Many people today are convinced that the early Christians made up the story of Jesus Christ in order to back up the faith and grow the religion. This raises some serious questions.
- Does history stand behind our claim about who Jesus really was?
- The Bible is often ignored as a “biased” source in this debate. Are there any early non-Christian sources that mention Jesus?
Prior to digging deeper into the literary sources, a few things should be noted. There are three types of sources – primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary sources are direct sources, such as autobiographies. Secondary sources are indirect sources, such as citations and writings of others. Tertiary sources are more indirect sources, such as citing another citation. Therefore, one does not have to write about himself in order for us to know about his life. Many great historical figures, who are well-known in history such as Alexander the Great and Socrates did not write about themselves.
Something that marks Christianity is that it is based on historical evidence. Paul testifies of this, saying ‘’If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty’’ (1 Cor 15:14). In that spirit, let us look at some early non-Christian sources, from authors who had no benefit in writing about Jesus as they did not acknowledge Him as God. These authors were writing objectively about events that had happened.
1 – Flavius Josephus (2nd cent. AD)
Flavius Josephus was one of the most prominent Jewish historians, and despite him being a Jew, his works as a historian are quite valuable as he reported historic events from an objective point of view. Josephus mentioned Christ twice, which is quite interesting considering that he was a Jewish historian. He did not have any benefit from writing about Christ. Many textual critics mentioned that some elements of his quotes about Christ are later additions made by Christians. Yet even if we disregard these additions, his writings still support the historicity of Christ. These passages are also cited in the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 340).
- The first citation says that Christ was a wise man, a doer of wonders and that He attracted numerous people to Himself. Further, it says that Pilate punished him, yet His loved ones did not leave Him and that these people are called Christians.
Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3 
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.
- The second citation about Christ is about how the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, punished James the brother of Jesus who was called Christ.
Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 1 
AND now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.
2 – Cornelius Tacitus (2nd cent. AD)
Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who was also involved in the Roman Senate and stood out for his wisdom and political discussions.
- Tacitus mentioned Christ once, in a text on the fire in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero. He mentioned that the followers of Christ, called Christians, were severely punished, and even received the death penalty.
- He furthermore added that the Christians were severely persecuted, yet they increased in numbers not only in Judea but in Rome as well. Tacitus went into great detail about how Christians were persecuted.
The Annals of Tacitus, Book XV, Chapter 44 
But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.
3 – Pliny The Younger (2nd cent. AD)
Pliny the Younger had a similar function as Cornelius Tacitus, as he was a Roman author and a governor, who also stood out for his wisdom and political discussions. Pliny and Tacitus also wrote letters to one another.
- Pliny mentioned Christ in his letter to Emperor Trajan, asking for his opinion and advice on how to punish Christians. In this letter, Pliny mentioned that he never persecuted Christians and that he does not exactly know how to punish them.
- He talks about what Christians do based on stories from ex-Christians. He mentioned that Christians were used to gathering on Sunday at dawn and singing hymns to Christ ‘’as if He was a God’’. They partook of ‘’special’’ food, after which they gathered to eat ‘’normal and innocent’’ food. Furthermore, he said that Christians made an oath not to steal, lie, commit adultery or bear false witnesses.
Pliny the Younger: Letters, Book 10, Letter 96 – Letter from Pliny to Trajan 
It is my custom, Sir, to refer to you in all cases where I do not feel sure, for who can better direct my doubts or inform my ignorance? I have never been present at any legal examination of the Christians, and I do not know, therefore, what are the usual penalties passed upon them, or the limits of those penalties, or how searching an inquiry should be made. I have hesitated a great deal in considering whether any distinctions should be drawn according to the ages of the accused; whether the weak should be punished as severely as the more robust; whether if they renounce their faith they should be pardoned, or whether the man who has once been a Christian should gain nothing by recanting; whether the name itself, even though otherwise innocent of crime, should be punished, or only the crimes that gather round it.
In the meantime, this is the plan which I have adopted in the case of those Christians who have been brought before me. I ask them whether they are Christians; if they say yes, then I repeat the question a second and a third time, warning them of the penalties it entails, and if they still persist, I order them to be taken away to prison. For I do not doubt that, whatever the character of the crime may be which they confess, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy certainly ought to be punished. There were others who showed similar mad folly whom I reserved to be sent to Rome, as they were Roman citizens. Subsequently, as is usually the way, the very fact of my taking up this question led to a great increase of accusations, and a variety of cases were brought before me. A pamphlet was issued anonymously, containing the names of a number of people. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods in the usual formula, reciting the words after me, those who offered incense and wine before your image, which I had given orders to be brought forward for this purpose, together with the statues of the deities – all such I considered should be discharged, especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which, it is said, those who are really Christians cannot be induced to do. Others, whose names were given me by an informer, first said that they were Christians and afterwards denied it, declaring that they had been but were so no longer, some of them having recanted many years before, and more than one so long as twenty years back. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the deities, and cursed the name of Christ. But they declared that the sum of their guilt or their error only amounted to this, that on a stated day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak and to recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god, and that so far from binding themselves by oath to commit any crime, their oath was to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and from breach of faith, and not to deny trust money placed in their keeping when called upon to deliver it. When this ceremony was concluded, it had been their custom to depart and meet again to take food, but it was of no special character and quite harmless, and they had ceased this practice after the edict in which, in accordance with your orders, I had forbidden all secret societies. I thought it the more necessary, therefore, to find out what truth there was in these statements by submitting two women, who were called deaconesses, to the torture, but I found nothing but a debased superstition carried to great lengths. So I postponed my examination, and immediately consulted you. The matter seems to me worthy of your consideration, especially as there are so many people involved in the danger. Many persons of all ages, and of both sexes alike, are being brought into peril of their lives by their accusers, and the process will go on. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only through the free cities, but into the villages and the rural districts, and yet it seems to me that it can be checked and set right. It is beyond doubt that the temples, which have been almost deserted, are beginning again to be thronged with worshippers, that the sacred rites which have for a long time been allowed to lapse are now being renewed, and that the food for the sacrificial victims is once more finding a sale, whereas, up to recently, a buyer was hardly to be found. From this it is easy to infer what vast numbers of people might be reclaimed, if only they were given an opportunity of repentance.
4 – Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (2nd cent. AD)
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a Roman historian, like Tacitus and Pliny. Suetonius mentioned Christ in his work about “The Twelve Caesars’’.
In this work, Suetonius described the lives of the Caesars, and he mentioned Christ in his chapter on Claudius. Suetonius said that the Jews caused a lot of trouble and uproar in their opposition to Christ, and therefore, Claudius expelled them from Rome.
Life of Claudius, Chapter 25 
Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.
He mentioned in his chapter on Nero that a specific punishment was given to the Christians, a group of people believing in a novel superstition.
Life of Nero, Chapter 16 
During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city.
Tertullian of Carthage (AD 220) cites Suetonius and confirms that Nero was one of the first who severely persecuted Christians.
Scorpiace, Chapter 15 
We read the lives of the Cæsars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith.
5 – Thallus (1st cent. AD)
Thallus was a Greek historian. Although little is known about Thallus, and most of his works are lost, he is known through authors citing his works. Thallus mentioned Christ in his work The History of the World, as cited by the church historian Julius Africanus (AD 240).
- Julius cited a quote from Thallus, which mentioned that a great darkness and earthquake came upon the world, buildings were torn apart, and that this was visible in Judea and areas around it. Julius commented on this saying that this darkness is a solar eclipse, as we read in the Gospels.
- Julius, in addition, commented on why this event was such an unnatural event, saying that a solar eclipse only falls on days when the moon descends with respect to the sun, yet Christ was crucified one day prior to the Jewish Pascha. Therefore, the solar eclipse could not have happened on that specific day, but this event witnessed that Jesus was the Christ.
Extant Works (Julius Africanus), Fragment 18 
As to His works severally, and His cures effected upon body and soul, and the mysteries of His doctrine, and the resurrection from the dead, these have been most authoritatively set forth by His disciples and apostles before us. On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Saviour fails on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let that opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth — manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer. And calculation makes out that the period of 70 weeks, as noted in Daniel, is completed at this time.
6 – Mara Bar Serapion
Mara Bar Serapion was a Syriac philosopher, and there is a discussion about whether he was a Christian or not. Despite his own beliefs, he mentioned Christ in his famous letter to his son Serapion (Bar means son in the Syriac language).
- Bar Serapion said something quite interesting in this letter. He said that the people of Athene were punished for killing Socrates, and the people of Samos were punished for killing Pythagoras and that the Jews were punished for killing the wise king. He furthermore said that the wise king, Christ, was killed due to Him having laid a new covenant.
- It looks like Bar Serapion tries to explain that the ‘’universe’’ avenged wise men who were unnecessarily killed, bearing false witnesses against them.
A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion 
What are we to say, when the wise are dragged by force by the hands of tyrants, and their wisdom is deprived of its freedom by slander, and they are plundered for their superior intelligence, without the opportunity of making a defense? They are not wholly to be pitied. For what benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death, seeing that they received as retribution for it famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, seeing that in one hour the whole of their country was covered with sand? Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them? For with justice did God grant a recompense to the wisdom of all three of them. For the Athenians died by famine; and the people of Samos were covered by the sea without remedy; and the Jews, brought to desolation and expelled from their kingdom, are driven away into every land. Nay, Socrates did
not die, because of Plato; nor yet Pythagoras, because of the statue of Hera; nor yet the Wise King, because of the new laws which he enacted.
What Can We Conclude From This Evidence?
- There had been a person named Jesus, also called the Christ.
- He performed many wondrous things and attracted numerous followers through His works.
- He was seen as the King of the Jews but underwent a painful death and God avenged Him by punishing the Jews.
- Despite dying on the cross, He still lives through His ‘’new’’ covenant.
- His crucifixion went hand in hand with an unexpected solar eclipse, an earthquake, and buildings torn apart.
- His followers are called Christians and did not leave Him when He was persecuted.
- Although they were severely persecuted, they did not abandon Christ nor did they avenge themselves.
- After His death, His followers came together on Sunday to sing hymns, and eat ‘’special’’ food followed by ‘’normal’’ food.
- His followers were seen as people who did not lie, commit adultery, or theft.
Let us know in the comments if you learned something new!
Subdeacon Wasim Shehata
He is a subdeacon in readers’ order in the Coptic Orthodox Church and a theology enthusiast. Wasim particularly enjoys Church History and practical/contemplative aspects of theology and apologetics. He is currently finishing his Master’s degree in Biomolecular Sciences.
Read his other articles at https://www.copticnn.com/author/wasimshehata/
 Flavius Josephus. “Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3.” Antiquities of The Jews, translated by William Whiston, 1895, http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0526.tlg001.perseus-eng1:18.3.3.
 Flavius Josephus. “Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 1.” Antiquities of The Jews, translated by William Whiston, 1895, http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0526.tlg001.perseus-eng1:20.9.1.
 Cornelius Tacitus. “Book XV, Chapter 44.” The Annals of Tacitus, translated by J. Jackson, 1937, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/Annals/15B*.html.
 Gaius Suetonius Quintillus. “Life of Claudius, Chapter 25.” The Twelve Caesars, translated by J. C. Rolfe, 1914, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Claudius*.html.
 Gaius Suetonius Quintillus. “Life of Nero, Chapter 16.” The Twelve Caesars, translated by J. C. Rolfe, 1914, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Nero*.html.
 Julius Africanus. “Fragment 18. On the Circumstances Connected with Our Saviour’s Passion and His Life-Giving Resurrection.” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 6, 1886, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0614.htm.
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