New Testament figures attested in other early historical sources

by Luke Wayne
05/27/2020

The New Testament is a library of 27 historical documents all written during the first century AD by numerous ancient authors. As such, the people, places, and events reported in the New Testament are already well-attested even if other sources never mention them (especially those people, places, or events that are referenced by more than one New Testament author). Still, it is worth noting that numerous individuals mentioned in the New Testament documents are, indeed, also attested to by other ancient writers and/or on coins and stone inscriptions dug up in the ancient Roman world. The people in the New Testament are real, historical figures.

The Kinds of Sources

There are all kinds of evidence to which a historian might look to discover or validate the existence of an ancient person. We may have copies of the person's own writings. They might be mentioned directly by an ancient historian or biographer from the same period. We may find them referenced, even in passing, in letters or journals of other people. There might be an inscription on their tomb or on something they built or funded. If they were a political figure, they might have left behind coins or monuments. These are the kinds of straightforward, direct evidence on which this article will focus.

It is worth noting, however, that there are other forms of evidence that could further expand this list. For example, later writers often quote from documents that no longer exist but that, if genuine, provide additional testimony. A good example of this is the late-first/early-second-century figure of Papias of Hierapolis. We don't have any extant copies of Papias' writings, but several later Christian writers after Papias' time quoted from him presumably before his works were lost. If these quotes are accurate, Papias claims to have known the disciple John personally and to have interviewed many people who directly heard the words of Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Phillip, Thomas, and others among Jesus' disciples. Thus, Papias' writings purported to preserve eyewitness testimony that would affirm the existence of numerous New Testament figures (and, if accurate, give us additional information about their words and deeds from outside the New Testament documents). However, since all we have today are what later writers reported about what Papias wrote regarding what others said they saw and heard, this evidence is less direct than what we will rely on for the duration of this article. Still, it is worth noting that these kinds of sources do also exist.

Another sort of evidence we could include is the discovery of specific structures related to the person. For example, in addition to the documentary and inscriptional evidence for Herod the Great, we also find the ruins of many significant structures he reportedly built. We can likewise verify that the Old Testament king Jeroboam was real because we have unearthed his cities and shrines. Similarly, archaeologists have unearthed what they believe is the Apostle Phillip's actual first-century tomb,1 which would certainly imply a historical Apostle Phillip. A strong case can also be made that scholars have found Simon Peter's house in Capernaum,2 which, of course, points toward a real Simon Peter.

This kind of evidence, however, doesn't easily speak for itself and can only be substantiated by a longer, more developed argument. Such evidence is thus beyond the scope of this article. Our list below, therefore, will limit itself to early, written sources that mention directly, by name, people who are attested equally plainly in the New Testament documents. It should also be noted that the evidence listed here is not always exhaustive. For some of these figures, far more could be added.

Central New Testament Figures

Jesus of Nazareth

An important place to start would be Jesus Himself, the central person in the whole New Testament. Jesus is, of course, mentioned (either by name or by the title "Christ") in all 27 New Testament documents, which is already a glut of very early and diverse evidence. But even beyond the New Testament, Jesus is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus,3 Greco-Roman scholars like Tacitus4 and Pliny the Younger5 among numerous other sources. These diverse ancient works not only testify to Jesus' existence but even to His miracles and the central facts surrounding His crucifixion and resurrection.

John the Baptist

All four New Testament gospels, as well as the Book of Acts, mention the prophet known as John the Baptist. This is, by itself, a tremendous amount of documentary evidence! But John is also independently attested by the Jewish historian Josephus,6 (who even mentions the fact that Herod put John to death). The early Christian writer Ignatius of Antioch also attests to John's existence.7

James, the Brother of Jesus

The gospels of Matthew and Mark both mention Jesus' brother James,8 as does Paul,9 and this is certainly the James leading the Jerusalem church in Acts 15, the author of the Book of James, and the brother of Jude.10 But even beyond the New Testament, James is also mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus.11

Saul of Tarsus/The Apostle Paul

The New Testament includes thirteen letters that were explicitly written by the Apostle Paul.12 The Book of Acts records extensive biographical information about Paul (also known as Saul), and Paul is likewise mentioned in one of Peter's letters.13 This is an astounding amount of evidence by itself. But beyond the New Testament, Paul is also attested very early in a late-first-century letter titled 1 Clement,14 which even mentions Paul's martyrdom (a detail not reported in the New Testament). Paul is also mentioned by other quite early Christian authors such as Ignatius of Antioch15 and Polycarp of Smyrna.16

Simon Peter

Simon, also named Peter, is an Apostle of Jesus mentioned in all four gospels, the book of Acts, and in the letters of Paul. The New Testament also contains two letters from Peter himself.17 Outside the New Testament, the witnesses are still quite early. The late first-century Christian letter entitled "1 Clement" mentions Peter's trials and death.18 The falsely attributed "2 Clement" was actually written by a different author than "1 Clement" and is also quite early. It records details of one of Jesus' conversations with Peter which are not found in the gospels.19 Whether or not these details are entirely accurate, they still constitute an independent witness to Peter as a historical person. Ignatius of Antioch also mentions Peter in more than one of his letters.20

Jewish Religious Leaders

Annas the High Priest

Annas is a Jewish High Priest mentioned in Luke,21 John,22 and the book of Acts.23 Annas is also mentioned by the Jewish Historian Josephus.24

Caiaphas the High Priest

Caiaphas is an important figure in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, particularly in his role in Jesus' trial.25 The Book of Acts mentions him as well.26 Outside the New Testament, Caiaphas is also attested by the Jewish historian Josephus,27 Archeologists have actually found even more than mere references to the man, they have found the man himself. An opulent tomb was discovered with an ornate ossuary inscribed with Caiaphas' name and containing what are presumably his and his family's bones.28 Many scholars also believe the priestly house of "Koffai" mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud29 and "Hakkof" or "Ha-Kayyaf" in the Mishnah30 to be references to Caiaphas.

Ananias the High Priest

The Book of Acts mentions a High Priest named Ananias, who is involved in the arrest and interrogation of Paul.31 Ananias is also attested in the writings of Josephus.32

Gamaliel

Acts 5 mentions Gamaliel as a prominent Pharisee in Jerusalem and a voice of reason and moderation amidst the persecution of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul is reported to have studied under him.33 Outside the New Testament, Gamaliel is also frequently mentioned in the Mishnah,34 the Babylonian Talmud35 and in other rabbinic literature. 

The Herodian Dynasty

Herod the Great

Herod the great is best known for his infamous role in the story of Jesus' birth in Matthew, though he is also referenced in Luke 1:5 and is the Herod mentioned in Acts 23:35 who build the praetorium in Caesaria. Even outside the biblical documents, Herod's existence is quite well established. He is discussed extensively by Josephus. Archaeologists have also found his name inscribed on a pottery shard and a nearby jar at Masada, one of Herod's fortresses.36 The coins Herod issued bear inscriptions of his name.37 Herod is even tangentially mentioned in the Mishnah, which refers to doves kept in captivity as "Herodian doves,"38 named after King Herod, who was known for widely breeding captive doves.39 (Indeed, one can visit Herod's fortress in Masada today and see the alcoves where hundreds of doves were housed).

Herod Archelaus

Archelaus is mentioned in Matthew 2:22 as reigning over Judea after his father, Herod the Great. He is well attested in the writings of Josephus. He also minted numerous coins and, though he only used the name "Herod" on his coins rather than "Archelaus," he also used his title "ethnarch" which was not held by any other Herod.40 Thus, the coins are plainly referring to Herod Archelaus. Also, because he named a city after himself, his name likewise appears on several ancient maps.41

Herod the Tetrarch/Herod Antipas

Herod the Tetrarch (also known in other historical sources as "Herod Antipas") is mentioned in Matthew, Luke, and Acts. (Mark mentions him as well, but simply calls him "Herod.") He is most famous in Scripture for being the one who put John the Baptist to death, though Luke also connects him briefly with Jesus' trial. Outside the New Testament, he is not only well attested in the writings of Josephus, but Josephus even reports specifically his putting John the Baptist to death.42 Ignatius of Antioch confirms Herod's connection to Jesus' trial.43 The coins that Herod Antipas minted bear the same title he is given in the New Testament, "Herod the Tetrarch,"44 and are in this way distinguished from the coins printed by other members of the Herodian dynasty.

Phillip the Tetrarch

Phillip is referenced in Luke 3:1 as the tetrarch over "the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis." The writings of Josephus also mention him,45 and he minted coins that bear his name, where his inscriptions match the New Testament in identifying him as "Phillip the Tetrarch."46

Herod Phillip, Brother of Herod the Tetrarch

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention47 that John the Baptist was arrested by Herod the Tetrarch because John rebuked Herod for marrying the wife of his brother. Matthew and Mark both give Herod's brother's name as Phillip, whereas Luke mentioned no name. This was not "Phillip the Tetrarch," mentioned elsewhere, but rather another member of the Herod family who had no kingdom. Josephus likewise describes the scandal whereby Herod the Tetrarch married his brother's wife, but he calls the brother only by the family name "Herod" without mention of his personal name "Phillip."48

Herodias

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention Herodias as the wife of Phillip, whom Herod Antipas (Phillip's brother) took as his own wife while Phillip was still alive. Josephus not only mentions Herodias by name but does so in the context of the very same marriage scandal discussed in the gospels.49

Salome, Daughter of Herodias

Matthew and Mark both mention that Herodias (wife of Herod the Tetrarch) has a daughter who plays a role in manipulating Herod to kill John the Baptist. The gospels do not give us the girl's name, but the fact that she is called the daughter of Herodias implies that Herod the Tetrarch is not the girl's father. Since Herodias' previous marriage to Herod's brother Phillip is mentioned in the gospels, it is a reasonable extrapolation that Herodias' daughter is from that marriage, though this is not explicitly stated. Josephus' not only provides additional support for the existence of Herodias' daughter, he also confirms our deductions and provides additional information. Josephus explains that the girl's name is Salome and that she is, indeed, the daughter of Herodias and her first husband, Phillip.50 Salome is also both named and pictured on a coin minted in her honor, presumably by her husband.51

Herod Agrippa I

In contrast to "Herod the Tetrarch,"52 the Book of Acts also mentions a "Herod the King" in an account that begins in Acts 12:1. This Herod persecuted the church, put to death the Apostle James, and had Peter imprisoned before God struck him dead during a speech where he arrogantly allowed the crowd to praise him as a god. Josephus describes this same member of the Herod family, telling us that his name was Agrippa and confirming that he was granted the title of "king" by the Roman Emperor Caligula.53 Josephus even describes the event where the crowds praised Herod Agrippa as a god, and how he was subsequently struck dead.54 Aggripa is also mentioned by the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria55 and in the Mishnah.56 We find his name in several public inscriptions57 and on coins, which can be distinguished from the coins of his son, Agrippa II, both by the date of the coins and by the different spelling convention each man used.58

Herod Agrippa II

Acts 25-26 tell of King Agrippa's visit to Caesarea, where he advised the Roman Governor Festus regarding the Apostle Paul's appeal to Caesar. The book of Acts clearly distinguishes this king from Agrippa I, who is simply called "Herod the King." It is also noteworthy that "Herod the King" (i.e., Herod Agrippa I) reigned over Judea but, by the time of Paul's arrest, Judea is under Roman governors, and King Agrippa is reigning somewhere else. This is not only affirmed but also more fully explained by Josephus. The Roman Emperor Caligula had appointed Herod Agrippa I as king over Judea, but after his death had placed the territory back under Roman governors while giving Herod Agrippa's son, Agrippa II, domain over another region to the northeast.59 Agrippa is mentioned in a number of ancient inscriptions.60 We also find his name and image inscribed on coins, which can be distinguished from the coins of his father, Agrippa I, both by the date of the coins and by the different spelling convention each man used.61

Bernice

Bernice is repeatedly mentioned alongside King Agrippa in Acts 25-26. Josephus informs us that she was Agrippa's sister and an important member of the Herodian family.62 She is also mentioned by Tacitus63 and Suetonius,64 and she appears in a number of ancient inscriptions.65

Drusilla

Acts 24:24 mentions a woman named Drusilla, who is the wife of the Roman Governor Felix. Josephus mentions her as well, further explaining that she was also a member of the Herodian family.66

Roman Officials

Caesars Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius

The New Testament mentions the specific names of three Roman Emperors: Augustus (Luke 2:1), Tiberius (Luke 3:1), and Claudius (Acts 11:28, 18:2). As might be expected regarding emperors of such a vast empire, the evidence for these men is massive, and their existence is incontrovertible. They are written about by ancient historians, inscribed in public places, depicted on coins, their laws are documented; these are genuine historical figures. It would be impossible to give a detailed account of every line of evidence in an article such as this, but if you wish to look up a specific source to verify them, Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars is a good place to start.

Quirinius

Luke 2:2 mentions Quirinius, a governor of Syria, during whose tenure a census occurred. Quirinius is not only attested also connected with a census in the writings of Josephus67 Quirinius is also referenced in the writings of Tacitus68 and Suetonius.69 He likewise appears in several inscriptions, including one that mentions him governing in Syria and another that directly connects him to a census.70

Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea during the trial and execution of Jesus, is mentioned in all four gospels, the book of Acts, and in 1 Timothy.  Unsurprisingly, he is also well attested outside the New Testament. Perhaps most importantly, Tacitus notes not only the existence of Pilate but also that he did, indeed, have Jesus put to death.71 Ignatius of Antioch does the same.72 Josephus73 and Philo of Alexandria74 both likewise refer to Pilate, as does a stone inscription in Caesarea.75

Felix

Felix was the Roman governor of Judea who first oversaw Paul's hearing after his arrest in Jerusalem in Acts 23-24. Governor Felix is also mentioned by other ancient historians, such as Josephus,76 Tacitus.77 and Suetonius.78

Festus

Festus took over after Felix as governor of Judea and also oversaw Paul's hearings in Acts 24-26. He is likewise mentioned by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus.79

Gallio

Acts 18:12-17, while describing Paul's ministry in Corinth, mentions a proconsul of Achaia named Gallio. Gallio's existence and proconsulship were corroborated by archaeologists in the early 20th century when an inscription was unearthed at Delphi that also mentions both his name and title.80

Other Notable Figures

King Aretas

The Apostle Paul mentions King Aretas while describing the persecution he faced in Damascus under Aretas' governor (2 Corinthians 11:32). Aretas, king of the Nabateans, is also referenced by Josephus81 and on several ancient Nabatean coins.82 Archaeologists have also discovered stone inscriptions mentioning Aretas83 and even references to some of his governors.84

Judas of Galilee

In Acts 5:37, we read briefly of a man named Judas who led a failed revolt during a census. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus also discusses this man and his rebellion in several places.85

  • 1.Strata: Philip’s Tomb Discovered—But Not Where Expected,” (Biblical Archaeology Review 38.1, 2012) 18
  • 2. James F. Strange and Hershel Shanks, Has the House Where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum Been Found? (Biblical Archaeology Review 8.6, 1982) 26–37
  • 3. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3
  • 4. Annals 15:44
  • 5. Epistulae 10:96
  • 6. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5, Section 2
  • 7. Letter to the Smyrnians, Chapter 1
  • 8. Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3
  • 9. Galatians 1:19
  • 10. Jude 1:1
  • 11. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 1
  • 12. The arguments by some critics who claim that Paul did not actually write all of the New Testament letters attributed to him are weak, but even they admit that some of the letters are from the hand of Paul, which still requires Paul to exist.
  • 13. 2 Peter 3:15
  • 14. 1 Clement 5
  • 15. Epistle to the Ephesians Chapter 12, Epistle to the Romans Chapter 4
  • 16. Epistle to the Philippians chapters 3, 9, and 11
  • 17. Even critics who dismiss these letters as forgeries ought to count the existence of such early so-called "forgeries" in Peter's name as evidence that a historical Peter likely existed whose authority the "forger" desired to draw on.
  • 18. 1 Clement 5
  • 19. 2 Clement 5
  • 20. Epistle to the Romans Chapter 4, Epistle to the Smyrnians Chapter 3
  • 21. Luke 3:2
  • 22. John 18:13, 24
  • 23. Acts 4:6
  • 24. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 1 (and elsewhere)
  • 25. Mark mentions only "the high priest" without giving a name
  • 26. Acts 4:6
  • 27. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 4, Section 3 (and elsewhere)
  • 28. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology (Zondervan, 2017) 292-293
  • 29. Yevamot 15B
  • 30. Parah 3:7
  • 31. Acts 23:2 and 24:1
  • 32. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 2
  • 33. Acts 22:3
  • 34. Peah 2:6, Orlah 2:12, Shekalim 3:3, 6:1, Rosh ha-Shanah 2:5, etc.
  • 35. Shabbat 15a, etc.
  • 36. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology (Zondervan, 2017) 239 (picture of the shard on page 237)
  • 37. Richard Plant, A Numismatic Journey Through the Bible: Kindle Edition (Rotographic, 2014) Kindle Location 1182
  • 38. Shabbat 24:3
  • 39. Emil Shurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ: Division 1, Volume 1 (T&T Clark, 1890) 440
  • 40. Lawrence Mykytiuk, New Testament Political Figures Confirmed, (Biblical Archaeology Review 43.5, 2017) 50–59
  • 41. Hananya Hizmi, Archelaus Builds Archelais,” (Biblical Archaeology Review 34.4, 2008) 48–53, 56–57, 59, 78
  • 42. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5, Section 2
  • 43. Ignatius Smyrnians 1
  • 44. Richard Plant, A Numismatic Journey Through the Bible: Kindle Edition (Rotographic, 2014) Kindle Location 1045
  • 45. Anitquities of the Jews, Book 17, Chapter 8
  • 46. Richard Plant, A Numismatic Journey Through the Bible: Kindle Edition (Rotographic, 2014) Kindle Location 1045
  • 47. Matthew 14:3, Mark 6:17, Luke 3:19
  • 48. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5, Section 4
  • 49. ibid
  • 50. ibid
  • 51. Lawrence Mykytiuk, New Testament Political Figures Confirmed, (Biblical Archaeology Review 43.5, 2017) 50–59
  • 52. referenced in Acts 13:1 as well as in the gospels
  • 53. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 19, Chapter 5
  • 54. ibid, Chapter 8, Section 2
  • 55. Against Flaccus, Section 6
  • 56. Bikkurim 3:4
  • 57. David Jacobson, Agrippa II: The Last of the Herods (Routledge, 2019) Appendix 1
  • 58. Lawrence Mykytiuk, New Testament Political Figures Confirmed, (Biblical Archaeology Review 43.5, 2017) 50–59
  • 59. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 7, Section 1
  • 60. David Jacobson, Agrippa II: The Last of the Herods (Routledge, 2019) Appendix 1
  • 61. Lawrence Mykytiuk, New Testament Political Figures Confirmed, (Biblical Archaeology Review 43.5, 2017) 50–59
  • 62. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5, Section 4 (and elsewhere)
  • 63. History 2:81
  • 64. Titus 7
  • 65. David Jacobson, Agrippa II: The Last of the Herods (Routledge, 2019) Appendix 1
  • 66. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 7, Section 1
  • 67. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1, Section 1
  • 68. Annals 2:30
  • 69. Tiberius, 49
  • 70. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology (Zondervan, 2017) 266-267
  • 71. Annals 15:44
  • 72. Epistle to the Magnesians 11, Epistle to the Trallians 9, Epistle to the Smyrnians 1
  • 73. Antiquities of the Jews Book 18, Chapter 4, Section 2 (and elsewhere)
  • 74. Embassy of Gaius, 38
  • 75. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology (Zondervan, 2017) 274-275
  • 76. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 7
  • 77. Histories 5:9
  • 78. Claudius 28
  • 79. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapters 8-9
  • 80. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology (Zondervan, 2017) 302-303
  • 81. Antiquities of the Jew, Book 18, Chapter 5
  • 82. Richard Plant, A Numismatic Journey Through the Bible: Kindle Edition (Rotographic, 2014) Kindle location 2134-2140
  • 83. George A. Cooke, A text-book of north-Semitic inscriptions (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1903) 215
  • 84. J.F. Healey, "A Nabataean Funerary Inscription from Madaba", in: W.W. Hallo (ed.), Context of Scripture, vol.2 (2003), 193
  • 85. Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1; Book 20, Chapter 5; etc.