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Historical Accounts Concerning Jesus

In the light of overwhelming historical evidence, no credible historian would deny that Jesus existed. The real issue is who He was and what He accomplished. However, since some today are adamant that ‘history is written by the victors’ and is therefore  biased, it is a helpful exercise to objectively examine the evidence for ourselves and investigate what the authorities of the day, namely the Jewish, Roman and Greek sources stated about the Lord Jesus.

Jewish Accounts

The two important sources here are Flavius Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud. Josephus was from a royal Jewish family who served as a priest and led the Jewish forces in Galilee against Rome that began in AD66. He was captured by the Romans and survived a suicide pact in Masada, the site which has archaeological remains to this day and was appointed by the Emperor Vespasian to chronicle the Jewish War and other writings after the destruction of the Temple in AD70. Jesus is mentioned in two passages by Josephus, the more famous quote is contained below.

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.[i]

This is a man who had studied with the Sadducees, Essenes (the community who existed previously from where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered) and the Pharisees. Though he was aligned with the Pharisees yet was commissioned as a scribe by the Romans that persecuted Christians and Jewish folk alike, his recollection is more than noteworthy, since it affirms some crucial details about Jesus recorded in Scripture.

The other source, the Babylonian Talmud, is a commentary written by Rabbis who recounted that Jesus hung on the eve of the Passover and use a specific term for Him, ‘Yeshu’ (a derogatory acronym), rather than Yeshua.

On the eve of Passover Yeshu 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. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover![ii]

Roman Accounts

Enter Cornelius Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger. Tacitus was a Roman historian and governor of Bithynia in AD112 and also a friend of Pliny the Younger. In his annals, he describes how Nero blamed, falsely accused and punished the Christians as a scapegoat for the fire in Rome.

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 centre and become popular. [iii]

Suetonius was another historian who knew Pliny the Younger well and mentioned him in a number of his letters. Suetonius was a court official in service under the Emperor Hadrian. In his work ‘The Twelve Caesars’, Suetonius writes concerning Claudius.

‘Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.’[iv]

Pliny the Younger was governor of both Pontus and Bithynia, (Turkey), from AD 101-110. He went out of his way to detail instructions concerning the Christians he was persecuting.[v]

“They (the Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.” [vi]

The Greek and Pagan Accounts

The next two sources involve Lucian of Samosata and Thallus. Lucian of Samosata was ethnically Assyrian though wrote in Greek and was a rhetorician and satirist who lived a century after Christ.

“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.”[vii]

Thallus was a Samaritan-born historian who lived in Rome but wrote in Greek around 52AD. Although the only writings we have from him are in the form of citations from others, Julius Africanus, a Christian teacher provides an interesting citation which covered the land at the time of the Passover in AD32, which Thallus attributes to an eclipse.

“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.”[viii]

Notice that Thallus describes the entire scope of the darkness and that there was an earthquake!  Julius Africanus also quotes Phlegon, a Greek second century historian, who also accounted for the same as ‘an eclipse’ though Africanus reasons and considers all the evidence, as any thinking person may do…

But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period.’[ix]

History affirms the biblical account

Although these reports disagree on the ultimate conclusion concerning the full deity, in addition to the full humanity of the Lord Jesus, they provide an invaluable store of relevant facts, namely that Jesus was crucified, that there was darkness and simultaneously an earthquake erupted. For those who maintain that history is written by the victors, some of these sources ridicule Christianity, though unwittingly affirm biblical events. Ultimately only God’s word is authoritative in an absolute sense in its entirety. Nonetheless, these early writings are a helpful resource to at the risk of using a cliché, demonstrate that history is His story.




[iv] Suetonius The Twelve Caesars (Penguin, London; 2003) p200-201

[v] Historical Evidence about Jesus Christ

[vi] Non-biblical accounts of New Testament events and/or people cited in Pliny, Letters, transl. by William Melmoth, rev. by W.M.L. Hutchinson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1935), vol. II, X:96 as cited in Habermas, Gary R., The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company) 1996.

[vii] Non-biblical accounts of New Testament events and/or people cited in Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 1113, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, transl. by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), vol. 4, as cited in Habermas, Gary R., The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, (Joplin, MO:  College Press Publishing Company) 1996.              

viii Daniel Anderson Darkness at the Crucifixion: metaphor or real history  cited in