FEBRUARY 3, 2019 UPHOLDING THE FAITH
The New Testament has multiple eyewitness accounts of Jesus Christ. In addition, there are additional accounts from sources who knew the eyewitnesses as well. However, especially concerning opponents of Christianity, some are reluctant to consider any biblical sources when the question of Jesus’ existence are raised. While the reliability of the Bible is covered at depth elsewhere in the site, here I’ll be focusing on non-biblical sources concerning Jesus.
I think the matter of Jesus’ existence has been well proven from biblical and non-biblical sources alike. Even National Geographic, in an article titled “What Archaeology is Telling Us About the Real Jesus” had this to say
Might it be possible that Jesus Christ never even existed, that the whole stained glass story is pure invention? It’s an assertion that’s championed by some outspoken skeptics—but not, I discovered, by scholars, particularly archaeologists, whose work tends to bring flights of fancy down to literal earth. “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus,” said Eric Meyers, an archaeologist and emeritus professor in Judaic studies at Duke University. “The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure.” I heard much the same from Byron McCane, an archaeologist and history professor at Florida Atlantic University. “I can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn’t exist,” he said.
There are multiple, non-biblical sources to look at for corroboration with what’s found in the New Testament concerning Jesus. I believe these should be adequate examples of references which all point to a historically acknowledged, real person of Jesus Christ.
Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 AD) was a Roman historian and senator. He provides a basis for who the Christians were and some further details.
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 Judæa, 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.
Here, we see acknowledgment of Christians as followers of “Christus” and a direct mention of Pontius Pilatus (while under the reign of Tiberius). These details are consistent with the information found within the New Testament.
Pliny the Younger
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (61 – 113 AD), better known as Pliny the Younger, was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. Pliny provides a detailed reference of certain habits of early Christians.
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 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.
We can see multiple things that are consistent with what’s found in the New Testament. A specific day set aside for worship, the acknowledgement of Christ as God, and worship to Hm alone. He also mentions how Christians try to follow and live according to Christ’s teachings.
Titus Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 AD) was a Romano-Jewish scholar, historian, and biographer of saints and ecclesiastical leaders. Josephus provides us with two references, the first being
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, ‘if indeed one ought to call him a man’. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. ‘He was the Messiah’. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. ‘He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him’. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
Concerning this passage, scholars have come to the conclusion that Christian scribes likely added some text (which I have put in single quotes). However, even if you pull those sections out, there is a clear reference to Jesus.
The other writing from Josephus says
Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.
Some have suggested this passage was also edited in a similar manner to the one above. This is less likely to be true in this case for a few reasons. First, James and Jesus were common names at the time. The addition of “brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah” is a way of specifying which James he was referring to. As he only needed to refer to the specific Jesus we’re seeking to verify, the one who is called Messiah, this supports well known knowledge of a real person. Josephus would have wanted this to be readable and understood by many. If the citing of simply Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah was enough, it’s logical to conclude the widespread knowledge of his existence in the New Testament was not simply an invented story. Additionally, the usage of “who is called Messiah” stands out. A Christian scribe of the time would have instead used “brother of the Lord” to refer to James. They wouldn’t have been shy about this langauge, as you can see from the first quote.
Lucian of Samosata (125 – 180 AD) was a Syrian satirist and rhetorician. His reference provides additional details from the others above.
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day,–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Well, the end of it was that Proteus was arrested and thrown into prison. This was the very thing to lend an air to his favourite arts of clap-trap and wonder-working; he was now a made man. The Christians took it all very seriously: he was no sooner in prison, than they began trying every means to get him out again,–but without success. Everything else that could be done for him they most devoutly did. They thought of nothing else. … 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.
Here is another clear reference to Christ. While he doesn’t mention Jesus by name, he speaks of “Christians”, the crucifixion, and the devotion of the early church. All this again, mirrored in the New Testament.
In addition to these references, others exist as well. Multiple Jewish sources, who would not acknowledge Christ as Messiah, record events in Christ’s life as real historical fact. In Islam, Christ is also known to be a real historical figure, but again, not as Messiah. There is abundant evidence of Jesus Christ having walked the Earth. From biblical to non-biblical sources. The only difference is the acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord compared to the others which just see him as a very influential, but nevertheless, real historical person.
Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63
Jewish Antiquities, XX.9.1 in Whiston’s translation (§200 in scholarly editions), as translated by Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 57. Meier’s original passage includes the phrases in square brackets [ ]. The omitted words indicated by the ellipsis (…) are in Greek, to let scholars know what words are translated into English.