1st and 2nd Century Non-Christian Testimony about Jesus

The following quotations from ancient sources outside of the Bible and hostile to Christianity confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that there was a real man named Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, who walked the 1st century streets of Palestine, who performed seemingly supernatural deeds, who taught people about God, who gained many followers, who was called the Christ, who was crucified around Passover time during the reign of Tiberius by order of governor Pontius Pilate in Judea at the urging of Jewish leaders, who was afterward believed by many to be raised from the dead, and whose followers spread and multiplied all over the known world within the first century. Those are facts of history as sure as the fact that Alexander the Great was a real Greek king and George Washington was the first U.S. president.

The Babylonian Talmud

The Talmud is a collection of writings from Jewish Rabbis. The quotation below is from the earliest period of compilation, A.D. 70 to 200, known as the Tannaitic period.

“On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned, because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!” (The Babylonian Talmud, transl. by I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1935), vol. III. Sanhedrin 43a, p. 281.)

“Hanged” was a synonym for crucified (Gal 3:13; Lk 23:39). “Yeshu” is Hebrew for Jesus. Isn’t the accusation, “he has practiced sorcery” sound a lot like Matthew 12:24, “the Pharisees said, ‘This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons”? Doesn’t the accusation that he has “enticed Israel to apostasy” sound a lot like Luke 23:2, “And they began to accuse Him, saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation…'”? This statement from the Talmud is exactly the kind of statement that you would expect to find from an anti-Christian Jewish community that was well aware of the life of Jesus like it’s recorded in the New Testament.

Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-101)

Josephus was a general of the Jewish forces in Galilee and he led them in battle against the Romans in the mid 60s A.D. The Jews were defeated and Josephus was captured by the Roman captain Vespasian, who decided to keep Josephus as a servant and an interpreter. Josephus won his favor, and so later when Vespasian became the emperor, he exalted Josephus to a place of prominence and allowed him to write out the history of the Jews. And we have copies of his writings. Here are some of his statements about Jesus:

“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 many 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 at this day.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 18:3:3)

Regarding the above quotation, certain historians regard the italicized segments of the section as “Christian interpolation.” There is, however, no evidence from textual criticism that would warrant such an opinion. Every ancient manuscript copy contains the disputed portions. Perhaps Josephus believed that Jesus was the Christ (the prophesied King), but did not see that for the salvation of his own soul he needed to become a  wholehearted follower of Christ.

Ananus brought before the Sanhedrin “a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9:1)

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 18:5:2)

Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 55-117)

Tacitus was an upper-class Roman with a good education who held high governmental positions under several Roman emperors. He is most famous for writing Annals, a history of Rome written around the year A.D. 115. In the Annals he told of the Great Fire of Rome, which occurred in A.D. 64. Nero, the Roman Emperor, was suspected by many of having ordered the city set on fire. Speaking of Nero’s reaction to the suspicion about him, Tacitus wrote:

“To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats, and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome.” (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, xv.44) 

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (A.D. 69-130)

Commonly known as Suetonius, was a Roman historian and annalist of the Imperial House under the Emperor Hadrian.

“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus [misspelling of Greek word Christos, the word for Christ], he [Claudius] expelled them from the city” (Claudius, 25:4.)

Note that in Acts 18:2 Luke mentioned this expulsion by Claudius.

Mara-Bar-Serapion (pre A.D. 200)

This Syrian philosopher in a letter from prison to his son, wrote this:

“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 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.

Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 115-200)

Lucian was a Greek writer and rhetorician.

“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.  All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13)

Celsus (A.D. 175)

Celsus was a pagan philospher. In his treatise called “True Discourse,” he wrote:

“Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god.”

Thallus (A.D. 52)

Thallus wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world from the Trojan War to his own time. His writings are only found as citations by others. Julius Africanus, a Christian historian, who wrote about AD 221, is one who cites him. When discussing the three-hour darkness which occurred at the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 27:45; Lk 23:44), Africanus made this comment:

“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.”

Roman registers referenced by Justin Martyr (A.D. 150)

“And hear what part of earth He was to be born in, as another prophet, Micah, foretold. He spoke thus: ‘And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come forth a Governor, who shall feed My people.’ Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea.” (First Apology, 34:1).

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