Ancient Roman Records And Jesus

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

We are often told that the New Testament Books are not credible in the history which they record, and that only a blind fool would accept what the Bible teaches.

Indeed, there are some today who maintain that Jesus Christ never existed, and that Christians should fall in line and accept what everyone knows-that even if Jesus existed, He certainly was not the Son of God.  

In the midst of such accusations against the teachings of the Bible and of the identity of Jesus Christ, I find it curious that many ancient Roman documents reference Jesus and provide impressive evidence of His Divine Nature. Indeed, these documents contain powerful testimony to the fact that the early Christians claimed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God (just as the Bible teaches, interestingly enough).  

Let’s study.  

In the early to mid second century, there was a Christian named Justin Martyr. He had previously been a pagan philosopher, and had become a follower of Jesus Christ after an in-depth study with an elderly Christian gentleman.

So persuaded was he of the truthfulness of Christianity that he began to preach and proclaim the Word of God to his contemporaries, even as he continued to learn more about the faith of which he was now an ardent disciple.

As the Roman Government continued its’ relentless persecution of Jesus’ church, Justin Martyr wrote his First Apology (or Defense, M.T.) to the Emperor of the Empire, Antonines Pius. He sought to persuade the Emperor of the truthfulness of the claims of Christianity, and it is in his writings that we find the following statements by Justin:

“And after He was crucified they cast lots upon His vesture, and they that crucified Him parted it among them. And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.” (First Apology, XXXV) 

“And that it was predicted that our Christ should heal all diseases and raise the dead, hear what was said. There are these words: “At His coming the lame shall leap as an hart, and the tongue of the stammerer shall be clear speaking: the blind shall see, and the lepers shall be cleansed; and the dead shall rise, and walk about.” [99] And that He did those things, you can learn from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.” (First Apology, XLVIII)

Please notice that Justin encouraged the Romans to carefully examine-not only the Prophets and the Memoirs of the Apostles (i.e., the Gospels)-but official Roman legal documents themselves which contained references to Jesus Christ.

While we do not have these documents in our day and age (having been lost to the wreck of ages), they at one time existed and were appealed to by early Christians as evidence of their faith in Jesus Christ.  

Another second-century Christian named Tertullian also encouraged the magistrates who opposed Christianity to carefully study the official historical records of the Roman Empire for confirmation of what the church taught regarding Jesus Christ.

Speaking of the brutal scourging and trial of Jesus under the supervision of Pontius Pilate, Tertullian writes: 

“All these things Pilate did to Christ; and now in fact a Christian in his own convictions, he sent word of Him to the reigning Cæsar, who was at the time Tiberius.”. (First Apology Of Tertullian, 717 (Kindle Edition); New York, NY: Scriptura Press) 

Indeed, there are other passages in which Tertullian encourages his readers to consult the “records” or “annals” of the Roman Empire to help provide evidence for his case.  

Regarding the existence and authenticity of these documents, along with the profound impact which they had in the ancient world upon even the Roman authorities, scholar Bill Cooper has powerfully written: 

“The chances of a local rumour doing the rounds in Jerusalem reaching the emperor’s ears back in Rome are extremely slight. To reach the emperor at all, the rumour would have to hitch a ride to Rome on the back of an official communication, and there is good evidence indeed that just such a communication was sent from Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Tiberius about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of our Lord. While that is not something that the critics would like to hear, it is important enough for us to consider just what this evidence is. We need firstly to bear in mind the fact that such a communication – an update on events in the province of Judaea – would be nothing extraordinary. Such communications were an expected and everyday occurrence, and woe betide the governor who neglected to send them. At the least, dereliction, treasonous thoughts or sabotage would be suspected. Nevertheless, this report must have been something special, because it seems to have had a profound effect on Tiberius himself who received it, Tiberius putting a motion to the Senate to have this Jesus added to the gods of Rome. Happily, the Senate declined the invitation because they’d hitherto heard nothing about this Man….Now, just who was Tertullian writing to? Was it a friend or colleague? – a sympathiser of the Christians perhaps? No, by no means. He was writing to the magistrates of Carthage, to the very men who were then persecuting the Christians. To invite them to consult the state archives to test the truth of what he was saying was a brave move and a foolish one if the annals had not existed, or had told a story contrary to his own….Again the invitation to consult the state archives. Who was Justin writing to? none other than the emperor of Rome at that time, Antoninus Pius, his sons, and the Senate of Rome. That again is quite a readership, and Justin would have been the most foolish man on earth to invite a hostile emperor to consult the archives on Pontius Pilate if those records had not been there to consult. Moreover, those archives must have held papers on the Crucifixion of Jesus and His subsequent Resurrection, including a report on the rumour that Matthew records about the disciples being thought to have stolen His body. It’s a wonder that the critics forget to mention these things. But there’s more….In other words, what we have just read about the report from Pilate in Justin, Tertullian and Eusebius, would not be there for us to read unless that report had at one time existed, and had been available in the state archives for others to consult some two hundred years or more afterwards. It is as simple and as straightforward as that. The critics can howl that it isn’t true till they’re blue in the face if they wish, but eggs is eggs, and facts are facts are facts!”. (Bill Cooper, The Authenticity Of The New Testament: Part One-The Gospels,1272-1319 (Kindle Edition)) 

Notice several things with me.  

First, ancient Roman documents and sources confirm that Jesus Christ lived and died. The claims that Jesus never existed are absurd.  

Second, these ancient Roman documents confirm that Jesus Christ was of great political interest in the Roman Empire. He made a great stir in the world, just as the New Testament affirms.  

Third, the miracles of Jesus were documented-not only by the New Testament writers and hundreds of eyewitnesses in ancient Palestine and Judea-but even among the Roman authorities themselves.  
Fourth, the scourging, Crucifixion, and claims of the resurrection of Christ were all well attested.  

Fifth, the teaching of the Deity (Godhood) of Jesus Christ was not the invention of a church counsel hundreds of years after the first century, but was instead well-known as a teaching of the Apostles of Christ in the ancient Roman Empire.  

In all of these ways, ancient Roman documents confirm the credibility of the New Testament Scriptures.

Indeed, they corroborate in amazing ways the credibility of the entire Bible.  

Why not today make the decision to build your life on the tried and true foundation of the Word of God?  

The Son of God, Jesus Christ, died on the Cross of Calvary to pay the price for our sins (Isaiah 53). He died for us, was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day after His death (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). With His blood, Jesus built His church (Matthew 16:18), to which He adds the saved (Acts 2:47; 20:28) when they obey His plan of redemption (Acts 2:36-41; Romans 6:17-18).

Why not today be saved from your sins? Having heard the Word of God (Romans 10:17), will you not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (Acts 16:31), repent of your sins (Luke 13:3), confess Jesus Christ as God’s Son (Acts 8;37), and be buried with Christ in baptism to have your sins washed away and to begin living for Him, being faithful unto death (Romans 6:3-4; Revelation 2:10)?  

If you have become a Christian and have turned away from the Lord, why not today repent of that sin and pray to Him for forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9)?  

The churches of Christ stand ready to assist you.  

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.  

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