View Full Version : External Evidences: Writings Outside the New Testament

10-10-2009, 07:05 PM
External Evidences: Writings Outside the New Testament

New Testament writers were not in league with each other at the point of writing. Nothing Mark wrote indicates any verbal influence by Paul, or vice versa. John did not depend on Paul nor, many scholars believe, upon Mark. While Luke and Matthew have used Mark, their Gospels appear to have been written independently of each other and of John. While James, Hebrews and 1 Peter hold some ideas in common with Paul, none of them appears to have been influenced by, or to be dependent upon, the other.

Some of the New Testament authors were even skeptics before they became convinced of the truth of the Christian message themselves, namely Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of Christians) and James (brother of Jesus, who was not a believer until after Jesus' death & resurrection). Therefore, even if there were no available sources outside the New Testament we would still possess several sources, not a single source, and some of the authors were formerly hostile to Christian belief. This is more than we possess for many other incidents of history which are generally accepted as factual! However, in addition, there are also several corroborating sources outside of the New Testament.

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, confirms several of the central figures in the New Testament, such as John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus himself, as well as others minor figures like Augustus, Tiberius, Pilate, Annas, and Caiaphas. One of Josephus' references to Jesus, found in Josephus' Antiquities xx.9.1, concerns James, "the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ". This reference confirms with the New Testament that, at least, Jesus existed, had a brother who was martyred for his faith, and that some called Jesus "the Christ". This passage is generally undisputed, and most conclude that "the authenticity of the text may be taken as certain" because the reference is minimal and shows no signs of interpolation (among other reasons).

G. A. Wells' position, that the entire passage is an interpolation because when it is removed the writing flows naturally, is misguided, since the passage would not actually flow any better without it. Regardless, he says even if that were true, "It is in any case typical of Josephus‟ style to include short stories as "digressions". The positive references to Jesus were written by Josephus and intended as sarcasm, "tongue-in-cheek".

A second reference is found in Josephus’ Antiquities (xviii.3.3) and is known as the Testimonium Flavianum. It verifies many details about Jesus' life and acts (such as his "surprising feats", teaching, encounter with Pilate, condemnation, appearances, etc), but, unlike the first passage, the validity of this second passage is partially in dispute. Most scholars conclude that the majority of the Testimonium Flavianum is original and accurate, with possibly three interpolations, although a minority argue that the entire passage is a later interpolation, while yet another minority argue that the entire passage is legitimate.

Noted New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce gives the following plausible reconstruction of the passage (which he believes reflects the content of the original) although since all existing copies (with the exception of one later Aramaic copy) are nearly identical, any reconstruction is speculative:

Now there arose about this time a source of further trouble in one Jesus, a wise man who performed surprising works, a teacher of men who gladly welcome strange things.

He led away many Jews, and also many of the Gentiles. He was the so-called Christ. When Pilate, acting on information supplied by the chief men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had attached themselves to him at first did not cease to cause trouble, and the tribe of Christians, which has taken this name from him, is not extinct even today.
Van Voorst argues persuasively that Suetonius' reference to "Chrestus" does indeed refer to Jesus; as does Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 191; see also Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, 28-29; Bruce, The New Testament Documents, 122.

Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, 53-58; Van Voorst concludes that Jesus is without a doubt the one referred to as "wise king" in Suetonius, as do Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, 76-79.

A second source comes to us from Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote his Annals of Imperial Rome around 115 AD. In it he confirms several biblical details, including that Jesus lived when Pilate was governor and Tiberius was emperor, and that Jesus was executed as a criminal. He also confirms the early existence of Christian groups, that the movement began in Jerusalem, and that an "immense multitude" had become convinced of the Christian message. Tacitus' writing does not seem to be derived from Christian sources, and he may have derived his information in part from official Roman records. Few would suggest that this passage is a forgery, since it is found in all existing copies, is stylistically the same as Tacitus’ other written work, and is very anti-Christian in tone. Tacitus is also considered by historians to be an eminently reliable writer.

There are several other early extra-biblical references, including Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, Jewish Rabbinic tradition in the Talmud (where Jesus' miracles are not denied, but it is claimed that Jesus performed them by means of sorcery!), and early (pre 80 AD) Christian inscriptions in Pompeii, as well as the extra-biblical Christian writings of the church fathers.

Another potential source (which was likely written in the first century) which has unfortunately been lost is the writing of Thallus, which is still partially preserved (secondhand) in the writings of Julius Africanus.

Some may wonder why we do not find more frequent mention of Jesus in extra-biblical sources. First, it's worth reiterating that the New Testament itself contains several independent sources, and thus represents a collection of independent sources itself rather than only one single source. This is significant because the New Testament itself includes several sources.

Second, we should be aware that most historians of the first century were interested primarily in political matters, and although Jesus was condemned by the Roman government, His movement was not primarily political. The usual intended readership of early history was Roman leaders, who would not likely be interested in reading about a Jewish prophet and especially not material that would be in any way laudatory of Him, his teaching, or his deeds. Therefore we would not expect lengthy treatment of Jesus by non-Christian historians, and, due to the usual emphases of ancient historians, "it is remarkable that Jesus gets mentioned at all." Even so, Jesus was still mentioned by two of the three most important historians of Rome (Tacitus and Seutonius, but not Dio Cassius), the most important Jewish historian (Josephus) and several other sources as described above.

Additionally, there is actually less evidence for certain historical figures whose existence is not doubted (for example Rabbi Hillel, or Simon bar Kochba) than there is for Jesus, so if those figures are accepted as historical, Jesus must also be accepted as a real historical person.

Finally, archaeological findings (as previously noted) provide confirmatory evidence that the New Testament documents are accurate at points where it can be objectively tested, leading scholars to conclude that "Archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible ... there have been many opinions of skeptical scholars that have become codified into ‘fact’ over the years but that archaeology has shown to be wrong." Archaeology has actually confirmed certain biblical people and places that were, for a time, in dispute.

Even if we find certain details in less than total agreement between the New Testament text and other ancient documents, there is no reason to automatically accept the other source rather than the New Testament. When we find that Luke records an event where 4,000 men follow an Egyptian bandit into the desert, and Josephus records the same event but claims 30,000 men went out, then we would likely be more willing to conclude (on this point, at least) that Luke's more sober account is likely correct.