An argument typically put forth by an unbeliever concerning the life of Jesus is that only the bible mentions Him existing. Since only the bible mentions Jesus and no other secular, historic, references mention Him then Jesus must not have existed. However, the case for Jesus existing is actually quite strong. Any serious, unbiased historian worth their weight is not in a position to deny the existence of Jesus Christ. Now, for the sake of this defense article we are only addressing Jesus The Man. We are not addressing His divinity or ability to manipulate the supernatural and produce miracles. Our goal is merely to showcase other external references outside of the bible that points to Jesus. These references are secular (pagan, non-Christian, non-Jewish etc..). There are no “Christian” biases.
It is also important to note that at A.D. 70 the Romans set out to destroy all of Jerusalem. They slaughtered the inhabitants and burned everything they could to the ground. The Temple, which was the center of Judaism, was destroyed. The destruction of Jerusalem and affront against the Jews would most certainly minimize the amount of writings and accounts of Jesus that we could have today if this event did not take place. However, there are still historic, secular evidences from Rome herself that provide evidence.
Senator Cornelius Tacitus, tagged as the greatest ancient Roman historian to have lived, documented the existence and crucifixion of Christ Jesus. The Annals, one of his most famous works, covers the history of the Roman Empire stemming from the death of Augustus (A.D. 14) to Nero (A.D. 68). It is in this work, covering the reign of Nero and the great fire of Rome, that Tacitus writes a passage referring to the execution of Christ Jesus by Pontius Pilate and the persecution of Christians. Tacitus writes (Note the common pagan misspelling of Christ to Christus):
“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, and punished 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, where all things Hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their Center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first Made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an Immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of Firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”
Unfortunately most of Tacitus’ works that cover Christ Jesus’ ministry have been lost over time. However Tacitean scholars all agree to the passage being genuine. His anti-Christian tone gives testament to the fact the passage was not forged by Christians. Tacitus was also known to independently verify and fact check from many sources before committing them to his writings. He was very detailed and meticulous. Despite his hatred for Christians he still captured this passage as a historic fact.
What is also surprising about this passage is what looks to be a possible reference to the resurrection of Jesus, albeit speculative. J.N.D. Anderson writes:
“It is scarcely fanciful to suggest that when he adds that “A most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out” ” 1
It also important to note that some “misinformed” Atheist attempt to object the validity of this passage and cast doubt upon Tacitus credibility due to Pilate’s title being referred to as Procurator vs Prefect. However, even if this was true, attempting to discredit the greatest Roman historian and all of his work on the account of a single error is ridiculous and screams agenda. Scholars actually believe Pilate carried both titles. For what it is worth, a concession from historian and The Secular Web’s Richard Carrier:
“It seems evident from all the source material available that the post was always a prefecture, and also a procuratorship. Pilate was almost certainly holding both posts simultaneously, a practice that was likely established from the start when Judaea was annexed in 6 A.D. And since it is more insulting (to an elitist like Tacitus and his readers) to be a procurator, and even more insulting to be executed by one, it is likely Tacitus chose that office out of his well-known sense of malicious wit. Tacitus was also a routine employer of variatio, deliberately seeking nonstandard ways of saying things (it is one of several markers of Tacitean style). So, there is nothing unusual about his choice here.” 2
Lucian of Samosata
Lucian was a second century Greek satirist who mocked Jesus and the early Christians. He writes:
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” 3
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
Suetonius, Roman historian and chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian is known for his writings, The Twelve Caesars, which is a set of twelve biographies covering Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire. In his Life of Claudius 25.4 he states (note misspelling of Christus to Chrestus):
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome.”
This very same event is mentioned in the bible by Luke in the book of Acts.
“And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them” (Acts 18:2)
Pliny the Younger
Pliny was the governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (A.D. 112) and served under the emperor Trajan. He was a witness to the eruption of Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD and his recorded writings on the event are held in high regard by volcanologists due to the sheer detail he captured. Pliny was known for his “letters”. In one of them he writes to emperor Trajan seeking counsel as to how he should treat the Christians according to legal proceedings. At the time, so many were being captured for execution including men women and children that he was unsure if he was to treat Christians who renounced their faith under forced conversion any different from those who held steadfast or who may have denounced their faith before they were tortured. Pliny’s method was to torture the Christian to get them to renounce, bow to the Trajan statues as a god and curse Christ. In this letter Pliny also writes:
“They (the Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food — but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.” (Epistles X, 96) 4
The response of Trajan is as follows:
“The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made fore these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not (that is, by adoring our Gods) he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Informations without the accuser’s name subscribed must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to the spirit of the age.” (Epistles X, 97)
Thallus is one of the first secular writers to mention the existence of Christ (AD 52). He wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world from the Trojan War to his own time. What is left of his works only exists in fragments and are cited by other writers. One such writer was Julius Africanus, who wrote around the time of 221 A.D., mentions a comment made by Thallus pertaining to the eclipsing of the sun which related to the timing of Jesus dying on the cross.
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down.”
Of this incident Africanus reports:
“This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.”
This event coincides with the account in Luke:
“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44-45)
Thallus attempts to reason the event away due to the fact that Jesus was crucified at the Passover which was a full moon. It is not naturally possible for a solar eclipse to happen during a full moon. In his inability to explain a natural reason for the darkness Thallus attempts to draw the conclusion that it was a solar eclipse. However it very well may not have been.5
Phelgon was a secular authority under the emperor Hadrian who wrote a history called Chronicles. The work has been lost however Julius Africanus preserved a fragment of it in his writing. Phlegon, like Thallus also mentions the covering of darkness event.
“Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth to the ninth hour.” 5
Although “non-secular”, Origen (185-254 A.D.), who was a Christian scholar quotes Phelgon’s Chronicles as it relates to the resurrection of Christ:
“Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.” 6
Origen, when responding to the pagan Celsus (248 A.D.) references the work of Phelgon, Chronicles:
“Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions.” 7
A Syrian and most likely a stoic philosopher wrote a letter to his son sometime after 70 A.D. The manuscript itself is held at the British Museum. In the letter Mara Bar-Serapion writes from prison to his son, encouraging him to emulate the wise teachers of the past.
“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment fort heir crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.” 8
It is obvious Mara Bar-Serapion was not a Christian, evident by his comparison of Jesus Christ to mere teachers rather than the Son of God. This demonstrates there is absolutely no bias or motive behind Mara Bar-Serapion. Mara Bar-Serapion certainly believed there was a man named Jesus Christ who lived.
Ancient historical, anti-Christian text concludes that Jesus Christ was a real person who existed. These evidences are void of any bias or Christian based agenda. Furthermore there seems to be a lack of historical text that contradicts the secular writings that have been found. Concluding that despite the historic evidences that exist, Jesus Christ was merely a myth, is to push an anti-Christian agenda.
Jesus Christ was a real person.
- N.D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale, 1969), 19, cited in Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 1996), 189-190.
- Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13
- F. F. Bruce, Christian Origins, 25; Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 198
- Julius Africanus, Extant Writings, XVIII in the Ante Nicene Fathers, ed. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), vol. VI, p. 130. as cited in Habermas, Gary R., The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company) 1996.
- Africanus, Chronography 18.1
- Origen, XIV
- British Museum Syriac MS. Addition 14, 658.
*McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville
*Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996.