When it comes to the historical reliability of a document, the first thing we need to look at is if there is multiple attestation for the events, people and places described that corroborate the document. This means that many different people have written about these things or there is physical evidence from archaeology.
Multiple attestation adds a great deal of strength to the argument that an ancient historical event actually happened. Ancient historian Paul Maier states that “Many facts from antiquity rest on just one ancient source, while two or three sources in agreement generally render the fact unimpeachable.” (p197)
So what do we have in this line of evidence concerning the New Testament? Do we have just one source or many?
There is a vast amount of archaeological evidence that underscores the reliability of the New Testament accounts. I love reading about each of these findings, and I could spend a ridiculous amount of time researching all of them. It would take an entire book to cover all the archaeological evidence that corroborates the New Testament, but, for now, here are a few examples that stand out to me:
These are just a handful of the many archaeological finds that support the biblical narrative.
These findings underscore the case for the historical reliability of the New Testament and the claim that it was written by authors who lived during that specific time in history.
(Note: If this is an area of interest for you, here’s a short list of more findings that are related to the New Testament : more info )
Non-Biblical Sources on Jesus
The New Testament books are not the only early documents we have that talk about Jesus and the early church. This was one of things that made me nervous to look into because…well…what if the only time we hear about Jesus as a person in history is in the religious texts surrounding his movement?
But I wasn’t worried for long!
These are three different , non-Christian authors, very near the time of Christ, who mention Jesus and the early church:
Cornelius Tacitus wrote of the persecution of early Christians and their founder in his description of Nero and the Great Fire of 64AD in Annals 15.44. Here is a translation of what he wrote:
“But neither human help, nor gifts from the emperor, not all the ways of placating Heaven, could stifle the scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order (of Nero). Therefore to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd called Chrestians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but the capital (Rome) itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become fashionable. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested. Next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for the hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their one: they were covered with wild beasts skins and torn to death by dogs or they were fastened to crosses, and when daylight dialed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with he crowd in the clothes of a charioteer or mounted on his chariot. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they being sacrifices not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.” (Williams, p20-21)
Basically, the people of Rome believed that Nero himself started the Great Fire. Nero then pinned the blame for it on the Christians in Rome. He had them executed in a variety of grotesque ways, including being torn apart by dogs and burned alive on crosses to be used as lamps in his garden. That’s pretty intense.
Summary of Tacitus:
- Tacitus was not a Christian and did not have bias to write favorably about the movement
- The Christian movement likely believed that the individual who had been executed was the Messiah who had been prophesied about in Jewish Scriptures. Hence the title of “Christ”, which is the Greek word for “Messiah”.
- Christ was executed under Tiberius and Pontius Pilate, as is congruent with the Biblical account.
- Christianity halted and then exploded in growth, as is congruent with the Biblical account.
- Christianity spread rapidly, thereby dramatically negating the possibility of adding core beliefs within such a short time period.
Pliny the Younger
Pliny the younger was the officer over a region in Turkey around 109AD and 111AD. He wrote to Emperor Trajan asking for clarification on how to properly persecute followers of Christ. His letter and Trajan’s response are long, so here is a link if you would like to read the text for yourself: more info
Summary of Pliny
- Pliny and Trajan hated Christians and did not have a bias to write favorably about them.
- It was incredibly difficult to be a Christian during this time.
- There were a lot of Christians at this time.
- Christians worshiped one God and would not worship a human such as the Emperor. We know this because one of the tests to see if someone was a Christian or not was to have them worship other gods, and the Emperor would have been considered one of those gods. If the Christians worshiped many gods or a human as a god, this would not have been a problem for them.
Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived about 37AD to 100AD. He fought against Rome in the First Jewish-Roman war and was captured in 66AD. He found favor with Vespasian and later Emperors, becoming a Roman citizen and recording a great deal of detailed Jewish history. He is considered the most important historian for 1st century Palestine.
The writings of Josephus are a bit more controversial for some and come with some explaining.
Josephus mentions many biblical characters including John the Baptist and Herod the Great. More importantly, Josephus mentions Jesus in his writings two separate times.
One of these mentions is during the description of the trial and death of James:
“[High Priest Ananus] convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.” (Antiquities, 20.9)
The second mention is more complicated. Scholars today have good reason to believe this second mention has been tampered with by a Christian scribe. That might make us tempted to throw out this section completely, but it is more complex than that.
Below is a translation of the passage with the likely additions in brackets and bolded as per the research of Edwin Yamauchi (1995) and John P. Meier (1990).
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to call him a man.] For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. [He was the Christ.] When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. [On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” (Antiquities, 18.3)
When we study this passage, it is clear that Josephus, a man who remained a Jew throughout his life, did not write all of; this. The underlined sections are the sections that it is believed a Christian scribe added later. They do not fit with the beliefs of a Jewish man; one who never became a Christian.
So why must we still consider this passage?
There are many reasons, but the largest one is the finding of an Arabic translation of this passage from before it was likely altered. This passage states the following:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”
While this translation is also controversial and some skeptics do not accept it as being a translation of Josephus’ writings, it is important to be aware of and consider it as part of our discussion of Josephus.
Summary of Josephus
- James Reference
- Jesus had the title of Christ/Messiah.
- Jesus had a brother, James.
- Some early leaders in Christianity would have been able to confirm Jesus’ family origins, since they knew his brother. This is important for the Old Testament prophecies that surround Jesus as the Messiah.
- Arabic Translation of Josephus (Contested)
- Jesus was respected.
- Jesus had many disciples.
- Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
- His disciples reported that he rose from the dead.
- He might have been the Messiah.
These are a few of the earliest non-Christian sources we have that talk about Jesus and the early church. There are many more extra biblical sources, both Christian and non-Christian that could also be considered, and you can read more about those here.
One important thing to note when studying New Testament events is that each Gospel account is written by a different author and is considered a different source. The Bible is made up of 66 different books, with 40 different authors. It is not one book, but a lot of books/letters in a collection.
This means that each book/author is a different attestation.
In the case of the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ, there are usually 6 different books within the Bible that are used:
- Matthew – Attributed to Matthew, an educated tax-collector whom Jesus called to be his disciple and recorded his own eyewitness account.
- Mark – Attributed to Mark, the scribe who recorded the eyewitness account of Peter, the disciple, according to Papias (more info)
- Luke and Acts – Attributed to Luke, the educated doctor, who spoke with many different eyewitnesses and carefully recorded their accounts.
- John – Attributed to John, the disciple of Jesus, who recorded his own eyewitness account.
- Creed found in 1 Corinthians – Attributed to Paul but scholars agree the creed was created 3-5 years after the death of Jesus. (more info)
It is largely believed that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used this account as source material, in addition to their own eyewitness testimony or recordings of eyewitness testimony. This earns these three the title of the Synoptic Gospels. John is not considered to have used Mark as a source.
There is also the belief among scholars that the Gospel writers had access to an undiscovered document called “Q”, where it is thought that the words of Jesus had been written down as he preached or shortly thereafter.
It is important to remember that each account, even Matthew and Luke using Mark as source material, is unique and has details unique to their accounts, but that the core of the story is the same, as is true with all good eyewitness testimony. People each experience an event differently and remember different things that stand out to them. They are not copies of each other and should be treated as individual sources.
For example, if we gathered together a group of people who were eyewitnesses to the World Trade Center attack, and one who had been in the first tower spoke only of one plane, while another who had been in the second tower spoke of two planes, while another who had been on the ground did not mention any planes, but just spoke of the buildings collapsing, would these differences mean the World Trade Center was never attacked? No. It simply means that different details stand out to different people.
Differences are not the same thing as contradictions, and these kinds of differences strengthen the claim of true eyewitness testimony. If they were all identical, that would be incredibly suspect, and it would be an easy conclusion that the writers got together to fabricate their unified stories. Since there are differences or things mentioned in one that are not in the others, this lends credibility to the eyewitness claim and that the authors faithfully recorded what the eyewitnesses said, without changing it to better fit the story.
We have non-Christian, multiple attestation for many of the biblical accounts through both archaeology and written sources. Within the New Testament and possibly outside of the New Testament in Josephus as well, we have multiple attestation to the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. All of this builds the case that the New Testament can be used as a historical document, particularly in the discussion of the historical event of the Resurrection.
Up next: Are these attestations that we have in the New Testament written by early eyewitnesses or were they written much later?
- Williams, Peter, “Can We Trust the Gospels?” Crossway, 2018.
- Yamauchi, Edwin, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, Zondervan, 1995, 212-14
- John P. Meier, “Jesus in Josephus: A Modest Proposal,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990): 76-103.
- Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), 197.
- Arabic summary, presumably of Antiquities 18.63. From Agapios’ Kitab al-‘Unwan (“Book of the Title,” 10th c.)