Many Christians and skeptics alike are unaware that behind our gospel sources lie much older traditions that go back closer to the historical Jesus. We will be reviewing these materials, creeds, hymns & sources as we go along. Scholar Gary Habermas writes that these early sources and creeds “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50” (1).
The inspiration behind our short investigation here comes directly from my thesis on the historicity of the miraculous feats of Jesus, as well as the authority of our gospels as sources of information on him. It was when I was investigating our gospel sources and the source traditions that lie behind them (we shall call them Pre-Gospel materials for this investigation) that I, for the first time, noted that one can actually make a sound historical argument for the resurrection (and miracles, as we shall do here) of Jesus with the source data we have prior to our gospels (our earliest gospel, by scholarly consensus, is Mark date to 70 AD – we shall use this as our benchmark), and most of the New Testament (with the exception of the Pauline epistles). It will be to these early sources we shall apply several criterion of authenticity, and thus work our way forth. We shall also end off in a summary of the data reviewed here in our investigation.
Putting historical data into perspective:
Research for my thesis found that the consensus of critical historians hold that Jesus was a miracle worker although different explanations are given. This at least suggests that the historical evidence is good. In my thesis I concluded that when we apply historical consistency to what we have on Jesus, without abusing the data with our presuppositions, the evidence for his resurrection & miracle status is quite overwhelming, especially when we compare Jesus to other miracles workers of history. We will look at some of this data below.
Furthermore, the majority of historians also hold to four facts that we need in order to establish Jesus’ resurrection as an event of history (2). They are namely: 1) Jesus’ crucifixion, 2) Jesus’ burial, 3) Jesus’ empty tomb, 4) Jesus’ post-mortem appearances to followers (disciples, Peter, the women etc.), skeptics (James) & enemies (Paul). Facts 1, 2 & 4 are universally acknowledge, whereas fact 3 (the empty tomb) hovers at about 75% consensus, thus still a sizable majority (3). It will be these four facts that we will look for and establish from our Pre-Gospel sources.
Criterion of multiple and independent attestation:
Most of what we know from ancient history comes down in textural sources, and for Jesus we are fortunate to have a lot of it at our disposal. This criterion says that if an event or saying that is found within multiple lines of tradition, for example as in our earliest sources Mark, Q, M, L, or in multiple forms, such as miracles, maxims, pronouncements, it is likely to be authentic (4). The Gospel of Mark is seen as an authoritative source for learning about the historical Jesus since it is our earliest gospel. We shall not consider Mark for our investigation.
A disclaimer should be made regarding this criterion. Just because an event or saying of a historical figure, Jesus or not, is found only within one source it does not mean that that event did not occur in history. It just means that we can’t apply the same historical probability, for example, to the narrative of Jesus fleeing into Egypt as a baby with his family (as attested solely within Matthews’s account) as we can to Jesus’ crucifixion (as attested in 11 independent sources). An event attested in one source may have occurred, and it is also true that an event that is attested to in one source may be plausible if it is supported by additional arguments and criterion.
However, when historians can find just two independent sources attesting to an event, or saying, of a person in history they consider that event, with a great degree of probability, as historical. Exegete William Craig explains that: “Historians consider themselves to have hit historical pay dirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event” (5).
Jesus in our Pre-Gospel materials.
The late Marcus Borg, a former fellow of the controversial Jesus Seminar, is certainly no Christian and was critical of the Christian religion. However, he admits the following:
“Hence, my conclusion: Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. Indeed, more healing stories are told about him than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition. In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history” (6).
I concur with this conclusion precisely because the accumulative evidence via arguments and quality & number primary sources is compelling. It is, in fact, compelling when we take the New Testament literature as a whole, and likewise, it is compelling when we consider our Pre-Gospel materials.
1. The Pre-Markan Passion Narrative:
Most scholars consider Mark as an authoritative source because it is our earliest gospel (consensus puts it at 70 AD). Of 666 total verses in Mark, 209 deal with Jesus’ miracles, and of these sources many come “from many different streams of first-generation Christian traditions” (7). However, we won’t consider Mark any further because we wish to avoid using our gospels. I’ve gone into further detail in my thesis that I intend publish here when completed.
But what we are interested in is a fascinating source that Mark uses in the constructing of his passion. This source is the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative (Mark 10:46-52), and it goes back to very close to Jesus’ life (he died at 30 AD). According to exegete Craig “the story of Jesus’s suffering and death, commonly called the Passion Story, was probably not originally written by Mark. Rather Mark used a source for this narrative. Since Mark is the earliest gospel, his source must be even earlier” (8). Most scholars accept this source as “The idea of a pre-Markan passion narrative continues to seem probable to a majority of scholars” (9). According to scholar Pesch this source dates to no later than 37 AD which is a just seven years after Jesus’ death and thus making it extremely early (10). We know that this source is early since the narrative refers to the high priest by his name. So, it is analogues to me saying that “our team captain is hosting a dinner.” Everyone in my team would know to whom I am referring, that would be the current captain of our team. This is how the high priest Caiaphas is referred to in the narrative, as if he were still in power at the time. And since we know that he was in power from 18 to 37 AD this source must go back to within the first few years of the Jerusalem fellowship and of Jesus’ crucifixion. Scholar Thiessen writes that “The date could also be pinpointed: parts of the Passion account would have to have been composed within the generation of the eyewitnesses and their contemporaries, that is, somewhere between 30 and 60 C.E.” (11).
However, several facts about Jesus’ life are attested to within this early source such as individual miracles that are embedded within it (12). Since this source is so early it, according to Meier, “constitutes a fair refutation of the idea that the miracle traditions were totally the creation of the early church after Jesus’ death” (13). Further, we also find early attestation to the empty tomb of Jesus, according to exegete Craig:
“First, it was also part of the pre-Markan Passion narrative. The empty tomb story is syntactically tied to the burial story; indeed, they are just one story. E.g., the antecedent of “him” (Jesus) in Mk. 16:1 is in the burial account (15:43); the women’s discussion of the stone presupposes the stone’s being rolled over the tomb’s entrance; their visiting the tomb presupposes their noting its location in 15.47; the words of the angel “see the place where they laid him” refer back to Joseph’s laying body in the tomb” (14).
So, our Pre-Markan Passion Narrative goes back to within 10 years of Jesus’ death, and it attests to his status as a miracle worker and to the story of the empty tomb. It also attests to the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:15, 20 24, 27, 32), which even the controversial Jesus Seminar considers as authentic (15).
2. Hypothetical Q:
The reason that this source is defined as hypothetical is because it no longer exists in any extant form, however, the majority of critical scholars believe that it did prior to the writing of both Matthew & Luke (16). This source is debated to contain either oral or written sources, or a combination of these two (17). Likewise scholars hold that Q predates our entire New Testament and the gospels, according to scholar James Dunn it is commonly dated to the 40s or early 50s AD (18). However, what we know about the nature of Q is limited, as scholar Wallace explains: “Though we would agree that Q really existed, we still don’t know much about it. After all, all we can go on are snippets from Q that were used by Matthew and Luke” (19).
But despite the limited nature of what we can know about Jesus from Q we still do find attestation to his miracles. Theologian Price affirms that “Q nevertheless provides independent attestation of Jesus’ miracle working” (20).
For example, we find Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant (Q = Luke 7:1-10/Matthew 8:5-13), and alongside this we have corroboration via statements as seen in Jesus’ reply to John the Baptists inquiry (Q = Matthew 11:2-6/Luke 7:18-23). Jesus says to tell John “what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them “(Matt. 11:4-5). On a side note it is worth noting that Jesus exorcised demons, and is even accused of doing so via demonic powers (Q = Matthew 9:32-34/Luke 11:14-23). Likewise Jesus affirms the existence of demons, and what happens to them after exorcism (Q = Matthew 12:43-45/Luke 11:24-26).
Further, we find that Q also independently attests to Jesus’ crucifixion. New Testament scholar Eric Rowe informs us that: “Q and pre-Mark both surely do attest to the crucifixion of Jesus” (21). Rowe tells us that “Mark is passing on pre-existing tradition and that the crucifixion is not the author’s own addition to the story.” One of Jesus’ statements thought to come from Q source is his instruction to: “Take up your cross and follow me,” thus vividly indicating his crucifixion.
In concluding, hypothetical Q is therefore another early and independent source that attests to Jesus’ status as a miracle worker, and his death by crucifixion.
3. Special Materials L & M:
These two materials are unique to the Gospels of Luke & Matthew. Luke’s special material is designated L, while M material corresponds to Matthew. So, M & L are materials that are not found in hypothetical Q or Mark, rather, each material, L & M, are unique to each gospel. Let’s clear this up a bit further. Most scholars hold that Mark’s gospel, our earliest gospel, was used as a source for Luke and Matthew’s gospel. Further, alongside Mark, Luke and Matthew consulted hypothetical Q. So, the Gospels of Luke and Matthew used Q and Mark when constructing their gospels, however what content is not found in either Q or Mark, and is found within either Luke or Matthew, is referred to as L and M materials. Therefore, each gospel author used three sources for constructing their gospel. Both M (22) and L (23) materials are widely accepted.
Nonetheless, we find Jesus as a miracle worker within these two materials. We find within Matthew’s unique material the nature miracle of Jesus walking on water (14:28-31), as well as the miracle of the shekel supernaturally placed within a fishes’ mouth (17:27). The miracle narratives within Luke’s special material are more abundant than what we find in M (see Luke 5:1-11; 7:11-17; 8:2-3: 13:10-17; 14:1-6, 4:29-30). Whereas Matthew took the focus off of Jesus’ miracles and directed his focus elsewhere (24), Luke includes many of them. According to scholar Van Voorst the “Research into the historical Jesus has found the distinctive contents of Luke, both teaching and narrative, to have a high degree of authenticity” (25).
Within L’s unique material we have Jesus performing a miracle in front of a crowd of which is followed by a “report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district” (Luke 7:11-17), as well as a healing on the Sabbath day that was witnessed by a crowd (13:10-17). Likewise, again on a side note, Jesus exorcised demons (8:2-3) According to scholar Kim Paffenroth: “The L material begins and ends with stories about tax collectors, widows, and lepers. The first half of the L material seems to be concerned with stories of love, hospitality, and finally, watchful. This final group is the most noticeably different from Lukan theology, in that its eschatology is more imminent than Luke’s own” (26). Paffenroth dates L to prior 60 AD and likely even earlier than 50 AD, as does scholar Edward Schweizer for six reasons (27).
So, both L & M independently attest to Jesus being a miracle worker.
4. John’s Pre-Signs Gospel:
An additional source is one that most scholars believe lies behind the Gospel of John. Scholar Fortna writes that “Thus, to many scholars there has seemed to lie behind the present text a protogospel that presented only Jesus’ signs, and a series of them, and did so wholly affirmatively” (28). According to the agnostic scholar, and popular critic of Christianity, Bart Ehrman “scholars have long suspected that John had at his disposal an earlier written account of Jesus’ miracles (the so-called Signs Source), at least two accounts of Jesus’s long speeches (the Discourse Sources), and possibly another passion source as well” (29).
This source is also early, and has been dated prior to 70 AD as a result of a reference to the Pool of Bethesda as still standing (John 5:2), however, the Romans destroyed this pool in 70 AD. According to scholar Robert Kaysar the pre-John Signs Gospel was a “collection of the wonders of Jesus [was] circulating within the Johannine community prior to the writing of the gospel” (30).
5. Pre-Pauline Creed:
In one of Paul’s authentic & undisputed letters, 1 Corinthians, we find an early creed that he received. This creed is dated to between three and five years after Jesus’ crucifixion, thus making it extraordinarily early. Atheist scholar Ludemann dates it to no later than three years after Jesus’ death (31), and the creed is universally considered as authentic by passing all the “demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text” (32).
This creed is momentously important for any historical investigation into earliest Christianity, for it reveals several things. Firstly, it attests to Jesus’ burial and also implies the empty tomb, as Paul writes: “that he [Jesus] was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15, emphasis mine).
Secondly, it confirms that the risen Jesus had appeared to Paul and James. Firstly, James, the brother of Jesus, was a staunch unbeliever in his brother as multiply & independently attested (Mark 3:21; 6:2-4, 6; John 7:5; 19:25-27). According to Ludemann: “James had no religious link with his brother during Jesus’ lifetime” (33). However, something dramatic must have happened to James because in Acts 1:14 he is among the earliest disciples. Later, James becomes the leader of the early church (Galatians 1, Acts 15), and is eventually martyred for his faith as 1st century historian Josephus Flavius tells us (34). The reason for this dramatic change is, as Paul tells us in this creed, that Jesus appeared to James and convinced him that he had been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15: 7). Atheist historian Ludemann says that “Because of 1 Cor. 15:7 it is certain that James ‘saw’ his brother” (35).
Thirdly, the appearance of Jesus to Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:8). This is significant for Paul was an early persecutor of the church, the very body of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:12-16, 22-23; Phil. 3:6-7). He dragged Christian men and women out of their homes to prison (Acts 8:3), and sanctioned the death by stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1). However, on the road to Damascus Jesus appears to Paul (Acts 26.12,15-16), and following this he becomes the leading teacher and planter of the early churches within early Christianity. In the time after his conversion Paul suffered immense abuse, persecution, heartache, and isolation. On several occasions Paul was incarcerated, while other times he endured beatings (2 Cor. 11:24-27). The Jews with whom Paul spoke tried to kill him (Acts 9:29), he was persecuted (Acts 13:50, 1 Corinthians 4:12, 2 Corinthians 4:9, 2 Timothy 3:11 & Phil 1:12-30), he was stoned and dragged out of the city (Acts 14:9), beaten with rods (Acts 16:22), endured trial (Acts 18:12), verbally abused by crowds (Acts 21:36 & 22:22), and incarcerated (2 Timothy 2:9). Paul was clearly willing to suffer for his faith, and this is multiply & independently attested. Eventually Paul is martyred for his faith.
The conversions of Paul and James happened despite the fact that they had no predisposition to experience a risen Jesus. After all, they both did not believe in Jesus and his message. According to Paul, like with James, it took a supernatural experience with Jesus to convince him of his bodily resurrection.
Fourthly, is Jesus’ appearance to the 500 all at once: “After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep” (15:6). This public remark would allow his readers to fact check his statement with those who were still alive. Theologian Price writes: “Jesus’ appearance to the five hundred individuals is also significant because Paul boldly proclaims that many are still alive, which is an invitation to the Corinthians, they can check up on his story. You don’t give people that opportunity if you fabricated a myth!” (36).
Further, scholar Wallace informs us that: “It is agreed upon by all teaching scholars in the western world (6000+) that Paul believed that Jesus appeared to these more than 500 eyewitnesses,” Wallace then goes on to stay: “Paul’s credibility was on the line with many false teachers in Corinth and so if these more than 500 could not be corroborated it would have greatly hurt Paul’s reputation” (37).
So, from Paul’s creedal formula we have the following: Jesus’ burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances to the unbeliever James, persecutor Paul, to his disciples (Peter etc.), and to the 500.
6. Primitive Christian hymn:
Most scholars hold that within our Philippians 2:1-18 pericope there is an early hymn that Christians used to sing in worship to Jesus (38). The book of Philippians is an undisputed epistle of Paul’s and date to the early 60s AD (39). This would suggest that the hymn must date prior to the 60s. Further, the hymn within Philippians 2 demonstrates an interest in the memory of Jesus as our later gospels also describe him (40). I actually did an exegetical commentary on this pericope that one can view. But nonetheless, the Christology within this hymn is high. The hymn informs us that Jesus was “in the form of God” (2:6), took “the form of a bond-servant” (2:7), and also died on a cross (2:8).
From this hymn we can note that the early Christian belief was that Jesus was God incarnate, and that he was crucified.
Pre-Gospel data as a total:
Having reviewed the above data we find several facts corroborated by our Pre-Gospel materials, namely:
- Jesus as miracle worker – Pre-Mark, L, M, Q, Signs Gospel. (5 independent sources).
- Jesus’ burial – Pre-Mark, Creed (1 Cor. 15:3-8). (2 independent sources).
- Jesus’ crucifixion – Pre-Mark, Q, Philippian hymn. (3 independent sources).
- Empty tomb – Pre-Mark, Creed (1 Cor. 15:3-8). (2 independent sources).
- Resurrection appearances – Creed (1 Cor. 15:3-8). (1 independent source).
So, that Jesus was a miracle worker is the most abundantly attested fact about his life from our Pre-Gospel materials. Because of this data being so early, as well as independent, I take it for certain that Jesus was a miracle worker, as theologian Price writes: “Every canonical gospel source, Mark, Q, M, L, and John, affirms the miracle-working activities of Jesus. Less friendly sources, such as Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud, also attest to Jesus as a miracle worker” (41). If we simply apply consistency in our historical methodology then we must conclude, at least on historical grounds, that Jesus was a miracle worker and that he had a popular reputation as being one.
Likewise, by applying the criterion of multiple and independent attestation to our Pre-Gospel materials we can confirm that Jesus was a 1) miracle worker, 2) that he was buried in a tomb, 3) that he was crucified, 4) that the tomb soon became empty. These are facts well established by our later gospel sources, by Paul’s epistles and the New Testament. These facts are also, as we noted, held by the majority of critical historians (42).
The only exception to this criterion is that of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, outside of our gospels, are only mentioned within Paul’s early creedal formula. Of course our gospels and Pauline epistles confirm this fact quite abundantly, but our intention here is not to use them, but only the Pre-Gospel data. However, additional arguments support the credibility of Paul’s creed, and as a result we can accept it as historical. Firstly, Paul’s prior life to his conversion (when he was persecuting early Christians) attests to his credibility and truthfulness of his post-conversion life, and that he opened himself to investigation by mentioning the 500 also attests to his credibility. Especially when his reputation was on the line. Also, that Paul’s creed attests to the most reasonable explanation for the dramatic change in Jesus’ unbelieving brother James also suggests its credibility. There are also several other marks of historicity that confirm the creeds primitiveness (see footnote 43). Likewise, the passage is itself authentic, and comes from one of Paul’s undisputed epistles, hence why universal consensus of critical historians hold to the genuineness of the creed that he received.
Without using our gospels, and using only Pre-Gospel data that predates most of our New Testament, we can argue that Jesus’ resurrection is the best fit to the data. That Jesus was crucified, buried, and that his tomb became empty coupled with his post-mortem resurrection appearances to skeptics (James), persecutors (Paul), the disciples, and to the 500 builds a positive case for the resurrection. These facts are well attested to historically, and can be affirmed, via criterion, without appeal to our gospels. This is particularly striking since our gospels tell us so much more about Jesus, as well as further corroborate the facts we can mine from our Pre-Gospel sources.
Finally, multiple & independent attestation of Pre-Gospel materials strongly disconfirms the skeptic’s argument that either of these facts reviewed are legendary or mythological embellishments. They simply enjoy too much early & independent attestation that strongly negates such a challenge. That we have such an abundance of traditions and textual sources on the historical Jesus surely tells us that he left a unique mark in history. We can agree with the critic Bart Ehrman’s conclusion:
“It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection” (44).
- Habermas, G. 1996. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. p. 143.
- Habermas, G. 2012. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity.
- Habermas, G. 2012. Ibid.
- Bock, D. 2002. Studying the Historical Jesus. p. 201.
- Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb.
- Borg, M. The Mighty Deeds of Jesus. Available.
- Meier, J. 1994. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 2. p. 618.
- Craig, W. The evidence for Jesus. Available.
- Early Christian Writings: The Passion Narrative. Available.
- Pesch, R. quoted by Horton, M. in: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Part 1).
- 11.Theissen, G. 1992. The Gospels in Context. p. 188 – 189.
- Meier, J. 1994. Ibid. p. 618.
- Meier, J. 1994. Ibid. p. 620.
- Craig, W. Independent Sources For Jesus Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
- Early Christian Writings: The Pre-Markan Passion Narrative. Available.
- ‘Q.’ Cross, F. L., ed. 2005. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian church.
- Mournet, T. 2005. Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency. p. 11.
- Dunn, J. 2009. Beginning From Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making. p. 117.
- Wallace, D. & Bock, D. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. p. 143 (Scribd ebook format).
- Price, C. 2004. The Miracles of Jesus: A Historical Inquiry. Available.
- Personal Correspondence with Eric Rowe (November, 2015).
- Hengel, M. 2000. Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. p.207- 210.
- Funk, R. & Roy, H. 1993. The Five gospels. p. 1-30.
- Scholar Sanders affirms that “in general, the author de-emphasizes miracles” of Jesus. See. The Historical Jesus. p. 146.
- Van Voorst, R. 2000. Jesus Outside of the New Testament. p. 137.
- Paffenroth, K. The Story of Jesus According to L. p. 138.
- Edward Schweizer as cited by Robert Van Voorst in Jesus Outside the New Testament (p. 139) – see explanation below after the footnotes.
- Fortna, R. The Anchor Bible Dictionary.
- Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist? p. 97 (Scribd ebook format).
- Kysar, R. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 3. p. 921-922.
- Ludemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. p. 38.
- Campenhausen, H. 1968. Tradition and Life in the Church. p. 44.
- Ludemann, G. 1994. ibid. p. 109.
- Josephus, F. 95 AD. Antiquities, 20.9.1.
- Ludemann, G. 1994. Ibid. p. 109.
- Price, C. 2015. Making Sense of Resurrection Data. Available.
- Wallace, D. 2015. Fact Checking Dan Barker From our Recent Debate. Available.
- Carson, D. 2013. New Testament Commentary Survey. p. 2062.
- Harris, S. 1985. Understanding the Bible.
- Johnson, L. The writings of the New Testament : An interpretation. p. 134.
- Price, C. 2004. Ibid.
- Habermas, G. 2012. Ibid.
- The primitiveness of the creed is supported by Paul’s naming of Cephas (this was Peter’s Aramaic name), Paul’s rabbinical terms “received” and “delivered,” non-Pauline characteristics of the creed (verses 3-5).
- Ehrman, B. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. p. 231.
Arguments for the existence of L:
- 1. L has analogies to sections for which we have external control in Mark and Q;
- 2. Luke refers in his preface to ‘many’ written predecessors;
- 3. shared linguistic materials are notable within the proposed source;
- 4. the source has unifying themes such as women, the poor, and divine grace;
- 5. L has changes in the order of some of its material in comparison with Mark, and agreements with Matthew against Mark; and,
- 6. tensions in Luke point to different layers of tradition beyond the use of Mark and Q.