2. The Testimony From Non-Christian Historians of the Era:
In addition to the incredible examples of messianic prophecy that one can examine, there is also the supporting evidence from leading historians of the day, which testify to the validity of the gospel. Following are four writers from the late apostolic era.
a. Flavius Josephus (d. ca. 90 A.D.):
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish national who fought against the Roman general Titus in the Jewish uprising in 66 A.D. Josephus was captured early on in the conflict, and after remaining in the Roman camp, became convinced of the futility of the rebellion. He was allowed to go with the Roman legions to Jerusalem in 70 A.D., at the beginning of the siege. On behalf of the Romans, with the welfare of his own people in mind, he tried to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the remainder of the Jewish armies trapped in the city. His pleas were ignored, and as Josephus recorded the events, the city was eventually taken, by his own report, and as many as a million men, women and children were slaughtered. Josephus wrote several extensive works on the Jewish nation, particularly Antiquities of the Jews, and The Jewish Wars. In Antiquities, Book 18:III.3, Josephus records the events surrounding the advent of Christ in these words:
Now, at about this time there lived a man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, for he was the Christ...and when he, at the suggestion of Pilate and the principle men amongst us, was put to death, those who loved him at first (his own disciples) he did not forsake, for he appeared to them alive again on the third day following.
This particular text is hotly contested by many scholars today, since it is so specific and affirms even Christ's resurrection. I might note that Josephus does mention John the Baptist, and James the Just (Jesus' brother, bishop of Jerusalem), sections which are quoted by the early church fathers, whereas this text is not. Liberal scholars claim that it was added by Christians to Josephus' writings. However, since the text is found in several different versions of Josephus, and there are no earlier versions without the text, the burden of proof would be on those who claim it was added later. With that evidence being insufficient, we ought to accept it as genuine. To accept that this paragraph is later interpolation means accepting the premise that some how Christians were able to get possession of all the extant copies of Antiquities, make the exact same addition in all of the works, and somehow assure that only the versions with this paragraph survived to the present day. Particularly since this is a Jewish work, that would be highly unlikely. For those who are familiar with his work, and understand that he sometimes will uncritically report common lore, one will have no difficulty accepting this statement as original. As far as Josephus attaching the the title "Christ" to Jesus, there are several explanations.
Josephus' testimony regarding James will be dealt with fully in the later chapter on "Leadership".
Philo was a Jewish historian and philosopher of the first century. He nearly a contemporary of Christ, being born about the time of Christís passion, and makes some fascinating observations of a group of ascetic Christians living in Alexandria , Egypt, around the year 50 A.D. The following account is found in Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, written in the early 4th century. Since it is perhaps the very first extra-biblical description of Christians by a non-Christian, I am reproducing the entire pertinent text.
It is also said that Philo in the reign of Claudius became acquainted at Rome with Peter, who was then preaching there. Nor is this indeed improbable, for the work of which we have spoken, and which was composed by him some years later, clearly contains those rules of the Church which are even to this day observed among us. And since he describes as accurately as possible the life of our ascetics, it is clear that he not only knew, but that he also approved, while he venerated and extolled, the apostolic men of his time, who were as it seems of the Hebrew race, and hence observed, after the manner of the Jews, the most of the customs of the ancients. In the work to which he gave the title, On a Contemplative Life or on Suppliants, after affirming in the first place that he will add to those things which he is about to relate nothing contrary to truth or of his own invention, he says that these men were called Therapeutí and the women that were with them Therapeutrides. He then adds the reasons for such a name, explaining it from the fact that they applied remedies and healed the souls of those who came to them, by relieving them like physicians, of evil passions, or from the fact that they served and worshipped the Deity in purity and sincerity. Whether Philo himself gave them this name, employing an epithet well suited to their mode of life, or whether the first of them really called themselves so in the beginning, since the name of Christians was not yet everywhere known, we need not discuss here. He bears witness, however, that first of all they renounce their property. When they begin the philosophical mode of life, he says, they give up their goods to their relatives, and then, renouncing all the cares of life, they go forth beyond the walls and dwell in lonely fields and gardens, knowing well that intercourse with people of a different character is unprofitable and harmful. They did this at that time, as seems probable, under the influence of a spirited and ardent faith, practicing in emulation the prophetsí mode of life. For in the Acts of the Apostles, a work universally acknowledged as authentic, it is recorded that all the companions of the apostles sold their possessions and their property and distributed to all according to the necessity of each one, so that no one among them was in want. "For as many as were possessors of lands or houses," as the account says, "sold them and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostlesí feet, so that distribution was made unto every man according as he had need." Philo bears witness to facts very much like those here described and then adds the following account: "Everywhere in the world is this race found. For it was fitting that both Greek and Barbarian should share in what is perfectly good. But the race particularly abounds in Egypt, in each of its so-called nomes, and especially about Alexandria. The best men from every quarter emigrate, as if to a colony of the Therapeutís fatherland, to a certain very suitable spot which lies above the lake Maria upon a low hill excellently situated on account of its security and the mildness of the atmosphere" And then a little further on, after describing the kind of houses which they had, he speaks as follows concerning their churches, which were scattered about here and there: "In each house there is a sacred apartment which is called a sanctuary and monastery, where, quite alone, they perform the mysteries of the religious life. They bring nothing into it, neither drink nor food, nor any of the other things which contribute to the necessities of the body, but only the laws, and the inspired oracles of the prophets, and hymns and such other things as augment and make perfect their knowledge and piety."
And after some other matters he says: "The whole interval, from morning to evening, is for them a time of exercise. For they read the holy Scriptures, and explain the philosophy of their fathers in an allegorical manner, regarding the written words as symbols of hidden truth which is communicated in obscure figures. They have also writings of ancient men, who were the founders of their sect, and who left many monuments of the allegorical method. These they use as models, and imitate their principles." These things seem to have been stated by a man who had heard them expounding their sacred writings. But it is highly probable that the works of the ancients, which he says they had, were the Gospels and the writings of the apostles, and probably some expositions of the ancient prophets, such as are contained in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in many others of Paulís Epistles. Then again he writes as follows concerning the new psalms which they composed: "So that they not only spend their time in meditation, but they also compose songs and hymns to God in every variety of meter and melody, though they divide them, of course, into measures of more than common solemnity." The same book contains an account of many other things, but it seemed necessary to select those facts which exhibit the characteristics of the ecclesiastical mode of life. But if any one thinks that what has been said is not peculiar to the Gospel polity, but that it can be applied to others besides those mentioned, let him be convinced by the subsequent words of the same author, in which, if he is unprejudiced, he will find undisputed testimony on this subject. Philoís words are as follows: "Having laid down temperance as a sort of foundation in the soul, they build upon it the other virtues. None of them may take food or drink before sunset, since they regard philosophizing as a work worthy of the light, but attention to the wants of the body as proper only in the darkness, and therefore assign the day to the former, but to the latter a small portion of the night. But some, in whom a great desire for knowledge dwells, forget to take food for three days; and some are so delighted and feast so luxuriously upon wisdom, which furnishes doctrines richly and without stint, that they abstain even twice as long as this, and are accustomed, after six days, scarcely to take necessary food." These statements of Philo we regard as referring clearly and indisputably to those of our communion
But if after these things any one still obstinately persists in denying the reference, let him renounce his incredulity and be convinced by yet more striking examples, which are to be found nowhere else than in the evangelical religion of the Christians. For they say that there were women also with those of whom we are speaking, and that the most of them were aged virgins who had preserved their chastity, not out of necessity, as some of the priestesses among the Greeks, but rather by their own choice, through zeal and a desire for wisdom. And that in their earnest desire to live with it as their companion they paid no attention to the pleasures of the body, seeking not mortal but immortal progeny, which only the pious soul is able to bear of itself. Then after a little he adds still more emphatically: "They expound the Sacred Scriptures figuratively by means of allegories. For the whole law seems to these men to resemble a living organism, of which the spoken words constitute the body, while the hidden sense stored up within the words constitutes the soul. This hidden meaning has first been particularly studied by this sect, which sees, revealed as in a mirror of names, the surpassing beauties of the thoughts." Why is it necessary to add to these things their meetings and the respective occupations of the men and of the women during those meetings, and the practices which are even to the present day habitually observed by us, especially such as we are accustomed to observe at the feast of the Saviorís passion, with fasting and night watching and study of the divine Word. These things the above-mentioned author has related in his own work, indicating a mode of life which has been preserved to the present time by us alone, recording especially the vigils kept in connection with the great festival, and the exercises performed during those vigils, and the hymns customarily recited by us, and describing how, while one sings regularly in time, the others listen in silence, and join in chanting only the close of the hymns; and how, on the days referred to they sleep on the ground on beds of straw, and to use his own words, "taste no wine at all, nor any flesh, but water is their only drink, and there dish with their bread is salt and hyssop." In addition to this Philo describes the order of dignities which sits among those who carry on the services of the church, mentioning the diaconate, and the office of bishop, which takes the precedence over all the others. But whosoever desires a more accurate knowledge of these matters may get it from the history already cited.
Of particular interest is the fact the Christians in this instance were called "Therapeuts" (notice similarity to our word "therapy") on account of their healing ministry. This is another confirmation of the authenticity of such testimony, since the name "Christian" we are told, was first applied in Antioch a significant time after the founding of the church (see Acts 11:26). Up to that point in Palestine, the believers were said to be part of the "Way" (Acts 9:2; 22:4; 24:14). It would only to be expected that such a community in Alexandria would have a distinct label, if it was an early missionary work that was planted before the name "Christian" was widely held. Also, the emphasis on chastity, morality, and worship gives us a keen insight into the structure and mores of the early Christian community. Lastly, it should be noted that Philo noticed the use of the allegorical method of interpretation. This may be little more than the recognition of types and anti-types in scripture, and the symbolic significance of names, all principles that are within the bounds of legitimate interpretation. However, in later years, it was some Christians from this same city, namely Origen and his disciples, that took the allegorical method to such an extreme that it earned him posthumous condemnation by several councils.
c. Pliny the Younger (63 A.D.-112 A.D.)
The occasion of this letter was a question of policy that Pliny, then governor in Bithynia, had for Emperor Trajan in Rome regarding how to handle the persistent problem of Christians in his district. Should he show leniency for children? Should he punish those who used to be Christians, but have recanted? After mentioning that his normal policy of executing those who admitted that they indeed did believe in Christ, he describes his typical trial:
There upon the usual result followed: the very fact of my dealing with the question led to a wider spread of the charge, a great variety of cases were brought before me. An anonymous pamphlet was issued, containing many names. All who denied that they were or had ever been Christians I considered should be discharged, because they called upon the gods at my dictation, and did reverence, with bread and wine, to your image which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, together with the statues of the deities; and especially because they cursed Christ, which, it is said, a genuine Christian cannot do. Others named by the informer first said that they were Christians, then they denied it; declaring that they had been but were so no longer, some having recanted three of more years before and one or two as long ago as twenty years. They all worshipped your image and the statues and cursed Christ. But they declared that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonially to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves to an oath not for the commission of any crime, but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed. At the conclusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food, but it was ordinary and harmless food, and they ceased this practice after my edict, which, in accordance with your orders, had forbidden secret societies. I thought it more necessary to find the truth in this matter by applying torture to two maidservants called deaconesses, but I found nothing but an extravagant and depraved superstition, and I therefore postponed my examination and had recourse with you for consultation.
d. Tacitus (60 A.D.-120 A.D.)
Tacitus was another Roman historian who recorded the struggles of the Christians against Nero. In this text he writes of how Nero, sought to escape the blame of setting fire to Rome by finding a scapegoat.
But all of the endeavors of men, all of the emperor's largesse and the propitiationís of the gods, did not suffice to allay the scandal or banish the belief that the fire had been ordered. And so, to get rid of this rumor, Nero set up as culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the Procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberias. Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome, that receptacle for everything that is sordid and degrading from every quarter of the globe, and there finds a following. Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed; then on their evidence, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as because of hatred of the human race. Besides being put to death they were being made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when the daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even towards men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual. (Annales xv.44)
Based on these testimonies from non-Christian historians of that era, we can see that the events that surround the life of Christ, even for us today, holds at least as much or more credibility and verifiable history as any event from that age. In addition to all of this, we find incredible prophecies throughout the rest of the known world at that time that parallel and compliment the prophecies of the Hebrew prophets. Although many of these prophecies find their source in a non-canonical source, we find that Jesus, in the same meticulous fashion, fulfilled them all perfectly.
3. Predictions from non-Biblical ("pagan") sources
a. Greek and Roman Oracles
The Sibyls were a dynasty of prophetesses in Cumae, Italy who prophesied in succession, with their predictions being recorded and documented, known as the Sibylline Prophecies. The accuracy and startling messages of these heathen soothsayers caught the attention of many of the most famous pre-Christian philosophers, such as Plato. Numerous poets and philosophers, such as Virgil, Cicero and Varro made comments on these oracles; some being intrigued by their wisdom, others discounting them as ramblings of hysterical and mad women. One of the most fascinating things about the prophecies is the close resemblance of many of them to the Old Testament prophets. Despite the fact that the Sibyls were supposed to be priestesses of the Greek god Apollo, and therefore pagan and polytheists, the Sibyls frequently asserted that there was one God, Creator of the Universe, who was Holy and Just. Moreover, the Sibyls prophesied that God would manifest Himself to the human race in the flesh, being born of a virgin, and perform miracles that proved He was God. Unfortunately, the actually writings of the Sibyl are no longer extant. We must rely o the second hand information from varied sources for our assessment. Following is a summation of some of the things the Sibyls said about the manifestation of the "Son of God" that can be found cited by the early church fathers.:
1. The deaf will hear
2. The blind will see
3. The lame will walk
4. He shall walk on waves.
5. He shall still the wind by his word, and calm the sea.
6. He shall raise the dead and drive away many pains.
7. He shall afterwards come into the hands of the unjust and faithless; they shall inflict upon God blows with impure hands.
8. And being beaten, He shall be silent, lest anyone should know what the Word is...and He shall wear a crown of thorns.
9. And after sleeping three days, He shall put an end to the fate of death; and then, releasing Himself from the dead, He shall come to light, first showing the called ones the beginning of the resurrection.
It is almost too fantastic to consider that this was well circulated among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Small details such as Christ wearing a crown of thorns, and walking on water were not even found in the Jewish messianic prophecies. When skeptics attacking Christianity tried to claim that these predictions were interpolations and additions made by Christians after the fact, Lactantius the apologist was able to demonstrate that Cicero and the Roman poets Varro and Virgil, among others, had cited many of these Sibylline prophecies long before Christ was ever born. Today you can still find Virgil's "Ecologue" citing the Sibylline text regarding the virgin birth and the future "golden age" that would be ushered in by the Son of God's advent, all written long before Christ's birth. By far the most amazing Sibylline prediction is one that seems to illuminate one of the most perplexing passages in the Gospels. I have for years been bewildered by the events and dialogue surrounding the feeding of the five thousand. This is the only miracle that Jesus performed that is recorded in all four gospels. In the account in Luke, after Jesus has fed the multitudes, he gets into a boat with the disciples, and exclaims:
Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod". And they began to discuss with one another that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them "Why do you discuss that you have no bread? Do you not see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart? 'Having eyes do you not see? Having ears do you not hear'? And do you not remember when I broke the five loaves, how many baskets of pieces you picked up?" They answered "Twelve". "And when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets did you pick up?" And they said to them, "seven". And he said to them "Do you not yet understand? (Mark 8:15-21)
How many times have I read that text and thought in reply "No! I don't yet understand!" What does the number of baskets picked up have to do with the leaven (doctrinal errors) of the Pharisees and Herodians? In the past, I had attempted to draw meaning from the significance of the numbers, with each number bearing it's own meaning, but that usually means stretching the limits of credibility. In consideration of what the leaven of the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees might be, we can conclude that the primary error of the Pharisees was their rigid legal exclusiveness, while the widely attested error of the Herodians and Sadducees was their denial of the spiritual world, of angels, the resurrection, and revelation. (Acts 23:7-9). The Pharisees, then, were religious elitists, seeing themselves as the sole protectors of Godís revelations. The Sadducees and Herodians on the opposite extreme, were accommodationists, rejecting the supernatural elements of religion in favor of the political and social facets of the faith. The theology of these latter two parties had been greatly influenced by materialist Greek thought. With that in mind, let me cite another Sibylline prophecy of the Son of God cited by Lactantius:
With five loaves at the same time, and two fishes, He shall satisfy five-thousand men in the wilderness; and afterwards, taking up the fragments that remain, He shall fill twelve baskets to the hope of many.
What could be more specific? Consider the implication of this prophecy and it's fulfillment. What could be more devastating to the narrow views of the Pharisees than to have the perfect fulfillment of a "heathen" prophetess? What else could turn the world of a Sadducee or Herodian on it's head, but to conclusively prove divine revelation with over five-thousand witnesses to the fulfillment of an ancient and very unlikely oracle? All of the events of the feeding of the multitude seemed aimed at proving Christ's identity to the Greek and Roman culture. It was proof that his Lordship extended beyond being merely that of a single, tribal people, the Jews. With these facts clearly set before us, Christ's rebuke "do you not yet understand?" gains a whole new light. He was jogging their memory. Reciting the exact number of loaves, the exact number of baskets picked up, surely someone would figure this one out! The apparent silence of the disciples in the boat would indicate that, like many of the instances of Christ fulfilling the Jewish prophecies, the disciples didn't understand the significance of Christ's actions until well after the fact.
The Sibylline oracles regarding the Son of God, nevertheless, stand as an incredibly persuasive fact in the first and second century Greek and Roman cultures. Some early apologists cite the Sibyl as much as any Old Testament author (though never as scripture), depending on his audience. We witness in the debate between Origen and the skeptic Celsus in the early third century that even at that time there was an organized body of believers in Christ that are referred to as "Sibyllists" because of their interest in the Sibylline Oracles.
The most widely known non-biblical prophetic witness to Christ is inferred in the Scriptures. In the nativity narratives from the beginnings of the Gospels, we see "Magi" from the east who come to Christ after seeing "his star" (Matt 2:2). Unfortunately, we do not know exactly what the prophecies or oracles were that they had interpreted to attach such significance to a star, or exactly what the "star" was, but there is large amounts of speculation over the ages. Some scholars today point to a triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that happened in the months proceeding Christís birth. Others cite the fact that Sirius, the dog star, rose heliacally (at sunrise) in 5 B.C. in the Egyptian month of Mesori. The significance here would be that "Mesori" means "birth of the Great Prince", and the majority of early church fathers cite the homeland of the "Magi" as being either Egypt or Arabia.
A more innovative theory today bases itís views of the star of Bethlehem on a radical reinterpretation of the Zodiac. The "Gospel in the Stars" hypothesis states that all of the constellation figures and characters were initially a primitive witness of messianic prophecies. Citing the frequency of "hero" constellations crushing the head of a serpent or scorpion (both types for demonic forces) and the declaration from Psalm 19:1 "The heavens declare the glory of the Lord, and the skies proclaim the work of His hands", the theory charges primitive cultures with corrupting the original gospel message, and turning the "Gospel in the Stars" into a tool for petty soothsayers and astrologers. Scholars who stand behind this hypothesis say that there was a supernova in the constellation of Coma, a decan of Virgo, at the time of Christís birth. Virgo, the virgin, is pictured with a young boy in the zodiac. "Coma" is said to mean "the desired one". Taken in full, this celestial event would be interpreted to mean that the Virgin has brought forth the "Desired One".
Unfortunately, it is impossible to deduce, from the early church fathers, which event might have been, if any, the one that is borne witness by the gospel writers. Most of the fathers do not seek a naturalistic explanation or recurring phenomenon to explain the event. They tend to accept it as a singularity; a miraculous sign announcing a miraculous event. They frequently cite the prophecy of Balaam (another heathen prophet) as found in Numbers 24:17: "A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel" to explain the visit of the Magi. The "Gospel in the Stars" hypothesis seems particularly appealing, but there is no corroborating testimony from the early church to prop it up, nor direct biblical reference to support it. The patristic writers do otherwise mention the Zodiac, and Magi from various religions, but always in a derogatory sense.
Just the same, it appears that the Greek and Roman worlds had been providentially prepared for the coming of the Messiah. We have the testimony from First Century historians that there was a certain degree of expectancy in those western cultures as well as the Middle East for a Messiah. The Roman historian Suetonius writes that "There was spread all over the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world" . (Suetonius: Life of Vespasian 4:5). Tacitus likewise says that "there was a very firm persuasionÖthat at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire." (Tacitus: Histories 5:13). We have full assurance form every contemporary source that the advent of the Messiah was expected by almost all people groups in the area, not merely the Jewish tribes..
b. Non-Biblical Jewish Sources
Jesus also used the presence of Jewish prophecies from non-biblical sources to demonstrate the authenticity of His mission. One defining moment at the beginning of His ministry happened when John's disciples came to Christ to ask the question "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect another?" (Matthew 11:3) Jesus tells them to report back to John what they saw: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. To many of us, that may seem like a very cryptic answer. It is apparently a conjunction of Psalm 35:5 and 61:1. Missing in our Bibles however, is any reference in those verses to the "dead" being raised. Recently, however, in a fragment from the Dead Sea scrolls, the same text from Isaiah was found with the phrase "and the dead are raised" and the context of that spoke of when the "heaven and the earth obey the Messiah". The fragment (known as Q4521) was written about 30 B.C., and was held by the Essenes, a group of ascetic Jews that lived in the wilderness of Judea. Many people have speculated that John the Baptist, based on his description in Luke, may have had some connection with the Essene community. That being true, Jesus' exact words, particularly the phrase about the dead being raised, would have had special messianic significance to John and the other Essenes.
A last example could be drawn from Jesus' meeting with Philip in John 1:43-49. The text is as follows:
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, "Follow me."
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote -- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."
"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false."
"How do you know me?" Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you."
Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."
It alludes most people as to how a skeptic like Nathanael could be so easily won over just because Jesus said that he saw him "under the fig tree". He goes from being critical and sarcastic to a complete believer with that single phrase. What makes it even more enigmatic is that there is no reference in the preceding passage to Nathanael being under a fig tree. We are left to presume that he, at some unrecorded point in time, was indeed under a fig tree. In order to find the answer to this scenario, we need to identify what makes Nathanael tick. When he is first told by Philip that they had found the Messiah, his skepticism hinges on the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth. It is likely that Nathanael had in mind the fact that Micah predicted that the Messiah would be from Bethlehem. We can deduce that Nathanael was familiar with messianic prophecies. In addition to the prophecies from Scripture, there was a common saying from the rabbis that was part of the oral tradition at the time. It holds the key to Nathanael's reaction:
If some one should approach you and say "Behold, we have found the Messiah, come quickly!" Then do not follow them, but instead, go back and sit beneath your vine or your fig tree. For if he is the Messiah, there shall be plenty of time to meet him.
I would suspect that Nathanael, upon Philip's declaration that he had found the Christ, was instantly reminded of this anecdotal saying. He likely was thinking of this very saying when Jesus approached him. Jesus' words to Nathanael had such impact because Jesus let Nathanael know that he was aware of exactly what type of person Nathanael was, and exactly what thoughts he was harboring in his heart. All of Nathanaelís thoughts were laid bare and exposed. This was the pivotal event for Nathanael, and Christís words became all he needed to be fully persuaded that Jesus was truly the Christ.
The fulfillment of Jewish prophecies both canonical and non-canonical sources, the Sibylline Oracles, plus the appeal to the well established, historically documented events surrounding Christ's life, provided the fervent convictions of the early apologists, and solidified an unbeatable argument for Christianity. Being so convinced, how could one not stand up for the truth? With these facts in mind, it becomes more understandable how the early Christians maintained their testimony, even when they knew that it might cost them their lives.