The historical documents referring to Christ’s life and work may be divided into three classes: pagan sources, Jewish sources, and Christian sources. We shall study the three in succession.
The non-Christian sources for the historical truth of the Gospels are both few and polluted by hatred and prejudice. A number of reasons have been advanced for this condition of the pagan sources:
The field of the Gospel history was remote Galilee;
the Jews were noted as a superstitious race, if we believe Horace (Credat Judoeus Apella, I, Sat., v, 100);
the God of the Jews was unknown and unintelligible to most pagans of that period;
the Jews in whose midst Christianity had taken its origin were dispersed among, and hated by, all the pagan nations;
the Christian religion itself was often confounded with one of the many sects that had sprung up in Judaism, and which could not excite the interest of the pagan spectator.
It is at least certain that neither Jews nor Gentiles suspected in the least the paramount importance of the religion, the rise of which they witnessed among them. These considerations will account for the rarity and the asperity with which Christian events are mentioned by pagan authors. But though Gentile writers do not give us any information about Christ and the early stages of Christianity which we do not possess in the Gospels, and though their statements are made with unconcealed hatred and contempt, still they unwittingly prove the historical value of the facts related by the Evangelists.
We need not delay over a writing entitled the “Acts of Pilate”, which must have existed in the second century (Justin, “Apol”., I, 35), and must have been used in the pagan schools to warn boys against the belief of Christians (Eusebius, Church History I.9; Church History IX.5); nor need we inquire into the question whether there existed any authentic census tables of Quirinius.
We possess at least the testimony of Tacitus (A.D. 54-119) for the statements that the Founder of the Christian religion, a deadly superstition in the eyes of the Romans, had been put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate under the reign of Tiberius; that His religion, though suppressed for a time, broke forth again not only throughout Judea where it had originated, but even in Rome, the conflux of all the streams of wickedness and shamelessness; furthermore, that Nero had diverted from himself the suspicion of the burning of Rome by charging the Christians with the crime; that these latter were not guilty of arson, though they deserved their fate on account of their universal misanthropy. Tacitus, moreover, describes some of the horrible torments to which Nero subjected the Christians (Ann., XV, xliv). The Roman writer confounds the Christians with the Jews, considering them as an especially abject Jewish sect; how little he investigated the historical truth of even the Jewish records may be inferred from the credulity with which he accepted the absurd legends and calumnies about the origin of the Hebrew people (Hist., V, iii, iv).
Another Roman writer who shows his acquaintance with Christ and the Christians is Suetonius (A.D. 75-160). It has been noted that Suetonius considered Christ (Chrestus) as a Roman insurgent who stirred up seditions under the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54): “Judaeos, impulsore Chresto, assidue tumultuantes (Claudius) Roma expulit” (Clau., xxv). In his life of Nero he regards that emperor as a public benefactor on account of his severe treatment of the Christians: “Multa sub eo et animadversa severe, et coercita, nec minus instituta . . . . afflicti Christiani, genus hominum superstitious novae et maleficae” (Nero, xvi). The Roman writer does not understand that the Jewish troubles arose from the Jewish antagonism to the Messianic character of Jesus Christ and to the rights of the Christian Church.
Pliny the Younger
Of greater importance is the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan (about A.D. 61-115), in which the Governor of Bithynia consults his imperial majesty as to how to deal with the Christians living within his jurisdiction. On the one hand, their lives were confessedly innocent; no crime could be proved against them excepting their Christian belief, which appeared to the Roman as an extravagant and perverse superstition. On the other hand, the Christians could not be shaken in their allegiance to Christ, Whom they celebrated as their God in their early morning meetings (Ep., X, 97, 98). Christianity here appears no longer as a religion of criminals, as it does in the texts of Tacitus and Suetonius; Pliny acknowledges the high moral principles of the Christians, admires their constancy in the Faith (pervicacia et inflexibilis obstinatio), which he appears to trace back to their worship of Christ (carmenque Christo, quasi Deo, dicere).
Other pagan writers
The remaining pagan witnesses are of less importance: In the second century Lucian sneered at Christ and the Christians, as he scoffed at the pagan gods. He alludes to Christ’s death on the Cross, to His miracles, to the mutual love prevailing among the Christians (“Philopseudes”, nn. 13, 16; “De Morte Pereg”). There are also alleged allusions to Christ in Numenius (Origen, Against Celsus IV.51), to His parables in Galerius, to the earthquake at the Crucifixion in Phlegon (Origen, Against Celsus II.14). Before the end of the second century, the logos alethes of Celsus, as quoted by Origen (Contra Celsus, passim), testifies that at that time the facts related in the Gospels were generally accepted as historically true. However scanty the pagan sources of the life of Christ may be, they bear at least testimony to His existence, to His miracles, His parables, His claim to Divine worship, His death on the Cross, and to the more striking characteristics of His religion.
Philo, who dies after A.D. 40, is mainly important for the light he throws on certain modes of thought and phraseology found again in some of the Apostles. Eusebius (Church History II.4) indeed preserves a legend that Philo had met Saint Peter in Rome during his mission to the Emperor Caius; moreover, that in his work on the contemplative life he describes the life of the Christian Church in Alexandria founded by Saint Mark, rather than that of the Essenes and Therapeutae. But it is hardly probable that Philo had heard enough of Christ and His followers to give an historical foundation to the foregoing legends.
The earlist non-Christian writer who refers Christ is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus; born A.D. 37, he was a contemporary of the Apostles, and died in Rome A.D. 94. Two passages in his “Antiquities” which confirm two facts of the inspired Christian records are not disputed. In the one he reports the murder of “John called Baptist” by Herod (Ant., XVIII, v, 2), describing also John’s character and work; in the other (Ant., XX, ix, 1) he disapproves of the sentence pronounced by the high priest Ananus against “James, brother of Jesus Who was called Christ.” It is antecedently probable that a writer so well informed as Josephus, must have been well acquainted too with the doctrine and the history of Jesus Christ. Seeing, also, that he records events of minor importance in the history of the Jews, it would be surprising if he were to keep silence about Jesus Christ. Consideration for the priests and Pharisees did not prevent him from mentioning the judicial murders of John the Baptist and the Apostle James; his endeavour to find the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies in Vespasian did not induce him to pass in silence over several Jewish sects, though their tenets appear to be inconsistent with the Vespasian claims. One naturally expects, therefore, a notice about Jesus Christ in Josephus. Antiquities XVIII, iii, 3, seems to satisfy this expectation:
About this time appeared Jesus, a wise man (if indeed it is right to call Him man; for He was a worker of astonishing deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with joy), and He drew to Himself many Jews (many also of Greeks. This was the Christ.) And when Pilate, at the denunciation of those that are foremost among us, had condemned Him to the cross, those who had first loved Him did not abandon Him (for He appeared to them alive again on the third day, the holy prophets having foretold this and countless other marvels about Him.) The tribe of Christians named after Him did not cease to this day.
A testimony so important as the foregoing could not escape the work of the critics. Their conclusions may be reduced to three headings: those who consider the passage wholly spurious; those who consider it to be wholly authentic; and those who consider it to be a little of each.
Those who regard the passage as spurious
First, there are those who consider the whole passage as spurious. The principal reasons for this view appear to be the following:
Josephus could not represent Jesus Christ as a simple moralist, and on the other hand he could not emphasize the Messianic prophecies and expectations without offending the Roman susceptibilities;
the above cited passage from Josephus is said to be unknown to Origen and the earlier patristic writers;
its very place in the Josephan text is uncertain, since Eusebius (Church History II.6) must have found it before the notices concerning Pilate, while it now stands after them.
But the spuriousness of the disputed Josephan passage does not imply the historian’s ignorance of the facts connected with Jesus Christ. Josephus’s report of his own juvenile precocity before the Jewish teachers (Vit., 2) reminds one of the story of Christ’s stay in the Temple at the age of twelve; the description of his shipwreck on his journey to Rome (Vit., 3) recalls Saint Paul’s shipwreck as told in the Acts; finally his arbitrary introduction of a deceit practised by the priests of Isis on a Roman lady, after the chapter containing his supposed allusion to Jesus, shows a disposition to explain away the virgin birth of Jesus and to prepare the falsehoods embodied in the later Jewish writings.
Those who regard the passage as authentic, with some spurious additions
A second class of critics do not regard the whole of Josephus’s testimony concerning Christ as spurious but they maintain the interpolation of parts included above in parenthesis. The reasons assigned for this opinion may be reduced to the following two:
Josephus must have mentioned Jesus, but he cannot have recognized Him as the Christ; hence part of our present Josephan text must be genuine, part must be interpolated.
Again, the same conclusion follows from the fact that Origen knew a Josephan text about Jesus, but was not acquainted with our present reading; for, according to the great Alexandrian doctor, Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Messias (“In Matth.”, xiii, 55; Against Celsus I.47).
Whatever force these two arguments have is lost by the fact that Josephus did not write for the Jews but for the Romans; consequently, when he says, “This was the Christ”, he does not necessarily imply that Jesus was the Christ considered by the Romans as the founder of the Christian religion.
Those who consider it to be completely genuine
The third class of scholars believe that the whole passage concerning Jesus, as it is found today in Josephus, is genuine. The main arguments for the genuineness of the Josephan passage are the following:
First, all codices or manuscripts of Josephus’s work contain the text in question; to maintain the spuriousness of the text, we must suppose that all the copies of Josephus were in the hands of Christians, and were changed in the same way.
Second, it is true that neither Tertullian nor Saint Justin makes use of Josephus’s passage concerning Jesus; but this silence is probably due to the contempt with which the contemporary Jews regarded Josephus, and to the relatively little authority he had among the Roman readers. Writers of the age of Tertullian and Justin could appeal to living witnesses of the Apostolic tradition.
Third, Eusebius (“Hist. Eccl”., I, xi; cf. “Dem. Ev.”, III, v) Sozomen (Church History I.1), Niceph. (Hist. Eccl., I, 39), Isidore of Pelusium (Ep. IV, 225), Saint Jerome (catal.script. eccles. xiii), Ambrose, Cassiodorus, etc., appeal to the testimony of Josephus; there must have been no doubt as to its authenticity at the time of these illustrious writers.
Fourth, the complete silence of Josephus as to Jesus would have been a more eloquent testimony than we possess in his present text; this latter contains no statement incompatible with its Josephan authorship: the Roman reader needed the information that Jesus was the Christ, or the founder of the Christian religion; the wonderful works of Jesus and His Resurrection from the dead were so incessantly urged by the Christians that without these attributes the Josephan Jesus would hardly have been acknowledged as the founder of Christianity.
All this does not necessarily imply that Josephus regarded Jesus as the Jewish Messias; but, even if he had been convinced of His Messiahship, it does not follow that he would have become a Christian. A number of possible subterfuges might have supplied the Jewish historian with apparently sufficient reasons for not embracing Christianity.
Other Jewish sources
The historical character of Jesus Christ is also attested by the hostile Jewish literature of the subsequent centuries. His birth is ascribed to an illicit (“Acta Pilati” in Thilo, “Codex apocryph. N.T., I, 526; cf. Justin, “Apol.”, I, 35), or even an adulterous, union of His parents (Origen, Against Celsus I.28 and I.32). The father’s name is Panthera, a common soldier (Gemara “Sanhedrin”, viii; “Schabbath”, xii, cf. Eisenmenger, “Entdecktes Judenthum”, I, 109; Schottgen, “Horae Hebraicae”, II, 696; Buxtorf, “Lex. Chald.”, Basle, 1639, 1459, Huldreich, “Sepher toledhoth yeshua hannaceri”, Leyden, 1705). The last work in its final edition did not appear before the thirteenth century, so that it could give the Panthera myth in its most advanced form. Rosch is of opinion that the myth did not begin before the end of the first century.
The later Jewish writings show traces of acquaintance with the murder of the Holy Innocents (Wagenseil, “Confut. Libr. Toldoth”, 15; Eisenmenger op. cit., I, 116; Schottgen, op. cit., II, 667), with the flight into Egypt (cf. Josephus, “Ant.” XIII, xiii), with the stay of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve (Schottgen, op. cit., II, 696), with the call of the disciples (“Sanhedrin”, 43a; Wagenseil, op. cit., 17; Schottgen, loc. cit., 713), with His miracles (Origen, Against Celsus II.48; Wagenseil, op. cit., 150; Gemara “Sanhedrin” fol. 17); “Schabbath”, fol. 104b; Wagenseil, op. cit., 6, 7, 17), with His claim to be God (Origen, Against Celsus I.28; cf. Eisenmenger, op. cit., I, 152; Schottgen, loc. cit., 699) with His betrayal by Judas and His death (Origen, “Contra cels.”, II, 9, 45, 68, 70; Buxtorf, op. cit., 1458; Lightfoot, “Hor. Heb.”, 458, 490, 498; Eisenmenger, loc. cit., 185; Schottgen, loc. cit., 699 700; cf. “Sanhedrin”, vi, vii). Celsus (Origen, Against Celsus II.55) tries to throw doubt on the Resurrection, while Toldoth (cf. Wagenseil, 19) repeats the Jewish fiction that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the sepulchre.
Among the Christian sources of the life of Jesus we need hardly mention the so called Agrapha and Apocrypha. For whether the Agrapha contain Logia of Jesus, or refer to incidents in His life, they are either highly uncertain or present only variations of the Gospel story. The chief value of the Apocrypha consists in their showing the infinite superiority of the Inspired Writings by contrasting the coarse and erroneous productions of the human mind with the simple and sublime truths written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
Among the Sacred Books of the New Testament, it is especially the four Gospels and the four great Epistles of Saint Paul that are of the highest importance for the construction of the life of Jesus.
The four great Pauline Epistles (Romans, Galatians, and First and Second Corinthinas) can hardly be overestimated by the student of Christ’s life; they have at times been called the “fifth gospel”; their authenticity has never been assailed by serious critics; their testimony is also earlier than that of the Gospels, at least most of the Gospels; it is the more valuable because it is incidental and undesigned; it is the testimony of a highly intellectual and cultured writer, who had been the greatest enemy of Jesus, who writes within twenty-five years of the events which he relates. At the same time, these four great Epistles bear witness to all the most important facts in the life of Christ: His Davidic descent, His poverty, His Messiahship, His moral teaching, His preaching of the kingdom of God, His calling of the apostles, His miraculous power, His claims to be God, His betrayal, His institution of the Holy Eucharist, His passion, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, His repeated appearances (Romans 1:3-4; 5:11; 8:2-3; 8:32; 9:5; 15:8; Galatians 2:17; 3:13; 4:4; 5:21; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 13:4; etc.). However important the four great Epistles may be, the gospels are still more so. Not that any one of them offers a complete biography of Jesus, but they account for the origin of Christianity by the life of its Founder. Questions like the authenticity of the Gospels, the relation between the Synoptic Gospels, and the Fourth, the Synoptic problem, must be studied in the articles referring to these respective subjects.
- Anthony Maas. “Early Historical Documents on Jesus Christ”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 20 December 2015. Web. 19 February 2017. <>