There are three main sources of information about the life of Jesus. The one most are familiar with is the Christian writings, that is the Bible. Another source of information is from Christian writings that are not a part of the Bible. These writings, although not inspired, help us to understand what Christians were thinking, what they believed and what they practiced. There are many examples of these such as The Didache and The Epistle of Barnabas. A third group of writers would be those who were not Christians but referred to Jesus in their writings. These are usually found in the writings of historians who were reflecting on events that had occurred. Others are politicians and government workers sharing the records of their government, in this case, mostly the Roman Empire. There are also a few writings of religious leaders, often Jews, that provide some perspective on who Jesus was.
In this study, I will be looking at those who are a part of the third group: non-Christians. I will look at the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus and The Babylonian Talmud. This material will get rather detailed, but stick with me. I believe you will find the information interesting and faith-building.
Tacitus was a senator and historian who was uniquely qualified in that he had access to the Roman Senate records. He wrote THE ANNALS (16 books) covering the Roman Empire from Tiberius (14 A.D.) to the end of the reign of Nero (68 A.D.) and THE HISTORIES (14 books) covering the Roman Empire from the death of Nero (68 A.D.) to the death of Domitian (96 A.D.). In THE ANNALS, Tacitus says, “Nero fastened the guilt . . . 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 . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome . . .” (Tacitus, THE ANNALS 15.44)
What do we learn from Tacitus? First, that there was a man named “Christus” (Latin) or “Christ” (Greek). This Christ suffered “the extreme penalty (crucifixion) during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 A.D.) and at the hands of Pontius Pilatus (26-36 A.D.). The followers of Christ “broke out” in Judea and had spread all the way to Rome. Compare this statement to Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Caius Suetonius was the official historian of the Roman Empire during the reign of both Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) and Hadrian (117-138 AD). Suetonius wrote a book entitled THE LIVES OF THE FIRST TWELVE CAESARS. In the section on the Emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54) Suetonius referred to the Christians causing disturbances in Rome that led to their being banished from the city. Suetonius wrote concerning Claudius: “He banished the Jews from Rome, who were continually making disturbances, Christus being their leader.” – Life of Claudius 25:4.
This statement confirms what Luke wrote in Acts 18:2 (which took place in 49 A.D.) “And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” It also fits Luke’s description of what happened as Paul talked to the Jews about Jesus in Acts 28:23-25 “From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. And disagreeing among themselves, they departed.”
Another quote from Suetonius regarding Christians during the time of Nero said: Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect given to a new and magical religious belief. LIVES OF THE CEASARS 26.2.
What do we learn from Suetonius? First, he confirms the existence and leadership of Christ. Secondly, he confirms that those who were Christians were new, different from the Jews in general, a group with whom his readers were familiar. His reference to the “magical” probably had reference to miracles being performed by the Christians.
Jesus in History (Part 2)
You may have heard of Josephus, the Jewish Historian who wrote toward the end of the first century (completed 93 AD) reflecting on the accepted thought of the time regarding Jesus. He wrote: 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. Josephus, ANTIQUITIES 18.63-64.
A second quote from Josephus: Festus was now dead, and Albinus was upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. Josephus, ANTIQUITIES 20.9,1.
What does one learn from Josephus? First, that there was a man named Jesus – in both quotes he is referred to as a real, live person.
This assertion was followed by a series of statements such as Jesus performed works that could be called “wonderful,” he was a teacher, his followers were both Jews and Gentiles, that he was crucified by Pilate as a result of “principal men among us” (these would be the Sanhedrin, Scribes and Pharisees), his followers did not forsake him because he appeared to them after three days and that he had a brother named James.
In the interest of full disclosure, some believe that the above statement was “doctored” by someone after Josephus. No matter, the message is still a strong one.
The fourth and final quotation that I wish to share with you is that of The Babylonian Talmud. It is a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings compiled between approximately 70 and 200 A.D. One quote is: “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald . . . cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.” THE BABYALONIAN TALMUD, Vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a.
What do we learn from the Babylonian Talmud? Again we have confirmed that there was a man named “Yeshu” (Hebrew for Jesus). It states that Jesus was hanged. You observe, “But Jesus wasn’t hanged, he was crucified.” That is correct but the terminology of hanged is familiar for crucified. For example, Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” Also, in Luke 23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” The crucifixion took place “on the eve of Passover.”
We also learn that for a period of time before the crucifixion the Jews were planning to stone him to death because of (1) Sorcery – they didn’t deny that Jesus performed miracles – they disagreed about the source of his power (see Matthew 12:24) and (2) Leading the people into apostasy. This is consistent with what Luke records in Luke 23:2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” Also, in Luke 23:5 But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”
You say, “But wait, they are talking about stoning Jesus, but the Bible says he was crucified.” To gain some perspective, stoning was the usual Jewish punishment for serious crimes. Consider that was going to be the punishment for the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Several times his enemies did attempt to kill him with stones:
* John 8:59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
* John 10:31-33 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”
* John 11:8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”
But after they had held their kangaroo court they didn’t want to kill Jesus themselves because it would have defiled them for the Passover, so they turned him over to the Roman governor, Pilate, who used the state of the art Roman method which was crucifixion.
Why did this happen? John describes for us: Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die. (John 18:31-32). In other words, this fulfilled what Jesus had said in John 12:32-33 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. Jesus was emphatic about this: I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again (John 10:17-18).
Jesus in History (Part 3)
In the previous articles, we have quoted from sources such as historians, politicians and Jewish religious leaders who were not Christians, yet attested to the authenticity of Jesus Christ. One important thing to keep in mind is that there is no credible source who denies the fact that Jesus was a real person. The Jews denied Jesus’ claims of being the Son of God, a prophet, etc. but nowhere do you find any first century Jew saying that Jesus did not exist. The Romans considered Christians to be a subset of the Jewish community and considered it one more uprising by the Jews with which they had to deal. To them he was an agitator, an instigator of troubles, a source of rioting BUT they never denied that Jesus was a real, live, historical person.
So as we review these first century writings, what do they say about Jesus Christ?
* There was a real man named Jesus Christ
* He had a brother named James
* He performed works that could be called “wonderful”
* He was a teacher
* He was the leader of a group that contained both Jews and Gentiles
* The Jewish leaders opposed him because they counted his miracles as sorcery and accused him of leading the people into apostasy
* The Jews were looking for a way to stone him to death
* He suffered “the extreme penalty” of crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of Pontius Pilate as a result of “principal men” among the Jews
* He was crucified “on the eve of The Passover”
* His followers did not forsake him after his crucifixion because he was seen by them
* His followers became a new and separate group from the Jews in general
* They began in Judea and rapidly spread all the way to Rome
* There is no denying Jesus Christ lived, taught and made claims about himself
The question is not, “Did Jesus really exist?” There are modern day people who deny that Jesus ever lived but no serious, honest scholar can deny his existence. And neither can you! But rather you must answer the question, “What are you going to believe about Jesus?”
* John 10:10 I came that they may have life and have it abundantly
* John 12:32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to me
* John 14:6 I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me
* John 14:9 Whoever has seen me has seen the Father
* John 14:11 I am in the Father and the Father is in me
THERE IS NO DENYING THAT JESUS WAS A REAL PERSON! SO YOU MUST DECIDE WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH HIM?
Are you going to become one of those that says Jesus didn’t exist or is unimportant? OR Are you going to accept him as The Living God who came to earth to save you? Your answer to these questions will determine your eternal destiny, so please consider your options and make a good decision today!
* Important or not important?
* Imposter or savior?
* Obey or disobey?
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