Skeptics like Ellen Johnson [former President of American Atheists] cite the “lack of secular history” for Jesus as evidence that he didn’t exist.
Yet there is very little documentation for any person from the time of Christ. Most ancient historical documents have been destroyed through the centuries, by wars, fires, and pillaging, or simply through weathering and deterioration.
According to E. M. Blaiklock, who has catalogued most of the non-Christian writings of the Roman Empire, “practically nothing exists from the time of Christ”, even for great secular leaders such as Julius Caesar.¹ Yet no historian questions Caesar’s existence.
And since he wasn’t a great political or military leader, Darrell Bock notes, “It is amazing and significant that Jesus shows up at all in the sources we have.”²
So, who are these sources Bock mentions? Which early historians who wrote of Jesus did not have a Christian agenda? First of all, let’s look to Jesus’ enemies.
Jewish Historians: The Jews had the most to gain by denying Jesus’ existence. But they always regarded him as real. “Several Jewish writings refer to Jesus as a real person whom they opposed.³
Noted Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote of James, “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.”4 If Jesus wasn’t a real person why wouldn’t Josephus have said so?
In another somewhat controversial passage, Josephus speaks more extensively of Jesus.5
At this time there was a man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified, and he died. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was thought to be the Messiah.”6
Although some of his words are in dispute, Josephus’ confirmation here of Jesus’ existence is widely accepted by scholars.7
Israeli scholar Shlomo Pines writes, “Even the most bitter opponents of Christianity never expressed any doubt as to Jesus having really lived.”8
World historian Will Durant notes that no Jew or Gentile from the first-century ever denied the existence of Jesus.9
Roman Historians: Early Roman historians wrote primarily of events and people important to their empire. Since Jesus wasn’t of immediate importance to the political or military affairs of Rome, very little Roman history referenced him. However, two important Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, do acknowledge Jesus as a real person.
Tacitus (a.d. 55-120), the greatest early Roman historian, wrote that Christus (Greek for Christ) had lived during the reign of Tiberius and “suffered under Pontius Pilate, that Jesus’ teachings had already spread to Rome; and that Christians were considered criminals and tortured in a variety of ways, including crucifixion.”10
Suetonius (a.d. 69-130) wrote of “Chrestus” as an instigator. Most scholars believe this is a reference to Christ. Suetonius also wrote of Christians having been persecuted by Nero in a.d. 64.11
Roman Officials: Christians were considered enemies of Rome because of their worship of Jesus as Lord rather than Caesar. The following Roman government officials, including two Caesars, wrote letters from that perspective, mentioning Jesus and early Christian origins.12
Pliny the Younger was an imperial magistrate under Emperor Trajan. In a.d. 112, Pliny wrote to Trajan of his attempts to force Christians to renounce Christ, whom they “worshiped as a god.”
Emperor Trajan (a.d. 56-117) wrote letters mentioning Jesus and early Christian origins.
Emperor Hadrian (a.d. 76-136) wrote about Christians as followers of Jesus.
Pagan Sources: Several early pagan writers briefly mention Jesus or Christians prior to the end of the second century. These include Thallus, Phlegon, Mara Bar-Serapion and Lucian of Samosate.13 Thallus’ remarks about Jesus were written in a.d. 52, about twenty years after Christ.
In total, nine early non-Christian secular writers mention Jesus as a real person within 150 years of his death. Interestingly, that is the same number of secular writers who mention Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor during Jesus’ time. If we were to consider Christian and non-Christian sources, there are forty-two who mention Jesus, compared to just ten for Tiberius.14
Historical Facts about Jesus:
These early non-Christian sources provide the following facts about Jesus Christ:
- Jesus was from Nazareth.
- Jesus lived a wise and virtuous life.
- Jesus was crucified in Judea under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar at Passover time, being considered the Jewish king.
- Jesus was believed by his disciples to have died and risen from the dead three days later.
- Jesus’ enemies acknowledged that he performed unusual feats.
- Jesus’ disciples multiplied rapidly, spreading as far as Rome.
- Jesus’ disciples lived moral lives and worshiped Christ as God.
This general outline of Jesus’ life agrees perfectly with the New Testament.15
Gary Habarmas notes, “In total, about one-third of these non-Christian sources date from the first century; a majority originate no later than the mid-second century.”16 According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ”These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus.”17
¹Quoted in Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, Evidence for the Historical Jesus (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 23.
²Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 46.
³D. James Kennedy, Skeptics Answered (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1997), 76.
4Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1966), 423. The quote is from book 20 of the Antiquities.
5Ibid., 379. Quotation is from the Arabic translation of Josephus’ words about Jesus because some scholars believe the Christian version, which affirmed Jesus’ resurrection as historical, was altered. However, the Arabic translation cited here was under Islamic control, where alterations by Christians would have been virtually impossible.
7McDowell and Wilson, 42-43.
9Will Durant, “Caesar and Christ,” vol. 3 of The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 555.
10Quoted in Durant, 281. The quote is from Annals 15:44.
11McDowell and Wilson, 49-50.
14Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 127.
15Norman Geisler and Peter Bocchino, Unshakable Foundations (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2001), 269.
16Habermas, “Was Jesus Real”.
17Quoted in Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, vol. 1(Nashville: Nelson, 1979), 87.