Historical References to Christ From Non-Biblical Authors
1. Thallus, the Samaritan-born historian
One of the first Gentile writers who mention Christ is Thallus, who wrote in A.D. 52. He wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean from the time of the Trojan War to his own time. However, his writings have disappeared, and we only know of them from fragments cited by other writers. One such writer is Julius Africanus, a Christian writer about A.D. 221 One very interesting passage relates to a comment from Thallus about the darkness during the last 3 hours Jesus was on the cross. Julius Africanus writes:
Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun-unreasonably, as it seems to me (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died).
Thus, from this reference we see that the gospel account of the darkness which fell upon the land during Christ’s crucifixion was well-known and required a naturalistic explanation from those non-believers who witnessed it.
2. Phlegon, Chronicles.
His history—Chronicles—has disappeared, and we only know of it from the following fragment cited by other writers. One such writer is Julius Africanus:
During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth occurred during the full moon.
Phlegon is also noted by Origen:
“But,” continues Celsus… “although we are able to show the striking and miraculous character of the events which befell Him, yet from what other source can we furnish an answer than from the Gospel narratives, which state that “there was an earthquake, and that the rocks were split asunder, and the tombs opened, and the veil of the temple rent in twain from top to bottom, and that darkness prevailed in the day-time, the sun failing to give light?”
Answer: “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, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles” (Origen, Against Celsus, 2.33)…. He (Celsus) imagines also that both the earthquake and the darkness were an invention; but regarding these, we have in the preceding pages, made our defense, according to our ability, adducing the testimony of Phlegon, who relates that these events took place at the time when our Saviour suffered. (Origen, Against Celsus, 2.59)
Phlegon is also noted by a six-century writer named Philopon:
And about this darkness…Phlegon recalls it in his Olympiads… .
From these references to Phelgon’s history, we see that the gospel account of the darkness (three hours long) which fell upon the land during Christ’s crucifixion and very possibly the earthquake were well-known. Origen’s account is especially helpful because he is responding to an antagonist who questions the New Testament record.
3. Letter of Mara Bar-Serapion
F. F. Bruce in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? records that there is: …in the British Museum an interesting manuscript preserving the text of a letter written some time later than A.D. 73, but how much later we cannot be sure. This letter was sent by a Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion to his son Serapion. Mara Bar-Serapion was in prison at the time, but he wrote to encourage his son in the pursuit of wisdom, and pointed out that those who persecuted wise men were overtaken by misfortune. He instances the deaths of Socrates, Pythagoras and Christ:
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.
This ancient document corroborates Jesus’ death, death by the Jews, and that His teaching obviously had continued on (i.e., He had followers who were spreading His teachings).
4. Flavius Josephus
A Jewish historian, became a Pharisee at age 19; in A.D. 66 he was the commander of Jewish forces in Galilee. After being captured, he was attached to the Roman headquarters. There are three valuable references for New Testament students. One (Antiquities xviii. 5) describes John the Baptist just as the Gospels do. The second (Antiquities xx. 9) describes the death of James:
(Ananus [Ananias]) convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.
The reference to Jesus being the brother of James fits the New Testament data, but that Jesus is further identified as the Christ is remarkable in light of the following quotation from Josephus. Here He is already called the “Christ,” i.e., the Messiah.
The third excerpt from Josephus is of special interest because of what it says about Jesus:
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 the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among 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.” (Antiquities xviii. 33)
Jesus is called a wise “man” (hinting that he might be more than a man), did wonderful works, was a great teacher, was the Messiah, was condemned by Pilate (at the instigation of the Jews), rose from dead on the third day (in fulfillment of the Old Testament), and a movement of “Christians” continued at the time of Josephus’ writing.
Value: This is the strongest corroboration of the resurrection of Jesus and his mission outside of the New Testament documents.
5. Plinius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger
Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (A.D. 112) wrote the emperor Trajan seeking counsel as to how to treat Christians. He explained that he had been killing both men and women, boys and girls. There were so many being put to death that he wondered if he should continue killing anyone who was discovered to be a Christian, or if he should kill only certain ones. He explained that he had made the Christians bow down to the statues of Trajan. He goes on to say that he also “made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do.” In the same letter he says of the people who were being tried that:
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed…. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged…. They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn , and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition. I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. (Epistles X. 96)
Pliny documents Roman persecution of Christians, who willing to die for their faith. To curse Jesus he understood to be an impossibility for a Christian. Reference is made to the habit of Christians worshiping on a “fixed day” (Sunday to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection), viewing Jesus as God, and committing themselves to good living. The statement found often in ancient literature—excessive superstition—appears to be a reference to the resurrection.
6. Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 55-120)
A Roman historian, in 112 A.D., Governor of Asia, son-in-law of Julius Agricola, who was Governor of Britain A.D. 80-84. Writing of the reign of Nero, Tacitus alludes to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians at Rome.
But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.” (Annals XV. 44)
Tacitus documents the persecution of Christians by Nero, noting that Jesus (called Chrestus “Messiah”) was put to death by Pilate, that Christianity was called a pernicious superstition (a reference to the resurrection), and that the faith had spread throughout the Roman Empire.
Evidence for Pontius Pilate, the governor who presided over the trial of Jesus, was discovered in Caesarea Maritama. In 1961, an Italian archaeologist named Antonio Frova uncovered a fragment of a plaque that was used as a section of steps leading to the Caesarea Theater. The inscription, written in Latin, contained the phrase, “Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius.” This temple is dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius who reigned from 14–37 A.D. This fits well chronologically with the New Testament which records that Pilate ruled as procurator from 26–36 A.D.
All four Gospels give details of the crucifixion of Christ. Their accurate portrayal of this Roman practice has been confirmed by archaeology. In 1968, a gravesite in the city of Jerusalem was uncovered containing thirty-five bodies. Each of the men had died a brutal death which historians believe was the result of their involvement in the Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 A.D.
The inscription identified one individual as Yohan Ben Ha’galgol. Studies of the bones performed by osteologists and doctors from the Hadassah Medical School determined the man was twenty-eight years old, stood five feet six inches, and had some slight facial defects due to a cleft right palate.
What intrigued archaeologists were the evidences that this man had been crucified in a manner resembling the crucifixion of Christ. A seven-inch nail had been driven through both feet, which were turned outward so the nail could be hammered inside the Achilles tendon. (See illustration to the right).
Archaeologists also discovered that nails had been driven through his lower forearms. A victim of a crucifixion would have to raise and lower his body in order to breathe. To do this, he needed to push up on his pierced feet and pull up with his arms. Yohan’s upper arms were smoothly worn, indicating this movement.
John records that in order to expedite the death of a prisoner, executioners broke the legs of the victim so that he could not lift himself up by pushing with his feet (19:31-33). Yohan’s legs were found crushed by a blow, breaking them below the knee. The Dead Sea Scrolls tell that both Jews and Romans abhorred crucifixion due to its cruelty and humiliation. The scrolls also state it was a punishment reserved for slaves and any who challenged the ruling powers of Rome. This explains why Pilate chose crucifixion as the penalty for Jesus.
Relating to the crucifixion, in 1878 a stone slab was found in Nazareth with a decree from Emperor Claudius who reigned from 41–54 A.D. It stated that graves must not be disturbed nor bodies to be removed. The punishment on other decrees is a fine but this one threatens death and comes very close to the time of the resurrection. This was probably due to Claudius investigating the riots of 49 A.D. He had certainly heard of the resurrection and did not want any similar incidents. This decree was probably made in connection with the Apostles’ preaching of Jesus’ resurrection and the Jewish argument that the body had been stolen.
7. Suetonius (A.D. 120)
Another Roman historian, court official under Hadrian, annalist of the Imperial House, says:
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (another spelling of Christus), he expelled them from Rome (Life of Claudius 25.4).
He also writes:
Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition (Lives of the Caesars, 26.2).
Suetonius documents the persecution of Christians, and Christianity again is called a pernicious superstition (a reference to the resurrection).
8. Lucian of Samosata
Lucian was a satirist of the second century, who spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians. He connected them with the synagogues of Palestine and alluded to Christ:
The Christians, you know, worship the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world…. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another, from the moment they were converted…. They deny the Greek gods and worship that crucified sophist himself and live under his laws. (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13).
Lucian gives evidence that Jesus was crucified in Palestine, was the founder of the Christian faith, and taught brother-like love. Christians deny that there is any other god, and worship Jesus.
9. Justin Martyr
About A.D. 150, Justin Martyr, addressing his Defense of Christianity to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, referred him to Pilate’s report, which Justin supposed must be preserved in the imperial archives. But the words, “They pierced my hands and my feet,” he says,
are a description of the nails that were fixed in His hands and His feet on the cross; and after He was crucified, those who crucified Him cast lots for His garments, and divided them among themselves: and that these things were so, you may learn from the ‘Acts’ which were recorded under Pontius Pilate.
Later he says,
“That He performed these miracles you may easily be satisfied from the ‘Acts’ of Pontius Pilate” (Apology 1.48).
These Acts have been lost, but Justin Martyr’s testimony demonstrates that Christ’s crucifixion as documented in the New Testament Gospels was also recorded in pagan history.
10. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43.1 “Eve of Passover”
On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defense come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defense and hanged him of the eve of Passover.
These words corroborate that Jesus (Yeshu, “Jesus” in Aramaic) was crucified by the Jews.
11. Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 27b “Yesha ben Pantera”
It happened with R. Elazar ben Damah, whom a serpent bit, that Jacob, a man of Kefar Soma, came to heal him in the name of Yeshua ben Pantera; but R. Ishmael did not let him. He said, “You are not permitted, Ben Damah.” He answered, “I will bring you proof that he may heal me.” But he had no opportunity to bring proof, for he died.
Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked among Us, 66f: Klausner and Bruce accept the position that panthera is a corruption of the Greek parthenos meaning “virgin.” Klausner says, “The Jews constantly heard that the Christians (the majority of whom spoke Greek from the earliest times) called Jesus by the name ‘Son of the Virgin,’…and so, in mockery, they called him Ben ha-Pantera, i.e., ‘son of the leopard.’”… This passage indicates that teaching and healing were part of the ministry of Jesus’ disciples, and therefore of Jesus’ ministry as well. Notice the evidence of controversy between rabbis as to whether healing in Jesus’ name might be permissible.
12. Tosefta Yebamoth 3.3.
They asked R. Eliezer, “What of such-an-one as regards the world to come?” He said to them, “You have only asked me about such-an-one…What of a bastard as touching inheritance?—What of him as touching the levirate duties? What of him as regards whitening his house?—What of him as regards whitening his grave?”—not because he evaded them by words, but because he never said a word which he had not heard from his teacher.
R. Shimeon ben ‘Azzai said: I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, “Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress.”
It must have been a common charge that Jesus was an illegitimate child of Mary, as the above indicates. The Gospel of John (8:39ff) illustrates the charge in the New Testament:
They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus *said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.40 “But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.41 “You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.”
This list of non-biblical references to Jesus was compiled by Dr. David Oldham.