Testing the Gospels From John to Hippolytus

I am confident the Gospels were written early and were not corrupted or altered over time. As a new investigator of the claims of Christianity, I examined the case for early dating and became convinced the Gospels were written within the generation of the eyewitnesses. But how do we know whether or not the early accounts were corrupted over the years? One way to test the content of the Gospels as they were passed down from generation to generation is to simply compare what was written about the Gospels by those who had direct contact with the eyewitnesses. I’ve written about the New Testament Chain of Custody in Cold-Case Christianity; when testing the validity of a piece of evidence in a particular case, we need to establish who handled the evidence from the time it was first collected to the time it is presented in trial. When it comes to the Gospel eyewitness accounts, we must examine what the students of the Gospel authors said about the text, then what their students said, then what the next generation said, and continue this examination down through history, comparing the statements and quotes to determine if the message of Scripture has changed. Today, I’ll provide an example with the Chain of Custody from the Apostle John (additional “chains” can be found in Cold-Case Christianity).

John (6-100AD) was the youngest of Jesus’ disciples. He was the son of Zebedee and Salome and the brother of James. While a young man, John witnessed the life of Jesus and saw firsthand many of the amazing miracles Jesus performed. John also witnessed the Resurrection. John wrote his Gospel as an eyewitness account, accurately reflecting the truth related to what he observed as a disciple of Jesus. This Gospel is a critical piece of evidence from the “crime scene” and John taught three important students and passed his Gospel into their trusted hands. These three men (Ignatius, Papias and Polycarp) became important early Church leaders in their own right and wrote about what they learned from John.

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Enjoy Christmas Tomorrow, Even Though It’s Probably Not Jesus’ Birthday

I celebrate Christmas. Growing up as an atheist, December 25th was about a lot of things, but not the birth of Jesus. For many centuries before the birth of Christ, December 25th was similarly non-Christian. The present date for Christmas traces back to the 4th Century. When Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, he introduced the faith to a culture already deeply committed to the pagan worship of Roman gods. Christian leaders were in for a real challenge as they wrestled with prior cultural commitments to these gods. Pagan festivals and celebrations abounded throughout the year, celebrating and honoring Roman gods of one variety or another.

One of Rome’s biggest religious festivals occurred in the winter. The festival was called “Saturnalia”, and it was a celebration coinciding with the winter solstice. It occurred over a period of time corresponding to December 17th - 24th, ending on December 25th. This date, declared by Emperor Aurelian in 274AD to be “Dies Natalis Invicti Solis” (“Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun”), was a celebration of the Roman god, Saturn. The winter solstice also occurred around this time, celebrated when the sun reached its most southerly declination (when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees from the sun). This marked the beginning of a number of pre-Roman pagan festivals and Roman holidays.

It shouldn’t surprise us this important pre-Christian holiday season would eventually take a Christian form. As a strategic consequence of those who wished to advance the truth of the Gospel, or simply as a cultural inevitability, December 25th became a Christian celebration. St. Augustine of Hippo (the early church theologian of the 4th and 5th Century), wrote about the newly adopted celebration, and said:

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Was the Virgin Birth Incorrectly Prophesied? Part II

All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will call him Immanuel (which means “God is with us”) (Isaiah 7:14).

 

Difficulty: This verse is commonly used to refer to Jesus as virgin born, but isn’t it merely referring to the natural birth of King Hezekiah?

 

Explanation: Conservative scholars say the prophet Isaiah foretold that Jesus would be born of a virgin seven centuries before the event took place. However, critics point out that the New Testament writer “misquotes” the word virgin from Isaiah 7. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 is almah, meaning “young woman.” Yet in Matthew 1:23 the Greek translation of the Old Testament is quoted using the word parthenos, meaning “virgin.” Critics say that Matthew is twisting what Isaiah was saying.
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The Messiah Sweepstakes

Throughout the Old Testament, God promised the Jews that He would send a king who would establish God’s kingdom on earth. This “deliverer” was referred to as the Messiah, or “the Christ.” He would be God coming down to earth.

Predictions (or prophecies) in the Old Testament about this Messiah were many and specific, and all gave clues as to how the Messiah could be identified: where and when He would be born, His family tree, when and how He would die, and more.

You might think having so many prophecies posted for all to read—there are at least 40 in the Bible concerning the Messiah, made over a period of hundreds of years—would make it easier for someone to figure out how to be a candidate in the Messiah sweepstakes. But the opposite is true. It’s one thing for an imitator to fulfill one or even a few of the prophecies, but with so many specific parameters, it was impossible for any one person to meet the Messiah qualifications, such as:

  • Had to be born in the little town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)
  • Would be a direct descendant of the famous King David (Isaiah 11:1)
  • Would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14)
  • Would say certain things while dying (Psalm 22:1)
  • Would come back from the dead (Psalm 16:9-10)
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From Reliable to Divine: The Fulfilled Prophecies of Jesus

If you’re trying to determine whether or not the New Testament is historically reliable, archaeology and ancient non-Biblical records can provide “touch point” corroboration of the Biblical text. We took a similar approach when we examined the evidence corroborating the Old Testament. But these Biblical volumes claim to be much more than a reliable record of history; they claim to be the very Word of God. In order to assess such a bold claim related to the New Testament, we must examine a distinctive feature of the Biblical narrative: prophecy. If a book accurately predicts the future (rather than simply recording the past), it moves from reliable to Divine.

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How the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers Preserved the Eyewitness Gospel Accounts

The students of the apostles played a pivotal role in preserving and promoting the eyewitness Gospel accounts. While many skeptics claim the New Testament Canon was formed during 4th Century Church Councils (such as the Council of Nicea or Laodicea), the earliest believers had already preserved the canonical gospels and letters centuries prior. In fact, the early Church leaders prior to the first council at Nicea (known as the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers), began to collect and affirm the canon of Scripture in three separate geographical areas. The first surviving list of canonical texts dates to approximately 170AD in what is now known as the “Muratorian Fragment”, a partial copy of an ancient text discovered in the Ambrosian Library in Milan in the 18th century. This document affirmed and acknowledged Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Jude, 1 John, 2 John and Revelation as reliable, apostolic Scripture. The author of the Muratorian Fragment was also careful to warn his readers about Paul’s alleged letters to the Laodiceans and Alexandrians, and a document known as the “Apocalypse of Peter” (identifying these as forgeries). Even this early in history, in regions spanning Europe and the Mediterranean, Christians already possessed and guarded the New Testament texts:

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Was the Virgin Birth Incorrectly Prophesied? Part I

Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23).

 

Difficulty: Isn’t Matthew misquoting Isaiah 7:14, because wasn’t the child who was born actually Hezekiah, who became king of Israel?

 

Explanation: Yes, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7 and claims it was prophesied that Jesus was to be born of a virgin and would be called Immanuel. And critics do point out that a full reading of chapter 7 of Isaiah seems to more likely refer to the birth of Hezekiah, who became a godly king of Israel.

 

Some accuse writers of the New Testament of twisting and taking Old Testament passages like this out of context to teach their brand of Christianity. They say writers of the Gospels and the epistles seemed to take liberties with the Old Testament text to establish a whole new religion of their own.
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The Case for the Eyewitness Status of the Gospel Authors

I’m often challenged about status of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Many skeptics reject the eyewitness authority of these accounts, even though the early Church selected and embraced the canonical Gospels based primarily on the eyewitness authority of their authors. Some skeptics argue the Gospels were never even intended to be seen as eyewitness testimony, in spite of the fact the earliest students of the apostles (and first Church leaders) repeated the content of the Gospels in their own letters, affirming the eyewitness status of the Gospels. It might be helpful, therefore, to review the context in which the Gospel events were first observed, recorded and transmitted in the 1st Century:

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The Case for the Reliability of the Old Testament (Bible Insert)

We’ve been investigating the case for the reliability of the Old Testament by examining the process of transmission, the verification of archaeology and the appearance of fulfilled prophecy in the text. The ancient scribes employed a trustworthy system of checks and balances as they copied the original texts, and the accuracy of transmission process was successfully tested with the discovery of the Isaiah text in the Dead Sea Scroll collection. The ancient Jewish believers and Church Fathers also embraced the Old Testament as the Word of God. In addition, archeological discoveries have since confirmed many of the Old Testament accounts, and these archaeological evidences are rich compared to other written claims about the ancient past. Finally, the Old Testament Scriptures contain fulfilled prophecies  (including amazing prophecies about the coming Messiah), establishing the Divine nature of the texts. Based on this evidence, the following summary can be created related to the case for the reliability of the Old Testament:

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The Conflicting Genealogies of Jesus

This is the record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham:…All those listed above include fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to Babylonian exile, and fourteen from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah (Matthew 1:1-17).

 

Difficulty: Why does Matthew’s detailed family line from Abraham through King David to Jesus so radically differ from the Luke 3:23-38 account of Jesus’ ancestry?

 

Explanation: At first glance, we may get the impression that both accounts are tracing the family line of Jesus through his legal father, Joseph, in which case there is an obvious contradiction. It is confusing because Matthew 1:16 indicates Jacob is Joseph’s father, while Luke 3:23 says that Heli is the father of Joseph.
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