Some question what evidence for a historical Jesus exists outside the writings of the New Testament. This is a fair question, and one that continues to be asked from time to time. I firmly believe that the documents contained in the New Testament are completely sufficient entirely on their own to establish the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Some have charged that it is inadmissible to use the New Testament as a historical source for the life of Jesus because it is a biased account. I must agree that it is a biased account, but all historical documentation is biased in one way or another. It must be evaluated on its own merits. Well over a hundred years of scholarly research has confirmed its viability as a valid source for our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. A summary of early extra-Biblical evidence has recently been provided by Lawrence Mykytiuk in the January/February 2015 bulletin of the Biblical Archeology Society. The endnotes alone in his piece are worth their weight in gold. I recap his findings in this post, and add a few of my own. (see reference at the end).
Some preliminary observations:
First, it is not to be expected that Rome would have paid any attention to an obscure cult leader in the remote province of Judea. It is therefore surprising that any reference has survived from such an early period – just mere decades after the death of Jesus.
Second, as F.F. Bruce noted, few classical writings survive from the period of about the first 50 years of the Christian church (c. 29 to 80 C.E.). Again, that we have any first century material outside the New Testament is itself remarkable. (see F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins, p. 17.)
Third, Josephus and Tacitus are excellent witnesses to the historicity of Jesus as they are both non-Christian sources and have no interest in pushing a Christian agenda. Indeed, Tacitus could be classified as a hostile witness. Their references to Jesus in a completely neutral context in the course of discussing other issues. The mention of Jesus is tangential to the immediate story.
Josephus (37-100 AD) was a first-century Jewish priest turned military commander who initially fought for the Jews during the first Jewish War with Rome (66-70 AD). He soon saw the futility of fighting against Rome and turned against his people, sided with the Romans and provided them valuable intel during the course of the war. For his efforts he was rewarded with a comfortable living in Rome and was charged with writing the official account of the war. His two greatest works were The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. It was in the Antiquities, Book 20, that his shorter reference to Jesus occurs. An earlier and longer reference is found in Book 18. Here are both references (the second with Christian additions italicized):
“Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.”
“Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.”
Tacitus, or more formally, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (55/56–c. 118)—was a Roman senator, orator and ethnographer, and perhaps one of the best of Roman historians. An interesting fact about his personal career is that Tacitus likely had access to some official archives by virtue of his status, either as Proconsul of Asia, as a Senator – or, as has been often overlooked, from his position as a high-ranking priest of Roman religion. Robert Van Voorst notes that in 88 AD Tacitus became “a member of the Quindecimviri Sacris Faciundis [“The Board of Fifteen for Performing Sacrifices”], the priestly organization charged, among other things, with … supervising the practice of officially tolerated foreign cults in the city … [and facing] the growing necessity to distinguish illicit Christianity from licit Judaism” (Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 52). Membership in this priestly group very likely gave him access to at least some of the accurate knowledge he possessed about Christus.
Tacitus’s last major work, titled Annals, written c. 116–117, includes a biography of Nero. In 64, Nero was suspected of secretly ordering the burning of a part of town where he wanted to carry out a building project, so he tried to shift the blame to Christians. This was the occasion for Tacitus to mention Christians, whom he despised. This is what he wrote—the following excerpt is translated from Latin by Robert Van Voorst:
“[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.”
With these texts before us, let us now consider the Nine Facts of the New Testament Corroborated by Josephus and Tacitus:
1. He existed as a man. The New Testament presents Jesus as a real historical person, not a mythical figure. The gospels tell us of his physical genealogy, his parents, brothers and sisters, his cousin (John the Baptist), his birthplace, his deeds and sayings. They name his friends, his enemies, the names of cities to which he travels and ultimately, describe in detail his death in Jerusalem. They record the names of the Roman and Jewish rulers who reigned during his lifetime. They set him in a completely historical home in the Judeo-Greco-Roman world of the first century. Indeed, the gospels reek of real history. (Matthew chapters 1 and 2, Mark 3:31-32, Matthew 5, Luke 1-2, John 18-19).
The historian Josephus grew up in a priestly family in first-century Palestine and wrote only decades after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ known associates, such as Jesus’ brother James, were his contemporaries. The historical and cultural context was second nature to Josephus. “If any Jewish writer were ever in a position to know about the non-existence of Jesus, it would have been Josephus. His implicit affirmation of the existence of Jesus has been, and still is, the most significant obstacle for those who argue that the extra-Biblical evidence is not probative on this point,” Robert Van Voorst observes. And Tacitus was careful enough not to report real executions of nonexistent people.
2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us. (Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:30)
3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies, unaware, by reporting, as Romans thought, that his name was Christus. (John 1:41, 17:3)
4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports. (Matthew 13:55, Galatians 1:19)
5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus, although it is anachronistic to say that they were “many” at the end of his life. Large growth
in the number of Jesus’ actual followers came only after his death. (John 12:20-21, Acts 8, 10, et. al., Romans 16, etc.)
6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him, at least according to some versions of the Testimonium Flavianum (the longer text in Josephus, Antiquities, Book 18). In the New Testament, see the various encounters of Jesus with the Scribes and Pharisees, and especially the account of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin – John 18).
7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state. (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 18)
8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus. (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19)
9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign. (Luke 3:1)
I am most grateful to Lawrence Mykytiuk’s feature article from the January/February 2015 issue of BAR with voluminous endnotes: