Examining Jesus by the Historical Method (Part 7: Eyewitness Testimony–The Gospel Witnesses)

Last week, we discussed the eyewitness testimony for Jesus by demonstrating the validity of the Gospel records. Such an endeavor was important to establish particular witnesses found within the Gospel accounts. We have seen that one holds good reasons for accepting that the apostle Matthew had, at least in part, a hand in the writing of the First Gospel; that John Mark wrote down the information found in the Second Gospel; that the physician and co-hort of Paul—Luke—wrote the third Gospel; and that the apostle John wrote the Fourth Gospel. But, how does this influence the eyewitness testimony that one holds for Jesus of Nazareth?

Peter1

The Testimony of Peter

As noted last week, Irenaeus notes that “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.”[1] Thus, the church unanimously accepted that John Mark recorded the testimony of one Simon Peter. The Gospel of Mark does focus quite a bit on the life of Simon Peter. Of the information in Matthew’s Gospel believed to have been taken from Mark, the majority of the shared material deals with the life of Simon Peter. Thus, the believer has essentially the eyewitness testimony from one of the inner circle disciples—Simon Peter.

 john-the-apostle-the-bible

The Testimony of John

Last week, we noted that despite the skepticism of some modern scholars, the majority of internal and external evidence for the Fourth Gospel demonstrate that the apostle John wrote the text. It has always amazed me how one misses John’s imprint in the Fourth Gospel. In John 21:1-2, the writer lists Jesus’ appearance to seven disciples “Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together” (John 21:1-2).[2] It is interesting that John the son of Zebedee is never explicitly listed, but rather this “disciple who Jesus loved” (John 21:7). It was Peter and this mysterious disciple who traveled to the tomb of Jesus. Who else would one imagine accompanying Peter to the tomb other than John the apostle? In fact, John the apostle is linked to being the caretaker of Jesus’ mother after Jesus’ death by the early church fathers.

Among the writings of the early church fathers, there is a letter written by Ignatius to John the apostle. These writings are normally attributed to the late first-century. Nevertheless, Ignatius writes, There are also many of our women here, who are desirous to see Mary [the mother] of Jesus, and wish day by day to run off from us to you, that they may meet with her, and touch those breasts of hers which nourished the Lord Jesus, and may inquire of her respecting some rather secret matters.”[3] Even if the letter is spurious, it demonstrates the early acceptance of the idea that John the apostle assumed the role of caretaker of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This mysterious disciple whom Jesus loved is also linked with being the caretaker of Mary, the mother of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (John 19:26-27). Then, the Gospel states as a postscript, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know his testimony is true” (John 21:24). What this tells us is that we have another witness by an inner circle disciple. Even if John was written by a disciple of the apostle, we would still have eyewitness testimony about Jesus since the apostolic witness would have been recorded.

MatthewLevi

The Testimony of Matthew

As we noted last week, good reasons exist to hold the apostle Matthew as the author of at least part of the First Gospel. It seems quite odd that the early church would choose Matthew, a tax-collector, as the author of the First Gospel if it were in fact not based upon truth. I could provide further reasons for holding Matthean authorship. But suffice it to say, that if one accepts the apostle Matthew as the writer of the First Gospel, then one has another apostolic eyewitness for Jesus of Nazareth.

Early-Church

The Testimony of the Early Church

We have already noted the existence of pre-New Testament material in the letters of Paul and, some would say, in the Gospels. This is particularly the case in Luke’s Gospel where Luke notes that he used the testimony of those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word [who] have delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2). Thus, in Luke’s Gospel, one will find a panoply of eyewitness testimonies from various individuals used by Luke to construct his Gospel account.

Mary-Mother-of-Jesus-Christ

The Testimony of Mary the Mother of Jesus

The first few chapters of Luke’s Gospel relays information pertaining to the birth of Jesus and the experiences that Mary, the mother of Jesus had before Jesus’ birth. Robert Stein states that It is clear from the first chapter of Matthew as well as the traditional nature of the material in Luke 1–2 that Luke did not create all this material.”[4] Luke records the Magnificat (Mary’s Song of Praise) in Luke 1:46-55. In addition, the Evangelist records particularly intimate details about Mary such as the time when Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Since this material is not original to Luke and since pagan myths do not account for the inclusion,[5] it seems to me that the most likely explanation is that Luke received the eyewitness testimony of Mary, the mother of Jesus for the beginning of his Gospel. Thus, I would argue that one has the eyewitness testimony of Mary in Luke’s Gospel, which further adds to the testimony found within the Gospel narratives.

 Conclusion

Undoubtedly, there are many more witnesses than those presented in this article. Nevertheless, one may still remain skeptical. It is quite apparent that not everyone will accept all of my conclusions in this article. But let it be said that even if one does not accept the evidence listed in this section of our presentation, one still must accept the early eyewitness testimony found in the pre-New Testament creeds and formulations. Therefore when coupled with the Gospel accounts, the eyewitness testimony for Jesus of Nazareth is quite good. Jesus of Nazareth passes the eyewitness testimony examination of the historical method.

Our investigation is not quite yet complete. Next week, we will examine two other areas of historical research offered by New Testament scholar Michael Licona. Thus far, Jesus of Nazareth has withstood the scrutiny of the historical method. Will he continue to remain standing after these final two areas of research? Check back next week to find out.

 

© February 8, 2016. Brian Chilton.

 

Bibliography

 Ignatius of Antioch. “The Epistle of Ignatius to St. John the Apostle.” In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Irenaeus of Lyons. “Irenæus against Heresies.” In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Stein, Robert H. Luke. The New American Commentary. Volume 24. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.

 

 Notes

[1] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 414.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[3] Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to St. John the Apostle,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 124.

[4] Robert H. Stein, Luke, vol. 24, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 81.

[5] See Stein, Luke, NAC, 81.

Examining Jesus by the Historical Method (Part 1-Multiple Sources)

In a previous post “What Can We Historically Know about Jesus,” I discussed various ways historians identify an event or person as historically credible. I also discussed Gary Habermas’ 12 Minimal Facts Approach, which validate key events of the life of Jesus. Those 12 facts are:

 “1) Jesus died by Roman crucifixion. 2) He was buried, most likely in a private tomb. 3) Soon afterward, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope. 4) Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment. 5) The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus. 6) Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed, even being willing to die for this belief. 7) The proclamation of the resurrection took place very early, at the beginning of church history. 8) The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before. 9) The Gospel message centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus. 10) Sunday was the primary day for gathering and worshipping. 11) James, the brother of Jesus and former skeptic, was converted when, he believed, he saw the risen Jesus. 12) Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer due to an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.”[1]

In this eight part series, we will investigate how Jesus stands up to the historical scrutiny afforded to any person of antiquity. This week, we will examine the issue of area of multiple, independent sources.

Historians do not accept a historical testimony at face value. They look for a variety of sources relaying the same information. The more sources they have pertaining to an event, the more certain the historian is that the event actually took place.

The historian’s job is much like that of a detective. A detective assesses a crime scene. In doing so, the detective looks for eyewitnesses. One person may have seen the crime from one area. Another may have seen the crime from another angle. The more eyewitnesses, the more certain the detective can be that the event took place in a particular fashion. The same is true for the historian.

As it relates to Jesus, one must ask whether there are multiple independent testimonies relating Jesus. The answer is…

YES!!!

 Just how many independent sources do we have…that is, sources that are not shared. The following are generally agreed by historians as serving as independent sources.

matthew

1. Information independent in Matthew’s Gospel (c. A.D. 55-60).

While there is information shared between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Matthew provides information only found in his gospel pertaining to the life of Jesus. From external and internal evidence, I believe the Apostle Matthew recorded the information in the Gospel that bears his name.[2] The following is found exclusively in Matthew: angel appears to Joseph (Matt. 1:18-25); visitation of the Wise Men (2:1-12); escape to Egypt (2:13-18); return to Nazareth (2:19-23); much of the Beatitudes (3:1-5:42; 6:1-34; 7:7-14); Jesus’ promise for rest for the soul (11:20-30); leaders ask for a miracle (12:38-45); the Parable of the Weeds (13:24-30); various parables (13:33-52); Jesus heals the blind and mute (9:27-34); Jesus urges to pray for workers (9:35-38); preparation for persecution (10:16-42); Peter finds coin in fish’s mouth (17:24-27); further teachings of Jesus (18:10-35); Parables of the Workers (20:1-16); Parable of the Two Sons (21:28-32); Parable of the Wedding Feast (22:1-14); condemnation of religious leaders and grievance over Jerusalem (23:13-39); further parables of Jesus (25:1-46); Judas kills himself (27:3-10); guards posted at Jesus’ tomb (27:62-66); Jesus appears to the women (28:8-10); and the leaders bribe guards (28:11-15).

The preceding information is found only in Matthew. Thus, Matthew serves as an independent source.

mark-icon

2. The Gospel of Mark (c. A.D. 50-55).

Scholars generally agree that Mark was most likely completed first. This does not hold universal agreement as others hold that Matthew was completed first. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that Mark reports information that he received from Simon Peter. Thus, Mark provides the information of an eyewitness—that of Simon Peter.

luke6

3. Information independent to Luke’s Gospel (c. A.D. 60).

Luke serves as a historian recording information found in a variety of sources. Since it is impossible to know all the sources that Luke used, historians generally lump together the information found only in Luke’s Gospel. In fact Luke contains a vast amount of information found only in his Gospel including: 1:5-80; 2:1-40; 2:41-52; 3:19-20; 4:16-30; 5:1-11; 7:11-17; 7:36-8:3; 10:1-18:14; 19:1-27; 23:6-12; and 24:44-49.

The preceding information is found only in Luke. Thus, Luke serves as an independent source.

4. Shared information used by Matthew and Luke, popularly called “Q” (c. 30-50).

Matthew and Luke share information that is exclusive to them. Scholars have called this information “Q” from the German word quelle which means source. The shared information from the Beatitudes serves as an example of Q. Not every scholar concedes that Q is a source. If Luke merely borrowed from Matthew, then this common source would be invalidated. However, as it stands now, Q could be another independent source for the life of Jesus.

john

5. The Gospel of John (c. A.D. 85-90).

Internally and externally it appears that the Apostle John wrote or dictated the information found in the Gospel attributed to him. If so, John provides independent information relating to the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth. John, writing in a different style than the other Gospels, writes in a theological fashion. But John’s theological language should not hide the historical information that is provided.

John provides independent, eyewitness testimony that is extremely valuable.

6. Pre-Pauline material (creeds, hymns, formulations) (c. A.D. 30-35).

Scholars, nearly universally, agree that Paul records and reports ancient creeds (statements of faith), hymns, and formulations (oral traditions reporting events). These oral traditions “played a large role in the Greco-Roman world, since only a small minority, perhaps less than 10 percent could read and write.”[3]

One of the most important of these formulations includes 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. Others include 1 Corinthians 11:26; Acts 2:22-36; Romans 4:25; Romans 10:9; Philippians 2:8; 1 Timothy 2:6; and (while not written by Paul) 1 Peter 3:18.[4] One could argue that each of these formulations serve as independent sources.

 7. Non-Christian Sources.

Various non-Christians noted certain attributes pertaining to the life of Jesus. The following ten sources serve, in varying degrees, as sources relating to the life of Jesus.

-Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15:44),

Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 18:3),

-the Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a),

Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata (The Death of Peregrine 11-13),

-Mara Bar-Serapion,

-Thallus (from a Julius Africanus fragment) trying to understand what caused the darkness when Jesus died,

-Acts of Pilate (from Justin Martyr, First Apology 35),

-Gnostic works such as Gospel of Truth (20:11-14, 25-29) and

-The Gospel of Thomas (45:1-16),

-The Treatise on Resurrection (46:14-21).[5]

While these sources do not hold the historical veracity as do the canonical Gospels, they do serve as independent sources for Jesus. Some of these sources are even hostile towards Jesus.

We will evaluate some of these sources in a future article.

Clement-of-Rome-icon-206x300

8. Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 90-95).

Clement of Rome wrote towards the end of the first century. While he records later than most on this list, he provides information as an independent source, relating material which is not quoted from the New Testament. Examples of Clement of Rome’s statements pertaining to the death of Jesus include:

 “Let us look stedfastly [sic] to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world” (Clement of Rome, Corinthians 7).[6]

Let us reverence the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood was given for us; let us esteem those who have the rule over us; let us honour [sic] the aged among us; let us train up the young men in the fear of God; let us direct our wives to that which is good” (Clement of Rome, Corinthians 21).[7]

Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. In love has the Lord taken us to Himself. On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls” (Clement of Rome, Corinthians 49).[8]

Conclusion

What does the preceding tell us? It should tell us that great independent information exists for the historical Jesus. While some of the sources listed do not hold the weight that others do, that is beside the point. We are looking for various sources that tell us about the life of Jesus.

Jesus passes the first historical test. But what about the test of enemy attestation? We will examine this issue in our next Monday Apologetics post right here at Bellator Christi coming up January 4th, 2016. Click here to access the 2nd article.

 

© December 27, 2015. Brian Chilton.

 Bibliography

 Clement of Rome. “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.” In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Volume 1. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Habermas, Gary R. The Risen Jesus & Future Hope. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove; Nottingham, UK: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010.

 

 

[1] Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus & Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 9-10.

[2] Space will not allow me to provide the reasons in this article.

[3] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove; Nottingham, UK: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010), 220.

[4] Habermas, The Risen Jesus & Future Hope, 39, 65n.

[5] Taken from Habermas, The Risen Jesus & Future Hope, 39, 67n.

[6] Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 7.

[7] Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 11.

[8] Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 18.

The Christmas Story in the Gospel of John

When most people think of Christmas, they think of the Christmas stories found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew, one finds the genealogy on the father’s side—albeit, the adopted father; the visitation of the angels to Mary and Joseph; the visitation of the wise men; the flight to Egypt; and the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod.

In Luke’s Gospel, one finds the foretelling and birth of John the Baptist; the foretelling of Jesus’ birth; Mary’s visit to Elizabeth; Mary’s song of praise; the birth of John the Baptist; Zechariah’s prophecy; the birth of Jesus; the pronouncement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds; and Jesus’ presentation before the Temple.

Unbeknownst to many, John’s Gospel holds a Christmas story as well. While John does not provide many of the historical details that Matthew and Luke do, John provides a deep Christmas story. John’s Christmas story is found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.

What does John’s Christmas story tell us? Seeing that Christmas is really a celebration of the incarnation of Christ, John tells at least three things about Christmas.

John’s Christmas Story introduces the divine nature of Jesus.

First, John addresses the true nature of Jesus. John boldly proclaims that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).[1] John describes the divine nature of Jesus in this passage. D. A. Carson notes that

Since Mark begins his Gospel with the same word, ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ’, it is also possible that John is making an allusion to his colleague’s work, saying in effect, ‘Mark has told you about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry; I want to show you that the starting point of the gospel can be traced farther back than that, before the beginning of the entire universe.’[2]

That is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all acknowledge the beginning of Jesus’ life at his birth. John takes Jesus’ beginning back to the vast realm of eternity.

A person cannot escape the divine nature attributed to Jesus in John chapter 1. Jesus is described as being eternal with God, being in the nature of God. John also describes Jesus as the Creator by noting that “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made hat was made” (1:2). John also notes that Jesus is the source of life in 1:4-5. But, John’s Christmas story does not only include the divine nature of Jesus, he also includes information about Jesus’ mission on earth.

 John’s Christmas Story introduces the interactive mission of Jesus.

John notes that the “true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (1:9-10). Perhaps the most important truth that John provides pertaining to Jesus’ interactive ministry in the world is that “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). Kenneth Gangel emphasizes this point in saying,

“This may be the most important verse in the Bible on the doctrine of the incarnation. John went back to verse 1 to pick up one of his favorite themes, the Word. God became human; God showed us his glory; God offered us grace and truth; God literally “tabernacled” among us.”[3]

The core truth of Christmas is that God came and dwelt among us. The very God who gave us life came and became one of us. What should this tell us? It should tell us that God is concerned about the human race. God is a loving and caring God who was not willing to leave humanity as it is, but desires to save it.

Which brings us to the final point.

 John’s Christmas Story introduces the transformative gift of Jesus.

John demonstrates that God came to dwell among us. John uses the illustration of the tabernacle where God’s glory would reside in the holy of holies. In this manifestation, one finds the fulfillment of the law.

John states quite succinctly that in Jesus one finds “grace and truth” (1:17). Grace is unmerited favor. Nothing within us says, “I am worthy of God’s love and mercy.” Rather, God gives us something that we do not deserve—salvation.

While many will be inundated with the commercialism that surrounds Christmas, it is a good practice for us all to remember God’s grace during this time. We don’t deserve the love of God. But since God is loving, he came to save us from ourselves. He came to help us understand the true meaning of love. In Christ, we find the full expression of God’s love.

The world could use a great refresher course when it comes to the true meaning of love.

Love is not selfish. Love does not seek to hoard. Love seeks to give.

Conclusion

John’s Christmas story provides a poignant, yet profound statement… “the Word became flesh” (1:14). That’s the point in celebrating Christmas. Often, we become obsessed with finding the accurate date of Christ’s birth. We spend countless hours discriminating between those things that appear pagan in our celebrations, while failing to ponder on the most important truth behind Christmas.

God left the portals of heaven and dwelled in a physical body among us. He came to save us. He came to love us. He came to show us the truth. Will you be willing to focus on the core essential truth of Christmas this season? If so, you might want to camp in the midst of John’s Christmas story this year.

 

© December 24, 2015. Brian Chilton.

 

Sources Cited:

 Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991.

Gangel, Kenneth O. John. Volume 4. Holman New Testament Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[2] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 114.

[3] Kenneth O. Gangel, John, vol. 4, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 13.