How a Single Source Can Change the World

NCE upon a time, an Italian guy found a treasure in a used book shop. And yes, I’m speaking of myself. In Nashville, TN, I found a copy of a first edition G.K. Chesterton book that had a newspaper clipping from “The Tennessean” from 1921 which described how the British author was speaking at the Orpheum Theater that week. Additionally, it had a torn ticket stub from the Orpheum, and G.K. Chesterton’s signature on the title page. All that for fifteen bucks!

This week I’ve been reading up on a book discovery that puts mine to shame. In the 15th century an Italian scholar found a book that revolutionized the world. In his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Stephen Greenblatt, describes Poggio Bracciolini as the “midwife to modernity” for his discovery of a lost poem.

Poggio found a copy of a poem by the philosopher Lucretius who died about fifty years before Jesus was born. Lucretius’s poem promotes Epicurean philosophy, a view that pleasure should be the highest goal in one’s life. Lucretius believed we live in a material world in which even humans are the result of natural processes. Lucretius was a materialist long before atheism was cool and a Darwinist centuries before Charles Darwin was born. The list of those influenced by Lucretius’s poem is long and difficult to fully calculate. It includes public intellectuals, educators, philosophers, poets, scientists, and controversial figures like Herbert Spencer who subsequently influenced Adolph Hitler.

Poggio sent the discovery to his friend Niccolo, who apparently had amazing handwriting. Niccolo was the inventor of the italic script. He did what any good friend would do. He never gave the book back. In fact, he lost it. But at Niccolo made a copy by hand first. We now have a few copies from this time period and then a couple more from the ninth century. All of the literary evidence for this poem is over 1,000 years after the time frame Lucretius originally produced it.

If a ticket stub and a newspaper clip can help establish the authenticity of an autograph, if a single copy of a poem can revitalize a philosophical movement, then what kind of support do you think Christianity has? Short answer: way more!

For someone with an immediate aversion to considering sources sympathetic to Christianity, you should know that there are numerous non Christian sources who corroborate the early days of Christianity (Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus, to name the big ones). None of these guys were Christians or overly fond of the fledgling new movement.

In comparison to the singular copy of Lucretius found by Poggio, there are nearly six thousand manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek and way more in other languages, dating earlier than the manuscripts from anything else in antiquity. The only thing that comes close to the evidence for the New Testament is the works of another poet, Homer. We have nearly 1,800 copies of Homer’s work from antiquity. When you include ancient translations of the New Testament, in addition to the Greek copies, we have nearly 18,000 copies from antiquity.

Do we have good evidence for Jesus the Christ? Yes. It’s amazing how much there is, particularly in contrast to other personalities from the ancient world. Consider the military conquests of Alexander the Great (famous student of the philosopher Aristotle).

What is thought to be the best source on Alexander is written by Lucius Flavius Arrianus. He wrote his account of the military leader four hundred years after Alexander the Great died. No doubt, Lucius used older sources, but they are all lost. In comparison, when it comes to the life of Jesus, we have fragments that date back to within around fifty years of the originals.

None of this proves that Christianity is true. But we can’t take the poem Lucretius to have historical value, or the military conquests of Alexander the Great to be at all trustworthy, and at the same time sneer at the Gospel accounts of Jesus. They have far more evidence and arguably more influence.