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Christ and the Start of Christianity Were Known To and Recorded By Non-Christians

One of the challenging questions posed to Christians now and again is proof outside of the Bible that Jesus Christ ever existed. Some people challenge that he ever lived. Rather than feeling slighted, I take the question as an honest one. After all, as with so many biblical events, surely there must be some corroboration somewhere, even if slight, that gives evidence.

Realistically, we are talking a time period a couple of thousand years ago. From a world perspective Jesus would have been insignificant, and that is perfectly understandable. For example let’s say that you are a United States citizen and you live in or near one of the major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta. How much attention do you think will be paid to an isolated religious movement with a few followers in the countryside of Minnesota, or Alabama. (Jesus ministry was mostly in Northern Galilee.) Even in today’s media intense environment there is a chance that even if the leader of that movement is charged with a crime and executed that would go unnoticed. 2000 years ago there was no media like today. So things happening in the fringes of the Empire regularly went unnoticed. The historical writings that we have focus on the powerful figures of the time, not the everyday doings in remote regions of relatively insignificant kingdoms like Israel in the world dominating Empire of Rome.

Nevertheless there are a number, albeit a small number, of references to Christ by people who were not Christian. In Studying the Historical Jesus, Darrell Bock lists a number of sources that are significant. He also emphasizes that in these accounts, “there is no prejudice in these reports; they are descriptive, giving almost in passing as the writer reviews the record concerning key figures.”[i] Bock quotes another author, F. F. Bruce, as classifying the accounts as “police news.”

The first reference to Jesus is by one C. Suetomius Tranquillus, It is not a clear reference to Christ, but rather it is a reference to riots “at the instigation of Chrestus.” Bock makes a fairly convincing point that the reference should read “Christ” instead of “Chrestus.”

But let’s get on to meatier references. Tacitus, writing around or 115A.D, documents some information about Christians and Nero, circa 64A.D.

“Therefore, to squelch the rumor, Nero created scapegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people called “Christians,” [a group] hated for their abominable crimes. The author of this name, Christ, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for the moment, the deadly superstition broke out again, not only in Judea, a land which originated this evil, but also in the city of Rome, where all sorts of horrendous and shameful practices from every part of the world converge and are fervently cultivated.”[ii]

This is a clear reference to Christ, and as such provides important information. It is a non-Jewish and non-Christian citation. Christ is described as someone slain. The fact that he refers to the term “Christ” (“anointed”) gives credence to the fact that at least in one area he was a person of importance. Pontius Pilate is noted here. And lastly, that the movement started by Christ was spreading is noted by someone not interested in promoting their religion.

Another citation of note by a non-Jewish, and non-Christian source is by Pliny the Younger. In the tenth and final volume of his letters he writes to Trajan asking how to deal with Christians:

They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up[iii]

The issue was that Christians would not worship the gods of the Empire. The Roman Empire was clearly a state where there was no separation between religion and state. There was no option in Roman law on worship rules. The problem was that Christians would not worship other gods, but according to the letter treated Christ as a God, because they would only follow him. The citation is significant because it gives us interesting information by someone not involved in the movement on how Christians operated at the time. It describes their multiple meetings on Sunday, to worship, and then to have the love feast. It describes the reverence that Christians held for Christ. Later in the letter Pliny calls Christianity “a perverse and extravagant superstition” implying that the story of Christ was getting widespread attention.[iv]

There are other references. They are indirect, meaning they are cited by someone else and we have someone else’s citation as evidence of their existence. Thallus, a historian wrote about Christ’s crucifixion around 52 A.D.:

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. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, 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? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. (XVIII.1)[v]

Thallus comments on the accompanying earthquakes and darkness to the crucifixion. His comment is that there was an eclipse of the sun at the time of the crucifixion. The citer of the Thallus’ comments, Africanus, challenged this as irrational because if the crucifixion occurred at Passover there would have been a full moon, which would have prevented an eclipse. What is significant is that details of the crucifixion were being argued about by non-Christians. This shows evidence of the impact of Christ, and Christianity at the time the gospels say. It is corroborating evidence.

Lucian of Samasota, wrote a satire, The Passing of Peregrinus, in the second century. While Christ is not named, the satire is about one person who was impaled, alluding to crucifixion, and went on to start a new cult in the world. At the very least it is an indirect to the story of Christ.

Last but not least we have some small references by the Jewish historian, Josephus. While there is debate about the wording, Josephus refers to Jesus, referring to him as a “wise man.” He makes reference to his title as “Christ”. Josephus refers to Pontus pilot as the executioner. And he notes that the movement has continued. Since followers of Jesus would hardly just call Jesus a “wise man,” this is an outside reference verifying Jesus’ existence.

Bock in his book also includes some rabbinic references to the life of Jesus Christ. But by now the point should be obvious that while there are no references of the scope and measure that refer to the Caesars there are non-Christian references to both Jesus Christ and the start of Christianity.

[i] Studying the historical Jesus, Darrell L. Bock, a baker academic, grand rapids, 2002, ISBN 0 — 855111 — 273 — 0, p. 47
[ii] Studying the historical Jesus p. 49
[iii] http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/pliny.html
[iv] Studying the historical Jesus p. 51
[v] http://www.tektonics.org/qt/thallcomp.html. “This quote was taken from Julius Africanus’ work “The History of the World” up to about 220 A.D.”

© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

September 22nd, 2009 Posted by | Original Christianity | 2 comments

2 Comments »

  1. Dear Sir,
    In reference to your lengthy article,i see areas where you are asking if teh bible is the Word of God. the answer is yes. jesus chose man as the “Tool of Disinination”,we do not know why other than God gave control of the earth to man. Since he is god and “Cannot” go back in His word,in my opinion only,He must use man for this purpose. These men,apostles,had many problems to overcome:Government(Roman and Jewish),heathens,rich people,poor people,and family.
    Jesus moved each individual through FAITH,the Holy Spirit,and the conscience of others(not necessarily Christian)who hold moral values. Therefore, since most people in the world are carnal(things they want from others)
    cannot understand Spiritual things,or the Jesus of the heart.
    To refer to historical evidence as a key to Spiritual awareness will be a major mistake. history has proven to reflect human values at the time of writing and relies also on assumptions(emotions) of the writer right or wrong. for example,I saw a movie about the end of the revolutionar war in which a British general made this statement “History Lies” meaning whose side is writing the story. Therefore, to rely on historical evidence for a Spiritual revival would be missleading.
    Christ is Spiritual and earthly understanding goes in the opposite direction. For m,an this is impossible and he needs a Spiritual guide(Holy Spirit) within him to receive Spiritual truth.
    My questions are this: Do you believe that god moved Spiritual men to spread the gospel? The Trinity(God the Father,God the Son,and God the Holy Spitit)? MATTHEW 28:19-
    “GO YE THEREFORE,AND TEACH ALL NATIONS,BAPTIZING THEM IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER,AND THE SON,AND THE HOLY SPIRIT” hence the name TRINITY (man made for brevity,not in the Bible). You are correct in your statement.
    My other questions are:”Are you a Christian and are you just trying to prove false Christian teachings on literal interpretation of words in the bible? reading your works leaves me to think that you are leaning towards man’s ability to understand Jesus in a human value approach:my undrestanding of God must be proved by earthly means(science and experience).God is spiritual and must be understood in Jesus values(Spiritual) which is usually in conflict with earthly assumptions.

    Respectfully,

    Merle Dillman

    Comment by MERLE DILLMAN | October 2, 2009

  2. Merle,
    Thanks for your response. And sorry it took awhile to respond, I have been out of town.
    First of all let me say this. By the grace of God Christianity has grown powerfully over the millennia in spite of all the problems with disagreements over many issues. God has been, and will continue to be at work.
    Many churches and denominations say they are the true Christianity. The Roman Catholics say they are the true church by tradition. Some say they have returned to the true church through the reformation. Others say they are by a movement of God, being led of the spirit. Many claim the spirit has led them. But they teach opposing views. For example, many Baptists and Pentecostals say they are led of the spirit and adhere to an inerrant Word of God, the 66 books of the protestant bible. I have seen bible believing Baptists tell bible believing Pentecostals that they are of the devil because they spoke in tongues. If you look at the table of contents and the divisions section you will see that I am looking at how so many bible believing people disagree so very much.
    This site is geared, among other things, toward looking at original, primitive Christianity through all the sources available: the books of the bible, apocryphal books, pseudepigraphal books, writings of early Christians, and other works including documents written by non-Christians for their historical content.
    As far as this article, as a believer, I have had unbelievers tell me everything in the bible is fiction. Some say even the historical stuff is made up because there isn’t any proof.
    You can certainly choose to tell these people that to learn about Christ they just need to believe the bible that they say is full of myths and fables. You can also choose to tell them that there is proof substantiating a lot of things in the bible, which is the point of this article. This article simply shows how there is historical proof for Christ and Christianity outside of the bible. It shows how there were non-Christian sources thousands of years documenting Christ and the start of Christianity.
    You wrote “To refer to historical evidence as a key to Spiritual awareness will be a major mistake” The article doesn’t do that. This article just addresses the fact that historical evidence exists. And it builds on the other articles in the site to give a picture of what primitive Christianity was like to them! Since I have been to different churches that teaching differing things I am very interested in how original Christianity was so that I can compare it to what this or that “modern New Testament church” says is how things are supposed to be.
    You ask a number of questions: “ Do you believe that god moved Spiritual men to spread the gospel? The Trinity(God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit)? MATTHEW 28:19- “GO YE THEREFORE,AND TEACH ALL ATIONS,BAPTIZING THEM IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER,AND THE SON,AND THE HOLY SPIRIT” hence the name TRINITY (man made for brevity, not in the Bible)”
    This is actually a multipart question:
    For the first part, I absolutely believe that God moved spiritual men to move the gospel. But the second part includes whether I believe that they did the trinity formula in baptizing. That is part of my investigation because there are no bible records where anyone was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is something that people have divided over. Some of the position that “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” is the same as “in the name of the Lord.” Others don’t. One reason for the division is because while Matthew 28:19 does say have the baptismal phrase “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and The Holy Spirit”, there are no records where that formula is used, Things are done in the name of Jesus Christ, (or just Jesus) in the bible (Acts 2:38; 3:6; 4:18; 8:16; 10:48; 1Cor 4:5; 6:11, Col 3:17) So, as an example, if the question is “did the primitive church baptize and minister in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” The answer is, No, not according to the books of the bible. However, when you look at some other Christian, but non-biblical records like the Didache, ” in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is promoted. Just that fact that the only substantiation for using the “name of the Father, and the Son, and The Holy Spirit” exists outside of the canonized books of the bible should mean that people are interested in looking at those sources.

    The evidence is that the original apostles baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ”, and that the Trinitarian formula was added later, how much later I am not sure. Matt 28:19 does have the Trinitarian formula, but Eusebius, quoted Matt 28:19 numerous times without ever using the Trinitarian formula . (Interesting article on this at http://www.zimbio.com/Historical+Jesus/articles/Omw78B7BPsv/Matthew+28+19+Eusebius+Shem+Tob)

    Your other questions were, “Are you a Christian and are you just trying to prove false Christian teachings on literal interpretation of words in the bible? reading your works leaves me to think that you are leaning towards man’s ability to understand Jesus in a human value approach:my undrestanding of God must be proved by earthly means(science and experience).God is spiritual and must be understood in Jesus values(Spiritual) which is usually in conflict with earthly assumptions.”

    First you are jumping to conclusions to say that I am ” leaning towards man’s ability to understand Jesus in a human value” because I might not agree with your literal interpretation of the bible or for any other reason. The truth is that the literalistic, fundamentalist approach to the bible has only been around for the last couple centuries. Inerrancy of the bible has only been taught for that couple hundred years.

    I was born into a Roman Catholic family, and received Christ as my Savior when was a youngster, although the priest didn’t like that at all saying something like “You don’t need to receive Christ, you were born Catholic.” Later, I got deeply involved in the bible with churches that taught that the 66 books of the bible are in the inerrant word of God. They said the canon of scripture serves, among other things that to prove that the books of the bible have always been received as the Word of God. I promoted this for a long time, but I was challenged by unbelievers and some Christians that this is not true. And you what, they were right. Jesus didn’t teach that he would give an inerrant bible. He said he would give us the spirit that would lead us into all truth. It is an assumption that the books of the bible are the fulfillment of that prophecy.

    The status of the scriptures and their interpretation has been the subject of debate throughout the centuries of Christianity. The reformers, contrary to what some fundamentalists believe, were not as literal as some would have you believe. I believe it was John Wesley who said that he strove to stick with the spirit of the text rather than the literal. Martin Luther debated about whether to keep Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation in his Bible, first putting them in his Apochrypha, then later including it with the other books like we have it today. He challenged numerous books, just like many have throughout the centuries,
    I have a challenge to those who say that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible as set forth in the canon of Scripture are the inerrant word of God. The challenge is this, if you adhere to the canon of Scripture and why do you accept the Bible that has Ecclesiastes instead of Tobit?
    The canon of Scripture has a couple different books then the version used today. That alone is proof that the 66 books in the Protestant Bible have not always been accepted as the word of God.
    Christ has moved mightily throughout the world despite the varying viewpoints on the status of the Bible. My emphasis is to focus on the movement of God.
    Jesus said I can only do what I see my Father do (as opposed to what I see in the Scriptures). My emphasis is the same, I want to see what the Father is doing and join him in his work.
    The point of this site is simply to see what the original church believed and practiced, learn from it. In looking at so many churches that say they are the first century church in this century I find that they are not just like the original church, they may deny miracles, speaking in tongues, and other things taught in the bible. They don’t emphasize the community, sharing of possessions, love feasts, or Jewish background the way you see in the ancient writings about primitive Christianity. These churches also continue practices that have developed later after the original church. I started this site to investigate what original Christianity really looked like, not what a church’s adapted version looks like. I also made it a site that has dialogue like this to have dialogue about these issues. It is helpful to me and I hope others find it helpful also.

    Sharing the Love of Christ,

    Mark

    Comment by admin | October 5, 2009

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