|Bible Query on New Testament Archaeology and History
Q: When did people start dating events by the year Jesus was supposedly born?
A: Prior to this, people generally dated events by the year of a king’s reign. Other people dated things from the supposed year of Adam’s creation, September 1, 5509 B.C. According to Manuscripts of the Greek Bible p.49 (footnote), dating events from the supposed year of Christ’s birth was started by Hippolytus of Rome in the 3rd century. This was not universally accepted, as some Byzantine scribes did not do so until the 14th century.
The skeptical Asimov's Guide to the Bible p.786 says that in Jesus' time Romans kept years in terms of "A.U.C." or years from the founding of the city [of Rome]. Rome was founded in 753 B.C. On p.787 Asimov says that it was erroneously thought that Christ was born in 1 A.D. by the astronomer Dionysius Exiguus of Rome.
Q: In the gospels, what are extra-Biblical references to Jesus prior to 200 A.D.?
One might expect Jesus' life and Christianity not to go unnoticed, even outside the Bible. One purpose of giving these quotes is to put to rest the claim that a few skeptical critics assert, that Jesus never existed.
Cornelius Tacitus (c.55-c.117 A.D.) was a Roman historian who wrote about events in Rome and Great Britain from 15-70 A.D. By his contemptuous tone, he certainly was no friend of Christianity. In Annals 15:44 he wrote: "…But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration [fire of Rome] was the result of an order [of the Emperor]. 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 michievous 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired…."
Tacitus in Histories Book 5 lists differing speculations on the Jews being from Crete, or Egypt, or Ethiopia, or Assyrians, and then relates an interesting story. "Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out in Egypt, that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moyses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of the present misery…. Moyses, wishing to secure for the future his authority over the nation, gave them a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practised by other men. … They slay the ram, seemingly in derision of Hammon, and they sacrifice the ox, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis."
Tacitus in Histories book 5 also discusses in detail how various Roman legions, the 5th, 10th, 15th, 12th and some men from the 18th and 3rd put down the revolt in Judea and destroyed Jerusalem.
Quotes of Tacitus are takes from The Annals and The Histories by P. Cornelius Tacitus, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 1952.
Mara Bar-Serapion was an ordinary Syrian man who wrote a letter to his son, Serapion, sometime after 73 A.D. He encourages him to emulate the wise men of history who died for what they believed in, such as Socrates, Pythagoras, and the wise King the Jews executed. The document is in the British Museum, and F.F. Bruce mentions this in The New Testament Documents : Are They Reliable.
Josephus was a Jewish scholar, born 37 A.D., who wrote rather positively about Christ.
"Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, - a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and then a thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3, written about 93-94 A.D.) (Taken from Josephus : Complete Works)
There also is an Arabic translation of Josephus that says even more positive things about Jesus. However, these likely were added later.
Lucian of Samosata, 2nd century satirist, wrote about Christ, "…the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world….Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws." (The Passing Peregrinus) (quoted from Evidence That Demands a Verdict vol. 1 p.82.)
Clement of Rome was a Christian bishop who wrote to the Corinthian church, basically asking them why they were not obeying what Paul wrote 50 years earlier. Clement's letter was written in 97 A.D..
Pliny the Younger was a governor of Bithynia who killed many Christians for their faith. He wrote Emperor Trajan in 112 A.D. asking if he should continue to kill the men, women, and children simply for not worshipping a statue of the Emperor. Pliny says of Christians, "they affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. Epistles 10.96. (quoted from Evidence that Demands a Verdict vol. 1 p.83.)
Papias was another bishop who was a disciple of John the apostle. He wrote many volumes, somewhere between 110 to 130 A.D. Unfortunately his writings have been lost, except for a short description by Eusebius (writing around 325 A.D.) Eusebius tells us that among other things, Papias says that the Gospel of Matthew was first written in Hebrew, Mark was the interpreter of Peter, and that Papias taught premillennialism. (Eusebius was an amillennialist.)
Ignatius was a disciple of John the Apostle. He wrote letters to many churches, and died by 116 A.D.
Polycarp was a Christian martyr and disciple of Ignatius who spoke of Christ. He died c.163 A.D.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (in France), was a disciple of Polycarp, and a martyr who lived from 120/140-202 A.D. He wrote a long work against heresies of this time.
The Didache (or Constitutions of the Holy Apostles) was an anonymous church manual, written about 150 A.D., though it could be as early as 120 A.D.
Justin Martyr was a Greek philosopher who was born either 110 or 114 A.D. He converted between around 138 to 150 A.D.. He wrote a defense of Christianity and a Dialogue with Trypho the Jew where he talks of Jesus being God. The Chronicon Paschale tells us he was martyred for his faith in 165 A.D.
Suetonius, the Roman historian and court official who wrote about 120 A.D., says "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (another spelling of Christus, i.e. Christ], he expelled them from Rome. Life of Claudius 25.4 (Quoted from Evidence that Demands a Verdict volume 1 p.83.)
Theophilus, bishop of Antioch was the first writer we know of to use the term "Trinity". He wrote between 168 and 181 A.D.
Clement of Alexandria, not to be confused with the earlier Clement of Rome, lived from 153-217/220 A.D. He wrote extensively, including a hymn to Christ and a major work called The Miscellanies.
Hippolytus lived from 170-235 A.D. and wrote The Refutation of All Heresies. Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus.
Tatian lived from 110-172 A.D. and wrote a harmony of the gospels. Unfortunately he later left the faith and joining the Encratites, a Gnostic heresy.
Jewish Talmuds refer to Jesus in a number of places. See Evidence That Demands a Verdict volume 1 p.85-87 for quotes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tol'doth Yeshu, Barailu, The Amoa 'Ulla', Yeb. IV 3, and Baraita.
Phlegon was a Greek writer from Caria, who wrote soon after 137 A.D. that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [33 A.D.] there was "the greatest eclipse of the sun" and that "it became night in the sixth hour of the day [12:00 noon] so that star even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea." (quoted from The Case for Christ p.111.)
Thales (or Thallus) was a Palestinian historian referenced by Julius Africanus (writing 232-245 A.D.) Julius says, "This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun." (quoted from The Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 6 p.136.) The context is Julius discussing how the time from Artaxerxes' decree to Christ's crucifixion, fulfilled Daniel 9.
The Shepherd of Hermas was an anonymous Christian work written about 160 A.D.
Athenagoras wrote to the Roman emperor a defense of Christianity about 177 A.D.
Aristides of Athens and Quadratus are also known to have written Apologies defending Christianity, but their works have been lost.
Q: In Lk 3:23 how old was Jesus when He began His ministry?
A: Luke 3:23 says "about thirty" which could be 25 to 35 years old. Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C., and Jesus began his ministry after John the Baptist began his. John began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, which was 28 A.D. Thus, if archaeological dates are considered precise enough, Jesus was about 34 or 35 years old. Also, Pontius Pilate was only prefect of Judea from 26 A.D. until 36/37 A.D., so Jesus had to have be crucified before then. The best guess we have is that Jesus began his ministry about 30 A.D. and died 33 A.D. See Today's Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties p.61-62 for more info.
Q: In Mt 20:29-34 and Mk 10:34-52, did Jesus heal the blind while leaving Jericho, or entering it as Lk 18:35 says?
A: This probably was just one event that occurred while Jesus was traveling between the two towns named Jericho.
Old Jericho (Tell es-Sultan) is northwest of modern Jericho (er-Riha). It was destroyed by Joshua, but rebuilt in 1 Kings 16:34. Mainly Jews lived there in the time of Jesus.
New Testament Jericho (at Tulul Abu el-'Alayiq) primarily was a Gentile town built around the winter palace of Herod the Great, who died there around 4 B.C.. The site is about 3/4 to 1 mile south or southwest of old Jericho. The winter palace had two pools, a large Roman bath, and six private mikvahs, which were places of Jewish ritual washing. A map showing the palace and pools of new Jericho is in the New International Dictionary of the Bible p.511-512.
The different sites of Jericho also are mentioned in the Believer's Bible Commentary p.1440, Bible Difficulties & Seeming Contradictions p.179, the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary p.903 The Expositor's Bible Commentary volume 8 p.1008, the New Geneva Study Bible p.1641, the NIV Study Bible p.1515-1516, the liberal Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 3 p.723, and the Encyclopedia Britannica (1956 edition) volume 13 p.1.
Q: In Mt 27:2-14, Mk 15:2-15; Lk 23:1-24 and Jn 19:1-15, outside of the Bible, what evidence is there that Pontius Pilate existed?
A: There are six independent pieces of evidence outside of the Bible.
1. The non-Christian Roman historian Tacitus (100 A.D.), in Annals 15:44 writes, “Christus, from whom the [Christians] got their name, had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor;”
2. The Bible As History p.373 has picture of the front and back of a coin issued by the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate.
3. An inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate was found at Caesarea in 1961. A picture of it is in the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary p.1343.
4. Philo also says that Pontius Pilate had brought golden shields with the Emperor Tiberius' name on them and hung them up in Herod's palace. The Jews considered that offensive, and appealed to Tiberius, who ordered Pilate to remove the shields, which probably made Pilate lose face.
5. Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.1 (written about 93-94 A.D.) and Wars of the Jews 2.9.2 also mentions Pontius Pilate as governor.
6. Early church writers
Eusebius, the Christian church historian, (c.325 A.D.) mentions Pontius Pilate, and says that after he was removed from office he committed suicide.
Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, succeeding Gratus, from 26-36/37 A.D.
Ignatius (died 107/116 A.D.) in the Letter to the Magnesians ch.11-12 p.64 mentions Pontius Pilate
Jesus was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, truly crucified, died, and raised from the dead. Ignatius’ Letter to the Trallians ch.9 p.70
Justin Martyr (c.150 A.D.) Jesus Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate. “…and we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, and we will prove.” First Apology of Justin Martyr ch.13 p.166-167
Crucified under Pontius Pilate. First Apology of Justin Martyr ch.61 p.183
Tertullian (200-240 A.D.) mentions Pontius Pilate. in Tertullian’s Apology ch.21 p.35
Q: In Mt 27:2-14, Mk 15:2-15; Lk 23:1-24 and Jn 19:1-15, apart from the Bible, what else do we know about Pontius Pilate?
A: "Pontius" was a Roman family. "Pilatus" means one armed with a pilum, or javelin. Most of what we know about Pontius Pilate comes from Josephus. The Emperor Tiberius Caesar had a friend name Sejanus, who wanted to destroy all the Jews, and Pontius Pilate and his contemporary Flaccus might have been the proteges of Sejanus. When Pontius Pilate became governor (or procurator) of the Jews in 26 A.D., he was the first to bring into Jerusalem the standards of the image of Caesar. When the Jews formerly asked that they be removed, Pilate surrounded them with soldiers and threatened to kill them. Josephus records that the Jews threw themselves on the ground to demonstrate they would rather die than break their law. Pilate removed the standards to Caesarea.
Pilate then took the money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct to carry water to Jerusalem. When the Jews protested, Pilate had soldiers dressed as civilians among the crowds, who killed many in the crowd. Luke 13:1 also records that Pilate killed some Galileans, whose blood he mixed with their sacrifices.
When some Samaritans gathered on a mountain to view to sacred containers that Moses supposedly put there, Pilate sent troops to ambush them and kill them. The Samaritans appealed to Vitellius, the legate of Syria, who sent Marcellus to take temporary charge of Judea and ordered Pilate to go to Rome in 36/37 A.D. to give an account of his actions to Caesar. Sejanus had been executed on October 18, 31 A.D., and Tiberius was trying to reverse anti-Semitic policies. Tiberius Caesar died on March 16, 37 A.D., while Pilate was enroute to Rome. Pilate never returned to Judea. Traditions say he committed suicide in modern-day Austria or Switzerland by drowning.
Philo the Jew says that Herod Agrippa I called Pilate "naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness).
The skeptical Asimov's Guide to the Bible p.891 also has information on Pontius Pilate. See the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary p.1343-1344 The New International Dictionary of the Bible p.789-790, and the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels p.615-617 for more info.
Q: In the Mt 27:26; Mk 15:15; Lk 23:20-25; Jn 19:16; Acts 2:23; Heb 12:2; what do we know about crucifixion prior to Christ?
A: Crucifixion was a gruesome but common form of execution among many peoples.
Who and When: It was practiced by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Egyptians according to The New International Dictionary of the Bible p.242. Herodotus in his History 3.125 mentions the Persians using crucifixion of living people. In his History 3.159 Herodotus also says that Darius (512-485 B.C.) crucified 3000 leading citizens of Babylon. The Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 1 p.1207 also mentions that other sources, not necessarily reliable, mention the crucifixion was used by the people of India, Assyrians, Scythians, Taurians, Thracians, Celts, Germans, and Britons. Julius Caesar reported that the Numidians used crucifixion. When Alexander the Great finally captured the Phoenician city of Tyre in 332 B.C., he killed 6/8,000 immediately and crucified 2,000 later according to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 6 p.687.
Jews were crucified by the Seleucid Antiochus IV (267 A.D.) according to Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 12:256. In Antiquities of the Jews 13:380-383 he also says the Sadducee high priest Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) crucified 800 Pharisees, and had their wives and kids killed before them
Among Romans, the Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 1 p.1206-1208 says Plautus (died in 184 B.C.) was the first writer who provides evidence of Roman crucifixion, and these were of people crucified before his time. For example, 25 male slave conspirators in Rome were crucified in 217 B.C. Josephus said there were three main forms of Roman execution: decapitation/thrown to animals, burning, and crucifixion, with being burned to death being considered more mild than crucifixion.
Where the Romans Learned of it: The Wycliffe Bible Dictionary p.404-405 says both the Greeks and Romans borrowed crucifixion from the Phoenicians. (Carthaginians can be considered as "western Phoenicians"). The Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 1 p.1207 also says numerous sources attest to Carthaginian crucifixion, and that the Romans might have taken over this practice from them.
As a Christian symbol: The Wycliffe Bible Dictionary p.404-405 also has some very interesting archaeological discoveries about the use of the cross as a symbol. Of course Paul (around 52 A.D.) "preached Jesus crucified" in 1 Corinthians 2:2, "gloried in the cross" in Galatians 6:14, and was persecuted for the cross in Galatians 5:7; 6:12. in When Herculaneaum was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., an excavated house shows a cross (a Latin cross like a lower-case t). In Talpioth, a suburb of Jerusalem, ossuaries (which stored bones) were found prior to 70 A.D. showing four sides marked with a cross that looked like a plus sign. According to Justin Martyr (110/114-165 A.D.), he compared the crucifix to the Greek letter Chi (like an X) in his First Apology chapter 60. Athanasius said in the Incarnation 25:3, that it is only on the cross that a man dies with his hands spread out.
Q: In the Gospels, what extra-Biblical evidence is there that “darkness was over the land” during Jesus’ crucifixion?
A: The non-Christian Palestinian historian Thales (also spelled Thallus), wrote in 52 A.D., less than 20 years after the crucifixion. He wrote that darkness accompanied the crucifixion of Jesus.
Phlegon was a Carian Greek writer who wrote soon after 137 A.D.. He wrote that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [33 A.D.] there was "the greatest eclipse of the sun" and that "it became night in the sixth hour of the day [12:00 noon] so that star even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea." (quoted from The Case for Christ p.111.)
The Christian writer Tertullian, writing about 200 A.D., in On Fasting chapter 10, also mentions the darkness accompanying Jesus' crucifixion.
The heterodox Christian writer Origen (writing 230-254 A.D.) mentions the darkness over the land, and the tombs split open in Against Celsus book 2 chapter 33.
Arnobius in Against the Heathen 54 mentions the darkness during Jesus' death.