Historicity of Jesus
Note: These statements about Jesus are neither scriptural nor theological, but historical responses about him from Jewish, Greek, and Roman commentators. This page exists solely to demonstrate that Jesus lived as a historical man in first-century Judea. His influence extended to some of the most important historians and scribes in the Roman Empire.
Josephus (c. AD 93)
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 among 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
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of 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 (Ant. 20.9.1).
Tacitus (c. AD 116)
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 Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, 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 humankind (Ann. 15.44).
Darkness & Earthquake During the Crucifixion
Thallus (c. AD 52)
Sextus Julius Africanus wrote, "Thallus, in the third book of his Histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me" (Chron. 18.1)
Phlegon of Tralles (AD 137)
In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., AD 33) there was "the greatest eclipse of the sun" and that "it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea" (Olym. Chron. 13; cf. Matt. 27:45, 51; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44-45).
Tertullian of Carthage (c. AD 197)
The Jews were so exasperated by [Jesus'] teaching, by which their rulers and chiefs were convicted of the truth, chiefly because so many turned aside to him, that at last they brought him before Pontius Pilate, at that time Roman governor of [Judea]; and, by the violence of their outcries against him, extorted a sentence giving him up to them to be crucified. He predicted this; which, however, would have signified little had not the prophets of old done it as well. And yet, nailed upon the cross, he exhibited many notable signs, by which His death was distinguished from all others. At his own free will, he with a word dismissed his spirit, anticipating the executioner's work. In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse. You yourselves have the account of the world portent still in your archives (Apol. 21).
Sextus Julius Africanus (AD 221)
As to [Jesus'] works severally, and his cures effected upon body and soul, and the mysteries of his doctrine, and the resurrection from the dead, these have been most authoritatively set forth by his disciples and apostles before us. 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. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the fourteenth day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let that opinion pass, however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. 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 world? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer. And calculation makes out that the period of seventy weeks, as noted in Daniel [9:20-27], is completed at this time (Schaff, pp. 136-37).
Mara bar Serapion (c. AD 73)
What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defense? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the "new law" he laid down.
Suetonius (c. AD 120)
Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [i.e., a possible alternative spelling of Christus], he expelled them from Rome (Claud. 25). Compare to Acts 18:2 ("There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome").
Pliny the Younger (c. AD 112)
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities, but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded (Epist. 10.96).
Trajan (c. AD 112)
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshiping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age (Epist. 10.97).
Lucian of Samosata (c. AD 200)
In a trice he made them all look like children, for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. . . . The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property (Per. 11, 13).
Jewish Talmud (second century)
On the eve of the Passover, 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. Anyone 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! (Sanh. 43a:20).
Was Jesus the Nazarene worthy of conducting a search for a reason to convict him? He was an inciter to idol worship, and the Merciful One states with regard to an inciter to idol worship: "You shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people" [Deut. 13:9]. Rather, Jesus was different, as he had close ties with the government, and the gentile authorities were interested in his acquittal. Consequently, the court gave him every opportunity to clear himself, so that it could not be claimed that he was falsely convicted (Sanh. 43a:21).
While Joshua was reciting the Shema, Jesus came to him, hoping for a reprieve. Joshua made a sign to him with his hand. Jesus misunderstood, thinking he had been repulsed, so he went away set up a brick and worshiped it. Joshua said to him, "Repent!" Jesus replied, "I learned this from you: 'Anyone who sins and causes the people to sin, is not allowed the possibility of repentance.'" Jesus practiced sorcery and corrupted and misled Israel (Sanh. 107b:14).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus the Messiah our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019. p. 586.
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Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews 18. Ed. Peter Kirby. Fullerton, CA: Early Jewish Writings, 2015. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/josephus/ant18.html.
⸻. Antiquities of the Jews 20. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/josephus/ant20.html.
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Kirby, Peter, ed. "Pliny the Younger and Trajan on the Christians." Early Christian Writings, 2021. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/pliny.html.
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