Friday, February 19, 2010

Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources - Part 1

By Michael Gleghorn



Although there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament is an accurate and trustworthy historical document, many people are still reluctant to believe what it says unless there is also some independent, non-biblical testimony that corroborates its statements. In the introduction to one of his books, F.F. Bruce tells about a Christian correspondent who was told by an agnostic friend that "apart from obscure references in Josephus and the like," there was no historical evidence for the life of Jesus outside the Bible.[1] This, he wrote to Bruce, had caused him "great concern and some little upset in [his] spiritual life."[2] He concludes his letter by asking, "Is such collateral proof available, and if not, are there reasons for the lack of it?"[3] The answer to this question is, "Yes, such collateral proof is available," and we will be looking at some of it in this article.

Evidence from Tacitus

Let's begin our inquiry with a passage that historian Edwin Yamauchi calls "probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament."[4] Reporting on Emperor Nero's decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:

Nero fastened the guilt ... 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 ... 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....[5]

What can we learn from this ancient (and rather unsympathetic) reference to Jesus and the early Christians? Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have "suffered the extreme penalty," obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion. This is said to have occurred during the reign of Tiberius and by the sentence of Pontius Pilatus. This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.

But what are we to make of Tacitus' rather enigmatic statement that Christ's death briefly checked "a most mischievous superstition," which subsequently arose not only in Judaea, but also in Rome? One historian suggests that Tacitus is here "bearing indirect ... testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had risen from the grave."[6] While this interpretation is admittedly speculative, it does help explain the otherwise bizarre occurrence of a rapidly growing religion based on the worship of a man who had been crucified as a criminal.[7] How else might one explain that?


[1] F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 13.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Edwin Yamauchi, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 82.
[5] Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.
[6] 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.
[7] Edwin Yamauchi, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.

Read Part 2 >

1 comment:

  1. Hi Michael,
    You don't mention that this passage was written about 116 CE - about 80 years after the date it is claimed that Jesus died! No one doubts that Christian tradition was well established by then, or even at the time of the fires in 62 CE. But it is drawing a very long bow to suggest that someone writing this far after the supposed event and in this context constitutes a reliable independent source for the historicity of the Jesus story.

    There is no evidence that Tacitus is doing any more than repeating established Christian folklore. Further, it was not unknown for him to report unfounded rumours, and even those which he knew to be false, in order to buttress his own viewpoint. In fact, the context of this passage is not unlike others where we know he repeated unhistorical information.

    If this is "probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament" then the historicity of Jesus is on pretty shaky ground.



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