The Historical Argument for Christianity

This page is devoted to the historical origin of the Bible. This subject originally started on my Arguments For and Against Christianity page, but was eventually moved here when it became quite large. It is for this reason that I present the material in this conversational manner.

If it can be shown, as critics charge, that the Bible's early history is fraught with confusion, disagreements, or falsifications, then this would definitely undermine the case for Christianity. Likewise, the discovery that the Bible has always existed in its present form would bolster the Christian position. For an interesting account of the History of Christianity by a former Christian, see The Case Against Christianity. I am by no means an authority on the Bible, and most of these facts come from other sources. If you see any mistakes or inaccuracies, please let me know.

The Historicity of the Gospels

The immediate successors of the apostles beginning in the late first and early second century cite Gospels and epistles as authentic including sections on the death and resurrection of Christ. In A.D. 95 Clement of Rome cited words found in Matthew. Around A.D. 110 Ignatius alludes to Matthew and John, and quoted Luke 24:39 (a crucial text on the resurrection of Christ). Polycarp, a disciple of John the apostle cites the synoptic gospels as authentic. The Epistle of Barnabas (135) quotes Matthew. Papias (125 and following) speaks of Matthew and Mark writing Gospels saying three times that Mark made no errors. The Shepard of Hermas alludes to Luke, Matthew, and John. (Norman L. Geisler, The Geisler-Till Debate and Jochen Katz, The History of the Gospels - Contrary to Popular Muslim Myths.)

Doubter: (from The Historicity of Jesus ) The evidence for Clement is by no means conclusive. In two places the writer repeats the words of Jesus which are similar to those in the Gospels, but not quotations. He never refers to Gospel stories or sayings even though they would have supported his argument, instead referring to the Old Testament:

Ignatius mentions the Gospel, but appears to be speaking of the message, not the text. He gives information about Jesus not found in the Gospels, such as:

For I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection; and when He came to Peter and his company, He said to them, "Lay hold and handle me, and see that I am not a demon without a body". And straightway they touched Him, and they believed, being joined unto His flesh and His blood. Wherefore also they despised death, nay they were found superior to death. And after His resurrection He [both ate with them and drank with them as one in the flesh, though spiritually He was united with the Father]. (Ignatius to the Smyrneans 3:1-2)

A star shone forth in the heaven above all the stars; and its light was unutterable, and its strangeness caused amazement; and all the rest of the constellations with the sun and moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star; but the star itself far outshone them all; and there was perplexity to know whence came this strange appearance which was so unlike them. (Ignatius to the Ephesians 19:2)

He does refer to other New Testament writings, but these statements makes one wonder from which texts he was using. He does, however, use terms found in Matthew and Luke in his letter to the Philippians.

The Epistle of Barnabas refers to Matthew 20:16 and 22:14, and surprisingly (for this early date) calls the latter scripture:

Again I will shew thee how the Lord speaketh concerning us. He made a second creation at the last; and the Lord saith; "Behold I make the last things as the first". In reference to this then the prophet preached; "Enter into a land flowing with milk and honey, and be lords over it." (Barnabas 6:13)

So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:16)

Moreover understand this also, my brothers. When ye see that after so many signs and wonders wrought in Israel, even then they were abandoned, let us give heed, lest haply we be found, as the scripture saith, "many are called but few are chosen." (Barnabas 4:13-14)

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)

The first passage seems to be more of a common expression than a quotation. One could also argue that the second comes from Matthew's source and not from that Gospel itself. One indication of this is the way he chooses to end from the apocryphal Enoch instead of Mark 13. He also refers to the Psalms instead of the Gospels when discussing the crucifixion. Lastly, there is a saying attributed to Jesus not found in any Gospel: "'Thus, He saith, 'they that desire to see Me, and to attain unto My kingdom, must lay hold on Me through tribulation and affliction.'" (Barnabas 7:35)

Polycarp seems to have known Luke and/or Matt, and improves upon Clement's "quotations", but does not reference the Gospel of John.

Papias mentions Matthew and Mark, but also uses the non-canonical apocryphal literature as a source. This would imply that the Gospels were not the sole source of information.

Justin Martyr refers to written Gospels but doesn't name them or give a number, so it's difficult to verify that he is referring to the Canonical Gospels. He does not refer to the four writers of the Gospels at all, and, interestingly, never speaks of the Apostle Paul. In fact, he only uses the word "gospel" in one case, and that is an interpolation. Further, he speaks of Jesus' father setting up in a cave, and of a fire in the Jordan at Jesus' baptism.

Tatian in ca. 170 A.D. used all four Gospels, and Irenaeus argued for their acceptance as the Canonical Gospel about a decade later.

The Historicity of the New Testament

Christian: (from Is the Bible Divine? (Fourth Night)) Tatianus, born in 130 A.D. wrote "The Harmony of the Four Gospels" for the Greeks. Theophilus, of Antioch, wrote three books to Autolycus before he died in 181 A.D. in which he mentions John and quotes the New Testament 30 or 40 times. Athenagoras became a Christian and wrote a treatise on the Resurrection and a petition to the Roman Emperor on behalf of the Christians to shield them from persecution. In these two works he quotes the New Testament 20 times.

Irenaeus' "five books against heresies" mention 21 of the 27 books of the New Testament. Before that Melito of Sardis wrote a work called "Extracts from the Law and the Prophets" in which he refers to the Old Testament, thereby acknowledging the New. In addition to Matthew and Mark, Papias also mentions Peter and John, all four of which were quoting the New Testament in 150 A.D. from different parts of the world. All of these facts indicate that the New Testament was around long before 150 A.D.

Now Justin Martyr became a Christian in 130 A.D., and wrote an apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius ten years later, and another to Marcus Aurelius. In both works he quotes extensively from the New Testament. As far as Polycarp is concerned, his letter to the Philippians mentions three books of the New Testament expressly by name, and quotes from the New Testament fifty times.

Ignatius was born a year after the crucifixion in 35 A.D. He wrote seven epistles in which he quotes forty or fifty times from the New Testament, and refers once to the Epistle to the Ephesians. Likewise, Hermas' The Shepherd has at least fifty quotations from the New Testament. Lastly, Clement's letter to Corinthians refers expressly to Paul's epistle, saying, "Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle." (1 Clement 47:1)

Doubter: None of Tatianus' works have survived to this day, and the only evidence we have for Melito is that of writers following him. Likewise, none of Tatian's texts have survived except in a quotation by Eusebius, and that quotation contradicts the widely held view that the book of Matthew was originally written in a Hebrew dialect. With regard to Polycarp, I have read his letter to the Philippians, and none of the names of the New Testament books appears in it. Neither is there a quotation of any kind. Your fifty quotations must be similarities in phraseology. Similarly, I was unable to find any reference to the Epistle to the Ephesians in Ignatius' seven epistles. This calls into question your claim that Ignatius made "forty or fifty" references to the New Testament.

Justin Martyr's lifetime is very much disputed (by religious scholars). He is thought to have been born in 130 A.D., possibly a little sooner, and many claim much later.

If we accept Clement's writings, then we must also accept those things which he says that do not appear in any Gospel. He says of the Jews, "Thus a profound and rich peace was given to all, and an insatiable desire of doing good. An abundant outpouring also of the Holy Spirit fell upon all;" (1 Clement 2:3-4). This is hardly evidence for a persecuted race. Regarding the resurrection, he says, "Let us consider the marvellous sign which is seen in the regions of the east, that is, in the parts about Arabia. There is a bird, which is named the phoenix. This, being the only one of its kind, liveth for five hundred years;" (1 Clement 25:1-3). That certainly does not appear in the Bible either.

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