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The Stones Cry Out

by Ed Dickerson

“Jesus was not a real person,” the theology professor said. “Instead, the rabbis imagined what the ideal Jew would be and do and then projected this into a series of tales about a fictional character they called Jesus, which eventually became formalized into what we know as the Gospels.”

I heard this thirty-some years ago at a nearby state university. His whole presentation implied that any really educated person, thinking logically, could see the absurdity of the idea of Jesus being real.

More recently, author Raphael Lataster has written: “Given the poor state of the existing sources, and the atrocious methods used by mainstream Biblical historians, the matter will likely never be resolved. In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence—if not to think it outright improbable.”1

No wonder an increasing number of people today think that there are good reasons to doubt Jesus’ existence and that such doubts indicate sophistication, intelligence, and clear thinking. After all, some say, the New Testament is filled with magical tales like healing blindness with spittle or turning water into wine, individuals being healed by touching a handkerchief or even by having the shadow of someone pass over them—not to mention raising several corpses back to life. And on top of that, we have little or no evidence that such a person as Jesus ever existed.

And that’s not all. The ancient world was full of similar fanciful tales, and in first-century Judaism, dozens of individuals proclaimed themselves to be the Messiah, only to be killed by the Roman authorities and—mostly—disappear from history. In light of all this, many conclude that the story and the person of Jesus are probably a myth, a fable, a fairy tale—or so the thinking goes.

Agnostics and atheists confirm

Of course, the New Testament, having been written by believers, would attest to Jesus’ life. But what about other sources? Surely, if He was truly a historical figure, there would be some testimony from others, from secular sources, from those who did not believe in Him.

Interestingly, many prominent agnostics and atheists have come to accept that Jesus did exist. Sam Harris, known as one of the “Four Horsemen” of atheism,2 surprisingly admits, “The truth is that modern archaeology has illuminated this issue in such a way that we can have great confidence that [the Gospel of] Luke was essentially accurate.” He goes on to affirm that

In fact, we have an ancient document that’s dated 104 AD that confirms that people who were living away from their provinces needed to return home for the census.

We also have another document dated 48 AD that confirms entire families were involved in this.

And so we have documents which talk about the same kind of census that Luke records in the New Testament.3

The late Christopher Hitchens, another of the “Four Horsemen” and author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, points out, “We have no proof, as with Jesus, that he [Socrates] ever existed. We only know from witnesses to his life that he did. Like Jesus, he never wrote anything down. . . . [But] we have his teachings, his method of thinking, and his extreme intellectual and moral courage.”4 Virtually all modern scholars attest that Socrates existed.

And then there’s Richard Dawkins, a third member of the “Four Horsemen” and author of Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. He confesses, “The balance of probability, according to most but not all scholars, suggests that Jesus did exist.” He adds that the Roman Tacitus “offers more convincing evidence for Jesus’ existence, for the backhanded reason that Tacitus has nothing good to say about Christians.”5

The historians confirm

Many considered the “Tacitus” that Dawkins referred to as perhaps the greatest historian of the Roman Empire. Living from about ad 56 to about 120, Tacitus wrote many books on a range of subjects, but none more important than the 30 volumes covering the history of Rome from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to the death of Domitian in AD 96. Sadly, most of these were lost, but the volumes that survived are a treasure trove of information.

In AD 64, a devastating fire swept through Rome, eventually destroying an estimated two-thirds of the city. Tacitus tells us that when the fire broke out, Emperor Nero was not in Rome. Perhaps because of this, rumors began to spread about the origin of the fire. Most of these implicated Nero. And here’s what Tacitus says about that:

Therefore, to stifle rumour, Nero made scapegoats of, and marked out for most particular punishment, those whom the masses called Christians, and who were loathed for their abominations. Christus, from whom the name derived, had suffered the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus; and the deadly superstition had been temporarily suppressed, only to erupt again not only in Judaea, the home of this evil, but even in Rome, to which all that is dreadful or shameful in the world flows and here is celebrated.6

Tacitus not only mentions Jesus as “Christus” but also affirms that he had been executed under the authority of Pontius Pilatus (which English translations render as “Pilate”). The “abominations” referred to undoubtedly arise from the Christian practice of Communion because, in that service, Christians quote Jesus saying, “This bread is my body,” and consider the wine to be an emblem of Jesus’ blood. Critics quickly seized on that as if it were literal. This led to Christians being accused and widely suspected of cannibalism. Tacitus’s friend and colleague Pliny the Younger, although he did not mention Jesus specifically, did correspond with Emperor Trajan and spoke of Christians in similar terms.

Beyond those two surviving accounts, we also have confirmation from Suetonius, yet another Roman historian from the same general era and chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian. He confirmed both accounts some years later. In his account of the reign of Nero, Suetonius says that punishment was inflicted on Christians, and he refers to them as a class of men given to a new (in the time of Nero) and mischievous superstition.

Born three years after Suetonius died, Lucian of Samosata became a well-known writer, especially noted for his satirical writings, where he mocked virtually every cultural, political, and religious institution of his day. Not surprisingly, he could not resist ridiculing Christians, a widely reviled group at the time. He wrote of them: “The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one 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.”7

And then there’s Josephus, one of the most interesting characters of the last half of the first century. Descended from the priestly class through his father and in the royal line through his mother, he became a leader of Jewish forces in Galilee during the uprising of AD 66–70—the one that led to the destruction of the temple. But he surrendered to the Roman army after being besieged for six weeks in ad 67. After Josephus proclaimed that the Jewish messianic prophecies actually pointed toward Vespasian—
commander of the Roman armies—the latter took Josephus as a slave, ostensibly in the role of interpreter.

In AD 69, Vespasian became emperor and set Josephus free. Josephus quickly took Vespasian’s family name, Flavius, as his own and, upon embracing the Roman position, achieved Roman citizenship.

With Vespasian on the throne, his son Titus took command of the Roman armies in Judea and took his now family friend Josephus with him as interpreter during the Rome siege of Jerusalem. Thus, Josephus became an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

His elite Jewish lineage and imperial Roman connections combined to add a patina of authority to his writings. Eventually, he produced two notable works, The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, which combined give an account of the Jewish people from the Creation in the book of Genesis to Josephus’s own day. The Antiquities contains two references to Jesus. Scholars disagree about one of the references (we will omit it here), but they overwhelmingly agree about the other. Speaking of the procurator of Judea Lucceius Albinus, it says: “He assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.”8

Of course, more than just the Romans took note of Jesus. In the central text of Rabbinic Judaism called the Talmud, this mention occurs: “Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve.”9

Scholars agree that Jews of the first century referred to crucifixion as being “hanged.” We find it three times in the book of Acts alone.

Jesus is a real person

There are more references to Jesus, but they are contested by some, so to be fair, I have left them out. But adding up the evidence from all these, what do we have?

First, none of these references come from believers. Indeed, most of them refer to Christianity in disparaging ways. They weren’t out to promote Jesus and Christianity. On the contrary, they, at best, disapproved and, at worst, detested it.

Yet they confirm the basic details of Jesus’ death, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate on Passover Eve, that despite this, his movement continued to grow, and that he had a brother named James.

As we compare the testimony of all those we have mentioned, we discover an ironic symmetry to all this. Both in ancient times and today, adversaries and critics of Christ and Christianity nonetheless attest that He really lived. Isn’t it interesting? On the basic question of His existence, we have done essentially what the Pharisees urged Jesus to do during his triumphal entry: we have silenced all those who proclaim that He is the Messiah and cited only His critics and opponents, those who have every incentive to find whatever they can to deny He ever existed. Yet again and again, they find the evidence in favor of Jesus’ existence compelling.

Considering all this, Jesus’ reply that day in Jerusalem rings in my ears: “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

1 Raphael Lataster, “Weighing Up the Evidence for the ‘Historical Jesus,’ ” The Conversation, December 14, 2014,

2 The others being Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

3 Callum Hoare, “Sam Harris’ Shock Miracle Admission Revealed: ‘Only Bible Can Dignify It,’ ” Express, November 4, 2019,

4 Christopher Hitchens, Christopher Hitchins: The Last Interview and Other Conversations(Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2017), 104.

5 Richard Dawkins, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide (New York: Random House, 2019), 21, 20.

6 Tacitus,The Annals, trans. A. S. Kline. Available for download at

7 Lucian of Samosata, “The Passing of Peregrinus,” trans. Peter Kirby, Early Christian Writings, accessed Oct. 29, 2023,

8 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1,

9 Tractate Sanhedrin (43a).

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