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.”
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.