Monday, October 4, 2010

Evidence For Jesus Outside the New Testament, Part Two

In part one of this series, we learned that there is abundant evidence for the historicity of the life of Jesus in the New Testament. We saw that Luke composed his gospel account of Jesus’ life with the aid of personal interviews of eyewitnesses and written records (possibly the gospels of Mark and Matthew) (Luke 1:1-4). As early as the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection the Apostle Peter referenced the fact that there were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:29-33). We also see that the apostle Paul staked the resurrection of Jesus on the fact that there were at least 500 eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:3-7). Paul is so adamant about the existence of these 500 eyewitnesses that he stakes his reputation on their ability to confirm his astounding claims of a savior that was crucified and later raised from the dead.

However, most skeptics, and even some people honestly searching for truth, do not hold the testimony of scripture in high esteem when it comes to the testimony they give on the life of Jesus. They do this for a number of reasons. First, they may erroneously think that the New Testament is rife with errors. However, as we have demonstrated in another post, the New Testament variants are 99% inconsequential to any major doctrine contained in the New Testament.

Another objection is that the gospels were written too late to be accurate accounts of the life of Jesus. That the accounts of the miracles Jesus performed were simply legends added by later followers of Christ in order to “pad his résumé”. To the contrary, the evidence does not allow for a late date for the authorship of the gospels, but rather it clearly points to dates within 20 to 30 years after the events they purport to chronicle.

The objection I want to look at in this post is whether or not there is any evidence for the life of Jesus outside of the New Testament. The reason is that many skeptics tell Christians, “If Jesus existed, and he did the miracles attributed to him by his followers, then why is there no documentation outside of the New Testament for his existence?” Before I begin to answer this question, it is important to point out that many who bring up this objection will not accept any evidence whatsoever that contradicts their presupposition (the idea behind the objection) that Jesus did not exist because he performed miracles. Let me break down that argument: Miracles are of supernatural origin. The supernatural does not exist. Therefore, Jesus did not perform miracles. Therefore, Jesus never existed.

That being said, there are people that are trying to deal with their presuppositions, and look at the evidence in an unbiased manner. We can provide evidence to them from sources other than the New Testament, of Jesus’ historical life. The outside testimony can be placed into one of two groups: hostile non-Jewish sources and hostile Jewish sources. When the hostility is peeled away a surprising picture begins to appear, a picture that many skeptics and atheists recoil in horror. That picture, however, will become clear as we begin our look at the extra-biblical evidence for the life of Jesus.

The Hostile Non-Jewish Witnesses

We begin our journey with the historian Thallus. Thallus may be the earliest non-Christian writer to mention Jesus. In fact, he is so ancient that we only have a reference from Julianus Africanus who wrote the following around 221 A.D. in his documentation of Thallus’ explanation of the darkness that occurred during Jesus’ crucifixion:

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)

Whether or not Thallus documented more of Jesus’ life is not known. However Thallus does confirm one of the events that occurred during Jesus’ resurrection.

Pliny the Younger was a Roman historian who documented the life of Christians to the then Roman Emperor Trajan. Pliny gives the following testimony:

They (the Christians) 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.

Pliny describes several facts about the early Christian church: the early Christians believed Jesus was God, they held to a strict moral code, and that they gathered regularly to worship Jesus as God.

Suetonius was a Roman historian who wrote for the Roman Emperor Hadrian. He describes Christians and their treatment under the Emperor Claudius.

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)

This expulsion took place in 49 A.D. and was described by Luke in Acts 18:2. In another work, Suetonius writes of the fire that nearly destroyed Rome in 64 A.D., how Nero blamed the Christians for it, and how he began a severe persecution of the Christians over it.

Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect given to a new and mischievous religious belief." (Lives of the Caesars, 26.2)

What we learn about early Christians from Suetonius’ accounts is that Jesus had an IMMEDIATE impact on his followers; that they believed Jesus as God deeply enough to withstand the persecution of the Roman Empire; and that the impact of Jesus’ life on their own empowered them to die courageously for what they knew to be true. It is important to point out that just because they died for their beliefs, their deaths do not make Christianity true. People, however, do not generally die for what they know to be a lie. Further, Christian martyrdom did not entail the taking of the lives of others, as the followers of Mohammad so often do.

Cornelius Tacitus was well known for his analysis and examination of historical documents of his time, and is known to be one of the most trusted ancient historians. In his Annals written around 116 A.D., Tacitus describes the great fire of Rome, and how Nero blamed Christians for it.

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Tacitus’ account confirms a number of facts found in the gospels. Namely that Jesus was from Judea; he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and had followers that were persecuted for their faith in Jesus.

Sometime around 70 A.D. a Syrian philosopher named Mara Bar-Serapion wrote to his son comparing the life and persecution of Jesus with the lives of other philosophers who were persecuted for their ideas. In this letter, Bar-Serapion confirms two things; first, that Jesus was a real person, and second Bar-Serapion refers to Jesus as the “Wise King.”

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.

From Bar-Serapion, we have more outside confirmation of the gospel accounts. We see that Jesus was a wise and influential man who died for his beliefs, and we also learn that Jesus’ followers adopted these beliefs and lived lives that reflected them to the outside world.

Next we have Phlegon, who is an historian similar to Thallus in that we no longer have any manuscripts of his writings, but we have references to them from another scholar (in this case Julianus Africanus once again). Phlegon, like Thallus, attempted to explain the darkness that surrounded the crucifixion.

During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon." (Africanus, Chronography, 18:1)

Interestingly, solar eclipses can only occur when the moon is in the “new moon” phase. Only a lunar eclipse can occur during the “full moon” phase.

Phlegon was also quoted by the early church historian and scholar, Origen.

And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place . . . ” (Origen Against Celsus)
And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place . . . ” (Origen Against Celsus)

Phlegon confirms details of the crucifixion found in the gospels, namely that Jesus was crucified during the reign of Tiberius, that earthquakes occurred, and that there was darkness in the land.

Lucian of Samosata was a Greek satirist who sarcastically spoke of Christ and Christians. However, in his attempt to ridicule he never spoke of him as a fictional character.

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." (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine. 11-13)

Once again details given in the gospels regarding the message of Christ are confirmed. We see Jesus spoke about repentance and being a part of the family of God. These teachings were quickly adopted by Jesus’ followers and exhibited in such a manner that the entire world was transformed.

The last hostile non-Jewish account we will look at is from Celsus. He was quite hostile to the gospels, but in his hostility he affirmed and reinforced the authors and their content. In his extensive writings he alludes to 80 different biblical quotes, also confirming their appearance early in history. In addition to all of this, Celsus admits that the miracles of Jesus were generally believed in the early 2nd century.

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.

Again, Celsus in his hostility confirms many details found in the gospels, particularly the virgin conception of Jesus. The serious difference being that Jesus was the result of an adulterous relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera. Interestingly, this was a commonly told in Jewish circles during Celsus’ day. However, Celsus does affirm that Jesus had an earthly father who was a carpenter, that he possessed unusual magical powers, and that he claimed to be God.

In conclusion, we learn that a number of details found in the gospels are confirmed in the testimony of these hostile non-Jewish witnesses. While a number of them speak of the followers of Jesus, it is important to note that if Jesus had not existed then there is no reason for the growth of Christianity during that time, nor the acknowledgment of the life of Jesus by various historians.These are non-Jewish sources. What do Jewish sources have to say about Jesus of Nazareth? That is for the next post.

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