Are There Historical Accounts of Jesus Other Than the New Testament?

Numerous people are convinced that Christianity made up a part of the story of Christ, in order to back-up our faith. This raises the question whether history stands behind our claims on who Jesus really was, and more importantly what non-Christian historians say about Jesus? 

Prior to digging deeper into literature, a few things should be noted. One aspect is the sources. There are primary, secondary and tertiary sources. 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 him/herself in order for us to know about his/her life. Multiple great historical figures, who are known throughout history, did not write about themselves, such as Alexander the Great and Socrates. Something that marks our faith in Jesus is the fact that it is attested by historical accounts. Paul testifies this saying: ‘’If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty’’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). Therefore, let us look at several non-Christian historians, who had no benefit of writing about Jesus as they did not acknowledge Him as God. These historians wrote objectively about events that had happened. 

1 – Josephus Flavius (2nd c. AD)

Josephus Flavius 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. Flavius mentioned Christ twice, which is quite interesting regarding him being a Jewish historian. He did not have any benefit from writing about Christ. Several textual critics mentioned that some elements of his quotes about Christ are later additions made by Christians, yet disregarding these additions still leads to a text in defence of Jesus’s existence, preaching, and claims to be the Messiah. The first citation about Christ is about how the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, punished James the brother of Jesus who was called Christ. From a textual point of view, Flavius only mentioned that Jesus was regarded as Christ, without any further explanation. This implies that the people back then, especially in the area of Judea and Jerusalem, knew who Jesus was, and therefore Flavius did not feel the need to explain who He was. The second citation about Jesus is that He was a wise Man, a doer of wonders and that He attracted numerous people to Himself. He furthermore said that Pilate punished him, yet His loved ones did not leave Him, and that these people are called Christians. The citations of Flavius are also mentioned in the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea (340 AD).

2 – Cornelius Tacitus (2nd c. AD)

Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian and was also involved in the senate. He stood out due to his wisdom and political career. Tacitus mentioned Christ once, in a text on the fire that took place in Rome during the reign of the 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 and not only in Judea but in Rome as well. Tacitus went into great detail about how Christians were persecuted.  

3 – Gaius Plinius (2nd c. AD)

Gaius Plinius had a similar function as Cornelius Tacitus, as he was a Roman author and a governor. Plinius is also known as Pliny the Younger, and also stood out due to his wisdom and political career. Pliny and Tacitus also wrote letters to one another. Pliny mentioned Christ in his letter to the Emperor Trajan, asking 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, and furthermore he talks about what Christians do based on stories from ex-Christians. He mentioned that Christians were used to gathering on Sundays at dawn and to sing 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 nor bear false witnesses.   

4 – Gaius Suetonius (2nd c. AD)

Gaius Suetonius 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 section on Claudius. Suetonius said that the Jews caused a lot of troubles and uproar in their opposition to Christ, and therefore, Claudius expelled them from Rome. He mentioned that a specific punishment was given to the Christians, a group of people believing in a novel superstition. Tertullian of Carthage (220 AD) confirmed that Nero was one of the first who severely persecuted Christians.

5 – Thallus (1st c. 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 (240 AD). 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 where 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 that this event witnessed that Jesus was the Christ.

6 – Mara Bar Serapion

Mara Bar Serapion was a Syriac philosopher, and there is a discussion whether he was a Christian or not. Despite his own non-Christian beliefs, he mentioned Christ in his famous letter to his son Serapion (Bar means father in the Syriac language). Bar Serapion said something quite interesting in this letter. He said that the people of Athens 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.

In conclusion, non-Christian Roman, Greek and Syriac historians teach us that

  1. There had been a person named Jesus, also called the Christ
  2. He did numerous wonderous things and attracted numerous followers true His works 
  3. He was seen as the King of the Jews, but underwent a painful death and God avenged Him by punishing the Jews
  4. Despite that He died on the cross, He still lives through His ‘’new’’ covenant
  5. His crucifixion went hand in hand with an unexpected solar eclipse, an earthquake and buildings were torn apart
  6. His followers are called Christians, and did not leave Him when He was persecuted
  7. Through numerous punishments, they did not abandon Christ nor did they avenge themselves 
  8. After His death, His followers came together on Sunday to sing hymns, eat ‘’special’’ food followed by ‘’normal’’ food
  9. His followers were seen as people who did not lie, commit adultery or theft

Coptic Apologetics