J. Warner Wallace of Cold Case Christianity (one of my top ten recommended apologetic resources) has this awesome blog Is There Any Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible? which he shows that you can get the core elements of the gospels from hostile sources outside the Bible, both pagan and Jewish. In each case, he points out that while each of these sources are hostile to Christianity, they agree with and serve to strengthen some of the core facts about and claims of Christianity. I’m going to give a brief overview of his blog, kind of like a Cliffs Notes version of his blog, but I recommend going to the link to his blog above and reading it in full for yourself.
He quotes from 8 hostile non-biblical pagan accounts regarding Jesus and from 3 hostile non-biblical Jewish accounts regarding Jesus. In each case, he gives the full quote of the hostile source, and then sums up what we can conclude from it. In other words, the conclusion is the points that the hostile source actually agrees with Gospels on. In this Cliffs Notes version of his blog, I am only quoting what we can conclude from it. Again, I recommend going to the link above and reading his blog in full.
Even when there are hostile accounts to an event, there are things that the hostile account actually agrees with in what happened. For example, in Matt 28:11-15, when the chief priests tell the guards of the tomb to report that the disciples came and stole the body while they were asleep, they are admitting and agreeing with the fact that the tomb was empty. In Jim’s blog, he points out that even with the conspiracy theories of Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11, the conspiracy theorists are still agreeing with the fact that both events actually happened. (On the topic of conspiracy theories, read What Every Christian Needs to Know About Conspiracy Theories parts 1, 2, & 3, as well as The Nature of Conspiracy Theories.)
The 8 Hostile Non-Biblical Pagan Accounts Regarding Jesus:
1. From Thallus (52 AD), we can conclude that
Jesus lived, He was crucified, and there was an earthquake and darkness at the point of His crucifixion.
2. Tacitus (56-120AD):
In his “Annals’ of 116AD, he describes Emperor Nero’s response to the great fire in Rome and Nero’s claim that the Christians were to blame… Tacitus confirms several historical elements of the Biblical narrative: Jesus lived in Judea, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and had followers who were persecuted for their faith in Christ.
3. Mara Bar-Serapion (70AD):
Sometime after 70AD, a Syrian philosopher named Mara Bar-Serapion, writing to encourage his son, compared the life and persecution of Jesus with that of other philosophers who were persecuted for their ideas. The fact Jesus is known to be a real person with this kind of influence is important.
From Mara’s account, we get:
He was a wise and influential man who died for His beliefs. The Jewish leadership was somehow responsible for Jesus’ death. Jesus’ followers adopted His beliefs and lived their lives accordingly.
4. From Phlegon (80-140AD), we can add:
Jesus had the ability to accurately predict the future, was crucified under the reign of Tiberius Caesar and demonstrated His wounds after he was resurrected.
5. Pliny the Younger (61-113AD)
In ” a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan, describes the lifestyles of early Christians”, we can add:
the first Christians believed Jesus was GOD, the first Christians upheld a high moral code, and these early followers met regularly to worship Jesus.
6. Suetonius (69-140AD)
Suetonius was a Roman historian and annalist of the Imperial House under the Emperor Hadrian.
From this account, we know Jesus had an immediate impact on His followers: They were committed to their belief Jesus was God and withstood the torment and punishment of the Roman Empire. Jesus had a curious and immediate impact on His followers, empowering them to die courageously for what they knew to be true.
7. Lucian of Samosata: (115-200 A.D.)
Lucian was a Greek satirist who spoke sarcastically of Christ and Christians, but in the process, he did affirm they were real people and never referred to them as fictional characters.
From his description of Jesus, we get:
He taught about repentance and about the family of God. These teachings were quickly adopted by Jesus’ followers and exhibited to the world around them.
8. Celsus (175AD)
Celsus was quite antagonistic to the claims of the Gospels, but in his criticism he unknowingly affirmed and reinforced the Biblical authors and their content. His writing is extensive and he alludes to 80 different Biblical quotes, confirming their early appearance in history. In addition, he admits the miracles of Jesus were generally believed in the early 2nd century.
Celsus confirms several claims:
Jesus had an earthly father who was a carpenter, possessed unusual magical powers and claimed to be God.
The 3 Hostile Non-Biblical Jewish Accounts Regarding Jesus:
1. Josephus (37-101AD)
In more detail than any other non-biblical historian, Josephus writes about Jesus in his “the Antiquities of the Jews” in 93AD. Josephus was born just four years after the crucifixion. He was a consultant for Jewish rabbis at an early age, became a Galilean military commander by the age of sixteen, and he was an eyewitness to much of what he recorded in the first century A.D. Under the rule of Roman emperor Vespasian, Josephus was allowed to write a history of the Jews. This history includes three passages about Christians, one in which he describes the death of John the Baptist, one in which he mentions the execution of James (and describes him as the brother of Jesus the Christ), and a final passage which describes Jesus as a wise man and the messiah.
From Josephus, we can conclude:
Jesus lived in Palestine, was a wise man and a teacher, worked amazing deeds, was accused by the Jews, crucified under Pilate and had followers called Christians.
2. Jewish Talmud (400-700AD)
While the earliest Talmudic writings of Jewish Rabbis appear in the 5th century, the tradition of these Rabbinic authors indicates they are faithfully transmitting teachings from the early “Tannaitic” period of the 1st Century BC to the 2nd Century AD.
From several passages in the Jewish Talmud mentioning Jesus by name, we can conclude:
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.
3. The Toledot Yeshu (1000AD)
The Toledot Yeshu is a medieval Jewish retelling of the life of Jesus. It is completely anti-Christian, to be sure. There are many versions of these ‘retellings’, and as part of the transmitted oral and written tradition of the Jews, we can presume their original place in antiquity, dating back to the time of Jesus’ first appearance as an influential leader who was drawing Jews away from their faith in the Law. The Toledot Yeshu contains a determined effort to explain away the miracles of Jesus and to deny the virgin birth. In some places, the text is quite vicious, but it does confirm many elements of the New Testament writings.
The passages in the Toledot Yehsu confirm the following:
Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, healed the lame, said Isaiah foretold of His life, was worshipped as God, 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.
Putting it all together
Now here’s the kicker and the fun part. Jim puts all of these together.
Jesus was born and lived in Palestine. He was born, supposedly, to a virgin and had an earthly father who was a carpenter. He was a teacher who taught that through 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 healed the lame. 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. He was crucified on the eve of the Passover and this 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 appeared to His disciples resurrected from the grave and showed them His wounds. These disciples then told others Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven. Jesus’ disciples and followers upheld a high moral code. One of them was named Matthai. 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.
Now, doesn’t this sound like the Gospel? Again, I recommend going back to Jim’s blog and reading all of the sources that he quotes where he extrapolates these facts from the original sources to see that he isn’t making this up. Even from the ancient hostile non-Biblical testimonies regarding Jesus, you still get the core message of the Gospel. That’s pretty amazing to me.