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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, December 28 2023

Can Jesus’ existence be proven from sources outside the Bible?

The contemporary biographies written about Jesus Christ are found in the Bible and referred to as the Gospels. Historians are well aware of the few surviving non-Christian Roman works from early in the second century that mention Jesus Christ and Christianity.

These include: Lives of the First Twelve Caesars, by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, a Roman court official and chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian, who wrote around A.D. 120, Letters of Pliny the Younger, a Roman governing official in north-central Turkey, who wrote around A.D. 120 and Annals, by the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote around A.D. 115. In addition, the famous first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote about Jesus and a number of other figures mentioned in the Gospels.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (commonly known as Suetonius), writing around A.D. 120, records Emperor Claudius, who reigned from A.D. 41 to 54, “banished the Jews from Rome, who were continually making disturbances, Chrestus [Christ] being their leader” (Lives of the First Twelve Caesars: Life of Claudius). At this point in history the Romans didn’t see any difference between Jews and Christians, since both largely believed and practiced the same thing, so Claudius apparently expelled them all.

Suetonius’ statement implies a number of the Jews in Rome had become followers of “Chrestus,” likely a misspelling of “Christus,” the Latinized form of “Christ.” So by approximately A.D. 50 there were already significant numbers of Christians in Rome, which led to conflict with the Roman authorities, although we are not told exactly why. This expulsion of the Jews from Rome is mentioned in Acts 18:2: “And he [Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome)....”

During the Feast of Pentecost when the Church was founded, ca. A.D. 31, “visitors from Rome” were among those who witnessed the miraculous events of Acts 2:6-12. At that time people from more than a dozen different parts of the Roman Empire heard the Apostles “...speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (verse 11).

Around A.D. 120, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governing official in what is today north-central Turkey, wrote to the emperor Trajan requesting advice on how to deal with Christians who refused to show homage to the Roman emperor’s image. Pliny noted that these Christians met regularly and sang hymns “to Christ as if to a god” (Letters 10:96:7).

Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, discussed the devastating fire of Rome in A.D. 64, mentioning Emperor Nero blaming Christians for the fire: “... to get rid of the report [that Nero himself had started the fire to expand his own properties], 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…..”

Tacitus, who was no friend of Christians, states in A.D. 64 there was a group in Rome—barely three decades after Jesus’ crucifixion—called “Christians,” after someone called “Christus”, who was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26-36) during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), and that the Romans thought the Christians believed in “a most mischievous superstition” and were “hated for their abominations.” Their movement originated in Judea (the Holy Land) and had spread to Rome, so that by A.D. 64 there was a “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome.

This is verified in the Gospels and book of Acts (Luke 3:1-2). Tacitus does not say what the “most mischievous superstition” was, but it could have been that an executed man rose from the dead, or that Christians believed they also would rise from the dead, and that their leader “Christus” would come again as King of a Kingdom that would replace Rome and rule the world.

Another non-Christian writer from this period, the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, wrote The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews late in the first century. In his Antiquities, Josephus refers to many people named in the New Testament, including Jesus, John the Baptist and James the half brother of Jesus. Josephus was born into a priestly family in A.D. 37, was well educated and, as a military commander, led a Jewish detachment in Galilee during the Jewish revolt of 66-70 until his capture by the Romans. At the end of the war he went to Rome with the Roman general Titus, where he lived and wrote until his death around A.D. 100.

Josephus wrote: “... Herod [Antipas] slew him [John the Baptist], who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism…Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause….” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, chap. 5, sec. 2).

Again, this corresponds very closely with what we read about John the Baptist in the Gospels. Matthew 3:1-10, Mark 1:1-6 and Luke 3:1-14 all mention John’s popularity and message of repentance as recorded decades later by Josephus. Matthew 14:3-12 describes the scene in Herod’s palace when John was executed on Herod’s orders.

In addition to various rulers and members of the high priest’s family mentioned in the Gospels (and confirmed through archaeological discoveries), Josephus also mentions James, the half brother of Jesus Christ, and the author of the book of James in the Bible: “…so he [Ananias, the high priest] assembled the sanhedrin [or ruling council] of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned . . .” (Antiquities, 20:9:1). Although a half brother of Jesus, James wasn’t initially a believer in His messiahship (John 7:5), but after Jesus’ death and resurrection he was among those gathered in Jerusalem at the Feast of Pentecost when the Church was founded ca. A.D. 31 (Acts 1:14).

Note also this account (with the italics portions explained after): “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 wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst 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 concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (Antiquities 18:3:3).

While many scholars dispute parts or all of the passage, it is quoted as above by the historian Eusebius in Greek as early as A.D. 315 and appears this way in all the earliest surviving copies of Josephus’ works. Most scholars reject the italicized portions as second or third century additions, but that would still leave testimony to Jesus’ life and ministry. An Arab-language version leaves in His rising after three days, but states that this is what His followers reported rather than what Josephus believed.

Those who would deny the existence of Jesus Christ have to explain away not only a number of specific references to Him, but also historic references to His half brother James and John the Baptist, plus historians’ statements confirming the key themes and facts of the Gospels and the book of Acts.