In his seminal work The Antiquities, Josephus writes about the execution of James, the brother of Jesus:
He [Ananias, a high priest] convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James. The brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.In another part of The Antiquities, Josephus also writes about Jesus:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is lawful to call him a man, for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again on the third day, as the prophets of God had foretold these and ten thousand other wonders about him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.
In Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ, Stroebel interviews Professor Edwin Yamauchi, noted historian from Miami (Ohio) University.
Yamauchi provides the current scholarly consensus on these passages: They are mostly authentic, but the passage on Jesus was probably embellished by early Christians. In the passage on James, he is dispassionately referred to as “the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” whereas in the passage on Jesus, Josephus sounds a bit like an evangelical Christian. It is not thought that the entire passage about Jesus was added by Christians; rather it is suspected that what Josephus actually wrote was more like this:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.Even purged of its overt Christianity, Josephus’ writings provide compelling corroboration of the historic Jesus.
Yamauchi also lectures Strobel on two other historians, both Romans. One is Tacitus, and the other is Pliny the Younger, both of the late first century. Both talk about murdering Christians.
Tacitus describes Nero’s bloody persecution, and explicitly mentions Christians as followers of Christ, who suffered the ‘extreme penalty at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate’.
Pliny the Younger describes how, as governor of an area in Turkey, he would ask believers three times if the were Christians, carefully explaining the punishment that awaited them. If they persisted, he had them executed. Pliny stated that their crimes amounted to no more than chanting [praying] before dawn on a fixed day and binding themselves to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, etc. He also describes torturing two slave-women (who were Christians) to learn more about this ‘cult’.
Strobel asks Yamauchi an intriguing question, from all the non-biblical, non-Christian, historical accounts (including the Talmud, which mentions Jesus), how much of Jesus’ life can we piece together. Yamuchi’s answer (from Strobel’s The Case For Christ):
- Jesus was a Jewish teacher.
- Many believed he healed and cast out demons.
- Some believed he was the Messiah.
- He was rejected by Jewish leaders.
- He was crucified under Pilate.
- Despite his shameful death, his followers believe he was still alive. They spread so much that by A.D. 64 there were multitudes of them in Rome.
- All kinds of people, men, women, free, slave—worshipped him as God.
I would add another point, that many were willing to die rather than renounce him.