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Last week in Chapel I told the students and staff about the extraordinary contribution that St Paul made to spreading the message that God loved everyone, regardless of who they were, and the message that Jesus was with them in spirit. Without the incredible energy that their experience of the risen Jesus gave the first Christians, including St Paul, Christianity probably wouldn’t have made it out of ancient Palestine. It would be a curious footnote in history: a tiny break-away group from Judaism that amounted to nothing.

However, the disciples experienced something and that experience gave them the courage to spread the message across the Empire. St Paul and a handful of others like him were crucial in doing so. We know they were crucial, because we have copies of their letters, including virtually a complete set of St Paul’s letters dating from about 180 AD, purchased in Egypt in the 1920s by the University of Michigan. The climate of Egypt and the dedication of local churches and historians there meant that they had, somewhat miraculously, survived.

The Christian message of equality did begin to spread. It was particularly popular amongst those people who struggled in life, the slaves and the poor of the Empire. Crucially though, some wealthier people were also convinced. They were important, because they had money and influence to help the cause. In those early days there were no church buildings – the first Christians met in each other’s homes to start with – so they didn’t need money to build physical church buildings at that time, but the money and the influence were critical in making sure the fledging movement didn’t just die out.

I’ve been emphasising the history of early Christianity these last couple of weeks in the Chapel services, partly because of something that is occasionally asked of me: ’Isn’t Jesus just a myth?’

Of course, even if Jesus were just a myth, that wouldn’t make sayings like ’Love your neighbour as yourself’ any less important. The belief that God loves everyone, regardless of who they are or what their position is in life, has value, regardless of who originally said it. I think of the 16th century playwright Shakespeare in this regard. Just because a couple of scholars’ question whether Shakespeare actually wrote the plays that bear his name, doesn’t mean the plays aren’t inherently brilliant. So too, there would be extraordinary value in the sayings of Jesus, even if Jesus were just a myth.

Mind you, you do have to wonder why the first apostles would willingly face death and persecution, if Jesus wasn’t a real person. When St Paul writes about spending time in Jerusalem, he’s spending time with people like St Peter. For example, he talks about Peter in his letter to the Galatians, one of the letters in the University of Michigan’s collection. So, we know that Peter is not a made-up character. Would Peter continue to tell people about Jesus, even in the face of death, if Jesus wasn’t real? It’s an interesting question to ponder. As much as I love the character of Yoda in Star Wars, even to the extent of owning a Yoda keyring at one stage in my life, I’m not prepared to face persecution and death for him.

But there is other evidence for Jesus being a historical figure as well. It’s not just the old letters of St Paul and the others. It’s not just the Gospel accounts. We also have sources from outside the Bible, 3 of them to be precise: Josephus, a Jewish historian, and 2 Roman historians, Pliny the Younger, and Tacitus. One of the most interesting ones is Tacitus. At one point he writes about the ‘problem of Christianity in Rome’ and the fact that the Emperor Nero had blamed them for the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. Tacitus writes, ‘Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus […]’ So a Roman historian refers to the crucifixion of Christ at the hands of Pontius Pilate. You can have a look at the oldest surviving manuscript of Tacitus’ work in a library in Florence in Italy, and even read it, if you can read Latin.

The point is that there are a number of different historical sources which refer to Jesus. Even if we count St Paul’s letters just as one source, and even if we count all four Gospels just as one source, and even if we count the entire rest of the NT as just one source, if you add them to the non-biblical sources like Tacitus, we have 6 independent sources, and that’s being very conservative in my counting. Really the four Gospels alone should be counted as 4 sources in themselves, because each of them had access to different sayings and parables of Jesus, from different sources. That’s why my all-time favourite parable, the parable of the Prodigal son, only appears in Luke’s Gospel, because Luke had access to a different collection of the sayings of Jesus, which Matthew, Mark and John didn’t have access to.

If Jesus really did exist in history and people like St Paul thought it was worth risking their lives to talk about him and his message, it makes you wonder … Why was he so important? Because he showed us that God loves everyone and that there is a beautiful, spiritual life that is waiting for us, if we’re prepared to give it a try.

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain