Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Saturday, June 12, 2021

BAS 41:1 - Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible

Biblical Archaeology Review 41:1,
January/February 2015

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible
By Lawrence Mykytiuk

After two decades toiling in the quiet groves of academe, I published an article in BAR titled “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible.”a The enormous interest this article generated was a complete surprise to me. Nearly 40 websites in six languages, reflecting a wide spectrum of secular and religious orientations, linked to BAR’s supplementary web page.b Some even posted translations.

Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Ravenna, Italy | Bridgeman Images

THE MAN CHRIST JESUS. Did Jesus of Nazareth exist as a real human being? Outside of the New Testament, what is the evidence for his existence? In this article, author Lawrence Mykytiuk examines the extra-Biblical textual and archaeological evidence associated with the man who would become the central figure in Christianity. Here Jesus is depicted in a vibrant sixth-century C.E. mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.
I thought about following up with a similar article on people in the New Testament, but I soon realized that this would be so dominated by the question of Jesus’ existence that I needed to consider this question separately. This is that article:
Did Jesus of Nazareth, who was called Christ, exist as a real human being, “the man Christ Jesus” according to 1 Timothy 2:5?
The sources normally discussed fall into three main categories: (1) classical (that is, Greco-Roman), (2) Jewish and (3) Christian. But when people ask whether it is possible to prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, as John P. Meier pointed out decades ago, “The implication is that the Biblical evidence for Jesus is biased because it is encased in a theological text written by committed believers. What they really want to know is: Is there extra-Biblical evidence … for Jesus’ existence?”c
Therefore, this article will cover classical and Jewish writings almost exclusively.

Or more formally, Caius/Gaius (or Publius) Cornelius Tacitus (55/56–c. 118 C.E.)—was a Roman senator, orator and ethnographer, and arguably the best of Roman historians. His name is based on the Latin word tacitus, “silent,” from which we get the English word tacit. Interestingly, his compact prose uses silence and implications in a masterful way. One argument for the authenticity of the quotation below is that it is written in true Tacitean Latin. But first a short introduction.

Bibliotheque nationale, Paris, France | Giraudon/Bridgeman Images
Roman historian Tacitus

TACITUS'S CONFIRMATION. Roman historian Tacitus’s last major work, Annals, mentions a “Christus” who was executed by Pontius Pilate and from whom the Christians derived their name. Tacitus’s brief reference corroborates historical details of Jesus’ death from the New Testament. The pictured volume of Tacitus’s works is from the turn of the 17th century. The volume’s title page features Plantin Press’s printing mark depicting angels, a compass and the motto Labore et Constantia (“By Labor and Constancy”).

Tacitus, Opera Quae Exstant, trans. by Justus Lipsius
(Antwerp, Belgium: Ex officina Plantiniana, apud Joannem Moretum, 1600).
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Co. (PRB&M)

Tacitus’s last major work, titled Annals, written c. 116–117 C.E., includes a biography of Nero. In 64 C.E., during a fire in Rome, Nero was suspected of secretly ordering the burning of a part of town where he wanted to carry out a building project, so he tried to shift the blame to Christians. This was the occasion for Tacitus to mention Christians, whom he despised. This is what he wrote—the following excerpt is translated from Latin by Robert Van Voorst:
[N]either human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.

Codex Mediceus 68 II, fol. 38r, the Biblioteca
Medicea  Laurenziana
, Florence, Italy

CHRESTIANS OF CHRIST. Book XV of Tacitus’s Annals is preserved in the 11th–12th-century Codex Mediceus II, a collection of medieval manuscripts now housed in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy, along with other manuscripts and books that belonged to the Medici family. Highlighted above is the Latin text reading “… whom the crowd called ‘Chrestians.’ The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate …”
Tacitus’s terse statement about “Christus” clearly corroborates the New Testament on certain historical details of Jesus’ death. Tacitus presents four pieces of accurate knowledge about Jesus: (1) Christus, used by Tacitus to refer to Jesus, was one distinctive way by which some referred to him, even though Tacitus mistakenly took it for a personal name rather than an epithet or title; (2) this Christus was associated with the beginning of the movement of Christians, whose name originated from his; (3) he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea; and (4) the time of his death was during Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea, during the reign of Tiberius. (Many New Testament scholars date Jesus’ death to c. 29 C.E.; Pilate governed Judea in 26–36 C.E., while Tiberius was emperor 14–37 C.E.)

Tacitus, like classical authors in general, does not reveal the source(s) he used. But this should not detract from our confidence in Tacitus’s assertions. Scholars generally disagree about what his sources were. Tacitus was certainly among Rome’s best historians—arguably the best of all—at the top of his game as a historian and never given to careless writing.Tacitus’s terse statement about “Christus” clearly corroborates the New Testament on certain historical details of Jesus’ death. Tacitus presents four pieces of accurate knowledge about Jesus: (1) Christus, used by Tacitus to refer to Jesus, was one distinctive way by which some referred to him, even though Tacitus mistakenly took it for a personal name rather than an epithet or title; (2) this Christus was associated with the beginning of the movement of Christians, whose name originated from his; (3) he was executed by the Roman governor of Judea; and (4) the time of his death was during Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea, during the reign of Tiberius. (Many New Testament scholars date Jesus’ death to c. 29 C.E.; Pilate governed Judea in 26–36 C.E., while Tiberius was emperor 14–37 C.E.)

Earlier in his career, when Tacitus was Proconsul of Asia, he likely supervised trials, questioned people accused of being Christians and judged and punished those whom he found guilty, as his friend Pliny the Younger had done when he too was a provincial governor. Thus Tacitus stood a very good chance of becoming aware of information that he characteristically would have wanted to verify before accepting it as true.


The other strong evidence that speaks directly about Jesus as a real person comes from Josephus, a Jewish priest who grew up as an aristocrat in first-century Palestine and ended up living in Rome, supported by the patronage of three successive emperors. In the early days of the first Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.), Josephus was a commander in Galilee but soon surrendered and became a prisoner of war. He then prophesied that his conqueror, the Roman commander Vespasian, would become emperor, and when this actually happened, Vespasian freed him. “From then on Josephus lived in Rome under the protection of the Flavians and there composed his historical and apologetic writings” (Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz). He even took the name Flavius, after the family name of his patron, the emperor Vespasian, and set it before his birth name, becoming, in true Roman style, Flavius Josephus. Most Jews viewed him as a despicable traitor. It was by command of Vespasian’s son Titus that a Roman army in 70 C.E. destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple, stealing its contents as spoils of war, which are partly portrayed in the imagery of their gloating triumph on the Arch of Titus in Rome. After Titus succeeded his father as emperor, Josephus accepted the son’s imperial patronage, as he did of Titus’s brother and successor, Domitian.

Josephus, Famovs and Memorable Works of Josephvs, trans.
by Thomas Lodge (London: J. L. for Andrew Hebb, 1640).

JAMES, BROTHER OF JESUS. In Jewish Antiquities, parts of which are included in this mid-17th-century book of translations, Josephus refers to a James, who is described as “the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah.” Josephus’s mention of Jesus to specify which James was being executed by the high priest Ananus in 62 C.E. affirms the existence of the historical Jesus.
Yet in his own mind, Josephus remained a Jew both in his outlook and in his writings that extol Judaism. At the same time, by aligning himself with Roman emperors who were at that time the worst enemies of the Jewish people, he chose to ignore Jewish popular opinion.

Josephus stood in a unique position as a Jew who was secure in Roman imperial patronage and protection, eager to express pride in his Jewish heritage and yet personally independent of the Jewish community at large. Thus, in introducing Romans to Judaism, he felt free to write historical views for Roman consumption that were strongly at variance with rabbinic views.

Burgerbibliothek Bern Cod. 50, f.2 | Jewish historian Josephus is
pictured  in the ninth-century medieval manuscript Burgerbibliothek
Codex under the Greek caption “Josippos Historiographer.”

In his two great works, The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities, both written in Greek for educated people, Josephus tried to appeal to aristocrats in the Roman world, presenting Judaism as a religion to be admired for its moral and philosophical depth. The Jewish War doesn’t mention Jesus except in some versions in likely later additions by others, but Jewish Antiquities does mention Jesus—twice.

The shorter of these two references to Jesus (in Book 20) is incidental to identifying Jesus’ brother James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In the temporary absence of a Roman governor between Festus’s death and governor Albinus’s arrival in 62 C.E., the high priest Ananus instigated James’s execution. Josephus described it:
Being therefore this kind of person [i.e., a heartless Sadducee], Ananus, thinking that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus had died and Albinus was still on his way, called a meeting [literally, “sanhedrin”] of judges and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others. He made the accusation that they had transgressed the law, and he handed them over to be stoned.
James is otherwise a barely noticed, minor figure in Josephus’s lengthy tome. The sole reason for referring to James at all was that his death resulted in Ananus losing his position as high priest. James (Jacob) was a common Jewish name at this time. Many men named James are mentioned in Josephus’s works, so Josephus needed to specify which one he meant. The common custom of simply giving the father’s name (James, son of Joseph) would not work here, because James’s father’s name was also very common. Therefore Josephus identified this James by reference to his famous brother Jesus. But James’s brother Jesus (Yehoshua) also had a very common name. Josephus mentions at least 12 other men named Jesus. Therefore Josephus specified which Jesus he was referring to by adding the phrase “who is called Messiah,” or, since he was writing in Greek, Christos. This phrase was necessary to identify clearly first Jesus and, via Jesus, James, the subject of the discussion. This extraneous reference to Jesus would have made no sense if Jesus had not been a real person.

Few scholars have ever doubted the authenticity of this short account. On the contrary, the huge majority accepts it as genuine. The phrase intended to specify which Jesus, translated “who is called Christ,” signifies either that he was mentioned earlier in the book or that readers knew him well enough to grasp the reference to him in identifying James. The latter is unlikely. First-century Romans generally had little or no idea who Christus was. It is much more likely that he was mentioned earlier in Jewish Antiquities. Also, the fact that the term “Messiah”/“Christ” is not defined here suggests that an earlier passage in Jewish Antiquities has already mentioned something of its significance. This phrase is also appropriate for a Jewish historian like Josephus because the reference to Jesus is a noncommittal, neutral statement about what some people called Jesus and not a confession of faith that actually asserts that he was Christ.

This phrase—“who is called Christ”—is very unlikely to have been added by a Christian for two reasons. First, in the New Testament and in the early Church Fathers of the first two centuries C.E., Christians consistently refer to James as “the brother of the Lord” or “of the Savior” and similar terms, not “the brother of Jesus,” presumably because the name Jesus was very common and did not necessarily refer to their Lord. Second, Josephus’s description in Jewish Antiquities of how and when James was executed disagrees with Christian tradition, likewise implying a non-Christian author.

This short identification of James by the title that some people used in order to specify his brother gains credibility as an affirmation of Jesus’ existence because the passage is not about Jesus. Rather, his name appears in a functional phrase that is called for by the sense of the passage. It can only be useful for the identification of James if it is a reference to a real person, namely, “Jesus who is called Christ.”

This clear reference to Jesus is sometimes overlooked in debates about Josephus’s other, longer reference to Jesus (to be treated next). Quite a few people are aware of the questions and doubts regarding the longer mention of Jesus, but often this other clear, simple reference and its strength as evidence for Jesus’ existence does not receive due attention.

The longer passage in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities (Book 18) that refers to Jesus is known as the Testimonium Flavianum.

If it has any value in relation to the question of Jesus’ existence, it counts as additional evidence for Jesus’ existence. The Testimonium Flavianum reads as follows; the parts that are especially suspicious because they sound Christian are in italics:
Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who did surprising deeds, and a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who in the first place came to love him did not give up their affection for him, for on the third day, he appeared to them restored to life. The prophets of God had prophesied this and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, have still to this day not died out.
All surviving manuscripts of the Testimonium Flavianum that are in Greek, like the original, contain the same version of this passage, with no significant differences.

Codex Parisinus gr. 2075, 45v. |
Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France

THE TESTIMONY OF JOSEPHUS. This 15th-century manuscript, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, contains the portion of Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum that refers to Jesus (highlighted in blue). The first sentence of the manuscript, highlighted in green, reads, from the Greek, “Around this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.” The majority of scholars believe this passage of the Testimonium is based on the original writings of Josephus but contains later additions, likely made by Christian scribes.

The main question is: Did Flavius Josephus write this entire report about Jesus and his followers, or did a forger or forgers alter it or possibly insert the whole report? There are three ways to answer this question:
Alternative 1: The whole passage is authentic, written by Josephus.

Alternative 2: The whole passage is a forgery, inserted into Jewish Antiquities.

Alternative 3: It is only partly authentic, containing some material from Josephus, but also some later additions by another hand(s).

Regarding Alternative 1, today almost no scholar accepts the authenticity of the entire standard Greek Testimonium Flavianum. In contrast to the obviously Christian statement “He was the Messiah” in the Testimonium, Josephus elsewhere “writes as a passionate advocate of Judaism,” says Josephus expert Steve Mason. “Everywhere Josephus praises the excellent constitution of the Jews, codified by Moses, and declares its peerless, comprehensive qualities ... Josephus rejoices over converts to Judaism. In all this, there is not the slightest hint of any belief in Jesus” as seems to be reflected in the Testimonium.

The bold affirmation of Jesus as Messiah reads as a resounding Christian confession that echoes St. Peter himself! It cannot be Josephus. Alternative 1 is clearly out.

Regarding Alternative 2—the whole Testimonium Flavianum is a forgery—this is very unlikely. What is said, and the expressions in Greek that are used to say it, despite a few words that don’t seem characteristic of Josephus, generally fit much better with Josephus’s writings than with Christian writings. It is hypothetically possible that a forger could have learned to imitate Josephus’s style or that a reviser adjusted the passage to that style, but such a deep level of attention, based on an extensive, detailed reading of Josephus’s works and such a meticulous adoption of his vocabulary and style, goes far beyond what a forger or a reviser would need to do.

Even more important, the short passage (treated above) that mentions Jesus in order to identify James appears in a later section of the book (Book 20) and implies that Jesus was mentioned previously.

The best-informed among the Romans understood Christus to be nothing more than a man’s personal name, on the level of Publius and Marcus. First-century Romans generally had no idea that calling someone “Christus” was an exalted reference, implying belief that he was the chosen one, God’s anointed. The Testimonium, in Book 18, appropriately found in the section that deals with Pilate’s time as governor of Judea, is apparently one of Josephus’s characteristic digressions, this time occasioned by mention of Pilate. It provides background for Josephus’s only other written mention of Jesus (in Book 20), and it connects the name Jesus with his Christian followers. The short reference to Jesus in the later book depends on the longer one in the earlier (Book 18). If the longer one is not genuine, this passage lacks its essential background. Alternative 2 should be rejected.

Alternative 3—that the Testimonium Flavianum is based on an original report by Josephus that has been modified by others, probably Christian scribes, seems most likely. After extracting what appear to be Christian additions, the remaining text appears to be pure Josephus. As a Romanized Jew, Josephus would not have presented these beliefs as his own. Interestingly, in three openly Christian, non-Greek versions of the Testimonium Flavianum analyzed by Steve Mason, variations indicate changes were made by others besides Josephus. The Latin version says Jesus “was believed to be the Messiah.” The Syriac version is best translated, “He was thought to be the Messiah.” And the Arabic version with open coyness suggests, “He was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” Alternative 3 has the support of the overwhelming majority of scholars.

What Can We Learn About Jesus?

We can learn quite a bit about Jesus from Tacitus and Josephus, two famous historians who were not Christian. Almost all the following statements about Jesus, which are asserted in the New Testament, are corroborated or confirmed by the relevant passages in Tacitus and Josephus. These independent historical sources—one a non-Christian Roman and the other Jewish—confirm what we are told in the Gospels:
1. He existed as a man. The historian Josephus grew up in a priestly family in first-century Palestine and wrote only decades after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ known associates, such as Jesus’ brother James, were his contemporaries. The historical and cultural context was second nature to Josephus. “If any Jewish writer were ever in a position to know about the non-existence of Jesus, it would have been Josephus. His implicit affirmation of the existence of Jesus has been, and still is, the most significant obstacle for those who argue that the extra-Biblical evidence is not probative on this point,” Robert Van Voorst observes. And Tacitus was careful enough not to report real executions of nonexistent people.

2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us.

3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies, unaware, by reporting, as Romans thought, that his name was Christus.

4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports.

5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus, although it is anachronistic to say that they were “many” at the end of his life. Large growth in the number of Jesus’ actual followers came only after his death.

6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him, at least according to some versions of the Testimonium Flavianum.

7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.

8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.

9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign.

Some of Jesus’ followers did not abandon their personal loyalty to him even after his crucifixion but submitted to his teaching. They believed that Jesus later appeared to them alive in accordance with prophecies, most likely those found in the Hebrew Bible. A well-attested link between Jesus and Christians is that Christ, as a term used to identify Jesus, became the basis of the term used to identify his followers: Christians. The Christian movement began in Judea, according to Tacitus. Josephus observes that it continued during the first century. Tacitus deplores the fact that during the second century it had spread as far as Rome.

As far as we know, no ancient person ever seriously argued that Jesus did not exist. Referring to the first several centuries C.E., even a scholar as cautious and thorough as Robert Van Voorst freely observes, “… [N]o pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus’ historicity or even questioned it.”

Nondenial of Jesus’ existence is particularly notable in rabbinic writings of those first several centuries C.E.: “… [I]f anyone in the ancient world had a reason to dislike the Christian faith, it was the rabbis. To argue successfully that Jesus never existed but was a creation of early Christians would have been the most effective polemic against Christianity … [Yet] all Jewish sources treated Jesus as a fully historical person … [T]he rabbis … used the real events of Jesus’ life against him” (Van Voorst).

Thus his birth, ministry and death occasioned claims that his birth was illegitimate and that he performed miracles by evil magic, encouraged apostasy and was justly executed for his own sins. But they do not deny his existence.


Lucian of Samosata (c. 115–200 C.E.) was a Greek satirist who wrote The Passing of Peregrinus, about a former Christian who later became a famous Cynic and revolutionary and died in 165 C.E. In two sections of Peregrinus—here translated by Craig A. Evans—Lucian, while discussing Peregrinus’s career, without naming Jesus, clearly refers to him, albeit with contempt in the midst of satire:
It was then that he learned the marvelous wisdom of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—what else?—in short order he made them look like children, for he was a prophet, cult leader, head of the congregation and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books, and wrote many himself. They revered him as a god, used him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector—to be sure, after that other whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.
For having convinced themselves that they are going to be immortal and live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most even willingly give themselves up. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living according to his laws.

Although Lucian was aware of the Christians’ “books” (some of which might have been parts of the New Testament), his many bits of misinformation make it seem very likely that he did not read them. The compound term “priests and scribes,” for example, seems to have been borrowed from Judaism, and indeed, Christianity and Judaism were sometimes confused among classical authors.

Lucian seems to have gathered all of his information from sources independent of the New Testament and other Christian writings. For this reason, this writing of his is usually valued as independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.

This is true despite his ridicule and contempt for Christians and their “crucified sophist.” “Sophist” was a derisive term used for cheats or for teachers who only taught for money. Lucian despised Christians for worshiping someone thought to be a criminal worthy of death and especially despised “the man who was crucified.”

Other testimony that has some value, but much less, as evidence regarding the existence of Jesus appears in the writings of the following people:
Celsus, the Platonist philosopher, considered Jesus to be a magician who made exorbitant claims.

Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor and friend of Tacitus, wrote about early Christian worship of Christ “as to a god.”

Suetonius, a Roman writer, lawyer and historian, wrote of riots in 49 C.E. among Jews in Rome which might have been about Christus but which he thought were incited by “the instigator Chrestus,” whose identification with Jesus is not completely certain.

Mara bar Serapion, a prisoner of war held by the Romans, wrote a letter to his son that described “the wise Jewish king” in a way that seems to indicate Jesus but does not specify his identity.


Other documentary sources are doubtful or irrelevant.

One can label the evidence treated above as documentary (sometimes called literary) or as archaeological. Almost all sources covered above exist in the form of documents that have been copied and preserved over the course of many centuries, rather than excavated in archaeological digs. Therefore, although some writers call them archaeological evidence, I prefer to say that these truly ancient texts are ancient documentary sources, rather than archaeological discoveries.

Some ossuaries (bone boxes) have come to light that are inscribed simply with the name Jesus (Yeshu or Yeshua‘ in Hebrew), but no one suggests that this was Jesus of Nazareth. The name Jesus was very common at this time, as was Joseph. So as far as we know, these ordinary ossuaries have nothing to do with the New Testament Jesus. Even the ossuary from the East Talpiot district of Jerusalem, whose inscription is translated “Yeshua‘, son of Joseph,” does not refer to him.

As for the famous James ossuary first published in 2002,d whose inscription is translated “Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Yeshua‘,” more smoothly rendered, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” it is unprovenanced, and it will likely take decades to settle the matter of whether it is authentic. Following well-established, sound methodology, I do not base conclusions on materials whose authenticity is uncertain, because they might be forged. Therefore the James ossuary, which is treated in many other publications, is not included here.

As a final observation: In New Testament scholarship generally, a number of specialists consider the question of whether Jesus existed to have been finally and conclusively settled in the affirmative. A few vocal scholars, however, still deny that he ever lived.


LAWRENCE MYKYTIUK is Emeritus Professor of Library Science and Associate Professor of History at Purdue University. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and is the author of Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 B.C.E. (2004).


MLA Citation
Mykytiuk, Lawrence. “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible,” Biblical Archaeology Review 41.1 (2015): 45–51, 76.

APA Citation
Mykytiuk, L. (2015). "Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible. "Biblical Archaeology Review, 41(1), 45–51, 76.

Chicago/Turabian Citation
Mykytiuk, Lawrence. “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible,” Biblical Archaeology Review 41, no. 1 (2015): 45–51, 76.

BAS 47:2 - "New Testament Religious Figures Confirmed"

Biblical Archaeology Review 47:2, Summer 2021

New Testament Religious Figures Confirmed
By Lawrence Mykytiuk

Are any religious figures in the New Testament—in addition to Jesus—mentioned outside of it, in non-Christian writings of their times?

This article completes the coverage of people in the New Testament who are documented outside of the New Testament and other Christian sources. Since 2014, four BAR articles have presented the evidence from archaeology and ancient texts for the historical existence of 53 real people in the Hebrew Bible and, in the New Testament, Jesus plus 23 political figures.a 
See articles by Lawrence Mykytiuk:

As with the earlier BAR articles, the goal is to look at sources outside of the Bible—and, especially for this article, outside of other Christian writings, as well—to find out whether other contemporaneous sources mention any of its religious figures.

both in the NT in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities. Here, John is depicted
in a 13th-century mosaic in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

These figures are unlike most of the political figures of the New Testament previously listed in BAR as archaeologically confirmed. Political figures had strong self-interest in setting up imposing stone monuments and minting coins to make their own rule, wealth, power, and glory seem permanent and invincible, usually as guaranteed by the Roman emperor. Religious figures, in contrast, evidently did not need to erect monuments for their own self-glorification or mint coins to display their wealth. Perhaps that is why there is less ancient physical evidence for them.

Still, we have non-Christian evidence for at least seven religious figures of the New Testament: Jesus of Nazareth, whose mention in non-Christian sources has already been discussed in BAR, and at least six more, who appear in the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, in his The Jewish War, in his autobiographical The Life of Josephus, or in the earliest part of the Talmud, the Mishnah.b In fact, all of the figures in the New Testament who have been documented outside of it were either political or religious figures (and some high priests also had limited political power, arguably making them both political and religious figures).

To make a firm identification, one must interpret ancient writings outside the Bible by other such writings, not the Bible, and then make sure that: (1) sources are genuine, not forged or unreliable; (2) the time-and-place setting of the person in the ancient writing matches the setting of the person in the Bible; and (3) marks of an individual, such as name, father’s name, title, or work location, distinguish two different people from each other and avoid the impression they are one and the same.

Gamaliel the Elder

We’ll begin with the grandson of the great Jewish leader Hillel the Elder: Gamaliel the Elder, who makes a truly dramatic New Testament appearance in Acts 5:33-40. At that point in time, around 30 (or possibly 33) C.E., Jesus had already been crucified and, according to his followers, resurrected and ascended. After the Festival of Firstfruits, or Weeks (also called Pentecost), Peter had preached in Jerusalem, and large numbers of Jews had believed in Jesus. This result had aroused the opposition of priests and Sadducees, groups with whom Jesus had earlier come into conflict. They made Peter and John appear before the whole Jerusalem Sanhedrin, the full assembly of the elders of Israel. There they ordered these two not to proclaim or teach their message, but Peter and the other apostles repeatedly disobeyed the high priest’s orders. (The apostles were Jewish followers of Jesus, normally 12 in number, chosen and sent to spread his message.) Even when put in jail, the apostles escaped and resumed teaching in the Temple.

Incensed, the high priest had them re-arrested, brought them again before the Sanhedrin, and called them to account for their disobedience. Peter replied by claiming divine authorization and once again preaching the same message, this time directly to their faces! The Sanhedrin was furious and wanted to have the apostles executed. The vulnerable Jesus movement, having barely begun, was about to lose all of its remaining, designated leaders and potentially fall into disarray and confusion. At this crucial moment, Gamaliel the Elder rose to address the enraged assembly.

It is not hard to imagine the din of angry comments becoming quiet when he stood up. Gamaliel was not one of the Sadducees, allied with the priesthood. He was, rather, a Pharisee and a very learned rabbi, without doubt the most prestigious of his group, from a distinguished line of famous rabbis of the Pharisees, most notably his grandfather, the great Hillel. Gamaliel the Elder was eventually to became the first of only seven ancient scholars of Jewish law who had the distinction of being called Rabban, a title that bestows even greater honor than Rabbi. Jewish tradition holds that during a certain period, Gamaliel presided over the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, but precisely when that occurred is unclear. He flourished for a long time, during the period approximately 20–50 C.E., in Jerusalem.

Even if the events of Acts 5 occurred before he became head of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel was certainly one of its most prominent leaders. He is documented in several tractates of the Mishnah, and likewise by the Jewish historian Josephus.1

COURTESY OF THE HUNGARIAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL MISSION TO MACHAERUS | According to the NT, along with Josephus’s writings, John the Baptist was beheaded at the desert fortress of Machaerus by Herod Antipas. A column and Herod’s throne niche have been reconstructed in the royal courtyard at Machaerus under the direction of Győző Vörös, head of the Machaerus Excavations and Surveys. This image shows the courtyard and these architectural elements during the reconstruction process.

These facts about Gamaliel correspond perfectly with Acts 5:34: “But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin” (NIV). As a result, Gamaliel the Elder in the Mishnah and in The Life of Josephus is certainly the one to whom the narrative in Acts 5 refers.

COURTESY OF THE HUNGARIAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL MISSION TO MACHAERUS | According to the NT, along with Josephus’s writings, John the Baptist was beheaded at the desert fortress of Machaerus by Herod Antipas. A column (shown here) has been reconstructed in the royal courtyard at Machaerus under the direction of Győző Vörös, head of the Machaerus Excavations and Surveys.

Presumably as the room became quiet, according to Acts 5, Gamaliel began by ordering that the apostles be removed from the room, to permit the Sanhedrin to deliberate privately, just as modern-day juries meet away from the accused, to decide on a verdict. Then, in measured tones, he addressed the Sanhedrin, “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men.” He briefly described two revolts of their era whose leaders had been killed, and whose followers then scattered, so that their rebellions came to nothing. The parallel with the followers of Jesus was clear: The leader had been killed, and the followers might well disperse, bringing the movement to an end. Roman suppression might have been implicitly understood.

Then he said, “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (This narration draws on and quotes the only extant, ancient account, Acts 5:12-40.)

COURTESY OF THE HUNGARIAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL MISSION TO MACHAERUS | According to the NT, along with Josephus’s writings, John the Baptist was beheaded at the desert fortress of Machaerus by Herod Antipas. Herod’s throne niche (pictured) has been reconstructed in the royal courtyard at Machaerus under the direction of Győző Vörös, head of the Machaerus Excavations and Surveys.

His speech, which did not endorse the Jesus movement but advised caution, with the hope that Jesus’s followers would disperse, won over the Sanhedrin. They punished the apostles for disobedience with a flogging, “ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.”Then he said, “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (This narration draws on and quotes the only extant, ancient account, Acts 5:12-40.)

Gamaliel admirably represented the fine tradition of applied wisdom in the Judaism of his day, and he receives high honor in both early Christian and Jewish sources, including one of the foundational collections of Judaism, the Mishnah.

Although the Mishnah does not confirm the events in Acts 5, it clearly lends a sense of plausibility to Acts 5 in two ways. First, the Mishnah affirms Gamaliel the Elder’s association with the Jerusalem Sanhedrin and his stellar prestige as a rabbi, which put him in a position to do what Acts 5 says, confidently addressing the meeting with a dissenting view and succeeding in persuading the members.

Second, the Mishnah implicitly attributes to Gamaliel the moderate judicial temperament that would perhaps have led him to give the sort of advice that appears in Acts 5. It presents him as a prime advocate of the house of Hillel, which more frequently tended toward leniency in legal matters than the house of Shammai, though both had some strict views.

In 57 C.E., and according to Acts 22:1-3, the apostle Paul, introducing himself to a hostile crowd in Jerusalem, stood on the steps to the Temple and gave his best credentials as follows: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city [that is, Jerusalem]. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today” (Acts 22:3). Before this zealous Jewish audience, he emphasized his association with this teacher by beginning the description of his education with the phrase, literally, “at the feet of Gamaliel.” Thus Paul invoked the name of his eminent teacher in Jerusalem and described his thorough education in Jewish law in such a way that thoroughness suggested zeal. There is no doubt that he referred to the great law teacher Gamaliel who flourished in Jerusalem c. 20–50 C.E.

TODD BOLEN/BIBLEPLACES.COM | Priestly Burial? At the southeast end of the Hinnom Valley—half a mile from the Old City of Jerusalem—a tomb complex in the Akeldama field has been attributed to the first-century C.E. high priest Annas.

John the Baptist

John the Baptist is also mentioned in a dramatic context, both in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities and especially in the Gospels. Josephus reports that he was an innocent victim, executed by a ruler who feared he might lead a rebellion (Antiquities 18.118). John receives Josephus’s usual verbal honors reserved for exemplary Jewish religious leaders: one who preached virtue in righteous treatment of others and in piety toward God. Although Josephus, a non-Christian source, says nothing about any relation between John and Jesus, it is clear that Josephus’s Antiquities refers to the same John who is described in the Gospels.

Josephus’s references to John give him the unusual epithet “the Baptizer” or “the Baptist” (Antiquities 18.116) and place him in Roman Palestine until his death during the latter part of the rule of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (r. 4 B.C.E.–39 C.E.). In fact, John’s imprisonment and execution by Antipas is the most specific of several points of identification in common between Josephus and the Gospels (Antiquities 18.119; Matthew 14:10; Mark 6:17, Mark 6:27). Only Josephus provides two details: that the imprisonment was in the fortress called Machaerus (which has been excavated, just northeast of the Dead Seac) and that Salome was the name of the daughter of Herodias, Herod Antipas’s second wife, whom she had with her first husband. Only the Gospels point out that the method of execution was beheading.

The dramatic context in the Gospels (Matthew 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-29) differs from Josephus’s comparatively vague, general statement about the motive for the execution, in that they describe in detail how the execution came about. Herodias, the second wife of Herod Antipas, had deserted her husband, Herod Philip, who was not a ruler at all, to marry his half-brother Antipas, who ruled the whole of the provinces of Galilee and Perea. Because the brother she had married first was still alive, the second marriage violated Mosaic law (Leviticus 20:21), and John the Baptist had publicly denounced it. Herodias wanted to kill John, but she was unable. Antipas, hesitating to kill a righteous man, instead had thrown John into prison.

Antipas’s own birthday banquet provided Herodias with her opportunity to kill John. Her daughter Salome danced, much to the pleasure of Antipas and the many dignitaries who were his guests. With an oath, Antipas promised Salome whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom. Coached by her mother, Herodias, the daughter requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Antipas did not want to kill John, but because of his oath and to save credibility as a ruler with his guests, he sent the executioner to the prison to behead John. When Salome received the head on a platter, she gave it to her mother—bringing the drama to a grisly end.

James the Brother of Jesus

James (Jacob),d the brother2 of Jesus, also called James the Just, is the third person in the New Testament who can be identified in a non-Christian source. One must distinguish between this James and other men named James, especially the son of Zebedee and brother of John, who left his fishing nets beside the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus and who was eventually executed by King Herod Agrippa I, probably in 44 C.E. (Acts 12:2). According to the Gospels, James the brother of Jesus did not believe in or follow Jesus at all during Jesus’s public ministry (John 7:5; Mark 3:31-34; Mark 6:1-6). Only later did he believe and become a leader in the earliest church, at Jerusalem.

This James is mentioned in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities (20.200–201), which also mentions Jesus in a noncommittal way to identify James as “the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ.” His name, his relationship to that particular Jesus, and the fact that he was a church leader (Acts 15:13; Galatians 2:9) who lived in Jerusalem—until he was martyred there in 62 C.E., during the reign of Nero (54–68 C.E.)—are facts that all clearly point to one and the same person in Josephus’s Antiquities and the New Testament Book of Acts.

BAR readers will be familiar with the James Ossuary, which was first published in 2002.e The inscription on this ossuary (a burial box for bones) reads, “Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Yeshua‘ (Jesus).” Although some might think this is clear archaeological evidence for the existence of James the Just, I have not included it here. Since the ossuary is unprovenanced, its authenticity—and the authenticity of its well-discussed inscription—has not been established, so it does not meet the first requirement for making an identification.

TODD BOLEN/BIBLEPLACES.COM | On the Outskirts of Jerusalem, an ossuary bearing an Aramaic inscription that might refer to the high priest Caiaphas was found in a burial cave containing a small family tomb. While some scholars believe the inscription reads “Joseph, son of Caiaphas,” others contend that the inscription should be read as “Joseph, son of Qopha.”

Annas, Caiaphas, and Ananias

Next are three high priests. Whereas Josephus presents Jesus, John the Baptist, and James (Jacob) the brother of Jesus as incidental to other subjects that were more important to him, in sharp contrast, he mentions these three high priests purposefully. They appear in the context of all-important relations with Roman governors of Judea/Palestine. The priesthood attempted to mediate between the foreign governors and the populace, which was frequently enraged by certain governors’ provocations. The priesthood’s goal was to avoid Roman retaliation, which they feared would bring a catastrophe on the Jewish populace—as it ultimately did in 70 C.E.

The three high priests in the New Testament whom Josephus confirms are Annas, Caiaphas, and Ananias. Because there was only one high priest at a time, they are relatively easy to identify, usually by name and date, or by name and particular circumstances mentioned both in the New Testament and by Josephus.

According to Antiquities, our first high priest is called Ananus. This formal name is shortened to Annas in the Gospels, which tend to use the terms of common speech. He had the distinction of having five sons who succeeded him as high priest (sometimes interrupted by others), making him the founder of a dynasty of high priests (Antiquities 20.198).

Only two Jewish high priests had this name. Ananus the son of Seth (or Sethi) was high priest from 6 to 15 C.E. (Antiquities 18.26), and later on he continued to exert his influence through his sons. John 18:13 mentions that Caiaphas was his son-in-law, which explains his active role during Caiaphas’s high priesthood. The Gospels sometimes refer to Annas as high priest after he was removed from office, much as past U.S. presidents are sometimes called “Mr. President” after their term expires. Also, the Gospel of John refers to him by name in connection with the arrest and trial of Jesus, which occurred between approximately 29 and 33 C.E. (most studies say 30 C.E.).

The only other high priest who bore this name was the son of the founder of the high priestly dynasty, the impulsive Ananus son of Ananus, mentioned not in the New Testament but in the writings of Josephus (Antiquities 20.199–203), where he is connected with the martyrdom of James the brother of Jesus. He was appointed high priest in 62 C.E., decades after Jesus was crucified, so Ananus the Younger cannot be the high priest Annas mentioned in the Gospels.

There is also potential but inconclusive archaeological evidence for the same high priest Ananus (or Annas). His tomb may have been uncovered in the Akeldama field south of Jerusalem’s walls.f

Next we have the high priest Caiaphas. Although Josephus referred to him as “Joseph Caiaphas” and “Joseph, who was called Caiaphas” (Antiquities 18.35; 18.95), Caiaphas’s full name was actually Joseph, son of Caiaphas. The setting plus his name clearly identify the Caiaphas of the New Testament with the Caiaphas in Josephus’s writings.

The years of his appointment as high priest, 18–36/37 C.E., and the location of his high priesthood in the Temple at Jerusalem put him at the right time and place to be the Caiaphas whom the Gospels and Acts mention, along with Annas, in relation to the arrest and trial of Jesus. Taking another approach, the facts that he held the office of high priest (Antiquities 18.35), that there was only one official high priest at a time, and that there was only one Caiaphas among high priests of the Second Temple era leave no doubt that the Caiaphas mentioned in Josephus’s writings and the Caiaphas of the New Testament were one and the same.

Further, two archaeological finds might potentially identify the high priest Caiaphas, but neither one provides enough information to draw a firm conclusion. The first is a small family tomb, containing ossuaries, on the south side of old Jerusalem. An Aramaic inscription on one of the ossuaries contains at least one possible version of Caiaphas’s name: Yhwsf br Qyf’, “Joseph, son of Caiaphas,” but it seems more likely to be read as Yhwsf br Qwf’, “Joseph, son of Qopha.” On another ossuary in the same family tomb, the name Qf’ appears alone. Also, none of the inscriptions discovered in this tomb makes any explicit reference to the priestly status of anyone buried there (though they might still have been priests).

The second is an unprovenanced ossuary inscribed, “Mariam, daughter of Yeshua‘ bar Qayafa, priest of Ma‘aziah, from Bet ’Imri.” Although its origin is unknown and, therefore, it may potentially be a forgery or, if authentic, it might possibly have been altered in modern times, laboratory examination strongly suggests authenticity. In it, “Qayafa” is potentially an inherited nickname that functioned as a surname, as was common among Jewish families in Second Temple times, rather than the actual name of one of her male ancestors. Therefore, the data in the inscription is insufficient to arrive at a clear identification of that particular member of the Caiaphas family.

The final confirmed figure is the high priest Ananias son of Nebedaios. The years when he was most likely the high priest, as indicated by events in Josephus’s Antiquities, are at least 53–59 C.E. (Antiquities 20.103–179) but, as suggested by a precise chronology of Paul’s life, could be 47–59 C.E.3 Both agree that he was high priest in 57 C.E., when he presided over Paul’s trial. According to the New Testament, the setting of Ananias may reasonably be placed sometime around 53–59 C.E., and clearly in Jerusalem, because, as high priest, he oversaw the functions of Jerusalem’s Temple. So he was in Jerusalem—as is explicit or implicit in Acts 21-23—and presided over Paul’s trial before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:1-10.

In addition to the corresponding time and place in Josephus and the New Testament, this individual has a singular identifying mark among the high priests of the Herodian era (37 B.C.E.–68 C.E.)—or of any era: There was only one Jewish high priest ever named Ananias (in Greek). That fact, within the context described above, makes this identification certain.

During the 1960s at Masada, in a room in the fortress wall, excavators discovered a small inscription that might relate to Ananias. Written across a potsherd, the inscription consists of five Aramaic words: H[nny]h khn’ rb’ ‘qby’ bryh, translated “H[anania]h the high priest, ‘Aqavia his son.” (The letters in brackets indicate possible readings by modern specialists.) Hananiah in Hebrew can be translated Ananias or Ananus (or Annas) in Greek. Extant ancient writings do not mention this son in relation to the high priest Ananias. Although the high priest Ananias is a candidate, two other high priests of the first century C.E., Ananus the Elder and the Younger, are also candidates, and we do not have enough information to know to which one the inscription refers.

PHOTO GABI LARON, COURTESY OF THE ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY | High Above the Judean Desert, archaeologists in the 1960s unearthed at the palace-fortress of Masada a potsherd inscribed “H[anania]h the high priest, ‘Aqavia his son”—possibly a reference to the high priest Ananias from the Herodian period.

There is also a reasonable potential that the high priest Jonathan, son of Ananus, son of Seth, might be confirmed, but that is not certain, so he is in the category “Almost Real.” Whether this name appears in Acts 4:6 is a matter of ancient manuscript evidence.

Other NT Figures

As for ancient historical evidence for Jesus’s apostles, so far as I can determine, only ancient texts written by Christians (of various early persuasions) clearly contain evidence that is conclusive. To make firm identifications, such evidence must meet the established criteria mentioned above, regarding authenticity of source(s), setting (time and place), and sufficient marks of identification to avoid confusing the person potentially to be identified with someone else. Ancient Christian texts about the apostles and others in the New Testament—such as Priscilla, who is mentioned in the Book of Acts and the letters of the apostle Paul—are beyond the scope of this study, but books on these texts continue to appear.

Finally, Theudas, who appears in Acts 5:36 in Gamaliel’s first example of a movement that ended abruptly when its leader was killed “some time ago,” cannot be identified with the Theudas of whom Josephus wrote, because it seems that two different men having this name lived at different times. Thus, for our purposes, this figure cannot be confirmed.


The number of confirmed figures from the New Testament now consists of at least seven religious figures (Jesus and the six above), plus 23 political figures—currently 30 in all. When added to the documented 53 real people in the Hebrew Bible, we arrive at a grand total of 83 real Bible people—for now.


LAWRENCE MYKYTIUK is Emeritus Professor of Library Science and Associate Professor of History at Purdue University. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and is the author of Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 B.C.E. (2004).

New Testament Religious Figures
Confirmed by Historical Texts

All of the figures in the New Testament who have been
documented outside of it were either political or religious figures.

NameWho Was He?When Did He Flourish?Where in the New Testament?Evidence in Historical Writings
1JesusJewish preacher, healer, and teacher, called Christ; crucified by order of Pilate; then said to have risenc. 27–30 C.E.All NT books except Third John, but most often in the four GospelsTacitus, Annals; Josephus, Antiquities; Lucian of Samosata, Passing of Peregrinus; Celsus, On the True Doctrine (via Origen, Against Celsus); etc.
2Gamaliel the ElderRenowned Pharisee who rescued the apostles from the Sanhedrinc. 20–c. 50 C.E.Acts 5:34-39Acts 22:3Josephus, Life, and often in the Mishnah
3John the BaptistRighteous Jewish religious leader who preached virtue and piety; beheaded by Herod Antipasc. 26–29/30 C.E.Matthew 3:1-15Matthew 11:2-18Mark 1:1-9Mark 6:14-29Luke 1:5-23Luke 7:18-33John 1:6-8John 1:19-37John 3:23-34Acts 1:5Acts 13:24-25; etc.Josephus, Antiquities
4James, brother of Jesusaka James the Just (not the son of Zebedee); brother of Jesus; a leader of the Jerusalem church; martyrc. 30–62 C.E.Matthew 13:55Mark 6:3Acts 15:13Acts 21:18Galatians 1:19Galatians 2:9Galatians 2:12Josephus, Antiquities
5Annas, son of SethHigh priest and founder of a dynasty of high priests; first to interrogate JesusHigh priest 6–15 C.E.Luke 3:2John 18:13John 18:19-24Acts 4:6Josephus, Antiquities
6CaiaphasHigh priest during Jesus’s trialHigh priest 18–36/37 C.E.Matthew 26:3Matthew 26:57Luke 3:2John 11:49John 18:13-28Acts 4:6Josephus, Antiquities
7Ananias, son of NebedaiosHigh priest during Paul’s trialHigh priest 53–59 C.E.Acts 23:2Acts 24:1Josephus, Antiquities and War