This fourth article confronts an issue that many skeptics present concerning one’s knowledge of the historical Jesus: early testimony.
Early testimony is important because the closer a text is to the events that it describes, the more reliable the testimony. Longer spans of time allows for the introduction of legendary material (i.e Muhammad’s version of what happened to Jesus). Early testimony allows for correction among historical records and other eyewitnesses who can corroborate or deny the details presented by a text (Muhammad lived 600 years after Jesus – he was not an eye witness).
Some people are skeptical to the dating of some New Testament texts. Part of this skepticism stems from extreme liberal beliefs concerning the biblical texts originating from textual criticism gone wild. However, unbeknownst to many, such skepticism is far from unanimous in biblical scholarship. In fact, the scholarly world is coming to the understanding that the texts of the New Testament may be much earlier than previously anticipated. In fact, two radical scholars, John A. T. Robinson and W. F. Albright, have accepted an early dating for the New Testament writings.
Albright noted that “We can already say emphatically that there is no long any basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today.”
This article will not address every early document that we have pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, this article will examine some of the earliest testimonies we have pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth. We will begin with, perhaps, the most important testimony we possess.
Pre-New Testament Traditions
Throughout the New Testament, one finds early Christian documentations that predate the New Testament writings. These documentations date to the earliest times of the church.
Habermas notes that “It is crucially important that this information is very close to the actual events, and therefore cannot be dismissed as late material or as hearsay evidence. Critics not only admit this data, but were the first ones to recognize the early date.”
Several of these early traditions are documented throughout the New Testament writings. It is important to note that these traditions date to the earliest church. For your consideration, I have attached a formulation (listing out key historical events), a hymn (a song relating theological information), and a confession (listing out a statement to be said in confessing a belief).
- Formulation in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
In this formulation, perhaps one of the most important historical pre-NT traditions, Paul relates what he received when he first became a Christian and met with the apostles. This is what Paul records:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
In this formulation, one will note the emphasis placed upon Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and resurrection appearances. This tradition provides HUGE historical support for resurrection claim.
2. Hymn: Philippians 2:6-11
In his letter to the Church of Philippi, Paul recounts an early hymn that predates his writing. This hymn records several important Christian beliefs pertaining to Christ.
“who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).
Here again, one will find early testimony for the crucifixion of Christ and implicitly for the resurrection. Also of great importance is the early attribution of divinity that the church placed upon Jesus of Nazareth.
3. Confession: Romans 10:9
To the Church of Rome, Paul provides an early confession that predates his writing. Paul notes that “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Paul’s confession notes, again, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
These early testimonies are so important that NT historian Michael Licona noted that “Paul and the oral traditions embedded throughout the New Testament literature provide our most promising material.” Therefore, these traditions which number far more than the three listed are of extreme value to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.
So much information was compiled by Pastor Brian for the early testimony of Jesus that the article had to be broken into two sections. Next week, his examination of early testimony will continue as we take a look at the dating of the Gospels and the three earliest Epistles in the New Testament.
For my own writing’s sake, I just want to address one more thing – although I am almost sure Pastor Brian will mention it. These early testimonies are EXTREMELY important when it comes to Muslim-Christian apologetics. There’s a myth surrounding the apostle Paul.
He is charged by the Muslims to have made Jesus into a God. The Gospels – according to Muslim apologists – never show Jesus as God (never mind Jesus saying He is the Son of Man of Daniel 7, or Jesus receiving worship by Thomas and not rebuking him, among other examples).
If someone is to blame, it has to be Paul. There’s an excellent debate here on who gives us the truth about Jesus – Paul or Muhammad?
But the datings of this early testimonies are extremely important. The book of Romans, for example, was written around A.D. 57. Phillipians was written around A.D. 62, and 1 Corinthians around A.D. 53-55. Why is this important? It is important because this means that the disciples of Jesus were alive when Paul wrote his letters to the different churches.
The Gospel of Matthew was written in the late 50s or early 60s. The Gospel of Mark – although not a disciple of Jesus, but a friend of Peter – was written in the late 50s. The Gospel of Luke was written by a physician (and Paul’s companion) sometime before A.D. 65. The Gospel of John was written between A.D. 70-100.
All the people associated with Jesus – the eyewitnesses – were still alive by the time Paul’s letters were in circulation. Galatians was written in A.D. 48. Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians were written around the same time of Phillipians – A.D. 62. Besides all this, the epistles mention the other apostles. Paul knew Peter and James personally (Galatians 1).
If Paul was making all this stuff up, CERTAINLY the disciples would have said something. Don’t you think?
Jesus’ own brother James wrote his letter around A.D. 40-45 – way before Paul’s writings. And seriously, what did it take for James to accept that his half-brother was actually God in the flesh? James turned from being a skeptic to a leader in the church based on his meeting with the resurrected Christ.
My point is this: Paul did not make up the divinity of Jesus. Everybody who knew Jesus personally was still alive, and could have called Paul out on this, but they didn’t. Why? Because Paul was telling the truth even before the synoptic gospels were written.
Stay tuned for next week 🙂
Bibliography for Complete Article
Albright, W. F. Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1955.
Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.
Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove; Nottingham, UK: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010.
Richardson, Kurt A. James. The New American Commentary. Volume 36. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.
Rydelnik, Michael, and Michael Vanlaningham, eds. The Moody Bible Commentary. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.
Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013.
 W. F. Albright, Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1955), 136.
 Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996), 30.
 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).
 Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove; Nottingham, UK: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010), 275.