A crucial detail to research is the account of Jesus from sources hostile to Christianity. In the church’s early history, we find three sources of information about Jesus and the Jewish cult of Christians. These accounts offer confirmation of the Gospel’s historicity and accuracy. Christian history confirmed by hostile sources are useful in apologetics as they offer testimony to Jesus’ ministry from those who have no incentive to promote Christianity.
Josephus was a Roman military leader in Galilee. He was captured by the future emperor, General Vespasian. Vespasian adopted Josephus as a member of the Flavian dynasty. In the 90s, Josephus wrote his massive history of the Jewish people, Jewish Antiquities. In the Jewish Antiquities, he wrote about Jesus and his brother James:
About this time, there lived Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to call him a man]. For he wreaked surprising feats and was a teacher of such people who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many Greeks—[He was the Christ]. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.
[On the third day, he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of Christians, so-called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.14 The passage also states that Jesus was called Christ. The result of this quote is the following interpretation of information related to Jesus:
1. Jesus was a rabbi (“wise man”) who worked miracles;
2. He was said to be the Messiah, i.e., by his followers;
3. He was executed by Pilate (AD 26–36) at the request of leading Jews;
4. Jesus had a brother named James (executed by the high priest in 62); 5. “The tribe of Christians” had still not died out when Josephus wrote in the 90s.
Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 AD) was a consul in Rome in 97 AD. He wrote of emperors and their reign in The Annals of Imperial Rome. In eighteen books, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, only books 1–4 (Tiberius) and 12–15 (Claudius and Nero) are intact. The passage relating to the fire in 64 AD ravaged Rome for six days resulted in a grand rebuilding. Nero sought to persecute those who criticized or blamed him for the fire:
Nero punished a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. 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.
Tacitus’s account of Jesus and Judea is listed below. Written about 33 AD from the official Roman archives:
1. Christians in Rome were scapegoats for Nero following the fire in AD 64 that destroyed the more significant part of Rome.
2. Tacitus says that there were vast numbers of these Christians convicted, though not for arson but for “hatred of the human race,” a probable reference to their refusal to acknowledge the importance of Rome and her Caesar.
3. Although these Christians were hated for the “vices” (mainly their nonconformity in Roman religious practices), the population felt sorry for them.
4. Nero had large numbers crucified and daubed with tar and set alight.
5. Tacitus digresses briefly to explain that (a) the Christians took their name from a certain Christ (a Jew?), (b) who was executed in Judea under Pontius Pilate, but (c) surprisingly Christ’s movement (a Jewish sect?) “broke out afresh” in Judea, and (d) his following spread from Judea to Rome. (Tacitus’s version innocently confirms the resurrection-based “breakout” narrated in the early chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.)
Pliny The Younger
Pliny the Younger was a Roman consul in Rome. He was sent to govern the province of Bithynia by Trajan Caesar. In Letter 96, he reports on the spread of Christianity.
Romans were required to invoke the state gods according to Pliny’s dictated statement, engage in the act of worship with incense to the emperor’s image, and also “curse Christ.” Pliny twice refers to Christ but without further explanation:
1. Christians had become very numerous in Bithynia since at least AD 90, so much so that many pagan temples had been closed.
2. Their practices included a meeting on fixed days and chanting hymns to Christ “as if to a god,” confirming very early New Testament texts that Christians met to worship Christ including by singing hymns to Him as Lord (e.g., Eph 5:19, “making melody to the Lord with all your heart”).
3. Christians viewed Christ above the emperor and the gods and would die rather than comply with Roman “tests” of praying to statues of the emperor and the gods and cursing Christ.
Pliny confirms the central claims of the New Testament that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified as the Messiah. Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny use Christ as a name, as the New Testament letters also frequently do. It is evident from the Gospels that “Christ” was initially a title, “the Christ.” The result of these accounts is a testimony to the accuracy of Jesus’s ministry and initial impact on the Roman empire.
See also: Biblical Textual Criticism