Go back, I felt the voice say. Go back and learn more.
Until that moment, I had wanted to be the first to the snacks at the back of the room.
The teacher at the vacation bible school had talked for a while about Jesus and asked if anyone wanted to come up and receive him as their Savior. Many raised their hands and went to the front of the room to pray. After the teacher dismissed us for the break, I jumped up and raced back to the orange punch and cookies, getting their first.
It wasn’t an audible voice. But it was an unmistakable feeling from the outside but yet inside my mind.
At seven years old, I had never experienced any like this.
I went back to the teacher a few minutes later, after most of the kids had disbanded and the next event was starting. He gave me a couple of booklets to read and was available the next day to talk more.
At home that day, I went to my room, read the booklets, and prayed to Jesus to ask him to come into my life and be my Savior. From that moment, I was a different person — there was a before, and then an after. Some forty-four years later, I still remember the moment clearly.
Sometimes people have raised questions about this, when the topic comes up periodically about what I believe. Your parents sent you to vacation bible school. Could this be explained by being exposed to religion at a young age? I would hear and understand this question and others raised. But I also knew what I had experienced and continued to experience.
I’ve always been curious to learn more about the history of that time two thousand years ago and how people have experienced Jesus from then until now. Over time, I came to see consistent, logical patterns that supported Jesus’ life and message:
1. Jesus lived in the first century AD.
2. His teaching had a massive impact on many who heard it — the overwhelming majority of which had never met Jesus in person.
3. Many eyewitnesses saw and testified about who Jesus was and is.
Let’s look at each of these.
1. Jesus lived in the first century AD.
The New Testament is the main source of what we know about the life of Jesus, who lived until about 33 AD. It includes four gospels written about his life, a history of the Acts of Jesus’ apostles after his death, and twenty-two letters sent by his apostles to early Christian churches. Beyond the New Testament, there are also mentions of Jesus by Roman historians.
Titus Flavius Josephus (37–100 AD) was a Roman-Jewish historian. In his Antiquities of the Jews, written in 93–94 AD for his Roman patrons, Josephus tells the history of the Jewish people until the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73 AD). In this twenty-volume work, Josephus includes a brief mention about Jesus:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”
In another passage of Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus briefly mentions how James “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ” was brought to trial and executed along with others in 62 AD.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56–120 AD), considered one of the great Roman historians of his time, also includes a brief mention about Jesus in his work the Annals of Imperial Rome (116 AD), covering the Roman Empire’s history in the first century. In one of the passages, Tacitus describes how Christians were blamed for the great fire in Rome around AD 64, and makes a reference to Jesus: “Christus, from whom the name (Christians) had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
Neither historian had a reason to write about Jesus. Their mentions of Jesus are understandably brief, as Christianity was only just emerging as one of many religions in the Roman empire, and one which was often persecuted. These mentions — combined with the testimonies about the life of Jesus from early witnesses found in the New Testament — leave little doubt among biblical scholars that Jesus did exist and lived in the first century AD.
2. His teaching had a massive impact on many who heard it.
When Jesus died around 33 AD, there were no written records of his life and teachings. The four gospels would not be written for another 40 to 70 years after his death. If his teaching were to spread, it would have to happen through word-of-mouth, led by his original followers. More important, it would need to resonate as the truth to those who heard it, since they could not meet and hear from Jesus directly.
From that remote corner of the Roman empire, the message of Jesus spread to modern-day Syria, Turkey, Greece, and eventually to Rome itself. Though persecuted by the Roman Empire in the first century AD and beyond, it continued to inspire those who heard the message and led to more believers. By 323 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the very empire that had persecuted it, which in turn further led to the spread of Jesus’ message. Originating in 525 AD and adopted by Charlemagne in the ninth century for the Holy Roman Empire, our calendar today is anchored on the estimated birth year of Jesus. “A.D.” means anno domini, Latin for “in the year of the Lord”, with our years counted from that point in time. In 2020 A.D. (or ‘CE’ for the ‘Common Era’), Christians are the world’s largest religious group, making up about 30%, or 2.4 billion, of the world’s population.
An example of the impact of Jesus’ message can be seen in the life of Paul (~4 BC — ~63 AD), previously Saul of Tarsus, located in modern-day Turkey. Paul wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, addressed to the early Christian churches between 50 to 63 AD. Written earlier than the gospels, these letters focused on instructing, correcting, and encouraging early Christians in their faith in Jesus and his message. Biblical scholars generally agree that Paul at a minimum wrote seven of the thirteen books attributed to him in the New Testament: Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, and Philippians.
Paul was an unlikely Christian evangelist. Earlier in his life, Paul strongly opposed the new faith and played a prominent role in the active pursuit and persecution of Jesus’ followers. Something extraordinary then happened to change his mind.
Paul talks about this in his letter to the Galatian church located in modern day Turkey, written around 50 AD: “I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ.” The details of this revelation appear later in the Acts of the Apostles written between 70–90 AD by Paul’s companion, the physician Luke: How Jesus appeared directly to Paul as he traveled to Damascus in Syria, sometime around 33–36 AD, and how Paul soon thereafter converted and began preaching about Jesus as the Son of God.
Paul continues in his letter to the Galatians about what happened next. He began preaching in Arabia and later in Syria. Three years after his conversion, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet with two of Jesus’ original apostles, Peter and James, for about two weeks. He then returned to continue his ministry into Syria and modern-day Turkey.
Back in Israel, Christians were understandably surprised to hear about what Paul was doing. “All that they knew was that people were saying ‘The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!’”, as Paul recounts.
Fourteen years later, Paul returned to Jerusalem to meet with leaders of the Christian church to share the message that he was preaching. “I wanted to make sure we were in agreement, for fear that all my efforts had been wasted and I was running the race for nothing”, Paul writes.
Remarkably — after seventeen years of preaching about Jesus and his message, spending only two weeks with two of Jesus’ original apostles — Paul states that the leaders of the church had nothing further to add to the message he was teaching and encouraged him to continue. This lends support to Paul’s original assertion that he received the message “by direct revelation from Jesus Christ”.
The appeal of the message about Jesus — how it inspired belief with those who heard the message without any firsthand experience with Jesus — is further described by Paul in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica (~52 AD) in modern-day Greece. “For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true,” Paul writes.
His notes on the life of Jesus in his letter to the Roman church (55–57 AD) coincide with what is later written in the New Testament gospels between 70–100 AD. “In his early life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord,” Paul writes. In his letter to the church in Corinth (53–57 AD) in modern day Greece, he describes the Last Supper with Jesus and his apostles. “For I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself,” Paul writes. “On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.’ In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant between God and his people — an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this to remember me as often as you drink it.’”
Paul continued his ministry over the next eleven years. One of Paul’s last letters was to the church in Philippi (~62 AD) in modern day Greece, written from his imprisonment in Rome and about a year before his execution in ~63 AD. In it, he recaps his early persecution of Christians and his former beliefs. “I once thought these things were valuable, and now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Whether seen in the life of one man, Paul, or in the lives of today’s 2.3 billion Christians, it’s clear that the teaching of Jesus has had a massive impact on those who heard it — the vast majority of which had never met Jesus in person.
3. Many early eyewitnesses saw and testified about who Jesus was and is.
There are descriptions of early eyewitness accounts of Jesus, starting with Paul’s letters. Other eyewitness accounts are later described by Peter and John, two of Jesus’ original twelve apostles.
In his letter to the church in Corinth (53–57 AD) in modern day Greece, Paul not only talks about how Jesus came back to life, but also the number of eyewitnesses to this event about 20 to 25 years earlier. “I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me,” Paul writes. “Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.”
Mentioned by Paul above, Peter (~1–64 AD) was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and the leader of the early Christian church, originally a fisherman in the Galilee area of modern-day Israel along with other apostles such as John, James, and Andrew (Peter’s brother). Peter authored two letters to Christian churches. Though there is debate among biblical scholars about the timing and authorship of these letters, they are addressed from “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ”. Assuming Peter is the author, they would have been written between 62–68 AD before his death in Rome.
Early in his second letter, Peter states that his death is approaching. “For our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me that I must soon leave this earthly life, so I will work hard to make sure you always remember these things after I am gone,” Peter writes. He acknowledges that people may have doubts but confirms that everything he’s told them is true.
“For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he says. “We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy’. We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain”. The scene described by Peter — known as the Transfiguration of Jesus — is later described in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, written between 70–95 AD.
The apostle John (~6 — ~100 AD) is believed to have been the youngest of the apostles and lived to an old age, dying at Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. He also wrote three letters to the early Christian churches and the Gospel of John between 90–100 AD. Right at the beginning of his first letter, John makes it clear he was an eyewitness as well.
“We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life,” John writes. Later in the same paragraph, John emphasizes his eyewitness testimony: “We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us.” John later talks in the same letter about “the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all.”
During that same time period (90–100 AD), John also wrote the Gospel of John, in which John also recounts his eyewitness experience with Jesus in its first chapter: “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” John ends this book repeating his role as eyewitness: “This disciple is the one who testifies to these events and has recorded them here. And we know that his account of these things is accurate.”
From these three sources — Paul, Peter, and John — we can thus assert there were many early eyewitnesses who saw and testified about what they saw, leading to the spread of Jesus’ message.
There are counterarguments that can be made to many of the points above. There is debate, for example, about what Titus Flavius Josephus wrote in his longer passage about Jesus, known as the “Testimonium Flavianum”, and whether scribes later modified parts of that passage. (The version I included earlier is from an Arabic tenth century work discovered by Professor Shlomo Pines at Hebrew University in 1972, which may be closer to what Josephus actually wrote than the Greek version.)
Questions also exist among scholars about whether Peter and John wrote the works attributed to them, and when they were written. Beyond brief Roman mentions, the New Testament is the main source for what we know about Jesus, and that was written almost 2,000 years ago. The stories were conveyed through word-of-mouth for the first 15–20 years, captured partly in letters and later in gospels, and copies of those original gospels were transcribed innumerable times throughout the centuries.
History and logic can only take us so far. Faith is the next and only step.
There is a story that appears in both the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Parents brought their children to Jesus so that he could bless them, but his disciples scolded them for bothering him. “Let the children come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t stop them. For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.”
In other words, God reveals himself to those who approach with the openness, humility, and faith of a child.
There are two famous quotes in the apostle John’s first letter about the nature of God and Jesus his Son. “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them,” John writes. Two paragraphs above that, he writes: “God showed how much loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.”
That sense of God’s love was what I experienced as a child all those years ago and still do today. And as witnessed by John, Peter, Paul and many others from the first century to today, that love awaits anyone on the other side who takes the first step of faith.