Ancient Non-Christians on the Historical Jesus

Updated: May 15

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 Senator and wrote in his "Annals of Imperial Rome" (112 AD) about the previous Roman Emperor, Nero. 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 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!

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 in 112 AD wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan 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 implicitly speaks of Jesus. He was a Samaritan-born historian in 52 AD. His writings have been lost, but other writers quoted him. For example, Julius Africanus in 212 AD refers to Thallus. The Christians claimed 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. 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. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun” (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18:1).

The Letter of Mara Bar-Serappion 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, written 73 Ad, 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?…After that their kingdom was abolished. God rightly avenged these men…The wise king…Lived on in the teachings he enacted.”

St. Justin Martyr 150 AD he writes to the Roman Emperor, Antonius Pius, and refers 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 in Alexandria, Origen, wrote a work against him immediately (early 200's), titling it "Against Celsus."

Jewish Talmud attempts to deny the miracles of Jesus, yet never denies His existence. The Talmud was an oral collection of rabbinic interpretations on the Law. The commentary was then gathered together, called the Mishnah, and then commentaries on the Mishnah were collected, called the Talmud.

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.