Why is Early Attestation for Jesus Important?

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The primary source materials for the historical Jesus are early when compared with other figures of ancient history.

The latest text from the New Testament (the book of Revelation) dates to no later than 60-65 years post Christ’s crucifixion, and the earliest text dates to just 20 years (1 Thessalonians). All the other New Testament materials fall between these two dates. Generally speaking, the earliness of source materials for ancient religious founders and philosophers are quite bad. Texts for Sidhartha Gotama’s (the Buddha whose teachings formed Buddhism), Mahavira’s (the reformer and reviver of Jainism), Laozi (founder of Daoism), Confucius (founder of Confucianism), and the Prophet Muhammad (Islam) are removed by at least one and more often than not several centuries. For Christ that historians have in their possession four gospel biographies (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) which are reasonably coherent and all penned within 60 years (as early as 40 years in the case of Mark) of Christ’s death is very unique in ancient religious history. Scholar Michael Bird explains that,

“Paul’s letters are written about 20-30 years after Jesus’ death, and the Gospels about 50-70 years after his death. Our oldest piece of papyrus with a fragment of John 18 is P25 and is dated to about 125-150 CE. Authors like Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus from the late first and early second century wrote about Jesus too. That sounds pretty early to me, at least in comparison to other historical figures” (1).

Although the earliness of a historical source in proximity to purported events believed to have occurred does not itself guarantee historicity, earliness remains greatly appreciated. The general rule of thumb is that the earlier the material the more valuable it is. Historians are sensitive to the fact that oral traditions in circulation for several centuries prior to being put to paper are susceptible to legendary embellishment. However, just as the earliness of a text is not a guarantee of historicity, so is the lateness of a source not a guarantee of its unreliability. After all, an dating closer to purported events could conceivably be less reliable than a text dating to much later. These should be kept in mind when dealing with the historical data.

In the case of historical reconstructive purposes for Christ the primary sources derived from the New Testament are in all likeliness too early for mythological embellishment to impugn the texts. By the time the gospels and New Testament texts were being written the important events and teachings of Christ’s life would have been fresh in the minds of the authors, disciples, eyewitnesses, and early Christian communities. Professor Craig Keener explains that “Gospel materials written within four decades of Jesus’ execution therefore provide a remarkably special opportunity for early insight into Jesus’ ministry” (2).

References

1. Bird, M. 2014. Yes Jesus existed…but relax, you can still be an atheist if you want to. Available.

2. Keener, C. 2009. Will the Real Historical Jesus Please Stand Up. Available.

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2 responses to “Why is Early Attestation for Jesus Important?

  1. The earliest extant sources for Alexander may be centuries after his death, but they cite the writings of his contemporaries.

  2. You said the gospels are written 50-70 years after jesus death. But i have an earlier date then that. Most schoolars agrees that mark’s gospel is the earliest, ok. lets check out Luke’s two writings, he wrote the gospel of luke and Acts. In the writings of acts we know about the death of peter, paul and the destruction of the temple that was in 70 A.D, right ?? No, we only now about James the brother of john and stephen! because that had already happend when Luke wrote acts, but isn’t strange that, when Luke is ending the writings of acts, Paul is still alive, and the temple is still there and peter is alive, because when he wrote acts, they were all still alive and the destruction of the temple had’nt happend yet, and they died in 67 A.D and the destruction of the temple was in 70 A.D, so we can place acts in the time of 64 A.D and thats only 31 years after jesus death. But Luke wrote his gospel even earlier then Acts, we know this, because he said Acts: 1 In the FIRST book (the gospel of luke), O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach. So i think we can place his gospel in 55 A.D, now this is 22 years after Jesus death. and then comes The gospel of matthew and the gospel of mark. I think it’s reasonable to place the gospel in mark in 45 A.D, that is 12 years after jesus died.

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