In my last post, I made the case that Jesus was a real, living human being and not a myth like other ancient gods. I used the early dating of the New Testament documents to show that there was not enough time between when the events of Jesus life were recorded and when they actually happened to allow for myth to creep into the story.
Before my conversion, I would probably not have accepted any portion of the Bible as proof that Jesus actually lived. I would have dismissed it out of hand as being written by Christians, and therefore untrustworthy. I would have asked for other, non-biased accounts of Jesus to prove that he existed. So, are there any non-Christian sources that talk about Jesus? Yes, there are!
There are 9 ancient sources that mention or give information about Jesus and his followers. I’ll just focus on four of them for this article. These are the earliest non-Christian sources we have for the life of Jesus. What’s more, they are all hostile sources. It’s generally assumed when studying history that if a hostile source confirms an account of an event, it is more likely to be true. This becomes even more true if the event is embarrassing to the writer. Why would you record something negative about yourself or your group unless it was actually true?
Listed below are the 4 sources, and what they have to say about Jesus:
Josephus (37-101AD) Josephus was a Jewish historian that lived in Rome. He wrote extensively on the history of the Jewish people. His two most well know works are “The Jewish War” and “Antiquities of the Jews”. It’s in the second of these two works that we find a reference to Jesus. As a note, many of the copies of Josephus we have were altered by early Christians to make Josephus’ writings appear to be more in line with the New Testament version of Jesus. Remember, Josephus was a Jew that did not convert to Christianity, so it’s unlikely he would refer to Jesus as the Messiah as some copies read. That being said, there are unaltered copies, and this is most likely what Josephus originally wrote. This quote is often referred to as the Testimonium Flavianum (meaning the testimony of Flavius Josephus):
“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 the 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 after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”
Thallus (52AD) Thallus is only known to us because he is quoted by other writers. We have no know copies of any of his complete works. One of these writers Julius Africanus, tells us how Thallus was trying to explain away the darkness and earthquake that followed Jesus’ death by crucifixion. It reads as follows:
“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.”
Tacitus (56-120AD) Cornelius Tacitus was known for his analysis and examination of historical documents and is among the most trusted of ancient historians. He was a senator under Emperor Vespasian and was also proconsul of Asia. In his Annals of 116AD, he describes Emperor Nero’s response to the great fire in Rome and Nero’s claim that the Christians were to blame:
“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.”
Phlegon (80-140AD) An early church father named Origen also quoted a historian named Phlegon. Phlegon was a Greek historian that wrote as a freedman under the Roman emperor Hadrian. From Origen we get the following quotes from Phlegon:
“And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place. ”
“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.”
“Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions.”
As you can see, there are early non-Christian sources that confirm both Jesus’ existence, and other facts mentioned in the New Testament. From these sources we can tell that Jesus:
Lived at the time of Tiberius Caesar (Emperor from 14 A.D.- 37 A.D.)
He was a wise man that had many followers
Jesus made prophesies that came true
Died by crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate
There was an earthquake and darkness (eclipse) upon his death
His Disciples continued to follow his teachings after his death
His Disciples believed and reported that he had risen from the dead
Jesus showed his wounds from the crucifixion to Disciples
His Disciples spread this message from Judea to the rest of the Roman Empire
That’s quite a bit of information from non-Christian sources. And these are just the 4 earliest sources we have. We can glean even more information from other later non-Christian sources. While 9 sources may not seem like a lot of references by todays standard. However, it’s a wealth of information when considering the time period it did come from. It is safe to say we have sufficient evidence that Jesus lived from non-Christian sources.