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Are there non-Christian sources for a historical Jesus?

Notes by David Graieg 

Did Jesus Exist?

It is becoming more common for people to question whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person who lived in the first century. For instance former pastor Robert Price, PhD writes "There may have been a real figure there, but there is simply no longer any way of being sure." [Robert Price, Deconstructing Jesus. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2000. p. 261.]


Why it Matters?

  • Knowing the truth of history is important in and of itself.

  • Jesus is said to have been one of the most influential people in the history of the world, so that would be surprising/interesting if he didn’t exist.

  • Further Jesus is said to have died and rose again (which would need to be separately showed) but if so that has huge implications.


How Can We Know?

  1. The Spirit’s Witness

  2. Historical Investigation


The Witness of the Spirit

  • The testimony of the Holy Spirit personally and directly to you – of a relationship with God through Jesus (Rom 8:9; 16; Heb 10:15; Gal 4:9; 1 John 5:6-10).

  • Plantinga – Warranted Christian Belief


Historical Investigation


Criteria of Authenticity

  • Unintentional signs of history

  • Aramaic linguistic features

  • Criterion of the impact of an event

  • Coherence with existing data

See: Bock, Darrell L. Studying the Historical Jesus: a Guide to Sources and Methods. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002. 220 pages.


Multiple Independent Attestation

  • Having more than one source lends credibility to the account. And not two copies of the same story but two separate accounts that cohere. For instance we have multiple accounts that Jesus performed miracles.


Criterion of Embarrassment (divergent patterns)

  • Embarrassing details for the disciples are unlikely to have been created by the church. For instance why would the early church make up the story that one of their key leaders Peter, denied Jesus.


Double Similarity and Dissimilarity

  • Similar to Judaism thereby suggesting Jewish roots and yet distinct, suggesting growth; and similar to the early church, showing it appropriately fits and yet distinct, suggesting it was not merely created by them.


The Sources

  • Mark, M, L, Q, John (SQ), Paul, Peter, James, Hebrews

  • Church fathers

  • Clement of Rome (90-125 AD) Christ spoke words to be heeded (1 Clement 2.1). His sufferings were “before your eyes” (2.1). The blood of Christ is precious to the Father, poured out for salvation (7.4). The blood of the Lord brought redemption (12.7). Jesus taught gentleness and patience; the author here quotes a series of Jesus’s sayings similar to what can be found in Matthew and Luke (13.1–2). The Lord Jesus Christ came humbly, not with arrogance or haughtiness (16.2). Jesus came from Jacob “according to the flesh” (32.2). The Lord adorned himself with good works (33.7). Another quotation of “the words of our Lord Jesus” (46.8, comparable to Matthew 26:24 and Luke 17:2). Those who experience love in Christ should do what Christ commanded (49.1). Out of his love, the Lord Jesus Christ “gave his blood for us, his flesh for our flesh, his soul for our souls” (49.6).

  • Ignatius of Antioch (110-115AD) For you are fully convinced about our Lord, that he was truly from the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born from a virgin, and baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him. In the time of Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod, he was truly nailed for us in the flesh—we ourselves come from the fruit of his divinely blessed suffering—so that through his resurrection he might eternally lift up the standard for his holy and faithful ones, whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of his church. For he suffered all these things for our sake, that we might be saved; and he truly suffered, just as he also truly raised himself—not as some unbelievers say, that he suffered only in appearance. They are the ones who are only an appearance; and it will happen to them just as they think, since they are without bodies, like the daimons. For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection. (Ignatius to the Smyrneans 1–2)



  • 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 surprising 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 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 for him, are not extinct to this day. (Josephus, Antiquities 18.63–64) about 93AD

  • “[Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” Antiquities 20.197-203.


  • Roman historian who wrote in early second century (about AD 116), “Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts, whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city, where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.“ (Annals 15.44)


Pliny the Younger

Governor of Pontus-Bithynia in Asia Minor who wrote to Emperor Trajan in 112 C.E. seeking advice on handling Christians

  • “An anonymous accusatory pamphlet has been circulated containing the names of many people. I decided to dismiss any who denied that they are or ever have been Christians when they repeated after me a formula invoking the gods and made offerings of wine and incense to your image, which I had ordered to be brought with the images of the gods into court for this reason, and when they reviled Christ. I understand that no one who is really a Christian can be made to do these things.”


Mara bar Serapion

  • Mara bar Serapion, writing sometime after 73 C.E in War 7.219–43; Mara Bar Serapion is writing from prison to encourage his son to emulate wise teachers of history:
    "What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment 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 that their kingdom was abolished [in 70 AD]. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samaritans were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching he had given."


  • Suetonius (AD69-122) "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome." (Claudius 25) "During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians,[43] a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city." (Nero 16)



  • Lucian of Samosata’s The Passing/Death of Peregrinus 11-13 (c. AD 115–200) "The Christians, you know, worship a "man" to this day-the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on their 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. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property."



  • Julius Africanus (AD 170–240) quotes Thallos' (a historian writing around 52-55 C.E.). "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.“



  • Rabbinic text (b. Sanhedrin 43a) "On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [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. Any one who can say anything in his favor, 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!“



  • Origen counters Celsus' work in 175 C.E. where the latter questioned whether Jesus was truly born of a virgin, suggesting that he was sired through adultery instead.


1 Corinthians 15

  • It should be noted that the general consensus that the best and more reliable information we about Jesus is the documents found in the New Testament, these are closer, and copies are far more abundant, etc. 

  • Some scholars (i.e. James Dunn) date this to within 18 months of actual events and most scholars within 5 years: 1 Cor 15:3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (NET)

Myth and Legend over time

  • Accusation that the Bible is written too late

  • The early dating of the gospels ensures they were written during lifetime of the eyewitnesses who could refute legend


Copied pagan myths of dying-and-rising deities.

  • Superficial (i.e. Tammuz Osiris, Adonis season symbols for the crop cycle)

  • Is there a causal connection?



  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet 1:3)



  • Bart D. Ehrman. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2013. 368 pages.

  • Frank R. Zindler, and Robert Price, editors. Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman s Did Jesus Exist? Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press, 2013. 608 pages.

  • Richard Carrier. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014. 712 pages.

  • Lataster, Raphael. Jesus Did Not Exist: a Debate Among Atheists. 2015. 458 pages.

  • Robert M. Price. The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press, 2011. 427 pages.

  • David Fitzgerald. Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. USA: Lulu, 2010. 248 pages.

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