This must be our focus, for, it will always be possible to tease out strands of text and point to real or imagined difficulties, provoking doubts and maybe dismissals without sober consideration of the key warrant for the Christian Faith. Indeed, there is a major wave of current skepticism that does just that. But, to try to reject a cumulative case by pointing to the slenderness or weakness of the individual fibre may well fail to see the cumulative effect of the core warranting case; i.e. it commits the fallacy of composition.
For instance, sometimes it is objected that the Christian faith is like a set of buckets with holes in them, so one cannot carry water. But, if we stack the buckets so one stops the hole in the next, the resulting composite bucket will often be serviceable to carry water. The key lesson: a whole is often stronger than the individual part, as it takes advantage of how partly strong, partly weak parts can work together to build on strengths, compensate for weaknesses and counter threats.
So, we must turn instead to assessing the cumulative strength of the core warrant for the Christian faith.
Namely, the record and reality of Jesus of Nazareth as the scripturally prophesied, crucified, risen Messiah, Saviour and Lord. Once this is firmly established, it puts all difficulties -- and, by the very nature of the case, there will inevitably be many such -- in proper perspective.
Australian scholar Paul Barnett, in his Is the New Testament History?, provides an excellent place to start building our answer. He does so by giving us a summing up of the composite, consensus view of early non-Christian sources from late C1 to early C2, on the roots of the Christian faith and its characteristics:
On the basis of . . . non-Christian sources [i.e. Tacitus (Annals, on the fire in Rome, AD 64; written ~ AD 115), Rabbi Eliezer (~ 90's AD; cited J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1929), p. 34), Pliny (Letters to Trajan from Bithynia, ~ AD 112), Josephus (Antiquities, ~ 90's)] it is possible to draw the following conclusions:
1: Jesus Christ was executed (by crucifixion?) in Judaea during the period where Tiberius was Emperor (AD 14 - 37) and Pontius Pilate was Governor (AD 26 - 36). [Tacitus]
2: The movement spread from Judaea to Rome. [Tacitus]
3: Jesus claimed to be God and that he would depart and return. [Eliezer]
4: His followers worshipped him as (a) god. [Pliny]
5: He was called "the Christ." [Josephus]
6: His followers were called "Christians." [Tacitus, Pliny]
7: They were numerous in Bithynia and Rome [Tacitus, Pliny]
8: It was a world-wide movement. [Eliezer]
9: His brother was James. [Josephus][Is the New Testament History? (London, Hodder, 1987), pp. 30 - 31.]
The pattern in these sources is instantly familiar. That is, the NT accounts plainly fit into a recognisable historical pattern of facts we may credibly establish through a range of quite early non-Christian sources on the C1 origins, claims and spreading of the Christian movement. Though, of course, the primary Christian sources give far more details than one would expect from sources that mention such facts in passing as they go on to make their own points.
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. He was buried.
3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
4. The tomb was empty (the most contested).
5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important proof).
6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
7. The resurrection was the central message.
8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
9. The Church was born and grew.
10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
- the missing corpse and the empty tomb,
- the convincing appearances to the disciples [altogether over 500],
- those to the circle of women,
- that to his family [who were previously skeptical to the point of fearing their eldest brother insane], and
- that to Paul in his earlier career of arch-persecutor, as well as
- the inability of the Jewish and Roman authorities to produce convincing evidence to scotch reports of a risen messiah,
It took no miracle to see, converse and even eat supper with Jesus. Nor did it take a miracle to see him crucified, speared to ensure death, taken down and buried in the famed borrowed rich Sanhedrinist's tomb -- unlikely to be recounted unless true! -- then sealed therein and guarded.
The miracle lay, rather in the implications of the timeline sequence: Jesus was crucified and buried first, then after that, he reportedly met, spoke to and ate supper with his disciples on the following Sunday evening and on the Sunday evening after that too. In this last event, he reportedly invited Thomas the doubter to insert his hands into the fearsome, but now evidently powerless wounds.
Acts 2:22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know – 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power . . . .
"32 This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 So then, exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he has poured out what you both see and hear . . . . 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” [NET]
2 Tim 3:12 . . . all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
2 Tim 4: 1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound1 teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith . . . [ESV] >>
And, with the key warranting case for the faith once for all delivered to the saints in hand, we may confidently lay out the principle for personal, familial, and comunity reform under the gospel:
Eph 4:17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.
18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!- 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. [ESV]
And to that, we must next turn. END