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EASTER | Some stats and graphs on why the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are extraordinary

Have you ever been told that the Bible is historically unreliable and not been sure how to respond?  Most people who make that claim are using it as a lever to excuse themselves from taking Christianity seriously.  Press them, and you find they have not actually studied the facts about the Bible’s historicity.  It’s a sign of the craziness of our times that the word ‘facts’ has itself become contentious.  Setting that aside, it’s instructive to look at the statistics relating to the extant New Testament manuscripts.  If we dig into the figures, we discover some striking data that rarely seem to find their way into the popular media.

I first became interested in this subject when I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, which has recently been released as a film and will be available in Australia in May 2017.  While I don’t agree with everything Strobel writes, and find his writing style annoying in its lack of subtlety and constant attempts to re-create the scene, his interviewees are usually well-known scholars in their fields.

We’re all familiar today with the way some news items ‘go viral’.  A similar thing happened after Christ’s Resurrection: an astounding explosion in documented output by authors describing it.  So singular, extraordinary, impossible, fantastic, and unbelievable was this event, that not only did it inspire four contemporary eye-witness and/or “one-step-removed-from-eye-witness” authors to produce accounts (something unheard of for any other event in ancient history), but the sheer volume and speed of propagation of these documents is unparalleled, considering the technology available in this period of history.

Focussing in on just two aspects of this phenomenon, I’d like to share with you some graphs for those of you who are visual learners.  I will concentrate on these two questions:

  1. Number of manuscripts.
    1. How many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament exist?
    2. How does this compare with the number of manuscripts of other ancient documents?
  2. Time interval
    1. What is the time interval between the date of composition and the earliest extant manuscript?
    2. How does this compare with other ancient documents?

Just to define my terms, I should mention that by manuscripts I am including handwritten copies prior to the invention of the printing press, inscribed on papyrus, parchment, vellum, and paper, in any number of languages from that period:  Greek and Latin, Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian, amongst others.

Comparing the most well-known works from this period, we find a breakdown as shown in Table 1 below.  Surprising, isn’t it, that there are only seven manuscripts of Virgil’s Aeneid, ten of Caesar’s Gallic Wars which it was de rigueur for every Latin scholar of my era to read, but over 24,000 of the New Testament?  Testament, indeed, to the power of the Gospel.  Even Homer’s Iliad is fewer by about 37 times.  A graph makes the disparity even more striking.  When it’s the Bible versus ‘everything else’, ‘everything else’ pales, mathematically speaking, into insignificance.  And I haven’t even included the numerous commentaries about the New Testament which would explode the figures into the stratosphere.Manuscript-Number-Graph

 

 

Manuscript-Numbers

Manuscripts of Iron Age writings: the Numbers

Another measure we can look at is the time interval between the best-estimate date of composition and the earliest extant manuscript.  Disputants like to claim “Oh well, the New Testament was written long after the events it describes”.  Actually, when the Bible is compared to other works from about the same era, one finds that the intervals involved for the Bible are relatively short.  The bars on the graph below show the time interval from the creation of each work (bottom of bar) to the date of the first extant copy (top of bar) of each manuscript.  Using the same criteria as historians use for other works, the New Testament compares favourably – in fact it appears to be more reliable than other ancient texts.  I have arranged these by date of composition, so that it is clear which documents are contemporaneous with each other.

Manuscript-Summary

Interval-Authorship-to-Extant

So now, when you are challenged about the reliability of the Gospels, please share with your friends these facts and figures.  There are numerous other points that can be made regarding the Resurrection of Christ as a real event, and I encourage you to go and see the film, The Case for Christ, when it is released next month.  And for a Catholic version on a similar theme, try Dr Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus  – written in a more scholarly style, with much additional data, but still accessible to the general reader.

Wishing all readers a joyful and blessed Easter!


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3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A | Jesus Christ: Go where the evidence leads

st-john-the-baptist-in-the-prison-navarette

St John the Baptist in Prison, Juan Fernández de Navarrette, 1565-70, Oil on canvas, 80 x 72 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist has been flung into prison, because he has dared to say that King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife is adulterous.   Persecution has a way of throwing one’s mind into turmoil and confusion.  It’s reassuring to know that even a person as courageous and committed to his mission as John, is now attacked by doubts about whether he has interpreted his task correctly – or indeed whether Jesus has interpreted his task correctly!  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?”

This makes us wonder: what was the nature of the long-awaited Messiah that the Jews were expecting?  Was it a King who would bring about the restoration of Israel and liberation from the Roman occupation, or were they expecting God Himself to arrive – or was it a bit of both?

We know that swirling through the air of first century Judaism was a fever of expectation.  That is why ‘all of Judaea’ (Mt 3:5) had been so willing to go out to the desert to see John the Baptist and prepare the way of the Lord.  What made the Jews so convinced about the timing of the coming of the Messiah?

According to the prophecy in the book of Daniel, the kingdom that would be ushered in by the Messiah – the Anointed One – would arrive in the midst of the fourth empire after the Babylonian deportation.  In Daniel’s prophecy the empires are represented by the parts of a statue.

The head of this statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms were of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet part iron, part clay.  While you were gazing, a stone broke away, untouched by any hand, and struck the statue, struck its feet of iron and clay and shattered them.  Then, iron and clay, bronze, silver and gold, all broke into pieces as fine as chaff on the threshing-floor in summer … and the stone that struck the statue grew into a great mountain, filling the whole world.  (Dan 2:31-36)

These four empires were, successively, golden-headed Babylon, silver-chested Medo-Persia, bronze-thighed Greece and finally, in 63 BC, with Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem, iron-legged Rome marched into the Middle East.  And it is into the Roman Empire that Christ comes, proclaiming the Kingdom.  Yes, the Roman soldiers were clad in iron, but God has a way of using small stones to bring down giants, and the Jews remembered their history.

Not only that, but the Jews could even calculate the approximate time the Messiah was expected.  This is why small communities of Jews such as the Essenes of Qumran had set themselves apart, purifying themselves to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Daniel 9:25 prophesies:

Know this, then, and understand:
From the time there went out this message:
“Return and rebuild Jerusalem”
to the coming of an Anointed Prince, seven weeks and sixty-two weeks …

The message that the prophecy refers to, is the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.  You can calculate the dates if you understand that the weeks are “weeks of years”, i.e. seven year periods.  Then the seven weeks and sixty-two weeks add up to 69 weeks of years, i.e. 69 x 7 = 483 years.  Jerusalem’s walls were restored by Nehemiah in about the fourth decade of the fifth century BC, “the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes” (Ne 2:1; 5:14).  So, if we use the Babylonian method of reckoning years as 360 days, we arrive at the coming of the “Anointed Prince”, just about at the time of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in AD 28.

In this fever of expectation, we have John asking in today’s Gospel, “Are you the one who is to come?”

And Jesus says, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me” (Mt 11:4-5).

Jesus is saying, “Look at the evidence!  Look at how I am not only doing miraculous things, but simultaneously fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 35!”

In fact if we read the chapters prior to this, Matthew has just spent the whole of chapters 8 and 9 preparing us for this point by describing a series of miracles that Jesus has performed:

The blind see Cure of the two blind men (Mt 9:27)
The lame walk The centurion’s servant (Mt 8:7); The paralytic (Mt 9:2)
The lepers are cleansed The man with the skin-disease (Mt 8:2)
The deaf hear The dumb demoniac (Mt 9:32)
The dead are raised to life Jairus’s daughter (Mt 9:24)

The fact that these miracles occurred long ago, is no reason for them to be deemed unconvincing or just fables.  Jesus’ miracles are well attested even by non-Christians such as Josephus, who said “For he was one who performed surprising deeds” (Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63).  Then there’s the Babylonian Talmud, (a Jewish text and therefore not pro-Christian), which described Jesus thus, “He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a).  That is, he did things that are, humanly speaking, impossible.

If you’re interested in other ways Jesus fulfills prophecy, Taylor Marshall has come up with a comprehensive list in his book, The Crucified Rabbi.  There’s a list here: prophecies-fulfilled-by-jesus-christ.

I realise now that I haven’t really answered my original question, which was about whether the expected Messiah was understood to be divine.  In fact, he was, and if you want more on this, please read Brant Pitre’s, The Case for Jesus.  (I have a copy of this and The Crucified Rabbi if any of you would like to borrow them.)

In this science-obsessed age, it’s a wonder that more people don’t bother to ‘go where the evidence leads’ where Jesus is concerned.  Blessed indeed are those who do not find Him a cause of falling.

Today’s readings:
Word format: year-a-advent-3rd-sunday-2016
Pdf format: year-a-advent-3rd-sunday-2016