Challenge: No Reliable Non-Christian Sources for Jesus

Posted: June 26, 2012 by Amy Hall in Jesus Changes Everything, Weekly Challenge

Brett is bringing in a special guest to respond to this week’s challenge on Thursday. Here’s the challenge:

How do we know Jesus even existed? The only people who wrote about Him were Christians who probably made Him up. We don’t have any reliable non-Christian sources for Jesus.

Brett’s guest will answer the question of whether or not any non-Christian writers talked about Jesus. But I’m also interested in hearing how you would respond to the skeptic’s dismissal of the Gospels as legitimate sources of evidence for the existence of Jesus. Go for it!

Comments
  1. J.R. Morales says:

    This task would require an explanation as to why Jesus is mentioned as a real person by a number of ancient authors including (and not limited to): Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, Thallus, Lucian, Celsus, Clement of Rome and Polycarp.

    Good luck trying to disprove that Jesus ever existed. Heck of a task.

  2. 1st, what about Josephus? Jesus is mentioned by him twice. The earlier quote, of course, is interpolated, but why should that mean that the passage is completely untrustworthy?

    2nd, there are the Gospels and Pauls letters. Why shouldn’t these be considered as well? There doesn’t seem to be any good reason. People will say that Christian sources are bias, so we cannot trust them, but bias doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be considered.

  3. Well I’m back on STR Place after a month of having no internet access.

    I’ve heard this challenge many times, but fortunately its a very easy challenge to answer. 99% of the time, the person making this challenge has spent zero time actually doing research to find out what historians say about the existence of Jesus. They are just reiterating something someone else told them and seem to think that it is common knowledge.

    For this challenge I’d go right to the second Columbo question and ask something like, “So I take it you’ve done some study on 1st century history? Can you name some major historians that support your claim that Jesus is probably fictional? What are some major written works from that era that do not mention Jesus but ought to?”

    The critic usually will have no idea how to answer this questions because they’ve always just assumed that it is common knowledge. Contrary to what they might think Jesus is mentioned in more secular historical works than are some prominent Roman Emperors. These works include Josephus, the Jewish Talmund, Tacitus, and many others like those mentioned in J.R. Morales’ comment.

    Furthermore, despite the fact that some of these works are largely anti-Christian (such as the Jewish Talmund) they all agree on several major facts:

    1. Jesus gathered a large following throughout Israel.

    2. Hundreds of people professed to have witnessed him performing miracles.

    3. He was crucified and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea .

    4. His tomb was found empty.

    5. Hundreds of people professed to have seen him alive after his death.

    6. All but one of his disciples met there demise at the hands of oppressors who would have released them had they simply recanted their testimony.

    Finally, if the critic discounts the gospels on the basis that they were written by Christians he is committing the genetic fallacy. If he assumes the writings can’t be trusted because the writers were biased, then we can’t believe his own claims because he is biased as well. He needs to provide specific reasons as to how he knows that all the gospels are fabrications of a non-historical event.

  4. Greg says:

    I can see where some skeptics are coming from when rejecting the gospels. As a Christian I am very excited for this challenege! More so on anything regarding the reliability of the gospels. The gospel writers are biased and had an agenda. One of the writiers says that he is writing so that people will believe. Now this is no reason to dismiss the gospels but it “could” raise doubt for some.

    ow do we know that the writers did not make any of it up? The earliest gospel that we have is somewhere around 50 years after Jesus had lived. This could also make one question the reliability of the gospels.

    How do we know that these writers remembered details from 50 years ago? Do we just “assume” that they were writing off of previous original manuscripts, which we don’t have?

    The information was also orally passed down, could some things not have got lost in translation over such period of time?

    If we don’t have any original manuscripts, how can we know “for sure” that what is written is true? Or do we just believe based on probability?

    To say that we don’t have original manuscripts for other historical figures which we accept to be true, or that the writings for other characters were written long after they had died as well….still doesn’t answer the question as to if they are reliable or not.

    I know that there are non Christian sources for Jesus’s life, but weren’t most of them written after eye witnesses had died?

    If your special guest can answer any of these questions in this weeks challenge that would be great.

    • J.R. Morales says:

      Greg: “How do we know that the writers did not make any of it up? The earliest gospel that we have is somewhere around 50 years after Jesus had lived. This could also make one question the reliability of the gospels. How do we know that these writers remembered details from 50 years ago? Do we just “assume” that they were writing off of previous original manuscripts, which we don’t have?”

      The fact that there were more than 5,600 copies of the NT making rounds 50 years (at MOST) after the death of Christ is VERY good for the reliability of the Bible. You see, less than a generation had passed. Basically, the people that read these copies had been alive and witnessed the events therein. Any errors, mistakes or lies would have been pointed out.

      Greg: “The information was also orally passed down, could some things not have got lost in translation over such period of time?”

      The answer above takes care of this one. Since the people who witnessed the written events were alive, they would’ve pointed out mistakes. Imagine if I write a book describing what happened in New York, September 11th, 2001. If I published the book in 2041, a lot of people who witnessed the events would know I was wrong if I said that there were three towers that fell in New York that day.

      Greg: “If we don’t have any original manuscripts, how can we know “for sure” that what is written is true? Or do we just believe based on probability?”

      Greg Koukl answered this one on the STR website. I’ll paraphrase: Imagine an old lady in a home for the elderly who created a recipe for a smoothie that took 10 years off your body and she gathers her closest 15 friends from the home and shares the recipe. Amazed at how it works, the 15 friends call THEIR 15 friends and they each call 15 friends and so on and so forth. One day, the old lady and her 15 friends came back from a field trip and the home had burnt down, along with their recipes. The originals were gone! The old lady and her 15 friends call their friends, who call THEIR friends and they all send in their copy of the recipe. They gather 105 recipes all together and compare them. Of the 105, 99 are exactly the same. 2 have spelling mistakes, 3 have inverted instructions (“mix and heat” instead of “heat and mix”) and the last one has an added ingredient. Do you think the lady and her 15 friends can re-create the original recipe using the copies?

      This is the method used for ALL ancient writings. They gather the copies, compare them and re-create the original. The more copies there are and the shorter amount of time passed between the original and the copies the better. There is NO OTHER BOOK with as many copies in such a short period of time than the Bible.

      Greg: “I know that there are non Christian sources for Jesus’s life, but weren’t most of them written after eye witnesses had died?”

      I believe these are used to confirm what the Bible states, but – honestly – I’m not sure.

      Hope that helped.

    • Hi Greg, this is Brett Strong (just read your interest; cool); check out my 3 astounding answers at this str.org link (with Mike Licona as the guest): https://strplace.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/challenge-response-no-reliable-non-christian-sources-for-jesus/#comment-2981

  5. Jonathan Cowger says:

    A good question that needs to be asked is “What does he mean by ‘non-Christian’ sources?”. Sources whose authors identify themselves as followers of Jesus? Sources that Christians use that give good reason to Jesus existence? Some more information would be helpful here.

    //We don’t have any reliable non-Christian sources for Jesus.//
    This statement is simply untrue. I would go into more detail but others above did a good job citing other historians that mention Jesus of Nazareth.

    And even if there were no other sources about Jesus other than the gospel accounts, how does that cast doubt as to whether or not Jesus existed? Me personally, I wouldn’t even site those other historians at first. I would simply agree with his for argument’s sake. I would say, “Even if you are right that their is no reliable history of Jesus outside of the gospels, what does that prove? What follows from that?”. What could he say? The gospels can’t be trusted? Christianity is false? There is little evidence for Jesus existence? No. Not much follows from what the challenger is claiming. He would have to go a step further and now show that the gospels are an unreliable source to the existence of Jesus–and that is where he will have some serious problems trying to demonstrate. This is a weak objection at best since what follows from his claim is not a challenge to Christianity.

  6. Jack says:

    After discussing this issue with the ‘sceptics’ many times over the years I’ve found that even the facts aren’t good enough for most of them. Not much we can do about that of course but I’ll paste a few of the common objections and hopefully they can be addressed in the forthcoming reply.

    Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.3) is usually dismissed along the lines of “There are two reasons why this passage cannot be treated as proof of Jesus’ existence, or proof of the veracity of the gospel accounts of this person called Jesus (assuming he existed).

    First of all, being a document written well over half a century after the events of the gospels, Josephus writes not as an eye-witness of the supposed events, but as someone simply reporting the fact that there existed people who were called Christians, and that they believed in a resurrected Jesus. He is reporting what he has heard regarding Jesus, from the early Christians. No one disputes that in the first century there were Christians in the Roman Empire. What is in dispute is whether what early Christians were saying about a person named Jesus is true or not, which Josephus cannot, and is in no position to corroborate. ”

    “Josephus was an orthodox Jew who would’ve had no reason to talk of Jesus so favorably. In other passages, he discussed alleged messiah figures like Judas of Galilee, the Samaritan prophet, John the Baptist, and Theudas, yet his talk of Jesus is uncharacteristically flattering, especially since Josephus had acknowledged the emperor Vespasian as the messiah. This has led scholars to suspect that the Testimonium is a partial interpolation, with the Christian-sounding portions added by a later author.”

    The same method is used to dismiss Suetonius and Tacitus. i.e. “They weren’t eyewitnesses and Christian testimony is unreliable.”

    Other objections include:

    “Even though there seem to be reports on the activities of the early Christians by these historians, it cannot be assumed that the Christian tradition required a historical Jesus to have actually lived in order for it to exist. Otherwise by virtue of the fact that there also exists in the historical record traditions of the worship of pagan gods Horus, Zeus, Perseus, Hercules, Osiris,Dionysus, Attis and Mithras – these pagan gods were real also, and must have existed. ”

    “The most we can learn from what these Roman historians (Josephus, et al) wrote is that there existed a Jewish religious sect that came to be known as “Christians” during the first and second centuries. History tells us that there is nothing particularly unusual about this, as there were several other Jewish religious sects also making waves at the time.”

    The sceptics also assume that no written evidence (outside of the Bible)means that the events didn’t happen so they’ll trot out a list of historians who were contemporaneous with Jesus but make no mention of him in their writings. Pointing out that fact that Jesus didn’t have facebook or twitter makes no difference.

    The logical errors in these kinds of objections are obvious but other claims such as some of the extra Biblical sources were ‘doctored’ are a bit harder to address. When they pull the ‘appeal to authority trick’ and cite numerous scholars on these issues then it’s pretty much game over for us keyboard warriors. As I said, even pointing out the logical errors with their position is to no avail. So is it then simply a case of walking away in the knowledge that some people simply have their minds made up already and no evidence or argument will change that?

    • Hi Jack, this is Brett Strong (just passing through): great thoughtful response; awesome stuff; you are well read, & not just blurting out malice; very refreshing, & others on this forum can learn for your deft (no malice) reply; keep up the good work as you live boldly & joyfully for Jesus–and may he bless you greatly in all your comings and goings; actually I wish that to all Christians around the world; especially to the great Amy Hall!!!! Have a great smiling day everyone!!!

      Now everyone sing along with me with one of my all-time super-favorite songs

      “How Great Is Our God”

      The splendor of a King, clothed in majesty
      Let all the earth rejoice
      All the earth rejoice

      He wraps himself in Light, and darkness tries to hide
      And trembles at His voice
      Trembles at His voice

      How great is our God, sing with me
      How great is our God, and all will see
      How great, how great is our God

      Age to age He stands
      And time is in His hands
      Beginning and the end
      Beginning and the end

      The Godhead Three in One
      Father Spirit Son
      The Lion and the Lamb
      The Lion and the Lamb

      Name above all names
      Worthy of our praise
      My heart will sing
      How great is our God

      How great is our God, sing with me
      How great is our God, and all will see
      How great, how great is our God

      (Man, singing that always feels great !!!!! Whew!!!! if it wasn’t for Christian dogmatism I would happily be a Christian!!!!! oh well that’s life!!! anyways: Amy and her forum crew–have a great day and may your god find favor upon you; and remember to spread love not division!!!!)