What would we know about Jesus if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet? Could we have any certainty Jesus actually lived, and would we be able to re-capture any of the details of his life or nature? As it turns out, there are several ancient sources of information about Jesus. Some of these are from pagan, non-Christian authors (I’ve written about these sources here at Cold-Case Christianity). But there are even more compelling early non-Biblical accounts we can reference in an effort to understand who Jesus is (and was). We can still read the accounts of those early Christians who learned directly from the Biblical authors. Ignatius and Polycarp were direct students of the Apostle John; Clement was a direct student of the Apostle Paul. These students later became leaders in the early Christian Church and wrote their own letters to local congregations. Seven letters from Ignatius still survive, along with one letter from Polycarp and Clement. These are the earliest non-Biblical accounts we have describing the life and nature of Jesus. They are not in your Bible, but the information provided by these students of the Biblical authors is compelling. It provides us with the earliest snapshot of Jesus, and demonstrates the story of Jesus was not distorted or modified in the centuries between Jesus’ ministry and the first Church Councils. Here is a brief summary of what we can know about Jesus from the earliest Non-Biblical authors:
The Old Testament Prophets Predicted Jesus as the Messiah
Ignatius said the prophets predicted and waited for Jesus who was in the line of King David. Clement also said the prophets predicted the life and ministry of Jesus.
Jesus Was Born Miraculously
Ignatius said Jesus was (and is) the “Son of God.” He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and a star announced His birth. Jesus came forth from God the Father and was born of the Virgin Mary.
Jesus Had a Powerful Earthly Ministry
Ignatius said Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. He was the “perfect” man and manifested the will and knowledge of God the Father. He taught and had a “ministry” on earth. He was the source of wisdom and taught many commandments, speaking the words of God. Ointment was poured on Jesus’s head. Polycarp also said Jesus was sinless. According to Polycarp, Jesus taught commandments and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Clement also said Jesus provided His disciples with important instruction. According to Clement, Jesus taught principles as described by Mark and Luke. He was humble and unassuming.
Jesus Suffered and Died on a Cross
Ignatius said Jesus was unjustly treated and condemned by men. He suffered and was crucified, dying on the cross. Jesus allowed this to happen as a sacrifice and offering to God the Father. This all took place under the government of Pontius Pilate, when Herod the Tetrarch was king. Polycarp also said Jesus suffered and died on a cross and Jesus died for our sins. In addition, Clement said Jesus was whipped and suffered and died for our salvation. According to Clement, Jesus died as a payment for our sin.
Jesus Rose from the Grave
Ignatius said Jesus was resurrected and had a physical resurrection body. He appeared to Peter and the others after the resurrection. He encouraged the disciples to touch Him after the resurrection and ate with the disciples as well. The disciples were convinced by the resurrection appearances. The disciples were fearless after seeing the risen Christ. Polycarp also said Jesus was raised from the dead, and His resurrection assures we will also be raised.
Jesus Demonstrated His Deity in the Resurrection
Ignatius said Jesus returned to God the Father. Jesus was (and is) the manifestation of God the Father and is united to Him. Jesus is our only Master and the Son of God. He is the “Door,” the “Bread of Life,” and the “Eternal Word.” Jesus is our High Priest, “Lord” and “God.” He is “our Savior” and the way to “true life.” Polycarp also said Jesus ascended to heaven and is seated at God’s right hand. According to Polycarp, all things are subject to Jesus and He will judge the living and the dead. Jesus is our “Savior” and “Lord.” In addition, Clement said Jesus was resurrected from the dead and is alive and reigning with God. His resurrection makes our resurrection certain. According to Clement, Jesus is “Lord” and the Son of God. He possesses eternal glory and majesty. All creation belongs to Him. Jesus is our “refuge” and our “High Priest.” He is our “defender” and “helper.”
Jesus Has the Power to Save Us
Ignatius said Jesus now lives in us and we live forever as a result of our faith in Christ. He has the power to transform us and His sacrifice glorifies us. Faith in Christ’s work on the cross saves us, and this salvation and forgiveness are gifts of grace from God. Polycarp also said Jesus’ death on the cross and our faith in Jesus’s work on the cross saves us. According to Polycarp, we are saved by grace. In addition, Clement said we are saved by the “grace” of God through faith in Jesus.
The earliest non-Biblical accounts of Jesus match the record we presently have in the New Testament. The story of Jesus was not distorted over the years, and even if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet we could still re-assemble the ancient details of Jesus’ life, ministry and nature. The Old Testament prophets predicted Jesus as the Messiah, He was born miraculously, had a powerful earthly ministry, suffered and died on a cross, rose from the grave, and demonstrated His Deity in the Resurrection. Jesus alone has the power to save us. The earliest non-Biblical authors have a lot to say about Jesus, and their words confirm and verify the eyewitness Gospel accounts we have in the New Testament. Visit the ColdCaseChristianity.com homepage to download this month’s free Bible Insert so you can easily recall what the earliest non-Biblical authors say about Jesus.
All of us need a little help at one time or another. When times get tough and we need some wise advice, we can turn to our friends, our parents, our mentors or the wise philosophers and thinkers of the past. I’ve known people who have gleaned comfort and wisdom from historic thinkers or writers like Mahatma Ghandi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or even John Lennon. Wise sources from the past seem every bit as reasonable as more current ones, especially when the wisdom of these thinkers has been vetted and embraced by individuals and cultures across the ages. By contrast, few people would consider Barney the Dinosaur or Yoda to be reasonable sources for such wisdom. Why not? After all, Barney and Yoda have actually offered many wise statements, and some of these statements may even apply to whatever hardship you’re experiencing at this time in your life. Given the wise advice offered by Barney and Yoda, why don’t we embrace them as reliable sources of wisdom? You know why: Barney and Yoda are fictional characters. While we may find some truth in the words of such characters, we typically reject them as consistent, reliable sages. So, to which category does Jesus belong? Is he a wise teacher from who we can gain wisdom, or a fictional character we ought to reject?
Some believe Jesus falls in the latter category. Earlier this year, a story broke in Memphis, Tennessee when a teacher rejected Jesus as a reasonable source of wisdom and comfort. 10 year old Erin Shead was attending Lucy Elementary in Memphis. Her teacher assigned a simple project: write about someone you idolize. Erin chose God. “I look up to God,” she wrote. “I love him and Jesus, and Jesus is His earthly son. I also love Jesus.” Erin’s teacher objected to her choice and told her Jesus could not be the subject of her short project. She told Erin to start over again, and allowed her to pick Michael Jackson as the subject of her report. Erin’s mom brought the case before the School Board. The Board eventually agreed with the Shead’s and permitted Erin to write about Jesus. Why would anyone consider Michael Jackson but reject Jesus as a credible source of wisdom and admiration? While it is most likely due to a growing bias against theism in general, it may also be due to disbelief in Jesus as a true person from history.
Over the past ten years or so, a number of popular works have challenged the historicity of Jesus in significant ways. Films like The God Who Wasn’t There and Zeitgeist: The Movie have garnered millions of views on the Internet. Both films challenge the historicity of Jesus and argue Jesus is nothing more than a borrowed mythological character, crafted from prior similar mythologies. Popular writers and authors such as David Fitzgerald, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price have advanced this notion in their own publications. As our culture becomes increasingly hostile to the Christian Worldview, authors and filmmakers who depict Jesus as a fictional character will be ever more popular. If Jesus is like Barney or Yoda, there’s really no reason to listen to His teaching or embrace His message.
But Jesus is not like Barney or Yoda. The evidence for the historicity of Jesus is significant and compelling. Jesus is not a re-creation of early mythologies. His existence was confirmed by non-Biblical ancient historical sources and was accurately preserved over the centuries. Even the non-canonical authors affirm the true existence of Jesus. The historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is so compelling and overwhelming, even an ardent agnostic skeptic like Bart Ehrman has written publicly about the topic (in an e-book entitled, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth). Ehrman may not be a Christian, but he know Jesus was a real historical character. The historicity of Jesus has been established by credible historians and critics, even if denied by popular authors and filmmakers.
You and I, as Christians, need to master the case for the historicity of Jesus. It matters. If Jesus really lived, he is a candidate for our attention, just like Ghandi, Emerson or Lennon. His words are more than clever fiction invented by an anonymous playwright or author. They are Jesus’ words of wisdom, captured for eternity. The historicity of Jesus matters because it allows us to talk about Jesus in a culture which only accepts real people as wise sages worthy of consideration. If we are allowed to talk about the way Ghandi’s wisdom impacted us on a personal level, we ought to be allowed to talk about how Jesus’ wisdom changed our lives. Jesus is a viable candidate because Jesus was a real person. That’s why the historicity of Jesus matters.
Following Dateline’s airing of our latest cold-case (“The Wire”), I received a number of concerned emails from viewers who felt there simply wasn’t enough evidence to be certain Douglas Bradford killed Lynne Knight. I think I can see their point. Dateline has done an excellent job chronicling four of our investigations, but our cases are nearly impossible to adequately represent in the limited time Dateline has to tell the stories. Why? Because our cases are complex, layered, cumulative, circumstantial cases. While I’ve written often about the nature of circumstantial evidence, one of the most evidential concepts related to our cold-cases is the role of cumulative arguments. When a large quantity of evidence point to the same suspect, the cumulative impact of this evidence can be powerful. Many of the individual facts and evidences may seem unimportant or trivial on their own, but when assembled as a set, their collective weight becomes unbearable. All my cold-cases are built in this way. We assemble dozens of facts, details, inferential statements and evidences and show the jury how the collective set of evidence implicates our suspect. I’ve often referred to this process sarcastically as “Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts”.
Defense attorneys typically respond to cumulative cases by focusing on those few pieces of evidence they believe to be the most damaging for their client. They then try to show how any number of other, unrelated causes might also explain these specific items of evidence. They want jurors to focus on the individual pieces rather than the collective set. In essence, they hope jurors will see the “trees” rather than the “forest” (and hopefully only a few of the trees, at that!) In the end, defense attorneys explain the evidences by way of many unrelated causes rather than by the simpler explanation: their client is the one causal factor who can account for all the evidence in the case. In many ways, it’s an “Ockham’s Razor” exercise. When one causal factor explains all the evidence in the case, that cause is the simplest (and most reasonable) explanation.
If you want to be a good Christian Case Maker (or you simply want to examine the case for Christianity for the first time), you’ll need to understand the power of cumulative cases. The Christian worldview is established in a collective manner: the reliability of the eyewitness Gospel accounts is built on more than one line of evidence. In fact, eyewitnesses are established based on four separate categories of evidence, expressed with four important questions: Where the eyewitnesses really present to see what they said they saw? Can their statements be corroborated or verified in some way? Have the eyewitnesses been honest and accurate over time? Do the eyewitnesses possess a bias or ulterior motive disqualifying them? These questions must be considered collectively. In addition to this, the case for each category is also made cumulatively. The issue of corroboration, for example is established on the basis of several unrelated lines of evidence including archaeology, ancient Jewish writings, ancient non-Christian Greek writings, geographic internal evidence, linguistic internal evidence, correct use of proper nouns, and the unintentional eyewitness support I describe in Cold-Case Christianity.
None of these individual elements corroborates the Biblical account on its own. They must be considered collectively. When a skeptic tries to attack the insufficiency of any single line of evidence for the Christian worldview, they are (like defense attorneys) asking the jury to ignore the implications of the collective case. They hope people will focus on a “tree” rather than the “forest”. They typically do their best to argue for an alternative explanation (or several alternative explanations) for each of these evidential facts. But the more reasonable explanation is much simpler: Christianity, if true, can explain all the evidence as the only causal factor. I’ve tried to illustrate the depth of the cumulative case for Christianity with a simple illustration (available as a free, downloadable Bible Insert on the homepage at www.ColdCaseChristianity.com):
When our cases are covered by Dateline, only a few evidences ever make the final edit. As a result, I often get notes from viewers who can’t understand how the jury convicted our suspect (even when some of these men later confessed to the crime!) But our juries never seem to struggle with their decision. Instead, they typically convict rather quickly. When jurors come to understand the power of a collective case, the decision is easy. The Christian worldview is also established cumulatively. If we can learn to communicate the strength of collective cases such as these, we’ll become better Christian Case Makers. If you’re examining the case for Christianity for the first time, don’t stop at the “tree-line”. Go deep. Look at everything. Assemble and assess the cumulative case.
I had the great honor of speaking at the National Religious Broadcasters Apologetics Conference two weeks ago, along with Frank Turek, Abdu Murray, Alex McFarland, Stephen C. Meyer, Ed Stetzer and Troy Miller. In case you weren’t aware, the NRB Network (available on Direct TV) features many Christian Case Making programs (including Cold-Case Christianity). Troy Miller is the President and CEO of the network, and with the help of Arline Bell (the Director of Programming), the network has forged a new path for Christian programming. This is definitely not your parent’s Christian television network. NRB TV is filled with great Christian teaching and Case Making programs. I am delighted to be a small part of the line-up. At lunch, Troy shared the results of a recent viewer survey in which people who watch the NRB Network reported what they liked about it. High on their list were two responses: When using a single word to describe what they enjoy about the programming, many viewers said “orthodoxy”. People who watch NRB TV love the fact the programs argue for an orthodox, conservative view of Christianity. In addition to this, many of the viewers said, “The NRB Network makes me proud to be a Christian.” That last statement was powerful for me. Although most of us, as Christians, tend to shrink away from talking about any form of “pride” (given its negative connotations in Scripture), I think I understand what the viewers meant by the statement. In a culture dominated by Christian programming seen as more embarrassing than praiseworthy and in a cultural environment where Christians are often portrayed as unintelligent and unthoughtful, the NRB Network provides examples of just the opposite. There are good reasons to celebrate our Christian worldview and to be “proud” (not of ourselves, but) of the God who created us:
The Christian Worldview Describes the World Accurately
We live in a universe that had a beginning and appears to be fine-tuned for life. In addition, living biological organisms emerged in this universe from non-living matter and these organisms also display the appearance of design. Our universe is home to conscious creatures who possess free agency, and we recognize the existence of transcendent, objective moral truths and an objective standard for righteousness which defines the nature of evil (by comparison). The Christian worldview accurately accounts for these features of the universe. Christians don’t need to be embarrassed of their worldview; Christianity, when properly articulated, describes our world accurately.
The Christian Worldview Holds Up to Scrutiny
Christianity is not simply a set of proverbial propositions; it is a claim about history. Because Christianity is rooted in an historical event (the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus), it can be verified or falsified. The evidence supporting Christianity is robust and significant. The gospels can be tested using the same template we use for eyewitness testimony in criminal trials (I demonstrated this in Cold-Case Christianity). The historical accounts in the New Testament are reliable. Christians don’t need to be embarrassed of their worldview; Christianity, when properly examined, holds up to critical scrutiny.
The Christian Worldview Provides a Solution
Every worldview offers a solution to a problem, but not every worldview accurately identifies the problem it is trying to solve. Christianity identifies the problem as our own persistent inclination toward bad behavior. We have a sin problem. But Christianity is more than a description of how to be good. Unlike other works-based theistic worldviews (i.e. Judaism, Mormonism or Islam), Christianity recognizes our inability to consistently “perform”. While other theistic worldviews encourage us to work hard and do our best to save ourselves, only Christianity acknowledges our inability to accomplish this task. Other religions offer a work regimen, Christianity offers hope. Only Christianity offers Jesus as the sacrifice for our sin. Christians don’t need to be embarrassed of their worldview; Christianity, when properly understood, offers hope and a solution to our dilemma.
I understand our hesitancy, as Christians, to say we should be “proud”. The Bible has very little good to say about “pride” and the way we often abuse it. But we can be appropriately “proud” of our God and the truth He has provided in Scripture. Christianity is true. It describes the world accurately, holds up to scrutiny and provides hope. The NRB Network viewers are correct. There are good reasons to celebrate your Christian worldview.