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What do we know about Jesus from outside of the Bible?
March 16, 2022
Many people are hesitant to accept whatever the Bible says about Jesus because they assume the authors of the New Testament had an agenda. The real question is not whether the biblical authors had an agenda, but whether they reported the facts accurately. In order to test the validity of the New Testament, we need to consider the supporting evidence for the Bible written by people living in the same time period who did not have a vested interest in the success of the early Christian movement.
People say: History is written by the winners. When cultures clash, the losers are silenced and the winners write the history books—books that glorify their own cause. That’s why many people are hesitant to accept whatever the Bible says about Jesus because they assume the authors of the New Testament had an agenda.
It is, of course, true that the writers of the New Testament were “insiders” to the early Christian movement. But just because they participated in the events they seek to describe doesn’t necessarily mean that their testimony cannot be trusted. Many of the works of history that we trust the most were written by insiders. The real question is not whether the biblical authors had an agenda, but whether they reported the facts accurately. So how do we know if they did? Do we know anything about Jesus from outside of the Bible?
One good way to test the validity of the New Testament is to see whether there is any supporting evidence for the Bible written by people living in the same time period who clearly did not have a vested interest in the success of Christianity.
One such person is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Josephus was born in Palestine around 37 or 38 AD and led the Jewish forces of Galilee in their initial rebellion against Roman occupation in 66 AD. Josephus was captured by the Romans one year later, but he eventually befriended the emperor Vespasian and took up residence in Rome. From there, Josephus wrote several important works of history including the book Jewish Antiquities which explicitly mentions Jesus by name.
Some people believe that sections of this book may have been tampered with as it was copied and distributed. But the highly reputed scholar Geza Vermes stripped out all of the possible accretions and reconstructed the most plausible original version of the text that refers to Jesus. If anything, he might have erred on the side of being overly-conservative. Based on Vermes’ reconstruction, Josephus writes:
“At about this time lived Jesus, a wise man. He performed astonishing feats and was a teacher of such people as are eager for novelties. He attracted many Jews and many of the Greeks. Upon an indictment brought by leading members of our society, Pilate sentenced him to the cross, but those who had loved him from the very first did not cease to be attached to him. The brotherhood of the Christians, named after him, is still in existence.”
Let me point out three things. First, it is clear that Josephus holds a rather dim view of Christians. He calls them people who are “eager for novelties.” But nevertheless, he concedes that Jesus attracted many followers, including both Jews as well as Greeks, meaning anyone who did not identify as Jewish.
Second, Josephus explains that Jesus’ followers did not cease to attach themselves to Jesus even after his death and that the community of Christians named after Jesus is still in existence at the time of Josephus’ writing—most likely towards the end of the first century.
Third, Josephus confirms not only that Jesus was sentenced to death on a Roman cross by Pontius Pilate in response to an indictment brought by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, but that Jesus was revered as a wise man and a wonder-worker of some kind. He not only taught people, but performed astonishing feats.
That is rather remarkable historical evidence about Jesus coming from outside the Bible. Though the New Testament makes claims about Jesus that we may find hard to believe, Josephus gives us even more reason to trust what the gospels tell us.
So where does that leave us? I would encourage you to read one of the gospels for yourself. You could start out by reading the Gospel of John or perhaps the Gospel of Luke. From the outset, you do not have to accept the writings of the New Testament as Holy Scripture or anything special. You can simply read them as the first century historical documents that they are which provide us with an accurate record of Jesus’ life and teaching written by those who knew Jesus best.
There is no reason to think these authors were any less honest than anyone else as they share their recollections of Jesus with us. If you were to read the New Testament with an open mind—without pride or prejudice—you might be surprised by what you find. Please let me know what you discover. And keep the questions coming as we reconsider Jesus—together.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Directed and edited by Andrew Walker