Occasionally, critics of Christianity will ask the question of whether there is any
evidence of Jesus which is not purely Christian in its origin. Other critics sometimes
claim that there is no reference to Jesus as a real human being until the second
century AD. Both of these are wrong. While the best account of the life, work and
teaching of Jesus is found in the Bible, Jesus is also mentioned by sources outside
it. There are references to Jesus in the works of Roman historians, in Jewish literature
and in the works of Christians from the turn of the first century. Writers outside
the Bible who refer to Jesus include the following:-
Flavius Josephus: Josephus wrote “Antiquities of the Jews” in about 94AD. In it
he mentions Jesus twice, once in passing and one more time which has probably been
corrupted to some extent by later scribes.
Pliny the Younger: In the course of his governorship of Bithynia in 112AD Pliny
wrote a letter to the emperor asking about Christians in his province.
Tacitus: Tacitus wrote a history of the early emperors in c116AD. In his account
of Nero he mentions the persecution of Christians and includes a brief account of
the start of Christianity: “Christ, the originator of the name [Christian] suffered
the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius by sentence of the governor Pontius Pilate.
Suetonius: Suetonius wrote another history in c120AD. This contains a small reference
to Christians and another reference which may be to Jesus and which confirms a detail
Lucian of Samosata: In c170 Lucian wrote a satire on a Greek philosopher in which
the philosopher spent some time with Christians. In the course of this, Jesus is
Celsus: Celsus was a philosopher who wrote a treatise against Christianity (c180AD)
in which he mentions Jesus.
In addition to these there are two writers where there are problems in terms of date
or the nature of the reference:-
Mara bar-Sarapion: wrote a letter which refers to the “wise king” executed by the
Thallus: Wrote a history in the mid first century AD which mentions the darkness
at Jesus’ crucifixion. The work is lost but was quoted by the second century Julius
Phlegon: Wrote an astronomical treatise which mentions the darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Talmud contains many layers, some of which go back to the second century AD.
From this period there are three traditions, one of which refers to the execution
of Jesus, one to his disciples and another to healings carried out in his name.
Clement of Rome: In 96AD Clement wrote a letter to the church in Corinth. In this
he mentions Jesus and alludes to the New Testament.
Ignatius of Antioch: Wrote a series of letters as he was taken to Rome to be killed
for his faith in 117AD. He mentions Jesus and quotes from the New Testament.
Polycarp: Polycarp wrote a letter at the start of the second century AD in which
he mentions Jesus and quotes from the New Testament.
The Didache: This is a work of uncertain date but probably from the first century
AD. It mentions Jesus and quotes from the New Testament.
The Epistle of Barbnabas: Written between 70AD and 135AD this quotes extensively
from the New Testament.
In addition to these writings there are very early references to Jesus which are
preserved inside the Bible. These are so close to the time of Jesus that to ignore
them would be an example of complete bigotry. Any reasoning human being must consider
these sources and account for them. The first mention of Jesus to be written and
which still exists is the opening verse of Paul’s letter to the Galatians: Paul,
an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father,
who raised him from the dead;) (Galatians 1:1). The alternative candidate is the
opening verse of the letter of James: James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus
Christ... (James 1:1)
The wealth of these sayings is evidence that Jesus was a historical figure. From
only the non-Christian sources we can find out:-
when Jesus lived, where he was born and brought up,
where he carried out his teaching,
that he had influence as a teacher,
that he performed actions considered to be miraculous,
that he was executed,
that people claimed to have seen him alive afterwards,
that he was widely described as “Christ”
that he had a brother called James.
This is a considerable amount of information. However, to know the full detail of
the life of Jesus it is necessary to read the Bible.