Monday, December 3, 2018

Non-Biblical Evidence for the Historicity of Jesus Christ

Evidence for Jesus as a real historical person includes more than the four familiar New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life, and more than even the New Testament letters written shortly after Jesus’ death. The evidence also includes several early, non-biblical, non-Christian references to Jesus and to his teachings. These include:

1. Cornelius Tacitus (55-57 CE to 120 CE):

Ancient Rome’s greatest historian, wrote about Jesus in The Annals. In this work Tacitus refers to “Christians” as those whose name came from Christus (Latin for “Christ”), whom Tacitus says “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius” by “Pontius Pilate” (15.44). Tacitus’ record here is consistent with the New Testament record in Luke 3:1 and in 23:24-25, 33.

Also, we have Pilate's name in the New Testament (in addition to Luke, see Matthew 27:11-26), inscribed in stone from the same time period, and, more recently, on a metal ring found in the area Pilate governed.

2. Flavius Josephus (CE 37 to 97):

Famous Jewish historian Josephus was alive in the first century and he witnessed many events involving Jerusalem and the surrounding areas after Jesus was killed. His writings contain quotations from some very early biblical texts and he also provides credible, documented histories for the Jewish and for other people during and before the first century CE.—See Antiquities 1.26; 93-95; 118-121; 131-139; 2.91-94; 176-183. 

Further, his descriptions of what took place before and after the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE are extremely detailed and accurate. For example, Josephus writes about the lots used by the Jews at Masada and the Roman ramp constructed out of solid earth to lay siege to it, evidence for which we have today.—The Wars of the Jews Book 7, Chapter 8.5; Wars of the Jews 7.395-400.

In his Antiquities of the Jews (18.63-64) Josephus refers to a “wise man”  called “Jesus” and says he was “perhaps the Messiah.” This is the reading of the 10th century Arabic version, which agrees with the 12th Syriac version on this point, and which is nearly the same as Jerome's (342 to 420 CE) earlier translation of Josephus.—See Alice Whealey, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic,” NTS 54.4 (2008), page 581.

Whealey’s presentation of Pines’ translation of the Arabic version of Josephus text here is as follows:

[A]t this time there was wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.— Whealey, “The Testimonium Flavianum, page 574.

Though, as Origen also notes (Against Celsus 1.47; Commentary on Matthew 10.17), Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, in Antiquities 18.63-64 he nonetheless writes about Jesus being 'condemned by Pilate' (compare Tacitus' report in 1., above). Josephus also here writes about how Jesus' followers believed he "appeared to them three days after" his death, just as we read in the New Testament.—Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; 27:62-28:6.

A little later in his Antiquities Josephus writes about a certain “James” whom he called “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ” (Antiquities 20.9). This agrees with the history of Jesus’ life written by Jesus’ early follower Mark (6:2-3), as well as the New Testament letter to the Galatians (1:19), written by Paul, who describes James as “the Lord’s brother.” Here is the near-complete account by Josephus about what happened to Jesus’ half-brother James:

Ananus … assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent.—Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1.

3. Pliny the Younger (c. 61 to 112 CE):

A Roman, non-Christian official and adviser to then-Emperor Trajan, wrote a letter (Letters 10.96) to Trajan briefly describing the early Christians and asking the Emperor what he should do about them. Here is Pliny’s entire letter to Trajan on this issue, with my underlining to one part which outlines what Pliny understood to be some of the early Christians’ beliefs and practices:


IT is a rule, Sir, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them. Whether any difference is to be made on account of age, or no distinction allowed between the youngest and the adult; whether repentance admits to a pardon, or if a man has been once a Christian it avails him nothing to recant; whether the mere profession of Christianity, albeit without crimes, or only the crimes associated therewith are punishable in all these points I am greatly doubtful.

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others also possessed with the same infatuation, but being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be carried thither.

These accusations spread (as is usually the case) from the mere fact of the matter being investigated and several forms of the mischief came to light. A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the Gods, and offered adoration, with wine and frankincense, to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of the Gods, and who finally cursed Christ none of which acts, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing these I thought it proper to discharge. Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, and then denied it; true, they had been of that persuasion but they had quitted it, some three years, others many years, and a few as much as twenty‑ five years ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the Gods, and cursed Christ.

They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.

I therefore adjourned the proceedings, and betook myself at once to your counsel. For the matter seemed to me well worth referring to you, especially considering the numbers endangered. Persons of all ranks and ages, and of both sexes are, and will be, involved in the prosecution. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread through the villages and rural districts; it seems possible, however, to check and cure it. 'Tis certain at least that the temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred festivals, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for sacrificial animals, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers. From hence it is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open to repentance.

See here for Trajan’s response.

This account by Pliny of the first and early second century Christians matches what we read in the Christian New Testament about Jesus being “a god” who was “with God” since he was the Son of God before he became a man (John 1:1-18; 10:29-37; Philippians 2:5-8), about singing to the risen Messiah who was killed  (Revelation 5:6-10), about acting morally (Ephesians 5:18-20; Philippians 4:8-9) Colossians 3:14-24; Titus 2:1-10), and about partaking of food and drink in remembrance of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:20-26), as he instructed them.—Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:13-20; Matthew 26:19-29.

4. C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69 to sometime after 122 CE):

Suetonius, Roman historian and son of a Roman knight, wrote a work called, "The Lives of the Twelve Caesars." In it he refers to a Jewish 'instigator' whom he calls in Latin, Chrestus. In spite of what some wrongly believe, this is another form of the word Christus or "Christ," used by Tacitus in 1. above. We know this because of what the Latin writer Tertullian (160 to 220 CE) wrote in his Apology (Chapter 3), “Christian, so far as the meaning of the word is concerned, is derived from anointing. … it is wrongly pronounced by you, 'Chrestianus,' (for you do not even know accurately the name you hate)."—Translation by Rev. S. Thelwall (I italicized "Chrest" in "Chrestianus").

In this text Suetonius also writes that, because of the "disturbances" by Jews as the instigation of "Chrestus," then-Emperor Claudius "expelled them from Rome." This fits with what we read in the New Testament book of Acts 18:1-3, where the Christian Paul went out of his way to see a Jew named "Aquila," who was one of those Jews ordered out of Rome by Claudius. It is therefore likely this Jew named "Aquila" was also, like Paul, familiar with the one they called "Christ." Claudius, at this early date (41 to 53 CE), would not likely have seen any difference between the Christians and other Jewish sects of that time, so he would have undoubtedly considered them all "Jews."

5. Lucian of Samosata (c. 120 CE to 190 CE):

Though he was born in the second century CE, Lucian nonetheless provides some value insight about what he knew of the Christians at this time. Lucian was not a Christian. In fact, his writings show he looked down on and even sought to infiltrate and to take advantage of Christians.

Lucian also wrote various dialogues in which he satirizes humanity and the philosophies of his day. In his work The Death of Peregrine (11) Lucian writes about the devotion of “the Christians” to “a man” who “was crucified” because of the “novel rites” introduced by the “crucified” man (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11). Again we find non-Christians familiar with and repeating to others the same story we find in Tacitus and in Josephus, namely, he was put to death in a torturous manner.

This is some of the earliest, non-biblical evidence showing Jesus was a real historical person and that the things written about him in the New Testament documents are consistent with the records of non-Christians living at or around the same time.

To this evidence we can of course add the wealth of material in the four earliest and best records of Jesus life and activities (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), records which are have more credible manuscripts supporting their content and textual history than any other written documents from or before the first century, unless we are going to compare them with other biblical books written before Jesus became a man.

I will discuss the textual history and credibility of the Old and the New Testament (and related) documents in comparison to other historical writings from the same periods in a future article. Suffice it is to end this article by concluding Jesus was a real historical person and we have credible representations from a variety of earlier sources to show this, in addition to the new Testament documents.