UNIT TWO NON BIBLICAL WRITERS : THE HISTORICAL JESUS
In Michael Green’s book called Runaway World, he made an observation about Confucius and Christ that will help to launch us into our course of thinking in this lesson. He observed that if it could ever be proven beyond doubt that Confucius never lived, that Confucianism would probably survive anyway. That is due to the fact that Confucianism as a philosophy was not built on the man but rather it was built on his teachings. And this is the case with all the so-called world’s great religions with the exception of Judaism and Christianity.
Christianity is built on the person of Christ and His work in history. Michael Green made the observation that if it could ever be proven that Jesus was never alive in history that Christianity would collapse like a pack of cards, and this is right. So then before we begin to develop our methodology and show that the New Testament is a book that is reliable as a history book, we want to investigate first of all the historical factuality of Jesus as a real person in history.
Christianity is far more than a philosophy and it is not merely an ethical system. Christianity is a redemptive system. Christianity is belief in Jesus, that real person of history, as the Son of God who died upon the cross, carried our sins with Him, and paid the price for our transgressions, then was buried and on the third day was resurrected from the dead, and in that resurrection proved Himself to be the Son of God, and that one day He is coming again and will bring the entire world to an eternal judgment. And so any investigation into the genuineness of the claims of Christianity has to begin with an investigation of the historical factuality of Jesus as a real person in history. For apart from Him there would be no redemption of the human race from its plight.
LESSON AIM: To show that there is sufficient evidence from first and second century non-Christian writers, both pagan and Jewish, to establish the historical reality of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
LESSON PREVIEW: You will…
Learn of five pagan (Gentile) writers of the first and second centuries who record facts about the existence of Jesus.
Discover that there are at least two early Jewish sources which help to prove that there really was a Nazarene called Jesus.
Also learn that the New Testament must be accorded the same consideration as any other writing of antiquity as to its authenticity in recording history.
EVIDENCE FROM FIRST AND SECOND CETURY NON-CHRISTIAN WRITERS
- Five Early Pagan (Gentile Writers).
Thallus. In about 52 A.D. Thallus takes for granted the existence of Jesus when he mentioned the darkness which occurred at the Lord’s crucifixion.
NOTE: There was a common knowledge in the city of Rome about the circumstances accompanying the death of the Nazarene name Jesus.
Will Durant says about the middle of the first century, a pagan named Thallus, in a fragment preserved by Julius Africanus, argued that the abnormal darkness alleged to have accompanied the death of Christ was a purely natural phenomenon and coincidence. He says the argument took the existence of Christ for granted. Thallus never denied that Jesus existed. He took the historical existence of Christ for granted.
Mara Bar-Serapion. A manuscript in the British Museum preserves the text of a letter written some time after 73A.D. It was sent by a Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion to his son, Serapion. In prison at the time of the writing the father pleads for his son to be wise by illustrating the folly of persecuting such wise men as Socrates, Pythagoras, and Christ.
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death?…What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras?…What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King?… 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. (The Case For Historic Christianity, Ed Wharton, p.6)
NOTE: He refers to Pythagoras, to Socrates, and to Jesus, but he does not refer to Jesus by name.
The point of it is that by sometime after 73 A.D. , by the time that Serapion was writing to his son, Jesus Christ had already gained fame and stature equal with that of men like Socrates and Pythagoras. Jesus was a real person of history!
Cornelius Tacitus. Usually rated as the greatest historian of Rome, Tacitus (born c. 52-54A.D.) at about the age of sixty, while writing of the reign of Nero (54-68A.D.), told how the Christians were made scapegoats for the Great Fire of 64 A.D. It had been rumored that Nero himself started the fire in order to gain glory by rebuilding the city. Tacitus says,
“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….
NOTE: To the pagan Tacitus, the name “Christus” was more than likely a proper name. Tacitus was in a good position to learn of Christianity being governor of Asia in 112 A.D.
- Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Younger). Pliny, governor of Bithynia, often wrote to the Emperor Tragan asking his Imperial advice on how best to deal with the sect of the Christians which, according to him, were troubling his province. One letter (c. 112 A.D.) reveals information he extracted from some Christians by torture:“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to commit any wicked deed…after which it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”
The innocence of the matter seemed to perplex the governor sufficiently to write to the Emperor about it.
NOTE: So we have yet another testimony from an Imperial appointee in the network of the empire that there was a historical Jesus.
Suetonius. An annalist and court official of the Imperial House of Hadrian in about 120 A.D. wrote his life of Claudius, from which is taken his most often quoted reference:
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”
So many Jews had become Christians at Rome, Claudius probably equated the Jews with Christians and thus expelled them frm the city of Rome by an Imperial decree. Luke, by the way, records this same event much earlier in Acts 18: 1 -2 .
This evidence, especially in company with such an historian as Tacitus and Roman officials of the stature of Pliny and Suetonius, make the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth as certain as that of any outstanding figure of antiquity.
NOTE: So here we have our five witnesses from pagan sources that tell us of a real historical Jesus. Men of stature of Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius makes the historicity of Jesus and undeniable fact!
- Two Early Jewish Sources
Two Jewish sources which mention Jesus, gives us information to establish the fact of Jesus’ existence.
The Talmud. (70 A.D. to 200 A.D.) The Talmuds contain many references to Christ. All of these references are hostile to the cause of Christ, but they do help to establish the existence of Jesus. According to these writings, Jesus of Nazereth was a transgressor in Israel who practiced magic, scorned the words of the wise, led the people astray , and said he had not come to destroy the law but to add to it. (See Matthew 5:17ff).
Flavius Josephus (Sometime after 70 A.D.) The most important references to Jesus from a Jewish source are from a former Jewish general turned historian by the name of Flavius Josephus. In his writings he tells us who he was, what he did, and of his own evaluation as an historian. He writes of many of the outstanding persons we read of in the New Testament: of Pilate, of Quirinius of Syria, of the Caesars, The Herods, the Pharisees and Sadducees, of Annas, Caiaphas, Felix, and Festus. He also writes of Jesus’ brother James, and of the death of John the Baptist. Most significant is his reference to Jesus:
“And there arose about this time Jesus, a wise man, if indeed we should call Him a man: for He was a doer of marvelous deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure. He won over many Jews and also many Greeks.
This man was the Messiah. And when Pilate had condemned Him to the cross at the instigation of our own leaders, those who had loved him from the first did not cease. For he appeared to them on the third day alive again, as the holy prophets had predicted and said many other wonderful things about Him. And even now the race of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out.”
- First of all, he spoke of Jesus as the so-called Christ.
- He tells us about the arrest and trial of James, and speaks of him as the brother of Jesus.
- He speaks of Jesus as the doer of wonderful deeds, a man, he says, if indeed He can be called a man.
- He states that this man was the founder of the tribe called the Christians.
- Josephus speaks twice of Jesus Christ.
NOTE: Here we have two Jewish references. We have five pagan references. And F.F. Bruce makes this observation as he shuts down his boo. “having gone over both pagan and Jewish sources, whatever else may be thought of the evidence from early Jewish and Gentile writers…, it does, at least for those who refuse the witness of Christian writings, establish the character of Jesus himself.” And he observes, “Some writers may toy with the fancy of the Christ-myth, but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence.” As far as these people were concern, there was a real Jesus of history.
- The New Testament Writers
The New Testament would be totally adequate to prove that Jesus was a real person in history.
- Whatever reasons may be given for receiving the testimony of Josephus or of Tacitus or of any other writer from antiquity as reliable history must be equally applied to the New Testament writers.
- All of the New Testament writers were contemporaries of Jesus.
- Four were eyewitness, three accompanied Jesus throughout His ministry, and all of their writings are in remarkable agreement, and continue to stand the tests of genuineness and historicity.NOTE: If the New Testament documents were the only single source from antiquity which presented to us the life of Christ that would be more than sufficient proof of His historical reality.
Altogether, from pagan sources, Jewish sources, and the New Testament itself, we conclude there was a real Jesus, a real Nazarene. Christianity bases the whole of its reaching upon the reality of that Jesus of history.
If we do not accept that Christ was a real person then we have to accept that the myth of Christ and Christianity was invented in one generation and passed off on that generation and the next one, and all subsequent generations as truth.
All of Christianity, in all its many forms basis itself on the reality of that one man who lived 2,000 years ago. Again, if it can be proven that he never existed, Christianity would fold like a deck of cards, but with all the evidence to the truth of Christ’s existence, proving He didn’t exist would be a monumental task of wiping out all history.