Is there evidence outside of the Bible for the history presented in the Gospels? Jon Noyes explains why the answer is yes in this excerpt from our Stand to Reason University course “Are the Gospels Reliable History?”
The first case I ever worked as a paralegal was Wiggins v. Smith. Our client was Kevin Wiggins, and in 1988, he’d been convicted and sentenced to death. Fifteen years after Wiggins’ conviction, I was pulling together all the evidence of the case, trying to piece it all together to tell one unified story to discover what really happened. It’s called corroboration. Does one piece of evidence support or confirm another piece of evidence? Do the pieces connect together to form one single, unified account of what really took place? When we did that, we were able to actually prove that Mr. Wiggins hadn’t received proper representation. We made our case before the Supreme Court, and that court overturned his death sentence. We’re going to do the same thing in our class on “Are the Gospels Reliable?” We’re going to compile all the evidence for the reliability of the Gospels. Then, we’re going to see if the different pieces support one unified historical account.
Here’s how we’re going to proceed. First, we gather the evidence. This is our exhibit list. We have the primary source historical documents of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We also have the writings of people outside the New Testament writers. Finally, we have evidence from archaeology. Let’s look to see if they corroborate one another.
One of the amazing things about the Gospels is how they verify each other. The authors are telling one unified narrative. Sometimes, though, they support each other in very surprising ways, and these are called undesigned coincidences: different authors that are describing the same event, but they give different details that clarify what happened.
Here’s one example from Jesus’ arrest. Matthew records this incident in chapter 26, starting in verse 67: “They spit in his face and beat him with their fists; and others slapped him, and said, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ; Who is the one who hit you?’“ Why would these men who hit Jesus ask, “Who is the one who hit you?” They’re standing right in front of him, so close that they can spit on him and hit him. Well, let’s look at Luke’s Gospel. He gives us the answer. In Luke 22, he says, “The men who were holding Jesus in custody began mocking him and beating him, and they blindfolded him and repeatedly asked him, saying ‘Prophesy, who is the one who hit you?’” Do you see what happened? One account gives the detail that doesn’t seem to make sense: “Who hit you?” Another separate account fills in the gap: Jesus was blindfolded. This is an undesigned coincidence, and we find them throughout the Gospels. One Gospel unwittingly corroborates the other. These unplanned details connect the accounts together. This gives credibility to the historical accuracy of the accounts.
There’s another way the historical record of Jesus’ life was corroborated. First, we had biblical corroboration. This one’s called extra-biblical corroboration. The Gospel authors weren’t the only ones reporting information about Jesus. There’s a lot of quotes here, so bear with me because this part is really, really cool.
First, here’s one from an ancient Jewish historian. You’ve probably heard his name before. Josephus was the court historian of Emperor Vespasian. He recorded these references to Jesus at the end of the first century in his famous history, “Antiquities of the Jews.” First, he recounts the execution of James, the brother of Jesus: “Ananus brought before the Sanhedrin a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and condemned them to be stoned to death.”
Second, Josephus makes a remarkably detailed reference to Jesus: “At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good. He was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and die. But those who would 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.”
There’s also another reference, and this time from a book called the Talmud. Watch as this subtly acknowledges Jesus’ supernatural acts: “On the eve of the Passover Yeshua was hanged...because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”
We have a third example, and here our example comes from a historical reference from a Greek writer, Lucian. Now, Lucian was a second century writer who berated Christians. He writes this: “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time...and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage.”
Our fourth extra-biblical source comes from a Roman historian. His name was Cornelius Tacitus, and he was considered by some the greatest historian of ancient Rome. Here’s what he wrote in his “Annals of Imperial Rome” in 115 AD regarding the burning of Rome in the mid ‘60s: “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 Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.”
So here’s what we learn about Jesus of Nazareth from extra-biblical corroboration. This is amazing. From a Jewish historian, from the Jewish Talmud, from a Greek writer, and from a Roman historian, we have multiple sources testifying to the existence of a wise, virtuous sage from Judea named Jesus, with supernatural powers, who had a brother named James, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, whose disciples reported him alive three days after his crucifixion, who had a substantial following named “Christians” who believed in immortality and who worshipped Jesus Christ as God. All of this from secular sources.
All in all, there are 17 ancient non-biblical sources corroborating the Gospel record. As if that’s not enough, there’s yet a third way the historical record of Jesus’ life is corroborated, and it’s called archaeological corroboration. Archaeology continues to corroborate the New Testament. Almost every month, a new discovery supports the biblical account. Here’s just three notable examples.
First, a crucifixion. Thousands of criminals were executed by crucifixion, but it wasn’t until 1968 where the first remains of a victim of crucifixion were found, probably buried in a grave, too. Until then, skeptics doubted the Gospel accounts, since they thought crucified criminals were thrown into just massive graves. But this discovery corroborates the fact that the criminals were actually given, sometimes, proper burials, just as was Jesus in the Gospels.
But it’s not just crucifixion. Let’s look at Pontius Pilate. There was only one mention of Pilate outside the New Testament until fairly recently, and this caused some people to question the Gospel accounts. But in 1961, archaeologists discovered a stone in Caesarea, Israel, and on it, it said in Latin, “Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea.” Once again, archaeology corroborating the Gospels.
For our final example, let’s look at something out of the Gospel of John: the Pool of Bethesda. John mentions the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem surrounded by five porticos near the sheep gate. Skeptics doubted the pool’s existence until 1888, when archaeologists discovered the remains of a pool with five shallow porticos in the exact area John recorded.
Is there corroborating evidence for the events recorded in the Gospels? Do the pieces of historical evidence confirm each other? Do they support a single, unified account of what took place? Yes. Multiple pieces of evidence corroborate each other. We have abundant corroboration between the Gospels, corroboration from extra-biblical sources, and corroboration from archaeology. The corroboration test is yet another reason to believe the New Testament is historically reliable.