Jesus is always in the public eye, the most famous person – and everyone has an opinion about who he is. But we can’t just make up who we think he is; we have to build up an accurate portrait of who he really was.
Firstly, did he even exist? Or is he just a myth? This is common perception – that people think of Jesus as a myth that is used by people as a crutch to help them through life. However, we need to look at the facts and what historical evidence there is for his actual existence.
Over the centuries, there has been a popular thought that God started off the world and has simply left it to its own devices, and hasn’t got involved since. Additionally, in our present age, we don’t believe in miracles anymore – we think we’re “beyond” it. And since the gospels are full of the miracles of Jesus, we explain it all away as myth and don’t take any of it seriously. However, as an atheist once said to his friend C.S. Lewis (who was also an atheist at the time), the gospels actually seem to be solid history.
Our faith must be based on reason and truth – we need to know what we believe is based on facts; it is definitely not something we believe in spite of facts.
Also fuelling the myth theory in our day and age – and many conspiracy theories about Jesus – are the Gnostic gospels. People have taken to these to be the “real” accounts of Jesus. However, these were not only written generations and even centuries after the 4 gospels of the Bible were written, but also by people who wanted to hijack the teaching of Jesus. The early church had made its mind up about who Jesus was long before the Gnostic gospels – and it was not a power-hungry establishment, but a loving community of believers who were being martyred for their faith.
So how trustworthy are the books of the Bible, and in particular, the 4 gospels?
1. What kind of books?
• Were the gospels history or legends/myth?
• We need to look at how the author describe their own writings – they present it as sure historical fact, not myths or stories.
• 2 Peter 1:16 – described as Scripture; beginning of Luke – eyewitness accounts
• The way they were written – such detail and accuracy that would never have been included by ancient writers if they were purely made-up stories.
• There is the very common idea that Christianity is simply borrowed from “older” myths – e.g. stories apparently telling of gods born of a virgin, gods who died and rose again, etc. But the reality is that scholars have said the earliest written sources of these “parallel” myths do NOT precede the gospels – so it would appear that the myths have copied Christianity instead, if anything. Not only this, but the “parallels” are bizarre and are not very similar at all. Do not be wavered by conspiracy hype.
2. Do other ancient writers back them up?Tacitus
• Yes, even many non-Christians wrote about Jesus and the early church
• One example is Tacitus (56 AD – 117 AD) – one of the great historians of the ancient world. He wrote about the man Jesus who was killed under Pontius Pilate.
• Another is Josephus (37 AD – c.100 AD) – a renowned Jewish historian. What he said lines up with the gospels. Although there has been some dispute over the accuracy of his writings (there have been suspicions that it has been tampered with), scholars say that what we have now is largely accurate.
• There are at least 100 facts from other sources that line up with the Bible.
3. What happened between events and writings?
• Because the gospels were written decades after the events had happened many people assume what we have is just a case of Chinese whispers.
• However, the time between the events and writing is incredibly short in terms of ancient historical texts.
• Some scholars (e.g. F. C. Baur) have said that they were written much later, at least in the second century. And yet a copy of John’s gospel was found and carbon dated back to no later than 130 AD, more likely 100 AD (and remember, this was just a copy).
• The gospels were written later because people lived in an oral culture in that day – the message and stories would have been preached and spoken, but not like Chinese whispers. People in that culture would have paid immense detail to what was being said, memorising what they heard and passing it on exactly as they had heard it. There was a huge emphasis on passing it on accurately.
• It was eventually written down for the generations to come, as those who were telling it originally were dying out.
• Eyewitness accounts were done with immense care and attention to accuracy. The writers took it incredibly seriously – this was a matter of life and death, of heaven and hell. Therefore, we can take them seriously.
4. Do we have good manuscripts?
• Number of complete New Testament copies: 5,700; written 60-100 AD; earliest copy is 300 AD; time span: 200 years.
• Compared to other ancient texts (which are unquestioned as historical fact), this is phenomenally solid – miles ahead of any other ancient texts.
• Copies were found in all different parts of the world, and yet they all said the same thing.
Ultimately, we fight the accuracy of the New Testament because if it is true and Jesus is real, it changes everything, it affects our lives, and we can’t ignore it and go on living on our own terms. We need to look at the facts and make up our minds from those – not merely from ideas made popular by our culture.