Defending Christianity in a debate with somebody who isn’t a follower of Jesus is no easy task. Those of us who’ve surrendered our lives to Him and can sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in our heart and mind know explaining what it all means to a non-believer can be a frustrating experience. They don’t know what we know. It’s especially hard when the person you’re talking to thinks they know everything. In my last few essays I’ve covered why we can trust the Gospel writers. I’ve shown it’s been firmly established when they wrote their biographies of Jesus. I’ve presented proof the New Testament texts have been faithfully preserved over the centuries and what we Christians call God’s Holy Word is still the “real deal.” But, inevitably, all the evidence this side of heaven will never sway or appease a hardcore skeptic whose mind hasn’t been opened yet. They’ll claim we’re spewing out nothing more than empty tautology. That’s not a word that pops up in the general vernacular much but we’re inundated by it all the time. Webster’s defines it as “needless repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, etc.” and cunning politicians in particular have the art mastered. As it pertains to explaining the Christian faith a critic will protest that we’re engaging in tautology when we rely only on the Bible to justify our trust in Jesus. They’ll accuse us of basically chirping the age-old Sunday school refrain, “…for the Bible tells me so” or hiding behind the banal cliché, “It is what it is.” They’ll insist we set the Scriptures aside and present compelling evidence to prove Jesus even existed using non-biblical, unbiased sources. They’ll want to know if there’s any shred of corroborative evidence backing up the eyewitness accounts of the New Testament authors.
The answer is yes, and there’s more than a few flimsy shreds. Now, the Gospels will always be the unparalleled authority when it comes to the truth about who Christ is and why He came. Period. Outside sources don’t add to the truth regarding Jesus but they still possess great value as corroborative evidence. The most important sources are the ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus because neither of them were Christians. They, like so many of their contemporaries, didn’t believe. They weren’t the exception, they were the rule. The Gospels confirm that many who heard Jesus preach – even members of His own family – thought He was out of His gourd. (Yet there’s hardly a man or woman on this planet that isn’t aware of His unmatched influence on civilization while the celebrities of His day like Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate and others are minor footnotes in history. Just sayin’…) So the fact that Josephus and Tacitus were anything but followers of Christ means they were utterly unconcerned with broadcasting the “Good News” about the saving grace of the promised Messiah.
Josephus was a very important Jewish historian. Born in the year 37 A.D., not long after our Lord ascended to the right hand of the Father, he finished most of his four works prior to the end of the 1st century. He participated in the Jewish-Roman conflict that raged between 66 and 74 A.D. but chose to surrender to the Roman commander Vespasian rather than commit suicide as many of his compatriots did. He felt it was God’s will he survive and become a defender of the Romans. As one can surmise, this didn’t exactly endear him to his countrymen. But he was a priest (a Pharisee to be precise) so he knew what he was talking about when he wrote his ambitious The Antiquities, a history of the Jewish race since Creation. In his narrative he described how a high priest by the name of Ananias reacted to the death of the Roman governor Festus (he’s mentioned in the New Testament) by having James killed. He wrote, “Ananias convened a meeting and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned” If this was some kind of fictitious “addition” to Josephus’ account inserted by Christians down the line you’d think they would’ve expanded upon James’ faithfulness to the cause so there’s no obvious sign of wholesale tampering. The important thing to note is that Josephus confirms there was a Jesus and a contingent of folks considered Him to be the Christ, which means “the Anointed One” or “Messiah.”
On top of that he said even more about Jesus in his Tesimonium Flavianum. He wrote, “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 Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among 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 prophesized these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” It shouldn’t come as a shock to the reader that there’s been a lot of controversy generated over the years concerning this passage. Yet the majority of both Jewish and Christian scholars have come to accept it as authentic with the exception of a few interpolations. That means early Christian copyists no doubt “padded the text” here and there. The lines, “if one indeed ought to call him a man” and “He was the Christ” and “on the third day he appeared to them restored to life” stick out because they don’t jive with the historian’s objective style. However, the consensus agrees that Josephus did admit Jesus was a wise man and, in the previous quote, said He was called the Christ. Was the text fooled with? It appears so. Does it render Josephus unreliable as an independent source of info? Not at all. His account confirms that Jesus was the martyred founder of the church in Jerusalem and that He was an intelligent, respected teacher who succeeded in establishing a sizeable, dedicated following notwithstanding He’d been convicted as a criminal and sentenced to suffer crucifixion by Pilate at the urging of many high-ranking Jewish leaders.
A skeptic might argue that if Josephus was so darn objective he would’ve said a whole lot more about a charismatic figure like the Nazarene who managed to stir up the neighborhood so much. But Josephus was focused primarily on political matters and the Jews’ overall struggle with Roman occupation so Jesus didn’t warrant much more than a side note in his estimation. Jesus wasn’t a reckless Zealot out to lead a rebellion against Rome. On the contrary, He didn’t even object to Israelites paying taxes to Caesar! What Josephus’s reporting does do is unintentionally lend credence to the fact that Jesus Christ isn’t some fabricated myth (as some have suggested) but a true-to-life historical figure. Because of archaeological finds discovered over the centuries Josephus’ accounts of the Jewish War have proved to be remarkably accurate so his even mentioning Jesus is quite significant.
Then there’s Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian who lived from 57 to around 117 A.D. The importance of his referencing Jesus in his writings can’t be overstated. He recorded in 115 that Nero had persecuted the Christians ruthlessly, blaming them as being the cause of the great fire that gutted Rome in 64 A.D. Tacitus wrote, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the 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 most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome… Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.” So, despite his labeling Christianity a “mischievous superstition” Tacitus, at the same time, is confirming there was in existence an ever-growing movement based on a man who was executed by the state in the most horrible way possible. The only explanation for why Christianity had become so difficult to suppress is that its adherents strongly believed Jesus had defeated death and walked out of His tomb alive again. Tacitus called them not a small sect but an “immense multitude” consisting of individuals who were willing to be killed rather than deny their Savior. In Tacitus’ account there’s nothing to indicate that he for a moment thought Jesus Christ was some kind of made-up character.
Yet another Roman, known as Pliny the Younger, brought up Christianity in his personal correspondence with Emperor Trajan. His letters managed to survive the ages intact. He was at one time the governor of Bithynia in northwestern Turkey. (He was also the nephew of Pliny the Elder, the acclaimed encyclopedist who perished when Mt. Vesuvius exploded in 79 A.D.) In one missive he spoke of the Christians he’d arrested. He wrote, “I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished… They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery… This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” Slurs aside, this indicates (since it dates back to the year 111) a vast number of people were openly worshiping Jesus as God regardless of the threat of execution for doing so. Hard to imagine they’d do that for a cruel hoax built solely on blind faith.
There’s also outside corroboration for the extraordinary occurrence of the earth going dark while Jesus hung on the cross. A momentously strange event like that surely wouldn’t go unmentioned and it turns out it didn’t. A historian named Thallus assembled a record in 52 A.D. about what had gone on in the eastern Mediterranean since the Trojan War. Alas, his work has been lost but one Julius Africanus quoted directly from Thallus’ tome in 221wherein he specifically referenced the disturbing occasion when darkness engulfed the world. Africanus wrote, “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably, as it seems to me.” Unreasonably because astronomers knew even then that a naturally-occurring eclipse wasn’t the cause. Paul Maier, in his extensively-researched book Pontius Pilate, footnoted this: “This phenomenon, evidently, was visible in Rome, Athens, and other Mediterranean cities. According to Tertullian… it was a ‘cosmic’ or ‘world event.’ Phlegon, a Greek author from Caria writing a chronology soon after 137 A.D., reported that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., 33 A.D.) there was ‘the greatest eclipse of the sun’ and that ‘it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.” Phlegon, a non-Christian, was corroborating that some kind of blackout occurred around the time Jesus was expiring on Calvary Hill and the only explanation they could come up with was an unpredicted solar eclipse.
In a side note, Maier’s biography also effectively dispels the notion that Pilate was too haughty and prideful to have been coerced into condemning an innocent man by a rowdy mob of Jews. Maier pointed out that Pilate’s protector/patron was Sejanus. Sejanus fell from power in 31 A.D. when he was accused of plotting against the emperor. His drastic demotion would’ve severely weakened Pilate’s political position, making him susceptible to kowtowing (albeit begrudgingly) to the Jewish leaders’ demands in order to maintain order in Judea. This portrait of Pilate’s paranoid frame of mind comfortably matches up with the biblical description.
The Talmud, an important Jewish work completed about 500 A.D. incorporating parts of the Mishnah, an earlier work written circa 200 A.D., mentions Jesus, too. While neither understandably don’t say anything complimentary about Him they do acknowledge his existence. M. Wilcox wrote, “The Jewish traditional literature, although it mentions Jesus only quite sparingly (and must in any case be used with caution), supports the gospel claim that he was a healer and miracle-worker, even though it ascribes these activities to sorcery. In addition, it preserves the recollection that he was a teacher, that he had disciples, and that at least in the earlier Rabbinic period not all of the sages had finally made up their minds that he was a ‘heretic’ or a ‘deceiver.’”
One thing the world’s older religions have in common is this: with most of them it wasn’t until a number of generations had passed that its practitioners put things about it into writing. The Gathas of Zoroaster from around 1,000 B.C. are recognized as genuine but most of that religion’s scriptures weren’t written down until after over 1,300 years elapsed. Plus the most popular biography of Zoroaster in Parsi didn’t come about until 1278 A.D. The sayings of Buddha, who lived circa 600 B.C., weren’t recorded for posterity until after the Christian era and the first biography didn’t appear until somewhere around 100 A.D. The Koran was written by Muhammad before his death in 632 A.D. but his official biography wasn’t published until more than a century later in 767. What all this means is that we have better historical documentation for Jesus than we have for the founder of any other ancient religion. Even if one takes the Holy Bible out of the equation we’d have available (thanks to impartial sources like Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger) an impressive amount of historical evidence that would serve to provide a fundamental outline of Jesus’ time on earth. We’d know he was a Jewish teacher and that many believed he could heal the sick and exorcise demons. We’d know lots of folks thought He was the Messiah but that the Jewish leaders vehemently disagreed and considered Him dangerous. We’d know Pilate condemned Him to die on a cross but, despite Jesus’s apparent demise, His followers were convinced He’d subsequently defeated the grave and had been resurrected by the Heavenly Father. We’d know that the “Good News” about His sacrificial atonement for sins spread like wildfire and by 64 A.D. there were throngs of disciples in Rome and elsewhere – men, women, slaves and otherwise – who considered Him God.
Don’t forget that Paul never met Jesus in the flesh and yet, using the testimonies gleaned firsthand from the Apostles he studied under, he provided (via his letters) future generations with priceless information about Christ that predates even the writing of the four Gospels. The fact that Paul came from a monotheistic, orthodox and very intolerant Jewish background and ended up being transformed into history’s foremost Christian missionary is astounding and, to quote Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “…undermines a popular theory that the deity of Christ was later imported into Christianity by Gentile beliefs. It’s just not so. Even Paul at this very early date was worshiping Jesus as God.” In addition we have volumes of writings by the “apostolic fathers” (like the Epistles of Ignatius and Clement of Rome to name but a few) that further present a clear, compelling portrait of the unique Son of God from outside the pages of the Bible. Look, you don’t have to take my word for any of this. There are hundreds of books by respected scholars who’ve devoted their entire lives to uncovering, investigating and verifying undisputable facts concerning this subject of New Testament corroboration. Check ‘em out.