On Historical Evidence, Jesus Wins
The fact is, there's better historical evidence for Christ than for a lot of figures whose existence in history we take for granted
In his essay “God in the Dock,” C.S. Lewis reflects upon the challenge of proposing Christianity to non-believers. People generally hesitate to believe the Gospels. Although the “difficulties vary as the audience varies,” one of the most prominent reasons for this hesitancy was not what he expected—not miracles, but rather, “they disbelieved simply because they dealt with events that happened a long time ago.”
When it comes to the historical reliability of any text, what matters is not the distance from the present day. What matters is the gap between the historical fact in question and the historical record. It is the fact-to-record gap that nonbelievers must more readily consider.
Think about police officers taking statements after a car accident. Isn’t it true that they will (all things being equal) value eyewitness testimony over hearsay? Or if only hearsay is available, won’t a statement given one day after the accident be more reliable than testimony given weeks later? Generally speaking, the closer to the event a witness is in time and space, the more reliable his testimony will be.
So how do the Gospels square up? And how does the fact-to-record time frame in reference to the life of Christ compare to the fact-to-record time frames for other major figures of antiquity?
Happily, there is hardly an ancient person for whom there is more historical evidence than Jesus Christ. According to esteemed historian N.T. Wright, “We have got almost as much good evidence for Jesus as for anyone in the ancient world.” An important part of this “good evidence” includes the four Gospels—all of which were written within a short fact-to-record time frame.
Granted, we have no reason to think Jesus authored anything himself. If he had, it would have been ideal, because the time gap between person and record would have been nil. But he didn’t. Nonetheless, it turns out that the best sources for Jesus all fit within a relatively short fact-to-record time frame, even compared to the best sources for other figures. Let’s consider a few of these others—who, it bears mentioning, tend never to have their existence or historicity doubted by atheists and other anti-Christian skeptics.
First, Plato. Unlike Jesus, he wrote some things. Unfortunately, none of these works is strictly autobiographical. The best biographical source for Plato comes from Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, a work written over five hundred years after Plato’s death. The oldest extant copy of this dates from the late eleventh century. Nonetheless, historians consider it a crucial conveyor of historical information. I suppose it’s true here that beggars can’t be choosers. But if scholars of ancient history can hang their hats on a document written five hundred years after the fact, then you can imagine how much more they would favor a document written an order of magnitude more recently.
Next, Julius Caesar. Two of the most important historical documents telling us about his life come from Suetonius and Plutarch, both of which were written more than one hundred years after his death. But the extant copies possessed today are even farther—much farther—removed from Caesar’s death in 44 B.C. According to New Testament scholar Darrel Bock:
Plutarch’s Lives is also mostly divided across six key manuscripts that range from the 10th and 11th centuries. Suetonius’s manuscript is dated AD 820. Classics scholars build much of our understanding of Caesar around these sources, even though their manuscript traditions contain significant gaps of time.
Nonetheless, the existing manuscripts function for historians as documents of great historical value.
Finally, let’s take a quick look at the great Macedonian conqueror, Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.). Historians get all their information about Alexander beginning in the first century B.C. The most valuable of these is (once again) Plutarch’s Lives. “The bulk of our information on Alexander comes from Plutarch,” writes New Testament historian Michael Licona. But this work was written in the first century, almost four centuries after Alexander. Licona concludes, “Thus, the earliest source for Alexander used by modern historians is more than 260 years after his death and the most reliable source is more than 370 years removed.”
So there you have three figures, considered indisputable parts of history, whose existence, based on the available sources, no one would ever doubt. Now, how do Jesus and the Gospels compare?
Thanks to the research of scholar Richard Burridge, it’s now the expert consensus that all four Gospels are of the Greco-Roman biography genre. In other words, the Gospels are intended to portray real events about a real person.
It’s also agreed that the four Gospels were written within one hundred years of Christ’s death. The Gospel of St. Mark is generally dated to within forty years of the Crucifixion, with St. Matthew and St. Luke not long after. The Gospel of St. John is usually dated to around A.D. 100. Several of St. Paul’s letters—even more impressively—are often dated earlier than St. Mark’s gospel; and within these, at least one recorded creed of the early Christians has been traced back to within five years of Christ’s death (see 1 Cor. 15:3-4). The extremely early dating of this creed is incredibly significant because it is, first, recorded well within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses who could correct and critique the creed if necessary (written as a credal formula, it was apparently already a core profession of Christian doctrine), and second, because it provides direct evidence of early belief in the resurrection of Jesus:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . .
Thus, in comparison with the other major figures of antiquity, the historical reliability of the New Testament based on the “fact-to-record” criterion—and in comparison to other important historical works of the ancient world—holds up as impressive and well supported. (Nor is the New Testament the only historical evidence of Jesus’ existence—not by a long shot.)
That the New Testament events happened a long time ago should not be a detriment to belief. To be sure, critical scholars will continue to challenge the Christian case—and they should, for that is what scholarship is all about. But at the end of the day, a decisive refutation of the historical case for the resurrected Christ is a tall order—unless we’re ready to jettison some of history’s best known philosophers, emperors, and conquerors along with him.