The opponents of Christianity claim that there is no secular evidence to confirm the record of Jesus given in the Gospels, and all that the Christian can offer in response is a quotation from Tacitus which runs as follows:
“The originator of that name, one Christos, had been executed in the region of Tiberius, by order of the Administrator Pontius Pilate,”
And two even shorter quotations from Suetonius and Pliny the younger, which he says, “Don’t help much.” (In “The Fool Hath Said”, p. 101, Beverly Nichols writes: “The distinguished critic Charles Guignbert, Professor of the History of Christianity at the Sorbonne, who devoted a lifetime to the task of tearing the Gospels to shreds, mentions that some commentators have tried to prove that even this little fragment of Tacitus is a late Christian interpolation. ‘None of these critics have succeeded,’ he observes dryly.”
Feeling sure that more such secular confirmation of the New testament must exist, and realizing how valuable it might be, I set out to look for it, turning first to a book in my possession by Vancher Burch, (“Jesus Christ and His Revelation,” by Vacher Burch, D.D., Lecturer in Theology at Liverpool Cathedral, 1907.) in which he quotes long passages relating to Jesus Christ from recently found Slavonic version of Jesephus’s “Jewish Wars,” and argues in favor of their authenticity.
Though much impressed by those passages and Doctor’sarguments which seemed to me convincing, I put them on one side when a small book entitled “The Gospel According to the Jews and Pagans” (by S. Stokes.
Longman Green & Co. 1913) was unexpectedly lent to me, for it contained extracts referring to Jesus Christ from pagan writers of the first two centuries which, because undisputed evidence, promised to be more useful than disputed passages from Josephus.
Finding that the book was out of print, after running through only one edition, I determined to republish the more important part of its contents as quickly as possible. Hence the following pages.
“The Gospel According to the Jews and Pagans” was written by Samuel Stokes, a missionary in India, with the object of teaching educated Hindus that, unlike the legends of Krishna, the Life of Christ, and the facts of the early development of Christianity, are as capable of confirmation as any part of Roman History.
The book was published in England, in 1913, and was edited by Dr. Murray, Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, who had verified the references and revised the translations of these selected passages. He writes in the preface:
“There is no doubt that the works itself will appeal directly to our Western intellectual needs. We shall never be able to retain our hold on any creed which is cut adrift from its connection with historic facts. And as long as there are any minds who refuse to credit, however unreasonably, a Christian’s testimony to the facts of his own religion, there is real value in an appeal to The Gospel According to the Jews and Pagans.”
When the book was published in 1912, little or nothing was known in this country about the Slavonic version of Josephus’s “Jewish Wars” first published in Germany in 1912, in which are passages relating to Jesus, and Stokes avoids all discussion of the very similar though shorter passages in the well-known “Antiquities” by the same first century Jewish writer, merely pointing out that the “Antiquities” is an extremely valuable part of the non-Christian testimony, in that it vouches for the truthfulness of “The Gospel According to the Jews” in a subsequent pamphlet, confining myself for the present to ‘The Gospel According to the Pagans’.
The first pagan historian quoted by Stokes is the Roman writer and statesman, Caius Cornelius Tacitus, born about twenty years after the Crucifixion. Speaking of the burning of Rome which took place in his lifetime, Tacitus comments upon the Emperor Nero’s method of turning suspicion from himself to the Christians. He writes: So to stifle the report, Nero put in his own place as culprits, and punished with every refinement of cruelty, the men whom the common people hated for their crimes. They called them Christians.
Christ, from whom the name was given, had been put to death in the reign of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate and the pestilent superstition checked for a while. Afterwards it began to break out afresh, not only in Judea where the mischief first arose, but also in Rome, where all sorts of murder and filthy shame meet together and become fashionable. In the first place, then, some were seized and made to confess, then on their information a vast multitude were convicted, not so much of arson as of hatred of the human race, and they were not only put to death, but put to death with insults, in that they were dressed up in the skins of beasts to perish by the worrying of dogs, or else put on horses to be set on fire and, when daylight failed, to be burnt for use as light by night.”
(Annals. XV, 44.)
By saying, “not so much of arson,” Tacitus suggests that he knew that the Christians had had no hand in the burning of Rome, and his next words, “as of hatred of the human race” suggested that, though unable to account for it, he saw how the Christians shunned the roman citizens whose state of degradation was described in Nero’s tutor, the philosopher and statesman Seneca, as follows:
“All things are full of iniquities and vice. More crimes are committed than can be remedied by force. A monstrous contest of wickedness is carried on. Daily lust of sin increases; daily the sense of shame diminishes. Casting away all regard for what is good and honorable, pleasure runs riot without restraint. Vice no longer hides itself, it stalks forth before all eyes. So public has iniquity become, so mightily does it flame up in all parts, that innocence is no longer even rare; it has altogether ceased to exist.” (De Ira, ii, 9.)
Tacitus, as Stokes remarks, was writing of comparatively recent events, some of which had taken place during his lifetime, and even before his eyes: his position as counsul gave him access to all the judicial record and provincial reports, and as “In all other questions his statements are accepted as authoritative, none but the most thoughtless would venture to dispute his statements regarding the spread of Christianity.”
The important facts we gather from his writing are: first, that in the reign of Tiberius there was a Roman Procurator named Pontius Pilate; secondly, that at his hands one Christ was executed; thirdly, that this Christ was the founder of the sect of the Christians; and fourthly, that Christianity originated in Judea, spread quickly to Rome and made converts so rapidly that at the time of the burning of Rome in the reign of Nero, the portion of the Christian community captured in that city could be spoken of as a vast multitude.
Suetonius, writing some years after the burning of Rome (A.D. 120) says:
“The Christians, a kind of men given to new and criminal superstition, were put to death with grievous torments,”
(On the Life of the Caesars. Nero)
More evidence of the rapid growth of Christianity is given by a contemporary of Tacitus, known as Pliny the younger (about A.D. 61).
While governor of the province of Bithynia, in Asia Minor, he wrote to the Emperor Trajan, asking for directions as to his treatment of the Christians.
“It is my custom, Lord Emperor, to refer to you all questions whereof I am in doubt. Who can better guide me when I am not at a stand, or enlighten me if I am in ignorance? In the investigations of The Christians I have never taken part, hence I do not know what is the crime usually punished or investigated, or what allowances are made. So I have had no little uncertainty whether there is any distinction of age, or whether the very weakest offenders are treated like the stronger; whether pardon is given to those that repent, or whether anybody who has ever been a Christian at all, gains anything by having ceased to be such; whether punishment attaches to the mere name, apart from secret crimes, or to the secret crimes
connected with the name. Meanwhile this is the course which I have taken with those accused before me as Christians, I asked at their own lips whether they were Christians, and if they confessed, I asked them a second and third time with threats of punishment. If they kept to it, I ordered them to execution: for I held no question that whatever it was that they admitted, in any case, obstinacy and unbending perversity deserve to be punished. There were others of the like insanity, but as these were Roman citizens, I noted them down to be sent to Rome. In the course of the proceedings, as is often the case, the mere fact that the charge was taken notice of made it commoner and several distinct cases arose. An unsigned paper was presented, which gave the names of many. As for those who said that they neither were nor ever had been Christians, I thought it right to let them go, when they recited a prayer to the gods at my dictation, made supplication to your statue with incense and wine, which I had ordered to be brought into court for the purpose, together with the images of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ, not one of which things (so it is said) can those who are really Christians be made to do. Others who were named by the informer said that they were Christians and then denied it, explaining that they had been, but had ceased to be such, some three years ago, and a few as many as twenty. All those too not only worshiped your statue and images of the gods, but cursed Christ. They maintained, however, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and sing by turns a hymn to Christ as a God (or a god); and that they bound themselves with an oath (The word translated “oath”
is the “sacremento” of the Latin text…we probably have in the passage a misunderstood allusion to the Christian Sacrament of the Holy Communion (Stokes)) not to commit enormity but to abstain from theft, brigandage or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done their custom was to depart and meet together again and to take food, but ordinary and innocent food; and even this (they said) they had given up doing after this issue of my edict, by which in accordance with your commands, I had forbidden the existence of Clubs. On this I considered it the more necessary to find out from two maid-servants, who were called ‘Ministrae’ (Latin word for the Greek “Diakonai”
The “Ministrae” here mentioned without doubt are deaconesses of the Church. This office has existed in the Christian Church from the
earliest times. (Stokes)) and that by torments, how far this was true; but I discovered nothing else than a perverted and extravagant superstition. I therefore adjourned the case and hastened to consult you. The matter seemed to me worth while taking counsel on, especially on account of the number of those in danger. For many of every age, of every rank, and moreover of both sexes are already, or will be summoned to stand their trial. For this superstition has infected not only the town, but also the villages and country; yet it seems possible to stop it and set it right…At any rate it is certain enough that the almost deserted ceremonies of religion are restored, and that fodder for victims finds a market, whereas buyers till now were very few. From this it may easily be supposed that a multitude of men may be reformed if they are given a chance of repentance.”
“The Christians worshiped Christ as God, and refused to worship other gods, thus showing that they considered Him alone worthy of worship. Although repeatedly threatened with death, as the reward of disobedience, numbers of Roman citizens and others refused to deny Christ and worship the gods. Pliny, by repeating his question three times gave them ample opportunity to save themselves, and only when he could not overcome their ‘unbending perversity,’ did he order them to execution. We see too, that scarcely seventy-five years after the death of its Founder the Christian Religion had taken such a hold upon these Provinces that the temples had deserted, and the sacrifices had almost ceased. It was not confined to any one class or locality, but had penetrated from the cities to the villages, and even into the sparsely-populated open country, so that multitudes of people-roman citizens and Roman subjects – in every rank and of both sexes – were numbered among its adherents, some of whom had been Christians for as many as twenty years.” (Pliny’s Letters.
Correspondence with Trajan. 97th letter of 10th book.) Replying to Pliny’s letter, asking for directions in his treatment of the Christians, the Emperor Trajan wrote:
“They are not to be sought out, but if they are accused and convicted, they must be punished – yet with this proviso, that whoso denies himself to be a Christian, and makes the fact plain by his
action, that is by worshiping our gods, shall obtain pardon by his repentance, however suspicious his past conduct may have been.”
“This continued to be the attitude taken by all those Emperors who persecuted the Church. Every one was at liberty to save his life by recantation.”
Another witness to the early growth of Christianity, quoted by Stokes, is Lucian of Samosata, described as:
“One of the most witty and original writers, born at Samosata on the Euphrates, about A.D. 100. His principal works are dialogues, written in pure and elegant Greek, on History, Mythology, Philosophy and various other subjects. His object seems to have been to cure men of their prejudices and superstitions and their foolish admiration of philosophic charlatans. His genius is eminently satirical, and his works are remarkably humorous; but some of them are censured as offensive to morality and religion.” (“In Death of Peregrinus,” Sections XI and XII.) (Dictionary of Biography and Mythology.”
“It was about this time that he (Peregrinus) learned the marvelous wisdom of the Christians, having associated their priests and scribes in Palestine. And what else could you suppose? In a short time he showed them to be but children, he himself alone prophet and priest, and convener and all rolled into one. And of their books some he expounded and interpreted, while many he actually wrote himself.
They in sooth still worship that great man who was crucified in Palestine, because he introduced into the world the new religion. For this reason (Peregrinus) was taken up and put into prison; which very thing was of no small service to him afterwards, for giving reputation to his impostures and gratifying his vanity. The Christians were much grieved for his imprisonment, and tried all way to procure his liberty. Not being able to effect that, they did him all sorts of kind offices, and that not in a careless manner, but with
great assiduity; for even betimes in the morning there would be at the prison aged widows and little children; and some of the chief men, having bribed the gaolers slept inside with him. Fine diners were taken in there and their sacred discourses were carried on and the excellent Peregrinus – for so he was called – seemed a new Socrates to them. Even from the cities of Asia, some came, sent by the Christian communities to relieve, encourage, and comfort the man. It is incredible what expedition they use, in dealing with any matter that affects their body. In short they spare no expense. And in fact, Peregrinus received much money from them, and made no small profit on the score of his imprisonment; for these wretched people have persuaded themselves that they are absolutely deathless, and will live forever, for which reason they think slightly of death, and many willingly surrender themselves. And then their first lawgiver has persuaded them that they have transgressed and renounced the gods of the Greeks, and worship the crucified Sophist of theirs, and live according to his laws. Therefore they despise all things alike, holding them merely as common property, and receiving them from one another without giving any particular security; so if anyone come among them, who is a cheat, adroit, and capable of managing affairs; forthwith he may get quite rich by imposing upon the simple folk.” (“The Gospel According to the Jews and Pagans,” pp. 15-16)
Unintentionally, as we gather, this witty satirist has left a picture of early Christianity which puts to shame our modern ways of customs. Stokes, speaking of his “Dialogue,” says that Lucian tells of Christ and His teaching, of the Christians and their attitude towards Christ and the world, and of their scriptures and the Church. He shows that the Christians worshiped Christ, and believed that they were all brothers if they did this, and lived according to His Laws, at the same time turning away from the worship of other gods. They thought that they would live forever, hence it came about that they looked upon death as a trifling matter and held prophesies in little esteem, keeping a common purse, and giving and taking money without any security. They were extremely active in dealing with any matter which effected their community, and when one of their number was arrested would follow him into prison in their desire to serve and relieve him.
Lucian also shows that the Christians had books, and that it was the custom of their teachers to comment upon them. He represents his imaginary hero Peregrinus as first coming across the Christians in Palestine, and shows that there were also Christian communities in some of “the cities of Asia.” They showed the spirit of brotherhood existing among them by the interest which they took in the welfare of co-religionists, and their desire to help and comfort them, even when they were members of communities situated at a distance from themselves. Evidently they undertook the care of fatherless children, as “little orphan children” such as Lucian mentions, could not support themselves – especially by ministering to people in prison. The reference to the service of aged widows will be understood by all who recall 1 Timothy, v. 9,10:
“Let none be enrolled as a widow under three score years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported for good works; if she has up children, if she hath used hospitality to strangers, and if she hath relieved the afflicted, if she hath diligently followed every good work.”
As Stokes remarks:
“The fact that according to Lucian after the execution of Christ the Christians continued to worship Him clearly indicates their belief that, though slain, He nevertheless living. In other words they believe in a life after death, and considered themselves to be worshipping a living Christ.”
“It may have occurred to the reader to question why so many works of the early fathers remain with us, while not a single early work against Christianity is extant. There are several reasons for this.
Perhaps the principle was the edict of the Christian Emperor Justinian (527-65). Unfortunately this ruler took great interest in all matters theological and used his power as Emperor to enforce his own beliefs. He closed the philosophical schools of Athens, ordered that his subjects be baptized on pain of the confiscation of their property and exile, and issued an edict (Codex. Tit. 1, const. 3) enjoining the suppression of all books written against the Christian religion. It is this last measure which we must consider largely
responsible for the loss of all early anti-Christian literature, not only on account of the great number of such books which must have been destroyed at the time, but because of the precedent which it established for so destroying them.
“A like measure had been taken against the Christians in the reign of Diocletian, when edicts were everywhere published to tear down the churches to the foundation, and to destroy the sacred scriptures by fire (Euseb. H.E. VIII, 2). But with the Christians it had been a matter if conscience and by far the greater number would have died rather than give up the scriptures. But those who were possessed of works against the Christian faith could have no such religious scruples about surrendering them, and few would be foolish enough to persist in retaining them, when so doing would entail the loss of home and property. Thus it was that anti-Christian literature perished while the books of the Christians remained to witness the devotion of those who preserved them, even at the cost of their lives. Justinian was true to the spirit of his time when he issued the above edict. For the next thousand years misdirected religious zeal and fanatic vandalism deemed that, in destroying the monuments of paganism, it was doing God a service.’
“Through those dark ages the monasteries were the only places where books might be reasonable safe from destruction. In them the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers were treasured and copied and handed down from one generation to another. But the writings of Celsus and other enemies of the Christian religion could find no place within the walls of these monasteries. The consequence was that they stood but small chance of surviving until a time when their value would be realized.”
Providentially, however, the attack of Celsus (c. A.D. 178) Upon Christianity serves as a witness to the Life of Christ for it has been handed down by his Christian opponent Origen (A.D. 185), who deals with the various points in his own works (contra Celsum) and quotes the words of Celsus.
Writing of Celsus, Stokes says:
“His attacks upon the Christian religion are marked by a spirit of great hostility, and his method of approaching the subject shows that
he was a man of keen and vigorous intellect. His book was called
‘The True Discourse.’ … He speaks of Christ as ‘One who has lately appeared among men.’ (VIII, 12.) “He says of Him: ‘A short time ago he began to teach this doctrine, being regarded by the Christians as ‘the Son of God.’” (I, 26) “He asserts that the doctrines which he attacks are those of the Books of Christians.” (XI, 74)
“He alludes to Joseph as the carpenter.” (v. 52.)
“He attacks the doctrines of the Incarnation.” (IV, 2-30.) (That Celsus was aware that Jesus was not the son of Joseph is indicated by the assertion that “Jesus was born in adultery and nurtured in the wisdom of Egypt.” (“Encyclopedia Britannica.” Ed. XI, Vol. 5.
“Mentions the coming of Magi to worship the infant Jesus as God.”
“Speaks of the Flight into Egypt.” (I, 66,52.)
“Attacks the account of descent of the dove upon Jesus at the time of His Baptism.” (I, 747.)
“Celsus also attacked the account of the voice from Heaven proclaiming Christ to be Son of God. Speaking of Christ’s teaching he wrote: ‘The Man of Nazareth promulgated laws quite opposite to these [the laws of Moses] declaring that no one can come to the Father who loves power, or riches, or glory; that men ought not to be more careful about their raiment then the lilies: that to him that hath given him one blow they should offer to receive another.’ (VII, 8.)
“He quotes: ‘Whosoever shall strike thee on one cheek, turn to him the other also.’” (758)
Origen tells how Celsus also attacked the account of the Voice from Heaven proclaiming Christ to be the Son of God (I, 72), and the Christian belief that Christ is the Son of God. (II, first half, and elsewhere.) Speaking of Christ’s teachings, Celsus wrote:
“The man of Nazareth promulgated laws quite opposite to these [the laws of Moses] declaring that no one can come to the Father who loved power, or riches or glory, that men ought not to be more careful in providing food than the ravens; that they were to be less
concerned about raiment than the lilies; that to him that hath given him one blow they should offer to receive another.” (VII, 8.) He quotes:
“Whosoever shall strike thee on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (VII, 58.)
He alludes to Christ’s followers as tax-gatherers and sailors. (I, 62) And asserts that he was
“deserted and delivered up by those who had been his associates, and had shared all things in common, and had had him for their teacher, who was deemed to be a saviour and the Son of the greatest God.” (II, 9.)
He scoffingly alludes to the agony of Christ, and quotes him saying:
“O Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me.” (II, 24.) He calls Christ the crucified Jesus. (II, 36.) He speaks of those who slew Him as “those who crucified your God.” (VIII, 41.)
He attacks the Christian belief that Christ “endured these sufferings for the benefit of mankind.” (II, 38.)
Attempts to disprove the reality of the Resurrection of Christ. (II, 59, 70.) Refers to the angels who appeared at the tomb of Jesus. (V, 56.) Speaks of the angel rolling away the stone from the tomb. (V, 56.) Tries to show the foolishness of the Christian belief in the
“Resurrection of the body.” (V, 64.)
Laughs at the Christians for saying
“The world is crucified to me and I to the world.” (V, 64.) After referring to the enthusiasm with which Christians encounter death rather than abjure Christianity (VIII, 48), Celsus says: Besides is it not most absurd and inconsistent in you, on the one hand, to make so much of the body as you do, expecting that the same body will rise again, as though it were the best and most precious part of us; and yet on the other to expose it to such tortures as though it were worthless.” (VIII, 49.) Alluding to the persecution of the Christians, Celsus says:
“Do you not see, good Sir, that even your diamond [he means Christ] is not only reviled, but banished from every land and sea; and you yourself, who are as it were in image dedicated to him are bound and led to punishment and fastened to the stake, whilst your diamond – or as you call him, ‘the Son of God,’ takes no vengeance on the evil doer?” (VIII, 39.)
“So much for Celsus. His witness is useful because it shows that what this writer of the 2nd century found in the ‘Books’ of the Christians must have been what we find in them today. It is interesting to note that he does not deny that Christ performed miracles, but attributes His ability to work them to the aid of devils and to magic.”
A contributor to the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” in an article upon Celsus and his book, speaks of “The light which the book sheds on the strength of the Church about the years 180,” and says:
“It is of course easy to see that Celsus had no apprehension of the spiritual needs of his own day which it was the Christian’s purpose to satisfy, that he could not enjoy anything of the new life enjoyed by the poor in spirit, and that he under-rated the significance of the Church, regarding it simply as one of the warring sections (mostly Gnostic) and so seeing only a mark of weakness. And yet, there is
all through an undercurrent which runs hard against his surface verdicts, and here and there comes expression. He is bound to admit that Christianity has been stated reasonably. Against the moral teaching of Jesus he can only bring the main charge of plagiarism, and with the assertion that the Logos is the Son of God he completely accords. Most suggestive, however, is the closing appeal to the Christians, ‘Come,” he says. ‘Don’t hold aloof from the common regime. Take your place by the Emperor’s side. Don’t claim for yourselves another empire, or any special position [It is an overture for peace]. If all were to follow your example and abstain from politics, the affairs of the world would fall into the hands of wild and lawless barbarians.’ Forced to admit that the Christians are in fructuosi in negotiis, he wants them to be good citizens, to retain their own belief but conform to the state religion. It is an earnest and stirring appeal on behalf of the empire which was clearly in great danger, and it shows the terms offered to the Church as well as the strength of the Church at the time. Numerically, Christians may have formed perhaps a tenth of the population, i.e. in Alexandria there would be fifty or sixty thousand, but their power in the community was out of all proportion to their number.” (Ed. XI, Vol.
5, p. xi.)
Thus, in their different ways, do pagan writers of the first and second centuries allude to facts made known to us by the Gospels, and also testify to the rapid growth of the Christian Church.
As Samuel Stokes Writes:
“The information which we obtain from these witnesses can be only a bare outline of the Gospel story. These men looked on the Christians as a sect of religious fanatics. It is therefore not likely that they would regard them as anything but a problem, or that they would take the trouble to examine their creed. And yet, the thoughtful reader will perceive that such evidence is more valuable than anything more direct would be. Better witnesses could hardly have been chosen, for they are all of them men of weight in the world of letters, and two of them famous historians. Possibly those who doubt the authenticity of the Christian records will give ear to
Pliny, Tacitus, Lucian and Josephus, who whatever they were, were not followers of Christ.”
By: E.S.G. BRISTOWE
Author of “Sargon the Magnificent,” etc.