Jesus Christ: Liar? Lunatic? Legend? or God?/Program 1

By: Dr. John Warwick Montgomery; ©1988
Is Christianity different from all the other religions in that it can be verified? Can a person can check out the evidence for its claims before they jump into it? Tell us what you mean. “Do we have accurate information about this person Jesus Christ?” Christianity says that Jesus Christ is God.



Recent surveys and polls show that 98% of Americans believe in God. But these same polls reveal many do not believe that Jesus Christ is the God they believe in. Tonight, John Ankerberg will examine the evidence and the claims of Christianity’s central figure to answer the question, “Was Jesus Christ a liar, a lunatic, a legend, or God?”

John’s guest is attorney John Warwick Montgomery, Dean of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law in the state of California and a practicing trial lawyer both in England and America.

During tonight’s program we will ask:

  • If a lawyer were to argue the claims of Jesus Christ in a court of law, what real evidence would he point to?
  • Are the biographies concerning Jesus’ life nothing more than legends that were written several hundred years after Jesus lived, or real historical documents written by eyewitnesses?
  • How would a lawyer determine whether the witnesses concerning Jesus’ life, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James and Peter, are lying or telling the truth?
  • How do the New Testament documents compare with other well-attested historical documents in the ancient world?
  • Is there any reason to believe we have a distorted view of what Jesus said and did because it happened so long ago?
  • If there is accurate historical information about Jesus Christ, is there any proof that Jesus actually claimed he was God?
  • Is there any evidence that Jesus ever offered proof to the people of his day to verify his claim that he was God?
  • What does a trial lawyer think about the evidence Christ presented to prove his claim of deity?

All of these questions and more will be answered during our program tonight. We invite you to join us.

John Ankerberg: Good evening. Welcome to our program. Tonight we have a very special program. If you are a non-believer or if you are a believer, this material, this information is exactly just for you. Why? If you have watched this program in days gone by, you know that I believe that Christianity is absolutely true. It’s not just one good belief among thousands of different beliefs, but the thing about Christianity: it’s unique, it’s true, and there is evidence that a thinking person can investigate that will bring you to the same conclusion – that it’s true, and you can invest your life in it. You can give your life to the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, tonight, for those of you that are unbelievers, we are going to present the evidence. And if you are a Christian, this evidence will also help you in talking to your friends. It will tell you what you can share with them. I hope that you will stay with us. We are going to do a series of programs laying out the evidence for you.
And tonight, our guest has eight earned degrees, including two Ph.D.’s. He is also an attorney. And he is one of the best spokesmen for Christianity, and especially in the area of laying out information, difficult information, and making it clear. My guest, of course, is Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, Dean of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law. Dr. Montgomery, we’re glad that you’re here tonight.
Dr. John Warwick Montgomery: My pleasure.
Ankerberg: I want to come right to the point, and that is, you have said that Christianity is different from all the other religions in the sense that you say it can be verified. A person can check out the evidence for its claims before they jump into it. Tell us what you mean.
Montgomery: There are innumerable religious claims in the world. Religions appear on the scene right and left. I come from California, “the land of the fruits and the nuts,” and in California the number of religions probably exceeds the number of people. Now, it’s one thing to make a religious claim, it’s a totally different thing to demonstrate that claim. As in the field of law, anybody can file suit, but winning the case is a very different matter. And in the case of Christianity, we have claims that have to do with history, with historical fact; with certain events which, if they took place, the Christian faith is vindicated. If they didn’t take place, it’s false. And Christianity has been willing to put itself on the line in that respect across the centuries. At the very beginning, a rabbinic lawyer and convert to Christianity by the name of Paul said if Christ isn’t risen from the dead, we are of all men most miserable. [1 Cor. 15:14-19] In other words, if the resurrection didn’t take place, Christianity is false. If the resurrection did take place, Christianity turns out to be true. So, history is the field in which we can test the claims of Christianity.
Ankerberg: Most people right off the bat would say, “Listen, but you’ve got innumerable problems. You’re talking history, you’re talking the Bible as the evidence, you’re talking about disciples that were a part of writing that were all buddy-buddy with Jesus, and then I’ve heard all of this modern textual criticism.” Where would you start in laying out the evidence for a thinking person that says, “Listen, I’ve heard all that. What about that?”
Montgomery: Well, in the first place, since Christianity came on the scene in history, the first question will have to do with the documents by which we know about it. How good are these documents? If the New Testament documents were written by drunken monks in the tenth century, Christianity is in deep trouble. But they weren’t. They were written by eyewitnesses of the events themselves, or by associates of eyewitnesses. So this material is what a historian would call “primary source material.” What a lawyer would call “non-hearsay.” Then, having looked at the documents, we want to see what they have to say about Jesus. Do they present him as a simple prophet, as a kind of Jewish Boy Scout helping little old ladies across the Sea of Galilee? Or do they present him as a bit more than that? As a matter of fact, we will discover that they present Jesus as God Almighty, as “very God of very God,” as the Creeds put it. Then, we have to ask ourselves, “Was he really that kind of person?” Because he could claim such and yet not be that. So we turn to the central evidence presented to show that he was the person he claimed to be, namely, his resurrection from the dead. So it seems to me we want to proceed along three lines. First of all, the documents; second, what the documents have to say about Jesus; and then the evidence that what they say about Jesus is correct – specifically, his resurrection.
Ankerberg: Alright, now you’re a trial attorney, and the fact is that when you sift evidence, you said there are eyewitnesses. Now, I think this comes as a surprise to many people. Eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ? Come on! Who were they?
Montgomery: Well, for example, the first Gospel was written by Matthew Levi, a tax collector, who became an apostle, a disciple of Jesus, and who wrote on the basis of his own observation of what Jesus said and did. The fourth Gospel was written by John who was the youngest of the disciples and lived the longest. We have independent evidence that he died in the city of Ephesus around the year 95. We have records of two of his students where they indicate to us that John was in fact the author of that book, and he passed on information to them about the authorship of the other major Gospels. The second Gospel was written by John Mark who was a companion of Peter, one of the apostles. And Luke’s Gospel was written by the physician who accompanied the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. And Paul was accepted by the original eleven apostles as a legitimate apostle in his own right.
Ankerberg: And of course you’ve got James and Peter.
Montgomery: Those as well.
Ankerberg: That’s right. So you have seven eyewitnesses that said they were either there or checked out other witnesses and gave us information, which is what we have in the New Testament. But then I can hear many of the folks that are listening in right now, they would be saying, “But Dr. Montgomery, you know those were all the disciples of Jesus. Those were his friends. Didn’t they pad the case? I mean, didn’t they really kind of make it up and lift Jesus up? And we really don’t have any skeptics in the group there; we just have good friends of Jesus. How do we know that they actually are telling us the truth about what Jesus actually did?”
Montgomery: That’s one of the central questions, and it seems to me we need to face that directly. And there are two things we need to see about it. First of all, these people did not start out as believers. In fact, after Jesus’ crucifixion, they were back at the old fishing nets. They quite obviously had not arrived at the belief reflected in the writings that they produced later. What changed their minds was the resurrection itself. We see this in the case of Thomas, who wouldn’t believe unless he could touch the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and thrust his hand into his side after the resurrection. That’s the first thing. Second thing is, it doesn’t really make any difference whether a writer about Jesus or a writer about anything else is a friend of the person that he writes about if he produces his writings in an environment where there are hostile witnesses. The fact is that the early apostles went out and presented what we have in the New Testament in a primarily Jewish audience, particularly in the synagogues. And the Jewish religious leaders had been the primary opponents of Jesus’ message. Now, it is inconceivable that the disciples, friends of Jesus or not, could have gotten away with incorrect information about Jesus in the presence of hostile witnesses who had themselves had contact with Jesus’ life and who had what we lawyers call “means, motive and opportunity” to destroy that picture.
Ankerberg: Now, we’ve had folks that would say, “Well, yeah, that sounds pretty good, but how do you know that what the disciples saw has come down to us accurately?” In other words, two things: some will say, “You know, alright, you’ve got seven eyewitnesses. You’ve got people that said they saw things and heard Jesus say things. They wrote it down. But don’t we have a lot of errors in the text and weren’t these things written down hundreds of years later?” I mean, I’ve had Jewish rabbis on the program that said, you know, two or three hundred years after the time that Jesus lived we have the documents. And the fact is it would be like talking to the man in the front row, whispering something into his ear, and he whispers something into the next guy’s ear and it goes all the way around, and by the time it gets to the back, the message has changed. And what they’re saying is, “Listen, that’s where Jesus and the disciples, they were talking up there, and then those guys passed it on word of mouth, word of mouth, word of mouth, and by the time it got down here we’ve got legend. We’ve got myth.” What do you say to that?
Montgomery: Well, in the case of the New Testament documents we have writings of antiquity which were copied and recopied across the centuries up to the time of the invention of printing in the West in the fifteenth century. There is a science known as textual criticism which examines the documents to see whether they have been altered through the copying and recopying, and which corrects the documents on the basis of better texts. This is a highly technical field, and the results of it are what interest us, not the means by which those results were obtained. We couldn’t go into that. But the results of textual criticism applied to the New Testament documents is very simple: The New Testament documents are the best attested documents of the Ancient World. That is to say, there has been the least difficulty in getting back to the original content of those documents as compared with any of the documents of classical antiquity.
I’ll give you a few examples here. I majored in classics as an undergraduate at Cornell University and I spent an entire semester on the Roman poet Catullus. He wrote love poems. It was a delightful semester. And no one mentioned in the course of that series of sessions on Catullus that all of the poems of Catullus that we have come from one manuscript which was discovered during the Italian Renaissance and has since been lost. In other words, the earliest manuscript of the complete poems of Catullus was a thousand years after the writing of those poems themselves. This is in general the situation as to the documents of classical antiquity.
In contrast with this we have the New Testament documents. We have complete texts of the Gospels going back within 300 years of the original writings. 300 years. And, the 300 years is bridged by quotations, fragments, lectionary readings that take us right back on top of the original writings. We even have a fragment of the Gospel of John that is dated at 100; in other words, within five years of the writing of the Gospel itself. Classical textual critics would sell their grandmothers for that kind of evidence in regard to writers such as Catullus. Now, the conclusion that we have to arrive at in this is that if you want to throw out the New Testament documents on the basis of some textual argument, you must first dump your entire knowledge of Greco-Roman history; because our knowledge of Greece and Rome depend upon documentary evidence less adequate than the documentary evidence for Jesus Christ.
Ankerberg: Alright, we’re going to take a break and we’re going to come back. You had a debate with a Professor [Avrum] Stroll up in British Columbia, and it was right in that area where he said that there was no information that he would accept as evidence. I’d like you to tell our listeners when we come back off the break what the conclusion of that debate was in a moment. Stick with us. We’ll come right back.

Ankerberg: Alright, we’re back, and we’re talking about the historical evidence for the person of Jesus Christ. Christianity says that Jesus Christ is God. The question is, “Is he?” Is there any evidence to back that up? And what kind of evidence is there? Dr. Montgomery, you’ve been talking about evidence. Summarize again, what was the evidence that we’re looking at?
Montgomery: Yes. What we’ve been emphasizing is that Christianity differs from other religions in offering specific historical proof of its claims, and the historical proof has to do with Jesus Christ. According to primary source records, records that come from eyewitnesses, Jesus claimed to be no less than God and he demonstrated his deity by his resurrection from the dead. And the documents in which these materials are contained turn out to be the best attested documents of the ancient world in the sense that there is the least textual alteration and damage to these documents across the centuries. We can get back virtually to the time of writing and we discover that these documents were in the condition in the first century in which we find them in the twentieth. It is simply not the case that as a result of translations or copyings we have lost our contact with what those documents originally said.
Ankerberg: Somebody said that we’ve got now 24,000 different manuscripts that have come down to us concerning the New Testament. How does that compare with other documents such as Homer or other Greek documents?
Montgomery: I can’t resist reading a quotation from the foremost authority in New Testament textual criticism in our time, Sir Frederick Kenyon. He was principal librarian in the British Museum, roughly the equivalent of our Librarian of Congress, and he wrote numerous books in this field. Back in 1933 he wrote a book entitled Recent Developments in the Textual Criticism of the Greek Bible, and he says on pages 74-76, “So far from the New Testament text being in an abnormally unsatisfactory state, it is far better attested than that of any other work of ancient literature. Its problems and difficulties arise not from the deficiency of evidence, but from an excess of it. In the case of no work of Greek or Latin literature do we possess manuscripts so plentiful in number or so near the date of composition.” And then he goes on to make comparisons with other classical writers. For example, in general, the distance from the first complete texts that we have of a classical writer and the original writing ranges 900 to 1,000 years. 900 to 1,000 years! We don’t know what happened during that period, and we simply assume that the document as we have it adequately represents the document as it was originally written. Whereas in the case of the New Testament, as we’ve already said, there are documents – that is to say, fragments, lectionary readings, quotations, and the like – that carry us from the complete texts that are immensely earlier than in the case of classical writings, right back on top of the original writings.
Ankerberg: Alright. Talk to us again about when these things were written. Some people say, “Well, how do you know it’s not legend or myth, or it’s not the product of the church instead of the disciples?” In other words, talk to the point where they say it didn’t really come into existence until about two or three hundred years after Jesus was on the scene. What would you say to that?
Montgomery: Well, it’s impossible to argue that way because we have the manuscript materials earlier than this. There was a liberal theologian by the name of Rudolph Bultmann who said that the writings of the New Testament are actually the product of second century Gnosticism, particularly the Gospel of John is such a product. A little difficulty arose, namely finding a fragment of the Gospel of John at the year 100. It is very difficult to be influenced by second century Gnosticism when the book’s already written.
Ankerberg: What are the dates for the books?
Montgomery: Yes. The Gospels, the Synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark, and Luke, plus almost all of the rest of the New Testament appeared before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70. It’s fascinating to notice how even liberal scholars in our time have been forced to earlier dating like this on the basis of manuscript evidence. Thus, J. A. T. Robinson, “Honest to God Robinson” of the 1960s, before his death produced a work entitled Re-dating the New Testament. And in this work he said, “Every book of the New Testament was written before 70 by a baptized Jew.” He even included the Gospel of John. And in his posthumous book published just last year, he argues that the Gospel of John was the earliest of the Gospels. Now, it certainly wasn’t, but this is an indication of how early the dating has to be placed now. And the same position was taken by William Foxwell Albright of Johns Hopkins University, the author of the most important general work on biblical archaeology in our country. He said that every single book of the New Testament was a product of people in direct contact with Jesus and before the fall of Jerusalem in 70.
Ankerberg: Give us what scholarship is substantiating concerning the dates. Start with Luke and work your way back, on dates.
Montgomery: Well, in all probability, Mark’s gospel is the earliest. And it was used by Matthew as one of Matthew’s sources, and also used by Luke as one of Luke’s sources. We have external evidence that shows us this early dating along the following lines. We know that Paul died in the Neronian persecution 64-65. Now, the book of Acts sets forth the biography of Paul, his missionary activities. But at the end of the book of Acts Paul has not yet died. So, it’s clear that the book was written before his death. Had he died, obviously the author would have mentioned it. Death is important in a biography, it ends it! So, 64-65. Luke is Part I of Acts and is stated to be such. In the book of Acts the writer says, “The former treatise I presented to you, Theophilus.” That’s Luke. So Luke was written prior to Acts. But Luke used Mark. Now, you’re moving back from 64-65, and Jesus died around the year 30. That places all of this stuff within a generation of the events themselves. Thirty-five years maximum.
Ankerberg: Why is that important?
Montgomery: Well, I hate to admit this, but I graduated from high school around 35 years ago and I remember very clearly my high school graduation. Some of it I’d like to forget. And the fact that we have little difficulty in remembering events that are important to us 35 years ago means simply that the stuff that you get in the New Testament is an accurate memory of what Jesus said and did. And these writers claim that. They insist that they are presenting what we today would call the “straight scoop” about that man.
Ankerberg: So we have accurate information, historical records, about a person called Jesus, substantiated by a multitude of documents that far outweighs any kind of support that you have in the classics. The time date for these books, the interval of transmission, is much shorter than what you have for the classics, and so what’s the conclusion on all of this?
Montgomery: Conclusion is this: that you can know when you read the New Testament that what it says about Jesus is accurate. Now, if it should turn out that what these documents say is that Jesus was the God of the universe come down here to earth to deal with your personal spiritual problems, you’d better come to terms with him. You have no choice. You’re facing reality and you’re going to have to deal with it. Nobody can come to you that way and remain in neutrality. You’re going to have to make some sort of decision about a person like that.
Ankerberg: Okay, so this sets us up now. We’ve got accurate information, in history, about a real person. Now the question is, what does that information tell us about that person? And, of course, with all the different interpretations that people have given us of who they think Jesus is, we’re going to check out next week who Jesus himself claimed to be, and then the mess that gets us in concerning miracles and the things that he did and we want to investigate that. So please stick with us. We’ll do it next week.

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