This is a brief critical analysis of the extra-Biblical evidence for the supposed existence of Jesus Christ.
There is no non-Christian record of Jesus before the 2nd century CE. There were over forty well-known pagan and Jewish historians writing at the time of Jesus’ supposed existence or within a century of that time. Apart from two demonstrably forged passages in Josephus, and two highly disputed passages in the works of two Roman historians, not one of those historians made any mention of Jesus at all.
Flavius Josephus (Joseph ben Matthias) (c37-100 CE) was a highly respected and much-quoted Jewish historian. His two major tomes were History of The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews, the former written in the 70s, the latter in the 90s CE. Early Christians were zealous readers of his work. Josephus was a native of Judea, living in 1st century CE. He was governor of Galilee for a time (prior to the war of 70 CE)---the very province in which Jesus allegedly did his wonders. At one point Josephus even lived in Cana, the very city in which Christ is said to have wrought his first miracle. Josephus mentions every noted personage of Palestine and describes every important event which occurred there during the first 70 years of the Christian era:
‘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.’ Antiquities 18:3:3.
Fact 1. Even if Josephus’ account about Jesus came from his hand, the information, having been written in 93 CE (after the first gospels had been written), can only serve as hearsay.
Fact 2. The passage is absent from early copies of the works of Josephus.
Fact 3. The passage did not appear in Origen's 3rd century version of Josephus, referenced in his Contra Celsum.
Fact 4. The passage is not found in any edition of Josephus prior to the era of Bishop Eusebius, the well-known Christian forger, in the 4th century CE.
Fact 5. Even many Christian scholars (eg Canon Farrar, in his seminal work The Life of Christ) believe the passage is an interpolation.
Fact 6. The words ‘at this day’ confirm that the passage is a later interpolation. There was no ‘tribe of Christians’ during Josephus’ time. Christianity did not really get off the ground until the 2nd century CE.
Fact 7. Besides, the passage is totally out of context and the hyperbolic, even polemic, language is totally uncharacteristic of Josephus.
Questions for Bible-believing Christians:
Q1. Why is it that not a single writer before the 4th century - not Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, etc – in all their defences against paganism makes a single reference to Josephus’ supposed words about Jesus?
Q2. Why is it that the 3rd century Church father Origen, who spent half his life and a quarter of a million words contending against the pagan writer Celsus, who drew on all sorts of proofs and witnesses to his arguments in his fierce defence of Christianity, and who quoted from Josephus extensively, nevertheless makes no reference to the ‘golden paragraph’ from Josephus, which would have been the ultimate rebuttal?
Q3. If Josephus did in fact write the words attributed to him, why then did Origen actually say that Josephus was ‘not believing in Jesus as the Christ’?
Q4. In any event, why would Josephus, an orthodox Jew, claim that Jesus was ‘the Christ’? If Josephus truly believed that, then surely he would have added more about him than one paragraph, a casual aside in someone else's (Pilate's) story?
Conclusion: The passage is a Christian interpolation.
Note. There is another casual reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20:9:1. However, it implies the existence of the earlier obvious interpolation and must fall with it.
Tacitus (Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus) (c56-c117 CE) was one of antiquity's greatest historians. His major works---the Annals and the Histories--- the history of the Roman Empire's 1st century, from the accession of the emperor Tiberius to the death of Domitian. He reports on Emperor Nero's decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in 64 CE Tacitus, in about 120 CE:
‘Nero fastened the guilt . . . 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 . . . 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. …’ Annals 15:44.
Fact 1. The authenticity of this passage has been vigorously doubted by many academics such as Professor W B Smith.
Fact 2. Tacitus gives no source for his material.
Fact 3. Tacitus’ birth date puts him well after the alleged life of Jesus.
Fact 4. Tacitus wrote this at a time when Christians had already come to believe that Jesus had suffered under Pilate. The information was available in Christian material circulating in the early 2nd century CE, from which it could easily have been derived.
Fact 5. Since ‘Christos’ meant Messiah by no other name could Greeks or Romans speak of Messianic Jews.
Fact 6. As regards the enigmatic statement that Christ's death briefly checked ‘a most mischievous superstition’, historian N D Anderson suggests that Tacitus is simply bearing indirect testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had supposedly risen from the grave.
Conclusion: The very fact that Tacitus was born after the alleged Jesus, and wrote the Annals during the formation of Christianity, can only provide us with hearsay accounts.
3. Pliny the Younger:-
Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) (62-c113 CE) was a Roman lawyer, author and scientist. He was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. His Epistles are dated around 112 CE. In the letters to Emperor Trajan Pliny the younger asks Trajan's advice about the appropriate way to conduct legal proceedings against those accused of being Christians, stating that he needed to consult the emperor about this issue because a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity. At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned about these Christians:
‘They 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.’ Epistles 10:96.
Fact 1. The genuineness of this passage, in which the author is just reporting, once again, what others said they believed, has been doubted.
Fact 2. Pliny’s birth date places him out of the range of eyewitness accounts.
Fact 3. The passage provides no evidence for the actual existence of Jesus.
Conclusion: It is almost certain that Pliny got his information from Christian believers themselves.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus) (75-160 CE) was a Roman writer. He is generally considered one of the most impartial historians of ancient times. He was an administrator working as a secretary to the emperor Hadrian, prior to his disemployment by Hadrian. Suetonius is the author of The Lives of the First Twelve Caesars (De vita Caesarum)---a history of Roman leaders---being the source for many works on Roman history. He mentions a ‘Chestus’ in his Life of Claudius:
‘As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.’ The Life of Claudius 25.4
Fact 1. ‘Chrestus’, as Suetonius spells it, is the Latin form of a very common Greek name, such that some say that it doesn’t refer to Jesus Christ at all.
Fact 2. ‘Chrestus’ can mean ‘Christus’, but not necessarily so. It is also a name of the god Serapis.
Fact 3. It is an assumption on the part of Christian apologists that it is a reference to Jesus.
Fact 4. Even if Suetonius meant ‘Christ’, it still says nothing about an earthly Jesus.
Fact 5. Suetonius was born after the supposed Jesus. The passage provides no evidence for the actual existence of Jesus. It is, at best, hearsay.
Conclusion: It is by no means clear that Suetonius was making reference to Christ (‘Christus’). He may well have been referring to a Jewish agitator in Rome by that name who had no association with Christianity, perhaps a semi-Zealot reacting to plans by Caligula to put a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple, or perhaps to some other messianic pretender in Rome. NOTE. There is a second passage which refers to Christians being persecuted under Nero. Once again, it provides no evidence for the actual existence of Jesus.
5. The Talmud:-
The Talmud is the authoritative record of rabbinic discussions on Jewish law, Jewish ethics, customs, legends and stories. The Talmud, a fundamental source of legislation, customs, case histories and moral exhortations, comprises two components, the Mishnah, and the Gemara, the latter a discussion of the Mishnah (though the terms Talmud and Gemara are generally used interchangeably). The Talmud expands on the earlier writings in the Torah in general and in the Mishnah in particular, and is the basis for all later codes of Jewish law, and much of Rabbinic literature. One finds in the Talmud little more than a single sentence about Jesus, telling us that Jesus was stoned to death and that his body was later hanged on a tree for display. Of course, that account of Jesus’ demise is quite different from the accounts in the New Testament Gospels.
Fact 1. There are references in the Talmud to a ‘Yeshu’, but that was a common name in Jewish literature.
Fact 2. It is an assumption on the part of Christian apologists that ‘Yehu’ is Jesus.
Fact 3. According to Gerald Massey, this Jesus actually depicts a disciple of Jehoshua Ben-Perachia at least a century before the alleged Jesus of Nazareth.
Fact 4. The Palestinian Talmud was written between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE. The Babylonian Talmud was written between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE, long after the supposed existence of Jesus.
Fact 5. The writers based their writings on a reaction to the dozens of Christian gospels circulating by those times.
Conclusion: At best, the material in the Talmud can only serve as controversial Christian and pagan legend. It cannot possibly serve as evidence for a historical Jesus.
Note. The Toldoth Jeshu, a 4th or 5th century Hebrew work, but drawing on much older material, which is considered quite authentic by many Biblical scholars, tells us that Jesus wasn’t entombed at all, but was simply buried in an earthen grave, and that his body was later dug up and dragged through the streets of Jerusalem.
6. The Qur'an:-
The Noble Qur'an’, also transliterated as The Koran, is the holy book of Islam. Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the literal word of God and the culmination of God's revelation to mankind, having supposedly been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (c570-632 CE) over a period of 23 years by the Angel Jibreel (Gabriel).
Fact 1. There are references to Jesus in the Koran, but the accounts of his supposed life and death vary greatly from the New Testament accounts.
Fact 2. The Koran states that Jesus was never crucified at all, but that someone else took his place on the Cross.
Fact 3. The passages, given their lateness, provide no evidence for the actual existence of Jesus. However, they do provide an alternative and rather confusing account concerning the circumstances of Jesus’ supposed death.
Conclusion: At best, the material in the Koran can only serve as controversial legend. It cannot possibly serve as evidence for a historical Jesus. However, as with the Talmud, the Qur’anic account of Jesus’ demise is quite different from the accounts in the New Testament Gospels.
(i) There is a small amount of non-Christian material attesting only to the fact that certain people believed that there was a man named Jesus who was killed and who was worshipped as some sort of god---but NONE that he was alive.
(ii) There is not so much as one single demonstrably authentic and unambiguous passage purporting to be written, as history, within the first 100 years of the so-called Christian era, capable of being produced to show the existence at or before that time of such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, or of such a set of persons as could be accounted his disciples or followers.
When is absence of evidence evidence of absence? In general, a mere lack of evidence is not sufficient to conclude a proposition is false. We must also demonstrate:
1. All of the evidence used to support the proposition is untenable.
2. Adequate tenable evidence should exist.
3. A thorough search for this tenable evidence has been made and none (or nothing credibly authentic) has been found.
That is what is known as the 'negative evidence principle': see Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966). True, we cannot prove that Jesus never existed, just as we cannot prove that Santa Claus never existed, for in principle it is, according to the laws of logic, impossible to verify a universal statement, and a statement such as “Jesus never existed” is a universal statement. However, on the basis of the negative evidence principle what we can say is that there are more than good grounds for believing that the person described in the Gospels as Jesus, at least as so described, never in fact existed. That Jesus would appear to be a myth.
Note. This article is a slightly reworked version of an article previously published online on SlideShare.