Are any of the *main** characters who appear in the Bible that are real historical people, their existence supported by multiple sources.

In addition do their actions in the Bible support or contradict accepted history.

**Kings, princes, leaders, businessmen etc. Any notable person who may be recorded by historians*

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    There are thousands of people mentioned in the bible, please restrict the question, as it is asked now it is just far too broad. – Mad Scientist Apr 9 '11 at 18:57
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    @Fabian I have altered it, however I feel the question is self limiting. If they are historical characters then they fit in to the bounds of the question if they are not mentioned anywhere but the bible we can ignore them. – rjstelling Apr 9 '11 at 19:05
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    Not an answer, but rather commentary: Just because someone mentioned in the bible is a real person doesn't make the rest of the bible real. That's like claiming Ghostbusters is real because it mentioned LeGuardia... The supernatural characters are generally not referenced anywhere except in the bible. – Larian LeQuella Apr 9 '11 at 21:18
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    I don't agree. The question is perfectly clear and answerable. Is there anybody in the bible whose existence is supported by multiple independent sources. The answer is a resounding yes. It's perhaps not a very interesting question... :-) It would be more interesting to ask if any of the main non-kings have independent sources. That I don't know. – Lennart Regebro Apr 10 '11 at 8:30
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    @Marcin, well, the last 13 words are what would apply then. For instance, there may have at one time been a person named Abraham. He may have been an influential individual within his particular YHWH bull cult. But he never spoke to his god, never initiated the sacrifice of his son, or any of that. So what resemblance does he bear to the biblically reported figure? After all, he is the founder of Abrahamistic faiths, yet outside the bible is non-existent. Even if he was based on a real person. – Larian LeQuella Apr 29 '11 at 13:37

I found a rather extensive and well referenced list of Old Testament historical figures in this article. It lists 61 people, most of whom are identified in the records or monuments of non-Hebrew civilizations, or on archeological finds such as seals and signet rings. Included in the commentary before the list are three criteria for inclusion:

1) The name of the person must be found in some independent source.

2) The name must have a clear connection to a Biblical story. (A seal with the name Baruch may not be connected since many Baruchs may have existed, but "Baruch son of Neriah" found both in the Bible and and on a seal would likely be connected.)

3) The context (especially in chronology) of the evidence must fit with the context of the Biblical story.

The article further argues:

To my mind, it is not the verification of the major personalities that is so impressive but rather the verification of the more obscure Biblical characters is the more astonishing.

It could be argued that many of the finds suffer from selection bias (if you can find a connection to the Bible, you are more likely to publish a find than not). But that does not make the evidence go away, it merely lowers our expectation that new evidence will crop up in the future.

Whether these Biblical characters are consistent with outside history is hard to know since the independent evidence mostly records their names and positions. Most historical records from the time are uninterested in describing the character of historical figures. At most, we receive broad accounts of their actions and those do seem consistent with the Biblical sources, for what it's worth.

There is also evidence of New Testament characters to be found in Roman and Jewish records. I didn't find a list as condensed as the one for the Hebrew Bible, but this site includes not just independent sources for Biblical people, but also the political, social, intellectual, and cultural climate in which early Christianity was formed. If the list were compiled it would be fairly long, but I'd like to point out the unusual case of Gamaliel, who is well-regarded in both Jewish and Christian traditions.

We are quite dependent on Josephus for most of our history surrounding Judea leading up to and through the destruction of the Temple. He has gotten a bad name in recent years because his mention of Jesus (the Testimonium Flavianum) was "punched up" by some later scribe to be more favorable to Christianity. A 1971 discovery of an Arabic copy of Antiquities does not include as many Christian interpolations suggests the passage is not entirely spurious. Peter Kirby has written a pretty good survey of research surrounding the passage. On the other hand, references to other Biblical characters such as James, the brother of Jesus, and John the baptist are more commonly accepted. Of course, references to various officials who also appear in the Bible are not contested at all.

Jesus himself is of course well-attested in Christian sources, but also receives mention in non-Biblical texts. Not surprisingly given the antipathy of almost everyone to the early Christians, the non-Christian sources sharply contradict the Biblical account of his character and the meaning of his life.

A list of New Testament figures associated with archeological finds that match the above criteria include:

  • Lysanius - ruler of Abilene

  • Pontius Pilate - governor of Judea

  • Sergius Paulus - governor of Cyprus

  • Erastus - city treasurer of Corinth

  • Gallio - governor of Corinth

All of these are non-Jewish officials who left monuments recording their names and titles that fit the Biblical accounts. It also seems that Luke, the author of the earliest church history, had good knowledge of the rather intricate use of official titles in that period. None of this should be surprising, however, since all canonical New Testament texts were written within 70 years of the events they describe. It seems unlikely that the authors would need to (or even be able to pull off) inventing characters from whole cloth to fill out the stories.

More difficult is finding compelling archeological evidence for Jewish personalities—partially because Jerusalem was fairly effectively destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and partially because most of the Jewish characters mentioned in the New Testament were unremarkable except for their connection to Christianity. (It seems unlikely that we would have any independent record of a Galilean fisherman, for instance.) Even so, a number of ossuaries (bone boxes) have been found with New Testament names. Few of them can be connected to a Biblical character according to criterion #2 above and those that have are in dispute according to criterion #3.

Caveat emptor!

Some of the physical artifacts that seem to corroborate biblical figures appeared without provenance on the antiquities market. This can be a problem for historians. For instance, the second of two bullae attributed to Baruch ben Neriah is likely a modern forgery. Unfortunately, objects that connect to characters in the Bible command higher prices than other artifacts and so liable to be forged. (To be clear, forgeries fail the third criterion above.)

The solution for buyers (whether paying to own the object or investing credence in it) is to demand documentation showing where the object was discovered. For instance, several other seals similar to the Baruch bulla were found in an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem. We can be more confident that the object existed at a particular time that can be reliably estimated from context.

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    "Not surprisingly given the antipathy of almost everyone to the early Christians, the non-Christian sources sharply contradict the Biblical account of his character" That would imply that the Christian sources (being biased to accept the existance of Jesus) are the ones that are misleading – Rory Mar 3 '12 at 19:26
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    @Rory: I'm not sure we can arrive at that conclusion. In fact, it seems unlikely the non-Christian sources have any first-hand accounts whereas the Christian ones are at worst second-hand. Further, and this is indisputable, first and second century Christians believed Jesus was worth dying for. Non-Christian sources sound very much like negative spin applied to the Biblical accounts---perhaps intended to justify the persecution of believers. – Jon Ericson Mar 3 '12 at 21:40
  • @Jon re: first-hand/second-hand: That would apply to quite a few common nowaday cults, had they been created at that time too, but we don't feel that comfortable siding with Joseph Smith and against authorities calling him a conman. I'd say both sides had motives to be biased. – Ruben Jul 11 '12 at 18:06
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    @Ruben: Of course. I don't think anyone could reasonably argue that Joseph Smith didn't exist. A person might be tricked into suffering persecution by a fraud, but they are unlikely to be tricked by a non-existent fraud. Jesus might have been a conman too, but that's not what the question asks. – Jon Ericson Jul 11 '12 at 18:24
  • @Jon I'm not disputing the existence-claim, I just wanted to clarify that just because authorities may have sinister motives (he unites some people against us, so he's a threat), their accusations may not be wrong; and just because somebody's willing to die for the cause, doesn't mean that he's right. Of course these motives and convictions usually affect the believability, but with cults this will probably be the usual pattern (ie. authorities see them as a threat, believers are extremely convinced), so we better treat them both as biased rather than believe the cultists more. – Ruben Jul 11 '12 at 18:39

There are definitely people mentioned in the Bible that are real historical people. When it comes to people that have multiple sources outside the bible these are generally kings, often mentioned because they invaded or ruled over Jewish lands.

Examples are Cyrus the great, in the Bible known as Koresh. Not all of these are uncontroversial, Darius the Mede is mentioned in the bible, and mostly assumed to be Darius I, but there are problems with that. In general, IMO, these are most easily explained with that the Bible is not historically accurate, and that when historical people are mentioned it often get some things wrong, and that many kings mentioned are in fact several kings mixed up in retelling to be one. In the end this kind of biblical research often ends up being subjective, and you'll find loads of opinions on each person.

One parts that mention a lot of kings is the Book of Daniel. Wikipedia's article contains good information on this.

In the new testament it's quite likely that many people mentioned were real historical persons, but since they didn't have high societal positions there is no information about them outside the bible. The major exception to that is Herod the Great.

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    The NT certainly does not ALWAYS mean Herod the Great, since two clearly different Herods are talked about. – DJClayworth Apr 28 '11 at 18:04
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    You are correct, I misremembered. – Lennart Regebro Apr 28 '11 at 18:15

King Hezekiah, who ruled Judah around 700 BC, survived a siege by King Sennacherib of Assyria. This story is told in 2 Kings 18-19 and Isaiah 36-37.

Assyrian records have been found giving Sennacherib's point of view:

As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small villages, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought near the walls with an attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as trenches. I drove out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them slaves. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were his city's gate. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the presents to me as overlord which I imposed upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually. Hezekiah himself, did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches inlaid with ivory, nimedu-chairs inlaid with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood, boxwood and all kinds of valuable treasures, his own daughters and concubines.

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