In a previous article we explored some of the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus. In particular, we noted two powerful pieces of evidence, both of which are dated to the first century or the early second century, within memory of Jesus’ own lifetime. One was a mention of Jesus in the writings of the Jewish rabbis, and the other was a mention of Jesus (two, actually) in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.
We ought to member just how important the references to Jesus in these two sources are. Both of them are Jewish sources, and both dated to within a generation of Jesus himself. The significance of this is that Jesus Himself, of course, was a Jew and He lived in Palestine, so we should expect to find some mention of him among the Jewish people of that time and place. And that is exactly what we have. We have evidence for the existence of Jesus in the place, at the time, and among the people that the New Testament says was the context of Jesus.
But are there any more references to Jesus than these? The answer is: yes.
Another place we might expect to find a mention of Jesus is in the writings of ancient Roman historians. After all, Jesus lived in the days of the Roman empire. As it turns out, two Roman historians mention Jesus. One was named Tacitus, and he lived approximately 55-120 AD (thus he was about 10 years old, or so, when Paul was executed). He actually wrote two books on Roman history, one called The Annals of Imperial Rome, and the other called The Histories. In the former of these books, Tacitus tells a story that is well-known even to non-Christians: the story of the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Nero. On July 18 in the year 64 AD a fire broke out in Rome, and it eventually burned 5/7 of the city. Some people suspected that Nero himself had started the fire (to clear land for a building project), and this is what Tacitus says about it:
“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 center and become popular.”
It is clear that Tacitus was not well-informed about Jesus or about Christians. What he knew was the common talk about them, the “word on the street.” He obviously believed that Christians, and their founder, “Christus,” were a bunch of trouble-makers and no-goods. But in spite of the fact that he does not know the accurate truth about Jesus, he mentions Jesus nevertheless. The report about Him, and his disciples, had reached Rome. Furthermore, as we saw with the Jewish evidence, we have a reference to Jesus that puts Him exactly in the historical period that the New Testament attests: the reign of Pontius Pilate in Judea.
Another Roman historian who mentions Jesus is Suetonius, who lived at about the same time or just a little later, in the early part of the second century. He was actually a government official under the emperor Hadrian, and thus had access to official Roman records. Suetonius wrote biographies of Roman emperors, and in his account of the emperor Claudius he says this:
“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.”
This reference is a little more difficult to decipher, and it is not exactly clear. It is not the same quality as the evidence from Tacitus, but I mention it here because many scholars have judged this to be a reference to Christ and a witness to early Christianity in Rome. One of the things that makes this a problematic text is that Suetonius has a different spelling for “Christ.” He spells it “Chrestus.” The –us ending would have been the normal way to translate a foreign name into Latin, and in the ancient world, in the Greek language, the letters i and e were pronounced almost exactly alike. “Chrestus,” then, could be his way of saying the word “Christ.” The expulsion of the Jews from Rome is the same event mentioned in Acts 18.2, and is dated to 49 AD.
The picture he paints lacks details, but it appears that Suetonius knew of riots among Jews that had something to do with someone named Chrestus. Now of course, Jesus could not have been in Rome and causing these riots himself in the year 49 AD. Many scholars, however, think it is possible that Suetonius is referring to disturbances among the Jews because of Christian preaching about Jesus (as is recorded for other places in Acts). We should note, however, that it is also possible that some other person named “Chrestus” was causing riots in Rome and that this had nothing to do with Christianity, but most historians would say that the parallel between this text and Acts 18 overcomes this interpretation.
In our two articles we have noted four references to Jesus in ancient literature outside the New Testament (with one of them less clear than the others). The fact is, however, that there are thirteen more such references in other ancient authors – which we do not have the time to list or discuss now. My purpose in these articles is not to examine every ancient reference to Jesus. My point instead is that we have more than enough evidence to establish that Jesus was a real, historical person. Consider this: if we had seventeen different references to an ancient person named “Marcus,” would historians think this was enough to establish that “Marcus” actually lived? Of course. Many well-known historical characters are known by even fewer references. Let no one suppose that Jesus never actually existed. The historical records, written by unbelievers who had no interest in verifying the matter one way or the other, prove that Jesus really lived.
A decent collection of ancient evidence for Jesus can be found here: