It stands to reason that when you share the gospel, you will need to defend the gospels. The story of Jesus rises and falls on the trustworthiness of those four gospel accounts that kick off the New Testament.
One of the first objections you hear is that apart from the gospels, there is no corroborating evidence that Jesus ever existed. "If Jesus did all the things the New Testament claims," they say, "there should numerous historical records that confirm this."
Would the world have noticed?
Before we dive into some quotes that seem to confirm what the gospel writers tell us about Jesus, we need to ask ourselves an important question. How much extra-biblical input should we really expect? While Jesus certainly attracted large crowds around the Galilee region, would that have created interest beyond Jerusalem?
We need to remember that news traveled slowly—and haphazardly. If the news of this itinerant preacher was to spread beyond this region to Rome or elsewhere, there would need to be a better reason than "he’s attracting great crowds" or "he's performing miracles" to solicit much interest.
There were a lot of religious and political movements vying for people's attention back then. Most of the attention would have been focused on movements that seemed to be an immediate threat to the empire. Not only were there major revolts like the one that sprang up after Herod the Great's death in 4 B.C., there were constant uprisings and resistance movements springing up all over Judea.
Jesus was a homeless preacher of negligible interest to anyone beyond Judea. That is, until the church started becoming a threat to the empire.
Historical references to Jesus
While we can't expect a ton of historical references to Jesus, some still exist. The church certainly had a motive for protecting the gospels, but there would not have been the same attention spent on protecting extra-church artifacts that might have mentioned him.
1. Testimonium Flavianum
"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 amongst 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 to this day."
This passage from the historian Josephus is quoted as early as 40 A.D. by the historian Eusebius. It is not regarded without some contention. It is highly likely that it was tampered with. Since Eusebius tells us that Josephus wasn't a Christian, it is unlikely that Josephus would have written much of the text that you see bolded.
But as scholar James H. Charlesworth tells us, "We can be confident that there was a minimal reference to Jesus . . . because once the clearly Christian sections are removed, the rest makes good grammatical and historical sense. The peculiarly Christian words are parenthetically connected to the narrative; hence they are grammatically free and could easily have been inserted by a Christian. These sections also are disruptive, and when they are removed the flow of thought is improved and smoother. For example, once the reference to the resurrection is deleted, the thought moves from Christian continuance active after the crucifixion to the non extinct nature of the tribe." (Jesus Within Judaism: New Light from Exciting Archaeological Discoveries)
2. Josephus's James Passage
"When, therefore, Ananus [the high priest] was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James."
There is not a more important Jewish historian in the ancient world than Josephus, and his status makes these two quotes extremely important. The James passage is valuable because not only is it another extra-biblical mention of Jesus (and his reputation), but it also confirms the New Testament view that James was his brother.
3. The Annals of Tacitus
"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 Judæa, 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind."
Tacitus was the proconsul of Asia and writer of the Annals and Histories. And while we don't have the entirety of these two great works, this quote comes from one of the portions that has survived.
We can gather some very useful information from this passage:
- Christians were already hated by the populace. (This is likely because of rumors that had been spread of Christian orgies and cannibalistic practices.)
- It confirms the fact that Pontius Pilate was responsible for Jesus's death, and that Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Rome.
- It confirms that Christianity had grown into a movement large enough that Nero could blame them for burning Rome.
4. Pliny the Younger
"They declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust, and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind."
Pliny the Younger was a magistrate and lawyer in ancient Rome. We still have many of the hundreds of letters that he wrote, and this passage comes from a letter he wrote to Emperor Trajan in around 110 A.D. asking for advice regarding the Christians in his territory.
Many would argue that this says nothing of any historical substance about Jesus. It’s important to note that Pliny does include that first-century Christians worship Christ as a God, but in no way questions the veracity of Jesus's historicity. Since Pliny appears to be speaking to Trajan as if he's never heard of this new religious group, you'd think Pliny would also point out any questions surrounding Christ's existence.
"On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun?"
Christian historian, Julius Africanus, composed his History of the World in around 220 A.D. In this passage he discusses the darkness that covered the earth during Christ's crucifixion (Mark 15:33). In it he mentions the work of a historian named Thallus who wrote his own History of the World which has been lost. He takes issue with Thallus's argument that this darkness was simply an eclipse.
Through the writings of Eusebius, many historians date Thallus's writing as early as 49–52 A.D. This means that Thallus would have had the earliest known extra-biblical reference to the crucifixion of Christ, which is of particular interest since he appears to be looking for an explanation to a miraculous New Testament event.
You can trust in the historical Jesus
These are not the only historical references to Jesus. You can find references from Cesus, Suetonius, and Lucian of Samosata, and also in various personal letters from that period. People who believe that Jesus only exists within the pages of the New Testament only need to do a little digging to discover Jesus in many extra-biblical works.