By C. G. “Golly” Caldwell
“Some writers may toy with the fancy of a `Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is an axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not the historians who propagate the `Christ-myth’ theories” (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Downers Grove: Intervarsity press, 1972, p. 119; quoted in Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, San Bernardino: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972, p. 83).
Growing out of modernistic, liberal biblical criticism over the past one hundred years or more, some have claimed that much of the history of the New Testament is “myth.” Others have said that the historical figure named “Jesus” and the Jesus presented in the Bible as the object of faith are not the same person. Some have even denied that Jesus lived at all.
To take the position that Jesus never even existed is to deny the overwhelming historical evidences contained both in biblical and non-biblical literature. I believe that Jesus lived because: (a) the testimony of the eyewitnesses cannot be successfully refuted; (b) the testimony of historians establishes at least the historical presence of Jesus; and (c) the testimony of reason when applied to the generally accepted character of mythology disputes the argument that the story of Jesus is myth or legend.
The writers of the New Testament have testified that they saw Jesus, heard Him, and touched Him (I John 1:1; et al.). If there were eight or more independent writers who were responsible for twenty-seven independent letters or books which were all authenticated as having been written within a certain period of ancient history, and if each writer claimed to have personally seen Julius Caesar, would any serious historian question that Julius Caesar was an actual historical figure? Honorable historical research would demand that the historian presume that the eyewitnesses were telling the truth unless it could be established that they lied or until they were discredited as witnesses. We even insist upon those guidelines for accepting evidence in courts of law.
Were the New Testament writers lying? There were simply no reason for them to lie. They could not expect to receive spiritual reward for lying and from a physical point of view their reward was ridicule, persecution, and martyrdom. These men and their teachings were rejected by Jews, Greeks, and Romans alike. They gave up virtually all material gain and most of them died for a lie . . . if they lied! It is incredible to believe that they suffered so much for a known untruth. On the other hand, these men were honest to a fault. They did not hesitate to tell of their own mistakes and stupid blunders. They even told of their lack of trust in Jesus and lack of conformity of His teachings. They were not fanatics. Their words were intelligible and presented with quiet dignity and simple forthrightness. They gave their testimony from an objective point of view with strong conviction of its truthfulness.
Can the New Testament writers be discredited? That too is impossible by any acceptable standards of ethical inquiry. There are multiple witnesses and their testimony is never contradictory. It is true that some tell some things and others provide additional information, but they all testify as eyewitnesses to His presence and each witness complements, rather than disputes, the testimony of the others. When they do speak of the same events, they independently confirm what the others affirmed. Their written works were penned over a period of several decades and, therefore, no claim can be made that they got together and conspired to perpetrate a fraud. These men simply told it as they saw it. Not one of them can be justly discredited. Remember, to deny the fact that Jesus lived would require not only that one of them be discredited, but that they all be discredited!
The Testimony Of Historians
The ancient historians also testify to the presence of Jesus among the Jews in the first century A.D. Statements from Polycarp, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin, Origin, and a host of others could be produced in abundance. It is sometimes said, however, that these men were believers in Christ and, therefore, their testimony is not convincing. Friendship does not deny truthfulness but we will turn our attention to the so-called “non-Christian” writers who also affirm that Jesus lived.
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who was born in A.D. 37. He was commander of Jewish forces in Galilee and was captured by the Romans. He wrote his Antiquities Of The Jews about A.D. 66. One major reference to Christ (Antiquities, Book XVIII, chapter III, page 11) has been disputed. If the reader is interested in a defense of its authenticity he should read William Whiston, “Dissertation I” in the appendices to his translation of The Works of Flavius Josephus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), Volume 4, pp. 244-265. The following quotation is not, however, so hotly contested. It is found in a discussion of the high priest Ananus who ordered James the brother of Jesus put to death:
. . . so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James …. (Antiquities, Book XX, Chapter IX, page 140).
Mara Bar-Serapion, who lived about A.D. 73, wt ote a letter to his son from prison. That letter is now in the British Museum. In it he asked:
What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished.
The Talmud, writings of the Jewish fathers and definitely opposed to the Christians, was written over a period of several hundred years (probably between A.D. 100 and 500). It speaks of the Romans handing Jesus on a cross:
On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth). . . they found naught in his defense and hanged him on the eve of Passover” (Babylonian Sanhedrin 43a).
Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian and governor of Asia in A.D. 112. He alludes to the death of Jesus in a discussion of Nero’s reactions to the Christians in Rome at the time of the infamous fire which was blamed on the disciples:
Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberias: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also (Annals XV, 44).
Justin, sometimes called Justin Martyr, addressed a defense of Christianity to emperor Antoninus Pius in which he called upon the emperor to examine the records in the imperial archives which had been placed there by Pontius Pilate to document the activities in Judea during his administrations there. Justin said:
That he performed these miracles you may easily be satisfied from the `Acts’ of Pontius Pilate (Apology, 1, p. 48).
Tertullian (A.D. 197) also mentions the writings of Pilate which were known, read, and reacted to by the emperor Tiberias:
Tiberias accordingly, in those days the Christian name made its entry into the word, having himself received intelligence from the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favor of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal (Apology, V, 2).
Even Lucian, the second century satirist who spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians did not deny his existence:
. . . the name who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world … . Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by defying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws (The Passing Peregrius).
Again, let us ask: If a multiple of eyewitnesses affirmed that they saw Julius Caesar, his admirers and followers testified that he dwelt in Palestine, and even those who opposed him recognized that he existed, would we deny that he ever even lived? The evidence is simply overwhelming! These are the same ancient historians who are responsible for our knowledge of the ancient world. If they were irresponsible in reporting about Jesus, can we accept their credibility in reporting on other historical figures? Denying the fact that Jesus lived undermines the trustworthiness of our knowledge of essentially all other characters of history in that time period.
The Most Reasonable Position
Beyond the testimony of the eyewitnesses and the historians, the unbiased student is challenged by the appeal to sound reasoning. Jesus was not only in the minds of a few ancient eyewitnesses but he will always be in the minds of millions of believers. Why is that so? Is it reasonable to believe that the first century evangelists invented Jesus? Is it reasonable to believe that the story of Jesus is simply myth when not one essential element of the story conforms to the nature of all known myths?
For the New Testament writers to have invented a character so perfect as Jesus is incredible. Not only would they have had to invent the man, but they also would have to invent His teachings. The great philosophers of the ages had been unable to construct a system of life that truly met man’s needs. To imagine that a few religionists whose lifetime vocational backgrounds included fishing and taxcollecting would be able to invent His timeless guide to living is unreasonable. They would become not only the greatest dramatists in history creating a character who was so real to be believed by millions for thousands of years, but the greatest theologians and philosophers as well.
These facts are doubly impressive when set against the character of known mythological development. Atticus Haygood in a little book called Man Of Galilee (1889), pointed out several characteristics of ancient myths and showed that the story of Jesus does not qualify as a myth by any scholarly standards:
1. “Myths originate and, as conceptions are complete before written history.” Centuries of Hebrew history were less than forty years from completion.
2. “About all myths there is something grotesque.” In appearance, Jesus was just a man.
3. “Myths reflect their time, place, and race.” Jesus was a “Jew only in blood; he is not a Jew in thought in character.”
4. “In all nations myths defy chronology.” The story of Jesus is set in a definite time frame of Roman and Jewish history.
5. “Myths defy topography as they do chronology.” Almost every story in the life of Jesus is set in specific location.
6. “Myths are not completed at once. They require long time – ages . . .”
7. “All myths belong to the infancy, never to the age of any nation.”
It is clear that the story of Jesus does not conform to any of the standard guidelines to the establishment of mythological legend. If the New Testament writers had created a character to be idolized by the Jews, Jesus would absolutely have been a different person altogether. He was not what Jews had hoped for or expected. He was not the dramatic, regal figure who would save their nation. His teaching went against all that the prominent religionists among them believed. His practice violated their traditions.
All evidence and reason affirms that Jesus lived. I do not believe it as the result of some existential “leap of faith.” I believe it on good, solid historical evidence.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 6, pp. 193, 213-214
April 7, 1983