|- FIRST PART -
IS JESUS HISTORICAL ?
I - JESUS AND THE GOSPELS
1. - What are the Gospels ?
A study of the person of Jesus would not be possible without looking at the “Gospels”. These are the principle sources written about him. Before going any further, what are the Gospels ?
The Gospels are the four short books written by the disciples of Jesus in order to make known his life and sayings.
The word “Gospel” in Greek means “good news”.
The New Testament is composed of the following books: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which are followed by the Acts of the Apostles and twenty-three short books which are the “Letters” or “Epistles” aimed at teaching the Christian doctrine. At the end of the New Testament is the Apocalypse or Revelation of St. John, a narritive about the end times.
Together with the New Testament, the faithful of Christ read the Old Testament, a collection of ancient books, all written before Christ but foreshadowing his coming. The Old Testament is a collection of the books of the Hebrews. For Christians, Jesus is the Messiah for whom Israel is waiting, the Messiah announced by the prophets
The Old Testament and the New together form the Bible.
2. - Is Jesus Historical? Who is able to answer this question ?
Certain critics of Christianity, like the authors of a program on Arte (French television) in 1997, think that only non-Christians are capable of a serious study of the history of Jesus. Such a position should be considered sectarian: it denies that a Christian is capable of being a historian or of being intelligent and fair.
History is a search for the truth in events that have taken place. Christians too have to discover the historicity of Jesus using the methods of history. Why deprive them of this method? Christians at least have the advantage of a better understanding of the personality of Christ than those who are, either openly or secretly, against him.
Throughout history, the enemies of Christ have served their purpose in asking real questions that have stimulated research. But they are not necessarily the ones to find the right reply to their questions.
3. - Is it possible that the Jesus of the Gospel is not the same person as the Jesus of the Church ?
One question that is frequently asked is whether the real Jesus whom we see in the Gospels is the same man presented to us by the Church today.
This is a classical objection of certain scholars who have problems with faith, or of some journalists, as in the recent case of Jacques Duquesne in France, who would like to give the public a Jesus who is “more in fashion”. What is presented is an image of Jesus that suits them and that is stripped of anything demanding or difficult to believe. They propose to choose between an image of Jesus which has been projected by the Church, and their own image of Jesus, which they claim is the real one. Since they can relate to their own image of Jesus, they believe others will be able to as well.
They claim that this figure of Jesus is the historical one that can be found in the Gospels. But in order to justify omitting the Gospel passges which disturb their thesis, they accuse the Church of having added them on to the Gospels at a later date. This is like the Charlie Chaplin film where Charlie is packing his bag. When he tries to close the bag, his shirt and tie are still sticking out so he uses a pair of scissors to cut off what is sticking out.
For these critics, who are journalists or academics, Jesus would have been a political figure, a social agitator, a philosopher, a prophet of a different religion.. anything but what the Church presents Jesus as being.
The common argument among these people, which is necessary to put their imagination at rest, is to dissociate Jesus from the Church. They claim that “Jesus did not intend the Church” and that “his political project failed” but that his disciples continued it after his death and transformed it into a religious doctrine, which is continued by an association, the Church.
This does not prevent us from reading the Gospels.
“ And he went up into the hills, and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons: Simon whom he surnamed Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, whom he surnamed Bo-anerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”
Mark 3:13 - 19
- We find the same list in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 10, verses 1 to 4
- Again we find this list of twelve apostles in the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 6, verses 12 to 16. But here we see a difference: in theplace of Thaddaeus we find “Judas, son of James”.
Why this difference? Oscar Cullmann, a protestant Bible scholar, has conducted an interesting study. See for example, “Historia” Dec. 1984.
This difference is very important, as we will see further on. If the Church did invent the Gospels and the details they provide about the apostles, then it would have given the same list in all the Gospels. On the contrary, it has preserved the differences.
Let us summarize the important events which show that Jesus intended to found the Church :
- Jesus chooses twelve privileged disciples who are called “the apostles”. He also chose seventy other disciples. He sent them out ahead of him to preach the Gospel. Going from place to place, they brought the people together for the larger meetings with Jesus. These were the workers trained to propagate the message. This shows the intention was to found a Church.
- Jesus says directly to Peter : “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16: 18).
This passage is so disturbing to the above-mentioned critics that they suggest it be deleted from the Gospel since, they insist, it was one of the passages added on.
- Furthermore, Jesus goes on to tell Peter : “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
This shows that Peter will have the authority to say what is necessary to believe in or not to believe in to know God and to attain heaven with God.
Therefore, it is clear that if there is a Pope, a Church and an authority on the part of the Church to define essential doctrines of the faith, it is because they were established by Jesus in the Gospel.
- Finally, in relation to the preceding points, we can read in the Gospel of Saint John, the last instructions of Jesus given to his Apostles before his death, for the benefit of his newly-established Church :
“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he well guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13)
Here Jesus is expressing his intention to continue to lead the group of disciples he has formed but to lead them in a new way.
These four observations clearly demonstrate that the Jesus of the Gospels is the same Jesus who intended to found and who did found the Church.
And if we take the Gospels seriously, we cannot seek other modified versions of the image of Jesus as given by those who want to make him into a social agitator, philanthropist or politician.(1) Although we might find some positive aspects in this kind of description, the Jesus whom we find in the Gospels is the Jesus whom the Church presents. And now let us look at Jesus as a historical figure.
II - THE GOSPELS CONFRONTED BY HISTORY
Are the Gospels the invention of the Church ?
If it is clear that the Jesus of the Gospels is the Jesus of the Church, it is necessary to prove that the Gospels correspond to a historical reality, and that the texts were not made up.
We answer this legitimate question by first of all confirming the historicity of Jesus and his first apostles in looking at the writers of the period.
1. - Witness of the Ancient Roman Historians.
Pliny the younger (112 AD), Tacitus (about 116 AD) and Suetonius (about 120 AD) wrote about Jesus and his contemporaries.
Jesus is described in history by Jewish and Roman historians and other writers not associated with the Church during the first centuries :
|1 - In 112 AD, PLINY THE YOUNGER wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor
TRAJAN, in which he spoke about the Christians :
“Their whole fault and error, as they confessed, was marked by their having gathered together regularly at a given time, before the dawn, and in their singing together a hymn to Christ as to a God.”
2 - Towards the year 116 AD, the renowned Roman historian TACITUS reports in his Annals that the Roman Emperor Nero, himself accused of having set fire to Rome in 64 AD, blames the Christians : “Nero supposed guilty and inflicted with refined tortures those whose abominations made them detestable and whom the crowd called Christians.”
3 - SUETONIUS, another Roman historian, in about the year 120 AD, in the Life of Twelve Caesars, wrote about a certain “Chrestus” , the instigator of problems among the Jews in Rome in 49 AD under CLAUDIUS who expelled them.
However, in the Acts of the Apostles - the book which completes the Gospel of St. Luke in the New Testament - a direct allusion is made to this expulsion at the time of St. Paul’s arrival in Corinth. (Acts 18:2) (Aquilla and Priscilla)
The testimony of Josephus(2) is the most remarkable. It is so surprising that it was thought that the text had been later modified by Christian copyists in their transmission of the manuscript.
This led to a serious discussion of this question. Josephus participated in “The Jewish War”, from 66 AD to 70 AD. This was the large uprising of the Jews which was suppressed by Vespasian, who was then proclaimed emperor by his son Titus. Josephus first fought with the insurgents, then he returned to the Romans and took their side. He wrote a very precise history of these events in Greek around 93 AD. He reports the putting to death of the apostle James. And he also speaks of Christ. Many critics thought that the account of Josephus was too favourable on the side of Christ. Would a romanized Jew really go this far? They maintain that a Christian copyist who recopied the manuscript, changed the content.
Although this is a serious objection, we can refer to a number of manuscripts from different sources. A Jewish scholar, Shlomo Peres, in comparing these manuscripts succeeded in identifying the ‘minimum’ portion of the manuscript of Josephus that is without doubt authentic :
“At this time, lived a wise man named Jesus. He conducted himself well and was esteemed for his virtue. As many Jews as people from other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and put to death. But those who were his disciples did not cease to follow his teaching. They maintained that he appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. He was without doubt the Messiah about whom the prophets had related so many wonders.”
The sum of these written testimonies of people who were close to the events are sufficient in proving the historical existence of Jesus as well as his influence and renown. They are, however, not very explicit in the details they give. But in the case of many other figures of the same epoch whose names are recorded, we often know little else about them.
2. - The historical reality of the Gospels confirmed by archeology.
The Gospels themselves tell us a large number of things about Jesus, even though they do not relate the day to day history or give a journalistic description as we would be accustomed to having today. However, the Gospels are more precise than we have considered them to be. We find that they contain numerous details about the towns and villages of the era, the way of life, the language and important individuals. History and archeology confirm that all these elements are accurate and true. Furthermore, certain details could not have been invented or written at a later date because various institutions and practises underwent changes very shortly after the death of Jesus, notably in 70 AD, at the destruction of Jerusalem.
Nineteen hundred years after these events have taken place, we can see that the Gospels themselves prove to be more accurate as historical documents than historians in the past have thought them to be. For instance, in the Gospel of St. John, considered to be more spiritual and beyond time and place than the rest of the Gospels, we can find twenty more locations named than in the three other Gospels. Even though many of these places no longer exist, many of them have been identified and located in recent years.
At one time it was even thought that the location of Nazareth was invented by the evangelists because the Old Testament and ancient Hebrew commentaries do not mention the name of Nazareth. But in 1962, a group of Israeli archeologists under the direction of Professor Avi Jonah discovered a Hebrew plaque in the ruins of Caesarea Maritima dating from the third century before Christ which made reference to the town of Nazareth. This immediately proved false all theories claiming that Nazareth was a place invented for the sake of the Gospels.
Using another example, the “Pool with five porticoes” was discovered in Jerusalem. This is the pool of Bethseda(3) near the sheep’s gate which critics thought to be a legend.
In 1925, a French archeologist discovered the “lithostroton”, or “Gabbatha”, the paved area of the praetorium where Jesus was held during his appearance before Pilate, the Roman Prefect who condemned him to death. (John 19: 13) After eighteen centuries of finding no historical references to Pilate(4), in 1961 Italian archeologists discovered his name and his function “Prefectus” engraved on a stone tablet in the ruins of Caesarea Maritima.
This examination of archeological, geographical and historical data could be very extensive. This is not our present aim. But, by looking at the facts we have pointed out, we can see that these findings are unquestionable. The description of places, monuments, political and religious leaders is very relevant. After 70 A.D. and the defeat of the Jewish uprising by Titus, many landmarks disappeared or their names where changed. The most valuble information is given by those who can describe the life in Palestine before 70 A.D.
III - THE TRANSMISSION OF THE GOSPELS
How can we know they are authentic ?
How could these narratives dating from before 70 A.D. be preserved in their original form without being distorted in any way? The printing press was invented only in 1450. How then were the Gospels transmitted from the 1st to the 15th Century?
Countless scholars have studied this question, it has even become a specialized science called “textual criticism”. The Gospels were written by hand in ink on papyrus or parchment. Papyrus is the ancestor of paper. It is composed of reed sheets pasted together to form paper. It was inexpensive but fragile. Parchments were made of skin, usually sheepskin, that was specially finished and bound together in books. One of these books is called a “codex”.
There exist today about five thousand manuscripts of the New Testament. Often, in the case of other works of ancient writers, there is only one copy of the manuscript. The oldest known manuscript of the Gospels is written on a fragment of papyrus. The fragment is nine by ten centimetres in size and it contains verses 31,33,37 and 38 of chapter 18 of the Gospel of St. John. The manuscript was dated approximately at the year 125 A.D. (At the beginning of the second century, only forty or fifty years after the composition of the text(5) ).
A papyrus fragment discovered at Qumran, near the Dead Sea contains certain characters probably coming from a manuscript of the Gospel of St. Mark. This fragment dates from before 70 A.D. We have many important fragments from the end of the second and third century. From the beginning of the 4th Century (300 to 400 A.D.) we have codices containing the collection of all four Gospels as well as the other books of the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, the Apocalypse).
There is a time span of forty years between the composition of the original text and the date of the oldest fragments in our possession. The oldest copy that we have of the complete New Testament was written 230 years after the composition of the original text.
When we look, however, at the ancient Greek writers like Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides, there is a time span of fourteen to sixteen centuries between the death of the author and the copying date of the first manuscript in our possession. There are nine centuries in the case of the writings of Julius Caesar.
The ancient methods of copying the text (of the Gospels) were also very important in ensuring the accuracy of the text and its fidelity to the original manuscripts. Even though some errors and variations appear from time to time, the entire text itself is accurate.
Before the printing press a method of cross-referencing from a number of original copies was used to create a new original copy. The person who dictated the text for the benefit of the copyists would have at hand often two or more manuscripts from which he would cross reference to choose the text most faithful to the original.
This form of transmission of the text by way of cross-referencing (forming an interconnecting network of copies) is completely unique in the history of manuscripts and gives us a strong assurance of faithfulness. This provided a way of avoiding problems in the text cased by small errors and omissions.
|The succession of copies forming this cross-referencing network by which the Gospels were transmitted in different languages (Greek, Arab, Copt, Latin) can be compared to the structure of the brain in which countless nerves are parallel and interconncted to each other.|
To summarize the questions we have discussed so far :
1° The Jesus who speaks in the Gospels had the intention of founding the Church.
The Jesus of the Gospels is the Jesus of the Church.
2° The Gospels have a sure historical foundation: ancient historians confirm the existence of Jesus and archeological discoveries confirm the actual existence of the places as well as the way of life and the religious and political life of the period.
In addition, the Gospels could not have been written at a later time, because the historical landscape was changed dramatically in 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent political transformations.
The writing of the Gospels was made possible by oral tradition that began before these events. Regardless of the historical transformations that were taking place, these narratives were accurately recorded.
3° The transmission of the Gospels by means of an interconnected system of copies is exceptional and by far the most reliable method in antiquity (the history of copying of ancient manuscripts).
IV - WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT JESUS ?
- If we try to give a journalistic account, we haven’t much information. The apostles and evangelists gave an account of the activities of Jesus they considered important. They did not give a day by day detailed description of where Jesus went and what he did. The attempt to recreate the life of Jesus in a contemporary manner, like certain writers have attempted to do, is to create a historical novel which is colourful but not factual. Even a novel which is ‘historical’ is not history.
- At the same time, we know more about Jesus than about many famous men of his time.
His birth is dated within a period of six years - between 6 B.C. and 1 B.C. (Our annual calendar begins at the approximate year of the birth of Jesus.) Dionysius Exiguus, the monk who combined the Roman calendar and the year of the birth of Christ, was mistaken in his calculation by six years.
It is certain that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that he lived in Nazareth until the time he began his public life. Herod the Great indeed reigned at the time of the birth of Jesus and a second King Herod put John the Baptist to death. We are certain as well of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate and of the teachings of Jesus beside the Sea of Tiberiade, on the hills of Galilee, in Samaria and Jerusalem. These events took place between 6 B.C. and 30 A.D. It is a fact that Jesus was put to death by crucifixion. Most likely, this took place on April 7, in 30 A.D.(6)
But even more interesting is the actual teaching of Jesus, his actions and the significance of his actions. Even though we do not know the dates on which he taught and spoke, we can be sure that he truly said these things. The New Testament and the Gospels are very reliable. We will examine the reasons for this (how and why).
V - PROOFS FOR THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS
When a person writes a book, we need to prove that he or she really wrote the book that has been published. It is not always easy to prove that the official author is the real author. We need to see coherence between what is written, what the same author has written elsewhere and what his friends and acquaintances might say about him.
Jesus did not write a book. But the books of the New Testament provide us with twenty seven written testimonies about him.
First of all, the four Gospels relate the life and teaching of Jesus. In the other books of the New Testament, in which we see strong coherence with the Gospels, the authors explain and give a commentary on the doctrine of Jesus. The books of the New Testament give us a clear understanding of all Jesus wanted us to know about his life and teaching. The fact that Jesus existed, spoke, healed the sick and gave up his life are all historical facts that cannot be ignored.
Often, those opposed to Christianity stress the lack of agreement between the different Gospels. For example, they see inconsistencies in the date of Christ’s death, the names of the apostles, the number of times Jesus travelled to Jerusalem, and the wording of the various teachings of Jesus.
Why is there disagreement between the different Gospels ?
1. All true historians would claim that the differences in the details are not an obstacle, but are a confirmation of the authenticity of the teachings. We are sure that Christ’s teachings were received by a number of witnesses and not just a single witness who then passed them on to others.
2. What is most remarkable, is that, despite the differences that exist between the different Gospels, they express the same basic doctrine. It would be impossible for them to have been made up.
How could the evangelists, who were simple people, lacking in acedemic instruction, succeed in composing different narratives expressing the same doctrine if this doctrine did not already exist? If the evangelists were not authentic witnesses then how could they give the names of villages, details about places and monuments (the pool of Bethesda), descriptions of the way of life and social and political structures which soon disappeared in the turbulence of the years 66 to 70 A.D.? It took 1900 years to uncover many of these elements like, for example, the inscription with the name of the Prefect Pilate and the engraving with the name of Nazareth from the 3rd century B.C.
3. Another element strongly in favour of the authenticity of the Gospels is the fact that the writers do not try to hide the errors and weaknesses of the apostles. For example, we are given the account of Peter’s denial of Christ. This is the same Peter whom Christ declared would be the rock upon which he would build his Church. In another instance, we see the severity of Jesus towards Peter when Jesus tells him: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:31), because Peter tries to discourage him from accepting the Passion and being put to death.
Neither do the Gospels try to hide the point that will be difficult to accept: the announcement of a “Messiah” - the crucified Christ who was, according to St. Paul: “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).
There is a concern for the truth which runs through all the books of the New Testament.
This concern was more important than, for example, defending the characters of the apostles.The truth and coherence between the accounts of different witnesses who are separated geographically gives us the certitude of the historicity of the life and teaching of Jesus.
CONCLUSION OF THE HISTORICITY OF JESUS.
We are certain that Jesus truly existed 2000 years ago and the Gospels give us an accurate historical account of his life. The Church has good reason to believe that we know the teachings of Christ by means of the Gospels.
However, the proofs for the historicity of Jesus, his death and his teachings cannot force anyone to believe. Those who want to avoid them can very well do so. It is as if Jesus gives us the final say in giving him a place in history and in our own personal history. Does he not ask his disciples: “And you, who do you say that I am?” This is not a question to be answered by history, but it is for each person to answer in freedom and in truth.
So the second question is: Is Jesus Christ God? Does he himself say that he is God? Is this philosophically possible? If so, then what is God like?
(1) as in the case of Borg, Funk, Duquesne and Crossan.
(2) A first century historian, a Romanized Jew who wrote “La guerre des Juifs” and “Antiquites Hebraiques” in Greek.
(3) “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes”. (John 5:2)
(4) Pilate was however refered to several times by Josephus.
(5) This is “papyrus Rylands no. 457, discovered in Egypt in 1920 by British scholar Grenfell, and deciphered by C.H. Roberts in 1935.
(6) On the evening before the Passover, the 14th of the month of Nisan. The Passover in the year 30 was the 15th Nisan or April 8. Pontius Pilate was Prefect of Judea from 26 to 36. For Christians, the Jewish feast of the Passover was replaced by Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.
Introduction | Second Part : Is Jesus Christ God ?