What would we know about Jesus if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet? Could we have any certainty Jesus actually lived, and would we be able to re-capture any of the details of his life or nature? As it turns out, there are several ancient sources of information about Jesus. Some of these are from pagan, non-Christian authors (I’ve written about these sources here at Cold-Case Christianity). But there are even more compelling early non-Biblical accounts we can reference in an effort to understand who Jesus is (and was). We can still read the accounts of those early Christians who learned directly from the Biblical authors. Ignatius and Polycarp were direct students of the Apostle John; Clement was a direct student of the Apostle Paul. These students later became leaders in the early Christian Church and wrote their own letters to local congregations. Seven letters from Ignatius still survive, along with one letter from Polycarp and Clement. These are the earliest non-Biblical accounts we have describing the life and nature of Jesus. They are not in your Bible, but the information provided by these students of the Biblical authors is compelling. It provides us with the earliest snapshot of Jesus, and demonstrates the story of Jesus was not distorted or modified in the centuries between Jesus’ ministry and the first Church Councils. Here is a brief summary of what we can know about Jesus from the earliest Non-Biblical authors:
The Old Testament Prophets Predicted Jesus as the Messiah
Ignatius said the prophets predicted and waited for Jesus who was in the line of King David. Clement also said the prophets predicted the life and ministry of Jesus.
Jesus Was Born Miraculously
Ignatius said Jesus was (and is) the “Son of God.” He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and a star announced His birth. Jesus came forth from God the Father and was born of the Virgin Mary.
Jesus Had a Powerful Earthly Ministry
Ignatius said Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. He was the “perfect” man and manifested the will and knowledge of God the Father. He taught and had a “ministry” on earth. He was the source of wisdom and taught many commandments, speaking the words of God. Ointment was poured on Jesus’s head. Polycarp also said Jesus was sinless. According to Polycarp, Jesus taught commandments and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Clement also said Jesus provided His disciples with important instruction. According to Clement, Jesus taught principles as described by Mark and Luke. He was humble and unassuming.
Jesus Suffered and Died on a Cross
Ignatius said Jesus was unjustly treated and condemned by men. He suffered and was crucified, dying on the cross. Jesus allowed this to happen as a sacrifice and offering to God the Father. This all took place under the government of Pontius Pilate, when Herod the Tetrarch was king. Polycarp also said Jesus suffered and died on a cross and Jesus died for our sins. In addition, Clement said Jesus was whipped and suffered and died for our salvation. According to Clement, Jesus died as a payment for our sin.
Jesus Rose from the Grave
Ignatius said Jesus was resurrected and had a physical resurrection body. He appeared to Peter and the others after the resurrection. He encouraged the disciples to touch Him after the resurrection and ate with the disciples as well. The disciples were convinced by the resurrection appearances. The disciples were fearless after seeing the risen Christ. Polycarp also said Jesus was raised from the dead, and His resurrection assures we will also be raised.
Jesus Demonstrated His Deity in the Resurrection
Ignatius said Jesus returned to God the Father. Jesus was (and is) the manifestation of God the Father and is united to Him. Jesus is our only Master and the Son of God. He is the “Door,” the “Bread of Life,” and the “Eternal Word.” Jesus is our High Priest, “Lord” and “God.” He is “our Savior” and the way to “true life.” Polycarp also said Jesus ascended to heaven and is seated at God’s right hand. According to Polycarp, all things are subject to Jesus and He will judge the living and the dead. Jesus is our “Savior” and “Lord.” In addition, Clement said Jesus was resurrected from the dead and is alive and reigning with God. His resurrection makes our resurrection certain. According to Clement, Jesus is “Lord” and the Son of God. He possesses eternal glory and majesty. All creation belongs to Him. Jesus is our “refuge” and our “High Priest.” He is our “defender” and “helper.”
Jesus Has the Power to Save Us
Ignatius said Jesus now lives in us and we live forever as a result of our faith in Christ. He has the power to transform us and His sacrifice glorifies us. Faith in Christ’s work on the cross saves us, and this salvation and forgiveness are gifts of grace from God. Polycarp also said Jesus’ death on the cross and our faith in Jesus’s work on the cross saves us. According to Polycarp, we are saved by grace. In addition, Clement said we are saved by the “grace” of God through faith in Jesus.
The earliest non-Biblical accounts of Jesus match the record we presently have in the New Testament. The story of Jesus was not distorted over the years, and even if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet we could still re-assemble the ancient details of Jesus’ life, ministry and nature. The Old Testament prophets predicted Jesus as the Messiah, He was born miraculously, had a powerful earthly ministry, suffered and died on a cross, rose from the grave, and demonstrated His Deity in the Resurrection. Jesus alone has the power to save us. The earliest non-Biblical authors have a lot to say about Jesus, and their words confirm and verify the eyewitness Gospel accounts we have in the New Testament. Visit the ColdCaseChristianity.com homepage to download this month’s free Bible Insert so you can easily recall what the earliest non-Biblical authors say about Jesus.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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