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Ancient Non-Christians on the Historical Jesus

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

By Luke Lancaster

Many people are convinced that Jesus did not historically exist. However, there are multiple cases of ancient sources attesting to the existence to Jesus Christ. Even the History Channel, which loves to promote unhistorical theories, even documents it (see here). Below are a number of documents from the centuries closest to Christ speaking of Jesus.

Cornelius Tacitus was “a Roman historian who lived through the reigns of over a half dozen Roman emperors. He has been called the ‘greatest historian’ of ancient Rome, an individual generally acknowledged among scholars for his ‘integrity and essential goodness'...The annals cover the period from Augustus's death in A.D. 14 to that of Nero in A.D. 68” (Gary Habermas, VHCELJ, 87). Tacitus said that, when Rome was lit on fire, Nero attempted to blame it on "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" (Annals, section 15, para. 44).

Lucian was a Greek satirist that loved making fun of the Christians. In the 2nd century, around 170 AD, he referred to Christ: “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” (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13).

Flavius Josephus, who became a Pharisee at 19 years old, was a Jew who became a Roman of high standing. His Jewish Antiquities (written around 93 AD) speak of the Jewish high priest Ananus attempting to execute James, the brother of "Jesus," since the Roman governor Festus had died.

Josephus says, "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" (Jewish Antiquities, XX.9.1, trans. Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 57).

Josephus mentions the "brother of Jesus" so that everybody knew who he was talking about. There were many people named James, so Josephus specifies which one by writing he was the brother of Jesus. However, there were many people named Jesus, so Josephus specified that this was the Jesus who people called the Christ or Messiah. People knew of Jesus as a historical person! The translator of the Antiquities, Louis Feldman, says, “Few have doubted the genuineness of this passage” (Josephus, Antiquities, Loeb, p. 496).

Suetonius 120 AD was a Roman historian and court official. When recounting the history of the emperor Claudius some years before him, he said, "“Because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ], he [Claudius] expelled them from the city [Rome]” (Life of Claudius, 25:4).

Pliny the Younger was a governor in Asia Minor who wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan in 112 AD about how to get rid of the Christians. He said, “They [The Christ-followers] 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 food of an ordinary and innocent kind” (epistle 10, para. 96).

Thallus was a Samaritan-born historian in 52 AD that implicitly speaks of Jesus in his "history of the Eastern Mediterranean world from the Trojan War to his own time" (Habermas, VHCELJ, 93). This history has been lost, however, a Christian writer named Julius Africanus quoted him in 221 AD. Thallus did not agree with the Christian belief that, when the earth suddenly became dark at 3pm during Jesus's crucifixion in 30 AD, that this was because Jesus was God. Thallus attempted to explain this darkness as an eclipse of the sun, instead of being because of Jesus. Julius Africanus quotes Thallus in disagreement. The text reads, “On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun-unreasonably, as it seems to me (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died)” (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18:1).

F.F. Bruce says of this quotation, “The Gospel account of the darkness which fell upon the land during Christ’s crucifixion was well known and required a naturalistic explanation from non-Christians. Thallus did not doubt that Jesus had been crucified and that an unusual event had occurred in nature that required an explanation. What occupied his mind was coming up with a different interpretation. The basic facts were not called into question” (NTDATR, 113).

Plegon wrote an ancient history book called the "Chronicles." It has been lost like Thallus, however, Julius Africanus quotes him as taking the opinion of Thallus that when Jesus died, a darkness fell upon the world, which was really a solar eclipse. Julius says, “During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon” (Julius, Chronography, 18.1). Origen refers to Plegon as well in Contra Celsum, 2. 14, 33, 59.

The Letter of Mara Bar-Serappion (73 AD) speaks about Jesus. Mara Bar-Serappion was a philosopher who wrote a letter to his son that was presumably being persecuted for his ideas. University of Manchester scholar F.F. Bruce says that this letter, indicates the everybody knew that Jesus was a historical person. Mara Bar-Serappion said, “What benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as judgment for their crime. Or, the people of Samos for burning Pythagoras? In one moment their country was covered with sand. Or the Jews by murdering 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 in the teaching 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” (F.F. Bruce, NTDATR, 114).

St. Justin Martyr in 150 AD wrote to the Roman Emperor, Antonius Pius, and referred him to Pontius Pilate's report of Jesus.

In 175 AD, Celsus spoke against Christ, “Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a soldier named Panthéra (i.32)]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god.” This history was incorrect, so the Christian teacher Origen wrote a work against him immediately called, "Against Celsus."

The Babylonian Talmud, an oral collection of Jewish rabbinic interpretations on the Law, said, "It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu [Jesus]. And an announcer went out, in front of him, for forty days (saying): ‘He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.’ But, not having found anything in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of Passover” (Sanhedrin 43a; cf. t. Sanh. 10:11; y. Sanh. 7:12; Tg. Esther 7:9). Joshua McDowell says that “’Yeshu’ translates through Greek to English as ‘Jesus,’…the word ‘hanged’ is another way of referring to crucifixion (see Luke 23:39; Gal. 3:13)…the reference that this crucifixion occurred ‘on the eve of Passover’ agrees with John 19:14” (The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 124). Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner says, “The Talmud speaks of hanging in place of crucifixion, since this horrible Roman form of death was only known to Jewish scholars from Roman trials, and not from the Jewish legal system. Even Paul the Apostle (Gal. iii. 13) expounds the passage ‘for a curse of God is that which is hanged’ (Deut. xxi. 23) as applicable to Jesus” (Klausner, JN, 28). The Talmud also attempts to deny the miracles of Jesus, yet never denies His existence

In conclusion, to say Jesus did not exist is far from the historical truth. There are numerous non-Christian sources attesting to His existence. To argue otherwise would be placing one on the wrong side of history.

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