The evidence for Jesus in the first century

Dr. Bart Ehrman, author of several books such as “Did Jesus Exist?” and “How Jesus Became God”, says the following about the evidence for Jesus in the first century:

“In the entire first Christian century Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription, and it is never found in a single piece of private correspondence. Zero! Zip references!”

What do you think? Is his statement mistaken? Is there, in fact, such evidence?

Epistles of St. Paul.

The Gospel of Thomas even if not in the Bible could have been written in the first century and references Jesus.

Richard Valantasis writes:

Assigning a date to the Gospel of Thomas is very complex because it is difficult to know precisely to what a date is being assigned. Scholars have proposed a date as early as 40 AD or as late as 140 AD, depending upon whether the Gospel of Thomas is identified with the original core of sayings, or with the author's published text, or with the Greek or Coptic texts, or with parallels in other literature.[27]

Valantasis and other scholars argue that it is difficult to date Thomas because, as a collection of logia without a narrative framework, individual sayings could have been added to it gradually over time.[28] (However, Valantasis does date Thomas to 100 – 110 AD, with some of the material certainly coming from the first stratum which is dated to 30 – 60 AD.[29])

Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, mentions Jesus in a few places, though some regard them as a later Christian expansions or alterations. Wikipedia article, Jospehus on Jesus.

Of course, there are many first-century Christian writings that mention Jesus, including the books of the New Testament and writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

I found the following information on a 1st century non-Christian historian:

“Roman orator and public official, probably the greatest historian and one of the greatest prose stylists who wrote in the Latin language… He held several provincial posts of increasing importance before he settled in Rome… After AD 98, Tacitus devoted his private life to literary pursuits. Among his works are the HISTORIES, concerning the empire from 69 to 96, and the later ANNALS, dealing with the period 14-68 AD. In the ANNALS, Tacitus wrote about Christ’s life and early church history.” (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume IX, page 760; and Volume I, page 391)

“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. 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.” Annals 15.44****

Wikipedia also has links to several references on Tacitus’ writings on Christ:

Just do a simple comparison of evidence for Jesus and evidence for other historical figures, for example Hannibal. No reputable historian would venture to question the existence of Hannibal, yet there is no mention of him in his own century. Mr. Ehrman is being selective in evaluation. His unbalanced bias betrays intellectual dishonesty on his part.

You might have a point if Ehrman questioned the existence of Jesus as a historical person. He doesn’t.

Yeah, Paul was a Roman citizen, and a could be considered a religious scholar or philosopher.


I need to brush up on whether his point is, strictly speaking, true, as I am unsure of the dates of some of the authors who referred to Jesus, but judging by the fact that this is coming from Ehrman, who, though a relatively liberal scholar has no respect for the Christ Myth theory, he’s not using it to challenge mainstream Christian belief or the historicity of Jesus.

Why would Greco-Romans write about Him during a time when those who followed Him were being persecuted?


If we had only the Paul’s epistles we wouldn’t know Jesus’s mother or foster father’s names nor those of most of his disciples nor those of most of the other gospel characters.

We wouldn’t know any of the details of Jesus’s birth or death. We wouldn’t know a single of his teachings, parables or miraculous deeds as they’re recorded in the gospels.

Indeed, the paucity of details about Jesus in all of the epistles – and not just those of Paul – are one of the reasons that some have been led to question Jesus’s historicity.

And, say what you will of Paul’s usefulness, those people are incorporating a deeply flawed and decontextualized historiography when they question Jesus’ historicity based on Paul’s lack of information.

Aside from the bible there is no outside evidence of Jesus. Josephus is not considered to be a reliable historian. The Romans kept good records but there is no mention of Jesus or his followers. This is why everyone was so excited about an ossuary with an inscription which people thought was about Jesus. The thing turned out to be fraudulent. Even if the shroud of Turin is authentic, there is no DNA test for Jesus.
This doesn’t affect how the faithful should feel about Him. Religion is all about mystery and unprovable “facts”.

Gospel of Thomas is not in the Bible and that according to many experts is from the 1st century.

Also, according to whom is Josephus not considered a reliable historian?? His books are still published and they are not mainly about Jesus.

I assume persons like Cleopatra and the Buddha himself would be difficult to prove they existed, I think I have heard that about Cleopatra.
Early historical documents on Jesus Christ

New Advent,Catholic Encyclopedia.

What we do know is that Christians in Rome were persecuted, blamed for that fire and so on. So there certainly is plenty of evidence these people were on fire for their religion and willing to be sent to the coliseums and lived in the Catacombs. Something inspired them. I’m sure it was the apostles, Paul and Peter too, going to Rome.

And how interesting, I see, we know what happened to most of the Apostles, we know what happened to Luke for example. We know Luke knew Paul it seems and that is a testament in itself in how they both have books in the Bible.

I would also be curious as to how well the Romans kept records for the far-reaches of their empire, it be England or the Holy Land.

We can also trace the Bible to real life events, there has always been a bit of a controversy on the Census issue that happens in the Gospel of Luke and so on. Herod was the King, a lot of these figures can be traced down.

I just reread Ehrman’s book on the subject, and you are quoting him out of context. He sometimes writes (as he will himself admit) in a manner that leaves himself open to ambiguity, but “a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet” meant, I think, only Greeks and Romans, not early Christian (which we do have), not Jewish (which we do have).

Ehrman is an agnostic, tending to atheism (as he describes himself), but he is an honest and scholarly one who wrote an entire book discrediting the Jesus Mythicist theory, which earned him the enmity of all the Richard Carrier fanboys, who waste endless bandwidth writing about how “their” Richard Carrier is right and Ehrman is wrong.

I disagree with him about Jesus’s divinity, of course, but give him credit for intellectual honesty and scholarship.

As he rightly points out, we have almost no surviving Roman documents from 1st century Palestine (some from Egypt, which aren’t relevant), so the argument that “Romans were good recordkeepers, so there should be records” is incorrect.

(We also have no independent contemporaneous historical attestation for Josephus himself, or for any number of other individuals that the Romans should have left records for, but didn’t, such as Spartacus. We have a much shorter period for the first historical attestation of Jesus than we do for Spartacus, a rebel who led thousands of rebellious slaves, defeated entire Roman Legions and captured or killed their generals, and almost conquered the capital of Rome itself. And this happened in Rome, not in the backwater province of Palestine. The number of contemporaneous Roman references? None.

For that matter, we would presume that Jesus was not the only person the Romans crucified in Palestine, but we have NO warrants, execution orders, or descriptions of crucifixions from there. When an actual crucified skeleton was found, it was reported worldwide (the frugal Romans removed the nails that were driven into the body after death, but these were so wedged into the ankle bones that they left them in.)

There is still very good evidence for the historicity of Jesus, which Ehrman describes at length in his book (“Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”):

Roman References (Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus).

Jewish References (Josephus, whose two references to Jesus are hard to discount once the likely interpolations are removed, and later Rabbinic sources.

The canonical Gospels (and why they cannot be discounted as sources), as well as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, Papyrus Egerton 2, all arguably written within a hundred years of Jesus’s death. Although Catholics do not accept them as canonical, arguments have been made by scholars like April DeConick that the core of the Gospel of Thomas can be traced back to a non-surviving Gospel in circulation prior to 50 A.D.

Written sources for the surviving Gospels, such as the “Q” source, as well as the “M” and “I” source. These are documents that are believed to have existed to provide common sources for the Gospels.

Early Oral Traditions about Jesus, which must have existed at an earlier date before the Gospels and Epistles

Even earlier Aramaic oral traditions, which can be presumed based upon sections in the Gospel that only make sense if the original Aramaic words are used, as well as the oral traditions where surviving Aramaic words themselves are used (such as Mark 35:14).

Later sources from outside the New Testament (some of which are hostile, but none of which suggest that he is mythical)

The Christian oral sources that provided information to Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus.

The Early Church Fathers: Papias, who collected oral traditions from the apostles or those who knew them; if not eyewitness testimony, it is pretty close; Ignatius of Antioch,whose lineage can be traced directly to the apostles, but cannot be shown to be relying on the Gospels; nor can Clement in the 90s A.D.), who quotes some of Jesus’s sayings but whose wording does not correspond to any of the surviving Gospels and who does not say they come from any written texts.

The Book of Acts, which preserves traditions about Jesus that Luke did not include in his Gospel and which most critical historians believe was based on traditions in circulation before the production of the Gospel of Luke,

The Non-Pauline Epistles

The Pauline Epistles

In addition to what Ehrman describes, there is also corroborating archaeological evidence that supports the Gospel accounts, and historical evidence for the other individuals named in the accounts (Pilate, Herod, etc.)

Au contraire mon frere, Look at his quote

“In the entire first Christian century Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription . . . … Zero! Zip references!”

He clearly states that there is no evidence of Jesus, “not a single inscription Zero, Zip …”

He does not in any way shape or form deny or question the historical reality of Jesus. He says there is no historic mention in Greek and Roman writing, that’s it.

I’ve read some of his books, he never theorized or implied that Jesus didn’t exist as an historical person. He totally believes Jesus is a real historical figure.

Saying there is no mention of Jesus among a particular subset of sources is not at all the same as saying he never existed.

He is a scholar and if anything, he chooses very precise language, and makes his points very clear in his writing. A few sentences taken out of context do not transmit all he has to offer on the subject.

Ask Dr. Ehrman if he has ever heard of the Roman Emperor Nero. He probably has (everybody has). Nero was the Emperor of the Roman Empire, the most powerful man in the world, for 13 years (the second-longest reigning Caesar). He died (of natural causes) in 68 AD (so he was also a First Century guy).

How many Romans (of the Senatorial Caste or otherwise, whose writings survive) wrote about Nero within the first century of his death? Exactly two (both of whom wrote about 50 years after Nero’s death- the next most recent account was 150 years after). How many of those Romans actually knew Nero? None. Zip. Zero. How many pieces of private correspondence mention Nero? Zero! Zip references!

Did Nero really exist? If we apply Ehrman’s reasoning, there is far more evidence for Jesus than Nero.

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