Did the Jesus of the New Testament Exist?

Part Two: External Evidence from Pagan Sources

Last week the evidence explored the proof that Jesus was real and existed in the first century might be considered biased. After all, the Gospels were written by two apostles and two disciples. In this section we will be looking at evidence from those non-Christian, pagan writers who were hostile to the Christian religion and Jesus. They often refer to Jesus using derogatory terms, such as, “mischievous,” “depraved,” “superstitious” or “misfits.” For example, Suetonius wrote, “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition” (Suetonius’ Life of the Emperor Nero, chapter 16).

One of the earliest references to Jesus in pagan writings is found in those of Thallus. He wrote a three volume history around AD 50. Although this work does not exist, it is quoted by a third-century Christian historian, Julius Africanus. He composed a History of the World around AD 220 in five volumes. In one of the surviving fragments, Julius discussed the three-hour darkness which occurred at the crucifixion of Jesus and makes this comment: “in the third book of his history Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun – wrongly in my opinion” (Julius Africans in Jesus Traditions Outside the Gospels, ed. D. Wenham (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1982), 343). The Gospels make mention of this event. “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land.” (Matthew 27:45; Cf. Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44)

Pliny the Younger was the Roman Governor of Bithynia in 110 AD. He began practicing law in AD 79 at the age of eighteen. As governor he began to write the Roman Emperor Trajan concerning a problem he viewed as quite serious. He wrote: “having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them” (Letters). “In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed” (Letters). Notice Pliny used the term “Christian” or “Christians” seven times in his letter. “They [former Christians] assured me that the sum total of their error consisted in the fact that they regularly assembled on a certain day before daybreak. They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christius as if to a god, and bound themselves with an oath not to commit any crime, but to abstain from theft, robber, adultery, breach of faith, and embezzlement of property entrusted to them. After this it was their custom to separate and then to come together again to partake of a meal, but of an ordinary and innocent one” (Pliny, book 10, letter 96). Pliny also used the name “Christ” three times to refer to the originator of the “sect.”

Caius Suetonius Tranquillus was the private secretary of Emperor Hadrian. In the fifth volume of his Lives of the Caesars he wrote of the expulsion of Jews from Rome during Claudius reign in AD 49. This event was recorded in Acts 18:2 by Luke. In AD 120 he noted that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome, since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus” (Claudius,25:4; R.E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 30). Chrestus was a common name among Gentiles mistaking a Jewish title (“Christ”) he was unfamiliar with for a common Greek name and thus emending it to Chrestus. The vowels “e” and “a” were often interchangeable as is demonstrated by the French term for “Christian” to this day: chreiten.

Phelegon wrote about the events of the earthquakes and darkened sky a the time of the crucifixion.  Origen wrote that Phelegon mentioned the eclipse which “took place during the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus and no other (eclipse); it is clear that he didn’t know from his sources about any (similar) eclipse in previous times and this is shown by the historical account of Tiberius” (Origen and Philoph, De, opif. Munc. II2). Origen also wrote, “now Phlegon in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events…but also testified that the result corresponded to his prediction” (Origen against Celsus 11). A solar eclipse would be impossible at Passover (the time of Jesus’ crucifixion) because Passover is timed when there is a full moon. It would be scientifically impossible for a solar eclipse to occur then because the moon would be on the wrong side of the earth. Again both the darkness and earthquake are mentioned in the Gospel accounts (Matthew 27:54; 28:2).

The philosopher Celsus attacked Christianity in his work True Discourse around A.D. 178. He claimed that Christ owed his existence to the result of fornication between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera

Around AD 165 Lucian of Samosata wrote The Death of Peregrinus. In this work he blamed the Christians’ anti-pagan idol teachings for the ruin of Peregrinus. Lucian refers to Christ as “that other whom [Christians] still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world … was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws” (Lucian, “The Passing of Peregrinus”, in Lucian, vol. 5).

Born only two dozen years after the death of Jesus, Cornelius Tacitus (c. A.D.56-117) was very hostile to Christianity and its founder. He held positions under Emperors Nerva and Trajan serving as proconsul of Asia for two years (AD 112-113). His sixteen volumes cover the history of the Roman empire form Augustus to Nero. Around 112 AD he wrote, “But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also” (Annals XV, 44).

The Gospels agree with Tacitus in that Jesus was executed during the reign of Tiberius (Ad 14-37) when Pilate was procurator (AD 26-35). And according to Acts 8:4 Christianity had spread with remarkable speed.

In a letter composed in Syria around AD 73 a stoic philosopher named Mara bar Serapion wrote in Aramaic to his son, Serapion:  “What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos 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 that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the ‘new law’ he laid down.”

The final evidence in this to be explored is that of the actions of Roman Emperor Hadrian who ruled the empire between AD 117-138. He built a pagan temple over the site of the crucifixion and placed statues of Venus and Jupiter on the place of the resurrection.

There is no indication that these non-Christian writers of antiquity ever questioned the existence of Jesus. Instead these witnesses to Jesus’ existence, though hostile to Christianity, provide us with parallel evidence found in the New Testament.

– Daniel R. Vess

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Categories: The Forum