Does the Bible record early Christianity? Scholars provide useful points to help the casual observer see marks of the earliest faith. Critical examination of the Bible helps authenticate and illuminate the faith of Jesus’s earliest followers. The following includes embedded sources, traditions, and marks of authenticity from within the Christian Scriptures that historians use to draw historical points from the Bible.
1. Sources within the Bible: 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 sources 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. This gospel is the earliest Christian tradition dating before the text containing them.
The Gospels rely on earlier traditions as sources. In AD 58–59, the Gospel of Luke noted written 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.” However, this writer finds that the obvious explanation is that Luke relied on Matthew’s Gospel as one of his sources. Either way, the material for the Gospels is very early.
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. Miracles attributed to Jesus in every Gospel and miracles attributed to His disciples are throughout the New Testament writings. Evidently, the first disciples perceived that Jesus did miracles.
3. Change of Beliefs: Historians identify early traditions in biblical teaching in the New Testament that differs from its background in first-century Jewish culture. When a tradition 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 the historicity as Jesus as the author and source of the teachings. A study of the 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 the oral tradition of the Pharisees. Furthermore, a significant amount information exists in the dissimilarities between the Gospel accounts of Jesus and early Christianity in Acts so that one can note the references to the “Son of Man” in the Gospels and identify Jesus upon this historical criteria.
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) also helps authenticate a source’s account. The New Testament scriptures provide the source material affirming that Jesus and His disciples are the origin and bridge of the change of beliefs from Judaism to Christianity.
4. 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 present their position as acceptable. However, the Gospels record “uneducated” fishermen becoming disciples, one of Jesus’s disciples betrayed him, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, women were first witnesses of the empty tomb, and fearful disciples hid after Jesus’s arrest. These embarrassments support the most probable historical facts. Furthermore, Jesus is the hero of whom the leaders of his people rejected and crucified. If not true, writers would have put the guilt on the Roman enemy rather than Jewish leaders.
5. Allegorical Teaching: Jesus spoke in parables that were often vague (Matt 13). The Bible includes such allegories meant for contemplation for which 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 indirect teaching in the Christian Bible, this indicates authenticity for the original messages from the sources recorded in the New Testament. Jesus’s teachings are sometimes mysterious to readers of the Gospels, yet Christians still explain and clarify such teaching. Allegorical teaching reveals its early state as the Christian Bible records.
6. Repeated Forms of Character: The common actions and characteristics of people in the Bible infer that these are most probably true. These reoccurring forms and themes reveal details of specific individuals in history. The New Testament attributes a specific style and approach in Jesus’s words as demonstrated in parables, stories, accounts, arguments, proverbs, and pronouncements. The repeated forms revealed in scriptures demonstrate a common early tradition of the nature and character of Jesus of Nazareth.
7. Rejection of Heroes: 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. However, Christian scriptures record that Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and called for His crucifixion.
8. Traces of Local Languages: If a text is written in a language that transliterates a language of a specific locale, this indicates that the writer has an intimate knowledge of that local language, location, and culture. The Christian Bible is in Koine Greek — the common Greek that spanned centuries from Alexander 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 for locations for 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.
9. Details Specific to the 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.
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 the Jewish rejection of Jesus in the Gospels and the first experiences of Jesus’s resurrection. Mark’s Gospel introduces the honorable burial, discovery of the empty tomb, and a proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection bridging Jesus’s death to belief in Jesus’s resurrection that started the church. Therefore, Mark’s minimal account contains an essential record. The other Gospels corroborate and expand on 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, Joseph of Arimathea buried the body of Jesus. The specificity of a named official also affirms the historicity of Jesus’s honorable burial.
- 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 demonstrating their initial fear and unbelief. Women witnesses are the most probable and best explanation for this event (Mark 16:1–8). This admission of embarrassment for the disciples demonstrates their sincerity as truthful sources who converted from experiencing appearances of Jesus alive after death.
- The various details between the Gospels demonstrate various oral traditions and the sharing of material sources. The evangelists who wrote each Gospel address different details, and thus each Gospel is an independent source of earlier witness(es). Each Gospel must contain sources that date earlier (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 dating to before AD 40. The earliest sources trace to the origin of Christianity. Ambiguity in the Gospels that latter Christians explain also attest to very early accounts.
- 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 sources attesting the earliest evidence for Jesus’s resurrection (Acts 2; 13). The New Testament sources indicate an early gospel message of Jesus’s life, teachings, death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor 15:1–4).
- 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 very early source material. Furthermore, Paul recorded that this gospel message dates to his conversion within 2 or 3 years after Jesus’s death in circum AD 32–33. 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 30 (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 to Jesus’s death and following events. The earliest Christian message is that Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the dead. This message represents the origin of Christianity. Experiences of Jesus’s resurrection started the church. All other suggestions appeal to possibility rather than probability. Critical scholars admit these basic historical facts about the original faith in Jesus’s resurrection.
Christians have nothing to fear from historically examining accounts of Jesus and his apostles in the Christian Bible. The historical criterion include positive attestations about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament bears the marks of authenticity. Christians do not need to fear marginal speculations dismissing Jesus’s resurrection as the resurrection appearances are the best explanation to explain the honorable burial, empty tomb, and beginning of the Christian movement. Some academics deny Jesus’s resurrection by appealing to neutrality and so denying the supernatural. Because explanations based on possibility are a fallacy of reason, historical conjectures and denial of the supernatural have no effect on the reliability of the Bible. 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 church.
Bock, Darrell L. Who Is Jesus? — Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith. New York: Howard Books, 2014.