Guy Incognito challenged my use of historical evidence of Christ’s existence in challenging in a general way a borrowed myths controversy.  He also said that, “if I have to have history back up your faith, then you need to work on strengthening your faith, not attempting shoddy history.”

I don’t reference history to “back up” my faith in Christ.  I merely reference it to show that my faith is reasonable.  Guy also said that, “history is not a friend of Christian apologetics.”

I disagree.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell in his essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian” makes the claim that “historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.”

Yet I believe we would have a hard time finding many knowledgeable people who would back Russell’s statement up.  It is one thing to raise questions about Jesus and doubt what scripture claims about Him.  The group that claims that he never lived at all is small.  I don’t necessarily want to peg Guy Incognito as being part of that group, but he is raising similar objections.  I want to address his basic objection (as well as others who may read this blog) in two or three posts.

We have much evidence that proves the historicity of Jesus.  In this post I want to present just the ancient secular sources.  When I refer to secular I mean pagan, non-Jewish and in many cases, anti-Christian sources.  People who really would have nothing to gain by admitting the historicity of Jesus Christ.  Think of this as the historicity of Jesus being on trial and here in His defense I want to present several pieces of evidence for you, the jury, to decide.

Exhibit A: Cornelius Tacitus

Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 55-120) has been called the “greatest historian” of ancient Rome.  Two of his most lauded works are The Annuals and The Histories.  When he wrote of the reign of Nero he alludes to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians in Rome, he said:

But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the boundaries 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 with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called 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, (Annals XV, 44).

Here he didn’t claim or state anything that would be deemed miraculous.  He stated the facts as he knew them about Jesus’ crucifixion.

Exhibit B: Lucian of Samosata

Lucian was a Greek satirist who wrote during the 2nd half of the second century.  While speaking scornfully of Christ and the Christians he never argued or assumed they were unreal.  He said:

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, (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13).

Exhibit C: Suetonius

Another Roman historian was Suetonius who was the annalist of the Imperial House and a court official under Hadrian.  He stated:

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (another spelling of Christus which was one way Christ was commonly misspelled by Roman writers), he (Claudius) was expelled them from Rome, (“Divus Claudius,” The Twelve Caesars, pg. 195).

At that time Christians were still seen as a sect of Judaism by the Roman empire.  There is no reference that Christ didn’t exist or was made up, but actually credited him that those who followed his teaching were “making constant disturbances.” This event took place in A.D. 49 and Luke makes reference of this in 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,” (Acts 18:2, ESV).

Exhibit D: Pliny the Younger

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus or better known as Pliny the Younger (AD 61-112) was Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  He wrote the Roman Emporer Trajan seeking counsel on how to treat the Christians since he was putting so many to death.  He asked if he should continue to kill all Christians or only certain ones.

He explained that he made Christians bow down to statues of Trajan, and would make them “curse Christ, which it is said a bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do.”  He also spoke of in the same letter of those being tried:

But they declared their guilt or error was simply this — on a fixed day they used to meet before dawn and recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god. So far from binding themselves by oath to commit any crime, they swore to keep from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and not to deny any trust money deposited with them when called upon to deliver it, (Epistles, X, 96).

A couple things to note here, first he mentions how many were dying for their faith when all they had to do was curse Christ.  Why do that for someone who didn’t exist?  These people were likely taught by those who were eyewitnesses of Christ.  Secondly, he references Christ, not denying his existence, but obviously not sold on his divinity.

Exhibit E: Thallus

He is one of the first secular writers to mention Christ around the middle of the first century.  All that remain of his works are a few fragments which have been cited by other writers.  One of which was a Christian writer Julius Africanus who in A.D 221 wrote about a comment made by Thallus about the darkness that enveloped the land during the late afternoon hours when Jesus died on the cross.  He wrote, “Thallus in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably, as it seems to me,” (Chronography, 18.1).

This was unreasonable because an eclipse of the sun cannot occur during a full moon.  Since the Jewish Passover occurs during a full moon, Jesus died during a full moon.  Interesting to note here that Julius Africanus makes reference to Thallus’ explanation of the event as something that is natural.  He didn’t try to put words in Thallus’ mouth so to speak.

Exhibit F: Phlegon of Tralles

A Greek historian who lived in the second century.  There are two books that are credited to his name: Chronicles and the Olympiads.  Like Thallus little is known and his works have not been preserved.  Four writers have referenced him however.  He also makes reference to an eclipse of the sun around the time of Jesus’ death.

And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place . . ., (Origen, Against Celsus, Book 2.33)

Phlegon mentioned the eclipse which took place during the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus and no other (eclipse); it is clear that he did not know from his sources about any (similar) eclipse in previous times . . . and this is shown by the historical account of Tiberius Caesar,” (Philopon, De. opif. mund. II 21).

Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Cæsar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth – manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? . . . And calculation makes out that the period of 70 weeks, as noted in Daniel, is completed at this time, (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18.1).

In the fourth year, however, of Olympiad 202, an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaeam, (Phlegon’s 13th book quoted in Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle, 202 Olympiad).

Note again that they are quoting skeptics, Origen’s piece, Phlegon wrote, “appeared to have been cruicified,” but then also notes the earthquake that took place at that time.  Phlegon also tries to explain away the darkness saying it is a solar eclipse as well.

Exhibit G: Mara Bar-Serapion

Syrian Stoic philosopher, Mara Bar-Serapion, sometime after A.D. 70 wrote a letter from prison to his son, encouraging him to pursue wisdom.  In this letter he compares Jesus to the philosophers Socrates and Pythagoras.  He writes:

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death?  Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their 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 teachings of Plato.  Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera.  Nor did the wise king die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.

While Jesus name isn’t mentioned in this letter, what person could he have been referring to?  Who else would fit this description?

Up next, Jewish references to Jesus’ historicity.

29 comments
  1. Thanks, Shane. This is awesome!! It is such a strength to know that we know what the Bible says and to know the history that backs it up. We don’t have to worry about things changing or being confused by every idea that is proposed. We can go back to the Bible and know what God says about it. Thanks for putting it out there to contend for the faith in a reasoned way, kind of like Paul did.

  2. Can you make this a printable post, or is it already and I don’t know? I’d love to keep this with my Bible.

  3. Guy Incognito, whether intentional or not, brings up something that plagues many Christians–the idea that we can only “have faith”. To bring up the history of the Bible or the authenticity of Jesus is unthinkable!
    To the contrary, Christians should study the history behind the Bible and Christ. As you say in your excellent response, Shane, the proofs are numerous of both the history of Scripture and Christ. Too many Christians are afraid that if they seek answers they will find out that the world is right about Christ. Don’t be afraid to look! Sharing your faith with others these days must include a logical inspection of the only faith that truly stands firm in the face of the questions: “Is it realistic?; Is it historical?; Is it reasonable?
    May I also recommend a compilation of the historical truths of Christmas, Easter, and the early church by Dr. Paul L. Maier, professor of ancient history at Western MI University? His book, “In the Fullness of Time” is a compilation of his earlier books “First Christmas”, “First Easter” and “First Christians”. His history is impeccable, very easy to read, and short and to the point.

  4. Yes, I like what’s already been said here. I think it’s interesting how people define “faith.” I try to talk with other about it, but usually if you have one idea of what faith is, it can be difficult to switch. Faith isn’t some blind trust as most unbelievers think. Faith is reason. I have faith in Christ because it’s the most reasonable things for me to believe.

    So from that standpoint, history does back up my faith. It adds to it. If I were totally certain, though, without any chance for being wrong, it wouldn’t be faith at all. The same is true for any belief though.

    Without agreeing on the definition of “faith,” we’re just talking past each other. Sadly, I think that’s what were usually doing.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.
    .-= bondChristian´s last blog ..The (bond) beginner’s introduction to two crazy-important themes =-.

  5. Shane,

    Thanks for putting this together.

    As a history buff, I like to see how the God I worship impacted the history if the world that he entered as a man. Very good indeed!

  6. I have been doing a lot of reading in this area – and it makes sense Jesus of Nazareth (of Joseph) was a real and actual person. In fact, James is mentioned in Josephus – as his brother (in Jerusalem).

    Also, the gospels themselves (the synoptics anyways) present a figure that seems to have a family, a region he grew up in in, and many people that came to know him. He is Jesus of Nazareth in those synoptics and presented as that historical figure. It makes sense to think this was an actual person.

    As for the ‘Christ’ part – well that’s a title – not a name. Christ = messiah which in trun – anointed one (like a king). It’s a position and not part of Jesus of Nazareth’s name. Paul later started this trend of attaching the Greek name ‘Christ’ to the front and back of ‘Jesus’ making it a last name almost.
    .-= Societyvs´s last blog ..His Religious Blogness =-.

    1. @Societyvs, It is still hard for me to fathom how some do not believe that He was an actual historical person.

      I completely agree with your point about the word “Christ,” you are right to point out that it is a title. In his epistles Paul also would right “Christ Jesus,” so he would do both.

      I think most knowledgeable Christians understand that Christ is his title, not his name.

  7. I actually had a conversation with my friend about these sources today! He had referenced three of them as the only historical references to Jesus (along with a Jewish source, which I look forward to reading in your next post). The way he used them in the discussion was as unsuitable proof for the existence of Jesus. Having not read them I wasn’t sure how to respond. While it didn’t lead me to question God and the existence of Jesus as a man, it did disturb me that I didn’t know what he was talking about (especially since I’m a history major!). I feel so much better having actually read the sources he was referring to. I like to know what tools I’m arguing with 🙂

    Reading this was a blessing for me today, and I thank you for posting it. May God continue to bless you and work through you 🙂

  8. Hey Shane, boy was I ever surprised to see this! First of all, let me say that I appreciate you not lumping me in with people who attempt to deny the existence of Christ outright, I would never do such a thing. Second I hope I haven’t offended you with any brusque remarks of mine, I read you other post about ridicule and feel I may have done stuff like that towards you in the past and I’m sorry for that.
    Third, I have written a response to your most excellent post above, unfortunately I have to find your conclusions here totally mistaken. It is too long for a comment, so you can read it here if you like: http://www.bonejangles.com/blogarchive/2102
    .-= Guy Incognito´s last blog ..Op-Edyssey Part II =-.

    1. @Guy Incognito, Nope I wasn’t offended. The ridicule post wasn’t directed at you. When you commented/challenged me I wasn’t in a place where I could appropriately respond (away from my library, etc – in Indiana for a funeral).

      Totally mistaken, not only partially? You can’t find anything here you agree with? I’ll take a look at your post.

      1. @Shane Vander Hart, when I say totally, I mean insofar as the assertion that these texts offer strong evidence. Sure they offer some evidence, but it is weak, in my opinion. I will get back to you soon with some commentary as far as what about your history I do agree with, you did a very good job with your research here and make some compelling points that I do plan to address.
        .-= Guy Incognito´s last blog ..That’s Just Dandy =-.

    2. @Guy Incognito, Procurator can also refer to a governor appointed by the Emperor to a smaller imperial provinces. Which Palestine was. Governors were also referred to as propraetors or proconsuls. Pontius Pilate was typically referenced as the fifth Procurator of Judea. Calling him a prefect would also be appropriate. Your point of debate is relying upon his title as being more black and white than it really is.

      With Mara Bar-Serapion – who is the King then? And how can you place the context being at 469-399 B.C. when he is simply making a comparison? If he brought in Jewish historical context I could see your point, but he’s not.

      You don’t address the other five writers.

      1. @Shane Vander Hart, I’ll also get back to you about the prefect/procurator distinction, I need to do a bit more research there too.

        I didn’t want to rely too heavily on the timeframe of Pythagoras and Socrates to ascertain the identity of the Jewish king, my argument rests more on the idea that the Jews would never have considered Jesus a king, and Bar-Serapion, a Syriac, would not have mistaken Christians for Jews when writing in the late first century.

        As for the other five writers, I made a brief acknowledgment of them in the second paragraph, but it wasn’t much. I don’t really dispute the accuracy of, say, Lucian, but for any author writing after 100 AD you’re getting too far out there for it to carry the same weight as a roughly contemporary source like Tacitus or (arguably) Bar-Serapion. Those really are your two strongest cases. Now that I think about it I ought to address at least Suetonius in my next post.
        .-= Guy Incognito´s last blog ..That’s Just Dandy =-.

      2. @Guy Incognito, Ok, so the reason we know that Pilate was a prefect and not a procurator is based on an inscription found in the 60s, you can see it here: http://www.bible-history.com/empires/pilate.html

        Also, it’s well known that the practice of appointing procurators as governors didn’t start until 44 AD. Mentions of Pilate as procurator of Judea either are based on mistaking the post-44AD practice for having been in use at the time of Pilate. This also gives additional credibility to the forgery theory, considering that a forger might have made this very same mistake. Tacitus, on the other hand, is highly unlikely to have made it.

        Thanks for pointing that out for me, I need to address it further in another article or in revisions.
        .-= Guy Incognito´s last blog ..That’s Just Dandy =-.

      3. @Guy Incognito, I am considering your argument, but so far what I’ve read would be a collective… “so what?” I think you are putting too much stock in the title used. The fact is when Tacitus wrote this the title was procurator. The only people I’ve seen on the net who make a big deal out of it are skeptics… and I think we can say they are just as biased as Christians can we not?

        I’ve not seen a ruckus coming out of mainstream scholarship re. Tacitus. Now you mention that this is a mistake that Tacitus was “highly unlikely” to have made, but what about his misspelling of Christ? I think that adds to the credibility of the document whereas Tacitus could use that common misspelling among non-Christians. A Christian forger (seems to be an oxymoron to me) it doesn’t seem as likely.

      4. @Shane Vander Hart, I’d argue that skepticism isn’t a bad thing, particularly if it helps to avoid believing in mistaken history. I firmly believe that faith in Christ is separately and distinct from academic history. When it comes to history it is important to remain dispassionate and objective and make up ones own mind, not rely on skeptics or apologists.

        I do not disagree that at the time of Tacitus’ writing the title of procurator could be used for governors, but I simply find it too difficult to believe that Tacitus could make that mistake out of ignorance or accident. He was writing history after all, and keep in mind that prefect was still more widely used that procurator (still a lower rank even after 44AD), so it is really doubtful that he wouldn’t have realized that it was at least possible that Pilate was prefect. I find it much easier to believe that a forger decided to doctor an embarrassing absence of history than that Tacitus, the greatest of the Latin historians, would make such a sloppy mistake when he was so rigorous.

        And if a Christian forger seems like an oxymoron I’d say you’re being a bit of a Pollyanna. Self-proclaimed Christians have done much worse throughout the ages, and even a true and devout Christian is capable of a lapse that he thought was for the greater good of the faith. Indeed, there are numerous other better examples of similar forgeries, in particular Suetonius which I will be getting to later.

        You raise an interesting point about the “Chrestianos” in the oldest surviving copy of Tacitus, but that is most likely scrivener’s error rather than attributable to the original manuscript being copied from. Considering that more than a millenium had elapsed between the original Tacitus and the eleventh century copy, there is ample time for a forger to have inserted the passage.

        Moreover, there is really no evidence to suggest that any Romans would have used the word Chrestianos to decribe Christians, this is entirely speculative. Though this is not an outlandish possibility for a corruption of the word Christ, it is much more reasonable to assume that a copyist, working by rote from a book that was itself a copy of a copy of a copy (going back a thousand years), simply made a mistake.

        You can read one of the latest studies here: http://www.textexcavation.com/documents/zaratacituschrestianos.pdf
        In pertinent part, there is a margin note containing the word “Christiani” by an editor a few hundred years later. This indicated that the error was later spotted (as if compared to an even earlier version of Tacitus which read Christianos), hence the correction: a skillful change of an epsilon to an iota, done in the same ink as the margin note.

        I’m not saying I can prove categorically that the passage is a forgery, but certainly there is nothing which proves that it isn’t and the preponderance of the evidence, in my estimation, tends to lean towards the passage being a forgery.
        .-= Guy_Incognito´s last blog ..That’s Just Dandy =-.

      5. @Guy_Incognito, There’s many things that would seem like a oxymoron to me when you put Christian by it.

        When I meant skeptic, I meant someone with the agenda and presumption that Jesus isn’t real.

        That is no less biased than how you would say a Christian would approach the evidence. Hardly anyone approaches this without any bias whatsoever.

        I just don’t think you are making a strong case for it being a forgery either.

        I’ll be moving on to Jewish sources later today or tomorrow.

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