Non biblical sources on the historicity of Jesus
The following is a reprinting of a letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar describing the physical appearance of Jesus. Copies are in the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C.
To Tiberius Caesar
A young man appeared in Galilee preaching with humble unction, a new law in the Name of the God that had sent Him. At first I was apprehensive that His design was to stir up the people against the Romans, but my fears were soon dispelled. Jesus of Nazareth spoke rather as a friend of the Romans than of the Jews.
One day I observed in the midst of a group of people a young man who was leaning against a tree, calmly addressing the multitude. I was told it was Jesus. This I could easily have suspected so great was the difference between Him and those who were listening to Him. His golden colored hair and beard gave to his appearance a celestial aspect. He appeared to be about 30 years of age. Never have I seen a sweeter or more serene countenance.
What a contrast between Him and His bearers with their black beards and tawny complexions! Unwilling to interrupt Him by my presence, I continued my walk but signified to my secretary to join the group and listen. Later, my secretary reported that never had he seen in the works of all the philosophers anything that compared to the teachings of Jesus. He told me that Jesus was neither seditious nor rebellious, so we extended to Him our protection. He was at liberty to act, to speak, to assemble and to address the people. This unlimited freedom provoked the Jews -- not the poor but the rich and powerful.
Later, I wrote to Jesus requesting an interview with Him at the Praetorium. He came. When the Nazarene made His appearance I was having my morning walk and as I faced Him my feet seemed fastened with an iron hand to the marble pavement and I trembled in every limb as a guilty culprit, though he was calm. For some time I stood admiring this extraordinary Man. There was nothing in Him that was repelling, nor in His character, yet I felt awed in His presence. I told Him that there was a magnetic simplicity about Him and His personality that elevated Him far above the philosophers and teachers of His day.
Now, Noble Sovereign, these are the facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth and I have taken the time to write you in detail concerning these matters. I say that such a man who could convert water into win, change death into life, disease into health; calm the stormy seas, is not guilty of any criminal offense and as others have said, we must agree -- truly this is the Son of God! Your most obedient servant, Pontius Pilate.
[Also in E. Raymond Capt, 'The Resurrection Tomb', available from Artisan Sales.]
This was a Syrian who wrote a letter to his son, Serapion, sometime after 73 A.D. He encourages him to emulate the wise men of history who died for what they believed in, such as Socrates, Pythagoras, and the wise King the Jews executed. The document is in the British Museum, and F.F. Bruce mentions this in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable.
He was a resident of Judea in the reign of Tiberius Caesar. It first appeared in the writings of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, 11th century:
There lives at this time in Judea a man of singular virtue whose name is Jesus Christ, whom the barbarians esteem as a prophet, but his followers love and adore him as the offspring of the immortal God. He calls back the dead from the graves and heals all sorts of diseases with a word or touch. He is a tall man, well-shaped, and of an amiable and reverend aspect; his hair of a color that can hardly be matched, falling into graceful curls, waving about and very agreeable crouching upon his shoulders, parted on the crown of the head, running as a stream to the front after fashion of the Nazarites.
His forehead high, large and imposing; his cheeks without spot or wrinkle, beautiful with a lovely red; his nose and mouth formed with exquisite symmetry; his beard, and of a color suitable to his hair, reaching below his chin and parted in the middle like a fork; his eyes bright blue, clear and serene.
Look innocent, dignified, manly and mature. In proportion of body most perfect, and captivating; his arms and hands delectable to behold. He rebukes with majesty, councils with mildness, His whole address whether in word or deed, being eloquent and grave. No man has seen him laugh, yet his manners are exceedingly pleasant, but he has wept frequently in the presence of men. He is temperate, modest and wise. A man for his extraordinary beauty and perfection, surpassing the children of men in every sense.
[Also in E. Raymond Capt, 'The Resurrection Tomb', available from Artisan Sales.]
JH - I admit that this one's a bit iffy.
Pharisee and Jewish historian. Writing about Ananias, a high priest mentioned in the Book of Acts in the Bible, Josephus, the most significant Jewish historian of the period wrote:
"He convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them 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 delivered them up to be stoned." (Josephus, The Antiquities 20.200)
Most scholars who have reviewed the writings of Josephus generally conclude that he makes genuine references to Jesus albeit the Testimonium Flavianum contains elements of Christian embellishment.
It’s a pity that the lily had to be gilded in this way because the original would have been sufficient to establish historicity and it is hardly necessary to expect Josephus to lend credence to claims of divinity.
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was a doer of amazing deeds, a teacher of persons who receive truth with pleasure. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah.
And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us having accused him, those who loved him from the first did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them the third day alive again, the divine prophets having spoken these things and a myriad of other marvels concerning him. And to the present the tribe of Christians, named after this person, has not disappeared.
Miami University Professor of history, Edwin M. Yamauchi, lists five main reasons why scholars on Josephus believe the Testimonium Flavianum is an authentic reference to Jesus:
1. Jesus is called "a wise man." Though the phrase is complimentary, it is less than one would expect from Christians.
2. "For he was one who wrought surprising feats" ["For he was a doer of amazing deeds"]. This is not necessarily a statement that could only have come from a Christian.
3. "He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks" is simply an observation.
4. "Those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him," conforms to Josephus' characteristic style.
5. "And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared." Most scholars would agree that the word phylon "tribe," is not a typically Christian expression.
It has also been noted by Yamauchi that a tenth century Melkite bishop of Hierapolis, named Agapius, inscribed an Arabic translation of Josephus' Testimonium Flavianum that seems to possess differences with the Greek version which may divulge the original passage. The Israeli scholar, S. Pines, observes approximately four of these differences:
1. Josephus expresses the mere humanity of Jesus.
2. Josephus refers only to Jesus' good conduct and virtue.
3. Josephus refers to the appearance of Jesus after three days as merely a "report."
4. Josephus has the qualifier "perhaps" immediately preceding "he was the Messiah."
The second reference of Jesus by Josephus is found in Antiquities 20.9.1 S200-201 where there is a more evanescent mentioning of Jesus:
He (Ananus) convened the council of judges and brought before it the brother of Jesus-the one called "Christ"-whose name was James, and certain others, accusing them of transgressing the law he delivered them up for stoning. But those of the city considered to be the most fair-minded and strict concerning the laws were offended at this and sent to the king secretly urging him to order Ananus to take such actions no longer.
The phrase "the one called 'Christ'" seems to imply an earlier reference.
Josephus discusses here the stoning of James which is not an element in any of the New Testament writings. In the New Testament, James is still alive at the time Acts concludes. This would imply that Josephus was not borrowing from Christian sources but, rather, secular sources independent of the New Testament.
Josephus refers to James as "the brother of Jesus" whereas Christians have generally referred to James as "the brother of the Lord."
The following did not quote Josephus but said that Josephus openly called Him the Christ:
Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History book 1 chapter 1 (440 A.D.)
Cassiodorus in the Three-Part History e Sozomeno (510 A.D.)
Chronicles of Alexandria p.514,526,527,584,586 (640 A.D.)
Johan. Malela Chronicles book 10 (c.850 A.D.)
Photius Codex book 48 I Codex 238, Codex 33 (c.860 A.D.)
Glycus Annal. P.234 (c.1120 A.D.)
New Testament scholar R.T. France says the following:
"Virtually all scholars are agreed that the received text is a Christian rewriting, but most are prepared to accept that in the original text a brief account of Jesus, perhaps in a less complimentary vein, stood at this point /2/. Josephus' passing mention of 'Jesus, the so-called Messiah' in Antiquities XX.200 is hard to explain without some previous notice of this Jesus, especially since Josephus elsewhere makes no reference to Christianity, nor even uses the term Christos of any other figure.
Pliny the Younger, or Plinius Secundus
He was the nephew of Pliny the Elder (a known encyclopedist). As Governor of Bithynia in northwestern Turkey around 112 A.D., he writes to emperor Trajan about his advisement on the treatment of Christians:
I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature of the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed . . .
I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished . . . They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, . . . This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths. [Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96]
If Christians assented to their Messiah "as if to a god" and honored his memorial via worship songs, then it seems that a manifested Christology about Jesus existed.
Roman historian born around 52 - 55 A.D., was the son-in-law of the former Governor of Britain, Julius Agricola. Having expressed hatred for Christians and Jews, he makes an interesting observation about Nero's persecution of the Christians. In A.D. 115, he wrote:
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. 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 Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, 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. [Annals 15.44]
Tacitus refers here to the ravishing fire of 64 A.D. and the Christians' blame for it. Three elements of note:
1. Christians were named after Christ ("Christus, from whom the name had its origin").
2. Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius ("Christus … suffered … during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of … Pontius Pilate").
3. Christianity spread from Judea to Rome en masse ("… broke out not only in Judea … but even in Rome … an immense multitude was convicted").
Lucian of Samosata, (also called Lucian the Greek)
Second century satirist, wrote about Christ,
"…the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world….Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws." [The Passing Peregrinus -also called The Death of Peregrine 11-13, quoted from Evidence That Demands a Verdict vol. 1 p.82.]
He was a Greek writer from Caria and freed slave of the Emperor Hadrian. He wrote soon after 137 A.D. that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [33 A.D.] there was "the greatest eclipse of the sun" and that "it became night in the sixth hour of the day [12:00 noon] so that star even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicea."
Roman living from approximately 70 A.D. to 160 A.D., wrote in Vita Claudius (25.4) of the tumult in the Jewish-Roman community:
Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.
Suetonius mentions the persecution of Christians in his Vita Nero (16.11-13):
Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.
Philosophers and thinkers
Kant testifies to His ideal perfection; Hegel sees in Him the union of the human and the Divine; Spinoza speaks of Him as the truest symbol of heavenly wisdom; the beauty and grandeur of His life overawe Voltaire; Napoleon I, at St. Helena, felt convinced that "Between him [Jesus] and whoever else in the world there is no possible term of comparison" (Montholon, "Récit de la Captivité de l'Empereur Napoléon").
Rousseau testifies: "If the life and death of Socrates are those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus are those of a god"; Strauss acknowledges: "He is the highest object we can possibly imagine with respect to religion, the being without whose presence in the mind perfect piety is impossible"; to Renan "The Christ of the Gospels is the most beautiful incarnation of God in the most beautiful of forms. His beauty is eternal; his reign will never end"; John Stuart Mill spoke of Jesus as "a man charged with a special, express, and unique commission from God to lead mankind to truth and virtue".
Two more snippets
Athanasius said in the Incarnation 25:3, that it is only on the cross that a man dies with his hands spread out.
Hardly conclusive but take it for what it is.
Also, Roman graffiti was found on Palatine Hill ridiculing Christians. It shows a cross with arms outstretched according to The Archaeology of the New Testament (Blaiklock) p.99.