Did Ancient Non-Christians Write about Jesus? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In parts one and two of this series of posts, we discussed the writings of Josephus and we saw that most historians agree that Josephus did indeed write about Jesus, even if Christians may have added a few phrases later on (this is still debatable, but possible).

There are, however, others who wrote about Jesus at a very early date.  The next of these we’ll mention is the Roman historian Tacitus.  Edwin Yamauchi, the historian we’ve been quoting, has this to say about Tacitus: “Tacitus recorded what is probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament.  In A.D. 115 he explicitly states that Nero persecuted the Christians as scapegoats to divert suspicion away from himself for the great fire that had devastated Rome in A.D. 64.”

So what exactly did Tacitus say about Christians and Jesus?

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures of 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 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. [Annals 15.44]

Tacitus, as can be seen, is no fan of Christianity, but he provides several details about Jesus and early Christians.  Here they are:

  1. Christians were named for their founder, Christus (Latin for Christ).
  2. Christus was put to death by a Roman procurator, Pontius Pilatus (again Latin).
  3. Christus was executed while Tiberius was emperor (AD 14-37) .
  4. His death ended a “superstition” for a time but it broke out again in Judea (where the teaching originated), and made its way to Rome.
  5. Christians were hated and tortured during Nero’s reign.

Again, we see that this data lines up well with the New Testament documents, and again we see that those who deny that Jesus ever existed are swimming upstream against the current of scholarship.

One additional note about Tacitus.  There has been much speculation that the “superstition” to which Tacitus refers is the resurrection of Jesus.  We can’t be sure about this, but Tacitus may be indirectly referring to it.

Tacitus’ testimony about Jesus raises an important question.  How did a swelling religious movement, which started at the far reaches of the Roman empire (in Judea) but reached Rome by the mid 60’s A.D., get started when its leader was subjected to one of the most humiliating and public deaths possible at this time?  Jesus was crucified as a common criminal, but people were following him.  If he was resurrected, then there would be an easy explanation, but if he stayed in the tomb, then how did this movement even get off the ground?  I have never heard a satisfactory answer to that question from those who deny the resurrection.

There is one more non-Christian I want to introduce to you, and I’ll do that in the next post.  Thank you for sticking with this series, which has gone on longer than I originally thought!

  • gdk

    Nice series of articles! Keep it up!!

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Pingback: Tough Questions Answered » Did Ancient Non-Christians Write about Jesus? Part 4()

  • Annelise

    Comparing your analyses of Jesus and the movement of Christianity getting off the ground:
    Joseph Smith was hanged as a common criminal, but people were following him. If he really did read from the Golden Plates of Nephi with magic translating rocks, then there would be an easy explanation, but if he were just a common con man and liar, then how did this movement even get off the ground? I have never heard a satisfactory answer to that question from those who deny that Joseph Smith really did receive a special revelation from the angel Moroni.

    How would you refute this statement?

  • Bill Pratt

    Simple. The immediate followers of Joseph Smith were in no position to know whether he correctly translated from the golden plates or not. He told them that he did, but there was never any eyewitness confirmation. In fact, think about it: how could there be eyewitness confirmation of it? I suppose he could show them the golden plates (my recollection is that a few of his followers claimed to have seen the golden plates, but almost all of them later came out and denied that they had seen them), but the correct translation of the plates could not be confirmed by anyone, because it was an unknown language to everyone but Joseph. Since his followers could not read the plates, they would never know if his translation was accurate. His miracle claim was, in principle, incapable of being confirmed by anyone but him. His followers, therefore, have just taken Joseph’s word for it, without really knowing whether it happened the way he reported. This also applies to Muhammad. His claim was that an angel was communicating the words of God to him. Well, nobody else could see or hear the angel, so they just had to take his word for it.

    Contrast this with Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples of Jesus weren’t just told that Jesus rose from the dead. They actually saw him on multiple occasions after he was supposed to be dead. He appeared to large groups of people, he ate with them, he allowed them to touch him. That is why Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God is so much more powerful than other religious figures’ claims. He didn’t just tell people that he rose from the dead. He actually presented his raised body as a confirmation.

  • Darrell

    Annelise,

    Thanks for coming on the blog!

    I am an ex-Mormon Christian and would be happy to discuss this issue with you. Writing a book (The BOM) is vastly different from being raised from the dead. One can be accomplished by a human and the other can only be done by God. As a result, the fact that JS wrote a book does not guarantee his prophetic mantel. Even granting that he received the Gold Plates from a spirit being is not sufficient to say he was a prophet of God, for the being that delivered them could be, and in my opinion would be, a false spirit. In fact, the Bible tells us that false teaching can be delivered by supposed angels and warns against accepting such revelation or prophecy without first testing it, and when we test the teachings of JS and Mormonism by God’s Word in the Bible we find several contradictions.

    On the other hand, Jesus’s actions were prophesied several hundred years before they occurred, and He even foretold of them Himself. Thus, His being raised from the dead was vindication of His claim to be the Son of God.

    The success of the LDS Church no more vindicates JS as a prophet than the success of Islam vindicates Mohammed as a prophet. In fact, if the success of a movement is the only basis for judging its rightness, then Islam has a much greater stamp of divine approval than the Mormon Church.

    Hope that helps!

    God Bless!

    Darrell

  • Annelise

    thanks for the reply…appreciate the perspective!