If you heard that there were some references to Jesus in 1st Century non-Christian literature, you might not be overly surprised. Important ancient historical figures are often mentioned in various ancient writings. For one example, archaeologists found a speech written by Pliny the Younger (d. 112 AD) that mentions emperor Domitian (see Dictionary of NT Background, p. 809). Similarly, there are quite a few early non-Christian texts from the Middle East that mention Jesus in various manners and places.
Craig Evans has researched this fact and written about it in some detail. One book worth noting is his book Jesus and the Manuscripts. Evans even did a brief introductory mobile education class on this topic: “Jesus and the Witnesses of the Outsiders.” I just finished reading/watching this helpful resource and very much recommend it! After looking at quite a few inscriptions and writings, here’s Evans’ helpful summary:
References to Jesus in early non-Christian literature provide a measure of corroboration of basic points of the Jesus story told in the Gospels. There are three that could be mentioned very briefly that we have seen in our survey of some of these interesting texts and artifacts. One: Jesus was a well-known healer and exorcist even during the time of his ministry, as well as in the years that followed the proclamation of his resurrection. Two: The followers of Jesus were called Christians—the early sources know that—for Jesus was known as the Christ, or the Messiah. Three: We find in these early non-Christian sources and testimonies the broad outline of the gospel—that is, Jesus is healer, teacher who’s opposed by priestly rulers, handed over to Pilate—the Roman governor—put to death on a Roman cross. Yet the movement continues even after his death on the cross. This broad outline is attested especially in the brief description in Josephus, who gave us the work called Antiquities.
What we find in these early non-Christian sources and testimonies, it’s nothing that is equivalent in value to what we have in the New Testament writings themselves—in the four Gospels, the book of Acts, Paul’s letters, and so forth. But what we do have is some important corroboration here and there that even in the non-Christian world there was knowledge of some of the important features that related to Jesus’ teaching, His life, His activities, His death, and this provides a measure of corroboration at these important points.
These materials are worth knowing about, and I think they do lend a certain amount of color and an added dimension to our study of Jesus and Christian origins.
Again, I recommend this reading/course and Evan’s book Jesus and the Manuscripts. They are helpful resources that give us what we might call common grace insight about Jesus – insight which in a way supplements the truths of what Scripture says about him.
The above quote is taken from the conclusion of Jesus and the Witnesses of the Outsiders by Craig Evans (on Logos Mobile Education).
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015