While some early twentieth century critics suggested that Jesus never existed, virtually no serious scholar holds that view today. The historical evidence is simply too strong. Nevertheless, one still encounters (usually on the internet) the idea that Jesus is a myth and there is no proof for Jesus’ existence outside the New Testament. This post counters that idea by familiarizing readers with the non-Christian sources that testify of Jesus’ existence as well as the faulty assumptions that accompany the “Jesus is a myth” idea.
The clearest non-Christian evidence for Jesus comes from the first century Jewish historian Josephus. In his work, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus mentions John the Baptist (Antiq. 18.116-9), Jesus (Antiq. 18.63-4), and Jesus’ brother James (Antiq. 20.200). While Josephus clearly refers to Jesus, there is debate about how much of the reference is authentic. Christians who preserved Josephus’ works (no doubt because of its historical value to the biblical time period) most likely added some accolades to the description of Jesus. Below is the quotation from Josephus, with the questionable portions in italics:
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, because the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the sect of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiq.18:63-64)
Even without the italicized portions, this passage corroborates many details about Jesus found in the Gospels. An argument also can be made that the “He was the Christ” portion is original, if read with a negative connotation. Josephus could have meant “he was the so-called Christ,” with Josephus expressing what some believed (though Josephus did not believe). This argument is more plausible considering how Josephus refers to Jesus in a later passage about Jesus’ brother James. The relevant section states that, “he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” (Antiq. 20.200). If the earlier passage does not originally contain the phrase about Jesus being the Christ or “so-called” Christ, this passage demonstrates Josephus’ (and perhaps his readers’) awareness of the claim. In total, Josephus corroborates that Jesus was considered a wise man and a miracle worker. He was killed under Pontius Pilate in consultation with the Jewish leaders and that Christ-ians bear his name—the Christ.
While Josephus focused on producing a history of the Jewish people for both a Jewish and Roman readership, Roman historians generally focused elsewhere. Judea was one small territory, far removed from Rome, in a vast empire. For this reason, it is not surprising that few references to Jesus exist in the literature of Rome. A religious figure making bold claims but executed after a couple years would not have been noteworthy to those in Rome. Nevertheless, the Roman historian Tacitus explicitly mentions Christ. In his Annals 15.44, Tacitus describes how Nero blamed Christians for the great Roman fire. Like Josephus, Tacitus explains that the name “Christian” comes from “Christ,” a person executed under Pontius Pilate during the time of Tiberius Caesar. While this execution slowed Christianity down, this “superstition” spread in Judea and eventually made its way to Rome. Tacitus’ view of Christianity is obviously not favorable, which makes his testimony about the life and death of Jesus Christ all the more credible.
Several other non-Christian writers refer to Jesus, but the above are the clearest. Some of the others include: The Roman historian Seutonius (Life of Nero 16.2) provides a vague reference to “Chrestus” that many scholars think refers to Jewish and Christian disagreement about the “Christ.” Similarly, the Syrian Stoic philosopher Mara Bar Sarapion mentions a “wise king” that the Jewish people rejected. To these passages one could add Pliny the Younger (Epistles 10.96-7), later passages in the Mishnah that describe Jesus as a miracle worker who led people astray, and a couple other indirect references.
While the above sources include only short remarks about Jesus and his followers, what they do say corroborates the fuller picture given in the New Testament. Those who claim no evidence outside the New Testament exists for Jesus are misinformed.
Being a stubborn sort, some skeptics still argue that if Jesus really existed, then there should be more non-Christian evidence other than the above few sources. However, this argument makes several false assumptions. 1) It fails to consider that any reference to Jesus in Roman sources is significant. As a point of comparison, Pontius Pilate is much more important than a crucified Jewish prophet from a Roman perspective. However, among the Roman historians, Pilate is only mentioned once—in the quote by Tacitus mentioned above (Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, 46). 2) It is anachronistic to assume that just because Jesus is well-known today, he should have been well-known throughout the Roman empire. As mentioned above, Jesus was from the fringes of society and the empire. This fact makes Jesus’ presence in the above sources remarkable and argues that Jesus not only existed, but he made an unusual impact. 3) This argument totally ignores all the biblical material as if a collection of writings about Jesus from different authors could spontaneously sprout up without any historical anchor. While the New Testament material was written within a few decades of Jesus’ life, the same objection applies to all the other early Christian writings. It is historically implausible that a diverse body of literature connecting Jesus to a certain time and place was based on a complete fabrication.
The argument that Jesus never even existed is based on poor argumentation and an ignorance of the existing sources. Christians can confidently cite these sources and the New Testament as historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived a real life and died a real death.