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Can we be Confident in the New Testament? (part 2)

October 16, 2012

A few days ago I posted my first in a two part blog entitled ‘Can we be Confident in the New Testament? (part 1) this is the second of the two.

In the last post I focused mostly on Textual Criticism and the weight of evidence there is to state that the New Testament can be trusted in terms of it detailing real life events that took place over 2,000 years ago. FJA Hort, one of the late leading experts on textual criticism stated:

`In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone amongst ancient prose writings

He also claimed:

“There is no evidence of deliberate falsification of New Testament writings.”

And again, also mentioned in the previous post is Sir Frederic Kenyon (another expert) who believed that:

“Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

In this blog I’d like to look at material that exists outside of the New Testament. Bits and pieces of evidence that add weight to the argument that the New Testament can be trusted. Different secular historians who did not consider themselves followers of Christ but who still tell us of His life and in so doing support the narrative of the New Testament.

Josephus

Flavius Josephus (AD37 – AD100), a much referenced historian who was both a Jew and a Roman citizen mentions Jesus twice in his works, the one directly concerning Jesus is known as Testimonium Flavianum:

About this time came Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is appropriate to call him a man. For he was a performer of paradoxical feats, a teacher of people who accept the unusual with pleasure, and he won over many of the Jews and also many Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned him to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease to follow him, for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvellous things concerning him. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.

It must be acknowledged in the name of fairness that the authenticity of Testimonium Flavianum is often questioned, however the second mention that Josephus makes of Jesus is generally considered authentic. It comes when writing about James:

“James the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”

Tacitus

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117) is the Roman historian I mentioned in my previous post, who in his Annals describes Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians following the great Fire of Rome, he wrote:

Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Most scholars are happy to conclude that this passage is a genuine Tacitus document, R.E Van Voorst for examples claimed that it would be highly unlikely that later Christians would have falsified the writings and then make “such disparaging remarks about Christianity.” 

This text helps support that which we already know about the New Testament. Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote:

“Tacitus’s report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius’s reign. We learn nothing, however, about the reason for the execution, or about Jesus’ life and teachings.” and “It is a pity that Tacitus does not tell us more.”

Pliny the Younger

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (AD61 – AD112), was a provincial governor of Pontus and Bithynia, and in AD112 he who wrote to Emperor Trajan discussing how he felt they should deal with Christians, who refusing to worship the Emperor worshiped Christ instead.

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

Pliny the Younger acknowledges that there is a distinction between those who may have once called themselves Christians and those who are really Christians. A detail that is consistent with much of the New Testament and also with what the writer of Hebrews says of those who ‘have fallen away’ in chapter 6.

Suetonius

Gaous Suetonius Tranquillus (c.69-140) whilst writing his Lives of the Twelve Caesars writes about some Jewish riots that broke out in Rome under the reign of Emperor Claudius

“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [ Claudius ] expelled them [the Jews] from Rome”.

This would seem like a slightly irrelevant piece of information if it wasn’t for the fact that it backs up what we can read in the New Testament in Acts 18 v 2:

“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” 

Lucian

A second century Syrian satirist known as Lucian once wrote about Jesus in a derogatory way stating:

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.”

Even though Lucian is trying to mock and discredit the Christians of the early church I actually think he does the opposite. He talks about them having a contempt of death. This makes so much sense when we read 1 Corinthians chapter 15:

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

Celcus

One of my favourite historical references to Christ is a fellar called Celsus who was a 2nd century Greek Philosopher who attempted to discredit Jesus by explaining away his miracles, (amongst other attacks on Christ). However in so doing scholars have recognised that rather than discrediting Jesus he has added historical evidence to the claim that there was a man called Jesus at this time performing what seemed to be miracles – amazingly helpful for us. Thanks Celcus!

As well as these different sources that seem to add a little support to the narrative of the New Testament it’s also worth noting the support added by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of ancient manuscripts that were discovered in the mid 1940’s. In the collection of scrolls are found some of the earliest biblical manuscripts as well as other writings that show that the language and customs of some Jews of Jesus’ time. Henry Chadwick, a New Testament scholar states that similar uses of languages and viewpoints recorded in the New Testament and the Dead Sea scrolls are valuable in showing that the New Testament portrays the first century period that it reports and is not a product of a later period. 

This has been quite a lengthy and detailed two post series trying to show that there is at the very least some substance to the New Testament. However as I stated in my first of these two posts all this does for us is give us confidence that we can trust that the events detailed in the New Testament actually took place.

For the unbeliever there is still a journey to take from trusting the events happened to trusting in their authenticity.

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