Question: Outside the New Testament, what documentary evidence do historians have for the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth? And what does this evidence tell us?
We have all kinds of evidence written by other Christians in the earliest decades of the second century, after the New Testament was complete. But, usually, somebody asking that kind of question is asking, ‘What kind of nonChristian evidence do we have, concerned that perhaps Christians were biased, and therefore, wanting to make sure that we can prove that Jesus existed, was something like what Jesus claimed He was from other ancient Jewish, Greek, Roman sources. There are about a dozen such references to Jesus. By far, the fullest one comes from a late first century Jewish historian named Josephus. But, we find early second century writers in the Roman world like Tacitus and Plutonius. We find references in the Encyclopedic size collection of Jewish traditions known as the Talmud, and elsewhere.
And, from them, we can corroborate that Jesus was a Jewish teacher, who lived in the first third of the first century, who had a ministry that intersected with that of a man named John, who baptized people, and hence got the name ‘John the Baptizer’, that He was born out of wedlock, that He had disciples, five of whom are named, who are particularly close followers. He regularly got in trouble with certain Jewish authorities of His time for radical views about the law. And that He finally was crucified. We know that from Tacitus. In the second century, under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, which narrows the time frame to from the mid 20′s to the mid 30′s of the first century. And that despite that ignominious death, his followers believed that they saw Him raised from the dead and believed that He was the Messiah, the Jewish liberator, beginning very quickly even to worship Him, as if He were a God, to use the language of Pliny, in the early second century. So, even without touching a Christian source, there’s quite a bit we can know about Jesus.
Question: Now, some people would question the reliability of the Gospels, which for sure give a much fuller account of the life and ministry of Jesus. How would you respond to the suggestions that the writers of the Gospels embellished the account of Jesus’s life, turning a simple Jewish prophet into a kind of Gentile God? How would you respond to that concern?
We have remarkably ancient testimony, remarkably close in time to the life of Jesus. Probably, the earliest written Gospel was Mark, most likely written in the ’60′s of the first century, with Jesus having died in about A.D. 30. A 30 year period may seem like a long span of time to us, but, in the ancient world, which was an oral culture, when people memorized and passed on faithfully, for generations, the beliefs and traditions and narratives of their families, tribes, nations, with high degrees of care and accuracy; one generation is a very short period of time. There were still plenty of eyewitnesses living in Israel who could remember the historical Jesus, what He was really like, many of whom had not become His followers.
The entire Christian claim could have been very easily debunked early on, if there had been widespread embellishment and misrepresentation of who Jesus was.
Question: Dr. Blomberg, in his book, the DaVinci Code, Dan Brown has called attention to the importance of the so called gnostic Gospels in early Christianity. Would you tell us something about these gnostic Gospels, and do you think they shed significant light on the historic Jesus of Nazareth?
I suppose, the first thing that needs to be said for people who have never actually seen one of these documents is that they are not Gospels, in the sense of being narratives of a significant percentage of Jesus’s ministry, the way Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are. The vast majority of the so called Gnostic Gospels are supposed secret revelation, after Jesus’ resurrection to one or more disciples by Jesus and they tend to discourse on things utterly unlike the Jesus of the New Testament Gospels, reflecting on the origins of the Universe, the angelic hierarchies, why the world was created, how sin came to be, an abstract theological reflection, very different from what we read in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There is one gnostic Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, which also is not a consecutive narrative. It’s just 114 sayings, linked together and attributed to Jesus, that does have significant overlap with the Jesus of the New Testament. Maybe as many as a third of the sayings attributed to Jesus in this account remind readers of something that they would read in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. But then, another large collection, maybe up to half of the sayings are quite different. There’s philosophical speculation that gnosticism was so known for. And then, tantalizingly, the remainder could be taken in orthodox Christian direction, could be taken into a gnostic direction. They’re short and cryptic enough that it’s hard to know for sure. But, does Thomas, or any of these other Gospels give us solid historical information that would change our understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth was? No, not at all.
Question: Do you find that many neighbors, friends that you interact with have had a skewed perspective on the early church because of books like Dan Brown’s? And, what would you wanna say to them specifically?
Yes, a surprising number of people, whether they picked it up from Brown, or from somebody else of his ilk, or by word of mouth, that garbled Brown, who garbled the ancient church. I would want to say is that what competed with orthodox Christianity in the early years was very different, was later than the New Testament documents and was pretty easily dismissed. It did not become some lingering controversy that the so called lost gospels were not, for the most part, suppressed, as some claim. They simply fell out of use because they weren’t of value to the vast majority of early Christians. My friend Darrell Bock, who teaches at Dallas Seminary, likes to say, “It’s true that sometimes winners rewrite history. But, it’s also true that sometimes winners deserve to win.” And, all evidence points to the fact that apostolic orthodox Christianity was the dominant Christian tradition that had carefully preserved the life of Christ and its significance, and that’s what deserved to be passed on and be preserved.
Question: As we close, can you tell us in a nutshell, why we should believe in the historicity of Jesus, and what that means for us today?
We should believe in the historicity of Jesus because even if we’re skeptical of all Christian testimony, there is enough non-Christian testimony to corroborate His existence and the main contours of His life. But then, we shouldn’t be so skeptical about all Christian testimony, because much of it represented the testimony of people who were not born into Christian families, but who are adult converts convinced by the evidence, convinced by the transmission of the stories and accounts of Jesus, that He was so significant, they should become believers and followers in Him. You can’t just write all of that evidence off because somebody was convinced by it. And that significance continues to this day. In all the world religions, in all the traditions of the philosophers and teachers, nowhere else has someone made the claim in actions and in labels that He applied to Himself and in explicit teachings, that He was somehow so close to God, that those out of his culture and religion, who believed in God, at times accused Him of blasphemy, executed Him, and yet, was reported to have been seen again bodily, by more than 500 of His followers, who then began an unbroken tradition of following Him, and at a very early date, even worshipping Him as that God. There’s no other religion or worldview that has that package of events. You have to come to grips with who Jesus of Nazareth was. And if you look at the evidence, it might just transform your life, for the good.
VIDEO by ChristonCampusCCI
Dr. Craig Blomberg discusses the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. (See his full essay at http://www.christoncampuscci.org/.) Dr. Blomberg responds to claims that the so-called “Gnostic gospels” are more reliable than the four Gospels of the Bible, showing that the historical evidence clearly suggests otherwise.
Dr. Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, has also written a full essay on this topic, which lays out in a clear, organized fashion the evidence that supports the historicity of Jesus. That essay and several other free essays on relevant topics for college and university students are available online for free at http://www.christoncampuscci.org/.
This video and the corresponding essay are provided as a ministry of Christ on Campus Initiative, a nonprofit organization generously supported by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding (a ministry of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL), the Gospel Coalition, and the MAC Foundation (Fort Collins, CO).