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
[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.