We’ve evaluated the gospel accounts according to two of the three tests to determine their historical accuracy, and they are two for two. But there is one test remaining. Do other historical sources written in the same period confirm or contradict what the gospels record? In other words, is the external evidence (evidence outside the gospels themselves) consistent with what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John record? Or do other writers of the time contradict them? This is the final test developed by historians to determine the historical accuracy of a document. It is known as the External Evidence Test. So how well do the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus do when evaluated by this third criterion?
The External Evidence Test
Getting Clear on the Focus of the Test
First, let’s get clear on the nature of this test. Not every document of an era records everything other documents record. Each is written for a unique purpose, and thus each focuses on some events and not others.
For instance, when Caesar was writing his Gallic Wars, he was interested in military history, and therefore left out irrelevant historical details concerning, say, agricultural practices of the time. This is not a mark against the historical accuracy of his account. However, if he and others record the same event or person, then we can compare their accounts for continuity. If one or more other authors record the same historical details, this confirms, by external evidence, the account of Caesar. On the other hand, if one or more authors record contradictory details, this calls into question Caesar’s account.
Therefore, the question is whether others writing at the time of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and writing about the same persons or events, record consistent or contradictory accounts of those persons or events.
As noted above, the question is not whether every event recorded in the gospel accounts is recorded elsewhere. The question is whether accounts are consistent when recording the same event.
Nor is the question whether the various authors writing about the same event may have picked out different aspects to record. Different emphases are not contradictory emphases. For instance, I was recently in a car accident, along with four others. As we gave our report to the police, we were obviously all talking about the same event. Therefore we all reported the accident occurred by a pick-up failing to stop for a red light and hitting our vehicles. But we had different vantage points, and so we shared different details. I mentioned hearing the screeching, then the impact, and then being pushed into another car. Someone else observing from the corner shared that it was blue pickup that had failed to slow down and slammed into the Toyota Highlander that then hit me. I did not share details specifying a blue pickup or Highlander was involved. But the officer did not see my testimony and the bystander’s testimony as contradictory, only different, due to our different vantage points of the event. Our testimony would have been contradictory if I had said a pickup was involved, and the bystander said there was no pickup involved.
In the same way we are asking whether or not other authors make contradictory claims of the events recorded by the gospel authors, not whether they may add or delete specific details.
External Documents Confirm Gospel Accounts
During his time, Jesus was not very important in the eyes of most, including historians. He was an itinerate teacher from the “backwoods” of the Roman Empire. He had a small following and after only three years was executed by the Roman government. Therefore, there was little reason for others to mention Jesus of Nazareth, even if a footnote.
Yet at least three authors do make reference to Jesus. These texts serve as important external records to compare with the gospel accounts of Jesus.
First is the record of Flavius Josephus (AD 37-100). He was a Roman-Jewish scholar of the time who wrote, among other things, Antiquities of the Jews. In that book he recorded:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus . . . . Pilate condemned him to be condemned and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. . . . —Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 33, Arabic text
Josephus records a number of facts: (1) a man named Jesus existed, (2) a Roman official named Pilate ordered his death, (3) he had followers who continued to follow him after his death, (4) these followers claimed Jesus appeared to them, (5) the time frame between his death and appearance was three days, and (6) his appearance was not taken as him being a ghost or anything of that sort, but rather as being alive again.
The aspects these events recorded by Josephus are exactly as the gospel authors record them. It is important to note that Josephus was not a follower of Jesus himself. Yet he was an excellent historian, seeking to record events as they occurred. Josephus’ account is Exhibit One indicating the gospel accounts are historically accurate per the External Evidence Test.
Tacitus (AD 55?-117+) was a Roman historian also recording history of the same period as the gospel writers. Though not himself a follower of Jesus, because Jesus’ execution was commanded and carried out by Roman authorities, he records the following in his Annals:
Christus, the founder of the name [Christian], was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius . . . . —Tacitus, Annals XV.44
Again, notice that each point he makes are consistent with what the gospel authors record: (1) Christ (the Greek title used of Jesus) existed, (2) he founded a religious movement of those known as Christians, (3) he was executed, (4) Pontius Pilate was the official to condemn him to death, (5) Pontius Pilate’s specific position in the Roman state was procurator of Judea, and (6) he held this post under the authority of and during the time of Tiberius (AD 26/27 to 36/37).
Once again, each detail recorded is consistent with what the gospel writers tell us. Tacitus’ record is submitted as Exhibit Two indicating the gospel accounts are historically accurate per the External Evidence Test
Lucian, (2nd century) (Greek satirist)
Finally is the mention of Jesus found in the Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata (AD 125-180). He frequently poked fun at religious figures, and in this contexts refers to Jesus:
. . . the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world . . . . Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brother one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. —Lucian, On the Death of Peregrine
Eight elements mentioned are again consistent with the gospel accounts; (1) Jesus existed, (2) he was crucified, (3) his crucifixion was in the region of Palestine, (4) he was executed because of his religious teachings, (5) he taught that all his followers were brothers, (6) he led them to reject the pagan Greek Gods, (7) he taught them to worship him instead, (8) he gave them new practices that marked them as his followers.
As with Josephus and Tacitus, each element of Lucian’s account is consistent with the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of the life and teaching of Jesus. I submit this as Exhibit Three.
Non-Textual External Evidence
In addition to external textual data there is external archeological data. This offers further external confirmation of their writings being accurate historical narrative.
For example, Luke refers to “Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene” in Luke 3:1, who is in power when John the Baptist began his ministry (AD 27). For many years this was thought to be incorrect. The only ruler known by that name died in 36 B.C. Yet then archeologists uncovered a stone with a Greek inscription at Abila (18 miles west-northwest of Damascus). The inscription was signed by Nymphaeus, a “freedman of Lysanias the Tetrarch” and it was determined the stone was inscribed between AD 14 and 29. There was indeed a ruler in Abilene named Lysanias during the time of John’s baptism.
I submit this as Exhibit Four. More external evidence exists, and is recorded in Gary Habermas’ The Verdict of History.
From these external documents we find greater confirmation that the gospels are first-rate historical accounts of the life of Jesus. However, three objections are often raised against these tests for the historicity of the gospels. I’ll consider these objections next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
Concerning extra-biblical historical sources see Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History.