More Non-Christian Witnesses – Part 2
By John Guzzetta
Last week, we looked at Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan, #96, and discovered that while Pliny was no friend of Christ or the church, his letter provides an important witness to the existence and influence of the gospel in the ancient world.
You see, for many decades in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, certain skeptical scholars suggested that the gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles, were nothing more than stories developed slowly over centuries. That the “church” was, if anything at all, a small group of gullible Jews led by a couple of charismatic men, beset by infighting, remaining in the back alleys and shadows for 300 years or so, until one group made up some attractive stories about their “Christ” that finally caught people’s attention.
This skeptical view has risen to the forefront again, with groups like the Jesus Seminar and authors like Dan Brown suggesting that the New Testament is a book of mythology that didn’t take form until the 4th or even 5th century.
Thankfully, several non-Christian documents have surfaced that prove many aspects of the New
Testament history. Let me use this bulletin to introduce you to them. This is not a complete list, but represents some of the most important discoveries. Remember, these documents were not written by Christians (we possess many documents and letters written by Christians in the late-1st and early-2nd centuries, but skeptics just dismiss these as part of the ruse). As such, they often reveal the misconceptions of the society. Thus, they are not helpful in determining doctrine; only for proving that Christians existed in great numbers all over the Roman Empire.
A Roman historian named Suetonius wrote a life of twelve of the Caesars. In Life of Claudius, XXV.4, he says
…Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [obviously Christ], Claudius expelled them from Rome.
This confirms what we read in Acts 18:2, and shows that the name of Christ was upsetting the world. In his Life of Nero, XVI.2, he says,
Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, as a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition.
As you can see, Suetonius was no friend of the church! But his statement confirms that Christ’s followers were called Christians (Acts 11:26, 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16) and that they were accused of being wicked. In fact, we know that Christians were often labeled “atheists,” because they refused to recognize the Greco-Roman pantheon.
Another Roman historian named Tacitus wrote a history of Imperial Rome. In his Annals 15:44, he says,
“Christus [obviously Christ], the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator in the reign of Tiberius. But the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also… Accordingly, first, those were seized who confessed they were Christians. Next, on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of setting the city on fire, as of hating the human race. And in their deaths they were made the subject of sport, for they were covered with the skins of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when day declined were burned to serve for nocturnal lights. Nero offered his own gardens for that spectacle, and exhibited circus games…”
This confirms what the New Testament says, that Christ’s ministry occurred in the time of Emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1) and focused on Judea (Mark 11:16), that Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor presiding over His hearing (Matt. 27:2), that Christ was executed as a criminal (Luke 23:2), that Christianity quickly spread from Judea to Rome (Acts 1:4, 28:14). This also says a lot about Nero’s flimsy excuse for persecuting Christians, and about the dedication of Christians who refused to deny Christ—a matter for a different bulletin.
Josephus was a Jew captured by the Romans, who witnessed the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, and wrote accounts of the war and of the Jewish people. In his Antiquities 5.5.2 he says,
Some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God … as a punishment of what he did against John that was called the Baptist, for Herod slew him who was a good man… He was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus … and was there put to death.
This confirms the details of the gospels about the arrest and death of John (Mark 6:14–22). While the Jewish nation didn’t ultimately recognize his identification of the Christ, they thought of John as a righteous man and a prophet. Josephus speaks of Christ and James as well, in 20.9.1
Ananus … assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others…
According to Josephus this effort stalled because Ananus had no authority, but at least we see here a reference to Jesus “who was called the Christ.”
Finally, in 18:3.3. Josephus speaks of Jesus alone (although it must be admitted that most people believe this passage, while largely original, shows the signs of being embellished by later editors)
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 love 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 to this day.
Obviously, we can put to rest the suggestion that Christ existed only inside the imaginations of some silly people. These things did not happen in a corner, and the news of salvation in Christ spread to the great and small in Rome in the first century. —John Guzzetta