The person of Jesus Christ

The historical person

The City of Jerusalem

The Christian faith is not rooted in a set of ideas or propositions but in the person of Jesus Christ who was born into this world 2000 years ago. Whether or not we accept Him in faith, his coming changed the world forever. No-one asking the big questions about the meaning of life can ignore him. For Christians everything is found through him and in him.

Jesus Christ really existed. The life and work of Jesus Christ are probably better attested than that of any other person in the ancient world. We know about Jesus Christ principally by means of the twenty-seven documents known as the New Testament. These texts were all written some twenty to seventy years after the public ministry of Jesus Christ. They were commonly accepted in the early Church as having been written under the authority of the apostles. The four gospels provide mutual corroboration of the events of Jesus’ life. While they use a variety of styles, details and arrangements, a single clear personality emerges from the texts. These constitute the largest volume of contemporary written evidence in the ancient world about any one person. Other early Christian works corroborate many details of Jesus’ life. Furthermore, records made by the two greatest non-Christian historians of this period affirm some basic facts about Jesus: the Roman historian Tacitus confirms that Christ suffered the ‘extreme penalty’ under Pontius Pilate; the Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus who was called ‘the Christ’ and to his trial by the Sanhedrin.

The gospels themselves emphasise that they are accounts drawn from the testimony of eyewitnesses, implying both the desire and the means to draw up accurate accounts of the life of Christ. The Gospel of John, for example, states, “He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth – that you also may believe” (John 19:35). The gospel of Luke also begins by stating that the account is taken from eyewitnesses, in other words, people who had known Jesus personally during his public ministry and after his Resurrection. Furthermore, writing in the second century, St Irenaeus confirms that the gospels were written by those intimately associated with Jesus or his apostles, “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia” (Adversus Haereses, III.1, c. 180 AD). As to whether the gospels were written in good faith, it is hard to see any motive for the authors writing what they did not believe about Christ, especially as their love for Christ brought the apostles persecution and even death.

Evidence for the textual stability of the gospels is found in that many early Christian writers cite substantially and extensively the same texts that we use today. To give one example, St Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, written in the middle of the second century, cites the words of John the Baptist and Jesus in those verses now classified as Mt 3:11-12 and Mt 17:12, “... ‘I baptise you with water ... He shall baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’...etc” (Dialogue, 49). To give another example, Tertullian, at the start of the third century, cites passages from the four gospels, Acts, Epistles of Paul, I Peter, I John, Jude and Revelation. Furthermore, early papyrus fragments of New Testament texts have been discovered which have been matched to texts of the canon as it is known to us today (an example being the Rylands Papyrus from the early years of the second century AD). Finally, two large physical manuscripts have survived from the fourth century that together cover nearly the entire New Testament, the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus. The cumulative effect of all these sources, together with intensive work in textual criticism over the past two centuries, gives us a high degree of confidence in the substantial integrity of the New Testament texts we have today.

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