Early Christianity--Is the Record Sound? Is the Bible Really the Word of God?
The Bible record is climaxed by its account of early Christianity. Written in Greek in the first century of our Common Era, this account relates the teachings and the powerful works attributed to Jesus Christ and his apostles. In its pages, Jesus is quoted as saying that he spoke 'the truth that he heard from God.' (John 8:40). And the apostle Paul reports that believers accepted its message, "not as the word of men, but, just as it truthfully is, as the word of God." (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
But do the facts warrant such confidence in the Bible's record of early Christianity? Is it factual, or does it simply set out the imaginative writings of religious men?
Of interest in this connection is the comparison made by Orientalist George Rawlinson, who writes:
"Christianity ... is in nothing more distinguished from the other religions of the world than in its objective or historical character. The religions of Greece and Rome, of Egypt, India, Persia, and the East generally, were speculative systems, which did not even seriously postulate an historical basis ... it is otherwise with the religion of the Bible."
But, if this is true of the historical aspects of the record, what does it indicate as to the teachings themselves? Rawlinson continues:
"Whether we look to the Old or the New Testament, ... we find a scheme of doctrine which is bound up with facts; which depends absolutely upon them; which is null and void without them; and which may be regarded as for all practical purposes established if they are shown to deserve acceptance." [Reference available]
We have already examined the evidence in connection with the Hebrew Scriptures, referred to by many as the "Old Testament," and found these to be sound. Do the facts indicate the same reliability for the Christian Greek Scriptures, or "New Testament"?
JESUS IS A HISTORICAL PERSON
Let us turn our attention first to Jesus Christ himself. Is it a historical fact that he lived in Palestine during the early part of our Common Era?
Tacitus, a Roman historian who lived during the latter part of the first century C.E., was no Christian. But in his _Annals_ he stated this fact:
"Christus" [Latin for "Christ"], from whom the name [Christian] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus [Pilate]." [References available]
Josephus, who was not a Christian but a Jewish historian in the first century, also makes mention of Jesus Christ. In his _Antiquities of the Jews_, Josephus tells of the execution of James whom he refers to as "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ." - Book XX, chap. IX, par. 1.
With good reason, then, Dr. T. R. Glover, lecturer in ancient history at Cambridge University, says:
"If the ordinary canons of history, used in every other case, hold good in this case, Jesus is undoubtedly an historical person. If he is not an historical person, the only alternative is that there is no such thing as history at all - it is delirium, nothing else; and a rational being would be better employed in the collection of snuff- boxes. And if history is impossible, so is all other knowledge." [References available]
ARE THE GOSPEL ACCOUNTS WORTHY OF ACCEPTANCE?
Though acknowledging that Jesus Christ actually did live, some still ask how we can be sure that the accounts of his life as set out in the four Gospels are accurate. Did Jesus really do the things recorded in the Bible?
There were no motion pictures or tape recorders in those days. No one is walking the earth today who lived then. So, we must obviously rely on the written testimony of persons who lived at that time. Where is such testimony available? The only detailed accounts in existence are in the Bible itself. Interestingly, within its pages are four Gospels, four distinct accounts, all harmonizing, yet each one written from a different viewpoint and each one providing certain details that the others do not.
But what of the testimony from other sources? Consider the accounts in the Jewish Talmud. It is true that these clash with the Gospels, but notice how. The conflict centers on the /means/ by which certain events recorded in the Gospels took place, not the reality of the events themselves. Thus the Talmud does not question that Jesus was born, but only the miraculous nature of his birth. It does not deny that he performed healing and other wonderful works, but claims that they were done by magic and sorcery. It attacks nothing else in the Gospel accounts. Does this disprove the Gospels? Not at all. The Gospel accounts themselves show that these were among the very matters on which Jesus' religious opposers contended with him. (John 8:41,48; Matthew 12:24) So, unintentionally, the Talmud supports the Gospel record.
After examining the Talmudic references to Jesus, Jewish scholar Klausnew impartially acknowledged: "Nothing in the Gospels was denied: it was only perverted into a source of ridicule and blame." - _Jesus of Nazareth_, pp. 18, 19, 53.
The ancient Roman writers also make mention of Christianity, though most of them do so only briefly. Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, and even Nero's tutor Seneca confirm that Christianity quickly spread to all parts of the Roman Empire.
But it is hardly to be expected that these worshipers of mythical gods would speak out in favor of the message contained in the Christian Scriptures. After all, those Scriptures attacked the very foundation of the polytheistic worship. So it comes as no surprise that Celsus, a sharp-witted philosopher of the second century C.E., wrote a severe attack on Christianity. His statements were quoted in detail by Origen, a prominent church leader of the next century who refuted them. In his lengthy argument, Celsus condemns, rejects, and ridicules the Gospel accounts. But nowhere does he produce any historical evidence to support his accusations.
STRONG INDICATIONS OF RELIABILITY
Unlike mythological writings, the Christian Greek Scriptures are built around people who actually lived and places that exist even to this day. With great care they specify the time in which the events occurred. On this matter attorney Irwin H. Linton, writing in the book _A Lawyer Examines the Bible,_ says:
"While romances, legends, and false testimony are careful to place the events related in some distant place and some indefinite time, thereby violating the first rules we lawyers learn of good pleading, that 'the declaration must give time and place,' the Bible narratives give us the date and place of the things related with the utmost precision." - P. 38.
This is illustrated by the statement at Luke 3:1,2:
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was district ruler of Galilee, but Philip his brother was district ruler of the country of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was district ruler of Abilene, in the days of chief priest Annas and of Caiaphas, God's declaration came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
Seven separate political and religious officials are here named along with their titles. For Luke's account to be correct, all of these had to be living and occupying the specified offices at one and the same time, and in the regions stated. They /were/. And you can prove that for yourself by consulting history books. Luke obviously was making no idle boast when he wrote at the beginning of the Gospel bearing his name: "I have traced all things from the start with accuracy ... that you may know fully the certainty of the things that you have been taught." (Luke 1:3,4)