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Is there Extra-Biblical Proof of Jesus

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Historical evidence is derived from historical examination of archeological artifacts, which include primary and secondary source manuscripts. It is an absurd to hold that the New Testament writings that are by far the most reliable ancient writings in existence today[1] do not lend enough credibility to the existence of Jesus. But this being the case there is also more than enough reliable extra-Biblical ancient texts to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person.

Flavius Josephus

Josephus was a first century eyewitness to Rome’s conquest of Judea.[2] He was born an ethnic Hebrew in Jerusalem around 37 C.E., which were just a few years after the death of Jesus. Josephus was raised and educated in the Jewish tradition. This is to say, he was educated in the Torah, and, by his own account, had a great reputation for memory and understanding of the Jewish law.[3] In 56 C.E. at the age of 19, Josephus aligned himself with the Pharisees and was well regarded. In 67 C.E., while fighting with the Jews at Jotapata, Josephus was captured and retained as an interpreter for the soon to be Emperor of Rome, Vespasian. In 71 C.E. Vespasian commissioned Josephus to write a history of the war against the Jews, which he did along with several other histories.[4]

Although Josephus wrote his histories later in life, Josephus’ writings relate that, he was in some cases an eyewitness to the history he documented. In Josephus work The Antiquities of the Jews, he mentions Jesus Christ in two passages. One of the most controversial and contested passages is found in Book 18, Chapter 3:[5]

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 received 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 principle 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 fortold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.[6]

Some of this passage is highly contested because skeptics believe a Christian copyist altered it, which I have shown in italics. The Critics of this text also point to the passage being too Pro-Christian and that Josephus would not have called Jesus the Messiah.[7] I believe these to be valid points; however, I do not think this document merits disqualification. Although it could be argued that a Christian may have added to this document, there is sufficient evidence to show the non italicized parts were written by a Jewish author. For example, in this passage Pilate receives the blame for condemning Jesus to the cross and not the Jews, as a Christian writer would have suggested.[8]

This historical reference is also attacked because there are different versions of it. Some which are too Christian for a Jewish-Roman historian. One copy even exists that is written in Arabic by a Milkite bishop of Heirapolis named Agapius.[9] Although, the skeptical claim of unreliability seems at first to be reasonable, it works against itself. The fact that different copies of this text exist, over separate centuries, and in different languages, strengthens the reliability of the textual traditions more than it discredits it. This is especially true in the light of there being only minor deviations between texts. If we took a centrist view of this text, not completely throwing it out nor ignoring the suspected additions, we are still left with a credible historical text regarding the evidence of Jesus existence.

We see more evidence of Jesus in the writing of Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20 Chapter 9.[10] In this section Josephus described how the death of Festus allows Ananus to kill the Apostle James, brother of Jesus. Josephus wrote this about Ananus, “So he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” This sounds like Josephus is describing Jesus of the New Testament. This passage shows strong evidence for the existence of Jesus, and that Josephus knew who he was. The date that James was killed is 62 C.E.; this, coupled with the timeline of Josephus’ life and history being aligned with the Pharisees in Jerusalem 54-63 C.E.,[11] gives further credibility to Josephus’ account with regards to James death and why he was historically notable. Josephus would have likely been in the right location, time, and in the sphere of influence to have this knowledge. Although, the authenticity of this passage is almost without objection, some skeptics have dismissed it outright as a Christian forgery. Because the previous passage we discussed has been added to by Christian copyists skeptics also argue that this passage about James cannot be trusted. However, most scholars do not hold this belief because the historical foundation of the Josephus texts has been firmly established.  In his book, Jesus Outside the New Testament, Van Voorst shows that this passage gives an authentic mention of Jesus. The mention of Jesus here is neither negative nor positive. It is stated in a descriptive manner and as a matter of fact.[12] This is especially true when we consider that James was only important to the historical narrative through his affiliation with Jesus. If Jesus had not lived, not only would there have been no reason to mention Jesus as James’ brother, there would have been no reason to mention James. As I have shown, Josephus’ texts and testimony are proven reliable and the mention of Jesus establishes that the Jesus of the New Testament was as much of a real historical figure as Josephus who wrote about him.

Cornelius Tacitus

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman Senator who wrote The Annals, which is a history of the Roman Empire between the reigns of Tiberius to Nero, from 14-68 A.D.[13] There have been a few attempts to discredit the authenticity of Tacitus’ Annals, one of these claims is that it is a forgery. However, this claim has never gained any scholarly following.[14] The Annals have been regarded by historical scholars as some of the most reliable of the ancient documents. This reliability is due somewhat to eleven letters written to Tacitus during the first century by Pliny the Younger, which give his writings sources for comparison. [15] The fact that there are sources for comparison, in which the authors refer to each other, strengthens the reliability of the texts and the content with them.[16] With the reliability of The Annals having been established, it makes the content of the texts that much more compelling. In The Annals, passage 15.44, Tacitus writes;

 Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[17]

One criticism with regard to the content of this passage is that in 1902 Georg Andresen commented on an alteration in the manuscript where an “e” was changed to an “i” in the word Christus, and that this was verified by an ultra violet light test of the document. A second criticism is that Tacitus described Pontias Pilatus as a procurator and not a prefect. This is deemed problematic because Pilate is labeled as a prefect on a stone found in Caesarea.[18] Neither of these criticisms, however, removes the context about which the author was writing. Neither history books nor critics of this passage have produced an alternative Chrestus that suffered an extreme penalty under Pontias Pilate, nor do they explain a reasonable alternative to the context in which the name is written.

The second criticism with regard to missing Pilate’s title comes from the belief that Tacitus would have had access to Roman records and thus should not have made that mistake. In Jesus Outside the New Testament, Van Voorst explains that this is easily explained as an anachronism, that until 41 C.E., when the Emperor Claudius gave all the Roman Provincial Governor’s the title Procurator, they would have been known as a Prefect.[19] This seems to give more veracity to the text as it is written within the context of the time period being described by the author. The writings of Tacitus are very reliable as is his testimony as a person who wrote within the context of the time period. In his writings, not only is Tacitus describing a Christian history that also exists in the New Testament, he is describing how Christians were being used for Nero’s political purpose, suggesting the historical significance of his writing and why Christians were included in it.

Pliny the Younger

Plinus Secundus, or Pliny the Younger, was a Roman Governor of Bithynia and a contemporary of Cornelius Tacitus; Pliny’s letters later placed into ten books also contain letters written to Tacitus in Book 7.[20] As mentioned previously, this source of comparison makes these letters very historically reliable. In Epistle 96 of Book Ten, Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan asking him how he should deal with and treat Christians.[21] Being an apologist for the traditional religion of Rome, it is thought that Pliny was dismayed by the rise of the Christian religion. In the first part of his letter to Trajan in Book X Epistle 96,[22] Pliny states, “I have never been present at trials of Christians and consequently do not know for what reasons, or how far punishment is usually inflicted or inquiry made in their case.” In another part of Epistle 96 Pliny writes about the methods he used to test if people brought before him were Christians:

Those who denied that they either were or had been Christians, upon their calling on the Gods after me, and upon their offering wine and incense before your statue, which for this purpose I had, ordered to be introduced in company with the images of the Gods, moreover upon their reviling Christ – none of which things it is said can such as are really and truly Christians be compelled to do- these I deemed it proper to dismiss

Pliny questioned Christians and put some to death for not renouncing their God for the Roman gods.[23] But those who “reviled Christ” he did not punish. Pliny makes it clear that Christians worshipped someone called Christ and notes that true Christians would not revile him or worship any other gods. In Book X Epistle 96 Pliny also wrote of Christians that,

They had been in the habit of meeting together on a stated day, before sunrise, and of offering in turns a form of invocation to Christ, as to a God; also of binding themselves by an oath, not for any guilty purpose, but not to commit thefts, or robberies, or adulteries, not to break their word, not to repudiate deposits when called upon.

We see above that Pliny notes that “true” Christians will not worship other gods even when faced with death, and that they invoke Christ as God.  If Christ had not existed than it is doubtful that Pliny would be describing a Christian’s actions in beliefs and worship. The most reasonable thing to conclude from these writings that come a mere generation after Jesus death is that Pliny was experiencing Christians and Jesus teaching as written in the New Testament.

Two arguments arise from skeptics regarding Pliny the Younger’s Epistle. First, they do not believe that Pliny offers independent evidence for Jesus’ existence, and second that some Christians renouncing Christ or Christianity eliminates the claim that people dying for Christianity proves the existence of Jesus. For example author Jeffery Lowder states that it is unlikely that all of these martyrs had firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus since Pliny did not even become Governor of Bithynia until around 110 A.D. Furthermore, Pliny also stated that many people had renounced Christianity years before Pliny’s interrogation.[24]

However, the first skeptical claim is mistaken, Pliny’s letters do lend credibility to the historical existence of Jesus. The experiential context of Pliny’s observations of Christian beliefs and worship outside of the New Testament solidify that these people were followers of Jesus Christ of the Bible. If Jesus did not exist, why would these “Christians” invoke Christ as God and keep New Testament Christian traditions 80 years after Jesus death? It is not reasonable to say that because a historical author did not meet the person he wrote about, that the subject of the historical writings did not exist.

The second argument, with regard to people renouncing Christ before interrogation doesn’t really prove non-existence; it tends to prove the contrary. The people before Pliny obviously believed Jesus was an actual person, but that they were no longer followers of the belief that he was Messiah. This happened during Jesus’ ministry by his own Apostles, and still happens today. This is proof of Jesus’ existence because it was expected by Jesus that some would take the wide and not the narrow path. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says that Christians who had seen the resurrected Christ had renounced him and “fallen asleep”. Paul’s letter written in 53 to 57 AD[25] seems to get corroboration from Pliny some fifty years later, not discredit it.

Pliny’s letters are compelling for several reasons. They are solid, reliable ancient texts with secondary sources establishing their validity; Pliny was governing an area inhabited by Christians; that his observations are those of someone who did not know Jesus’ teachings; and he described behavior of those following Christ in such a way that we can see that he was describing Jesus of the New Testament.

Conclusion

I have shown through these three non-Christian writers that there is sufficient evidence to establish Jesus was a living person. Scholars regard the ancient texts of Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger as reliable, and these historical writers were in a position to have knowledge of the history they were documenting.  By taking merely a centrist position on the texts of Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews looking at the non-controversial parts of the text, we have to conclude that Josephus was documenting an actual person. We can also see that Tacitus and Pliny the Younger’s writings are extra-Biblical accounts of Christ and Christians, which are consistent with the New Testament’s descriptions of the history of Jesus and his followers.  It is with this sound evidence that we can reasonably know that Jesus was an actual person, as his life was documented in the historical writings of Christian and non-Christians authors.

Jassen Bluto 2013

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[1] Phil Fernandes, 2012. “Reliable New Testament.” Institute of Biblical Defense. Accessed September 19, 2013. http://www.philfernandes.org/reliablenewtestament.htm.

[2] Mireille Lebel, Flavius Josephus; Eyewitness to Romes First Century Conquest of Judea, (New York: MacMillian, 1993), 3.

[3] Lebel, 11.

[4] G. J. Goldberg, 2010: “A Chronology of the life of Josephus and his Era.” Accessed September 19, 2013. http://www.josephus.org/joschron.htm.

[5] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity (Bonita Springs, FL: David Cook, 2013), 196.

[6] William Whiston, The New Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 590.

[7] Jeffery Lowder, 2009: “Josh McDowell’s Evidence for Jesus, Is it Reliable.” Infidels.Org. Accessed September 28, 2013. http://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/chap5.html#pliny.

[8] Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us (San Bernardino, CA: Here’, 1988), p. 43.

[9] Wallace, 196.

[10] William Whiston, Josephus Flavius: Complete Works and Historical Background. Annotated Classics, 2013, 656.

[11] G.J Goldberg, 2010: “A Chronology of the life of Josephus and his Era.” Josephus.Org. Accessed September 19, 2013. http://www.josephus.org/joschron.htm.

[12] Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 84.

[13] J.C. Yardley, Tacitus the Annals: The reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1.

[14] Van Voorst, 43.

[15] Yardley, xxi.

[16] Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 69-84.

[17] Tacitus. The Annals, “The Internet Classics Archive.” http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html. (Accessed September 21, 2013), 15.44.

[18] Ann Wroe, Pontius Pilate (London: Random House Publishing, 1999), 88.

[19] Van Voorst, 110.

[20] John Lewis, The Letters of the Younger Pliny, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1890), 251.

[21] Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, (San Bernardino, CA, Here’s Life Publishers, 1979), 85.

[22] Lewis, 379.

[23] P.G. Walsh, Pliny the Younger: The Complete Letters, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), xxiii.

[24] Jeffery Lowder. 2000: “Josh McDowell’s Evidence for Jesus: Is it Reliable?” Accessed October 1, 2013. http://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/chap5.html#pliny

[25] Wallace, 164.

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