Thursday, September 27, 2007

Jesus’ Life Outside the Bible

Gaius Cornelius TacitusBy Nathan Busenitz @

Today’s article is a continuation of our series on why we can trust the reliability of the New Testament gospels. Today we will consider an eighth reason the biblical account of Jesus’ life can be trusted.

Eighth, the main points of Jesus’ life as presented in the NT gospels accord with other non-biblical sources.

It should come as no surprise that the major events of Jesus’ life would be noted by more than just the writers of the New Testament. As Paul told Festus, speaking of King Agrippa, “The king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). The early Christians were to be witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8); hence the message about Jesus quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire.

We would expect, of course, the testimony of the early church fathers and the Christian catacombs to reflect what is taught by the New Testament gospels. And that is indeed the case. Ignatius (c. 35–107), as just one example among many, wrote of “the birth, and passion, and resurrection which took place in the time of the government of Pontius Pilate, being truly and certainly accomplished by Jesus Christ.”[1] Time and again, Ignatius affirmed the basic tenets of the New Testament gospels. For instance, in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, he wrote:

I glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church.[2]

Of note is the fact that a great number of early Christians were so convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel accounts, that they gave their lives as martyrs as a result. (Ignatius himself died as a martyr.) It is impossible to imagine they would have done so for something they knew was a fable. “The disciples’ [and by extension the early Christians’] willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. . . . Liars make poor martyrs.”[3]

Second, we would expect to find details about Jesus in Jewish literature, since the Jews were eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life and death (cf. Luke 24:18). Peter underscored the Jews’ familiarity with Jesus in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:22–23). If such momentous events actually occurred, as are found in the gospel accounts, it would follow that the Jews made mention of such things.

And they did. Jewish sources such as Josephus (37–100), the Mishna, and the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) indicate that the Jews were familiar with Jesus, His miracles, His death, and the claims regarding both His virgin birth and His resurrection. While they did not respond to these things in faith, they also never responded in a way that questioned the historicity of Jesus. Rather, their testimony only adds credibility to the reliability of the New Testament accounts. In the words of Princeton scholar Peter Schäfer, “The rabbinic sources (again, particularly the Bavli) do not refer to some vague ideas about Jesus and Christianity but they reveal knowledge—more often than not a precise knowledge—of the New Testament.”[4] In other words, the depiction of Jesus in rabbinic literature (although negative in its opinion about Jesus) accords with the picture of Jesus presented in the biblical gospels.

Ancient Roman sources, too, confirm the historical validity of the main points of Jesus’ life. Thallus (first century), Celsus (second century), Lucian of Samosata (115–200), Porphyry of Tyre (b. A.D. 233), Suetonius (c. 70–130), Pliny the Younger (c. 63–113), and others provide secular Roman testimony to the fact that Jesus really lived. The details they share about Jesus, though sometimes sparse, coincide with the New Testament gospel accounts. As New Testament scholar Gary Habermas observes, “We should realize that it is quite extraordinary that we could provide a broad outline of most of the major facts of Jesus life from ‘secular’ history alone. Such is surely significant.”[5]

As one example, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55–120) wrote about the fact that Jesus was a real historical figure and that He was put to death under Pontius Pilate. In referring to “the persons commonly called Christians,” Tacitus recounts that “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.”[6] This, of course, corresponds to the accounts given by the New Testament writers (cf. Matt. 27:2; Mark 15:15; Luke 3:1; John 18:29).

For the sake of space, we will not belabor this point much longer. However, the fact is that when we include both the biblical and non-biblical sources, “what we have concerning Jesus actually is impressive. . . . In all, at least forty-two authors, nine of them secular, mention Jesus within 150 years of his death.”[7] Moreover, the ancient non-biblical sources affirm the major tenets of Jesus’ life as told in the New Testament gospels. In the words of historian Edwin Yamauchi:

Even if we did not have the New Testament of Christian writings, we would be able to conclude from such non-Christian writings as Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger that: (1) Jesus was a Jewish teacher; (2) many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; (3) he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; (4) he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; (5) despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by A.D. 64; (6) all kinds of people from the cities and countryside—men and women, slave and free—worshipped him as God by the beginning of the second century.[8]

Thus, the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is collaborated by a veritable cloud of non-biblical witnesses.

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[1] Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 11 (shorter recension). We would follow the opinion of William R. Schoedel, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3:384-385, who contends that the shorter (middle) recension of Ignatius most accurately reflects his original letters.

[2] Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 1. Shorter recension.

[3] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 59.

[4] Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 2007), 122.

[5] Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1996), 224.

[6] Annals XV, 44; cited from Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 120-21.

[7] Habermas and Licona, 127.

[8] Edwin Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 221.

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