Early Non-Christian References To Jesus Christ
(Adapted from Consider Christianity: Evidence for the Christian Faith by Elgin L. Hushbeck, Jr.)
The earliest references to Jesus by a non-Christian writer that we have were made by the Jewish historian, Josephus. In his book, Antiquities of the Jews, which he finished in the year A.D. 93 or 94, Josephus refers to Jesus twice. The first reference is also one of the most disputed passages concerning Jesus, for it seems to have been altered at some time by Christians. The first passage as we now have it, states:
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.(1)
Many scholars have pointed out that for Josephus to have written such an account, he would had to have been a Christian. An orthodox Jew would not have written things like "if it be lawful to call him a man" and "He was [the] Christ." Since there is no other indication that Josephus was a Christian, it would seem clear that the passage has been altered. The real question is: Did Josephus write any of it, or is the entire passage a forgery?
Research on a recently discovered Arabic manuscript of Josephus supports the notion that he is responsible for the majority of the passage. Schlomo Pines, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, found that the Arabic version did not contain the questionable phrases. The Arabic version reads as follows:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And 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 to die. 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 perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.(2)
In this version, Josephus does not say that Jesus is the Christ, but only that "perhaps" He was. He does not say that Christ had risen from the dead, but only that His disciples "reported" that they had seen Jesus. There is nothing in this passage that could not have been written by Josephus.
In the only other passage in which Jesus is mentioned, Josephus simply refers to Him as the brother of James.
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.(3)
This passage does not call Jesus the Christ. In fact, the way Josephus refers to Jesus in this passage as the so-called Christ is derogatory. Because of this, just as most scholars believe the first passage could not have been written by a Jew, they do not believe this passage could have been written by a Christian. Therefore, the second passage is generally accepted as authentic.
In the second passage, Josephus mentions Jesus as a way of introducing the reader to Jesus brother James. This implies that Jesus has already been introduced to the reader. Because of this, and the fact that it is unlikely that Christians would have been able to alter the Arabic version of Josephus, most scholars now accept that the first passage was not added, but has only been altered. These two passages provide a non-Christian witness to the fact that Jesus did at least exist, and that the major events recorded in the Gospels (that he was crucified by Pilate and was reported to have risen three days later) are basically correct.
The Jewish Talmud, compiled near the end of the first century and during the second, also makes references to Jesus. In one passage we read that:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.(4)
The word for hanged used here was sometimes used to refer to someone who hung on a cross. From this passage we learn that Jesus (Yeshu) was a religious leader who practiced what the Jews referred to as sorcery (miracles?). We see that Jesus had a large following, that he "enticed Israel to apostasy," and that he was crucified on the eve of the Passover.
There are other references in Jewish writings that reflect on Christian teachings. For example, we can see that some Jews felt a need to respond to the stories of the virgin birth from the fact that Jesus is sometimes referred to as "Jesus son of Pandera." Pandera was supposedly a Roman soldier.(5)
The Roman historian Thallus, who wrote a history of the world around A.D. 52, seems to have included in this history a discussion of the events concerning Jesus death. While we do not have the writings of Thallus himself, we know of the existence of this work because it is quoted in other works from the period. One of the works that mentions Thallus is a work by the early Christian historian, Julius Africanus. While discussing the death of Jesus and the darkness that preceded it, Julius Africanus wrote the following:
Thallus, in the third book of his history, calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun, but in my opinion he is wrong.(6)
It would seem that the debate concerning Christ and the events surrounding his death was already in progress by the middle of the first century.
Cornelius Tacitus, who was one of the greatest of the Roman historians, also mentioned Christ in his Annals, written about A.D. 110. During his description of the burning of Rome, Tacitus wrote that rumors were spreading that Nero had set the fire himself. Tacitus wrote of Nero:
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 Pilate, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [Rome], where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.(7)
We see that only a short time after the death of Jesus, Christianity had already spread, and had encountered great opposition.
What do these non-Christian sources reveal about Jesus? Most important is what they do not say. These writers did not agree with what the Christians were saying about Christ. Tacitus called Christianity a "deadly superstition" and "hideous." These authors could be expected to make the strongest arguments against Jesus and Christianity possible. If Jesus had simply been a creation of Paul, and had not really existed, would not at least one of these early critics have pointed this out?
Sometimes it is argued that these writers lived too long after the events to have known what had taken place. This ignores the fact that the controversy concerning Jesus was not something that began during the second century. As shown by these critics, it started much earlier. The opposition to Jesus started while He was still alive. It can be seen in the Gospels and in the earliest letters of Paul, which even liberal scholars accept as having been written around the middle of the first century. Surely the early opponents of Christianity would have known of the events that surrounded the life of Jesus. Yet the opponents of Christianity who were alive during the time of Christ, or who lived close enough to the events to have talked to those who did, never argued that Jesus did not exist.
What we see with many of these non-Christian sources is an acceptance of the claims of Christianity, with attempts to provide alternative explanations. Take for example the Virgin Birth. The Talmud does not dispute the biblical claim that Joseph was not Jesus natural father. Instead, the writers of the Talmud claim what would be the only other natural explanation: that another man was Jesus father. More specifically, that Jesus father had been a Roman soldier named Pandera. Christian scholars have long pointed out the similarity of this name to the Greek word Parthenos (virgin), and have concluded that the name chosen for Jesus father is simply a derogatory corruption of the Greek word for virgin. Interestingly, making Jesus father a Roman soldier would also preclude another claim that Christ made: that he was a descendant of King David.
As for the miracles recorded in the Gospels, those who lived at the time of Jesus ministry, or shortly thereafter, made no attempt to claim that they did not occur. They tried to explain them away. Jesus claimed that the miracles were a sign from God to prove that He was the Son of God. The Talmud, however, does not refer to miracles done by the power of God, but to "sorcery," the acts of a magician. Implicit in this explanation is that some miraculously appearing events did occur. The explanation for these events was disputed, but their occurrence was not.
This tacit acceptance of Christian claims can also be seen in the argument of Thallus concerning the darkening of the sun just before the death of Jesus. Thallus apparently accepted that there was a period of darkness at the time Jesus died. Rather than trying to dispute the darkness, he attempted to provide a natural explanation for it, one that did not require Jesus to be who He claimed to be. Thallus provides us with evidence to support the biblical claims for darkness at the time of Christs death. Since Jesus was crucified during the Passover, and the Passover occurs fourteen days after the new moon, we now know that this darkness could not have been caused by an eclipse.
From the writings of the early critics we learn that there was a religious teacher named Jesus. We are told that His birth was not a normal birth. During His ministry Jesus did many miracles. He had a large following, and the religious leaders of the time opposed Him. We learn that while in Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus was arrested. He was condemned to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. His death was by crucifixion. During the crucifixion there was an unexplained darkening of the sky. Finally, His followers claimed that three days later Jesus rose from the dead and still lives.
Admittedly, this may not be proof that Jesus is the Son of God. But when you consider that these conclusions are based on the statements of the early critics of Christianity (not usually considered to be a rich source of supportive material), the support they provide is truly amazing.
1 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.III.3
2 Quoted by Gary R Habermas, The Verdict of History (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1988) pp. 91-92
3 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX.IX.I
4 Quoted in Habermas, The Verdict p. 98
5 Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Dowers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity, 1987) pp. 198-9
6 Quoted in Habermas, The Verdict p. 93
7 Tactius, Annals 15:44 quoted in Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History? (Ann Arbor, MI: Vine Books, 1986) p. 20