Friday, December 24, 2010

The Various Literary Sources Available For Studying the Life of Christ

The various literary sources available for studying Jesus’ life can be divided into the following categories:

  1. Christian sources, which can be further divided into
    1. Biblical
    2. Extra-biblical
  2. Non-Christian sources, which can be further divided into
    1. Pagan sources
    2. Jewish sources

It is evident that we do not learn a great deal about Jesus of Nazareth from sources outside the New Testament.

1. Christian sources

Biblical sources

Although much less is known regarding the life of Christ from Acts to Revelation, the following are some of the facts found scattered throughout from Acts to Revelation:


Scripture References

His birth

He was as a descendent of David

Romans 1:3

He was raised as a Jew under the law

Galatians 4:4

He was truly a man (a real incarnation)

1 John 1:1-3, 4:1-3

He was poor

2 Cor 8:9

His character

He was gentle and meek

2 Cor 10:1

He was righteous

1 Pet 3:18, Acts 7:52

He was sinless

2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22

He was humble

Phil 2:6-8

He was tempted

Heb 2:18; 4:15

Events of His life

The Lord’s Supper

1 Cor 11:23-26

The Transfiguration

2 Pet 1:16-18

His Crucifixion

He experienced hostility

Heb 12:3; Rom 15:3

He was betrayed

1 Cor 11:23; Acts 1:15-20

The Jews present at His trial chose Barabbas over Him

Acts 3:14

The Jewish leadership bore responsibility in his crucifixion

1 Thess 2:14-15; Acts 2:23, 36; 7:52

He suffered without resisting

1 Pet 2:21-23

He was crucified

1 Cor 1:23

He rose from the dead

1 Cor 15

He ascended into heaven

Acts 1:9-11; Eph 4:8-10

His teachings

Romans 12:14 (compare with Matthew 5:44)

Romans 12:17 (compare with Matthew 5:39)

Romans 13:7 (compare with Mark 12:17)

Romans 13:8-10 (compare with Mark 12:31)

Romans 14:10 (compare with Matthew 7:1)

Extra-biblical sources

According to John 21:25, not everything that Jesus said or did is recorded in the four canonical Gospels.

In addition to the Gospel accounts, there are evidences to suggest that oral tradition concerning Jesus were remembered and passed down even after the Gospels were written.

Some of these possible sources of traditions include the apocryphal Gospels – especially the Gospel of Thomas.

These apocryphal gospels lack these three criteria to be included as canonical - apostolicity, consistency, and catholicity[1].

Many of these "lost Gospels" or "Gnostic Gospels" taught that Jesus was God, but not man (a heresy known as Docetism). In fact, the popular Gospel of Thomas likely teaches that Jesus is a divine teacher, but it is quite doubtful whether he is even human. Many of the infancy Gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas[2], etc., were written to explain how Jesus was basically non-human by having the child Jesus perform amazing miracles.

Many of these gospels were written after the second century and they depended heavily on the gospel accounts.

First, the Gospel of Thomas shows dependence on the first century New Testament writings, even parts of the Gospel of Mark that were edited by Matthew and Luke.

In fact, the early Church fathers who extensively cite portions of the New Testament show no awareness of the Gospel of Thomas in the early second century.

2. Non-Christian sources

These general sources do not reveal much about Jesus save for establishing beyond reasonable doubt the following facts:

Jesus was truly a historical person

Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century of our era

The Jewish leadership was involved in the death of Jesus

Jesus was crucified by the Romans under the governorship of Pontius Pilate

Jesus’ ministry was associated with wonders/sorcery.

(Ref: Stein, Robert H. Chapter 2. Jesus the Messiah: a Survey of the Life of Christ. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996)

Pagan sources

Example of pagan sources include:

Pliny the Younger

In a letter addressed to the emperor Trajan concerning the trial of Christians under his jurisdiction, he mentioned regarding the opportunity he allowed for these Christians to abandon their faith by calling upon the pagan gods. From his questioning of Christians Pliny learned that:

“….they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light [Sunday], when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up…..”

In Against Celsus by Origen, Origen defends Christianity against the attacks of Celcus, whereas in The Passing of Peregrinus by Lucian of Samosata, Lucian ridicules Christianity by telling of Peregrinus who feigned conversion in order to reap benefits from naïve and sympathetic Christians. In either case, mention is made of the life of Jesus, but as in the case of Pliny, this information is obtained secondhand from Christians removed by some time from the actual events.

Jewish sources

Josephus for example, wrote many great works – among which are his two most famous works, The History of the Jewish War and the Antiquities of the Jews. In the Antiquities, for example, there are two references to Jesus, and the famous of this is the Testimonium Flavianum (quoted below), although there have been some doubts regarding the authenticity of this passage:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not cease. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life. For the prophets of God had prophesied these and myriads of other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still up to now, not disappeared.

[1] Three criteria for canonicity:

Apostolicity - Was a book written by an apostle or associate of an apostle of Jesus? This was the first and main criteria for allowing a book to be in the canon of Scripture. If a book was written by either an apostle or an associate of an apostle (i.e., Mark was an associate of Peter and Luke was an associate of Paul), then the book could be in the canon. An apostle was someone who had seen the resurrected Jesus and who had a close fellowship with Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1). However, if the book was written over a hundred years after the time of Jesus, as is the case with most of the Gnostic Gospels including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, etc., then such books were obviously not written by an apostle and should not be in the canon. The last apostle who lived was the apostle John who died around 100 A.D. Any epistle written after that time was definitely not apostolic.

Consistency - Did the book agree with undoubtedly authentic writings? Another criteria was whether such a book agreed with obviously authentic books of the New Testament. For example, the book of James was questioned because there was some doubt whether it agreed with Paul's writings (i.e., Romans and Galatians). No one seriously questioned whether Paul actually wrote a core number of epistles such as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians.

Catholicity - Was the book circulated amongst various churches? Another criteria, but less important, was whether a book was circulated amongst various churches. This criteria was known as catholicity or universality.

(Reference: Myths about the Lost Books of the New Testament by Ryan Turner. In: CARM online. Available at: Accessed on 20 December 2010.)

[2] For example, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas describes the life of the child Jesus, with fanciful, and sometimes malevolent, supernatural events, comparable to the trickster nature of the god-child in many a Greek myth. One of the episodes involves Jesus making clay birds, which he then proceeds to bring to life, an act also attributed to Jesus in Qur'an 5:110. In another episode, a child disperses water that Jesus has collected, Jesus then curses him, which causes the child's body to wither into a corpse . Another child dies when Jesus curses him when he apparently accidentally bumps into Jesus. (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 2.1 to 5)

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