Last weekend I had the great honor of speaking several times at Southern Evangelist Seminary’s National Apologetics Conference. The highlight of my time there (aside from hanging out with my dear friends, Frank and Stephanie Turek) was the panel discussion where I joined Gary Habermas, Ted Wright, Joseph Bergeron, and Bryant Wood to talk about the historicity and deity of Jesus. We discussed the transmission of the New Testament documents and the period of time prior to the creation of these documents. The Biblical eyewitnesses didn’t immediately write down their observations about Jesus. Following the resurrection, many years passed before the first Gospel was penned. In this “tunnel period” between the resurrection of Jesus and the authorship of the first Gospels, the eyewitnesses communicated their observations orally. What precisely were the disciples saying about Jesus prior to writing the Gospels? Were their oral statements consistent with the Gospel accounts? How can we determine what they said about Jesus? As it turns out, we have an evidential record of the earliest statements about Jesus. They’re embedded in the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Paul was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, where Jesus appeared to him and radically changed the course of Paul’s life. Formerly a devout Jew charged with identifying and destroying the fledgling Christians, Paul became a committed follower of Jesus and eventually penned more New Testament books than any other author. Most scholars think Jesus appeared to Paul within two to three years of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (if, for sake of clarity, we date the resurrection of Jesus at 33AD, Paul would have been converted between 34-35AD). Paul ultimately traveled as a missionary and wrote about the historicity and deity of Jesus.
In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul includes what most scholars believe to be one of the earliest Christian creeds. The vast majority of Biblical scholars accept both the Pauline authorship and early dating of 1 Corinthians (typically locating it’s origin in the mid 50’s). Paul says something important in this letter about the earliest claims related to Jesus:
1 Corinthians 15:3-7
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
Paul said he had already preached information about Jesus to the Corinthians; information he had first received from others. Paul’s words here echo the language used by ancient Rabbis to describe how they would carefully memorize and transmit formal teaching through oral statements. Paul included a short creedal statement related to the historicity and deity of Jesus (and demonstrated his reverence for this information, describing it as “of first importance”). Paul provided several important pieces of data in this creed:
1. Jesus died for our sins
2. Jesus’ death was predicted by the Scripture
3. Jesus was buried
4. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day
5. Jesus’ resurrection was also predicted by the Scripture
6. Jesus appeared to Peter
7. Jesus appeared to the other disciples
Although Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is typically dated in the mid 50’s, he was referencing information he gave to the Corinthians prior to the writing of the letter. When did he first deliver this information to the brothers and sisters in Corinth? Most scholars prefer a dating of 51AD based on relevant descriptions in the Book of Acts and the historical dating related to Gallio (see Acts 18:12-17 for the relationship between Paul’s visit to Corinth and his appearance before Gallio). This means Paul communicated the data about Jesus within twenty years of the crucifixion. But when did Paul first receive this information about Jesus? To answer this question we have to examine another letter: Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.
Paul told the Galatians he met with Peter and James three years after his experience on the road to Damascus (where Jesus appeared to Paul). This wasn’t just a social visit. According to Paul’s choice of Greek words here (translated as “to become acquainted”), he met with James and Peter to make sense of his own experience by researching and investigating the claims of the eyewitnesses. This was an historical investigation; Paul was interviewing those who witnessed the life, teaching and miracles of Jesus, and apparently these eyewitnesses were in agreement about their observations and claims. As Paul began to work as a missionary, preaching about his experience and what he learned about Jesus from the eyewitnesses, his opportunities grew and he formed partnerships with other important first century missionaries and church leaders. Paul returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Timothy “after fourteen years”:
Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain…
Scholars are divided on the precise dating of this second visit. Was it fourteen years after his experience on the Damascus road or fourteen years after his first visit with Peter and James? In either case, he now met with Peter, James and John and once again reiterated the data he learned from Peter and James to confirm he was still accurately representing their eyewitness observations. Once again the eyewitnesses affirmed the accuracy of the data; John was also present to add his eyewitness authority to the account.
Given the evidence of 1 Corinthians, Galatians and the Book of Acts, we can reconstruct the first appearance of the creedal information found in 1 Corinthians 15 (once again I will use the date of 33AD for the resurrection and ascension of Jesus for the sake of clarity):
33AD – Jesus was resurrected from the grave and ascended to heaven
34-35AD – Jesus appeared to Paul while Paul was on the road to Damascus (one to two years after the Resurrection and ascension)
37-38AD – Paul received the data about the historicity and deity of Jesus from Peter and James while visiting them in Jerusalem (two to three years after his conversion, depending how you interpret the words, “three years later”)
48-50AD – Paul corroborates the data about the historicity and deity of Jesus with John, Peter and James in the presence of Barnabas and Timothy (fourteen years after the Damascus road event or fourteen years after the first meeting with Peter and James in Jersualem)
51AD – Paul first provided data to the Corinthian Church about the historicity and deity of Jesus (during this visit to Corinth he also appeared before Gallio)
55AD – Paul writes to the Corinthian Church and reminds them of the data he previously provided them about the historicity and deity of Jesus
The early Christian creed related to the historicity and deity of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15 is actually a written record of the earliest transmitted data we have about Jesus. It represents a view of Jesus expressed within four to six years of the Resurrection. There’s no reason to believe this view of Jesus was not being communicated even earlier. It would still be several years before any of the eyewitnesses would write a Gospel, but there is no mystery about what was being said about Jesus prior to the writing of the Gospels. The eyewitnesses were steadfast and consistent in their claims related to the historicity and deity of Jesus. For more information, visit Gary Habermas, an expert in this area of study: www.garyhabermas.com.
I spoke to a group of students at The Ohio State University on Monday evening at the request of their Ratio Christi chapter director, Eric Chabot. If you aren’t familiar with Eric’s work, you probably aren’t following my Twitter feed, where I feature Eric’s blog often. Prior to the event, I had dinner with Eric, Pastor Matt Rawlings (another Case Making warrior you need to follow) and the infamous Wintery Knight (a giant among Christian Case Making bloggers). We talked about the importance of Case Making and shared stories of our experiences online. But it wasn’t until I got to the event that night and met Josh Bertsch of Created Equal Ministries that I realized the importance of distinguishing between the people we are trying to reach so we can have reasonable expectations about the outcome of our efforts. Josh serves in a pro-life ministry on college campuses and takes an outspoken approach to defending the unborn. As a result, he encounters people who are either already committedly pro-life, doggedly pro-abortion or still undecided. Josh told me he hopes to have the biggest impact on those who are still “on the fence”. In many ways, his efforts are not unlike those of any of us who make a case for what we believe as Christians. Once we understand our goals with each group we are trying to reach, we can effectively impact the convinced, the opposed, and the undecided.
You may not think there’s much value in trying to reach those who are already convinced Christianity is true, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the more I speak across the country, the more important this group has become to me. Many of us, as Christians, are convinced Christianity is true, but take this truth for granted. We live as Christians the same way we might live as Californians, and we fail to see the connection between evidential certainty and confidence. In essence, many of us are accidental Christians; we happen to believe something true, but have little or no idea why it is true. My goal with this group is to encourage them to do some “heavy lifting”. I want to challenge them to examine what they believe so they can have a much greater impact on our culture.
If you’ve ever interacted with hostile atheists online, you’ve probably been frustrated at times and wondered if your efforts were worthwhile at all. At times like this I try to remind myself of the three reasons anyone “shuns” a truth claim; many of us are committed to our position for other than rational evidential reasons (that’s true for everyone, including Christians). It’s important to see your efforts to reach the opposed as a baseball game rather than a tennis match. The goal isn’t points, it’s advancing people around the bases. You’re not alone on the court, you’ve got help on the field. I’m not always trying to hit home runs with people who disagree with me. Instead, I am simply trying to be faithful to my Master, reflect his image, and leave people with something to think about.
In many ways, this group holds the most promise. People who are undecided usually fall into two categories. Some have never really given the issue much thought. They’re neither for nor against; they’ve simply been living unaware. You may be the first person to introduce them to the issues you are trying to share. If so, remember the importance of a first impression. What you say or do will have an impact on the work of those who follow you. The second group of “undecideds” are people who have given the issue some thought, but are just beginning to make their decision. For this group of people, your defense of Christianity may very well be the deciding factor. The responsibility you and I have with the undecided is daunting, but it’s a privilege to play a small part in their decision.
When we first meet someone and begin sharing what we believe, we may not even know to which of these three categories they belong. But once you find out, you can then set appropriate expectations. Don’t get discouraged when you seem to have no impact on someone who is opposed to Christianity. Don’t skip over those who are already believers. Don’t short shrift those who are still trying to make a decision. Once we understand our goals with each group we are trying to reach, we can effectively impact the convinced, the opposed, and the undecided.
Skepticism related to Jesus of Nazareth generally takes one of two forms: those who don’t even believe He ever existed, and those who acknowledge Jesus as an historical figure but deny He is God. The case for the Deity of Christ is centered on the Resurrection, but there are many other cumulative circumstantial factors to consider. I’ve written quite a bit about the Deity of Jesus, and I’ve assembled these articles to help you make the collective case. All these resources are available as downloadable PDF files:
1. The Conception of Jesus Demonstrated His Deity:
Articles related to the Virgin Conception of Jesus
The Essential Nature of the Virgin Conception
The “virgin conception” is an essential belief of the authors of Scripture and the early Church.
Was the Virgin Conception Borrowed from Prior Mythologies?
There are several problems with the notion the virgin conception was borrowed from prior pagan mythologies.
Why Doesn’t Mark Say Anything About Jesus’ Birth?
The absence of a birth narrative in Mark does not demonstrate the account (including the virgin conception) is a work of fiction.
Why Didn’t Paul Mention the Virgin Conception?
Paul’s writings simply cannot be used in isolation to determine what he knew (or didn’t know) about the virgin conception.
2. The Behavior of Jesus Demonstrated His Deity:
Articles related to the miraculous activity of Jesus
What Does Christianity Say About the Nature of Jesus? Five Critical Claims
The Deity of Christ is a Christian essential. It has been affirmed by believers based on the eyewitness testimony of those who saw Jesus rise from the dead.
Did Jesus Work Miracles as a Child?
Islamic tradition describes Jesus as a miracle worker even in His youth. Is this true? Where did this information originate, and can we trust it?
Yes Jesus Fulfilled Prophecy, But He Also Spoke Prophetically
While most of us are familiar with the prophecies Jesus fulfilled, it’s important for us to acknowledge the prophecies Jesus uttered.
Why Didn’t Jesus Reveal Scientific Facts to Demonstrate His Deity?
Why didn’t Jesus describe something beyond the knowledge of His contemporaries (i.e. the role of DNA or the nature of the Solar System) as a prophetic proof?
3. The Statements of Jesus Demonstrated His Deity:
Articles related to the statements and authoritative claims of Jesus
The Circumstantial Statements of Jesus’ Divinity
Even if you’re inclined to deny Jesus ever directly said He was God, it’s unreasonable to argue against this indirect, circumstantial case.
Jesus’ Words Gave Him Away
The prophets spoke for God, But Jesus clearly spoke as God.
Jesus Specifically Said, “I am God”
When Jesus took on God’s holy title as his own, He was stating the modern equivalent of “I am God”.
4. The Authority of Jesus Demonstrated His Deity:
Articles related to the authority and worship offered to Jesus
Jesus’ Authority Was Based in His Deity
Jesus’ authority is grounded in His power; a Divine power separating Him from other wise rabbis. Jesus’ authority was based on His Deity.
The Disciples Were Not Afraid to Worship Jesus (Even Though They Should Have Been)
From His first days on earth to His last, Jesus was worshiped as God.
The Early “High Christology” of Jesus
The earliest document evidence we have related to Jesus describes Him as a miracle worker who claimed to be God and rose from the dead.
5. The Resurrection of Jesus Demonstrated His Deity:
Articles defending and establishing the Resurrection of Jesus
A Brief Review of Explanations Offered for the Resurrection (Free Bible Insert)
What are the possible explanations offered for Jesus' Resurrection? Which is most reasonable?
How Do We Know That Jesus Really Died?
The experience the disciples had with Jesus was very different than the experience the disciples had with Paul at the point of his stoning.
The Post Resurrection Behavior of Jesus Eliminates the Possibility of an Imposter
The post-Resurrection version of Jesus was just as supernatural and divine as the pre-Resurrection Jesus.
The Evidentially Diverse Resurrection Appearances of Jesus (Free Bible Insert)
The diversity of the Resurrection appearances ought to give us confidence in their reliability.
6. The History of Jesus Demonstrates His Deity:
Articles related to transmission of the evidence describing to the Deity of Jesus
The Case for the Historicity and Deity of Jesus (Free Bible Insert)
A helpful brief summary of the cumulative case for the historicity and deity of Jesus (also available as a free downloadable Bible Insert).
Why I Know the Story of Jesus Wasn’t Changed Over Time
How do we know the story of Jesus wasn't corrupted over time? What is the New Testament "Chain of Custody"?
The cumulative circumstantial case for the Deity of Jesus can be assembled from the facts related to His birth, life, ministry, statements, and resurrection. Like other cases I’ve worked over the years, the evidence is powerful when considered collectively. I hope these resources, as I’ve assembled and organized them here, will help you defend the truth of the Christian worldview so you can become a better Christian Case Maker.
I’ve been part of a first responder family my entire life. I was born while my father was in the police academy and grew up during his law enforcement career. Prior to his retirement, I entered the academy and my son was born. He watched me serve as a first responder as he grew up and then entered the academy as well; he’s been serving as an officer for several years now. I’ve listened to the stories of first responders (or told my own) for the past fifty-three years. I’ve learned an important truth about law enforcement first responders. There are no “free riders” in a police patrol car. When two officers are working together in a unit, there are no passengers. Each has a job to do. The driver obviously guides the unit, decides where the tandem will patrol, and is responsible for safely navigating the car, even during incredibly tense and difficult situations. But the officer sitting in the passenger seat is just as active and engaged as the driver; he’s not just along for the ride. He’s responsible for all radio communications with the station, is primarily responsible for the reports written during the shift, and is often the best set of eyes in the unit. First responder “passengers” can teach us something about our lives as Christians.
If you’ve been a member of a local church for any period of time, you’ve probably noticed twenty percent of the members serve actively while eighty percent usually enjoy the benefits of this service (the old 20/80 principle). There are many “free riders” in the church who are willing to attend but don’t seem to be engaged in much more than this. Well, I want to confess something to you: I am now part of that eighty percent. With my speaking and writing schedule, I am seldom at home on Sundays and when I am, I am usually unable to help out at church. I often feel lucky to be there at all. And there’s something else you probably already know: the twenty percent who are working hard to help out with the weekly service may still be unengaged in what they believe as Christians. Even though they are working hard, they still may not know much about Christianity. You can be a “free rider” even though you appear to be working hard.
So, what makes the difference between those who are coasting and those who are engaged? How can “free riders” become “first responders”? It all comes down to case making. Let me return to the analogy of first responder “passengers” to make the point. These officers may look like they are along for the ride, but they have an important role to play, just like those of us who may appear to be sitting in church pews:
Know the Case
First responder “passengers” must know the law every bit as well as the officer who is driving the car. Patrol officers are tasked with more than responding to crisis; they have the additional responsibility of preventing crime before it occurs. Both officers in every unit most know the law and understand the nature of criminal behavior so they can recognize it even before it occurs. As Christians, all of us must be theologically informed as case makers. We must know what we believe so we can recognize heresy even before it enters the church.
See the Case
First responder “passengers” are usually the best set of eyes in the car. They are undistracted by navigational responsibilities, so they ought to be the most active observers in the unit. When working in this capacity, I would constantly evaluate every behavior I observed outside the car and run it through a mental filter in an attempt to assess whether or not we needed to stop the unit to engage something. As Christians, we need to be well trained case makers so we can evaluate the world through the lens of our Christian worldview. We must know what we believe so we can decide when and how to respond.
Communicate the Case
First responder “passengers” are the primary communicators in each unit. They are responsible for all radio communications and usually write most of the reports during the shift. Because these reports typically end up in court trials of one nature or another, their authors must be precise and accurate in their use of language. You have to know the law well if you are tasked with writing a legal document. As Christians, we need to be able to communicate with others. We need to write consistently so we can hone our skills as communicators. We must know what we believe so we can communicate it with precision and accuracy.
If you’ve been a Christian “free rider,” it’s time to become a “first responder”. You don’t have to start setting up chairs or manning the donut table on Sunday. You simply need to become a better case maker. Learn the case for what you believe, start assessing the world around you and begin communicating the truth to others. We are living in what I have called a “shots fired” culture. Time is short, the stakes are high and we’ve got an emergency to attend. Let’s get busy and become good Christian case makers because Christian case making turns “free riders” into “first responders”.