In my last blog post I explained one of the reasons why I moved from atheism to Catholicism. In it I wrote:
After several years of deliberation I had come to the conclusion that Jesus Christ did in fact exist; he had performed miracles, was crucified on the order of Pontius Pilate, and resurrected from the dead. The weight of the evidence by which I came to this conclusion is perhaps the subject of another blog post, but for now it is enough to say that I had arrived at the conclusion that Jesus Christ was the Son of God as his first followers claimed him to be.
On the Catholic Answers Facebook page an atheist commented that such a blog post would be unlikely, for there is simply no such evidence. I don’t want to leave anyone hanging, so I will use this opportunity to explain (as briefly as possible) why I believe these things about Jesus.
Skepticism vs. Abraham Lincoln’s Overcoat
Every year for about six months, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site displays the coat worn by Abraham Lincoln on the night he was assassinated. We know the coat is genuine because it was authenticated by eyewitnesses. Caring for and preserving it have been the responsibilities of a succession of curators since that time.
How can we be sure the eyewitnesses were right about the coat? How do we know one of the curators didn’t swap it out and keep the original for himself? As unlikely as these scenarios may seem, a good skeptic can introduce doubt about anything. And if he were really dedicated to the belief that the coat is a fake, he might question our reasons for believing it is genuine.
Unless you were there and witnessed something for yourself, how could you ever trust anything from history? Much like a trial jury, we must look at the evidence as objectively as possible—especially that of eyewitnesses—and decide if it is reliable or not.
The Gospels as a Reliable Witness
For many years it has been a trend among certain textual critics to question the reliability of the Gospels as a historical witness to the life of Jesus Christ. On a more popular level, many skeptics will dismiss them on the charge that they were written by Christians, and therefore are biased and untrustworthy. Yet this charge would be much like dismissing the authenticity of Lincoln's coat simply because the eyewitnesses were Americans and could conceivably have had an interest in using the coat to memorialize their dead hero.
Most Bible scholars believe that the Gospels contain reliable historical information about Jesus, and although some atheists claim that it's because most of them are Christians—whose research suffers from confirmation bias—this can be turned around on them. Most of the skeptic Bible scholars who claim it is unreliable are atheists.
It is beyond the scope of a blog post to offer a defense of the Bible against every textual critique, but it can be said with confidence that the overwhelming majority of Biblical scholars—including many of the most skeptical critics—place the authorship of at least three of the Gospels within a generation of Jesus himself, and all four of them definitely within the first century (cf. Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman, pg 75).
The Gospels agree on a number of details concerning the life of Jesus, including:
- He really existed.
- He was the “Son of God.”
- He was crucified.
- He rose from the dead.
Critics claim that the Gospel accounts may not have been written by the people they have been attributed to. I think this position has been sufficiently refuted by other apologists, but even if they were not written by those men, the question can then be asked whether or not the Gospel accounts are corroborated by external evidence.
Evidence from the Early Church Fathers
The claim is often made that Jesus—if he even existed at all—was a persuasive teacher during his life, but after his death the early Christians began to exaggerate stories about him, leading eventually to his deification.
This position flies in the face of the historical evidence. If his deification, miracles, and resurrection from the dead were later additions to his story, then we should not see evidence for this until several generations had passed. Instead, the evidence indicates that the apostles themselves taught these things about Jesus to their students. They were believed from the very beginning.
Three Church Fathers of note here are Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Pope St. Clement I.
According to The Martyrdom of Ignatius, Ignatius of Antioch was a “disciple of John the apostle.” In his book Against Heresies, second-century Church Father Irenaeus explains that Polycarp studied under the apostles, and ecclesiastical writer Tertullian reports that Clement was consecrated by St. Peter.
The traditional accounts tell us that these men were closely linked to the apostles, and all three of them corroborate details about Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels and listed above.
If you would like to see a list of quotes from these Church Fathers corroborating the bullet pointed list above, I have them posted at my own blog. You can read them by clicking here.
In addition to these quotes, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Pope St. Clement I quote or allude to much of the New Testament (the link above contains a list of those also).
These Church Fathers were associated with the apostles and most certainly learned the Christian faith from them. Not only do they corroborate the details of Jesus' life in their writings, they also affirm much of the New Testament by quoting from it directly. This is strong evidence that the Gospels are historically reliable.
Weighing the Evidence
Ultimately, historical arguments rely on verbal testimony. If we were to adopt a reflexively skeptical attitude toward all such testimonies, we would know virtually nothing about history.
As someone coming to Catholicism from atheism, I had no bias to confirm. If anything, my bias was toward the atheist position. But upon examination, I found myself in agreement with Christian scholars and historians. The evidence weighs heavily in their favor.
If you are interested in further reading on this subject, I recommend Are the Gospels Myth? by Carl Olson.