Credentials of the Master
Jewish and Roman historians refer to the existence of a cult (their words) led by a person that was put to death for sedition.
Tacitus is perhaps the best known of the Roman historians of the time. In his Annals (Book XV) he speaks of the emperors following Augustus. Listen to his words about the aftermath of the fire in Rome, which Nero was accused of starting::
Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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 Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, 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.
This is particularly interesting to me because of the decided negative tone by which he refers to Christians and their beliefs "(mischievous superstition") that was momentarily checked by the crucifixion of their leader, but "broke out" again. What would cause that? More a little later.
Pliny the Younger
Pliny is not so much a historian as a letter writer.He was appointed governor of Bithynia by the emperor Trajan and he discusses his attempts to curb Christianity. Pliny also wrote letters describing the eruption of Vesuvius and the loss of his uncle in that. The collected letters are available on Amazon as well as other places. His words below are from a translation by William Melmoth and revised by F.C.T. Bosanquet, available here.
It is my invariable rule, Sir, to refer to you in all matters where I feel doubtful: for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informaing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to age, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitlkes them to pardon; or if a man has once been a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in grave doubt. ... They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word ... After receiving this account, I judged it so much more the necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth by putting two female slaves to the torture ... but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition. ... In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country.
Once again, the tone is decidedly negative ("absurd and extravagant superstition"). Why, would an absurd superstition spread so widely? A Jewish historian provides some insight.
Below are two versions of the same passage from Flavius Josephus' Antiquities. The first is from Josephus –The Essential Works
About this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was the achiever of extraordinary deeds and was a teacher of those who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When he was indicted by the principal men among us and Pilate condemned him to be crucified, those who had come to love him originally did not cease to do so; for he appeared to them on the third day restored to life, as the prophets of the Deity had foretold these and countless other marvelous things about him, and the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.
At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But 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. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. 7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? 14 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words: 15 For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. 16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel 22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: 23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: 24 Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. 32 This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses.
So, these people were certainly sincere as many of them were tortured and killed for saying they had seen Jesus alive and well after the crucifixion. People can be sincerely wrong about matters of opinion, less so about things they see and hear. Would that resurrection be enough to transform timid people into martyrs? Would that cause a resurgence of believers after Jesus had been murdered? You decide.