Sermon - 14th August 2016
The Historical Jesus
Scripture - Acts 5:29-39
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today’s sermon theme is “The Historical Jesus”, and it was prompted by a question asked a few weeks ago by one of our church members, Jean-François. In his experience, and, most likely in our experience, too, many people whom we meet reject Jesus as someone who does not exist; or, if He were to exist, then His claim to be Divine, together His miraculous actions, are dismissed as myths or fairy-tales made up by His followers; although His teachings on social justice matters are met with broad approval.
During the past 20 to 25 years, an information revolution has taken place. Before the age of the Internet, our sources of reliable information were limited to books, encyclopaedia, newspapers, TV and radio, whose content and accuracy were assured by editorial staff – albeit in keeping with the publishers’ or government policies. The freedom and self-publishing of the Internet, largely without editorial controls, allows for information of all kinds on an almost infinite range of topics, both true and false. We use our life experience to test the reliability of what we are reading.
- Did the Moon landings happen? It is recorded history, but there are some who claim the landings were faked and claim to know how it was done.
- Was Christopher Columbus the first to discover America? That depends on which history book you read: many will say it was Leif Ericson, a Viking, in the 10th Century CE.
- What about the Romans? Did Julius Caesar exist? It said he conquered Britain. How can we be certain?
- And other famous names from the ancient world – Alexander the Great, the pharaohs of Egypt like Rameses and Tutankhamun – how can we be certain that they existed?
Every human culture since the dawn of time has recorded its history. Some of it has passed down through the oral tradition in stories, like King Arthur, King of the Britons; other history has been faithfully documented, sometimes literally chiselled on stone tablets and on walls of temples and tombs, or recorded on parchment and copied faithfully down the ages, running the risk of editing and copy-errors.
So what do we, as Christians, tell those we meet about the evidence for Jesus’ existence?
Jesus was different: He was not the ruler of a nation or empire like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar who founded cities or erected monuments to their successes; He was an itinerant Jewish preacher whose ministry lasted for three years. We cannot expect the find the same kind of evidence for Jesus, as we would for other key figures in ancient history.
Those who are sceptical about Jesus’ existence might dismiss the New Testament entirely as fictitious made up by His followers and say there is no evidence of Him having existed; however, there are some, independent non-Biblical texts from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE which support Jesus’ existence, five of which I will mention today:
1 – Tacitus was a Roman historian living in the latter half of the 1st Century CE whose writings are widely accepted by scholars and modern historians. It is from Tacitus’ writings that we learn that the Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64CE.
“Nero fastened the guilt ... on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of ... Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome....” [Tacitus, Annals 15.44]
In Tacitus’ own words, he is not at all sympathetic to Christians, yet the historical links to Jesus, His execution at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and the spread of Christianity to Rome all support the New Testament account.
2 – Pliny The Younger was another Roman historian and politician whose writings are widely accepted and respected. His account of the destruction of Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius in 79CE is one such example. Later, in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, he sought advice in how to deal with the many Christians, because: “a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity”. [Pliny, Epistles x. 96] Pliny wrote to the Emperor what he had discovered about Christian conduct:
“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, 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; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.” [ibid.]
Does Pliny’s description of the Christian life sound familiar, even down to his mention of the shared meal - Communion?
3 – The Romano-Jewish historian, Jospehus, another acclaimed and accepted ancient historian, writing in the latter half of the 1st Century CE, even going as far to mention the Resurrection. He wrote:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he ... wrought surprising feats.... He was the Christ. When Pilate ...condemned him to be crucified, those who had… come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared ... restored to life.... And the tribe of Christians ... has ... not disappeared.” [Antiquities 18.63-64]
4 – From another Jewish historical source, The Babylonian Talmud:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald ... cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy." [vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281]
5 – Finally, a Greek historian and satirist, Lucian of Samosata, writing some 100 years after Jesus’ time on earth clearly identified Christianity and its central figure, Jesus:
“The Christians ... worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.... [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.” ["The Death of Peregrine", 11-13, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata]
There is one more thing to add: in the year 70CE, following a long siege, Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Romans. The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote this:
“it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited.” [Book VII. Chapter 1.1]
Given the scale of destruction, it is not unreasonable to imagine that other documents, records and histories which may have referred to Jesus would become lost to history.
Michael Gleghorn, an American theologian and apologist in an article entitled “Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources” summarises the evidence:
“First, both Josephus and Lucian indicate that Jesus was regarded as wise. Second, Pliny, the Talmud, and Lucian imply He was a powerful and revered teacher. Third, both Josephus and the Talmud indicate He performed miraculous feats. Fourth, Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, and Lucian all mention that He was crucified. Tacitus and Josephus say this occurred under Pontius Pilate. And the Talmud declares it happened on the eve of Passover. Fifth, there are possible references to the Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection in both Tacitus and Josephus. Sixth, Josephus records that Jesus' followers believed He was the Christ, or Messiah. And finally, both Pliny and Lucian indicate that Christians worshipped Jesus as God!”
Our reading today is from the book of the Acts of the Apostles: this is one of the oldest New Testament writings. Despite being told not to do so, Peter and the other Apostles preached the Good News of Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem for which they were repeatedly arrested and punished.
As modern-day Christians in the UK, we do not run that risk, although Christians in other countries do live in fear because of their faith. Here in the UK, we are dismissed and ignored, our faith rejected by many to be nothing but nonsense. I hope and pray that the information and readings from other ancient sources in today’s sermon gives you some substance with which to counter the dismissive arguments you may encounter.
Let’s us take further encouragement in words from our reading.
Peter said: “We must obey God, not men.” (Acts 5:29) It is not easy to speak up against the crowd; however, we should not be disheartened.
Peter went on to say: “We are witnesses to [Jesus] - we and the Holy Spirit, who is God's gift to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32)
And, finally, we have words from an unlikely unsung hero of New Testament times, the Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Jewish Law, but as we heard in our reading, a man of an open mind. He had clearly seen a number of false Messiahs or false saviours: he mentions two of them, Theudas and Judas, and how their movements died out.
Gamaliel had the wisdom to leave the door open for God. He knew that any religious movement not of God would die out, but if God were in the movement, then there would be nothing humankind could do to defeat God’s purpose. In Gamaliel’s words: “If it comes from God, you cannot possibly defeat them. You could find yourselves fighting against God!” (Acts 5:39) Invite those you meet to keep their mind and hearts open – to God.
We have heard today from historical writers some 100 years on about Jesus’ followers, Christians, growing in number across the Roman Empire. Despite the Romans’ brutal suppression of Christianity, the faith survived and grew, and it has become a world-wide faith. Almost 2000 years have passed since Jesus’ historically documented time on earth, and globally, 1 in 3 people identify as Christian. Weighing the history and the statistical evidence against Gamaliel’s declaration, clearly it is of God.