Did Jesus ever live?

A MILITANTLY AGNOSTIC SIXTH-FORMER was somewhat intrigued, and a little annoyed, by the fact that the captain of the school had recently become a decided and vocal Christian. So he accepted an invitation to go to an informal meeting in the house of a well-liked Christian master where the faith was to be discussed. He felt intellectually superior to the majority of others who were there, and was confident of his ability to show that the Jesus story was fictitious and the Gospel accounts highly unreliable.

It so happened that this young man left the house that evening in a very different frame of mind from that in which he entered it. But the position he originally held is not an uncommon one. Many young people today think that Christianity is 'a load of rubbish’. For example, the sickening sentimentality which surrounds the Christmas festivities each year confirms them in their conviction that in the nativity we have to do with a fairy story, something that does not belong to the real world. Those who really swallow this sort of thing must, they feel, prefer fantasy to fact.

It is not only schoolboys who regard Christianity as unhistorical. There has been a long line of rationalists who have argued that Jesus never lived, and that his cult is parallel to that of the equally mythical figures of Attis and Osiris. J. M. Robertson, for example, caused quite a stir at the beginning of the century when he argued the case for the Christ-myth in his books Christianity and Mythology and Pagan Christs. Gilbert Murray favourably reviewed another such book by M. Couchoud, ‘The Enigma of Jesus’, and Bertrand Russell said he regarded the issue of whether Jesus ever lived as an open question. More recently John Allegro has gone on record as saying, 'The Church's misunderstanding of the origin of its cult began when it took the New Testament at its face value. Once you break it down into its Semitic sub-stratum you get close to the mystery, fertility cult, which is much more significant than we have ever given it credit for. There is no Jesus, or Joseph, or Mary left. You are dealing with myths. If there is any one personality involved, it is possibly some shadowy figure from the Essene sect, about a century earlier.'

This account was published by Vincent Mulchrone under banner headlines ('Drugs and the Christian prophets') in the Daily Mail in October 1967. He hails Mr Allegro as 'the calm empiricist who lectures in Old Testament and intertestamental studies at Manchester University' and gleefully calls him 'the most powerful scourge of Christianity since Pontius Pilate'. Now one does not expect unprejudiced writing from a newspaper columnist; how dull the papers would be if such a thing were possible! But an article of this sort does raise two points of interest. It shows that the idea of the Christ myth is not dead. And it shows that some people are very anxious to believe that the Christian story is false, and are accordingly glad to make use of any shred of evidence which justifies their attitude. Unfortunately in this instance no evidence is given by Mr Allegro: we still await from his pen the 'astonishing discoveries' which will for ever discredit Christianity.

There is a further reason why this theory of the mythical nature of Christianity must be looked into seriously. As we shall see in chapter three, it has long been Communist policy to deny Jesus Christ's historical existence. An enormous number of people are subjected to this propaganda in Eastern Europe and Asia; it is very much a live issue. And it is interesting to notice how this became part of the Communist position. In 1842 a German theologian, Bruno Bauer, was deprived of his chair on account of his heterodox opinions. This greatly influenced Karl Marx, who not unnaturally thought he had been cruelly wronged by the bourgeois men of religion who dared not allow the shaky foundations of their house of faith to be investigated impartially. Now it was Bauer's view that the historical Jesus was a figment of the imagination of the evangelist Mark! It is one of the ironies of history (and a judgement on Liberal Protestantism) that-the vagaries of a heterodox Christian and the sharp reaction of the orthodox should have laid the spiritual foundation for the most powerful atheistic regime the world has ever experienced.


We are faced, then, with the question, are Christians running away from history? Before beginning to examine it, we must be clear that this is an absolutely crucial matter. Confucianism could survive even if it were proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Confucius never lived. It is his teaching that is important, not himself. The same is true, more or less, of all the great world religions apart from Judaism and Christianity: history is not important to them.

But with Christianity it is vital. For Christianity is not an ethical system which could be maintained regardless of whether Christ ever lived or not. No, it is basically good news about a unique historical person; someone who was born a mere generation before the evangelists wrote and was executed under the Roman procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. He claimed to embody God's final self-disclosure to men. He backed up that claim by his matchless teaching, the moral miracle of his sinless life, and his well-substantiated resurrection from the grave.

Such, in brief, is the Christian story. There is nothing like it in the religions of the world. It has indeed, features in common with the nature worship which underlay so many of the Eastern religions, based as this was on the annual cycle of the birth, maturity, death and resurrection of the year in its four seasons. The ancient Orient had many variations on this theme in the cults of Dionysus, Attis, Isis and Osiris, Cybele and Mithras; but with Christianity there was one fundamental difference. The Christian claim was attached, as none of these others was, to a recent historical figure, one known personally to some of the writers of the New Testament documents. This is what makes the Christian claim so stark and so challenging. It is all about the Jesus of history. Remove him from Christianity and nothing distinctive is left. Once disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ, and Christianity will collapse like a pack of cards. For it all depends on this fundamental conviction, that God was made manifest in human flesh. And that is a matter not of ideology or mythology but history. How well founded is this Christian claim?


One would not expect to find a great deal of early non-Christian evidence about the existence of an obscure peasant teacher in an unimportant frontier province of the Roman Empire. Roman historians and men of letters were normally upper-class people who thoroughly disapproved of Eastern religions; like Juvenal, they felt aggrieved that the Orontes had flowed into the Tiber,bringing a flood of decadent and very un-Roman superstitions in its wake. It would not be surprising if the humble birth of Christianity had gone entirely unnoticed by the historians of the period. But this is not the case.


The fullest and most interesting account of Christianity from a pagan source comes from the pen of Pliny the Younger. He was sent by the Emperor Trajan to govern the province of Bithynia in Northern Turkey, in the year AD 112. We may be grateful for the fact that he had a typical bureaucratic mind, and wrote letters on every conceivable topic to the Emperor, no doubt lest he should be accused of possessing any personal initiative!

One of these letters concerns Christianity. He says that everywhere he went in his province, including villages and country districts, he found Christians. Moreover, their rapid spread had assumed the proportions of a major social problem. The pagan temples had had to close down for lack of customers; the sacred festivals had been discontinued, and all demand for sacrificial animals had ceased. Clearly Christianity was very much on the move by the end of the first century, even in so remote a province as this on the edge of the Roman world. Religious disapproval and economic opposition had not succeed in checking its advance, until Pliny came on the scene and reported to his superior that it now seemed possible, under his capable supervision, to mend the situation! Those who persisted in their Christian faith he executed; such men were obviously contumacious, and deserved to die. But he confessed that he was perplexed about the nature of their crime. He had discovered from those who recanted in the face of his persecution that no enormities were practised in the Christian assemblies. Their whole guilt lay in this, that they refused to worship the imperial statue and the images of the gods, and were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day (i.e. Sunday) before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as God (quasi deo). They took an oath ( ? the baptismal promise) not to commit crime. Their lives were exemplary: you would not find fraud, adultery, theft or dishonesty among them. At their common meal they ate, not a murdered infant but ordinary food. Pliny was perplexed by the apparent harmlessness of all this. Hence his letter to the Emperor.


A contemporary of Pliny's was Cornelius Tacitus, the greatest historian of Imperial Rome. He tells us how the Christians, hated by the populace for their ‘crimes’ were made scapegoats for the Great Fire of AD 64 by the Emperor Nero. 'The name Christian', he writes, 'comes to them from Christ, who was executed in the reign of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate; and the pernicious superstition, suppressed for a while, broke out afresh and spread not only through Judaea, the source of the malady, but even throughout Rome itself, where everything vile comes and is feted.' It is dear that the patrician Tacitus has no sympathy for Christianity, practised as it was by the lower classes in general and orientals in particular. His evidence is, therefore, all the more valuable. He had good opportunity to get well informed about the origins of Christian faith originated as a sect within Judaism, though it was by his time quite distinct. And he gives the remarkable piece of information that the Roman general Titus hoped, by destroying the Temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, to put an end to both Christianity and Judaism, on the theory that if you cut the root, the plant will soon wither I

Writers of the stature of Pliny and Tacitus make the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth quite unambiguous. But can we go back any further? Is there any first-century witness to Jesus among the pagan writers ? It so happens that there is a little.

Earlier testimony

To begin with, there is the statement by the Samaritan born historian Thallus, who wrote in Rome about AD 52. His work is lost, but a fragment of it is preserved in the second-century writer Julius Africanus, who tells us, while discussing the darkness that fell when Jesus died on the cross (Mark 15:33), 'Thallus, in Book Three of his HISTORY, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun - unreasonably as it seems to me.' Full marks to Julius Africanus for his objection; you cannot have a total eclipse of the sun when the moon is full, as it was at Passovertide when Jesus died. But the main interest of this quotation lies in showing that the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus were well known in Rome as early as the middle of the first century, and were deemed worthy of comment by a non-Christian historian.

It is not only the cross of Jesus which was familiar to pagans in the capital in the fifties; so was the story of his resurrection, if we may judge by the probable significance of the following piece of evidence. A remarkable inscription has turned up, belonging to the time of Claudius Caesar, who was Emperor from AD 41 to 54. In it he expresses his displeasure at reports he has heard of the removal of the bodies of the dead from the tomb, and he gives warning that any further tampering with graves will incur nothing short of the death penalty. This inscription was found in Nazareth, of all places! Although it has been curiously neglected by theologians, Roman historians such as Professors Momigliano and Blaiklock regard this very sharp threat as the of official reaction to the governor of Judaea's report on the crucifixion of Jesus and its sequel. It is difficult to imagine that Pilate could have avoided making a report to Rome; after all, Jesus had been executed as a political pretender, and such people were of very special interest to the Emperor. As a matter of fact, Tertullian, a Christian lawyer who lived in the second century, claimed that Pilate's report was still extant in the Imperial archives - though this is doubtful, for Tertullian was prone to exaggeration! Presumably any report Pilate made would have taken the line alluded to in Matthew 28:11ff., that the disciples of Jesus came and stole away the body while the soldiers who were supposed to be guarding the tomb slept. Hence, naturally enough, Claudius's sharp rejoinder.

Claudius was something of an antiquarian, and was particularly interested in matters of religion. A later papyrus has been discovered in which he takes the Jews of Alexandria to task for rioting with the Greeks, and is particularly incensed that 'certain other Jews' should have sailed down to North Africa from Syria and have 'fomented a universal plague' there among both the Jewish and Greek communities. This has been thought by many competent scholars to indicate the arrival of Christianity in Egypt (which must in any case have taken place around that time); if so, it was familiar to Claudius in the first year of his reign (it is hard to date the inscription any later). In other words, within a decade of the crucifixion, the Christian faith was known to the Emperor.

In any case, he was bound to take notice of it soon, for it created a problem much nearer home than, Alexandria. Suetonius,, a court official under Hadrian, and annalist of the Imperial House, records that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, because they were constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus. The date, according to Orosius, was AD 49. Two of the people involved in this expulsion order were Aquila and Priscilla, who were Jews by birth but Christians by belief (Acts 18:12). It appears that Suetonius thought Chrestus (or Christus - the pronunciation was indistinguishable in Ancient as it is in Modern Greek) was the leader of one of the factions among the Jews; but clearly, the disturbances were caused by the preaching of Christ among the large Jewish community of the capital, particularly as his supporters would urge that he was still very much alive. We have in this slightly muddled report the echo of the tremendous impact made by Christian preaching among the 10000 or so Jews of Rome, and the acute division in the ghetto caused by the proclamation of a Jesus who was no myth but a very recent and a very disturbing historical figure.

These men, Pliny (AD 61-114), Tacitus (AD 55-118?) and Suetonius (AD 69-140?) wrote of events which took place a mere thirty years before they were born; moreover their official position gave them access to good historical information. 'The evidence they give is more than sufficient to establish the historicity of Jesus, the author of this new religion, who suffered the supreme penalty under Pontius Pilate while the latter was administering the turbulent province of Judo from AD z6 to 36.


Here again the material is understandably sparse. \\re possess no contemporary Palestinian Jewish writings which might bear on the subject, and those which derive from after the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 are inevitably influenced by the split between the church and the synagogue which had by then become irrevocable. Furthermore, the Jews felt that the Christians were at least in part responsible for the affairs leading up to the disastrous Jewish war; they resented the fact that the church had not helped them in that life and death struggle against Rome; and they were not in the least pleased at the meteoric rise of the new faith, which gained a lot of ground initially as a movement within Judaism. For these and other reasons, relations between Judaism and Christianity were very poor by the end of the first century; and this fact prepares us for finding that there is not much about Christ in the Jewish writings, and that what there is not complimentary.


The most important witness is Josephus. He was one of the Jewish commanders in the war with Rome, and after AD 70 he set out to re-establish the credit of Judaism in the minds of Roman society in general and the Imperial family in particular. So he wrote his Antiquities of the Jews (published AD 93) and his Jewish War (published AD 75-79) in order to inform the Roman public more accurately about the religion of his fathers. These apologetic works naturally kept to the minimum any material that would irritate their Roman readers. Nevertheless we meet in the pages of Josephus many of the figures familiar from the New Testament: Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, the Herods, Quirinius, Felix, Festus, and many others. Josephus tells us about John the Baptist as well, his preaching, baptising and execution. James 'the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ' has a good write-up.

But most significant of all is his extended reference to Jesus himself. 'And there arose about this time (i.e. Pilate's time, AD 26-36), Jesus, a wise man, if indeed we should call him a man; for he was a doer of marvellous deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure. He won over many Jews and also many Greeks. This man was the Messiah. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross at the instigation of our own leaders, those who had loved him from the first did not cease. For he appeared to them on the third day alive again, as the holy prophets had predicted and said many other wonderful things about him. And even now the race of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out.

This is of course a most surprising testimony to find in the pages of one who was not a Christian; but all attempts to impugn its authenticity can be said to have failed. It has as good attestation as anything in Josephus; it is included in all the manuscripts. We know that the fourth-century historian Eusebius read it in his copy of Josephus. He quoted it twice. No doubt some of it is sarcastic: 'if indeed we should call him a man' may allude to his divine claims, and 'this man was the Messiah' to the charge affixed to his cross, while the passage about the resurrection may merely be reflecting Christian propaganda. 13~: that as it may, we have in this passage of Josephus a powerful, independent testimony to the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. The stories about Jesus were no myth. They were so circumstantial and so well attested that they even found a place in this apologetic work of the Jewish Josephus; and he had the strongest possible reasons for keeping quiet about anything so inconvenient for his theme.

The Mishnah

Other Jewish references can be found scattered sparsely around the Mishnah (the Jewish Law Code) and the Talmuds (Commentaries on these Laws). Jesus is called Jeshua ben Pantera which may either reflect the Jewish libel that Jesus was the product of an illegitimate union between Mary and a Roman soldier Panthera, or may be a corruption of the Greek word parthenos meaning 'virgin'. In either case it will refer to the birth of Jesus which was known to be unusual. The Jews knew all about the claim made for Jesus's birth from a virgin, and from the earliest days (when he was called 'the son of his mother' in Mark 6:3 - an unpardonable insult to a Jew), they put a sinister interpretation on it. But even this provides some soft of confirmation of the Christian claim that Jesus's birth was different. Similar corroboration is found in the saying of Rabbi Eliezer: 'Balaam looked forth and saw that there was a man, born of a woman, who should rise up and seek to make himself God, and cause the whole world to go astray . . . Give heed that you go not after that man; for it is written, God is not man that he should lie. . And if he says that he is God, he is a liar, and he will deceive and say that he is departing and will come again at the End. He says it, but he will not perform it.'

Such sentiments are characteristic of rabbinic opposition to Christianity. But consider what indirect attestation they afford to the Gospel story. Though Jesus is not referred to by name, it is obviously he who is referred to by 'born of a woman' and 'seek to make himself God'. The divine claims of Jesus and his assertion that he would come again at the end of the world are clearly reflected in this passage, as is the recognition that Jesus's purposes embrace the whole world and not Jewry alone.

There are other passages which could be mentioned; one makes a biting pun on the word gospel; another mentions Jesus's disciples; a third tells us that he performed miracles by means of magic which he learnt in Egypt. Jews never doubted the miracles of Jesus; but they attributed them to demonic agencies, as the Pharisees had done in the Gospels - 'by the prince of demons he casts out the demons' (Mark 3:22). Another passage records his execution: 'On the eve of Passover they hanged Jeshua of Nazareth.'

Enough has been said to show that there is some sort of Jewish support for the historicity, unusual birth, miracles, teaching, disciples, Messianic claims, crucifixion and reputed resurrection of Jesus, the author of the Christian faith. The Jewish evidence is well set out by a Jewish writer' Joseph Klausner, in Jesus of Nazareth, for those who want to examine the matter further.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Before leaving this Jewish material, it is necessary to glance at the discoveries at Qumran and their bearing on Christianity, particularly in view of the wild claims put forward by two popular writers, Edmund Wilson and John Allegro, that the Dead Sea Scrolls have disproved Christianity.

The Scrolls come from a library hidden in the caves near the Dead Sea in AD 68 when the community which produced them was wiped out by the invading Roman legions. There is evidence to show that this community had lived there for about a hundred years. From their own literature it is clear that they were a non-conformist baptising sect of Judaism, zealous for purity, rather antagonistic to marriage, who lived apart in the wilderness monastery which has now been disclosed by excavations at Qumran.

Their fellowship was remarkable; they shared a common life, common meals, baths, money and quarters. Each did his bit for the community. They were opposed to the Temple authorities at Jerusalem whom they regarded as renegades; they observed a different calendar, and, like the prophets of old, they were convinced that obedience to God mattered far more than sacrifice. They lived in expectation of three Messianic figures, a Prophet like Moses, an Anointed Priest and an Anointed King. These would wind up the present unsatisfactory world order, and usher in the golden age, in which, of course, the men of Qumran would have leading positions Pacifists until that great day, they would reserve themselves for the final battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. Then they would fight.

It is practically certain that this community is to be identified with the Essenes, of whom we have reports by Philo and Josephus. They constituted the third great party in first-century Judaism, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Being a secret and monastic order little enough had been known of them. But now, it would seem, their main centre has been dug up, their library discovered. Obviously this discovery has enormously interesting implications for Christianity, for it sheds so much light upon a little-known area of Judaism in the time of Christ. But, as Professor Rowley put it, 'to suppose that the Scrolls can give us any evidence of the nature of early Christianity is fantastic. They are preChristian documents, which can only tell us about the sect from which they came. They are highly relevant to the background of Christianity . . . they enrich our knowledge of the Jewish world at the time of Christ and in the preceding two centuries. They give us a clearer picture of a Jewish sect which was devout and lofty in character, in which a true spirit of brotherhood prevailed. But they do not overthrow or confirm a single Christian doctrine....They cannot be illtelligently used for either Christian or anti-Christian propaganda. It would be as rational to study the biography of Pitt to find out the facts of the career of Lloyd Gcorge as to look to the literature of the Qumran sect to tell us about Jesus.

It is most regrettable to find a scholar of the technical ability of John Allegro running away from the evidence as he persists in doing. In 1956 he caused a furore by announcing on the BBC that previously unpublished texts from Qumran showed that the Teacher of Righteousness had been crucified by Alexander Jannaeus about 88 BC, and that his disciples expected his resurrcction. At once five leading members of the internationa team engaged on deciphering the Scrolls wrote to The Times of 16 March dissociating themselves entirely from his views, asserting that they found no evidence in the texts to warrant Allegro's contentions, and concluding either that he had misread his sources or had deliberately made up a cock-and-bull story for which there was no evidence. Despite this rebuff Allegro continues from time to time to make tendentious statements of this sort. In an Obseruer Colour Supplement in 1965 he repeated his conjecture that what is recordedd in the New Testament is a garbled version of what happened to the Teacher of Righteousness under Alexander Jannaeus, though there is not a shred of evidence that the Teacher of Righteousness was ever thought of in Messianic categories, let alone as divine; nor is there any suggestion in the documents that he was martyred, let alone crucified; or that his followers looked for his resurrection, let alone found it! Yet Allegro can say in that article, ‘What little historical element there may be, then, in the New Testament stories of Jesus, could possibly be a reminiscence of real Essene history.' Had he taken the trouble to consider the evidence afforded by Tacitus and Suetonius, Pliny and Josephus, to mention only non-Christian sources, he might not have got lost in a myth of his own making. In all charity one cannot help feeling that, on this occasion at least, it is not the Christian but the agnostic who is desperately looking for evidence to justify his prejudices. The charge of 'escapism' comes home to roost.

From this cursory survey of pagan and Jewish evidence relating to the rise of the Christian movement, it is clear that Jesus is no myth. There is no doubt that he really lived and died under Pontius Pilate. There is considerable, if garbled, support in these anti-Christian sources for the Christian evaluation of Jesus. This provides a useful check as we begin to examine the strictly Christian evidence.


Before we turn to the New Testament itself we might usefully consider some archaeological discoveries which shed light both on the beliefs of the earliest Christians about Jesus and on their testimony to Jesus. First, what can we learn of Christian beliefs from archaeology?

Finds which shed light on Christian belief

There is a fascinating acrostic, which appears in many places as a Christian symbol, notably twice among the ruins of Pompeii, a city destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Christians (mentioned in inscriptions there) were present in Pompeii before that. Acrostics were as popular in the ancient world as crosswords are today. This one was arranged in the shape of a square:






The straightforward meaning is unpromising: 'Arepo the sower holds the wheels with care(?).' But what is the hidden meaning which made it so congenial to the Christians? Here is the probable explanation.

In the first place, these letters add up to a repeated Pater Noster (the opening words of the Lord's prayer) with the adciition of A ana O twice:














The implications of this are obvious. The address to God as Father stresses the unimaginable privilege felt by the early Christians in being adopted into his family through Jesus Christ. The cruciform shape emphasizes the centrality of the cross of Jesus, in itself as remarkable a thing as if a modern sect were to take as its badge a gallows.

The repeated A and O (or Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet) expresses Christian belief in the cosmic significance of Jesus as both the origin and goal of the universe.

The second fact about this remarkable anagram that made it so acceptable to Christians seems to have been this. Where you have the A and the O you have a T in between them. Now the Greek T was the emblem of the cross in the early church; for one thing, it looked like one. The placing of these T's suggests that they saw the cross of Christ as the mid-point of history, the central feature in the story of Jesus. Does that not anchor the 'Christ myth' very firmly in history, and sordid history at that?

The crossword enthusiast will probably have noticed that the word TENET ('he holds'), which, like the other four, is repeated in the square, makes the shape of a cross. Is this an accident? Does it not rather betray a remarkable conviction? 'He holds', he sustains. In the midst of terrible persecution, when Christians were set ablaze as living torches to light up Nero's gardens in AD 64, or when they were thrown alive to the lions in the Circus a little later, or facing the flow of lava that engulfed Pompeii - he holds! No mythology, that. Their assurance was based on sober history, the history of Jesus, the A and the O, who was executed in ghastly circumstances and yet rose triumphant. I his was the ground for their confidence that the one who had conquered the grave could hold them, even in the jaws of death.

Another celebrated Christian symbol was the fish. It was used commonly in the early church as a mark of identification among Christians. It expresses very clearly and very succinctly what they believed about Jesus. Tbe Greek word for fish is Ichthus, and each of the five Greek letters stands for a word: Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter;

'Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.' Jesus, a historical person. Christ, the long awaited Jewish Messiah, to whom the prophets bore witness. Son of God, he was no mere man but brought God into our world. Saviour, he rescues man from sin and death. That was a remarkably comprehensive creed, considering it had only five words in it! And notice how it bears out the point that Christianity is Christ. It is entirely taken up with him.

A third fascinating piece of very early evidence must have a mention. It has elicited considerable scholarly discussion, but has had little other publicity. The Israeli Professor Sukenik discovered in 1945 a sealed tomb outside Jerusalem, in a suburb called Talpioth. It had escaped spoliation, and its contents were intact. There were five ossuaries, or bone caskets, in the tome, and the style of their decoration confirmed the indication of a coin found there that the tomb was closed approximately AD 50. On two of these ossuries the name of Jesus appears clearly; one reads, in Greek, Iesu Iou ('Jesus, help'), the other, in Aramaic, Yeshu' Aloth (? 'Jesus, let him arise'). The theological implications of these crudely scratched inscriptions, written within twenty years of the crucifixion, are truly remarkable. They point to Jesus as the Lord of life, who can help even when a loved one has died. They point to Jesus as the risen Son of God, who can raise the Christian dead from their graves. It would be difficult to imagine any archaeological finds which could more clearly illustrate the burning faith of the earlyy church in the Jesus whom many of them had known personally as a historical figure walking the streets of Palestine a few years previously.

Finds which shed light on New Testament testimony

Archaeology has also given us a great deal of light on the Gospels and Acts, again and again vindicating their reliability. Let us take a couple of examples from the Gospel of John, which used to be regarded by critics as the latest and most unreliable of the Gospels. Chapter 5 tells of Jesus curing a paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda. The evangelist remarks that it had five porticos. No sign of this pool had ever been found in Jerusalem, moreover, no mention of it was to be found in any of the extant Hebrew literature. It seemed that John was spinning a good story that had no relation whatever to the facts.

But a few years ago the pool of Bethesda was discovered by a Monk digging around the site of the Church of St Anne in Jerusalem. Excavation is still going on. But it is plainly a large and imposing structure, and it has five porticos.... What is more, mention of Bethesda has now been found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Again, in chapter 19, John tells us that Jesus was tried before Pilate at a place called The Pavement or, in Hebrew, Gabbatha (19:13). Nobody knew anything of any such pavement. It looked like embroidery on the simple tale of Christ's trial, until the French archaeologist Pere Vincent triumphantly dug it up in the 1930s. It is the most moving memorial of first-century Jerusalem to be seen in the holy city today. It measured fifty yards square, and was the pavement of the Roman barracks. Buried under piles of rubble in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, it was not heard of again until its recent discovery. So John's tradition was seen to be no embroidery but highly accurate information to which he could have had no access after AD 70.

There are many such instances where the accuracy of Luke has been vindicated. The writings of Sir William Ramsay, such as ‘Paul the Traveller’ and ‘Roman Citizen’ and ‘The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament,’ are particularly interesting on this subject. He began with the assumption that you could not believe a word Luke said unless it had independent testimony, but he was driven inexorably to the conclusion that Luke was the best historian since Thucydides. It is interesting to note how modern Roman historians prize Luke's Gospel and Acts as accurate, reliable historical material for understanding the first-century world. He is amazingly accurate, for example, over the complicated nomenclature of local officials; he never puts a foot wrong. He knows that Thessalonica has politarchs (Acts 17:6), Malta a 'first man' (28:7), Philippi two magistrates known as strategoi (16:20) and Ephesus an official called a grammateus or Recorder (19:35). All of these have been confirmed by inscriptions. The scenes he paints of Athens, Corinth, Ephesus and the journey to Rome ring absolutely true.

But perhaps the most amusing and significant turn up for the book is the case of Gallio. We are well informed about him, as it happens, for he was Seneca's brother and the details of his career were so well documented by Seneca, Tacitus and others that there did not seem room for the proconsulship of Greece which Luke accorded him (Acts 18:12). There was much shaking of learned heads and mutterings about the unreliability of Luke until an inscription was discovered which not only showed that Gallio was indeed proconsul, but even gave the year, AD 51. Thus what was once thought to be a mark of Luke's fertile imagination has become the lynch-pin of New Testament chronology!


The reliability of the manuscript tradition

As soon as we open the New Testament, a number of problems immediately present themselves.

In the first place, have we got the New Testament substantially as it was written, or has it been tampered with in succeeding centuries? It so happens that we are in a better position to answer this question with the New Testament than we are with any other ancient book. The gap between the writing of Thucydides' ‘History’ and the oldest manuscript we possess of it is some 1500 years. In the case of Tacitus it is 800 years. This does not worry classical scholars unduly. They do not doubt that the manuscript tradition is broadly reliable. Why, then, should anyone raise these doubts over the Christian documents? The answer lies, of course, in the magnitude of the issues involved; and fortunately the reliability of the New Testament manuscript tradition is exceptionally well attested.

In striking contrast to the paucity of manuscripts of the classics, we have thousands of biblical manuscripts, written in many languages and coming from all over the world. Although there are many variant readings in these manuscripts, there is not a single point of doctrine which hangs on a disputed reading, and the text is so sure that anybody who attempted to make conjectural emendations of it would be laughed out of court. Furthermore, our extant manuscripts are not separated by a great gap of hundreds of years from the autograph copies. We have the four Gospels in papyrus books written before AD 200, just over a century after the originals. We actually have a fragment of the Gospel of John which experts date as early as AD 125. A document called ‘The Unknown Gospel’ was discovered a few years ago, written before AD 150, which draws heavily on our four Gospels, thus showing the authoritative position they had already attained by that time. The early heretic Valentinus, whose ‘Gospel of Truth,’ written about AD 130, has even more recently come to light, quoted the New Testament writings extensively. So did the early Fathers Polycarp and Clement of Rome, thirty or forty years earlier. By the end of the first century, that is to say within the 1ife time of some who had heard and known Jesus, the New Testament was not only written, it was on the way to being collected. And from the outset it was regarded as authoritative information about Jesus. So authoritative that Christians quoted it with much the same reverence that they accorded to the Old Testament. So authoritative that the heretics knew they must quote it extensively if they were to have a hope of taking in any of the faithful with their particular heresy. This all enabled Professor Kenyon, the famous biblical archaeologist, to conclude, 'The interval between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence 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 reliability of the Pauline teaching

But granted we have the New Testament as it left its authors, can we believe them? Does not Paul, for example, transform the simple human Jesus of the Gospels into a divine Saviour after the pattern of Hellenistic religion? This is a hoary old chestnut, which has often been answered, but it is worth considering briefly, partly because it has recently been revived in Hugh Schonfield's ‘Those Incredible Christians,’ and, more important, because Paul's letters were written before the Gospels, and are, in fact, the earliest Christian writings we possess.

Paul was a Roman cirizen, a Jewish rabbi of great piety and learning, and a violent opponent of Christianity. How he was converted to the faith he had tried to overthrow is a fascinating story in itself, and something, as Dr Johnson put it, 'to which infidelity has never been able to fabricate a specious answer'. But although he wrote independently of and prior to the four evangelists, his teaching accords remarkably with theirs. He knows of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, his real humanity, his obedience to the Law, his life of loving service, his teaching, his institution of the Holy Communion and his death on the cross for man’s forgiveness. He can produce strong evidence for the resurrection, of which the Gospels make so much. He tells us in I Corinthians I5 of James, the unbelieving brother of Jesus who became a Christian because of the resurrection; of Peter who was convinced by it and transformed into an indefatigable missionary and martyr; of his own astonishing conversion to the risen Christ whom he encountered on the road to Damascus; and of the 'five hundred brethren at once' who saw Christ after his resurrection, and, though some had died by the time he wrote this letter in AD 53, most of them were still alive. They could, therefore, have refuted Paul if what he was teaching was not true. After all, they had known Jesus personally during his lifetime.

In this same chapter Paul refers to the very early Christian creed which he had passed on to the Corinthians. 'I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,' he wrote, 'that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.' Here we have a basic creed, which was traditional before Paul became a Christian only a few years after the crucifixion. Not much chance for myth to creep in here: and no conflict with the teaching of the earliest church. That is why Professor A. M. Hunter can write, after examining the subject with great care, 'The charge of Paul being the great innovator or corrupter of

the gospel must be dropped for good and all. Original Paul certainly was, but the thing about which he wrote with such individuality and creative power was not his own discovery or his own invention.... He took it over from those who were in Christ before him. Is this not a conclusion of quite capital importance?'

The reliability of the Gospels

What are we to make of the Gospels themselves? The great thing to remember is that they are an entirely new literary genre. Clearly, they are not biographies of Jesus. What biography would fail to tell us of any of the physical features or personal details of its hero, pass over 30 of his 33 (?) years without mention, and concentrate up to a half of its account on his death?

Equally obviously, they are not histories either, in the normally accepted sense of the word. The evangelists cheerfully bring God and his actions into the story, which would look odd in a history book. On the whole they are singularly lacking in interest in chronology or what is happening in the outside world.

The Gospels are basically a proclamation of good news; good news about Jesus whom the writers have come to believe is God's way of rescue for men.

This explains why the Christians did not write down their Gospels for some thirty years after the events they record. They were so busy preaching this gospel that they did not bother to put pen to paper. Writing was a laborious and expensive business before the day of the printing press, and was not valued in antiquity nearly as much as the spoken word. That is why for thirty years or so the Christian preaching was carried by word of mouth, until the eyewitnesses began to die off, and the Gospels were then written down to preserve the apostolic preaching for posterity.

But if they were written down so late, surely they are unreliable? Professor C. H. Dodd has shown in ‘Apostolic Preaching and its Developments’ that much the same pattern of preaching about Jesus can be found in all the different and independent strands which go to make up the New Testaruent. There can be little doubt that it faithfully represents the original Christian message. We can verify part of what the evangelists record. Professor H.E.W.Turner has drawn attention to some of the criteria for checking Gospel stories in his book ‘Historicity and the Gospels’. Thus, for instance, the survival of eyewitnesses to the time when the Gospels came into being guarantee, to some extent, the veracity of what they say. Again, the absence in the Gospels of the main concerns of the early church is a notable point in favour of their truthfulness. If the church had cooked up the contents of the Gospels we would have expected them to have put into Jesus's mouth matters of burning concern to themselves. But on the contrary, we find that these issues (the Lordship of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Jewish-Gentile split, the circumcision issue and so forth) are conspicuous by their absence.

Or, take the parables: it may be asked, can we be sure these go back to Jesus himself? Why should anyone pretend Jesus taught in parables if he did not? Who could have been the genius that made them up, anyway? Nobody that we know of in the early church taught in parables, but they knew Jesus had done so.

Or consider this test of the teaching of Jesus. The Aramaic experts have shown that a good deal of it can be retranslated into Aramaic, and when this has been done it falls into a poetic form which is highly memorable. This is why the retentive Eastern mind was able to remember it with such precision over the years and enshrine it in our Gospels. Scandinavian scholars like H.Riesenfeld and B.Gerhardsson have argued forcibly that Jesus formally instructed his disciples by heart, as the Jewish rabbis did, and that this teaching was conceived of as 'holy word' to be transmitted word-perfect to others. Hence, no doubt, many of the similarities in the Gospel accounts.

Faith and evidence

Some of the Gospel material, then, can indeed be checked in ways like these. But not all of it. Even if it could be, that would not make agnostics into blievers. Kierkegaard in his book ‘Philosopical Fragments’ expressed the point pungently when he observed that even if you had been able to keep as close to Jesus as the pilot fish keeps to the shark, so that you did not miss anything he did or said, that would not make you a disciple. Professor Bultmann made much the same point when he asserted, 'Nowhere in the New Testament can you get behind the Easter faith'. That is quite true. The writers of the New Testament were people who had believed in Jesus and who wrote to give the reasons for their belief. Of course thelr evidence does not compel belief. Evidence never does. Not long ago, when overwhelming evidence of the link between smoking and lung cancer was published in the press, there was one smoker I heard of who was so annoyed that he determined to give up reading the newspaper! Others have managed conveniently to forget it, and run away from this uncomfortable thought while continuing to smoke. But that is not the fault of the evidence. Evidence can never induce people to believe; it can only offer reasonable grounds for belief. That is the sort of evidence which the New Testament affords - reasonable grounds for belief. Nobody is forced to credit it: Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees did not believe, and they were not short of evidence. Similarly there are plenty of able and intelligent men in our own day who do not believe. This, however, is not because the evidence is insufficient to warrant belief, but either because they have not examined it personally, or else because they are unwilling to commit themselves to Christian living on the strength of it.

An example of the intelligent atheist who apparently has not given much careful examination to the evidence of the New Testament is Bertrand Russell. To judge from his essay in Why I am not a Christian he can have given only the most cursory glance at what the New Testament actually says, or he would not be able to make such astonishingly naive comments about Christianity. Nowhere, for instance, does he even begin to consider the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the very cornerstone of the Christian position.

Aldous Huxley represents the other type of atheist who is unwilling, on his own admission, to commit himself to the demands of Christian living. He admits his own bias in a fascinating passage in, ‘Ends and Means’ (pp. 270 ff.) where he writes: 'I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.... For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.' It is not often that one gets as honest an admission of running away from the truth as that.

The evidence for the Christian case is very strong. Though incapable of compelling faith, it is quite sufficient to warrant it. And so it seemed to those first Christians, Jews to a man. Stark monotheists as they were, schooled in centuries of faith in the one God, they nevertheless felt themselves driven into this new faith by the facts which they wrote about in the New Testament. They slowly came to the conclusion that Jesus was not just a man, but God Almighty accommodating himself to human nature and living in their midst. The Gospels give us their testimony to what they found in Jesus Christ and also the evidence on which they gave their allegiance to him.

A great many people who dismiss Christians as credulous escapists have never personally examined the grounds for the Christian claim. They have never read through the New Testament documents, and particularly the Gospels, with an open mind, willing to commit themselves to the One of whom that New Testament speaks if they are convinced intellectually by what they read. The young man with whose story I began this chapter was like that. But he had the honesty to realize that it was he and not the Christians who had been running away from the evidence. And after that evening he read through, carefully and critically, but open mindedly, one of the Gospels. It led him to faith. This was the effect wrought on E.V. Rieu by the enforced study of the Gospels which he did for the Penguin translation. This was the effect on J.B.Phillips when he came to study the Gospels at first hand and in depth, as he tells us in ‘Ring of Truth’. I remember a research scientist once saying to me that he thought the story of Jesus mythical. I asked him when he had last read it. He had to admit that it was a very long time ago. I said to him something like this. 'You are a scientist. You are accustomed to modifying your preconceived theories if the evidence warrants it. I suggest that you apply the same principle here. Examine the evidence at first hand, Be open to wherever it may lead you, and see what happens.

I next met that man some months later in a Christian meeting. 'I did what you suggested,' he said; 'and it has made a Christian of me.'

His example is not a bad one to follow if you suspect that Christians are running away from the facts. At least it will show that you are not.

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