googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Extra-Biblical References to Jesus

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Extra-Biblical References to Jesus

Critics of Christianity attack the faith on many fronts. Certainly they disparage the Scriptures with claims that the Bible was written by men, it is not inspired by God, it is rife with errors, and it has been revised so much that we cannot possibly know what the original texts even said. Some other outrageous claims leveled against Christianity is that the Person of Christ is, Himself, a mythology that was invented and embellished centuries after He “supposedly” lived. The integrity of the Bible is far beyond any other book of antiquity (which will probably be the subject of a future post). The Bible is certainly the greatest witness we have to Jesus. Yet even beyond the Bible, we have other historical sources that attest to the historicity of Jesus as well as other people and events from the Bible.

Because the passages themselves are longer, I will let them speak for themselves with little commentary from me. Even so, I know this will be a longer post than usual. I apologize in advance.


Flavius Josephus (aka Joseph ben Matthias) was a 1st century, Jewish priest and renowned historian. In his important work, The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus made this very famous reference to Christ, which has come to be called the Testimonium Flavianum (the testimony of Flavius):
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 the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among 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.
Now, many skeptics are suspicious of this passage. The usual claim is that it is not authentic but was added later by some Christian interpolater. Some of the arguments I've heard supporting this position seem compelling. However, the majority of scholars hold to a “partial authenticity” view of this passage; that is, they believe even the original text contained a reference to Christ, albeit much less spectacular. They agree on something similar to the following reconstruction:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) had not died out.
Even in this more tame version of the Testimonium Flavianum is remarkable. It attests not only the person of Jesus but also that He was a great teacher of truth, popular among both Jews and Gentiles, and that He was crucified by Pilate yet continued to be loved by His followers who called themselves “Christians” for His namesake.
Another passage from the Antiquities of the Jews, also mentions Jesus and is not disputed:
But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.
We see in this passage, James, the half-brother of Jesus and the author of the Epistle which bears his name. Josephus states clearly that Jesus is commonly identified as the “Christ” (the Annointed One).
On a final note from Josephus, we have another passage that does not mention Jesus but does discuss another well known character in the Bible, John the Baptist. This too is undisputed:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John's opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.
Tacitus was a Roman Senator and historian whose two major works – the Annals and the Histories – examine the reigns of Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. From the Annals, we have this passage:
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.
We see here that Tacitus attests to several details in the Bible including the crucifixion of Christ at the hand of Pontius Pilate.
Better known as Pliny the Younger, here was a lawyer and imperial magistrate under Roman emperor Trajan. In a letter he wrote to Trajan seeking advice, we find the following:
[T]hey [Christians] were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food.
Here is a glimpse at a first century worship service. In this quote, Pliny attests to the fact that the early Christians (whom he persecuted) would not worship idols nor the emperor, yet would sing songs to Jesus “as to a god.”

As I have already said, the Bible is the greatest witness to the Person of Jesus. However, these few historical sources quickly dispel the weak argument that Jesus was a myth.

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