One often finds skeptics arguing that if the events recorded in New Testament actually took place, we should expect to find others of the time mentioning them. Yet, they argue, we find nothing but silence outside the New Testament, which suggests that the New Testament is largely, if not completely, legendary. In this essay I’ll take issue with this common skeptical argument by outlining literary evidence that corroborates aspects of the New Testament. (For archeological evidence, see Is there Archeological Support for the Reliability of the Gospels?)
How much evidence should we expect?
To begin, it should not surprise us if we find there isn’t much literary corroboration of the claims made by documents found in the New Testament canon. Most claims made by ancient documents aren’t corroborated by other documents, simply because the vast majority of all that was written in the ancient world has perished.
Even beyond this, however, we need to keep in mind that historians in the ancient Roman world typically wrote under the authority of governing officials. They thus tended to be interested only in matters that were relevant to the administration they worked for. Since the earliest Jesus movement was a small, sectarian, Jewish group in a rather remote region of the Roman empire, and since these sorts of religious movements were quite common in the ancient world, especially among Jews of this time, one shouldn’t expect to find either Jesus or the movement he birthed referred to by ancient historians.
Nevertheless, we do find ancient literary evidence that corroborates aspects of the New Testament. I’ll list the seven pieces of evidence that I believe are most significant.
The first possible non-canonical reference to an event recorded in the Gospels concerns an obscure historian named Thallus who wrote a three volume history in the mid-50s CE. As with most ancient works, this work has not survived. It is referred to by other writers, however, and the reference that interests us comes from Julius Africanus, a third-century Christian historian.
In the course of discussing the prolonged darkness that occurred when Jesus died, Julius notes that “in the third book of his history Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun – wrongly in my opinion.” (1) In other words, Thallus tried to explain away the unusual darkness that occurred when Christ was crucified as an eclipse, thus confirming that an unusual darkness took place as the Gospels report (Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44). This earliest piece of evidence confirming an aspect of the New Testament is all the more significant because it involves a supernatural occurrence.
Around 110 CE, while governor of Bithynia, Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking him for advice on dealing with Christians in his territory. In the course of the letter, Pliny recounts information about Christians he had gathered from people who had defected from the Christian faith under threat of death. He says,
“They [former Christians] assured me that the sum total of their error consisted in the fact that they regularly assembled on a certain day before daybreak. They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christus as if to a god, and bound themselves with an oath not to commit any crime, but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and embezzlement of property entrusted to them. After this it was their custom to separate, and then to come together again to partake of a meal, but of an ordinary and innocent one.” (2)
From this letter we learn that, despite Nero’s attempt to wipe Christianity out and despite other persecutions, by the early second century the Jesus movement had spread to Bythnia and had become so numerous it had to be dealt with by its ruler. We also learn from this letter that both Christians and non-Christians at this time assumed Jesus had existed as a real historical person and that Christians worshipped him as divine, confirming the view of Jesus given in the New Testament. Thus, even apart from all evidence from Paul or the Gospels, Pliny’s testimony challenges us to explain how a movement, begun among Jews and on Jewish soil, could have come to believe that a man was “a god” and could have experienced the kind of rapid growth it obviously experienced.
In the fifth volume of his Lives of the Caesars, the Roman historian Suetonius refers to the expulsion of Jews from Rome during Claudius’ reign in 49 CE. Writing around 120 CE, he notes that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome, since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.” (3) A rather plausible case can be made for concluding that the “Chrestus” Suetonious speaks of is in fact Christ. Chrestus was a common name among Gentiles but was never used by Jews, so far as we know. (4) At the same time, one can easily understand Suetonious mistaking a Jewish title (“Christ”) he was unfamiliar with for a common Greek name and thus emending it to Chrestus. (5)
Also significant is the fact that Luke tells us that Jews were temporarily expelled from Rome by Claudius because a riot had broken out over the preaching of Christ (Ac 18:2). Bringing all this together, it’s not hard to surmise that Suetonious mistakenly understood a riot that was allegedly instigated by Christians as being instigated by Christ himself, which, as we’ve suggested, he mistook to be the proper Greek name Chrestus.
In the late second century, the Neoplatonist philosopher Celsus wrote the first known full-scale attack on Christianity, entitled True Doctrine. (6) What’s significant about this work is that Celsus argues that Jesus was a sorcerer and a magician. We find this charge raised a number of times in later Jewish traditions and, according to the Gospels, it goes back to opponents of Jesus himself (Mt. 12:24; Mk 3:22; Lk 11:15).
What’s most interesting about this is that no one in the ancient world ever flatly denied that Jesus performed miracles – let alone that he existed. They rather granted that he performed miracles but offered different ways of explaining them (e.g. demonic power, trickery). This uniform agreement is difficult to explain on the assumption that the Jesus story was in fact a recently created legend at the time the Gospels were written. If it was indeed largely legendary, wouldn’t at least some of the numerous critics of the early Jesus movement have raised this charge against it? In this light, I consider Celsus’ charge to be confirmation of the existence of Jesus and the apparently miraculous nature of his ministry.
Lucian of Somosata.
Sometime around 165 CE Lucian wrote a book entitled The Death of Peregrinus in which he blamed the ruin of Pereginus on Christians, based on the fact that they discouraged the worship of Pereginus’ traditional gods. At one point Lucian refers to Christ as “that other whom [Christians] still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. . . ” What’s most interesting about this passage is that the word Lucian uses for “crucifixion” (anaskolopizein) is not the common one, and certainly not the one used in the Gospels (stauroun). It literally means “to impale,” which is not how any early Christian described Jesus’ death. This deviation from Christian tradition may indicate that Lucian is relying on an independent, non-Christian, tradition about Jesus. As Craig Evans points out, it “suggests that Lucian’s knowledge of Jesus, ‘the man crucified in Palestine,’ may not be limited to Christian tradition.”(7) Hence, Lucian may provide independent confirmation of Jesus’ crucifixion.
More important than all the above secondary sources is a passage found in Tacitus’ Annals. Cornilius Tacitus was proconsul of Asia for two years (112-113 CE) and authored two works that survive today only in portions. The Annals was his second work and consisted of 16 volumes in which he rather meticulously covers Roman history from Augustus through Nero (CE 14-68). The portion of the Annals that is of interest to us (15:44) was most likely written around 115 CE. The passage comes in the context of a discussion of the great fire of Rome under Nero’s reign. Here Tacitus reports:
“Therefore, to squelch the rumor [that the burning of Rome had taken place by Nero’s own order], Nero supplied (as culprits) and punished in the most extraordinary fashion those hated for their vice, whom the crowd called ‘Christians.’ Christus, the author of their name, had suffered the death penalty during the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate. The pernicious superstition was checked for a time, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the origin of the evil, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible and shameful collect and are practiced.” (8)
This passage confirms the Gospels’ report that Jesus was executed during the reign of Tiberius (i.e., CE 14-37) and when Pilate was procurator (or prefect, see below) (CE 26-36). Tacitus also confirms that within a few decades after it began in Judea, and despite being regarded as a “pernicious superstition” and “hated for vice,” this movement had spread with remarkable speed – to the point where, by the early sixties, Nero could plausibly make them scapegoats for a city-wide fire. (9)
Josephus’ James Passage.
Even more important than Tacitus’ reference to early Christian are two passages found in Josephus’ work. The first of these two references may be called “the James Passage” since it centers on James, the brother of Jesus. It reads,
“When, therefore, Ananus [the high priest] was of this [angry] disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road. So he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James . . . .” (Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1). (10)
This passage confirms that Jesus existed and, in fact, was known well enough in the late first century that Josephus could assume his audience knew of him. Only on this assumption can we account for Josephus appealing to Christ to explain who James was. Not only this, but Josephus also confirms that James was Jesus’ biological brother, a point that is particularly significant because Paul knew James as a contemporary, which in turn entails that Paul viewed his brother, Jesus, as a recent contemporary.
Hence, this passage forces the question of how this first century Jew could have arisen to the status of Yahweh while his brother and disciples were still alive – indeed, with his brother becoming one of his followers. This is not at all easy to explain as a legend, especially in a first century Palestinian Jewish context. It forces us, therefore, to once again seriously consider the possibility that the historical Jesus was indeed someone who had the kind of supernatural power and authority the Gospels ascribe to him.
The Testimonium Flavianum
The last reference to Christ by a non-biblical source I’d like to look at is, in my opinion, the most important of all and thus the one I want to discuss in the most depth. It is also from Josephus. It is called the “Testimonium Falvaianum,” which is Latin for “the testimony of Flavious” (Josephus’ first name). In the version that has come down to us, we read:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was 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 had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. ” (Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3) (11)
Here we have the most important Jewish historian in ancient times apparently acknowledging not only that Jesus existed, but that he was wise, performed miracles, was the Messiah, was crucified and even rose from the dead! Unfortunately, almost all scholars agree that the passage is, at least in part, a Christian interpolation. The most persuasive consideration proving this is that there are three phrases in this passage that are obviously Christian.
* “. . . if indeed one ought to call him a man.” This is clearly an implicit allusion to Christ’s deity.
* “He was the Messiah.” Not only would no non-Christian affirm this, but it seems that Josephus didn’t even believe that the messiah would be Jewish. (Oddly enough, he rather seems to have thought that his patron, the Roman general Vespasian, was the messiah). (12)
* “On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.” This whole sentence is filled with a distinctly Christian content. The phrase “on the third day” was a formulaic expression used only by early Christians (e.g. Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; I Cor 15:4). The claim that Jesus was restored to life is obviously a Christian confession of the resurrection. And the claim that Old Testament prophets foretold aspects of Jesus’ life was a common early Christian theme.
On top of all this, the Testimonium isn’t referred to by early Christian apologists such as Iraeaeus, Tertullian and Origen, though it’s clear they were familiar with Josephus’ Antiquities. If Josephus had said the things this passage has him say about Jesus, it’s hard to imagine early Christians not seizing it to their advantage. Even more damaging is the fact that Origen twice noted that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the messiah (see Against Celsus, 1.45; Commentary on Matthew, 10.17). It thus seems close to certain that the passage as it stands is at least partly a Christian interpolation.
On the other hand, there are several compelling arguments that have led many scholars to conclude that this passage isn’t entirely an interpolation. Once the three obviously Christian phrases are removed, the passage reads like something a first-century Jewish historian could have said about Jesus. If we extrapolate the Christian phrases out of the text, we arrive at something like the following:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” (13)
There are six considerations (or sets of considerations) that, in my opinion, support something like this reconstructed version of the Testmonium.
1) Acknowledging that Jesus was a “wise man” and a doer of “surprising feats” would have been no problem for Josephus. As most New Testament scholars agree, Jesus was widely known as a teacher and a miracle-worker in the ancient world, for better or for worse.
2) Significantly enough, a 10th century Arabic translation of the Testimonium has been discovered and it is quite close to the reconstructed passage offered above. A good number of reputable scholars believe the author of the Arabic version of the Testimonium had access to a version of Antiquities whose textual tradition pre-dated the Christian interpolation. Thus, the Arabic text likely helps confirm the reconstructed version of the Testimonium offered above.
3) Not only does this reconstructed passage contain things that a Jewish historian could have said about Jesus, it also contains things that a Christian interpolator would most likely not have said. For example, the statement that Jesus “won over” many Jews and Gentiles seems inconsistent with a Christian interpolator. For the Christian tradition, as contained in the Gospels, gives no indication that Jesus ever evangelized the Gentiles — let alone that he was successful in doing so. Indeed, the Gospels present Jesus as intentionally pursuing a strictly Jewish following during his lifetime (e.g.,Mt. 10:5 ).
4) Along these same lines, when stripped of its obvious Christian elements, the Testimonium can be read as actually giving a somewhat negative assessment of Jesus and the early Christians. (15) For example, Josephus seems to be surprised that “the tribe of Christians” had not disappeared, despite the “shameful end” of their leader. As Meier notes, there is a distinctly “dismissive if not hostile” tone in this line. (16)
5) This negative tone plausibly explains why early apologists didn’t ever appeal to this passage. Far from supporting the view that Jesus was the Messiah, it’s something of an argument against him being the Messiah. This also explains why Origen complains that Josephus does not believe Jesus was the Messiah (Against Celsus, 1.45; Commentary on Matthew, 10.17).
6) Several other considerations support the authenticity of the reconstructed version of the Testimonium as well. (17) For example, shortly after his comments on Jesus, Josephus launches into a much more lengthy discussion of John the Baptist. If the whole of the Testimonium was the work of a Christian interpolator, it seems he would have followed the Gospel pattern and placed it after the discussion on John the Baptist, whom all Christians regarded as a forerunner of Jesus. (18) It also seems he would have created an account of Jesus that at least paralleled the discussion of John in terms of length. (19) The fact that the Testmonium is short and located before the account of John the Baptist suggests that the Christian interpolator did not take great liberties with Josephus’ text, but rather simply modified the text slightly in the place he found it.
In light of these considerations, I side with the majority of scholars today who conclude that something like the reconstructed version of the Testimonium was penned by Josephus. And this means that this passage confirms a number of central claims of the Gospels. It confirms that Jesus existed, that he was known as a teacher and was generally considered “wise,” that he was known to have somehow performed surprising feats, that he was crucified under Pilate and that, surprisingly enough, the movement he began continued on after his death.
We see that, while there is certainly not a wealth of literary evidence corroborating claims found in the Gospels, there is as much, if not more, than we might expect given that the early Jesus movement was a small, obscure sect in the ancient Roman world. The little evidence we do find, however, is significant.
This evidence arguably confirms that Jesus existed (Pliny, Tacitus, Josephus) and had a brother named James who was killed when Ananus was high priest (Josephus). Jesus was known to be a wonder worker (Josephus, Celsus), a wise man and a teacher (Josephus) and was regarded by his followers as divine (Pliny). He was crucified (Tacitus, Lucian, Josephus) under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius (Tacitus, Josephus) and his crucifixion seems to have been accompanied by a very long darkness (Thallus). This crucifixion, far from squelching the movement, seems to have been a catalyst for its growth (Tacitus). By 49 CE it was large enough to have incited a riot, resulting in Claudius kicking all Jews out of Rome for awhile, thus confirming Luke’s report in Acts (Suetonius). By the early sixties CE the movement had become so widespread that Jesus’ disciples could be plausibly blamed by Nero for a city-wide fire (Tacitus). And by the turn of the century it had spread all the way to Bythnia where it was large enough to cause problems for the governor (Pliny).
All of this arguably confirms, to some extent at least, the historical veracity of the Gospels. What is perhaps even more interesting, however, is how (even apart from the Gospels) these external sources raise rather forcefully the question of how we can plausibly account for a movement arising in Palestine, within a first century Jewish context, that was centered on the faith that a recent, wonder-working, wise teacher who got crucified was actually the divine savior of the world. Saying that this movement was rooted in a legend simply re-labels the problem; it does not solve it.
If we accept the testimony from the early disciples about why they believed what they believed about Jesus, everything is explained. If we don’t accept this, however, what plausible alternative are we left with?
(1) As cited in Harris, “References to Jesus in Classical Authors,” in Jesus Traditions Outside the Gospels, ed. D. Wenham (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield academic Press, 1982), 343.
(2) Book 10, Letter 96. As cited in Evans, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” 459.
(3) As cited in Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 30.
(4) Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 33.
(5) Among scholars who conclude that it is likely Suetonius is referring to Jesus see: Evans, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” 457-8; Harris, “References to Jesus,” 353-4; Meier, Marginal Jew, I:92; Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 29-39.
(6) While the work is lost, Origen preserved vast portions of it in his rebuttal, Against Celsus.
(7) Evans, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” 462.
(8) As cited in Evans, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” 464-5.
(9) Meier, Marginal Jew, I:91. The “vice” of Christians Tacitus refers to was most likely their lack of patriotism – refusing to honor the emperor, refusing to worship the national gods, and refusing to participate in Roman festivities or the military.
(10) Josephus, The Works of Josephus (trans. W. Whiston; Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 1987) 537-8.
(11) Josephus, Antiquities, trans. L.H.Feldman, LCL (Harvard University Press, 1965) 48, 50.
(12) See his Jewish War, 6.5.4
(13) This seems to be the most common reconstruction. See e.g., J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (London: 1929), p. 55; Meier, Marginal Jew, I:61.
(14) See S. Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971).
(15) Some have proposed that the original passage contained even more negative elements, which have been excised by the Christian interpolator. See Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins, 38-40; Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 94-5.
(16) Ibid, 66.
(17) J. Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 1988) 96.
(18) So argues Feldman in “Introduction,” 56.
(19) Meier, Marginal Jew, I:66.