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Blog / Even Non-Believers Can Agree on Facts Concerning Jesus: An Interview with Justin W. Bass

Even Non-Believers Can Agree on Facts Concerning Jesus: An Interview with Justin W. Bass

Justin W. BassDid you know that, even though they don’t believe in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, scholars who are not Christians do agree with believers on some matters concerning Jesus? Surprisingly, there’s a lot upon which everyone can agree. When surveying historical scholarship, Christians, agnostics, and skeptics have no other option but to affirm certain truths about Jesus.

Bible Gateway interviewed Justin W. Bass (@DrJustinbass) about his book, The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection (Lexham Press, 2020).

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You write that scholars from “Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, agnostic, atheist, liberal, and conservative” perspectives can agree on facts concerning Jesus. What led you to this conclusion?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: Yes, this is extraordinary. Scholars from a wide range of backgrounds, nationalities, religions (or no religion), do agree on a number of historical facts concerning Jesus and early Christianity. I discovered this during my years in seminary and doctoral studies, through rigorous study and research, that some historical facts about Jesus, similar to Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC or the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, have not (and I would say cannot) be denied. They are Archimedean points of history.

This is one of the primary reasons why I wrote The Bedrock of Christianity. I wanted to put in a single book, only the Bedrock facts that are agreed upon by virtually every scholar teaching in universities and seminaries across the Western world. My book doesn’t even include them all. I focus on the agreed upon facts from the earliest sources, namely, Paul’s early letters. There are many more that would be included if I were to focus on the Gospels and Acts.

You begin your book with the scholarly undeniable fact that Jesus existed, much to the chagrin of the miniscule minority of those who deny it. How can the certain fact of Jesus’ existence be so indisputable?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: As the agnostic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, has argued in his book Did Jesus Exist?, “Jesus certainly did exist.” The reason even a skeptic like Ehrman can make such a strong claim of certainty is because of the robust evidence and sources for the historical Jesus. Within 100 years of his death, primary sources for the existence of Jesus include Paul’s early letters; Matthew, Mark, LukeActs, and John; Jewish historian Josephus; Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius; and Roman governor Pliny the Younger (Josephus, Ant. 20.200; Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Suetonius, Claudius 25; Pliny the Younger, Letter 10.96). This is more written and reliable sources (and closer to the events) than we have for emperor Tiberius Caesar, who was the most powerful man in the world at the time of Jesus’ death. Jesus certainly did exist.

Why can Paul’s letters of Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians be considered reliable sources, undisputed without question, for historical purposes?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: These four letters of the apostle Paul are famously known in German as the hauptbriefe or main letters. There are actually seven letters of Paul that are considered undisputed today by virtually all teaching scholars: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon. However, when you survey the last over 200 years of critical scholarship, it’s these four (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians) that have been accepted by virtually everyone, everywhere, and at all times. This means that scholars have consistently argued that the apostle Paul wrote these four letters and that just about all the historical facts Paul transmits in these letters are considered trustworthy information.

Galatians 1:18 says Paul went to Jerusalem and stayed with Peter for two weeks. Why is that so important?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: I consider this the greatest meeting of church history among some formidable competitors. For example, St. Augustine and St. Jerome never met, but they exchanged a number of letters with one another. Charles Spurgeon met with and prayed with George Müller and D.L. Moody. The weekly meetings of the Inklings with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others would also be on this list of great meetings. But the two greatest figures (after Jesus) in all of church history spent 15 days with one another in Jerusalem, within about five years of Jesus’ crucifixion. This is a Bedrock fact, meaning scholars are virtually unanimous that this meeting took place between the two great apostles.

This meeting is important for a number of reasons, but what I focus on in my book is that this meeting was the most likely place that Paul received a number of traditions about the historical Jesus that he later delivered to churches he planted throughout the Roman Empire. One of these traditions is the creedal tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 which includes the resurrection appearances of Jesus to Cephas/Peter and to James, Jesus’ brother (see Galatians 1:18-19).

This creedal tradition is the bedrock source for all the Bedrock facts at least concerning Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and appearances.

Why do you call “the historical Paul” the bedrock eyewitness when he was not one of the original disciples?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: The apostle Paul was not one of Jesus’ original disciples, but Paul knew and spent time with Jesus’ original disciples. I believe Peter wrote 1 Peter, John wrote the Gospel of John, Matthew wrote Matthew, so in that case, there are many firsthand eyewitnesses in the New Testament. But Paul is the only one that has the wide agreement among all scholars that he believed Jesus appeared to him, he wrote at least seven of his letters, and he spent significant amounts of time in the 30s and 40s with Jesus’ original disciples like Peter, John, James, Jesus’ brother, and probably others from the Twelve. This is why he is a Bedrock eyewitness of not only the first two decades of Christian history, but also a firsthand eyewitness to the risen Jesus.

Why do you say Paul is quoting an early creedal tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7? Who originally composed it and where? And why is it important that it was written so close to Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: At the turn of the 20th century, scholars discovered traditions and hymns that the apostle Paul is quoting throughout his letters. These included some teachings and stories about Jesus (1 Cor 7:10; 9:14; 11:1; 2 Cor 10:1), the account of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23–26), Christological hymns (1 Cor 8:6; 2 Cor 8:9), and this creedal tradition on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7). Paul introduces the creedal tradition with the words “For I delivered to you…what I also received” (1 Cor 15:3). This language of “delivered” and “received” indicates that Paul is referring to an oral or written tradition he transmitted to the Corinthian church. Furthermore, Paul uses a number of phrases such as “died for our sins,” “according to the Scriptures,” “he was buried,” “he was raised,” “on the third day,” “he appeared,” and “the twelve” that are either only used here or, if used elsewhere, there has been influence from tradition.

These considerations have persuaded virtually all scholars for the last hundred years that we have in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 a pre-Pauline creedal tradition.

When and from whom did Paul received this creedal tradition?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: Scholars argue it was either soon after Paul’s conversion in Damascus around AD 34 or during his meeting with Peter and James, Jesus’ brother around AD 37 that I mentioned earlier. It makes the most sense that he received such information as, “he appeared to Cephas … he appeared to James” (1 Cor 15:5, 7), at the time he first met with Peter and James (Gal 1:18–19), but either way, this creedal tradition is dated by nearly all scholars, on average, within five years of Jesus’ death.

Therefore, it’s an irreplaceable treasure, the pearl of great price, the earliest source for Christianity. Even if nothing else had survived from the early Christian movement besides this five verse creedal tradition (1 Cor 15:3-7), we’d still have the essence of the gospel and the historical Bedrock on which Christianity stands: “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

How can Jesus’ resurrection be considered a bedrock fact, even by unbelieving scholars?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: To be clear, the belief that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to a number of individuals and groups is what even most atheist and agnostic scholars, like Bart Ehrman for example, affirm. It’s irrefutable historically that Peter, James (Jesus’ brother), Paul, and the Twelve (minus Judas) believed Jesus appeared to them, raised from the dead. If I include the Gospels, then Mary Magdalene could be added to this list as well.

We also have strong historical evidence that Peter, James, and Paul were martyred for their faith. Therefore, rigorous historical investigation can establish that these three men—Peter, James, and Paul—became convinced that Jesus appeared to them, raised from the dead, and they went to their deaths believing it. Whatever these three men saw, it was worth giving their lives for.

Who were the Nazarenes and how do they contribute to the bedrock facts?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: The final Bedrock fact I discuss in the book is that this movement of the Nazarenes (later called Christians) launched from Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion, went on to turn the Roman Empire upside down, and Christianity is today still the largest religion in the world with almost a third of the world professing Christianity. This Bedrock fact alone, of course, doesn’t prove Christianity is true. However, it does fit well with the claim of the original apostles: “He was raised on the third day” (1 Cor 15:4). If Jesus rose from the dead—if he’s still alive and Lord of the world—would we expect his movement to survive or die out like so many other Jewish movements of the first century did? Further, would we expect the followers of Jesus to remain in a small part of the Middle East (like the Jains have always remained in India, for example), or would we expect it to go to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) in order to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20)? Christianity becoming a global movement, influencing the daily lives of billions, continues to bolster the claim “He has risen!” (Mark 16:6).

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: Too many to list here, but since we are talking about Paul, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 captures my heart for life and ministry as well: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

He loved me and gave himself up for me, how then can I not every day serve my Lord and King?

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: Bible Gateway is my go-to place on the internet for checking translations of the Bible. An excellent site that has blessed me many times over.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Justin W. Bass: κύριον Ἰησοῦν “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9).

Bio: Justin W. Bass has a Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary in New Testament Studies. He has formally debated Dr. Bart Ehrman, Dr. Richard Carrier, Dan Barker, and Mufti Hussain Kamani. He currently lives in Amman, Jordan serving refugees through an NGO and is professor of New Testament at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS).

Dr. Bass is the author of The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection and The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld.

When he is not working, he is reading, watching movies (usually The Lord of the Rings), and spending time with his high school sweetheart, Allison Bass, and their two kids, Arianna (10) and Christian (7).

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Filed under Apologetics, Books, Discipleship, Evangelism, Interviews, Jesus, Theology