Ancient secular writings that mention Jesus Christ — or someone with a similar name or title (“Christ” meaning “anointed one”) — are important to both believers and nonbelievers.
For believers, non-biblical sources are icing on the cake, adding more evidence a divine Jesus existed to the evidence that is the New Testament. For nonbelievers, the gospels are full of fictions, like many other holy books throughout human history, and so it is only reasonable to examine writings by people who weren’t participating in the dissemination of fiction (though such examinations must also include serious scrutiny and skepticism).
Such a statement might raise the inquiry, “Why should writers who weren’t Christians be trusted over those who were? What if secular writers were crafting fiction — purging the story of supernatural happenings?”
That’s possible, and it makes sense that an historian might ignore stories of divine intervention, but there is no evidence secular writers were deliberately suppressing the truth. On the other hand, with multiple copies we can see some of these documents actually becoming more religious as time passes. Christian scribes embellished secular writings (they also modified the bible, by the way, as biblical scholars admit and mention in your bible’s footnotes). That is evidence of changing earlier writings to fit your belief system. We don’t have comparable evidence that the reverse happened, that nonbelievers altered texts that claimed Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead (with so many diverse supernatural beliefs in the Roman Empire, one might wonder why they would bother).
Also, it seems obvious that the texts with the most extraordinary claims require the largest grain of salt (a parallel to the old saying — very pertinent to religion — that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to be believable). The most outrageous reports need more skepticism than the mundane. So if we have one text that says a man raised a friend from the dead and another text that says the man was a wise leader with a large following, those are very different claims and require different intensities of scrutiny and critical thinking. (Again, that does not mean the mundane claim gets a free pass and should be accepted as truth without question.) In that sense, it may be sensible to more readily accept mundane claims than incredible claims, as a Christian might be incline to do should a Hindu or Muslim speak of miracles or UFO enthusiasts speak of abductions.
Either way, let’s look at the non-biblical writings that mention Jesus of Nazareth, and the reader can decide for him- or herself if they actually aid the extraordinary claims of the New Testament (an important question to ask, I think, is would comparable writings about Muhammad give legitimacy to Islam and the Koran?). Sources include Evidence for the Historical Jesus by well-known Christian apologist Josh McDowell and Godless by pastor-turned-atheist Dan Barker.
Thallus: historian, allegedly writing between AD 50 and 100
None of Thallus’ histories actually survived to the present.
His name is only mentioned because Christian historian Julius Africanus, writing c. AD 221, claims in his Chronography that Thallus took part in the debate over what caused a great darkness to descend upon the earth at the time of Christ’s crucifixion: “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun — unreasonably, as it seems to me.” Africanus noted that “it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died,” arguing correctly that an eclipse cannot occur at the time of a full moon. Obviously, if such a debate occurred and Thallus was attempting to explain away the event, he would be acknowledging that the event occurred.
Yet none of the original writings of Julius Africanus exist, only copies. So we cannot know for certain if this was not inserted by religious scribes. If we were able to rule that possibility out, there would still be no way to know if Africanus was being truthful or accurate. There is no other ancient document that even mentions Thallus. Some believe one document written by Eusebius in the 4th century mentions him — though the manuscript is damaged and cuts off the beginning of the name, leaving merely “__allos.”
Dan Barker notes that there is no other evidence, beyond the insistence of Africanus and the gospels (with the possible exception of Phlegon; see below), of an eclipse when Christ died, quite surprising considering its natural impossibility and the fact that Josephus, and other secular historians, also recorded the events of that age.
(Some prominent historians of the age and time, it should be noted, did not mention Jesus at all. Philo of Alexandria [Philo-Judaeus], a writer who chronicled Jewish history during the time of Jesus’ life and was a resident of Jerusalem during all the Gospel events, never mentioned Jesus. Likewise, historian Justus of Tiberius was a native of Galilee. His history of the Jews is lost, but Christian scholar Photius complained in the 9th century [Bibliotheca, code 33] that Justus didn’t mention Jesus.)
Flavius Josephus: Jewish historian, Galilean military commander, aide to Emperor Vespasian, writing AD 93
A Jew named Josephus, in The Antiquities of the Jews, wrote of John the Baptist and his death by order of Herod. He mentions that John’s baptisms were not conducted “to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed” but as an outward expression of devotion coming only after “the soul was already cleansed by right behavior.” Later, Josephus writes of “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” and James’ trial and execution before the Sanhedrin. Josephus also writes a paragraph on Christ himself (now called the Testimonium), though many Christian and secular scholars agree it was doctored by later Christian copyists (for instance, Edwin Yamauchi acknowledges this in Lee Strobel’s widely-read Case for Christ). The passage reads:
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 for him are not extinct to this day.
The pieces believed to be authentic by Christian scholars and some secular ones include Jesus performing wonderful works, leading many Jews and Gentiles, being condemned to death by Pilate, and his followers not forsaking him.
Yet biblical and secular scholars generally agree that the bit about it not being “lawful to call him a man,” mentioning “the truth,” him rising from the dead, and the use of the word “Christians” and the phrase “to this day” are all changes made to the text later on. The debate about what is authentic is quite long, but there are convincing reasons to be suspect.
For instance, the believer Origen, in the second century, uses Josephus’ book to defend Christianity from the views of Celsum, but never once used the invaluable paragraph! In fact, “no form of the Testimonium Flavianum is cited in the extant works of Justin Martyr, Theophilus Antiochenus, Melito of Sardis, Minucius Felix, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Julius Africanus, Pseudo-Justin, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Methodius, or Lactantius. According to Michael Hardwick in Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius, each of these authors shows familiarity with the works of Josephus.”
The paragraph mentions “Christians,” a term not believed used until the 2nd century. The copies with the paragraph appear only in the 4th century, first quoted by Eusebius, who wrote elsewhere that it was all right for historians to insert fiction into their work (and the Testimonium contains word choices Josephus didn’t typically use but Eusebius often did). The Testimonium sits awkwardly between stories where Josephus condemns Jewish governors, rebels, would-be messiahs, and agitators, and offers lessons with his criticisms — yet the passage on Jesus has a different tone, being positive and supportive, without any sort of moral. After this affectionate paragraph, Josephus tells the story of “another outrage” — making the flow of stories much more sensible when the Testimonium is removed. Perhaps most importantly, despite the passage making it sound as if Josephus believed Jesus was the messiah and rose from the dead, he doesn’t bother writing about him anywhere else in his books! He even devoted twice as much space to John the Baptist.
Josephus’ mention of “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” being stoned was also possibly inserted later. Hegesippus, a Christian Jew, wrote in 170 AD that Jesus’ brother James was killed in a riot. Somehow, it is likely one of these stories is incorrect.
Since even faithful biblical scholars acknowledge Josephus’ paragraph on Jesus was doctored, it is possible the entire paragraph was inserted later by a priest or scribe.
Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Younger): writer, Roman governor of Bithynia, writing c. AD 112
10 volumes of Pliny’s letters survived to the present.
In Epistles, Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan asking what methods were permissible in punishing Christians, who refused to worship Roman gods and were thus withholding profits from the temples. “I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it, I repeated the question twice, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they persevered, I ordered them executed.” He writes those who recanted were made to worship Trajan’s statue and the Roman gods and “curse Christ.” But Pliny, interested in “the nature of their beliefs,” describes the Christians as indeed regarding Christ a deity. They sang “a hymn to Christ, as to a god” and believed in a “contagious superstition.” Emperor Trajan wrote back, saying the only way the accused could provide “practical proof” of their denial was by “invoking our gods.”
If this is accurate reporting, it tells nothing new: secular scholars know the term “Christian” was used in the 2nd century, that followers believed Jesus was God, and that the Romans didn’t care for them much in those years.
Cornelius Tacitus: historian, Roman senator, Roman consul, proconsul of Asia, writing AD 116
In his Annals, Tacitus wrote of the fire that swept Rome in AD 64. Emperor Nero, to eliminate a rumor that he himself had ordered the fire, allegedly “substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself.” The Christians were promptly “torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.”
This is likely a valuable corroboration with the New Testament as to what happened to the historical person of Jesus. It may be encouraging to believers, who might ask why such a “superstition” would “break out once more” after being “checked” unless Jesus had actually risen from the dead, but of course there is nothing to say the “break out” didn’t occur after a fictional story of Jesus’ resurrection was concocted while he rotted in the ground like other mortals. Further, most other religions also fail to putter out after a revered leader dies, usually growing stronger (the rise of Islam after Muhammad’s death or the worship of past pharaohs in Egypt, for example, or the fact that Buddha was molded into a divine character after he passed despite his earlier insistence he was just a man).
But some scholars suspect that Tacitus, writing of a time when he was only 8, may have gotten a few facts wrong. Historians are unsure if Christianity reached Rome by 64 AD, nor that Nero actually persecuted Christians — though he likely did persecute Jews. No Christian scholars, priests, or writers quoted this passage in the 2nd century, which doesn’t mean it’s not authentic but may raise some small doubts. However, in the 4th century, one of Sulpicius Severus’ writings (which were full of mythological stories by anyone’s standards) contains an identical passage. The paragraph may have been pulled from Severus’ work and Tacitus’ history doctored with it.
But as we shall see with Suetonius, there may be reason to give Tacitus the benefit of the doubt.
Suetonius: historian, annalist of the Roman Imperial House, writing c. AD 120
Suetonius, in Life of Claudius, wrote: “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” Chrestus is suspected to be a misspelling of Christus, though there is much debate over the matter. However, it could be that hostilities between traditional Jews and Christian preachers led to the expulsion of Jews from Rome (c. AD 50), also mentioned in Acts 18. However, Suetonius may be more important in that his Life of Nero echoes what Tacitus wrote, that after the great fire “punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a body of people addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition.” This is evidence that perhaps Tacitus did write the words above and that they were accurate.
However, “Chrestus” was a common Latin name, and since Jesus is not mentioned by name, this could have been someone else. We also don’t know what kind of disturbances this refers to (simple preaching? riots?), nor if an historian would credit a man long dead with “instigating” anything (mightn’t it be more sensible to either speak of a current leader or clarify that it was the belief in Chrestus that was to blame?), nor why a writer from AD 120 would call the troublemakers “Jews” instead of “Christians” (a label believed to be used by that time).
Barker also mentions that Suetonius wasn’t the best historian anyway: he wrote that Caesar Augustus physically rose to heaven upon his death.
Lucian of Samosata: Greek satirist, writing c. AD 170
Lucian wrote in The Death of Peregrine, “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguish 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 upon 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.”
Here Lucian is only repeating what Christians believed in the 2nd century. It doesn’t tell us much about Jesus as an historical figure.
Phlegon: historian, writing in the 2nd century
Julius Africanus reports in his Chronography (allegedly — recall none of his originals exist today) that Phlegon (in his Chronicles) “records that in the time of Tiberius Caesar at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth.” A Christian writer, Origen, wrote in the early third century (Against Celsus) that Phlegon mentioned in Chronicles the eclipse and a great earthquake at the time of the crucifixion, and even ascribed to Christ “a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus).”
Here we don’t have the original words of Phlegon, only a mention of his quote by one Christian writer (Origen) who thinks Phlegon was a bit confused as to who said or did what and (perhaps) another Christian writer (Africanus) whose texts might have been altered by others.
The Sanhedrin (Babylonian Talmud): written AD 70-200
This Jewish manuscript says, “It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu” because “he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray.” Hanged was often used at the time to mean crucified, according to scholars — another good corroboration of Jesus’ fate.
Although this is a religious book, like the next one, it seemed important to include because it comes from the Jews (some Jews didn’t take too kindly to the new religion) and because they come relatively soon after Jesus lived (Islamic holy books also mention Jesus, but they arrived many centuries later). This passage suggests Christ had some sort of convincing power, here explained as sorcery. Yet many other people in human history have practiced sorcery, or been accused of doing so, and a Christian would be reasonably skeptical if I suggested a sorcerer could only do what he did because he was God himself.
The Hullin (Tosefta): written AD 70-200
The Jewish Tosefta mentions that a man named Jacob “came to heal” R. Elazar ben Damah, who had been bitten by a snake, “in the name of Yeshu.”
If accurate reporting, this may simply tell us that there were followers of Christ who claimed spiritual powers. Or, like any other tale of the supernatural, whether in a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu text, it could simply be fictional.
Mara Bar-Serapion: Syrian, date unknown but likely 3rd century
This personal letter to Mara’s imprisoned son mentions that the Jews had killed their “wise king.”
However, there were many messiahs who were killed in Palestine in these times, for instance the Essene Teacher of Righteousness. Since the letter’s date is probably nowhere near the events of Jesus’ death, and since it does not mention Jesus by name, it is not particularly useful.