Historical references to Jesus outside the gospels

  • Question 131, from Geraint, United Kingdom

    What historical accounts exist of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, outside of Christian writings?

    The simple answer to this question is ‘not many’. In fact, the first definite references to Jesus Christ are made in connection with his followers, and are usually negative.

    The Jewish historian Josephus made probably the first recorded reference to Jesus in the book Antiquities of the Jews. In Book 20 of Antiquities, he relates the story of the martyrdom of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. From the historical context given by Josephus, it can be deduced that James’ martyrdom took place in about 62AD. (James was the leader of the Jerusalem church after Peter fled following his dramatic exit from prison in Acts chapter 12, verses 1-19. James is the only leader of the Jerusalem church named in Acts chapter 21, verse 18.)

    There has been some dispute over whether the phrase ‘who was called Christ’ was added into Josephus’ work at a later date. It certainly seems odd that a Jewish historian would use the Greek word for Messiah. It may be a simple factual reference to some people hailing Jesus as the Christ/Messiah, or it could have a slightly deeper meaning.

    Josephus had ‘swapped sides’ at some point before he wrote this, having been captured by the Romans, and now saw himself as a Roman. It may be that his reference to Jesus as a messiah, indicates his own loss of faith in the Jewish idea of a coming saviour. Josephus may be referring to Jesus as the Christ/Messiah to indicate that the hope for a messiah had been fulfilled, but had, in his opinion, failed.

    There is also a reference to Jesus in Book 18 of Antiquities:

    “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.”

    For a number of reasons, including the fact this passage is first quoted by a Christian writer called Eusebius, many commentators believe this is a later addition to the text. However, as previously noted, the throwaway reference to Jesus being “the Christ” may indicate Josephus’ own disappointment with the Jewish messianic hope.

    There are also several references to Christians – usually in the context of troublemakers – in Roman historians within the first couple of centuries. Seutonius (c.70 – 150AD) notes that Jews who “made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” were expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius in about 50AD.

    Both Seutonius and Tacitus (c.69 – 117AD) record the brutal persecution of Christians by Nero in AD64. Although they wrote some time after the events, their recording of Christian persecution is generally accepted as evidence of a Christian community in Rome very soon after the death of Jesus.

    There are a large number of Christian writings, which can be reasonably reliably dated to the last few decades of the first century (for example, letters written by Clement, an early leader of the church in Rome). In the early years of the second century, about 112AD, the governor of Bythinia, Pliny, wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan asking what he should do about the Christians in the area. Trajan’s reply instructs Pliny not to actively persecute Christians, but if they are causing trouble, and won’t recant their faith, to have them executed.

    Within the next century there are literally hundreds of references to Jesus Christ, or Christianity in ‘Gnostic Gospels’, official correspondence, philosophical writings, and even graffiti. However, most of these references are not based on any genuine historical accounts of Jesus, except maybe for a few sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. They do, however, indicate that large numbers of people believed in Jesus as a real, historical person, who was the Son of God and rose from the dead.

    The references in this article to Book 20 of Antiquities of the Jews, Seutonius, Tacitus and Pliny can be found inA New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to A.D.337 by James Stevenson (Ed) and W.H.C. Frend (Ed), published by SPCK, 2nd revised edition 1987. The long reference to Jesus in Book 18 of Antiquities is not found in A New Eusebius. Several collections of Josephus’ work include this quotation.

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