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Extra-Biblical References to Jesus

The New Testament contains five history books: the four Gospels and the book of Acts. The Gospels focus on the life of Jesus (up to the year AD 30) and can be thought of as spiritual biographies. Acts is more of a history book; it tells the story of the early church from AD 30 to the early 60s. Acts mentions Jesus’ earthly life, but only in a few verses at the beginning. The rest of the book focuses on the ministry of Peter, and then on Paul. But Acts is not the only history book to mention Jesus. Three historians, two Roman and one Jewish, also mentioned Jesus. These have become known as "extra-biblical" references, meaning "outside the Bible."

The first is from Tacitus (55-120). He was a Roman Senator and historian who wrote several important works, among them one known as the Annals. In that work he tells about Christians in Rome and states "Christus, the founder of the name [Christian], was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius."(15.44) (The numbers at the end of each quote indicate where it may be found in that work.)

The second is from Suetonius (69 – died some time after 122), a Roman historian and secretary to the emperor Hadrian (ruled from 117-138). In his book, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, he wrote concerning the emperor Claudius, "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."(25.4) This reference from Suetonius may match with an incident in which the emperor expelled Jews and that is found in Acts 18:2: "There [Paul] met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome." It must be noted that some believe Chrestus does not refer to Jesus Christ but to an individual named "Chrestus." Yet the verse from Acts would give validity to Suetonius’ reference being to Jews who had become Christians.

The third is from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100).  [Note, many scholars believe this part was added by a Christian scribe later.]  He mentioned Jesus twice, plus in his first reference he included a long description of Jesus. In the Antiquities Josephus wrote: "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 receive 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 among 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 those and then thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named for him are not extinct at this day." (18.3.3)

The second reference to Jesus by Josephus is short and is also from the Antiquities [and most scholars believe it is authenticate]: "[Festus] assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned." (20.9.1)

These three contemporary historians, each living within 100 years of Jesus, provide the only known non-Christian references to the life of Jesus from that time period.

©2006 Mark Nickens

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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