You’ll recall that I posted four types of criteria that are very important when it comes to trusting an ancient sources historicity. Early, eye-witness, embarrassing, and enemy attestation. We’ve already looked at early testimony and seen that the Gospels are in fact early, containing very early sources.
Today we will look quickly at enemy attestation. Think about it for a minute. Skeptics of history always claim that the winners of any battle get to write the history, therefore there are no opposing views of an event. If all of the people writing about Jesus were already His followers, you could see why doubt could be thrown onto their accounts because they may or may not have a bias that they carried with them. IF you could find someone who didn’t believe in Jesus, then you’ve hit some serious historical pay dirt.
That’s exactly what we have in two cases. In the creed cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he mentions the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. two of the appearances are what is known as “enemy attestation” appearances. James and Paul.
Looking at James first, it’s clear that James, the brother of Jesus, did not believe Jesus’ claims while He was alive, yet something happened to James so life changing that made him change hi mind completely and become the leader of the early church in Jerusalem. What kind of life-changing event happened? The appearance of the risen Jesus.
Now Paul is even more extreme. He was a pharisee sheriff if you will. He rounded up Christians to be arrested or killed. He prided himself on being a pharisee of pharisees. Yet something happened to Paul that made him completely turn a 180 and become one of the greatest Christians that has ever lived, giving us half of the NT. You see skeptics try to claim that the disciples had some sort of grief hallucination because their leader was dead (which there is no evidence by the way). This however is refuted by Paul. Paul is the nail in the coffin for the idea of collusion and hallucination. Paul an enemy Christianity had an experience so life-changing that he went from killing Christians to becoming the mouth-piece of Christianity to the ancient world.
The only thing to explain this along with the other minimal facts is that Jesus really did rise from the dead and the tomb is empty.
Next up is embarrassing testimony.
Last week I looked at the minimal facts approach that can be taken to looking at the evidence for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Again the resurrection is key because without it, our faith would be dead. Now before I go too much further there are two ways of knowing Jesus rose from the dead, first is the experiential way. Having the witness of the Holy Spirit. This is generally the only evidence that most people ever need, but there are some people out there who need the historical case for Jesus in order to believe.
For more on the experiential evidence of the resurrection, check out my post from a few weeks back on “Shouldn’t a Magician be an Atheist?”
People who doubt the resurrection try to first deny the historical value of the Gospels (Richard Carrier-Bart Ehrman-The Jesus Seminar). Secondly, they attack the Apostle Paul, saying he didn’t actually believe the same thing as the Gospels about Jesus. They try and claim that Paul never believed in a bodily resurrection at all, thus undermining the entire principal of a historical event, but rather some spiritual experience. The problem with that thought though, is a subjective visionary experience does nothing for us today. A risen resurrected Jesus changed everything. It vindicates Jesus’ personal claims of deity.
One of the earliest source materials we have in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians. Paul quotes a very old Christian tradition that dates back to within 5 years of the resurrection. Some scholars date this creed as early as 18 months after the events of Jesus resurrection. The significance of that is enormous. Showing that the earliest Christians, and the Gospel writers stories lined up, and that the Gospel writers didn’t just make up all that happened in their accounts.
Here is the creed from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
3 For I delivered to you [b]as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7 then He appeared to [c]James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as [d]to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
Paul basically lays out the entire narrative of the 4 facts talked about last week.
The burial, the empty tomb is clearly implied, the appearances, and then the origin of the Christian faith in such an un-Jewish idea of a resurrected Messiah.
Paul adds himself to the list of the appearances to give credence to his own experience to say it equals that of the original disciples.
This ancient creed shows how much the Gospels and all of the NT agree with each other about the narrative of Jesus. So the best conclusion is that we do in fact have great early sources. Historians consider it to be pay dirt when they have 2 independent early sources of the same event. With the narrative of Jesus, we have 5 independent sources, two of which are very, very early. In antiquity this is about as good as it gets for historical sources.
That idea sounds kind of strange when using it as an argument to convince someone of something. However when you unpack the idea and understand what the minimal facts approach is, it changes how we can relate to unbelievers. If you are going to have a debate with someone, or even try to share Christ with someone, you need to stand on some sort of common ground. If you are trying to quote scripture after scripture to someone who doesn’t believe the New Testament is even credible, then you are going to lose your breath doing so. But if you can find some sort of common ground that the two of you agree on, then you can build a foundation from there into a conversation that lets you present your case in a way that will be paid attention to.
The Minimal Facts Approach.
Think of it like a common denominator in math. When adding and subtracting fractions, you have to find the common denominator before you start working, you break it down to it’s simplest form. That is what is done with the Resurrection of Jesus using what’s known as the minimal facts approach. Depending on who is presenting these facts, there are generally 3 to 4 facts that are agreed upon by virtually ALL credible New Testament scholars. That includes ones who are very skeptical, and even atheistic in their worldview, yet they still agree that Jesus was:
-Crucified in the First Century by Pontius Pilate
-Left an Empty Tomb
-His Disciples had experiences of an appearance of what they thought was from Jesus, that changed them
-Paul and James both “enemies” of Christianity had experiences that changed them.
These facts are all agreed upon by virtually all New Testament scholars, given the background historical information from sources in antiquity, not just the New Testament. These are facts that can be used as common ground for people who doubt the credibility of the New Testament Documents, because these are clearly seen with or without them. Josephus and other ancient historians write about Jesus’ crucifixion under Pilate, Paul’s writings clearly show that he had an experience that changed him. The disciples willing to die for a very un-Jewish notion of a resurrected Jesus before the general resurrection all show that they had some kind of experience.
These facts provide the groundwork for a very convincing case that the best explanation for these facts in that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Tomorrow, I will quickly look at 1 Corinthians 15 and it’s impact as a very early source.
Over the past few weeks you know we have been looking at notion of being able to trust the New Testament as an accurate source. Last week I introduced the idea of different criteria we can use to trust if what The New Testament reports is accurate. Some of those criteria were early testimony, eyewitness testimony, embarrassing testimony, and enemy testimony.
All of these are very important in their own way of showing the accuracy of the NT documents. For the most part we will deal with the Gospels since that is where most of our info about Jesus’ life is. However we will look at one other piece of the NT to show some of the earliest writing we have.
Before we look at “Early Testimony” we need to know when the Gospels were written. Most conservative dating puts them at 30-40 years after Christ’s death for the time of writing. Others date them up to around 60 years after the events happened. I find the earlier dating fits better because we have one solid concrete piece of historical dating that we know happened in A.D. 70. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. This is undeniable. The Gospel being Jews would most likely have mentioned something about the Temple being destroyed, but none of them did, even thought they reported the words Jesus spoke about No stone will be left unturned in Mark 13:1-4. If you read the passage in Mark it’s clear the writer didn’t know about the destruction of the Temple because it hadn’t happened yet.
To compare how 30-40 years after the events compares to other ancient sources make sure to look at the chart from Week 2.
Now the interesting thing though is that looking at the Gospel of Mark (Which is the earliest Gospel account) and 1 Corinthians 15 (One of Paul’s letters which was written before the Gospels) you find two very peculiar passages that bring light to how early these stories about Jesus go. Even if “legends” about Jesus were created by the time of the Gospel writing, (which scholars agree is not probable because of the short time period and availability of live eye-witnesses to refute any false claims) these two passages stand out.
First is the Passion Narrative (last week of Jesus) in the Gospel of Mark. Here is what Dr. William Lane Craig says about this Pre-Markan story from the Gospel of Mark.
First and foremost is the Passion source which Mark used in writing his Gospel. Whereas most of Mark’s Gospel consists of short anecdotal stories strung like pearls on a string, when we get to the final week of Jesus’ life we encounter a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Feast of Unleavened Bread through Jesus’ burial and empty tomb. The events of the Last Supper, arrest, execution, burial, and empty tomb were central to the identity of early Christian communities. According to James D. G. Dunn, “The most obvious explanation of this feature is that the framework was early on fixed within the tradition process and remained so throughout the transition to written Gospels. This suggests in turn a tradition rooted in the memory of the participants and put into that framework by them” (J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 2003, pp. 765-6.) The dominant view among NT scholars is therefore that the Passion narratives are early and based on eyewitness testimony (Mark Allen Powell, JAAR 68 : 171). Indeed, according to Richard Bauckham, many scholars date Mark’s Passion narrative no later than the 40s (recall that Jesus died in A.D. 30) (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006, p. 243). So we’re dealing here with an extraordinarily early source.