Is there no evidence that Jesus even existed? Part 3

Categories: Theology / Biblical Studies

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 eight 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.

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  • Glenn Peoples’ Review: Bradley v Flannagan Debate | MandM August 11, 2010, 10:14 PM

    [...] been used as I have discussed elsewhere (see my series on whether Jesus ever existed here, here and here.) In short, Ray places himself in a fairly radical minority when he goes as far as to deny the very [...]

{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Max June 3, 2010, 7:23 PM

    Good information, however I must point out that the more sophisticated Jesus-Mythers are not unaware of all of the historical sources… they are biblical scholars don’t forget, with an intimate familiarity with the ancient texts in their original language. What you have said should dispel most of what one finds on the internet, where many would not be aware of this information, but (amazingly) there are some very well educated “Mythers” out there.

  • Anon June 3, 2010, 7:43 PM

    There’re also some very well educated holocaust deniers out there. I guess education does not necessarily make a person more critical

  • Max June 3, 2010, 7:45 PM

    Cheap shot.

  • Max June 3, 2010, 7:49 PM

    And a rather pathetic one at that. As I said, it is people educated in this particular area, with a grasp of the culture, history, and language of the gospel writers who still conclude that there was never a man called Jesus. Whilst I disagree with them, the reason they hold their belief is not due to a lack of the information gathered together by Glenn in his three posts.

  • Anon June 3, 2010, 8:04 PM

    Exactly the same with some educated holocaust deniers … e.g.: it’s not due to lack of information

  • bethyada June 3, 2010, 8:49 PM

    That Tacitus is a hostile witness is very strong evidence for the text’s legitimacy and the existence of Jesus.

  • Glenn June 3, 2010, 9:42 PM

    Max, it’s true that the Christ-mythers out there are aware of these examples. However, I have found that without exception (that I have found, anyway), they recognise that if these texts are genuine, they pose a major problem for their position. They all, as far as I can see, opt for one or some of the reasons that I outlined for regarding these texts/quotes as spurious, and I think that the answers to those reasons given int his blog post is sufficient to rebut them.

  • Max June 3, 2010, 11:24 PM

    Its a start.

  • Scott F June 4, 2010, 4:15 AM

    On the Tacitus quote, the not-so-hidden assumptions are that the author had access to Imperial records AND that such records existed concerning the particulars of Jesus execution. This setup must be weighed against the possibility that Tacitus’ source for the second, clarifying paragraph was instead the claims of Christians (more widely spread in the 2nd century) which Tacitus mapped back onto the events surrounding Nero’s scapegoating of the Christians 60 odd years earlier. I am not a Myther but I find these “late” citations not very useful because of the difficulty in establishing that their sources were not indeed the Christians themselves.

    What we might be able to establish, is not whether Jesus was a historical person but rather whether late 1st and early 2nd century Christians BELIEVED that Jesus was a living person. Not a slam dunk but at least it pushes the date back and raises the likelihood that this was the original view.

  • slimdave420 June 4, 2010, 4:17 AM

    Your so called proofs are not convincing. These are repetitions of hearsay. I could write a book today extolling the virtues of “Homer Simpson” and 2000 years from now they’d be used as PROOF he existed. However, I do relish these tidbits about your fricken saviour: “called Christians, who were hated because of their absurdities” and “destructive superstition was suppressed” and “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.” Seems what was true then is true today. Christians are absurd, superstitious, hateful and shameful. Some things never change.

  • mjason June 4, 2010, 8:59 AM


    There is no such thing as a hateful Christian. Not as laid out in the bible, anyway.

    Anybody can call himself a Christian. Calling yourself a Christian doesn’t mean you don’t serve the devil. There are Christians, and there are nominal Christians. Just check the Bible and the difference will be clear.

  • Glenn June 4, 2010, 9:42 AM

    Scott, at very least the case would need to be made that Tacitus could only have been relying on Christian heresay passed onto him, accepting that heresay, and then “mapping” it onto history. It’s certainly not the default starting point, given Tacitus’ standing as a responsible historian when it comes to every other event that he reported.

    It’s not likely that this person who elsewhere shows that he is dependable and draws on appropriate sources would suddenly, in the case of Jesus, actually depend ont he reliability of heresay coming from the Christians, a group that Tacitus himself regarded as perpetuating “pernicious superstition” and as being, quite frankly evil.

    What’s more, there’s noa ctual reason to assume that Tacitus would have had no interest in substantiating his comments about Christians, or that he would have had no ability to do so with relevant records. As Boyd and Eddy note, “Tacitus consistently demonstrates a motivation to critically check his sources.”

    Actually, rather than thinking that on this one isolated instance Tacitus was uncharacteristically slack, there are reasons for thinking that he would have been careful in checking his sources here. For one, Tacitus is speaking – in this wider passage – of the official actions of a Roman Emperor, and in doing so he would have been especially careful to make sure he got the circumstances right. Secondly, Tacitus in his works in general displays a special fascination with – and a special distatse for – “pretenders” and superstitions, in particular claims about being able to conquer death. Thirdly, Tacitus – throught the work – is “very concerned with the happenings of the royal court, and there is some indication that several members of the royal family had aligned themselves witht his ‘cult’ ” (Eddy and Boyd, 183). So in order to argue that Tacitus just wouldn’t have been interested in source checking here would require some effort at the least and certainly cannot just be assumed.

    What’s more, there is every reason to think that Tacitus was in a position to check the relevant records. He wasn’t a nobody. he was not only a widely respected orator but he had held a number os fairly esteemed government posts. He was also well connected to Pliny the Younger and was married to a daughter of the governor of Britain (Julius Agricola). He’s just the sort of person one would expect to have access to court documents and records of the sort required here.

    Some reading on Tacitus reveals a scrupulously careful person who does check the facts and records in support of the claims he makes – and specifically that the accusation of relying on heresay is not a likely one. Mellor, in his work on Tacitus tells us that Tacitus consistently and carefully “distinguishes fact from rumour with a scrupulosity rare in any ancient historian” (p. 45).

    So our initial stance towards Tacitus is that he certainly would have had access to any relevant Roman records, that he would have been able to check his facts, and that he was not someone to latch onto rumour or heresay as fact. If someone wants to argue that for some special reason he lapsed into poor historical scholarship when he referred to Christianity and to Christ, then the case is theirs to make. On the face of it, however, he serves as a very plausible witness to the historicity of Jesus.

  • Glenn June 4, 2010, 10:31 AM

    slimdave: So in other words, you have nothing relevant to say about the evidence? That’s fine.

  • CPE Gaebler June 4, 2010, 3:37 PM

    Wasn’t the entire point of respectable historians that they DIDN’T write “repetitions of hearsay?” I thought that was, y’know. Kinda the point Glenn was presenting?

  • Keith June 6, 2010, 5:29 AM

    All you have proven, if your texts are genuine, and I think for the most part that they are, is that in the late first or early second century CE, believers and non-believers alike “believed” that there was a historical figure of Jesus and that he did such and such (believers and non-believers wrote about different details). Now, a modern historical textbook can be trusted 70 years after the event because we know the methodology of such a text book and can check it against other sources. Ancient history, even at the level of Tacitus, is less reliable. We do not know if he was checking his facts against official Roman records dating back to the time of Pilate and Jesus and we cannot check his sources. The problems the skeptics raise are still valid. There is a lack of contemporaneous evidence from the time of Jesus. The closest we from non-biblical sources is about 70 years.

    I actually think that the best evidence for a historical Jesus are the letters of Paul, some written in the 40s. While, they give little information about the life of Jesus, they the the closest in time to representing a historical figure.

  • Glenn June 6, 2010, 11:53 AM

    Keith, yes it’s true that the letters of Paul constitute good evidence for a historical Jesus, but the sceptical demand that I’m concerned about in this blog entry is the demand for extra-biblical evidence, due to (what I think is) a flawed methodology that I briefly addressed in part one of this series of three.

    Moreover, I don’t think it’s really true that the sources that I discuss above show nothing more than what was going on in the beliefs of late first/early second century people. Given the nature of what these people were writing – that is, not creedal statements about what a community at the time took to be true, but a record of historical events, the most natural assumption to make is that the accounts they were relaying had an historical basis. The only way to cast doubt on this is to ask sceptical “what if” questions with no clear basis. I think I detect this in your comment when you say – in effect – that we can’t go back in time to check Tactitus’ methodology. Who knows, maybe he had a total lapse when reporting these events, abandoned the reliability that scholars attribute to him on other matters, and just accepted the heresay of a group that he deeply mistrusted. The reality is, of course anything is possible. Nonetheless, the use of ancient historical sources affords us a degree of confidence – not absolute proof of course, but that is not a realistic goal. The point is that as far as ancient historical research will allow, these sources show that Jesus was an historical figure. it may be that we don’t think anscient historical research can tell us much – but if anything, this trivialises the allegation of sceptics that there’s little ancient historical evidence for the existence of Jesus.

  • Matt June 6, 2010, 3:13 PM

    Glenn, I wonder if Christ mythers deny that Socrates existed.

    Most of what we know of Socrates comes from his students written decades latter and in some cases for clearly polemical purposes. Apart from these we have a passing reference in a play of Arsitophenes.

  • Ciaron June 6, 2010, 4:29 PM

    And yet no-one would deny the existence of Alexander, when all we have is second hand rewrites written some 300 years after his death

  • Matt June 7, 2010, 11:31 AM

    Yes Ciaron and some people claimed that Alexander’s mother Olympias was pregnant to Zeus and then there was that report mysterious fire in Aisa the day he was born the same day that Philips horse won in the olympics, which was purported to be an Omen of the gods. Obviously given this kind of fantastic stuff the stories of Alexander are myths.

    And when we go back to Socrates not only do we only know about him from sources decades latter written by his students ( apart from a passing reference in a comedy play). Some of these accounts tell us that Socrates heard a divine voice.

  • Tim June 8, 2010, 4:02 PM

    The myther position just fascinates me — one of the most flagrant conspiracy theories out there. In addition to the lines of evidence you have listed, there are others equally convincing. Some of the material in Blunt’s Undesigned Coincidences comes to mind. See also Lecture VII in Rawlinson’s Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records. While you’re at it, pick up a copy of E. M. Blaiklock, The Compact Handbook of New Testament Life (1989). Too much good material out there …

  • Glenn June 8, 2010, 6:37 PM

    I’m pleased you mentioned Blaiklock actually, Tim. He was a fantastic Kiwi New Testament scholar.

  • Tim June 8, 2010, 11:59 PM

    I agree — I’ve been collecting his works on this subject, a few apiece at birthdays and Christmas, for some time now. Truly one of the ornaments of NZ scholarship.

    There are also a few audio clips of him around the web; in one of my favorites, he describes the kiwi as “our lamentable national bird …” Just lovely!

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