The Witnesses to the Witnesses
(Excerpt from Chapter VI of How to Live Forever)
…It turns out that Christians were still being tortured to deny Christ through the first decade of the fourth century. Then in 313 AD, Constantinus Augustus (Constantine) and his brother-in-law, Licinius Augustus, issued
the Edict of Milan. With this decree, for the first time in its nearly three-hundred year existence, Christianity was formally recognized as a legal religion within the Roman Empire.
We have previously shown that cessation of testimony was sufficient to save a Christian from the Jewish persecution. Now it appears that simple repentance granted immunity from Roman capital punishment as well. It is logical to conclude that the many Christians slaughtered during the church’s first three-hundred years believed their message was worth dying for.
2. The Witnesses to the Witnesses
In reference to the stated goals of this book, we are very fortunate to possess the written transcripts of these earliest Christians’ message today. The pages of these documents contain the most graphic eyewitness accounts of resurrection ever recorded. All of these writers risked their personal safety, and many sacrificed their lives rather than renounce their beliefs, thus providing compelling evidence of their sincerity.
Because these witnesses faced such hardship, first under Jewish, and then Roman persecution, they formed a community, bound together by common peril. Many of the witnesses, such as Jesus’ original twelve Apostles, traveled together with Jesus for years and knew each other well. Over time, the church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire, and a dialogue developed between various members of the new sect. This dialogue was frequently in the form of written correspondence, through which even the characters who never met became acquainted with each other’s testimony.
For those of us looking back at events which transpired two thousand years ago, this ongoing dialogue is essential, for it places each writer within an historical context. Rather than having an account from any one author whose place in history is unverifiable, we have an unbroken succession of accounts spanning the ages from the time of Christ to the present, and proceeding from divers authors who largely knew of the circumstances affecting their contemporaries in the Christian order. Sometimes these men wrote to each other offering encouragement, sometimes admonishment, sometimes sharing news of mutual concern, but the trail of correspondence from a plethora of writers over so many years places each character into an historical setting which cannot easily be altered. In this way, we know that the witnesses were who they claimed to be, and that they lived in the time and place necessary for them to have been witnesses.
The same types of relationships existed between our Roman sources as well. Thus we have two letters from Pliny the younger to Cornelius Tacitus describing the death of Pliny the elder, (the younger Pliny’s uncle,) as a consequence of an heroic attempt to save victims of Vesuvius’ eruption during the short reign of Titus. Tacitus in turn attributes a number of anecdotes in his own histories to the previous works of Pliny the elder.We have Martial’s epigram honouring the younger Pliny, and Pliny’s letter acknowledging his corresponding gift to Martial. And we find Suetonius, probably on the staff of the younger Pliny when the latter governed Bithynia Pontus.
We may sometimes infer opinions of disdain or rivalry from these relationships as well. We find Tacitus completely unwilling to cite his contemporary, Josephus, or even mention his existence. We know from Josephus’ own work, as corroborated by Suetonius and Dio, that Josephus was writing histories at court under the auspices of the Flavian Emperors. And we have Tacitus’ written admission that he owed his own advancement to the same rulers. It does not seem possible that Tacitus was unaware of Josephus’ work. More probably, the omission stems from some personal disapproval of Josephus, as demonstrated by Tacitus’ anti-Semitic polemic included previously in this chapter.
This in turn explains why Roman authors documenting the persecution of Christians under Nero provide only a faceless multitude of afflicted, no names are given. Christian authors covering the same experience can hardly fail to note the execution of the Apostles Peter and Paul, two of the most influential leaders of the Apostolic Age.
Roman authors record that Domitian later executed Flavius Clemons for atheism or drifting into Jewish ways. The fate of Flavius Clemons, consul at the time, was obviously important in the minds of these Romans. But we can’t determine with certainty from Roman accounts whether he was atheist, Jewish, or Christian. What did it matter from their perspective? Conversion to any of these ideologies was tantamount to rejection of Roman values.
Christian sources additionally record the exile of John the Apostle during the same persecution (under Domitian.) Although John is more familiar than Flavius Clemons to those of us alive today, he was not worthy of a mention to our Roman sources.
In this way, the Romans and the Christians each participated in separate but complimentary dialogues involving matters of interest to their respective communities. As a part of the ongoing Christian dialogue, the Apostle Paul’s writings were disseminated through the existing network of churches throughout the Roman world[a]. Clear evidence of this practice is provided vis-à-vis the Apostles’ own words. For example, when the Apostle Paul wrote the canonical letter to the Colossians, he instructed them:
16After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.
-The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians, 4:16 (NIV)
Likewise, when he wrote to the Galatians, he addressed the letter:
1Paul, an apostle-sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead- 2and all the brothers with me,
To the churches in Galatia:
-The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, 1:1-2 (NIV)
Galatia was of course a Roman Province containing numerous cities and villages. As Paul addressed the letter to the “churches” of Galatia, we may presume that the Christian population of each municipality therein formed a separate church. Given that literacy was common in the Roman world, and recognizing that Paul originally founded the Christian movement in Galatia, it is hard to imagine that each church in Galatia would not desire and procure its’ own copy of such a message from the leader of their order. The Apostle Peter adds weight to this argument when he writes to the “strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia[b]“ in around 66 AD:
15Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
-The Second General Epistle of St. Peter, 3:15-16 (NIV)
How does Peter know of Paul’s various letters unless copies were being spread from church to church by believers? Not only was Peter personally familiar with the writings of Paul, but he was confident that his audience had a working knowledge of these writings and certain associated contemporaneous controversies as well. At the end of v. 16, Peter compares Paul’s letters with “other Scriptures”, thus inferring that Paul’s writings had also attained scriptural status. For this reason alone devout Christians would surely spread these New Testament treatises. Since Peter’s letter was addressed to a general Christian audience throughout Asia Minor, we should conclude that Paul’s letters were common reading material throughout the Christian world prior to Peter’s execution in 67-68 AD.
Remember that the epistles of Paul were originally just letters written to individual churches or local ministers located in divers regions of the Roman Empire. If the communications between Paul and these recipients became widespread and eventually canonical in this way, how much more would the Gospel accounts, written to the general Christian population as tutorials in the faith, be widely disseminated?
So when Paul asks Timothy to:
13 Bring the winter coat I left in Troas with Carpus; also the books and parchment notebooks.
-The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy, 4:13 [The Message]
To which “books” and “parchment notebooks” does he refer? The Jewish scriptures were traditionally written in scroll form. The “books” in the preceding verse probably relate to these types of scrolls, and may have referred to Paul’s personal copies of the Jewish scriptures, (Old Testament scrolls to a Christian.) Around this time, though, the Roman poet Martial described “parchment notebooks”, a new format for publishing written works:
You, who wish my poems should be everywhere with you,
and look to have them as companions on a long journey,
buy these which the parchment confines in small pages.
Assign your book-boxes to the great; this copy of me one hand can grasp.
-Marcus Valerius Martialis, Epigrams, Book I, ii
Parchment notebooks, booklets with small pages that could be held easily in one hand, were the predecessors to the modern form of a book with many pages bound together. While Jewish Synagogue worship of today still employs scrolls of scripture out of respect for tradition, these parchment notebooks would have been ideal for dissemination of the less traditional writings of the first Christians. Paul wrote of parchment notebooks fifteen to twenty years before the reference by Martial, but they employ the same distinctive terminology.
So Paul was in prison, awaiting execution, and he wrote to his disciple Timothy asking for assistance. In these dire straits, Paul desired that Timothy bring written documents, including certain parchment notebooks. If the “books” he requested were scrolls of Old Testament scriptures, it is easy to see how they would be desired by the condemned Apostle.
But what was contained within the leaves of these “parchment notebooks” that was so important that it required Timothy to risk his own life by bringing them to Rome at the height of the Neronian persecution? Were they collections of Paul’s previous letters? Or could they have been the existing Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? (John’s Gospel was probably not written yet.) Eusebius believed that whenever Paul invoked the term “my Gospel” he referred to the Gospel of his understudy, Luke. Surely Paul would at least keep a copy of this Gospel on hand? Whatever these texts were, they must have been of New Testament origin. And as such they were part of the dialogue that we have been researching – a dialogue that was clearly propagating by means of the widespread dissemination of these early epistles and Gospels throughout the Christian community.
Neither were these early writings merely fuzzy hearsay recited third hand. Certain authors, such as John, Matthew and Peter claimed to be eyewitnesses. Luke and Mark claim to have written accounts gathered from eyewitnesses. Paul claimed to have been involved as a part of the opposition. And later authors deferred to the historicity of the eyewitness accounts, providing commentary but respecting the original testimony as inviolate.
So Luke wrote of Paul, Peter, John, Mark, Matthew, and the other Apostles. Paul mentioned Peter, John, Luke, Mark and the other Apostles in his letters. Mark discussed the doings of Peter, John, and Matthew. Matthew recorded events involving Peter and John. The Apostle John recognized many of the twelve, including Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, and Judas Iscariot. And Peter demonstrated his awareness of both Paul and Paul’s letters. We see in this way that the testimony of these men is inextricably bound together. Due to the cross-references included in each of their writings we must accept the fact that these men all existed as contemporaries.
The Apostle John’s brother James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in 44 AD. Peter and Paul were executed by Nero around 67 AD. Jesus’ brother James was stoned to death immediately prior to Vespasian’s siege of Jerusalem, around 68 AD. John was exiled to Patmos under Domitian, in the 80’s or 90’s AD. As they grew older and realized the extent to which they were at risk, the Apostles entrusted their mission to the men who had diligently and faithfully assisted them in their work.
Men such as Timothy and Titus, to whom Paul wrote now canonical letters of instruction, left us no written material. Paul’s attendant Luke gave us the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, which records Christian history until about 62 AD. And as we will demonstrate in the next Section, Peter’s helper Mark left us the Gospel of Mark, based upon Peter’s recollections.
3. The Disciples of the Apostles
(i.) Clement of Rome:
But there was also a group of writers who knew the Apostles but were born after Jesus’ time. Men whose works, largely unread today, attest to the validity of the eyewitness accounts of their mentors. In this way, Clement, known to both Peter…
1.) Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of International Bible Society.
NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of International Bible Society. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of International Bible Society.
2.) Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
3.) Marcus Valerius Martialis, Epigrams:
Translated by Walter C. A. (Walter Charles Alan) Ker
Published by W. Heinemann, 1919
This work is now in the Public Domain in the United States according to Google Book Search. Copyrights may vary from country to country.
[a] This dialogue passed information both ways. Not only were Paul’s letters passed from church to church, but Paul was aware of the events which occurred within distant congregations; e.g. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.” – Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 1:8; “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.” – Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 1:11; “7And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia-your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,” – I Thessalonians 1:7-9; also Colossians 1:4; Ephesians 1:15.
[b] So the addressees of Peter’s first epistle (I Peter 1:1). Peter’s second letter states, “Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking.” – (II Peter 3:1), indicating the same target audience, perhaps broadened to include other unnamed recipients through church to church correspondence.
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book VIII, Chapter ii; Chapter vi, Paragraph 10; Chapter ix
 Pliny II, Letters VI, xvi; & VI, xx
 Tacitus, Annals I, 69; XIII, 20; XV, 53; Histories III, 28
 Martial, Epigrams X, xix
 Pliny II, Letters III, xxi
 Pliny II, Letters X, xciv
 The Life of Flavius Josephus – Autobiography, Chapter 65, Paragraphs 359-367 & Chapter 76; Suetonius, Vespasian V, vi; Dio, Roman History LXVI, 1
 Tacitus, Histories I, 1
 Tacitus, Histories V, iii-v
 II Timothy 4:6-8; Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians V; Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians XII; Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians IX; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II, 22; 25
 Suetonius, Domitian XV; Dio, Roman History LXVII, 14; Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, Institutio Oratoria, Book IV, Chapter I, Preface, Paragraph 2
 Justin Martyr, First Apology to The Romans, VI; Athenagorus the Athenian, A Plea for the Christians, III, IV
 Strabo, Geography, Book XII, v, 1; Tacitus, Histories, Book II, ix
 Other “General” epistles written to more than one congregation include: James (James 1:1); I Peter (I Peter 1:1-2); II Peter (II Peter 1:1, 3:1,2); and possibly I John, II John, and Jude, which name no specific recipient congregation.
 Luke 4:17; Hebrews 10:7
 Melito the Philosopher, From the Book of Extracts, as cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV, xxvi
 See also, Suetonius, Julius Caesar LVI, vi; Martial, Epigrams, Book I, Introduction, 1, 3, 4, 25, 29, 35, 38, 52, 53, 117; Book II, Introduction, …
 Carsten Peter Thiede & Matthew D’Ancona, The Jesus Papyrus, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1996, Chapter 3, page 53
 II Timothy 1:8, 12, 15-17; 2:9-10; 4:6-8
 Romans 2:16; 16:25; II Timothy 2:8
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, iv
 Acts 13:9, 13, 16, 43
 Acts 1:13, 15; 2:14
 Acts 3:1, 3, 11; 4:19
 Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37,39
 Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13
 Galatians 1:18; 2:7, 8, 11, 14
 Galatians 2:9
 Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11
 Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; II Timothy 4:11
 Romans 16:7; I Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:17, 19
 Mark 3:16; 5:37; 8:37; 8:29, 32, 33
 Mark 1:19, 29; 3:17; 5:37; 9:2, 38; 10:33, 41; 13:3; 14:33
 Mark 3:18
 Matthew 4:18; 10:2; 14:28, 29
 Matthew 4:21; 10:2
 John 1:40-44
 John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24-29
 John 6:71; 13:26
 The Second General Epistle of St. Peter 3:15-16
 Acts 12:1-4
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II, xxv
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II, xxiii
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, xviii
 Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians XLII, XLIV, XLVII; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, iii, 3
 I Timothy 1:3
 Titus 1:5