What can we know about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection without using any Christian sources?
It is sometimes alleged that all the sources for Jesus’ resurrection come from biased early Christians, and so cannot be trusted. I do not agree with this approach for a number of reasons: for one thing, that the early Christians were persecuted heavily for their faith suggests that they were not insincere propagandists but probably sincerely believed what they taught about Jesus, including that he was resurrected. And I (along with many New Testament scholars) think that there are other very good reasons to trust at least the basic gist of events as characterised in the New Testament, and particularly those relating to the last week of Jesus’ life. The wealth of independent sources for the crucifixion, for example, far exceeds almost any other event in ancient history, and is hard to explain simply by Christian bias. So let us not underestimate the strength of the historical evidence of Christian writers. The evidence I give here – from writers who not only denied Christianity but despised it – is a radical underestimate of the evidence in favour of Jesus’ identity and ministry.
But there is another reason this objection fails. It is that we can actually know a remarkable amount about Jesus’ final days without using any Christian sources at all. Some people will be familiar with some non-Christian sources for his life, perhaps in the form of the odd reference to his existence and perhaps his death. How much can they really tell us? Indeed, even Christian apologists tend to act as though non-Christian sources just tell us Jesus existed and was crucified, and not much more. So in preparation for a debate a couple of years ago, I made the game harder for myself. I determined to make a case for the resurrection using not a single Christian source. This does, of course, make things much harder. And as I noted at the start, it is not necessary for an honest, robust historical case for the resurrection. But when I took the task seriously, I surprised myself with the power of the case I ended up making. I want to relay some of that evidence here. Of course, I cannot hope to cover non-Christian corroboration of everything in the gospels – there are far too many relevant archaeological and literary finds to hope to cover in an article like this. And of course, much of this evidence supports the reliability of the Gospel authors, indirectly supporting the veracity of the resurrection narratives. But let me focus on more direct evidence for the resurrection in non-Christian sources and see how far we get. I will quote the passages fairly fully but embolden the relevant pieces – the reader may skip the rest of the quotes to save time if they wish.
Turn first to Tacitus, the Roman historian. In his Annals, which covers the history of Rome from 14-68 AD, he turns his attention in Book XV to the fire in Rome under Nero in 64 AD, for which Nero subsequently used Christians as scapegoats. He relates:
But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man. (Book XV, 44)
The key points:
- Christians were persecuted very severely under Nero in 64 AD
- Christians were already disliked
- Their founder was known as ‘Christ’ (i.e. the Greek for ‘Messiah’)
- Christ had been executed in the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD), sentenced by Pontius Pilate himself (Prefect/Procurator of Judaea from 26-36 AD)
- The movement stopped temporarily after his death
- The movement then restarted in Judaea
- It spread to Rome in large numbers
The Jewish writer Josephus, having defected to the Romans after being captured in the Jewish-Roman War, later put together Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the Jews from the beginning of the world through to the war. The work contains three central references to Jesus or his companions. And while the first of these is routinely discarded by lay sceptics as inauthentic, it is fair to say that the weight of scholarly opinion thinks there is an authentic core of the passage, even though scholars typically grant that there are Christian interpolations. The latter passages, of course, suffer from little to no such concerns regarding authenticity.
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 Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men 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 marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Book XVIII, 3.3)
Probably (though not certainly, since Jews had vastly differing concepts of Messiahs, and it is possible Josephus thought Jesus was a Messiah despite not being worthy of significant devotion) Josephus did not call Jesus ‘the Messiah’, although it is very plausible that he thought Jesus was held to be the Messiah by many people (in any case, his being titled ‘Christ’ early on is fairly uncontroversial). And he likely did not believe that Jesus had been resurrected. But he nevertheless otherwise confirms:
- Jesus was known as a wise man and the Messiah
- He performed ‘surprising feats’ and was a teacher
- He won over Jews and Gentiles
- On accusation by Jewish authorities, he was crucified under Pilate
- After this, he was still followed by a group who became known as ‘Christians’
- (Possibly), he was held to have been raised on the third day
Josephus shortly after goes on to describe the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army by Aretas IV and its interpretation as divine punishment for John the Baptist’s execution. He had previously just explained Antipas’ marital scandals:
But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behaviour. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod. (Book XVIII, 5.2)
While John the Baptist is not mentioned as connected to Jesus in this passage, virtually no scholar doubts the relation between them. So, making one tiny exception to my rule of using no Christian sources, we can assume that John the Baptist was an associate of Jesus. But then we learn a few more very interesting facts:
- John the Baptist was executed by Herod Antipas
- He was known as a good person who encouraged lives of righteousness and piety to Man and God
- He baptised fellow Jews and taught that righteousness was necessary for certain worship rituals to be acceptable to God
- He won crowds with charismatic preaching
- Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet governor of Galilee, was alarmed at John’s teaching and worried it would lead to sedition
- John the Baptist was relatively popular among the Jews
Finally, Josephus references James, the brother of Jesus, just subsequent to Festus’ death in 62 AD. He describes James’ execution by Herod Agrippa II:
Upon learning of the death of Festus, Caesar sent Albinus to Judaea as procurator. The king [Agrippa II] removed Joseph from the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to this office upon the son of Ananus, who was likewise called Ananus. It is said that the elder Ananus was extremely fortunate. For he had five sons, all of whom, after he himself had previously enjoyed the office for a very long period, became high priests of God—a thing that had never happened to any other of our high priests. The younger Ananus, who, as we have said, had been appointed to the high priesthood, was rash in his temper and unusually daring. He followed the school of the Sadducees, who are indeed more heartless than any of the other Jews, as I have already explained, when they sit in judgement. Possessed of such a character, Ananus thought that he had a favourable opportunity because Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way. And so he convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned. Those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the law were offended at this. They therefore secretly sent to King Agrippa urging him, for Ananus had not even been correct in his first step, to order him to desist from any further such actions. Certain of them even went to meet Albinus, who was on his way from Alexandria, and informed him that Ananus had no authority to convene the Sanhedrin without his consent. Convinced by these words, Albinus angrily wrote to Ananus threatening to take vengeance upon him. King Agrippa, because of Ananus’ action, deposed him from the high priesthood which he had held for three months and replaced him with Jesus the son of Damnaeus. (Book XX, 9.1)
They key point, of course, is that Ananus convened the Sanhedrin to put James, the brother of Jesus (known as the Messiah), to death.
Turn next to Pliny, governor of Bithynia (northern Turkey) in the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD). Pliny and Trajan shared many letters still extant, one of which concerns Pliny’s approach to Christians in Bithynia:
It is my custom to refer all my difficulties to you, Sir, for no one is better able to resolve my doubts and to inform my ignorance.
I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure whether any distinction should be made between them on the grounds of age, or if young people and adults should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.
For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens. I have entered them on the list of persons to be sent to Rome for trial.
Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Among these I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.
Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ. They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.
I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you. The question seems to me to be worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered; for a great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult. I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent. (Letters, XCVII)
Pliny here confirms a number of details:
- Christians in Bithynia were punished severely
- There were certain crimes associated with Christianity
- Christians were stubborn in their beliefs and persisted to their execution
- Some were Roman citizens
- Christians were freed if they denied Christ and ritually worshiped the Roman gods and Emperor
- True Christians had a reputation for never doing any of these things
- Some Christians in Bithynia had ceased to be Christians 20 years previously – and so Christianity was likely in Bithynia at least 20 years previously
- Christians met on a fixed day before dawn to chant verses
- Christians worshiped Christ ‘as if to a god’
- Christians bound themselves to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and to commit to loyalty and financial integrity
- Christians reassembled later to take ‘ordinary, harmless’ food
- Christians, including women, were tortured
- The Church had ‘deaconesses’
- Christianity was seen as a degenerate, extreme cult
- Christianity had broad demographic appeal and extended into rural areas
- There was a desertion of temples, Roman cultic rites and animal sacrifice associated with the spread of Christianity
Trajan’s response is also extant:
Trajan to Pliny
You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age. (Letters, XCVII)
Trajan adds little new, but confirms that Christians were punished harshly, but spared if they denied Christ and worshiped the Roman pantheon.
Suetonius was a Roman historian most famous for his De Vita Caesarum – a set of biographies about the Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Domitian. He has two separate excerpts of note, the first of which is in his Claudius, regarding the Roman emperor reigning from 41-54 AD:
Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome. (Claudius, 25.4)
Although there is some debate regarding whether ‘Chrestus’ is a misspelling of ‘Christus’, the Latin word for Christ, most scholars agree that it is, according to which the well-known expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius in 49 AD was particularly related to the new Jewish faction started by Jesus – Christianity. So we have here confirmation that Christians were of a sufficiently large number in Rome in 49 AD to warrant the expulsion of Jews from the city. This fits well with the other evidence we have so far considered.
But Suetonius also discussed Christianity in his biography of Nero, who reigned from 54-68 AD:
During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city. (Nero, 16.2)
Both passages from Suetonius mention Christians fairly incidentally, in lists of new policies instituted by the respective Emperors. But here Suetonius again confirms more clearly that Christians were severely punished under Nero, and that Christianity was a new phenomenon which was causing some sort of trouble.
A letter survives from Mara bar Serapion, a philosopher from Roman Syria, to his son Serapion. The dating is unclear, and stands sometime between 73 AD and the 3rd century. Nevertheless, it seems to be another non-Christian reference to Jesus’ life:
What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defence? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the ‘new law’ he laid down.
Mara bar Serapion hints at Jesus’ description as a ‘wise king’ – likely a reference to his status as Messiah among his followers – and the fact that his followers still existed following his law despite his execution.
Ending our discussion of Roman historians, let us look at Lucian, the satirist and historiographer who lived from 125-180 AD. His The Passing of Peregrinus recounts a pejorative biography of Peregrinus, a philosopher who he claims lived among Christians and exploited their generosity. While Lucian was a novelist, he also wrote works on historiography wherein he laid out stringent rules for historians recounting events of the past, and it is generally accepted that this work is broadly biographical rather than pure fabrication. But his clear antipathy towards Peregrinus lends us some scepticism towards the details. In any case, we need not be concerned with the reliability of the details of Peregrinus’ life in the account, since we are concerned with how Lucian portrays Christians here. He gives hints at various points:
It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be?—in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. (11)
Indeed, people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succour and defend and encourage the hero. They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is taken; for in no time they lavish their all. So it was then in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it. The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk. (13)
In 16 he also goes on to mention that the Christians have food forbidden to them. So we learn from Lucian:
- Christianity was based in Palestine
- Christians were associated with synagogues/Judaism
- Christians worshiped a man crucified in Palestine who introduced the religion
- Christianity was prevalent in Asia (i.e. Turkey)
- They were extreme and generous
- They believed in an afterlife, and therefore do not resist punishment, including capital punishment
- They considered themselves brothers after abandoning Roman gods and worshiping the crucified man, whose way of life they followed
- They did not care much for material things and shared them as common property
- They had forbidden food
Turning briefly to non-Roman sources (except Josephus, whom we have already discussed), we move into slightly more controversial territory. A relatively late source (5-6th century, though very likely based on much earlier tradition) the Babylonian Talmud. Of course, it is not sympathetic to Christianity, and notes:
It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days [proclaiming]. “He will be stoned, because he practised magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favour come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favour, and they hanged him the day before Passover. (b. Sanhedrin 43a)
This confirms Jesus’ death at Passover, and his reputation for practising ‘magic’ and ‘leading Israel astray’.
Closer to the time of Jesus, we find that the Sanhedrin in the 80s AD formulated the following prayer:
For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days, and the Nazarenes and the minim perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.
References to the ‘minim’ and the ‘Nazarenes’ in the Talmud normally refer to Christians, suggesting that we here have a very early reference to Jewish antipathy (and probably persecution) towards Christians in Judaea – and a confirmation that Jesus was held to be from Nazareth, i.e. a very small Galilean (and therefore maligned) town.
We turn finally to a marginal case: 7 examples of the Sator Square have been found in Pompeii, necessarily dating to before 79 AD. This set of letters – whose meaning is to scholars unclear – can be arranged into a cross shape spelling ‘Pater Noster’ (Our Father), with two As and two Os – ostensibly transliterations of Greek Alpha and Omega. If this interpretation of its unclear significance is correct it would confirm Christian presence in Italy at this stage. But the evidence is so unclear, and the evidence for Christian presence in Italy at this stage so strong in any case, that I will not use it henceforth.
Of course, this evidence can all be augmented enormously by uncontroversial details taken from the New Testament and other Christian literature, but part of my point here is to emphasise the strength of the case even on the (wildly implausible) assumption that Christian literature has nothing of value to tell us. The sources discussed here are those from within roughly 100 years of Jesus’ life. This is extremely impressive given the insignificance of Jesus’ life by secular Roman measures (bear in mind that the main sources for the Emperor Tiberius are broadly the same as the sources here), and given the ordinary nature of ancient sources for lives: the much larger time disparity between other ancient figures and their biographers is well known and does not need rehearsal here. So let us see what we have in total:
Jesus was from Nazareth, a small and maligned village in Galilee. He performed ‘surprising feats’ and ‘magic’ and was a respected teacher/wise man who won over Jews and Gentiles alike (Sanhedrin prayer, Talmud, Josephus). His movement was associated with John the Baptist, who was known as a good person who encouraged lives of righteousness, piety towards Man and God, who baptised fellow Jews, taught that righteousness was necessary for worship to be acceptable to God, and won crowds with charismatic preaching. John the Baptist was popular among the Jews and was executed by Herod Antipas, who was alarmed at his teaching and the possibility that it would lead to sedition. This may also have been related to Antipas’ marriage (Josephus).
Jesus himself was known as ‘Christ’ (i.e. the Greek for Messiah) (implied by ‘Christian’ in all authors, explicit in several), and as a ‘wise king’ (Mara bar Serapion). He started a new movement which was still associated with Judaism (Suetonius, Lucian).
He was executed (most authors) in the reign of Tiberius and sentenced by Pontius Pilate (26-36 AD) in Judaea (Tacitus, Josephus) at the request of the Jewish authorities (Tacitus, Josephus, Talmud, Mara bar Serapion), because he practised magic and led Israel astray (Talmud). This happened by crucifixion (Tacitus, Lucian, perhaps Talmud) and took place on Passover Eve (Talmud). The movement stopped temporarily after his death (Tacitus).
The movement then restarted in Judaea (Tacitus), perhaps related to a belief in Jesus’ resurrection on the ‘third day’ (Josephus). It persisted after his death (Tacitus, Josephus, Mara bar Serapion; implicit in all). It spread very quickly and in large numbers to Rome, northern Turkey, and perhaps other parts of Italy (Tacitus, Pliny, Lucian, Pompeii, Suetonius). They were present in sufficiently numbers and sufficiently devout to cause disturbances in Rome and Bithynia (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny) and empty temples and ruin the sacrificial market in Bithynia (Pliny). It had broad demographic appeal in age, class, gender and citizenship (Josephus, Pliny) and extended into cities and rural areas (Pliny).
The movement was widely reviled (most authors) and persecuted early on by Romans and Jews alike (Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny, Trajan, Suetonius, Lucian, Sanhedrin prayer), including torture of women (Pliny). They did not fear death and gave themselves over to capital punishment (Lucian). Reasons for this included being scapegoated, being widely reviled, simply being ‘Christian’, not worshiping the Roman gods and Emperor, stubbornness, transgression of the Jewish law, degeneracy, extremism, stirring up trouble, and perhaps depraved rituals related to food (very slightly later evidence confirms this as a charge of cannibalism) (Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny, Suetonius, Lucian). Jesus’ own brother, James, was executed by the Jewish authorities for having transgressed the law (Josephus). They were freed in Bithynia and probably elsewhere across the Roman Empire if they denied Christ and ritually worshiped the Roman gods and Emperor (Pliny, Trajan).
Finally, the movement was both associated with Judaism (Suetonius, Lucian; implicit in most authors) and yet reviled by it (Josephus, Sanhedrin prayer, Talmud). They worshiped Christ ‘as if to a god’ (Pliny, Lucian). They were stubborn in their beliefs until execution (Pliny, Lucian), known for their extremeness and generosity (Lucian), and had a reputation for never denying Christ or worshiping Roman gods (Pliny). They met on a ‘fixed day’ (apparently Sunday), chanted verses, bound themselves to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and to commit to loyalty and financial integrity (Pliny). They had a suspicious food-based ritual (Pliny). They believed in an afterlife and ‘despised death’, apparently not fearing it (Lucian). They considered themselves brothers and followed the way of the crucified Jesus (Lucian). They did not care much for material things and shared them as common property (Lucian). They had ‘deaconesses’ (i.e. ‘servants’ in the Church).
So we really know a rather impressive amount from non-Christian sources alone – much more than that Jesus was executed in the 1st century AD! What we need to do now is explain the data. We know from Josephus (certainly from the interpolated version, and plausibly from the original version) that Christians believed in Jesus’ resurrection. In any case, it is not at all controversial that Christians believed in his resurrection at an early stage after his death. And this firm conviction explains almost everything we see after his death – the martyrdom, the despising of death, the persistence of the movement. Indeed, it would require something like this: a crucifixion victim was cursed according to Jewish law, and Messianic movements invariably died with the failure of the movement and the death of the Messiah figure.
So we have to ask what would cause belief in the resurrection. NT Wright’s work is most helpful here. He demonstrates ably the difficulty of explaining a belief in the resurrection in this case without appearances of the risen Jesus, and without an empty tomb. ‘Resurrection’ meant a bodily raising from the dead, and the Jews were well acquainted with grief hallucinations, visions, subjective feelings, and so on. They had terminology for those other than ‘resurrection’. And the idea of a resurrection before the end of the world was entirely anathema to Judaism. So it would take a radical experience to really convince Jews that someone – most especially a crucifixion victim from Galilee – had been raised from the dead. They would not have believed it if they did not see Jesus risen from the dead. And the movement would have died if Jesus’ tomb were not empty. That the holy day changed from Saturday to Sunday (implied by Pliny) fits the suggestion of Josephus that it was on the ‘third day’ that Christians held Jesus to have been raised. That it started in Judaea (not Galilee) after Jesus’ crucifixion there suggests this as the likely location.
This is not the place to go into detail on alternative explanations of these facts. But I do want to point, at least, to the non-Christian evidence for Jesus’ burial. It is often alleged that Jesus could easily have been not buried, or that his followers might have got the wrong tomb. I explain in a separate blog post (forthcoming) the non-Christian evidence for Jesus’ burial as a necessary part of Jewish practice, including for criminals. It is almost certain even without any Christian sources that Jesus was buried and that the location would have been known.
What was Jesus himself like? He was a Galilean who performed surprising feats, taught wisdom, and was linked with John the Baptist’s movement encouraging righteousness and authentic worship. This movement used baptism and was ended by Herod Antipas’ worry about sedition. He likely taught a stringent and radical moral code detailed above, which included extreme generosity and appeal to outcasts. He probably saw himself as the Messiah, perhaps as a sort of king (which lends itself most naturally to messianic interpretation), and may have instituted something like the Eucharist, perhaps near to Passover. He taught that his followers became brothers, and started a movement that soon worshiped him ‘as if to a god’ – perhaps implying stronger claims than we have made here. These claims very well explain his title as a ‘king’ and Antipas’ worry about sedition.
The question then arises as to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Messianic expectations were ordinarily (though not entirely) military, and his controversial execution as a politically unstable time must have required significant claims or trouble on his part, such as the charge of sedition. But in that case, why is there no hint of any military activity on the part of Christians? The natural interpretation is that he saw his kingdom as spiritual, not military. Of course, this is what we find in the gospels, but it is at least heavily implied by the secular writers.
We noted also that the new movement was heavily linked with Judaism and yet reviled by Jewish authorities. This fits perfectly with all we have said so far: Jesus was a messianic figure, but from many perspectives a failed one. And if he had made claims related to divinity, invited Gentiles and outcasts into his kingdom, and rejected the strict interpretation of the Sabbath for his believers, it is not difficult to see why he would be hated by the authorities.
What we end up with, therefore, is the same basic case made in normal arguments for the resurrection. I do not have space to make those arguments here, although they will be made as comprehensively as possible on my website in due course. But the fundamental question is how we explain the data here. Jesus was a remarkable figure, a unique man, who claimed to be the Messiah and perhaps made claims to divinity, who claimed to institute a spiritual kingdom on Earth, who taught a radical moral code and inspired a group of followers who spread across the world and persisted despite threat of death. After his crucifixion his tomb was empty and his followers (and others) had experiences of him risen from the dead.
All this evidence, of course, vindicates what the canonical gospels say about Jesus. So the evidence presented here in the first places gives us great reason to trust the gospels more than we might otherwise have done. But more acutely, the evidence here impresses upon us directly a picture of Jesus which itself needs explanation. And it is my considered judgment that the most complete, unifying explanation of these facts, given all the historical evidence, is that Jesus really was who he claimed to be. He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, who changed the world with his teaching and revealed the way to abundant life through following him and trusting in him. Through his healings and his death he ended the reign of corrupt humans and evil on Earth and instituted the reign of God himself. As a seal vindicating this ministry, God raised him from the dead, so that his followers, and we too, might despise death and be given to this new and mischievous superstition.