Is there evidence for Jesus outside of the Bible?



Author: Steve Adams

Pubished: Monday 03rd April 09:45am

Christians get called all sorts of names in the media, workplace conversations and especially social media. If I'm being honest, I'll have to add my name to that list. As a teenager, my description of Christians was, "Weak, insecure people who clung to a fairytale in order to feel better about their pathetic life". Now at age 41 and working as a Pastor of a Christian Church, you can safely presume that's no longer my view of Christians. However, there is still some truth in my former evaluation. Even now, I'll happily concede that if Jesus is not who the Bible says he is, or if he never existed at all, to be a Christian would be nothing short of pathetic.

We live in a world where everyone is an expert on everything. After all, you just need to Google something or read a post on social media and you have all the facts, right? For example, you might find a convincing sounding, (and seemingly well researched), article online that declares that Jesus never existed and that the only book that mentions him is the Bible, which they say was written hundreds of years after he supposedly lived. The actual fact is that all of the New Testament authors wrote during times when eyewitnesses of Jesus' life were still alive. That is, they were all written in the 1st century (some believe two of the books may have possibly been written very early in the 2nd century). We'll leave discussions about how and when the Bible was put together for another time.

What I do want to address in this article is the fact that many non-Christian historical sources refer to Jesus Christ, his death by crucifixion, the disciples belief that he was raised from the dead on the third day, and their willingness to die for that belief. Before looking at some specific non-Christian sources, there is another fact about the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), that is worth mentioning in this discussion. These four "Gospels" (which means "Good News"), are four separate narrative accounts of the life of Jesus Christ all written in the first century. So what if four guys wrote a narrative account of his life? This alone may not seem like a big deal until you realise that there is not a single narrative account written about the life of any other prominent figure in first century Palestine. There is no narrative account of Caiaphas, the most significant Jewish High priest during this time. There is no narrative account written about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who had Jesus (and many others) crucified. There's not even a single narrative account of the life of Emperor Nero, yet you'll find very few people today who don't know about him. That four separate men wrote a narrative account of the life of Jesus is significant - especially when there is no such written account of any other prominent figure in all of first century Palestine. This fact may be interesting, but unless what they wrote is grounded in factual historical events, they're not worth believing and certainly not worth basing your life upon as Christians do.

Cornelius Tacitus was born in 54ad and is considered by secular scholars to be one of the great Roman Historians of the 1st century. He wrote two significant historical works, "Annals" and "Histories". The following quote is taken from his Annals 15.44.

Cornelius Tacitus (1st Century Roman Historian) - Annals 15.44
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 Judaea, 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

In this one quote from Tacitus, he affirms the following

  • Jesus was given the most extreme penalty (crucifixion) from Pontius Pilate.
  • Something the author deemed a "superstition" broke out. This is likely the disciples claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
  • Christians were cruelly killed for pleading guilty to this "superstition" (claim that Jesus was raised).

Flavius Josephus was a Jewish Historian born around 37ad. As you will recall, it was the Jewish religious leaders who demanded that Jesus be crucified so Josephus has no motive to speak positively of Jesus Christ. Amongst many references to Jesus (and Christians) in his work "The Antiquities of the Jews", the most significant is Antiquities 18.3. There is no doubt that some early zealous Christians had altered some copies of his writings as the Greek manuscripts that we have of Josephus speak of Jesus with such high esteem that it certainly would not have been the view of Josephus. However, we also have some ancient copies of Josephus' writings in Arabic which would seem to be a more accurate rendering of his words. This is the English translation of Antiquities 18.3 taken from the Arabic manuscripts.

Josephus (1st Century Jewish Historian) - Antiquities 18.3
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. 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. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

Josephus claims the following of Jesus Christ

  • That he was wise,
  • He was known for his good conduct.
  • Both Jews and others became his disciples (followers).
  • He was crucified by Pontius Pilate
  • His followers did not lose faith after his death but are reported to have claimed that Jesus was brought back to life three days after his crucifixion.

Celsus was a second century Greek Philosopher whose writings included what is commonly regarded as the first documents attacking the Bible's claims about Jesus. His words are quoted by third century Christian writer Origen in "Origen Against Celsus" Book 1, Chapter 28. In Celsus' attack against Jesus, he makes some absurd remarks, but despite his opposition to Jesus, he still acknowledges that Jesus had miraculous powers (even if he's wrong on where he got them from), and that Jesus proclaimed himself to be a God.

Celsus (2nd Century Greek Philosopher) - Quoted by Origen in Origen Against Celsus 1.28 (also called Contra Celsum 1.28)
born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.

Pliny The Younger was the nephew and adopted son of the well-known historian Pliny the Elder. His letters have been highly regarded in History. In letter 96 in Book 10 of his letters he writes the following to describe the behaviour and claims of early second century Christians.

Pliny The Younger - Letter 96, Book 10 (around 112ad)
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 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.

All of the above quotes are in historical writings that are publicly available. I have provided the exact references as to where the quotes can be found. If you think that there are no genuine historical references to Jesus Christ outside of the Bible, I would encourage you to seek out these early writers for yourself to verify that the original historical writers have been accurately quoted above with regards to Jesus.

Is there historical evidence for the key events in the life of Jesus? Most certainly yes! The above historical writers (none of whom were Christian), testify to the fact that Jesus was crucified under Roman governor Pontius Pilate, that his followers (disciples) claimed to have seen him alive three days after his crucifixion and were so convinced that they would willingly endure a cruel death rather than deny these life-changing beliefs.

This article only looks at the historical records of events from non-Christian sources. There is no doubt that Jesus was indeed crucified. In the next blog post "Resurrection: Greatest conspiracy or most reasonable conclusion", we will see that there is also compelling evidence for the resurrection. The good news is so much more that just the historicity of these events (as spectacular as they are). The real good news is found in the meaning and merit of Jesus' death and resurrection. The Gospels, (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are the best source to go for such information but I will also post a third blog post: "So what if Jesus died and was raised?" to address these vital matters.

If you live in the Toowoomba area, Eastgate Bible Church meets every Sunday at 10:00am in the Philharmonic Society Building at 7 Matthews St, Harristown. If you'd like to investigate more about Jesus, we'd love to hear from you! If you want to hear about the importance of Jesus death and resurrection, why not join us for our services on Good Friday at 8:00am and Easter Sunday at 10:00am.