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Hard Evidence Testifying to the Truth

Holy Scripture faithfully transmits the Truth about the life of Jesus, His Resurrection, His teaching, and His influence on those who knew and believed in Him — of this we have substantive proof. Scientific research bears out the fact that the New Testament is a document of faith that was set down by eyewitnessess and preserved to our time. It is a reliable testimony we can count on.

Saint Luke the Evangelist acknowledges that he was not an eyewitness to those earth-shattering events that turned human history on its head; namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus. He had not known the Nazarene when He roamed the Galilean hills, teaching the crowds of Jews who awaited the fulfillment of the prophetic promises. Despite this, Luke undertook to gather his information from those who had been “eyewitnesses” and “ministers of the word.” Thus we read: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us” (Lk 1: 1-2).

Luke does not tell us if he ever met the other two Evangelists — Matthew and Mark — who had written their accounts before he converted and joined St. Paul’s group of disciples. He must have known about them, however, since he speaks of narratives handed down by “ministers of the word.” In his Acts of the Apostles, he frequently mentions John, known as Mark, whom he refers to as hypereten, i.e. “servant” (cf. “minister” in St. Jerome’s Latin translation). Interestingly, the original Greek verse as it stands (Acts 13: 5) does not suggest that John Mark was Paul’s and Barnabas’ “assistant” as we read in modern translations. Luke seems to use the term as St. Jerome apparently understood it, as a formal title that was known and understood by all — minister verbi, i.e. the Evangelist. Thus Acts 13:5 tells us that in the year 46 AD, when Paul and Barnabas were evangelizing Cyprus, Mark was already known as hypereten, i.e. “minister of the word” – author of a written account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today we know this written testimony as the Gospel according to St. Mark.

A papyrus from Qumran

For obvious reasons the original text set down by the hand of Mark the Evangelist is no longer extant. Nevertheless, his work, which sustained the efforts of missionaries and strengthened the faith of fresh converts, spread quickly throughout the entire Roman Empire. In no time dozens of copies of his book appeared and were circulated among groups of believers wherever they settled and lived. A small fragment of papyrus with a text matching that of St. Mark’s Gospel was found in the last century in Cave No. 7 near the ruins of the ancient Qumran settlement in the Judean desert. The fragment of text preserved on the papyrus — only one word being clearly legible, namely the Greek word kai (“and”) — corresponds perfectly with our modern version of Mark 6: 52-53. After going over the entire body of ancient writing material available to him and considering all the possible ways of deciphering the damaged characters on the papyrus, the Spanish scholar Dr. A. Dou concludes that the probability of error in identifying the examined letters with those of the Gospel of St. Mark was negligible — i.e. 1 : 900 000 000 000. This substantiates our belief that the Gospel text, written before 46 AD, has been preserved without change to our day. It is certain that no manuscript could have found its way to the Qumran caves after the year 68, when the residents of this settlement fled before the advancing Roman legions, who were laying waste all of Judea. It was then that they attempted to save the most valuable of the possessions they could not take with them; namely, the entire library of scrolls written in the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic tongues. They hid these scrolls in the caves, where they remained until recent times, when they were accidently discovered. As was typical of Judaic and early Christian scrolls, only one side of the papyrus was written on. This and the carefully examined shapes of the letters support the supposition that the copy to which the fragment of papyrus found in Cave 7 belonged, was produced around 50 AD.

Thus we have in our possession an extraordinary witness to the authenticity of St. Mark’s Gospel, which, written down before 46, was copied onto a papyrus scroll around the year 50, was hidden in Cave No. 7 before the year 68, and was discovered only in 1955 to confirm and strengthen our faith in the unshakable word of God. The results of these studies of the papyrus fragment have been published and are readily available. Vittorio Messori describes them in detail in his book Crucified under Pontius Pilate?

The Oxford Papyri

St. Luke’s other predecessor was Matthew Levi, a Jewish tax collector, who became one of the twelve apostles. Tradition holds that he wrote his Gospel account “for the Jews and in their own tongue.” It is possible that soon after writing it, he translated his account into Greek, the lingua franca of the day. Having lived in the Diaspora for centuries, many of his countrymen did not understand Aramaic. Understandably, no one recorded the date of the gospel’s writing; however, we do know that the apostle — an eyewitness and “minister of the word” — lived in Jerusalem for several years: from the time of Christ’s crucifixion around 30 AD to at least the year 36, when, following the death of Stephen, all Christian believers, including the apostles, had to leave Jerusalem (Acts 8: 1). It is certain, moreover, that he did not remain in the city during the Roman siege in 70 AD, since by that time all of Christ’s followers, mindful of the Lord’s warnings (Mat 24: 2-26), had left Jerusalem. After the sack of city and the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem would never again be the center of the evangelization of the Jews or the governing seat of the apostles.

Matthew’s gospel account was also universally copied and read in the nozrim synagogues (nozrim was the term applied to the Jews who believed in Jesus) as well as at Christian assemblies. It is certain that it was read and copied in Egypt, where Jewish communities flourished in Christ’s time; and it is there that in 1901 archeologists discovered an extraordinary papyrus. Currently preserved at Magdalen College in Oxford, it bears the designation P64. Until reexamined, the book was widely thought to have been written around 200 AD. C.P. Thiede and M. d’Ancon describe the history of the papyrus and the tests carried out on it in their book The Jesus Papyrus.

The tests involved the use of state-of-the-art paleographic methods and a thorough examination of the papyrus with the aid of special coaxial epiflorescent laser microscopes. The researchers were thus able to reproduce the shape of the damaged letters and eliminate from their investigations a dot, which did not go with the text and turned out to be nothing more that a small blot. In addition, they used, for the purpose of comparison, enormous amounts of material preserved on papyri of different periods. The results of this research have a great bearing on our faith.

C.P. Thiede shows in a scientific and substantive manner that the P64 papyrus was written no later than the year 68; that is, at a time when the apostles were still based in Jerusalem and able to convene councils (similar to the one described in Acts 15) to discredit any account of events at variance with their own testimony about Jesus. Thus we can be confident that Jesus’ apostles, who were eyewitnesses of His miracles, death and resurrection and remembered His sermons, would have approved this document whose fragments are preserved at Oxford. It is the very same Gospel account of Saint Matthew that we read in today’s versions of the Bible.

The Barcelona Papyri

Barcelona’s Foundation of St. Luke the Evangelist preserves other fragments of papyrus. Designated P67, they bear a remarkable resemblance to the Oxford papyri. These were formerly thought to be fragments of the same book containing the text of the Gospel of Matthew. Subsequent research, however, has ascertained that this is not the same codex (a book, similar to modern ones, with the text on both sides of the page) but a manuscript copied around the same time — perhaps even by the same scribe. Commenting on these findings in an interview with Jerusalem Christian Review, the Jerusalem archaeologist A. Cohen observed: “For centuries, scientists disputed the claim that the New Testament, the Gospels, and the Letters of Apostles written by the apostles in the first century AD. They argued that the teachings of Jesus and His apostles were handed down orally for decades before they were written down by others some time in the second century.” Dr. O. Mazar of Jerusalem added: “Today, the latest research on the oldest papyri bearing fragments of the New Testament challenges this scientifically accepted view.”

Again these scientific findings give us every reason to believe that the books of the New Testament books were written in the mid-first century AD by those assigned to this task in accordance with the accepted tradition; that these books were read and certified by other eyewitnesses to the events; and that they were widely disseminated by the apostles at the same time as the Gospel was proclaimed orally.

Evidence of faith in the divinity of Christ

Hard historical evidence of the early writing of the Gospel is demolishing all heretical claims that the real Jesus differed from the one described in the Gospel accounts and that the authentic teaching of the apostles was not what we read in the New Testament or receive through Church teaching. Under the weight of this evidence, all the theories about the gradual appearance and revising of the books of the New Testament over a period of several decades collapse like a house of cards. There can be no doubt that New Testament contains the living testimony of eyewitnesses and those disciples who were closest to the real, historical Jesus Christ. It is precisely such testimony that we find in the Oxford papyri, the oldest fragments of the Gospel of Matthew in our possession.

One of the main arguments used by those who deny the Divinity of Christ is the peculiar style of writing in the first centuries of Christianity. No distinction was then made between capital and lowercase letters. Thus — claim the deniers — one cannot prove that the apostles in the first half of the first century attached special significance to the word “lord” in reference to Jesus — a title that would have made Him equal with God. The apostles, who professed Judaism, could not have thought up anything like the divine cult of the Messiah.

While it is true that the apostles could not have thought this up by themselves, it is not true that Christ’s followers took Him for God only many decades later after coming in contact with the pagan world. The Oxford papyri provide substantive proof that the copies of the New Testament did highlight in writing the references to Jesus as “Lord” (Kyrios), and this in the lifetime of the apostles, the authors of the Gospels — “ministers of the word” — among them. Indeed, C.P. Thiede shows that it was precisely the apostles who introduced the peculiar habit of abbreviating sacred titles, which would become standard practice in later times. Orthodox icons and liturgical texts still use such abbreviations, e.g. ΙΣ ΧΣ (with a horizontal line above) for “Jesus Christ.”

Similar abbreviations had long been used by the Jews, who had a profound respect for  God’s name, which could not be uttered. Texts bearing the name of God could not be trampled upon or destroyed. Even today a devout Jew will write the word “lord” when referring to a man, but always “Lrd” when referring to the Lord God. Likewise, Greek liturgical texts write ΘΣ for “God” (Theos) and ΚΣ for “Lord” (Kyrios).

Precisely such an abbreviation — ΚΕ (Kyrie) — appears with clear reference to Jesus in the Oxford papyrus where the disciples ask Him: “Surely it is not I, Lord?” (Mat 26: 22). The document had been copied in the apostles’ lifetime, while they were still governing the nascent Church in Jerusalem and worshipping at the Jewish Temple. According to papyrologist C. Roberts, this method of designating a holy title had been introduced by the Jerusalem community prior to the outbreak of the uprising in Judea in 66 AD. It was an expression of the early Church’s faith in the divinity of Christ.

Here again we have clear evidence that the apostles did imply a belief in Christ’s divine nature, which abided in Him along with His full humanity. They did not think this up themselves. No normal Jew raised in the traditions of Judaism could have come up with anything like the Holy Trinity. But they had to believe this, based on the words, deeds and, above all, the resurrection of their Master, Jesus of Nazareth.

Mirosław Rucki

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in August 2016.

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