There certainly are a number of ancient Christian sources that indicate that Jesus Christ was a real person, but there are also several ancient non-Christian sources that do so. The sources that we subsequently discuss are among the ancient non-Christian sources that are most often cited in this regard.
The Jewish Babylonian Talmud
Although these writings do not indicate that Jesus Christ is the Messiah or the divine Son of God, they do acknowledge His existence. In regard to this matter, the website Wikipedia,org states,
In the modern era there has been a variance of views among scholars of the possible references to Jesus in the Talmud, depending partly on presuppositions as to the extent to which the ancient rabbis were preoccupied with Jesus and Christianity. This range of views among modern scholars on the subject has been described as a range from “minimalists” who see few passages with reference to Jesus, to “maximalists” who see many passages having reference to Jesus.
The website bethinking.org provides a much more in-depth discussion of what the Jewish Babylon Talmud says with regard to Jesus Christ, as follows:
There are only a few clear references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings compiled between approximately A.D. 70-500. Given this time frame, it is naturally supposed that earlier references to Jesus are more likely to be historically reliable than later ones. In the case of the Talmud, the earliest period of compilation occurred between A.D. 70-200. The most significant reference to Jesus from this period states:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald … cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”
Let’s examine this passage. You may have noticed that it refers to someone named “Yeshu.” So why do we think this is Jesus? Actually, “Yeshu” (or “Yeshua”) is how Jesus’ name is pronounced in Hebrew. But what does the passage mean by saying that Jesus “was hanged”? Doesn’t the New Testament say he was crucified? Indeed it does. But the term “hanged” can function as a synonym for “crucified.” For instance, Galatians 3:13 declares that Christ was “hanged”, and Luke 23:39 applies this term to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus. So the Talmud declares that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover. But what of the cry of the herald that Jesus was to be stoned? This may simply indicate what the Jewish leaders were planning to do. If so, Roman involvement changed their plans!
The passage also tells us why Jesus was crucified. It claims He practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy! Since this accusation comes from a rather hostile source, we should not be too surprised if Jesus is described somewhat differently than in the New Testament. But if we make allowances for this, what might such charges imply about Jesus?
Interestingly, both accusations have close parallels in the canonical gospels. For instance, the charge of sorcery is similar to the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus cast out demons “by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.” But notice this: such a charge actually tends to confirm the New Testament claim that Jesus performed miraculous feats. Apparently, Jesus’ miracles were too well attested to deny. The only alternative was to ascribe them to sorcery! Likewise, the charge of enticing Israel to apostasy parallels Luke’s account of the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus of misleading the nation with his teaching. Such a charge tends to corroborate the New Testament record of Jesus’ powerful teaching ministry. Thus, if read carefully, this passage from the Talmud confirms much of our knowledge about Jesus from the New Testament.
It may be argued that whether the Talmud contains many passages or only a few passages that refer to someone named Jesus, the important fact is that at least some passages in the Talmud refer to Jesus as a real person. However, we question whether any of these passages refer to the Jesus who is also called Christ. The primary reason for our skepticism is that the execution of Jesus Christ took place only a few hours, not at least 40 days, after He was found guilty and condemned to death. Therefore, the herald mentioned in the Talmud would not have had 40 days to declare that Jesus Christ would be stoned.
Another reason not to rely heavily on the Talmud with regard to whether Jesus Christ was a real person is that some parts of the Talmud were not written until 100 or more years after the time in which Jesus Christ is alleged to have lived. Therefore, it is uncertain which statements by the writers of the Talmud regarding Jesus Christ may be based upon unsubstantiated secondhand information rather than firsthand information by the writers of the Talmud.
With regard to Josephus, who was a first-century Romano-Jewish scholar and historian who recorded Jewish history, Wikipedia.org declares,
The extant [i.e., existing] manuscripts of the writings of Josephus include references to Jesus and the origins of Christianity. . . . Modern scholarship has largely acknowledged the authenticity of the reference in [one of the volumes of his books on] the Antiquities to ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James’ and considers it as having the highest level of authenticity among the references of Josephus to Christianity.
Bethinking.org has much more to say about Josephus. According to this website,
Perhaps the most remarkable reference to Jesus outside the Bible can be found in the writings of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. On two occasions, in his Jewish Antiquities, he mentions Jesus. The second, less revealing, reference describes the condemnation of one “James” by the Jewish Sanhedrin. This James, says Josephus, was “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.” F.F. Bruce points out how this agrees with Paul’s description of James in Galatians 1:19 as “the Lord’s brother.” And Edwin Yamauchi informs us that “few scholars have questioned” that Josephus actually penned this passage.
As interesting as this brief reference is, there is an earlier one, which is truly astonishing. Called the “Testimonium Flavianum,” the relevant portion declares:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he … wrought surprising feats…. He was the Christ. When Pilate …condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared … restored to life…. And the tribe of Christians … has … not disappeared.
Did Josephus really write this? Most scholars think the core of the passage originated with Josephus, but that it was later altered by a Christian editor, possibly between the third and fourth century A.D. But why do they think it was altered? Josephus was not a Christian, and it is difficult to believe that anyone but a Christian would have made some of these statements.
For instance, the claim that Jesus was a wise man seems authentic, but the qualifying phrase, “if indeed one ought to call him a man,” is suspect. It implies that Jesus was more than human, and it is quite unlikely that Josephus would have said that! It is also difficult to believe he would have flatly asserted that Jesus was the Christ, especially when he later refers to Jesus as “the so-called” Christ. Finally, the claim that on the third day Jesus appeared to His disciples restored to life, inasmuch as it affirms Jesus’ resurrection, is quite unlikely to come from a non-Christian!
But even if we disregard the questionable parts of this passage, we are still left with a good deal of corroborating information about the biblical Jesus. We read that he was a wise man who performed surprising feats. And although He was crucified under Pilate, His followers continued their discipleship and became known as Christians. When we combine these statements with Josephus’ later reference to Jesus as “the so-called Christ,” a rather detailed picture emerges which harmonizes quite well with the biblical record. It increasingly appears that the “biblical Jesus” and the “historical Jesus” are one and the same!
We agree with bethinking.org that the writings of Josephus provide a lot of “corroborating information about the biblical Jesus,” especially that Jesus Christ was a real person.
Tacitus and Pliny
In reference to Tacitus, a Roman historian and senator, Wikipedia.org asserts,
[He] referred to Christ [and] his execution by Pontius Pilate [in] one page of his final work Annals. . . . Scholars generally consider Tacitus’ reference to the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate to be both authentic and of historical value as an independent Roman source.
Bethinking.org makes the following statements in reference to Tacitus:
Reporting on Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:
Nero fastened the guilt … 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 … 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….
What can we learn from this ancient (and rather unsympathetic) reference to Jesus and the early Christians? Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have “suffered the extreme penalty,” obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion. This is said to have occurred during the reign of Tiberius and by the sentence of Pontius Pilatus. This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.
The website theguardian.com provides the following comments regarding not only Tacitus, but also Pliny, both of whom “held some of the highest offices of state at the beginning of the second century AD”:
From Tacitus we learn that Jesus was executed while Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect in charge of Judaea (AD26-36) and Tiberius was emperor (AD14-37) – reports that fit with the timeframe of the gospels. Pliny contributes the information that, where he was governor in northern Turkey, Christians worshipped Christ as a god. Neither of them liked Christians – Pliny writes of their “pig-headed obstinacy” and Tacitus calls their religion a destructive superstition.
In specific regard to Pliny, Bethinking.org declares,
[O]ne scholar interprets Pliny’s statement that hymns were sung to Christ, “as to a god”, as a reference to the rather distinctive fact that, “unlike other gods who were worshipped, Christ was a person who had lived on earth.” If this interpretation is correct, Pliny understood that Christians were worshipping an actual historical person as God! Of course, this agrees perfectly with the New Testament doctrine that Jesus was both God and man.
We believe that the preceding comments pertaining the writings of Tacitus and Pliny further substantiate that Jesus Christ was a real person.
Other Ancient Non-Christian Sources
Strikingly, there was never any debate in the ancient world about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. In the earliest literature of the Jewish Rabbis, Jesus was denounced as the illegitimate child of Mary and a sorcerer. Among pagans, the satirist Lucian and philosopher Celsus dismissed Jesus as a scoundrel, but we know of no one in the ancient world who questioned whether Jesus lived.
With regard to Lucian, the website factreal.wordpress.com asserts,
Lucian used his mordant wit to scornfully describe and ridicule early Christians. But by doing so, he left writings confirming that Jesus: was real, was the founder of Christianity, was worshiped by the Christians, and was crucified.
Likewise, the following comments by Wikipedia.org indicate that statements made by Celsus also confirm that Jesus Christ was a real person, although he held Jesus in low esteem:
Celsus initiated a critical attack on Christianity, ridiculing many of its dogmas. He wrote that some Jews said Jesus’ father was actually a Roman soldier named Pantera. Origen considered this a fabricated story. In addition, Celsus addressed the miracles of Jesus, holding that “Jesus performed his miracles by sorcery. . . .”
Regardless of whether or not the Talmud supports the belief that Jesus Christ was an actual person, we think there are a sufficient number of other ancient non-Christian sources that support the historicity of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we think the following statements by Wikipedia provide an appropriate conclusion:
Virtually all New Testament scholars and Near East historians, applying the standard criteria of historical investigation, find that the historicity of Jesus is effectively certain although they differ about the beliefs and teachings of Jesus as well as the accuracy of the details of his life that have been described in the gospels. While scholars have criticized Jesus scholarship for religious bias and lack of methodological soundness, with very few exceptions such critics generally do support the historicity of Jesus and reject the Christ myth theory that Jesus never existed.