What’s the Earliest Evidence for Christianity? (The Answer May Surprise You) byfor The Gospel Coalition
What is the earliest historical evidence for Christianity?
Virtually all scholars today, teaching in the relevant fields of ancient history, classics, and biblical studies—from all different religious backgrounds—agree on certain bedrock facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth. To name a few: Jesus began his public ministry after being baptized by John the Baptist, he was known as a miracle worker and an exorcist, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, and after Jesus’s death, beginning in Jerusalem, a number of his followers (including a former enemy, Paul) proclaimed that he appeared to them alive, raised from the dead.
This is unalterable historical bedrock.
How do we know these (or any) historical facts about Jesus and early Christianity? Primarily from the New Testament documents originally written in the first century AD. But how close can we get to Jesus of Nazareth through these sources? In other words, what is the earliest historical evidence for Christianity? The answer may surprise you.
Closer and Closer to Bedrock
Among the oldest evidence for Christianity are manuscripts like Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus from the early fourth century AD. Constantin von Tischendorf—the Indiana Jones of New Testament manuscripts—discovered Sinaiticus at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt in 1859. He later wrote that he’d saved Sinaiticus from being burned by monks who’d already cast two heaps of similar manuscripts to the flames! Tischendorf went on to call Sinaiticus “the most precious biblical treasure in existence.”
Then there are the papyri manuscripts, many of which date earlier than Sinaiticus. Among the earliest is P52, a three-inch piece of papyri with five verses from the Gospel of John (18:31–33, 37–38). This little treasure is currently dated from AD 125–175 (though others argue for a broader range).
But followers of Jesus need to be aware of another revolutionary discovery that is greater than Sinaiticus, greater than P52, greater, in my estimation, than all the archaeological discoveries combined: the discovery of the pre-Pauline creedal tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7. This has been rightfully called the “pearl of great price.”
This apostolic creedal statement is unparalleled in the New Testament. In fact, it’s unparalleled in all of ancient literature. Even if nothing else had survived from the early Christian movement besides this five-verse creedal tradition, 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).