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Jesus is a man of history

January 7, 2022

In a debate sponsored by the Associate Students of a mid-western university, my opponent, a congressional candidate for the Progressive Labor Party (Marxist) in New York, said in her opening remarks: “Historians today have fairly well dismissed Jesus as being historical.” I couldn’t believe my ears (but I was thankful she said it, because the 2,500 students were soon aware that historical homework was missing in her preparation). It just so happened that I had the following notes and documentation with me to use in my rebuttal. It is certainly not the historians (maybe a few economists) who propagate a Christ-myth theory of Jesus.

As F. F. Bruce, Rylands professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, has rightly said:

“Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories.”

Otto Betz concludes that:

“No serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus.”

Christian Sources for the Historicity of Jesus


John Montgomery asks:

“What, then, does a historian know about Jesus Christ? He knows, first and foremost, that the New Testament documents can be relied upon to give an accurate portrait of Him. And he knows that this portrait cannot be rationalized away by wishful thinking, philosophical pre-suppositionalism, or literary maneuvering.”

CHURCH FATHERS … Polycarp, Eusebuis, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin, Origen, etc.

Non-biblical Sources for Historicity of Jesus

1. Cornelius Tacitus (born AD 52-54)

A Roman historian, in 112 AD, Governor of Asia, son-in-law of Julius Agricola who was Governor of Britain AD 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 has a further reference to Christianity in a fragment of his Histories, dealing with the burning of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70, preserved by Sulpicius Severus (Chron. ii. 30.6).

2. Lucian of Samosata

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 as:

“… the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world … Furthermore, their first law-giver persuaded them that they are all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.” The Passing Peregrinus.

Lucian also mentions the Christians several times in his Alexander the False Prophet, sections 25 and 29.

3. Flavius Josephus (born AD 37)

A Jewish historian, became a Pharisee at age 19; in AD 66 he was the commander of Jewish forces in Galilee. After being captured, he was attached to the Roman headquarters. He says in a hotly-contested quotation:

“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. (Early second century.)

The Arabic text of the passage is as follows:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and (He) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive; accordingly, He was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”

The above passage is found in the Arabic manuscript entitled:

‘Kitab Al-Unwan Al-Mukallal BiFadail Al-Hikma Al-Mutawwaj Bi-Anwa Al-Falsafa Al-Manduh Bi-Haqaq Al-Marifa./ The approximate translation would be: ‘Book of History Guided by All the Virtues of Wisdom. Crowned with Various Philosophis and Blessed by the Truth of Knowledge.’

The above manuscript composed by Bishop Apapius in the 10th century has a section commencing with:

“We have found in many books of the philosophers that they refer to the day of the crucifixion of Christ.”

Then he gives a list and quotes portions of the ancient works. Some of the works are familiar to modern scholars and others are not.

We also find from Josephus a reference to James the brother of Jesus. In Antiquities XX9:1 he describes the actions of the high priest Ananus:

“But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.”

4. Suetonius (AD 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 Clausius 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.

5. Plinus Secundus, Pliny The Younger

Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (AD 112), Pliny was writing the emperor Trajan seeking counsel as to how to treat the 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:

“They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.” Epistles X.96

6. Tertullian

Jurist-theologian of Carthage, in a defense of Christianity (AD 197) before the Roman authorities in AFrica, mentions the exchange between Tiberius and Pontius Pilate:

“Tiberius accordingly, in those days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favor of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all the accusers of the Christians” (Apology, V.2). Some historians doubt the historicity of this passage. Also, Cr. Justin Martyr, Apology, 1.35.

7. Thallus, The Samaritan-Born Historian

One of the first Gentile writers who mentions Christ is Thallus, who wrote in 52 AD. 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 221 AD. One very interesting passage relates to a comment from Thallus. Julius Africanus writes:

“‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonable, as it seems to me’ (unreasonable, 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.

8. Philegon, A First Century Historian

His Chronicles have been lost, but a small fragment of that work, which confirms the darkness upon the earth at the crucifixion, is also mentioned by Julius Africanus. After his (Africanus’) remarks about Thallus’ unreasonable opinion of the darkness, he quotes Phlegon that “during the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon.”

Phlegon is also mentioned by Origen in Contra Celsum, Book 2, sections 14,33,59. Philopon (De. opif. mund. II 21) says:

“And about this darkness … Phlegon recalls it in the Olympiads (the title of his history).” He says that “Phlegon mentioned the eclipse which took place during the crucifixion of the LORD Christ, and no other (eclipse), is clear that he did not know from his sources about any (similar) eclipse in previous times … and this is shown by the historical account itself of Tiberius Caesar.”

9. Letter of Mara Bar-Serapion

F. F. Bruce records that there is:

“… in the British Museum an interesting manuscript preserving the text of a letter written some time later than AD 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.”

10. Justin Martyr

About AD 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.

Elgin Moyer, in Who Was Who in Church History, describes Justin as a:

“… philosopher, martyr, apologist, born at Flavia Neapolis. Well educated, seems to have had sufficient means to lead a life of study and travel. Being an eager seeker for truth, knocked successively at the doors of Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism and Platonism, but hated Epicureanism. In early days became somewhat acquainted with the Jews, but was not interested in their religion. Platonism appealed to him the most and he thought he was about to reach the goal of his philosophy – the vision of GOD – when one day in a solitary walk along the seashore, the young philosopher met a venerable old Christian of pleasant countenance and gentle dignity. This humble Christian shook his confidence in human wisdom, and pointed him to the Hebrew prophets, “men more ancient than all those who were esteemed philosophers, whose writings and teachings foretold the coming of Christ.” Following the advice of the old gentleman, this zealous Platonist became a believing Christian. He said, “I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable.” After conversion, which occurred in early manhood, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the vindication and spread of the Christian religion.”

11. The Jewish Talmuds

Tol’doth Yeshu. Jesus is referred to as “Ben Pandera.”

Babylonian Talmud. (Giving opinion of the Amorian) writes “… and hanged him on the eve of Passover.” Talmud title referring to Jesus:

“Ben Pandera (or ‘Ben Pantere’)” and “Jeshu ben Pandera.”

Many scholars say “pandera” is a play on words, a travesty on the Greek word for virgin “parthenos,” calling him a “son of a virgin.” Joseph Klausner, a Jew, says “the illegitimate birth of Jesus was a current idea among the Jews …”

Comments in the Baraita are of great historical value:

“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 on the eve of Passover” (Babylonia Sanhedrin 43a). – “Eve of Passover.”

The Amoa ‘Ulla’ (“Ulla” was a disciple of R. Youchanan and lived in Palestine at the end of the third century) adds:

“And do you suppose that for (Yeshu of Nazareth) there was any right of appeal? He was a beguiler, and the Merciful One hath said: ‘Thou shalt not spare neither shalt thou conceal him.’ It is otherwise with Yeshu, for he was near to the civil authority.”

The Jewish authorities did not deny that Jesus performed signs and miracles (Matthew 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22) but they attributed them to acts of sorcery.

“The Talmud,” writes the Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner, “speaks of hanging in place of crucifixion, since this horrible Roman form of death was only known to Jewish scholars from Roman trials, and not from the Jewish legal system. Even Paul the Apostle (Gal. iii.13) expounds the passage ‘for a curse of GOD is that which is hanged’ (Deut. xxi.23) as applicable to Jesus.”

Sanhedrin 43a also makes references to the disciples of Jesus. Yeb IV 3; 49a: R. Shimeon ben Azzai said [concerning Jesus]:

“I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress.”

Klausner adds to the above:

“Current editions of the Mishnah add: ‘To support the words of R. Yehoshua’ (who, in the same Mishnah, says: What is a bastard? Everyone whose parents are liable to death by the Beth Din). That Jesus is here referred to seems to be beyond doubt …”

An early Baraita, in which R. Eliezer is the central figure, speaks of Jesus by name. The brackets are within the quote. Eliezer speaking:

“He answered, Akiba, you have reminded me! Once I was walking along the upper market (Tosefta reads ‘street’) of Sepphoris and found one [of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth] and Jacob of Kefar Sekanya (Tosefta reads ‘Sakkanin’) was his name. He said to me, It is written in your Law, ‘Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot, etc.’ What was to be done with it – a latrine for the High Priest? But I answered nothing. He said to me, so [Jesus of Nazareth] taught me (Tosefta reads, ‘Yeshu ben Pantere’): ‘For of the hire of a harlot hath she gathered them, and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return’; from the place of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go. And the saying pleased me, and because of this I was arrested for Minuth. And I transgressed against what is written in the Law; ‘Keep thy way far from here’ – that is Minuth; ‘and come not nigh the door of her house’ – that is the civil government.”

The above brackets are found in Dikduke Sof’rim to Abada Zara (Munich Manuscript, ed. Rabinovits).

Klausner, commenting on the above passage, says:

“There can be no doubt that the words, ‘one of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth,’ and ‘thus Jesus of Nazareth taught me,’ are, in the present passage both early in date and fundamental in their bearing on the story; and their primitive character cannot be disputed on the grounds of the slight variations in the parallel passages; their variants (‘Yeshu ben Pantere’ or “Yeshu ben Pandera,’ instead of ‘Yeshu of Nazareth’) are merely due to the fact that, from an early date, the name ‘Pantere,’ or ‘Pandera,’ became widely current among the Jews as the name of the reputed father of Jesus.”

12. Encyclopaedia Britannica

The latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica uses 20,000 words in describing this person, Jesus. His description took more space than was given to Aristotle, Cicero, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed or Napoleon Bonaparte.

Concerning the testimony of the many independent secular accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, it records:

“These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds by several authors at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.”

By Josh McDowell, author of ‘Evidence that Demands A Verdict’

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