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Don Stewart :: What Do Early Non-Christian Writings Say about Jesus?

Don Stewart

We have seen that the twenty-seven separate documents of the New Testament testify to Jesus' existence as well as providing information about His public ministry. In addition, there are several early non-Christian sources that mention Jesus. These non-Christian writings are recognized as secondary sources because they are not based on firsthand knowledge of the events of the life of Christ. Nevertheless, these sources are valuable because they:

  1. Testify to Jesus' existence; and
  2. Confirm the basic record of Jesus' life as recorded in the New Testament.

We will now consider the testimony of these early non-Christian witnesses to the life of Jesus.

Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100)

Apart from the New Testament, the earliest testimony of Jesus that has survived is from the Jewish writer Flavius Josephus. He had this to say:

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 receive 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 who loved him at 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 (Antiquities, XVIII, III).

The complete trustworthiness of this passage has been called into question because if refers to Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ). Whether entirely authentic or not, the passage gives testimony to Jesus' existence.

The following historical facts can be derived from Josephus' statement.

  1. Jesus of Nazareth existed.
  2. Some people believed Him to be the Messiah.
  3. He had many disciples from both Jews and Gentiles.
  4. He was condemned to death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.
  5. His disciples testified that Jesus rose from the dead three days after His death.
  6. His disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Christ.

Thallus (c. A.D. 52)

Thallus was a Samaritan-born historian whose writings have not survived to the present day. Another writer, however-Julius Africanus (A.D. 221)-cites the writings of Thallus saying that Thallus attempted to explain away the three-hour period of darkness at the time of Christ's crucifixion:

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, Thallus gives testimony that such an event did occur. His nonsupernatural 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.

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

In the British Museum there is a letter written during the first century A.D. by a father to his son in prison. The father compares the death of Socrates, Pythagoras and a wise king:

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 out from their land.

Rabbi Eliezer (Around A.D. 90)

Rabbi Eliezer is believed to have written the following in the last decade of the first century.

Rabbi Eliezer said, Balaam looked forth and saw that there was a man, born of woman, who should rise up and seek to make himself God, and to cause the whole world to go astray. Therefore God gave the power to the voice of Balaam that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spoke. Give heed that ye go not astray after that man; for it is written, God is not man that he should lie. And if he says that he is God he is a liar, and he will deceive and say that he depart and comes again at the end. He says and he shall not perform (Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, London: Collier-Macmillan, 1929, p. 34).

Though Rabbi Eliezer does not name the person under consideration, it is obviously Jesus. He confirms that fact that Jesus claimed to be God as well as Jesus' promise that He would come again.

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 the existence of Jesus as well as the spread of Christianity at an early date. Several other details that he mentions line up with the New Testament:

  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 is soon broken out again.

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.

Suetonius (c. A.D. 120)

Suetonius was a court official under the Emperor Hadrian. He wrote of Claudius Caesar:

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chestus [an alternative spelling of Christ] he expelled them from Rome (Life of Claudius, 25.4).

Suetonius also wrote:

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).

Lucian (Second Century)

The Greek satirist Lucian alluded to Jesus:

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 had died in Palestine by means of crucifixion.

The Talmud

The Talmud is a collection of Jewish writings constituting the religious and civil law. They were completed by A.D. 500. The Talmud states:

On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone know aught in his defense come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defense and hanged him on the eve of Passover (The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, "Eve of Passover").

The Talmud contains a further reference to Jesus: "I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress" (R. Shimeon ben' Azzai Yeb, IV, 3.49a).

Both of these references corroborate the New Testament picture of how unbelievers viewed Jesus. They accused Him of being demon possessed.

But when the Pharisees heard it they said, "This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons"(Matthew 12:24).

They also accused Him of being an illegitimate child. "We were not born of fornication" (John 8:41).

This reference also confirms that Jesus death took place at the time of the Passover.

The Value Of These Writings

These are some of the early references, from non-Christian 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. They are extremely valuable, however, in that they corroborate the basic outline of the life of Jesus as given in the New Testament and give further testimony to the accuracy of the New Testament record. The secondary sources testify that:

  1. There was a controversy concerning the birth of Christ. Those who did not believe Him to be virgin born concluded He was an illegitimate child.
  2. The religious leaders believed Jesus' miraculous deeds were due to Him being demon-possessed.
  3. Jesus was crucified during the Passover when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.
  4. There were three hours of unexplained darkness at His crucifixion.
  5. His disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.
  6. The early Christians worshiped Christ as God.
  7. Christianity spread to Rome at an early date.
  8. The Roman emperors persecuted the early Christians.

Summary

The question of the existence of Jesus is not an issue. Twenty-seven separate documents written by people who had personal contact with Jesus testify to the fact that He did indeed exist.

In addition, there is the testimony of Jesus' enemies, the Jews and Romans. They did not endorse the ministry of Jesus and tried-without success-to stop Christianity from growing. In all these efforts, however, we never find them denying Jesus' existence. They attempted to make Him out as a deceiver and blasphemer, and by doing so, admitted that He existed.

From non-Christian sources we find that Christ's public ministry began during the reign of Tiberius Caesar; Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea at the time of Christ's death; Jesus was put to death as a criminal; His death occurred in Judea; Jesus' death stopped the "superstition" for a short time but is soon broken out again. All of these facts confirm what is written in the New Testament.

Thus we can confidently say that the issue of Jesus' existence is not an issue at all. Every source, friendly and unfriendly, testified that He existed.

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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