16. Outside the Bible
Critics of the Bible claim that it is written by biased, religious zealots who are interested in promoting their religion rather than conveying truth. To these critics, verses like 2 Timothy 3:16 which confirm the reliability of scripture are the equivalent of an individual making an audacious claim and then assuring you that they can be trusted. According to these critics, if we really want to know the truth, we should look outside the Bible for more balanced sources as to the truth of history.
It’s true that most writing about Christianity is authored by Christians. As theologian, Peter J. Williams points out, “That’s just the nature of things, just like most books about golf are by golfers.” But just because the Bible is authored by Christians talking about Christianity doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be trusted on the subject. Bias, Williams says, doesn’t always discredit the argument. After all, when a lawyer is defending his client, the judge doesn’t dismiss his argument on the grounds that the lawyer wants his own client to win. If you are going to dismiss all argument in cases where the arguer has reason to win the argument, that would eliminate all argument anywhere by anyone for anything.
The Bible is the first source for the events in question because it is composed of the best, most trusted ancient documents we have. To look to documents outside of the Bible, then, would be to use less reliable, rather than more reliable sources.
Still, if there was a source outside of the Bible that was written by historians who were not Christians themselves, that would go a long way towards corroborating the information contained within the Bible.
In fact there are at least nine sources outside of the Bible that relate key events conveyed by the Bible:
2. Pliny the Younger
4. St. Ignatius of Antioch
The two most explicit examples are Tacitus and Josephus.
Tacitus, writing in 116 AD, was giving an account of a great fire that occurred in Rome in 64 AD. The people suspected the emperor Nero of starting the fire and Nero, in turn, blamed a group of people called the Christians and persecuted them for it. Tacitus writes:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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 most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”
Josephus, who was a historian who lived from about 37 AD to 101 AD had this to say:
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him on the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.”
As another example, Pliny the Younger, writing around 112 AD, wrote to the emperor on how to deal with Christians. He had devised a series of tests to determine whether a person was Christian or not and one of the key tests was whether they were prepared to worship Roman gods. According to Williams, this presupposes that they only worship one God and yet he also says they worship Jesus. These Jews who for thousands of years had been a monotheistic culture somehow came to identify Jesus as God.
According to the New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg, if you were to present a composite of what all these extra-biblical sources had to say, it would be:
- Christ existed and lived in Israel in the first third of the first century.
- He was born out of wedlock.
- As a young adult his ministry intersected with that of a man named John who baptized people for the repentance of sins.
- Jesus had a brother named James.
- He gathered disciples together who became his closest followers (five of them are named).
- He worked “wondrous deeds”.
- At least one Jewish tradition says he was a sorcerer who led Israel astray and that his miracles came from a diabolical source.
- He regularly got into conflicts with Jewish authorities over legal interpretations and that led to his being crucified during the time of Pontius Pilate which means we can narrow the time frame to between 26 AD and 36 AD.
- Despite his death he was believed to be the Jewish messiah, the expected Jewish liberator.
- His followers believed he was seen resurrected from the dead so much that a community of his followers continued to gather weekly and eventually began to sing hymns to worship him as if he were God.
This is an enormous amount of independent corroboration by historians who lived in the time period and were not Christians themselves. For a person to believe that Jesus didn’t actually exist, or that he wasn’t actually crucified, or that his followers didn’t continue worshipping him as a resurrected Son of God, they would have to ignore not just the evidence of the Bible itself, but they would also have to ignore these independent, historical sources outside the Bible. This just cannot be reasonably done and so the scholarly consensus today is that Jesus lived, was crucified and was then worshipped as the resurrected Son of God.
But there is still room for atheism here. Either: a)these people were intentionally deceiving, or b)these people were just mistaken.
a) Maybe these first Christians, to save face after their leader had been crucified, attempted to intentionally deceive others with their resurrection claims. There are two reason this doesn’t make any sense. First, any conspiracy of this size requires the cooperation of a great number of people (I Corinthians 15 claims that five hundred people saw Jesus at once) and the greater number of people involved, the more difficult it is to maintain the integrity of the conspiracy. Secondly, many of these people were tortured for and died for their belief in the resurrected Jesus and it’s difficult to understand why someone would die for a belief that they didn’t really hold. If it was just a conspiracy, then what were they getting out of it in giving their lives? And so we can reasonably believe not only that these people claimed to see Jesus resurrected, but that they sincerely believed it themselves as well.
b) But perhaps these people worshipping Jesus after his resurrection were simply wrong in their claims of his post death appearances. Maybe they thought they saw him but were mistaken. This is not believed by most scholars today because after the resurrection, people had all sorts of interactions with Jesus – they met with Jesus in great numbers, in small numbers, one on one, by appointment, not by appointment, they ate with him, they drank with him, they touched him, they saw his wounds, they spoke with him, he spoke back, and they carried on conversations with him. This is far more than a fleeting glimpse of some ghost or phantom.
At this point it becomes extremely difficult to weave your way around the facts to deny the Christian story. Of course we can never know the past with 100% certainty. It is possible that the account of the events in the Bible is wrong, that the account of the events outside the Bible is wrong, and that somehow these first Christians allowed themselves to be tortured and die for a false belief, but the more you look at the facts the harder it is to accept this as the most reasonable explanation.