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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Existence of Jesus Christ

Don Stewart :: What Do Early, Non-Jewish Writings Tell Us about Jesus?

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What Do Early, Non-Jewish Writings Tell Us about Jesus? (Extra-Biblical Gentile Sources)

The Existence of Jesus Christ – Question 4

There are no first-hand Jewish sources from the time of Jesus Christ that adds to our knowledge of His life and ministry. But what about non-Jewish sources? Do the writings of Greeks and Romans give us any information about Jesus? What do they tell us?

There Is No Firsthand Information from Greek and Roman Sources

The situation is basically the same with the Greek and Roman writers. We have no firsthand information about the life and ministry of Jesus that was written by His contemporaries. However, we do have a few later sources that give us some information. We can list them as follows.

Thallus (c. A.D. 52)

The earliest non-Jewish source about Jesus comes from a man named Thallus. Although this identification of his nationality has been disputed it seems that Thallus was a Samaritan historian. In other words he was half-Jew, half-Gentile. Unfortunately, his writings have not survived to the present day.

Another writer, however Julius Africanus, who wrote about A.D. 221, cites the writings of Thallus. According to Africanus, Thallus attempted to write a history of the eastern Mediterranean world from the time of the Trojan War.

Africanus informs us that Thallus attempted to explain away the three-hour period of darkness at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. He wrote,

Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonable, as it seems to me.

In attempting to explain the three-hour period of darkness when Christ was upon the cross, Thallus gives testimony that such an event did occur. His non-supernatural explanation of the event is impossible because Christ died at the time of Passover when there was a full moon and a solar eclipse cannot take place at the time of a full moon. We are indebted to Julius Africanus for this glimpse into the writings of Thallus.

Thallus Is Confirmed by Tertullian

The corroboration of Thallus that there was an unnatural darkness at the crucifixion of Christ seems to have further confirmation from other ancient sources. The church father Tertullian, writing in the second century, testified that the darkness was not limited to Palestine but was also seen throughout the entire Roman Empire.

The Testimony of Phlegon

There is more. An ancient Greek writer named Phlegon wrote a chronology around the year A.D. 137. One of the things he reported was a great eclipse of the sun during the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad. This would correspond to A.D. 33. He said that it became night during the sixth hour of the day, or noon. The event was so profound that some sort of explanation seemed necessary. Yet, this could not have been a solar eclipse if it occurred during the time of the Passover when the moon was full.

The Letter of Mara Bar-Serapion (After A.D. 73)

In the British Museum, there is a letter that was written sometime during the first century A.D. by a father to his son who found himself in prison. In this letter, the father compares the death of Socrates, Pythagoras and a wise king. He wrote the following:

What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished...But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching 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.

It is very probable the wise king referred to was Jesus. The writer mentions the Jews lost their kingdom soon after they executed their wise king. Less than forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Jews were scattered from their land. If this is the case, then we have an independent testimony to Jesus’ existence from the late first century A.D.

Cornelius Tacitus (Early Second Century)

Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian living in the early second century, wrote about the reign of Caesar Nero. Tacitus records that Nero shifted the blame for the burning of Rome from himself to the Christians:

Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also. (Annals, XV, 44)

Tacitus also refers to Christianity in another section of his Histories when speaking of the burning of the temple. We know about this reference from another writer, Sulpicius Serverus (Chronicles, 30.6), who preserved the reference from Tacitus.

Tacitus Writings Confirm Details Found in the New Testament

Tacitus’ writings confirm the existence of Jesus Christ as well as the spread of Christianity at an early date. Several other details that he mentions line up with the New Testament. They can be listed as follows:

  1. Christ’s public ministry began during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1).
  2. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea at the time of Christ’s death (Matthew 27:6).
  3. Jesus was put to death as a criminal (Luke 23:2).
  4. His death occurred in Judea (Mark 11:6).
  5. Jesus’ death stopped the “superstition” for a short time but it soon broke out again.

Again, we have non-biblical testimony that supports the New Testament record. The statement of Tacitus, that the “superstition had been checked for the moment, but then broke out again” has been seen by some commentators as a reference to Jesus’ resurrection. However, not all scholars agree with this interpretation of Tacitus’ statement.

Tacitus, in his mention of Christianity, confirms an important point about the religion of Jesus. It was based upon a person who had been executed by the orders of Pontius Pilate. Thus, the question arises, “Why would so many people worship a man who had suffered the death of a criminal?” The Christian answer is something that Tacitus did not record; they believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The belief of Christians that Jesus rose from the dead accounts for their zeal to spread the message to everyone. Otherwise, there would be no point in worshipping Him.

Tacitus also confirms that Christians were willing to die for their belief in Christ. Again, one may properly ask the question, “Why would one die for an executed religious leader?”

There is something else at issue here. Some have questioned where Tacitus derived his information about Jesus and the early Christians. Was it something he independently verified or was he merely repeating what the Christians were saying about Jesus? Though some try to accuse Tacitus of merely repeating the words of Christians, there are good reasons to believe Tacitus could independently verify what he knew of Christians and Christ.

Pliny the Younger (c. A.D. 112)

Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia. He wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan saying that he had killed numerous Christians. He also had this to say of the Christians. They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to the solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, and never to deny a truth when they should be called upon to deliver it up (Epistles, X, 96).

Pliny confirms the historical accuracy of some of the details of the New Testament:

  1. He says the Christians met on a fixed day (Acts 20:7).
  2. Pliny noted that the Christians prayed to Jesus as God. Some translations read, “chanting as if to a god.”

Consequently, we have early testimony from a non-Christian source that Christians met on a regular basis and worshipped Christ as God.

Suetonius (c. A.D. 120)

Suetonius was a court official under the Emperor Hadrian. He wrote of Claudius Caesar. In his writings we find the following statement:

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chestus he expelled them from Rome. (Life of Claudius, 25.4)

The fact that the Jews were expelled from Rome by Claudius is also recorded in Scripture. We read about this in the Book of Acts:

There he became acquainted with a Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently arrived from Italy with his wife, Priscilla. They had been expelled from Italy as a result of Claudius Caesar’s order to deport all Jews from Rome. (Acts 18:2 NLT)

This would have included the Jewish Christians. At that early time in the history of the church, there was no distinction made between them and other Jews who had not believed in Jesus.

There is some question as to whether the term “Chestus” refers to Jesus. Some have argued that it refers to an actual Jewish person who was in Rome at that time, instigating conflict between the Jews and the Romans. If so, then it is worthless as a reference to Jesus.

Others, however, see the word Chestus as a variant spelling of Christ. It is not clear whether Suetonius actually thought this Chestus was personally in Rome or whether it was his followers causing the problems. At any rate, it tells us nothing new about Jesus or about the early Christians.

Suetonius wrote elsewhere about Christians who had come to Rome:

Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. (Lives of the Caesars, 26.2)

He testified that Christians had come to Rome at an early date and their numbers were large enough to make them noticed. This is consistent with what we know from the Book of Acts.

Lucian (Second Century)

The Greek satirist Lucian, who lived in the second century, alluded to Jesus. He wrote the following words:

The man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world...Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. (On the Death of Peregrine)

Lucian confirmed the New Testament record that Jesus Christ had died in Palestine by means of crucifixion. We also find that Jesus was worshipped by His followers.

The Value of These Writings

These are some of the early references, from non-Jewish sources, that testify to the existence of Jesus Christ, and His followers. As we can readily see, the references are limited, and are not of a firsthand nature. Therefore, they cannot be of much help in establishing any reliable information about Him. However, what we do have is consistent with the New Testament portrait of Jesus.

Summary – Question 4
What Do Early, Non-Jewish Writings Tell Us about Jesus? (Extra-Biblical Gentile Sources)

The question of the existence of Jesus Christ is really not in doubt. Not only do we have the first-hand sources from the New Testament which tell us about His life and ministry there are also Jewish writings which give further confirmation.

Add to this the existence of Jesus is confirmed by a number of non-Jewish or Gentile writings. These individuals did not endorse the ministry of Jesus. In fact, they tried, without success, to stop Christianity from growing. In all these efforts, however, we never find them denying Jesus’ existence.

From non-Jewish sources we find a number of things which corroborate the New Testament.

For one thing, they say that Christ’s public ministry began during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. This confirms the account given in the New Testament.

These sources also tell us that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea at the time of Christ’s death. Again, we find that this is a confirmation of what the New Testament says.

Also in accord with the New Testament we find that Jesus was put to death as a criminal. Indeed, all four gospels give the same testimony.

Furthermore, they secular sources testify that His death occurred in Judea. This fits with the geography of the Old Testament.

We are also informed that Jesus’ death stopped the “superstition” for a short time but it soon broke out again. All of these facts confirm what is written in the New Testament.

Thus, from the New Testament, the Jewish sources, and the non-Jewish sources, we can confidently say that the issue of Jesus’ existence is not an issue at all.

In fact, every source, friendly and unfriendly, testified that He existed. We find no one denying that He lived, or that He performed mighty deeds, or that He said the things attributed to Him in the New Testament.

Thus, we should conclude the existence of Jesus Christ as an historical character is really beyond all doubt.

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