Christianity’s Core Belief – Part 2

As we approach Easter Sunday 2019, we are looking at Christianity’s core belief – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.” 1 Corinthians 15:16-21

Paul presented the world with a truth claim that can be falsified. Either Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead or he didn’t. Period. It’s that simple. Answer this question and you can make your own decision about how you will live the rest of your life.

Life and Death

In the process of determining whether the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is true or false, you may find it helpful to ask and answer a couple of questions first:

  1. Did Jesus of Nazareth live during the early part of the 1st century AD?
  2. Did Jesus of Nazareth die on a cross during the early part of the 1st century AD?

In order for someone to rise from the dead, they first had to be alive, then they had to die.

Let’s start with question #1: Did Jesus of Nazareth live during the early part of the 1st century AD?

While there are some atheist scholars who don’t believe Jesus was a real person who lived during the early part of the 1st century (known as the Jesus myth), most ancient scholars will acknowledge that someone named Jesus did live and teach during the time period ascribed to Him. They don’t necessarily believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but they agree that there is a historical Jesus of Nazareth.

New Testament

The New Testament was written during the 1st century AD by men who said they knew Jesus personally. Many of them (e.g. Matthew, John, Peter) were disciples of Jesus and spent years traveling with Him around what we know today as Israel. Some of them were related to Jesus (e.g. James, Jude). One of them was an enemy of the people who knew Jesus (Saul of Tarsus/Apostle Paul). Paul’s life was radically changed when he met Jesus after He rose from the dead and became a powerful spokesperson for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Two of the New Testament writers never met Jesus, but were close friends with the people who did know Jesus (Mark and Luke).

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote separate accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and made truth claims that thousands of people living in Israel during the early part of the 1st century had seen Jesus, heard Him teach and watched Him work miracles. Hundreds, if not thousands, claimed that Jesus healed them of many types of diseases and birth defects. Jesus even raised some of them from the dead.

Jesus interacted with government leaders during that time, people we know lived and worked in and around Jerusalem in the early part of the 1st century. Here are a couple of examples.

Pontius Pilate

“Immediately, in the morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council; and they bound Jesus, led Him away, and delivered Him to Pilate.” Mark 15:1

Marcus Pontius Pilatus was the Roman prefect (governor) of Judea from 26-36 AD. That fits the New Testament’s time frame for when the Jewish rulers would have brought Jesus of Nazareth to Pilate for trial. You can read more about the life of Pontius Pilate here.

Pilate’s title of prefect was confirmed by an inscription discovered in 1961. Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova and his team were excavating in Caesarea and discovered a carved limestone with an inscription that mentioned Pontius Pilate as being a prefect of Judea from 26-36 AD. You can read more about the Pilate Stone here. You can see the Pilate Stone at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Caiaphas the High Priest

“Then the detachment of troops and the captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound Him. And they led Him away to Annas first, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas who was high priest that year. Now it was Caiaphas who advised the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people … Then Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. … Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning.” Luke 18:12-14, 24, 28

Josephus, a well-known historian who lived during the 1st century AD, was a leading source for the life of Joseph Ben Caiaphas. Josephus wrote in Antiquities of the Jews that Caiaphas became high priest in 18 AD. That would have been several years before Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry and would have spoken to Caiaphas.

As for material evidence for the life of Caiaphas, workers found an ossuary in 1990 in the city of Jerusalem that contained the human remains including that of an elderly man. The inscription on the ossuary read “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Many scholars believe those bones belonged to the former high priest who knew Jesus of Nazareth. You can see the ossuary at the Israel Museum. You can read more about the ossuary here.

Seen by More Than 500 Witnesses

Paul said this about the number of people who knew that Jesus lived during the 1st century AD in Israel –

“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.” 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

We’ll spend more time looking into what these people saw in future articles, but it’s important to see how Paul listed these witnesses, most of whom were still alive and who could be questioned about what they saw.

Josephus

Flavius Josephus was both a Jewish and Roman historian.  He wrote The Jewish War in 75 AD and Antiquities of the Jews in 94 AD.

Dr. Paul Maier, Emeritus Russell H. Siebert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, wrote this about Josephus and what he wrote about Jesus of Nazareth –

“Josephus is the most comprehensive primary source on Jewish history that has survived from antiquity, and done so virtually intact despite its voluminous nature (the equivalent of 12 volumes). Because of imperial patronage by the Flavian emperors in Rome —Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian —Josephus was able to generate incredible detail in his records, a luxury denied the Gospel writers. They seem to have been limited to one scroll each since the earliest Christians were not wealthy. Accordingly, Josephus has always been deemed a crucial extrabiblical resource, since his writings not only correlate well with the Old and New Testaments, but often provide additional evidence on such personalities as Herod the Great and his dynasty, John the Baptist, Jesus’ half-brother James, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas and their clan, Pontius Pilate, and others.

Against this background, we should certainly expect that he would refer to Jesus of Nazareth, and he does—twice in fact. In Antiquities 18:63—in the middle of information on Pontius Pilate (A.D., 26-36)—Josephus provides the longest secular reference to Jesus in any first-century source. Later, when he reports events from the administration of the Roman governor Albinus (A.D. 62-64) in Antiquities 20:200, he again mentions Jesus in connection with the death of Jesus’ half-brother, James the Just of Jerusalem. These passages, along with other non-biblical, non-Christian references to Jesus in secular first-century sources—among them Tacitus (Annals 15:44), Suetonius (Claudius 25), and Pliny the Younger (Letter to Trajan)—prove conclusively that any denial of Jesus’ historicity is maundering sensationalism by the uninformed and/or the dishonest.” Josephus and Jesus

Tacitus, Seutonius and Pliny

Dr. Maier mentioned the names of three other people who lived during the 1st century AD and wrote about Jesus of Nazareth.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator who referred to Jesus of Nazareth and His execution. He also wrote about followers of Jesus (Christians) who lived in Rome during the 1st century AD. Tacitus was not sympathetic to Christianity, so most scholars accept his words about what Christians believed about Jesus to be accurate. You can read more about Tacitus and his writings here.

Gaius Seutonius Tranquillus was a Roman biographer, historian and antiquarian who lived during the latter part of the 1st century and early part of the 2nd century AD. Seutonius was a protege of Pliny the Younger. He wrote about early followers of Christ in his work called Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Seutonius also mentioned Christians and Christ in his biography of Emperor Nero. You can read more about Seutonius and his writings here.

Pliny the Younger lived during the latter part of the 1st century  and the early part of the 2nd century AD. He was the Roman governor of Bithynia et Pontus and wrote a letter (Epistle X.96) to Emperor Trajan asking for advice about how to deal with followers of Christ living in his area. Pliny was conducting trials of suspected Christians and asked for guidance from the emperor. While no specific crimes against Rome were mentioned in the letter, Pliny said they were extremely superstitious. You can read more about Pliny the Younger and his writings here.

Agnostic/Atheist Perspective

One of the leading agnostic scholars today, Dr. Bart Ehrman, does not believe Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. However, he does believe Jesus was a real historical figure.

“With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind. Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus’ life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it.

Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandized versions).

Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah. The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus. They invented the idea that the messiah had to be crucified.

One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.” Dr. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?

We invite you to watch this video by Dr. Andy Bannister where he addresses the question of “Did Jesus Even Exist?”.

Rejoice! Jesus is Risen!!

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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