The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 3) Harmonizing the Empty Tomb Accounts

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

 

To review from last article, when reading ancient biographies, like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Now, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

 

MAKING SENSE OF MATTHEW’S ACCOUNT

Selective Chronology doesn’t really come into play with the accounts of the women and the empty tomb with the exception of — possibly — Matthew’s Gospel. This isn’t surprising since Matthew is the Gospel writer who most arranges things thematically and the one who regularly gives condensed versions of accounts that read very differently than the other Gospels’ accounts. 

When you read it, it’s easy to visualize what Matthew writes as unfolding as follows: 

(1) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb, (2) an earthquake happens, (3) an angel descends, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (4) The guards pass out. (5) Still sitting on the stone, the angel speaks to the women. 

But I don’t think this is the chronological order of these events. Is Matthew using “creative license” here with chronology? The other accounts make no mention of the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the actual rolling away of the stone. Matthew is the only one to mention these events, and it makes sense that they would have happened before the women arrived because the other accounts report the women find the stone already rolled away upon arrival (and they encounter the angle inside the tomb). 

I think the description of the angel rolling back the stone and the guards fainting is a flashback to what happened before the women arrived. I believe it’s acceptable to read Matthew’s account as: 

(1) An earthquake occurred, (2) an angel descended, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (3) The guards pass out. (4) Later, the women arrive (the guards have likely awoken and run off by now), and the women find the empty, open tomb. (5) The angel (no longer on the stone) speaks to the women inside the tomb.

Thus, the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the guards’ falling into unconsciousness is a flashback sandwiched between Matthew telling us the women went to the tomb and the angel speaking to the women. So, Matthew can be understood as follows:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, [before they arrived] there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But [after the women arrived] the angel said to the women [inside the tomb], “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen… (Matthew 28:1–6)

After looking at the other Gospel accounts, we see that Matthew drastically condensed his account, taking many shortcuts in his retelling, but giving the key elements. Because of Matthew’s “shortcuts,” it’s easy to visualize his account differently had we not had the other accounts to compare it to.

 

HARMONIZING THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS

But the big differences just don’t appear in Matthew, as we touched on in the last article. Understanding the ancient (and non-ancient) writing conventions we looked at in the last article will now continue to assist us as we put the pieces of the four Gospels together to get a complete picture of the events surrounding the finding of the empty tomb.

Based on a careful reading of all four Gospels, I believe the events played out in the following way:

  • An earthquake occurs, the angel descends and rolls back the stone before the tomb’s entrance and sits on it, and the guards “become like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)
  • Sometime later, around dawn, Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:55-24:1, John 20:1)
    • Selective Representation – John only mentions Mary Magdalene and the other writers mention select women with her.
  • Mary Magdalene and the other women find the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance. (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1)
  • Mary Magdalene splits from the other women and runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2) 
    • We’ll pick back on Mary Magdalene’s path below…
  • The remaining women enter the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing. (Mark 16:5-6, Luke 24:3)
    • No specific women are named here — just a general reference to the women entering the tomb. Because of this, it’s easy to imagine Mary Magdalene still with them when we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but we know from John’s Gospel she has run off.
  • The women see at least two angels in the tomb.
    • Selective Representation – Luke mentions two angels, where Mark 16:5 and Luke 24:4 mention one, likely the one speaking.
  • The women are told Jesus is risen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5-7)
    • If we only had Matthew’s account, we can imagine the conversation taking place outside the tomb. Matthew’s condensed version leaves out the details of them entering the tomb.
  • The women are told to go tell the disciples (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7, Luke 24:8-10).

 

A CHALLENGE IN MARK’S ACCOUNT

After this, both Matthew and Luke tell us the women go and tell the disciples, but Mark seems to make a big issue for us: Mark tells us the women flee the tomb in fear and tell no one! This is where his Gospel ends. How do we rectify this?

One common way, which I’ve encountered many times, is to say that the women at first didn’t tell anyone, yet we know from the witness of the other Gospels that they eventually did. It’s often said that Mark chose to end his Gospel at this moment to emphasize what Christians are not to do. Christians are not to “keep it to themselves,” but share the good news of Jesus Christ. I’ll let you decide if this is a reasonable solution to Mark’s ending, but based on what we talked about concerning ancient writing, I think we have another, better option.

I believe it’s possible that Mark is using Selective Representation. So, just like we had a person split off from the group when Mary Magdalene ran off after seeing the open tomb, here we have another split in the group of women: Some of the women listened to the angel and ran off to tell the disciples where another section of the group ran off and didn’t tell anyone. Mark is only focusing on those women who didn’t tell.

After all, Matthew tells us the women left the tomb with both “fear and great joy” [emphasis mine]. Are both groups of women in sight here in Matthew? Luke gives us a general statement about “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” telling the disciples, the same women named at the beginning of his account.  Salmone is the only woman named in any of the Gospels (in Mark’s Gospel) but not named here in Luke. Was she one of the unnamed “other women” in Luke or was she one of the women who didn’t tell anyone about Jesus’ empty tomb? Mark is the only one to name Salmone, and Mark is the only one to include that (some of) the women didn’t tell anyone. 

So, to continue our timeline:

  • Women Group A runs off and tells no one. (Mark 16:8)
  • Women Group B runs off to tell the disciples and meets the risen Jesus. (Matthew 28:8-10)
  • Women Group B tells the disciples all they experienced, but the disciples doubt it. (Luke 24:11)
    • Luke 24:11 includes Mary Magdalene here. We can assume she joins back with the other women later when she returns to the disciples. Even if that’s not the case, this is just a general statement by Luke about who told the disciples about the risen Jesus. 
    • This is where Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s account begin to overlap again with the other Gospels.
  • But Peter runs to the empty tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:3-9)
  • Peter returns home. (Luke 24:12, John 20:10)

 

JOHN’S GOSPEL & MARY MAGDALENE

Backing up in time a bit and returning to Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s Gospel:

  • After Mary Magdalene leaves the other women at the open tomb, she runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2)
  • Peter and John run to the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing and burial clothes laying inside. (John 20:3-9)
    • Selective Representation – Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Peter and John head back home. (John 20:10)
    • Selective Representation – Again, Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Mary weeps at the tomb. She has either arrived after Peter and John left (since they literally ran there – John 20:4-6) or she arrived while they were still there and remained after they headed back. (John 20:11)
  • Mary looks inside the tomb and sees two angles, who speak to her. (John 20:11-13)
  • She turns and encounters the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:14-17)
  • Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the risen Jesus. (John 20:18, Luke 24:10)

There’s room for other interpretations within my timeline of these events, but I think this is a plausible option for harmonizing the four accounts of the women finding the empty tomb of Jesus and — more importantly — encountering the risen Lord himself.

All glory to Christ!

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

Related GFTM articles:

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 1 – Differences or Contradictions?

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 7 of 7 – Positive Evidence: Going on the Offensive

 

Visit my ministry site: confidenceinchrist.net

Confidence in Christ v2

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

 

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

THE PROBLEM OF 4 ACCOUNTS

To get the most out of this short blog series, I suggest taking some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into some major challenges: All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

For instance, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salmone go to the tomb. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), Joanna, and “other women” go. And in John, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.

Further, in Matthew, it appears that an earthquake happens, an angel in a dazzling white robe rolls back the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance and sits on it as the Roman guards pass out from fear. Then, it seems, the angel speaks to the women from atop the stone about Jesus’ resurrection. 

Yet, in Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb’s entrance when they arrive, and once they go inside, two angels in dazzling clothes announce Jesus’ resurrection. The women go and tell Jesus’ disciples.

In Mark, the women seemingly find only one angel in the open tomb, and the angel tells them to go tell Jesus’ disciples. Yet, the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone”!

And in John, it seems Mary Magdalene alone finds the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance and Jesus’ body missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. After Peter and John race to the empty tomb, they leave, and then Mary encounters two angels and the risen Jesus. She, then, goes and tells Jesus’ disciples.

As you undoubtedly see, all four of these share similar key details but have considerable differences. What are we to make of this, and can the differences be rectified? Do we have to accept that the Gospel writers got the “big” details correct, but got the “smaller” details wrong?

 

UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPELS AS ANCIENT BIOGRAPHY

First, we need to understand some basic characteristics of ancient historical writing. The Gospels reflect the style of ancient biographies. In short, these ancient biographies sometimes used literary devices that may seem a bit odd to us today.

This has been thoroughly documented by Michael Licona in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography as well as elsewhere. What follows is my own simplified explanation and own phraseology, some of which differs from Licona. For a more in depth look at this, along with many more examples from the Gospels, see my earlier GFTM blog 7-part series: The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

Once we understand these ancient literary conventions (which, in truth, most are used by modern writers as well), the chain-of-events surrounding the empty tomb will fall into place. Understanding this will not just help here in understanding the differences between these passages, but will help any time you read parallel passages across the Gospels and notice differences.

 

1. Selective Details

First, writers must leave out much more than they include in a retelling of true events. All good writers are selective in what details they include, and they select those details for a specific purpose.

Keep in mind, a difference and a contradiction aren’t the same thing. Writers may select certain details to emphasize something while totally ignoring other details another writer may include. That’s not a contradiction. Things that contradict can’t both be true. So, when we’re looking at parallel passages, we have to ask ourselves: Can the differences all be true without contradiction?

 

2. Paraphrasing

Differences in dialogue between Gospels can be understood with two simple concepts.

First of all, the authors are likely not giving us the full dialogue but only selective sections.

Second of all, the dialogue — or at least parts of it — might be a paraphrase. Though modern Bibles have quotation marks around dialogue, quotation marks didn’t exist in ancient Greek. Also, keep in mind, Jesus likely taught primarily in Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek. Thus, we don’t know if what is written is supposed to be a word-for-word representation or a paraphrase or a summary. 

Even in modern times, when telling a true story, people rarely repeat the dialogue verbatim. Instead, they sum up the dialogue by paraphrasing.

 

3. Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)

Next, think of a telescope. A telescope can be extended to its full length or it can be compressed to a much smaller size. Ancient historians sometimes give a longer account with more details, but sometimes they compress the account, cut out details, and tell it in abbreviated form. To understand this better, share about a true event with your friend and take a good five minutes or more to tell it. Afterwards, tell the same story again but in 30 seconds.

To illustrate telescoping (as well as some other literary concepts covered here) let me tell you about Paterson, New Jersey and mixed martial arts fighter Jon Jones. 

Established in 1792, Paterson, NJ is the first planned industrial city in the United States, thanks to Alexander Hamilton and a 77-foot waterfall called the Great Falls on the Passaic River. The Great Falls produced a lot of energy for running mills, making Paterson a major player during the Industrial Revolution. Not only was the city known for its cotton, wool, and (later) silk mills, but the first locomotives and the first Colt revolvers where manufactured there. I taught high school English for 16 years in downtown Paterson, a short walk from the Great Falls. It’s an interesting sight: A huge waterfall in the middle of one of the most urban areas of the United States. In 2011, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was established thanks to President Obama.

In 2011, I had been involved in martial arts for about as long as I had been teaching in Paterson when I heard the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) was coming to Newark, NJ. On March 19, 2011, Jon “Bones” Jones would fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight belt. I bought my tickets and was anxiously awaiting fight night when these two very different parts of my world collided.

On the day of the fight, Jon Jones had visited the Great Falls. But the really exciting news was that he had stopped a thief from stealing a woman’s purse while there. I was at work when I heard this, barely a block away from where this happened, so I got on the internet as soon as I could to find out more details. Evidently, Jon Jones had gone to the Great Falls to relax before his big fight and, instead, found himself using his martial arts skills to take down a bad guy not unlike a comic book hero.

So, here’s how all this about Paterson, Jon Jones, and the Gospels intersect: As I read various online articles about the incident — some very short, some longer — it was interesting to see how different articles gave different details. Longer articles would fill in details that the shorter articles left out. The shorter articles took shortcuts in retelling the story. It wasn’t until after reading several different articles that I felt like I had a full picture of what happened.

For example, one article only mentioned that Jones stopped a thief who stole a woman’s purse, so in my head I was picturing a purse-snatching or mugging. But another article explained that the purse was grabbed through the window of a parked car. One article only stated that Jones chased down and physically stopped the thief, where another gave the detail that a double-leg takedown (a standard wrestling move) was involved.

This is similar to the differences we find between the four Gospels. Ancient writers write differently than we’re used to and we can’t expect them to write like modern newspaper reporters, but there are shared similarities. In their articles, modern reporters select the details they will or will not share; sometimes they include direct quotes and sometimes they paraphrase or summarize what someone said; they “telescope” — sometimes they retell the events in a longer format or they compress it all into a shorter telling.

Finally, they also use “Selective Representation.”

 

4. Selective Representation

Selective Representation is when an ancient writer only focuses on one person instead of everyone involved. At other times, the writer may focus on several people to represent the larger group. This explains why Matthew and Mark mention only one angel in the empty tomb, but Luke mentions two. Matthew and Mark appear to be only focusing on one, likely the one who spoke. Let me point out this isn’t a contradiction. It would be a contradiction if one of the writers claimed that there was only one angel in the tomb, which none of the writers do. 

Likewise, this explains why Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention different women with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and John only mentions Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is the most known of the women, so John only focuses on her. This may seem odd to us today to not mention the other women with her at all, but even modern writers do this. When I read the articles about Jon Jones stopping the purse thief, several writers only mentioned Jon Jones being involved. It wasn’t until I read other articles that I learned that Jon Jones’ trainers were also involved in chasing and stopping the thief! Thus, some of the articles focused only on the person with the big name, the most famous person involved — Jon Jones. Likewise, John’s Gospel only focuses on the “big name” of the women, the most “famous” person involved — Mary Magdalene. Again, let me point out that this isn’t a contradiction. For it to be a contradiction, John would have had to written that only Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty.

 

5. Selective Chronology

Of these literary conventions used by ancient authors, this may be the one that is most odd to us today. Ancient writers, even when retelling true events, didn’t feel as compelled as us today to place things in chronological, linear fashion. Ancient writers used more flexibility in narrative sequence than modern writers. In other words, they were okay with moving things around to emphasize a point. Sometimes they organized things in topical or thematic groups. The overall structure of the story remains the same, but the smaller units within the bigger framework may be moved around. 

For example, in Matthew 13 we find several parables of Jesus with similar messages. Did Jesus say all of these parables one-after-another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar themes together? Either option is possible. 

Another example: When did Jesus drive the merchants out of the Temple? John has it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels has him doing it at the end. One possible explanation is that John is using Selective Chronology to emphasize Jesus’ zeal at the beginning of his Gospel. (Of course, another simple explanation is that Jesus drove out the merchants twice — once towards the beginning and once towards the ending of his ministry.) 

To sum up, when reading ancient biographies like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Next, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

NEXT: The third (and final) article in this series: Harmonizing the empty tomb accounts.

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

READ Part 1 of The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WOMEN WITNESSES 

Women-at-tomb

After Jesus’ arrest, Peter — one of Jesus closest disciples — denied association with Jesus three times and the rest of the remaining 12 “inner circle” disciples ran off, abandoning Jesus (Mark 14:50). Even if we were to take a skeptical stance when reading the Gospels, this doesn’t seem like an invented detail by the early church since it certainly doesn’t make the disciples look good; these same men would be leading the early church, especially Peter. It was the woman who stayed by Jesus to watch him die on the cross (along with John)(Matthew 27:55; Luke 23:49; John 19:25-27), and it was the women to first see him alive afterwards.

The New Testament Gospels report that at least five women, several who are named, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty, and Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearances were to Mary Magdalene and (at least some of) these other women (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). Considering that in first-century Israel women’s testimony wasn’t taken seriously, even in a court of law, this is an interesting detail.

The Talmud, a written commentary on the Jewish oral law, gives us insight into attitudes towards women in first-century Israel when it puts the testimony of women as witnesses on the same level as gamblers (dice-players and pigeon-racers, to be exact) and slaves [1]. A well-known morning prayer for Jewish men thanks God that “You have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” With this, first-century Jewish historian Josephus writes:

“But let not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least; and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15)

In fact, when the women share that they witnessed Jesus alive, the disciples don’t take them seriously (Luke 24:10-11) — yet another detail not likely to be invented; it certainly makes the future leaders of the church look clueless. Even 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, an important early confession of the church, mentions numerous eyewitnesses of the resurrection by name but leaves out naming any women. (We can assume the women were numbered with the 500 unnamed witnesses it mentions.)

So, the big question is: Why would all four Gospel writers claim that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection when no one in their culture would take the testimony of women seriously? Even in the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mocked Christianity as a religion based on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, a “half-frantic woman.” [2]

Therefore, it seems unlikely the Gospel writers would invent this detail if they were only looking to convince people of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, this detail points towards the opposite: The Gospel writers were more concerned with reporting what they believed to be true than creating a story of mass appeal. 

The combination of the embarrassing details of Peter’s denial and the male disciples’ abandonment of Jesus; the absurdity of worshipping a crucified God-man to first-century Jews and Romans (which I wrote about before); and the first witnesses of the resurrection being women all are details very unlikely to be invented if the Gospels were mere fictions, especially if they were invented to win converts to a new religion. 

 

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

As I pointed out before, when we read the retelling of the same event in more than one Gospel, sometimes they’re told differently and this often causes confusion. (Let me point out, this is often the case when reading four independent accounts of any incident.) For instance, the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke share key details but are also extremely different, almost seeming like two different stories. But when we read them carefully, we can figure out how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Much of Matthew’s account — including the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt — occur later than many of the events recorded in Luke’s account, perhaps months or even a year or two after Jesus’ birth.

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into the same challenge but worse. All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

Take some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

Next article, we’ll tackle how to understand these differences.

NEXT: Differences vs. Contradictions & the Gospels as Ancient Biographic Literature

[1] Rosh Hashannah 1.8

[2] Quoted by Origen in Against Celsus.

Quick Responses to Bad Memes #2 (Ricky Gervais Version)

Welcome to “Quick Responses to Bad Memes #2” i.e. “the Ricky Gervais Version” i.e. “the meme + video version” i.e. “Don’t get your theology from a comedian #2.”

If you see this meme…

12469552_10153802783107418_923407386446950651_o

Reply with this meme…

rickymemerevised

In early February, Some people got excited that Ricky Gervais (atheist) and Stephen Colbert (Roman Catholic) had a short (very short) debate about the existence of God on Stephen’s show (Watch the clip here).

In my opinion, even a short debate on primetime TV about God is a good thing. But neither man really said much, and based on how atheists are sharing the clip (and applauding Gervais in the video), they seem to think Gervais won the “debate.” Though what Gervais said certainly sounded clever, he really didn’t say anything at all.

Feel free to use the following memes in reply to the primetime “debate”…

RickyStephen2.jpg

rickystephenmeme1

Sincerely, God From the Machine

Quick Responses to Bad Memes #1 – Click Here.

The “Telephone Game” Myth: Has the New Testament Been Changed Over Time?

NT_manuscript1

*** If you prefer, there is a short version of this article on my church’s website here.***

It seems everyone has an opinion about Jesus. Some say he was a wise, moral man; some say he was a myth; some say he was God in the flesh.

But first, how do we even know about Jesus? This seems like a pretty basic question, but before we can answer who Jesus ain’t, we need to understand how we know about him in the first place.

We learn about specific people in the past by documentation, by records that bear witness to that person’s life, and sometimes other archaeological 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 had the assumed body of the ancient person, it’s not like there’s 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, 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 could last much longer than papyrus but were still fragile.

Additionally, a shortage of ancient manuscripts can be partially blamed on the many conflicts and wars of ancient times. Fire was a common weapon for ancient armies. For example, the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt was renowned for its collection of manuscripts but much of the library was destroyed during several conflicts. Because of the lack of modern means of copying and saving information, sadly, many ancient manuscripts have been lost to us forever.

When we turn to the New Testament, the ancient records about Jesus, we find the individual “books” that compose the New Testament have survived remarkably well compared to other ancient manuscripts.

Alexander-the-Great

THE SOURCES

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 ancient times.

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 two sources for our information about Alexander the Great. Both of these sources were written about 400 years after Alexander the Great lived.

CAESAR AUGUSTUS

We have five 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 four sources — the four Gospels found in the New Testament, each individually investigated, each containing both complementary and unique information. The four 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 30-33 AD, and all of the Gospels were written before 100 AD.) Two of the Gospels – Matthew and John – were written by two of Jesus’ actual original twelve disciples, where the other two – Mark and Luke – were written by disciples of Jesus’ original apostles, Paul and Peter. This means the four 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. The majority of Paul’s letters, historians agree, were written before the four Gospels.

EARLY CREEDS

Historians also agree that Paul recorded several creeds of the early church that existed before he wrote them down in his letters. The earliest is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

This creed is widely accepted by scholars as being dated – at most! – two to five years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Even 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:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

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THE MANUSCRIPTS

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 don’t have the actual first manuscripts written in the hands of the New Testament authors – or any other originals from any other ancient writers for that matter. These ancient writings have survived through the tedious work of scribes, who copied them by hand to preserve these important works for future generations. We do have actual ancient manuscripts that have survived until today, but just not the originals.

So, how does the New Testament compare 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 about 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 ancient manuscript piece of the New Testament we have today is a fragment from the Gospel of John (18:31-33, 37-38). This fragment was found in Egypt and has been dated about 125-130 AD, but could be as early as 90 AD. The dating puts it within 40 years of the original writing of the Gospel of John, and the fragment shows that the Gospel had spread as far as Egypt in that short period!

New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce wrote, “There is better evidence for the New Testament than any other ancient book.”

TEXTUAL CRITICISM

Because of this wealth of manuscripts, scholars can easily compare the ancient New Testament manuscripts through a process called textual criticism and easily identify errors and variants made by the scribes. Expectantly, the scribes, who copied texts by hand, were not perfect, but most mistakes are nothing to be concerned about. The vast majority are spelling mistakes or other simple copying mistakes (like omitting or adding small words or reversing the order of words), which have no effect on how the New Testament is understood.

Often skeptics try to portray the passing on of the New Testament over time like the Telephone Game that you may have played in school as a child. In the Telephone Game, someone whispers a sentence into someone’s ear, and then the second person whispers the sentence into another person’s ear, and so on down the line. When the last person receives the sentence, he says it out loud for all to hear. In the vast majority of cases, the sentence is severely corrupted and changed by the time it reaches the end of the line. But this analogy is downright inaccurate. Anyone who claims this is how the New Testament was passed on to us today is basing that belief on assumption and not research, and they’re illustrating their ignorance of textual criticism.

Instead of thinking of the passing on of the New Testament as a straight telephone line, think of it as a family tree with many branches giving birth to many more branches. A family tree spreads in many directions as it multiplies; it doesn’t move in a straight line. Thus, if one branch becomes corrupted, the many other branches will not be corrupted in the same way.

Further, the Telephone Game analogy utterly fails because the message is only whispered and it cannot be repeated. The New Testament, on the other hand, is a written document; it can be reread and rechecked.

To sum up, the Telephone Game has only one line of transmission; the message is only whispered; and repeating is not allowed. On the other hand, the New Testament was passed on through many lines of transmission; it was written; and, therefore, it can be reread, examined, and compared.

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From the Gospel of John (18:31-33, 37-38) – Dated 90AD-130AD

Hey, Here’s a Helpful Illustration

Imagine we had five ancient manuscripts and we notice variations among all five of them in the same sentence. This sounds like a big problem, but see if you can pick which line is the original:

  1. Christ Jesus is the Savior of the world.
  2. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the word.
  3. Jesus is the Savior of the word.
  4. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world.
  5. Jesus Christ is Savior of the world.

Highlighting and underlining the differences between each sentence will help us narrow the choices down:

  1. Christ Jesus is the Savior of the world.
  2. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the word.
  3. Jesus [Missing: Christ] is the Savior of the word.
  4. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world.
  5. Jesus Christ is [Missing: the] Savior of the world.

First, we can conclude that the original sentence started with “Jesus Christ,” since only Sentence #1 starts with “Christ Jesus.” Likewise, we can easily conclude Sentence #3 should include the word “Christ” and Sentence #5 should include the word “the” since all the others do.

Notice none of these variations so far affect the meaning of the sentence. Though we don’t show this in this illustration, let me point out again, the vast majority of mistakes in the manuscripts by the scribes are simple spelling and grammar mistakes in the original language of the New Testament, ancient Koine (“common”) Greek, which make no difference when the Greek is translated into English or any other language.

Finally, we have the variation of “world” versus “word.” This is a tougher challenge to solve because this variation does affect the sentences’ meanings and three of the sentences read “world” and two read “word.” If it were the case that some of the manuscripts contained a nonsense word instead, like “Savior of the worl,” the correct choice would be easy. In this case, I think most would agree “world” makes more sense than “word,” and since more manuscripts have “world” than “word,” it’s the safer bet. But how can we be certain?

This is why we’re fortunate to have many, many, many other manuscripts to compare than just these five! Specifically, we can look at those that were written before these manuscripts. The variation or mistake shouldn’t have appeared yet in many of the earlier copies. In textual criticism, the rule of thumb is generally the older the manuscript, the better. In our illustration, it’s likely the vast majority of the manuscripts will read “world.” Thus, we can be confident that the original, correct sentence is Sentence #4: Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world.

This is how textual criticism works. Of course, this is simplified for the sake of illustration, but, as you can see, it’s not all that hard spotting the original wording by comparing the manuscripts.

There was no central power controlling the copying of the New Testament. Churches were simply sharing the writings with other churches, and they would copy them and pass them on and on and on. One church may have the Gospel of Mark, and another church may have three of Paul’s letters, so they would share and copy and pass on. Archeological evidence proves the New Testament spread rapidly across the ancient world. Thus, in ancient terms, this means the New Testament went viral! And because of this, we have a wealth of ancient manuscripts that can be compared to and contrasted against each other.

Textual criticism has found only 1% of the variants have any effect on the meaning of the text, and none of these come close to affecting any Christian beliefs. Textual critics are positive the New Testament we read today is 99% accurate to the originals.

Further, the early church fathers, who lived between 90-160 AD shortly after the events recorded in the New Testament, quoted the New Testament so extensively that the majority of the New Testament can be reconstructed from their sermons and writings alone. So, even if we had no ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, we’d still have much of it preserved in the writings of the early church fathers. Obviously, these early church fathers were quoting from manuscripts written earlier than their own writings.

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SO, WHAT DOES THIS TELL US?

First, our current New Testament is faithful to the originals. Despite a lot of assumptions about the Bible being corrupted over time, the evidence says otherwise.

Secondly, even secular historians consider the New Testament an excellent historical source, but the supernatural events the New Testament reports make them skeptical of its historical accuracy. 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. You see, their view of the New Testament has nothing to do with the evidence itself, but with their way of understanding the world, their worldview. If someone’s worldview is that God doesn’t exist, then of course he’s not going to believe in the supernatural parts of the Bible. But if someone does believe in God, then believing in the miracles of the Bible isn’t difficult at all.

Interestingly, scholars say that the time between the events of Jesus’ life 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 writers present the New Testament 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 doesn’t prove the truth of the New Testament, it must be recognized that the New Testament doesn’t have the unspecific, “other-world-ness” of mythology; it is grounded in a historic time and place.

Lastly, no evidence of an early record of a strictly “human-only” Jesus or any other alternative view of Jesus exists. I’ve often heard skeptics say they don’t believe in God because of a lack of evidence. Yet, when it comes to Jesus, many people (even some professing Christians) ignore the best evidence and base their ideas about who Jesus is on creations of their own mind.

There is also mention of Jesus outside of the Bible in ancient writings by non-Christians, but these were all written later than the New Testament. Even if someone doesn’t believe in God or that Jesus is the Son of God or that the New Testament is the inspired Word of God, he or she – after evaluating the evidence – should still recognize that the New Testament is our best, most reliable source for learning about Jesus.

How do we know about Jesus?

We know about Jesus from the reliable, well-preserved record of the New Testament.

This is an excerpt from Who Jesus Ain’t by Steve DiSebastian:

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Is the Bible Any More Accurate than Other Religious Texts?

Has the Bible Been Lost in the Translation? How Do We Know the Words in Our Bibles Today are the Original Words?

How Do We Differentiate Between What is Scripture & Other Ancient, Religious Writings?

Who Jesus Ain’t: Jesus Ain’t a Hippy, Your Homeboy or a Wimp

The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

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Pluralism = The New Paganism

In many ways, Western Christians are living in a culture that is increasingly like the first culture that the first Christians lived in: a pagan culture. Christianity was born and spread within the Roman Empire, a place of many gods and many ways of worshiping, where most* religions were seen as equally valid. Today, we call this pluralism.

(*I say “most” because Christianity went through periods of persecution by the Roman government for its first 300 years until it was officially legalized by Emperor Constantine. Christians – like the Jews – wouldn’t worship any Roman gods or the emperor, who was considered a god. Christians were even called “atheists” by Romans because they believed in only one God, and an invisible one at that. Appropriately, Christians’ convictions have made them unpopular again in many parts of the West today.)  

As our culture becomes more post-modern—as well as post-Christian—in mindset, religious pluralism has grown into the popular spirituality of our day. Both established, traditional religions and unambiguous atheism are being rejected by many and an undefined spirituality—a fuzzy spiritual agnosticism—has been embraced, which lives by the axiom, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” For all practical purposes, these pluralists live as atheists within secular society but still embrace some self-defined form of spirituality, which has little – if any – impact on their lives. Basically, it’s OK to believe spiritual things as long as you don’t take them too seriously.

Sadly, this pluralistic mindset has even made its way into Christian circles, and not just in liberal mainline denominations but also in Bible-believing, evangelical churches.

As our world grows “smaller,” more people today have been introduced to worldviews and religions foreign to their own by neighbors, coworkers, and friends (and the Internet and modern media) than perhaps at any other time in history. This is a positive thing in many ways, but those raised to believe that salvation comes only through Christ Jesus may begin to question whether their neighbors —perhaps loving parents and spouses and contributors to the community — will be eternally separated from God because they’re not followers of Christ. Christians have always understood the Bible to teach that the only way to have salvation from sin is through belief in the work and person of Jesus Christ. This is often called exclusivism.

Furthermore, biblical illiteracy has led to unfamiliarity with what the Bible teaches. Not only has Western culture grown more secular and fewer people grow up in churches, but even those in Christian families and churches spend little time closely reading and studying Scripture. 

Because of these reasons, new understandings of God’s salvation have developed that are much different than the traditional Christian understanding of Scripture. Some of these new understandings simply disregard Scripture. Others claim they’re actually more loyal to Scripture than the traditional stance. Because of these reasons, we need an accurate understanding of what the whole of the Bible teaches about salvation.

The Alternatives

Alternatives to exclusivism include pluralism and inclusivism. Where pluralism validates that all (or most) religions lead to God, inclusivism is more nuanced. Inclusivism believes that Jesus Christ is the only savior, but one does not have to believe in him to be saved. In short, Jesus Christ was absolutely essential in saving humanity from damnation, but one doesn’t have to believe in Christ specifically to benefit from that salvation. In inclusivism, one may be saved through another religion or through general revelation even if they never heard of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

General revelation is the idea that one can know certain things about God through their innate senses (since we are all made in the image of God) and/or through nature (since God created all things). The Bible confirms general revelation, but also that one cannot be saved from sin by general revelation alone.

For salvation, one needs special revelation. Special revelation includes all the unique, supernatural works of God throughout history, which are recorded in the Bible, including God the Son becoming human as Jesus of Nazareth (and his death and resurrection), the work of the Holy Spirit, and even the Bible itself – as the Bible is the written, “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) revelation of God.

The Bible confirms all humans know of God through general revelation, yet do not seek him out. Instead they invent their own religions and worship their own idols. These may be literal idols or the “idols” of secular society (such as money, sex, self-centered independence). In essence, all know there’s a true God, yet they want to remain god of their own lives, so they exchange the truth for a lie.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature,have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:18-23) 

In the book Faith Comes By Hearing, Christopher Morgan explains that there is a spectrum of diversity within this new paganism [1]. For example, some versions of universalism teaches that the whole world (even Satan! [2]) will ultimately be saved through Christ.

QUICK REVIEW:

Pluralism – All (or many) religions lead to God and salvation.

Exclusivism – The traditional Christian view that salvation can come only through Jesus Christ’s free gift of salvation; thus, biblical Christianity is the only true path to God. 

Inclusivism – Jesus Christ’s life and work achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or general revelation.

Universalism – One way or another, everyone (or almost everyone) will ultimately be saved through the work of Jesus Christ.

General Revelation – One can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses.

Special Revelation – The unique supernatural works of God throughout history, including miracles, Christ himself, and the Bible.

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The Incomprehensibility of Pluralism Within a Biblical Worldview

As one moves from exclusivism towards views like pluralism and universalism, one moves away from traditional Christianity, and the more one moves away from traditional Christianity, the more the divine authority and reliability of the Bible is questioned or even completely abandoned.

Abandoning the Bible is the only option open to the pluralist as Scripture is so clearly exclusivistic. Verses like John 14:6, Acts 4:10–12, and 1 John 5:11–12 (see below) so clearly teach that salvation comes through Christ alone that pluralists and universalists must have a low view of Scripture in order to continue to hold their views, as does John Hick, who represents the pluralist view in the book Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World.[3]

The pluralist must deny that the Bible is the preserved Word of God since Jesus’ first followers were certainly exclusivists:

Peter said,

“…let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this [formerly crippled] man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10-12)

John wrote,

And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:11-12)

And Jesus himself was absolutely clear that he was not a pluralist or universalist:

 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Even if we didn’t have these extremely clear verses from the New Testament, the exclusivist nature of the Bible is seen throughout the Old and New Testaments. There are constant warnings against following false religions and gods and regular statements about salvation coming only through the one true God. Plainly contrary to the universalist idea that all (even Satan) will eventually be saved through Christ, Revelation 19 and 20 clearly shows the horrible fate of those hostile to God, including Satan.

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Further, some other obvious issues are raised concerning pluralism:

    1. Religious Contradictions

All religions can’t be correct simply because they have contradictory teachings. And where there are contradictions, someone has to be wrong. The only way a pluralist can affirm all religions are correct is to discard key aspects of those religions – just like how they have to discard key parts of the Bible. Furthermore, anyone who claims all religions are basically the same has little understanding of what different religions teach.

The pluralist may try to get around this by saying that all (or many) religions have some truth within them. This isn’t a problem for the Christian; a Christian can confirm that there is some truth in other religions, yet none but biblical Christianity are wholly true or lead to salvation.

Also, pluralists still have a problem: How do they know what is religious truth or error? By what standard do they judge?

    2. Only Jesus Could Win Us Salvation

The Bible teaches that God is perfectly good and holy, all people have sinned, and all people are alienated from God by that sin. Only Jesus, who is uniquely fully human and fully God, could repair this chasm-sized rift between God and man. No amount of “good works” or rituals can bridge that chasm. Only Jesus could live a sinless life, and only Jesus could die an unjust death. Only someone fully human could represent humankind, and only someone fully God could cover the sins of all humankind. Christians are exclusivists because only Jesus – the only person to ever be complete man and completely God – could achieve for us salvation, plain and simple.

     3. Jesus Died For Nothing

Jesus died a horribly brutal death on a Roman cross for the sake of all those who would believe in him to be saved from their sins. Jesus did this willingly, yet also prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). God the Son went willingly to the cross, but he also was well aware of the high price he would pay to complete the task he became flesh to accomplish. In Gethsemane, he essentially asks God the Father if there’s any other way to accomplish this, then spare him from the cross. But there was no other way, so he goes willingly.

Here’s the thing: If salvation could be won by any other way, then Jesus didn’t have to die. If there were any other way – even one – for God to accomplish salvation from sin, Jesus died for nothing. In other words, if there were a Plan B for saving the world from sin other than Jesus dying on the cross, Jesus wouldn’t have died on the cross. He would’ve said, “See Plan B.” And if Jesus’ death on the cross were Plan B, he would’ve said, “Plan A works just fine.”

We also have this issue: if there were any other way for God the Father to reconnect with his created people and overlook their sins and God the Father still put Jesus to death on the cross, then Jesus’ death was needless brutality. In other words, if God the Father knew forgiveness of sins could be achieved through humans simply following some rules or completing some rituals or being “nice” or doing X, Y, and Z, why would God the Son need to become a man and die? If pluralism and universalism are true, then God the Father and God the Son both made extremely illogical decisions to allow an act of absolute brutality for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Dismissing the validity of pluralism and universalism is easy from a biblical standpoint, so what about the more nuanced view: inclusivism?

NEXT: Is knowledge of Christ required for salvation? The Nuanced View: Inclusivism.

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WORKS CITED

[1] Faith Comes By Hearing, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, see Chapter 2.

[2] Faith Comes By Hearing, KindleLoc 334.

[3] Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, edited by Stanley N. Gundry, Kindle, Loc 3601.

Check out Who Jesus Ain’t and other books by GFTM here.

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