The New Testament does not reveal Jesus as any ordinary prophet or religious teacher. Rather, it reveals Him as God incarnate (John 1:1; 8:58-59;10:29-31;14:8-9;20-28; Phil. 2:5-7; Col. 2:9; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1). Anyone who reads through the Gospels will see that Jesus made some very challenging statements that force us as humans to face our own autonomy before our Creator. Sometimes we may to be aware of the details behind the sources of what we can know about Jesus. We have to acknowledge that Jesus said and did things that are part of his messianic ministry.
These things are found in an acronym called P.O.W.E.R.
P: Paul’s Letters
The New Testament includes Paul’s Letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus. Remember, written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary. A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness. A secondary source is the testimony source is the testimony of anyone who is not an eyewitness-that is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells. A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates. Since Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, he can be considered as a primary source. He also claimed to have a personal encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:5-9).
You may ask, “Why does matter?” In response, it matters because we actually have people who think since Paul never knew the historical Jesus that this means we can’t trust his letters. So simply pointing out the role of primary and secondary sources can answer this objection. Not to mention, I always respond by asking if we should just throw away all the books on our shelves that are written by people who never officially met the person they are writing about. So this objection is just plain silly!
What else can we know about Paul?
Paul was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called House of Hillel. The House of Hillel was a school of Jewish law and thought that was very well known in first century Jerusalem. Hillel was known as the Academy of Hillel, founded by a Jewish sage called Hillel the Elder. We also know Paul studied under the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3). Paul also employs oral tradition terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching within his letters. Since Jesus was crucified about 33 A.D., Paul became a follower of Jesus around 35 A.D. Paul’s letters are dated between AD 40 and 60. Hence, these are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus. For example, 1 Cor 15: 3-8 is one of the earliest records of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, to jump to the Gospels as the earliest records for the life of Jesus is a tactical mistake. To see more on Paul’s childhood and education, see here:
But since we know Paul’s Letters were written to instruct local congregations, do they really reveal any significant information about the life of Jesus? The answer is yes. For example, we see Paul talks about:
1. Jesus’ Jewish ancestry (Gal 3:16) 2. Jesus’ Davidic descent (Rom 1:3) 3. Jesus being born of a woman (Gal 4:4) 4. Jesus’ life under the Jewish law (Gal 4:4) 5. Jesus’ Brothers (1 Cor 9:5) 6. Jesus’ 12 Disciples (1 Cor 15: 7) 7. One of whom was named James (1 Cor 15: 7) 8. That some had wives (1 Cor 9: 5) 9. Paul knew Peter and James (Gal 1:18-2:16) 10. Jesus’ poverty ( 2 Cor 8:9) 11. Jesus’ humility ( Phil. 1:5-7) 12. Jesus Meekness and Gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1) 13. Abuse by Others (Rom 15:3) 14. Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11) 15. On paying wages of ministers (1 Cor 9:14) 16. On paying taxes ( Rom 13: 6-7) 17. On the duty to love one’s neighbors (Rom 13: 9) 18. On Jewish ceremonial uncleanliness ( Rom 14: 14) 19. Jesus’ titles to deity ( Rom 1: 3-4; 10:9) 20. On vigilance in view of Jesus’ second coming ( 1 Thess: 4: 15) 21. On the Lord’s Supper ( 1 Cor. 11: 23-25) 22. Jesus’ Sinless Life ( 2 Cor. 5:21) 23. Jesus’ death on a cross ( Rom 4:24; 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor 15: 3) 24. Specifically by crucifixion ( Rom 6: 6; Gal 2:20) 25. By Jewish instigation ( 1Thess. 2:14-15) 26. Jesus’ burial (1 Cor. 15: 4) 27. Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” (1 Cor.15:4) 28. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the apostles ( 1 Cor.15:5-8) 29. And to other eyewitnesses (1 Cor 15:6); and 30. Jesus’ position at God’s right hand ( Rom 8:34)
For more reading on Paul, see:
O: Oral Tradition/Oral History:
We need to remember what we call “oral tradition.” In other words, there was an oral history before a written tradition. It has been argued that some of the followers of Jesus probably took notes.
Remember, home, the synagogue, and the elementary school was where Jewish people learned how to memorize and recall information such as community prayers. Jesus taught in poetic form, employing alliteration, paronomasia, assonance, parallelism, and rhyme. Since over 90 percent of Jesus’ teaching was poetic, this would make it simple to memorize. Jesus was a called a “Rabbi” (Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mk. 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Lk. 19:39; Jn. 1:38; 3:2), which means “master” or “teacher.” There are several terms that can be seen that as part of the rabbinic terminology of that day. His disciples had “come” to him, “followed after” him, “learned from” him, “taken his yoke upon” them” (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk. 1) (see Paul Barnett, Jesus and The Logic of History, pg, 138).
Therefore, it appears that the Gospel was first spread in the form of short, memorizable oral creeds and hymns ( Luke 24:34; Acts 2:22-24, 30-32; 3:13-15; 4:10-12; 5:29-32; 10:39-41; 13:37-39; Rom. 1:3-4; 4:25; 10:9; 1 Cor. 11:23ff.;15:3-8; Phil. 26-11; 1 Tim.2:6; 3:16; 6:13; 2 Tim. 2:8;1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 4:2). Also, there was a means of controlling the tradition because the early community had a center which was located in Jerusalem where it consisted of leaders ( the apostles). We see that the first church council was held at Jerusalem (Act 15:23-29).
To see more on this, see:
W: Written Sources other than Paul’s Letters:
These other written sources include the Four Gospels, Acts, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 , 2,3 John, Philemon, Hebrews, Jude, Revelation, etc. To read more about these sources, see here:
Click on the link above and here are all the articles by Arlandson
Note: James M. Arlandson teaches World Religions, Humanities, Introduction to Philosophy, and Introduction to Ethics at various colleges. He has written many articles and one book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997). His Ph.D. is in Comparative Literature (ancient Greek literature, religious studies, and critical theory). In the above link, he covers the following:
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels: Which way do the rocks roll?
Archaeology and John’s Gospel: Is skepticism chic passé?
Did Jesus Even Exist?
Authoritative Testimony in Matthew’s Gospel
Reliable Gospel Transmissions
What is the Q ‘Gospel’? The Gospel According to ‘St Q’?
Did Some Disciples Take Notes During Jesus’ Ministry?
Authoritative Testimony in Matthew’s Gospel
Eyewitness Testimony in Mark’s Gospel
Eyewitness Testimony in John’s Gospel
Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?
Similarities among John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels: Summary and Conclusion
Sources Outside the New Testament: “There are no contemporaries who wrote about Jesus”: The Abuse of Arguments from Silence (thanks to Cadre for some of these)
Did Josephus Refer to Jesus, A Thorough Review of the Testimonium Flavianum (Highly Recommended) CADRE member Christopher Price demonstrates the partial-authenticity of Josephus’ first reference to Jesus and discusses what we can know about the historical Jesus from Josephus. A revised and extended version of this article is avaible in the book, Shattering the Christ Myth, discussed below.
Josephus’ Writing and Their Relation to the New Testament Dr. Greg Herrick reviews the value of Josephus’ writings for the study of Jesus and the New Testament.
Early Historical Documents on Jesus Christ The New Advent Encyclopedia chronicles the early references to the historical Jesus, including Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources.
Extrabiblical References to Jesus before 200 a.d. The Chrisitan Thinktank’s Glen Miller discusses the second-century pagan historian Thallus’ reference to an eclipse that contemporary Christian writer Africanus believed was a reference to the darkness that descended during Jesus’ crucifixion.
E: Early Preservation of Manuscripts:
In this case, we are discussing the fact that people made copies of the completed Gospels and distributed them throughout the world. The greater the quantity of copies of an ancient manuscript we possess, the greater the potential database of our textual comparisons and reconstructions. E.J.Epp has noted that the “riches in NT manuscripts, however are not only in their quantity but also their quality-that is, the abundance of relativity early texts. Of the more than eighty New Testament papyri, over twenty containing portions of one of more of the Gospels can be dated to the third and fourth centuries. By contrast, the earliest copy of the Homer’s Iliad we possess dates approximately nine hundred years after or more after the original. (see Boyd/Eddy, The Jesus Legend, pgs 382-384). Also, Bruce Metzger, the foremost biblical critic in history concluded in his overview of modern biblical criticism that of the 22,000 lines in the New Testament only 40 are contested (about 400 words), the rest just given (over 99.5% transmission accuracy) and none affect any significant doctrine. (1)
Of course, it must be noted that we are not arguing that just because we have an abundance of manuscripts that this means they have recorded an accurate event. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelation from God on the basis of two visions, (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, the second one in 1823). Therefore, if we have 50,000 early manuscripts recording this event, this by no means makes Mormonism true. This is why other tests for historicity must be taken into account to establish the authenticity of the event.
To see more on this topic:
We read about what Jesus said and did in our English Bibles. In this case, an objector might say “But the Bible was not originally written in English.” This is true. So my advice is that if you don’t think we can trust those that do textual criticism and translate the languages for us, go and learn Hebrew and Greek so you can translate yourself!
Note: The P.O.W. part was adapted from Mike Licona and Gary Habermas’ The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus. I went ahead and expanded on it and added the rest of the acronym.
1. Geisler, Norman L., Nix, William E., A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 388.