Evidence for the Historical Jesus -Is the Jesus of History the Jesus of Faith?/Program 1

By: Dr. Gary Habermas; ©2000
What mainstream scholarship thinks about the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.



Dr. John Ankerberg: The search for the historical Jesus is a hot topic in both popular and academic circles today and has drawn a lot of attention from national magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Further, the media has given an undue amount of attention to the outlandish statements of the Jesus Seminar, a self-selected liberal group representing a very small percentage of New Testament scholarship. Today we will address the questions surrounding the debate over the historical Jesus and show there are a significant number of historical facts about Jesus in secular and non-New Testament sources which prove that the Jesus of history is the same Jesus of the Christian faith.

My guest is world-class philosopher Dr. Gary Habermas, author of the book, The Historical Jesus. He received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and a second doctorate from Emmanuel College in Oxford, England. Dr. Habermas is chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University and has written more than 100 articles on the life of Jesus which have appeared in scholarly journals. Join us for this edition of The John Ankerberg Show and learn why Jesus is one of the most historically verified lives of ancient times.

John Ankerberg: Welcome. If you read the articles about Jesus in national magazines such as Time, Newsweek, or U.S. News & World Report, you know that the truth claims of Christianity are under attack. A liberal group of scholars called the Jesus Seminar have published their conclusions and stated: God is dead; it is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine; Jesus did not rise from the dead; and the New Testament is a highly biased attempt to invent Christianity. In other words, if you’re a Christian and believe that Jesus is God, that he said the things recorded in the gospels, that he died on the cross and rose again from the dead, then your faith is not credible, and you have no historical evidence to back up your beliefs. Such statement are just plain wrong. My guest today is Dr. Gary Habermas, who has two earned doctorates and written over 100 scholarly articles on the life of Jesus. I asked him what mainstream scholarship thinks about the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar. Here is what he said.
Dr. Gary Habermas: Now, with respect to the Jesus Seminar, what’s bothered a lot of people, and not just conservatives – see, we’re talking about a few dozen scholars here, but quite frequently in interviews and in their books they’ll say, “We’re mainstream. We’ve got the idiots over here on the right and we’ve got the people who don’t believe there’s a Jesus at all – he never existed over here – and we’re right here in the middle.” They’re not mainstream, and they do not speak for even most moderate scholars.
Now, my comment about the facts, I think if we do link ourselves to what history says, we’ve got a situation where we can know a lot about Jesus. Dozens and dozens of facts about his birth, his life, his teachings, his death, the trial, everything – his burial, and especially his resurrection appearances. And we’re not even short of information regarding his deity. We find that in material both in and outside the New Testament.
Ankerberg: One of the most unfounded statements made by the Jesus Seminar is, There is no real historical evidence for the Jesus of traditional Christian beliefs. But that is simply false. Dr. Habermas lists some of the different sources where facts about Jesus can be found. Listen:
Habermas: Well, as far as the facts are concerned, the New Testament has always been and remains the best source for the historicity of Jesus. And maybe we can comment more on this later, but I think the New Testament should be built from the ground up, not from a general trustworthiness approach.
But I think beyond the New Testament we have to look at Christian claims outside the New Testament. We have to look at a dozen and a half non-Christian sources outside the New Testament. Archaeology chimes a few things in here, and when you put it all together, we have quite a lot of information about Jesus and his life in the first century.
Ankerberg: Now, the Jesus Seminar claims that the New Testament documents are not historical biographies of Jesus but only theological reflections about him. But Dr. Habermas explains that other historical writings also contain theological ideas, but aren’t disqualified as reporting historical information. Listen:
Habermas: One problem with the thesis that the New Testament writers were theologians and therefore don’t present history is that historians of that time, Greek, Greco historians, tell us we don’t have any accounts of history like that. We don’t know accounts where people are just plain hardcore historians. The fact is, if you study Tacitus, if you look at Suetonius, if you look at Pliny, if you look at others, these Roman historians are famous for mixing omens and even miracle accounts and other stories into their history. Tacitus is known to be biased in favor of the Roman Aristocracy. Suetonius can’t talk without bringing in omens and the Caesars who saw their demise and so they acted this way or that way. Now, what do historians say about them? They say, Well, ah, that’s different. These guys are historians and they don’t mean to talk theology but the theology is there.
I’m saying in principle, just because the New Testament has things to say about theology, that has nothing to say about whether they can report history or not. There’s a great amount of data in the New Testament and I think that’s recognized by the vast majority of scholars today.
Ankerberg: Next, the Jesus Seminar claims that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John really didn’t write their gospels. Further, the Jesus Seminar has concluded that only about 18 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were actually spoken by him. What about this? Dr. Habermas explains that, l) the traditional authors can be defended, 2) the critical scholars have conceded that parts of the gospels are historically true, and 3) you can take that evidence and easily defend traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus. Listen:
Habermas: Let me make three comments about the authorship of the gospels. The first is, I think the traditional authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, can be defended with a good deal of force. But, in contemporary apologetics, R. T. France says, for example, that even if we don’t take the time to sit down and work through each of the traditional authors, you can still support the authenticity of the gospels on this ground – the same one we do for Roman history – these are still the earliest stories, extended stories, about Jesus. And as such, they are due the respect of being the earliest historical pieces of data we have.
But let me go after it a third way. You’ve got traditional authors. If people don’t like that, you’ve got the earliest books that depict the whole life of Christ. But third, I favor a type of apologetic that builds from the ground up, that doesn’t say all these books are historical and therefore anything in them is true. I would take snippets of information. Now, today, as I tell my students over and over again, with critics Paul is in, the gospels are out. Well, for the Christian Paul and the gospels are Scripture. But if they’re going to give us Paul, why don’t we take Paul and build a case? And I would favor taking a few facts and building up the data around them and show that we can make our case based on these few facts alone.
Ankerberg: There is a body of Pauline literature that can be accepted as historical by virtually everyone. Let me give you an example or two. G. A. Wells is the British Professor of German who has written a number of books arguing that Jesus probably never lived. G. A. Wells will still grant eight authentic Pauline letters. But that doesn’t satisfy the Christian who would like thirteen. But let’s, instead of being upset with him for what he doesn’t give us, let’s take what he does give us. Those eight include our most important doctrinal works, namely, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians. He gives you all those. And so since Paul is a given even for somebody like G. A. Wells who argues Jesus probably never existed, let’s use Paul. And when we’re talking about the resurrection of Jesus, for an example, or the nature of the gospel, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15, let’s look at Galatians 1, passages that are unanimously given. And that is precisely why the New Testament still gives us our best data, because even looking at it as an irreducible minimum or the lowest common denominator. We have plenty of data here to talk about Jesus of history.
Some in the Jesus Seminar think that the Apostle Paul invented the divinity of Christ; that Paul’s Jesus is completely different from the historical Jesus. What historical evidence proves that the Apostle Paul did not invent Jesus; rather, both he and the other Apostles viewed Jesus the same way and preached the same message. Listen:
Habermas: One of the most important pieces of data that the critical community will almost unanimously admit is 1 Corinthians 15. Now, in the first two verses Paul has just said, “I came to you [Corinthians]. I preached to you the gospel” – that’s when he came there in person and preached orally. We’re talking about 51 AD. And he said, “I preached the words of the gospel. And if you believe those, you’re saved, and if you’re not believing them, you’re not.” [1 Cor. 15:1-2]
And then he states for them what the gospel is. He says, verse 3: “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 Peter and then to the twelve.” [1 Cor. 15:3-5] And then he lists some other appearances. And he says, “Last of all, he appeared to me.” [1 Cor. 15:8] So this is one of the clearest if not the very clearest accounts of the nature of the gospel in the New Testament.
Now, why is this taken so seriously? First of all, it’s in a book that is unanimously thought to be written by the Apostle Paul. Why is that? Well, as one scholar said, we don’t even need to discuss Pauline authorship here because the internal and external evidence is so strong. Well, like what? You know, by 100 AD, just before 100, Clement, 95 AD; just after 100, Polycarp about 107, Ignatius about 110, those three men, writing nine short epistles, quote or cite 1 Corinthians about 30 times. That is an incredible amount of attestation from sources outside of Paul to the authority of Paul. That’s just one of the many reasons people will admit, even skeptics, that Paul as an apostle believed he saw the risen Jesus. And so when he said, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, was buried, and rose again the third day,” [1 Cor. 15:3-4] we have to take him seriously for this reason. It’s unanimously admitted, or virtually so, that Paul at least believed that he saw the risen Jesus, and that makes all the difference in the world. So you’re dealing with somebody who is there at the beginning, who knows the other Apostles, who’s repeating the gospel they all taught. 1 Corinthians 15:11 he says whether it is I who am preaching, they who are preaching, it makes no difference, we’re preaching the same gospel. Paul took great care – and we’re told about this in Galatians 2:2 – he took great care to ascertain that this is the same gospel the Disciples were preaching.
C. H. Dodd says this: “Paul’s rendition of the gospel is very, very close to Jesus Christ.” He said, “It’s the stream that is very close to the main river.” He said, “Anybody who wants to argue otherwise has to defend and bear the burden of proof for their thesis.” Paul has given us the account right there at the river’s mouth.
Ankerberg: Now remember, the Jesus Seminar claims Christians have no historical evidence for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and that Paul invented the deity of Christ, but they are wrong. These words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, accepted by all critical scholars, take us right back close to Christ Himself. Look at this time line.
  • In 30 AD Jesus died.
  • Shortly thereafter, Peter, James and the other Apostles preached about Jesus’ resurrection and deity.
  • In 32 AD Paul meets the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and becomes a Christian.
  • In 35 AD Paul goes to Jerusalem to meet the Apostle Peter and James and to check out his gospel to see if his message contained the same truths about Christ that the other eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection also preached. They tell him, “Yes.”
  • Then in 51 AD Paul preaches the gospel orally to people in Corinth and many become Christians.
  • In 55 AD Paul writes 1 Corinthians and records the facts that he received from the other Apostles about Jesus and knew to be true himself.
This information shows Paul didn’t invent Christ’s deity but that he was in agreement with the very same message Peter and James preached. Further, it’s obvious that Peter and James were preaching their message way before Paul arrived on the scene. So Paul couldn’t have invented Jesus. Dr. Habermas explains why these historical facts lay a sound foundation about Jesus and cannot be denied. Listen:
Habermas: Let’s talk about why this is so important in terms of history. 1 Corinthians 15 is nearly a given, even from people like G. A. Wells and Michael Martin who say that Jesus probably never lived. Paul said, “I deliver unto you the gospel which I also received: Christ died for our sins, was buried, rose again the third day.” [1 Cor. 15:1-4]
Now, let’s see what this looks like on a time line. Let’s picture between my hands here 25 years: 30ish AD – the cross of Jesus; 55 to 57ish AD – the writing of 1 Corinthians. And it really doesn’t make a difference if you’re liberal or conservative here. These dates remain within a year or two the same. Now, Paul wrote this in 57. He said, “I delivered it to you orally when I came to you.” [1 Cor. 15:1] When was that? About 51. Now, notice, we’ve closed the gap from 25 years to 20 years – 30ish to 51. Then he said, “I deliver unto you that which I also received.” [1 Cor. 15:3]
Now, the ten million dollar question here is, when did Paul receive that material and from whom did he receive it? There’s five steps here: the book, the oral testimony, the cross down here, and we have two to go: from whom did Paul get it and when. And of course those people had it before he did.
Now, scholars (critics, not Evangelicals) who answer this question generally say the following: Paul received this material in Jerusalem from Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, about 35 AD. How do you get that? Well, if the cross was about 30, Paul believed he saw the risen Jesus just one to two years later. He said in Galatians 1 (let’s take it as an authentic Pauline book) he went away for three years, came back to Damascus, then he went up to Jerusalem. Three + two = five years. If he was saved one year afterwards, it’s one + three = four years afterwards. But 35 was a nice round figure. So you’ve got the cross about 30, the book written about 57, oral testimony about 51. He said he came to Jerusalem in 35 and he said, “I spent time, 15 days, with Peter and with James, the brother of Jesus.” [1 Cor. 1:18]
Now, there’s a Greek word there. In English it says, “He got acquainted with Peter” or “He saw Peter” or “He questioned Peter.” The Greek word is historeo. The root word is histor when transliterated into English and it’s the root word for our word history. Histor is used in documents outside the New Testament. In Greek papyri of the time it is used of explorers and people who were mapping, say, in one case, a river. And when I map this river, what am I going to do? I’m going to show you the twists and the turns. I’m going to show you the rapids; the shallow areas; the place where you can take your boat across; the deep areas; the bends, the rocks, the trees, everything. And that’s called histor. One critical, not Evangelical, essay which is sometimes called the most authoritative one on that word in Galatians 1:18, says that “Paul played the investigative reporter.” Now, if he went up to Jerusalem around 35 AD, met with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, played the investigative reporter, there’s one other thing to learn. What did they talk about? And you know the old rule of literary criticism: we interpret a passage in its context. And the passage before and the passage right after says Paul was talking about the nature of the gospel.
And, you might think this, “What else would he more want to talk about than the nature of the gospel?” He goes all this distance, he comes to Jerusalem, he meet with the head apostle, he meets with the brother of Jesus. What would your first question be? I think just normally Paul would ask about the gospel. But that is the context, and Paul is saying, “Tell me about what happened here.”
Now, in Galatians 2:1-2 Paul said he went up to Jerusalem again 14 years after the first visit, which is perhaps 34 or 35 AD. He went up 14 years later to check out the nature of the gospel (verse 2) to see if “I was running or had run… in vain.” So now Paul is looking for the Apostles to, as the passage says later, “give him the right hand of fellowship.” [Gal. 2:9] To say, “Paul, you’re right on the money. Jesus called you on the way to Damascus, he gave you the gospel to the Gentiles, go for it.” And that’s basically what they did.
Now, back to the original point there: 1 Corinthians – 57; oral preaching – 51; cross – 30. That’s already only 20 years, and that’s very early. But Paul got it from somebody else, perhaps Peter and James at 35 AD. Now, if Peter and James gave it to Paul, they had it before Paul. But nobody picks a date for when this data became formalized to 1 Corinthians 15. Do you know why? We’re already on top of the cross. Paul gets it about five years later. So what this shows is the resurrection proclamation and the gospel as a whole, which includes at least the deity, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, its proclamation is immediate.
You see, a lot of Evangelicals even stumble when they say, “Yeah, we preached it immediately. We find it in 1 Corinthians and it’s 25 years later.” Why don’t we say Paul received it perhaps five years later and somebody had it before he did?
Now, this is one of the paths to the fact that the content for the gospel, in particular the deity, death and resurrection of Jesus are linked to strong historical grounds. And critics will give you those texts in Galatians 1, Galatians 2, 1 Corinthians 15. Again, this is what I was talking about earlier, these are some of the main indications that we are on strong historical grounds here.
Ankerberg: Now, if you’re a non-Christian, let me ask you, how did the Christian religion originate? How could the early Christians proclaim to the people in Jerusalem, the very city that had watched Jesus die on the cross, that Jesus was now alive? My point to you is this: there is strong historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. It can’t be ignored. Facts just don’t disappear; and they are a sound foundation for a faith commitment to Jesus if you so decide. Dr. Habermas summarizes:
Habermas: Well now maybe you might have a better idea of what I mean here when I said at the top of the program that we do have a good basis. Now, I’m talking about the center of Christianity: the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we can get into a time frame that Paul is talking about this back about 35 AD with two of the central figures: Peter, the head Apostle, James, the brother of Jesus, the pastor of the church of Jerusalem. This is a strong basis and this is the sort of thing that makes me surprised when I hear people saying, “Hey, there’s no evidence here and there.” I just want to assure the person who is listening who said, “Well, do we have to listen to these guys who say there’s no historical basis and we can barely find anything,” let them deal with this sort of data right here of 1 Corinthians 15 and Galatians 1-2 as a strong basis for the gospel.
And let me remind you here again, we’re not talking with periphery things here. We’re talking with the very center of the faith. Paul says he has met the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus. He’s going up to talk to Peter and James. He comes back 14 years later; he wants to see if he was running or had run in vain. And they said, “No, no, no. You’re not.” So they’re checking him in Galatians 2. They said, “You’re fine.” And in 1 Corinthians 15:11 he says, “Whether it is I or they, so we preach and so you believe.” In other words, he was watching them, too. He’s got his approval on their message and they’re approving him. The point is, the gospel they preached is the same, and that includes the deity of Christ, his death, his resurrection. We’re on very important grounds here and very solid grounds.

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