In a similar way, ancient observers and writers who were hostile to Christianity reluctantly admitted several key facts that corroborate the claims of the Christian eyewitnesses, even though they denied that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Let’s examine some of these reluctant admissions and reconstruct the picture they offer of Jesus.


Josephus described the Christians in three separate citations in his Antiquities of the Jews, In one of these passages, Josephus described the death of John the Baptist, in another he mentioned the execution of James (the brother of Jesus), and in a third passage he described Jesus as a "wise man." There is controversy about Josephus's writing because early Christians appear to have altered some copies of his work in an effort to amplify the references to Jesus. For this reason, as we examine Josephus’s passage related to Jesus, we will rely on a text that scholars believe escaped such alteration. In 1971, Shlomo Pines, scholar of ancient languages and distinguished professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published a long-lost tenth-century Arabic text written by a Melkite bishop of Hierapolis named Agapius. This Arabic leader quoted Josephus and did so in the Arabic language, unlike the Greek used by other authors from antiquity. Overtly Christian references that are seen in other ancient versions of Josephus’s account are also missing from Agapius’s quote, and as a result, scholars believe that this version best reflects Josephus’s original text:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] 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 and 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.55

There are many other ancient versions of Josephuss citation that are more explicit about the nature of Jesus’s miracles, His life, resurrection, and status as "the Christ," but this brief and conservative version of Josephuss text reluctantly admits a number of key facts about Jesus. From this text, we can conclude that Jesus lived, was a wise and virtuous teacher who reportedly demonstrated wondrous power, was condemned and crucified under Pilate, had followers who reported that He appeared to them after His death on the cross, and was believed to be the Messiah.


Thallus was a Samaritan historian who wrote an expansive (three-volume) account of the history of the Mediterranean area in the middle of the first century, only twenty years after Jesus’s crucifixion. Like the writings of many ancient historians, much of his work is now lost to us. Another historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, wrote a text entitled History of the World in AD 221, however, and Africanus quoted an important passage from Thallus’s original account. Thallus chronicled the alleged crucifixion of Jesus and offered an explanation for the darkness that was observed at the time of Jesus’s death. Africanus briefly described Thallus’s explanation:

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.56

It's a pity that we don't have the complete account and explanation from Thallus, but in offering an explanation for the darkness, Thallus "reluctantly admitted" important details that corroborated portions of the Gospels. Even though Thallus denied that the darkness at the point of the crucifixion was caused supernaturally, he inadvertently corroborated the claim that Jesus was indeed crucified and that darkness covered the land when He died on the cross.


Cornelius Tacitus was known for his analysis and examination of historical documents and is among the most trusted of ancient historians. He was a senator under Emperor Vespasian and was also proconsul of Asia. In his Annals of AD 116, he described Emperor Nero's response to the great fire in Rome and Nero's claim that the Christians were to blame:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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 Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.57 (Annals, 15:44)

Tacitus, in describing Nero's actions and the presence of the Christians in Rome, reluctantly admitted several key facts related to the life of Jesus. Tacitus corroborated that Jesus lived in Judea, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and had followers who were persecuted for their faith in Him.


Sometime after AD 70, a Syrian philosopher named Mara Bar-Serapion, writing to encourage his son, compared the life and persecution of Jesus with that of other philosophers who were persecuted for their ideas. The fact that Mara Bar-Serapion described Jesus as a real person with this kind of influence is important:

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.58

Although Mara Bar-Serapion does not seem to place Jesus in a position of preeminence (he simply lists Him alongside other historic teachers like Socrates and Pythagoras), Mara Bar-Serapion does admit several key facts. At the very least, we can conclude that Jesus was a wise and influential man who died for His beliefs. We can also conclude that the Jews played a role in Jesus’s death and that Jesus’s followers adopted and lived lives that reflected Jesus’s beliefs.


In a manner similar to his citation of Thallus, Sextus Julius Africanus also wrote about a historian named Phlegon who penned a record of history in approximately AD 140. In his historical account, Phlegon also mentioned the darkness surrounding the crucifixion:


Ancient Jewish Corroboration

The Jewish Talmud (the writings and discussions, of ancient rabbis) dates to the fifth century, but is thought to contain the ancient teachings from the early Tannaitic period from the first and second centuries. Many of the Talmudic writings reference Jesus:

"Jesus practiced magic and led Israel astray" (b. Sanhedrin 43a; cf, t. Shabbat 77.75; b Shabbat 104bX

"Rabbi Hisda (d. 309) said that Rabbi Jeremiah bar Abba said, What is that which is written, "No evil will befall you, nor shall any plague come near your house"? (Psalm 91:10).... "No evil will befall you" (means) that evil dreams and evil thoughts will not tempt you; "nor shall any plague come near your house" (means) that you will not have a son or a disciple who burns his food like Jesus of Nazareth1" (b. Sanhedrin 103a; cf. b. Berakhot 17b).

"It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days (proclaiming), 'He will be stoned, because he practiced magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favor come forward and plead for him. But nothing was found in his favor, and they hanged him on the day before the Passover" (b. Sanhedrin 43a).

From just these passages that mention Jesus by name, we can conclude that Jesus had magical powers, led the Jews away from their beliefs, and was executed on the day before the Passover.


Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth.59

Origen, the Alexandrian-born, early church theologian and scholar, also cited Phlegon several times in a book he wrote in response to the criticism of a Greek writer named Celsus:

Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to his predictions. So that he also, by these very admissions regarding foreknowledge, as if against his will, expressed his opinion that the doctrines taught by the fathers of our system were not devoid of divine power.

And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles.

He imagines also that both the earthquake and the darkness were an invention; but regarding these, we have in the preceding pages made our defence [sic], according to our ability, adducing the testimony of Phlegon, who relates that these events took place at the time when our Saviour suffered.60

Although Phlegon was not a follower of Jesus and denied many of the claims of the gospel writers, his statements did reluctantly admit that Jesus had the ability to accurately predict the future and was crucified under the reign of Tiberius Caesar.

These late first-century and early second-century writers were not friends of Christianity. In fact, they were largely indifferent to the fledgling Christian movement. In spite of this, they all provided important corroborating details of Jesus’s life, even if they did so reluctantly. If all 2the Christian documents had been destroyed, we would still be able to reconstruct a modest description of Jesus from these writers.

The ancient (and "reluctant") nonbiblical description of Jesus would include the fact that Jesus was a true historical person and a virtuous, wise man who worked wonders, accurately predicted the future, and taught His disciples. His teaching drew a large following of both Jews and Gentiles; He was identified as the "Christ," believed to be the Messiah, and widely known as the "Wise King" of the Jews. His disciples were eventually called Christians. His devoted followers became a threat to the Jewish leadership, and as a result, these leaders presented accusations to the Roman authorities. Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. A great darkness descended over the land when Jesus was crucified, and an earthquake shook a large region surrounding the execution. Following his execution, a "mischievous superstition" spread about Him from Palestine to Rome.

This description of Jesus, although incomplete, is remarkably similar to the description offered by the gospel writers. 

Early, external, non-Christian sources corroborate the testimony of the New Testament authors.