In my last blog post, I briefly discussed how historians are faced with the difficult task of unravelling true historical facts from the embellishments that creep in over time. However, the threat of legend overtaking fact is mitigated by the gap between the actual event and the earliest record. The smaller the gap, the more likely it is that fact can be separated from fiction. Clement of Rome penned a letter to the Corinthian church in 95 A.D. The date of the composition places it within three generations of the reported death and resurrection of Jesus. Clement writes:
The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe.
Please notice what Clement claimed to be facts:
God ordained Jesus, Jesus ordained the apostles
The apostles were fully persuaded that Jesus had risen from the dead
Jesus entrusted the proclamation of this good news to the apostles
The Holy Spirit was given to the apostles as a witness to their commission
The apostles carried out their commission
Bishops and deacons were ordained to carry on the work of the church in their absence
I find this extra-biblical testimony significant because it echoes the basic tenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament. Neither the quote itself nor what it shares in common with scripture conclusively proves that these things actually took place. However, please bear in mind that only 60-70 years separates Clement’s testimony from the earliest events he mentions.
Ignatius of Antioch wrote this to the church at Smyrna in 110 A.D.:
And I know that He was possessed of a body not only in His being born and crucified, but I also know that He was so after His resurrection, and believe that He is so now. When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, “Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit.” “For a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see Me have” (see Luke 24:39). And He says to Thomas, “Reach hither thy finger into the print of the nails, and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into My side;” (see John 20:27) and immediately they believed that He was Christ. Wherefore Thomas also says to Him, “My Lord, and my God.” (see John 20:28) And on this account also did they despise death, for it were too little to say, indignities and stripes. Nor was this all; but also after He had shown Himself to them, that He had risen indeed, and not in appearance only, He both ate and drank with them during forty entire days.
Although the testimony of Ignatius follows Clement by some 15 years thus removing it another generation from the life of Jesus, it remains significant. This entire quotation centers on the interaction of Jesus and His apostles in the days following His reported resurrection. Ignatius not only leans on the post resurrection accounts, but he also quotes from the testimonies of both Luke and John. Once again, this quote places us within a century of the ministry, death, and reported resurrection of Jesus.
Do we have early testimony regarding Jesus? Yes. In fact, the time gap between the events and the record are much smaller than other examples I have brought up in previous blog posts (e.g. Tiberius Caesar and Alexander the Great). Surely evidence like this helps us to glean the truth and separate fact from fiction. However, there are documents that precede Clement and Ignatius by 40-60 years which, in terms of history, is a blink of the eye.