Can Jesus’ Existence Be Proven From Sources Outside the Bible?

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Can Jesus’ Existence Be Proven From Sources Outside the Bible?

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Can Jesus’ Existence Be Proven From Sources Outside the Bible?

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Was Jesus of Nazareth a real person? Did He really exist? Are the stories written about Him in the Bible true? These are important questions, and it’s crucial that you know the answers!

Some argue that Jesus couldn’t have existed because there are no first-century historical records that mention Him. Of course, there are contemporary biographies written about Him—four of them, in fact, by different authors. They’re called the Gospels, and they’re found in the Bible.

But that’s not good enough for those determined not to believe in Jesus Christ. They insist on more. They demand written records from contemporary first-century historians who were not followers of Jesus.

But in doing so, they’re requiring a standard few historical figures from the ancient world could possibly meet. After all, very few recorded histories survive from the first century, and basically the only sizeable and largely complete Roman written works from this time are a manual on agriculture, a comedy from a friend of one of the emperors and a few other miscellaneous works—none of which we would expect to include any mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ.

Roman histories that mention Jesus and Christianity

However, historians are well aware of a few surviving non-Christian Roman works from early in the second century that do mention Jesus Christ and Christianity. These include:

Lives of the First Twelve Caesars, by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, a Roman court official and chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian, who wrote around A.D. 120.

Letters of Pliny the Younger, a Roman governing official in north-central Turkey, who wrote around A.D. 120.

Annals, by the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote around A.D. 115.

In addition to these, the famous first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote about Jesus and a number of other figures mentioned in the Gospels.

What do these writers tell us?

Followers of “Chrestus” banished from Rome

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (commonly known as Suetonius), writing around A.D. 120, records that the emperor Claudius “banished the Jews from Rome, who were continually making disturbances, Chrestus [Christ] being their leader” (Lives of the First Twelve Caesars: Life of Claudius).

Claudius reigned from A.D. 41 to 54. At this point in history the Romans didn’t see any difference between Jews and Christians, since both largely believed and practiced the same things, so Claudius apparently expelled them all.

What’s significant in Suetonius’ brief statement, mentioned in passing, is that a number of the Jews in Rome had become followers of “Chrestus,” which seems to be a misspelling of “Christus,” the Latinized form of “Christ.” So we see that by approximately the year 50 there already were significant numbers of Christians in Rome, and this was leading to conflict with the Roman authorities—though exactly why, we’re not told.

This expulsion of the Jews from Rome is mentioned in the Bible, in Acts 18:2 Acts 18:2And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came to them.
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: “And he [Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them.”

What is especially interesting is how closely this brief mention correlates with what we read in the book of Acts. At the Feast of Pentecost when the Church was founded as recorded in Acts 2, ca. A.D. 31, we read that “visitors from Rome” were among those who witnessed the miraculous events of Acts 2:6-12 Acts 2:6-12 [6] Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. [7] And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? [8] And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? [9] Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, [10] Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, [11] Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. [12] And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What means this?
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. At that time people speaking multiple languages and dialects from more than a dozen different parts of the Roman Empire heard the apostles “speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

We’re not explicitly told when the first Christian believers appeared in Rome, but it’s not a stretch to assume that some of those in Jerusalem for that Pentecost took their astounding report back with them to Rome, where it spread among the Jews and Jewish proselytes there—leading about two decades later to the expulsion of Jews and Christians from Rome.

How to deal with Christians who wouldn’t worship the emperor as divine

Around A.D. 120, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governing official in what is today north-central Turkey, wrote to the emperor Trajan requesting advice on how to deal with Christians who refused to show homage to the Roman emperor’s image. Pliny noted that these Christians met regularly and sang hymns “to Christ as if to a god” (Letters 10:96:7).

Two facts are immediately notable about this brief mention of Christians and Christianity. The first is that there were a considerable number of followers of Jesus Christ in northern Asia Minor less than a hundred years after His death. A second significant fact is that these people met together and sang hymns to Christ “as if to a god.”

The first fact is important because this is exactly the pattern we see time and time again in the book of Acts: Early Christian teachers like Paul, Barnabas and Apollos went from city to city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Greece, proclaiming the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that salvation was available only through Him. Sometimes they met great hostility; at other times they met a receptive audience, and Christianity began to slowly and steadily spread—often in spite of persecution.

The second fact here is significant because Pliny’s inquiry to the emperor shows that the Christians he encountered considered Jesus Christ to be divine. And his correspondence shows that they were so firm in this belief that some refused to renounce that belief even under penalty of torture and death!

Again, this is the pattern we see time and again in the book of Acts—people who were so firmly convinced that Jesus Christ was a real person who had lived, died and been raised to life again that they were willing to die rather than renounce that belief!

“Christus . . . suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilate”

The most complete information we have from a Roman writer from this period comes from Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, who was born around A.D. 56 and wrote his works early in the second century. Being a historian, he discussed the devastating fire of Rome in A.D. 64 during the reign of Emperor Nero. Notice what he adds in a side discussion about Nero blaming Christians for the fire:

“Consequently, to get rid of the report [that Nero himself had started the fire to expand his own properties], 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 . . .”

So what do we learn from this account from the historian Tacitus about conditions in Rome in A.D. 64? Keep in mind that Tacitus was no friend of Christians. He considered them deplorable.

• There was a group in Rome at that time—barely three decades after Jesus’ crucifixion—known as “Christians.”

• They were called “Christians” after someone called “Christus” (the Latin form of “Christ”).

• Their leader “Christus” was executed during the governance of the procurator Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26-36) and the reign of the emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37).

• The Romans thought the Christians believed in “a most mischievous superstition.”

• The Christians were “hated for their abominations.”

• Their movement originated in Judea (the Holy Land) and from there spread to Rome.

• By 64, there was a “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome.

Again, this is astonishing because it verifies exactly what we read in the Gospels and the book of Acts—including the timing of Christ’s crucifixion during the rule of Tiberius and Pontius Pilate (Luke 3:1-2 Luke 3:1-2 [1] Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, [2] Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
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).

What was this “most mischievous superstition” the Christians believed? Tacitus does not say. Could it have been that a man was executed by crucifixion and rose from the dead? Or that the Christians themselves believed they also would rise from the dead? Or that their leader “Christus” would come again as King of a Kingdom that would replace Rome and rule the world?

We don’t know, but Tacitus’ wording about this movement being rooted in “a most mischievous superstition” is quite striking—especially since the Romans, with their great variety of pagan religious beliefs, accepted almost anything except the resurrection of the dead!

Josephus’ mention of John the Baptist

Let’s look at another non-Christian writer from this period—the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. He wrote The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews late in the first century. In his Antiquities, Josephus refers to many people named in the New Testament, including Jesus, John the Baptist and James the half brother of Jesus.

Born into a priestly family in A.D. 37, Josephus was well educated and, as a military commander, led a Jewish detachment in Galilee during the Jewish revolt of 66-70 until his capture by the Romans. At the end of the war he went to Rome with the Roman general Titus, where he lived and wrote until his death around A.D. 100.

Here is what Josephus writes about John the Baptist and his executioner, Herod Antipas: “. . . Herod slew him [John], who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism . . .

“Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause . . . Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, chap. 5, sec. 2).

Again, this corresponds very closely with what we read about John in the Gospels. Matthew 3:1-10 Matthew 3:1-10 [1] In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, [2] And saying, Repent you: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. [3] For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare you the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. [4] And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. [5] Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, [6] And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. [7] But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: [9] And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say to you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [10] And now also the ax is laid to the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
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, Mark 1:1-6 Mark 1:1-6 [1] The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; [2] As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before your face, which shall prepare your way before you. [3] The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare you the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. [4] John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. [5] And there went out to him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. [6] And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
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and Luke 3:1-14 Luke 3:1-14 [1] Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, [2] Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. [3] And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; [4] As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare you the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. [5] Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; [6] And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. [7] Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say to you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. [9] And now also the ax is laid to the root of the trees: every tree therefore which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. [10] And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? [11] He answers and said to them, He that has two coats, let him impart to him that has none; and he that has meat, let him do likewise. [12] Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said to him, Master, what shall we do? [13] And he said to them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. [14] And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said to them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
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all mention John’s popularity and message of repentance as recorded decades later by Josephus. And Matthew 14:3-12 Matthew 14:3-12 [3] For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife. [4] For John said to him, It is not lawful for you to have her. [5] And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. [6] But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. [7] Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatever she would ask. [8] And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger. [9] And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. [10] And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. [11] And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. [12] And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.
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describes the scene in Herod’s palace when John was executed on Herod’s orders.

Josephus and James, “brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”

In addition to various rulers and members of the high priest’s family mentioned in the Gospels (and confirmed through archaeological discoveries), Josephus also mentions James, half brother of Jesus Christ:

“[The Roman governor] Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananias, the high priest] assembled the sanhedrin [or ruling council] of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned . . .”  (Antiquities, 20:9:1).

This same James is the author of the book of the Bible that bears his name. Although a half brother of Jesus, he wasn’t initially a believer in His messiahship (John 7:5 John 7:5For neither did his brothers believe in him.
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), but after Jesus’ death and resurrection he was among those gathered in Jerusalem at the Feast of Pentecost when the Church was founded ca. A.D. 31 (Acts 1:14 Acts 1:14These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
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).

So here we have three major figures of the New Testament —John the Baptizer, the apostle James and his half brother Jesus, who was called Christ or Messiah—mentioned by a Jewish historian later that same century. Does Josephus say anything else about Jesus?

Josephus’ account of Jesus Christ

Note his account (with italics portions explained after): “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 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” (Antiquities 18:3:3).

While many scholars dispute parts or all of the passage, it is quoted as above by the historian Eusebius in Greek as early as A.D. 315 and appears this way in all the earliest surviving copies of Josephus’ works. Most scholars reject the underlined portions as second or third century additions, but that would still leave testimony to Jesus’ life and ministry. An Arab-language version leaves in His rising after three days but states that this is what His followers reported rather than what Josephus believed.

In any case, we have confirmation here and in other sources of the key points of the Gospels and book of Acts—that Jesus was a wise and virtuous man whom both Jews and gentiles chose to follow as the Messiah, that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that He was reported to have been resurrected to life and appeared to His followers three days after His death.

Those who would deny the existence of Jesus Christ have to explain away not only a number of specific references to Him, but also historic references to His half brother James and John the Baptist, plus historians’ statements confirming the key themes and facts of the Gospels and the book of Acts!

The Bible, which declares itself the inspired Word of God, says Jesus lived, died and was resurrected to life again and that He was the divine Son of God and God in the flesh. As we have seen from the remaining works of the earliest historians who wrote about that period, they testify that Jesus was real and was indeed a historic figure living in the first century. Indeed He still lives today and forever!