Charles Templeton wrote a novel, The Act of God, in which he had an archaeologist make the following statement. “The Christian church bases its claims mostly on the teachings of an obscure young Jew with messianic pretentions who, let’s face it, didn’t make much of an impression in his lifetime. There isn’t a single word about him in secular history. Not a word. No mention of him by the Romans. Not so much as a reference by Josephus.” It is unfortunate that 34 years after Templeton wrote those words that many people continue to believe there is no outside collaboration for the existence of Jesus.
For an obscure Galilean teacher who had no political or social power base to draw from during his lifetime, we have to say, He has left quite an impression on world history. Today, one out of every four people on the planet believe Jesus existed and died for their sins so they could have eternal life. During Jesus lifetime the Romans crucified 30,000 people in the area of Jerusalem, so why should anyone take notice of Jesus if he was just another deluded criminal hanging on a cross? The fact that writers did take notice is impressive in itself.
Templeton said that the Jewish historian Josephus never mentioned Jesus in his writings, but that is wrong because Josephus actually had quite a bit to say about Jesus. What is even more interesting in Josephus’ remarks is the fact that being a Jew he didn’t believe in Jesus. In his book, The Antiquities he mentions how the high priest Ananias took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus, who is also mentioned in the New Testament, in order to have James killed. Josephus writes, “He (Ananias) convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ (ital. mine) and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.” See John 7: 5 and 1 Corinthians 15: 7
From the quote Josephus most certainly knew of Jesus and the claim that He was the Messiah as well as getting the historical facts right concerning the death of James. But, this isn’t the only quote regarding Jesus by Josephus; in his Testimonium Flavianum he gives quite a picture concerning Jesus. “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats 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. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among 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.”
In all fairness there are a few things wrong with this quote and scholars feel that Josephus would never have called Jesus “the Christ” or made the statement, “on the third day he appeared to them restored to life.” These were probably added much later to Josephus in order to give more power to the statement, however that fact doesn’t take away what we do have that is considered authentic by scholars. What we have is Josephus telling us that Jesus was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem, he was a wise teacher who had established a large following, and those followers had not disappeared. And, most importantly, He was crucified under Pilate at the instigation of the Jewish authorities. Again this understanding of the ministry of Jesus and the fact of His crucifixion correspond with the Biblical manuscripts.
Josephus, however, isn’t the only historian to mention Jesus in his writings. Tacitus in 115 AD explicitly states that Nero persecuted the Christians as scapegoats to divert suspicion away from him regarding the great fire that swept through Rome. Tacitus writes, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class of 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 superstitution, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil but even in Rome. Accordingly, an arrest first made 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 makes it clear that Jesus (Christus) died a horrible extreme penalty of death (the cross) under Tiberius and a whole movement sprang up surrounding this death. It is important to note that when Nero persecuted the Christians they were already a mass multitude.
Another Roman of importance Pliny the Younger in his correspondence with Emperor Trajan has quite a lot to say about Christians. He tells Trajan that he is persecuting the Christians in northwest Turkey where he is governor. He says their stubbornness shouldn’t go unpunished then he adds, “They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more that this; they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery.” What is important about this quote from Pliny is not only the proof of the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world but also that the people were worshipping Jesus as a god. It also gives evidence that the followers of Jesus were not easily swayed from their beliefs regardless of the torture and persecution.
There are a number of other writers I could quote to prove that non-Biblical writers were familiar with Jesus and His ministry from an early date. Even the Jewish Talmud mentions Jesus calling him a false prophet and that his healings and miracles were from sorcery. Though this is a negative view of Jesus it is a conformation from Jewish sources that Jesus lived and did miracles, the Jews just choose to disbelieve that Jesus and the miracles he performed were from God.
In short even if we didn’t have the NT documents we would know, based on outside sources, that Jesus was a descendant of David, that He was considered to be the Messiah by a great many people, that he was betrayed, tried and crucified under Pilate. That he was buried and believed to rise again on the third day. And large groups of people, throughout the Roman Empire, soon believed in Him and were then persecuted for their faith.