Why would the Roman government brutally persecute peaceful followers of a non-historical figure? Why were tens of thousands of first century Christians (almost exclusively Jewish believers in Jesus) who lived within forty years of the "mythical events," willingly suffer the loss of all possessions and status, and be murdered for a myth? Why would Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, be willing to give up everything and join the crowd that he had admittedly been persecuting? These are some of the questions that the myth theory doesn't satisfactorily explain.
Obviously, if Jesus of Nazareth was a true historical figure, and if he truly was who his disciples claimed he was, then there should be historical references to his existence other than the New Testament documents.
As we search for "extra biblical" (i.e. non-Christian) sources for the existence of Jesus, we will discover that the skeptic hasn't a leg to stand on, when he argues that Jesus was a non historical figure. There are numerous historical references to Jesus, from both neutral and antagonistic sources, as early as the mid first century.
When a historian sets out to prove the historical existence of an individual there are a number of sources that are sought. Perhaps the most reliable sources of historical evidence are from those who were not sympathetic to the person or his cause. A source that is either indifferent or antagonistic to Jesus or the church, could not be accused of bias and therefore part of the "evil plot" to create a mythical figure. As we look at historical references we will try to focus mainly on such historic sources.
Joseph ben Matthias, was born in the year 37 C.E., and died around 100 C.E. As the son of a Jewish priest, he eventually became a priest himself and a member of the Pharisee sect of Judaism. In 64 C.E. He went to Rome to secure the release of certain priests and became convinced that Rome could not be defeated by the Jewish revolt which began in 66 C.E. (The Jewish revolt ended in 70 C.E. When Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans).
In July, 67 C.E. He was captured by Rome and was eventually hired as a scribe and an interpreter by the Roman government. He was given the name Flavius Josephus by his Roman associates and wrote under that name.
In 70 C.E., he rode into Jerusalem with the Roman general Titus and observed the annihilation of Jerusalem. Josephus recorded incredibly graphic details about the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as the crucifixion, and death of millions of Jews.
There are three passages in his writings that are pertinent to Christianity. In his book, Antiquities of the Jews, book eighteen, chapter three, in the third paragraph, he makes a comment about Jesus of Nazareth.
"Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works-a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."
Josephus verifies that Jesus was an historical figure who was crucified by Pontius Pilate that he had a great following, did miracles and rose from the dead on the third day. Josephus does not attempt to explain away the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth nor does he try to explain away the miracles or his resurrection from the dead. Consequently, this is an incredibly valuable historical reference to Jesus of Nazareth.
Needless to say, because of its testimony of Jesus, this passage, commonly called the Testimonium Flavianum, a very controversial passage. Critics have claimed that this passage was a Christian insertion. However, there is strong evidence from the ancient manuscripts that this passage was in the original. It is present in all of the extant ancient manuscripts and was quoted by early church fathers, such as Eusebius, as early as 325 C.E.
The main points of contention are the statements, "He was the Messiah," "if it be lawful to call him a man," and "He appeared to them alive again the third day." Josephus, described as an Orthodox Jew by some scholars, was apparently never converted to Christianity. Origen, a third century Christian, states twice that Josephus "did not believe in Jesus as the Christ." Therefore, opponents argue that it is very unlikely that he would ever say these things of Jesus. Most historians do, however, believe that the reference to Jesus of Nazareth being "a wise man," "a doer of wonderful works", and being crucified under Pontius Pilate, are valid portions of Josephus' original work.
A complete fourth century Arabic version of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, which contains the Testimonium, includes basically the same content as above text, with a couple of very slight variations. Instead of saying "He was the Christ," it says "He was so-called the Christ."
"At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and 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." [Pines, Shlomo. An Arabic Version of the Testamonium Flavianum and its Implications, Jerusalem Academic Press, 1971.]
This very ancient copy of Antiquities increases significantly the reliability that Josephus did, in fact, make historical reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Although there are significant stylistic differences in this Arabic version, the basic elements of the Greek version are preserved in this text. Jesus is described as an historical figure who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Regarding the Messiahship of Jesus, he is described in more neutral terms, stating, "He was perhaps the Messiah." Finally, this version confirms that Jesus was of excellent character, that he gathered many disciples to himself and that Christians were still in existence at that time.
This version can hardly be criticized as a Christian fabrication. It is very unlikely that a Christian in the second or third century would describe Jesus as "perhaps the Messiah." Christians at that time were routinely tortured and murdered for believing in Jesus, therefore, it is very unlikely that a person under such a threat would describe Jesus in such equivocal terms."
The next passage is also in Antiquities of the Jews, book eighteen, chapter five, paragraph two. Josephus states:
"Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away,[or the remission] of some sins [only,] but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now, when many others came to crowd about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence of John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not to bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late."
Although Jesus is not specifically mentioned in this passage, the portrayal of his forerunner, John the Baptist, is in complete agreement with the record of John in the New Testament. Therefore, the historical reliability of the New Testament overall is further established. To Josephus, John the Baptist was an historical figure. Josephus validates what the Christian New Testament says about John. He was a righteous man who had great popularity among the people and he baptized people for the remission of sins. Almost all historians believe that this is a passage from the original text. It is also in the Arabic version.
The third reference is in Antiquities of the Jews, book twenty, chapter nine, paragraph one. This is in reference to the Jewish high priest, Ananius, and the brother of Jesus.
"After the death of the procurator Festus, when Albinus was about to succeed him , the high-priest Ananius considered it a favorable opportunity to assemble the Sanhedrin. He therefore caused James the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, and several others, to appear before this hastily assembled council, and pronounced upon them the sentence of death by stoning. All the wise men and strict observers of the law who were at Jerusalem expressed their disapprobation of this act...Some even went to Albinus himself, who had departed to Alexandria, to bring this breach of the law under his observation, and to inform him that Ananius had acted illegally in assembling the Sanhedrin without the Roman authority."(Antiquities 20:9)
Most historians believe that this passage was penned by Josephus and was not a Christian insertion. Louis Feldman, professor of Classics at Yeshiva University states of this passage:
"Few have doubted the genuineness of this passage."
These three references, though not without controversy, are considered by the majority of historians to be substantially from the pen of Josephus. Professor Shlomo Pines, a well known Israeli scholar, discusses the fact of Jesus' historicity and the references to Jesus by Josephus:
"In fact, as far a probabilities go, no believing Christian could have produced such a neutral text: for him the only significant point about it could have been its attesting the historical evidence of Jesus. But the fact is that until modern times this particular hare (i.e. claiming Jesus is a hoax) was never started. Even the most bitter opponents of Christianity never expressed any doubt as to Jesus having really lived."
Part One concluded.