it’s a powerful witness to their veracity.

Perhaps the most important non-Christian source on Jesus is the great Roman historian, Tacitus. Here’s what he said about Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64 (a fire quite likely set by Nero himself):

“Nero fastened the guilt…on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of…Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome” (Tacitus, Annals 15:44, c. 116 AD).

Tacitus here confirms that Christians were named as such because of their founder, whom he calls “Christus” (derived from the Latin for “Christ”). Christus “suffered the extreme penalty (referring to crucifixion) during the reign of Tiberius (the Emperor at the time) at the hands of…Pontius Pilatus” (the Roman Prefect in charge of Judea). This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: 15 Facts

15

This will be the first of a series of posts regarding extrabiblical evidence for the life, teachings, and activities of Jesus. Having already dealt with the question of Jesus’ historical existence, we now turn to the question of his words and deeds. Many people wonder if the New Testament can be trusted regarding these matters.

The famous scholar E.P. Sanders, in his 1985 book, Jesus and Judaism, argued that there were eight “almost indisputable facts” about Jesus of Nazareth that were agreed upon by the majority of historians, whether these scholars were believers or not. As Greg Monette notes, in a later book called The Historical Figure of Jesus (written in 1993 for a more general audience), Sanders expanded the list of facts to fifteen:

1. Jesus was born c. 4 BC, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
2. He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
3. He was baptized by John the Baptist;
4. He called disciples;
5. He taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not in the cities, save for some brief teaching in Jerusalem);
6. He preached “The Kingdom of God”;
7. He went to Jerusalem for Passover about AD 30;
8. He created a disturbance in the Temple area;
9. He had a final meal with the disciples;
10. He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
11. He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
12. His disciples at first fled;
13. They claimed to see him after his death;
14. As a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the Kingdom;
15. They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.

This list shows that Christians can have a high degree of confidence in the historical accuracy of what the New Testament says about the general contours of Jesus’ life and ministry.

One item that is strangely absent from Sanders’ list is that Jesus was a well-known healer and exorcist. This point is very well-attested. Jesus’ abilities in this regard are proclaimed on numerous occasions in the Gospel, and corroborated by historians of the times like Josephus, who calls Jesus “a doer of wondrous deeds” in his Jewish Antiquities. In a world in which a huge percentage of people were sick at any given time, this fact explains, in large part, Jesus’ popularity among the masses.

In fact, Jesus’ own enemies didn’t even bother to dispute that he did these things. Rather, they tried to explain his abilities by suggesting that Jesus was somehow in league with Satan (Jesus rightly skewers this flawed thinking in passages such as Mark 3:22-30). That Jesus was thought to be an exorcist and healer is, I think, beyond dispute from a historical perspective.

Mythicists, Maclean’s, and the Messiah: Did Jesus Exist?

Did Jesus Exist?

Q. During Holy Week, Maclean’s magazine ran a cover story called “Did Jesus Really Exist?” Many of my friends are reading this and actually believing this stuff – it is providing them with the “excuse” they need not to practice the faith.

A. Very often, around Christmas and Easter, secular media outlets will often publish materials that call into question the reality of Christianity. Their motive is clear: to sell more papers and magazines; to attract more viewers with something “controversial”. Thankfully for us, there is ample historical evidence for the historical truth of the faith.

However, this article in Maclean’s is especially questionable. As Andy Steiger writes, the article is “outright dishonest and manipulative. It preys on ignorance and reeks of a hidden agenda.”

Q. How so?

A. The article claims that research into memory has cast doubt on much that we know about Jesus, even whether or not he existed. What can be said in response to this? First of all, there is plenty of phenomenal scholarship that has been produced in recent years that has shown beyond a reasonable doubt the validity of memory and eyewitness testimony in the Gospels. One of the greatest works of this sort is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, a monumental study by the famed New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham.

As to the question of Jesus existence, the Maclean’s article is especially disingenuous. The author, Brian Bethune, attempts to make use of the work of skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to “prove” Jesus never existed. Bethune does this by subtly implying that Ehrman endorses the views of Richard Carrier (the leading “mythicist” writing today, who claims Jesus was not a historical figure). Now, it’s certainly true that Ehrman doubts the reliability of the New Testament documents (I don’t think his arguments on that front are persuasive, but that’s another article for another day). But this is a totally separate topic from the question of the existence of Jesus.

What Bethune either willfully chose to ignore, or does not know, is this: Bart Ehrman himself wrote a book in 2012 called Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, in which he skewers the view of the “mythicists” who say that Jesus did not exist. The reality that Jesus exists, Ehrman says, “is the view of every trained scholar on the planet” (p. 12).

Either way, this is shoddy journalism, and even worse editing by Maclean’s. This once-proud Canadian institution ought to be ashamed of themselves for publishing such utter nonsense.