Once upon a time, Jesus was born in a manger, so the story goes every Christmas. Whether the birth is on December 25 or not will not be the subject that I’m going to discuss in this special blog edition. The query that I’m going to explore is whether Jesus really exists in history in the first place. How are we going to know if Jesus lives in human history based on available records? Why should we believe in the records about His existence? Is the Holy Bible enough to be proof of His existence? What evidence do we need to completely embrace or reject His-story?
History is obviously one of the hardest subjects to deal with. How can we, who are living in the 21st century, be certain on what happened in the 1st century when Jesus was said to be born? For sure, no human being with an age of 2019 is alive today and tell us that he knew Jesus, he saw Jesus, and he can prove that Jesus is really born on December 25. No, we don’t have a direct eyewitness alive today to tell us the story that happened more than 2000 years ago. So, where are we going to build our facts, and how are we going to deal with those facts?
Actually, history is not just about facts and figures. It is about the interpretation of the facts; how does the historian interact with the facts; and, how the facts relate the past and the present.
Going back to our topic, who will tell us if Jesus really exists in history? Where can we get our facts? From the Holy Bible? Not that fast. Using the Bible as the sole evidence will be a circular argument which I would not make.
Here are the three basic principles of historiography (the study of history) provided by historian C. Sanders:
- Bibliographical Test
- Internal Evidence Test
- External Evidence Test
A bibliographical test is about examining the reliability of the copies that we have in regard to the number of manuscripts (MSS) available in the present and the gap between the original and the existing copy.
For example, the “History of the Peloponnesian War” about Sparta and Athens that was written by Thucydides is one of the historical facts recognized by historians to be authentic and reliable. It was written between 460 to 400 B.C. (more than 400 years before the alleged birth of Christ) and the eight (8) available copies that historians have today were taken around 900 A.D. That will give us a 1,300-years gap after the original copy.
Aristotle, one of the most recognized philosophers in almost all academic subjects, wrote his poetics around 343 B.C. And yet, the earliest copy is dated 1100 A.D., nearly 1,400 years gap, and only five copies are available today. But still, modern philosophers embrace his thoughts and believe him to be as real as your grandfather.
There are other books of history that are considered as facts and reliable in spite of long gaps and few available copies, such as:
1. Julius Caesar’s “Gallic War” (900 years gap, 10 copies)
2. Tacitus’ “Histories” (700 years gap, 2 copies)
3. Josephus’ “Jewish War” (400 years gap, 9 copies)
How about the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) of the Bible that gives a record about Jesus? How many copies do we have, and how long is the gap between the original writings? Can we even consider these books to be historical?
We have overwhelming 5,735 authentic copies with a gap of 260 years between the original MSS (but 40 years with some fragments). The first New Testament Gospel is written about 30 to 40 years after the resurrection of Jesus.
The historical facts we’ve discussed above will make the Bible the most reliable record of the historical past. So, if you believe Aristotle exists in the past together with the Spartans and the Athenians, and also Julius Caesar in spite of few numbers of recorded copies and long years of time interval, why would it be hard for you to accept that Jesus also lived 2000 years ago with a more reliable document than the other known people of the past?
Here is what the Gospel of Matthew (written about 80 A.D.) has to say about the birth of Christ:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.
But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 1:18-21; 2:1-2)
Today, we have just dealt with the first principle on how to test historical facts. We will tackle the other two, Internal and External, evidence in the next article to answer the question “Does Jesus Christ exist in history?” Thank you for reading.