Dr. Bill Creasy
The Gospels give us a great deal of information about Jesus, but I’m often asked if there is any mention of Jesus outside of the Bible. Is there any independent documentation that refers to Jesus in the first few hundred years of the Church? The answer is: very little.
During the first century after Jesus’ death, the world took little notice of what it considered to be a minor Jewish sect. For the most part, Jewish and Hellenistic writers completely ignored both Jesus and Christianity. Here is a representative selection of the little that does exist.
The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37-95 A.D.) rather thoroughly describes the Jewish sects in first-century Palestine. He mentions Jesus in Jewish Antiquities (18.3.3):
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
A few pages later, Josephus mentions John the Baptist and his death under Herod (18.5.2), but he says nothing of the connection between John and Jesus. He mentions Jesus in passing again (20.9.1) when he mistakenly notes that the high priest Ananius summoned the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council…
and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
The Talmud contains only a few references to Jesus (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, b; 103a; 106b; 107b), though later censors may have removed others. The ones that do remain are very brief and often veiled. If we did not know of Jesus from the New Testament, we would probably not recognize the allusions to him in the Talmud.
Suetonius’ Life of Claudius (early 2nd century) has one line describing the emperor Claudius’ handling of foreign people (25.4): "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."
Acts 18: 2 picks up the story. In Corinth Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla, a Jewish couple, who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius.
A longer account shows up in Tacitus’ Annals (early 2nd century). He recounts the great fire in Rome under Nero (XXV.44.2-8):
Nero fastened the guilt and afflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom their 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 deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out, not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the city, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.
The earliest non-biblical report about the Christians comes from Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia (c. 112 A.D.) He isn’t quite sure how to deal with the Christians, so he writes to the emperor Trajan for advice (Letters 10.96). He had tortured a few Christians, and he passes on the information he received:
They maintained, moreover, that the amount of their fault or error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as to a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, it was their custom to depart, and to meet again to take food, but ordinary, harmless food . . .. I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition.
A final account of the Christian movement before the end of the second century comes from the satirist Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 120-180). In his Passing of Peregrinus he slams Peregrinus—the very model of the conman. Among those duped by Peregrinus was a group of Christians (Peregrinus 11-13):
It was then he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be—in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books, and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.
Then at length Protus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset in his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamored of. Well, when he had been imprisoned, the Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him. Then, as this was impossible, every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way, but with assiduity; . . . people even came from the cities of Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succor and defend and encourage the hero. They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is undertaken; for in no time at all, they lavish their all. So it was, then, in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it. The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death, and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping the crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally and without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster able to profit by occasions comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing on simple folk.
As we all know, there are still quite a few Christian charlatans around today, too!
It is not surprising there is so little documentation about Jesus outside of the Bible. Christianity is born in the eastern backwaters of the Roman Empire, a minor sect within Judaism, which itself was a very minor religion in the Roman Empire. Although no precise figures survive, there were certainly fewer than 100,000 Christians by A.D. 100; 200,000 by A.D. 200; and around 6 million by A.D. 300, out of a total population of around 60 million, roughly 10% of the Roman Empire. That changes dramatically in the fourth century. In A.D. 313 Constantine signs the Edict of Milan, officially tolerating Christianity; on 27 February A.D. 380 Theodosius I declares Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire; and by A.D. 400 roughly 90% of the Empire claims to be Christian. The fourth century is the single most important century in Christian history, except for those years when Jesus walked among us.
Although history barely notices Jesus in the early days, he becomes the single most important person who ever lived, shaping 2,000 years of western culture and history and the lives of countless millions of people.