Thursday, October 7, 2010

Evidence For Jesus Outside the New Testament, Part Three

On part one of this series, we learned that there are a number of witnesses attested to by the writers of the New Testament. From the selection of Judas’ replacement to Peter’s sermon on Pentecost and to Paul’s writing in 1st Corinthians 15, eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and resurrection did actually exist. However, there are people, whether hostile skeptics or open-minded seekers, that want evidence for Jesus outside the New Testament. This is a legitimate question, and it requires answers. The problem I have found is that there are some people for whom no amount of evidence is sufficient in order to believe in the resurrection. To these persons, their presuppositions may need to be addressed, or at worst, they may just need to be left alone. That decision is up to the individual Christian and who that Christian is engaging in an apologetic discussion.

In part two of this series, we looked at a number of non-Jewish witnesses to the life of Jesus. Many of these accounts focused on the followers of Jesus, and how these people were impacting the Roman culture. It is important to note, that none of these witnesses ever stated that Jesus did not exist. In fact, a number of important facts chronicled in the gospels about Jesus were confirmed by these non-Jewish witnesses.

Jesus’ impact, however, was not limited to non-Jewish society. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection also impact Jewish society. What do Jewish witnesses to the life of Jesus have to say about Jesus? An overview of Jewish testimony reveals a rather critical view of Jesus. This is to be expected, as Jesus did not fulfill the Jewish expectation of a Messiah that would throw the Roman Empire off their necks. Because of this, the Jewish writings are very harsh, critical and demeaning to Jesus. That being said, there is still much that these writings confirm about the life of Jesus.


Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote, in more detail, about the life of Jesus than any other non-biblical historian of the time. In 93 AD, Josephus wrote Antiquities of the Jews, and in this work Josephus documented the history of Jews. In Antiquites, we find three references regarding Christians. In one, Josephus describes the death of John the Baptizer:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. (Josephus, Antiqities, 18.5.2)

In a second, Josephus references the execution of James, the brother of Jesus:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Josephus, Antiqities, 20.9.1)

Lastly, Josephus references the life of Jesus, also called the Flavium Testimonium:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [called] the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross,those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.3.3)

Please note that there are segments of this quote that I have deliberately struck through. This is because the struck through segments have been deemed as later additions to the Flavium Testimonium, according to G├ęza Vermes. Another scholar, Shlomo Pines, published a different translation of the Flavium based on a tenth century Arabic manuscript.

For he says in the treatises that he has written in the governance of the Jews: "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 the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.

Sadly, there are skeptics and atheists, who are more than willing to toss out the Flavium Testimonium completely based on the interpolations mentioned above. This is premature, because we can reconstruct the passage without the disputed segments and still have a statement that accurately describes the life of Jesus. Further, there is nothing in the Flavium Testimonium that contradicts anything written in the gospels concerning the life of Jesus.

The Jewish Talmud

The earliest Talmudic writings of Jewish rabbis appeared in the 5th century. The tradition of these rabbinic writers indicates that the teachings recorded in the Talmud were faithfully transmitted from the early Tannaitic period from the 1st century B.C.E. to the 2nd century A.D. There are a number of writings in the Talmud that scholars believe refer to Jesus. Many of these passages are said to use “code words” to describe Jesus (e.g., Balaam, Ben Stada, or “a certain one”).

For the purposes of this post I will not use these “coded” passages. I will only passages that refer directly to Jesus.

Jesus practiced magic and led Israel astray” (b. Sanhedrin 43a; cf. t. Shabbat 11.15; b. Shabbat 104b)

Rabbi Hisda (d. 309) said that Rabbi Jeremiah bar Abba said, ‘What is that which is written, ‘No evil will befall you, nor shall any plague come near your house’? (Psalm 91:10)… ‘No evil will befall you’ (means) that evil dreams and evil thoughts will not tempt you; ‘nor shall any plague come near your house’ (means) that you will not have a son or a disciple who burns his food like Jesus of Nazareth.” (b. Sanhedrin 103a; cf. b. Berakhot 17b)

Our rabbis have taught that Jesus had five disciples: Matthai, Nakai, Nezer, Buni and Todah. They brought Matthai to (to trial). He said, ‘Must Matthai be killed? For it is written, ‘When (Mathai) shall I come and appear before God?’” (Psalm 92:2) They said to him, “Yes Matthai must be killed, for it is written, ‘When (mathai) he dies his name will perish’” (Psalm 41:5). They brought Nakai. He said to them, “Must Nakai be killed? For it is written, “The innocent (naqi) and the righteous will not slay’” (Exodus 23:7). They said to him, “Yes, Nakai must be kille, for it is written, ‘In secret places he slays the innocent (naqi)’” (Psalm 10:8). (b. Sanhedrin 43a; the passage continues in a similar way for Nezer, Buni and Todah)

Lastly, this is the most famous Talmudic passage about Jesus.

It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days (proclaiming), “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover. (b. Sanhedrin 43a)

Just in these four passages in which Jesus is mentioned by name, we see a number of facts found in gospels confirmed by hostile Jewish witnesses. Namely, that Jesus had magical powers, led the Jews away from their beliefs, had disciples who were martyred for their faith (one of whom was named Matthai), and was executed on the day before the Passover. It is important to repeat that these passages are from a period within 100 years of the events they describe, and are very compelling in their confirmation of details found within the four gospels.

The Toledot Yeshu

The Toledot Yeshu is a retelling of the life of Jesus that appears around 1000 A.D. It is completely anti-Christian, however, my point in using this passage is not to enflame anti-Semitism, but to demonstrate the confirmation by hostile Jews to the life of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels. The Toledot is one of many retellings that is partially transmitted orally, and later written down by Jewish scholars. Based on what is written in the Toledot, we can reasonably infer that the ides found in it can be traced back to Jesus. While the Toledot Yeshu does try to explain away the miracles of Jesus (such as the virgin conception), and is, at times, quite vicious the Toledot Yeshu still does confirm details found in the four gospels.

In the year 3671 (in Jewish reckonging, it being ca 90 B.C.) in the days of King Jannaeus, a great misfortune befell Israel, when there arose a certain disreputable man of the tribe of Judah, whose name was Joseph Pandera. He lived at Bethlehem, in Judah. Near his house dwelt a widow and her lovely and chaste daughter named Miriam. Miriam was betrothed to Yohanan, of the royal house of David, a man learned in the Torah and God-fearing. At the close of a certain Sabbath, Joseph Pandera, attractive and like a warrior in appearance, having gazed lustfully upon Miriam, knocked upon the door of her room and betrayed her by pretending that he was her betrothed husband, Yohanan. Even so, she was amazed at this improper conduct and submitted only against her will. Thereafter, when Yohanan came to her, Miriam expressed astonishment at behavior so foreign to his character. It was thus that they both came to know the crime of Joseph Pandera and the terrible mistake on the part of Miriam… Miriam gave birth to a son and named him Yehoshua, after her brother. This name later deteriorated to Yeshu ("Yeshu" is the Jewish "name" for Jesus. It means "May His Name Be Blotted Out"). On the eighth day he was circumcised. When he was old enough the lad was taken by Miriam to the house of study to be instructed in the Jewish tradition. One day Yeshu walked in front of the Sages with his head uncovered, showing shameful disrespect. At this, the discussion arose as to whether this behavior did not truly indicate that Yeshu was an illegitimate child and the son of a niddah. Moreover, the story tells that while the rabbis were discussing the Tractate Nezikin, he gave his own impudent interpretation of the law and in an ensuing debate he held that Moses could not be the greatest of the prophets if he had to receive counsel from Jethro. This led to further inquiry as to the antecedents of Yeshu, and it was discovered through Rabban Shimeon ben Shetah that he was the illegitimate son of Joseph Pandera. Miriam admitted it. After this became known, it was necessary for Yeshu to flee to Upper Galilee. After King Jannaeus, his wife Helene ruled over all Israel. In the Temple was to be found the Foundation Stone on which were engraven the letters of God's Ineffable Name. Whoever learned the secret of the Name and its use would be able to do whatever he wished. Therefore, the Sages took measures so that no one should gain this knowledge. Lions of brass were bound to two iron pillars at the gate of the place of burnt offerings. Should anyone enter and learn the Name, when he left the lions would roar at him and immediately the valuable secret would be forgotten. Yeshu came and learned the letters of the Name; he wrote them upon the parchment which he placed in an open cut on his thigh and then drew the flesh over the parchment. As he left, the lions roared and he forgot the secret. But when he came to his house he reopened the cut in his flesh with a knife an lifted out the writing. Then he remembered and obtained the use of the letters. He gathered about himself three hundred and ten young men of Israel and accused those who spoke ill of his birth of being people who desired greatness and power for themselves. Yeshu proclaimed, "I am the Messiah; and concerning me Isaiah prophesied and said, 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.'" He quoted other messianic texts, insisting, "David my ancestor prophesied concerning me: 'The Lord said to me, thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee.'" The insurgents with him replied that if Yeshu was the Messiah he should give them a convincing sign. They therefore, brought to him a lame man, who had never walked. Yeshu spoke over the man the letters of the Ineffable Name, and the leper was healed. Thereupon, they worshipped him as the Messiah, Son of the Highest. When word of these happenings came to Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin decided to bring about the capture of Yeshu. They sent messengers, Annanui and Ahaziah, who, pretending to be his disciples, said that they brought him an invitation from the leaders of Jerusalem to visit them. Yeshu consented on condition the members of the Sanhedrin receive him as a lord. He started out toward Jerusalem and, arriving at Knob, acquired an ass on which he rode into Jerusalem, as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah. The Sages bound him and led him before Queen Helene, with the accusation: "This man is a sorcerer and entices everyone." Yeshu replied, "The prophets long ago prophesied my coming: 'And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse,' and I am he; but as for them, Scripture says 'Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.'" Queen Helene asked the Sages: "What he says, is it in your Torah?" They replied: "It is in our Torah, but it is not applicable to him, for it is in Scripture: 'And that prophet which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.' He has not fulfilled the signs and conditions of the Messiah." Yeshu spoke up: "Madam, I am the Messiah and I revive the dead." A dead body was brought in; he pronounced the letters of the Ineffable Name and the corpse came to life. The Queen was greatly moved and said: "This is a true sign." She reprimanded the Sages and sent them humiliated from her presence. Yeshu's dissident followers increased and there was controversy in Israel. Yeshu went to Upper Galilee. the Sages came before the Queen, complaining that Yeshu practiced sorcery and was leading everyone astray. Therefore she sent Annanui and Ahaziah to fetch him. The found him in Upper Galilee, proclaiming himself the Son of God. When they tried to take him there was a struggle, but Yeshu said to the men of Upper Galilee: "Wage no battle." He would prove himself by the power which came to him from his Father in heaven. He spoke the Ineffable Name over the birds of clay and they flew into the air. He spoke the same letters over a millstone that had been placed upon the waters. He sat in it and it floated like a boat. When they saw this the people marveled. At the behest of Yeshu, the emissaries departed and reported these wonders to the Queen. She trembled with astonishment. Then the Sages selected a man named Judah Iskarioto and brought him to the Sanctuary where he learned the letters of the Ineffable Name as Yeshu had done. When Yeshu was summoned before the queen, this time there were present also the Sages and Judah Iskarioto. Yeshu said: "It is spoken of me, 'I will ascend into heaven.'" He lifted his arms like the wings of an eagle and he flew between heaven and earth, to the amazement of everyone…Yeshu was seized. His head was covered with a garment and he was smitten with pomegranate staves; but he could do nothing, for he no longer had the Ineffable Name. Yeshu was taken prisoner to the synagogue of Tiberias, and they bound him to a pillar. To allay his thirst they gave him vinegar to drink. On his head they set a crown of thorns. There was strife and wrangling between the elders and the unrestrained followers of Yeshu, as a result of which the followers escaped with Yeshu to the region of Antioch; there Yeshu remained until the eve of the Passover. Yeshu then resolved to go the Temple to acquire again the secret of the Name. That year the Passover came on a Sabbath day. On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu, accompanied by his disciples, came to Jerusalem riding upon an ass. Many bowed down before him. He entered the Temple with his three hundred and ten followers. One of them, Judah Iskarioto apprised the Sages that Yeshu was to be found in the Temple, that the disciples had taken a vow by the Ten Commandments not to reveal his identity but that he would point him out by bowing to him. So it was done and Yeshu was seized. Asked his name, he replied to the question by several times giving the names Mattai, Nakki, Buni, Netzer, each time with a verse quoted by him and a counter-verse by the Sages. Yeshu was put to death on the sixth hour on the eve of the Passover and of the Sabbath. When they tried to hang him on a tree it broke, for when he had possessed the power he had pronounced by the Ineffable Name that no tree should hold him. He had failed to pronounce the prohibition over the carob-stalk, for it was a plant more than a tree, and on it he was hanged until the hour for afternoon prayer, for it is written in Scripture, "His body shall not remain all night upon the tree." They buried him outside the city. On the first day of the week his bold followers came to Queen Helene with the report that he who was slain was truly the Messiah and that he was not in his grave; he had ascended to heaven as he prophesied. Diligent search was made and he was not found in the grave where he had been buried. A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden. Queen Helene demanded, on threat of a severe penalty, that the body of Yeshu be shown to her within a period of three days. There was a great distress. When the keeper of the garden saw Rabbi Tanhuma walking in the field and lamenting over the ultimatum of the Queen, the gardener related what he had done, in order that Yeshu's followers should not steal the body and then claim that he had ascended into heaven. The Sages removed the body, tied it to the tail of a horse and transported it to the Queen, with the words, "This is Yeshu who is said to have ascended to heaven." Realizing that Yeshu was a false prophet who enticed the people and led them astray, she mocked the followers but praised the Sages.

Now in spite of the fact that the Jewish religious scholars attempted to put a different spin on the miracles of Jesus, they do inadvertently make several claims about Jesus in the passage. This passage, along with several others from the Toledot tradition, confirms that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, that he healed the lame, that Isaiah foretold of his life, that he was worshipped as God, that he was arrested by the Jews, beaten with rods, given vinegar to drink, wore a crown of thorns, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, was betrayed by a man named Judah Iskarioto, and had followers who claimed he was resurrected and ascended, leaving an empty tomb!

There is an amazing amount of evidence regarding the historical Jesus in existence, and most of it comes from witnesses that are hostile to Christians and Christianity. This information is available in spite of how many manuscripts of any text from Jesus day are in existence today. Historians during this era often wrote very little about religious figures. Jesus was active for a relatively short time (three years). Jesus ministered in a remote part of both the Roman Empire (Palestine) and Jewish culture (Galilee).

With all this taken into consideration, we have an amazing amount of information about the life of Jesus. This why I believe that Jesus actually lived, and trust what was written about him in the gospels.

We can summarize the hostile testimony from this and the immediately preceding post and be able to distill that a man called Jesus did indeed exist in time. Even when we remove the pro-Christian insertions found in Josephus, we see that Jesus was indeed an historical figure. Based on the most conservative statements about Jesus from these hostile witnesses we can put together the following facts about the historical Jesus:
  • He was born, supposedly, to a virgin and had an earthly father who was a carpenter.
  • He was a teacher who taught that by repentance and belief, all followers would become brothers and sisters.
  • He led the Jews away from their beliefs.
  • He was a wise man who claimed to be God and the Messiah. He had unusual magical powers and performed miraculous deeds.
  • He accurately predicted the future.
  • He was persecuted by the Jews for what he said, betrayed by Judah Iskarioto.
  • He was beaten with rods, forced to drink vinegar and wear a crown of thorns and crucified on the eve of the Passover.
  • His crucifixion occurred under the direction of Pontius Pilate, during the time of Tiberius.
  • On the day of his crucifixion, the sky grew dark and there was an earthquake.
  • Afterward, he was buried in a tomb and the tomb was later found to be empty.
  • He had disciples and followers who upheld a high moral code. One of them was named Matthai.
  • They claimed that he was resurrected and eventually ascended into heaven.
  • The disciples were also persecuted for their faith but were martyred without changing their claims.
  • They met regularly to worship Jesus, even after his death.

It is vital to note that none of the facts recorded by these hostile witnesses contradict what is written by Jesus in any of the four gospels.

Now, I have two questions for two segments of my audience:

For Christians I want to ask, based on the evidence present in the last three posts, is there any reason why you are not preaching the gospel of Christ, and doing so with the confidence that you are preaching facts and not “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16, ESV)?

For the non-Christian, I ask, what further evidence do you need in order to begin to trust the claims of Jesus as recorded in the gospels? It is clear from the testimony of hostile Jewish and non-Jewish witnesses that Jesus did indeed exist. However, he was not merely a good teacher, because no teacher can be called good who makes the claims that Jesus made and not be who he said he was. So I ask you again, are you going to accept the claims of Jesus, or continue in your suppression of the truth (Romans 1:18, ESV)?

It is my prayer that you would bend your knee to the Lord Jesus Christ and accept his saving work on the cross.

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