Jesus before Pontius Pilate, an historical event with extra-biblical support

To deny Christianity, one must deal with the Bible. They would have to overcome the fact that there were many writers in the New Testament writing separate documents, for the most part composed independently of one another. They would also have to deal with the evidence for a reliable transmission process over the centuries. Yet, even many scholars who are this skeptical of the Bible hold to the fact that Jesus really did exist, a position boosted by the existence of writings outside the Bible critical of Jesus, as some of the below writings are. If these writings were by Christians, or changed later by them, one would think that they would be incredibly supportive of Jesus. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of them.

Jesus According to Tacitus

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures 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 one of our procurators, 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, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.1

This was written in 115 A.D., recounting the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D. Tacitus, the author, was a Roman historian, and evidently not sympathetic towards Christians—and that’s a key point. There’s no conceivable reason for Tacitus to stretch the truth in a positive way for Christians. Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for starting the fire, leading up to their persecution (there was a rumor spreading at the time that Nero started the fire himself, but modern scholarship does not have an answer as to who did it). Here, we have extra-biblical references to Christians being widely known (‘by the populace’) by 64 A.D. This was only a gap of 30 years or so after Jesus died. Tacitus also mentions Jesus (‘Christus’) being sentenced to death (‘the extreme penalty’) by Pontius Pilate, which the four Gospels all tell. We also know that Christianity endured after His death, so much that ‘an immense multitude’ of Christians were found and executed.

Jesus According to Josephus

Josephus was a Jewish historian, writing about Jesus in his Antiquities of the Jews in 94 A.D.

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.2

There is some debate as to whether Josephus really wrote this verbatim (as he was a Jew and not a Christian), or if it was embellished by others. We need to note, though, that even a suggested toned-down version still contains several basic facts we can walk away with. First, Josephus testifies to the figure of Jesus, a wise teacher with many followers. This passage also mentions Pilate, and the ‘principal men amongst us’ are most likely the authorities who had a hand in arresting Jesus in the Gospels. As with Tacitus, Josephus says that the followers of Jesus did not stop after His death, for they proclaimed that He did in fact rise from the grave and appear before them. Consequently, Christians were still around a full sixty years after Jesus was.

Also, the Antiquities also mentions elsewhere the stoning of Jesus’s brother James (who wrote the book of James in the Bible, and was a Christian after Jesus’s death) at the hands of the Sanhedrin.

Jesus According to the Talmud

The Talmud is a written Jewish history, which both spells out laws not contained within the Bible and comments on both Biblical and non-Biblical Jewish matters.

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (Jesus) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!3

The reasons the Jews had for sentencing Jesus to death do not contradict the Bible. Luke 23:2 mentions ‘misleading Jerusalem’ as a charge, and it is not hard at all to see how the Jews charged Jesus with sorcery, because they were present for many of His miracles. But herein is the rub: charging Jesus with sorcery is testimony to the fact that He did unexplainable things. This source also attests to the Jews hanging Jesus. Finally, it must be said that this source introduces a herald that attempted to get witnesses to plead for Jesus. None were recorded as coming, but given the other sources we have covered so far, we do know that Jesus had a large amount of followers.

Jesus According to Pliny

Pliny the Younger wrote an interesting piece about his experience with arresting Christians. Written in about 111 A.D., Pliny says that Christians possessed ‘stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy’ in declaring that Christ was God. He also recounts how the Christians were opposed to committing evils like ‘theft, robbery, and adultery’. He also mentions two slaves that were Christians too, which testifies to the universality of Christianity.4

Pulling It All Together

From these four primary sources (and there are many more that have survived the ages), we can put together a picture of Jesus consisting of the following: There was a man called Jesus in the reign of Tiberius (note: Tiberius Caesar, who ruled Rome from 14 AD to 37 AD. Jesus’s ministry was around 30 A.D.). Jesus gained a great following, due to his wise teachings. There were even reports of him doing miracles. The Jewish authorities caught wind of this, and because his teachings were not fully in agreement with those of the Jewish law, they sentenced Him to death by crucifixion. Three days later, His disciples claimed to have seen him alive, contributing to them seeing Him as the messiah. His followers and ideology continued and spread widely decades later. Jesus’s followers keep to the morals that He taught, but were persecuted and killed for their beliefs, attesting that they were guilty of nothing more than believing in Him.

The above summary of Jesus corroborates the details from the New Testament about Jesus and early Christians. Hence, we see that there are problems with denying outright the picture of Jesus presented in the Bible, as that means several other writings from that time period must also be denied to be consistent, from both pro-Jesus and anti-Jesus authors. And as we have discussed already, the Bible is trustworthy as a primary source (multiple primary sources, for that matter, as there are four fairly detailed accounts of Jesus’s life from four different authors). We can be assured that what we have in the Bible today is sufficiently the same message as the first century Christians had, AND that history testifies to the accuracy of the Bible.

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Citations:

1 Tacitus, Annals 15.44, written about a.d. 115, cited in Corduan, W. (1997). No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity (pp. 197–198). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, in turn cited from Habermas, Verdict of History, 87–88.

2 Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.

3 The Babylonian Talmud, trans. I. Epstein (London: Soncino Press, 1935), vol. 3, Sanhedrin 43a, 281, cited in Corduan, W. (1997). No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity (pp. 199-200). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, in turn cited from Habermas, Verdict of History, 98.

4 Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96. Cited in Strobel, Lee; Strobel, Lee. Case for Christ/Case for Faith Compilation. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

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Recommended Resources:

Chapter 4 (The Corroborating Evidence) in The Case For Faith
‘The Gospels and Other Accounts’ in Chapter 10 (The New Testament and History) of No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity