Did Jesus Christ Really Live? What Ancient Non-Christian Historians Tell Us

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)  

Introduction

Today, the claims of skeptics in our world are numerous regarding the authenticity of the Bible. From the claims of the “Jesus Seminar” to the raving fictions of “The Da Vinci Code,” people all over America are being told that the Bible is just a book of mythology and nonsense.

What is more, Christians are often viewed as being irrational and illogical bumpkins who proclaim a way of life that is ineffective and “out-of-touch” with the times.

We especially see how these allegations have affected the young people of our country. Timothy Paul Jones points out:

Only 9 percent of middle-aged adults and 14 percent of adults in their early thirties identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Yet, when it comes to the people who have grown up in the shadow of such claims about Jesus-persons presently in their late teens and early twenties-nearly 20 percent openly refer to themselves as atheists or agnostics. Put another way, one out of every five college-aged students has rejected not merely Jesus but the very possibility of knowing God at all. (Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies And The Cross: How To Intelligently Counter The Ten Most Popular Theories That Attack The Gospel Of Jesus, 4; Lake Mary, Florida; FrontLine: A Strang Company).  

In past articles, I have defended the basic propositions of Christian Apologetics, including: (1) The Existence Of God. (2) The Inspiration Of The Bible. (3) The Deity Of Jesus Christ.

Under these categories, attention has been given to such matters as the historical nature of the New Testament documents, the role of archaeology in confirming the biblical narrative, the amazing way that science confirms creationism and refutes the general theory of macroevolution, etc.

In this article, I wish to carefully examine another intriguing field of apologetics, i.e., what ancient non-Christian historians tell us about Jesus Christ.

Today, we are being told by college professors and by mass media that Jesus Christ was just a myth, a story that was just rehashed from pre-existing religious beliefs (see our previous article Do The New Testament Scriptures Borrow From Ancient Pagan Religions? ).

As such, it is often claimed that Jesus Christ never even really existed!  

Well, how about it?

Is Christ just a figment of someone’s imagination?

Or was He a real Person?

Let’s examine four different historical sources to find out.  

Special Note Regarding The New Testament Scriptures  

Let it be pointed out that this study is going to focus on extra-biblical evidences. Make no mistake about it: the basic source information for Jesus Christ is from the New Testament Scriptures. Many people do not realize that these books are historical in nature (cf. Luke 1:1-4; 2:1-4; John 20:30-31; Acts 1:1-3; 10:39-43; I Corinthians 15:1-8; I John 1:1-3; II Peter 1:16; etc).

In previous articles, I have defended the genuineness and credibility of the New Testament Scriptures.

As such, they are able to stand upon their own weight of evidence. This study is designed to investigate primarily what non-Christian sources have said about Jesus Christ. That there is value in such a study is evident from the fact that Luke himself researched several documents and testimonies regarding Jesus Christ (Luke 1:1-2).  

The Extra-biblical Documents From The First Century A.D.  

As we approach this study, we must realize that not many documents (outside of the manuscripts of the New Testament) are available from the first century A.D. As such, consider the words of the scholar E.M. Blaiklock:

It is a somber fact that practically everything written during the lifetime of Christ has perished. Parts of one unimportant historical work survive from the years of His ministry or their vicinity. The badly written history of Rome by Velleius Paterculus, a retired army officer of Tiberius turned amateur historian, was published in A.D. 30. The procuratorial records of Palestine were much less likely to be preserved. Two-thirds of Pilate’s name has recently been in an inscription at Caesarea along with a reference in one word to a shrine of Tiberius-an oddly brief authentication of the procurator and his preoccupations…The same remark is almost true of the surviving literature of the fifties and sixties of the first century, when the first three gospels, and most of the letters of the New Testament were being written. Bookends set a foot apart on this desk where I write would enclose the works from those significant years. (E.M. Blaiklock, Jesus Christ: Man Or Myth? A Contemporary Examination Of Ancient Evidence, 12-13; Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers)  

Therefore, it should not surprise us if we do not read of many examples of Jesus in the surviving documents we DO have. We would also expect that Jesus would not be mentioned in great detail by these documents.

Why?

For the simple reason that the pagans viewed Jesus Christ as an insignificant and iterant preacher. There were far more pressing concerns in the minds of the Roman government-issues of politics, of war, of famine, of social order. To be frank, Jesus would not be much of a concern to them.  

For these reasons, I believe it is quite significant that we have so much surviving extra-biblical references to Jesus Christ from ancient non-Christian historians. Indeed, as will notice, there are several references to Jesus Christ by these historians which demonstrates that the basic portrayal of Him in the Gospels were credible and authentic.

Simply stated, the idea that Jesus Christ did not exist is ludicrous.

Let’s study.

Jewish Literature Regarding Jesus Christ  

Josephus  

Josephus was a Jewish historian who was born in A.D. 37. He made three references to Jesus that are especially noteworthy. First, he wrote of John the Baptist, saying that John:

“…had a great influence over the people, and that they seemed ready to do anything that he should advise.” (Josephus, 382)  

In another reference, Josephus makes reference to the death of James. He writes:

And now Caesar, upon hearing of the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea as procurator; but the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignify on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of a hgh priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignify a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests; but this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who were very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition he thought he had now a proper opportunity (to exercise his authority). Festus was not dead, and Albinud was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others (or some of his companions); and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers fo the law, he delivered them to be stoned…(Whiston, Josephus Complete Works, 423).  

Finally, Josephus makes a very important reference to Jesus Himself. Parts of this passage are often disputed, but the overall fact is that Josephus makes specific reference to Jesus Christ. He writes:

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 wonders, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with please. He drew many after him both of the Jews and the gentiles. He was the Christ. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among 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 about him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiquities 18:63-64)  

Some question the genuineness of this text. However, in its’ defense, consider these words:

This passage has been rejected by some scholars as an interpolation on the grounds that it does not sound like an unbelieving Jew such as Josephus. It is also said to be out of place in the context, for here Josephus was discussing seditions. In defense of the passage it may be said that it appears in every copy of Josephus that has come down to us and was quoted twice by Eusebius as early as 315 A.D. In a North Slavic manuscript of Josephus there is the description of a tumult made on account of Jesus and the statement reads, “At that time a man appeared, if he can be called a man. His nature and his body were human, but his appearance was more than human. He performed miracles through some invisible power. Some said of him that he was our first Law giver, Moses, risen from the dead, and making himself known by many healings and magic works; others that that he was sent by God. I, personally in view of his whole life, should not call him a messenger of God.” (F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom: A History Of The Church, 32-33; Delight, Arkansas; Gospel Light Publishing Company)   

Overall, Josephus is very clear that Jesus was a real figure of history. He also mentions the disciples of Christ, the miracles and teaching of Christ, etc, the brother of Christ, John the Baptist, etc. All of this goes to corroborate the basic historical facts of Christianity.

Jewish Talmuds  

The Jewish Talmuds consist of 63 books. They contain many features of history and tradition for the Jewish people, and began to be written during the first century A.D. Especially interesting are their references to Jesus Christ. Notice one in particular:

On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! (Babylonian Talmud)  

Several things are important about this passage. Consider the words of Ralph Muncaster:

This passage is important in that it was written by Jews that not only denied Jesus, but were actively proselytizing against Christians. Courts of law have long maintained that some of the most powerful testimony is corroborative testimony from hostile witnesses (in this case Jews testifying about Jesus). What can be deduced from the Talmud’s words is (1) that Jesus existed, (2) that Jesus was crucified (“hanged”) on the eve of Passover; (3) that He performed miracles (the Jews referred to this as sorcery); (4) that he led many people away from legalistic Jewish teaching (as indicated in the New Testament-Matthew 15:3-9); (5) that the Jewish leaders were plotting to kill Jesus. In summary, the evidence of Jesus written in the Talmud, by the very Jews who despised him, is strong testimony of his existence and acts. It is very significant that it is in total agreement with the account of Jesus in the New Testament, including references to miracles, to the crucifixion, and to other details. (Ralph Muncaster, Examine The Evidence: Exploring The Case For Christianity, 210; Eugene, Oregon; Harvest House Publishers)  

Pagan Historians

Tacitus

One Roman historian by the name of Tacitus provides testimony regarding the historical Jesus. He records:  

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures of 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 Pilate, 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 center and become popular. (Tacitus-Annals, 15.44)  

Skeptics usually object to this statement of Tacitus, claiming that he must have been simply repeating the common rumors of his day. However, we must remember that Tacitus was a qualified and objective historian. Josh McDowell has well answered this objection:

First, he makes his statement about the death of Christ as a historical fact, not as something someone else said was true.
Second, as mentioned in the previous chapter, both Justin and Tertullian challenged their readers to go read for themselves the official secular documents substantiating certain details of Jesus’ life. Third, being a Roman senator, Tacitus certainly must have had access to the best records available in the Roman Empire at the time. Fourth, in Annals 4.10, where Tacitus refutes a particular rumor, he says that he has reported from “the most numerous and trustworthy authorities.” In 4.57 he says, “I have followed the majority of historians.” Fifth, Tacitus is careful to record conflicts in his sources. In 15.38 he speaks of conflicting versions as to the source of the great fire of Rome. Sixth, Tacitus does not quote his sources uncritically. In Annals 4.57 he questions the majority report of the historians. In 15.53 he considers Pliny’s statement absurd, and in 13.20 he notes Fabius Rusticus’ bias. B. Walker comments that Tacitus “was a persistent skeptic towards popular rumor, even when a rumor coincided with his own prejudices” and cites Annals 2.68 as an example. Seventh, Tacitus hedges his opinion when others do not. Eighth, Tacitus distinguishes between rumor and fact by using expressions such as, “Some have put it on record”; or “As the general account goes.” He also uses terms such as “It is said” and “They say” when he does not want to vouch for a statement’s reliability. Maurice Goguel, former Professor of Theology in the University of Paris, notes that the absence of words such as “it is said” in Annals 15.44 (the passage about Christ) should cause us to believe that Tacitus’ source was a document. He states: “One fact is certain, and that is, Tacitus knew of a document, which was neither Jewish nor Christian, which connected Christianity with the Christ crucified by Pontius Pilate. Finally, even if Tacitus had made no independent statement at all about the person of Christ, he still records the fact that men and women living thirty years after Jesus was crucified were willing to die for their belief that Jesus had lived just thirty years earlier. (Josh McDowell, He Walked Among Us: Evidence For The Historical Jesus, 50-51; Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers)  

Tacitus provides compelling evidence regarding the basic historical facts of Christianity.  

Pliny The Younger  

Another piece of evidence we have comes from the pen of Pliny the Younger. Describing the Christians, he writes:

They 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 a solemn oath, not to do 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. (Letters, 10:96)  

Notice the parallels to the New Testament.

First, the Christians gathered together (Hebrews 10:24-25) on a certain day (the Lord’s Day-the first day of the week-Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:1-2; Revelation 1:10).

They sang hymns of worship (acapella music as authorized by the New Testament-Colossians 3:16-17; Ephesians 5:18-19; Hebrews 2:12; 13:15; Romans 15:9) to Christ “as to a god” (I John 5:7; John 1:1-5, 14; Colossians 2:9; Titus 2:12-14).

They exhorted each other to live the Christian life (Acts 2:46-47; I Timothy 4:16; II Timothy 4:1-5).

They partook of food (the Lord’s Supper-Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 10:16; also the “love feast” of Jude 12).  

Acts Of Pontius Pilate  

There was an official Roman document in the first century known as the “Acts” of Pontius Pilate.

Justin Martyr and other Christian apologists encourage their readers and listeners to turn to this document as evidence of their claims regarding Jesus Christ.

Skeptics usually claim that we cannot rely on this document since we do not have it today. Some even maintain that it never existed!

However, it was obviously in existence in the first three centuries A.D. for several Christians encouraged skeptics to look to it as further evidence for their religion.

As Josh McDowell points out:

Justin’s statement is a bold one if in fact no record existed. Can you imagine a respected scholar writing the President of the United States a letter, which he knows will be carefully scrutinized, and building his case on official federal documents which do not exist? (McDowell, ibid. 24)  

Further, it is obviously not misquoted by the early Christians for they would have had their case demolished if they had been guilty of mishandling it! With these things in mind, consider two of these references which are relevant here. On two occasions, Justin Martyr quotes the Acts of Pontius Pilate to this effect:

That he (Jesus-M.T.) performed these miracles you may easily satisfy yourself from the “Acts” of Pontius Pilate. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 35.7-9)  

In another reference, he points out:

And the expression, “They pierced my hands and my feet,” was used in reference to the nails of the cross which were fixed in his hands and feet. And after he was crucified, they cast lots upon his vesture, and they that crucified him parted in among them. And that these things did happen you can ascertain from the “Acts” of Pontius Pilate (First Apology, 35).  

Lucian  

Lucian (early second century Greek writer who often attacked the Christians)-

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. (Death Of Pelegrine, 11-13)  

Again, notice that the basic historical facts of Christianity are understood and accepted. Jesus Christ was a Person of history.  

Phlegon.

Norman Geisler tells us a great deal about this piece of evidence:

 Phlegon (b. ca. 80) was a freed slave of Emperor Hadrian. None of Phlegon’s writings are extant, but he is mentioned several times by later writers. He spoke of Christ’s death and resurrection his nonextant Chronicles, saying, “Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails” (cited in Origen, 4:455; cf. Habermas, 210; Anderson, 19). Phlegon also mentioned “the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquake which then took place” (Origen, 14). Julius Africanus confirms the same quotations (Julius Africanus, 18). Habermas summarizes from the Phlegon references that Jesus predicted the future, that there was an eclipse at the time of the crucifixion, and that it occurred during the reign of Tiberius. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared and showed his wounds, especially the nail marks from the crucifixion. (Habermas, 211). (Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics, 384; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)  

Hadrian, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, and Mara Bar-Serapion also make reference to Jesus Christ in the time-frame of the first century A.D.  

Of Special Interest: The Darkening Of The Earth When Christ Died  

The Bible account describes a great darkness which covered the whole earth when Jesus Christ died on Calvary (Matthew 27:45). Please notice the following pagan citations which further corroborate this great biblical event.  

Thallus, who wrote around A.D. 52, and was quoted by a Christian apologist named Juilius Africanus in about 221 A.D, makes this comment: 

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 calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. 

Another pagan historian, named Dionysius the Areopagite, discusses this darkness. Commentator Gill comments:
Dionysius the Areopagite, then an Heathen, saw it in Egypt; and said

“either the, divine being suffers, or suffers with him that suffers, or the frame of the world is dissolving.  

The Mayans and the Aztec civilizations also contain written references to the terrible darkness and horrible earthquakes which transpired when Christ died on the Cross. Don Mariano Fernandez de Echevarria y Veytia wrote a two volume work entitled Historia Antigua de Mexico. He chronicles:

These natives indicate another singular event in their histories with great exactness, which later served them as a fixed era for their chronological calculations. They say that 166 years after the correction of their calendar, at the beginning of the year that was indicated with the hieroglyph of the House in the number ten, being a full moon, the sun was eclipsed at midday, the solar body being totally covered, such that the earth became darkened so much that the stars appeared and it seemed like night, and at the same time an earthquake was felt as horrible as they had ever experienced, because the stones crashing against one another were broken into pieces, and the earth opened up in many parts…Following these calculations, and adjusted to the comparison of the tables, this event should be placed in the year 4066 of the world, which was indicated with this character as can be seen in the tables, and precisely 166 after the adjustment of the calendar; and because of the circumstances surrounding this eclipse and earthquake, it was impossible for it to be any other than that which was observed at the death of Jesus Christ our Lord, having suffered it in the thirty-third year of his age, and so it seems that the incarnation of the Word should be placed in the year 4034 of the world, which the Indians indicated with the same hieroglyph of the House in the number 4, and I have noted it that way in the tables, and with this calculation following the chronological order they observed, counting the years from one memorable event to another with the assignment of the hieroglyph of the year in which they fell, I have been able to coordinate it perfectly with our years in the year 1519, in which Cortez landed at Veracruz, as will be seen in the discourse of this history. ( Donald W. Hemingway and W. David Hemingway, The Bearded White God Of Ancient America: The Legend Of Quetzalcoatl, 50-51; Cedar Fort, Inc.)

Conclusion

What have we learned from this study of non-Christian historical evidence regarding Jesus Christ?

First of all, that we should not surprised if there isn’t a great deal said about Him since so little has survived from the first century and since most government officials and historians would not bother mentioning him since He was not in their purview of concerning issues.

Secondly, that the sheer magnitude of historical references outside the Bible to Christ are absolutely amazing.

Third, the non-Christian historians confirm the essential elements of the New Testament Scriptures.

Finally, we have no reason whatsoever to deny the historical Jesus. In the words of one man:

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea around B.C. 7-4. He was a Jew, born to Joseph and Mary, both Jews and descendants of King David. Though Mary was His mother, Joseph was not presumed to be Jesus’ father. He was born during a time of great unrest in Palestine as the Jews were unhappy with the Roman occupation of their land, and believed their ancient writings predicted that the appearance of a savior to deliver their people form Roman control was imminent. As a child, Jesus was briefly taken to Egypt, but eventually returned to Nazareth where He grew up with His brother, James. When Jesus was an adult, He began a new religious movement around the same time as a man named John the Baptist, so called because he preached baptism. His teachings attracted many followers but he eventually earned the wrath of Herod who imprisoned him and had him put to death. Jesus’ ministry attracted many people from numerous nationalities and ethnic groups. He preached a religion of brotherhood, and earned a reputation of being wise and virtuous. He claimed to embody God on earth, and instructed His followers to live after His laws, and those that followed Him believed they would have eternal life. He exhibited the power to perform miracles: healing various ailments, and defying the laws of nature. His teachings angered Jewish authorities, however, who charged Him with sorcery and false teachings. Shortly before the Passover festival of A.D. 33, Jesus was sentenced to death by the Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. He was executed by crucifixion, and at the time of His death, an unexplained darkness fell over the land. Shortly after His burial, His body disappeared from the tomb. People soon began to report that they had encountered Jesus alive again. Very soon after these events, Jesus’ disciples began a new religious movement based on the one Jesus had started. They asserted that Jesus was the “Christ” (the Jewish Messiah), risen from the dead to prove He was one with God, and that those who followed Him would live forever in heaven. This religion, called “Christianity” after it’s founder, continues today. ( Scott Robinson, History Confirms Christianity: The Story Of Jesus As Told By Non-Christian Writers, 37-38, emphasis added; Fort Worth, TX; Star Bible Publications)

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to this world to suffer and die for the sins of mankind (John 3:16; II Corinthians 5:14-21). He died for us, was buried, and rose again on the third day (I Corinthians 15:1-8).

He invites all men and women everywhere to come to Him in simple faith, repentance, and baptism (Acts 2:37-38).

This begins the Christian life, where a person must remain faithful to death to receive the crown of life (Revelation 2:10; I John 1:9).  

Friend, if you have not obeyed that Gospel plan of salvation, why not do it today? The church of Christ stands ready to assist you!  

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.  

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