I get the claim a lot, that Jesus never existed. Typically I see this objection brought up when atheists are in an argument that they’re having trouble with and so when they’re having trouble answering the other objections, this serves as their proverbial trump card. Jesus never existed anywhere. Don’t you know that the Jesus story was borrowed from pagan mythology? There are no credible historians that mention Jesus. Let’s examine those claims together and give you something to think about. Here are my top 5 non-christian sources attesting to the historical Jesus.
Before we go into the five sources, let me explain something about the nature of ancient history. When dealing with this subject, we need to keep in mind that this is the ancient world. They didn’t have copy machines, they didn’t have typewriters, they didn’t have fax machines or computers. Not only that but they had trouble keeping the material they had serviceable. There are many ancient documents that have been lost to wars, to water, fire, the bugs and countless other elements. So this modern standard that we have, that we need to have absolutely perfect and unquestionable sources before we accept a historical claim, is just incorrect and it’s not the way ancient history is done. Not only this, but if something was not considered newsworthy, then Roman historians wouldn’t record it. They mostly recorded things of economic or political nature so an unheard-of rabbi teaching in the smallest pocket of the Middle East needless to say is not very newsworthy. The fact that Jesus is mentioned in secular history is itself huge so I’ll go on record and say that we don’t necessarily need any secular history in order to prove the historicity of Jesus. The multiple letters that we have penned down by Paul and the Apostles collected in what we call the New Testament is itself enough. Secular historians would agree with that not to mention the countless number of Christian writers down through the ages who wrote about Jesus. But for the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and see if Jesus is mentioned in secular history.
Source number one Tacitus. Tacitus was a Roman orator and official, probably the greatest historian, one of the greatest pro-stylists who wrote in the Latin language. Here we have a serious Roman historian who is non-sympathetic to Christianity and is merely recording the facts. He wrote a work called The Annals, which was dealing with the Roman Empire from dates AD 14 to 1868. In the Annals he says “This 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 procurator’s Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. From the source we learned two things. That Christ is the one from whom the Christians got their name from. And the Christ suffered under the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate.
Source number two – Pliny the Younger. Pliny the Younger was a Roman author, an administrator who left the collection of private letters of great literary charm, intimately illustrating public and private life in the heyday of the Roman Empire. In one of his letters dated around AD 112, Pliny was seeking the advice of Trajan on how to conduct legal proceedings on individuals accused of Christianity. Here we have another Roman source, who is actually hostile to Christianity and is in fact conducting legal punishment of Christians. This is not one who is sympathetic to the Christian faith; he’s simply recording the facts. At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information that he learned about the Christians.
“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.”
We learned a few things about early Christian life from the source but most importantly we learned that Christ was sung to or worshiped as a God.
Source number three – Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish priest, scholar and historian who wrote valuable works on the Jewish revolt of 66 to 70 AD and on earlier Jewish history. Josephus is another historian non- sympathetic to Christianity and one of Josephus’ works titled Antiquities of the Jews, originally written in Greek, there exists a small passage which has come to be known as the Testimonial Flavian. Josephus’ Testimonial Flavian has been criticized heavily by skeptics saying that later Christian authors came in and altered the text to make it sound more Christian, thus rendering it unreliable. Here is the original version as it’s often cited.
“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 has received 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 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 to this day.”
The portions that are marked in red are the portions of the passage that are considered to be unreliable and I think that many Christian apologists, scholars and teachers would probably agree with that. At this point, what has to be done is: the skeptic needs to explain the portions remaining in black. Not only this but what is often not mentioned is that the Testimony of Flavian also exists in a 10th century Arabic text. In 1971 Professor Shlomo Pines published a study on this passage. It is very interesting to note that the Arabic version lacks most of the questionable portions of the often-quoted version as Shlomo Pines and David Flusher stated “It is quite plausible that none of the arguments against Josephus writing – the original words – even applies to the Arabic text, especially since the letter would have had less chance of being censored by the church. The Arabic version reads as follows:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets had recounted wonders.”
Skeptics ought not to dismiss this famous passage in light of this evidence. From this source alone, we learned five things. Jesus was considered to be wise, good and virtuous. Jesus was the teacher. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ followers reported that he had risen from the dead. And he was also considered to be the Messiah that the Old Testament prophets spoke about.
Source number four – the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud (Hebrew for “study”) is one of the central works of the Jewish people. It is the record of rabbinic teachings that spans a period of about 600 years. Yet another source that has nothing to do with Christianity. This comes from the Jewish people and they are simply recording the facts. At one point in the Talmud it says this of Jesus:
“On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu (i.e. Jesus) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf but since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of Passover.’”
From the source, we learned two things. Jesus was hanged on the eve of Passover and that he was accused of sorcery or in other words miraculous works.
Source number five – Lucian. Lucian was a Greek writer, rhetorician, pamphleteer and satirist. He writes in one of his works
“It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And how else could it be? In a trice he made them all look like children, for he was a prophet, cult leader, head of the synagogue and everything all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time. In consequence of which they despised death and even willingly give themselves into custody. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophists himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despised all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.”
We certainly learned a lot of things about Christians in this passage but most importantly we learned two things about Jesus. That he was crucified and that he was worshiped as a god.
Each one of these sources alone is more than sufficient to identify that Jesus of Nazareth that we all read about in the New Testament. Each one of these sources speaks of Jesus as a real historical person, as though it were an assumed fact. However when the multiple sources are grouped together, they produce an even stronger case. With these five sources, we can have confidence in saying that:
- Jesus was considered to be wise
- Jesus was revered as the teacher
- Jesus was claimed to have performed miraculous acts
- Jesus was crucified
- Jesus’ followers believed he had risen from the dead
- Jesus was worshiped as a God
Jesus that we read about in the New Testament was a real historical person that walked the earth in 1st century Palestine. Any who had denied this plain fact is demonstrating an extreme level of historical criticism that would render nearly all ancient history uncertain.
I’d like to end this video with the word from dr. Bart Ehrmen. Dr. Ehrmen is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College and Princeton Theological Seminary. He studied under the late Bruce Metzger and became an expert in New Testament textual criticism. Dr. Ehrman is himself not a Christian and a professed unbeliever in critic of Christianity. Dr. Ehrman himself has gone on record and opposed this very uneducated and uninformed view so I’ll go ahead and let him have the last word.
I know in the crowds you all run around with it’s commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. let me tell you once you get outside of your conclave, there’s nobody. This is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. There is no scholar in any college or university in the Western world who teaches classics, ancient history, New Testament early Christianity, any related field who doubts that Jesus existed. The reason for thinking Jesus exists is because he is abundantly attested in early sources. I think that atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because frankly it makes you look foolish to the outside world. If that’s what you’re gonna believe, you just look foolish. You are much better off going with historical evidence and argument historically rather than coming up with the theory that Jesus didn’t exist.