Hostile Ancient Sources Point to Jesus’ Divinity

We have extrabiblical hostile sources that support Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and claims of His resurrection. Jesus’ existence was supported by Tacitus (56 – 117),[1] Josephus (37 – 100), Pliny the Younger (61 – 113), Mara Bar-Serapion (70 – ?), Suetonius (75 – 160 ), Thallus (5 – 60), as recorded by Africanus, Phlegon (80 – 140), as recorded by Origen, and Lucian (115 – 200). Josephus also said He had a brother named James who was martyred in Jerusalem.

Celsus said Jesus claimed to be born of a virgin and that He lived in Egypt at one point. He further said Jesus had miraculous powers. Josephus said He was a wonder worker, while those who wrote the Talmud said He practiced sorcery.  Phlegon said He had knowledge of the future.

He was virtuous and a wise king, according to Josephus and Mara Bar-Serapion, who also called Him a teacher. Celsus said He claimed to be God and Lucian and Pliny the Younger said He was worshipped as a God by His followers.

The Talmud recorded that Jesus’ execution was ordered because He was “enticing Israel to apostasy” and “practicing sorcery.” Tacitus and Mara Bar Serapion recorded His execution, which Tacitus noted was under Pontius Pilate. Josephus, Celsus, and Lucian specified the crucifixion, which Josephus said ended His life on the eve of the Passover.

Phlegon and Thallus stated that earthquakes accompanied His death. We have geological and historical support for an earthquake occurring in Jerusalem in the year 33 A.D. in a region that includes the Dead Sea fault, which is a plate boundary separating the Arabian plate and the Sinai subplate.[2] For example, some scholars have analyzed seismites in the Holocene Dead Sea Basin, finding that shaking occurred in sedimentary beds and structures in 33.[3]

According to Jewish Law (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), the Jews had to give him a proper burial. “If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

Perhaps for this reason, Joseph of Arimathea stepped up to the plate and buried Jesus in his tomb. Tacitus and Josephus further confirmed that Jews even buried malefactors.

The specific passages from the 9 extra-biblical and hostile sources are as follows:

Tacitus

 “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.”[4]

“The bodies of the deceased they [the Jews] choose to bury rather than burn.”[5]

Jesus’ disciples said Jesus appeared to them alive 3 days after the crucifixion, according to Josephus, and they did not abandon his discipleship. Many were martyred for their beliefs, according to Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger. In his letter to Trajan, Pliny the Younger explicitly stated that he had any Christians who refused to recant their faith put to death. He further noted that Jesus’ followers made an oath not to commit wicked deeds.

“Therefore, to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.[6]

Josephus

“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.”[7]

Pliny the Younger

“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.”[8]

Lucian

“It was now that he came across the priests and scribes of the Christians, in Palestine, and picked up their queer creed. I can tell you, he pretty soon convinced them of his superiority; prophet, elder, ruler of the Synagogue–he was everything at once; expounded their books, commented on them, wrote books himself. They took him for a God, accepted his laws, and declared him their president. The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day,–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Well, the end of it was that Proteus was arrested and thrown into prison. This was the very thing to lend an air to his favorite arts of clap-trap and wonder-working; he was now a made man. The Christians took it all very seriously: he was no sooner in prison, than they began trying every means to get him out again,–but without success. Everything else that could be done for him they most devoutly did. They thought of nothing else. Orphans and ancient widows might be seen hanging about the prison from break of day. Their officials bribed the gaolers to let them sleep inside with him. Elegant dinners were conveyed in; their sacred writings were read; and our old friend Peregrine (as he was still called in those days) became for them “the modern Socrates.” In some of the Asiatic cities, too, the Christian communities put themselves to the expense of sending deputations, with offers of sympathy, assistance, and legal advice. The activity of these people, in dealing with any matter that affects their community, is something extraordinary; they spare no trouble, no expense. Peregrine, all this time, was making quite an income on the strength of his bondage; money came pouring in. 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 trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.”[9]

Celsus (commentary by Origen)

“And since, in imitation of a rhetorician training a pupil, he introduces a Jew, who enters into a personal discussion with Jesus, and speaks in a very childish manner, altogether unworthy of the grey hairs of a philosopher, let me endeavor, to the best of my ability, to examine his statements, and show that he does not maintain, throughout the discussion, the consistency due to the character of a Jew. For he represents him disputing with Jesus, and confuting him, as he thinks, on many points; and in the first place, he accuses Him 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 and on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous power, 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. Now, as I cannot allow anything said by unbelievers to remain unexamined, but must investigate everything from the beginning, I give it as my opinion that all these things worthily harmonize with the predictions that Jesus is the Son of God.”[10]

Mara Bar-Serapion

“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.”[11]

Suetonius

“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”[12]

Thallus (commentary by Africanus; recorded by Syncellus ~800)

“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. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun…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.”[13]

Phlegon (commentary by Origen)

“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.”[14]

In conclusion, if we only had these ancient and hostile sources of Jesus, we would have enough to understand His message, ministry, crucifixion, and the beliefs in His divinity by His disciples. Let us all thank Jesus for His faith, love, and truth.

This is from the 3rd chapter of a new book I’m currently writing entitled “The Power of One.” Enjoy!

 

[1] All years are in Anno Domini

[2] Garfunkel, Z. (1981). Internal structure of the Dead Sea leaky transform (rift) in relation to plate kinematics, Tectonophysics, 80, 81–108.

Kagan, E., Stein, M., Agnon, A. and Neumann, F. 2011. Intrabasin paleoearthquake and quiescence correlation of the late Holocene Dead Sea, Journal of Geophysical Research, 116, B04311. Migowski, C., A. Agnon, R. Bookman, J. F. W. Negendank, & M. Stein (2004), Recurrence pattern of Holocene earthquakes along the Dead Sea Transform revealed by varve‐counting and radiocarbon dating of lacustrine sediments, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 222, 301.

Ben-Menahem, A. (2014) Geophysical studies of the crustal structure along the southern Dead Sea fault. In Garfunkel, Z., Ben-Menahem, Z., and Kagan, E. (2014). Dead Sea Transform Fault System: Reviews. Springer. Enzel, Y., Kadan, G., & Eyal, Y. (2000). Holocene earthquakes inferred from a fan delta sequence in the Dead Sea graben. Quaternary Research, 53: 34-48.

[3] Kagan, E., Stein, M., Agnon, A. and Neumann, F. 2011. Intrabasin paleoearthquake and quiescence correlation of the late Holocene Dead Sea, Journal of Geophysical Research, 116, B04311.

[4] Josephus. Jewish Wars 4.317

[5] Tacitus. The Works of Tacitus, 2, 269.

[6] Tacitus, Annals, 15B, 26-34

[7] Josephus. Antiquities.

[8] Pliny the Younger. Letters [to Emperor Trajan] 10:96-97)

[9] Lucian. The Death of Peregrine, 11-13, in the Works of Lucian of Samosata. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl4/wl420.htm

[10] Origen. Against Celsus, 128

[11] Mara Bar-Serapion (a Syrian prisoner who wrote a letter to his son).

[12] Suetonius. Life of Claudius, 25.4

[13] Africanus. History of the World.

[14] Origen. Against Celsus. 128.

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