Recently I posted a blog entry on the rather radical outlook, held by a fairly slim minority, that not only rejects the truth of Christianity but goes a step further and says that there literally was no such person as Jesus of Nazareth. One of the lines of reasoning that is used to defend this view of history is the claim that we have no early historical references to Jesus. Now of course, and as I pointed out in the last blog entry, a number of very early sources were gathered together into what we call the New Testament. However, the fact that these are Christian documents, written by people who identify as followers of Jesus, causes some people to dismiss them without further question. After all, a person who believes in a historical Jesus of Nazareth who rose from the dead cannot be trusted, right? And so, the most important sources that do refer to the life of Christ that Christians believe in are rejected, not because they are late or otherwise unreliable, but because they present a version of history that many sceptics are unwilling to even contemplate, falling into a dogmatism and partisanship that is completely unacceptable in serious historical study. My first post on this subject, then, briefly explained what is wrong with the methodology of those who insist that the only kind of useful historical evidence that we could have must come from writings that never made it into the New Testament.
Secondly, however, even once we adopt this strange and biased methodology, the claim about the historical Jesus is still highly dubious at best when it comes to the historical existence of Jesus. Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd address this question of historical evidence (among other things) in their magisterial work, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition.
Eddy and Boyd are realistic about sources: some simply aren’t as useful or important as others. In fact some are frankly useless, such as those written centuries later and quite clearly as a theological polemic against a very well developed Christian tradition examples of this type would include rabbinical writings against Jesus or the Qur’an. But beyond sources like these, there are still further grades into which sources fit: sources of minimal value, and then important sources. I’m not going to try to reproduce the diligent work of these two writers here (who are in turn drawing on a wide range of careful and weighty scholarship, for example the work of Craig Evans), so I’ll just offer an overview. If you’d like something more in depth, follow the link above and get yourself a copy of this excellent work. Bear in mind as you read this that there is one and only one question before us: Was there even such a historical person as Jesus of Nazareth upon whom the Christian movement was based? Let’s proceed with this in mind.
Sources of minimal value
Source #1: Thallus
What makes Thallus a source of less value than some others is that we actually no longer have copies of his works. He was a Roman historian who, in the mid first century CE wrote a three volume world history. We know of his works because of other writers who later referred to it. In this case, that writer is Julius, a Christian historian from the third century. Julius was actually writing against a claim of Thallus. Speaking of the Gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion and the unusual darkness that fell, Julius makes reference to Thallus, saying, “In the third book of his history Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun, wrongly, in my opinion.”
Of course, had Thallus simply said that there had been an eclipse at the time when Julius happened to believe that Jesus had died, Julius would simply have read the account as confirmation of this event. Having access to the context of Thallus’ comment. the reason he took issue with it must surely have been that Thallus was offering an alternative explanation to what happened at the time of Jesus’ death. Yes, it’s a shame that we no longer have Thallus’ work to check for ourselves (which is what makes this example of fairly minimal value), but the reference is still telling.
Source #2: Mara bar Serapion
Mara bar Serapion was a Jewish man who wrote a letter to his son in prison, but the date of the letter is not certain. In fact the window of time in which it was written is about 140 years, some time between the late first century and the beginning of the third century. This is what counts heavily against, not the work’s veracity, but against its usefulness as a clearly early reference. The writer warns is son about the folly of persecuting upright men. The Athenians suffered woe after executing Socrates, the Samosians suffered woe after executing Pythagorus, and he refers to the folly of the Jews when they executed “their wise king, because their kingdom was taken away at that very time.” Nobody disputes that this is a reference to the war leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. It may be tempting to suggest that actually this was a Christian writing, or something saturated with Christian thought, since Christians taught that God visited Jerusalem with divine judgement in the first century. But this reply does not carry much weight. Christians had no reason to make Jesus like the pagan philosophers Plato and Pythagorus, and what’s more, the letter, after referring to the “wise king,” says that the wise king is not dead “because of the new laws he laid down.” In context bar Serapion claims that this person is like Socrates because he lives on through his teaching. Had this been a Christian writing, the way that Jesus lived on would obviously have been spoken of in terms of his resurrection, whereby he literally did live on.
So while this is a reference to the historical execution of Jesus, the uncertain date of the work reduces (but does not eliminate) its value.
Source #3: Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger was the nephew (and adopted son) of Pliny the Elder. He was a Roman senator who published nine
books of letters. In about 110CE he was governor of Bithynia and wrote to the Emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians. Some Christians had given up their religion under threat of death. These Christians provided Pliny with information about Christian practices, such as gathering for a special meal once a week, living an ethical life, and offer prayers and songs to Christus (Christ) “as if he were a god.” The problem with the source, of course, is that these former Christians are reliant on what the early Christian community taught about Jesus. However, there is some interest in the way that Pliny (and presumably his sources) spoke of worshipping Christ “as if” he were really a god, implying that they all knew that he had been a historical figure, but the Christians taught that he was something more. Still, this is admittedly a less important source than the others.
Source #4: Suetonius
Suetonius was an esteemed Roman historian. In the very early second century, in volume five of his work Lives of the Caesars, he referred to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 CE, “since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.” Claudius’ driving the Jews out of Rome is referred to in Acts 18:2, followed by an account of the proconsul Gallio driving a group of Jews out of court, again, for a disturbance over Christian worship.
But why the name “Chrestus”? As it turns out, Chrestus was a common Gentile name, whereas the more Jewish title “Christ” (Christus in Latin, which the Roman officials used) would have been much more foreign. Sceptic Earl Doherty suggests that the historian Suetonius was just relying on false Christian hearsay, but this has got to be a stretch. The man was a well respected historian, writing on the lives of the Caesars, and a man who actually had access to the records of the decrees of Claudius. At very least we have here a plausible reference to a dispute involving a person who would have been – at the time of Claudius at least – a recent historical figure.
Source #5 and #6: Celsus Lucian of Samosata
The importance of these last two minor sources is so minor that I have grouped them together. Celsus was a vocal opponent of Christianity writing in the late second century. He ridiculed and lampooned Christianity, saying that instead of being born of a virgin, Jesus’ mother Mary was sexually immoral and had committed adultery, becoming pregnant with Jesus. It is fairly clear from his work that Celsus was familiar with the well developed Christian faith, so what he says is of little value – and it certainly isn’t independent of the New Testament (indeed, it draws on it). Still, it is interesting to note the way that Celsus seems to grant that nobody could get away with denying that there had been a miracle working Jesus, resorting to the claim that he was a sorcerer in order to explain his miraculous deeds. Lastly, Lucian of Samosata, also writing in the late second century, warned people to stay away from the Christian faith.
… the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult to the world … Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers … after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping the crucified sophist himself and live under his laws.
Yes the source is fairly late. However, the Greek word anaskolopizein use here is not the normal Greek word for crucifixion (as Craig Evans notes), and is not the word used in the Christian Gospels (stauroun). The word that Lucian used literally means “to impale.” Perhaps by referring to “that man who was crucified (impaled?) in Palestine” may indicate some knowledge of the Jesus account outside of Christian circles.
These sources are not worthless. They are very helpful indeed as indicators that the historicity of, at the very least, a historical person lurking behind the Jesus stories, was assumed by many. But they are still relatively minor sources, hampered in large part by their age, and therefore their lack of proximity to the time of Christ. In the next blog entry (unless I’m inspired to write on something else before then) will look at some much more significant examples of early references to Jesus outside of the New Testament.