Early Non-Christian Accounts
So, which first-century historians who wrote of Jesus did not have a Christian agenda? First of all, let’s look to Jesus’ enemies.
His Jewish opponents had the most to gain by denying Jesus’ existence. But the evidence points in the opposite direction. “Several Jewish writings also tell of His flesh-and-blood existence. Both Gemaras of the Jewish Talmud refer to Jesus. Although these consist of only a few brief, bitter passages intended to discount Jesus’ deity, these very early Jewish writings don’t begin to hint that he was not a historical person.”5
Flavius Josephus was a noted Jewish historian who began writing under Roman authority in a.d. 67. Josephus, who was born just a few years after Jesus died, would have been keenly aware of Jesus’ reputation among both Romans and Jews. In his famous Antiquities of the Jews (a.d. 93), Josephus wrote of Jesus as a real person. “At that time lived Jesus, a holy man, if man he may be called, for he performed wonderful works, and taught men, and joyfully received the truth. And he was followed by many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Messiah.”6 Although there is dispute about some of the wording in the account, especially the reference to Jesus being the Messiah (scholars are skeptical, thinking that Christians inserted this phrase), certainly Josephus confirmed his existence.
What about secular historians—those who lived in ancient times but weren’t religiously motivated? There is current confirmation of at least 19 early secular writers who made references to Jesus as a real person.7
One of antiquity’s greatest historians, Cornelius Tacitus, affirmed that Jesus had suffered under Pilate. Tacitus was born around 25 years after Jesus died, and he had seen the spread of Christianity begin to impact Rome. The Roman historian wrote negatively of Christ and Christians, identifying them in a.d. 115 as “a race of men detested for their evil practices, and commonly called Chrestiani. The name was derived from Chrestus, who, in the reign of Tiberius, suffered under Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea.”8