Who Says Jesus Existed? (follow up)

Emperor Trajan

The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the primary sources for information about the life of Christ. However, as we saw in the previous post, there is a significant amount of evidence for the existence of Jesus from sources outside the Bible that confirm the Biblical record. Included in these sources are the witness of historians, government officials, and Jewish and Gentile documents that are all dated within 150 years of the life of Christ. Their testimonies are valuable because they were actually hostile witnesses which had no incentive to falsify their account.

As a follow up post, I would like to take a look at what these sources actually have to say.

By the way, I was able to confirm some of the quotes with the few editions that I have of those works (Tacitus, Josephus, and Pliny). Those which I was unable to confirm directly are taken from the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999; s.v. “Jesus, Non-Christian Sources.”) A couple of other books that were extremely helpful were The Historical Jesus, by Dr. Gary Habermas, and The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel.

Ancient Historians

1. Cornelius Tacitius (ca. AD 55-120)

Tacitus was a Roman historian who saw and recorded the reign of seven Roman emperors. Because of his writings, the most famous of which are the Annals and Histories, he has been called the “greatest historian” of ancient Rome. Tacitus recorded at least one reference to Christ and two references to Christianity.

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures of a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.” (Annals, 15.44)

Tacitus here affirms that a man named Christ did in fact exist, who “suffered the extreme penalty” (put to death) at the hand of Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. He also refers to Christians being named after “Christus” (Latin for Christ) and that their “superstition” (belief in the resurrection) started in Judea and made its way all the way to Rome.

2. Suetonius

Suetonius was the chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian who reigned from AD 117 to 138. He is known to have made two references to Christianity.

“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.” (Claudius, 25)

“After the great fire at Rome…. Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief. (Nero, 16)

He too speaks of a man named Chrestus. He refers to certain Jews causing disturbances related to Christ, whether they were caused by Christ or by antagonistic Jews. Suetonius also refers to the “new religious belief” of the resurrection.

3. Flavius Josephus (AD 37/38-97)

Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. There are two passages of interest in his Antiquities, written in the early 90’s. The first refers to James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”

The second, however, states far more and is therefore far more disputed. This passage has been accused of Christian interpolation (Christians inserting phrases to exaggerate meaning). However, the passage has been examined from an Arabic manuscript containing the disputed statements. This eliminates the chance of interpolation by Christian writers. The Arabic rendering is as follows:

“At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people form among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who became 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.” (cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 186)

Even in this rendering, the text states that Jesus existed and was known to be a wise and virtuous man who had Jewish and Gentile followers. It affirms Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus to death by crucifixion. The text also tells us that the disciples reported that he had risen from the dead on the third day, attaching the idea to Jesus’ claim as the Messiah.

4. Thallus (AD 52)

Thallus wrote earlier than anyone else, in the early AD 50’s. None of his works survived except a few citations preserved in the writings of others. One of these writers was Julius Africanus in about AD 221, who quotes Thallus concerning the darkness which occurred during the crucifixion of Christ.

“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse from the sun.” (Extant Writings, 18 in the Ante-Nicene Fathers)

Africanus recognizes the darkness which Thallus excused as a solar eclipse with the darkness at the crucifixion described in Luke 23:44-45. Regardless of either Africanus’ or Thallus’ belief, this documentation confirms the darkenss of the Biblical account.

Government officials

5. Pliny the Younger (AD 112)

Pliny was a Roman author and served as an administrator for the governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. We have ten extant books of his letters. The tenth letter, written around AD 112, contains an intriguing reference to the early Christian’s daily practice. Pliny’s reference is especially interesting because he wanted to take action against the Christians. But, because of the sincere and virtuous nature of the Christian meetings, he was unsure of how far he should push the issue. So he wrote Emperor Trajan to explain his strategy and ask for advice.

“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. (Letters, 10:96)

Here Pliny confirmed that the early Christians “worshipped [Jesus] as a god.” He tells of the regularly held meetings (perhaps on Sundays). He describes the Christians as those who followed the ethical teachings of Jesus sincerely and held each other accountable to them. His reference to their eating habits might be a reference to their participation in Lord’s Supper. This text also confirms that the early Christians were persecuted for their faith. Later in the same letter, Pliny calls the teaching of Jesus and his followers “excessive superstition” and “contagious superstition” which again may refer to Christian belief and proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus.

6. Emperor Trajan (AD 112?)

In his reply to Pliny’s letter gives the following guidelines for persecuting Christians:

“No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not (that is, by adoring our gods) he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion.” (Letters, 10:97)

This affirms the correspondence affirms the existence of Jesus, his followers, their worship of him, and their persecution for it.

7. Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138)

Hadrian wrote about the maltreatment of Christians and those who might wrongly accuse them.

“I do not wish, therefore, that the matter should be passed by without examination, so that these men may neither be harassed, nor opportunity of malicious proceedings be offered to informers. If, therefore, the provincials can clearly evince their charges against the Christians, so as to answer before the tribunal, let them pursue this course only, but not by mere petitions, and mere outcries against the Christians. For it is far more proper if anyone would bring an accusation, that you should examine it. (Ecclesiastical History, 4:9)

Hadrian affirms that Jesus existed and that his disciples carried their faith as far as they could.

Jewish Sources

8. The Babylonian Talmud (AD 70-200)

The Talmud was written during the so-called Tannaitic period. The most noteworthy text is the Sanhedrin 43a.

“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of Passover!” (Babylonian Talmud)

This text confirms that Jesus existed, that he was crucified on the eve of Passover, and that he was preceded by a herald. There is also a reference in this section to five of his disciples.

9. Toledoth Jesu

This is a late, anti-Christian document. It states that the body of Jesus was secretly moved by Jewish officials to a second grave because for fear that the disciples would attempt to steal body. This reflects the first antagonistic reaction to the resurrection as found in Matthew 18:11-15. At the very least, the text affirms existence of Jesus and the empty tomb.

Gentile sources

10. Lucian of Samosata

Lucian was a second-century Greek writer whose works contain sardonic critique of Christianity.

“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – The distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt for death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” (Death of Pelegrine, 11-13)

Despite the bleak outlook and sarcastic criticism of early Christian devotion, we still see from Lucian that Jesus existed, was worshiped, introduce “new” teachings, and was crucified. Only now, we see more specifically that the early Christians continued Jesus’ teachings of the brotherhood of believers, the importance of conversion, and denying other gods. They had a very real sense of the eternal life they possessed through their Savior.

11. Mara Bar-Serapion

Mara is known for his letter to his son Serapion written sometime between the late first and early third centuries. That letter contains references to Jesus.

“What advantage did the Athenians gan from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgement for their crime. What advantage did the min of Samon gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their kingom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and drived from the land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given. (British Museum, Syriac, ms, add. 14, 658; cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 200)

This passage of the letter affirms not only that Jesus existed, but also that he was thought of as a wise and virtuous man. It also tells us that Jesus was considered by many to have been the King of the Jews. It tells us that he was put to death by the Jews and that his teachings live on through his followers.

12. Phlegon (b. ca. AD 80)

Phlegon was a freed slave under Emperor Hadrian. There are no surviving manuscripts that claim his authorship. However, his is mentioned several times by other writers. Origen, for example cites Phlegon’s mention of Jesus’ predictions about future events that had been fulfilled.

“Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which the result corresponded to His predictions.” (Origen, Contra Celsum XIV in the Ante-Nicene Fathers)

Origen adds:

“And with regard to the eclips in time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles.” (Origen, Contra Celsum XXXIII in the Ante-Nicene Fathers)

Julius Africanus agrees on the last reference:

“Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth to the ninth hour.” (Julius Africanus, XVIII)

In a final reference, Origen quotes Phlegon on the subject of the resurrection:

“Jesus, while alive was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.” (Origen, LIX)

So, despite the lack of Phlegon’s extant works, his testimony through the works of Origen and Julius Africanus we see striking evidence of the existence of Jesus. As a non-Christian source, Phlegon testifies of Jesus predicting the future, of the eclipse during the crucifixion, and that Jesus was seen after His death, showing “the marks of his punishment” on His hands.

Now the question almost seems silly to ask. Did Jesus of Nazareth exist as the Biblical record depicts? There are twelve reliable sources which confirm that He did in fact exist. These twelve sources prove that the narrative of the four gospels lacks nothing by way of historicity.

For the believer reading this, I hope and pray that this little bit of research is an encouragement and a help for you. I can tell you that researching for this post was a real spiritual “fill-up.”

For the skeptic reading this, I hope and pray that this stuff makes you think. There is more to Biblical Christianity than the average “new atheist” allows for. Please, do not make that mistake. Understand that the same Jesus to which these non-Christian sources are pointing is knocking at the door of your heart. Do not allow the sinful pride for which He died be the one thing that prevents you from accepting His salvation.


5 comments so far

  1. Edgar on

    Thanks for writing up this list. I’ve been trying to write it up myself and I'[ve been meaning to buy the Habermas book.

    I’m glad you’ve taken care of it here.

    I bookmarked this article.

  2. Peter on

    Do you have an independent source that affirms that list? Considering that Habermas and Strobel are Christians themselves?

  3. TJ on

    I’m assuming you’re asking about non-Christian sources for this non-Christian sources. (Please correct me if I’m wrong) I was able to confirm some of the quotes with the few editions that I have of those works. For example, I own copies of Tacitus’ Annals, the works of Josephus, and some of Pliny’s letters. If you wish to confirm the second hand sources that I used, please do so and let me know if the references I have are incorrect.

  4. John on

    Still no eyewitness accounts of the most famous person who ever lived. This is purely hearsay.

  5. Donald Shankoff on

    Quite revealing are the more secular mentions of Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth. First, we have the infamous ‘Testimonium Flavianum’ of Josephus made at the end of ‘Jewish Antiquities,’ which was not published until the middle of the 90s, then we have the quotes by St. Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome also made at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century. At that time, we also have the famous apologetics quotes by Suetonius and Tacitus about Jesus and the Christiani.

    No one knows the exact date for the Thallus quote. His writings are believed to date from c 50-100 CE, however there is little evidence that he even existed. Further, without the moderators inference it is questionable that he was even talking about Jesus. The quote closely mirrors what is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. This eclipse idea at the death of a king was common fare in those days. All we know about him comes only from Christian Apologists.

    Conversely, we have the Pauline Epistles which were written and preached during the 50s making no reference to Jesus of Nazareth. The author knows about a cosmic Christ the Savior, but nothing about a real live crucified Jesus Christ. Then we have ‘The Shepherd of Hermes’ which most scholars have attributed to the early second century, but others believe may have been written by ‘Paul.’ Paul was actually Apollonius of Tyana, who was of Greek ancestry, which makes him an obvous candidate to be the author. This scripture was a part of the early Church canon and makes no mention of Jesus of Nazareth. Then we have ‘The Epistle of Barnabas’ believed to have been written during the 80s. This early Church scripture only mentions Jesus Christ, but knows nothing about a real live flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth.

    The gospel accounts of the life and passion of Jesus Christ are believed to have been first written during the late 60s and early 70s. Strangely, prior to this time no one ever heard of Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth. It was only after the gospels were written that we hear quotes about Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were a real person who was crucified c 30 CE we would not need gospels to tell us that he existed and that these events actually happened.

    Dead Sea Scroll archivist Joseph Atwill in ‘Caesar’s Messiah’ clearly shows in the empty tomb narrative, which appears in all 4 gospels, that the gospels had a common source and were not eye witness accounts of some quasi-literate Jewish Apostles. Starting with John, then Matthew, then Mark and finally Luke, what we find is that in Matthew, Mary sees the tomb scene precisely as she left it in John and so on. This shows common knowledge among the authors of all 4 gospels. To learn more about how the Romans subverted the teachings of Yeshu and the Nazoreans and proclaimed them the revelations of their godman Jesus Christ visit: http://www. nazoreans.com

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