By Rusty Wright
What’s your take on New Testament stories about Jesus’ life and death and their aftermath? Did the events described really happen, or are they merely inspirational fables about a great man? For many years, I was skeptical.
CNN’s second season of Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery appears to be designed with questioners like me in mind. Episode One (March 5) notes archaeological confirmation of a famous biblical character. A stone discovered in 1961 references Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea. In the New Testament (NT) narrative, of course, Pilate ordered Jesus’ crucifixion.
Actually, secular history and archaeology often confirm biblical accounts.
Digging the Holy Land
Back in secondary school, I enjoyed a lecture by Nelson Glueck, president of Hebrew Union College, a world-class archaeologist, and a Jew. His tales of digging up the Holy Land were captivating. Years later, as an adult, I learned that Glueck wrote, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference.” He affirmed “the almost incredibly accurate historical memory of the Bible, and particularly so when it is fortified by archaeological fact.”
Finding Jesus notes that Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote of Pilate as procurator of Judea. Not news to academics, but it may be to some viewers who’ve questioned whether certain major NT figures really existed (a common doubt).
Episode Two (March 12) features Lazarus, whom the NT claims Jesus raised from the dead. Finding Jesus portrays this biblical story.
Causing a stir
Jesus assured Martha that her deceased brother Lazarus would rise again, claiming, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.” Then he raised Lazarus, causing quite a stir.
Finding Jesus features scholars of various academic affiliations and philosophical persuasions. Some believe Lazarus’ resurrection happened precisely as the Gospel of John records. Others suggest it may simply be a legend that makes a religious point.
For my entire professional life, I’ve engaged people on both sides of such issues, seeking to respect those who differ and to politely encourage participants in the marketplace of ideas to consider perspectives that make sense to me. I’ll proceed in that spirit here, and will also include a personal note on the implications of this debate.
Personal implications of the debate
My wife of sixteen years died of cancer last year. If Lazarus’ – and Jesus’ – resurrections actually happened, then I have grounds for trusting Jesus’ statements about the afterlife, and I will see Meg again. If Lazarus’ and Jesus’ resurrection stories are mere human inventions, will I see her again? Who knows?
Examining evidences for NT reliability and for Jesus’ resurrection convinced me both were true. The cases are too lengthy to detail here, but perhaps these thoughts about NT reliability will prompt you to dig deeper.
- Eyewitness Testimony. The Gospels – presentations of Jesus’ life – claim to be, or bear evidence of containing, eyewitness accounts. In a courtroom, eyewitness testimony is among the most reliable evidence.
- Early Date. Dr. William F. Albright, one of the world’s leading archaeologists, dated every book of the NT before about AD 80. There is no known record of NT factual authenticity ever being successfully challenged by a contemporary.
- Manuscript Evidence. Over 24,000 early manuscript copies of portions of the NT exist today. Concerning manuscript attestation, Sir Frederic Kenyon, director and principle librarian of the British Museum, concluded, “Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
I’ve seen all six episodes of CNN’s new series, and I appreciated learning about the evidence presented. If you are open to considering viewpoints different from your own – and are willing to think carefully – you might enjoy the series a lot.
www.CNN.com/FindingJesus Sundays 9:00 PM ET/PT (North America), March 5 – April 9
Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com