Non-Biblical Testimony to the Historicity of Jesus

Non-Biblical Testimony to the Historicity of Jesus

The letter of Pliny the Younger, written in 107 A. D., when he was the representative of the Roman government in Bithynia, and addressed to the then reigning emperor Trajan, "is considered one of the most important documents remaining of early Christian history."

By W.W. Prescott

The letter of Pliny the Younger, written in 107 A. D., when he was the representative of the Roman government in Bithynia, and addressed to the then reigning emperor Trajan, "is considered one of the most important documents remaining of early Christian history."—McClintock and Strong, Vol. VIII, p. 294. Although this letter is of considerable length, yet in view of its impor­tance as an authoritative witness to the historical reality of Christ, it seems advisable to reprint it. The original is quoted in full in the Bampton Lectures for 1859, by George Rawlinson, pages 393, 394, and the translation here used is found in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th edition, Volume XVIII, page 79:

"Sire, it is my custom to refer to you all matters about which I em doubtful : for who is better able to direct my hesitation or instruct my ignorance? At the trials of Christians I have never been present and I am therefore ignorant of the usual prac­tice in regard to the matter and the limits of punishment or inquiry. I have had also no little difficulty as to whether some dis­tinction of age should be made, or if per­sons of the most tender age stand on the same footing as the more adult ; whether the penitent is to be pardoned or if a per­son who has once been a Christian shall have no benefit of ceasing to be one. Whether the mere name of Christian, apart from crime, is punishable, or only crime coupled with the name. Meanwhile in the case of those reported to me as Christians I have followed this procedure. I asked themselves whether they were Christians. If they admitted it, I put the question a second time and a third, with threats of pun­ishment. If they persisted in their confes­sion, I ordered them to be led to execution ; for I had no doubt that whatever the na­ture of that which they confessed, in any case their pertinacity ana inflexible obstinacy deserved to be punished. There were others of a similar delusion whom, as they were Roman citizens, I noted for remission to Rome.

"Presently the mere handling of the mat­ter produced the usual result of spreading the crime, and more varieties occurred. There was published an anonymous pam­phlet containing many names. Those who denied that they were Christians or ever had been, when, after me, they invoked the gods and worshiped with incense and wine your statue which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose along with the images of the gods, and, further, reviled Christ—things which it is said that no real Chris­tian will do under any compulsion—I con­sidered should be dismissed. Others who were named by the informer admitted that they were Christians and presently denied it, admitting indeed that they had been, but saying that they had ceased to be, some several years before, some even twenty. All these likewise did homage to your statue and to the images of the gods and reviled Christ. They affirmed moreover that the sum of their crime or error was that they had been wont to meet together on a fixed day before daybreak and to repeat among themselves in turn a hymn to Christ as to a god and to bind themselves by an oath (sacrantenfunt), not for some wickedness but not to commit theft, not to commit robbery, not to commit adultery, not to break their word, not to deny a deposit when demanded ; these things duly done, it had been their custom to disperse and to meet again to take food—of an ordinary and harmless kind. Even this they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in ac­cordance with your instructions, I had for­bidden the existence of societies (hetaeriae)• For these reasons I deemed it all the more necessary to find out the truth by the examination—even with torture—of two maids who were called deaconesses (min­istrae, Stax6pot). I found nothing but a per­verse and extravagant superstition.

"I have therefore adjourned the inquiry and have had recourse to consulting you. For the matter seemed to me one deserv­ing a consultation, especially in view of the number of those imperiled. For many persons of every age, of every rank, of both sexes even, are daily involved and will be, since not in the cities only, but in villages and country districts as well, has spread the contagion of that superstition—which it seems possible to check and correct. At any rate it is certain that the temples which were already almost deserted have begun to be frecalented ; the customary reli­gious rites, long intermitted, are being re­stored ; and fodder for sacrificial victims—for which hitherto it was rare to find a purchaser—now finds a market. Whence it is easy to infer what a mass of men might be reformed, if penitence were recog­nized."

The testimony of this letter to the fact of Christ and to the spread of Christianity is plain and undeniable. It also reveals the extreme test to which the Christians of that period were subjected, and the reputation for loyalty to their Lord which had been earned.

In 1866 H. P. Liddon delivered his valuable series of lectures on "The Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ," which constituted the Bampton Lectures for that year. The following extracts from his seventh lecture are of value in this connection:

"The emperor Adrian [who was the im­mediate successor of Trajan and reigned 117-138 A. D.], when writing to Servian, describes the population of Alexandria as divided between the worship of Christ and the worship of Serapis ["a famous Grreco­Egyptian god"]."—Pages sat 892, edition of 1868.

"In his life of the fanatical cynic and apostate Christian, Peregrinus Proteus, whose voluntary self-immolation he himself witnessed at Olympia in 165 L. D., Lucian gives vent to the contemptuous sarcasm which was roused in him, and in men like him, by the devotions of the church. 'The Christians,' he says, 'are still worshiping that great man who was gibbeted in Pales­tine.' He complains that the Christians are taught that they stand to each other in the relation of brethren, as soon as they have broken loose from the prevailing customs, and have denied the gods of Greece, and have taken to the adoration of that im­paled Sophist of theirs."—I.d., p. 392.

"The general position taken up by Celsus [an opponent of Christianity who wrote about 175 A. D.] is that the Christians had no right to denounce the polytheism of the pagan world, since their own worship of Christ was essentially polytheistic. . . . The Christians, he urges, worshiped no God, no, not even a demon, but only a dead man. . . . Nay, would it not have been ' better to have paid their devotions to some of their own prophets, to Jonah under the gourd, or to Daniel in the lions' den, than 'to a man who had lived an infamous life, and had died a miserable death? . . . Above all, was not the worship of Christ fatal to the Christian doctrine of the unity of God? If the Christians really worshiped no god but One, then their reasoning against the heathen might have had force in it. But while they offer an excessive adoration to this Person who has but lately appeared in the world, how can they think that they commit. no offense against God, by giving these divine honors to His servant? . . . The stress of heathen criticism, however, still continued to be directed against the adoration of our Lord. 'Our gods,' so ran the heathen language of a later day, 'are not displeased with you Christians for wor­shiping the Almighty God. But you main­tain the deity of One who was born as a man, and who was put to death by the pun­ishment of the cross (a mark of Infamy reserved for criminals of the worst kind) ; you believe Him to be still alive, and you adore Him with daily supplications.' The heathen,' observes Lactantius, 'throw in our teeth the passion of Christ ; they say that we worship a Man, and a Man too who was put to death by men under cir­cumstances of ignominy and torture.' "­Id., pp. 392-395.

Taken all together the quotations submitted in this and the preceding article clearly prove that Jesus of Nazareth was well known in the first and second centuries, and that Chris­tians were characterized by their adoration of Him as their Lord and their refusal to accept Caesar as a di­vine Lord.

There is another document which it may be worthwhile to deal with, al­though its reliability has been posi­tively. denied. It is a book, published in 1923, with the title, "The Archeo­logical and the Historical Writings of the 'Sanhedrin and Talmuds of the Jews," by W. D. Mahan. A note to the reader is dated July 1, 1884. Among the interesting titles of the twelve chapters are these:

"Chapter VI—Caiaphas' Report of the Sanhedrin, Giving His Reason for the Execution of Jesus of Nazareth."

"Chapter VII—Caiaphas' Second Report in Regard to the Res­urrection of Jesus."

"Chapter IX—Acta Pilati, or, Pi­late's Report of the Arrest, Trial, and Crucifixion of Jesus."

If the documents here named are authoritative, they are certainly of the greatest value. It is evident that Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who lived 260 to 340 A. D., believed that Pilate furnished the emperor Tiberius with some report of the proceedings at Jeru­salem relating to the death of Jesus. Concerning this matter he wrote thus:

"The fame of our Lord's remarkable res­urrection and ascension being now spread abroad, according to an ancient custom prevalent among the rulers of the nations, to communicate novel occurrences to the emperor, that nothing might escape him,

Pontius Pilate transmits to Tiberius an ac­count of the circumstances concerning the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, the report of which had already been spread throughout all Palestine. In this account, he also intimated that he ascertained other miracles respecting Him, and that having now risen from the dead, He was believed to be a god by the great mass of the people." —"Ecclesiastical History," Eusebius, Book 2, chap. 2, par. 1.

On the other hand, Dr. Montague R. James, the English writer, in "The Apocryphal New Testament," page 90, classes this volume by Mahan among modern forgeries, and designates it as "a ridiculous and disgusting Amer­ican book." And yet Mr. Mahan posi­tively affirms that his book is based upon original documents which he himself secured from the libraries in Rome and Constantinople. With this statement of the case each reader must judge for himself as to the reliability of the volume.

In view of the testimony of both Biblical and non-Biblical writers, the conclusion is established beyond refu­tation that Jesus of Nazareth is an actual historical person who lived and died in the early part of the first cen­tury after Christ.

Washington, D. C.

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By W.W. Prescott

March 1932

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