What evidence is there from non-Christian sources?

Published by 1c15 on

Reading Time: 29 minutes

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Hostile Non-Biblical Pagan Accounts
    • Thallus (Roman source)
    • Phelegon (Roman)
    • Suetonius (Roman source)
    • Tacitus (Roman source)
    • Celsus (Roman source)
    • Pliny the Younger (Roman source)
    • Lucian of Samosata (Greek source)
    • Mara bar Serapion (Greek source)
  • Hostile Non-Biblical Jewish Accounts
    • Josephus
    • Talmud (Jewish source)
    • Toledot Yeshu 1,000AD
  • Adding it all up

Introduction

Well it’s obvious that our main source on Christianity would come from the Christian 1st century early texts. The four Gospels were, of course, written by advocates of belief in Jesus as the promised deliverer. They may therefore be said to be biased, in the sense that they are not impartial records but ones aiming to foster belief in Jesus Christ. However, their bias does not mean we should distrust their record. An innocent man accused of a crime may have a deep interest in proving his innocence, but this bias is not a reason to dismiss evidence he produces. The question, then, is not whether the Gospel writers had an agenda, but whether they reported accurately the events in question.

Some sources, however, cannot be accused of bias in favor of Christianity. These include non-Christians sources which are not far from the origins of Christianity and left us with records we can explore. Some of these sources are within a century of the event.

Though it is worth pointing out only using non-Christian evidence is not reasonable. Many non-Christians were persuaded to become Christians by the Gospels and evidence supporting it. People don’t loose their credibility because they are convinced by evidence. Christians and non-Christians can tell the difference between reality and non. It’s a nonsensical notion to say non-christian evidence counts for more than Christian evidence, we don’t apply this logic to any other field.

Skip to the end for the full list if you're running low on time...

Hostile Non-Biblical Pagan Accounts

There are a number of ancient classical accounts of Jesus from the pagan, non-Christian sources. These accounts are generally hostile to Christianity; some ancient authors denied the miraculous nature of Jesus and the events surrounding His life. What is useful about such accounts is they have no genuine interest in promoting christianity, just stating them only when necessary to tell history or used as an example of what not to do! Some only mention them by name if really necessary (To Romans, you didn’t want to devote too much papyrus to a subject/someone you considered a troublemaker)

Thallus (Roman)

Thallus writing in 52AD is perhaps the earliest secular writer to mention Jesus and he is so ancient his writings don’t even exist anymore in his own hand. But Julius Africanus, writing around 221AD does quote Thallus in an off the cuff comment, who is hostile to Christianity, Thallus previously tried to explain away the darkness occurring at Jesus’ crucifixion:

“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.”

Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18:1

If we had more of the works of Thallus, perhaps we could find more information on the crucifixtion, especially if it’s talking about the darkness surrounding it (Wishing Africanus took a larger quote from him!). But it should be noted, a quote is a reference to a source about Jesus within two decades and the lifetimes of the Apostles.

What can we know

  1. Jesus lived*
  2. Jesus was crucified* 
  3. There was an earthquake
  4. And darkness at the point of Jesus’ crucifixion

*This quote is in the context of Jesus and his crucifixion

Phlegon (Roman)

Now Phlegon (80-140AD) is also mentioned by Julius Africanus as a historian who wrote a chronicle of history around 140AD. In this history, Phlegon also mentions the darkness surrounding the crucifixion in an effort to explain it. He is a critic of Christian claims:

“Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth to the ninth hour.”

Africanus, Chronography, 18:1

We have a second source for Phlegon also mentioned by Origen (an early church theologian and scholar, born in Alexandria):

“Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events . . . but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions.”

Origen Against Celsus, Book 2, Chapter 14)

“And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place … ”

Origen Against Celsus, Book 2, Chapter 33

“Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.”

Origen Against Celsus, Book 2, Chapter 59

What can we know

  1. Jesus has the accurate ability to predict the future
  2. Crucified under the reign of Tiberius Caesar
  3. Presented his wounds after he was resurrected
  4. Darkness at the time of Christ’s crucifixion

Suetonius (Roman)

Suetonius (69-140AD) was a Roman historian and annalist of the Imperial House under the Emperor Hadrian. He mentions a riot in Rome that lead to emperor Claudius expelling Jews from Rome in AD 49 and that when Claudius died in 54AD those were able to return to Rome if they wanted. Suetonius accounts for the expulsion occurring at the instigation of someone named “Chrestus” a variant form of the word “Christus” which, long story short, referred to Jesus Christ. Suetonius is also not writing about a Jesus in 49AD, but writing reflectively about a people, not Jesus Christ himself as a person. Suetonius’ writings about Christians describe their treatment under the Emperor Claudius (41-54AD):

“Because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christ), he (Claudius) expelled them from the city (Rome).”

Life of Claudius, 25:4

This expulsion took place in 49AD, and in another work, Suetonius wrote about the fire which destroyed Rome in 64 A.D. under the reign of Nero. Nero blamed the Christians for this fire and he punished Christians severely as a result:

“Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect given to a new and mischievous religious belief.”

Lives of the Caesars, 26.2

What we can know

  1. Jesus had an immediate impact on his followers
  2. Committed to the belief that Jesus was God
  3. Underwent and withstood torment and punishment from the Roman Empire 
  4. Christianity was new to them, not something from hundreds of years ago but growing in their time
  5. Jesus was referred to as Christ in Gentile territories (corroborating Paul)

Tacitus (Roman)

Cornelius Tacitus (56-120AD) was known for his analysis and examination of historical documents and is among the most trusted of ancient historians. He was a senator under Emperor Vespasian and was also proconsul of Asia. He is now most famed for his writings for which there are plenty.

Tacitus is reliable

Tacitus certainly had biases. He recounted history in order to give moral instruction, praising those he approved of and often applying a whole armory of rhetorical strategies to damn those he disliked. However, his ability to record factual information is first-rate.

He appears to of had access to sources that allowed him to relate detailed stories from more than four decades before he was born. We therefore have little reason to doubt the broad facts underlying his account of the early Christians as found in his Annals.

Ronald Syme, "Tacitus: Some Sources of His Information", journal of Roman Studies 72, 68-82

The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature states that: “The Annals in particular show Tacitus to have been one of the greatest of historians, with a penetrating insight into character and a sober grasp of the significant issues of the time.”

M. C. Howatson “The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, p548

Tacitus wrote about the Great Fire in Rome, which was in July AD 64 which told of how it was thought that the crazed emperor Nero had started the fire and yet blamed the many Christians then in Rome, accusing them of arson. In his career in Rome, Tacitus would have been able to talk to many adults about its events and to have access to Rome’s official records. We therefore have every reason to treat the outline of facts he provides as reliable. 

Tacitus’ words

This is how Tacitus tells the story, using the common early spelling of Christians as Chrestians: 

“But neither human help, nor gifts from the emperor, nor all the ways of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order [of Nero]. 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 called Chrestians. 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 [Rome] itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become fashionable. 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 clothes of a charioteer, or mounted on his chariot. 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 sacrifices not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

Tacitus, Annals 15.44

Now such an allegation has arisen: could it be possible that the work of this pagan writer was tampered by later christian scribes?

First, it should be remembered that all Greek and Latin literature transmitted to us from the classical period to the Middle Ages was handed down by Christian scribes. They preserved the references to Greek and Roman gods and faithfully copied religious ideas that differed from their own Christian views. In the last century or so, much-older manuscripts from before Christian times have been found in the dry sands of Egypt, and these show that scribes generally copied faithfully where they can be checked. Therefore, the burden is on those who want to maintain that Tacitus’ documents have been tampered with to come up with the proof. To this date, they have not. The only case we have is with a version of Josephus and the doctoring is so obvious (a Jew declaring Jesus is the Messiah while still not becoming a Christian) scribes picked it up. And as discussed later on in Josephus’ versions, we have an Arabic version perfectly preserved without influence.

Second, Tacitus had a unique style of Latin, part of what is commonly called silver Latin, to distinguish it from Latin of the golden age of Cicero (106/107–43 BC). As the centuries passed, Latin changed, as with all languages. Medieval scribes were educated in medieval Latin and would not have been aware of all the differences between their own Latin and the Latin of Tacitus. It wouldn’t have been easy for them to imitate Tacitus’s style of Latin for more than a few phrases at the most. That is why classical scholars today treat this as a reliable account, at least in regard to the main events.

Third, Tacitus did not like Christians referring them as a disease, clearly not a fan.

What we can know

  1. Christians held to moral beliefs that were counter-cultural
  2. Tacitus Refers to Christus, Latin word for where Christ derives from as the leader of the Christian movement
  3. Tacitus Says it was the crowds that named them Chrestians (Christians), we see similar in Acts 11 where it says “They were first called Christians in Antioch”
  4. Time of Christ
    1. Christ was put to death under the reign of Emperor Tiberius (so between AD 14-37)
    2. Pontius Pilate was in charge of Judea at the time (AD26-36)
  5. Christianity started in Judea which aligns with Christian sources also
  6. Superstition could be associated with the miraculous claims of Christ which died down at his death and then arose again not long after. This is as generous as Tacitus will get. 
  7. 64AD there was a vast multitude of Christians in Rome (Peter and Paul were said to be in or around Rome this time also and Paul tells us in the book of Romans a church begun here (that’s equivalent of Edinburgh to Morocco!)
    1. The more Christians, the harder it is to alter the teachings (providing confidence in the Gospels, for example)
  8. Christians were treated cruelly for their religion and they were persecuted

Celcus (Roman)

Celsus (175AD) was quite antagonistic to the claims of the Gospels, but in his criticism he unknowingly affirmed and reinforced the Biblical authors and their content. His writing is extensive and he alludes to 80 different Biblical quotes, confirming their early appearance in history. In addition, he admits the miracles of Jesus were generally believed in the early 2nd century:

“Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a soldier named Panthéra. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god.”

Origen, Contra Celsum 1.28

What can we know

  1. Jesus came from a village in Judea
  2. His family wasn’t wealthy
  3. Mary was convicted of adultery
    1. Celsus admits Jesus was reportedly born of a virgin, but then argues this supernatural account could not be possible and offers the idea Jesus was the illegitimate son of a man named Panthera (an idea borrowed from Jews who opposed Jesus at the time)
  4. Jesus had an earthly guardian who was a carpenter (explaining his own profession)
  5. Jesus had travelled to Egypt at a time in his life 
  6. Jesus was God
  7. Jesus has miraculous power

Pliny the Younger (Roman)

Pliny the Younger’s (61-113AD) most famous letter is the one he wrote to Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians. He wrote:

It is my rule, sir, to refer to you all matters of which I am unsure. For who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them. I have also been in great doubt whether any difference is to be made on account of age, or any distinction allowed between the youngest and the adult; whether recanting allows a pardon, or whether if a man has been once a Christian it does not help him to recant; whether the mere profession of Christianity, albeit without crimes, or only the crimes associated with it are punishable. In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians. If they confessed it I repeated the question a second and a third time, adding the threat of capital punishment. If they still persevered, I ordered them to be led off to execution. For whatever the nature of their belief might be, I could at least feel no doubt that stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment. There were others also possessed with the same madness, but being citizens of Rome I directed them to be sent there.
These accusations spread (as is usually the case) from the mere fact of the matter being investigated and several forms of the mischief came to light. A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied that they were, or ever had been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered adoration, with wine and incense, to your statue, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose, together with the images of the gods, and who finally cursed Christ—all things it is said that no real Christian can be forced to do—I thought they should be discharged. Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, but soon after denied it, saying that they had been, but they had ceased, some three years ago, others many years ago, and a few as much as twenty years ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ. They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt or error was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, and of singing in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god, and of binding themselves by a solemn oath, not to wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor to deny a pledge when they were called upon to deliver it up. After this it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I therefore thought it the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were called deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition. I have therefore adjourned the proceedings and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me well worth referring to you—especially considering the numbers endangered. Many persons of all ages and ranks and of both sexes are being and will be called to trial. For this contagious superstition is not confined only to the cities, but has also spread through the villages and rural districts. It seems possible, however, to check and correct this. It is certain at least that the temples, which had almost become deserted, are now beginning to be visited again; and the sacred rites, after a long interlude, are again being revived. There is a general demand for sacrificial animals, for which up to now only rarely were purchasers found. From this it is easy to imagine that a multitude of people may be reclaimed from this error, if a door is left open for them to change their minds.

Pliny Letters,  Epistles 10.96

Trajan then replied more briefly to Pliny:

(whom he called Secundus: The method you have pursued, my Secundus, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people. When they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when an individual denies that he is a Christian, and gives proof of it, i.e. by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Anonymous accusations must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to our times.

Pliny Letters, Epistles 10.97

What we can know

  1. Christians were put on trial
  2. Christians were often tested three times (this could be a parallel to Jesus’ test on Peter and the Romans had learnt about this and employed it against them)
  3. Citizens of Rome were Christians
  4. Christianity was spreading
  5. The Christians held to just one God and cannot worship any other God and still be a Christian
  6. Christians were in the habit on meeting on a fixed day every week to worship Jesus as God
  7. Hymns were sung to Christ as God
  8. Followed Christ’s teaching’s as their moral compass
  9. Christians took part in the Lord’s supper
  10. There were deacons/deaconesses
  11. There were Christians of varying ages, young and old
  12. It spread to the rich, the poor, to the cities and villages
  13. There were so many Christians, the pagan temples were becoming deserted
  14. These practices were widespread and thus the asking of Trajan for advice
  15. Trajan was aware of Christ as a deity and adoration of any other God would no longer make that individual a Christian
  16. In the year 111AD, many years (decades possibly) prior, Christians were having meetings

Lucian of Samosata (Greek)

Lucian of Samosata (115-200AD) was a Greek satirist who spoke sarcastically of Christ and Christians, but in the process, he did affirm they were real people and never spoke of them as fictional characters:

“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account….You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”

Lucian, The Death of Peregrine. 11-13

What we can know

  1. Christians worship a man (Jesus)
  2. Brought a teaching and was crucified for it
  3. Christians believed in one God
  4. Teachings were quickly adopted by Jesus’ followers
  5. Christians had strong conviction they had eternal life in their belief
  6. Christians were fearless of death
  7. Christians do not live for worldly pleasures (turn away from sinful desires)

Mara bar Serapion (Greek)

A Syrian philosopher named Mara Bar-Serapion after 70AD, was writing to encourage his son, compared the life and persecution of Jesus with that of other philosophers who were persecuted for their ideas. The fact Jesus is known to be a real person with this kind of influence is important. Mara Bar-Serapion refers to Jesus as the “Wise King”:

“What benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as judgment for their crime. Or, the people of Samos for burning Pythagoras? In one moment their country was covered with sand. Or the Jews by murdering their wise king?…After that their kingdom was abolished. God rightly avenged these men…The wise king…Lived on in the teachings he enacted.”

Spicilegium Syriacum

What we can know

  1. Jesus was seen as wise 
  2. Jesus seen as a king of the Jews
  3. Jewish nation abolished
  4. Jesus had teachings which live on
  5. Jesus died for his beliefs
  6. The Jewish leadership were responsible for his death
  7. Jesus’ followers adopted his beliefs and lived their lives accordingly

Hostile Non-Biblical Jewish Accounts

In addition to classical pagan sources chronicling the life of Jesus and His followers, there are also a number of ancient hostile Jewish sources describing Jesus. These are written by Jewish theologians, historians and leaders who were definitely not sympathetic to the Christian cause. Their writings are often very harsh, critical and even demeaning to Jesus. But there is still much these writings confirm through what they concede.

Josephus (Jewish)

Flavius Josephus was born around the year AD 37 or 38 and died around AD 100. Josephus was commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee during their initial rebellion against Rome in AD 66. He was captured by the Romans in 67 and claims to have predicted that Vespasian would become emperor in July 69. Josephus found favour with Vespasian and subsequent emperors, became a citizen of Rome, and took the name Flavius in accordance with Vespasian’s family’s name. 

Josephus is the single most important historian for events in first-century Palestine, and is of particular interest since his history Jewish Antiquities speaks about Jesus Christ and also John the Baptist, a major figure in the Gospels. In fact, he is the best non-Christian source commentary on the details in the Gospels. The Greek manuscripts of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities mention Jesus Christ in two places, of which one is judged by many scholars to be a secondary addition (i.e., not by Josephus) or to have suffered contamination during textual copying (we’ll get why we challenge that assumption).

Original

One of those works is his now-famous Antiquities of the Jews, which he finished in about 93AD. In book 18, chapter 3, section 3 of that work, Josephus, who was not a Christian, wrote these words: 

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds 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 Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had  first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63 

Now…you might understand the suspicion. This is a Jew, not a follower of Christ, yet look at what he yields to us? Scholars agree this passage has been interpolated

Craig Evans “The Historical Jesus, volume 4,” 390-391; J. Thackeray, “Josephus: The Man   and Historian,” p136-149). 

It seems highly unlikely Josephus would have said Jesus was the Messiah and state that on the third day Jesus was restored to life. Also the saying “If one should call him a man” is also suspicious. Christians had a lot more admiration for Josephus than perhaps many Jews because of his details about 1st century Christianity. Later manuscripts have emerged without these three questionable statements which suggests this theory may be accurate. So scholars, just because they have identified one doctored paragraph don’t throw out the entire document. And we’ll get into why.

Reconstruction

This is what a scholarly reconstruction looked like of the passages with Josephus’ style in mind and removing bias put together by John P Meier

“Now around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, (but) those who had first loved him did not cease (doing so). To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared”

(This neutral reconstruction follows closely the one proposed by John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person).

Now there are many other ancient versions of Josephus’ writing which are even more explicit about the nature of Jesus’ miracles, life and his status as the Christ, but let’s take this conservative version. But can we go beyond just a reconstruction of a doctored passage? Yes. 

Shlomo Pines

In 1971, Shlomo Pines, scholar of ancient languages and distinguished professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published a long-lost tenth-century Arabic text written by a Melkite bishop of Hierapolis named Agapius. This Arabic leader quoted Josephus and did so in the Arabic language, unlike the Greek used by other authors from antiquity. Overtly Christian references that are seen in other ancient versions of Josephus’s account are also missing from Agapius’s quote, and as a result, scholars believe that this version best reflects Josephus’s original text: 

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders. 

Quoted in Agapios’ Kitab al-‘Unwan “Book of the Title, “10th century

There are many other ancient versions of Josephus’s citation that are more explicit about the nature of Jesus’s miracles, His life, resurrection, and status as “the Christ,” but this brief and conservative version of Josephus’s text reluctantly admits a number of key facts about Jesus which scholars are satisfied with.

Other passages

That wasn’t Josephus’s only mention of Jesus. In another passage from Antiquities, Josephus revealed how the new high priest of the Jews (Ananus the younger) took advantage of a gap in Roman rule to kill James, the brother of Jesus. It was 62AD, and the Roman governor Festus died suddenly in office. Three months elapsed before his successor, Albinus, could get to Judea, allowing ample time for Ananus to do his dirty work. Josephus describes the incident this way: 

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus the high priest] assembled the Sanhedrin of the 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.

Antiquities 20.9.1

Josephus also confirms Jesus was the brother of James and John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas (Antiquities 18.5.2)

What we can know

  1. Jesus lived during time of Tiberius Caesar in Palestine. 
  2. He was a wise and virtuous teacher
  3. He demonstrated his power
  4. Was condemned and crucified under Pontius Pilate
  5. Had followers who reported that he appeared to them after his death on the cross
  6. Was believed to be the Messiah
  7. Jesus had a brother named James
  8. The Jewish leadership felt compelled to kill James
  9. Jesus was called the Christ

People from many nations became Christians

The Jewish Talmud

The Jewish Talmud (400-700AD) is an encyclopaedic size collection of Jewish traditions, some date pre-christian times. While the earliest Talmudic writings of Jewish Rabbis appear in the 5th century, the tradition of these Rabbinic authors indicates they are faithfully transmitting teachings from the early “Tannaitic” period of the 1st Century BC to the 2nd Century AD.  

Scholars believe there are a number of Talmudic writings referring to Jesus, and many of these writings are said to use code words to describe Jesus (such as “Balaam” or “Ben Stada” or “a certain one”). But for our purposes we’ll be very conservative and limit our examination to the passages referring to Jesus in a more direct way:

“Jesus practiced magic and led Israel astray” 

b. Sanhedrin 43a; cf. t. Shabbat 11.15; b. Shabbat 104b)

“Rabbi Hisda said that Rabbi Jeremiah bar Abba said, ‘What is that which is written, ‘No evil will befall you, nor shall any plague come near your house’? (Psalm 91:10)… ‘No evil will befall you’ (means) that evil dreams and evil thoughts will not tempt you; ‘nor shall any plague come near your house’ (means) that you will not have a son or a disciple who burns his food like Jesus of Nazareth.”

b. Sanhedrin 103a; cf. b. Berakhot 17b)

“Our rabbis have taught that Jesus had five disciples: Matthai, Nakai, Nezer, Buni and Todah. They brought Matthai to (to trial). He said, ‘Must Matthai be killed? For it is written, ‘When (mathai) shall I come and appear before God?’” (Psalm 92:2) They said to him, “Yes Matthai must be killed, for it is written, ‘When (mathai) he dies his name will perish’” (Psalm 41:5). They brought Nakai. He said to them, “Must Nakai be killed? For it is written, “The innocent (naqi) and the righteous will not slay’” (Exodus 23:7). They said to him, “Yes, Nakai must be killed, for it is written, ‘In secret places he slays the innocent (naqi)’” (Psalm 10:8).” 

Sanhedrin 43a; the passage continues in a similar way for Nezer, Buni and Todah)

“It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days (proclaiming), “He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover.” 

b. Sanhedrin 43a)

What we can know

  1. Jesus had magical powers and they clearly found it hard to deny meeting the scholarly criteria of embarrassment.
  2. Led Jews away from their beliefs
  3. Disciples who were martyred for the faith 
  4. Was executed on the day before passover 

 

Toledot Yeshu

The Toledot Yeshu (1,000AD) is a medieval Jewish retelling of the life of Jesus. It is completely anti-Christian which is it’s reason for consideration. There are many versions of these ‘retellings’, and as part of the transmitted oral and written tradition of the Jews, we can presume their original place is from antiquity, dating back to the time of Jesus’ first appearance as an influential leader who was drawing Jews away from their faith in the Law. The Toledot Yeshu contains a determined effort to explain away the miracles of Jesus and to deny the virgin birth. In some places, the text is quite aggressive, however it does verify many elements of the New Testament writings. Here’s a segment (Considering some of these stories could link to the first century oral tradition propaganda of the Jews, this document is helpful in establishing what Jews over the first millennium confess. Jesus is called Yehoshua in this text.

“In the year 3671 (in Jewish reckoning, it being ca 90 B.C.) in the days of King Jannaeus, a great misfortune befell Israel, when there arose a certain disreputable man of the tribe of Judah, whose name was Joseph Pandera. He lived at Bethlehem, in Judah. Near his house dwelt a widow and her lovely and chaste daughter named Miriam. Miriam was betrothed to Yohanan, of the royal house of David, a man learned in the Torah and God-fearing. At the close of a certain Sabbath, Joseph Pandera, attractive and like a warrior in appearance, having gazed lustfully upon Miriam, knocked upon the door of her room and betrayed her by pretending that he was her betrothed husband, Yohanan. Even so, she was amazed at this improper conduct and submitted only against her will. Thereafter, when Yohanan came to her, Miriam expressed astonishment at behavior so foreign to his character. It was thus that they both came to know the crime of Joseph Pandera and the terrible mistake on the part of Miriam… Miriam gave birth to a son and named him Yehoshua, after her brother. This name later deteriorated to Yeshu (“Yeshu” is the Jewish “name” for Jesus. It means “May His Name Be Blotted Out”). On the eighth day he was circumcised. When he was old enough the lad was taken by Miriam to the house of study to be instructed in the Jewish tradition. One day Yeshu walked in front of the Sages with his head uncovered, showing shameful disrespect. At this, the discussion arose as to whether this behavior did not truly indicate that Yeshu was an illegitimate child and the son of a niddah. Moreover, the story tells that while the rabbis were discussing the Tractate Nezikin, he gave his own impudent interpretation of the law and in an ensuing debate he held that Moses could not be the greatest of the prophets if he had to receive counsel from Jethro. This led to further inquiry as to the antecedents of Yeshu, and it was discovered through Rabban Shimeon ben Shetah that he was the illegitimate son of Joseph Pandera. Miriam admitted it. After this became known, it was necessary for Yeshu to flee to Upper Galilee. After King Jannaeus, his wife Helene ruled over all Israel. In the Temple was to be found the Foundation Stone on which were engraven the letters of God’s Ineffable Name. Whoever learned the secret of the Name and its use would be able to do whatever he wished. Therefore, the Sages took measures so that no one should gain this knowledge. Lions of brass were bound to two iron pillars at the gate of the place of burnt offerings. Should anyone enter and learn the Name, when he left the lions would roar at him and immediately the valuable secret would be forgotten. Yeshu came and learned the letters of the Name; he wrote them upon the parchment which he placed in an open cut on his thigh and then drew the flesh over the parchment. As he left, the lions roared and he forgot the secret. But when he came to his house he reopened the cut in his flesh with a knife an lifted out the writing. Then he remembered and obtained the use of the letters. He gathered about himself three hundred and ten young men of Israel and accused those who spoke ill of his birth of being people who desired greatness and power for themselves. Yeshu proclaimed, “I am the Messiah; and concerning me Isaiah prophesied and said, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.’” He quoted other messianic texts, insisting, “David my ancestor prophesied concerning me: ‘The Lord said to me, thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee.’” The insurgents with him replied that if Yeshu was the Messiah he should give them a convincing sign. They therefore, brought to him a lame man, who had never walked. Yeshu spoke over the man the letters of the Ineffable Name, and the leper was healed. Thereupon, they worshipped him as the Messiah, Son of the Highest. When word of these happenings came to Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin decided to bring about the capture of Yeshu. They sent messengers, Annanui and Ahaziah, who, pretending to be his disciples, said that they brought him an invitation from the leaders of Jerusalem to visit them. Yeshu consented on condition the members of the Sanhedrin receive him as a lord. He started out toward Jerusalem and, arriving at Knob, acquired an ass [donkey] on which he rode into Jerusalem, as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah. The Sages bound him and led him before Queen Helene, with the accusation: “This man is a sorcerer and entices everyone.” Yeshu replied, “The prophets long ago prophesied my coming: ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse,’ and I am he; but as for them, Scripture says ‘Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.’” Queen Helene asked the Sages: “What he says, is it in your Torah?” They replied: “It is in our Torah, but it is not applicable to him, for it is in Scripture: ‘And that prophet which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.’ He has not fulfilled the signs and conditions of the Messiah.” Yeshu spoke up: “Madam, I am the Messiah and I revive the dead.” A dead body was brought in; he pronounced the letters of the Ineffable Name and the corpse came to life. The Queen was greatly moved and said: “This is a true sign.” She reprimanded the Sages and sent them humiliated from her presence. Yeshu’s dissident followers increased and there was controversy in Israel. Yeshu went to Upper Galilee. the Sages came before the Queen, complaining that Yeshu practiced sorcery and was leading everyone astray. Therefore she sent Annanui and Ahaziah to fetch him. The found him in Upper Galilee, proclaiming himself the Son of God. When they tried to take him there was a struggle, but Yeshu said to the men of Upper Galilee: “Wage no battle.” He would prove himself by the power which came to him from his Father in heaven. He spoke the Ineffable Name over the birds of clay and they flew into the air. He spoke the same letters over a millstone that had been placed upon the waters. He sat in it and it floated like a boat. When they saw this the people marveled. At the behest of Yeshu, the emissaries departed and reported these wonders to the Queen. She trembled with astonishment. Then the Sages selected a man named Judah Iskarioto and brought him to the Sanctuary where he learned the letters of the Ineffable Name as Yeshu had done. When Yeshu was summoned before the queen, this time there were present also the Sages and Judah Iskarioto. Yeshu said: “It is spoken of me, ‘I will ascend into heaven.’” He lifted his arms like the wings of an eagle and he flew between heaven and earth, to the amazement of everyone…Yeshu was seized. His head was covered with a garment and he was smitten with pomegranate staves; but he could do nothing, for he no longer had the Ineffable Name. Yeshu was taken prisoner to the synagogue of Tiberias, and they bound him to a pillar. To allay his thirst they gave him vinegar to drink. On his head they set a crown of thorns. There was strife and wrangling between the elders and the unrestrained followers of Yeshu, as a result of which the followers escaped with Yeshu to the region of Antioch; there Yeshu remained until the eve of the Passover. Yeshu then resolved to go the Temple to acquire again the secret of the Name. That year the Passover came on a Sabbath day. On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu, accompanied by his disciples, came to Jerusalem riding upon an ass. Many bowed down before him. He entered the Temple with his three hundred and ten followers. One of them, Judah Iskarioto apprised the Sages that Yeshu was to be found in the Temple, that the disciples had taken a vow by the Ten Commandments not to reveal his identity but that he would point him out by bowing to him. So it was done and Yeshu was seized. Asked his name, he replied to the question by several times giving the names Mattai, Nakki, Buni, Netzer, each time with a verse quoted by him and a counter-verse by the Sages. Yeshu was put to death on the sixth hour on the eve of the Passover and of the Sabbath. When they tried to hang him on a tree it broke, for when he had possessed the power he had pronounced by the Ineffable Name that no tree should hold him. He had failed to pronounce the prohibition over the carob-stalk, for it was a plant more than a tree, and on it he was hanged until the hour for afternoon prayer, for it is written in Scripture, “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree.” They buried him outside the city. On the first day of the week his bold followers came to Queen Helene with the report that he who was slain was truly the Messiah and that he was not in his grave; he had ascended to heaven as he prophesied. Diligent search was made and he was not found in the grave where he had been buried. A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden. Queen Helene demanded, on threat of a severe penalty, that the body of Yeshu be shown to her within a period of three days. There was a great distress. When the keeper of the garden saw Rabbi Tanhuma walking in the field and lamenting over the ultimatum of the Queen, the gardener related what he had done, in order that Yeshu’s followers should not steal the body and then claim that he had ascended into heaven. The Sages removed the body, tied it to the tail of a horse and transported it to the Queen, with the words, “This is Yeshu who is said to have ascended to heaven.” Realizing that Yeshu was a false prophet who enticed the people and led them astray, she mocked the followers but praised the Sages.

Toledot Yeshu

What we can know

  1. Mary gave birth to a son (Jesus) 
  2. The Jewish leaders disliked Jesus 
  3. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah
  4. Jesus claimed to be born of a virgin
  5. Jesus claimed to fulfilled prophecy
  6. Jesus claimed to be of the line of David
  7. Jesus healed a pepper before the Jewish leaders
  8. Jewish leadership took Jesus as prisoner
  9. Jesus was worshipped as Messiah
  10. Jesus rode on a donkey into Jerusalem
  11. Jesus raised a corpse to life (Lazarus likely)
  12. Jesus claimed to be the son of God
  13. Said Isaiah foretold his life
  14. Beaten with rods
  15. Given vinegar to drink
  16. Betrayed by a man named Judah Iskarioto (sound familiar?)
  17. Jesus has a crown of thorns affixed to his head prior to crucifixion
  18. Jesus was killed on the eve of Passover 
  19. Jesus’ grave was empty on the first day of the week (Sunday)
  20. Jesus had followers who claimed he was resurrected and ascended

Adding it all up

So when we take our sources and add them all up, what details can we establish from non-sympathetic sources about Jesus and Christianity? Plenty. You’ll never achieve a Gospel, why would you? But you might establish the hard facts of Christianity, deity, death, resurrection, correlation with historical details where we have access etc.

  1. Jesus lived*
  2. Brought a teaching and was crucified for it
  3. Teachings were quickly adopted by Jesus’ followers
  4. Was condemned and crucified under Pontius Pilate
  5. Jesus was crucified* 
  6. Jesus executed on the day before passover 
  7. Jesus lived during time of Tiberius Caesar in Palestine. 
  8. There was an earthquake at the point of Jesus’ crucifixion
  9. And darkness at the point of Jesus’ crucifixion
  10. Jesus has the accurate ability to predict the future
  11. Crucified under the reign of Tiberius Caesar
  12. Presented his wounds after he was resurrected
  13. Jesus had an immediate impact on his followers
  14. These followers underwent and withstood torment and punishment from the Roman Empire 
  15. Christianity was new to Rome, not something from hundreds of years ago but growing in their time
  16. Jesus was referred to as Christ in Gentile territories (corroborating Paul)
  17. Christians worship a man (Jesus)
  18. Jesus’ followers were committed to the belief that Jesus was God
  19. Christians believed in one God
  20. Christians had strong conviction they had eternal life in their belief
  21. Christians were put on trial
  22. Christians were often tested three times (this could be a parallel to Jesus’ test on Peter and the Romans had learnt about this and employed it against them)
  23. Citizens of Rome were Christians
  24. Christians fearless of death
  25. Christians do not live for worldly pleasures (turn away from sinful desires)
  26. Jesus was seen as wise 
  27. Jesus seen as a king of the Jews
  28. Jewish nation abolished after death of Jesus
  29. The Jewish leadership were responsible for Jesus’ death
  30. Christians were in the habit on meeting on a fixed day every week to worship Jesus as God
  31. Hymns were sung to Christ as God
  32. Christianity spread fast
  33. These practices were widespread and thus the asking of Trajan for advice
  34. Trajan was aware of Christ as a deity and adoration of any other God would no longer make that individual a Christian
  35. Christians took part in the Lord’s supper
  36. There were deacons/deaconesses
  37. There were Christians of varying ages, young and old
  38. It spread to the rich, the poor, to the cities and villages
  39. There were so many Christians, the pagan temples were becoming deserted
  40. Jesus came from a village in Judea
  41. Family wasn’t wealthy
  42. Mary was convicted of adultery 
  43. Jesus had an earthly guardian who was a carpenter (explaining his own profession)
  44. Jesus had travelled to Egypt at a time in his life 
  45. Jesus has miraculous power
  46. Led Jews away from their beliefs
  47. Jesus had a brother named James
  48. The Jewish leadership felt compelled to kill James
  49. Jesus was called the Christ
  50. People from many nations became Christians
  51. Had followers who reported that he appeared to them after his death on the cross
  52. Says it was the crowds that named them Chrestians (Christians), we see similar in Acts 11 where it says “They were first called Christians in Antioch”
  53. Christianity started in Judea which aligns with Christian sources also
  54. 64AD there was a vast multitude of Christians in Rome 

And with the Toledot Yeshu (+15 = 69 facts)…

  1.  Mary gave birth to a son (Jesus) 
  2. Jesus claimed to be born of a virgin
  3. Jesus claimed to fulfilled prophecy
  4. Jesus claimed to be of the line of David
  5. Jesus healed a lepper before the Jewish leaders
  6. Jewish leadership took Jesus as prisoner
  7. Jesus rode on a donkey into Jerusalem
  8. Jesus raised a corpse to life (Lazarus likely)
  9. Jesus claimed to be the son of God
  10. Said Isaiah foretold his life
  11. Beaten with rods
  12. Given vinegar to drink
  13. Betrayed by a man named Judah Iskarioto 
  14. Jesus has a crown of thorns affixed to his head prior to crucifixion
  15. Jesus’ grave was empty on the first day of the week (Sunday)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *