The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 12

Non-Christian Evidence for Jesus

There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 12
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Non-Christian Evidence for Jesus



A. Thallus

B. Pliny the Younger

C. Suetonius

D. Tacitus

E. Lucian of Samosata

F. Mara bar Serapion


A. Talmud

1. Calling oneself “God” or “Son of Man”

2. Details of the trial of bar Kochba

3. A sorcerer who led Israel astray

4. Son of Pandera/Panthera (“virgin”)

5. Hanged on Passover Eve

B. Josephus

1. Information about John the Baptist

2. James, “brother of Jesus, the one-called Christ”

3. The Testimonium Flavianum


A. Summary of these sources

B. Historians wrote on the rich, kings and queens, military people, those of official religious or educational influence

C. Nobody knew this religion would become so well-known

D. We have about what we would expect

  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Non-Christian Evidence for Jesus

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is, of course, on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospel Session 12 non-Christian evidence for Jesus. There's an interesting phenomenon among some people interested in the Jesus of history, whether we can know him, whether he even existed. And it is the notion that all Christian evidence is potentially tainted. Therefore, we have to begin with or maybe even limit ourselves to non Christian evidence. We want to survey that evidence in this segment. But I want to point out some fallacies in that logic right here at the outset. Many first century Christians became Christians because they were convinced by the gospel story and the evidence that supported it. Imagine someone today saying that the only evidence that really counted. For quantum physics was that held by some member of the Flat Earth Society? How bizarre would that be? Well, at least they didn't believe in quantum physics, so it couldn't be tainted. Really? Christians and non-Christians alike. Can tell things from a perspective that is so biased and garbled and distorted that it does not reflect reality. And both groups of people are alike capable of telling history science. Truth accurately if they so choose. So it really is a silly and nonsensical notion that non-Christian evidence somehow counts for more than Christian evidence. But. For the sake of argument, let's play the game. What is the evidence for Jesus? From sources? Jewish, Greek or Roman? Who never became convinced enough to become Jesus followers. We begin with the Greco-Roman sources. A man by the name of Tallis from the second century. Whose works have been lost, was quoted by the later writer Julius Africanus as speaking about the darkness and Eclipse of the Sun. Perhaps that occurred at the time of the crucifixion. Interesting.


[00:03:09] The Roman writer by the name of Pliny the Younger. Talked about. How. Jesus followers after his death quickly began to sing hymns to him and worship him as if he were a God. Interesting testimony into early Christian worship. And to the fact that plenty recognize that such a man lived. What was odd was that he was being deified, not in Roman circles where that was common, but in Christian circles that initially were entirely Jewish. The early second century Roman historian Suetonius talked about a riot in Rome. That led to the Emperor Claudius expelling Jews from Rome in A.D. 49, an expulsion to which the Book of Acts makes passing reference. Claudius died in 54, and after words, those who wanted to were able to return to Rome. But how does Suetonius account for this expulsion? He speaks of the riot occurring at the instigation of someone named Stewart's c h r e s t u s a variant form of the word Chris c h r i s t u. S. The title Messiah, though easily misunderstood in Latin circles as just another name for Jesus Jesus Christ. Not that Suetonius is testifying to a reason for believing that Jesus lived in Rome in 49. His story is probably garbled, but reflects the reality that there was somebody called Christ and that. Those who claimed some relationship to him had something to do with the trouble in Rome. There is another second century, early second century Roman historian by the name of Tacitus who refers to the execution of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate in Judea, which in our current calendar means that he was witnessing to Jesus being in Judea sometime between 26 and 36 A.D., the period of time that pilot was prefect.


[00:06:10] There. In Greek circles, there was a writer by the name of Lucian of Samsara, again from the early second century. Among other things, he calls Jesus a sage and later, a wise king. Whom the Jews executed. Not a lot of detail, but certainly enough to acknowledge that Jesus existed in Jewish circles, had a reputation for wisdom. And yet, paradoxically, to Lucien as an outsider. Was executed. And there's another Greek writer by the name of Mara, son of Sirup Hyun, who talks. About this. Why is King? Talks about Jesus teachings. Talks about the title that pilot had nailed to the cross. Declaring in three languages that he had claimed to be the king of the Jews. Perhaps more interesting and more significant are the Jewish sources. The Talmud is the encyclopedic size collection of Jewish traditions, some of which date to pre-Christian times, the latest of which date to about the five hundreds. On every topic of Jewish law imaginable. Attributed to dozens upon dozens of different rabbis from every period of time in that span, and some of them not attributed to a named rabbi at all. The most challenging task for the historian surveying the Jewish Talmud is to try to determine how old any particular teaching or tradition is. If these circulated orally, sometimes for centuries, even though a rabbi who was quoted may have lived after Jesus Day, the tradition itself may be older. It's very hard to know. And so we have to treat this evidence with caution. But in the Talmud, we learn that anyone who calls himself God or the son of man. Is not to be believed. We could imagine. The commandment not to believe someone calling himself God without it necessarily having anything to do with Jesus.


[00:09:17] But Jesus was unique among people who lived after the time of Daniel, the Old Testament prophet, in terms of using the expression son of man as a self reference. So there does seem to be some allusion to Jesus here and to one of his characteristic forms of self address. There is a description in the rabbinic literature of the trial of a messianic pretender who led a revolution that was as much of an utter failure in the one thirties A.D. as the War with Rome was in A.D. 70. What's fascinating is how many of the details match. The details of the trial of Chase's. Either, suggesting that the form of trial persisted over the decades or that possibly even some of the details of Jesus trial got confused with that of bar kokhba. There is a recurring tradition that occurs in no less than three separate places in different times and periods represented in the Talmud that Jesus was a sorcerer who led Israel astray. What a fascinating claim. It suggests that he had the reputation for working miracles and rather than denying the claim. The actions are acknowledged, perhaps because they were undeniable. But the source of the miraculous power was attributed to the devil rather than to the divine. Not unlike what we read in Mark three and Matthew 12 and Luke 11. When we read things like Jesus being accused of casting out demons by the power of the demonic by Beelzebub. Lord of the Flies. A grotesque name for the devil. In multiple sources. It is acknowledged that Jesus was born out of wedlock. Not surprisingly, since that would have been a matter of great shame and a culture of honor and shame. And he is frequently said to be the son of someone.


[00:12:00] At times called a Roman soldier. With Mary by the name of Pandora or Panthera. Not a common Roman name. But one that sounds suspiciously like what would happen if you garbled the name pun Tehran or the Greek word for Virgin? Son of a virgin. Son of Mary. There is an one track state in the Talmud, the tradition that Jesus was hanged on the eve of Passover. And there is one way to read the Gospel of John, suggesting that the crucifixion was on Passover eve rather than the day after words. And we know that hanging and crucifixion were closely related in ancient Jewish thought because the Deuteronomy command. Or provision that cursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree or a pall was applied to Jesus who was crucified. Given that some of these traditions may be centuries later than the life of Jesus, one can understand how some of them may have gotten a little garbled. But by far the most interesting and significant and the most ancient. Testimony to the life of Jesus comes from the Jewish writer Josephus, who wrote. In the latter third of the first century. Josephus. Gives us information about John the Baptist. He includes a passage describing his execution at the hands of Herod Antipas that is every bit as detailed as the account in Mark six. It does not match identically the details of Mark six, but it is certainly complementary to it. There is a brief passing reference to James, the brother of Jesus, the one called the Christ or the Messiah. But by far the most significant passage, which has come to be known as the testimony of Flavian him because Josephus, his full name was Flavius Josephus. The testimony of Flavius is a text that reads in English translation as follows.


[00:14:59] 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 Messiah when pilot, upon hearing him accused by man 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 the Christians so called after him, has still to this day, not disappeared. Now, there are some suspicious things about this testimony. Josephus wrote voluminous lay before and after this paragraph out of his biblical antiquities. And nowhere does he give any hint. That he ever became or was even tempted to become a follower of Jesus. It seems highly unlikely, therefore, that he could have simply stated he was the Messiah. It seems even less likely that he would simply state on the third day he appeared to them restored to life. And one wonders about the expression if one should call him a man. Interestingly, the writings of Josephus were not valued nearly as much by ancient Jews as they were by ancient Christians because of all of the additional historical background about Judaism and about first century events that Josephus included. For a long time. Many people wondered if because Josephus was preserved. For a long time exclusively in Christian circles if his testimony had been tampered with. In recent times, translations of Josephus into other ancient languages have emerged that black.


[00:17:50] These three questionable statements. Which suggests that that theory may be accurate. As a result, there are some scholars who have questioned whether any of the testimony should be believed. But that doesn't seem to be the most logical move to make. Everything else reads exactly like what you might expect a first century Jewish historian to write. Jesus, a wise man, one who writes surprising feats, an apparent acknowledgment of something like the miraculous which we already saw from the Talmud. A teacher of such people as accept the truth. Gladly. Perhaps said with a bit of irony. A bit. Tongue in cheek bit. Yeah. People who accept the truth. You know, anything that anybody says. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. Perhaps Josephus originally wrote something like he was the so-called Messiah. That is the expression that he uses in the undisputed passage about James. It wouldn't have taken much change for a Christian scribe to simply delete so-called execution under Pontius Pilot by crucifixion. And the continuation of the movement that he had founded. There is other information that we can add to this picture. There are references in the Talmud to five disciples, most of whose names can be matched either with one of the 12 Apostles or Nicodemus, though their Hebrew versions are not always identical to what they would be translating the New Testament Greek back into Hebrew. There are statements that talk about unnamed heretics who got into conflict with first century Jewish leaders over interpretations of the law. If not Jesus, then who? And there is evidence, as one compares the two consecutive versions of the Talmud, the older Palestinian Talmud, perhaps about 300 A.D. and the later. Babylonian Talmud, about 500 A.D. that references to Jesus or that could sound like Jesus were taken out.


[00:20:51] Censored, if you like. Perhaps there were more that never made it into any written Jewish document. But how are we to evaluate these? Someone might say, okay, wait a minute. So putting together everything you've just said. We know from non-Christian sources that a Jewish man named Jesus lived in the first third of the first century, that his ministry intersected in some way with John the Baptist. And he had a brother named James that he was born out of wedlock, that he had disciples, he had followers. He worked some kind of wondrous deeds. He got into conflicts with the authorities, the Jewish authorities, over legal interpretation. He was crucified in a Pontius Pilot, but his movement didn't die out. And eventually people began to worship him and sing hymns to him as if he was a god. Is that all you've got on Jesus? Outside of Christian circles. Yeah. Knowing that 99% of all ancient testimony is lost on any topic. But then let's think about what ancient historians wrote on. Again, it wasn't until 2 to 300 years ago. In any part of the world. That historians and biographers focused on anybody. Other than the rich. Kings and queens and their court generals and military exploits. And people in official, socially certified and endorsed positions of religious or educational influence. And Jesus fit none of those categories. What's more. Even into the second century. Who had a clue that this small. New religious movement. Would someday develop into the religion with more professed adherents nearly 2 billion than any other religion. On a 7 billion person planet. They couldn't have even imagined the 1 billion planet. This is perhaps just about the amount we should expect. From ancient Jewish, Greek and Roman historians not convinced by Christian claims.


[00:23:49] But remember, if they they'd become convinced they would have become his followers. And then those people who say only non-Christian sources count would eliminate their testimony. How ironic is that? But even playing that game. There is certainly enough evidence to say Jesus existed and the broad contours of the gospel claims about him are true.