In 1 Corinthians 15: 1-2, Paul writes, “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.”
The Unexpected Bravery of Former Deniers and Doubters
Paul’s story is extraordinary, as he started out as Saul of Tarsus, arguably one of early Christianity’s most notorious enemies. He actively pursued Christians for imprisonments and deaths and he stood by and watched as Christianity’s first martyr, Stephen, was stoned. Yet something happened to Paul on his way to Damascus one day. Jesus Christ appeared to him and Saul became Paul, arguably one of Christianity’s greatest missionary apostles. Historians don’t dispute that Paul wrote at least six or as many as thirteen books of the New Testament. In these books, he shares his testimony and the way he willingly endured multiple beatings and imprisonments before being beheaded by Nero in Rome.
James, Jesus’ half-brother, also has an extraordinary story. James was initially skeptical of Jesus, as noted when he and his brothers and mother showed up to see Jesus preach (Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19; and Matthew 12:46). They wanted to stop him, because they felt he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). Yet something happened to James after Jesus was crucified. He witnessed the risen Jesus.
Paul writes (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8) “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also, as the one abnormally born.”
James went on to become a missionary and an author of the book of James in the New Testament. Eusebius (c. 263 – 339 A.D.), the first church historian, wrote Ecclesiastical History, in which he cited a variety of authors and described the martyrdoms of Peter, James, and Paul. Peter, who denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed (as predicted by Jesus) was hung on a cross upside-down. James was pushed from a building and beaten. Paul was beheaded. The martyrdoms of Peter and Paul cited by Eusebius were documented by Dionysius of Corinth (~170 A.D.), Tertullian (~ 200 A.D.) and Origen (~ 230 – 250 A.D.). Josephus (~ 95 A.D., Hegesippus (~ 165 – 175 A.D.) and Clement of Alexandria (~ 200 A.D.) documented the martyrdom of James.
In his book Contra Celsum, Origen writes, “Jesus, who has both once risen Himself, and led His disciples to believe in His resurrection, and so thoroughly persuaded them of its truth, that they show to all men by their sufferings how they are able to laugh at all the troubles of life, beholding the life eternal and the resurrection clearly demonstrated to them both in word and deed.” In another writing, Origen documented Peter’s upside-down crucifixion (Habermas and Licona, 2004a).
Tertullian states (The Twelve Caesars 15:44; Habermas and Licona, 2004b), “That Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Caesars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship, when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom.”
Clement of Rome also documented the sufferings and martyrdoms of Paul and Peter (1 Clement). “Because of envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars have been persecuted and contended unto death. Let us set the good apostles before our eyes. Peter, who because of unrighteous envy endured, not one or two, but many afflictions, and having borne witness went to the due glorious place. Because of envy and rivalries, steadfast Paul pointed to the prize. Seven times chained, exiled, stoned, having become a preacher both in the East and in the West, he received honor fitting of his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, unto the boundary on which the sun sets; having testified in the presence of the leaders. Thus he was freed from the world and went to the holy place. He became a great example of steadfastness.”
Paul, James, and Peter were not alone. Second century Roman historian Tacitus also documented early Christian persecutions. “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed” (Habermas and Licona, 2004c).
Critics often note that Muslims and Buddhists have also willingly been martyred for their beliefs, yet unlike Muslims and Buddhists, James, Peter, and Paul had personally seen the risen Jesus.
- Peter, James, and Paul saw the risen Jesus.
- Peter, James, and Paul changed their initial views/doubts about Jesus.
- Peter, James, and Paul braved gory deaths for Jesus.
- Why? See item #1.
Extra-Biblical Accounts of Jesus and Events in the Gospels
In his book Antiquities of the Jews (Wallace, 2013), Josephus (37 A.D. – 100 A.D.) states “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and (He) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became His disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and die. And those who had become His disciples did not abandon His discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after His crucifixion and that He was alive; accordingly, He was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” (Note that this version of Josephus’ statement excludes controversial overtly Christian references, which some scholars have disputed).
Syrian philosopher Mara Bar-Serapion (70 A.D. – unknown) opines (in Wallace, 2013), “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished [Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in 70 A.D.]. God justly avenged…the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion.”
Origen cited Phlegon (80 – 140 A.D.), who penned a history around 140 A.D. Origin states, “Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events…but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions…And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles.”
Other events in the gospels were also corroborated extra-biblically. One example is the great earthquake, which shook the earth just after Jesus’ crucifixion. For further details on this event, please see my blog entitled, “On Earthquakes, Bloody Moons, and Dating the Crucifixion.”
Just following Jesus’ crucifixion, Matthew 27: 51-52 states, “At the moment the curtain from the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.”
Thallus (5 – 60 A.D.), a Samaritan historian, wrote an extensive (yet now lost) account of the history of the Mediterranean in the middle of the first century. A reference to his lost account is in historian Sextus Julius Africanus’ account. Africanus wrote History of the World in 221 A.D., in which this reference is included.
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in his third book of his History, calls as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.”
Sextus Julius Africanus also discusses Phlegon, noting that “in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth.”
Additionally, we have ancient Jewish corroboration of Jesus (Wallace, 2013). “Rabbi Hisda (d. 309) said that Rabbi Jeremiah bar Abba said, ‘What is that which is written, “No evil will befall you, nor shall any plague come near your house?” (Psalm 91:10)…”No evil will befall you” (means) that evil dreams and evil thoughts will not tempt you; “nor shall any plague come near your house” (means) that you will not have a son or a disciple who burns his food like Jesus of Nazareth (b. Sanhedrin 103a; cf b. Berakhot 17b).
The Sanhedrin (43a) further indicates as follows: “It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days (proclaiming), ‘He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.’ But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls (40521; brackets indicate gaps in the document; Craig, 2010) contain the following message: “[For the hea]vens and the earth shall listen to his Messiah [and all t]hat is in them shall not turn away from the commandments of the holy ones…He will honor the pious upon the th[ro]ne of the eternal kingdom, setting prisoners free, opening the eyes of the blind, raising up those who are bo[wed down]…And the Lord shall do glorious things which have not been done, just as he said. For he will heal the injured, he shall make alive the dead, he shall proclaim good news to the afflicted.”
Students of the Apostles
At this point, critics will note that some of the citations I have provided and some I have not yet provided come from documents and books written over one hundred years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet note an important point: many of the authors were students of the apostles or students of students of the apostles. As an example, Ignatius (35 – 117 A.D.) was John’s student who eventually became the bishop of Antioch. Ignatius’ writings state that Jesus “was (and is) the ‘Son of God;’ was conceived by the Holy Spirit; was born of the Virgin Mary; was baptized by John the Baptist; was the ‘perfect’ man; suffered and was crucified; died on the cross; and was resurrected” (Wallace, 2013, p. 217).
Polycarp (69 – 155) was a friend of Ignatius’ and a fellow student of John. Polycarp described Jesus as “sinless” and “saved by grace.” He “suffered and died on a cross” and “was raised from the dead.” Polycarp also stated that “Jesus is our Savior” and “Jesus is Lord” (Wallace, 2013).
Ignatius and Polycarp taught Irenaeus (120 – 202 A.D.), who was the bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul. Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies, which was a refined defense of Christianity that identified twenty-four books of the New Testament as scripture (including Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, Acts, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, and Revelation) (Wallace, 2013).
Irenaeus taught Hippolytus (170 – 236 A.D.), who wrote a ten-volume treatise entitled Refutation of All Heresies, which also identified books of the New Testament, including those identified by Irenaeus plus Philemon (Wallace, 2013).
The apostle Paul taught Linus (who worked with him in 2 Timothy 4:21) and Clement of Rome. Clement offered a description of Jesus, which was similar to that offered above by Ignatius and Polycarp. Clement passed the truth on from Evaristus to Pius I, and Pius I and Justin Martyr guarded the accounts during the early years of the Christian Church (Wallace, 2013).
The apostle Peter communicated his message through Mark’s gospel. Mark established the church in Alexandria and taught Anianus, Avilius, Kedron, Primus, and Justus. Justus passed the truth to Pantaenus, who taught Clement of Alexandria. Clement taught Origen. Pamphilus of Caesarea adopted Origen’s work and taught Eusebius (Wallace, 2013).
In summary, an abundance of extra-biblical sources provide evidence of the validity and reliability of the New Testament. “O ye of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)
Thank you for investing your time.
Craig, W. L. (2010). On Guard. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook.
Habermas, G.R. and Licona, M.R. (2004a). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
Ibid., (2004b). Scirpiace, 15, in Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe, eds. and trans., The Ante-Nicene Fathers.
Ibid., (2004c). Church, A.J. and Brodribb, W.J. translation of Tacitus.
Wallace, J.W. (2013). Cold Case Christianity. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook.