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The Blue Letter Bible
Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Existence of Jesus Christ

Don Stewart :: What Do the Early Christian Sources Tell Us about Jesus?

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What Do the Early Christian Sources, Apart from the New Testament, Tell Us about Jesus? (Extra-Biblical Christian Sources)

The Existence of Jesus Christ – Question 5

Today, we have an early Jewish source, the writings of Josephus, which testifies to the existence of Jesus as well as to the existence of the early church. We also possess fragmentary references to Jesus among non-Jewish writers. However, none of these references are from people who lived at the same time as Jesus.

There is something else that we must take into consideration; the writings of early Christians. What do they add, if anything, to our knowledge of Jesus?

There Is Early Testimony from the Apostolic Fathers

Apart from the New Testament, we have some early testimony from believers about Jesus’ words and deeds. The earliest sources we possess are known as the “Apostolic Fathers.” The Apostolic Fathers were individuals who personally knew some of the disciples of Jesus. While they were not Jesus’ disciples, they were disciples of the disciples. They include the writings of Clement, Ignatius, Papias, and Polycarp. These writings were composed from about A.D. 95 to A.D. 150.

We discover the following from their writings.

1. Clement of Rome

There is an early letter that is called “I Clement.” It was written around the year A.D. 95 by Clement of Rome. He is probably the same one who is mentioned in the New Testament. When Paul wrote to the Philippians we find the following reference:

Yes, I say also to you, true companion, help them. They have struggled together in the gospel ministry along with me and Clement and my other coworkers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3 NET)

In his letter, Clement urged his readers to remember the sayings of Jesus. He calls them “the words of the Lord Jesus.” He also cites certain statements of Jesus that are found in Matthew and Luke.

2. Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in Syria, is a very important early witness to Jesus. He was martyred for his faith in Christ under the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan before the year A.D. 117. He wrote seven letters that have survived. In them, we find a number of key truths emphasized.

For one thing, Ignatius emphasizes that the Christian faith is based upon historical facts. He mentions how Jesus was crucified under the reign of Pontius Pilate and that He rose from the dead. Ignatius also wrote that those who believed in Jesus would also be raised one day.

In his writings, we find both the humanity and deity of Christ stressed. At that time, there was a heresy called “docetism” that claimed that Jesus was not really human but only seemed to be human. Ignatius combated this false belief with his emphasis on the true humanity of Jesus as well as His deity.

There is something else. Ignatius is an example of another constant theme we find among the early believers in Jesus; he was willing to be martyred for his faith. Time and time again we find the early Christians persecuted, tortured and martyred for their beliefs in Jesus. Some explanation has to be given as to why they all willingly went to their deaths proclaiming His message. One obvious truth is that they certainly believed the message they were proclaiming.

Therefore, we have an early testimony by a leader in the church, which confirms some of the main teachings of the New Testament. Like others in the early church, Ignatius’ citations or allusions came mainly from Matthew’s gospel. Indeed, it was the favorite one in the early church.

3. Papias

Papias had heard John the Apostle preach about Jesus. He was also a friend of Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna. He knew the written accounts of the life of Jesus as well as the oral tradition that was being taught about the Lord. We are also told that he learned from the daughters of Philip the Apostle about a man being brought back to life in Philip’s time. Papias was, therefore, in a position to relate both the written words as well as the oral tradition about Jesus that was circulating at his time.

4. Polycarp

Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. He was familiar with the letters of Paul as well as the words of Jesus. He is an important witness since he was a personal disciple of the John. Therefore, he was taught directly by one who was personally taught by Jesus. At an old age, he was martyred for his faith in Jesus.

This briefly sums up what we know from the testimony of the early Christian sources or apostolic fathers. From them, we find further confirmatory evidence of the life and ministry of Christ.

Summary – Question 5
What Do the Early Christian Sources, Apart from the New Testament, Tell Us about Jesus? (Extra-Biblical Christian Sources)

The early Christian sources, outside of the New Testament, corroborate the story of Jesus found in Scripture. There are four important individuals who are worth mentioning.

First, we have the testimony the testimony of Clement of Rome, a man mentioned in the New Testament. He testified about the life and deeds of Jesus.

Two other men, Polycarp and Papias had personal contact with John the Apostle. Thus, they were only one generation removed from Jesus Himself. Indeed, they were in a position to relate the accounts of an eyewitness to the event in the life of Christ.

Add to this the testimony of Ignatius of Antioch. He emphasized some of the key truths of the New Testament such as the full humanity as well as the deity of Jesus Christ.

These writers not only testify to the existence of Jesus, they also corroborate parts of the New Testament. These early writings, by men who were personally acquainted with Jesus’ disciples add further testimony to the fact of Jesus’ existence.

What Do Early, Non-Jewish Writings Tell Us about Jesus? ← Prior Section
What Do the Combined Ancient Sources Say about Jesus? Next Section →
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