Who Were Christianity’s First to Third Centuries Non-Christian Witnesses for the Historicity of Jesus Christ?

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EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored 170+ books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Christianity has its own testimony that lays the foundation for all Christians, with archaeological evidence that is second to none, which makes the historicity of Christ and Christians unshakable and enduring! There is no need for Christians to build their faith in secular historians. Nevertheless, Christians are in the business of making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) of unbelievers who have been inundated with the question of whether Jesus ever existed and the atheists, agnostics, Bible critics of all stripes, as well as liberal-moderate Bible scholars, who argue that using the Bible and the writing of the early Church Fathers to validate the historicity of Christ and early Christianity is circular reasoning. Thus, as Christian apologetic evangelists, who must reason, explain, prove, persuade, and defend, Christians show that Jesus Christ did live by using sources other than the Bible and the writing of the early Church Fathers. For those who question Christianity, this historicity of Jesus, the authority of the New Testament documents, you need to examine carefully what the secular historians and other writers have written that, in fact, corroborates the testimony of the Bible.

Circular ReasoningChristians, therefore, need to familiarize themselves with the testimonies of the secular historians, for therein is unveiled what an enormous impact Christianity had on the ancient Greco-Roman world some 1,980 years ago. When we consider the tremendous amount of physical evidence from archaeology that is from Bible manuscripts and the writing of the early Church Fathers, coupled with observations and remarks made by non-Christian authors, we have additional evidence that the account found in the Bible about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is not some human contrivance, is not some fanciful made-up story. No, we can have absolute confidence in the historicity of Jesus Christ and early Christianity as laid out by the Bible. Their historicity and authenticity are fully secured, and even the few disrespectful, scornful, disdainful comments of modern-day critics cannot set aside evidence that such events occurred.

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The Christian needs to be aware that the default argument from the Bible critic will be that there is only one secular historical reference to Jesus Christ. That claim is being made by someone who is unaware or someone that is hoping that the Christian is unaware. There are, in fact, twelve secular historical references. Once you state that fact, the critic needs to drop back to his second default argument when he says, ‘yeah, but that is relatively few references to Christ and Christianity encountered in the existing writings of the first two centuries.’ The first response to the critic should be that if you were familiar with ancient history, you would know that historians and other writers only covered the wealthy, the powerful, the warriors, the politicians, and such. Common folks were almost never mentioned. And certainly, Jesus Christ, a carpenter from an obscure town like Nazareth, was certainly as common as it gets. In fact, to have the references that we have is quite impressive. Even with Jesus founding Christianity, the apostles growing it to making up one million disciples by 130 A.D., few historians and especially enemies would have recorded much about them in elaborate detail. In such a pagan world, early Christianity was viewed profanely by almost every segment of society. They were nothing more than a small split-off group from the despised Jews, who had long been hated by the Roman Empire. Some even thought that their effective evangelism was designed to at overthrowing the Roman Empire and its popular idolatry of the day.

Jesus Paul

The Critical Handbook of the Greek New Testament, by Edward C. Mitchell, 1896, Chapter III.

“There is, therefore, but little reason to expect that a heathen historian, writing of his own time, and having no personal interest in Christians, should make very frequent allusions to them, or be very minute or accurate in his description. And we should have still less reason to anticipate that literary men of the same period, whose themes are not necessarily related to Christianity, should go out of their way to make mention of it. Nevertheless, we shall find, upon examination, that a fair proportion of Pagan writers have in some way recognized the existence and spread of Christianity during the first two centuries.”

The Greek historians Appian and Pausanias and the Latin historians ivy, Paterculus, Valerius, Justin, and Florus, all recorded their history before the reign of Tiberius (reigning from 14 to 37 A.D.), therefore, it is not unexpected that they would not mention Christ or Christianity. But we turn our attention to the Roman historian Tacitus (56-120 A.D.), who stands high among all the secular historians of antiquity. He is believed to be accurate in his coverage and faithful in his judgments.  In his Annals, Book 15, in describing how a rumor had been reported that it was, in reality, Emperor Nero, who was the one guilty of burning Rome,

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Tacitus says in paragraph 44:

“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 [Christ], 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 Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre 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. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”—Translated by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb.

Then we have the Roman satirist and poet, Juvenal (c. 60-140 A.D.), who was active in the late first and early second century. He made a reference to Tacitus’ account of the persecution Christians had faced. (Sat. i. 155-157). There is the highly respected Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, Seneca (c. 4 B.C.- 65 A.D.), who became a tutor of Nero in 49 A.D. He made a passing reference to Christianity. (Epist. xiv.) So does the Greek orator, writer, philosopher, and historian Dio Chrysostom (c. 40-115 A.D.), the “golden mouthed.” (Orat. Corinthiac. xxxvii. p. 463) Furthermore, Arrian (86/89 – c. after 146/160 A.D.), a Greek historian, public servant, military commander, and philosopher of the Roman period. (Dissertat. iv. 7. ¶ 5, 6) Moreover, we have Suetonius (c. 69 – 122 A.D.), the Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire, in depicting the life of Claudius Caesar. He says:

“[Claudius] expelled from Rome the Jews, who were continually exciting disturbances, at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ].” (Vit. Claud. cap. 25.) And again, in telling of the cruel persecution under Nero, Suetonius says: “The Christians were punished, a set of men of a new and mischievous superstition.”—Vit. Nero. cap. 16.

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PLINY THE YOUNGER AND EMPEROR TRAJAN

Pliny the Younger (61 – c. 113 A.D.) was governor of Bithynia. He wrote to Emperor Trajan asking what was the best way for him to deal with the early Christians. This writing took place about 110-112 A.D., some 50 years after the martyrdom of the apostle Paul. Pliny had never carried out a legal investigation into the Christians and thus to be on the safe side of things, he consulted Trajan so as to be effective regarding his actions. Pliny did not throw away his letters and Trajan’s replies and so these classic documents are the earliest surviving compelling Roman documents making reference to the early Christians, giving us confidence in the Biblical account of Christ, that he, in fact, did live, that he was an extremely effective teacher, that he had many zealous disciples, whose lives were so far different the paganic people of the Roman Empire, which is why they caught the attention of Roman leaders.

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Pliny admitted in this letter that up unto the time of his writing, he had never personally attended the “trials concerning those who profess Christianity.” he says:

“The method I have observed toward 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 twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.… Others … at first confessed themselves Christians, and then denied it; true, they had been of that persuasion but they had quit it … many years … ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ (Ep. 10.96).” – Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: John, Acts., vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 148.

Still others, Pliny says, revealed that at one time they had been Christians and indeed had “addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity”, but they were no longer Christians, and had not been for some time.—Harvard Classics, vol. 9, pp. 425-428.

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Pliny was making certain that Trajan supported these methods and tactics. Emperor Trajan replied to Pliny on how he had been handling the situation. “You have adopted the right course,” Trajan wrote, “in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you.” Trajan was succeeded by his cousin Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), whom it is said that Trajan supposedly adopted on his deathbed.  In writing to the proconsul of Asia concerning Christians, Hadrian declared: “If, therefore, in accusations of this sort, the people of the province can clearly affirm any thing against the Christians, so as to bring the case before the tribunal, to this only let them have recourse, and not to informal accusations and mere clamors.”—Ap. Euseb. Hist. Eccles., iv. 9.

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ENEMIES OF CHRIST AND THE CHRISTIANS

Lucian (c. 125 – after 180 A.D.) was a Greek satirist and rhetorician who was born toward the end of Trajan’s reign. He criticized the teachings of Christians and mocked their form of worship. Writing to Cronius (a celebrated Neopythagorean philosopher) concerning the death of Peregrinus Proteus ( c. 95 – 165 A.D.), a famous Greek Cynic philosopher, Lucian says, among other things, that the Christians “spoke of him [Christ] as a god, and took him for a lawgiver, and honored him with the title of Master. They therefore still worship that great man who was crucified in Palestine, because he introduced into the world this new religion.”

Origen (c. 185 – c. 254 A.D.), probably the most notable Church Father, has preserved the testimony of some additional non-Christians witnesses of ancient times for the historicity of Christ. For instance, there was a Greek philosopher named Numenius (mid-2nd century A.D.), of which, Origen says, “quotes a fragment from the history of Jesus Christ, of which he seeks the hidden interpretation.” (McClintock & Strong, Cyclopedia, vol. 7, p. 225) Origen also speaks of Phlegon (2nd century A.D.), a Greek historian freedman of Emperor Hadrian, as mentioning the fulfillment of certain prophecies pertaining to Christ.—Contra. Cels. lib. ii., ¶ 14.

Celsus was a 2nd-century Greek philosopher and opponent of early Christianity,  who lived about 130 years after the death of Jesus. He made numerous quotations from the Greek New Testament, explaining: “We take these things from your writings, to wound you with your own weapons.” We do not have the original works of Celsus, but Origen in about 248 A.D. preserved nearly 80 of his quotations (Contra Celsum) from the Scriptures. Jesus, Celsus states, was portrayed as the Word of God; was called the Son of God; was from Nazareth, the son of a carpenter; declared to have had a miraculous conception. Celsus makes allusion to Jesus’ being carried down to Egypt, to his baptism in the Jordan, to the voice declaring him to be God’s son, to the temptations in the wilderness, to the choosing of the 12 apostles. He admits that Jesus performed great miracles: fed multitudes opened blind eyes, healed the lame, cured the sick, raised the dead. He also makes reference to many points of doctrine in the teachings of Christ. And in the end, he refers to the betrayal by Judas, Peter’s denial, the scourging, crowning, and mockery heaped upon Jesus, as well as the darkness and earthquake that came at Jesus’ death, and then the resurrection that followed. Thus this heathen writer unwittingly proved that such things were written down and were universally believed by Christians at that time.—Mitchell’s Critical Handbook of the Greek New Testament.

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Celsus addressed the miracles of Jesus, holding that “Jesus performed his miracles by sorcery (γοητεία)”:

O light and truth! he distinctly declares, with his own voice, as ye yourselves have recorded, that there will come to you even others, employing miracles of a similar kind, who are wicked men, and sorcerers; and Satan. So that Jesus himself does not deny that these works at least are not at all divine, but are the acts of wicked men; and being compelled by the force of truth, he at the same time not only laid open the doings of others, but convicted himself of the same acts. Is it not, then, a miserable inference, to conclude from the same works that the one is God and the other sorcerers? Why ought the others, because of these acts, to be accounted wicked rather than this man, seeing they have him as their witness against himself? For he has himself acknowledged that these are not the works of a divine nature, but the inventions of certain deceivers, and of thoroughly wicked men. – Ernest Cushing Richardson, Bernhard Pick (1905).

The Ante-Nicene fathers: translations of the writings of the fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 4. Scribner’s. “But Celsus, wishing to assimilate the miracles of Jesus to the works of human sorcery, says in express terms as follows: “O light and truth! he distinctly declares, with his own voice, as ye yourselves have recorded, that there will come to you even others, employing miracles of a similar kind, who are wicked men, and sorcerers; and Satan. So that Jesus himself does not deny that these works at least are not at all divine, but are the acts of wicked men; and being compelled by the force of truth, he at the same time not only laid open the doings of others but convicted himself of the same acts. Is it not, then, a miserable inference, to conclude from the same works that the one is God and the other sorcerers? Why ought the others, because of these acts, to be accounted wicked rather than this man, seeing they have him as their witness against himself? For he has himself acknowledged that these are not the works of a divine nature, but the inventions of certain deceivers, and of thoroughly wicked men.”

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Turning to yet another non-Christian witness, the renowned Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (37 – c. 100 A.D.), who was no friend of Christianity. A passage in his Antiquities of the Jews (Book XVIII, chapter iii, ¶3), though claimed to be, but not proved, spurious, reads: “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 [about A.D. 93].” Again, Josephus (Book XX, chapter ix., ¶1) tells how the high priest Ananus “assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”.—Translated by William Whiston.

The sections bolded in the above from Josephus are what is considered spurious, to have been added later by Christians in the church. Therefore, the Bible critic wanted to discount the entire writing. Of course, they would never do such a thing if it was referring to a secular person. They would simply remove what they knew to be a spurious interpolation and call the authentic portion historical evidence, as we should do here as well. When we remove what seems to be spurious, we still have a testimony from a Jewish historian who was no friend to the Christians, who still informs us about the historical Jesus Christ. Josephus has more to say about Jesus by way of talking about James, his half brother.

“Ananus [who was a high priest], therefore, being of this character, and supposing that he had a favorable opportunity on account of the fact that Festus was dead, and Albinus was still on the way, called together the Sanhedrim, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, James by name, together with some others, and accused them of violating the law, and condemned them to be stoned.” – Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 127.

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So, we have two very early statements by Josephus,  who lived 37-100 A.D. Another Jewish source that refers to Jesus Christ as a historical person is the Talmud. One would think the Jewish Talmud would simply ignore any reference to Christ the founder of Christianity because that Christians and Jews were at odds with each other for almost 300 years at the time of compiling the Talmud in the fourth century.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

Thus, we have given the reader a number of the testimonies of many non-Christian witnesses, who confirm the historicity of Christ and early Christianity, both being authentic and true. Let all non-believing Bible critics, therefore, who imagine that Christ has no historical support outside of the Bible, know that they simply have been taught false ideas and misconceptions, and they need to objectively investigate the historicity of Christ and the early Christians, accepting that the Word of God is truth. (John 17:17; Ps. 103:15; Isa. 40:8; 1 Pet. 1:25.) Stop feeding your skepticism, your unbelief, and be receptive to the idea that real historical evidence exists.

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