I hear this question all the time: “Is there any evidence for Jesus of Nazareth outside the Bible?”
Turns out, there is a LOT of evidence for Jesus if you look at sources other than the New Testament. Most of these are “hostile” sources – meaning they are not sympathetic to Christianity and have no reason to fabricate details that might support the notion of an historic Jesus.
Here are a few early references to Jesus of Nazareth from history we might want to consider:
Evidence from Tacitus
Let’s begin our inquiry with a passage that historian Edwin Yamauchi calls “probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament.” Reporting on Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:
“Nero fastened the guilt … 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 … 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….”
What can we learn from this ancient (and rather unsympathetic) reference to Jesus and the early Christians? Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have “suffered the extreme penalty,” obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion. This is said to have occurred during the reign of Tiberius and by the sentence of Pontius Pilatus. This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.
Evidence from Pliny the Younger
[From letters of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan]
Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In one of his letters, dated around A.D. 112, he asks Trajan’s advice about the appropriate way to conduct legal proceedings against those accused of being Christians. Pliny says that he needed to consult the emperor about this issue because a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity.
At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned about these 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.”
Evidence from Josephus
Perhaps the most remarkable reference to Jesus outside the Bible can be found in the writings of Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian. On two occasions, in his Jewish Antiquities, he mentions Jesus. The second, less revealing, reference describes the condemnation of one “James” by the Jewish Sanhedrin. This James, says Josephus, was “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.”
F.F. Bruce points out how this agrees with Paul’s description of James in Galatians 1:19 as “the Lord’s brother.” And Edwin Yamauchi informs us that “few scholars have questioned” that Josephus actually penned this passage.
As interesting as this brief reference is, there is an earlier one, which is truly astonishing. Called the “Testimonium Flavianum,” the relevant portion declares:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he … wrought surprising feats…. He was the Christ. When Pilate …condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared … restored to life…. And the tribe of Christians … has … not disappeared.”
NOTE: Some Historians and Scholars doubt the authenticity of this quote.
Evidence from the Babylonian Talmud
There are only a few clear references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings compiled between approximately A.D. 70-500. Given this time frame, it is naturally supposed that earlier references to Jesus are more likely to be historically reliable than later ones.
In the case of the Talmud, the earliest period of compilation occurred between A.D. 70-200.
The most significant reference to Jesus from this period states:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald … cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”
Evidence from Lucian
Lucian of Samosata was a second-century Greek satirist. In one of his works, he wrote of the early Christians as follows:
“The Christians … worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…. [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.”
So, there ya go! Like it or not, Jesus of Nazareth actually existed. Of course, even atheists like Bart Ehrman admit this fact. One doesn’t necessarily have to believe that Jesus was God to admit that he was an actual person.
We also have very good reasons to accept that Jesus spoke the words from the Sermon on the Mount and that his parables – especially the Parable of the Prodigal Son – were original with him. Frankly, if Jesus isn’t the one who said those things, I want to follow the guy who did. Because they are life-changing teachings about who God is, and who we are, that many of us – especially modern American Christians – still haven’t fully understood or embraced yet.
But that’s a topic for another blog post.
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Keith Giles and his wife, Wendy, work with Peace Catalyst International to help build relationships between Christians and Muslims in El Paso, TX. Keith was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church over a decade ago to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today he is the author of the best-selling “Jesus Un” series of books, including “Jesus Unexpected: Ending The End Times To Become The Second Coming” which is available now on Amazon.