Evidence for the Historical Jesus in Non-Christian Sources

CRI-Blog-Hanegraaff, Hank-Historical Evidence of JesusEvery now and then, I want to start the broadcast — I do not do it as often as I should — with an email question, or a Facebook question, or someone that texted in a question. A good example is a question from Jesse, who writes, “My faith has been shaken for doubt as well as for personal reasons because I read that there is historical and archeological evidence of Jesus being mentioned by Josephus and by Pliny and by other people of history but I read of evidence of Jesus being debunked due to the writings of historical figures having been altered in the process. So, is there really such evidence for Jesus?”

I love this question because there is really historical archeological evidence for Jesus the Christ. But, I also think this question is astute in that it evidences the fact that there is spin that has been produced by second and third century documents as well as credible evidence. In fact, from early external evidences provided by credible historians, historians like the Jewish Josephus, or the Roman Tacitus, or Suetonius, or Plinius, through those evidences, it is actually possible to piece together highlights of Christ and Christianity completely apart from the internal biblical evidences themselves. But, the contrast between these credible first-century external evidences and then later less credible sources could not be more stark.

Tacitus is rightly regarded as the greatest first-century historian of the ancient Roman Empire. While the Talmud rarely mentions historical details surrounding second temple Judaism, and where it does, it consistently muddles them. There is a big difference between Tacitus and the Talmud. Just two examples.

I think it is incredible to think that Tacitus — by the way, when we are talking about him, we are talking about a person who is widely considered to be the greatest first-century historian of the ancient Roman Empire — that he would provide credible external evidence for the biblical account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and that at the hands of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Or for that matter, that the Jewish Josephus — I said this many times on the broadcast, he was writing to please the Romans — that he would provide ancient authoritative attestation to the authenticity of the sacred text, but that is precisely the case.

Therefore, I would say to Jesse, the words of the hymn writer still echo through the ages: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word.” But, not only in His excellent Word but also in external credible evidences by which you can piece together highlights of the life of Christ, wholly apart from the biblical text itself.

—Hank Hanegraaff

“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, 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, whiter all things horrible and disgraceful flow, from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly, first those were seized who confessed they were Christians: next, on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of hating the human race” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44).

“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (Josephus, Antiquities 18.63–64).

For further related study, please consult the following books:

Has God Spoken (Thomas Nelson) by Hank Hanegraaff

Josephus, The Essential Works (Eerdmans) by Paul Maier

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (InterVarsity Press) by Michael Licona

This blog adapted from the March 14, 2017, Bible Answer Man Broadcast.

2 Responses to Evidence for the Historical Jesus in Non-Christian Sources

  1. gary says:

    The veracity of the Christian religion rises or falls on the veracity of the Resurrection and the veracity of the Resurrection rises or falls on the historicity of the alleged post-death appearances of Jesus to his followers. Christians believe that the appearance stories in the Gospels and in the Early Creed are historical facts based primarily on the following:
    1. There were so many alleged eyewitnesses to these appearances, sometimes in large groups.
    2. These alleged appearances had a dramatic effect on the character of those who witnessed them.
    3. These alleged appearances were the impetus for many early Christians to be willing to be tortured and painfully executed for their belief in the veracity of these appearances.
    4. These Resurrection appearances were the primary reason for the rapid growth of Christianity.
    Question: Are these facts sufficient evidence to believe that a three-day-brain-dead first century corpse really did come back to life possessing supernatural powers; supernatural powers which allowed him to teleport between cities, walk through locked doors, and levitate into space?
    Before you answer that question I ask you to watch this Youtube video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=najjzDeRrNY
    In this video, HUNDREDS of very devout, sincere people of faith believe that a woman who has been dead for 20 centuries is appearing to them. I have no doubt that at least some of these “eyewitnesses” would be willing to suffer great persecution and even death defending their belief that this event really happened.
    Based on the very large number of eyewitnesses to this event and upon their very intense, sincere belief that this very extra-ordinary event really occurred…should we believe them?
    Answer: Absolutely not!
    Why? These people are very obviously experiencing an illusion. There is no dead woman to be seen anywhere in the video. Collective human experience would suggest that this is very likely what happened in the first century with the early Christians. The appearance stories in the Early Creed of First Corinthians 15, the earliest description we have of these alleged events, make no mention of a talking, walking, broiled-fish-eating Jesus. If the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels are literary embellishments, perfectly acceptable in a Greco-Roman biography as evangelical Christian New Testament scholar Michael Licona has demonstrated in his recent book, Why are There Differences in the Gospels?, it is quite possible that the actual early Christian appearance claims were based on illusions, similar to the one seen in the Youtube video above.

  2. Stephen says:

    @ Gary – I think that if it weren’t for the many miracles that Jesus performed BEFORE his death, there would not have been nearly as much “buzz” about him in the first place. Also, out of the estimated 108 billion people who have ever lived on this earth, how is it that only 1 has been the genesis of a major faith and that singular one is based on a death and resurrection? There have been many who have claimed similar (and the youtube video you posted is yet another one) but nobody remembers them after 100 years. It dies out. Yet, Christianity hasn’t. BTW, let’s not mix the “western” stuff (or even Catholicism in how they have manipulated people) with true Christianity. A Christian from Iraq or Jordan is VERY DIFFERENT than one from Kansas or the Vatican.

    Anyway, even if the Gospels were all based on illusions, you still have to explain how a handful of disillusioned people from 2000 years ago were able to create a world-wide faith movement that is entirely based on serving others and turning the other cheek. It is counter-intuitive to how we as humans think and at least for me, forces me to consider maybe there is more to all of this. Also take into account that any other faith requires you to “do” to be righteous. Christianity is the exact opposite; you are righteous because of what someone else did, not you.

    My $.02

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