This is the third and final instalment in a short series of blog entries on the discredited but “popular on the internet” belief that not only is Christianity false, but Jesus of Nazareth never even existed at all. In the first part, I looked briefly at the unacceptable and controlling bias when demanding that only sources from outside the New Testament be regarded as historical evidence. In part two I looked at some historical sources that give further credibility to the historicity of the person behind the Christian faith, namely Jesus himself. Those sources, while clearly useful and such that they cannot simply be dismissed, were arguably of minor significance, often due to questions of when they were written.
In this third part, continuing to draw on the excellent work of Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd cited in the previous part, I’ll move on and briefly look at some early but extra-biblical sources on the historical Jesus that are more significant than those already mentioned, and which make a fairly compelling case that Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, was known by many as an historical figure. Of course, our expectations need to be realistic. During Jesus’ actual lifetime, Jesus was virtually unknown apart from in the communities in which he lived and taught (and even then, many would not have known who he was). This fact makes the sources that do refer to him even more significant. Let’s take a look at three important such references now.
Major Source #1: Tacitus
Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian of the second century who was also the proconsul of Asia for two years (112-113 CE). Portions of his major works the Annals and the Histories survive today. The Annals is a work that covers the period from Augustus Caesar to Nero (i.e. 14-68 CE). In the Annals 15.44 (most likely written around 115 CE), he commented on the great fire of Rome (64 CE, under Emperor Nero) as follows:
Neither human effort nor princely largesse nor divine appeasement was able to dispel the scandal that the fire was believed to have been commanded [i.e. by Nero himself]. So, to do away with the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits those who were commonly called Christians, who were hated because of their absurdities. And he inflicted them with the most extraordinary punishments.
Christus, the source of this name, was executed during the reign of Tiberius by the sentence of the procurator, Pontius Pilate. And the destructive superstition was suppressed, only to break out in the present, not only in Judea – the source of this evil – but also in the city (of Rome), where all hateful and shameful things flow and find a following.
It’s at once clear why this would be a very important source. Here is a Roman historian and official, one with access to records regarding decisions by Roman administrators – historians who may actually serve as the only link to such records that no longer exist – who claims in his capacity as an historian of Rome, that there was a man who people called Christ, from whom the name of the Christian movement sprang. This man was executed under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius to suppress the movement of his followers, but afterwards that movement broke out from Palestine and spread, even to Rome.
The record of this historian therefore establishes not only that the person we call Jesus of Nazareth existed, but it also confirms some of the circumstances surrounding his execution. Yes, he refers to Jesus as “Christus” (Christ), but this was clearly done in order to explain the connection between him and the “Christian movement,” which was really the subject here.
Some have grasped the straw of crying “forgery,” insisting that this just has to be the work of a Christian inserting additions into Tacitus’ work, but there is no evidence of this taking place. Moreover, the writer describes Christianity in wholly negative terms, and ends the account of Jesus’ life with his execution. On the one occasion where we clearly do have a Christian inserting comments into the work of Josephus (I’ll come to this next), the account of Christ’s death was embellished with a profession of his resurrection. Every indication that we have is that this is a genuine part of Tacitus’ work.
Major Sources #2 and #3: Josephus
Undoubtedly the two most important early historical references to Jesus outside of the works that were included in the New Testament both come from the Jewish historian (turned Roman), Flavius Josephus. He was without much doubt the most important Jewish historian of the ancient world, so references to the historic Jesus in his work carry significant weight.
The “James Passage”
The two references to Jesus appear in his Antiquities, and I will start with the less interesting (and controversial) of the two, which appears in book 20. Ananus, by the way, was a high priest. For ease of reference, I will join others in using the convention of calling this “the James passage”:
When, therefore, Ananus was of this [angry] disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road. So he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.
No spectacular affirmations are made about Jesus, nor should we expect any, given that Josephus did not accept the Christian faith. The name “Jesus” was common enough at the time, and Josephus refers to more than one person with this name, but while Josephus certainly did not accept that the Messiah (Christ) had come, he set this particular Jesus apart from the others by noting that some people called him Christ, and that he had a brother named James, something claimed by the New Testament. Here as in the case of Tacitus, some have sought to dismiss this reference to Jesus as a case of Christians meddling with the text and inserting things that Josephus never said. However, the evidence simply does not favour this claim. Some object that Josephus uses the title “Christ,” which a Jew would never apply to Jesus. But of course, Josephus did not apply this title to Jesus, he merely stated that some other people did (namely, Christians). Some have noted that in this passage Josephus has a negative view of Ananus the high priest. This would be a strange attitude for a Jewish writer, and Josephus made a positive comment about Ananus in his earlier work, The War of the Jews, so this negative comment is probably written by a Christian author with a negative view of Ananus, who ordered the death of the Christian hero James. However, a wider knowledge of Wars and Antiquities reveals two things, as noted by Eddy and Boyd. Firstly “we frequently find tensions between the accounts of the same events in Jewish War and Antiquities, as a number of scholars have noted” (The Jesus Legend, 188.) secondly and more importantly, they point out that “we can detect an unmistakable negative shift in Josephus’s general attitude toward Jewish religious and political leadership between these two works. The negative view of Ananus in this passage is consistent with this general shift” (Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend, 189).
Although the external evidence is more than good enough, another factor favouring the authenticity of this passage is the fact that the way Josephus describes the death of James disagrees with the widely received Christian account of how James died. As Eddy and Boyd explain,
from Eusebius, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria, we learned that early Christians believed James was first thrown from the battlement of the Temple by scribes and Pharisees. They then began to stone him but were stopped by a priest. Finally, James was clubbed to death by laundrymen. In contradiction to this, Josephus says simply that James was stoned to death by order of the high priest Ananus. Moreover, according to the Christian tradition, James was killed just prior to Vespasian’s siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. According to Josephus, he died before the Jewish War broke out, around 62 CE. The fact that the Josephan account differs so dramatically from the traditional Christian narrative suggests that this passage is not a Christian interpolation.
Eddie and Boyd, The Jesus Legend, 189.
All things considered, then, the James passage constitutes a specific, clear and highly credible reference to Jesus of Nazareth as an historical figure, as well as his family relationship to James.
The Testimonium Flavianum
Although the James passage is important, it is not as important as the Testimonium Flavianum. This passage has attracted an immense deal of scholarly attention, both because of its significance as an historical reference to Jesus, but also because of the controversy surrounding the obvious alterations that have been made to it. In modern editions of Josephus’ works (Antiquities 18.3.33), the passage reads as follows:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds, a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. And he drew over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah [Greek: Christos]. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. For he appeared to them again spending a third day restored to life, the divine prophets having foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
You can see right from the outset why this text is important. If this is what Josephus wrote, then we have not only a clear historical reference to Jesus of Nazareth, but also what amounts to a bizarre admission from an important Jewish figure that Jesus was actually the promised Messiah and that, in fact, Christianity was right all along.
The arguments against the authenticity of this passage in this form are considerable. Perhaps the most obvious one is that the passage contains several claims about Jesus than a Jewish writer would never have made. By suggesting that it is not right to call Jesus a man, the writer alludes to the deity of Christ, a doctrine anathema to Judaism. The writer claims that Jesus was the Messiah, something only a Christian would have said. What is more, Josephus himself held to the rather idiosyncratic belief that the Messiah was not even a Jewish person. As Boyd and Eddy note “he seems to have thought that his patron, the Roman general Vespasian, was the Messiah (e.g., see Jewish war 6.5.4)” (The Jesus Legend, 191). another important argument against the authenticity of this passage is the fact that Christians of the early centuries knew about this work by Josephus, but they never make reference to these remarkable admissions about the deity and resurrection of Jesus, even though they would clearly have had good reason to.
Whether Christian or not, all commentators on Josephus acknowledge that this part of his Antiquities has become corrupted. However, it is very doubtful that all references to Jesus in this passage are part of that corruption. Indeed, the evidence makes it far more likely that what we have here is a genuine reference to Jesus that has, unfortunately, been enlarged by a later Christian copyist.
Firstly, bear in mind that this passage appears before the James passage in the Antiquities. The reference in the James passage to “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ” makes better sense if Josephus has already told the reader about Jesus.
If we isolate and remove the obviously Christian elements of this passage, what we have left is a piece of writing that a first century Jew could quite easily have written. Once we delete the possible reference to Jesus’ deity, the claim that Jesus was the Messiah, as well as the claim that Jesus rose from the dead as foretold by the prophets, the passage reads like this:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
See J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times and Teaching (New York: MacMillan, 1943), 55-56
This reconstruction cannot be dismissed as mere speculation. In the 1970s a 10th century Arabic translation of the Testimonium was discovered and published. [S. Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971)]. While the 10th century is obviously a fairly late date, the dating is not the point here. The point is that the author of the work in which this Arabic translation appears, Agapius, had access to a copy of Josephus’ work that pre-dated his own (obviously). What is interesting is that the copy of Josephus’ work used here confirms that it is only the three elements discussed above that should be regarded as suspect. As Eddy and Boyd point out:
What is most interesting about this copy of the Testimonium is that the three passages that have been widely acknowledged as Christian insertions into the Greek text are either missing or seriously altered. The phrase, “if indeed one ought to call him a man,” is completely absent. The phrase, “he was the Messiah,” is relocated to the end and reads, “he was perhaps the Messiah.” And the claim about Jesus’s postmortem appearances after the third day is preceded by, “they reported that …”
All of this suggests that Agapius had access to a version of Antiquities that did not contain the three questionable portions as found in the Greek text. Plus, the Arabic text helps confirm the reconstructed version of the Testimonium offered above. Largely on the basis James Charlesworth concludes, “we can now be a surgeon and assist local research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus in Antiquities [18.3.3].”
Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend, 194, citing James Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 96.
The significance of this archaeological find is obvious, for it vindicates the claim that this is a genuine passage in Josephus that has been altered, rather than created out of nothing.
The above considerations quite adequately addresses the argument from silence regarding early Christian writers. If Josephus merely referred to the historical existence of Jesus but did not concede anything of great significance about him, then there would have been no apologetic value in citing his work. That being said, Jerome does mention this passage (although apparently without the three additions), because he refers to it directly (De Viris Illustribus, 13.14). However he never makes use of the passage in an apologetic way. The way that some sceptics use the argument from the silence of early Christian writers is badly exposed here, as Eddy and Boyd point out when discussing Jerome:
[H]e never mentions [the Testimonium] again – though he cites Josephus over 90 times in his writings. Had Jerome not mentioned the Testimonium this one time, critics would have counted him among the number of those whose silence supposedly proves the Testimonim did not exist. As it stands, this one reference proves that he did know it existed but simply saw no reason to refer to it – and certainly not as an apologetic. We have every reason to suppose that other early church fathers treated in a similar fashion.
The Jesus Legend, 197.
There is therefore no good reason to believe that this passage in Josephus is a fabrication. This has become the scholarly consensus as Helen Bond noted:
Most scholars have accepted … our present text as a Christianized version of a Josephus original … What we have in our present text, then, is very similar to what Josephus actually wrote about Jesus.”
H. K. Bond, “New Currents in Josephus Research,” Current Research in Biblical Studies 8 (2000), 179, cited in Eddy and Boyd, The Jesus Legend 197-198.
And so what we have in the work of Josephus is historical evidence that Jesus existed, that he was called Christ by his followers, and that he founded the Christian movement that existed from that time on.
In these three references then, one in Tacitus and two in Josephus, we have highly significant early references to the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, these figures do not endorse some important claims about Jesus, especially his resurrection from the dead, and if they did then they would have been relegated by sceptics to “early Christian literature” and dogmatically rejected as unreliable. What they do provide, however, is very good evidence that the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, was accepted as fact outside of the Christian community and can safely be regarded as fact quite apart from the rise of Christian movement.
My contention is that the majority of those who buy into the theory that Jesus never existed – and specifically that there are no early extrabiblical references to him – have never made the effort to carefully look into the matter themselves. Usually such people are enthusiastic sceptics who have found out that someone has published this radical claim about Jesus, and, excited by the possibility that it might be correct, have passed it on as fact. Ironically, the same people typically seem to regard themselves as highly sceptical and critical in their approach to evidence. If only they were more critical and cautious in accepting “sceptical” claims about early references to Jesus and took the time to do a bit of fact checking. In the end, they reject what they take to be a fanciful belief held only by the superstitious, and adopt a far more fanciful belief held by the gullible and zealous.