A 1984 British television series called Jesus: The Evidence left viewers to question how much of the New Testament is fact, how much fantasy. CAN WE trust the written records of the early church?
Did its members distinguish between legend and fact? Did they leave us an authoritative record of what Jesus both said and did?
Before we answer these questions, we need to understand something of the early church itself.
What Sources? The main source of information is, of course, the New Testament documents themselves. They are the, earliest records of Christianity, Nothing written about them is nearly as old — or as substantive.
When people talk about the early church, including its either inventing or distorting the gospel record, what they really mean is the Jerusalem church.
Who originally formed this church? Jesus said: "I will build my church." But how and through whom did he accomplish this task? How and why would they eventually be equal to the job of preserving for posterity the written record of Jesus' message — the good news of the coming kingdom of God?
From the outset Jerusalem marked the spot for the church's initial location. The disciples were told to remain in Jerusalem until they were imbued "with power from on high" (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4, Revised Authorized Version throughout, except where noted). Jesus had said "repentance and remission of sins should be preached... to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47).
Luke's mid first-century history says: "Now when the Day of Pentecost had fully come [this annual festival celebrated the close of the early agricultural harvest], they were all with one accord in one place" (Acts 2:1). But exactly who were these people gathered together in unity?
About 120 Jewish disciples mainly of Galilean origin (Acts 1:15). Also, "there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven" that is, the known civilized world (Acts 2:5).
Why a Jewish Church? Why would God begin the church exclusively with Jews? Was this by accident, or design? And why with Jews only in Jerusalem?
Roughly a third of the Greek New Testament is composed of quotations from the Hebrew Bible. Would it not make sense to start the church with people already conversant with what Christians call the Old Testament? Notice what Paul wrote: "What advantage then has the Jew...? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:1-2). The Jewish community was responsible for the preservation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
About 3,000 Jews repented and were converted at the behest of Peter's first sermon. Notice Luke's documentation: "Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them" (Acts 2:41). These new converts were not like today's nominal Christians. Notice it. "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread [eating meals together], and in prayers" (verse 42). In the days following Peter's first sermon, conversions took place on a daily basis (verse 47).
Following Peter's second major sermon, the number of Jews added to the church brought the total to about 5,000 converts (Acts 4:4). The church population in Jerusalem exploded. Notice what Luke wrote: "And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women" (Acts 5:14). Also: "And the word of God spread, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7).
These were all Jews. The first gentile had not yet been converted. All were familiar with Hebrew scriptures. All learned. both what Jesus said and did.
But the authorities, both religious and secular", wanted this message of the kingdom of God stopped. Notice what the apostles said in response to their demands. "For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). What things?
Why, the things Jesus both spoke and did! The things that became the basis for the written records of Jesus' life and teachings in the New Testament.
But did the apostles forget the gospel in part as. some modern critics surmise? Consider two things. First, the apostles both discussed it among themselves and taught it to others, daily. Second, they were promised supernatural help in remembering correctly. Notice what Jesus had said to the disciples: "But the Comforter, which is the Holy [Spirit], whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you" (John 14:26, AV).
Not the Apostles Only Notice what Peter said about the other nearly 110 disciples: "Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us [the 11 remaining apostles] all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22). That is, an additional apostle to replace the betrayer and thief, Judas Iscariot.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul reviews the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus in briefest summary form: "For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins... and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day... and that He was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present [more than 20 years after Jesus' resurrection], but some have fallen asleep [have died]" (I Cor. 15:3-6, excerpts).
Paul calls these 500 "brethren." At the time the resurrected Christ appeared to them they were not converted and could not truly be called spiritual brethren. This can only mean that they became converted either on or shortly after the day of Pentecost, A.D. 31. They discussed what they had seen for themselves, learned what they did not yet know from the apostles, and continued to spread this spiritual knowledge to new converts brought into the Jerusalem church.
The gospel record — the message of Jesus Christ — was at first an accurate oral record preserved IN MANY MINDS. Many would know the truth accurately. Many would repeatedly discuss the life and teachings of Jesus Christ not only among themselves, but also with new converts as they were added to the church. Jesus' message was not a secret message!
Here is the sage conclusion drawn by theologian F.C. Grant: "The tradition was a social possession, the common property of the early Christian Churches, and was not limited to the 'recollections' of a few individuals.... The significance of this view is obvious. The memories of a few individuals might be mistaken — since human recollection is notoriously fallible — but the testimony of a group, even if anonymous, is more likely to have been verified, criticized, supported, culled and selected during the course of the first generation of early Church evangelism. The possibility of fabrication by one or two individuals is completely ruled out.... Basic trustworthiness is beyond doubt; for it [the tradition] rests, not upon one man's recollections — say Peter's — or those of two or three person's but upon the whole group of the earliest disciples" (The Gospels. page 1).
The apostles continued their public work at Jerusalem for a decade. The immediate focus of the gospel was the message God sent by Jesus of Nazareth and the crucifixion and the resurrection. Peter said, "This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses" (Acts 2:32; cf. 3:15). The apostles spoke with temerity. "They spoke the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31). "And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 4:33). As their enemies put it: "You have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine" (Acts 5:28). Practically everyone knew something of the truth — even the opposition. The apostles' message was not done in a corner. All Jerusalem knew of this new way of life. There was no forgetting the things Jesus had said and done.
Later Peter took Christianity to the first gentile family. In his private sermon to the Italian Cornelius, he said: "And we are witnesses of all things which He [Jesus] did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem..." (Acts 10:39). So it was not just the knowledge of the resurrection, but the whole of what Jesus did and said that was public knowledge.
The Gospel Writers What was the relationship to the Jerusalem church of the individual gospel writers?
We begin this study with a physician named Luke. Luke was responsible for writing more than a quarter of the New Testament. We know that he was well-educated because he used polished Greek — including 800 words that are not used elsewhere in the New Testament.
But how was the Jerusalem church significant to Luke's writings? Luke was acquainted with key members of that church. Says The New Bible Dictionary: "Through intimate contact over many years with... Christian leaders (e.g., Philip, Timothy, Silas, Mark, Barnabas, James, the brother of Jesus, etc.) and as... he was in Jerusalem, Caesarea and other places intimately associated with Jesus and his first apostles, Luke had the very best opportunity to obtain first — hand knowledge. ...That he definitely and purposefully made full use of these opportunities is claimed by him in Luke 1:1-4, and is corroborated by the sterling quality and historical accuracy of both Luke and Acts" (page 756). Note that Mark and James were both members of the Jerusalem church. Now we turn to yet another important biblical writer.
Paul and the Jerusalem Church Paul is known for the fact that his calling and training was not under the aegis of the original apostles. Yet even he was not unconnected from the Jerusalem church. Three years after his dramatic conversion to Christianity, Paul went up to Jerusalem and stayed with Peter for 15 days (Gal. 1:18). What do you suppose Peter and Paul discussed? Matters totally unrelated to the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth? Or did they compare notes on how they were called to be apostles and discuss all that Jesus had said and done?
Fourteen years after that, the apostle Paul returned to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1). He communicated to the Jerusalem church the gospel he had preached among the gentiles. He even expounded it to a private audience of Peter and the leading apostles (verse 2). They compared notes.
Because Paul was forced to defend his apostleship to the Galatian churches, some have gotten a false impression of his attitude toward the Jerusalem church. In fact he had great respect for that church and pointed. the churches under his care and supervision in the direction of Jerusalem. Explains The New Bible Dictionary: "Indeed, throughout the first generation, it was 'the church' par excellence.... This is noticeable in the attitude of Paul who impressed it on his churches (Rom. 15:27). His final visit to Jerusalem was in recognition of this spiritual primacy" (page 230).
So we see that the two men who wrote about half of the New Testament — Luke and Paul — were intimately connected to the Jerusalem church. Luke had access to eyewitness accounts of the gospel. Paul explained to Peter and the other leading apostles what he had been preaching to the gentiles — and received their blessing. Any human error was rooted out. Luke wrote to Theophilus so that he would "know the certainty, of those things" that "Jesus began both to do and teach" (Luke 1:4; Acts 1:1).
The Witness of James Peter was chosen to take the gospel to the first gentile family. He had concluded his private sermon to Cornelius with an account of the resurrection. Simon Peter said: "Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly; not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts 10:40-41, AV). One of these special witnesses was James, the brother of Jesus (I Cor. 15:7).
Eventually James became a pillar apostle in the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9). When Peter had miraculously escaped jail, he told the brethren at Mark's mother's house, "Go tell these things to James and to the brethren" (Acts 12:17). Paul refers to James as one of the three pillar apostles based at Jerusalem along with Peter and John (Gal. 2:9).
Years later Paul visits Jerusalem for the final time. Luke records: "And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present" (Acts 21:17-18).
Both the Bible and later tradition show that the apostle Peter traveled all over Judea and Samaria with the gospel message. Someone had to mind the Jerusalem church while he was away. James, in effect, became the presiding pastor.
Who better than James? He had lived with Jesus from the very first. He saw his Savior's manner of life in every situation — both in the family and on the job. Though he was' not a part of the original apostolic band, James knew what Jesus would have said and not said. Anyone trying to distort the gospel tradition (oral or written) would have run right squarely into James.
Clearly both Peter and Paul had respect for James. The gospel tradition was safe with him.
Peter as Preserver of the Gospel One cannot write about the New Testament without confronting Peter. Already we have met him a number of times in this article.
Peter was the chief apostle. He is put first in all four New Testament lists. His name is mentioned 210 times in the New Testament. It was to him that the gospel to the circumcision — the Jews — was committed.
Simon Peter wrote two general epistles as well as most probably being the prime mover in the gospel of Mark. He had a great role in preserving and protecting the gospel. He never forgot the things Jesus said and did.
Take the transfiguration. Peter and the two brothers, James and John, were the only disciples privileged to witness an actual foretaste of the kingdom of God (see Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9). Did Peter forget it?
By no means. He alludes to it in both of his epistles. Notice I Peter 5:1: "The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed." Peter saw in vision the glory of the kingdom of God.
Much later, just before his martyrdom, Peter penned his final message to the churches. He wrote: "For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. "... when we were with Him on the holy mountain" (II Pet. 1:16, 18). This is a clear reference to the transfiguration. Peter had preserved the true gospel tradition — in writing! He did not follow fables to tarnish the gospel.
Now we look at another witness to the transfiguration.
The Apostle John John knew Jesus as few people did. Almost all human beings either have or have had a best friend or a closest buddy — someone with whom they have shared a side of themselves seldom seen by others. Though Jesus loved all men, he was especially close to John. This warm relationship is revealed in his own gospel account.
John was "the disciple whom Jesus loved." He was part of a small inner circle. Jesus took only Peter, James and John with him to pray just before his arrest by the Jewish authorities. He was like a member of Jesus' family. Christ committed the care of his mother to John.
John spent more time with Jesus than most of the others. He was fully aware of both Jesus' deeds and his teachings. He recorded information essential to Christian belief. "And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ [the Messiah or Anointed One], the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30-31).
The books of the Bible were written for a purpose. God does nothing in vain.
John's gospel is his personal testimony to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. He wrote: "This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24).
Why would it be false? John knew Jesus as no one else did. He spent much time with Christ. He was in on every important occurrence. Truly he was a privileged disciple, but for a vital purpose. (God is no respecter of persons.) John was to write later in the first century than most. He was to complete the apostolic testimony. The final gospel was his. The final book of the New Testament would come from his pen. He needed special tutoring.
Not a Secret Gospel Just as the other apostles, John continued the work of Jesus' public preaching and teaching. For the most part, Jesus' teaching was not something done in a corner. John records what Jesus had said to the High Priest: "'I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing. Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said'" (John 18:20-21).
But in some circles today the myth persists that "we cannot know either what Jesus said or did. He taught a secret gospel. The gospels are mere inventions of the early church." What ignorance!
Even in the 'early hours and days of the Jerusalem church people knew what had happened. It was public knowledge! Notice what Peter said in the very first sermon on the day of Pentecost, A.D. 31. "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know" (Acts 2:22). Did they contradict Peter's words? No, 3,000 of them repented on that very day. Read the whole chapter.
Well more than 20 years later Paul was before King Herod Agrippa the II. He said, in his defense: "For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26).
Why the Gospel Record Is True! Here's our point! Confident appeal could be made to the knowledge of the hearers. Distortions of the facts would have been challenged. Wrote Professor F.F. Bruce in his book The New Testament Documents: "And it was not only friendly eyewitnesses that the early preachers had to reckon with; there were also others less well disposed who were also conversant with the main facts of the ministry and death of Jesus. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of willful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so.... Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective" (page 16).
Returning to the testimony of John. He wrote the following many decades after the church began: "That which we have seen and heard we declare to you..." (I John 1:3). And again in his gospel: "And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe" (John 19:35).
This was firsthand knowledge. This was — and is — truth! And it has been preserved for us today.
Seven Who Shaped Destiny The New Testament is basically made up of the testimony of seven persons. Who were these individuals?
Peter: The chief apostle and the one mainly responsible for getting the gospel to the Jewish people. He wrote his two general epistles and had a great influence on Mark's' gospel. (Jude wrote a short one-chapter letter, but much of its content is strikingly similar to II Peter.)
Paul: The apostle to the gentiles who wrote 14 epistles. Only the book of Hebrews does not bear his name. He is responsible for about one quarter of the New Testament.
James: Jesus' half brother and later the presiding pastor of the Jerusalem church. He had a reputation for rock-solid loyalty. He wrote the general epistle bearing his name.
Matthew: A tax-collector trained to record information accurately. His gospel was directed to the Hebrew people. His business gave him a particular knowledge of human nature.
Mark: John Mark was one of the gospel writers. His family was influential in the early Jerusalem church. He was close to both Peter and Paul. Mark assisted these two pillar apostles in their work.
Luke: A learned physician who wrote the third gospel account. Luke accompanied the apostle Paul on several of his journeys. He wrote the New Testament's only formal history — the book of Acts.
John: The apostle closest to Jesus Christ as a human being. In addition to writing the fourth gospel and three general letters, he completed the apostolic testimony with the book of Revelation.