Corroboration from Non-Christian Sources
This page examines corroborative evidence for Jesus’ resurrection from Jewish and Roman sources.
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- Authenticity of the New Testament
- The Character of the Witnesses
- Did Jesus Really Die?
- The Resurrection Accounts
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N.B. The following is a summary of the available information. More detailed discussion, including fuller citations and evidence regarding their authenticity, may be found by clicking on the links provided.
- 1. What Might We Expect to Find?
- What sort of historical corroboration of the Christian message should we expect to find from non-Christian sources? Certainly not claims that Jesus was the Messiah, or that he rose from the dead. The Christian faith was seriously at odds with accepted beliefs in Jewish, Roman and Greek society, so we should expect rather that such references as do exist in non-Christian sources would be disparaging.
- Very few secular documents from the time of Jesus and the apostles have survived to the present. As a result, we are forced to rely on secular sources of a slightly later date. But, although there are few really early external corroborations of the historicity of Jesus, those that do exist are of precisely the type and approximate number we should expect.
- Tacitus and Josephus are amongst the best, since both are well attested and have a reputation as careful researchers. Other sources did exist, for they are mentioned in writings of the early church Fathers, but have since been lost. All of these are discussed in outline below, along with some other later references from secular and Jewish sources.
- 2. Tacitus.
- The Roman historian and orator Tacitus (c.55-120 AD) is acknowledged as one of the best historians of his time. He writes that, after the Fire of Rome in 64 AD, it was rumoured that the fire had been started on Nero’s orders:
“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, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.” (Annals 15.44.)
- 3. Flavius Josephus.
- Josephus was born in 37 AD to a Jewish priestly family. After predicting that Vespasian would become Emperor of Rome, he was adopted by Vespasian and given the family name of ‘Flavius’. His writings contain references to James the Just and John the Baptist. But the most famous is the ‘Testimonium Flavianum’, concerning Jesus. Most scholars accept that this passage has been altered by a later Christian hand; but even if we strike out the suspect portions completely, we are still left with this, acknowledged as authentic by the vast majority of scholars:
“At this time there was Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who performed (surprising / wonderful) works, and a teacher of people who received the (truth / unusual) with pleasure. He stirred up both many Jews and many Greeks. And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, since he was accused by the leading men among us, those who had loved him from the first did not desist. And until now the tribe of Christians, so named from him, is not extinct.”
- 4. Citations from Lost Documents.
- Citations in writings of the early church Fathers reveal that there were also references to Jesus in other secular works that are now lost to us. These include:
- A letter by Justin Martyr to the Roman Emperor Antonius Pius, in which he cites the official ‘Acts of Pilate’ as corroboration for the crucifixion account.
- A sceptical reference by Julius Africanus to an attempt by the first century historian Thallus to explain the darkness at the time of Jesus’ death in terms of a solar eclipse.
- References by both Julius Africanus and Origen to a second century historian, Phlegon, who mentions the eclipse and accompanying earthquake, as well as acknowledging that Jesus had the ability to predict future events.
- 5. Other Early Graeco-Roman Sources.
- We have the entire text of a letter from Pliny the Younger, then governor of Bythinia, to the Emperor Trajan in about 112 AD, together with Trajan’s reply. In it Pliny reports on his interrogation and execution of Christians and asks whether he should spare those who recanted their faith, particularly in view of the large numbers of persons ‘of all ranks and ages, and of both sexes’ who had embraced ‘this contagious superstition’.
- In about AD 170 Lucian of Samosata wrote “The Passing of Peregrinus”, a satire about a con-man who preyed on the trust and generosity of the supposedly gullible Christians by claiming to be one of them. ‘These deluded creatures, you see, have persuaded themselves that they are immortal and will live forever, which explains the contempt of death and willing self-sacrifice so common among them. … from the moment they are converted, deny the gods of Greece, worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws, they are all brothers.’
- 6. Rabbinic Literature.
- It is known that a number of references to Jesus that may have been offensive to Christians have been lost. But there are still a number of surviving passages that are regarded as authentic early references by the majority of both Christian and Jewish scholars. These include:
- An account of the trial and ‘hanging’ of ‘Yeshu’, dating from the Tannaitic period (70 – 200 AD), found in the Babylonian Talmud.
- An description in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Tosefta, again dating from the Tannaitic period, of an incident involving Rabbi Eliezer and one of Jesus’ disciples that took place sometime between 60 and 95 AD.
- Allusions to Jesus using the designation, ‘Such-an-one’, instead of his real name. E.g. “Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress.” (Mishna, Yebamoth 4.13.) Dated c. 100AD.
- Various references to Jesus as ‘Yeshua ben Pantera’, including one that demonstrates that healing was practiced in his name. (Some early sources say Pantera was the name of Joseph’s father, others that it was a parody of ‘virgin’ or even derived from a claim that he was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier of that name.)
- 7. Verifiable Detail.
- Finally, it should also be remembered that, as previously discussed, the New Testament accounts also contain a wealth of verifiable historical, cultural and local detail that would have been unknown to the majority of persons (including Christian writers) by the mid 2nd century.
As we said at the beginning, we should not expect to find non-Christians claiming that Jesus was the Messiah, or that he rose from the dead: but rather, that such references as do exist in non-Christian sources would mostly be disparaging. That is precisely what we do find.
But in amongst this, there is quite a wealth of historical corroboration. We have references in both Josephus and Tacitus, two of the finest historical sources of the period, plus others in various secular writings of the first and second century, all confirming the salient historical details of Jesus’ life and death, the names of his contemporaries and the church that he initiated. We even have Rabbinic sources acknowledging the fact of his miracles by accusing him of sorcery.
In fact, what is obvious from both this evidence and other later writings on the subject, is that not even Jesus’ enemies thought to challenge his historicity until centuries after his death. Why would that be, do you suppose, if the only evidence for his existence were the say-so of his followers, who had been foolish enough to supply precise details of the supposed date and location of both his birth and death; and even accused named Roman and Jewish officials of being responsible for the disgraceful conviction of an innocent man?
So whilst, in numerical terms, there are not a lot of 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; and are of a quality that, on historical grounds, establish the main facts of his life and death beyond any reasonable doubt. Claims to the contrary are of relatively recent origin and now find hardly any support amongst serious scholars.