*Everyone has an opinion about Jesus. But how do we even know about him in the first place? How do the ancient records about Jesus compare to what we know about other ancient people?*
(If this is your first time reading something here, please first read a short explanation about the purpose of this blog.)
It seems everyone has an opinion about Jesus. Some say he was a wise, moral teacher; some say he was a myth; some says he was God incarnate. Yet people also agree on what Jesus ain’t. For example, whether a historical person or a myth, no one believes Jesus was a warlord. So, how do we know that?
We learn about specific people in the past by documentation, by records that attest to that person’s life, and sometimes other archeological evidence. Obviously, the farther back in history we go, the more difficult it is to prove the existence of a particular person, even someone as famous and powerful as a king or emperor, let alone a poor rabbi from the backwaters of the Roman empire.
So, why is it so hard to conclusively prove the existence of a person from ancient times, even someone as famous and influential as Alexander the Great or Caesar Augustus? First, empirical science is little help; even if we have the assumed body of the ancient person, it’s not like there is a DNA database we can reference.
Further, there are two types of science: empirical and forensic. Empirical science is used to study present, repeatable events. These events can be replicated in studies and witnessed through our senses. Empirical science doesn’t help us with historical events because those events cannot be repeated. For instance, we can’t use empirical science to prove the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. On the other hand, forensic science is used to study past, unrepeatable events. With forensic science, one must look at evidence and use logic to draw conclusions. Forensic science is used in archaeology, forensic criminal investigations, cryptology (the study of codes), and even SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).
In proving the existence of a historical figure, it all comes down to documentation – historical records. Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus lived before the invention of the printing press and the modern information age. Ancient manuscripts were written on papyrus, made from plant reeds, which lasted only about 10 years before falling apart. Later, ancient manuscripts were written on parchment or vellum, both made from animal skins, which lasted longer than papyrus but were still fragile.
Finally, the shortage of ancient manuscripts can be partially blamed on the many conflicts and wars of ancient times. The ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt was renowned for its collection of manuscripts and their destruction during several conflicts. Because of the lack of modern means of copying and saving information, many ancient manuscripts have been sadly lost to us forever.
Now, when we turn to the New Testament, the ancient records about Jesus, we find the individual “books” that compose the New Testament have survived considerably well compared to other ancient manuscripts.
To start, let’s compare the sources for our information about Jesus to sources for two other famous ancient people: Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus. Interestingly, no one raises questions about whether Alexander the Great or Caesar Augustus existed like they do about Jesus, but – as we’ll see – the sources for our information about Jesus compare extremely well against the sources for these two other famous men from antiquity.
Furthermore, Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus were rulers and conquerors of great empires — the most powerful, famous men of their time period — the exact type of persons ancient historians wrote about. The fact that we know anything today about a rabbi from Nazareth is incredible.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT
We have 2 sources for our information about Alexander the Great. Both of these sources were written about 400 years after Alexander the Great lived.
We have 5 sources that give us the information we know about Caesar Augustus. One is a funeral writing, written at his death. One was written 50-100 years after his death. The last three were written 100-200 years after his death.
JESUS OF NAZARETH
For Jesus, we have 4 sources — the four Gospels found in the New Testament, each individually investigated, each containing both complimentary and unique information. The 4 Gospels were written 25-60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, which means within the lifetime of those who knew Jesus and witnessed his ministry. (Jesus was crucified in about AD 30-33, and all of the Gospels were written before AD 100.) Two of the Gospels – Matthew and John – were written by Jesus’ actual apostles, where the other two – Mark and Luke – were written by disciples of Jesus’ apostles, Paul and Peter. This means the 4 sources we have for knowing about Jesus’ life come from eyewitnesses.
Further, we also have Paul’s letters, which are collected in the New Testament, which attest to Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and deity, all of which historians agree were written before the four Gospels.
Historians also agree that Paul recorded several creeds of the early church that predate his letters. The earliest is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
This creed is widely accepted by scholars as being dated at most 2-5 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann believes the creed was created before the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Paul. Further, some scholars believe the creed appeared “within months” of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Another early creed appears in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-11):
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So, that covers the variety of sources and their dating, but what about actual physical manuscripts – I mean, manuscripts we can actually hold in our hands and read with our own eyes today. Since we already covered how perishable these ancient manuscripts were, how many have survived until this day?
First, because of the fragileness of ancient manuscripts, as far as we know no original ancient manuscripts have survived to this day. Meaning, we do not have the actual first manuscripts written in the hands of the New Testament writers or any other ancient writers. These writings have survived through the tedious work of scribes to copy them by hand to preserve these important works for future generations. So, we do have actual manuscripts that have survived from ancient times, but just not the originals.
So, how does the New Testament do compared to other ancient manuscripts?
- For Aristotle, we have 49 ancient manuscripts.
- For Sophocles, we have 193 ancient manuscripts.
- For Plato’s tetralogies, we have 7 ancient manuscripts.
- For Homer’s The Iliad, we have 643 ancient manuscripts.
- For the New Testament, we have 5,686 ancient manuscripts in the original Greek, either in part or in whole. Plus, there are about 9,000 other ancient manuscripts of the New Testament books in other languages.
The earliest manuscript piece of the New Testament we have is a fragment from the Gospel of John (18:31-33, 37-38). This fragment was found in Egypt and has been dated about AD 125-130, but could be as early as AD 90. The dating puts it within 40 years of the actual original writing of the Gospel of John, and the fragment shows that the Gospel had spread as far as Egypt in that short period.
The manuscripts we have for the non-New Testament works mentioned above are dated about 500 years, 900 years, and over 1,000 years after they were written.
New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce wrote, “There is better evidence for the New Testament than any other ancient book.”
(Read about the recent discoveries of New Testament manuscripts, including one that may be older than the John fragment mentioned above, in an article by respected New Testament scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace here.)
With such a vast number of handwritten manuscripts, scholars are able to compare them and easily identify errors and variants made by the scribes. Expectantly, the scribes are not perfect, but most variations are simple spelling mistakes or have no effect on how the New Testament is translated or understood. Only 1% of the variants have any effect on the meaning of the text, and none of these come close to affecting any doctrinal teaching of the New Testament.
Because of this wealth of New Testament manuscripts, scholars can easily compare the ancient manuscripts through a process called textual criticism and are positive the New Testament we read today is 99% accurate to the originals.
Further, the early church fathers, who lived between AD 90-160, shortly after the events recorded in the New Testament, quoted the New Testament so extensively that 90% of the New Testament can be reconstructed from their sermons and writings. So, even if we had no ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, we’d still have ancient records of 90% of it. Moreover, these early church fathers were obviously quoting from earlier manuscripts than the majority of the ones we currently have.
SO, WHAT DOES THIS TELL US?
First, our current New Testament is faithful to the originals.
Secondly, secular historians consider the New Testament an excellent historical source, but – understandably – the supernatural events the New Testament reports make many skeptical of its historicity. Because of this, many non-Christian historians gladly use it to learn of Jesus and the time period but ignore the supernatural aspects of it.
Interestingly, scholars say that the time between the events and the writing of the New Testament is much too short to allow legends and myths to develop, especially considering that people who witnessed Jesus were still living at the time of the writing of the New Testament. The New Testament writers present it as a historical record and provide names and other information so their contemporaries could investigate and confirm their claims about Jesus. Where one can argue that this alone does not conclusively prove the historicity of the New Testament, it must be acknowledged that the New Testament does not have the fuzzy, “other-world-ness” of mythology.
C.S. Lewis, Oxford professor, expert of ancient mythology, and former atheist, wrote, “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 thing.”
Finally, no evidence of an early account of a strictly “human-only” Jesus or any other early alternative view of Jesus exists.
(Those alternative “gospels” we often hear about, like the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas, were written after the New Testament in the second century by a cult that combined Greek philosophy and Christianity called Gnosticism. Here, we see the beginning developments of legend in them as they portray Jesus more supernaturally than the true Gospels.)
There is also mention of Jesus outside the Bible in other ancient writings, but these were all written later than the New Testament. We’ll spend some time looking at these at the end of this series of articles, but for now we have answered our opening question:
How do we know about Jesus?
We know about Jesus from the reliable, well-attested record of the New Testament.
NEXT: Jesus ain’t a white guy born on December 25th.