The rise of Christianity was a phenomenon of too little apparent significance to attract the attention of the great world. It was only when it had refused to be quenched in the blood of its founder, and, breaking out of the narrow bounds of the obscure province in which it had its origin, was making itself felt in the centers of population, that it drew to itself a somewhat irritated notice. The interest of such heathen writers as mention it was in the movement, not in its author. But in speaking of the movement they tell something of its author, and what they tell is far from being of little moment. He was, it seems, a certain "Christ," who had lived in Judea in the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD), and had been brought to capital punishment by the procurator, Pontius Pilate (q.v.; cf. Tacitus, "Annals," xv.44). The significance of His personality to the movement inaugurated by Him is already suggested by the fact that He, and no other, had impressed His name upon it. But the name itself by which He was known particularly attracts notice. This is uniformly, in these heathen writers, "Christ," not "Jesus." Suetonius ("Claudius," xxv.) not unnaturally confuses this "Christus" with the Greek name "Chrestus"; but Tacitus and Pliny show themselves better informed and preserve it accurately. "Christ," however, is not a personal name, but the Creek rendering of the Hebrew title "Messiah." Clearly, then, it was as the promised Messiah of the Jews that their founder was reverenced by "the Christians"; and they had made so much of his Messiahship in speaking of Him that the title "Christ" had actually usurped the place of his personal name, and He was everywhere known simply as "Christ." Their reverence for His person had, indeed, exceeded that commonly supposed to be due even to the Messianic dignity. Pliny records that this "Christ" was statedly worshipped by "the Christians" of Pontus and Bithynia as their God (Pliny, "Epist.," xcvi. [xcvii.] to Trajan). Beyond these great facts the heathen historians give little information about the founder of Christianity.
What is lacking in them is happily supplied, however, by the writings of the Christians themselves. Christianity was from its beginnings a literary religion, and documentary records of it have come down from the very start. There are, for example, the letters of the Apostle Paul (q.v.), a highly cultured Romanized Jew of Tarsus, who early (34 or 35 AD) threw in his fortunes with the new religion, and by his splendid leadership established it in the chief centers of influence from Antioch to Rome. Written occasionally to one or another of the Christian communities of this region, at intervals during the sixth and seventh decades of the century, that is to say, from twenty to forty years after the origin of Christianity, these letters reflect the conceptions which ruled in the Christian communities of the time. Paul had known the Christian movement from its beginning; first from the outside, as one of the chief agents in its persecution, and then from the inside, as the most active leader of its propaganda. He was familiarly acquainted with the Apostles and other immediate followers of Jesus, and enjoyed repeated intercourse with them. He explicitly declares the harmony of their teaching with his, and joins with his their testimony to the great facts which he proclaimed. The complete consonance of his allusions to Jesus with what is gathered from the hints of the heathen historians is very striking. The person of Jesus fills the whole horizon of his thought, and gathers to itself all his religious emotions. That Jesus was the Messiah is the presupposition of all his speech of Him, and the Messianic title has already become his proper name behind which His real personal name, Jesus, has retired. This Messiah is definitely represented as a divine being who has entered the world on a mission of mercy to sinful man, in the prosecution of which He has given Himself up as a sacrifice for sin, but has risen again from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, henceforth to rule as Lord of all. Around the two great facts, of the expiatory death of the Son of God and his rising again, Paul’s whole teaching circles. Jesus Christ as crucified, Christ risen from the dead as the first fruits of those that sleep here is Paul’s whole gospel in summary.
Into the details of Christ’s earthly life Paul had no occasion to enter. But he shows himself fully familiar with them, and incidentally conveys a vivid portrait of Christ’s personality. Of the seed of David on the human, as the Son of God on the divine side, He was born of a woman, under the law, and lived subject to its ordinances for His mission’s sake, humbling Himself even unto death, and that the death of the cross. His lowly estate is dwelt upon, and the high traits of His personal character manifested in His lowliness are lightly sketched in, justifying not merely the negative declaration that "He knew no sin," but his positive presentation as the model of all perfection. An item of His teaching is occasionally adverted to, or even quoted, always with the utmost reverence. Members of His immediate circle of followers are mentioned by name or by class whether His brethren according to the flesh or the twelve apostles whom He appointed. The institution by Him of a sacramental feast is described, and that of a companion sacrament of initiation by baptism is implied. But especially His sacrificial death on the cross is emphasized, His burial, His rising again on the third day, and His appearances to chosen witnesses, who are cited one after the other with the greatest solemnity. Such details are never communicated to Paul’s readers as pieces of fresh information. They are alluded to as matters of common knowledge, and with the plainest intimation of the unquestioned recognition of them by all. Thus it is made clear not only that there underlies Paul’s letters a complete portrait of Jesus and a full outline of his career, but that this portrait and this outline are the universal possession of Christians. They were doubtless as fully before his mind as such in the early years of his Christian life, in the thirties, as when he was writing his letters in the fifties and sixties. There is no indication in the way in which Paul touches on these things of a recent change of opinion regarding them or of a recent acquisition of knowledge of them. The testimony of Paul’s letters, in a word, has retrospective value, and is contemporary testimony to the facts.
Paul’s testimony alone provides thus an exceptionally good basis for the historical verity of Jesus’ personality and career. But Paul’s testimony is far from standing alone. It is fully supported by the testimony of a series of other writings, similar to his own, purporting to come from the hands of early teachers of the Church, most of them from actual companions of our Lord and eyewitnesses of His majesty, and handed down to us with credible evidence of their authenticity. And it is extended by the testimony of a series of writings of a very different character; not occasional letters designed to meet particular crises or questions arising in the churches, but formal accounts of Jesus’ words and acts.
Among these attention is attracted first by a great historical work, the two parts of which bear the titles of "the Gospel according to Luke" and "the Acts of the Apostles." The first contains an account of Jesus’ life from His birth to His death and resurrection; or, including the opening paragraphs of the second, to His ascension. What directs attention to it first among books of its class is the uncommonly full information possessed concerning its writer and his method of historical composition. It is the work of an educated Greek physician, known to have enjoyed, as a companion of Paul, special opportunities of informing himself of the facts of Jesus’ career. Whatever Paul himself knew of the acts and teachings of his Lord was, of course, the common property of the band of missionaries which traveled in his company, and could not fail to be the subject of much public and private discussion among them. Among Paul’s other companions there could not fail to be some whose knowledge of Jesus’ life, direct or derived, was considerable; an example is found, for instance, in John Mark, who had come out of the immediate circle of Jesus’ first followers, although precise knowledge of the meeting of Luke and Mark as fellow companions of Paul belongs to a little later period than the composition of Luke’s Gospel. In company with Paul Luke had even visited Jerusalem and had resided two years at Caesarea in touch with primitive disciples; and if the early tradition which represents him as a native of Antioch be accepted, he must be credited with facilities from the beginning of his Christian life for association with original disciples of Jesus. All that is needed to ground great confidence in his narrative as a trustworthy account of the facts it records is assurance that he had the will and capacity to make good use of his abounding opportunities for exact information. The former is afforded by the preface to his Gospel in which he reveals his method as a historian and his zeal for exactness of information and statement; the latter by the character of the Gospel, which evinces itself at every point a sincere and careful narrative resting upon good and well-sifted information. In these circumstances the determination of the precise time when this narrative was actually committed to paper becomes a matter of secondary importance; in any event its material was collected during the period of Paul’s missionary activity. It may be confidently maintained, however, that it was also put together during this period, that is to say, during the earlier years of the seventh decade of the century. Confidence in its narrative is strengthened by the complete accord of the portrait of Jesus, which its detailed account exhibits with that which underlies the letters of Paul. Not only are the general traits of the personality identical, but the emphasis falls at the same places. In effect, the Jesus of Luke’s narrative is the Christ of Paul’s epistles in perfect dramatic presentation, and only two hypotheses offer themselves in possible explanation. Either Luke rests on Paul, and has with consummate art invented a historical basis for Paul’s ideal Christ; or else Paul’s allusions rest on a historical basis and Luke has preserved that historical basis in his careful, detailed narrative. Every line of Luke’s narrative refutes the former and demonstrates the latter supposition.
Additional evidence of the trustworthiness of Luke’s Gospel as an account of Jesus’ acts and teaching is afforded by the presence by its side of other narratives of similar character and accordant contents. These narratives are two in number and have been handed down under the names of members of the earliest circle of Christians of John Mark, who was from the beginning in the closest touch with the apostolic body, and of Matthew, one of the apostles. On comparison of these narratives with Luke’s, not only are they found to present, each with its own peculiar point of view and purpose, precisely the same conception and portrait of Jesus, but to have utilized in large measure also the same sources of information. Indeed, the entire body of Mark’s Gospel is found to be incorporated also in Matthew’s and Luke’s.
This circumstance, in view of the declarations of Luke’s preface, is of the utmost significance for an estimate of the trustworthiness of the narrative thus embodied in all three of the "Synoptic" Gospels. In this preface Luke professes to have had for his object the establishment of absolute "certainty," with respect to the things made the object of instruction in Christian circles; and to this end to have grounded his narrative in exact investigation of the course of events from the beginning. In the prosecution of this task, he knew himself to be working in a goodly company to a common end, namely, the narration of the Christian origins on the basis of the testimony of those ministers of the word who had been also "eyewitnesses from the beginning." He does not say whether these fellow narrators had or had not been, some or all of them, eyewitnesses of some or of all the events they narrated; he merely says that the foundation on which all the narratives he has in view rested was the testimony of eyewitnesses He does not assert for his own treatise superiority to those of his fellow workers; he only claims an honorable place for his own treatise among the others on the ground of the diligence and care he has exercised in ascertaining and recording the facts, through which, he affirms, he has attained a certainty with regard to them on which his readers may depend. Now, on comparing the narrative of Luke with those of Matthew and Mark, it is discovered that one of the main sources on which Luke draws is also one of the main sources on which Matthew draws and practically the sole source on which Mark rests. Thus Luke’s judgment of the value and trustworthiness of this source receives the notable support of the judgment of his fellow evangelists, and it can scarcely be doubted that what it contains is the veritable tradition of those who were as well eyewitnesses as ministers of the Word from the beginning, in whose accuracy confidence can be placed. If the three Synoptic Gospels do not give three independent testimonies to the facts which they record, they give what is, perhaps, better, three independent witnesses to the trustworthiness of the narrative, which they all incorporate into their own as resting on autoptic testimony and thoroughly deserving of credit. A narrative lying at the basis of all three of these Gospels, themselves written certainly not later than the seventh decade of the century, must in any event be early in date, and in that sense must emanate from the first followers of Christ; and in the circumstances of the large and confident use made of it by all three of these Gospels cannot fail to be an authentic statement of what was the conviction of the earliest circles of Christians.