Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Recently, while listening to a debate between Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig and humanist atheist Dr. John Shook, I was surprised to hear Dr. Shook ask Dr. Craig if any extra-biblical evidence existed for the life of Jesus Christ. In other words, does any evidence exist for Jesus outside of the Biblical narratives? Dr. Craig, a veteran of numerous debates, rightly pointed out that indeed sources for Jesus do exist outside the Bible (he offered a few resources), but that even if they didn't we still have good reasons to trust the New Testament documents.

The following week I listened to a debate between atheist Sam Harris and journalist Chris Hedges. In Harris' opening remarks he made the absurd claim that "no extra-biblical evidence describes the miraculous events recorded in the four gospel accounts." Harris went on to say that "all scholars agree that the gospels were written decades after Jesus's death." I find these statements troubling because: 1) The first one is false. 2) the second one is very misleading.

For anyone who has studied the historical evidence for Christ, this certainly is absurd and speaks volumes as to how little Sam Harris and John Shook know about the available historical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ. I find that interesting simply because they both seem to believe they are informed enough to speak publicly on the topic.

Is there any extra-biblical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ outside the gospels? And if so, what can we learn about the life of Christ and the accuracy of the NT from these sources?

We briefly addressed the extra-biblical evidence for the life of Christ in our January Newsletter as follows:

"Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist:

"Just how many non-Christian sources are there that mention Jesus? Including Josephus, there are ten known non-Christian writers who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life.

By contrast, over the same 150 years, there are nine non-Christian sources who mention Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus. So discounting all the Christian sources, Jesus is actually mentioned by one more source than the Roman emperor. If you include the Christian sources, authors mentioning Jesus outnumber those mentioning Tiberius 43 to 10!

Some of these non-Christian sources-such as Celsus, Tacitus, and the Jewish Talmud- could be considered anti-Christian sources. While these works do not have any eyewitness testimony that contradicts events described in the NT documents, they are works written by writers whose tone is decidedly anti-Christian.

What can we learn from them and the more neutral non-Christian sources? We learn that they admit certain facts about early Christianity that help us piece together a storyline that is surprisingly congruent with the NT. Piecing together all ten non-Christian references, we see that:

1. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
2. He lived a virtuous life.
3. He was a wonder-worker.
4. He had a brother named James.
5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
7. He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
8. Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died.
9. His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
10. His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.

Clearly, anyone willing to consider the data can see that the non-biblical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ indeed exists.

For an exhaustive look at the ancient non-Christian Sources for Jesus Christ, please see here.

Perhaps before his next debate, Mr. Harris may want to brush up on his research...or maybe think about starting it.

Also, the historical reliability of the NT documents is very well attested. As Douglas Groothius writes:

"the documents were written just a few decades after the events they describe by eye-witnesses or those who consulted eye-witnesses (see Luke 1:1-4; John 21:24; 1 John 1:1-3). It is very likely that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) were written before 70 AD. The Gospel of John was probably written about 90 AD. The Epistles of Paul were written even earlier than the Gospels, probably from the late 40s to the early 60s. Contemporary readers may deem the gap between the writing of these documents and the events themselves as being too long, but this ignores two pertinent facts. Historians generally trust ancient documents that have far longer gaps. Moreover, Jewish teachers of that day taught in very memorable styles and their disciples were known for great feats of memorization. This was common in a largely oral culture (unlike our own). Therefore, a gap of several decades between the writing of a document and what it describes provides no reason to distrust it. [1]

For more on the credibility of the NT documents, see here and here.

To explore how the New Atheist camp has sought to misrepresent the reliability of the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the existence of God, please see Douglas Groothuis's thoughts here and here.

Courage and Godspeed,
Chad A. Gross