If the only references to the trial of Jesus came from Christian sources, there might be reason to wonder if such a trial ever took place--or indeed, even if Jesus ever existed. Fortunately, there are a few important surviving references to the trial of Jesus in non-Christian writings. One comes from Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian who was hostile to the Christian movement. Other references can be found in the writings of Josephus, a Jewish historian, the Talmud, and Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian prisoner. Each of these references confirms three central facts: that there was a leader of a movement called Jesus (or Christ), that Jesus was executed, and that the movement that Jesus was part of survived his death. Jesus, however, is variously portrayed in these writings as a troublemaker (Tacitus), a teacher (Josephus), a sorcerer or magician (Talmud), and a wise king (Serapion).
Tacitus (55-115 C.E.)
The Annals, XV: 44
Tacitus was a member of the Roman consular nobility committed to the senatorial ideals of the Roman republic. He detested both Christians and Jews.
Tacitus wrote of the fire that consumed much of Rome in 64 C.E. during the reign of Nero and the chaos which followed the fire. Then Tacitus reported that Nero fixed blame for the disaster on Christians:
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 Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, and the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed by the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
Flavius Josephus (born 37 C.E.)
Antiquities 17.3.3. (81-96 C.E.)
Josephus was an aristocratic Jewish historian. The Sanhedrin placed Josephus in command of Galilee during the uprising against the Romans. He later settled in Rome following Nero's persecution of the Christians. The major purpose of his writings seems to have been to commend Judaism to Romans. A pharisee of priestly descent, Josephus wrote critically of the Zealots, who he blamed for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
Christian scribes edited the writings of Josephus, probably adding references that surfaced in some versions to the performance of miracles by Jesus and to the ascension of Jesus three days after his death. Historians reconstructing the account of Josephus generally omit those references as interpolated.
Josephus makes two references to Jesus. In one reference, he refers to the stoning to death of James in 62 C.E., calling James "the brother of Jesus who is called Christ." The other, more significant reference to Jesus follows:
About the same time there lived Jesus, a wise man for he was a performer of marvelous feats and a teacher of such men who received the truth with pleasure. He attracted many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate sentenced him to die on the cross, having been urged to do so by the noblest of our citizens; but those who loved him at the first did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, who are named after him, have not disappeared to this day.
Talmud (200-500 C.E.)
Sanh. 43a (Epstein 2003)
The Talmud is the central text of mainstream Judaism. It is a compilation of rabbinical teachings compiled over a period of about three hundred years, from roughly 200 C.E. to 500 C.E.
The Talmud contains several possible references to Jesus, but the one passage that most clearly describes the events surrounding his death is the one that follows. The passage suggests that Jesus (Yeshu) was a person of some influence and a magician of sorts. The passage suggests that he enticed people to apostasy, which under Jewish law was a crime punishable by stoning. The Talmud suggests no role for Roman authorities in the execution of Jesus.
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (Jesus) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!-- Ulla retorted, "Do you suppose that he one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a mesith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him? With Yeshu, however, it was different, for he was connected with royalty [or well-connected]."
Letter from Mara bar Serapion to his son (73-180 C.E.)
Quoted by F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Relaible? (Eerdmans Fifth Ed.)
Mara bar Serapion was a Syrian prisoner to wrote a letter to his son in 73 C.E. or later that has survived. The letter exhorts his son to seek wisdom.
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.