Christians were sometimes reported as lawbreakers (Pliny, cf. Trajan, Hadrian) for almost three centuries after the death of Jesus, after which Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Believers were blamed with meeting secretly, burning their children, and drinking blood.
For instance, Pliny’s letter relates his methodology with Bithynian Christians. They were identified, interrogated, sometimes tortured, and then executed. If they denied that they were believers, as demonstrated by their worshiping Caesar and the gods, they were freed. Pliny noted that true believers would never be guilty of such a denial of Christ.
Trajan’s response encouraged moderation. Repentance and worship of the gods were sufficient for freeing these people. But they should not be sought out. Hadrian offered similar advice prohibiting the harassment of Christians and even ordered that their enemies be dealt with if they acted improperly against believers. However, if Christians were guilty, they would have to be punished.
Summary and Conclusion
This chapter has shown that ancient extrabiblical sources do present a surprisingly large amount of detail concerning both the life of Jesus and the nature of early Christianity. While many of these facts are quite well known, we must remember that they have been documented here apart from the usage of the New Testament. When viewed in that light, we should realize that it is quite extraordinary that we could provide a broad outline of most of the major facts of Jesus’ life from “secular” history alone. Such is surely significant.
Using only the information gleaned from these ancient extrabiblical sources, what can we conclude concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus? Can these events be historically established on these sources alone? Of the seventeen documents examined in this chapter, eleven different works speak of the death of Jesus in varying amounts of detail, with five of these specifying crucifixion as the mode. When these sources are examined by normal historical procedures used with other ancient documents, the result is conclusive.^91 It is this author’s view that, from this data alone, the death of Jesus by crucifixion can be asserted as a historical fact. This conclusion is strengthened by the variety of details that are related by good sources. As mentioned often, a few of the documents may be contested, but the entire bulk of evidence points quite probably to the historicity of Jesus’ death due to the rigors of crucifixion.
The ancient references to the resurrection are fewer and somewhat more questionable. Of the seventeen sources, seven either imply or report this occurrence, with four of these works being questioned in our study. Before answering the issue concerning Jesus’ resurrection, we will initially address the cognate point of whether the empty tomb can be established as historical by this extrabiblical evidence alone. There are some strong considerations in its favor.
First, the Jewish sources that we have examined admit the empty tomb, thereby providing evidence from hostile documents. Josephus notes the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, while the Toledoth Jesuspecifically acknowledges the empty tomb. Justin Martyr and Tertullian confirm Matthew 28:11–15 by asserting that Jewish leaders were still admitting the empty tomb over a century later. While these Jewish sources (with the exception of Josephus) teach that the body was stolen or moved, they still admit the empty tomb.