Historical Evidence for the Christian Faith

sherlockThe historical basis for Christianity is a subject I have returned to several times on my blog. As a young adult, I set out to prove or disprove once and for all the faith I was raised in. If God wasn’t real, why set limits on my behavior? If the tenants of faith could be disproven, why adhere to them? I wanted to know if the gospel story really was true. So I began researching historical evidence. I soon found out Christianity is not a blind faith at all.

So what proofs did I uncover? I’ll list them here under three main headings: The Person of Christ, The Canon of Scripture, and Prophecy.

The Person of Christ

Jesus is the central figure of the Bible and the key to the Christian faith. If he can be discredited, the entire house of cards falls down. It is the logical place to start an investigation into the authenticity of Christianity. So who was he? What did he do? Why is he so important?

The Claims of Christ

Jesus Christ made it abundantly clear who he thought he was. He believed he was the Messiah sent by God to provide atonement for the sin of mankind. That’s a pretty huge claim. Here are two examples of his own statements:

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though  he dies: and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11:25)

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. There are only three logical responses to it. Either Christ was a liar, or He was crazy, or He was who He said He was.

Liar, Lord, or Lunatic

If you read the rest of the gospels, you’ll see right away that the first option just doesn’t jive. Christ preached against lying and for a moral lifestyle based on God’s law. It makes no sense that he would lie. Nor would he sacrifice his life for a lie. And you can’t argue that he was simply killed. He didn’t have to enter Jerusalem where it was widely known the religious establishment was plotting against him. But he did. He could have made a very good case for himself before Pilate, but he didn’t. He chose to die. Would a man die for a lie? That’s ridiculous.

So could he have been crazy? A crazy man might die for believing a falsehood. But that doesn’t make sense either. Jesus profoundly influenced the world with his teaching and his life. His ideas are succinct, wise, and highly regarded universally. Is this in keeping with an unsound mind? Did his actions at all imply imbalance? I just don’t buy it.

That leaves only one option. Jesus Christ was who he said he was.

The Miracles of Christ

Next, let’s look at what Christ accomplished. We are going to assume for the moment that the gospels are historically accurate (we’ll prove it momentarily) and that the miracles they relate really happened. What miracles were they? Jesus healed the blind and the lame. He caused the mute to speak and the deaf to hear. He cast out demons, fed thousands with a small lunch–twice–turned water to wine, and healed a variety of illnesses. He even raised the dead.

Have you ever heard of any other human ever accomplishing these things? Of course not. They are supernatural occurances that attest to the authenticity of Jesus. The miracles prove the message. They are divine references, if you will. The testimony of God himself to the accuracy of Christ’s claims.

The Resurrection

The resurrection of Christ from the dead is the grandaddy miracle of them all. If it’s true, it verifies Christ’s claim and forms the substance of the Christian religion. In it are tied up faith, love, forgiveness, atonement, and hope through this conquering of death. But it’s so crazy! So unprecedented! So unnatural! Can it really be true? What are the evidences?

The Disciples

Jesus chose twelve young men to be his disciples, and you have to admit they weren’t too impressive. When Jesus was teaching, they always seemed to miss the mark. They argued among themselves. They asked ridiculous questions. And they turned out to be real cowards when Christ was arrested.

But after Christ’s death, that all changed. These men, with the exception of Judas, became vocal proponents for Christ’s message. They took on the Jewish leaders. They traveled to foreign lands. They won converts, started churches, bucked established pagan religions, endured jail time, suffered beatings, and according to tradition, all of them but John died for their faith.

These guys firmly believed Christ’s message. Something substantial made them change. But what? How’d they go from coward to martyr? The only possible answer is that they were witnesses to the very real miracle of the Resurrection.

The Jewish Leaders, Roman Soldiers, and the Lack of a Body

Since Jesus had said ahead of time that he would rise from the dead, the Jewish religious leaders took precautions. They wanted to nip that idea in the bud. More Christian converts meant less power for them! They wanted Christ’s body firmly in the ground as proof that he was a counterfeit. So they asked Roman soldiers to guard the tomb.

These soldiers were the most well-trained, effective army in the world. They were career soldiers, hardened men who didn’t flinch in battle. No one was getting by them. Yet something happened. They scattered. They ran away frightened. What could cause this but a supernatural event? Even an unlikely overpowering force of men wouldn’t send them scurrying but would cause a battle there’d be some record of. They simply scattered. Why?

The Roman guards fled. They left their place of responsibility. How can their attrition he explained, when Roman military discipline was so exceptional? Justin, in Digest #49, mentions all the offenses that required the death penalty. The fear of their superiors’ wrath and the possibility of death meant that they paid close attention to the minutest details of their jobs. One way a guard was put to death was by being stripped of his clothes and then burned alive in a fire started with his garments. If it was not apparent which soldier had failed in his duty, then lots were drawn to see which one would be punished with death for the guard unit’s failure. Certainly the entire unit would not have fallen asleep with that kind of threat over their heads. Dr. George Currie, a student of Roman military discipline, wrote that fear of punishment ‘produced flawless attention to duty, especially in the night watches. –Josh McDowell, Evidence for the Resurrection

And where was the body? If it was a hoax, wouldn’t the Jewish leaders move heaven and earth to lay hold of the body and squash rumors of a resurrection? But they couldn’t produce it.

Witnesses

And what about the hundreds of recorded witnesses who also claimed to see the risen Christ? Not only the disciples and the women saw Jesus. Cleopas and another disciple saw him on the road to Emmaus. And I Corinthians says Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.” Christ’s Resurrection was not done in secret. Hundreds saw him firsthand and testified to it. This was the news story of the day. One that the temple leaders would have hushed if they could, but it was too widely known. They could not refute so many witnesses.

Canon of Scripture

After understanding and proving that Jesus was a historical figure and his Resurrection was a historical event, I set out to prove or disprove the Bible as a reliable source. I started with learning how it came to be in its present form.

Who decided which books would be included in the Bible?

Early Christian leaders were actually Jewish rabbis. Jesus Christ was Jewish, and this new religion was born out of the ancient one. It wasn’t really a new religion at all, if you understand the correlation between Old and New Testaments, rather a fulfilling of the old. But as many Jews didn’t agree that Christ was truly the Messiah, Judaism and Christianity are today held as two separate religions. Nevertheless, the first church authorities were Jews, the men who walked and talked with and learned under Jesus. These were the men who heard his words, recorded them, and taught them to others. Their combined message was incredibly consistent. It was this consistency and first-hand experience that prompted their books and letters to be universally regarded as the authority among early leaders. Theirs was, in essence, the message preached by Christ.

As time passed, the church grew and spread and Gentiles took up leadership in their own congregations, heresies began to arise. There came into existence documents claiming new revelation, new doctrine. The need for a cohesive, authoritative collection (canon) became apparent. So a variety of councils were held in the first four centuries after Christ to decide which literature should be included.

What criteria were used to determine inclusion?

At the time these leaders met, the Old Testament scriptures were firmly established and widely accepted. It was primarily the New Testament collection they were debating. A variety of factors were used to decide which documents could be considered authoritative of church doctrine and added to biblical canon and which could not. Was the book written by an apostle or someone with a close association to them? (In other words, did they a have proper first-hand witness?) Were they consistent in their message? Did they contain high moral and spiritual values? Were they widely accepted by the early church? Did they contain errors?

This process of evaluation is very mindful of the methods scholars use today to determine the authenticity of historical literature, or even how testimony is evaluated in a legal case. New Testament scripture was held to a high standard, and if any document could not pass muster, it was discarded. In essence, this process whittled down the selection to only the books that were consistent with the message of Jesus Christ. As I already fully satisfied myself of his deity, provided the scriptural source documentation checked out, I’d say that’s a pretty reliable basis.

24,000 Manuscripts

One way historians judge the reliability of an antique text is by the number of ancient copies available, the accuracy between them, and the length of time from the text’s origin to the date of the oldest copy. There are 643 copies of Homer’s Iliad, a number that has universally satisfied historians as to its authenticity, even though there is a 500 year gap between the publication date and the oldest copy. We have over 24,000 copies of the New Testament from antiquity. 24,000! And the earliest copy is less than 100 years away from the original. Satisfactory? I think so.

But what about the Old Testament?

Just because they were already established, do we simply take those books on faith? Not at all. They had to meet similar criteria. Were the authors prophets or known men of God? Are their words without error? Have prophecies been confirmed? Have miraculous events verified the authors? Are they consistent in their messages?  The Old Testament books were reaffirmed by the early church councils. In fact, the Old Testament has been tested and reaffirmed much longer than the New Testament. Jesus himself attests to their reliability all through the gospels. 

Dead Sea Scrolls

One singular archaeological find did more to reaffirm the Old Testament’s historicity than any other find. In 1947, shepherd boys discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. They include manuscripts or partial manuscripts of every book of the Bible except Esther. And they were written nearly one thousand years earlier that any previously known copies. The differences between the documents, even after one thousand years, were minimal, verifying that God has indeed preserved his Word over time.

Prophecy

One final subject I delved into to prove or disprove Chist and the Bible was prophecy. Prophecy, of course, is the predicting of events before they happen. Supernatural for sure. I wanted to satisfy myself that the prediction dates and later fulfillments were authentic.

Purpose

Messianic prophecies were given throughout the Old Testament so we would recognize the Messiah when he came. Some told what he would do, some described his birth, others revealed what would happen to him at the hands of others. Many are details that could in no way be manipulated by a counterfeit.

Authenticity

All of the messianic prophecies in the Bible were foretold between 400 and 1,000 years before Christ was born. How can we know they were written that long ago? Maybe someone just wrote them down after-the-fact. Three words: Dead Sea Scrolls. These ancient documents are widely believed to date back two centuries before Christ’s birth. They not only verify the accuracy of biblical transcription, but they also prove the Messianic prophecies were written long before Jesus was actually born.

Quantity

There are over 300 Messianic prophecies. Different scholars and translations give a range of actual numbers, from 365-456, and some of them can get pretty obscure, but the fact remains, there are at least 365 prophecies that everybody agrees on. That’s a pretty impressive number. Now the really cool part. Jesus fulfilled them all! That adds some veracity to the claims he made about Himself, doesn’t it?

Probability as Mathematical Proof

What’s the probability that one person (Jesus) could fulfill multiple prophecies?

Peter Stoner, Professor Emeritus of Science at Westmont College, with the help of 600 students, worked out the probability that one man could fulfill only eight prophecies. His numbers were widely reviewed by scientists and skeptics alike and found to be sound. The chance he came up with? One in 10 to the 17th power. That’s a one with seventeen zeros. To help us wrap our brains around that figure, he provided this analogy:

Suppose that we take 10 to the 17th silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They’ll cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would’ve had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man, from their day to the present time, providing they wrote them in their own wisdom.

You have to admit, those are pretty incredible odds. Almost hints at some intelligent choreography, doesn’t it?

My Conclusion

When faced with this much proof, I had to admit the faith my parents taught me was authentic. God is real. Christ is divine. And the Bible is reliable. My mission now is to share these finds with others. Think how many lives would change if everyone knew this stuff?

Is there anyone you can share this post with?

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