The foundation upon which Christianity rests is in Jesus’ resurrection. If the resurrection did not occur, early Christian disciples would have remained in hiding, fearful of persecution. If the resurrection did not occur, they would likely have returned to their positions prior to Jesus’ ministry and their cause would have died down as the realization that their leader had died an excruciating and demeaning death sunk in.
But they did not remain in hiding, and Christianity did not die down. Consider that Christianity had an estimated five to six million adherents prior to 313 AD when legalized by Constantine (Wawro, 2008). Why, you ask, did so many people believe despite the potential for persecution?
Jesus resurrected from the dead and early believers who were eyewitnesses to this event refused to recant their testimonies.
Details of Jesus’ life are documented both Biblically and extra-biblically. We have Gospel accounts of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection, along with accounts from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 1:4, Philippians 3:10-11 and 2 Timothy 2:18. We further have five non-Christian sources who confirm Jesus’ death via the crucifixion. These are Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Talmud (Habermas & Licona, 2004). We have seven sources pointing to multiple, very early and eyewitness testimonies to the disciples’ claims of witnessing the risen Jesus who all note that early disciples were willing to suffer for their beliefs in Jesus: Luke – in Acts, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen (Habermas & Licona, 2004). Finally, we have eyewitness testimonies from disciples Peter, Mark, Matthew, Paul, James and Jude, along with the testimony of Luke, who authored the book of Luke and Acts. In Acts, Luke refers to himself in the first person when traveling with Paul (who knew Peter and James), which suggests he was well-aware and had first-hand knowledge of the testimonies of (at least) Peter, James, and Paul.
Nonbelievers such as Richard Carrier have often challenged historians’ majority consensus that the Gospels are historical biographies to make the claim that they’re instead of a mythical genre. He and his peers further assert that early Christian disciples, such as Paul, Peter, and James, who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, had “hallucinations.” Rather than honestly examining why these early disciples braved decades of persecution and endured beatings, stoning, imprisonments, beheadings, and crucifixions to prove their claim, they dismiss them as “schizotypal” or as “delusional.”
Implying a mass hallucination and applying a schizophrenia diagnosis to explain the actions of ancient people in history is not an approach used by professional historians or psychologists. Suggesting that all early worshippers of Jesus experienced hallucinations and had schizophrenia, which is a chronic and severe neurological brain disorder affecting 1.1% of the population, only exposes their biases against Jesus.
Nonbelievers often suggest the entire Bible is a myth, yet even if we did not have the Bible, we have enough extra-biblical evidence to support Jesus. The rest of this blog will provide details on the evidence we have from ancient sources with particular attention to our secular sources.
Historians often request two sources of evidence when piecing together histories, yet we have an astounding forty-two sources within one hundred and fifty years of Jesus’ resurrection that support accounts of Jesus (Habermas & Licona, 2004). These are as follows:
- Nine traditional authors of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude.
- Twenty early Christian writings outside of the New Testament: Clement of Rome, 2 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Barnabas, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, and Epistula Apostolorum.
- Four heretical writings: Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Apocryphon of John, and the Treatise on Resurrection.
- Nine secular non-Christian sources: Josephus (Jewish historian), Tacitus (Roman historian), Pliny the Younger (Roman politician), Phlegon (freed slave who wrote histories), Lucian (Greek satirist), Celsus (Roman philosopher and anti-Christian polemicist), Mara Bar-Serapion (prisoner awaiting execution), Suetonius, and Thallus.
What do the nine secular sources say?
- Josephus (37 AD – 100; Antiquities):
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”
- Tacitus (56 AD – 117; Annals 15:44):
“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. 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 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.”
- Pliny the Younger (61 AD -113; Letters [to Emperor Trajan] 10:96-97):
“It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
Trajan to Pliny the Younger
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”
- Lucian (115 AD – 200; The Works of Lucian of Samosata):
Lucian referred to Christians as “poor wretches” who have “persuaded themselves that they will be immortal.” He said that Christians “revered him [fraud leader Peregrinus] as a god…next after that whom they still, worship, the man crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.”
- Celsus (late 2nd century AD; from Contra Celsus by Origen):
Celsus accuses [Jesus] of having “invented his birth from a virgin,” and upbraids Him with being “born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.”…
- Mara Bar-Serapion (70 AD – ?):
“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. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians 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 teaching of Plato. Pythagoras 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 which He had given.”
- Suetonius (Life of Claudius 25.4)
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”
- Thallus (5 AD – 60; in Sextus Julius Africanus’ History of the World):
“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.”
- Phlegon (80 AD – 140):
“Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth.” (in Sextus Julius Africanus’ History of the World)
“Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to his predictions. So that he also, by these very admissions regarding foreknowledge, as if against his will, expressed his opinion that the doctrines taught by the fathers of our system were not devoid of divine power.
And with regard to the eclipse at the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles.
He imagines also that both the earthquake and the darkness were an invention; but regarding these, we have in the preceding pages made our defence [sic], according to our ability, adducing the testimony of Phlegon, who relates that these events took place at the time when our Saviour suffered.” (Origen).
From these secular sources within 150 years of Jesus’ resurrection, we can draw the following conclusions about Jesus: (1) they considered Him virtuous; (2) He worked miracles; (3) His early disciples did not abandon His teachings; (4) His early advocates were punished for their beliefs; (5) His early advocates sometimes risked their lives and died for Him; and (6) in confirmation of the Gospel accounts, we have secular evidence that an earthquake and eclipse occurred on the day of His crucifixion.
Unlike any prophet who ever walked in this world, Jesus never sinned. No early sources who referenced Jesus’ life confirmed any imperfections in His character. He forgave people of their sins, yet never referenced His own, unlike any other servant leader you and I have ever met.
Why is that, you ask? If He had flaws, would not it have been in the best interests of the Romans or the members of the Sanhedrin to expose them? Would they not have written a “tell all” on His early life?
Compare the celebrities of today. Exposing people’s dirty laundry is “interesting.” It always has been. So why did no one expose Jesus’ “dirty laundry?”
Perhaps consider the fact that He did not have any.
Consider this as well. How could a man of such humble means attract and retain a following well into the millions from a small posse that included a tax collector, a tent maker and some fishermen?
And how could a man who was crucified in a most humbling and demeaning way retain the faith of his earliest doubters and persecutors (c.f., Peter, James and Paul, respectively)? Peter denied Him three times. James tried to stop His ministry. Paul hunted Christians to put them in prison.
After witnessing Jesus’ resurrection, Peter preached for decades and was crucified upside down, as he insisted upon not being on the level of his right side up Savior. Paul was beheaded, after decades of imprisonments, a stoning, and beatings. James, Jesus’ half-brother, was martyred as per the accounts of Josephus and Eusebius. They refused to recant.
What would you do?
With God, nothing is impossible.
“And the truth will set you free.”
Thank you for your time.
In prior blogs, I have refuted many atheists’ claims. For example, I reconciled the four empty tomb accounts here: https://christian-apologist.com/2017/05/20/resolving-controversies-surrounding-joseph-of-arimathea-and-the-women-who-discovered-jesus-empty-tomb/. In this article, I explained why early Christians were so brave: https://christian-apologist.com/2017/04/13/why-were-early-christians-so-brave/. Finally, I offered extra-biblical support for the synoptic authors’ claims that an earthquake and darkness occurred following Jesus’ death on the cross here: https://christian-apologist.com/2017/04/13/on-earthquakes-bloody-moons-and-dating-the-crucifixion/
Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
Wallace, J.W. (2013). Cold-case Christianity. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.
Wawro, G. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Elanora Heights, Australia: Millennium House.