In the past, we’ve looked at many challenges and criticisms of Christianity, but we’ve never handled the objection that Jesus wasn’t a real person. It’s hard to argue that anyone has had more of an influence on the history of the world than Jesus of Nazareth. As of 2015, the Pew Research Center says that there are over 2.3 billion Christians worldwide. The Center For the Global Study of Christianity at Gordon-Cornwell Theological Seminary estimates that number to be 2.5 billion as of mid-2020. Now, add on to that all of the billions and billions of people who have called themselves Jesus followers over the past 2000 years, and the numbers become staggering.
World leaders quote Jesus all the time. Many people throughout history have proclaimed that they get their authority from Jesus. And, of course, many people have justified wars and other acts by saying he was on their side.
But, so what? If a lot of people believe something, does that make it true? A couple decades ago, 11% of the American population weren’t sure if Elvis was dead or not. That’s a lot of people!
The only evidence we have for Jesus’ life comes from the New Testament – documents that were written hundreds of years after he supposedly lived. And those documents say he did all sorts of crazy stuff – like casting out demons, controlling the weather, and coming back from the dead. There aren’t any other reliable sources about the life of Jesus.
Why Do People Think Jesus Didn’t Exist?
The challenge of Jesus being a made-up figure – like Zeus or the Easter Bunny – comes up because the person making it doesn’t believe that the Gospels are accurate eyewitness testimony. They have incorrectly dated the books of the New Testament and think they came hundreds of years after the events they describe. They also see the description of supernatural events and immediately discount them as being untrustworthy.
This idea that Jesus was a myth started to grow in the late 1800s. It was quickly debunked by thorough scholarship in the early 1900s, though. But, because any wild claim can gain new life on the internet, there are people who will toss it around in discussions about Jesus.
A lot of the recent attention to this theory comes from the movie Zeitgeist where the writer of the movie points out the similarities between the Christian account of Jesus and other ancient figures like Mithras and Osiris. The problem is, the writer used the same 1800s findings that were debunked only a few decades later. He forgot to look at that stuff, though. And he certainly didn’t look at any of the sources we are about to have a look at.
Sources For The Life Of Jesus Outside The New Testament
So, does that mean that the Christian has to make the case for the Gospels before he can give good evidence that Jesus existed? No, actually. You see, there are multiple sources outside of the New Testament that we can look at to get evidence for the life of Jesus, certain historical events that happened around his execution, and also some things about the early church. In fact, there are more sources for the last days of Jesus than there are for the life of Julius Caesar!
Also, keep in mind that all of these sources are pagan or Jewish – all of which were either indifferent or hostile towards the Christians of their day.
Thallus was an ancient historian whose work has been dated to around 50 AD. Like so many other ancient historians, most of Thallus’ work has been lost to us. We only know the things he wrote because many other people cited him.
One ancient historian who cited Thallus was Julius Africanus. He wrote:
“Concerning each of his deeds and his cures, both of bodies and souls, and the secrets of his knowledge, and his Resurrection from the dead, this has been explained with complete adequacy by his disciples and the apostles before us. A most terrible darkness fell over all the world, the rocks were torn apart by an earthquake, and many places both in Judaea and the rest of the world were thrown down. In the third book of his Histories, Thallos dismisses this darkness as a solar eclipse. In my opinion, this is nonsense. …”Chronographiai – Julius Africanus
According the writings of Africanus, Thallus had documented the darkening of the sky on the day Jesus was executed. Thallus didn’t know what it meant. so he attributed it to a solar eclipse.
2. Cornelius Tacitus
Tacitus was an ancient Roman historian and politician who lived between 56 AD and 120 AD. He is responsible for most of our knowledge of the Roman world from the death of Augustus in 14 AD to the end of the Jewish-Roman War in 73 AD.
In his work Annals, Tacitus discusses the great fire that broke out in Rome during the rule of Emperor Nero in 64 AD and who Nero blamed it on.
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. 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 Judæa, 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44 – Tacitus
So, what can we take from this passage? Well, in 54 AD, there were a group of people known as Christians. They got their name from the person they followed (Christus – the Latin form of Christ), and Christus “suffered the extreme penalty” (crucifixion) during the time of Emperor Tiberius. Jesus’ execution was administered by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. “A mischievous superstition” broke out in Judea – likely that Jesus had come back from the dead – and had spread to Rome.
Tacitus also tells us that many Christians were arrested and plead guilty to something. But, it wasn’t the setting of the fires; they were arrested because of their “hatred against mankind”. See, the Romans didn’t mind that the Christians worshiped Jesus; they minded that the Christians wouldn’t also worship the Roman gods. The Romans believed that much of their woes – famine, lack of rain, and buildings being set on fire – were a punishment from their gods because people (the Christians) weren’t worshiping them.
3. Mara bar Serapian
Mara bar Serapian was a Syrian philosopher who lived in the 1st century. He wrote a letter to his son that historians date around 73 AD. In this letter, he writes:
Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them?
“murder of their Wise King” refers to Jesus being executed by his own people.
Phlegon of Tralles was a Greek writer who lived in the 2nd Century AD. Two works have been attributed to him – Chronicles and Olympiads. These works no longer exist, but we have multiple sources quoting them.
First, we have Africanus:
Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth to the ninth hour.Chronography – Africanus 18:1
Next, we have a citation from Origen of Alexandria – an early Christian scholar and theologian who lived between 184 AD and 253 AD.
Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions.”Against Celus, Book II, Chap. XIV, Origen
In other words, Phlegon – a non-Christian pagan source – claims that Jesus predicted events in the future that came to pass.
Oregin also mentions that Phlegon discussed earthquakes and a solar eclipse during the reign of Tiberius:
“it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i. e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.Against Celus, Book II, Chap. XIV, Oregin
5. Pliny The Younger
Pliny the Younger (61 AD – 113 AD) was a lawyer, author, and politician in Ancient Rome who wrote multiple letters to then Emperor Trajan. In 113 AD, Pliny wrote to Trajan asking him how to deal with the Christians in his territory
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they 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. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.Letter To Emperor Trajan, 113 AD, Pliny The Younger
In this letter, we can learn a great deal about the early church. They met on a fixed day, sang hymns of praise to Jesus, worshipped Jesus as a god, took oaths to hold a strong moral code, and then would gather to share a meal together. Also, females and slaves held offices in the church. In this case, deaconesses.
The last source we will look at is Flavius Josephus. He was a Jewish historian who lived between 37 AD and 100 AD. After his defeat in the Jewish-Roman War in 67 AD, Josephus defected to the Roman side and began documenting events of the 1st Century.
In his massive work The Antiquities Of The Jews, there is a passage regarding the crucifixion of Jesus. Now, this passage certainly has controversy to it (and you’ll see why), but we can still glean some important things from it for our purposes.
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 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.The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Verse 3, Josephus
Remember that I started off by saying that we were going to cite hostile sources? That passage certainly doesn’t sound hostile, does it? Josephus says “He was [the] Christ”. And “as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him”. That sounds like a believer, doesn’t it? And therein lies the problem. It sounds a little too Christian for some to use Josephus as an outside source for Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s quite possible that someone added some extra stuff to the manuscript and made it say too much.
Even if that were the case, and the Christian slant was added after the fact, we can still weed that stuff out and get to some important facts. Facts that Josephus leaves with us that, I think, are uncontroversial. Firstly, Jesus lived, he was a teacher who convinced many Jews and Gentiles to follow him, Pilate – at the behest of the “principled men” (the Pharisees) executed him via crucifixion. And there were still people following Jesus (Christians) in about 93 AD when Josephus was writing his Antiquities.
What Can Sources Outside Of The Bible Tell Us About Jesus?
Looking at these sources, we can come to know a lot about the life of Jesus. Here is a list of facts they attest to as well as the sources that back up these facts.
- Jesus lived (1,2,3,4,5,6)
- He was a Jew (3.6)
- He was a wise teacher (3,6)
- Jesus was an accurate predictor of future events (4)
- He was brought up for execution by the Jewish leaders (3.6)
- Jesus was executed by crucifixion (2,6)
- The crucifixion was administered by Pontius Pilate (2,6)
- Tiberius was the emperor at the time of the execution (6)
- The sky was darkened on the day Jesus died. (1,4)
- There were earthquakes on the day Jesus died. (1,4)
- Groups of Jesus’ followers existed. (2,5,6)
- Early Christians believed supernatural events revolving around the life of Jesus (2,5,6)
- Early Christians met regularly to worship Jesus as a god (5)
- The early church consisted of many different ethnic groups, free people, slaves, men, and women. (5,6)
- People of low social status (women and slaves) held offices in the church. (5)
- Early Christians had a strong moral code that they followed. (5)
- The early Christians were persecuted (2,5)
Keep in mind, there are many other sources regarding some of these events. My point was just to show the facts that can be gleaned from some of the references to Jesus outside of the Bible.
Jesus Really Existed
While the ancient outside sources don’t have as much to say about the life of Jesus as the eyewitness accounts in the Gospels do, there are a lot of parallels we can draw between the two. Just showing that Jesus lived – which all of these do – would be enough to answer the original claim that Jesus wasn’t a real person. But, the parallels go further than that. They also affirm that the Jewish leaders had him executed, Pontius Pilate oversaw his crucifixion, and the sky darken and earthquakes shook the ground on the day he died. People may still have room to question the supernatural events proclaimed in the Gospels, but that Jesus was a real, living person – there should be no doubt.