Tag Archives: Ancient History

What do skeptical ancient historians think of the earliest Christian creed?

 

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson solving a mystery

Here is a post from my friend Eric Chabot. He writes about the earliest historical source for the minimal facts about the resurrection, which is the early creed recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians: 3-7.

1 Cor 15:3-7:

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

6 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.

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,

8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Just in case you didn’t know, Cephas is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers.

The general consensus among scholars is the that creed goes back to within 1-3 years after the death if Jesus, when almost all the eyewitnesses were still around.

The creed

In Eric’s post, he quotes very well-known skeptical historians who affirm each part of the creed.

First, the creed as a whole is respected, even by atheist scholars like John Dominic Crossan:

Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (3).

And atheist scholar Robert Funk:

The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” — Robert Funk co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.(5)

Let’s take a look at one of the parts of the creed that is respected by skeptical historians… namely, the early belief that Jesus was resurrected shortly after his death.

The early belief in the resurrection

Skeptical scholar E.P. Sanders:

That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it. (14)

Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman:

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. (17)

Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19). (18)

You know, if all you did was give someone his post, I think that would be enough to show people that a more complete investigation of the historical Jesus was certainly a reasonable thing to do. It’s amazing to me that people who grow up at this time when access to the data is so easy do not take the opportunity to look into Christianity.

List of virtually undeniable facts

Finally, below is a list of facts about the historical Jesus that are accepted by ancient historians – Christian, non-Christian, atheist.

These are compiled by non-Christian scholar E.P. Sanders:

From his book “Jesus and Judaism” (1985):

  • Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  • Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  • Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  • Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  • Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  • Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  • After his death, his followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  • At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement.

From his book “The Historical Figure of Jesus” (1993):

  • Jesus was born c.4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
  • He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
  • He was baptized by John the Baptist;
  • He called disciples;
  • He taught in the towns, villages, and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
  • He preached “the kingdom of God”;
  • Around the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
  • He created a disturbance in the temple area;
  • He had a final meal with the disciples;
  • He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
  • He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate;
  • His disciples at first fled;
  • They saw him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death;
  • As a consequence they believed he would return to found the kingdom;
  • They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.

The way the resurrection of Jesus is presented on TV, you would think that mythical stories about Jesus emerged decades and even centuries after the fact in other parts of the world from where the events happened. But the trouble is that no ancient historian thinks that. Only Hollywood TV producers and movie makers think that. Now, if you are getting your view of the historical accuracy of basic Christian beliefs from television and movies, then don’t be surprised if you are wrong. No one is saying that you have to go to Christian pastors and preachers for the facts, but you should go to the historians. They at least know the minimal facts.

The best way for a skeptic to tackle these issues is, I think, to watch a decent debate on the resurrection of Jesus between two respected scholars. My favorite debate on the resurrection is William Lane Craig versus atheist historian James Crossley. I have a video and a summary already ready made just waiting for you to check it out. Don’t worry, no one will be looking over your shoulder making you change everything your life should you be convinced. Just watch the debate and decide what you are going to do with it on your own. You don’t have to change your whole life overnight. Becoming a Christian is instantaneous and easy to do. Living like a Christian is a process, and it’s between you and God how fast you go. So just see what the facts are to start with and then take it from there.

Is there any evidence for Jesus outside the New Testament?

From Cold Case Christianity blog.

I’ll excerpt a few of them:

Tacitus (56-120AD):

Cornelius Tacitus was known for his analysis and examination of historical documents and is among the most trusted of ancient historians. He was a senator under Emperor Vespasian and was also proconsul of Asia. In his “Annals’ of 116AD, he describes Emperor Nero’s response to the great fire in Rome and Nero’s claim that the Christians were to blame:

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures 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 one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”

In this account, Tacitus confirms several historical elements of the Biblical narrative: Jesus lived in Judea, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and had followers who were persecuted for their faith in Christ.

Pliny the Younger (61-113AD):

Early Christians were also described in early, non-Christian history. Pliny the Younger, in a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan, describes the lifestyles of early Christians:

“They (the Christians) 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.”

This early description of the first Christians documents several facts: the first Christians believed Jesus was GOD, the first Christians upheld a high moral code, and these early followers met regularly to worship Jesus.

Suetonius (69-140AD):

Suetonius was a Roman historian and annalist of the Imperial House under the Emperor Hadrian. His writings about Christians describe their treatment under the Emperor Claudius (41-54AD):

“Because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christ), he (Claudius) expelled them from the city (Rome).” (Life of Claudius, 25:4)

This expulsion took place in 49AD, and in another work, Suetonius wrote about the fire which destroyed Rome in 64 A.D. under the reign of Nero. Nero blamed the Christians for this fire and he punished Christians severely as a result:

“Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect given to a new and mischievous religious belief.” (Lives of the Caesars, 26.2)

There is much we can learn from Suetonius as it is related to the life of early Christians. From this account, we know Jesus had an immediate impact on His followers: They were committed to their belief Jesus was God and withstood the torment and punishment of the Roman Empire. Jesus had a curious and immediate impact on His followers, empowering them to die courageously for what they knew to be true.

Click here to read the rest.

Videos from the Tactical Faith Resurrection Weekend 2014

All 9 videos from the Tactical Faith conference last weekend have now been posted on Youtube:

  • “What was the crucifixion like?” – Mike Licona 48:21
  • “The New Testament: Text, Translation, Canon” – Mike Licona 46:51
  • Logos Bible Software presentation – Greg Monette 17:13
  • “The Burial of Jesus” – Greg Monette 49:08
  • “iWitness: Evangelism and the Cross” – Doug Powell 42:14
  • “Why are there differences in the gospels?” – Mike Licona 1:06:38
  • Shroud of Turin – Dave Glander 52:58
  • “Resurrection: A Creedal Defense” – Shawn White 50:37
  • “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” – Mike Licona 39:13

Here’s the last one in that list, which I watched and liked:

A very impressive line-up of scholars from Tactical Faith.

 

Fred Sanders reviews a book that makes the case for the deity of Christ

Putting Jesus in His Place
Putting Jesus in His Place

From Touchstone magazine, a review of “Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ” by Biola University professor Fred Sanders.

Excerpt:

The case as perceived by scholars for the deity of Christ is stronger now than it has been for a long time, and those who went through seminary more than a decade ago should take a moment to update their notes. Though the New Testament is clear about the deity of Christ, generations of modern critical scholars have picked away at the standard proofs. Here a verse, there a verse, the arguments that Christians have always relied on to demonstrate that the New Testament teaches that Jesus is God have been rendered dubious.

Putting Jesus in His Place does not simply reclaim those lost passages, revisit the standard debates, and bolster the old arguments (though in many cases it does that, and persuasively); it publicizes new arguments for demonstrating the deity of Christ, which have previously been available only to scholars.

The authors are ideal popularizers, each with one foot in the library and one in the local church. Robert Bowman is manager of apologetics and interfaith evangelism for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, while Ed Komoszewski is the founder of the educational ministry Christus Nexus and a director of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries.

To help readers remember the arguments, they organize the book around the acronym “HANDS,” arguing that Jesus shares God’s Honor, Attributes, Names, Deeds, and Seat. The text breezes along in straightforward, popular prose—it paraphrases the Nicene homoousios as “Jesus: The Right Stuff,” for example, and explains pre-existence as being “Older Than Dirt—Literally!”—with more technical matters referred to the endnotes.

If you are looking to make a case for the divinity of Jesus, you should go to the earliest sources, and try to see if Jesus has a divine self-understanding, whether he is acting in the place of God.

The book is basically one-stop shopping at a popular level for the best scholarly arguments:

Jesus didn’t so much verbalize his claim to deity, for example; he enacted it. The people of God were waiting for the Lord to show up in person to bring reconciliation; Jesus walked among men, healing, forgiving, and doing everything that God was supposed to do. When, on occasion, he also claimed to be more than a prophet, his claim made sense because it put into words what he was doing in the flesh.

Jesus does what God does. This is the foundation for his claim to deity. N. T. Wright has recently helped his readers see this with his massive narrative arguments, and Bowman and Komoszewski boil a lot of Wright down to a manageable size.

[…]Readers alert to the scholarly scene will recognize that the authors reproduce at an accessible level the arguments of Richard Bauckham (particularly in God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament) and Larry Hurtado (in Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity), among others. (Bauckham and Hurtado are among the book’s many endorsers.)

Wright, Bauckham and Hurtado are three of the leading historical Jesus scholars in the world. I got the book because I wanted to know about the latest research from these experts – but without having to comb through an academic book!

I have some good news, too. The book is on sale in the Kindle edition for under $2 for a limited time. If you don’t have a single book on the divinity of Jesus, you cannot go wrong with this book. It’s good to have one book on this issue, because it comes up a lot in conversations with skeptics. You see annoying documentaries all the time claiming that Jesus was initially viewed as just a man, and then was embellished into a divine figure later. This book helps you to answer that objection.

Rob Bowman reviews new book that refutes Bart Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”

A very good, but very long, review of skeptical historian Bart Ehrman’s new book. It’s written by Rob Bowman, co-author of “Putting Jesus in his Place“.

Here are some of the really bad mistakes made by Bart Ehrman, according to the review.

#2: Ehrman thinks that Jesus didn’t think he was the “Son of Man” figure from Daniel:

A second notable weakness in Ehrman’s theory is his claim that Jesus expected to fill the role of the Messiah but not of the Son of Man. This interpretation gets its initial plausibility from the fact that Jesus routinely referred to the Son of Man in the third person. However, even in most of the Synoptic Son of Man sayings, it is quite clear in the immediate context that Jesus is referring to himself (Matt. 8:20; 9:6; 11:19; 12:8; 16:13; 17:22-23; 20:18-19, 28; 26:2, 24, 45; Mark 2:10; 8:31; 9:31; 10:33; 14:21, 41; Luke 5:24; 7:34; 9:22, 44, 58; 19:10; 22:22, 48). The Messiah and the Son of Man are both understood as eschatological figures that receive an eternal kingdom on behalf of God’s people; it is simply not plausible that Jesus, who used the title Son of Man incessantly and rarely used the title Messiah or Christ, claimed to be the latter but not the former.

#3: Ehrman can’t explain the early church’s proclamation that Jesus was divine:

Ehrman’s main thesis on its face appears completely lacking in credibility. According to Ehrman, whereas Jesus did not view himself as anything more than a man and did not expect to become anything more than a glorious earthly king, within a few weeks or months of Jesus’ death his original followers were sincerely proclaiming that Jesus was a divine figure ruling over all creation at God’s right hand in heaven. Keep in mind that in Ehrman’s mind, Jesus did not rise from the dead and did not actually speak to his disciples after his death. Nor does Ehrman suggest that the disciples thought Jesus had made these stupendous claims about himself during his appearances to them. Rather, Ehrman credits the disciples with inferring these things about Jesus by interpreting their visionary experiences in the light of the apocalyptic worldview he had taught them before his death (205-206). What all this means is that Ehrman’s view requires that Jesus’ original disciples, who had walked all over Galilee and Judea with him and listened to him teach for hours on end, simply discounted Jesus’ own self-image as nothing more than the future human Messiah.

#4: Ehrman denies the burial of Jesus, which makes him one of a handful of ancient historians who do:

To make his theory work, Ehrman has abandoned his earlier view that the burial of Jesus in a tomb just outside Jerusalem was historically likely. He now accepts something like John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus received no decent burial at all. In a way, denying the tomb is a smart move on Ehrman’s part. As long as he acknowledged both the tomb and the appearances, he remained vulnerable to the vise grip of the historical argument for the Resurrection. Accept the empty tomb and discount the appearances, and you can postulate that the body was moved or stolen or lost. Accept the appearances and reject the empty tomb, and you can speculate that the disciples had hallucinations or “bereavement visions.” Accept both the empty tomb and the appearances and you have to come up with a blatantly ad hoc explanation like Greg Cavin’s identical-twin theory (what William Lane Craig mischievously labeled “the Dave theory”) or strain credulity by accepting two unrelated explanations for the evidence (e.g., the body was stolen and the disciples had hallucinations). So Ehrman, who knows he cannot deny that at least some of the disciples had experiences in which they thought they saw Jesus alive from the dead, has gone the more sensible skeptical route and questioned the burial in the tomb. But this move, while sensible enough from his agnostic perspective, lands him in evidential hot water, because the evidence that the Gospels are telling the truth about the empty tomb is very good.

#5: Ehrman discounts Paul’s resurrection appearance, which he speaks about in 1 Cor 15:

Ehrman’s attempts to explain the appearances of Jesus naturalistically ignore entirely the testimony of the apostle Paul that Jesus had appeared to him when Paul was still a persecutor of Christians. Ehrman quietly omits any mention of Paul’s experience throughout his treatment of the resurrection appearances in the fifth chapter of his book. Then, having finished with the subject of Jesus’ resurrection, at the beginning of chapter 6 Ehrman says only that Paul, after converting to faith in Jesus, “later claimed that this was because he had had a vision of Jesus alive, long after his death” (214, emphasis added). That is all he says—and it is difficult even to take his statement seriously. That Paul sincerely thought he had a vision of the risen Christ is really beyond debate. That fact is a stubborn datum that Ehrman failed to incorporate into his account of the origins of the Christian movement.

The post mentions a new book out that challenges Ehrman’s book, and describes all of the responses to Ehrman’s views. It is edited by well-known Australian scholar Michael F. Bird, whom I have blogged about before.

Here’s one snippet:

Craig Evans’s treatment on the burial of Jesus is the stand-out chapter of the book. Evans rightly criticizes Ehrman’s argument from silence regarding the omission of the name of Joseph of Arimathea from the pre-Pauline confession of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (90-91). Evans shows, against Ehrman, that rabbinical and Qumran texts attest to the Sanhedrin taking responsibility for the burial of executed criminals (80-81, 88-89). This means that the supposed discrepancy between Acts 13:29 and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial (even Luke’s account!) evaporates. Evans is especially in his element when he documents painstakingly from both literary and archaeological evidence that burial in a tomb was not, as Ehrman had argued at length, inconsistent with Roman policies and practices regarding criminals who were crucified (73-80, 83-86). This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

You really can’t deny the burial – it’s in 1 Cor 15:3-7, and that’s early eyewitness testimony. I really am not sure what has gone wrong with Bart. You can’t say the things he says in this book and maintain your respect as a historian, in my opinion. His views are fringe, and worse, they are in conflict with evidence that is undeniable, historically speaking. He’s reaching, because something other than history is making him reach.

Here’s a video about the new book, featuring Craig Evans:

He talks about the evidence for the burial. That video is 20 minutes, but worth watching. If you want to get a full treatment of the divinity of Jesus, then click here and buy Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), for $1.99 (Kindle edition).

You can also view a debate on Youtube between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman here. (Transcript here)