Extrabiblical Historical Sources Corroborate the Bible

 

by CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL
Director of The Always Be Ready Apologetics Ministry
© Copyright 2014-2015

 

Author of Scrolls and Stones: Compelling Evidence
the Bible Can Be Trusted

 

Read this short passage about John the Baptist. And then I have a question for you.

"John, that was called the Baptist…was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism…Herod, who feared the great influence John had over the people…sent [John] a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death."

Who do you think wrote those words about John the Baptist? Matthew? No. Mark? Luke? John? Paul? No.

Though this passage reads like it was taken right out of the New Testament, it was actually written by the first century historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37/38–97). [1] And notice the passage again. He verifies for us that John the Baptist was an actual person and that he was put to death by Herod Antipas, just as the Bible says (Matthew 14:1–10).

Many people don’t realize there are dozens of writings that survive outside of the Bible in the records of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans that verify the historical accuracy of the Bible’s records of different persons, places, and events. These extrabiblical writings have helped corroborate the existence of fifty some persons mentioned in the Old Testament and more than thirty persons written about in the New Testament. [2]

They’ve also helped verify certain details surrounding Jesus’s life. Now, unbelievably, some critics of Christianity today are telling people that Jesus never existed—that He was the invention of some clever deceivers in the first century. Of course, this claim is not new. The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) wrote in his famous essay Why I Am Not a Christian, “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did we do not know anything about Him." [3]

Well, the claim “Jesus never existed” is absurd and only demonstrates the critics’ ignorance of the facts or perhaps their willingness to overlook the facts. Why? Because there is very good historical evidence outside of the Bible that Jesus lived. More than thirty extrabiblical sources mention Him within 150 years of His life. And they don’t just mention Him, they corroborate numerous details spoken about Him in the New Testament. [4]

One of these external sources is Josephus. In his writings, he mentions more than a dozen individuals talked about in the Bible, including: Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, John the Baptist, James “the brother of Jesus, called Christ,” Felix, and Festus. Here is one excerpt where he mentions Jesus:

"At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders." [5]

Notice that. Not only does Josephus mention Jesus, he tells us that Jesus was known to be a good and virtuous person, He was crucified under the reign of Pontius Pilate, and His disciples reported that He rose from the grave.

Now, some critics of the Bible say this quote by Josephus must have been forged by Christians who came along after Josephus and tampered with his writings. Well, there’s no evidence this ever occurred. Eusebius (c. 260–340 AD), the early church historian, quotes Josephus’s words with only minuscule insignificant differences when compared with the text that survives today. [6] So, if any tampering took place, it must have occurred before then. But why would Christians living before Eusebius even want to insert a paragraph about Jesus into Josephus’s writings? There was no debate going on regarding Jesus’s existence in those early centuries. I agree with Dr. Gary Habermas, author of The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, who says:

There are good indications that the majority of the text is genuine. There is no textual evidence against it, and, conversely, there is very good manuscript evidence for this statement about Jesus...Additionally, leading scholars on the works of Josephus have testified that this portion is written in the style of this Jewish historian. [7]

But even if we were to lay this quote aside, this is not the only place where Josephus mentioned Jesus. He mentioned Him elsewhere. [8] But even if all of Josephus’s writings were tampered with, there is still an abundance of evidence Jesus was a real person.

Take for example, the Jewish Talmud. The Talmud is a compilation of Jewish teachings that were passed down from generation to generation amongst the Jews and then finally compiled and organized after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Here is an excerpt that mentions Jesus:

"On the eve of Passover, Yeshu [a Hebrew word referring to Jesus [9] was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!" [10]

So, note that. Not only does the Talmud mention Jesus, it mentions His crucifixion and the Jewish leadership’s desire to stone Jesus (compare with John 8:58–59, 10:31–33, 39). And notice that it even says Jesus was put to death at the time of the Passover—the very time the New Testament says the crucifixion occurred (John 18:28)!

Other sources that mention Jesus outside of the Bible include the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 55–120), Gaius Suetonius (AD 69–died after 122) the chief secretary of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who reigned AD 117–138), and Pliny the Younger (AD 61/62–c. 113) a Roman author and administrator.

 

Bible Evidence apologetics

 

These references outside the Bible have led historians to a consensus—Jesus was a real person. Even Bart Ehrman, one of the most zealous critics of the Bible alive today, acknowledges Jesus lived. He wrote:

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul)—sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life...Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind...the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. [11]

Yes it does.

In light of this evidence for Jesus, you can imagine my shock when reading Richard Dawkins’s book, The God Delusion, to see him talk about Jesus with the same qualifier he used with David—“if he existed.” [12] If Jesus existed?—If? Maybe Richard should call Bart.

Another example of an incident in the Bible that has extrabiblical corroboration concerns Herod Agrippa I. He was the grandson of Herod the Great and the one who had James (the brother of John) killed and Peter imprisoned (Acts 12:1–4). In the Book of Acts (12:21) we read that Agrippa was “arrayed in royal apparel” and “sat upon his throne” to address the people in the theater at Caesarea, just inland from the Mediterranean Sea in Israel. [13] After Agrippa’s speech, Luke reported that:

"The people kept crying out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died." [14]

In his Antiquities of the Jews, written in approximately AD 90, long after Luke’s writing, Flavius Josephus confirmed the historicity of Luke’s account. He wrote:

"Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea…a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity…he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the Sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent…and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good), that he was a god…Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery…A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner…And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign." [15]

Here again, we have an extrabiblical account corroborating some of the details of a Biblical event. Josephus’s account verifies that Herod Agrippa was an actual person and that he died at Caesarea shortly after the people repeatedly yelled out that he was a god.

Now, of course, extrabiblical sources don’t just corroborate New Testament details; they confirm numerous Old Testament events as well. Take the Flood (Genesis 6–8) for example.

Archaeologists have unearthed a number of ancient extrabiblical writings describing a catastrophic flood. Many people who scoff at the Bible’s account of the Flood don’t realize that the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Hindus, Chinese, Mexicans, Algonquins and Hawaiians all have ancient accounts of a devastating flood. Although there are some differences among the accounts, the parallels are striking. Consider this list of similarities between the Genesis Flood and the flood account known as The Epic of Gilgamesh, found 150 years ago in the ancient ruins of a library at Nineveh. [16] In both accounts:

• The flood was divinely planned

• The flood was connected with the defection of the human race from God or the gods

• Advance notice of the flood was given to one individual

• There was instruction to build a boat

• The boat was covered with a waterproofing pitch (tar like substance) inside and out

• A storm brought on the flood

• The boat builder’s family and animals aboard the boat were preserved

• Everyone not on the boat was destroyed

• The boat came to rest atop a mountain

• Birds were sent out after the flood to determine if the world was habitable

• Sacrifices were offered after the flood

With so many points in common between The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical account, it’s not difficult to conclude—as many have—that both accounts recall a common event—the Flood recorded for us in the Book of Genesis. [17]

Scrolls Apologetics

Other historical sources outside of the Bible corroborate details surrounding:

•  Long life spans prior to the Flood [18]• The confusion of language as we have in the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9) [19]

•  The Exodus as confirmed by the Roman historian Tacitus [20] and Josephus [21] (who also quotes an Egyptian historian named Manetho who mentions it [22])

• The campaign into Israel by Pharaoh Shishak (1 Kings 14:25–26), as recorded on the walls of the Temple of Amun in Thebes, Egypt

• Revolt of Moab against Israel (2 Kings 1:1, 3:4–27), as recorded on the Mesha Inscription (also known as the Moabite Stone) in the Louvre Museum

• Fall of Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6, 24, 18:9–11) to Sargon II, king of Assyria, as recorded on his palace walls

• Defeat of Ashdod by Sargon II (Isaiah 20:1), as recorded on his palace walls

• Campaign of the Assyrian king Sennacherib against Judah (2 Kings 18:13–16), as recorded on the Taylor Prism in the British Museum

• Siege of Lachish by Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:14, 17), as recorded on the Lachish reliefs

• Assassination of Sennacherib by his own sons (2 Kings 19:37), as recorded in the annals of his son Esarhaddon

• Fall of Nineveh as predicted by the prophets Nahum (1:1–3:19) and Zephaniah (2:13–15), as recorded on the Tablet of Nabopolassar in the British Museum

• Fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (2 Kings 24:10–14), as recorded in the Babylonian Chronicle Tablets

• Captivity of Jehoiachin, king of Judah, in Babylon (2 Kings 24:15–16), as recorded on the Babylonian Ration Records

• Fall of Babylon to the Medes and Persians (Daniel 5:30–31), as recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum

• Freeing of captives in Babylon by Cyrus the Great (Ezra 1:1–4; 6:3–4), as recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder [23]

• The revolt against Rome led by “Judas of Galilee" [24] the founder of the Zealots (Acts 5:37) as recorded by Josephus [25]

•  The prolonged mid-day darkness on the day Jesus died (Mark 15:33), as recorded by the Roman historian Thallus (c. AD 50), a Greek author named Phlegon, Julius Africanus, and Tertullian [26]

• The “great famine” in Israel (Acts 11:28) as recorded by Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius [27]

• The expulsion of the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2) as recorded by Suetonius [28]

Friend, these are just a few examples—all written about outside the Bible. Critics of the Bible who brush off the Biblical accounts as mere legends or “ancient fiction" [29] only reveal how unfamiliar they are with these historical sources.

Charlie-Campbell

CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL (Twitter: @charlieabready)
Charlie Campbell is the Director of the Always Be Ready Apologetics Ministry and a popular guest speaker at churches and conferences. He is the author of numerous articles, books, and DVDs, including:

•  Scrolls & Stones: Compelling Evidence the Bible Can Be Trusted
•  Evidence for the Existence of God
•  One Minute Answers to Skeptics
•  Archaeological Evidence for the Bible
•  The End Times: Ten Upcoming Events in Bible Prophecy
•  The Case for the Resurrection

•  Teaching and Preaching God's Word

His DVDs and books have been endorsed by Norman Geisler, Charles Colson, Chuck Smith, Ed Hindson, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Jeremy Camp, and many others.

NOTES:

1. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5:2.

2. See Joseph Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (2013), 283–289 for OT persons; 303–305 for NT persons.

3. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (1957), 16.

4. Gary Habermas documents these sources and comments on them in his book The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Also see Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (1999), 381–385; F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament.

5. I have purposely taken this quote from a surviving Arabic version of Josephus’s writings cited by Gary Habermas in his Historical Jesus (1996), 192–196. The Arabic version is considered by some to be more reliable than the wording that survives in other languages. See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3:3.

6. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapter 11:7.

7. Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus (1999), 193.

8. In Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9:1, Josephus wrote of the Sanhedrin who “brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” Dr. Walter C. Kaiser points out that such a passing reference to Jesus suggests either Josephus felt Jesus needed no introduction or Josephus himself had already introduced Him to the reader in Book 18, Chapter 3:63–64. Archaeological Study Bible (2005), 1751.

9. Yeshu is “Joshua” in Hebrew; the Greek equivalent is translated as Jesus. See a discussion of this in Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus (2007), 113.

10. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a.

11. Bart Ehrman, “Did Jesus Exist?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html.

12. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006), 250.

13. Archaeologists have excavated this theater. See it here: http://www.bibleplaces.com/caesarea.htm.

14. Acts 12:22–23. Luke, a physician (Colossians 4:14), may have had in mind tapeworms or intestinal roundworms that can obstruct the intestines, causing severe pain, copious vomiting, and finally death.

15. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of The Jews, Book 19, Chapter 8:2.

16. See the “The Flood Tablet,” relating part of The Epic of Gilgamesh here: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx.

17. I address critics’ questions about some of the differences in the accounts and claims that Moses plagiarized other sources in my book Archaeological Evidence for the Bible (2012), 32–37.

18. Claims of long life spans among the ancients have been found in the records of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, and Chinese. Dr. Bryant Wood points out, “The Sumerian King List, for example, lists kings who reigned for long periods of time. Then a great Flood came. Following the Flood, Sumerian kings ruled for much shorter periods of time. This is the same pattern found in the Bible. Men had long life spans before the Flood and shorter life spans after the Flood.” Source: “Is There Any Confirmation of Biblical Events From Written Sources Outside the Bible?” http://christiananswers.net/q-abr/abr-a009.html

19. See Walter C. Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents (2001), 79–80; Charles Aling, “Cultural Change and the Confusion of Language in Ancient Sumer,” https://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/09/21/Cultural-Change-and-the-Confusion-of-Language-in-Ancient-Sumer.aspx

20. Cornelius Tacitus wrote that most of his sources were in agreement that there was an Exodus from Egypt led by a man named “Moses.” Tacitus, Histories, Book 5, 3–5. As to why there is not more evidence for the Exodus, see my book Archaeological Evidence for the Bible, 39–47.

21. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 15ff.

22. Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, Book 1, Chapter 14–16.

23. Special thanks to archaeologist Dr. Bryant Wood. Many of the above points are taken from his article, “Is There Any Confirmation of Biblical Events From Written Sources Outside the Bible?” http://christiananswers.net/q-abr/abr-a009.html

24. Not to be confused with the Judas who betrayed Jesus.

25. Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 8:118.

26. For more on this, see William Lane Craig, “Thallus on the Darkness at Noon,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/thallus-on-the-darkness-at-noon; Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus (1999), 196–197; Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (1998), 84–85. The darkness could not have been the result of an eclipse because an eclipse can not take place during a full moon, as was the case during the Jewish Passover season, the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. Africanus points this out as well.

27. Josephus, Antiquities, Book 20, Chapter 5:2. Tacitus, Annals, Book 12:43. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: Divus Claudius, 18.

28. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: Divus Claudius, 25. For commentary on this, see Habermas, The Historical Jesus (1996), 190–191; Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy, Lord or Legend? (2007), 124.

29. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006), 97.

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