Did Ancient Non-Christians Write about Jesus? Part 1 – #4 Post of 2010

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Recently I was in a discussion with a skeptic of Christianity, a man who had been Roman Catholic for 55 years, and then decided that he couldn’t believe Christianity any longer.  During our conversation, he asked what historical evidence I could provide that Christianity was true, so I immediately went into the material in the New Testament.  After listening to me for a few minutes, he told me that all of that material was mythical and legendary, and he wanted to know if I had anything outside of the New Testament.

Now, this is like saying, “Aside from your multiple eyewitnesses, do you have any good evidence?”  But nonetheless, I started to provide non-Christian sources that mention Jesus, only to be stopped cold.  He claimed that there was no extra-biblical, non-Christian evidence of Jesus’ existence in the first two centuries, and that he, in fact, doubted that Jesus ever existed.

I’ve spoken to many skeptics over the years and I have heard a few of them take this position, but it is rare.  From what I know, there are virtually no reputable historians who deny the existence of Jesus.  According to historian Edwin Yamauchi, the idea that Jesus never existed is indeed extreme.  “From time to time some people have tried to deny the existence of Jesus, but this is really a lost cause.  There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus did exist.”  But rather than just make that assertion, what is some of that evidence?

During my conversation, I mentioned the Jewish historian Josephus as one important example of non-Christian evidence, but my skeptical friend confidently told me that Josephus never mentioned Jesus.  Let’s take a look.

Josephus was a very important Jewish historian, born in A.D. 37, who wrote most of his four works toward the end of the first century.  Yamauchi explains, “His most ambitious work was called The Antiquities, which was a history of the Jewish people from creation until his time.  He completed it in about A.D. 93.”   Josephus writes about James, the brother of Jesus, and Jesus himself in The Antiquities.

In the first mention, Josephus recounts how a high priest, Ananias, takes advantage of the death of the Roman governor, Festus (also mentioned in the New Testament), to have James, the brother of Jesus killed.  With the previous governor dead, and the new one not yet arrived, Ananias could take the law into his own hands.

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them a man whose name was James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

Here we have Josephus mentioning Jesus, James, and Festus, all New Testament characters.  We also have corroboration that some people were referring to Jesus as the Christ, which means Messiah, in the first century.  Yamauchi claims that no scholar “has successfully disputed this passage.”  Bottom line: my skeptical friend was mistaken.

There is more from Josephus, plus other ancient sources, and we’ll continue to deal with them in subsequent posts.  Make sure you come back!


  • Boz

    I have found some Jesus-Mythers to be very biased on this issue, becuase they will accept the consensus professional opinion in every field of rational enquiry except for this particular issue.

    Additionally, this passage is troublesome for the doctrine of mary’s perpetual virginity.

  • Bill Pratt

    I have run across the same thing with regard to the Jesus-Mythers. With regard to Mary’s perpetual virginity, you are correct. Here you have an unbiased Jewish historian reporting that Jesus has a brother, James.

  • Well…as with all things Jesus—nothing is clear cut. Even mythers know this passage, of course—the question is whether “who was called Christ” is a later Christian addition to the original. Without that phrase, the entire passage in Josephus still makes sense, considering he goes on to mention Jesus, son of Damneus.

    Here is a good article (imo) covering both arguments for and against it being an addition to the original.

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks for the link. I scanned over it and I agree that it looks like it is a generally balanced analysis.

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  • Jay

    Hello, I’m a sceptical agnostic and would like to raise something with you.

    Google Definitions of the word ‘evidence’ on the Web:

    – # attest: provide evidence for; stand as proof of; show by one’s behavior, attitude, or external attributes; “His high fever attested to his illness”; “The buildings in Rome manifest a high level of architectural sophistication”; “This decision demonstrates his sense of fairness”.

    The above definition and examples contained within are intended to demonstrate what skeptics believe evidence to be. As a skeptical-agnostic, nothing is more infuriating than to be discussing theology with a Christian, and have him/her refer to something written in the Bible as ‘evidence’.

    Say you get home from work and you enter your home, and the first thing you notice as you enter the foyer, is a note on the table that says ‘The dog has climbed all over the furniture with muddy paws and now the upholstery is ruined.’

    With the note in hand you walk in to the lounge room to investigate, however when you get there you find that the furniture is in perfect condition.

    Now with this analogy in mind, Christians say to skeptics when trying to teach them about God: ‘Don’t worry about what your senses are telling you regarding the couch, just believe the note. The note is ‘evidence’ enough that the couch is covered in mud.’

    *Skeptic stands there blinking at the Christian in incredulous astonishment*

    Can you reasonably see how skeptics would be bashing their head against a wall when Christians refer to something written on paper as evidence without something quantifiable to back up that written statement?

    Belief in the Bible is an exercise in faith. It is not a book full of evidence. It is a book that _claims_ to be filled with historical accounts. that in order to be believed needs some form of quantifiable corroboration. Anything less is asking an Athiest to have faith, which is the anti-thesis to their nature.

    How can we be expected to have faith before we have faith?

  • jay, you’re battling strawmen here. Christian apologists, scholars, and theologians do not merely ask you to believe the Bible and that’s it. I am concerned that you either have not been exposed to the relevant literature or are simply uninterested in the truth. If it is the former, I’d be more than happy to point you to the literature or resources or even discuss certain issues with you myself! BTW, why think that nothing in the Bible is true? If even one thing is, then it can be used as evidence to support something (even if the thesis just is that X happened, and X is what is true in the Bible).

  • Bill Pratt

    You said, “Can you reasonably see how skeptics would be bashing their head against a wall when Christians refer to something written on paper as evidence without something quantifiable to back up that written statement?”

    What do you mean by quantifiable? Do historical documents not count as historical evidence? If they do not, then how can we know anything about history?

  • Frank

    Thanks Jay for providing us with evidence of your scepticism towards the Bible. I guess the fact that it’s electronic evidence as opposed to being on paper makes it more reliable. After all if you had written your message on paper, we could not possibly take you seriously. It’s amazing what paper does to words.

  • The man that had been Roman Catholics for 55 years had asked whether Jesus would be in existence 2012 years ago. I would rather ask him whether Isaac Newton and Eistein would have existed before. One might argue that these two persons were not in existence in the past. If Isaac Newton and Eisten were not in existence in the past, why should there be any existence of their thoughts of theories? As Isaac Newton’s principle and Eisten exist today, it proves the existence of Newton and Eisten.
    The same is for Jesus. If Jesus did not exist in the past, why should there be Bible to describe about Him? Not only one book, but many books that were written by different writers confirm the existence of Jesus. If the whole Bible were written by one author, anyone could say the Bible could not be true since that author would have falsified the existence of Jesus. As the four gospels were written by different authors and yet the events did not vary much, all these confirm the existence of Jesus. His existence and suffering is even confirmed by the Old Testament despite His name was not there.

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  • Jordan

    There are so many sources of ancient figures referring to Jesus and his Crucifixion, miracles, his followers and even his resurrection. Whilst I’ll admit that I’m a very doubtful and sceptical person, but even I can see clearly that the Jesus referred to by these non-biblical sources, even the Jewish Talmud is clearly the exact Jesus we have in the New Testament prophesied in the Old Testament. It’s becoming evident to me that the Jesus in the Bible ACTUALLY made the claims to be the messiah, performed miracles, was crucified AND was raised bodily from the dead by God just as the New Testament claims. There’s far too much evidence pointing towards it’s integrity.