The answer is pivotal.
My faith centers on Jesus Christ, divine and yet fully man…born a babe in a humble manger of present day West Bank. If he did not exist or if his words were falsely recorded, I have much to lament. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15.19)
What evidence and testimony exist? No photos, newspapers, or tweets. How can we establish his historical authenticity?
Consider another man of ancient history…Socrates. Did he really live? Few people doubt the validity of Socrates and his teachings; however, many deny the truth of Jesus. The standards to establish one man’s historical authenticity should be employed to also confirm the other man’s veracity.
Won’t you come with me to wrestle this question? It spans three posts, though. Please do stay with me through the mental gymnastics.
Who Vouches for this Man?
Both Socrates and Jesus were teachers of great distinction. But neither left writings of their own. Both taught by conversation in the form of parables, dialectical contractions, and conversational replies. Each man upheld a high standard of moral conduct and was critical of hypocritical leaders. Both Socrates and Jesus suffered death at the hands of the religious and political institutions of their day — about 399 B.C. and 30 A.D., respectively.
To begin establishing the veracity of historical persons, we need to identify souces that could attest to their existence. Since neither Socrates nor Jesus recorded their own words, we must rely on works written about them. Original resources or manuscripts from this time, however, are rare. The papyrus and parchment of the day did not preserve well. Therefore, we must turn to the earliest copies in existence — extant manuscripts.
What are the Writings on Socrates?
We know about Socrates’ life and teachings through his disciples’ writings and from references to his life in other classical Greek works. After his death, many schools of thought developed. Plato, a poet-philosopher, is considered Socrates’ greatest devotee and firmly established the socratic dialogue in the history of philosophy. Plato wrote several works about his mentor’s teachings and his trial, including Republics, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Xenophon, another disciple of Socrates, wrote about Socrates’ life in his manuscript called Memorabilia.
Numerous other places exist where Socrates is mentioned yet in less significant ways. The earlierst reference to Socrates is in the comic-poet Aristophanes’ play about the philosopher, The Clouds. It was written during Socrates’ life. Orator Isocrates, friend of Socrates, also makes reference to Socrates in his surviving work, Burisis, written nine years after the trial. Socrates is mentioned again two generations later by Aristotle.
Testimony of Socrates as an actual person continued through the years. Five centuries after the trial, for example, Diogenes Laertius wrote matter-of-factly that “after the death of Socrates the Athenians felt such remorse that they turned on his accusers.” (I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates) No extant records attempt to deny his life or martyrdom. Sources may disagree about his teachings, the fate of his accusers, etcetera, but not about the essence of who Socrates was.
What about the Writings on Jesus?
Jesus lived four centuries after Socrates. His teachings, death and resurrection are recorded by his disciples in the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). The writings bear the names of their authors. Recorded also in the New Testament are letters by additional followers of Jesus (namely Paul, Peter and James) which further testify to the historicity of the person Jesus.
Furthermore, external support of the gospels and New Testament writings are plentiful. Numerous early church leaders refer to the gospels in their writings, including Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch (115 A.D.), Polycarp the Bishop of Smyra (120 A.D.), and Clement of Alexandria (150-212 A.D.). Presbyter of Carthage (160-220 A.D.) quotes the New Testament more than 7,000 times in his writings (3,800 are from the four gospels). Origen (185-254 A.D.) wrote prolifically, quoting New Testament passages more than 18,000 times.
Non-Christian writers also attest to the existence of Jesus and his followers. Both Cornelius Tacitus (Roman historian in 112 A.D.) and Flavius Josephus (Jewish historian and commander of Jewish forces in 66 A.D.) write about Jesus, his crucifixion, and the perseverance of his followers. Suetonius, another Roman historian, wrote specifically about the Christians (120 A.D.) being expelled from Rome. Pliny the Younger, governor in Asia Minor, wrote a letter to the emperor (112 A.D.) seeking advise on dealing with the Christians. He explained that he had tortured and killed many of them. But, all they would confess to was that they met together, sang hymns to Christ as a god, and bound themselves to an oath not to do any wicked deeds.
Hence, We Must Conclude…
Numerous sources attest to the existence of both Socrates and Jesus. Recordings by disciples as well as writings and references by additional writers corroborate their lives.
Next post: Confirming veracity using internal reliability of the sources.
Posted by Sharon R. Hoover
Photo courtesy of Robert Wallace