So far in this series, we’ve looked at a variety of subjects; the textual transmission of the gospels, authorship, and early dating. We saw that the evidence from textual criticism shows that we can have certainty that The New Testament documents we read today were what the original documents said to a certainty of 99.99% accuracy and that 00.01% uncertainty that remains contains certain words or phrases that really don’t affect any major Christian doctrine. This is important to the issue of gospel reliability because of the obvious reason that we have to know that the testimony we’re scrutinizing is what was actually originally written down. It would do no good to subject a grossly distorted testimony to scrutiny. After this, we turned to the issue of authorship and we saw from both external as well as internal evidence that it is vastly more likely that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the gospels that bear their names as opposed to anyone else. This is a win for gospel reliability because if the gospels were written by two disciples of Jesus, a man who knew the disciple Peter, and someone who knew Paul, then we have two biographies of Jesus coming directly from eyewitnesses and two which are secondhand sources. Eyewitness testimony is prized over testimony that’s a few mouths removed. This is true in the courtroom as well as in the historian’s office. However, in the case of the latter, eyewitness testimony is rare which is why, unlike law, history is ok with second and thirdhand sources. We’d know very little about the past if we only stuck to direct testimony. Nevertheless, direct testimony is still always preferred. After we examined the issue of authorship, we turned to the issue of dating. We saw that the internal evidence is strongly supportive of Mark and Matthew being written in the late 40s to mid-50s, with Luke and Acts being written at the beginning of the 60s at the latest. This would make the gospels only a couple of decades removed from the events they described; early enough for the eyewitnesses to clearly remember the various impact events Jesus caused, and early enough to prevent embellishment from creeping in.
But if we stopped there, we would be far from establishing the gospels are trustworthy. What these conclusions entail is that the gospels could be telling us the truth about Jesus. But obviously, documents could be reliably transmitted, be early, and be written by eyewitnesses, BUT….the witnesses could be bald face liars. In a court of law, it isn’t enough to merely have people at the time and place of the crime, their testimony must be scrutinized as well.
Why External Evidence Matters
Extra-biblical evidence can be very valuable in establishing the truth claims of the gospels (or any other book of The Bible) because it provides independent testimony to people and events. If secular authors who have no theological axe to grind say things about Jesus or other New Testament persons that the gospels also talk about, that provides corroborative evidence to the New Testament authors. Archeological evidence is also valuable for precisely the same reason. If the gospels say a certain person existed and held a certain office, for example, and then we find an inscription on a slab of stone, a pot, or a coin that confirms that, then that is evidence that the gospel author was telling the truth at this juncture.
This isn’t to say that we value extra-biblical writers over the gospels, that we see the gospels as inferior sources about the historical Jesus to extra-biblical sources. Rather, it is to say that external evidence plays a role in the case for the reliability of the gospels.
An illustration might be helpful. A man was murdered, and the eyewitness (let’s call him Jim) got up in the dock and told about what he saw. He said he saw a man with a long beard and sunglasses in a black hoodie run into the Seven-Eleven at 9:00 at night. Jim was inside the store and said that he saw the bearded hooded man rob the clerk at gunpoint before speeding off in a green sedan. Unfortunately, the security cameras were out of order on this crucial night, so no video footage survived. Moreover, it was about closing time and Jim was going to be the last customer of the night. When the clerk tried to “play hero”, the robber shot him point blank, grabbed the cash out of the register, and fled.
For some reason, Jim’s testimony isn’t taken at face value. So, the prosecutors bring forth one witness who said he was at the store next door and saw a green sedan speed off at around 9:00 at night. Detectives found skid marks in the Seven-Eleven parking lot. There was also a witness two miles away who had no knowledge of the crime but posted on Facebook that before they closed up the Dollar General at 10:00 pm, a man in a black hoodie with a long beard came in and bought two gallons of bleach and that he was acting very nervous at the register. News reports from before this crime say that there were a series of incidents of convenience store robberies in the area. All of this is corroborative evidence for Jim’s testimony and highly suggests that Jim is telling the truth. This gives the jury reason to believe that he’s probably telling the truth in other aspects of his testimony that maybe can’t be independently verified.
External confirmation of the gospels falls into two categories; extra-biblical writings and archeology.
The Existence, Ministry, and Death of Jesus
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian born in 37 AD. and died in 95 A.D at the age of 57 years. Josephus was a turncoat who initially fought against the Roman army in the 60s A.D but then surrendered to the army lead by general Vespasian in A.D 67. As a result of Josephus’ surrender, Vespasian chose to enroll Josephus as his servant. Vespasian assumed the Emperorship in AD 69, and he then freed Josephus. Then Josephus assumed the Emperor’s family name of Flavius. Josephus is known for works such as The Antiquities Of The Jews and The War Of The Jews, both of which are multi-volume works, and can be purchased as one big book in the modern day. Because Josephus was such a prolific writer of historical events in the first century, it is no surprise that he is one of the most valuable resources when it comes to external corroboration of New Testament events. He doesn’t just corroborate the gospels at one or two points, but at a plethora of points!
The first-century Jewish historian named Flavius Josephus (37-100 A.D) wrote about Jesus’ existence, ministry, and crucifixion in his book Antiquities Of The Jews in book 18. Josephus wrote: “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 at this day.” Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3
Here, we have a non-Christian Jewish author telling us that in the first century, there was a man named Jesus who was a “doer of wonderful works” and who was a teacher who attracted large crowds to him, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, but who eventually got himself crucified. Josephus mentions that Jesus was crucified “at the suggestion of some of the principal men amongst us” who seem to fit the description of the Pharisees and that it was Pilate who condemned him to die on the cross. This is a broad outline of the gospels’ storyline right here!
Now, this passage is, unfortunately, controversial. Why? Well, it seems to have been interpolated by a Christian scribe. Would Josephus really explicitly say of Jesus “He was the Christ”? What non-Christian is going to say such a thing? If Josephus said this, wouldn’t this imply that Josephus believed Jesus was the Christ (which is another term for Messiah)? If so, how could he be a non-Christian source? Moreover, Josephus goes so far as to say that Jesus rose from the dead! This isn’t the sort of thing that a non-Christian author like Josephus would write, but is exactly what we would expect from a Christian scribe seeking to exalt Jesus. Does this mean that Josephus’ passage on Jesus (known as “The Testimonium Flavianum”) is not good corroborative evidence after all?
I don’t think so, and neither do the vast majority of scholars today.
The majority of scholars today hold the position that The Testimonium Flavianum was only partially interpolated. That is to say; most of the passage is legitimate (it’s not like a Christian scribe made the entire Testimonium Flavianum up, but only certain phrases were inserted by a Christian scribe.) There are two primary arguments that historians give for adopting this “Partial Interpolation” view.
Reason 1: When You Remove The Obvious Christian Additions, The Passage Remains Coherent
Christopher Price wrote “Perhaps the most important factor leading most scholars to accept the partial-authenticity position is that a substantial part of the TF reflects Josephan language and style. Moreover, when the obvious Christian glosses — which are rich in New Testament terms and language not found in the core — are removed or restored to their original the remaining core passage is coherent and flows well. 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.” From the online article “Did Josephus Refer To Jesus?” by Christopher Price —- http://bede.org.uk/Josephus.htm
I think that Price is right. Compare the clearly interpolated version of the Testimonimum Flavianum which I included above with the version below:
“Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise 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. 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, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
You can see that the flow of thought isn’t bothered by the removal of the obvious Christian additions. How often is it that you can erase whole sentences from a paragraph and still have it make complete sense? Not often. On this basis, therefore, it’s highly probable that there was an original passage about Jesus’ crucifixion and it did not include phrases that expressed belief in his messiahship and resurrection.
Reason 2: The Reference to James the Brother of Jesus Suggests an Earlier Reference to Jesus
Later on in Josephus’ writings, Josephus makes a reference to Jesus’ brother James and records his martyrdom at the hands of the Jewish Sanhedrin. While the Testimonium Flavianum is hotly debated, I know of no scholar who doubts the validity of Josephus’ reference to James. The reference to James’s Martyrdom increases the likelihood that the Testimonium Flavianum is also valid. In Josephus’ reference to James, he refers to Jesus as “the so-called Christ” without further explanation. That’s all he says. All he says about James is that he’s the brother of “Jesus, the so-called Christ”. In the passage about James, Josephus doesn’t go into any explanation of who Jesus was, what He did, no claims of Him dying and rising from the dead, no mention of any miracles, or anything like that. The only thing Josephus says about Jesus in this latter passage is that He’s James’ brother. What this implies is that Josephus presupposed that his readers already knew who he was referring to. But why would Josephus make such a presupposition? If The Testmonium Falvianum is legitimate, then it makes sense why Josephus assumes his readers already knew who he was talking about; i.e because He already briefly explained who Jesus was and what He did earlier.
For these and other reasons, most scholars think that the Testimonium Flavianium is an authentic passage. If it’s an authentic passage, then we can certainly use it as evidence for the existence and crucifixion of Jesus.
Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian born in about 57 A.D to an equestrian family. In the fifteenth book of his Annals, Tacitus is reporting on Rome burning to the ground and says that everyone blamed Nero for burning Rome to the ground. Nero tried to pin it on Christians, and he consequently persecuted them. The Annals of Tacitus dates to AD 115.
“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 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, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center 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.” Cornelius Tacitus, Annals (written ca. AD 116), book 15, chapter 44.
Again, mention of Jesus and Pontius Pilate in secular documents. Tacitus affirms that Jesus existed and that He was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Then he says that the movement named after Jesus died down for a while, then it flared up again, originally in Judea, then spread to Rome. The New Testament says the same thing; Jesus existed, was crucified by Pilate, and his followers stayed quiet for 50 days after that, then after Pentecost, they started spreading the gospel across the ancient world.
- Mara Bar Sarapion
Mara Bar-Serapion was a Syrian who wrote about Jesus Christ sometime around A.D. 73. He left a legacy manuscript to his son Serapion.
“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.”
About this passage, Josh and Sean McDowell write “Though Mara never uses Jesus’ name, we can be certain he is referring to him because no one else at that point in history would fulfill the requirements of being known as a “wise king” who was killed by the Jews shortly before they were driven from the land. Jesus is obviously in view.” McDowell, Josh; McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (p. 150). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
Unlike the previous two works, we don’t get very much information about Jesus or other New Testament events, but we do get one reference to Jesus’ death.
- Lucian Of Samosata
Lucian of Samosata was a Greek satirist who lived during the latter half of the second century, around AD 125 to AD 180. He writes about Jesus in The Passing of Peregrinus.
“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-dåevotion 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.” (emphasis mine)
You can just feel the sarcasm and condescension oozing off of every sentence. Lucian does not mock the Christians for following the teachings of a man who never existed, but for worshipping a man who was crucified, and thus, Lucian confirms the existence and crucifixion of Jesus. Not only that, but Lucian also confirms that Christians worshipped Jesus.
Jesus, The Miracle Worker
You might think that while mundane facts about Jesus such as His being a great teacher who ended up getting crucified might be picked up by non-Christian historians, surely no non-Christian ancient writer would say that he did miracles, right? Well, although they don’t believe Jesus’ miracles were genuine miracles (i.e acts of an omnipotent God), they certainly attest that Jesus did do things that were perceived as miracles. They just either vaguely refer to them as awesome deeds or else attribute their source to an evil power. Unfortunately, there isn’t much by way of external confirmation but there is one, and possibly two, sources that attest that Jesus was a “miracle” worker.
- Flavius Josephus
Depending on whether you take the phrase “For he was a doer of wonderful works” as part of the Josephan original or one of the additions of a later Christian scribe (part of the partial interpolating discussed above), this could be a reference to Jesus’ miracles. We need to discern whether this is (A) a genuine part of the passage and (B) refers to miraculous deeds even if it is. I myself tend to go back and forth on this which is why I’ve never brought this up before now. One reason to think it refers to miracles is that it’s hard to imagine what else this itinerant preacher could have done that would have been interpreted as a “wonderful work”. On the other hand, the phrase is ambiguous enough as to allow for other interpretations. But it seems to me at least slightly more likely that Josephus has Jesus’ miracles in view. In fact, one reason I am inclined to accept this as part of the Josephan original is that if this belonged to the Christian scribe’s additions, why doesn’t he describe the “Wonderful Works” in less ambiguous words? The scribe could have had Josephus say “Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man. For he wrought many mighty feats from the God of our fathers.” or something to that effect?
- The Talmud
The other source I’m much less tentative about is The Talmud. Doctor Gary Habermas explains that “The Jews handed down a large amount of oral tradition from generation to generation. This material was organized according to subject matter by Rabbi Akiba before his death in AD 135. His work was then revised by his student , Rabbi Meir. The project was completed around AD 200 by Rabbi Judah and is known as the Mishnah. Ancient commentary on the Mishna was called the Gemaras. The combination of the Mishnah and the Gemaras form The Talmud. It would be expected that the most reliable information about Jesus from The Talmud would come from the earliest period of compilation — AD 70 – 200, known as The Tannatic Period.” Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ”, pages 202-203, College Press.
A very significant quotation is found in Sanhedrin 43a, dating from just this early period.
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. 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. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!”
As you may know, “Jesus” is the Greek name for Joshua, which is also Yeshua. Yeshu is shorthand for Yeshua, sort of like how Josh is short for Joshua. Although the Talmud was not officially comprised until about 500 years after the first century, the material contained in the Talmud (i.e the Mishnah and Gemaras) dates early enough for us to consider it trustworthy material when it reports on events in the first century. This passage of The Talmud says that Jesus (Yeshu) was hanged on the eve of The Passover. As such, I could have included this in the section on “The Existence, Ministry, and Death Of Jesus”, but I wanted to include it here because of its interesting reference as to why Jesus was killed. This passage says that Yeshu was leading the people of Israel astray by “sorcery”.
If Jesus performed miracles as the gospels say he did, then it wouldn’t be surprising that those who didn’t want to believe in Jesus would try to explain these away as acts of sorcery rather than acts of God. However, if Jesus never performed acts that appeared miraculous, then we would expect the Talmudic authors to say something like “Yeshu’s followers claimed that he performed miracles, but we’re here to tell you that he didn’t.” or something like that. However, they said no such thing. Instead, rather than denying Jesus did what appeared to be miracles, they chalked it up to sorcery.
Jesus Was A Teacher Who Drew Large Crowds
I’ve already quoted the sources that tell us this in previous sections, but allow me to return to it here. Both Josephus and the Talmud tell us that Jesus was a teacher who drew to Himself large crowds. Josephus says “Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise 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.” (emphasis mine). And the Talmud says “‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.” Although no explicit reference to “teaching” is mentioned, it is implicit. For how else would Jesus/Yeshu lead Israel astray except by teaching them? Are we to imagine that Jesus just showed up and did a bunch of astonishing things without commenting on what he was doing….like some kind of mime magician?
Jesus Was Worshipped Like A God
I already quoted Lucian Of Samosata who said the early Christians worshipped a crucified man, but there’s another author who makes reference to this. His name is Pliny The Younger. Pliny the Younger was governor of Bithynia from 111-113 AD. He wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan concerning his interrogation of those who claimed to be Christians. He wanted to know things like what the proper punishment was and whether he was punishing people appropriately, whether recanting would get people off the hook, and lots of other things. I won’t quote the thing at length, but I will quote the portion of letter 10.96-97 relevant to this section. Pliny writes
“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.” (emphasis mine) As quoted in “Jesus Outside the Bible, 2 – Pliny the Younger” by Claton Kraby. — https://reasonabletheology.org/jesus-outside-the-bible-2-pliny-the-younger/
This would be in concert with Jesus making claims to deity in the gospels. Although space doesn’t permit a full biblical defense of Jesus claiming to be God, allow me to just briefly present my favorite example. In Mark 14:60-65 we read of the account of Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas.
“Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’ But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ They all condemned him as worthy of death.” (emphasis mine)
A lot of us don’t know our Old Testament very well, and even fewer of us know the Ugaritic Baal literature. However, both are important to fully grasp the significance of what Jesus said here. The high priest tore his robes and condemned Jesus of blasphemy. Why? Because Jesus was claiming to be God here. Jesus referred to himself as The Son Of Man who “comes on the clouds of heaven” and would be “seated at the right hand of God.” Jesus’ response combines Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13-14.
Daniel 7:13-14 says “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
The figure Daniel calls Son Of Man comes riding on the clouds of heaven, he is given authority, glory, and sovereign power, and is worshipped by people from all over the world! This is a pretty exalted figure that Daniel is describing. But it gets even better than that, for the language of cloud riding is inextricably linked to deity. As Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser explains “Throughout the Ugaritic texts, Baal is repeatedly called ‘the one who rides the clouds,’ or ‘the one who mounts the clouds.’ The description is recognized as an official title of Baal. No angel or lesser being bore the title. As such, everyone in Israel who heard this title associated it with a deity, not a man or an angel. Part of the literary strategy of the Israelite prophets was to take this well-known title and attribute it to Yahweh in some way. Consequently, Yahweh, the God of Israel, bears this descriptive title in several places in the Old Testament (Isaiah 19:1; Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 68:33; 104:3). For a faithful Israelite, then, there was only one god who ‘rode’ on the clouds: Yahweh.” Michael S. Heiser, “What’s Ugaritic Got To Do With Anything?” https://www.logos.com/ugaritic
Why The Sanhedrin Found Jesus’ Claim Blasphemous:
1: Jesus claimed to be Daniel 7’s Son of Man who would (A) be given authority, glory, and sovereign power, (B) would be worshipped by people all over the world. and (C) would have a kingdom that would never end.
2: He would come in judgment riding “On The Clouds”. He’s The Cloud Rider. Riding the clouds In Judgment is Yahweh’s Job.
3: He would be “seated at the right hand of God” To sit at God’s right hand is to sit on God’s throne, To sit on God’s throne is to claim equality with God.
It is no wonder at all why Caiaphas tore his clothes in outrage and charged Jesus with blasphemy. Jesus claimed to be God! He could have only been more explicit it he had used the three specific words “I am God” (Ego emi ho theos in Greek). Apart from just saying those three exact words, I can’t imagine any way Jesus could have been more explicit. Christians make much over Jesus’ claim “I and the Father are one” in John 10:30 and “Before Abraham was born, I am” in John 8:58. No doubt these are blatant claims to deity and are important in a case for the deity of Christ, but Mark 14:60-65 is equally as powerful, yet is often ignored by Christians and non-Christians alike. Moreover, this is found in what most scholars believe to be the earliest gospel. So, claims of legendary embellishment – claiming Jesus was a mere prophet in Mark but became God by the time … Continue reading
Pliny The Younger corroborates that early Christians worshipped Jesus as a god. Given the Jewish origins of Christian monotheism, it’s reasonable to infer that the early Christians worshipped Jesus not simply as “a” god with a lower case g – basically a powerful humanoid being – but as God; Yahweh. This is in concert with what we find in the gospels of Jesus’ claims to be divine.
The Existence And Office Of Pontius Pilate
Pontius Pilate is mentioned in the aforementioned writings of Josephus and Tacitus. Both Josephus and Tacitus credit Pilate with being the authority who issued Jesus to be crucified. However, there are a couple of archeological discoveries that confirm the existence and office of Pontius Pilate as well. Archeologist David E Graves writes of The Pilate Stone Inscription in his book “The Archeology Of The New Testament: 75 Discoveries That Support The Reliability Of The Bible”. Graves wrote;
“During the 1961 excavations of the Roman theatre near Caesarea Martma, archaeologists led by Antonio Frova uncovered a limestone block with an inscription that read. [.]S TIBERIÉVM173 [ITIVS PILATVS […JECTVS IVDALJE [JÉf.. It is now on display in the Israel Museum (AB 1963 no. 104; fig. 57) in Jerusalem with a replica at Caesaria, Maritima. The inscription is believed to be either part of a larger inscription dedicating a temple to the emperor Tiberius Caesarea commemorating the restoration of the Cesarea Maritima harbour Cosephus B1. 1.21.5-7; A.J. 15.9.6).176 Recent archeological research around the harbor would support Alföldy s proposal. While Pontius Pilate has been mentioned in ancient texts (John 19:6; Tacitus Ann. 15.44; Josephus B.J. 2.117-18; A.J. 17.55-64; 85- 8); 18.3.3 563; Philo Legat. 38.299-305) this was the first physical evidence that Pilate existed. It is known that Pilate lived in Caesarea and only went to Jerusalem on special occasions, so it is not surprising to find an inscription with his name on it in Caesarea. The mention of Pilate with Tiberius (42 BG-37 AD) puts Pontius Pilate in the same time period as Jesus, in the first century. The inscription also clarifies Pilate’s title. The Gospels speak of him as a governor (Gt. hegemon, Matt 27:2; Luke 3:1) while Tacitus speaks of him as procurator (Gt. epitopos; Ann. 15.44). This led to debate over his title and rank until the discovery of the Pilate inscription in 1961 which settled the issue and provided his official title as Prefect.” David E. Graves, “The Archeology Of The New Testament: 75 Discoveries That Support The Reliability Of The Bible, pages 95-96, FM Electronics Christian Media, 2021
Due to copyright concerns, I won’t display any images of archeological findings. I just recommend Googling “The Pilate Stone Inscription”. As for the coins, you can see them by clicking on the link to this article here.
The Ministry Of John The Baptist
Flavius Josephus rears his head again. As I said earlier, this guy gives us a lot of corroborative evidence.
In book 18, sections 116-119 of his Antiquities Of The Jews, Josephus writes this:
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice. Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly, John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death. Now the Jews thought that the destruction of his army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure with him.” Cf. “Josephus On John The Baptist” – https://www.livius.org/sources/content/josephus/jewish-antiquities/josephus-on-john-the-baptist/, and Ryan Leasure’s article “John … Continue reading.
As Ryan Leasure points out; Notice how much Josephus corroborates what the Gospels say about John the Baptist:
* Josephus says John “inclined the Jews to exercise virtue and to practice justice toward one another.”
* The Gospels say John exhorted the Jews to share their clothing and money with one another, not to extort money from others, and not to accuse others falsely (Lk. 3:10-14).
* Josephus says John baptized many Jews as a sign of repentance.
* The Gospels also report that John baptized many Jews as a sign of repentance (Mk. 1:4-5).
* Josephus states that Herod arrested John the Baptist.
* The Gospels likewise report that Herod arrested John the Baptist (Mk. 6:16-18).
* Josephus declares that Herodias left Philip and married his brother Herod Antipas.
* The Gospels report that Herod divorced his wife and married his brother Philip’s wife Herodias (Mk. 6:16-18).
* Josephus reports that Herod had John the Baptist executed.
* The Gospels state that Herod had John the Baptist beheaded (Mk. 6:16-18). See Ryan Leasure’s article “John The Baptist In Josephus”, June 16th, 2019 on CrossExamined.org –> https://crossexamined.org/john-the-baptist-in-josephus/
Josephus confirms several details in the gospels about John; that he baptized people, commanded people to exercise virtue and righteousness, and that Herod Antipas had him killed. Although Josephus doesn’t seem to agree on the gospel of Matthew about the reason Herod had him killed, and although this may seem to be a point against reliability, in truth we have good reason to think that the gospel of Matthew who report the motive (in Matthew 14) was more likely the reason than Josephus’. Here, I will just defer the reader to a blog post I wrote several years ago titled “Why Do Josephus and The Gospels Contradict?”
Herod The Great
Josephus mentions Herod The Great and says that he was the king, that he was a harsh tyrant, and killed his sons. Additionally, archeology has uncovered coins with King Herod’s name engraved on them. see Titus Kennedy’s book “Excavating The Evidence For Jesus: The Archeology and History Of Christ and The Gospels”, Harvest House Publishers, pages 61-66. See also Brian Windle, … Continue reading
Craig A. Evans is a New Testament scholar who has authored a book titled “Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence”. In it, he talks about a very important archeological discovery pertaining to Caiaphas; the high priest Jesus stood before in Mark 14 and parallels. Evans writes;
“At Akeldama the lower portion of a tomb complex has been excavated that may have belonged to the family of Annas high priest com 6-15 CE. The remains of this tomb suggest that in its pristine condition the tomb would have been very impressive, not unlike the beautiful monumental tombs that adorn the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Annas (or Ananus) the high priest, whose five sons and son-in-law Caiaphas served terms as high priest (Josephus, Ant. 20.198), is mentioned in the New Testament (Luke 3.2: ‘the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas; John 18.13: ‘they led him to Annas; for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas’; Acts 4.6: ‘Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly family’). According to Josephus, the father of Annas is one Sethi (Ant. 18.26). This is probably the priestly family excoriated in rabbinic tradition (b. Pesahim 57a; m. Keritot 1.7). …
The most intriguing discovery may relate to the son-in-law of Annas, the high priest Caiaphas who condemned Jesus and handed him over to the Roman governor. In November 1990, while working in Jerusalem’s Peace Forest (North Talpiyot), which is 1.5 km south of the Old City, a crew inadvertently uncovered a crypt with four loculi in which twelve ossuaries were discovered. Happily, most of the ossuaries were found intact, unmolested by grave robbers. Coins and the style of writing seen in the inscriptions have dated these ossuaries to the first century CE. On one of the ornate ossuaries (no. 6, measuring 74 cm in length, 29 cm in width and 38 cm in height; now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem), two very interesting inscriptions were found (Figure 4.5). The inscriptions have been transcribed as follows: Yehoseph bar Qyph’ Yehoseph bar Qph’ Translated: Joseph son of Qayafa Joseph son of Qafa.
This osuary contained the bones of a 6O-year-old man (and those orwo infants, a toddler, a young boy and a woman), and is though or some including the authorities of the aforementioned museum, y be the ossuary of Caiaphas the high priest, to whom Josephus refers as Joseph Caiaphas (Ant. 18.35: Joseph who is Caiaphas and the high priest Joseph called Caiaphas) and the Gospels and Acts call more simply Caiaphas (Matt. 26.3, 57; Luke 3.2; John 11.49, 18.13, 14, 24, 28; Acts 4.6). Those who think the ossuary belonged to Caiaphas vocalize the inscribed name as Qayapha (or Qayyapha), the Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent of the Greek Caiaphas.”
Craig Evans, Craig A. Evans, “Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence”, WJK Books, pages 97-98
James The Brother Of Jesus
As already mentioned earlier, James the brother of Jesus is mentioned by Josephus. Josephus reports that James was brought before the Sanhedrin and that he was the brother of Jesus “the so-called Christ” and that the Sanhedrin had delivered James over to be stoned after casting him from the roof of the building failed to kill him. This corroborates the gospels and New Testament epistles which tell us that Jesus had a brother named James (see Mark 3, John 7, Galatians 1:19). However, there is an archeological discovery that confirms James’ existence as well. It’s known as the James Ossuary, and although its genuineness was doubted at first, it is now seen as being an authentic piece of archeological corroboration for the gospels. see “Finding Jesus: The Remarkable Story Of The James Ossuary”, March 16th, 2015, — https://www.thehistoryreader.com/cultural-history/finding-jesus/, “The James Ossuary … Continue reading. So, not only do we have an extra-biblical writer mentioning James and telling us about him, but we have his bones as well!
Answering Skeptical Objections
We’ve seen that there’s pretty good non-Christian extra-biblical evidence for many persons and events mentioned in the gospels. In this section, I’d like to respond to some objections that I anticipate would probably come up in the comment section if I don’t take the time to answer them here.
- Why Aren’t There More Sources That Mention Jesus?
Some skeptics complain that there aren’t more historical sources mentioning Jesus. They argue; if Jesus was such an influential individual as the gospels make him out to be, there ought to be far more historical documents that mention Him than what we do have. Of the secular sources, we only have 9 that mention Jesus. From that, they argue that he either didn’t exist or wasn’t as influential as The Bible says.
For one thing, very few documents from ancient history have survived up to the present time. As Ryan Turner, author for CARM (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) wrote in an article on Carm.org: “There are a number of ancient writings that have been lost, including 50% of the Roman historian Tacitus’ works, all of the writings of Thallus and Asclepiades of Mendes. In fact, Herod the Great’s secretary named Nicolas of Damascus wrote a Universal History of Roman history which comprised nearly 144 books and none of them have survived. Based on the textual evidence, there is no reason to doubt the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.” Ryan Turner, “Did Jesus Ever Exist?”, September 29th, 2009 — https://carm.org/evidence-and-answers/did-jesus-ever-exist/
The fact of the matter is; there may have been more secular documents that spoke about Jesus for all we know. But they most likely decayed away, had been destroyed, or they haven’t been discovered yet by archeologists. If documents aren’t copied over and over again at a quick enough pace, they aren’t likely to survive for 2,000 years. Moreover, the evidence we have for Jesus is still pretty strong. His existence is multiply, multiply, multiply, multiply, multiply attested in 9 secular sources alone! Never mind the New Testament documents and extra-biblical Christian sources!
Now, historians consider themselves extraordinarily lucky when they find 2 independent sources mentioning something, but with the existence of Jesus, we’ve got 9 just in secular sources alone, and there’s far more if you count the New Testament documents and extra-biblical Christian sources. And 4 of these refer to His death by means of crucifixion. We have to ask ourselves; is it really rational to believe that such an individual is a fictional character when so many historians wrote about him? The existence and crucifixion of Jesus is mentioned in numerous, independent and early sources. There may have been more for all we know but they just eroded away due to the fact that that happens to documents that endure through thousands of years.
- Why Didn’t Josephus and Tacitus Say More About Jesus Than They Did?
This is a related, though somewhat different to the previous objection. Some skeptics ask “Why didn’t Josephus say more about Jesus than he did? If Jesus really did all the fantastical things the gospels ascribe to him, surely Josephus would have spilled more ink talking about him?”
In response; I would say that given Josephus’ huge focus on political matters and given the fact that Jesus may have just been, in Josephus’ eyes, another failed Messianic claimant, it is surprising that he says what he does say. You can hardly expect a non-Christian who doesn’t believe the claims about Jesus to spend as much time on him as, say, the gospels do. He might get a mention if the author thinks it’s important to the history he’s trying to tell, and I think Josephus probably mentioned Jesus in 18.3 because he was setting up his reader for crucial background information when he mentioned James later on in the same book. Basically saying “Ok, here’s Jesus. Here’s a summary of what he said and did and what happened to him. Now, when I get to the Sanhedrin and what they did to his brother, I won’t have to explain any further.”
The same can be said for Tacitus; his reason for bringing up Jesus and his crucifixion was part of his history of the burning of Rome. The early Christians were Nero’s scapegoats, and, in recounting Nero’s horrible actions, it was necessary to briefly bring up the man who founded the persecuted sect. The explanation would be incomplete without such a mention.
It’s important to remember that just because someone was writing in the ancient world; that did not obligate them to mention Jesus. It would be like expecting 21st-century writings to make mention of Barack Obama. Well, if I’m writing a non-fiction book on how to make homemade recipes, I’m far less likely to include a reference to Obama than if I were writing a history book focusing on the American government or the economy. My failure to mention Obama need not be interpreted to mean I consider him unimportant. It might, but it might also just be that throwing in a random mention of him would be out of place given what I want to talk about. You see, every writer has specific subjects he wants to talk about. In fact, most of the blog articles on my website don’t mention a lot of important contemporary figures. Why? Because I’m writing about theology and Christian Apologetics. Why would I throw in random mentions of Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez in a series about, say, logical fallacies or the rules of hermeneutics? They only got name-dropped here because I’m using them as an example of well-known people I don’t care to talk about because they’re outside the scope of my essays. This is important to remember also when skeptics object that the Apostle Paul didn’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus because he never talks about the virgin birth in his epistles. Paul was … Continue reading
Basically what I’m saying is that these writers mentioned Jesus because it was important to what they wanted to talk about – which wasn’t Jesus himself because they didn’t believe he was who the early Christians proclaimed he was. Moreover, I have to ask if Josephus and Tactius had spent a lot more time talking about what Jesus said and did, would skeptics really find that persuasive? Or would they try to argue that “There’s no way non-Christians would talk THIS much about Jesus? Christian scribes had to have come in later and added all of this.” For them to spill more ink than they actually did on someone they didn’t consider important would likely cause skeptics to argue in the other direction.
- But None Of These Are Contemporary Sources!
Some object that none of the non-Christian writers were contemporaries of Jesus. Josephus is the closest, but even he was born after Jesus had left this Earth. Josephus was born in 37 A.D and wrote sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Tacitus wrote his Annals in 107 A.D. Pliny the Younger wrote his letter to the Emperor Trajan in circa 107 A.D. A lot of these are early second-century sources. Why is this a problem? Well, I remember an obnoxious atheist on Twitter back in my early days of Apologetics badgering me about secular sources on Jesus, and whenever I would cite the authors I’ve brought up in this article, she would respond “Hearsay!”, “Hearsay!” “Hearsay!”. For her, secondary sources that aren’t written by people who lived at exactly the same time as Jesus are historically worthless. Even someone as close in time and space to the events as Flavius Josephus was dismissed by this Twitter skeptic!
We don’t really have any contemporary historical evidence for lots of figures in history yet we can know they existed because historical study can compensate with techniques such as “declarations against interest” and independent corroboration. We have 9 secular sources for Jesus’ existence (the works of Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, etc.), that though they aren’t contemporary accounts are still reliable given that they’re not too far removed from the events they report, and as for the gospels which ARE contemporary accounts, they’re rejected a priori because they’re written by people who believed in Jesus.
For one thing, being a non-contemporaneous account does not mean it is not a reliable source. Secondary accounts, though not valued as highly by a historian as firsthand or eyewitness accounts, are not considered worthless. For some historical events and persons, all we have are secondary accounts. Would we, therefore, conclude that they never happened? Of course not. Yet that’s what a lot of skeptics do when it comes to the life and death of Jesus. They reject all secondary accounts (Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny) and they reject the contemporary accounts we DO have (i.e the gospels). Aren’t they aware of the fact that historians don’t require contemporary accounts for accepted history? (If you think they do, then you’d have to rewrite much of history) They accept both first-hand and secondary accounts, among other factors.
Moreover, the thing about Josephus and Tacitus is that even though they weren’t alive during Jesus’ lifetime, they were living within the lifetimes of those who DID know Jesus and could tell them about Him (Jesus, according to virtually all scholars was crucified in either 30 AD or 33 AD and Josephus was born in 37 AD) I have used the analogy of me reporting about Richard Feynman, an American physicist best known for his work in quantum mechanics and who assisted in the development of the atomic bomb. Even though I was born after he died (Feynman died in 1988, I was born in 1992), I’m still close enough to the events to be relevant. After all, I’m growing up in a time where people who did know Richard Feynman are still around and they could tell me about him (just pretend for the moment that I don’t have video recordings, Josephus didn’t have these to go on). Would the skeptic say that my testimony about Feynman would be invalidated because I wasn’t a contemporary of him, even though I have parents and grandparents and friends of my parents who were contemporaries of Feynman? And I could have gotten my information from them? That’s absurd. My point is this; authors like Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny are still close enough to the events to be relevant sources and almost all scholars on the subject accept their testimony as valid evidence for Jesus’ historicity, including scholars who aren’t Christians (so we can be sure they have no theological axe to grind).
Summary and Conclusion
What Secular Extra-Biblical Evidence Tells Us about Jesus:
1: Jesus existed (Josephus, Tacitus, Mara-Bar Sarapion, Lucian Of Samosata, Pliny The Younger, The Talmud)
2: Jesus was a miracle worker (Josephus, Talmud)
3: Jesus was a teacher who drew large crowds (Josephus, The Talmud)
4: Jesus was worshipped like a god (Pliny The Younger, Lucian)
5: Jesus was crucified (Josephus, Tacitus, Mara Bar Sarapion, Lucian Of Samosata, The Talmud)…
6: by Pontius Pilate who was either procurator or prefect of Judea in the 30s AD. (Josephus, Tacitus, The Pilate Stone Inscription, Coins Inscribed With Pilate’s name),
7: Jesus’ followers believed he rose from the dead (Josephus).
If you are a skeptic, it should be surprising to you that the basic story of the gospels can be known without reading the gospels! But the fact that all of this external testimony for Jesus exists is evidence that the gospels were telling the truth. As impressive as this external evidence is, we need the gospels if we are to know much more about Jesus than just this basic outline.
What Secular Extra-Biblical Evidence Tells Us About Other People and Events:
8: Before Jesus began his ministry, he was preceded by John The Baptist (Josephus)
9: John The Baptist was killed by Herod Antipas who was king at the time (Josephus)
10: Herod The Great existed and preceded Antipas and was a wicked and paranoid man (Josephus, Coins Inscribed With Herod’s Name)
11: Caiaphas existed and was high priest around the time the gospels say Jesus was crucified (Josephus, The Caiaphas Ossuary)
12: Jesus had a brother named James who was martyred for his faith in his brother (Josephus, The James Ossuary)
And this barely even scratches the surface! There are whole books devoted to the external evidence for New Testament persons and events. The ones I’d recommend the most are Robert Van Voort’s “Jesus Outside The New Testament: An Introduction To The Ancient Evidence”, Titus Kennedy’s “Excavating The Evidence For Jesus: The Archeology and History Of The Gospels”, and David Grave’s “The Archeology Of The New Testament: 75 Discoveries That Support The Reliability Of The Bible”. I do recommend the reader pick up these resources to learn about just how much extra-biblical support there truly is. In a single blog article (even one as long as this one), I can only talk about so much. Unless you wanted an article that had an estimated reading time of several days, I had to be selective about what I included.
Does it look like the gospels are telling the truth yet? That all of these secular authors and archeological findings corroborate the basic outline of the gospel narratives is good evidence that the gospels are historical reportage. Yet, there’s much more evidence to talk about. In fact, the internal evidence for the gospels is so great in quantity and quality that I have decided to talk about the evidence from inside the gospels in two separate blog posts. Initially, I was going to devote one article to internal evidence, but given that internal evidence is arguably more important than external evidence, and that there’s much more of it, it seemed good to me to spend extra time on it. It is to this subject that we now turn.
|↑1||Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3|
|↑2||From the online article “Did Josephus Refer To Jesus?” by Christopher Price —- http://bede.org.uk/Josephus.htm|
|↑3||Cornelius Tacitus, Annals (written ca. AD 116), book 15, chapter 44.|
|↑4||McDowell, Josh; McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (p. 150). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.|
|↑5||Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ”, pages 202-203, College Press.|
|↑6||As quoted in “Jesus Outside the Bible, 2 – Pliny the Younger” by Claton Kraby. — https://reasonabletheology.org/jesus-outside-the-bible-2-pliny-the-younger/|
|↑7||Michael S. Heiser, “What’s Ugaritic Got To Do With Anything?” https://www.logos.com/ugaritic|
|↑8||Moreover, this is found in what most scholars believe to be the earliest gospel. So, claims of legendary embellishment – claiming Jesus was a mere prophet in Mark but became God by the time John was written – is a fallacious notion. Even if Matthean priority were true, we have Jesus’ claim paralleled in Matthew (26:62-64), so the skeptic can’t sidestep this response simply by saying “Well, maybe Mark wasn’t the first one after all.” Whether Markan or Matthean priority is accepted, the fact remains that the earliest gospel contains the most blatant reference to Jesus’ claim to divinity. Mark has lots of other places where he displays a high Christology. I recommend watching my presentation “The High Christology In Mark’s Gospel” on Cerebral Faith Live on YouTube. –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgFkpgQ4n2M|
|↑9||David E. Graves, “The Archeology Of The New Testament: 75 Discoveries That Support The Reliability Of The Bible, pages 95-96, FM Electronics Christian Media, 2021|
|↑10||Cf. “Josephus On John The Baptist” – https://www.livius.org/sources/content/josephus/jewish-antiquities/josephus-on-john-the-baptist/, and Ryan Leasure’s article “John The Baptist In Josephus”, June 16th, 2019 on CrossExamined.org –> https://crossexamined.org/john-the-baptist-in-josephus/|
|↑11||See Ryan Leasure’s article “John The Baptist In Josephus”, June 16th, 2019 on CrossExamined.org –> https://crossexamined.org/john-the-baptist-in-josephus/|
|↑12||see Titus Kennedy’s book “Excavating The Evidence For Jesus: The Archeology and History Of Christ and The Gospels”, Harvest House Publishers, pages 61-66. See also Brian Windle, “Herod The Great: An Archeological Biography”, December 11th 2020 — https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2020/12/11/herod-the-great-an-archaeological-biography/|
|↑13||Craig A. Evans, “Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence”, WJK Books, pages 97-98|
|↑14||see “Finding Jesus: The Remarkable Story Of The James Ossuary”, March 16th, 2015, — https://www.thehistoryreader.com/cultural-history/finding-jesus/, “The James Ossuary – Brother Of Jesus”, November 16, 2013 — https://evidencetobelieve.com/the-james-ossuary-brother-of-jesus/|
|↑15||Ryan Turner, “Did Jesus Ever Exist?”, September 29th, 2009 — https://carm.org/evidence-and-answers/did-jesus-ever-exist/|
|↑16||This is important to remember also when skeptics object that the Apostle Paul didn’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus because he never talks about the virgin birth in his epistles. Paul was writing letters to churches who had specific issues that needed to be addressed. If there were a church that denied the virgin birth, then maybe Paul would have brought it up. But he wasn’t going to just randomly drop a reference to it in a letter pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus, marriage, divorce, the second coming, et. al. In fact, Nick Peters has an ongoing gag where he’ll be talking about literally anything and just throw in “I affirm the virgin birth”. And he’ll make friendly jabs at people who, say, leave a comment on a Facebook post and don’t say “And I affirm the virgin birth!” It’s a joke because not even Christians are obligated to bring up everything they believe in every single context. The fact that I don’t mention the doctrine of The Trinity in an article on the Kalam Cosmological Argument doesn’t mean I don’t believe God is a Trinity. Likewise, the fact that Paul doesn’t mention the virgin birth in Galatians is not a good argument that he didn’t affirm it, and that the doctrine only developed later.|