Independent Authors Confirming Basic Christian Facts


Here we discuss a number of ancient non-Christian Roman authors whose writings are nearly contemporary with Jesus and his earliest followers.   Some of our translations of these writings give a confirmation of the basic story of early Christianity which is independent of Christian sources.


In Section 1, we present three nearly-contemporary authors whose writings confirm the beginnings of Christianity with varying levels of detail.  These authors, in order of the dates of their writings about Christians are:

1.1  Flavius Josephus writes in his Antiquities (93 CE) about the lives and deaths of Jesus, John the Baptist, and James the brother of Jesus;

1.2  Pliny the Younger corresponds with Emperor Trajan (112 CE) about charging Christians with crimes; and

1.3  Tacitus in his Annals (116 CE) refers to Nero’s blaming the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE on the followers of Chrestus, and torturing them.


In Section 2, we present two nearly-contemporary authors whose writings may possibly mention Christianity.   These authors, in order of the dates of their writings are:

2.1       Mara bar Serapion, wrote (ca 75 CE) about a ‘wise king’ of the Jews.

2.2       Suetonius, who mentions (ca 120 CE) Jews in Rome using the name of Chrestus.


In Section 3, we list four other authors whose writings do not mention Christianity at all.

Section 1.  Nearly-Contemporary Authors Confirming the Beginnings of Christianity.

1.1.  (Titus) Flavius Josephus   37 – 95/100 CE.   Originally a Jewish priest in Jerusalem, he became a Romano-Jewish historian.  Emperor Vespasian granted him Roman citizenship and Josephus took the surname of Flavius in honour of his benefactor.  He also took on a Roman point of view and lived in Rome from ca 70 to 100 CE.  His set of 7 books, Bellum Judaicum, i.e. “The War of the Jews against the Romans” covers the Jewish war with the occupying Romans from 66 to 70 CE.  It appeared first in Aramaic and later in the Greek which has survived.  His set of 20 books, Antiquitates Judaicae, “Antiquities of the Jews” was published in 93 CE and covers much of Jewish history.  Sources: [Bency, 474], [EH, 104, 377], [PF2, 272], [W/Jos].

The Wikipedia article, “Josephus on Jesus”, is an excellent critical review of his writings about Christianity.  He wrote about the lives and deaths of (a) Jesus, (b) John the Baptist, and (c) James the brother of Jesus.  All of these are from his Antiquities, published in 93 CE.

(a)  His main writing on Jesus is this one: Antiquities, book 18, chapter 3, 3.  Without the parts in square brackets, it is just history.  Most scholars think that the parts in square brackets, known as the Christian interpolations, were added later on by overzealous Christians, to make it appear like an endorsement of the divinity of  Jesus.  This point of view is supported by a later writing of Origen where he complained that Josephus only mentioned Jesus without recognizing him as the messiah.  In Paul Meier’s reconstruction of the passage [EH], the third interpolation is the wider passage marked with the {curly brackets}.

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, [if indeed one ought to call him a man].  For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  [He was the Christ.]  And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease.  {He appeared to them [spending a third day restored to life,] for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him.}  And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”

(b)  His second writing is about the killing of John the Baptist: Antiquities, book 18, chapter 5, 2.  The battle was the 36 CE defeat of Herod Antipas (the ruler of Galilee and Perea) in his conflict with Aretas IV of Nabatea.  Almost all scholars consider this to be entirely authentic.  It is the only reference to John the Baptist outside the NT.

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man … Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion . . . Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.”

(c )  His third writing is about the killing of James, the brother of Jesus.  Antiquities, book 20, chapter 9, 1.  Most scholars accept this as authentic.   Roman records of rulers help date this death to around 62 CE.  Ananas took advantage of the absence of the ruler Albinus to illegally call a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  The underlined part, “who was called Christ”,  is sometimes translated as “the aforementioned Christ”.

“But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity.  Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: … ”

1.2.  Pliny the Younger

In 112 CE, Pliny the Younger, governor of the Roman province of Pontus-Bithynia (in modern day Turkey) wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan about the Christians.  In 111 CE, Trajan had selected Pliny as governor because of his legal training and experience.  I have reduced the translation of the 2.4 page letter to the most important 1.7 pages.  Pliny writes this to the Emperor: [Pliny] [W/PYC]  (We have added the bold typeface to the most famous section).

“It is my custom to refer all my difficulties to you, Sir, for no one is better able to resolve my doubts and to inform my ignorance.  I have never been present at an examination of Christians.  Consequently, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed.  Nor am I at all sure  . . . whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.  For the moment this is the line that I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians.  I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them.  If they persist, I order them to be led away for punishment; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubborness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.  . . .

Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespead and increasing in variety.  An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons.  Amongst these I consider that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue . . .  and futhermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do. . . .

I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you.  The question seems to me to be worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered; for a great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue.  It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult.  I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of the sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it.  It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent.”

Trajan’s translated reply is:

“You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula.  These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must by punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be.  But pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation.  They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”

1.3.  Tacitus   

“The historian Tacitus (c A.D. 55-120) was a Roman historian and senator during the time of Domitian and was later governor of western Anatolia in Turkey; in the latter capacity, he had ample opportunity to interrogate Christians – called Chrestiani – who were hauled into his courtrooms [W/TacCh].

Tacitus’ Annals were published ca 116 CE. The passage below, found in book 15 chapter 44, follows his description of the six-day Great Fire of Rome that burned much of Rome in July 64 CE.

“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.  Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Chrestus, 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 Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.  Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”

Tacitus then goes on to describe the torture of Christians and others, which he feels is not for the public good, but rather to glut one man’s cruelty.  He also accuses Nero of using the Christians as scapegoats.

The argument that this is a valid text, and not just copied from Christian sources, is three-fold: the anti-Christian stance of the passage would not come from a Christian writer; as Rome’s pre-eminent historian, Tacitus was generally known for checking his sources; and Tacitus was a member of a council of priests whose duty it was to supervise foreign religious cults in Rome.

Scholars view this text as establishing three things by 64 CE: there were a sizable number of Christians in Rome; it was possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews; and even pagans made a connection between Christianity in Rome and its origin in Judea.


Section 2.  Contemporary Authors making possible references to Christianity.

2.1  Mara bar Serapion was a Stoic philosopher from the Roman province of Syria. He is noted for a letter he wrote (ca 75 CE) in Syriac to his son, who was named Serapion.  The letter refers to a ‘wise king’ of the Jews, who was killed, and after that the result was that “the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion.”  This is not a convincing reference to Jesus [W/MbS].

2.2  Gaius Suetonius TranquillusSuetonius, ca 80 – 140 CE,  early second century Roman historian, who wrote from 117 to 138 CE.  In his history of the Roman Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) , Suetonius reported (ca 120 CE) that  “because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.”  The same word, Chrestus, was used by Tacitus to refer to Christians, so it likely, but not certainly, refers to ‘Christ’.


Section 3.   Contemporary Authors who don’t mention Christianity at all.  

They are listed because some people think they should have mentioned Christianity and they didn’t.  But absence of evidence for the presence of Christianity is not evidence of the absence of Christianity.  The four authors, in order of their writings, are:

Philo of Alexandria, Egypt (c. 20 B.C.E.–c. 50 C.E.);  Seneca of Rome (4 BCE – 65 CE);  Plutarch of Greece (c. 46 CE – 120 CE); and Justus of Tiberias (late 1st C.)


References

  • Bency         Cornfeld, Gaalyhu, editor, with Bible scholars, historians and archaeologists. Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia: a visual guide to the old and new testament.  NY: The Macmillan  Company, 1964.  713 pp. with index.  Pictures and drawings are black and white.  Their dates are BCE and CE and the emphasis is historical.

  • EH              Eusebius.  Ecclesiastical History or The Church History.  A New Translation with Commentary by Paul L. Maier.   Kregel Publications, 1999.  The original, published in the 300s CE as ten short books.

  • PF2             Fredriksen, Paula.  Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. NY: Vintage Books edition, 2000.  Original Random House, 1999., www.vintagebooks.com, 1999.

  • Pliny           The full translated text of Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s reply is at:    https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html

  • W/Jos          Wikipedia/Josephus on Jesus.

  • W/MbS       Wikipedia/Mara bar Serapion on Jesus.

  • W/PYC       Wikipedia/Pliny the Younger on Christians.

  • W/TacCh    Wikipedia/Tacitus on Christ.