The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

Jesus: Non-Christian Documentary Sources

The major source of information on the life of Jesus is undoubtedly the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The epistles of Paul are also important early sources for information on the historical Jesus. Before turning our attention to these we will first look for any contemporaneous references to Jesus from sources outside Christianity. If authentic sources outside Christianity exists, these information can be used to corroborate the information from the New testaments, which will only augment the case for the general veracity of the Christian testimony. We will examine two major possible sources, Jewish and Roman. For it was within these two cultures that Jesus lived and died.

Philo of Alexandria

The first major candidate from Jewish sources is Philo of Alexandria. Philo was a Jewish philosopher who lived from around the third decade BCE to around the fifty decade CE. This makes him a full contemporary of Jesus, who probably lived from c.6BCE to c.30CE. We find in Philo's philosophy Jewish ideas mixed with Greek thought. It was Philo who introduced the concept of Logos, which he called the Son of God, the Paraclete, the mediator between God and man. All these were later shamelessly plagiarized by Christians to refer to Jesus. Furthermore, Philo maintained an active interest in the welfare of Israel. If there was a Jew who thought of himself as the Son of God and the Logos (as the gospel of John tells us Jesus did) and miraculously rose from the dead, it is highly improbable that Philo would not have heard of him. Yet in more than fifty works of Philo known to us today, there is not a single allusion to Jesus or to his followers. [1]

Back to the top

Justus of Tiberias

The second candidate would be Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian who was himself born in Galilee about the time of Jesus' crucifixion. Justus therefore grew up and lived among men who, presumably, were still freshly imbued with Jesus and his disciples preaching. It is therefore extremely surprising that in his two great works, a history of the war of independence and a chronicle of events from Moses to Agrippa II (d. 100 CE), not a single reference was made to Jesus. Photius, the ninth century Byzantine theologian, who knew both books commented on this fact with astonishment. [2]

Back to the top

Flavius Josephus

The third candidate is the other Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, whom we have introduced earlier. In his Antiquities of the Jews we actually find two references to Jesus. In the third paragraph of the third chapter of the eighteenth volume we read the following remarkable passage:

Antiquities 18:3:3
At that time lived Jesus, a holy man, if a man he may be called, for he performed wonderful works, and taught men and they joyfully received the truth. And he was followed by many Jews and many Greeks. He was the messiah. And our leaders denounced him. When Pilate caused him to be crucified, those who loved him before did not deny him. For he appeared to them after having risen from death on the third day. The holy prophets had, moreover, predicted of him these and many other wonders. The race of Christians takes its name from him, and still exists at the present time.

Based on all his extant writings, Josephus, was obviously not a Christian. From his own Autobiography we know that Josephus was trained as a Pharisee. The phrases italicized in the above passage are certainly those which no Jew would have made, except one that is on the verge of conversion to Christianity. [3] No sensible scholar today accepts the authenticity of the passage as it stands. Some have claimed however, that by taking away the italicized portions, which they admit must have been added by an overzealous early Christian copyist, we can actually come to the original passage as written by Josephus. [4]

However a more probable solution exist as to the authenticity of the whole passage. The passage quoted, as mentioned above, is the third paragraph of the third chapter. As it stands today this chapter consists of five numbered paragraphs. The first paragraph deals with the trouble between the Jews and Pontius Pilate over his exhibition of the images of Caeser in Jerusalem which the natives considered sacrilegious. In the second paragraph, Josephus describes another row between Pilate and the Jews. Pilate had apportioned some money from the Temple to pay for the building of an aqueduct. The Jews again protested. This time, unlike the first incident when Pilate let them off, he had the Jews massacred. And Josephus concludes the second paragraph with: "And thus was put an end to this sedition."

It was here that the third paragraph with its allusion to Jesus follows. Immediately after this third paragraph, the fourth paragraph starts with: "At about the same time, another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder..." An obvious question arises: what does Josephus mean, in the context of the arrangement of the paragraphs, by another sad calamity? In its present location the fourth paragraph follows the paragraph about Jesus. Was Jesus the sad calamity? Or was it his being risen from the dead? Or was the continued existence of Christians at the date of writing the "sad calamity"? In short, the sentence in the fourth paragraph does not make sense following the third. It only makes sense if it follows immediately after the second paragraph. Here the wholesale massacre of the Jews was the sad calamity Josephus was referring to. [5]

We find further support for the non authenticity of the third paragraph from the fact that while Josephus's works was known to the earlier church fathers, we find no reference to the above passage in support of Jesus' historicity until the time of Eusebius, well into the fourth century. In fact we even find the church father Origen (c185-253) telling us that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the messiah. An unlikely statement, if the passage above existed during Origen's time. [6] These considerations, when coupled with the obviously Christian wordings of the third paragraph, shows conclusively that the passage Antiquities 18:3:3 is an early Christian insertion. In short, pious forgery. This should not surprise the reader, for it is definitely not the only case in history we have of Christians altering the contents of documents to support their faith. In fact, we have already seen a few in the previous chapter in the discussion on the Johanine Comma.

The other passage concerning Jesus in Josephus book is given Antiquities 20:9:1. It relates the death of James which the passage refers to as: "the brother of Jesus called Christ". Some commentators have argued for the authenticity of this passage by stating that this statement is of the sort the non-Christian Josephus would have made. But actually the statement is exactly the way a Christian would write it, this is, in fact the way the gospel of Matthew described Jesus (Matthew 1:16 Jesus, who is called the Christ.). In view of the previous passage, the balance of evidence seems to show that this too is an early Christian interpolation into Antiquities [7] [a]

Thus there is no reference whatsoever to Jesus from contemporaneous Jewish source. We will now turn to Roman sources.

Back to the top

Cornelius Tacitus

Our first candidate would be the Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (c55-c117). In his book Annals, which covered the history of Rome from the death of Augustus (AD14) to the death of Nero (AD69), he related the story of the Neronian persecution of the Christians. It narrated how Nero tried to blame the burning of Rome in AD64 on "the common people called Christians." He went on to explain that the Christians "derived their name and origin from Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberias, had suffered death, by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate."

This passage may well be authentic and actually penned by Tacitus himself. However its authenticity is not, in itself, proof of its reliability. It is important to know the source of his information. In the first place the Annals was written around the year 115 by which the time the tradition, true or otherwise, regarding the death of Jesus would have been established. Furthermore the reference to Jesus as Christ which is simply the Greek term for messiah, as though it was a proper name, shows that Tacitus was most probably referring to the popular opinion about the origin of Christianity.

Some suggestion had been made that there could have existed the report of Jesus execution, perhaps penned by Pilate himself, filed in the Roman archives; and that this is where Tacitus derived his information from. Two considerations make this suggestion dubious. Firstly, the Roman archives, if it did contained any references to the execution of Jesus would have used his proper name, Yeshua or Iesus, but definitely not Christ. Secondly, the title Tacitus gave to Pontius Pilate - procurator - is an anachronism. We know from an inscription discovered in Judea, a dedication of a building by Pilate to Tiberius, that his title was perfect not procurator. In fact, the title of Roman provincial governors was only changed to procurator from the time of Claudius in AD41. Pilate was governor of Judea from AD26 to 37; thus at no time during that tenure could he had held the title ascribed to him by Tacitus. At any rate the archives, as Tacitus himself said, were not available to private individuals , himself included. All the above considerations show that Tacitus was merely echoing popular opinion about Jesus and had no independent source of information. Thus, as a separate historical evidence for Jesus, the passage in the Annals has no value. [8]

Back to the top


The evidence of the another Roman historian, Suetonius (c70-140), Tacitus near contemporary is equally worthless as an independent authentic historical witness to Jesus. In chapter twenty five of his book Life of Claudius, he wrote: "He drove out of Rome the Jews who were perpetually stirring up trouble at the instigation of Chrestus." Claudius was emperor between 41-54 CE. At that time Jesus was obviously already dead. The Christians referred to Jesus as their (spiritual) leader and Suetonius took it literally that their leader was alive and the was the chief instigator. His erroneous use of the title Chrestus as though it was a proper name again points to the fact that he got his information from popular opinion and not independent historical testimony. [9]

Back to the top


There is thus no independent historical testimony on Jesus from non-Christian sources. How are we to interpret this? It shows that Jesus never made an appreciable impact during his lifetime either on the Romans or the Jews. His band of followers must have been pretty insignificant for them to be missed by contemporary Jewish writers such as Philo, Justus and Josephus. His impact on the Romans must be even lesser still for both Tacitus and Suetonius had no independent historical source on Jesus and relied on popular opinion for information on the founder. From this we can conclude that during his lifetime and for a few years after his death Jesus remained an obscure Galilean prophet.

Back to the top


a.Update note: December 2006. Since the writing of this posting some years back, I have changed my mind regarding the authenticity of Antiquities 20:9:1 and the reference to James the Brother of Jesus. I now think that the evidence favors its authenticity. However I still think that the Testimonium Flavianium (Antiquities 18:3:3) as we have it is not authentic. The reasons for these are given in my book to be published by early 2007. Since the main conclusion, that the information about Jesus outside the gospels is scarce, is not affected by this change of mind I have left the main text intact over here.


1.Graham, The Jesus Hoax: p145-146
Guignebert, Jesus: p16
2.Graham, The Jesus Hoax: p145
Guignebert, Jesus: p16
3.Ibid: p16-17
4.Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p52-54
5.Graham, The Jesus Hoax: p189-191
Guignebert, Jesus: p16-17
6.Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism: p179
Guignebert, Jesus: p17
7.Guignebert, Jesus: p17-18
Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus: p211
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p52-53
8.Guignebert, Jesus: p13
Graham, The Jesus Hoax: p160
Wells, Did Jesus Exist?: p14
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p51
9.Guignebert, Jesus: p14
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p51

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by