The Historical Jesus: The Evidence from Scripture and Archaeology

imagesI was recently invited to give a series of lectures in a dozen or so universities across Iran and dialogued with Islamic scholars in Qom. The Q&A session after each presentation was a lively affair – longer in fact than my presentations. The most frequently asked question concerned the reliability of the Bible. What did I think about Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code?  Apparently more than a billion people worldwide believe the views popularized in the Da Vinci Code.
They believe the message of the Bible has been corrupted and distorted, that Jesus is not the Son of God, but a prophet and that he did not die on the cross or rise from the dead.
They believe that in 325AD the Emperor Constantine commissioned the writing of the New Testament we now have which portrays Jesus as a divine figure. Dozens of other “gospels” were censored or destroyed. Constantine actually summoned the Council of Nicaea to end disunity caused by the Arian controversy. Arius taught that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was less than the Father. The Council was attended by around 300 bishops. The Arian Creed was soundly rejected. The Nicene Creed was accepted by 298 Bishops.  2 were against. (i.e., over 99% in favour). The Council of Nicaea recognized Jesus as “begotten not made, of the same substance (homousios) as the Father.”

The discussion was not about whether Jesus was the Son of God, but whether he was equal with the Father or a lesser divine being. The Emperor Constantine had absolutely nothing to do with fixing the canon of Scripture. The canon was pretty well agreed in the Third Century.  The Gospels and Epistles we have today were recognized as authentic by those who knew the authors to be eyewitnesses and trustworthy. No Council of the Church gave the New Testament documents the status of Scripture. On the contrary, the Scriptures gave the Church its status as the Body of Christ. The New Testament documents were in wide circulation during the 1st and 2nd Century and diligently copied and copiously quoted by the Early Church Fathers.
So much so, if every New Testament manuscript in existence was destroyed, it would be possible to re-write virtually the entire New Testament simply from quotations drawn from the Early Church Fathers in the first three centuries. Indeed, the historian Paul Maier writes,

“there is more evidence that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived than for most famous figures of the ancient past.  This evidence is of two kinds: internal and external, or, if you will, sacred and secular.  In both cases, the total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.”

If Muslims have been taught that the Bible is unreliable, and if millions of skeptics have read Dan Brown’s books or watched the Da Vinci film, the chances are you know some of them. So how can we know if the New Testament is reliable?

How can we be sure that in the gospels we encounter the historical Jesus?

How can we Test the Reliability of the New Testament?

The only way that you can test the reliability of the New Testament is to apply the same kind of test that you would to any other document, that is, to consider the evidence objectively and impartially. Then our critics cannot accuse us of bias. Our legal system uses this approach in order to establish a verdict based on reasonable evidence. There are essentially three tests which are applied to in historiography and literary criticism, the bibliographic test, the internal test and the external test. The internal test asks questions such as who wrote it? How soon after the actual events happened was the document written? Were they eyewitnesses? How reliable were the authors? Are there inconsistencies between their testimonies or do they corroborate one another? The bibliographic test asks how many copies were made and survive?  What is the time-span between the original and the earliest copy we have? How many variations or differences are there between the manuscripts?

The external test asks whether sources outside the New Testament confirm or contest the eyewitnesses or the manuscript evidence. This is where archaeology plays a role. Lets apply these three tests.

  1. The Internal Test: How Credible are the Writers?

    • They were eyewitnesses

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)

 This is how Luke begins his account of the life of Jesus Christ. Luke wanted to investigate the claims of Jesus Christ. He relied on eye witness accounts and synthesised them in an orderly way. Luke is respected for his meticulous historical accuracy. The disciples were eye witnesses.

  • They were reliable eyewitnesses

The Apostle John wrote the following in his First Epistle.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. (1 John 1:1-3)

John was an eyewitness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What he saw, he, like his colleagues, recorded accurately for us to read today in his gospel account.

The Apostle Paul invited readers to test his credability,

“You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, (2 Timothy 3:10)

Similarly, the Apostle Peter refuted the notion that their testimony was subjective, second hand or unreliable,

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.  For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:12-21)

Peter goes on to warn that false teachers will arise who will try and exploit Christians for material gain with “fabricated stories” (2 Peter 2:3). The disciples were reliable eyewitnesses. Their lives were open to examination.

  • They were cross examined eyewitnesses

Christianity arose within a contested environment – a threat both to the Roman government and Jewish religious leaders. At his trial before Festus in Caesarea, Paul pointed out,

“What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:25-28)

Appealing to the knowledge of your critics to corroborate your claims is a powerful testimony. Indeed his second letter to Timothy Paul warned that persecution was inevitable for speaking the truth about Jesus.

“persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:11-12)

The Apostles wrote and testified to what they had seen and heard in Jesus within an increasingly hostile environment. Their writings and teachings were openly challenged. They were eyewitnesses, reliable witnesses, cross examined witnesses.

2.4 They were martyred eyewitnesses

The ultimate test of an eyewitness is their willingness to sign their testimony in their own blood. All of the Apostles, (apart from John who died in exile) died as martyrs, convinced that Jesus was the Son of God the Saviour of the world. Now many people have died for a cause they believed in but no one dies for a lie that they know to be a lie. Stephen is one example. At his trial, Stephen proclaimed,

“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”  When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.  But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.  Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.  While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:51-60)

There is no greater test of credibility than witnesses who refused to deny they had seen the Lord Jesus in bodily form risen from the dead and were willing to die for it.

The internal test confirms that the writers of the New Testament were reliable eyewitnesses to the historical Jesus. Lets consider the Bibliographic Test.

  1. The Bibliographic Test: How Reliable are the Texts?

When it comes to dating the New Testament books, there are differences between conservative and liberal scholars but only in terms of decades, not centuries. For example, the conservative dating for the Gospel of Mark is between A.D. 50-60, with more liberal scholars placing it around A.D. 70. This is remarkable, when you consider that Jesus died somewhere around the year A.D. 30; these are authentic eyewitness accounts. Generally speaking, Paul’s letters were written between A.D. 50-66, the gospels between A.D. 50-70. The earliest extant manuscript is a fragment of John’s gospel (The John Ryland’s papyri is dated 120 AD). Since the book was probably composed in Turkey when John was in exile on Patmos and this fragment was found in Egypt, some circulation time is demanded, surely placing composition of John well within the first century. The Epistles of Paul invariably conclude with a list of individuals known to the recipients, some of whom were companions of Paul, were his messengers  In his First Epistle to the Corinthians Paul lists those who witnessed the resurrection, many of whom were still alive.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Paul ends Colossians with the instruction that they share his correspondence with the church in Laodicea.

“Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts… After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” (Colossians 4:7-8, 16)

There is therefore every reason to believe that his letters were copied and widely disseminated by those who knew him personally. In the Peter’s second letter he refers to the writings of Paul as scripture.

“… dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)

When dating the New Testament, the watershed is 70AD. Jerusalem had been occupied by Jewish zealots since 66 AD. The siege ended in 70AD when Titus, who eventually became Emperor, plundered the city, demolished the Temple and enslaved the surviving Jewish remnant. The destruction of Jerusalem was truly apocalyptic in proportions. Matthew records a conversation between Jesus and the disciples who are impressed by the fine buildings when they arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover.

“Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2).

The destruction of Herod’s Temple was so great that it is still visible today by the Western Wall. Josephus the Jewish historian claims over a million Jews were killed and 97,000 deported. Titus apparently refused to accept the wreath of victory because he said he was merely an instrument of God’s wrath. If any of the New Testament documents had been written after 70 AD one would have expected them to refer to the destruction to vindicate the predictions of Jesus. Similarly, Hebrews contrasts the sacrifices offered in the Jewish Temple with the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus:

“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)

Had the Temple been destroyed, the author would not have referred to the Temple sacrifices in the present tense but would surely have referred to the end of sacrifices as vindication of the finished work of Christ on the cross.

“One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact. ” (John A.T. Robinson)

How Early are the Extent Manuscripts?

To decide the reliability of the manuscripts we have to consider two factors: First, the number of manuscripts that have survived today; and second, the time period between the original document and the earliest manuscripts we have. The more manuscripts we have and the closer they are to the originals, the more we are able to determine where copyist errors happened and which copies reflect the original.  In a comparative study, for example, the book Natural History, written by Pliny Secundus, is known because of seven manuscripts. The earliest copy was written 750 years after the original text. The most frequently copied work after the New Testament from ancient history is the Iliad written by Homer. There are 643 copies in existence. The earliest copy was written 400 years after the original. By comparison, there are well over 25,000 extant manuscripts of portions of the New Testament. In addition, a fragment of the New Testament (NT) has been dated to within 50 years of the original, whole books to within 100 years, and the whole NT to within 225-250 years.

Sir Frederic Kenyon, former Director of the British Museum, concluded, “The interval between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence [i.e. our oldest manuscripts] becomes so small as to be negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.”

The scholar Dr. William F. Albright, also wrote: “The excessive scepticism shown toward the Bible [by certain schools of thought] has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of numerous details…’In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptised Jew between the forties and eighties of the first century (very probably sometime between about AD 50 and 75)

For more information see: Norman Geisler, The Dating of the New Testament 

and John Robinson, Redating the New Testament (pdf)

Having shown that the New Testament writers pass the first two tests for reliability, the internal test and the bibliographic test, lets consider the external evidence. What contribution does archaeology make to our understanding of the historical Jesus?

  1. The External Evidence: The Witness of Archaeology

When I visit Palestine, especially if assisting with a pilgrimage, beside meeting with the Living Stones, the local Christians, I am drawn to the archaeological sites that corroborate and illuminate the gospels. Scientific archaeology is a comparatively young discipline – only about 125 years old. Yet in that time, numerous discoveries shed light directly on the life of Jesus. In this I am indebted to Dr. Paul L. Maier, professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University-Kalamazoo, for the following list. “The existence of Nazareth in Jesus’ day had been doubted by critics—until its name showed up in a first-century synagogue inscription at Caesarea. Augustus’ census edicts (in connection with the Nativity) are borne out by an inscription at Ankara, Turkey, his famous Res Gestae (“Things Accomplished”), in which the Roman emperor proudly claims to have taken a census three times. That husbands had to register their families for the Roman census was mandated in census papyri discovered in Egypt… As for Jesus’ public ministry, the remains of the foundation of the synagogue at Capernaum where He taught still exist below the present ruins of the fourth-century synagogue there. The remains of Peter’s house at Capernaum, later converted into an octagonal Christian sanctuary, have been uncovered. The hull of a first-century boat that plied the waters of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time was discovered in 1986, giving us new information on how Jesus could sleep through a storm during the famous episode of the Stilling of the Tempest (Mark 4:35ff.).” In Jerusalem, John’s accuracy has also been attested to by recent discoveries. In John 5:1-15 Jesus heals a man at the Pool of Bethesda. John describes the pool as having five porticoes. This site had long been in dispute until recently. Forty feet underground, archaeologists discovered a pool with five porticoes, and the description of the surrounding area matches John’s description. John 9:7 mentions another long disputed site, the Pool of Siloam. However, this pool was also discovered in 1897, upholding the accuracy of John. “Relating to Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, an ancient flight of stairs down to the Brook Kidron has been excavated, doubtless used by Jesus and His disciples on the way to Gethsemane at the base of the Mount of Olives, where ancient olive trees still thrive. An inscription naming His judge on Good Friday, Pontius Pilate, was discovered at Caesarea in 1961.  The very bones of the chief prosecutor at that trial, the high priest Joseph Caiaphas, came to light inside an ossuary (a stone chest used to store bones from burial sites) uncovered in 1990, the first bones of a Biblical personality ever discovered.” (Paul Maier)

“All four Gospels give details of the crucifixion of Christ. Their accurate portrayal of this Roman practice has been confirmed by archaeology. In 1968, a gravesite in the city of Jerusalem was uncovered containing thirty-five bodies. Each of the men had died a brutal death which historians believe was the result of their involvement in the Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 A.D. The inscription identified one individual as Yohan Ben Ha’galgol. Studies of the bones performed by osteologists and doctors from the Hadassah Medical School determined the man was twenty-eight years old, stood five feet six inches, and had some slight facial defects due to a cleft right palate. What intrigued archaeologists were the evidences that this man had been crucified in a manner resembling the crucifixion of Christ.

A seven-inch nail had been driven through both feet, which were turned outward so the nail could be hammered inside the Achilles tendon. Archaeologists also discovered that nails had been driven through his lower forearms. A victim of a crucifixion would have to raise and lower his body in order to breathe. To do this, he needed to push up on his pierced feet and pull up with his arms… John records that in order to expedite the death of a prisoner, executioners broke the legs of the victim so that he could not lift himself up by pushing with his feet (19:31-33). Yohan’s legs were found crushed by a blow, breaking them below the knee. The Dead Sea Scrolls tell that both Jews and Romans abhorred crucifixion due to its cruelty and humiliation. The scrolls also state it was a punishment reserved for slaves and any who challenged the ruling powers of Rome. This explains why Pilate chose crucifixion as the penalty for Jesus.

Relating to the resurrection of Jesus, in 1878 a stone slab was found in Nazareth with a decree from Emperor Claudius who reigned from 41-54 A.D. It stated that graves must not be disturbed nor bodies to be removed. The punishment on other decrees was a fine but this one threatens death and comes very close to the time of the resurrection. This was probably due to Claudius investigating the riots of 49 A.D. He had certainly heard of the resurrection and did not want any similar incidents. This decree may have also been made in connection with the Apostles’ preaching of Jesus’ resurrection and the Jewish argument that the body had been stolen.” (Patrick Zukeran)

The Gospels also mention three well-populated coastal towns along the Sea of Galilee: Capernaum, Bethsaida, Chorazin in which Jesus performed many miracles. Despite this testimony, the people rejected Jesus and therefore were cursed by Him (Luke 10:12-16). These towns eventually disappeared from history and their locations remained missing until they were rediscovered in the last century. Their demise fulfilled the prophetic condemnation of Jesus.”  (Patrick Zukeran)

Many more sites all across the Holy Land are in process of being excavated, promising even more archaeological discoveries relating to the life of Jesus. For further information see Paul Maier, History, Archaeology and Jesus and Patrick Zukeran, Archaeology and the New Testament

So, if the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament is so strong, why the popularity of books like the Da Vinci Code? Why do Muslim scholars continue to perpetuate the belief that the New Testament has been corrupted?

  1. Why is the Reliability of the New Testament Documents still Questioned?

Paul Maier insists,

“the sum total of the literary, historical and archaeological evidence from the ancient world dramatically supports the New Testament record on Jesus. Those who claim it does not are sadly misinformed, tragically closed-minded, or dishonest.”

The scriptures themselves insist the main reason people dismiss the Bible is because of its moral and ethical demands. The Apostle Paul specifically warned Timothy this would happen.

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

But simply dismissing the Bible as unreliable does not change its message or teaching. Two thousand years later, the number who testify to the same living encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, continues to grow. If you are in any doubt as to your eternal destiny, then engage with the truth of Jesus. For He invites us to undertake an experiential test to determine the authenticity of his teaching.

“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own… If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 7:17; 8:31-32).

As Paul Williams concludes: “In other words, if you want to know – subjectively, in your own experience – that the Bible really is God’s word, you can. Because when you put its teaching into practice, the miraculous results in your life are such that you will know the words could only come from God. Lets pray.

This presentation was given at St John’s Church, Casablanca, 3rd December 2017


J.P. Moreland: The Historicity of the New Testament
John Ankerberg: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament Text
F.F. Bruce: The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?
Michael Green: You Must be Joking
Nicky Gumbel: Searching Issues
Paul Maier: The Real Jesus of Nazareth: New Evidence from History and Archaeology About Jesus and the Early Christians
Josh McDowell: Evidence that Demands a Verdict
John Montgomery:  Christianity and History
Paul Williams & Barry Cooper: If You Could ask God One Question
John A.T. Robinson Redating the New Testament
Patrick Zukeran, Archaeology and the New Testament