Jesus in Non-Christian Sources


These 7 points are nicely summarized by Paul Barnett in his volume Is the New Testament Reliable?(IVP Academic, 2003 [second ed.], p. 34).  Notably, each fact corroborates the record of the New Testament.

1. Jesus Christ was executed (by crucifixion?) in Judea during the period when Tiberius was emperor (A.D. 14-37) and Pontius Pilate was governor (A.D. 26-36).  Tacitus [Annals 15.44.2-5]

2. The movement spread from Judea to Rome. Tacitus [Ibid.]

3. His followers worshipped him as (a) god. Pliny [Letters from Bithynia, c. A.D. 110]

4. He was called “the Christ.” Josephus [Antiquities 20.197-203—an undisputed passage]

5. His followers were called “Christians.” TacitusPliny [see above]

6. They were numerous in Bithynia and Rome. Tacitus, Pliny [see above]

7. His brother was James. Josephus [see above]

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  • Noah Smith

    Reliable as in a man called Jesus existed, was executed and his followers worshiped him as a god…

  • Susan_G1

    I’m not an atheist, and the above (widely available if looked for, eg. Josephus’ writings) does not affirm my faith, so I wonder who the intended audience for this book is. If it is for atheists, one would think the affirmation of His resurrection would vastly improve his point. Then it wouldn’t be as much a leap of faith.

  • Bryan

    Regarding #4, this passage is disputed. It is considered to be a Christian interpolation.

  • Andrew Dowling

    This is the commonly reconstructed Josephus passage thought to be free of later interpolation: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of
    startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with
    pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of
    Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men
    amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the
    first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from
    him, are not extinct at this day.”

  • Chris Reese

    Thanks for sharing this post, Scot. : )

  • Chris Reese

    The reference in #4 actually isn’t disputed. It’s a different passage than the one Andrew refers to. The passage in #4 reads: “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled
    the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus,
    who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some
    of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as
    breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those
    who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most
    uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done . . .”

  • This, not to mention what the Koran (non-Christian literature) says about Jesus:

    Isa is the son of a virgin named Maryam (“Mary” in English), who is a role model for the faithful women; Isa is a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit (surat 2 [Al-Baqarah], 87) and the messiah in both religions; Isa is the “word of truth” (surat 19 [Maryam], 34); Isa, through God’s power and will, cures the blind and the leper, raises the dead to life and know what is hidden in the hearts (surat 3 [‘Ali `Imran], 49); and Isa will come back at the end of times (Hadith 46.31).

  • Andrew Dowling

    The Koran, having been written many hundreds of years later after Jesus (and hundreds of years after the establishment of Christianity and its establishment as the de facto religion of Rome), bears no historical significance when discussing Jesus.

  • Andrew Dowling

    You are correct; didn’t realize that was referring to the James passage, my bad.

  • Rick Duncan

    What are the implications of all these non-biblical, historical facts about Jesus?

    His followers worshipped Him as a god. Why? Could it be because He claimed to be God? If so, we have to decide, “Was He a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord?”

    People called Jesus “the Christ” – the Messiah. Why? Could it be that the people saw in Him the anointed Prophet, Priest, and King sent to redeem His people? If so, we have to decide, “Will He be my Prophet, my Priest, my King?”

    Jesus was executed for a reason. Why? Could it be that this God/Messiah died to save His people? If so, we have to decide, “Will I accept that His death can save me?”

    The brother of Jesus was James, at first a skeptic who later became a leader of the church in Jerusalem. Why? Could it be that James had a personal encounter with his crucified, then risen brother so that his life was transformed? If so, we have to decide, “Do I believe Jesus rose from the dead?”

    Followers of Jesus were called Christians, which means “belonging to Christ.” Why? Could it be that these followers lived in such a way that others saw that they were “owned” by Jesus? If so, we have to decide, “Will I submit to the ownership of Jesus for my own life?”

    The followers of Jesus were numerous in Bithynia and Rome. Why? Could it be that Jesus came to save many people, Gentiles as well as Jews? If so, we have to decide, “Will I become part of this large, non-sectarian movement of faith?”

    The movement spread from Judea to Rome. Why? This is a message worth sharing, worth spreading. If so, we have to decide, “Will I share this message with other so they, too, can know and follow Jesus?”

  • Nils von Kalm

    Bryan, that particular part of the passage that says he was called “the Christ” is not disputed. There are other parts of it that are disputed, but this part is not.

  • Yes, most historical accounts are written after the person/event occurred. So, it’s not really clear what your point is. The fact that another historical/religious document mentions Jesus is of significance.

  • Marshall

    I think that would be the point, yes. The the gospels are a broadly _historical_ narrative, a memoir of actual events, not a dime novel or a creation myth. With the kind of reliability that historical narratives tend to have. And therefore we are invited to think of them as about real people going about understandable business.

    Whether that justifies thinking that Jesus was/is everything anybody ever said about him is another question, but notice that there are those who are not willing to admit as much as what you said. I think those who insist “Jesus probably never existed” are undermining their own position; they show themselves to be mere dogmatists of another kind.

  • Bryan

    Sorry, this is disputed. When you state that this is “undisputed”, my question is, “Who are you speaking for”? Every NT scholar? All are in harmonious agreement? Steven Mason, in his book ‘Josephus and the New Testament’ lays out a case against the “Christ” reference and therefore disputes it, starting on the bottom of page 227.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Again, that Muhammad had access to the Christian Bible after Christianity had been widely spread for hundreds of years, and decided to incorporate aspects of the Bible into his own religion, says nothing about the historicity of anything. I once heard a Seminary professor claim that since the Koran acknowledged Abraham, that it served as a source to confirm the historicity of Abraham, Which is ridiculous. That’s like me picking up the Book of Mormon, taking some bits about the golden tablets and adapting it to my newly created religion called Andrewism, and then someone saying “hey, see Andrew cited the tablets, that shows Joseph Smith really was right!”

    And I say all this as one who thinks the historicity of Jesus is extremely strong and just about indisputable, but the Koran can’t be a part of that backdrop of evidence as it came about WAY too late after the fact. Any historian would agree with me.

  • Nils von Kalm

    I wonder if we’re referring to a different passage. The passage I am referring to where the mention of Christ is disputed is Antiquities 18:63-64 which says “he was the Christ.” That was probably inserted by Christians later.

    The widely respected scholar, Louis Feldman, says the passage which mentions Jesus as “called the Christ” is almost universally acknowledged, as does Richard Bauckham and Van Voorst, among many others.

  • Bryan

    Right. This is the same passage. I’m strongly skeptical of ‘universal’ claims because resistance can always be found somewhere; however, the question is not whether Jesus was an authentic historical figure or whether Christians viewed him as the Christ. The question is whether Josephus believed him to be the Christ and therefore, the dispute is the claim that this was an interpolation.

    Mason also states that the copies we currently translate from the ‘Antiquities’ are taken from the 9th and 10th century but any copy prior to the 4th century does not contain the term “the Christ”. Thus, the term was added later. This does not change my view on Jesus, it just demonstrates that there is some dispute concerning the term “Christ”.

  • Well, as the title of this article states, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources” I stick to the claim that the Koran is indeed an early non-Christian source that mentions Jesus. The Koran, although religious in nature, is also a historical document that records a significant amount of history of the lives of people in what is modern day Arabia. The gospel (and the Bible) did not reach many parts of these areas by the 6th century AD. Furthermore, the Roman Empire never reached Arabia. So, even if Christianity had become institutionalized in Rome, it had no effect upon Arabia which remained in large part pagan until the time of Mohammed. If we agree that the canon of Scripture was formalized by roughly 300 AD, then this would mean the mention of Jesus in Arabic society by 600 AD is not too late after the fact. We also cannot dismiss oral tradition which likely reached Arabia much earlier. Best case scenario: 100 years after the fact. Worst case scenario: 300 years after the fact. Not too far apart by historical standards as most historians would agree.

    Ironically, it is commonly believed that Muhammad never had access to the Bible. It hadn’t been translated into Arabic by the 6th century. Therefore, nothing was plagiarized or borrowed from the New Testament text.

  • Liam Thomas

    Dr. McKnight,

    In a recent discussion on another blog, I sought to defend the four Gospels as accurate, eyewitness accounts re. the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. A skeptic responded, first by calling me a liar, and then saying the following:

    We don’t know who wrote any of the synoptic gospels. The authorships
    are merely later attributions and we also have no idea what these books
    originally contained. So much for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The
    earliest work is 1 Thessalonians which dates to about 49 CE., over a
    decade after the crucifixtion (sic). The following Pauline epistles are of
    doubtful authorship, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians and 1 and 2
    Timothy and Titus were clearly not written by Paul as they involved
    issues which arose long after his death: Peter was probably too
    illiterate to have written anything. In short, we have no first
    generation eyewitness accounts.

    Another skeptic wrote the following:

    i disagree when you state “All this is first generation, eyewitness
    material.” as there are no originals in existence. we have copies of
    copies of copies… with changes, edits and copying errors along the
    way. not to mention the translations and add ons included in the
    gospels. to make things even worse most scholars agree that there were
    multiple authors for the gospels and there is no convincing proof that
    they are written by the claimed authors.

    Dr. McKnight, how would you respond to these allegations?

    Thanks in advance for your help!

  • Andrew Dowling

    No, Christianity was widespread throughout the Middle East by the 6th century (one of the oldest Christian churches ever discovered, Jubail, is even on the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia). You do know Jerusalem is closer to Mecca than Rome? Christianity’s rise wasn’t confined to the walls of the Roman Empire . . . .

    And yes, 300 years after the fact is considered WAY too long when speaking of the historical Jesus. That is why the wide majority of Gnostic gospels, most written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (well before the Koran), are considered completely unreliable from a historical standpoint. Also, while the biblical canon was not established until the 300s, Christian writings and stories (both mirroring what would eventually be encompassed in the Bible and additional works) were spreading out as far as Egypt in the 1st century.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’m not Dr. McKnight, but I would highly recommend the following website that looks at various views on the origins of NT writings:
    The majority scholarly opinion is that the writers of the canonical Gospels were not eyewitnesses (the attributions to the apostolic authorship came 100 years later), but that the Gospels were compilations of oral tradition (which did preserve authentic sayings and stories about Jesus which initially arose from eyewitnesses) and the theological development of the community of the respective evangelist.

  • scotmcknight

    Andrew, how in the world can one measure “majority”? Do we have a group of voters? Do we read a list of commentaries or NT introductions? Do we count traditional scholars in the history of scholarship? When it comes to authorship questions, we don’t have anything like a majority. What we ought to focus on is the evidence and how compelling that evidence is for a given viewpoint.

  • scotmcknight

    Take one case, the Gospel of Matthew, and list the evidence against it and examine it.

  • Mark Stevens

    Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses raises some plausible evidence for the gospels as eyewitness testimony. Bauckham is a very good scholar and hardly a traditional conservative. I would highly recommend the book as a starting place. But what Scot says is good advice.

  • MikeW


    How does M. Hengel’s point that the Gospels have had, from the beginning and in every instance, their titles attached to them stack up as evidence for apostolic (or eyewitness) authorship?

  • Andrew Dowling

    Bauckham is one of the few non conservative apologetic scholars to go down that road (and yes Scott, if one were to count the number of scholars affirming direct eyewitness authorship and those not, I’m confident the latter would be in the majority) but in my opinion, he really has to grasp at straws and relies far too much on the testimony of Church fathers, which is often riddled with holes and implausibilities.

    Matthew: Even Papias claims that Matthew wrote a Gospel-maybe a sayings Gospel like Q that Mathew and Luke work from-in Hebrew and that the Gospel we have now is a translation of that. Given that canonical Matthew doesn’t work as a translation from Hebrew, that theory doesn’t suffice. I’m actually open to the idea that Matthew or another apostle was a major source for a now lost Jewish Gospel like the Gospel of the Hebrews, and Matthew may have used that tradition as a source, but Matthew as we have it, in Greek not translated from Hebrew/Aramaic, is not from the pen of any apostle.
    Mark:I’m also open to the idea that the evangelist “heard” Peter before he died, as in heard him preach, and may have incorporated that knowledge into this writings, but the author’s unfamiliarity with Jewish Palestine and exaggerations of Jewish customs (plus its rather negative overall view of Peter) make the idea that the author closely worked with Peter to transcribe the Jesus story highly implausible
    Luke: Not claimed by anyone to have been an apostolic witness to Jesus.
    John: Open to the idea that an early layer of John came from someone who was an eyewitness, but the Gospel’s language and theology (including completely different language from Jesus that is certainly ahistorical-no sayings or parables which are most likely to survive oral transmission, and a different theology displaying a Christian-Jewish dichotomy that would have occurred post-Jewish War) suggest a much later dating; Raymond Brown I think is by far the best source for anyone interested in the history of John.

  • With all due respect you seem pretty sure of yourself, but don’t provide any sources to your claims. Every source I have checked online shows the first Arabic translation of the New Testament didn’t occur until the 10th or 12th century (see link below). I agree the Coptic and Syriac Bible were translated much earlier, but this only encompassed a very small part of Africa and the Middle East. Most, if not all of the Arab world was largely untouched by the Bible and Christianity.

    Of course I know Jerusalem is closer to Mecca than Rome. Not sure what your point was there. You were the one who claimed that because Rome was married to Christianity that the whole world was introduced to the Gospel/Christianity. But, Rome never touched most of Africa and the Middle East and neither did the Bible and Christianity.

    Any sources you can provide to show that Christianity, the Bible, and the Gospel reached Muhammad and Arab tribes by the 6th century would be very helpful. Because I have never heard of such claims before.

  • Liam Thomas

    Dr. McKnight,

    I took your advice and checked out Matthew’s Gospel. It seems that The Gospel of Matthew contains approximately 90% of Mark’s Gospel, virtually word-for-word. Luke uses approximately 50% of Mark but not quite so word-for-word as Matthew. For their part, Matthew and Luke are both heavily dependent upon another source, “Q,” which may have been an accepted oral tradition or gospel-like document. Finally, the remaining portion of Matthew contains a body of teaching unique to it alone, sometimes referred to as “M.” What does this almost cut-and-paste type format mean for apostolic authority? Is Matthew’s Gospel apostolic in that was produced by an apostolic school founded by Matthew, or a circle of his disciples who wove these traditions together? Even then, how do we know any of that? Finally, if all the above is bunk and I’ve read the wrong sources, feel free to let me know. I’m just trying to get a handle on all this.

  • Liam Thomas

    Is this thread closed? I was hoping to hear back.