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Ask a Christian what written evidence he has that Jesus is a historical figure, and he will probably point exclusively to the Bible. The letters of St. Paul, which were written 25 years after Jesus’ death, and the Gospels of the New Testament, the earliest of them written about 70 years after the events described in it occurred, are based on eyewitness testimony from those who were alive when Jesus walked the earth.
While the wealth of Christian writing pointing to Jesus’ existence is accepted by most historians, there is also a long-established record of non-Christian evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure who lived 2,000 some years ago.
The historical record that confirms the existence of Jesus includes writing from both Roman and Jewish historians, rabbinical literature, and anti-Christian commentators who lived during Christianity’s earliest days:
1. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100)
The first non-Christian author to mention Jesus is thought to be the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (born Yosef ben Matityahu), who wrote a history of Judaism in about the year 93, the famous Antiquities of the Jews. In his writings he mentions a number of figures from the New Testament, including Jesus, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ “brother” James.
In the Antiquities, Josephus writes:
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 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 (Antiquities 18:3:3).
This passage is somewhat controversial, however, and while scholars accept that Josephus mentioned Jesus, they suspect that a Christian scribe amended the passage to portray Jesus in a positive light.
The following passage, in which Josephus mentions Jesus and his “brother” James, firmly establishes the existence of Jesus:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned (Antiquities 20:9:1).
2. Tacitus (A.D. 56-120)
Scholars point to the Roman historian Tacitus for confirmation that the crucifixion of Jesus actually took place. Writing in his Annals, he records the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate:
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 Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre 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.
3. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62-11)
The writings of a Roman governor in Asia Minor, Pliny the Younger, establish that early Christians worshiped Jesus as a god. Here he is, summing up what he learned after interrogating Christians:
They (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 of an ordinary and innocent kind (Epistles 10.96).
4. Jewish Rabbinical literature
A number of works of classical Jewish rabbinic writing (the Babylonian Talmud in particular) contain references to Jesus.
Summarizing these allusions in his book Jesus of Nazareth, historian Joseph Klausner, writes:
There are some reliable theories regarding the fact that his name was Yeshua (Yeshu) of Nazareth; that he practiced sorcery (that is to say that he performed miracles, as was common in those days) and seduction and led Israel astray; that he mocked the words of the wise and discussed Scripture in the same way as the Pharisees; that he had five disciples; that he said he had not come to revoke the Law, nor to add anything to it; that he was hung upon a piece of wood (crucified) as a false authority and seducer on the eve of the Passover (which fell on a Saturday); and that his disciples cured diseases in his name (J.Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, p.44)
5. Satirist Lucian, born (c. AD 125 – 180)
The pagan author Lucian of Samosata, while ridiculing Christians, accepted that Jesus actually existed:
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 their 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. (Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus)
6. Philosopher Celsus (2nd century)
The 2nd-century Greek philosopher Celsus, while arguing against Christianity, also accepted that Jesus existed. Here he writes that Jesus performed his miracles through sorcery:
O light and truth! He distinctly declares, with his own voice, as ye yourselves have recorded, that there will come to you even others, employing miracles of a similar kind, who are wicked men, and sorcerers; and Satan. So that Jesus himself does not deny that these works at least are not at all divine, but are the acts of wicked men; and being compelled by the force of truth, he at the same time not only laid open the doings of others, but convicted himself of the same acts. Is it not, then, a miserable inference, to conclude from the same works that the one is God and the other sorcerers? Why ought the others, because of these acts, to be accounted wicked rather than this man, seeing they have him as their witness against himself? For he has himself acknowledged that these are not the works of a divine nature, but the inventions of certain deceivers, and of thoroughly wicked men.