Is There Evidence of Jesus outside of the New Testament?
In today’s world of Internet myths, some doubt if Jesus Christ existed. I have a friend that firmly believes that Jesus never walked the earth and is “made up.” Although this is not a popular argument among scholars and historians. Most scholars agree that a Jewish prophet walked the earth in the first century and had a significant impact on his followers and society. The only argument is whether they believe he was God. Let’s look at the evidence of the historical Jesus in ancient writings.
“Is there evidence of Jesus outside of the New Testament?” is a short sighted and misdirected question. The reason being, the New Testament is made up of 27 books and epistles (letters) written by eight different authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude. In ancient antiquity, many events are established by one source alone. But for influential leaders and those possessing power, we can typically find more than one. However, even for someone as influential as Alexander the Great, there are only five principal historical sources from which we gain virtually all our knowledge concerning Alexander’s life and reign (the earliest being written approximately 200 years after Alexander). For Socrates, one of the founding fathers of Greek philosophy, we have just three primary sources. For the life of Jesus, we have five primary sources: Matthew, John, James, Peter and Jude—perhaps six if you include Paul. Yet you rarely hear someone say, “I don’t believe Alexander the Great ever existed.”
It’s difficult to get eight people (eight Christians for that matter) to agree on anything, especially when it’s a life or death matter on which their writings could get them put to death. These New Testament writers had to be confident and believe in the ideas they were writing about, otherwise, they could be tortured and killed for nothing. They wouldn’t have wanted to just, make Jesus up. However, in addition to these eight separate, historical, reliable, eyewitness (written as early as 20 years from Christ’s death) accounts on the life of Jesus in the New Testament, we will look at eight non-biblical accounts on the life of Jesus to see what we can learn about Him.
Thallus was a non-Christian historian whose writings have not survived to present day. However, another historian, Julius Africanus (160 – 240AD) cites the writings of Thallus saying that Thallus attempted to explain away the three-hour period of darkness at Christ’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44)
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, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun-unreasonable , as it seems to me. – Julius Africanus 221AD
Information on the life of Jesus we can glean from these writings are that Jesus lived, and there was an earthquake & darkness at His crucifixion.
Around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD, Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian Stoic philosopher, wrote a letter to his son comparing the life and persecution of Jesus (who he calls “wise king”) to other philosophers who were persecuted for their ideas.
What benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as judgement for their crime. Or, the people of Samos for burning Pythagoras? In one moment their country was covered with sand. Or the Jews by murdering their wise king?...After that their kingdom was abolished. God rightly avenged these men…The wise king…Lived on in the teachings he enacted. – Mara Bar-Serapion 73AD
From these writings, we see that Jesus is known to be a wise king with influence who died for his beliefs at the hand of the Jewish leaders and that his teachings live on in his followers.
Josephus (37 - 100 AD)
Titus Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian whose father was of priestly decent and mother would have been a Jewish noblewoman. He was a consultant and understudy for Jewish rabbis at an early age and became a Galilean military commander by the age of sixteen. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans from 66-70AD, Josephus surrendered in 67AD and eventually defected to the Roman side and Roman Emperor Vespasian granted Josephus his freedom and eventually Roman citizenship. He was allowed to write a history of the Jews, Antiquities of the Jews, in 93AD. In it, he describes the death of John the Baptist, the execution of James (and describes him as the brother of Jesus the Christ), and this passage where he talks about Jesus:
Now around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, (but) those who had first loved him did not cease (doing so). To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared. - Josephus 93AD
There are other versions of this Josephus writing which are more explicit about the nature of Jesus’ miracles, life and status as the Messiah, but in looking at this conservative version above, we can see that Jesus was a person, a wise man and teacher, did amazing deeds, was accused by the Jews, was crucified under Pilate, and had followers called Christians.
Tacitus (56 - 120AD)
Cornelius Tacitus is amongst one of the most trusted ancient historians. He was a senator under Emperor Vespasian and was also proconsul of Asia. In his “Annals” (a record of events by year) of 116AD, he describes Emperor Nero’s response to the great fire in Rome (it was believed that Nero started the fire himself in order to clear land for a large building project).
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on 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 centre and become popular. – Cornelius Tacitus 116AD
From this account, we see that Jesus lived, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, had followers who were persecuted for their faith, and the word spread from Judea and then Rome (Acts 1:8).
Pliny the Younger (61-113AD)
Pliny the Younger was a Roman author, lawyer and magistrate in ancient Rome. He left a collection of private letters that described public and private life in the Roman Empire.
They (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, and bound themselves by 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. – Pliny the Younger (61-113AD)
Here we see that Pliny mentions the person of Christ, that the early Christians believed Jesus was God, Christians upheld a high moral code, and they met regularly to worship Jesus.
Julius Africanus (160 – 240AD) also mentions a historian named Phlegon of Tralles who wrote a chronicle of history around 140AD. In it, Phlegon mentions the darkness present at the crucifixion and tries to explain it.
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. (Africanus, Chronography, 18:1)
Phlegon’s writings on Jesus are also mentioned by Origen Adamantius (184-253AD), an early church theologian.
Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events…but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions. – Origen Against Celsus, Book 2, Chapter 14
From these writings, we can see that Phlegon describes that Jesus was a real person, that there was darkness that occurred at Jesus’ crucifixion, and that Jesus was able to accurately predict the future.
Celsus was a Greek philosopher and opponent of early Christianity. However, in his criticism he affirmed the Biblical authors and their content.
Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery (with a solider named Panthera). Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god. – Celsus 175AD
Celsus writes about the person of Jesus and that He was born out of wedlock to a man named Panthera (an idea borrowed from Jews who opposed Jesus at that time). He also affirms that Jesus had an earthly father who was a carpenter, went to Egypt for a time, possessed magical power, and claimed to be God.
Jewish Talmud (400-700AD)
The Talmud is a “commentary” on the Old Testament and it contains the oral teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis passed down from as early as B.C. through the time it was written around 400-700AD on a variety of subjects including Jewish ethnics, philosophy, customs, history, lore and many other topics. The earliest Talmudic writings of Jewish Rabbis appear in the 5th century. There are several writings in the Talmud that refer to Jesus, but we will look at just two of them:
Our rabbis have taught that Jesus had five disciples: Matthai, Nakai, Nezer, Buni and Todah.
It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days (proclaiming), “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover.
From these two passages mentioning Jesus by name, we can conclude that Jesus was a real man, that had magical powers, led the Jews away from traditional beliefs, had disciples (one of whom was named Matthai), and was executed the day before Passover.
From taking a look at these non-Biblical writings on the person of Jesus, we see the following:
These line up with the information we read about Jesus in the Gospels and rest of the New Testament. None of these early non-Biblical author’s say, “There was no Jesus at all, Jesus didn’t exist!” One would have to throw away over 16 historical writings (this article did not go into every non-Biblical source) which confirm the life of Jesus if he were to argue that Jesus never existed. The reason one might do this this is because he’d prefer not to have authority in his life and would have to submit to Jesus and his teachings if he believed. Some men instead, “professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” have made themselves out to be God. (Romans 1:22)
Elder – NEO Church