Last week, I received several questions from a Resurrection member who had been using a DVD series to study as a part of a small group. I will take some time today and over the next few days to respond as I believe that there may be others who are interested as well. Always feel free to email me questions on topics about which you would like to see me write.
What non-biblical sources of evidence support (or corroborate) any of the Christian claims about Jesus?
There is little debate about some of the basic facts of Jesus’ life – teacher and healer from Galilee that was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Some scholars debate whether the events as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are an exact historical record. You can more information about this debate here.
I believe that Jesus was born, lived and died in first century Palestine. I believe that the accounts of the gospels are true. There is evidence of Jesus historical existence outside of the Bible. However, claims that Jesus actually existed are not particularly Christian claims. Distinctly Christian claims are around Jesus being fully divine and fully human and one of the persons of the Trinity. I am not sure that I would expect for there to be sources that support particularly Christian claims that are not a part of the Bible. You can read a bit more about books in the bible at – How were books of the Bible chosen?
Here is the bottom line for me – There is non-biblical evidence from the first several centuries for Jesus and Christians but these do not necessarily point to the particular Christian claims of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John contain the best portrait of Jesus life and, along with the rest of the New Testament, are the key texts for Christian claims about Jesus.
What else would you add?
8 replies on “Non-biblical support for Christian claims about Jesus?”
Caviate: My major was History, and I believe textual criticism must be done in light of historical texts and archaeological findings. That being said, I am a textual maximist while an archaeological minimalist.
Response: Extra-biblical colaboration is essential to our truth claims. We stand on very sketchy ground if no one other than the 4 Gospel writers knew of Jesus. There is truth and there are historical facts. They are different. Very different. However, when we say that Jesus is Truth, certainly, we must be able to verify in a real, historical sense what that means because we are not using a purely fictional figure, but an living, breathing historical figure.
Greek, Canaanite, Egyptian, etc. mythology have truth in them; however, it is known to not be historical. Central to Christians’ claim that Jesus was God in flesh is that Jesus lived here. Our own claims make it necessary to verify.
Our understanding of the myth (used here in the technical sense…not imposing falsehood upon it…afterall, myth is by definition True!) of Jesus is dependent upon his existence.
Other myths within the Biblical text are less demanding: The myth of Adam & Eve (meaning Humanity & Life) certainly sets itself up to be read ahistorically, as does Tower of Babel, Noah, Job, and sections of the Patriarchs.
Others like the Exodus necessitate historical kernel, but are clearly meant to be seen as exageration (12 million Israelites leaving Egypt!?!). However, the failure for these events to have occured (even if in small form) places the theological foundation of Hebrew faith in jeopardy.
So, yes, all in all Jesus’ story and his place within our theological understanding of God necessitates that we engage with extra-biblical sources.
Josephus and Tertullian (iirc) have the clearest references, though Josephus’ account has clearly been tampered with.
Mark – Thanks for your response – No apology necessary for your detail! I particularly appreciate your reminder that the claim that Jesus is God in the flesh is necessitated upon the reality of Jesus incarnation as a person. Incarnation doesn’t make sense outside of a real person. Good point.
For those who might not want to get into some of the dustier volumes of history, Lee Stobal’s Case for Christ does a fantastic job of looking at the Jesus story through various modern day prisms to help create external validation.
For instance, he interviewed a medical doctor to ask if the reference to Jesus spilling blood and water from the cross once he was speared in the side was medically possible. The doctor explained (in great detail) how the body could potentially generate that kind of response after being hung like that for an extended period of time. His entire book was based on the premise that at one time he was an Atheist who set out to disprove Jesus, but in the end was converted. I highly recommend it.
Adam – Thanks for the reference to this book.
Andrew, I have two basic responses to such a question.
1. I say that one might argue who Jesus was, in other words was he who the Gospels, Apostles, and 1st century writers said he was, or was he someone else, but to argue Jesus’ existence or non existence begs the question – If it weren’t Jesus who was it that ignited such a fervent group of mean and women who spread out across the roman empire and ultimately conquered it not with swords but by the witness of the martyrs and saints. Its pretty incredible to believe that there was no person behind the movement.
2. I turn the question on its head and ask. What extra platonic evidence is there that Socrates existed. The truth is many if not most historical figures can be deconstructed this way (Sheakspear is a favorite target for example). Deconstruction is easy, faith is hard.
Chuck – Good call on the evidence behind the movement of Christianity. It is incredible to consider how persons would be willing to give their life and how quickly the movement spread how there was no reality behind it. Good perspective on other deconstructionism as well. Thanks, Chuck!
I think it’s important, as you have done, to make a distinction between things of a historical nature (that Jesus existed, etc.) and things of theological nature. Regarding the former, I think there is quite a bit of evidence- Josephus, as has been mentioned, is one of the clearest. (Brackets indicate potential interpolation by later Christian copyists)
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to call him a man.] For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. [He was the Christ.] When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. [On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
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 law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.
The historian Tactitus also makes reference to both Jesus and his death under Pilate:
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…
Another writer by the name of Mara Bar-Serapion (writing between the 1st and 3rd centuries) describes the fate of three wise men:
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samon gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after this that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews ruined and driven from their land, live in dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.
The incidental nature of this I feel is fairly strong evidence that the writer (who apparently is not a Christian) felt that Jesus was actually a historical person.
Lucian, a Greek satirist, (2nd century) speaks thus:
The man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. . . . Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws…
Here he references both Jesus’ death and the belief among his followers that he should be worshiped.
Julius Africanius, a 3rd century Christian, relates how a 1st century historian tried to explain away the darkness at the crucifixion:
Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness [at the time of the crucifixion] as an eclipse of the sun-unreasonably, as it seems to me.
Julius finds it incredible that an eclipse could have occurred during a full moon, and that Thallus would have resorted to such an unreasonable argument.
In regards to the theological nature there is actually some indirect evidence. Pliny the Younger, writing to Trajan (in AD 112) about what to do about the Christians, relates the following:
They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a fixed day. They would recite in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and would bind themselves by a solemn oath, not to do any criminal act, but rather that they would not commit any fraud, theft or adultery, nor betray any trust nor refuse to restore a deposit on demand. This done, they would disperse, and then they would meet again later to eat together (but the food was quite ordinary and harmless.)
It’s clear that he perceived the Christians to have a belief that Christ was divine in some manner.
Lastly, within the Roman archives was other indirect evidence for the theological question. Tertullian, himself a late convert and a former jurist in Rome, recounts in his Apology (late 2nd century) how the archives themselves testified to not only Jesus’ existence, but, in his opinion, to his divinity:
Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favour of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Cæsar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians.
All these things Pilate did to Christ; and now in fact a Christian in his own convictions, he sent word of Him to the reigning Cæsar, who was at the time Tiberius. Yes, and the Cæsars too would have believed on Christ, if either the Cæsars had not been necessary for the world, or if Christians could have been Cæsars. His disciples also, spreading over the world, did as their Divine Master bade them; and after suffering greatly themselves from the persecutions of the Jews, and with no unwilling heart, as having faith undoubting in the truth, at last by Nero’s cruel sword sowed the seed of Christian blood at Rome.
Tertullian seems to indicate that Pilate wrote to Tiberius about Christ, and that Tiberius held a favorable opinion of him. The remarkable thing is that it would be somewhat reckless of Tertullian to make such claims about what existed in the archives (as this apology was directed to the Emperor) if such records did not in fact exist.
Hope that’s helpful.
deviantmonk – Eminently helpful. I particularly appreciate the historical reference to Jesus’ divinity. This is not an aspect of which I was aware and is quite helpful for me in this area. These examples are clear, diverse and direct. Thank you.