By GF Herrin
It is part of human nature to want to possess concrete evidence in order to confirm historical events that have taken place in the past. Archaeology, in its own way, is like a picture in time of an event that occurred in the past. It is evidence that points to the validity of actual historical events that took place long ago.
Biblical archaeology provides evidence for facts that previously may have been believed to be unverifiable. Archaeological documents composed by non-Christians provide even more confirmation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christian apologist Josh McDowell states: “Archaeology does not prove the Bible is the word of God. All it can do is confirm the basic historicity or authenticity of a narrative. It can show that a certain incident fits into the time it purports to be from” (Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 370). While Archaeology does not prove that the Bible is the word of God, it does provide a picture of Jesus as a historical figure. And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
With this picture concept in mind, below are several ancient historical references that give us a clear confirmation of the Resurrection and the Events of the New Testament. It can be ascertained from these references that Jesus existed, He worked miracles, and He was believed to have been resurrected after being put to death by Pontius Pilate (Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, 1996, 189 – 90; 195 – 96.). In addition, this documentation presents solid evidence that Jesus was already worshipped as God by the time of the first century. These unbiased historical references are important because they validate the New Testament as a reliable chronology of the life and mission of Jesus Christ and His early followers.
One of the earliest known references to Christ comes from the Jewish Pharisee historian, Flavius Josephus, who became a court historian for Emperor Vespasian in Rome after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Army in AD 70. Josephus wrote several books detailing the history of the Jews. One of his works, Antiquities, describes events in Jerusalem during Pilate’s time as governor. This historical reference pre-dates other known Roman extra-biblical references to Jesus. In this passage written between AD 90 – 95, Josephus writes:
“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 these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named for him, are not extinct at this day” (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 18.3. The Works of Flavius Josephus. trans. William Whiston).
We can discern the following important facts from the passage:
1) Jesus performed good works/miracles and was recognized as a virtuous man.
2) He had many followers comprised of both Jews and Gentiles.
3) He claimed to be and was recognized as the Messiah by some.
4) He was sentenced to die and was crucified by Pilate.
5) His disciples claimed that He was resurrected from the dead and that they had seen Him.
6) He was founder of the “tribe” of Believers who took His name.
Another Josephus passage from Antiquities refers to the event of the death of James, the brother of Jesus: “So he (Ananus) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or some of his companions]; and, when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Josephus, 20:9). Clearly, in this passage there is the connection of James as a brother of Jesus. Also, there is a clear reference to Jesus being recognized as the Messiah.
The earliest known extra-biblical Gentile reference to Christ comes from the Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus, (ca. AD 55 – 120), who lived through the reign of six emperors. Tacitus’ book, The Annals, which was written around AD 115, covers the period of Roman history from AD 14 to AD 68. Tacitus’ account describes the period during which Emperor Nero attempted to blame the great fire in Rome of AD 64 on the Christians (F. F. Bruce, Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?,1946,114).
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures…on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular” (Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. Michael Grant, 1973, 365).
This passage from Tacitus is important for a couple of reasons:
1) It provides early confirmation of the biblical reference that Jesus was put to death by Pontius Pilate (Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:24 – 25; John 19:16). Tacitus’ reference to “the extreme penalty” is a confirmation that Jesus paid for His “crime” by dying. That it is referred to as “the extreme penalty” could also confirm that Tacitus viewed crucifixion to be the most horrible form of capital punishment carried out by the Roman Empire (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus,2004, 49).
2) The passage provides early evidence (from a Gentile government official no less) in the belief in Jesus as Deity. The phrase “mischievous superstition” likely refers to the belief in Jesus as the Messiah/God– man.
A parallel account to the Tacitus reference is given by the Roman historian Gaius Seutonius Tranquillas, the general secretary for Emperor Hadrian (AD 117 – 138). Seutonius also refers to the great fire in Rome and the punishment inflicted on Christians by Nero. An earlier account by Seutonius during the time of the Emperor Claudius (AD 41 – 54) refers to the early Jewish Christians who were expelled from the city in AD 49. This ancient reference provides further evidence for an early belief in Christ. The account also serves as verification of the passage in Acts 18:2, which describes Aquila and Priscilla’s departure from Rome because of Claudius’ demand that all Jews leave the city.
Another early reference to Christians and the crucifixion of Jesus is from the second century Greek satirist, Lucian, who writes:
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all times, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property” (Lucian, The Works of Lucian, trans. A.M. Harmon, 2001, 11-13).
In this passage, we see historical confirmation that by the second century Jesus was commonly worshipped as God. Also, we see a reference to Jesus as a teacher who was crucified for the “rites” that He espoused. In addition, this passage provides confirmation in the early belief in life after death for believers who have put their trust in Christ. The passage also speaks of the early Christians’ identification as a unique family within itself and their collective denial of false gods.
Other secular passages that refer to the crucifixion, activities of early Christians or decrees or ordinances concerning them include references by Africanus, Pliny the Younger, and Emperors Trajan and Hadian. Altogether, these passages provide us with unbiased and reasonable historical proof that Jesus was who the Bible said He was. These passages also provide us information that is completely consistent with the teachings found in the New Testament.