One of the more popular accusations brought against Biblical Christianity is that there are no historical sources outside of the Bible that confirm the truth of the Biblical story of Jesus of Nazareth. Many people simply deny the accuracy of the New Testament in details of the life of Jesus, but appreciate the “main ideas.” Others boldly deny that He existed at all. But, is the Bible the only place we find the story of Jesus, or are there sources outside of the Bible to back up what the Bible says.
In other words, besides the Bible, who says Jesus existed?
A more specific question is, are there sources outside of the Bible that give historical evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth? The answer is a resounding yes. We know of twelve such historical sources. Not only are these sources all non-Christian, and in most cases anti-Christian, they are all dated within a lifetime away from Jesus. These sources consist of historians, leaders in government and official documents. Here is a quick list:
- Cornelius Tacitus
- Flavius Josephus
- Pliny the Younger
- the Babylonian Talmud
- Toledoth Jesu
- Mara Bar-Serapion
I would like discuss what each of these sources have to say, but for sake of time (and attention span) I will save that for another post. For now, here is a summary of what these historical witness show us:
- Every witness confirms that a man named Jesus actually existed, most by actually refering to Jesus, only two by mentioning those who followed Jesus.
- Two witnesses explicitly state that Jesus was considered an abnormally virtuous man.
- Six of the witnesses explicitly state that Jesus was worshiped by His followers.
- Seven of the witnesses explicitly state that Jesus had certain disciples that took preeminence as leaders of His other followers (The 12 Apostles, perhaps?).
- Four of the witnesses mention that Jesus was a renowned teacher.
- Seven of the witnesses refer to the fact that Jesus was crucified. Only one of those seven were by inference.
- Seven of the witnesses refer to the discovery of an empty tomb. Three of those are very specific.
- Two of the witnesses explicitly refer to Jesus’ followers’ belief in His resurrection.
- Six of the witnesses explicitly refer to the rapid spread of Christian belief.
- Seven of the witnesses explicitly refer to the persecution that Jesus’ followers faced because of their belief.
All twelve of these witnesses confirm the Biblical record of Jesus and His followers.
So why are these twelve so important? To appreciate their importance more fully, three things must be understood about these sources.
The Time Span
First, they are all confirmed to have been written within 150 years of the ministry of Jesus. Some of the people responsible for the documents probably lived at the same time as Jesus! Though 150 years may seem like a long time for us, we can put things into perspective by comparing the to records of other religion-starting leaders.
Although the Gathas of Zoroaster have been authenticated to date back to 1200 BC, most of the Zoroastrian scriptures were not put into writing until after the third century AD. That’s a span of over 1,500 years. The first biography written about Zoroaster was written in AD 1278. That’s a span of over 2,200 years.
Buddha is believed to have lived in the sixth century BC. However, the Buddhist scriptures were not put into writing until after Christianity took hold as a religion. That’s a span of about 800 years. The first biography of Buddha was written in the first century AD. That’s another span of about 800 years.
We have the sayings of Muhammad in the Koran, but his first biography was not written until a full century later.
By comparison, all of the New Testament was completed in less than 70 years after the life of Jesus. As for these extra-biblical sources, Thallus wrote of Jesus within 20 years of His crucifixion! The very latest of the twelve sources, Mara Bar-Serapion, stretches the time period to within 150 years.
The Number of Sources
Next, twelve doesn’t seem like that many, considering how big of a deal Jesus became. One would think that more would have been written outside of the Biblical record. However, when you consider the fact that Tiberius Caesar, the Roman Emperor of Jesus’ day, is only mentioned in nine other places outside of the Bible within 150 years of his lifetime. So, if twelve sources are not enough to prove Jesus existed, Tiberius Caesar, Emeror of Rome, is deffinitely a myth!
The reality is, this Jewish Teacher and His followers got more coverage than an Emperor.
The Nature of the Sources
The final thing to understand about the twelve sources is that their record is secular in nature, and that they are all markedly anti-Christian.
In the field of law enforcement, a good witness is priceless. There are, however, types of witnesses whose testimony is more telling than others. For example, there are “friendly” witnesses who will likely want to “help out” the one on trial. These, of course, are not very valuable. Then, there are “impartial” witnesses. These are strong witnesses because they have no connection to the person on trial and therefore no reason to want to help them out or hurt the one on trial. Finally, there are “hostile” witnesses. These are obviously opposed to the defendant. If a hostile witness admits to anything good about the accused, or if they testify to the truthfullness of the defendant’s story, this will carry the most weight with any jury.
All of the twelve sources, falling under the “hostile” category, offer a most valuable testimony. The wealth of historical corroboration is undeniable.
In conclusion, it is obvious from both this evidence and other later writings on the subject that not even Jesus’ enemies thought to challenge what we see fully in the New Testament until centuries after His death. The fact is, with the confirmation of these twelve non-Christian sources, there is no way we can challenge Jesus’ existence.