Does the Bible record early Christianity? Historians use specific methods to uncover sources from within the Bible that can help a person see marks of the earliest form of the Christian faith. Such historical examination of the Bible helps authenticate the faith of Jesus’s earliest followers. The following article includes embedded sources of creeds, traditions, songs, and new beliefs that reveal and authenticate early Christianity.
1. Sources within the Text: Earlier sources within the biblical text affirm the early record of the Christian Scriptures. The Christian Bible drew from earlier traditions and material sources such as creeds and songs. Paul’s first epistle to the Christians in Corinth dates to AD 54. Paul referred to the message that he received upon his conversion within 2–3 years after Jesus’s crucifixion (1 Cor 15:1–4). Furthermore, Paul’s letter to the Galatians includes Paul’s report of the gospel to Jesus’s apostles including Peter and John and to Jesus’s brother James. These individual are historical witnesses who confirm that the gospel message that Paul preached is the same as the gospel of Jesus’s first disciples dating to the death of Christ and the beginning of the church (Gal 1:11–2:10). Paul described the gospel as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ that is of first importance and the source of salvation to Christians. Therefore, the historical evidence affirms this gospel is the earliest Christian tradition dating before the text containing them.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John rely on earlier traditions as sources. In AD 58–59, the Gospel of Luke noted material and eyewitness reports that Luke relied upon to write his account (Luke 1:1–3). Luke also noted his oral sources as “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the world have delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2 ESV). For source material, the Gospels share many verbatim statements indicating common sources whether oral or written. Luke’s Gospel aligns with the chronology of the Gospel of Mark and shares material with Matthew that is not in Mark. Many scholars identify the material shared between Matthew and Luke as “Q” or quelle, which means “source.” An obvious explanation is that Luke relied on Matthew’s Gospel as one of his sources. The sources from the Gospels are very early bridging Jesus’s death in AD 33 and the writing of the Gospels before or soon after AD 70.
2. Agreement among Multiple Accounts: Independent sources attest to the authenticity of an event. The agreement of among biblical writers affirm the facts of events. The agreement of each Gospel and Paul’s epistles as independent sources affirm the actual experiences and beliefs of followers of Jesus. For instance, the most attested historical fact in history is Jesus’s crucifixion. Traditions and material sources behind the Christian Bible along with extra-biblical sources confirm Jesus’s death by crucifixion. Jesus feeding the five thousand finds authenticity in every Gospel account. The Gospels attest to specific miracles of Jesus. The first disciples perceived that Jesus did miracles.
3. Change of Beliefs: Historians identify early traditions from beliefs in the New Testament that differs from its background in first-century Jewish culture. When a belief differs from the beliefs of its surrounding culture, scholars identify this as “dissimilarity.” Differences and changes in teaching indicate that the account originates from its attributed source, so that dissimilarity in Jesus’s teachings from Jewish culture authenticates that Jesus as the author and source of the teachings. Backgrounds of early-Christianity including the Greco-Roman world and second-temple Judaism help scholars to identify teachings unique to early Christianity. Such teachings include the Lord’s Supper, Christian baptism, cleanliness of all foods, and preference for Scripture over oral tradition. Furthermore, a significant amount of information exists in the dissimilarities by the development of beliefs from Jesus in the Gospels to the teachings of the early church in Acts of the Apostles.
Some of these dissimilarities are bridges between the change of beliefs. When a later period differs from its ancestry of a previous period, then this change indicates a source between those two points — a bridge. The change of beliefs from second-temple Judaism (5th c. BC – 1st c. AD) to early Christianity (2nd c. AD – 4th c. AD) authenticates a source’s account. The bridge of changing of beliefs from Judaism to Christianity demonstrate the sources of New Testament Scriptures provide the earliest beliefs of Jesus’s earliest disciples.
4. Repeated Characteristics: The common actions and characteristics of people in the Bible infer that these are most probably true. These recurring forms and themes reveal details of specific individuals in history. The New Testament attributes a specific style and approach in Jesus’s teaching as demonstrated by Jesus’s using specific parables, stories, accounts, arguments, proverbs, and pronouncements. The repeated forms revealed in the Bible reveal an early tradition of the nature and character of Jesus of Nazareth.
5. Figurative Language: Jesus spoke in parables that were often vague (Matt 13). The Bible includes such allegories meant for contemplation that antagonists would give little time to understand. Followers of Christ are more likely to want to explain Jesus’s allegorical teachings. When early Christian writers attempted to clarify or expand upon ambiguous teachings of Jesus, this clarification proves the teaching originated earlier sources of the event. Jesus’s teachings are sometimes mysterious to readers of the Gospels, yet today, people still try to explain and clarify such teaching. Allegorical teaching reveals its early state as the Christian Bible records.
6. Embarrassing Events: The Christian Scriptures include facts that would be embarrassing and, or awkward for those supporting Jesus as the Messiah. Most writers would gloss over embarrassments to make their position more acceptable. However, the Gospels record “uneducated” fishermen as Jesus’s disciples, one of Jesus’s disciples betrayed him, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, women were first witnesses of the empty tomb, and Jesus’s disciples feared and hid after Jesus’s arrest. These embarrassments corroborate historical facts. Furthermore, Jesus is the Messiah who is to live forever but he died by crucifixion. This initial embarrassment attests to the mode of Jesus’s death.
7. Blemishes in Heroic Lives: The Gospels record people rejecting Jesus and his disciples. Such rejection authenticates the biblical depictions as historical facts. The rejection of heroes are marks of authenticity like that of the criterion of embarrassment. People would not likely invent such strong opposition that may give reason to discredit their hero and possibly undermine their persuasion. Jesus is the hero of whom the leaders of his people rejected and called to be crucified. If not true, writers would have put the guilt solely on the Romans rather than Jewish leaders.
8. Details Specific to Locale: Documents that include specific details of persons, locations, environments, and cultures indicate an intimate knowledge of these locations and events. For instance, the Christian Scriptures accurately account for multiple places and customs. The biblical writers reveal that they lived in the time and place of the records of Jesus and the original church.
9. Traces of Local Languages: If a text is written in a language that transliterates the language of a specific locale, this indicates that the writer has an intimate knowledge of that language, location, and culture. The Christian Bible is in Koine Greek — the common Greek that spread from Alexander over centuries to Constantine. The Gospels transliterate and, or explain the languages of Palestine — Aramaic and Hebrew. For instance, the Gospel of Mark translated Jesus’s words on the cross, “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Mark 15:34). Likewise, the Gospel of John often translates Aramaic names of locations to the reader (John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16). This reveals the author’s familiarity of living in Palestine authenticating the author and, or the writer’s access to primary sources.
Authenticity of the Gospel Message
The following are basic facts acquired from the application of the historical criteria to the most ancient sources to authenticate the original gospel.
- Mark’s Gospel relied on very early traditions. Most scholars date Mark to AD 60–70. The account in Mark’s Gospel of the empty tomb is an historical bridge between Jesus’s death and the first experiences of Jesus’s resurrection. Mark’s Gospel introduces Joseph’s honorable burial of Jesus’s body, women discovering the empty tomb, and early believers proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection that is a bridge from Jesus’s death to belief in Jesus’s resurrection that started the church. Therefore, Mark’s minimal account contains an essential record that the other Gospels corroborate and expand by the early experiences of believers.
- In Mark’s Gospel, Joseph of Arimathea gave Jesus an honorable burial. Because of multiple attestations from each Gospel as independent sources of a public figure, Joseph of Arimathea buried the body of Jesus.
- In Mark’s Gospel, women are witnesses to the empty tomb matching the historical criterion of embarrassment. The disciples would be embarrassed that these women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb uncovering their initial fear and unbelief (Mark 16:1–8). This admission of embarrassment for the disciples demonstrates their sincerity as truthful sources.
- The various details between the Gospels demonstrate the sharing of material sources and various oral traditions. The evangelists who wrote each Gospel addressed different details, and thus each Gospel is a source of earlier witness(es) (cf. Luke 1:1–3). Most scholars date the Gospels between AD 60–85, yet some date the Gospels even earlier. The Gospels share exact wording in some places indicating earlier written sources, and those earlier written sources must have earlier oral sources. The earliest sources trace to the origin of Christianity.
- Varying verbiage and agreement in messages between the speeches of Peter and Paul in the Book of Acts indicate that these proclamations are very early accounts of the earliest evidence for Jesus’s resurrection (Acts 2; 13).
- Lastly and most importantly, scholars date Paul’s Gospel message of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 to AD 54. First Corinthians 15:3–5 is a very early tradition. Paul recorded that this gospel message dates to his conversion within 2 or 3 years after Jesus’s death. The gospel as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 dates to the original events and experiences of the apostles Peter and John and Jesus’s brother James about AD 33 (Gal 1:11–2:10). Both Paul and James were hostile opponents at first and converted via their personal experiences of seeing Jesus alive after death.
The Gospel message dates closely to following events after Jesus’s death. The earliest Christian message of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection represents the origin of Christianity. Preaching of personal experiences of Jesus’s resurrection started the Christian movement.
Christians have nothing to fear from historically examining accounts of Jesus and his apostles in the Christian Bible. The historical criterion provides positive attestations. The New Testament bears the marks of authenticity. Christians do not need to shy away from marginal speculations dismissing Jesus. Jesus’s resurrection appearances are the best explanation to explain the honorable burial, empty tomb and beginning of the Christian movement. Critical scholars may deny Jesus’s resurrection by appealing to neutrality and by denying the supernatural. Historical speculations to deny the supernatural have no effect on the reliability of the Bible. Explanations built on mere possible are logical fallacies. The Christian does not need to explain every possible explanation but consider the historical probability and best explanation of the basic facts about Christ, his death, and the origin of the faith in Jesus’s resurrection.
Bock, Darrell L. Who Is Jesus? — Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith. New York: Howard Books, 2014.