Is Jesus Mentioned Outside the Bible?

Dr. Bill Creasy

The synagogue where Jesus taught

The synagogue where Jesus taught

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.

Reading Scripture, A Personal Journey

Dr. Bill Creasy

Teaching at Karnak Temple.JPG

When I began my Ph.D. studies at UCLA in 1977, I focused on late medieval English literature, particularly the 1450-1550 period.  It is a fascinating era that introduced profound changes, not only in art and literature, but also in Western civilization as a whole. 

The decade of the 1450s saw the introduction of the movable-type printing press by Johannes Guttenberg, fundamentally changing the way society disseminates information. Prior to this time, written works were hand-copied by scribes, a lengthy, tedious and expensive process; after the 1450s, written works could be printed in hundreds of copies in a matter of days for relatively little cost.  By the 1590s, William Caxton introduced printing into England, and his successors, such as Wynkyn de Worde and Richard Pynson, produced a flood of works in his wake.

The Bible was among the most popular books issued by the early printers.  As demand increased and sales grew, calls for new translations of the Bible into common English emerged, generating William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English (1525-26) and his translation of the Pentateuch (1530) and Jonah (1531). A quick succession of translations followed Tyndale—Miles Coverdale’s (1535), John Rogers’ (1537), Thomas Cranmer’s “Great Bible” (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishop’s Bible (1568)—ultimately culminating in the King James Bible of 1611, the translation that remained “the gold standard” until the 1950s.

The ready availability of Bible translations in English was one of the driving forces behind the Reformation, of course, but the translations also had a profound effect on the development of English prose style.  If you read a Bible translation in English prior to 1450 (such as John Wycliffe’s), it sounds like Chaucer; if you read one written after 1550 (such as the Geneva Bible), it sounds like Shakespeare; the same holds true for non-biblical literature (compare Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Artur, published by William Caxton in 1485 with Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Gouernour in 1531).  Something huge happens to English prose style during that brief but very fruitful one hundred years, and the Bible stands at the very center of it.

Such was the focus of my Ph.D. studies.

During that time I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the Bible, and I encountered Northrop Frye’s, The Great Code (1981).  Frye, a professor of literature at the University of Toronto, was one of the era’s greatest literary critics, who burst on the scene with the publication of his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), a brilliant study of William Blake’s prophetic poetry, and whose lasting international reputation was cemented with Anatomy of Criticism (1957), one of the most important works of literary criticism written in the twentieth century.  In The Great Code, Frye argues that although many different people wrote the Bible over a period of more than 1,500 years, and although it passed through the hands of many editors and redactors, the Bible—as we have experienced it in the Christian canon across 2,000 years of Western civilization—is a unified literary work.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end; it employs a consistent set of metaphors, similies and other literary devices; and it draws upon a consistent set of symbols, such as light, dark, water, fire, oil, and so on.

To me, Frye’s statement was an epiphany.  Prior to reading The Great Code, I had viewed the Bible as simply an anthology of Jewish and Christian literature, rather loosely stitched together, a collection of independent myths, histories, poetry, exordia, epistles and letters, useful for “doing” theology or for rooting out and applying principles for living.  That’s basically what I had been taught while growing up and what I had experienced in the Christian community as an adult.

With this new literary paradigm for reading Scripture, my head spun with the possibilities.  I quickly discovered Robert Alter’s, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) as well as Meir Sternberg’s, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (1985).  I devoured them, and they deepened my understanding of Scripture and this new approach to reading it.  At the same time, the Society of Biblical Literature, had began a daring scholarly publication, Semeia: an Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism (1974-2002) that focused on new and emergent approaches to biblical scholarship, a journal that welcomed a literary approach to Scripture. 

In 1985 I found myself on the cutting edge of biblical scholarship.  It was a very exciting time.

When I began teaching “The English Bible as Literature” at UCLA as a full-time faculty member, I designed the course to reflect this literary approach to Scripture, and when I formed Logos Bible Study and took the course into the broader community, it enabled me to bridge denominational divides and introduce Scripture in a new way to our Logos students, a way that transcends denominational differences, that brings the biblical characters to life, that adds color, tone and texture to the narrative, and that creates an unforgettable story.

There are many approaches to reading the Bible, and they all offer important insights into the text.  The historical-critical method focuses on the historical and cultural backgrounds of the text; the form-critical method focuses on how a story came to be pieced together, drawing on oral and written traditions; the textual method focuses on how an individual text came to be written down and physically transmitted through time; and the theological method focuses on the deeper meaning of Scripture, within the context of a developing theology.  And there are many more, each offering its own important insights into Scripture.

I have been teaching Scripture for a long time now, and I’ve learned that regardless of the approach, Scripture studies are best viewed as complimentary, not competitive.  I encourage you to explore many different approaches to Scripture and to listen to many different teachers from other perspectives.  There are very fine teachers out there who take a fundamentally different approach to Scripture than I do, and they are well worth listening to. 

Reading Scripture from a literary perspective is only one way of approaching the text, but it is my way, and I think it has yielded superb results in creating “educated readers of Scripture” and in bringing people into an intimate, personal relationship with Christ and drawing them deeper into an authentic life of faith.  It has been a terrific journey for me and for tens of thousands of Logos students over the past thirty years.

And what more can you ask from a Scripture study than that?