Is there non-Christian evidence for a historical Jesus?
I have recently been doing quite a bit of reading about the non-Christian ancient texts which mention Jesus. I read about these quite a long time ago, but I have been delving into some of the more recent scholarship on these texts. The debate about the historical Jesus has been active for a long time and part of this question has centred on whether these non-Christian texts have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus. In this blog, I would like to share one fresh insight which I have learned as a result of my reading.
It should be stated first of all that there are not many ancient non-Christian texts which mention Jesus. There are three primary authors who are usually cited. (1)
· Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian, born around AD56. In his Annals, he writes of how Emperor Nero persecuted Christians over the Great Fire of Rome in AD64.
· Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian, born around AD37. One of his most famous books is his Jewish Antiquities, which contains two passages which mention Jesus. The most famous of these passages has drawn controversy as there is textual evidence that a Christian scribe has amended the original wording. Some scholars argue that the whole passage originates from a Christian hand and others that the editing is partial, so that we can recover what text came from Josephus himself. (2) The second passage is considered authentic to Josephus and concerns the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus and leader in the early Church in Jerusalem
· Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus and Bithynia from AD111-113. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. The letter below is the most famous, in which Pliny encounters Christianity for the first time and seeks advice from the Emperor about how to handle the prosecution of Christians. It is this letter and Trajan’s reply, from which there has been new learning for me.
Pliny, Letters 10.96-97, Pliny to the Emperor Trajan
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
The Emperor Trajan replies as follows:
The method you have pursued, my Secundus [Trajan’s name for Pliny], in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people. When they are denounced and found guilty they should be punished; with the restriction, however, that when an individual denies that he is a Christian, and gives proof of it, i.e. by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Anonymous accusations must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to our times. (3)
We can see from both these letters that neither Pliny not Trajan have any sympathy for the early Christians. So, there is no concern here about attending to bias in their writing from a Christian perspective. What we have are two letters from people hostile to Christian faith, who report what Christians revealed about their beliefs and practices under interrogation, sometimes with the threat of death over them. Given their dual hostility to Christianity, there is no reason to suppose that either Pliny or Trajan would deliberately fabricate the testimony of the Christians when writing to one another. In fact, in Pliny’s case, it would have been dangerous for him to misrepresent facts when writing to the Emperor. So, we can have confidence that each letter represents accurate facts about what the Christians said.
Peter Williams, in his book Can we Trust the Gospels? draws interesting conclusions from this exchange of letters.
In his letter, Pliny describes how he has been interrogating Christians and has discovered some of their worship practices as a result. Some of the people he interrogated claimed that they used to be Christians, but had not been for some years.
“Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years” (emphasis mine).
Williams particularly points out the reference that some of those questioned by Pliny had been part of a church twenty-five years previously. Given that this letter is dated AD111-113, this shows that the worship practices being described to Pliny are those of the late first century. So, what we have here is evidence from a pagan source, hostile to Christianity, of very early Christian belief. If Christians were singing, “a hymn to Christ as to a god,” then Pliny’s letter demonstrates early belief in the divinity of Jesus.
This is further strengthened by Trajan’s reply. The Emperor demonstrates his understanding of Christian belief by explaining how you could prove that a Christian was renouncing their faith: “when an individual denies that he is a Christian, and gives proof of it, i.e. by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned.” Trajan commended to Pliny the practice of forcing Christians to worship other gods in order to ascertain whether they really were believers or not. Trajan had reached a point of understanding that a true Christian would not bow down and offer worship to any deity other than Jesus. Though we suspect he did not believe a word of what Christians believed, Trajan at least offers evidence of the sincerity of their beliefs.
This is a fascinating insight. Who would have thought that a Roman Emperor no less would provide us with independent evidence of what the earliest Christians believed? A ruler who wanted people to say, “Caesar is Lord,” actually admits in his own writings that there was a group of people in his Empire who, if you asked them, “Who is Lord?” would only say, “Jesus is Lord.”
Why is all this so revealing? Through this fleeting reference in Trajan’s letter, we are actually told volumes about Jesus, even though Trajan never mentions Jesus’ name. By putting in writing that he knew that Christians would not worship other gods, Trajan provides evidence of early Christian belief in the deity of Christ. And why is such evidence important? It’s good to have non-Christian verification of this because it implies that there was something very special going on with Jesus. The earliest Christians, being primarily monotheistic Jews, would not just have come to believe that a man from Nazareth was the promised Messiah. It would have taken a colossal revolution in their thinking to come to believe what they did about Jesus. That change of mind could only have come about because of what Jesus said and did. And this is where we see obvious coherence with the Gospel accounts of Jesus. Ultimately, of course, it was the resurrection of Christ which sealed the new understanding about His Lordship in the minds of His first followers (see Romans 1:1-4). But what we see in this exchange of letters between two Romans is solid independent evidence for the most remarkable phenomenon of a group of people coming to believe that a man they knew was also divine and worthy of worship as God.
Christianity has always sat comfortably with the idea of facing historical scrutiny. After all, the whole sweep of biblical narrative is of a God who intervenes in what we understand to be human history. This reached its pinnacle with the coming of Jesus into a particular historical context 2,000 years ago. If the testimony of the ancient records of Christianity could be proved to be inauthentic, then the message of the faith would be fundamentally undermined. However, the consistent result of serious historical enquiry has, over the years, produced the same result: that the New Testament documents and the small number of non-Christian texts in existence which mention Christ, provide a remarkably coherent picture of Jesus. Together they can be trusted as historically reliable evidence of Christ. As Craig Blomberg puts it, “It is the sceptics whose views are novel and aberrant in comparison with the vast majority of people who have carefully examined the issues throughout church history.” (4)
1. You can read of other sources beyond these three in Bruce F, The New Testament Documents, IVF, London, 1943, p100-120
2. You can read more about the finer textual issues in Maier P, Josephus, the Essential Writings, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1988, p265
3. These two letters are quoted in Williams P, Can we Trust the Gospels?, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2018, p24-27
4. Blomberg C, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, IVP, Downers Grove, 2007, p23