Does The Fact That Few Ancient Non-Christian Sources Refer To Christ Imply He Is Legendary?

Why should anyone expect mention of Jesus in surviving Roman and Greek literature? Palestine was a relatively minor province on the periphery of Roman/Hellenistic civilization. Christianity would have been viewed as a minor Jewish sect, greatly overshadowed by the explosive Jewish politics that led to the Jewish uprisings and wars of the late first and early second centuries.

Although there is little reason to expect non-Christian writers to notice and write about Jesus Christ and the church, there were some who did.

The renowned Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, included the following passage in his “Annals,” written early in the second century:

Therefore, to stop the rumor [that the burning of Rome had taken place by order], Nero substituted as culprits, and punished in 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 Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. (Tacitus, Annals, trans. C. H. Moore and J. Jackson, LCL, reprint ed. [Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 1962], 283)

The most important Jewish historian of the first century was Flavius Josephus. He wrote:

When, therefore, Ananus [the high priest] was of this [angry] 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 Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James. (Antiquities 20.9.1)

There were numerous second- through fifth-century critics of the Christian faith who denied that Jesus was what Christians believed him to be, including Trypho, Pliny, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian. But none of them questioned Jesus’ historical existence.1

Even Jewish rabbinical tradition, although extremely hostile to Christianity and Jesus, clearly considered Jesus a real person.2

Lee Strobel, a professional journalist who wrote one of the most readable books on the reliability of the scriptural Jesus tradition, The Case for Christ, writes:

“We have better historical documentation for Jesus than for the founder of any other ancient religion,” said Edwin Yamauchi. Sources from outside the Bible corroborate that many people believed Jesus performed healings and was the Messiah, that he was crucified, and that despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed he was still alive, worshiped him as God. (Zondervan, p. 260)

There are other possible ancient references to Jesus as an historic personage, but Christian evidences remain the most significant, and naturally so. The disciples of Christ were obviously the most motivated to write about Him.

There is no significant question about the authorship and dating of most of Paul’s epistles, the first-century dating of the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the dating and historical accuracy of the book of Acts, or the dating and authorship of many other Christian writings (all of which quote the Gospels and Paul’s epistles copiously) dating from the end of the first century on.

Even unbelieving and skeptical participants of the “Jesus Seminar” acknowledge that Jesus was a real, historical person. Given the strength of Christian textual and historical evidence, claiming that there isn’t much corroborating evidence about Jesus from non-Christian sources is more of an excuse for ignoring Christian sources than a significant criticism.

  1. Trypho, recorded in Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho,” denies that Jesus was Christ, but acknowledges Jesus’ historical existence. Pliny the Younger, a Roman senator and governor, refers to Christians as “reciting a hymn antiphonally to Christus as if to a god.” Celsus made the claim (echoed in the Talmud) that Jesus was a sorcerer and a bastard. Back To Article
  2. “The Talmudic stories make fun of Jesus’ birth from a virgin, fervently contest his claim to be the Messiah and Son of God, and maintain that he was rightfully executed as a blasphemer and idolater. They subvert the Christian idea of Jesus’ resurrection and insist that he got the punishment he deserved in hell—and that a similar fate awaits his followers.
    “Schaefer contends that these stories betray a remarkably high level of familiarity with the Gospels—especially Matthew and John—and represents a deliberate and sophisticated anti-Christian polemic that parodies the New Testament narratives.” (From the jacket summary of the content of Peter Schaefer’s book, Jesus in the Talmud.) Back To Article
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