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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Mark Eastman :: The Search for the Messiah

Mark Eastman :: Appendix II: Historical Evidence for Jesus of Nazareth

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As a first year college student, at the age of eighteen, I was told by a Jewish friend of mine that Jesus of Nazareth was a non-historical figure, a hoax, contrived by a group of crafty co-conspirators in the first or second century. This effort to explain away the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth has actually been seriously promoted by scholars for centuries. In fact, this is a common answer given in modern Jewish homes when a child asks, "Who was Jesus?"

For years this explanation for the Jesus question seemed reasonable. However, my comfort level was eventually disturbed by some nagging questions.

Why would the Roman government brutally persecute peaceful followers of a non-historical figure? Why were tens of thousands of first century Christians (almost exclusively Jewish believers in Jesus) who lived within forty years of the "mythical events," willingly suffer the loss of all possessions and status, and be murdered for a myth? Why would Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, be willing to give up everything and join the crowd that he had admittedly been persecuting? These are some of the questions that the myth theory doesn't satisfactorily explain.

Obviously, if Jesus of Nazareth was a true historical figure, and if he truly was who his disciples claimed he was, then there should be historical references to his existence other than the New Testament documents.

As we search for "extra biblical" (i.e. non-Christian) sources for the existence of Jesus, we will discover that the skeptic hasn't a leg to stand on, when he argues that Jesus was a non historical figure.[1] There are numerous historical references to Jesus, from both neutral and antagonistic sources, as early as the mid first century.

Secular Historical References to Jesus of Nazareth

When a historian sets out to prove the historical existence of an individual there are a number of sources that are sought. Perhaps the most reliable sources of historical evidence are from those who were not sympathetic to the person or his cause. A source that is either indifferent or antagonistic to Jesus or the church, could not be accused of bias and therefore part of the "evil plot" to create a mythical figure. As we look at historical references we will try to focus mainly on such historic sources.

Flavius Josephus

Joseph ben Matthias, was born in the year 37 C.E., and died around 100 C.E. As the son of a Jewish priest, he eventually became a priest himself and a member of the Pharisee sect of Judaism. In 64 C.E. He went to Rome to secure the release of certain priests and became convinced that Rome could not be defeated by the Jewish revolt which began in 66 C.E. (The Jewish revolt ended in 70 C.E. When Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans).

In July, 67 C.E. He was captured by Rome and was eventually hired as a scribe and an interpreter by the Roman government. He was given the name Flavius Josephus by his Roman associates and wrote under that name.

In 70 C.E., he rode into Jerusalem with the Roman general Titus and observed the annihilation of Jerusalem. Josephus recorded incredibly graphic details about the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as the crucifixion, and death of millions of Jews.

There are three passages in his writings that are pertinent to Christianity. In his book, Antiquities of the Jews, book eighteen, chapter three, in the third paragraph, he makes a comment about Jesus of Nazareth.

"Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works-a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."[2]

Josephus verifies that Jesus was an historical figure who was crucified by Pontius Pilate that he had a great following, did miracles and rose from the dead on the third day. Josephus does not attempt to explain away the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth nor does he try to explain away the miracles or his resurrection from the dead. Consequently, this is an incredibly valuable historical reference to Jesus of Nazareth.

Needless to say, because of its testimony of Jesus, this passage, commonly called the Testimonium Flavianum, a very controversial passage. Critics have claimed that this passage was a Christian insertion. However, there is strong evidence from the ancient manuscripts that this passage was in the original.[3] It is present in all of the extant ancient manuscripts and was quoted by early church fathers, such as Eusebius, as early as 325 C.E.

The main points of contention are the statements, "He was the Messiah," "if it be lawful to call him a man," and "He appeared to them alive again the third day." Josephus, described as an Orthodox Jew by some scholars, was apparently never converted to Christianity. Origen, a third century Christian, states twice that Josephus "did not believe in Jesus as the Christ."[4] Therefore, opponents argue that it is very unlikely that he would ever say these things of Jesus. Most historians do, however, believe that the reference to Jesus of Nazareth being "a wise man," "a doer of wonderful works", and being crucified under Pontius Pilate, are valid portions of Josephus' original work.

A complete fourth century Arabic version of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, which contains the Testimonium, includes basically the same content as above text, with a couple of very slight variations. Instead of saying "He was the Christ," it says "He was so-called the Christ."

"At this time there was a 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 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." [Pines, Shlomo. An Arabic Version of the Testamonium Flavianum and its Implications, Jerusalem Academic Press, 1971.]

This very ancient copy of Antiquities increases significantly the reliability that Josephus did, in fact, make historical reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Although there are significant stylistic differences in this Arabic version, the basic elements of the Greek version are preserved in this text. Jesus is described as an historical figure who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Regarding the Messiahship of Jesus, he is described in more neutral terms, stating, "He was perhaps the Messiah." Finally, this version confirms that Jesus was of excellent character, that he gathered many disciples to himself and that Christians were still in existence at that time.

This version can hardly be criticized as a Christian fabrication. It is very unlikely that a Christian in the second or third century would describe Jesus as "perhaps the Messiah." Christians at that time were routinely tortured and murdered for believing in Jesus, therefore, it is very unlikely that a person under such a threat would describe Jesus in such equivocal terms."

The next passage is also in Antiquities of the Jews, book eighteen, chapter five, paragraph two. Josephus states:

"Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away,[or the remission] of some sins [only,] but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now, when many others came to crowd about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence of John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not to bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late."

Although Jesus is not specifically mentioned in this passage, the portrayal of his forerunner, John the Baptist, is in complete agreement with the record of John in the New Testament. Therefore, the historical reliability of the New Testament overall is further established. To Josephus, John the Baptist was an historical figure. Josephus validates what the Christian New Testament says about John. He was a righteous man who had great popularity among the people and he baptized people for the remission of sins. Almost all historians believe that this is a passage from the original text. It is also in the Arabic version.

The third reference is in Antiquities of the Jews, book twenty, chapter nine, paragraph one. This is in reference to the Jewish high priest, Ananius, and the brother of Jesus.

"After the death of the procurator Festus, when Albinus was about to succeed him, the high-priest Ananius considered it a favorable opportunity to assemble the Sanhedrin. He therefore caused James the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, and several others, to appear before this hastily assembled council, and pronounced upon them the sentence of death by stoning. All the wise men and strict observers of the law who were at Jerusalem expressed their disapprobation of this act...Some even went to Albinus himself, who had departed to Alexandria, to bring this breach of the law under his observation, and to inform him that Ananius had acted illegally in assembling the Sanhedrin without the Roman authority."(Antiquities 20:9)

Most historians believe that this passage was penned by Josephus and was not a Christian insertion. Louis Feldman, professor of Classics at Yeshiva University states of this passage:

"Few have doubted the genuineness of this passage."[5]

These three references, though not without controversy, are considered by the majority of historians to be substantially from the pen of Josephus. Professor Shlomo Pines, a well known Israeli scholar, discusses the fact of Jesus' historicity and the references to Jesus by Josephus:

"In fact, as far a probabilities go, no believing Christian could have produced such a neutral text: for him the only significant point about it could have been its attesting the historical evidence of Jesus. But the fact is that until modern times this particular hare (i.e. claiming Jesus is a hoax) was never started. Even the most bitter opponents of Christianity never expressed any doubt as to Jesus having really lived."[6]

Thallus

Thallus was a historian who lived in the middle of the first century C.E. His writings focus partly on the historical events of the Roman empire of the first century C.E. We do not have his original works, written around 52 C.E., but we do have the writings of men who referred to his work.

Julius Africanus, an early church father, writing in the year 221 C.E. wrote about the writings of Thallus. In a document written by Julius Africanus, there is a discussion about the darkness that was recorded by the writers of the New Testament at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus.

"Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land." [That is, from noon to 3:00pm.] (Matthew 27:45)

Now the skeptic might easily dismiss this event, recorded in the gospel of Matthew, as mere dramatics, an attempt to dress up the crucifixion event with some supernatural imagery. However, the darkness which occurred at the time of a full moon was recorded by Thallus.

Africanus notes that Thallus had attempted to explain away the event:

"Thallus, in the third book of his history explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun, unreasonably as it seems to me."[7]

Africanus, writing in the year 221 C.E., had access to the writings of Thallus. Thallus in his third book wrote that this darkness, which occurred during the reign of Caesar Tiberius, was a result of an eclipse of the sun. Africanus makes the point that this could not have been a solar eclipse, because the crucifixion took place at Passover, which always occurs during a full moon. During a full moon, there can be no solar eclipse, and Africanus recognized this.

An interesting aspect of this reference is that Thallus does not try to deny the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, the occurrence of his crucifixion nor the historical fact that the darkness occurred. He presents Jesus of Nazareth as an historical person, and the darkness as an historical event. His motive in writing about the darkness is to explain it as a natural event.

Philopon

Philopon, a sixth-century secular historian, wrote regarding Phlegon as well.[8] He wrote:

"And about this darkness...Phlegon recalls it in his book The Olympiads."

Like Thallus, Phlegon verifies the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth and the historicity of the darkness which occurred during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. These common threads occurring in the writings of two men who were not Christians, is powerful evidence that Jesus is an historical figure and an unnatural darkness(not an eclipse) occurred during his life.

Tacitus

Cornelius Tacitus, born circa 52-55 C.E., became a senator in the Roman government under Emperor Vespasian. He was eventually promoted to governor of Asia. Writing in the year 116 C.E., in his Annals, he writes of the burning of Rome in 64 C.E. And how Caesar Nero had tried to stop the rumor that he (Nero) was behind the destruction.

"Therefore, to scotch the rumor (that Nero had burned Rome) Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue...They [the Christians] were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man."[9]

This amazing document verifies that Jesus, or Christus, was a true historical figure, that he lived and was killed during the reign of Caesar Tiberius, that he was sentenced under Pontius Pilate and that by about 64 C.E., Christianity had spread rapidly throughout the Roman empire. Tacitus verifies that Christians were viciously tortured by Nero only 32 years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The historical validity of this letter by Tacitus is doubted by very few scholars. According to some scholars, Tacitus is:

"Universally considered the most reliable of historians, a man in whom sensibility and imagination, though lively, could never spoil a critical sense rare in his time and a great honesty in the examination of the documents." [Amoit, Francois; Brunot, Amedee; Danielou, Jeah; Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Sources for the Life of Christ. Translated by P.J. Herpburne-Scott. New York; Hawthorn Books, 1962, pg. 16.]

Emperor Hadrian

During the period when Hadrian was emperor of Rome, 117-138 C.E., there continued to be tremendous persecution of Christians. Serenius Granianus, the governor of Asia at that time, wrote a letter to Emperor Hadrian asking for his advice regarding how he should handle the Christians. Hadrian wrote back to Serenius' successor, Minucius Fundanus, his response. This letter was preserved by Eusebius. This is an excerpt;

"I do not wish, therefore, that the matter should be passed be 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."[11]

This fascinating letter from the Roman emperor himself verifies the historical existence of the church, the belief that Christians were trouble-makers, that Christianity was illegal at that time, and that Christians would be taken before a counselor simply for admitting that they were Christians. Though not a specific reference to Jesus of Nazareth, this very early historical reference to the church, its illegality in the Roman Empire and the persecutions (malicious proceedings) are powerful evidences for the rapid spread of the church within one generation of the life of Jesus. Therefore, this increases the reliability that Jesus was an historical figure and that the events surrounding his life were extraordinary, so much so that people were willing to die for the belief that he was the Messiah.

Lucian of Samosata

Lucan of Samosata, a Greek satirist, wrote a remarkable statement regarding the church in 170 C.E.

"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 of 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."[12]

That is quite a testimony. This letter confirms that Christians worshipped a crucified Jewish sage, that they faced death bravely, and that they despised worldly attributes. He explains this on the basis that Christians believed they were immortal and would spend eternity with God.

Mara Bar-Serapion

Mara Bar-Serapion, a Syrian and a stoic philosopher, wrote this letter to his son from prison sometime after 70 C.E.

"What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from their executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom 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 driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Plato. Pythagoras 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."[13]

This letter refers to Jesus of Nazareth as being the "wise King." The writer is obviously not a Christian because he places Jesus on a par with Pythagoras and Socrates. Consequently, the writer can hardly be described as biased in his reference to Jesus and the church. Therefore, it is a valuable historical reference regarding the historicity of Jesus. There are many other non-Christian historical sources for Jesus of Nazareth but since space is limited we will move on to rabbinical sources.

Ancient Rabbinical References to Y'shua (Jesus)

Of all the ancient historical sources for Jesus of Nazareth, the least favorably biased would have to be rabbinic in origin. There are actually quite a large number of such references to Jesus of Nazareth. The problem with the rabbinical writings is that they use names like "such and such" and "so and so" or "that man" when they refer to Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, some of the references are considered to be unreliable. During the middle ages and the early renaissance, the Talmud and Midrash were cleaned up with the removal of most of the references to Jesus of Nazareth.

As expected, the remaining references to Jesus are very unflattering. However, they do verify a number of important historical facts that the gospels proclaim regarding Jesus of Nazareth. As mentioned earlier by Shlomo Pines, no one doubted that Jesus was an historical figure up until about two to three hundred years ago. The myth theory was created and perpetuated by atheists, agnostics and embraced by mainstream Judaism during the Renaissance.

In the Babylonian Talmud, which was compiled between the years 200-500 C.E., in Sanhedrin, 43a, there is a fascinating reference to Jesus of Nazareth:

"It has been taught: On the Eve of the Passover, they hanged Yeshu. And an announcer went out in front of him, for forty days saying: 'he is going to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray.' Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.' But, not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the Eve of the Passover."

This is considered to be one of the very reliable rabbinical references to Jesus ("Yeshu"). The writer here verifies that Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure, that he was crucified on the Eve of the Passover, and that he did miracles, referred to as sorcery. The supernatural events surrounding the life of Jesus were not denied, but verified. The miracles of Jesus were simply explained away as being from a demonic source, i.e., sorcery.

According to Jewish law it is illegal to perform capital punishment on the Eve of the Passover. However, this record verifies something that we wouldn't expect to find in a rabbinical source, the fact that the Sanhedrin acted illegally in condemning and crucifying Jesus on Passover. Consequently, this reference is even more valuable in terms of validating the historicity of Jesus. Certainly, if any passage should have been edited from the Talmud, it should have been this one. The fact that a passage which points out an illegal action was retained in the Talmud makes it a credible and valuable source for the historicity of Jesus.

In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, it says,

"Our rabbis taught that Yeshu had five disciples: Matti, Necki, Netsur, Burni, and Toda."
Now one of those names we can recognize, Matti, the disciple named Matthew. Again it is considered by historians to be another reliable reference in the Talmud for the historicity Jesus of Nazareth.

Maimonides

Maimonides was a very highly revered thirteenth century rabbi. There was a saying back during the thirteenth century that, "there was never a greater man than Maimonides except Moses." He was given the nickname, Rambam.

Maimonides wrote a fourteen volume work called the Mishne Torah. In this he made multiple references to the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. However, in the year 1631, Catholic and Jewish authorities censored the fourteenth volume, removing all references to Jesus. It was censored because there were multiple derogatory references to Jesus of Nazareth. During the Spanish inquisition certain members of the Catholic church used Maimonides' work, and his negative references about Jesus, to justify the killing of Jews. Consequently, these references were removed from most of the extant volumes of Maimonides' writings.

An excerpt from the uncensored versions of the Mishne Torah is a remarkable historical reference to Jesus.[14]

"Jesus of Nazareth who aspired to be the Messiah and was executed by the court was also [alluded to] in Daniel's prophecies (Daniel 11:14), as 'the vulgar [common] among your people shall exalt themselves in an attempt to fulfill the vision, but they shall stumble.' Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity? All the prophets spoke of the Messiah as the Redeemer of Israel and its Savior, who would gather their dispersed and strengthen their [observation of] the Mitzvot [the commandments]. By contrast, [Christianity] caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnant to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord. Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for his ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts, our thoughts. [Ultimately,] all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite [Mohammed] who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for the Messiah's coming and the improvement of the entire world [motivating the nations] to serve God together, as [Zephaniah 3:9] states: 'I will make the peoples pure of speech that they will all call upon the Name of God and serve him with one purpose.'"

Here Maimonides, writing in the thirteenth century, verifies that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Sanhedrin, that he aspired to be the Messiah, that he was referred to in the prophecies of Daniel as one of the sons of the lawless, and that Jesus of Nazareth led many astray.

It is fascinating that Maimonides calls Jesus and his church "a stumbling block." I don't think Maimonides remembered that the Tanakh states that the Messiah would be a stumbling block to both houses of Israel.

He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem."(Isaiah 8:14 )

Surely Jesus of Nazareth was an historical figure and his life, message, ministry was a stumbling block to the Jews of his day.

Notes

[1] By extra-biblical sources, I mean references to the historical Jesus in writings other than the Bible.

[2] The Complete Works of Josephus, Translated by William Whiston, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Mich 49501.

[3] For detailed discussion of the debate on the athenticity of this passage see He Walked Among Us, Josh McDowell, Bill Wilson, Here's Life Publishers, pg. 37.

[4] Origen, Against Celsus 1.47 and his Commentary on Matthew 10.17, in The Ante Nicene Fathers, Roberts, Alexancer and Donaldson, James, editors. Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973 American Reprint of Edinburg Edition, Grand Rapids, MI.

[5] Josephus, Aniquities, Leob Edition, vol LX, p. 496.

[6] Pines, Shlomo, An Arabic Version of the Testamonium Flavianum and its Implications, Jerusalem Academic Press, 1971 pg 69

[7] Africanus, Chronography, 18:1, Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, editors. The Ante Nicene Fathers. Wm Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973 American Reprint of Edinburg edition, Grand Rapids, MI

[8] Africanus, Chronography, 18:1, Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, editors. The Ante Nicene Fathers. Wm Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973 American Reprint of Edinburg edition, Grand Rapids, MI

[9] Tacitus, Annals, Loeb editions 15.44.

[10] Amoit, Francois; Brunot, Amedee; Danielou, Jean; Daneil-Rops, Henri, The Sources for the Life of Christ. Translated by J.J. Herpburne-Scott. New York; Hawthorn Books, 1962, pg. 16.

[11] Eusebius, The History of the Church, 4.9.

[12] Lucian, The Death of Pregrine 11-13.

[13] British Museum Syriac MS. Addition 14, 658.

[14] Heaven the Last Frontier, Jeffrey, Grant; Frontier Research Publications.

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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