The Historical Jesus
How do we know that the life of Jesus is not just a story that the Church made up?
Tacitus, a Roman historian who wrote Annals in 115 CE, is considered one of the more accurate historians of the ancient world.
He wrote: "To dispel the rumor that the fire was started by Nero, Nero substituted as culprits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was Emperor, by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus. But the deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but even throughout Rome, where all the nasty and disgusting ideas from all over the world pour in and find a ready following.” (Annals 15:44). This means there were a significant number of Christians in Rome in 64AD, only 30 years after the Crucifixion of Christ.
Flavius Josephus (37-98 CE), the most famous Jewish historian, was a Jewish zealot, not a follower of Jesus. He changed sides and became the Roman Emperor's adviser on Jewish affairs. His history book, Antiquities of the Jews, describes Palestine in the time of Jesus. Some historians think one part that talks about Jesus had been added to. With these extra bits taken away they think Josephus wrote:
"About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day." (Antiquities, Book 18, 63-64.)
He also said that the High Priest Ananias had:
"Convened the Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish religious court/governing body). He had brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, who was called James, and some other men, whom he accused of having broken the law, and handed them over to be stoned." (Antiquities, Book 20, 200).
Historians do not believe this second passage has been changed.
There is no question that historically Jesus existed.
How do we know that the Bible, which contains most of what we know about Jesus, has not been changed over the years?
Starting in about 40 AD, and continuing to about 90 AD, the eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus, including Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter and Jude, wrote the Gospels, letters and books that became the Bible's New Testament. These authors quote from 31 books of the Old Testament, and widely circulate their material so that by about 150 AD, early Christians were referring to the entire set of writings as the "New Covenant."
There exist full manuscripts of the New Testament as early as 350, which is about the same time as the Church officially compiled the New Testament in 367. There are papyri containing most of the New Testament from the third century. There is a fragment of John’s Gospel from AD 139. There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, over 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and 9,300 other manuscripts including those in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian and so forth. There are over 36,000 citations of the New Testament in the writings of the early church fathers.
Biblical scholars say that our New Testament is 99.5% textually pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words), and none affects any significant doctrine.
The authenticity of the New Testament is vastly better documented than any other document of the same time. There is no doubt about the authenticity of the New Testament.
The New testament was produced under the guidance of the early church, which is the same as the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church used the same book to this day in the original Greek in which it was written. It has never been changed or translated. In our Liturgy the priest will usually read the Gospel in both Greek and an English translation. For the true meaning of the Gospel we rely on the early church fathers interpretations and the clarification handed down by the Ecumenical councils.
What do we Know about Jesus from these texts?
We know that He had a miraculous birth from a holy virgin woman.
We know that he taught us about the way to salvation.
We know that He performed many miracles including raising people from death.
We know that he came to us for our benefit, for our salvation and eternal life in heaven.
We know that He fulfilled over three hundred Old Testament prophecies.
We know that he was cruelly crucified and then resurrected.
After forty days of His resurrection, we know that He ascended into heaven with the promise to send the Holy Spirit.
On the day of Pentecost, ten days later, His Apostles were transformed when they received the Holy Spirit and began converting thousands and organizing the Church.
Central to the Gospel story is His death and resurrection along with His promise that we too will be resurrected. So, how do we know that He was truly resurrected? Are there any plausible conspiracy theories?
Maybe Jesus was not dead when taken from the Cross and escaped from the tomb.
The tomb of Jesus was continually guarded. It was closed with a 2,000 pound stone making it impossible for even a healthy man to open it from the inside. We know that a soldier would never take a body down unless the person was dead. If he did and the prisoner escaped the soldier would be subject to a penalty of death. We also know that when the soldier pierced Christ’s body there was a flow of water and blood, which is a clear indication that there was a separation of clot and serum, which is strong medical evidence of death.
Could His body have been stolen from the tomb?
Maybe the disciples stole his body. But how could they even think of this when they were depressed and disillusioned and fled from the scene of the Crucifixion out of fear for their own lives. We saw that they needed something extraordinary to transform them into men with the force that Peter showed at Pentecost when thousands of people were converted.
The Apostles all set about to teach the Good News of the Gospel. They did so in what was a hostile world. In the end they all were martyred except for John. It is not reasonable to assume that they would undertake this mission in the face of their own death based on a lie.
How about the authorities. Could they have stolen the body? But if this were so, why wouldn’t they have produced the body when trying to squash the rumor that He was resurrected.
Could Christ’s appearances have been hallucinations?
The disciples were very stable individuals. They were burly fishermen, tax collectors and skeptics like Thomas. They would not fit a psychological profile of one likely to have hallucinations. Further, they would all have had to be hallucinating. Jesus appeared to His disciples eleven times on different occasions over a period of six weeks. He could be touched, He ate fish, He held long conversations with them, teaching them many things about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Wishful thinking on the part of the disciples is highly unlikely even in light of their initial hopefulness and enthusiasm. But, they were not easily convinced as Christ had to scold them on their faith. In fact, they came into the appearances not wishfully hoping to see Christ, but disbelieving those who did. Saint Thomas is the best example. He demanded evidence, which Christ gave to him. Further, wishful thinking would not stand up in the threats of death and all the trials and tribulations that they later had to face.
The Apostles did not have doubts about Christ’s Resurrection.
Jesus Christ was Resurrected to save us and show us the way to eternal life. He did dramatically arise into Heaven and then on Pentecost empowered the Apostles by the Holy Spirit that He told them He would send. They did act dramatically to convert thousands in a harsh Jewish and pagan world. They did not waiver in the face of their own deaths and persecutions. The Apostles did form the Church and gave it structure.
The Orthodox Church has continually existed for 2,000 years teaching the truths as taught by Him and His Apostles.
There are over a billion people today who know Jesus as the way to salvation and eternal life.
The Bottom Line: Our Faith
There is no doubt about:
- The historical existence of Christ
- His virgin birth
- His teaching
- His death by crucifixion
- His Resurrection
- The establishment of His Church by His Apostles
Orthodoxy holds these truths in the fullest.
Our Christian journey begins with FAITH. Faith demands acceptance of the full truth of the story of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, who was both fully human and fully God, and His Crucifixion and Resurrection as told to us in the Gospels.
Christianity demands as a first step a total faith in God as the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.