Part one of the historical reliability of the Gospels
This may seem like a strange place to start, outside the Gospels to prove their reliability, but in a legal sense having a corroborating witness always butresses a statement made by another source.
If you used only non-Christian sources to try to recreate the history of the New Testament, the following would be facts you could learn:
1. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
2. He lived a virtuous life.
3. he was a wonder-worker.
4. He had a brother named James.
5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
7. He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
8. Darkness and an earthquake occured when he died.
9. His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
10. His disciples were willing to die for their belief
11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.
These come from ten different sources outside of the New Testament within 150 years of Jesus life. In comparrison, Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time, was only mentioned in nine non-Christian sources. Included in those ten are what could be called anti-Christian writers. Celsus, Tacitus and the Jewish Talmud certainly had no reason to bolster the claims of Christianity.
Probably the most famous references to Jesus come from Josephus, the Jewish historian. Josephus, a priest and a pharisee, wrote The Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people from creation until around 93 A.D. According to Dr. Edwin Yamauchi of Miami University, just using the part of Josephus’ writings that have been conceeded by virtually all scholars as authentic one could know that Jesus was a martyred leader of the church in Jersusalem, he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting folliowing, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.
Josephus is considered to be a reliable historian. His works have been supported by archaeological findings and by other historians such as Tacitus, who we will look at next.
According to Yamauchi, in his interview with Lee Strobel, the reference to Jesus by Tacitus is probably the most important outside the New Testament. Tacitus was the most important Roman historian of the first century.
He mentions Christianity and Jesus in his reference to Nero trying to find a scapegoat to blame for the great fire that devestated Rome in 64 A.D. Tacitus wrote:
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 Pilate, and a most mischievous superstitution, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.
Leading scholar J.N.D. Anderson asserts that the “mischievous superstitution” is a reference to the resurrection. But aside from that Yamauchi points out, why would there be a religion that could not be stamped out revolving around a crucified man?
Another Roman, Pliny the Younger, also makes mention of practices of the early Church. He was governor of Bithynia in northwestern Turkey. His letter to his friend Emperor Trajan dates to about 111 A.D. In it, Pliny talks about capturing Christians, trying to get them to recant but being unable to do so. He writes about how they met together once a week to “chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery.”
A difficult passage in the Gospels is the claim that the earth went dark and there was an earthquake at the time of the crucifixion. The work of a historian named Thallus in A.D. 52 is quoted by Julius Africanus in around A.D. 221. It makes reference to the darkness. New Testament scholar Paul Maier wrote that the sun going dark was witnessed in Rome, Athens and other Mediterranean cities. Tertullian called it a “cosmic” or “world event.” Phlegon, a Greek writing after 137 A.D., said that in the fourth year of the 202 Olympiad [33 A.D.] there was “the greatest eclipse of the sun” and that “it became night in the sixth hour of the day [noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.
The Jewish Talmud mentions Jesus calling him a false messiah who practiced magic and was justly condmened to death. They also repeat a rumor of Jesus being born of Mary and a Roman soldier. This signals that Jesus was considered by some to be the Messiah, performed miracles and there was something unusual about his birth.
So taking sources outside the Gospels, some even hostile toward Christianity you can recreate much of Jesus’ life. This should, at the very least, put aside the silly idea that Jesus never existed. For that to be the case, you would have to construct a conspiracy theory that would dwarf all the JFK assination theories combined.
These corroborating witness, if you will, also support many of the claims made in the Gospels, lending further credence to the Gospels themselves.