What Are We Looking For?
What sort of historical corroboration of the Christian message should we expect to find from non-Christian sources?
We are not likely to find them claiming that Jesus was the Messiah, or that he rose from the dead. This may sound obvious: but it is amazing how many times one hears otherwise intelligent people suggest that these things should not be believed, because the only people who say so are Christians!
The Christian faith was seriously at odds with accepted beliefs in Jewish, Roman and Greek society. The Jews claimed that Jesus worked his miracles through sorcery (c.f. Luke 11:14-5). The Romans regarded Christians as ‘atheists’, because they rejected their gods and the divinity of the Emperor. Consequently, we should expect such references as do exist in non-Christian sources to be disparaging. As we shall see later in the case of the Testimonium Flavianum, any that isn’t must be treated with caution.
The Scarcity of Secular Sources.
Unfortunately, we cannot expect to find much contemporary secular corroboration of the New Testament at all, as very few secular documents from this period have survived to the present day. In fact, there are so few that we can provide a fairly exhaustive listing of them in just a few lines:
- Philo, who lived in Egypt and died in 40 AD, concentrated on philosophy and the relationship between Jewish and Greek culture.
- There is part of a history of Rome by Velleius Paterculus, dated 30 AD.
- There is an inscription from Caesaraea containing two thirds of Pilate’s name, dated between 30 and 40 AD.
- There are some fables written by Phaedrus dated 40-50 AD.
- From the 50’s and 60’s there are only a handful of items, much of it written by Spanish emigrants living in Rome.
Apart from these there are:
- A poem of Lucan, Seneca’s nephew, on the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey.
- A book on agriculture by Columella.
- Fragments of the novel ‘Satyricon’, by Gaius Petronicus.
- A few hundred lines from the satirist, Persius.
- ‘Historia Naturalis,’ (natural history) by the Elder Pliny.
- Fragments of a commentary on Cicero by Asconius Pedianus.
- A history of Alexander the Great by Quintus Curtius.
- Various writings of Seneca.
Of these, only two might have written anything, Philo and Seneca.
- Philo was a resident of Alexandria in Egypt; but would probably have heard of Jesus and his followers. He himself was a practising Jew, and his interest is in things Jewish. He writes at some length about the teachings of the Essenes. But to many Jews of his time (including St Paul, prior to his conversion!) the Nazarenes were a heretical sect; and he may well have ignored them for this reason.
- Seneca would also have been a possibility: but Christianity was only just gaining its first foothold in Rome during the late 50’s and early 60’s; and did not rise to prominence until Nero’s persecution in 64 AD. Seneca was in deep trouble with Nero himself (he committed suicide in 65 AD); so is unlikely to have courted further problems by touching on such a sensitive subject, especially if he had any sympathy for Christians.
Other sources did exist, such as Thallus and Phlegon, for they are mentioned in writings of the early church Fathers, but have since been lost. These will be discussed in due course, along with some other later references from secular and Jewish sources.
As a result, we are forced to rely on secular sources of a slightly later date.
But, although there are not many really early external corroborations of the historicity of Jesus, those that do exist are of precisely the type and approximate number that are to be expected. Tacitus and Josephus, for example, provide just the kind of evidence we would expect. Although not the only sources they are amongst the best, since both are well attested and have a reputation as careful researchers.