Who exactly was “the early church?”

 

As I thought through the claim that the pre-4th century church did not regard the four New Testament Gospels as authoritative, it occurred to me to ask, “Have you considered exactly who these ancient people are?” This is a ginormous question for skeptics claiming we must re-write the history books about the church’s own authoritative documents. It is most certainly one of several elephants in the room.

The Da Vinci Code Perspective (see blog post 1 and blog post 2) pits the Nag Hammadi documents, the Gnostic Gospels, against the four New Testament Gospels as the proper source behind the “real” Jesus of Nazareth. Like Gnosticism itself, it asserts special, almost mystical insight into supposedly murky and mysterious things that are otherwise unknowable. However, the reality is that we can lay the historical data out in the open, side-by-side with the four Gospels, and compare them with a great deal of clarity. No special glasses are needed.

urrim and thumin

Back to the elephant…WHO supposedly did not recognize the four Gospels as authoritative? The answer of course is the Christian church. The Da Vinci Code Perspective overlooks the fact that the 1st century church owes its very existence to the historical events surrounding the traditional Gospel message—Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, who lived and died and was resurrected to atone for sin. It was their impetus. It was their very identity. The 1st century church and its message of the Good News is rooted in the historical narrative. The four Gospels and Acts (Luke Volume 2) chronicle the history. If the lost Gospels were accurate and the Jesus of the revised history were true, there would be no Christian church in the 4th century or the 21st century to even look back upon the 1st. It would be utterly different. Such a Jesus and such a church is a phantom. Let’s follow the historical bread crumbs back to the beginning of the trail.

 eyewitnesses

First, there was a pre-4th century church who witnessed the events, proclaimed them, and wrote prolifically about Jesus and the Christian faith. So, we do not have to wonder and speculate about what these people believed about Jesus. The revisionists justify their need to re-construct Jesus by introducing doubt about the gap between the events of Jesus’s life and when the Gospels were penned. Certainly, there was a gap in time, but it is not cloaked in mystery. This is the fog-machine needed to peddle their special anti-fog glasses. Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony, makes a very strong case that “The Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship.” (pg. 6). The take-away here is, evidence shows the early church was comprised of eyewitnesses to the events; and the four Gospels, not the lost Gospels, are reliable hard copies of their orally transmitted testimonies.

The strength of the traditional history is that it is traceable to the eyewitnesses, opposed to Nag Hammadi which is traceable to a detached group of people some one to three hundred years removed.  Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, points out, “It is often proper for those Christians who side with orthodoxy to say that the Gnostics got things wrong when referring to the teachings of the historical Jesus and his disciples. The Gnostic literature is later than the New Testament literature, usually quite a bit later. Moreover, that the Gnostic literature contains authentic apostolic tradition is dubious, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas. But there is even uncertainty regarding Thomas.” (pg. 37).

quality-control

Second, concerning who the early church was, their name is important. We could perhaps call them “the meet-ers.” We use the term “church” with no obvious significance for us today. It is an anglicized, Germanic transliteration of the Greek word meaning “of the Lord.” It relates more to the place of worship than the people who are worshipping. As in our day, we see a building with a steeple and think “church.”

However, the early Christians did not have such structures. They met in private homes. The key is, they met. Their very name, “ekklesia,” in Greek, was an ordinary word for any assembly. They were known for what was most obvious about them…they gathered together often and regularly. Why is that important to this discussion? From the very beginning, they were a distinguishable, identifiable group of people with clearly recognized leadership. Jesus had twelve men in his inner circle. Eleven of them went on to lead this assembly of converts (most of whom were eyewitnesses, even participants in Jesus’s crucifixion).  Luke, the historian, quotes from Peter’s first sermon, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Luke explains, “when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart.” (Acts 2:36-37). After that sermon, the membership exploded. “But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4). Such growth required more leadership. The church appointed deacons (servant-leaders) to handle the practical needs of the group while the apostles were responsible for teaching and preaching. As the church expanded and moved beyond Jerusalem, local pastors, also called elders and bishops, were appointed to oversee the new “ekklesias” (congregations.)

Let us try to grasp the significance of these things. Christianity emerged onto the world stage with a message of faith around the historical events of Jesus of Nazareth. The message, the Gospel, was everything. It was their identity. It was the reason for which they gathered. It was the reason for which Jews and non-Jews abandoned their families, their way of life, overnight, and joined the church at great personal expense—even martyrdom. Built into the psyche of the assembly was preserving that message. The early church had an extraordinarily robust quality control system in place. As Timothy Paul Jones notes: “Early Christians rejected these [other] writings because they were looking for trustworthy testimony about Jesus, and that’s not what they found when the [sic] read the “lost Scriptures.” (pg. 88).

By contrast, the Gnostics had no structure or identifiable group. There was no creed, no gnosticbody of doctrine, and no cohesive leadership. Gnosticism was a philosophy, not a church, in an incipient form during and after the time of Christ. Nag Hammadi shows that a hundred or so years later it had gained some consistency of topics with disconnected leader like Carpocrates, Saturninus, Basilides, and Valentinus (See the Missing Gospels, by Darrel Bock, pg. 10).

Therefore, when the claim is made that the four New Testament Gospels were not authoritative among the early church, we must point out the elephants in the room. The church was vitally linked to the message, the events, and the people of the Gospels. The church produced them. There was no alternative, authoritative body or documents. The Da Vinci Code Perspective is self-refuting.

In the next post, I’ll discuss if the Gospel writers were even aware that they were writing scripture!

 

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Jesus#2, “Where did you come from?”

time mag jesus

Before asking our “To Tell the Truth” contestants some probing questions, I feel the need to explain something. The subject of this brief blog series requires me to take an informational, even corrective approach than I would prefer. If you knew me personally, you would know that I have a dry, witty sense of humor and that I really enjoy making people laugh with clever puns and jokes rather than confronting them over disagreements. Like most people, I am amused by and enjoy reading blogs about someone’s adventures trekking across the globe, complete with amazing photographs of places I will never see for myself. I am entertained by creative people who are able to notice and then transform a piece of garage-sale junk into a stunningly stylish bit of décor.  But that is not my task here. Instead, I am writing about serious matters—things associated with hope in this life and for life after death. These topics are not fodder solely for philosophers and theologians; they are the things that motivate us in our daily lives. I maintain that faith undergirds all we do, for the irreligious and the religious. We all have faith. Faith either trusts that Jesus is nothing or that he is everything. My blog attempts to direct your thoughts to a critical point of intersection between the spiritual and the physical worlds by looking at the historical claims of Christianity. When we deal with the person of Jesus and the historical record about him, we are confronted with a cardinal claim of Christianity: God came to Earth.

When it comes to Jesus, I plead with you to not give in to unfounded conspiracy theories or fanciful imaginations of his life, but rather pursue the facts. I find it ironic that many people in our scientific day seem inclined, even pre-disposed, to accept a revised account of Jesus when the original accounts are so solid. These are people, perhaps yourself, who otherwise rally around the flag of Science, resolute to consider only objective data and draw conclusions on the facts alone, yet they jettison the historical information about Jesus. Have you researched the data for yourself? Have you assumed the unreliability of the Bible and the historical record of the church or have you researched it? Are you really as scientific as you claim? Let’s now do a bit of cross-examination to separate the impostors from the genuine.

In the first blog, I named names. I pointed to two examples of revised history about Jesus. The authors’ perspectives were largely speculative, putting forth a theory and not a biography. They disavow traditional history and the documents from which it is founded, in favor of alternative documents with scant information. With tinted glasses donned, they anachronistically import their ideas into the historical record, seeing what is not there.

da vinci code

I’ve coined the phrase The Da Vinci Code Perspective, for my Jesus #2 candidate. It is short-hand for the popular notion that, The topic can be further narrowed to whether or not the four Gospels were recognized as accurate biographies of Jesus prior to the fourth century. Ironically, this perspective also claims to correct revised history. So, my first question to this Jesus #2 theory is, “Can you show me your ID?” or “What documents stand behind your story?”

nag hammadi

If the answer is, “The lost Gospels of Nag Hammadi,” we have our impostor. That sounds very mysterious and enlightening. Very Indiana jones-like. Revisionist theories have emerged due to an archaeological discovery of ancient documents in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. Prior to that discovery, Bible skeptics took an altogether different approach. They questioned the traditionally-held authorship of many of the Bible’s individual books. German scholars based their theories on a book’s internal grammatical, stylistic, and thematic differences. The scholars postulated that Isaiah, for one example, was authored by several people over a long time. Their approach is known as “form criticism” and it has all but gone the way of the dodo in modern scholarship. It proved to be the hunch de jour.

My point to you is that attacks against the traditional historicity of the Bible is nothing new. The reason this blog is about the historical Jesus and not form criticism is because the winds of skepticism changed and now blow toward Nag Hammadi. Any suspicion leading you to question who the “real Jesus” is did not originate with you, but came filtered down from the academies. What do you know about these lost Gospels? For starters, not only is their content severely lacking supportable historical content, their authorship and connections to the events are dubious. Referring to the New Testament Gospels, Dr. Darrel Bock points out, “These [traditional materials] have value because of when they were written, and because of the persons who did the writing and their relationships to Jesus or those around Him. In historical work, sources rule.” (The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities pg. 83.) The opposite applies to the Gnostic, or lost Gospels. They have no value [as biographical documents] because of when they were written, and because of the persons who did the writing and the lack of relationship to Jesus or those around Him. They are relatively late, in a time notorious for false appeals to apostolic authority.

serapionThe late 2nd to early 3rd century church not only knew about these documents, they were battling against them in real-time. The Nag Hammadi documents actually validate the pre 4th century traditional record rather than displace it. Archaeologists did not unearth ancient documents that cause us to correct history; they resurrected the very documents of the false teachers about whom the church was warned to avoid! A compelling example comes from the eighth bishop of Antioch, Serapion, regarding the so-called Gospel of Peter. (The church at Antioch goes back to the first Christians.) Serapion wrote: “For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the rest of the apostles as Christ Himself. But those writings which are falsely inscribed with their name, we as experienced persons reject, knowing that no such writings have been handed down to us. I supposed that all were in accord with the orthodox faith; and, although I had not read through the Gospel inscribed with the name of Peter which was brought forward by them…But, now that I have learnt from what has been told me that their mind was secretly cherishing some heresy, I will make all haste to come to you again….” See How We Got the Bible, by Timothy Paul Jones, pp. 62-63).

Whether you take the side of the New Testament Gospels or the Gnostic Gospels, what cannot be disputed is that the pre-4th century church did recognize the four New Testament Gospels as authoritative. Nag Hammadi may be news to us, but we are a bit late on the scene of history.

I have another question for Jesus #2, a real elephant in the room. But, it will have to wait for blog post #3.

Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?

The question before us in this post is “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” As the two previous blogs indicated, the resurrection is prominent in the good news of Jesus. It is the point upon which all of Christianity pivots. It, being concomitant to the cross, is the nexus of Biblical faith. Furthermore, the resurrection serves to bridge material and spiritual reality. (I may have just lost the materialist.) The cry of the skeptic goes something like this: “show me God and I’ll believe.” The resurrection is his evidence. Rather than God writing His name across the sky or speaking audibly and repeatedly from Heaven, He spoke finally through His Son, Jesus—a living, breathing, person from a remote town in the middle East…the One by whom our calendars mark the years. Yeah, that one.

It is no small point to say there were eyewitnesses to his life:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

 

If Jesus’s resurrection was indeed an historical event, then there should be evidence to affirm it; otherwise there should be evidence to refute the claim. An historical claim can be accurately researched. There are recognized guidelines, techniques, “science” used to investigate past events and people. The homicide investigator uses forensic science to gather information, clues, in order to establish the facts surrounding the past. Likewise, historians of antiquities use science: the study of ancient documents—particularly philology as a study of source criticism especially the Greek New Testament—, archaeology which involves the “hard sciences,” as well as anthropology. Surely, the materialist has no problem with science’s ability to accurately portray the past. Is this confidence not the foundation upon which the studies of the origin of the universe and evolution are built? Our task here should be much easier, as we are going back a mere 2,000 years and remaining on Earth rather than going back billions and billions of years looking into the vast cosmos.

One pertinent academic discipline akin to philology is historiography. The Mirriam-Webster definition is: the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods. Having original sources is ideal for historians. When original sources are not available, then secondary sources are used, and so on. Therefore, it is completely logical that the nearer a source is to the time of the person and events, the better. Furthermore, the higher number of supporting sources that corroborate, the better. As with any investigation, a reliable eye-witness, even multiple corroborating eye-witnesses is “golden.”

A major historian of Jesus’s resurrection is Christian professor and author Gary Habermas. Dr. Habermas puts forth what he calls the “minimal facts” argument, which I will summarize in this post. I find it to be a compelling argument. Before the skeptic balks at my using a Christian to defend Jesus’s resurrection, let me offer two counter-points to the objection that a Christian historian must be biased who undoubtedly will produce skewed conclusions. First, if a so-called unbiased person does the homework well, carefully researches a matter, stands up well to academic scrutiny, and the results lead him to act upon those conclusions to the degree that he becomes a “believer,” does that subsequent belief negate the research? It cannot. His “conversion” merely proves his character and integrity to respond personally and consistently with his research. I would be more suspicious of the character of a person who says “I conclude ‘X’ but remain ‘anti-X.’” Or, if a biased person does that same level of good research and his bias is strengthened, does that invalidate the research? Surely not. Though everyone’s research must stand the test of careful scrutiny, one’s bias does not automatically disqualify the research. This is the case with Dr. Habermas. His research was motivated by his own personal struggles of doubt about Christianity.

Secondly, if the “biased” person acknowledges his bias and then applies, not his own criteria, but the criteria of his opponents, to his research, would that help quench the suspicion of bias and appease the skeptic? I hope so. What else could be asked of him? It would respectfully identify common ground upon which both parties could proceed. Surely, that approach would be the only way dialogue and knowledge could healthily progress between them. Someone has to compromise (in a good way) their own beliefs in order to accommodate the other. That is exactly what Dr. Habermas does with his “minimal facts” argument. He restricts his dialogue to these “least common denominators” of agreement, recognized within critical, skeptical scholarship among credible subject-matter experts. It is only right to limit the debates to the academicians for obvious reasons…they are the ones who have done the homework and who have been recognized. It promotes the best possible measures of quality control.

Habermas’s criteria for a minimal fact is:

Each event had to be established by more than adequate scholarly evidence, and usually by several critically-ascertained, independent lines of argumentation. Additionally, the vast majority of contemporary scholars in relevant fields had to acknowledge the historicity of the occurrence. Of the two criteria, I have always held that the first is by far the most crucial, especially since this initial requirement is the one that actually establishes the historicity of the event. Besides, the acclamation of scholarly opinion may be mistaken or it could change.[1]

He also accommodates the skeptic by NOT basing his minimal facts on either the reliability or inspiration of the Bible. He offers these premises regarding the Bible and proof of the resurrection:

  1. If one concedes the Bible is Inspired, then the resurrection happened
  2. If one concedes the Bible is Reliable, then the resurrection happened
  3. IF one concedes the Bible is a book of ancient literature—and everyone does—, then the resurrection happened.

The third premise is his claim.

Some convenient data, but not necessary to the argument, is:

The empty tomb is accepted by 75% of true scholars.

The other data in his minimal facts argument is accepted by 95-100%.

How can such percentages be authenticated? He says it is from empirical data, “I counted.” Habermas claims to have catalogued critical scholars and their positions from 1975-2012 citing 3400 resources in French, German, and English, using 140 subcategories, amounting to 600 pages.

Habermas’s minimal facts include:

  1. Jesus died due to crucifixion.
  2. His disciples had experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus.
  3. Their lives were transformed because of this conviction.
  4. As a result, they proclaimed this message very soon after Jesus’ death, actually within weeks.
  5. A man named Saul of Tarsus was converted to Jesus Christ by what he

also concluded was a personal appearance of the risen Jesus to him.

These minimal facts present early, eyewitness accounts. They are multiple primary sources. Remember, this is the best possible scenario for historiographers.

The date of Jesus’s undisputed crucifixion was ~30 A.D. Among the seven or so New Testament books that are recognized as authentic is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, dated at 55 A.D or 25 years after the crucifixion. In that letter he claims a personal experience of the risen Jesus, three years after the crucifixion. He also records that at the time of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to 500 witnesses including Jesus’s own skeptical brother James. These eyewitnesses obviously put the time between the sources and the event at “Time Zero.”

The importance of these dates can be understood when you consider again historiography. From a historiography perspective, Paul’s writing twenty-five years after the resurrection is almost a ridiculously close timeframe. By comparison, Alexander the Great whose authenticity is not doubted. No one doubts Alexander the Great lived and conquered the world. There are no copies of historians who wrote during his life.

If you would like to view Dr. Habermas’s lecture on the minimal facts argument, you can do so here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5znVUFHqO4Q

This blog presents a very brief explanation of arguably the best, critical evidence for the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection. In the forthcoming blogs, I will consider some of the objections raised by skeptics. I would like to leave the skeptic with these thoughts, if you find the historical research to be reliable, then your argument for scientific evidence is satisfied, your exclusively materialistic worldview has been disproven, your demand for God to make Himself plain has been satisfied. The question then is: Will you believe Him? And if not, why not?

[1]http://garyhabermas.com/articles/southeastern_theological_review/minimal-facts-methodology_08-02-2012.htm, accessed March 5, 2017.