What is claimed
It has been claimed by Zeitgeist, hundreds of memes and several scholars that Jesus is a mythological figure who never existed in history. They claim there is no account of him or his followers outside the Bible during the 1st century AD and any that exist are falsified.
As Catholics, we contest this claim with three different types of non-biblical evidence for a historical Jesus. These are: contemporary secular authors who verify Jesus’ life and ministry; confirmation in archaeological discoveries; and the coherence of new testament accounts with 1st century history. In this piece we will be looking at non-biblical accounts of Jesus.
Non-biblical accounts of Jesus from contemporary sources
There are seven contemporary sources that are claimed to talk about Christians and/or Jesus in the 1st century. However, due to questions of validity, dating and relevance with regards to Lucian and Seutonius’ account, we will only study five. These sources are:
- The Babylonian Talmud
- Pliny the Younger
- Mara bar-Serapion
Of these, the Talmud, Tacitus and Josephus are the most explicit, reliable and comprehensive. For these reasons we will focus on their writings, as the others just affirm bits and pieces already covered in these three.
- Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. He lived in the 1st century AD and the surviving portions of his two major works (the Annals and the Histories) examine the reigns of the Roman emperors from AD 14 to AD 70.
- In Annuls 15.44, he explicitly talks about Jesus, during his writings on Emperor Nero. He talks first about the Christian sect before then mentioning: “… Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reining of Tiberius.”
- This confirms the biblical account of Jesus’ death and, as it comes from an enemy of the Church, it can be further trusted as he has no incentive to make his account match biblical scripture.
- The reason some dismiss its claims, however, is that Tacitus never mentions Christians again in his works. They claim that this was added in later by Christians to give their claims more validity.
- The main problem with this objection is that Tacitus is writing about the lives of Roman Emperors and, apart from Nero, the others he covers do not have sufficient interaction with Christians to bear mentioning. Nero’s persecutions were extreme, even by Roman standards, and therefore it makes sense that Tacitus would mention it, but also to add some context as to who Christians were as they were still in their early days and were still a relatively small community.
2. The Babylonian Talmud
- The Babylonian Talmud is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. It is a collection of writings that cover the post-biblical history of the Jewish people.
- In Sanhedrin 43a, it recounts how Jesus led many Jews astray. The Sanhedrin wanted to have him stoned and, on the eve of Passover, Jesus was Crucified. The line “But, not having found anything in his favour” also suggest that a trial happened. This is all in line with what we are told in the Gospels.
- Most interestingly is the line “He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery…” The reason it is interesting is because they have had to admit it was believed that Jesus had some supernatural power. The difference of course is that they claim it came from some evil source instead of God.
- Some reject the Talmud’s account because during the Middle Ages many Jewish people claimed that this was not Jesus but another man that was being talked about. The problem with accepting this rejection is that it lacks context. The reason the Jewish people claimed this was because numerous times between 1239 and 1775 all copies of the Talmud were ordered to be destroyed by the Church. The Church did this literally because the passages on Jesus found within Sanhedrin 43a are insulting about Jesus. The Jewish response was simply a way for them to retain their scripture and notably it did not convince people because the text is so explicit!
- Josephus was a 1st century Romano-Jewish scholar, historian and hagiographer, who was born in Jerusalem. He lived in the 1st century AD and his writings are an invaluable source of knowledge about this time period.
- The main objection to his account is that most copies we have of it are clearly doctored to be more pro-Christian. This is evidenced by Josephus, a Jew, claiming Jesus was the Christ, performed miracles and fulfilled explicitly all the prophets had foretold. This obviously causes problems, even though we know it’s been only slightly reworded. It was cleaned up in 1971, however, when Shlomo Pines discovered an Arabic Josephus passage quote in Agapius, “The book of the Title”.
- Here is what the undoctored text says: “At this time, there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”
- As we can see, even though it does not have Josephus explicitly stating Jesus was the Christ (like he does in doctored versions), everything he says verifies what we see in the New Testament. The account is reliable as, coming from a Jewish source through non-Christian Arabic translations, there is no motive for these people to affirm Christian teaching.
- Josephus also records in Antiquities 18.5.2 how John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas.
4. Mara bar-Serapion
- Mara bar-Serapion is noted for a letter he wrote in Syriac to his son, who was also named Serapion. The letter refers to the unjust treatment of “three wise men”: the murder of Socrates, the burning of Pythagoras, and the execution of “the wise king” of the Jews. Mara is believed to have been a monotheistic pagan.
- Criteria that support the non-Christian origin of the letter include the observation that “king of the Jews” was not a Christian title, and that the letter’s premise that Jesus lives on in the teachings he enacted is in contrast to the Christian concept that Jesus continues to live through his resurrection.
- Some reject this is about Jesus because his name is not mentioned; but as they have no alternative protagonist for this title, it is a weak objection.
5. Pliny the Younger
- Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia et Pontus, wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan around 112 AD and asked for counsel on dealing with Christians. He remarks on how they “sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.”
- This is further affirmation that Jesus was regarded as God.
- The objection here is that ‘Christ’ is a title and so could be referring to someone else. In the Bible we do have a history of this with Saul, David and Solomon all at one point or another being referred to as Christ due to its meaning “the Lord’s anointed”. Additionally, they point out that Pliny’s letter never refers to Jesus’ actual life, therefore he could simply be mythological.
- It is correct that this account doesn’t give any account of Jesus actually living but the claim that it is talking about another Christ falls down when put in context with the rest of the letter. We know of no other religious group who worship a ‘Christ’ and called themselves Christians. Equally important is that there were very few religious groups back then who would have refused to give sacrifice to the Emperor. We know that Christians would refuse to do so and this on top of the other evidence leaves very little doubt that they are referring to actual Christians who follow Jesus Christ.
Outside of the biblical text, there are several contemporary sources that confirm the following this about Jesus’ life:
- Jesus was a good-natured and virtuous man
- He was a teacher who amassed a large following
- He was a man who performed supernatural feats
- His disciples claimed he had risen from the grave
- He was believed to be the Messiah and a God
The fact that we have multiple sources referring to a historical Jesus that lines up with the Gospel leaves little doubt that Jesus actually existed. Objections to the sources fall down because they take things out of context and dismiss content out of hand without proper research.