There is considerable literary evidence about Jesus than any other person or historical event. There are written materials about the life of Christ, but they are supportive and antagonistic. This literary evidence can be roughly broken down into three categories:
Christians who liked Jesus
Non-Christians who liked Jesus
Non-Christians who disliked Jesus
The modern critics of Christ and his message largely evaluate those non-Christians of the first few centuries after Christ while ignoring the evidence of those supporting his mission. We will try to critically present the evidence in all three categories to determine their factual nature.
Christians Who Liked Jesus
This would seem to be an obvious category as many argue that if Christians did not like Jesus, they would not be Christians; somewhat of a circular argument. But many early Christians came from a culture that deeply resented Christ and would torture and kill believers if they did not recant their testimony. Being a Christian in the Roman Empire of the first few centuries was dangerous as it could lead to your death and your family’s demise.
Despite this persecution, early church leaders during the first few centuries of Christianity wrote letters of encouragement through letters and doctrinal statements. This literature is rich with quotations from the gospels. These letters richly quote from the gospels and help establish their reliability and unchanging nature. For example, there are
935 verse quotations from Matthew (87.3 percent of the entire book)
453 verse quotations from Mark (66.9 percent of the entire book)
990 verse quotations from Luke (86 percent of the entire book)
859 verse quotations from John (97.8 percent of the entire book
The church leaders also quoted liberally from the other books of what became the New Testament. If the New Testament were somehow to disappear from the Earth, the writings from these early church leaders would establish the gospel claims and church doctrine. These writings include Christ’s miracles, teachings, nature, and claims. Many of these church leaders would firmly establish their belief in their writings by their unwillingness to recant their testimony and ultimately to be tortured and martyred.
The Edict of Milan was issued by the emperors Constantine and Lucinius in 313 AD. This edict proclaimed religious tolerance throughout the Empire and effectively ended the persecution of Christianity. This was certainly welcome news for the persecuted Christian community as it permitted them to practice their religion openly. Tolerance for Christianity was further proclaimed by the less well-known Edict of Thessalonica in 380 by emperors Theodosius, Gratian, and Valentinian II. This edict declared that citizens throughout the Empire
should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter.
This edict established Nicene Christianity as the religion of the empire, encouraged by the legal edicts noted above. The change from persecution to promotion occurred within a few decades and would transform the Roman Empire and the rest of the world.
Christians who liked Jesus were willing to sacrifice their lives to establish the truth of their writings.
Non-Christians Who Liked Jesus
Dozens of noncanonical gospels were written in the early centuries before the Council of Nicea in 325. These writings were from authors across the Roman Empire who were eager for their purposes to co-opt the Christian message. These writings contradicted, falsely supplemented, or altered early first-century gospel accounts.
Many of these noncanonical writings were authored by Gnostics who were not even considered Christians by the early church fathers. While these authors certainly liked Jesus, they used his history. Incidentally, many of these Gnostic works are presented in modern-day fiction as being “lost works” of Christianity or works that were somehow “banned” by the established church for telling an unflattering truth. Instead, these noncanonical gospels strayed so far from orthodoxy that they could not be recognized as Christian by the earliest church fathers.
The earliest church fathers, such as Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, wrote extensively about these noncanonical gospels when they first appeared. They were identified as heretical frauds, written by sects with their own agendas. Irenaeus in 185 AD, wrote about these noncanonical texts noting that they were
an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish men, and both such are as ignorant of the Scriptures of truth.
Many of the authors of these noncanonical works allowed their theological ideas to corrupt their work – especially the Gnostics. They were utilizing the authority of an apostle’s name to legitimize the text. Jesus was often portrayed as the source of hidden, esoteric wisdom that only those of the Gnostic sects could learn. Jesus was often described as non-material, only a spirit but without a material body.
Many sensational television programs have been written about these noncanonical texts, proclaiming them as “truth” that was suppressed by the church because it contracted their legitimacy. The real reason they were discredited becomes apparent when these noncanonical texts are read. Additionally, they were written outside the region of Christ’s life and ministry. The canonical gospels were all written early and within the region where Christ walked and taught.
Non-Christians Who Disliked Jesus
Ancient Roman and Jewish voices often hated Christians because they were an independent group that did not own down to secular authority. While these voices were often very critical, they inadvertently confirmed the basic writings of the gospels.
Many of these writers were Roman, while others were religious leaders attempting to discredit Christianity. Thallus was a Greek-speaking historian, Mara bar Serapion was a Syrian philosopher, Akiva ben Yosef was a Jewish rabbi, and Epictetus was a stoic philosopher in modern Turkey.
His followers loved Christ, but he was dismissed and intensely despised by his critics.
But from those ancient critics, we can glean a profile of the ancient Christ. A detailed summary of Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection can be surmised from those who denied his ministry. Even if the New Testament somehow vanished, his critics’ voices would provide a robust description of Christ and his followers.
This robust description was from a time when followers of Christ were pursued, tortured, and killed in large numbers. This makes it even more remarkable that the Christian message has survived with his life and message confirmed. Every central claim of the New Testament can be reconstructed using these anti-Christian screeds, even though many of these authors did their best to impune Christ.
The historicity of Christ and the gospel message is provided by those who liked and worshipped Christ, but also by non-Christians who liked Christ and those who hated him.
Interestingly, the sources of those who disliked Christ provide a picture of him remarkably similar to that of the Gospels. In trying to discredit Christ, these sources as a whole instead prove his historicity and further document facts about his ministry and death.
It is a remarkable twist of fate that even Christ’s deepest critics substantiate his mission and historical facts.