In the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, Philip his brother tetrarch of the region Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene... Luke 3:1
Some people claim that Jesus Christ never existed. Allegedly the life of Jesus and the Gospel are merely myths fabricated by the Church. This claim rests mainly upon their belief that there is no historical record of Jesus.
This lack of secular reports should not be too surprising for modern Christians. First, only a small fraction of the written records survived those twenty centuries. Secondly, there were few, if any, journalists in Palestine during the time of Jesus. Thirdly, the Romans saw the Jewish people as merely one of many ethnic groups that needed to be tolerated. The Romans held the Jewish people in low regard. Finally the Jewish leaders were also eager to forget about Jesus. Secular writers only took notice after Christianity became popular and began to disturb their lifestyle.
Even though early secular reports on Jesus may have been rare, there are still a few surviving references to Him. Not too surprisingly, the earliest non-Christian reports were made by the Jews. Flavius Josephus, who lived until 98 A.D., was a romanized Jewish historian. He wrote books on Jewish history for the Roman people. In his book, Jewish Antiquities, he made references to Jesus. In one reference he wrote:
About this time arose Jesus, a wise man, who did good deeds and whose virtues were recognized. And many Jews and people of other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. However, those who became his disciples preached his doctrine. They related that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Perhaps he was the Messiah in connection with whom the prophets foretold wonders. [Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XVIII 3.2]
Even though several different forms of this particular text have survived through the twenty centuries, they all agree with the above cited version. This version is considered to be the closest to the original - the least suspected of Christian text-tampering. Elsewhere in this book, Josephus also reported the execution of St. John the Baptist [XVIII 5.2] and St. James the Just [XX 9.1], even referring to James as "the brother of Jesus who was called Christ." It should be noted that the past tense in the clause, "Jesus who was called Christ," argues against Christian text-tampering since a Christian would prefer to write instead, "Jesus who is called Christ."
Another Jewish source, the Talmud, makes several historical references to Jesus. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the Talmud is "the collection of ancient Rabbinic writings consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara, constituting the basis of religious authority for traditional Judaism." Although not explicitly referred to by name, later rabbis identify the person as Jesus. These references to Jesus are neither sympathetic to Him or His Church. Also these writings were preserved through the centuries by Jews, so Christians cannot be accused of tampering with the text.
The Talmud makes note of Jesus' miracles. No attempt is made to deny them, but it ascribes them to magical arts from Egypt. Also His crucifixion is dated as "on the eve of the Feast of the Passover" in agreement with the Gospel (Luke 22:1ff; John 19:31ff). Similar again to the Gospel (Matt. 27:51), the Talmud records the earthquake and the tearing in two of the Temple curtain during the time of Jesus' death. Josephus in his book, The Jewish War, also confirmed these events.
By the beginning of the 2nd century, Romans were writing about Christians and Jesus. Pliny the Younger, proconsul in Asia Minor, in 111 A.D. wrote to Emperor Trajan in a letter:
...it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery, or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and meet again to take food... [Pliny, Epistle 97]
Special attention should be made to the phrase, "to Christ as a god," an early secular witness to the belief in Christ's divinity (John 20:28; Phil. 2:6). Also it is interesting to compare this passage with Acts 20:7-11, a biblical account of an early Christian Sunday celebration.
Next the Roman historian, Tacitus, who is respected by modern scholars for historical accuracy, wrote in 115 A.D. about Christ and His Church:
The author of the denomination was Christ[us] who had been executed in Tiberius time by the Procurator Pontius Pilate. The pestilent superstition, checked for a while, burst out again, not only throughout Judea...but throughout the city of Rome also... [Tacitus, Annals, XV 44]
Even with disdain for the Christian faith, Tacitus still treated the execution of Christ as historical fact, drawing connections to Roman events and leaders. (cf. Luke 3:1ff)
Other secular witnesses to the historical Jesus include Suetonius in his biography of Claudius, Phlegan recording the eclipse of the sun during Jesus' death and even Celsus, a pagan philosopher. It must be kept in mind that most of these sources were not only secular but anti-Christian. These secular authors, including the Jewish writers, had no desire or intention to promote Christianity. They had no motivation to distort their reports in favor of Christianity. Pliny actually punished Christians for their faith. If Jesus were a myth or His execution a hoax, Tacitus would have reported it as such. He certainly would not have connected Jesus' execution to Roman leaders. These writers presented Jesus as a real historical person. Denying the reliability of these sources in connection to Jesus would cast serious suspicion on the rest of ancient history.
Now these ancient secular writings do not prove that Jesus is the Son of God or even the Christ, but that is not the goal of this tract. These reports show that a virtuous person named Jesus did live in the early first century A.D. and authored a religious movement (which still exists today). This Person was at least called Christ - the Messiah. Christians in the first century also appeared to consider Him God. Finally these writings support other facts found in the Bible surrounding His life. The claim that Jesus never existed and His life is a myth compromises the reliability of ancient history.
Printed with permission from A Catholic Response, Inc.