THE CASE FOR CHRIST #4
The Corroborating Evidence
Is There Credible Evidence for Jesus outside His Biographies?
Harry Aleman turned and stabbed his finger at me. "You? he sputtered, spitting out the word with disgust. "Why do you keep writing those things about me?" Then he spun around and disappeared down a back stairwell to escape the reporters who were pursuing him through the courthouse.
Actually it was hard to be a crime reporter in Chicago during the 1970s and not write about Harry Aleman. He was, after all, the quintessential crime syndicate hit man. And Chicagoans, in a perverse way, love to read about the mob.
Prosecutors desperately wanted to put Aleman in prison for one of the cold-blooded executions they suspected he had committed on behalf of his syndicate bosses. The problem, of course, was the difficulty of finding anyone willing to testify against a mobster of Alemans frightening reputation.
Then came their big break. One of Alemans former cronies, Louis Almeida, was arrested on his way to murder a labor official in Pennsylvania. Convicted of weapons charges and sentenced to a decade in prison, Almeida agreed to testify against Aleman in the unsolved slaying of a Teamsters Union shop steward in Chicago—if prosecutors would agree to show leniency toward Almeida.
This meant Almeida had a motive to cooperate, which would undoubtedly tarnish his credibility to some degree. Prosecutors realized they would need to bolster his testimony to ensure a conviction, so they went searching for someone to corroborate Almeida's account.
Webster's dictionary defines corroborate this way: "To make more certain; confirm: He corroborated my account of the accident." Corroborative evidence supports other testimony; it affirms or backs up the essential elements of an eyewitness account. It can be a public record, a photograph, or additional testimony from a second or third person. It can verify a person's entire testimony or just key parts of it.
In effect, corroborative evidence acts like the support wires that keep a tall antenna straight and unwavering. The more corroborative evidence, the stronger and more secure the case.
But where would prosecutors find corroboration of Almeida's story? It came from a surprising source: a quiet, law-abiding citizen named Bobby Lowe told investigators he had been walking his dog when he saw Aleman murder the union steward. Despite Aleman's Bone-chilling notoriety, Lowe agreed to back up Almeida's story by testifying against the mobster.
The Power of Corroboration
At Aleman's trial Lowe and Almeida mesmerized jurors with their stories. Almeida's account of driving the getaway car dovetailed with Lowe's straightforward description of seeing Aleman murder his victim on a public sidewalk the evening of September 27, 1972.
Prosecutors thought they had woven an airtight case against the feared hit man, yet throughout the trial they sensed something was amiss. Their skepticism first surfaced when Aleman decided against having a jury trial, opting instead to have a judge hear his case.
At the end of the trial the prosecutors' worst suspicions were realized: despite compelling testimony by Lowe and Almeida, the judge ended up declaring Aleman innocent and letting him go free.
What had happened? Remember, this took place in Cook County, Illinois, where corruption so often lurks. Years later it was revealed that the judge had been slipped ten thousand dollars in return for the acquittal. When an FBI informant disclosed the bribe, the then-retired judge committed suicide—-and prosecutors refiled the murder charge against Aleman. By the time the second trial was held, the law had been changed so that prosecutors could demand that a jury hear the case. That's what they did—and finally a full twenty-five years after the murder, Aleman was found guilty and sentenced to one hundred to three hundred years in prison.
In spite of the delays, the Aleman saga shows how significant corroborative evidence can be. And the same is true in dealing with historical issues, We've already heard, through Dr. Craig Blomberg's testimony, that in the gospels there is excellent eyewitness evidence for the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But is there any other evidence to corroborate that? Are there writings outside the gospels that affirm or support any of the essentials about Jesus or early Christianity?
In other words, is there any additional documentation that can help seal the case for Christ, as Bobby Lowe's testimony sealed the case against Harry Aleman? The answer, according to our next witness, is yes—and the amount and quality of that evidence may very well surprise you.
THE THIRD INTERVIEW: Edwin M. Yamauchi, PhD
As I entered the imposing brick building that houses the office of Edwin Yamauchi at Miami University in picturesque Oxford, Ohio, I walked underneath, a stone arch bearing this inscription: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free." As one of the country's leading experts in ancient history, Yamauchi has been on a quest for historical truth for much of his life.
Born in Hawaii in 1937, the son of immigrants from Okinawa, Yamauchi started from humble beginnings. His father died just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, leaving his mother to earn a meager living as a maid for wealthy families. While lacking formal education herself, she encouraged her son to read and study, giving him beautifully illustrated books that instilled in him a lifelong love of learning.
Certainly his academic accomplishments have been impressive.
After earning a bachelors degree in Hebrew and Hellenistics, Yamauchi received masters and doctoral degrees in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis University. He has been awarded eight fellowships, from the Rutgers Research Council, National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, and others. He has studied twenty-two languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Egyptian, Russian, Syriac, Ugaritic, and even Comanche. He has delivered seventy-one papers before learned societies; lectured at more than one hundred seminaries, universities, and colleges, including Yale, Princeton, and Cornell; served as chairman and then president of the Institute for Biblical Research and president of the Conference on Faith and History; and published eighty articles in thirty-seven scholarly journals.
In 1968 he participated in the first excavations of the Herodian temple in Jerusalem, revealing evidence of the temples destruction in AD 70. Archaeology has also been the theme of several of his books, including The Stones and the Scriptures; The Scriptures and Archaeology; and The World of the First Christians. Though born into a Buddhist background, Yamauchi has been following Jesus ever since 1952, the year I was born. I was especially curious to see whether his long-term commitment to Christ would color his assessment of the historical evidence. In other words, would he scrupulously stick to the facts or be tempted to draw conclusions that went beyond where the evidence warranted?
I found Yamauchi to have a gentle and unassuming demeanor. Although generally soft-spoken, he's intensely focused. He provides thorough and detailed answers to questions, often pausing to supplement his verbal response by offering photocopies of scholarly articles he has written on the topic. A good scholar knows you can never have too much data. Inside his book-cluttered office, in the heart of a heavily wooded campus ablaze in autumn colors, we sat down to talk about the topic that still brings a glint to his eyes, even after so many years of research and teaching.
Affirming the Gospels
Because of my interview with Blomberg, I didn't want to suggest that we needed to go beyond the gospels in order to find reliable evidence concerning Jesus. So I started by asking Yamauchi this question: "As a historian, could you give me your assessment of the historical reliability of the gospels themselves?"
"On the whole, the gospels are excellent sources," he replied. "As a matter of fact, they're the most trustworthy, complete, and reliable sources for Jesus. The incidental sources really don't add much detailed information; however, they are valuable as corroborative evidence."
"OK, that's what I want to discuss—the corroborative evidence," I said. "Let's be honest: some people scoff at how much there really is. For example, in 1979 Charles Templeton wrote a novel called Act of God, in which a fictional archaeologist made a statement that reflects the beliefs of a lot of people."
I pulled out the book and read the relevant paragraph.
The [Christian] church bases its claims mostly on the teachings of an obscure young Jew with messianic pretentions who, lets face it, didn't make much of an impression in his lifetime. There isn't a single word about him in secular history. Not a word. No mention of him by the Romans. Not so much as a reference by Josephus.
"Now," I said a little pointedly, "that doesn't sound as if there's much corroboration of the life of Jesus outside the Bible."
Yamauchi smiled and shook his head. "Templeton's archaeologist is simply mistaken," he replied in a dismissive tone, "because we do have very, very important references to Jesus in Josephus and Tacitus. The gospels themselves say that many who heard him—even members of his own family—did not believe in Jesus during his lifetime, yet he made such an impression that today Jesus is remembered everywhere, whereas Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate, and other ancient rulers are not as widely known. So he certainly did make an impression on those who believed in him."
He paused, then added, "He did not, of course, among those who did not believe in him."
Testimony by a Traitor
Templeton and Yamauchi had both mentioned Josephus, a first-century historian who's well known among scholars but whose name is unfamiliar to most people today. "Give me some background about him," I said, "and tell me how his testimony provides corroboration concerning Jesus.
"Yes, of course," Yamauchi answered as he crossed his legs and settled deeper into his chair. "Josephus was a very important Jewish historian of the first century. He was born in AD 37, and he wrote most of his four works toward the end of the first century. In his autobiography he defended his behavior in the Jewish-Roman War, which took place from AD 66 to 74. You see, he had surrendered to the Roman general Vespasian during the siege of Jotapata, even though many of his colleagues committed suicide rather than give up."
The professor chuckled and said, "Josephus decided it wasn't God's will for him to commit suicide. He then became a defender of the Romans."
Josephus sounded like a colorful character; I wanted more details about him so I could better understand his motivations and prejudices. "Paint me a portrait of him," I said.
"He was a priest, a Pharisee, and he was somewhat egotistical. His most ambitious work was called The Antiquities, which was a history of the Jewish people from Creation until his time. He probably completed it in about AD 93. As you can imagine from his collaboration with the hated Romans, Josephus was extremely disliked by his fellow Jews. But he became very popular among Christians, because in his writings he refers to James, the brother of Jesus, and to Jesus himself."
Here was our first example of corroboration for Jesus, outside the gospels. "Tell me about those references," I said.
Replied Yamauchi, "In The Antiquities he describes how a high priest named Ananias took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus-—-who is also mentioned in the New Testament-—in order to have James killed." He leaned over to his bookshelf, pulled out a thick volume, and flipped to a page whose location he seemed to know by heart. "Ah, here it is," he said. "He convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned. I know of no scholar," Yamauchi asserted confidendy, "who has successfully disputed this passage. L. H. Feldman noted that if this had been a later Christian addition to the text, it would have likely been more laudatory of James. So here you have a reference to the brother of Jesus-—who had apparently been converted by the appearance of the risen Christ, if you compare John 7:5 and 1 Corinthians 15:7—-and corroboration of the fact that some people considered Jesus to be the Christ, which means 'the Anointed One' or 'Messiah.' There Lived Jesus ..."
I knew that Josephus had written an even lengthier section about Jesus, which is called the Testimonium Flavianum. I knew too that this passage was among the most hotly disputed in ancient literature because on its surface it appears to provide sweeping corroboration of Jesus' life, miracles, death, and resurrection. But is it authentic? Or has it been doctored through the years by people favorable to Jesus?
I asked Yamauchi for his opinion, and it was instantly clear I had tapped into an area of high interest for him. He uncrossed his legs and sat up straight in his chair. "This is a fascinating passage," he said with enthusiasm, leaning forward, book in hand. "But yes, it is controversial." With that he read it to me.
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
The wealth of corroboration for Jesus was readily evident. "You agreed this was controversial-—what have scholars concluded about this passage?" I asked.
"Scholarship has gone through three trends about it," he said. "For obvious reasons, the early Christians thought it was a wonderful and thoroughly authentic attestation of Jesus and his resurrection. They loved it. Then the entire passage was questioned by at least some scholars during the Enlightenment. But today there's a remarkable consensus among both Jewish and Christian scholars that the passage as a whole is authentic, although there may be some interpolations."
I raised an eyebrow. "Interpolations—-would you define what you mean by that?"
"That means early Christian copyists inserted some phrases that a Jewish writer like Josephus would not have written," Yamauchi said.
He pointed to a sentence in the book. "For instance, the first line says, 'About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man.' That phrase is not normally used of Jesus by Christians, so it seems authentic for Josephus. But the next phrase says, 'if indeed one ought to call him a man.' This implies Jesus was more than human, which appears to be an interpolation."
I nodded to let him know I was following him so far.
"It goes on to say, 'For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.' That seems to be quite in accord with the vocabulary Josephus uses elsewhere, and it's generally considered authentic. But then there's this unambiguous statement, 'He was the Christ.' That seems to be an interpolation-—"
"Because," I interrupted, "Josephus says in his reference to James that Jesus was 'calledthe Christ.'"
"That's right," said Yamauchi. "It's unlikely Josephus would have flatly said Jesus was the Messiah here, when elsewhere he merely said he was considered to be the Messiah by his followers. The next part of the passage-—which talks about Jesus' trial and crucifixion and the fact that his followers still loved him-—is unexceptional and considered genuine. Then there's this phrase: 'On the third day he appeared to them restored to life.' Again, this is a clear declaration of belief in the Resurrection, and thus it's unlikely that Josephus wrote it. So these three elements seem to have been interpolations."
"What's the bottom line?" I asked.
"That the passage in Josephus probably was originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned. But even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders."
The Importance of Josephus
While these references did offer some important independent verification about Jesus, I wondered why a historian like Josephus wouldn't have said more about such an important figure of the first century. I knew that some skeptics, like. Boston University philosopher Michael Martin, have made this same critique. So I asked for Yamaucbis reaction to this statement by Martin, who doesn't believe Jesus ever lived: "If Jesus did exist, one would have expected Josephus ... to have said more about him. It is unexpected that Josephus mentioned him ... in passing while mentioning other Messianic figures and John the Baptist in greater detail."
Yamauchi's response seemed uncharacteristically strong. "From time to time some people have tried to deny the existence of Jesus, but this is really a lost cause," he said with a tone of exasperation. "There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus did exist, and these hypothetical questions are really very vacuous and fallacious. But I'd answer by saying this: Josephus was interested in political matters and the struggle against Rome, so for him John the Baptist was more important because he seemed to pose a greater political threat than did Jesus."
I jumped in. "Hold on a second. Aren't there some scholars who have portrayed Jesus as a Zealot or at least sympathetic to the Zealots?" I asked, referring to a first-century revolutionary group that opposed Rome politically. Yamauchi dismissed the objection with a wave of his hand. "That is a position the gospels themselves do not support," he replied, "because remember, Jesus didn't even object to paying taxes to the Romans. Therefore because Jesus and his followers didn't pose an immediate political threat, it's certainly understandable that Josephus isn't more interested in this sect—even though in hindsight it turned out to be
very important indeed."
"So in your assessment, how significant are these two references by Josephus?"
"Highly significant," Yamauchi replied, "especially since his accounts of the Jewish War have proved to be very accurate; for example, they've been corroborated through archaeological excavations at Masada as well as by historians like Tacitus. He's considered to be a pretty reliable historian, and his mentioning of Jesus is considered extremely important."
"A Most Mischievous Superstition"
Yamauchi had just mentioned the most important Roman historian of the first century, and I wanted to discuss what Tacitus had to say about Jesus and Christianity. "Could you spell out what he corroborates?" I asked.
Yamauchi nodded. "Tacitus recorded what is probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament," he said. "In AD 115 he explicidly states that Nero persecuted the Christians as scapegoats to divert suspicion away from himself for the great fire that had devastated Rome in AD 64."
Yamauchi stood and walked over to a shelf, scanning it for a certain book. "Ah yes, here it is," he said, withdrawing a thick volume and leafing through it until he found the right passage, which he then read to me.
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous, superstitution, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.... Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
I was already familiar with that passage, and I was wondering how Yamauchi would respond to an observation by a leading scholar named J. N. D. Anderson. "He speculates that when Tacitus says this 'mischievous superstition was checked for the moment but later 'again broke out,' he was unconsciously bearing testimony to the belief of early Christians that Jesus had been crucified but then rose, from the grave," I said. "Do you agree with him?"
Yamauchi thought for a moment. "This has certainly been the interpretation of some scholars" he replied, seeming to duck my request for his opinion. But then he made a crucial point: "Regardless of whether the passage had this specifically in mind, it does provide us with a very remarkable fact, which is this: crucifixion was the most abhorrent fate that anyone, could undergo, and the fact that there was a movement based on a crucified man has to be explained. How can you explain the spread of a religion based on the worship of a man who had suffered the most ignominious death possible? Of course, the Christian answer is that he was resurrected. Others have to come up with some alternative theory if they don't believe that. But none of the alternative views, to my mind, are very persuasive."
I asked him to characterize the weight of Tacitus writings concerning Jesus.
"This is an important testimony by an unsympathetic witness to the success and spread of Christianity, based on a historical figure—Jesus—who was crucified under Pontius Pilate," he said. "And it's significant that Tacitus reported that an 'immense multitude' held so strongly to their beliefs that they were willing to die rather than recant."
Chanting "As If to a God"
I knew that another Roman, called Pliny the Younger, had also referred to Christianity in his writings. "He corroborated some important matters, too, didn't he?" I asked.
"That's right. He was the nephew of Pliny the Elder, the famous encyclopedist who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 - Pliny the Younger became governor of Bithynia in northwestern Turkey. Much of his correspondence with his friend, Emperor Trajan, has been preserved to the present time."
Yamauchi pulled out a photocopy of a book page, saying, "In book 10 of these letters he specifically refers to the Christians he has arrested."
I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I
repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery....This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.
"How important is this reference?" I asked.
"Very important. It was probably written about AD 111, and it attests to the rapid spread of Christianity, both in the city and in the rural area, among every class of persons, slave women as well as Roman citizens, since he also says that he sends Christians who are Roman citizens to Rome for trial. And it talks about the worship of Jesus as God, that Christians maintained high ethical standards, and that they were not easily swayed from their beliefs."
The Day the Earth Went Dark
To me, one of the most problematic references in the New Testament is where the gospel writers claim that the earth went dark during part of the time that Jesus hung on the cross. Wasn't this merely a literary device to stress the significance of the Crucifixion, and not a reference to an actual historical occurrence? After all, if darkness had fallen over the earth, wouldn't there be at least some mention of this extraordinary event outside the Bible. However, Dr. Gary Habermas has written about a historian named Thallus who in AD 52 wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Although Thallus's work has been lost, it was quoted by Julius Africanus in about AD 221 —-and it made reference to the darkness that the gospels had written about!
"Could this," I asked, "be independent corroboration of this biblical claim?"
Explained Yamauchi, "In this passage Julius Africanus says, 'Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably, as it seems to me.' So Thallus apparendy was saying yes, there had been darkness at the time of the Crucifixion, and he speculated it had been caused by an eclipse. Africanus then argues that it couldn't have been an eclipse, given when the Crucifixion occurred."
Yamauchi reached over to his desk to retrieve a piece of paper. "Let me quote what scholar Paul Maier said about the darkness in a footnote in his 1968 book "Pontius Pilate" he said, reading these words:
"This phenomenon, evidendy, was visible in Rome, Athens, and other Mediterranean cities. According to Tertullian ... it was a "cosmic" or "world event." Phlegon, a Greek author from Caria writing a chronology soon after 137 AD, reported that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., 33 AD) there was "the greatest eclipse of the sun" and that "it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea."
(THE BIG PROBLEM HERE IS THAT THIS DARKNESS OF 33 A.D. WAS NOT THE YEAR CHRIST WAS PUT TO DEATH - THAT YEAR BEING 30 A.D. BUT A STUDY ON MY WEBSITE "WHEN WAS JESUS BORN?" ANSWERS THE QUESTION - Keith Hunt)
Yamauchi concluded, "So there is, as Paul Maier points out, non-biblical attestation of the darkness that occurred at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. Apparently, some found the need to try to give it a natural explanation by saying it was an eclipse."
(BUT AS STATED SOME GOT THE WRONG DARKNESS, SO THE WRONG YEAR OF CHRIST'S DEATH - Keith Hunt)
A Portrait of Pilate
Yamauchi's mentioning of Pilate reminded me of how some critics have questioned the accuracy of the gospels because of the way they portray this Roman leader. While the New Testament paints him as being vacillating and willing to yield to the pressures of a Jewish mob by executing Jesus, other historical accounts picture him as being obstinate and inflexible.
"Doesn't this represent a contradiction between the Bible and secular historians?" I asked.
"No, it really doesn't," said Yamauchi. "Maier's study of Pilate shows that his protector or patron was Sejanus and that Sejanus fell from power in AD 31 because he was plotting against the emperor."
I was puzzled. "What does that have to do with anything?" I asked.
"Well, this loss would have made Pilate's position' very weak in AD 33, which is most likely when Jesus was crucified, the professor responded.
(THE "MOST LIKELY" IDEA IS INDEED WRONG - Keith Hunt)
"So it would certainly be understandable that Pilate would have been reluctant to offend the Jews at that time and to get into further trouble with the emperor. That means the biblical description is most likely correct."
Other Jewish Accounts
Having talked primarily about Roman corroboration of Jesus, I wanted to turn a corner at this point and discuss whether any other Jewish accounts besides that of Josephus verify anything about Jesus. I asked Yamauchi about references to Jesus in the Talmud, an important Jewish work finished about AD 500 that incorporates the Mishnah, compiled about AD 200.
"Jews, as a whole, did not go into great detail about heretics," he replied. "There are a few passages in the Talmud that mention Jesus, calling him a false messiah who practiced magic and who was justly condemned to death. They also repeat the rumor that Jesus was born of a Roman soldier and Mary, suggesting there was something unusual about his birth."
"So," I said, "in a negative way these Jewish references do corroborate some things about Jesus."
"Yes, that's right," he said. "Professor M. Wilcox put it this way in an article that appeared in a scholarly reference work:"
The Jewish traditional literature, although it mentions Jesus only quite sparingly (and must in any case be used with caution), supports the gospel claim that he was a healer and miracle-worker, even though it ascribes these activities to sorcery. In addition, it preserves the recollection that he was a teacher, and that he had disciples (five of them), and that at least in the earlier Rabbinic period not all of the sages had finally made up their minds that he was a "heretic" or a "deceiver."
Evidence apart from the Bible
Although we were finding quite a few references to Jesus outside the gospels, I was wondering why there were not even more of them. While I knew that few historical documents from the first century have survived, I asked, "Overall, shouldn't we have expected to find more about Jesus in ancient writings outside the Bible?"
"When people begin religious movements, it's often not until many generations later that people record things about them," Yamauchi said. "But the fact is that we have better historical documentation for Jesus than for the founder of any other ancient religion."
That caught me off guard. "Really?" I said. "Can you elaborate on that?"
"For example, although the Gathas of Zoroaster, about 1000 BC, are believed to be authentic, most of the Zoroastrian scriptures were not put into writing until after the third century AD. The most popular Parsi biography of Zoroaster was written in AD 1278. The scriptures of Buddha, who lived in the sixth century BC, were not put into writing until after the Christian era, and the first biography of Buddha was written in the first century AD. Although we have the sayings of Muhammad, who lived from AD 570 to 632, in the Koran, his biography was not written until 767-—more than a full century after his death. So the situation with Jesus is unique-—-and quite impressive in terms of how much we can learn about him aside from the New Testament."
I wanted to pick up on that theme and summarize what we had gleaned about Jesus so far from nonbiblical sources. "Lets pretend we didn't have any of the New Testament or other Christian writings," I said. "Even without them, what would we be able to conclude about Jesus from ancient non-Christian sources, such as Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and others?"
Yamauchi smiled. "We would still have a considerable amount of important historical evidence; in fact, it would provide a kind of outine for the life of Jesus," he said.
Then he went on, raising a finger to emphasize each point. "We would know that first, Jesus was a Jewish teacher; second, many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; third, some people believed he was the Messiah; fourth, he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; fifth, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; sixth, despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by AD 64; and seveneral, all kinds of people from the cities and countryside—men and women, slave and free—worshiped him as God."
This was indeed an impressive amount of independent corroboration. "And not only can the contours of Jesus' life be reconstructed apart from the Bible, but there's even more that can be gleaned about him from material so old that it actually predates the gospels themselves."
Corroborating Early Details
"The aposde Paul never met Jesus prior to Jesus' death, but he said he did encounter the resurrected Christ and later consulted with some of the eyewitnesses to make sure he was preaching the same message they were. Because he began writing his New Testament letters years before the gospels were written down, they contain extremely early reports concerning Jesus-—-so early that nobody can make a credible claim that they had been seriously distorted by legendary development. Luke Timothy Johnson, the scholar from Emory University, contends that Paul's letters represent valuable external verification of the 'antiquity and ubiquity' of the traditions about Jesus," I said to Yamauchi. "Do you agree with him?"
We had been talking for, quite a while. Yamauchi stood briefly to stretch his legs before settling back down. "There's no question that Paul's writings are the earliest in the New Testament," he said, "and that they do make some very significant references to the life of Jesus."
"Can you spell them out?" I asked.
"Well, he refers to the fact that Jesus was a descendant of David, that he was the Messiah, that he was betrayed, that he was tried, crucified for our sins, and buried, and that he rose again on the third day and was seen by many people-—-including James, the brother of Jesus who hadn't believed in him prior to his crucifixion.
"It's also interesting that Paul doesn't mention some of the things that are highly significant in the gospels—for instance, Jesus' parables and miracles—but he focuses on Jesus' atoning death and resurrection. Those, for Paul, were the most important things about Jesus—and indeed they transformed Paul from being a persecutor of Christians into becoming history's foremost Christian missionary, who was willing to go through all sorts of hardships and deprivation because of his faith. Paul also corroborates some important aspects of the character of Jesus—his humility, his obedience, his love for sinners, and so forth. He calls Christians to have the mind of Christ in the second chapter of Philippians. This is a famous passage in which Paul is probably quoting from an early Christian hymn about the emptying of Christ, who was equal to God yet took the form of a man, of a slave, and suffered the extreme penalty, the Crucifixion. So Paul's letters are an important witness to the deity of Christ—he calls Jesus 'the Son of God' and 'the image of God.'" - I interrupted by saying, "The fact that Paul, who came from a monotheistic Jewish background, worshiped Jesus as God is extremely significant, isn't it?"
"Yes," he said, "and it undermines a popular theory that the deity of Christ was later imported into Christianity by Gentile beliefs. It's just not so. Even Paul at this very early date was worshiping Jesus as God."
"I have to say that all this corroboration by Paul is of the utmost importance. And we have other early letters by the eyewitnesses James and Peter, too. James, for instance, has recollections of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount."
Truly Raised from the Dead
We also have volumes of writings by the "apostolic fathers," who were the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament. They authored the Epistle of Clement of Rome, the Epistles of Ignatius, the Epistle of Polycarp, the Epistle of Barnabas, and others. In many places these writings attest to the basic facts about Jesus, particularly his teachings, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his divine nature.
"Which of these writings do you consider most significant?" I asked.
Yamauchi pondered the question. While he didn't name the one he thought was most significant, he did cite the seven letters of Ignatius as being among the most important of the writings of the apostolic fathers. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in Syria, was martyred during the reign of Trajan before AD 117.
"What is significant about Ignatius," said Yamauchi, "is that he emphasized both the deity of Jesus and the humanity of Jesus, as against the docetic heresy, which denied that Jesus was really human. He also stressed the historical underpinnings of Christianity; he wrote in one letter, on his way to being executed, that Jesus was truly persecuted under Pilate, was truly crucified, was truly raised from the dead, and that those who believe in him would be raised, too."
"Put all this together—Josephus, the Roman historians and officials, the Jewish writings, the letters of Paul and the apostolic fathers-—and you've got persuasive evidence that corroborates all the essentials found in the biographies of Jesus. Even if you were to throw away every last copy of the gospels, you'd still have a picture of Jesus that's extremely compelling—-in fact, it's a portrait of the unique Son of God."
I stood and thanked Yamauchi for sharing his time and expertise. "I know there's a lot more we could talk about, since entire books have been written on this topic," I said. "But before we end, I'd like to ask you one last question. A personal one, if that's all right."
The professor rose to his feet. "Yes, that's fine," he said.
I glanced around his modest office, which was filled to the brim with books and manuscripts, records and journals, computer disks and papers, all products of a lifetime of scholarly research into a world of long ago.
"You've spent forty years studying ancient history and archaeology," I said. "What has been the result in your own spiritual life? Have your studies bolstered or weakened your faith in Jesus Christ?"
He looked down at the floor momentarily, then raised his eyes and looked squarely into mine. He said in a firm but sincere voice, "There's no question—my studies have greatly strengthened and enriched my spiritual life. They have given me a better understanding of the culture and historical context of the events. This doesn't mean that I don't recognize that there are some issues that still remain; within this lifetime we will not have full knowledge. But these issues don't even begin to undermine my faith in the essential trustworthiness of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. I think the alternative explanations, which try to account for the spread of Christianity through sociological or psychological reasons, are very weak." He shook his head. "Very weak."
Then he added, "For me, the historical evidence has reinforced my commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God who loves us and died for us and was raised from the dead. Its that simple."
Truth That Sets Us Free
As I emerged from Yamauchi's building into a sea of college students scurrying from place to place in order to make their next class, I reflected on how satisfying my drive to tiny Oxford, Ohio, had been. I came seeking corroboration for Jesus, and I walked away with a rich reservoir of material affirming every major aspect of his life, miracles, deity, and victory over death.
I knew that our brief conversation had only scratched the surface. Under my arm I was carrying The Verdict of History, which I had reread in preparation for my interview. In it historian Gary Habermas details a total of thirty-nine ancient sources documenting the life of Jesus, from which he enumerates more than one hundred reported facts concerning Jesus' life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection.
What's more, twenty-four of the sources cited by Habermas, including seven secular sources and several of the earliest creeds of the church, specifically concern the divine nature of Jesus. These creeds reveal that the church did not simply teach Jesus' deity a generation later, as is so often repeated in contemporary theology, because this doctrine is definitely present in the earliest church, Habermas writes. His conclusion:
"The best explanation for these creeds is that they properly represent Jesus own teachings."
That is stunning corroboration for the most important assertion by the most influential individual who has ever lived. I zipped up my coat as I headed for my car. Glancing back one more time, I saw the October sun illuminating the stone inscription I had first noticed when I walked onto the campus of this thoroughly secular university: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
Questions for Reflection or Group Study
Is there an incident in your life in which you doubted someone's story until he or she offered some corroborating evidence? How was that experience similar to learning about the kind of corroborative evidence that Yamauchi presented?
What do you consider to be the most persuasive corroboration that Yamauchi talked about? Why?
Ancient sources say that early Christians clung to their beliefs rather than disavow them in the face of torture. Why do you think they had such strongly held convictions?
For Further Evidence
More Resources on This Topic
Bruce, F. F. Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.
Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus. Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1996.
McDowell, Josh, and Bill Wilson. He Walked among Us. Nashville: Nelson, 1994.
TO BE CONTINUED