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Jesus Outside of the Bible | Historical Jesus Series 6

Derek Caldwell

This is part 6 of the Historical Jesus series. You can read part 5 here.

The non-Christian sources

In this section, I will not include every source available, but will highlight a few rather telling ones. Please see the recommended resources at the end for some options that contain even more information.

Tacitus

Tacitus was a highly respected Roman historian noted for his integrity and goodness.[1] According to Habermas, Tacitus may have received his information from official government documents, given his congenial relationship with government officials. Of course, as Paul Barnett points out, he may have gained information from other Roman officials sharing their own intel.[2] In these communications, written about AD 115, he mentions Christ by name, the crucifixion, that Jesus died under the reign of Emperor Tiberius through the judgment of Pontius Pilate, and that a movement arose after having been temporarily subdued (presumably he means here the fervor after resurrection appearances, but he does not give specific details). He also mentions the cruel treatment of Christians under Emperor Nero in the aftermath of Rome’s great fire.[3]

Seutonius

Seutonius, the chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian (c. 117-138 AD), also would have had access to imperial records and officials. In his section on emperor Claudius, Seutonius mentions Christ as the catalyst of a powder keg situation that ended in Jews being expelled from Rome in AD 49 (cf. Acts 18:1-2). Like Tacitus, he also mentions Nero’s punishment of Christians for the fire in Rome.[4]

Acts of Pontius Pilate

One of the more interesting pieces of evidence is one we do not have: the Acts of Pontius Pilate. Apparently, there was a Roman document that may have been part of the Commentarii principis, which was a collection of correspondences sent to the emperors from around the Roman Empire. One of these may have been Pilate’s report concerning Jesus. While one can make the case that there is no reason for there to be long, detailed discussions of Jesus in non-Christian writings of that time which were meant to last centuries, it would be quite reasonable to expect His name to have been mentioned in government records, especially for His crucifixion.

Unfortunately, one obscure reference to Jesus held by a government that was antagonistic toward the Christians would probably not, and apparently did not, survive through time. However, Justin Martyr mentions this document around AD 150, and Tertullian claims that the emperor Tiberius read and acted upon Pilate’s report. Justin wrote that the details concerning Jesus’ crucifixion are in the report, as are a description of some miracles attributed to Jesus. He says this in a “if you don’t believe me, go see for yourself” sort of way, with confidence that the document still existed at that time. Habermas explains that this is not the same thing as the later “Acts of Pilate” fabrications, though those fabrications were perhaps written to take the place of this missing document. Nonetheless, there is no extant fragment of this writing, and the second-century apologists Justin and Tertullian could have also been mistaken, which is why Habermas recommends caution on this. That said, it is the type of document one would expect to have been written.

Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger is another Roman government official and author who wrote about Jesus around AD 112 or 115. Pliny, too, may have had access to official government documents, but it appears he gained a lot of his information through the torture of two female slaves who were also Christians. This is where we learn why Christians met so early in the morning: they wanted to meet at a time when slaves could join, before their duties began.[5]

The occasion for Pliny’s letter to the emperor Trajan was discussing the proper way to prosecute Christians for their religious beliefs, which denied them the ability to worship the Roman pantheon.[6] Essentially, Pliny was asking if he was being lenient enough with them (giving them three chances to recant their confessions, all the while impressing upon them how dire the situation was) before ultimately executing them. But of interest here is that Pliny learned from the tortured slave women that the Christians “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 …”[7]

Josephus

The mentions of Jesus in the works of Josephus are perhaps the most controversial of all. Josephus would have written his account of Jesus between 90 and 95 AD, still within the first century, making him perhaps the earliest non-Christian and extant mention of Jesus we have. The problem with the passage that refers to Jesus is that it says a few very laudatory things about Jesus. Josephus would not have agreed with such sentiments.  In this writing it is made to appear as if Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote that Jesus was “a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.” He calls Him “the Messiah” and seems to write in an affirming way about Jesus’s resurrection. While this could make one think that the whole section of Josephus is a forgery, the majority of scholars have not gone so far, given the strong textual evidence that much of the passage about Jesus is original to Josephus.[8] Rather, they suspect that there are certain later Christian interpolations inserted into Josephus’s text. As it turns out, we have good reason for believing this to be the case.

Eusebius quoted the embellished Josephus text around 324 AD. However, Origen wrote around 248 AD that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Jewish messiah. This leads Paul Barnett, a scholar in ancient history and the New Testament, to conclude that the interpolation may have happened somewhere in between those seventy-five years. Interestingly enough, thanks to the translation work of late Israeli scholar Schlomo Pines in 1972, a different manuscript tradition of Josephus’ works was translated from the medieval Arabic writing of Agapius, a tenth-century Melkite Christian historian. This version of the writing is different in that it is shorter and all of the exuberant sentences about Jesus are missing. This could very well be a much more accurate version of Josephus’s thoughts on Jesus.

If we take this, then, as a justification for allowing Josephus to stand as a first century non-Christian source about Jesus, what we find out from him is that Jesus was known as a wise and virtuous man, that Jews and Gentiles became His followers, that He was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, that His followers reported seeing Him alive after His death by crucifixion, and that He was considered by some to be the messiah. Contra the version with interpolations, this Arabic version has no mention of the Jews being the cause of Jesus’s death.[9]

The translation of the shorter version makes it appear as if Josephus takes a neutral stance toward Jesus, but Barnett believes the translation itself is not quite right. Instead, in Barnett’s view of the text, it appears as if Josephus takes a negative stance toward Jesus, believing that He deceived the gullible. However, it does not appear that Josephus is as concerned with Jesus as he was with others who misled the gullible into unwise conflicts with Rome.[10]

The Talmud

The Talmud is the most important work of Rabbinic Judaism that includes writings and discussions on Jewish law and many other topics, perhaps spanning a time period of about 900 years (up to AD 500), if the dates given for the earliest sayings are correct. Jesus is mentioned in this work in the portion that covers the Tannaitic period, from AD 70 to AD 200.[11] In this brief mention, it describes Jesus as being “hanged” (a common term for crucifixion) on the eve of Passover. These mentions of Jesus in the Talmud attempt to discredit his messianic identity and his divine identity, perhaps even alluding to the virgin birth really being a case of Mary’s unfaithfulness to Joseph. This is not surprising since there was much tension between Jewish and Christian communities and discrediting Christ would discredit the movement that followed.

Toledoth Jesu

This is another Jewish source, though it may be a relatively late collection of writings (compiled in the fifth century but containing earlier sources) and one that is not considered authoritative or reliable to many Jewish historians. What it does confirm, however, is that there was a very prominent Jewish view at the time which stated that Jesus’s body must have been stolen from the tomb, which would testify to the fact that the tomb was really understood to be empty. Justin Martyr and Tertullian both claimed that Jewish leaders had hired people to go throughout the Mediterranean world to spread this idea. This also aligns with the testimony of Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 28:11-15).

Lucian of Samosata

We have already discussed Lucian of Samosata above. Lucian, no fan of Christians, Christianity, or Christ, is still a helpful non-Christian source of early belief surrounding Christianity between the years of AD 165 and 180. From this writing, The Life of Peregrinus, we learn that the early Christians worshipped a man who was crucified (they “worship the crucified sage”). This man also told his followers that they should treat each other as brothers.  Christians are “misguided creatures” who believe they are “immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them.”[12]

What does it all mean?

One can easily ask, now, what does this all mean? We have gained no original knowledge about Christ in these sources. However, that is not the point. The main point from each of these documents is this: No one, even those who most hated the Christian movement, doubted that Jesus was a real person. Instead, if we take this sampling of sources as a whole, we see that the early Christians thought that Jesus had really lived, had really died by crucifixion, had really been seen after his death, and was really God the whole time. From non-Christian Greek sources, we learn that they don’t believe in this at all and instead just think the early Christians were very gullible and that Jesus may have taken advantage of them. Some of these people may have had access to government documents. From the Jewish sources we find similar sentiments, with the added note in some of them that they believed Jesus’s body was stolen. But, to reiterate, none of these people—some of whom were perhaps reading documents directly from contemporaries of Jesus (Josephus himself was alive when a few of them would have still been living)—doubt the existence of Jesus. Rather, they accept that He lived. It was never in question. Here the words of French scholar Ferdinand Prat say it best.

Although these documents afford little information about the life of Christ, they are quite adequate to silence the champions of the fantastic theory that Jesus was a myth. They prove that, from A.D. 64 onward, Christianity was a force which could arouse hate and fear; that, at the beginning of the second century, in certain provinces it counterbalanced the cult of idols; that the blood persecution, started by Nero to stifle it in its cradle, continued, with greater or lesser intensity, without the need of any new edict; and finally, that as far back even as that Christ was adored as God. That is not much, still it is something.[13]

The early Christians, including the authors of Scripture, make it clear that Jesus was a real person. He was not a figment of the imagination of a group of people who were just hungry for power (believing in Jesus back then was basically a death sentence, which doesn’t look a whole lot like worldly power to me). The Christian movement does not make sense unless there is a literal figure of Christ who was other-worldly and not an amalgamation of gods from religions that they detested. At the Areopagus, Paul had a chance to describe which aspects of the Athenians’ pantheon Christ might have been based on in order to find common ground; instead, he pointed to their altar of the “Unknown God” and said it was this God that he had come to tell them about: Jesus, the (formerly) unknown God, unmatched and unparalleled through all of history, reason, and imagination.

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[1] Moses Hadas, “Introduction” to The Complete Works of Tacitus (New York: Random House, 1942), IX, XIII-XIV. Quoted in Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidences for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996), 187.

[2] Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 58.

[3] Habermas, 187-190.

[4] Ibid., 190-191.

[5] Barnett, 60-61.

[6] We also have Trajan’s reply to Pliny, which I have not included here simply because Trajan is only discussing the ways one should properly prosecute Christians, with seriousness and moderation.

[7] Pliny, Letters, trans. William Melmoth, rev. by WML Hutchinson, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), vol. II, X:96. Quoted in Habermas, 199.

[8] Ibid., 193.

[9] Ibid., 194.

[10] Barnett, 50.

[11] Lucian, The Death of Peregrine,11-13, in The Words of Lucian of Samosata, trans. HW Fowler and FG Fowler, vol. 4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949). Quoted inHabermas, 203.

[12] Ibid., 206.

[13] Ferdinant Prat, Jesus Christ: His Life, His Teaching, and His Work, vol. 1, trans. John J. Heenan (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing, 1950), 5. Quoted in Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J. Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ (Toronto, ON: Clements Publishing, 2006), 139.