Having looked at the New Testament documents – and particularly the four Gospels – as reliable historical records of the existence, life and teachings of Jesus, we now want to briefly consider evidence outside the pages of these documents which help corroborate their record. A common misconception and erroneous criticism about Christianity is that there is no evidence outside the New Testament about Jesus. We hope to illustrate the error of that view in this message.
Below I have reproduced a short form of my Part IV – Extra-Biblical Evidence outline. If you want to skip the outline and just listen to the audio of this sermon, you can go directly to the page I have created for The Jesus Documents here.
4. The “Jesus Documents” – Extra-Biblical Evidence
- In the last lesson we saw that the NT documents present themselves as:
- From the 1st Century, the same century in which Jesus lived
- Either Eyewitness testimony
- Or testimony from those who knew the eyewitnesses of Jesus
- They bear all the right markings of acceptable historical records: right place, right time, right sources
- Part of our modern challenge is our inexperience in thinking about historical evidence.
- Insufficient or even missing evidence is not proof something did not happen
- Much gets lost over time. It is truly amazing we have as much evidence as we do concerning various ancient people, places and events.
- Additional evidence has often been discovered over time which has helped to support, verify or clarify earlier evidence.
- Evidence of various kinds from outside the pages of the NT Testament we are calling “extra-biblical evidence.”
- We are not trusting extra-biblical evidence as a source for our faith, but to see if it verifies various things recorded in the NT
- Some of this evidence is documentary – written histories, letters, proclamations, etc.
- Some evidence is archaeological – preserved buildings, monuments, inscriptions, graffiti
- Some evidence is actually preserved in the practices adopted by people of that period of time.
- The following is not an exhaustive list. And we are not providing detailed footnotes in this outline, but such is available with a little research, or by requesting it from me.
- TESTIMONY OF HISTORIANS – directly or indirectly
- Josephus (AD 37-100) – Jewish historian who mentions Jesus and His followers a number of times in his writings
- Tacitus (AD 55-117) – Roman historian whose works now exist only in partial form. In what does exist he mentions both the execution of Jesus by Pilate and the persecution of early Christians in Rome by Nero.
- Suetonius (AD 69-140) – a Roman historian primarily known for his biographical work, The Twelve Caesars. He mentions “Chresto” (Christ) and the persecution of Christians under Nero.
- The acceptance by most historians over the centuries of the persecution of Christians by Nero.
- Sextus Julius Africanus (AD 160-240 ) referencing Thallus – refers to Thallus’ now lost books as recording the crucifixion of Jesus accompanied by darkness and earthquake.
- Letter of Roman magistrate Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan on Pliny’s arrest of some Christians and what they believed.
- There was no doubt in the minds of the above writers that Jesus was a real person and that there was various specific things believed about him.
- 1st Century tombs of Christians in Israel. See here.
- Discovery of the ossuary (burial box) of a relative of Caiaphas, and another perhaps of Caiaphas himself.
- “James Ossuary” – possibly that of Jesus’ brother.
- “Nazareth Inscription” – 1st Century Roman decree forbidding removing bodies from graves, possibly in response to reports of the resurrection of Jesus “of Nazareth” (even though it did not occur there).
- “Pilate Inscription” – middle 1st Century inscription bearing the name of Pilate, showing he was a real historical figure of that time.
- Artwork of fish, loaves and fishes, crosses, Alpha & Omega symbols, the Good Shepherd, Peter & Paul, and numerous other religious icons and art found in or on Christian tombs in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the late 2nd Century through the 4th Century.
- The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem built over sites identified as early as the late 1st Century or early 2nd Century as the birthplace and tomb of Jesus.
- Graffiti dating from 1st Century on walls of house in Capernaum identified as Simon Peter’s home.
- CHRISTIAN GROUPS AND PRACTICES
- Clusters (churches) of followers of Jesus identified as early as late 1st Century in Rome, Egypt, Gaul, Israel, and throughout Greece and Asian Minor. The earliest of these groups were no more than 1 or 2 generations after the apostles, yet were in some cases very distant from the origin of Christianity in Jerusalem. Why and how would such groups exist and flourish if there was no historical basis in their day for their faith?
- Writings by explicitly Christian writers starting in late 1st Century and throughout the 2nd Century which present the belief of these people in the existence, nature of, miracles, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. Some of the names include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin the Martyr, etc.
- The Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper, communion or the Eucharist. Celebrating the death, resurrection and expected return some day of Jesus, it is mentioned several times in the New Testament, as well as in the letter by Pliny the Younger (see above) and in some of the earliest writings of Christians (see previous point). This practice demonstrates the belief from the earliest days of Christianity in the death, resurrection and return of Jesus.
- The Christian practice of baptism, again continuously practiced from the New Testament forward. It not only imitated the practice of John the Baptist and Jesus and His disciples, but also was seen as a reenactment of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
- The use of the name “Christian” beginning in the New Testament itself and continuing even until today (just like baptism and communion).
- The almost universal recognition among Christians from the earliest days that the first day of the week – Sunday – was unique!
- The above are somewhat similar to modern practices of honoring a significant person by naming buildings or streets after them, having a local day each year in honor of them, and perhaps putting up memorials either at their birthplace or tomb.
- Historians and others today have no trouble believing in the existence of many people of the past based on only one or two mentions of them in surviving writings from eyewitnesses or even a writer of a later generation who might have had access to information about a person.
- How much more can we be confident about Jesus based on 27 different New Testament documents originally written by either eyewitnesses or within a generation of Jesus’s life.
- And many of the key facts found in these “Jesus documents” are confirmed by other sources like historians, archaeological discoveries, and early Christian practices.
- We as Christians have every reason to believe confidently in the existence as well as life, teachings and miracles of Jesus!