I think most of us understand that, in a court of law, character witnesses can be somewhat helpful in defending the accused. Someone who has known the defendant for a long while and who can attest to the laudable character of a defendant may be able to influence a jury to see the accused in a different, possibly even positive light.
Another kind of character witness can be even more effective for the defense. If the defense can find a so-called “hostile witness”—someone who is known to be unsympathetic toward the accused—who nevertheless is obliged to commend the good character of the defendant, then the testimony of this hostile witness normally carries even greater potential for persuading the jury to view the defendant in a more positive light. Praise from a friend is expected, whereas praise from a known enemy is unexpected. It doesn’t carry the anticipated bias.
Hostile Witnesses in the Defense of Jesus
I make no apology whatsoever for the primary defense for the historicity and deity of Jesus Christ—the documents of the New Testament are perfectly adequate with God’s Holy Spirit at work in the mind and heart of the reader or listener. Nonetheless, for critics who write off the New Testament as biased, I am happy to call upon several ancient witnesses who were hostile to Christ and Christianity. Extra-biblical, historical references to Jesus are not necessary, but they do exist, and they do concur with the biblical records.
For my first witness, I call Tacitus, historian of the emperors of Rome. Tacitus (56-117 AD) did not write legends; he recorded history. In his Annals (15.44), he wrote,
“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 .”
As you can see, Tacitus uses words like “abominations,” “mischievous superstitions,” and “evil” to communicate his low esteem for Christians. But at the same time, he confirms details of Jesus’ death precisely as given in Luke 3:1 and Luke 23:23-25.
The “extreme penalty” in Tacitus’ record was, of course, crucifixion. Perhaps more interesting is Tacitus’ reference to a certain “superstition, thus checked for the moment,” but which spread from Judea even to Rome. To Tacitus, the resurrection of Jesus was but a superstition, yet so convincing was the gospel that belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ had spread powerfully and quickly throughout the empire.
Tacitus was not the only hostile witness to corroborate the testimony of the New Testament about Jesus. Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD), Roman governor of Bithynia on the north coast of modern Turkey, noted in his letters to the Emperor Trajan that Christians “sang hymns to Jesus as to a god.” Note the early date when Pliny wrote, too. Worship of Jesus by Christians was obviously not a late development as some critics have proposed. Hostile witnesses attest that Christians around the empire were worshiping him less than 100 years after his death and resurrection.
Lucian of Samosata (125-180 AD), the Roman satirist, also ridiculed Christians for “worshiping that crucified sophist.” To Lucian, Christianity was more than ridiculous because Christians deemed Jesus to be God even though Jesus had been crucified. So disgusting and shameful was crucifixion to the ancient Mediterranean mind that members of “polite society” would not even discuss or write about it. It was beyond Lucian’s comprehension how someone could worship a crucified person as God. No Roman or Greek deity would ever be shamed by the ignominy of the cross.
As a side note here, this is a strong point against the likelihood that Christians made up the account of Jesus’ resurrection. Only a genuine resurrection could vindicate a crucified person from the extreme shame associated with crucifixion in the culture of that time!
Celsus, the Roman philosopher wrote around 177 AD, “And their worship of this Jesus is the more outrageous because they refuse to listen to any talk about God, the father of all , unless it includes some reference to Jesus …”
The person of Christ is further discussed in varying degrees of depth in the works of Josephus, Suetonius, Thallus, and Mara bar-Serapion. None of these could be considered sympathetic witnesses of Christianity, yet none contradicts, denies, or discredits that which is recorded in the New Testament documents. And all of these are early witnesses— no later than AD 180 .
In light of the witness brought forth in this brief article, it is patently absurd that thinking people in the twenty-first century would deny that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed or reject the fact that Jesus was worshiped as God by his disciples from a very early date. Any so-called scholar who denies these two fundamental facts has not done even rudimentary homework on the topic. Non-Christian support for the veracity of the Bible’s account of Jesus is both available and noteworthy.
For Further Reading: