Non-biblical sources for the historical Jesus (John 15)

Christian readers often winder whether there are references to Jesus outside the New Testament. Although some opponents of Christianity, dismissing the New Testament, contend that there is little or no real evidence that Jesus ever lived, some verification does in fact exist from both Jewish and Roman sources. A few rabbinical texts have survived, as well as an important passage from the ancient Jewish historian Josephus.

One rabbinical text from the Babylonian Talmud is especially significant. This passage, balled b. Sanhedrin 43, asserts that Jesus was “hanged” on Passover eve for being a sorcerer and enticer to apostasy, but that prior to His execution the Jewish officials had waited 40 days for someone to bring forward evidence in His defence. This contradicts the New Testament account, but does affirm Jesus’ existence, His condemnation by Jewish officials and His execution at the time of the Passover.

A Josephus text known as the “Testimonium Flavianum” is found in Antiquities 18.63-64. (Antiquities was completed in A.D. 93, about 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.) Describing the days of Pontius Pilate, it states:

At this time, a wise man (if it is appropriate to call him a man), appeared. For he was a orker of incredible deeds, a teacher of men who happily receive the truth, and he drew to himself many Jews – and many Greeks too. This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had executed him at the instigation of the leading men among us, those who had first loved him did not give up. For he appeared to them on the third day alive again (the divine prophets had spoken concerning him of these and countless other wonders). And to this day the tribe of “Christians” (named after him) has not vanishes.

Controversy surrounds the Testimonium because of its confessional tone, with some scholars arguing that it was an interpolation by a leter Christian scribe. However, in Antiquities 20.200 Josephus described the martyrdom of James, who he identified simply as “the brother of Jesus, called Christ”. Such a passing reference to Jesus suggests either that he felt Jesus needed no introduction or that Josephus himself had already introduced Him to the reader.

There are several references to Christians and indirectly to Jesus in Roman literature. Two are particularly important:

  • Suetonius, in Claudius 25.4 of The Lives of the Caesars (ca. A.D. 120), described riots among the Jews at Rome during the reign of Claudius in A.D. 49. He stated that these riots were instigated by “Chrestus”, which numerous scholars suggest to be a garbled version of “Christ”. The Roman authorities in 49 could easily have misunderstood the cause of Jewish upheavals in their city. If Jews had rioted because of the presence of Christians among them, Romans seeking to make sense of the troubles could have jumpe to the conclusion that someone named “Chrestus” was at the centre of it. Local authorities in Rome at this very early stage of Christian history would have possessed little knowledge of this new religion or of the degree of discord it had already created among the Jews. It is worth noting that this expulsion of Jews from Rome is also mentioned in Acts 18:2.
  • The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in approximately A.D. 115, mentioned Christians in Annals 15.44. Although he regarded Christianity as a superstition, he nevertheless made clear that Nero had wrongfully implicated Christians as scapegoats for the fires at Rome in A.D. 64. Of the term “Christian”, he stated “The author of this name, Christ, suffered the ultimate penalty at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate during the imperium of Tiberius.” That Jesus was crucified during the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) is also indicated in the New Testament.

To put the issue in perspective, it is important to realize in general how scanty evidence of any kind from the ancient world actually is. Many persons and episodes from ancient history would be unknown to us except for mention in a single historical document or inscription, and there are significant gaps in our knowledge. All things considered, the evidence for the historical Jesus in ancient sources, to say nothing of the New Testament and the Christian church, is ample.


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