Home » Library » Modern Library » Jeff Lowder Jury Chap5

Jeff Lowder Jury Chap5

Josh McDowell’s “Evidence” for Jesus

Is It Reliable?

Jeffery Jay Lowder

Last Updated: May 15, 2000


Christian Sources: New Testament | Church Fathers

Non-Christian Sources: Josephus | The Talmud | Pliny the Younger | Tacitus | Suetonius | Thallus | Phlegon | Mara Bar-Serapion | Lucian | Hadrian

Miscellaneous: Notes | Related Documents

In the fifth chapter of Evidence That Demands a Verdict (hereafter “ETDAV“) entitled, “Jesus–A Man of History,” Josh McDowell lists a series of “sources for the historicity of Jesus.”[1] According to the table of contents of ETDAV, this chapter lists “documented sources of the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth apart from the Bible.”[2] In this chapter I shall consider each of McDowell’s sources. Although I agree with McDowell that there was a historical Jesus, I shall argue that most of McDowell’s sources do not provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

McDowell’s “Sources for the Historicity of Jesus”

What about the relevant body of alleged evidence for the historicity (or existence) of Jesus? It can be conveniently grouped under two main headings: (1) Christian sources, and (2) non-Christian sources.

Christian Sources

Again, we can conveniently divide McDowell’s Christian sources for the historicity of Jesus into two categories: (1) the New Testament, and (2) other Christian texts.

The New Testament

McDowell quotes John Montgomery, who states the New Testament documents are reliable and therefore provide good evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Although I disagree with McDowell (and Montgomery) over the degree of reliability of the New Testament, that disagreement is irrelevant here. There is simply nothing intrinsically improbable about a historical Jesus; the New Testament alone (or at least portions of it) are reliable enough to provide evidence of a historical Jesus.[3] On this point, it is important to note that even G.A. Wells, who until recently was the champion of the Christ-myth hypothesis, now accepts the historicity of Jesus on the basis of ‘Q.'[4]

Other Christian Texts

The other Christian texts cited by McDowell do not provide any support for the historicity of Jesus:

1. The Church Fathers do not provide any independent confirmation of Jesus. Under the heading “Christian Sources for the Historicity of Jesus,” McDowell refers his readers back to his discussion of the church fathers in his chapter on the historical reliability of the Bible. In particular, he draws attention to Polycarp, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin, and Origen.[5] Turning to He Walked Among Us,[6] McDowell and Wilson suggest two reasons why the church fathers confirm the existence of Jesus: (a) the Church fathers did not base their belief solely on Christian tradition (he cites the ‘Acts of Pilate’ as an example); and (b) most of the church fathers died as martyrs for their beliefs.

Concerning (a), McDowell only cited one example of church fathers relying on non-Christian tradition–Justin Martyr’s reference to an alleged ‘Acts of Pilate’–so I will have to restrict my comments to that.[7] There are three problems with Justin’s reference. First, Justin Martyr was not known for his historical accuracy. For example, in his Apology (1.31), Justin incorrectly claimed that the Ptolemy who had the Septuagint translated was a contemporary of Herod; he has also been caught referring to documents which ostensibly support his exaggerated claims but in fact do not.[8] This leads to my second objection. Given Justin’s inattention to historical detail, he probably just assumed that such documents must exist. According to Felix Scheidweiler,

Justin in his First Apology refers twice (c. 35 and 48) to documents of the trial of Jesus before Pilate. The same author in c. 34, however, and in the same terms, invites us to examine the schedules of the census under Quirinius, which certainly did not exist. This prompts the suspicion that Justin’s reference to the acta of Pilate rests solely on the fact that he assumed that such documents must have existed.[9]

Perhaps Scheidweiler’s use of the word “certainly” is too strong, especially if one is inclined to regard the report in Luke as fundamentally historically reliable. Yet the fact remains that even if we assume the existence of an ‘Acts of Pilate’, it is not at all clear that such a document would have referred to a Judaean decree, since that would not have been binding on the independent province of Galilee. There is simply no evidence that the results of criminal trials of non-citizens would be sent to Rome. But in fact it begs the question to assume that such documentation ever existed. Such documentation surely did not exist in the fourth century, when Christians apparently felt the need to forge the apocryphal ‘Acts of Pilate’.[10] Moreover, when Pliny (see below) writes to Trajan asking for advice on his trials of Christians, he describes these trials. If records of these trials were in Rome, such a description would not be necessary. And when Trajan replies to Pliny, he mentions no precedents and no decrees.[11] Thus, it is unlikely that any such records existed.

Turning to (b), McDowell and Wilson state that Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Origen died for their faith, and that Irenaeus suffered for his faith.[12] For their sacrifices to have any value at all as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus, at least two conditions would have to be met. First, they would have needed sources other than what is now included in the New Testament. Second, they would have to have been in a position to know if Jesus existed.

Does the testimony of any of the church fathers meet both conditions? At the outset, we may note that Origen (CE 185-ca. 254) was simply too late to have been in a position to know if Jesus existed. Irenaeus may also be dismissed as a possible independent source to the historicity of Jesus since, according to McDowell and Wilson, Irenaeus obtained his information from Polycarp. Polycarp, in turn, is said to have converted around 109. While he may have had access to one or more sources independent of the New Testament, our knowledge of his sources is uncertain. As for Ignatius, there is no evidence that he had any sources other than the New Testament and so he cannot be used as an independent source. Finally, we have already noted that Justin Martyr was not known for his historical accuracy and that his reference to an ‘Acts of Pilate’ is dubious. While he certainly may have had sources other than the New Testament, this is unknown. In sum, the evidence presented by McDowell and Wilson is simply too inconclusive to justify the conclusion that the church fathers had independent sources of information. Therefore, the church fathers cannot be used as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

2. Tertullian’s reference to Tiberius provides inconclusive confirmation of Jesus. Tertullian (c.160-c.230), a Christian theologian, converted to Christianity (c.197) and became a vocal Christian apologist. He later (213) left the church to join the Montanists. Around CE 197 he wrote the following passage in his Apology:

Tiberius accordingly, in those days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favor of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all the accusers of the Christians.[13]

Unfortunately for Christian apologists who like to use this passage as independent confirmation of Jesus, this passage is highly doubtful. There is an extremely high probability that Tiberius never converted to Christianity, in which case this passage is unreliable and can’t be used as independent confirmation of Jesus. The reasons for believing that Tiberius never converted to Christianity are as follows:

(a) Tiberius was extremely intolerant of cults. It is difficult to believe that Tiberius would have threatened “all the accusers of the Christians,” for he “had little tolerance for foreign cults and expelled all the Jews from Rome in 19 C.E. (Jos Ant 18.3-5).”[14]

(b) Paul never mentions the emperor converting to Christianity. The passage has Tiberius (in Rome) converting to Christianity before 37 CE, long before Paul arrived there to preach it. Yet Paul never mentions this conversion. Paul’s silence on the matter is inexplicable apart from the fact that Tiberius never converted to Christianity.[15]

(c) No other ancient writers mention the conversion. Obviously Tiberius’ deeds were of interest to contemporary writers of the time. (After all, he was Caesar.) Moreover, had Tiberius become a Christian, this would not have been just another one of his deeds; this would have been the most significant event in Roman history: the Pontifex Maximus, priest of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, renouncing the protection of the gods of Rome in favor of a hated foreign Jewish cult? Yet not one contemporary writer corroborates Tertullian’s second- or third-century report.[16]

(d) The passage is very late and is therefore unreliable. Even McDowell will admit that one hundred years is enough time for legendary development. Since we have no hint of this tradition before Tertullian’s writing in the late second- or early third-century, this passage is therefore highly suspect.

Non-Christian Sources

Turning to the second category of evidence for the historicity of Jesus, we now evaluate McDowell’s evidence from non-Christian sources: Jewish sources and Pagan sources. Again we shall consider first the evidence as stated by McDowell in ETDAV and then briefly interact with objections to his evidence.

Jewish Sources

McDowell quotes two lines of evidence for the historicity of Jesus from Jewish sources.

1. Josephus provides independent confirmation to the life of Jesus. The most important non-Christian witness to the historical Jesus is Josephus, who wrote five works in Greek: Life, his autobiography; Contra Apion, a defense of Judaism; The Jewish War, an eyewitness account of the revolt against Rome (66-74 CE); Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades; and The Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jews from Adam to his generation. McDowell cites two references to Jesus in The Jewish Antiquities; I will discuss them in reverse order.

(a) The reference to James as the brother of Jesus. Josephus described how the high priest Ananus took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus in 62 CE to organize a mob to stone James. McDowell mentions this passage because Josephus identifies James as “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ:”

But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought it before the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.[17]

According to Josephus scholar Louis Feldman, the authenticity of this passage “has been almost universally acknowledged.”[18] However, since there a few scholars who deny the authenticity of this passage, let’s consider the arguments for and against authenticity.

Of course, McDowell does not consider any of those arguments in ETDAV, but in his book He Walked Among Us (co-authored with Bill Wilson) he presents three arguments in favor of the authenticity of this passage.[19] Let’s consider each argument in turn:

(1) “The phrase ‘James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ’ is too noncommittal to have been inserted by a later Christian interpolator who would have desired to assert the messiahship of Jesus more definitely as well as to deny the charges against James.” This is probably the single most important argument in favor of authenticity; in my opinion, McDowell and Wilson are right about this. The phrase is incidental to the story. If this passage were an interpolation, it is surprising that so little is said about Jesus and James.[20]

(2) “Origen refers to this passage in his Commentary on Matthew 10.17, giving evidence that it was in Josephus prior to his time (approximately A.D. 200).” This is true but inconclusive. The fact that the passage was referenced by Origen around 200 is simply inconclusive as evidence for the authenticity; that still leaves well over a century when the passage could have been interpolated.

(3) The passage identifies ‘Jesus’ as the one ‘called the Christ,’ which “betrays an awareness that ‘Messiah’ was not a proper name, and therefore reflects Jewish rather than Christian usage.” Unfortunately, this is also inconclusive. From the fact that Josephus needed to distinguish this Jesus from other people in his book named Jesus, it does not follow that the phrase “called the Christ” was the most likely way Josephus could have identified Jesus. Josephus could have also said, “the one who was crucified by Pilate,” since Josephus’ earlier reference to Jesus (see below) did mention that point.[21]

McDowell and Wilson also have occasion to consider an objection by G.A. Wells to this passage, that “it is unlikely that Josephus would have mentioned Jesus here simply–as it were–in passing, when he mentions him nowhere else.”[22] In response, McDowell and Wilson argue that Wells’ “statement demonstrates that even he recognizes that the James passage is incomplete without the Testimonium.”[23] However, it is false that the James passage is incomplete without the Testimonium. Just read the passage: the meaning of the passage is quite clear without reference to the Testimonium. Moreover, McDowell’s and Wilson’s rejoinder completely neglects the primary flaw in Wells’ objection. Even if we assume that the Testimonium is completely inauthentic, there is simply no reason to expect Josephus to have said anything more about Jesus.

But the above objection is hardly the only objection to the authenticity of this passage, and it is certainly not Wells’ only objection. In Wells’ 1982 book, The Historical Evidence for Jesus, Wells objects that “the Greek does not have ‘so-called’ but ‘him called Christ,’ and this, so far from being non-Christian, is the exact wording of Mt. 1:16.”[24] Furthermore, in Wells’ later books, he presents additional objections to the authenticity of the passage.[25] So while I think McDowell’s and Wilson’s conclusion concerning this passage is correct, their discussion is incomplete. Readers interested in a complete summary of the debate concerning this shorter passage will need to go elsewhere.

(b) The Testimonium Flavianum probably contained an authentic, independent witness to Jesus. Josephus was known as “Flavius Josephus” from his patrons the Flavian emperors, Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian. Testimonium Flavianum means literally “Testimony of Flavius” and refers to Antiquities 18.3.3 §63-64:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.

Unlike Josephus’ shorter reference to Jesus, this passage is extremely controversial. Indeed, even McDowell admits this when he writes that the Testimonium Flavianum is “a hotly-contested quotation.”[26] Most scholars suspect there has been at least some tampering with the text on the basis of some or all of the italicized sections. Thus scholarly opinion can be divided into three camps: those who accept the entire passage as authentic; those who reject the entire passage as a Christian interpolation into the text (perhaps authored by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius); and those who believe that the original text contained an authentic reference to Jesus but was later embellished by Christian copyists.

In He Walked Among Us, McDowell and Wilson seem to favor the third option. They begin their discussion of the evidence by considering several arguments favoring the authenticity of the Testimonium: (i) the passage exists in all extant manuscripts of Josephus; (ii) Eusebius quotes it around the beginning of the fourth century; (iii) the vocabulary and style are basically consistent with other parts of Josephus; and (iv) the passage blames for the crucifixion of Jesus on Pilate rather than on Jewish authorities.[27] However, contrary to what McDowell and Wilson assert, not all of these arguments are “strong.” (i) is irrelevant; the extant Greek manuscripts of Josephus’ Antiquities all date to the tenth century or later![28] (ii) is also irrelevant; three centuries is still plenty of time for an interpolation. (iii) is inconclusive. While the vocabulary and style are basically consistent with the writings of Josephus, McDowell and Wilson present no evidence that the vocabulary and style of Josephus would have been hard to imitate.[29] Finally, (iv) is the one good argument in the bunch. Whereas the gospels tend to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death, the Testimonium blames the Romans. Furthermore, it does not mention anything about Jewish authorities sentencing Jesus. It is difficult to explain how the hands of a Christian interpolator near the time of Eusebius would have left this intact.

McDowell and Wilson next consider several objections to the authenticity of the Testimonium: (i) it is unlikely that Josephus would have called Jesus the Messiah; (ii) it is unlikely that Josephus would have written the other italicized phrases; (iii) the passage is never quoted by Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, or Origen, despite its enormous apologetic value; and (iv) the passage interrupts the narrative flow of the surrounding text. I find McDowell’s and Wilson’s answers to all four of these objections convincing. As they correctly point out, removing the italicized sections from the passage answers objections (i)-(iii).[30] Turning to (iv), I think McDowell’s and Wilson’s answer is incomplete. In response to Gordon Stein’s objection that “the passage comes in the middle of a collection of stories about calamities which have befallen the Jews,”[31] McDowell and Wilson rightly note that in Josephus’ chapter containing the Testimonium, “[o]nly two of the five paragraphs … are true calamities.”[32] While this is certainly correct, this does not answer the objection by Wells (quoted by McDowell and Wilson), that “if the passage is excised, the argument runs on in proper sequence.”[33] Given that this objection is a common one, it deserves an answer.

My answer would be as follows. Even if the passage were out of context, that would still not make it likely that the passage is an interpolation. It was common for ancient writers to insert extraneous texts or passages which seemingly interrupt the flow of the narrative (whereas today the material would be placed in a footnote):

A further main reason why ancient historiography differed from its modern counterparts was provided by digressions. They were far more frequent in Greek and Roman writings than in our own. For one thing, there was a simple technical explanation for such digressions. Nowadays we have footnotes; the ancients did not, so that what would now be relegated to a footnote had to appear in the text. But there was also a deeper philosophical explanation. The Greek and Roman historians wanted to supply background….[34]

Moreover, as E. Mary Smallwood argues, this was particularly characteristic of Josephus:

One feature of Josephus’ writing which may be disconcerting to the modern reader and appear inartistic is the way in which at times the narrative is proceeding at a spanking pace when it is unceremoniously cut short by a paragraph or a longer passage of material unrelated or only marginally related to the subject in hand, and then resumed equally abruptly. Basically, these interruptions are of two types, with different reasons behind them, and it may therefore be helpful if a word is said here about the conventions of ancient historiography, which differed considerably from ours.

One type of interruption, such as a sudden move to another theatre of war, occurs because ancient historians usually wrote annalistically—literally, by years …

A quite different explanation lies behind other interruptions to the flow of the narrative. The ancient world never invented those useful lay-bys in which the modern author can park essential but intractable material, and thus avoid breaking the main thread of his argument, the footnote and the appendix … what we relegate to notes and appendixes appeared as digressions.[35]

But in fact I see no reason to believe the Testimonium occurs out of context. For example, New Testament scholar R.T. France has argued that Josephus is simply listing events that happened during or near Pilate’s reign.[36] And Steve Mason thinks that Josephus is merely “trying to paint a picture of escalating tension for Jews around the world.”[37] It is therefore unclear why the Testimonium is “out of context.”

There was one objection which McDowell and Wilson did not discuss, but which I think deserves to be taken seriously by anyone who defends a reconstructed Testimonium. According to that objection, the fact that there has been any tampering with the text at all makes the entire passage suspect; a heavy burden of proof falls upon anyone who defends partial authenticity. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide what to think about this objection.

As further evidence for the authenticity of the Testimonium, McDowell and Wilson cite the Arabic version of the Testimonium preserved by tenth-century Bishop Agapius of Hierapolis in his World History. Schlomo Pines, the Israeli scholar who rediscovered the Arabic text, translates the passage as follows:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.[38]

McDowell and Wilson believe that this text “provides textual justification for excising the Christian passages and demonstrating that Josephus probably discussed Jesus in Antiquities 18.”[39]

However, this text is far from conclusive. Although McDowell and Wilson claim the Arabic version actually dates to the fourth century, they provide no defense or justification for that claim.[40] Yet even if the Arabic version can be dated to the fourth century, the text would still not provide any additional evidence for the authenticity of the Testimonium. Again, three centuries would still have been plenty of time for the Testimonium to have been interpolated. Indeed, for all we know, the extant Greek versions and the Arabic version have a common source, perhaps the original interpolation itself! Though McDowell and Wilson quote Pines’ translation of the text, they neglect to mention that Pines himself is quite cautious about claiming that the Arabic text represents Josephus’ original. Indeed, Pines admits there are other explanations for the text besides the one favored by McDowell and Wilson.[41]

In conclusion, I think McDowell is right to appeal to the Testimonium as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. However, given the centuries-old debate over how much, if any, of the Testimonium is authentic, McDowell’s mere quotation of the full Testimonium (combined with an acknowledgement that the quotation is “hotly-disputed”) is simply inexcusable. By itself, the unqualified quotation of the Testimonium in ETDAV gives readers the misleading impression that, although there is some unspecified controversy concerning the passage, McDowell accepts the full authenticity of the Testimonium. Furthermore, since skepticism concerning the authenticity of the Testimonium is fairly widespread, I think McDowell did a disservice to his mostly Christian audience by not answering these objections. Indeed, if McDowell had made it clear in ETDAV that his own view is that the Testimonium is partially authentic, that would have answered most of the objections. Of course, McDowell and Wilson have discussed the objections at some length in their 1988 book, He Walked Among Us. But many of their arguments for authenticity are weak; their response to one of the objections against authenticity is incomplete; and they neglected what I consider to be a very serious objection against their view.

2. The Talmud contains inconclusive evidence of Jesus. The Talmud [42] is a massive compilation divided into two parts, the Mishna [43] and the Gemara [44]. The Mishna was codified by Rabbi Jehudah ha-Nasi circa 200 CE but was not actually committed to writing until the fifth century; it discusses numerous subjects, including festivals, sacred things, etc. The Gemara was completed in the fifth century and is really a commentary on the Mishna.

McDowell cites six lines of evidence for the historical Jesus from the Talmudic writings:

(a) The Tol’doth Yeshu. At the outset, note that the Tol’doth Yeshu is not in any sense a part of the Talmud; in ETDAV McDowell erroneously lists the Tol’doth Yeshu as if it were a part of the Talmud. (In fairness to McDowell, I should note that he does not repeat this error in his later book, He Walked Among Us; in that volume, the Tol’doth Yeshu is listed under the heading of “References from the Rabbis.”[45]) Anyway, McDowell states that the Tol’doth Yeshu is a reference to Jesus; in that document “Jesus is referred to as `Ben Pandera'”.[46] Yet Joseph Klausner–who McDowell relies on heavily in his section on the Talmud–believed the Tol’doth Yeshu “contains no history worth the name.”[47] Furthermore, Klausner stated, “The present Hebrew Tol’Doth Yeshu, even in its simplest form, is not earlier than the present Yosippon, i.e. it was not composed before the tenth century. Therefore it cannot possibly possess any historical value nor in any way be used as material for the life of Jesus.”[48] Even on McDowell’s view, this is more than enough time for legendary development. And in He Walked Among Us, McDowell and Wilson list the Tol’doth Yeshu among the “unreliable [rabbinic] references to Jesus.”

(b) The Babylonian Talmud. McDowell next lists the opinion of the Amoraim that Jesus was hanged on the eve of Passover.[49] However, Klausner thinks that the Amoraim traditions “can have no objective historical value (since by the time of the Amoraim there was certainly no clear recollection of Jesus’ life and works).”[50] Morris Goldstein states that the passage “cannot be fixed at a definite date within the Tannaitic time-area.”[51] The value of this passage as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus is therefore uncertain.

(c) The tradition about Jesus as the son of Pantera. Commenting on the Talmud’s references to Jesus as “Ben Pandera (or ‘Ben Pantere’)” and “Jeshu ben Pandera,” McDowell writes, “Many scholars say `pandera’ is a play on words, a travesty on the Greek word for virgin `parthenos,’ calling him `son of a virgin.'”[52] However, “Jesus is never referred to as `the son of the virgin’ in the Christian material preserved from the first century of the Church (30-130), nor in the second century apologists.”[53] As Herford argues, this passage “cannot be earlier than the beginning of the fourth century, and is moreover a report of what was said in Babylonia, not Palestine.”[54]

(d) The Baraitha describing hanging Yeshu on the eve of Passover. McDowell considers “of great historical value” the following Jewish tradition about the hanging of Jesus:

On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defence come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defence and hanged him on the eve of Passover.[55]

It is unclear whether this passage refers to Jesus. As Goldstein admits, “the possibility of the Jesus named in the Talmud being someone other than Jesus of Nazareth, and identified as such only because of confusion, cannot be entirely dismissed.”[56] But even if the passage does refer to the Jesus of the New Testament, according to Goldstein, “it is of no help one way or the other in the question of the historicity of Jesus.”[57]

Following this Baraitha are some remarks of the Amora ‘Ulla, a disciple of R. Yochanan and who lived in Palestine at the end of the third century. McDowell quotes these remarks as follows:

‘Ulla said: And do you suppose that for [Yeshu of Nazareth] there was any right of appeal? He was a beguiler, and the Merciful One hath said: Thou shalt not spare neither shalt thou conceal him. It is otherwise with Yeshu, for he was near to the civil authority.[58]

Both McDowell and Klausner conclude, “The Talmud authorities do not deny that Jesus worked signs and wonders, but they look upon them as acts of sorcery.”[59] However, given our ignorance of both the date of these passages as well as the author’s sources, we simply can’t assume these passages represent independent traditions about Jesus.

(e) Talmudic references to the disciples of Jesus. McDowell writes, “Sanhedrin 43a also makes references to the disciples of Jesus.”[60] Turning to Joseph Klausner, we read:

Immediately after this Baraita comes a second (Sanh. 43a): Jesus had five disciples, Mattai, Naqai, Netser, Buni and Todah.[61]

Yet as Klausner notes, “In any case the Baraita itself is lacking in accuracy, for although the names are those of real disciples, they include some who were not disciples of Jesus himself, but disciples of the second generation.”[62] In other words, the list of names is simply a list of Christians, not a list of contemporaries of Jesus.[63]

Laible has suggested that “the story refers to the prosecution of Christians under Bar Cocheba”[64] because (1) the story occurs in the same passage which describes the death of Jesus and (2) “the key to the understanding of the statements there made about Jesus in the anti-Christian hatred of Bar Cocheba, and more especially of Aqiba, his chief supporter.”[65] If that is the case, then the passage can be dated to the second century, which would prevent it from providing independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

(f) The reference to such-an-one as a bastard of an adulteress. McDowell, following the lead of Klausner, cites the following passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 4.49a:

R. Shimeon ben Azzai said: ‘I found a geneaological roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress.'”[66]

McDowell takes this to be a reliable reference to Jesus.[67]

However, there are good reasons to doubt that this passage represents an independent tradition about Jesus. First, the passage comes from the Babylonian Talmud, which dates to around the sixth century. Second, the gospel of Matthew begins with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.”[68] This “genealogical roll” or “Book of Pedigrees” may have been influenced by the gospels. Third, this passage fits the pattern of Rabbinical polemic. Thus this reference may not be based upon an independent source. Of course, it’s also possible that this passage was based on independent sources. The available evidence does not favor one view over the other; thus, we can’t use this passage as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

(g) The reference to the ‘hire of a harlot.’ Finally, McDowell quotes the following passage from the Talmud:

He answered, Akiba, you have reminded me! Once I was walking along the upper market (Tosefta reads ‘street’) of Sepphoris and found one [of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth] and Jacob of Kefar Sekanya (Tosefta reads ‘Sakkanin’) was his name. He said to me, It is written in your Law, ‘Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot, etc.’ What was to be done with it–a latrine for the High Priest? But I answered nothing. He said to me, so [Jesus of Nazareth] taught me (Tosefta reads, ‘Yeshu ben Pantere’): ‘For of the hire of a harlot hath she gathered them, and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return’; from the place of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go. And the saying pleased me, and because of this I was arrested for Minuth. And I transgressed against what is written in the Law; ‘Keep thy way far from here’–that is Minuth; ‘and come not nigh the door of her house’–that is the civil government.[69]

What is crucial to the evidential force of this passage is the words in parentheses; yet McDowell never defends them. He simply quotes Klausner, who in turn quoted an obscure, 19th century manuscript.[70] Nonetheless, most scholars would reject the passage as McDowell has it:

To establish the reliability of this passage, Klausner must engage in a contorted argument that includes an appeal to Hegesippus’ account of the martyrdom of James–something that would not inspire confidence in many scholars today. Joachim Jeremias weighs the pros and cons of the argument about authenticity and decides in the negative–rightly in my view. The saying is a polemical invention meant to make Jesus look ridiculous.[71]

In conclusion, the value of the Talmud as a witness to the historicity of Jesus is at best uncertain. John Meier argues that the Talmud contains “no clear or probable reference to Jesus.”[72] And Twelftree states that the Talmud is “of almost no value to the historian in his search for the historical Jesus.”[73] Of course, as McDowell and Wilson point out, the Talmud never questions the historicity of Jesus.[74] But that fact cannot itself be used as evidence for the historicity of Jesus, for two reasons. First, as Goldstein points out,

we must be careful not to make too much of [the] argument [that had Jews doubted the historicity of Jesus, they would have said so]. It is not conclusive. Can we attribute to ancient peoples our modern concept of myth, or historicity? Furthermore, this manner of logic lends itself to fallacious extension whereby one could attempt to prove that whatever the early Jewish tradition does not specifically mention in contradiction to the Christian tradition must have taken place.[75]

Second, the Talmud can only provide independent confirmation of Jesus’s existence if it relied on independent sources. Given our ignorance of the sources for the Talmud as well as its late date, it simply can’t be used as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

Pagan Sources

McDowell cites several pagan writers in support of the historicity of Jesus: Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Phlegon, Mara Bar-Serapion, Lucian, Tertullian, and Thallus. I shall argue that none of these writers provide independent confirmation of Jesus.

1. Pliny does not offer any independent evidence for Jesus. Pliny the Younger (62?-c.113) was Governor of Bithynia (northwestern Turkey). Around 111 or 112 CE,[76] he wrote the following letter to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians.

It is a rule, Sir, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them. Whether any difference is to be allowed between the youngest and the adult; whether repentance admits to a pardon, or if a man has been once a Christian it avails him nothing to recant; whether the mere profession of Christianity, albeit without crimes, or only the crimes associated therewith are punishable–in all these points I am greatly doubtful.

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel not doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others also possessed with the same infatuation, but being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be carried thither.

These accusations spread (as is usually the case) from the mere fact of the matter being investigated and several forms of the mischief came to light. A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the Gods, and offered adoration, with wine and frankincense, to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of the Gods, and who finally cursed Christ–none of which acts, it is into performing–these I thought it proper to discharge. Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, and then denied it; true, they had been of that persuasion but they had quitted it, some three years, others many years, and a few as much as twenty-five years ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the Gods, and cursed Christ.

They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.

I therefore adjourned the proceedings, and betook myself at once to your counsel. For the matter seemed to me well worth referring to you, especially considering the numbers endangered. Persons of all ranks and ages, and of both sexes are, and will be, involved in the prosecution. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread through the villages and rural districts; it seems possible, however, to check and cure it. ‘Tis certain at least that the temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred festivals, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for sacrificial animals, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers. From hence it is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open to repentance.[77]

Although this passage mentions only Christ, it is virtually certain that this passage refers to Jesus. Given that everything Pliny claims to know about Christians is attributed to Christian sources (the recanters who reported what Christians really did, and the two deaconesses that he tortured to find out what the religion was about), it is extremely likely that Pliny was referring to the same “Christ” they would have spoken about: Jesus.

But even if the passage refers to Jesus, how does it provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus? McDowell and Wilson argue the fact that Christians were willing to die for their beliefs is extremely unlikely unless there had been an historical Jesus.[78] However, it is unlikely that all of these martyrs had firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus since Pliny did not even become Governor of Bithynia until around 110. Furthermore, Pliny also stated that many people had renounced Christianity years before Pliny’s interrogation. Indeed, one could argue that some of the Christians who recanted under Pliny were the very ones with firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus: they knew that their beliefs were false and not worth dying for! Although I think that explanation for their recanting is rather doubtful–we don’t know if any of the martyrs had firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus–it is consistent with all of the evidence we have.[79]

Christian historian Robert Wilken concludes, Pliny’s “knowledge of the new movement must have been slight and largely second-hand.”[80] And France writes, “for our purposes, looking for evidence about Jesus, [Pliny’s letter] has nothing specific to offer. … Pliny seems to have discovered nothing about him as a historical figure.”[81] Thus, Pliny’s letter cannot be used as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

2. There is inconclusive evidence that Tacitus had independent sources. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, writing in 115 CE, explicitly states that Nero prosecuted the Christians in order to draw attention away from himself for Rome’s devastating fire of 64 CE:

But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.[82]

Scholarly debate surrounding this passage has been mainly concerned with Tacitus’ sources and not with the authorship of the passage (e.g., whether it is an interpolation) or its reliability.[83] Various scenarios have been proposed to explain how Tacitus got his information. One possibility is that Tacitus learned the information from another historian he trusted (e.g., Josephus). Another possibility (suggested by Harris) is that he obtained the information from Pliny the Younger. According to Harris, “Tacitus was an intimate friend and correspondent of the younger Pliny and was therefore probably acquainted with the problems Pliny encountered with the Christians during his governorship in Bithynia – Pontus (c. A.D. 110-112).”[84] (Defenders of this position may note that Tacitus was also governing in Asia in the very same years as Pliny’s encounters with Christians [112-113], making communication between them on the event very likely.)[85] Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling mention a related possibility; they state that Tacitus’ information “is probably based on the police interrogation of Christians.”[86] Yet another possibility (suggested by Habermas and defended by McDowell and Wilson) is that Tacitus obtained the information from official documents.[87] (I shall say more about this possibility below.) It is also possible that the information was common knowledge. Finally, there is the view (defended by Wells, France, and Sanders) that Tacitus simply repeated what Christians at the time were saying.[88] The bottom line is this: given that Tacitus did not identify his source(s), we simply don’t know how Tacitus obtained his information. Holding himself admits, “Truthfully, there is no way to tell” where Tacitus obtained his information about Jesus.[89] Therefore, we can’t use Annals XV.47 as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

McDowell and Wilson disagree. They give nine reasons for believing that “Tacitus had information other than what he heard from Christians”, which may be briefly summarized as follows: (i) Tacitus does not say he was repeating information obtained from other sources; (ii) “both Justin and Tertullian challenged their readers to go read for themselves the official secular documents;” (iii) as a Roman Senator, Tacitus had access to official records; (iv) on other matters, Tacitus states that he used reliable sources and followed the majority of historians; (v) Tacitus is careful to record conflicts in his sources; (vi) he does not quote his sources uncritically; (vii) he qualifies his opinion when others do not; (viii) he distinguishes between rumor and fact; and (ix) even if Tacitus did not have independent sources concerning the historicity of Jesus, he still records the fact that Christians were willing to be martyred for their beliefs.[90]

As I argued above, it is certainly possible that Tacitus obtained his information from independent sources. But have McDowell and Wilson been able to show that it is probable that Tacitus did so? Let’s consider each of these reasons in turn. (i), (vii) and (viii) are simply beside the point. To be sure, all Tacitean scholars believe that Tacitus in general was a very reliable historian who was trustworthy, critical of his sources, and usually accurate.[91] But there are exceptions to this rule. Michael Grant, quoting Tacitean scholar R. Mellor, notes that Tacitus occasionally reported stories which were false historically[92] but were true in a literary sense[93] or a moral sense[94]. Turning to Mellor, we read that

Besides relaying unverifiable rumors, Tacitus occasionally reported a rumor or report that he knew was false. When reporting Augustus’s trip to be reconciled with his exiled grandson Agrippa, he alludes to a rumor that the emperor was killed by his wife Livia to prevent Agrippa’s reinstatement… All the components of such a tale foreshadow the murder of Claudius by his wife Agrippina to allow her son Nero to succeed before the emperor reverted to his own son Brittanicus. Tacitus is content to use the rumors to besmirch by association Livia and Tiberius who, whatever their failings, never displayed the deranged malice of an Agrippina and a Nero. It is good literature but it can be irresponsible history.[95]

There is no good reason to believe that Tacitus conducted independent research concerning the historicity of Jesus. The context of the reference was simply to explain the origin of the term “Christians,” which was in turn made in the context of documenting Nero’s vices. Tacitus thus refers to “Christus” in the context of a moral attack on Nero. Remember that according to Michael Grant, this is the very type of story in which Tacitus might be willing to repeat unhistorical information. And if Tacitus were willing to repeat unhistorical information in such a context, surely he would be willing to repeat noncontroversial, incidental, historically accurate information (such as the historicity of Jesus) without verifying the matter firsthand. Besides, in the context of the passage, it is unclear that Tacitus (or anyone else for that matter) would have even thought to investigate whether “Christus” actually existed, especially given that Tacitus called Christianity a “pernicious superstition.” (To make an analogy, although I am extremely skeptical of Mormonism, I’m willing to take the Mormon explanation for the origin of the term “Mormon” at face value!) As Robert L. Wilken, a Christian historian, states:

Christianity is not part of Tacitus’s history. Except for the one reference in the Annales, he shows no interest in the new movement. When he adverts to Christians in the book it is not because he is interested in Christianity as such or aimed to inform his readers about the new religion, as, for example, he did in a lengthy discussion in another work, the Histories (5.1-13), but because he wished to make a point about the extent of Nero’s vanity and the magnitude of his vices, and to display the crimes he committed against the Roman people.[96]

That Tacitus was uninterested in Christianity is confirmed by Mellor:

For a man who served as governor of Asia his knowledge of Jews and Christians is woefully (and unnecessarily) confused, since the Jewish historian Josephus lived in Rome and Tacitus’s good friend Pliny knew something of the Christians. But Tacitus is contemptuous of all easterners–Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians alike–and he clearly thought them unworthy of the curiosity and research he lavised on court intrigues.[97]

Mellor concludes that Tacitus “scorned or merely ignored” the Jews, Christians, and other religious groups.[98] Since the historicity of Jesus was not in doubt at the time Tacitus wrote and since Tacitus’ reference to Christus is entirely incidental, Tacitus would have had no motive for investigating the historicity of Jesus. As far as Tacitus and his “political peers” would have been concerned, the fact that Tacitus did not investigate the historicity of Jesus would have been no strike against Tacitus’ “prestige and honor.”[99] On the contrary, Tacitus still would have been considered to be exhibiting high standards of professionalism and integrity at the time he wrote![100]

As for (ii), I have already addressed both Justin’s reference to an alleged document, ‘Acts of Pilate,’ and Tertullian’s reference to Tiberius. Neither the evidence from Justin nor the information provided by Tertullian make it probable that official Roman records confirmed the historicity of Jesus. Moreover, the records may have been destroyed during the First Jewish Revolt.

Turning to (iii), Harris has doubted whether Tacitus would have had access to the imperial archives,[101] but Holding has convincingly argued that if Tacitus had wanted access to some record, he could have gotten it.[102] Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that Tacitus had a motive for accessing those records. Moreover, we do not even know whether official records (now lost) said anything about Jesus.

Concerning (iv) and (vi), Grant notes that Tacitus was only skeptical “on occasion,” that he “persistent[ly] and lamentabl[y]” accepted many rumors, and that he “conducted extremely little independent research, quite often [he] quotes the sources that were available to him,”[103] a fact that is consistent with the hypothesis that Tacitus simply repeated what he learned from Christian sources. Grant quotes the following excerpt from Goodyear:

One feature very damaging to Tacitus’s credit is the manner in which he employs rumores. Of course, a historian may properly report the state of public opinion at particular times, or use the views of contemporaries on major historical figures as a form of ‘indirect characterisation’ of them. But Tacitus often goes far beyond this.

He implants grave suspicions which he neither substantiates nor refutes. Their cumulative effect can be damning and distorting…. Time and again Tacitus is ready with an unpleasant motive, susceptible neither of proof nor of disproof.[104]

Again, we simply don’t have enough data to justify the claim that Tacitus probably had independent sources for his information about Jesus.

(v) is a non sequitur, not to mention an argument from silence. The fact that Tacitus does not mention any conflict in his sources is just as probable on the hypothesis that Tacitus obtained his information from Roman records as it is on the hypothesis that Tacitus learned his information from Christian sources. On the latter hypothesis, this would simply imply that none of Tacitus’ Christian sources doubted their own reports, which is precisely what we would expect even if Tacitus had obtained his information from Christian sources. This is completely inconclusive.

Finally, (ix) is irrelevant to determining whether Tacitus had independent sources. Yes, Tacitus testifies that Christians were martyred for their beliefs. But his testimony can only provide independent confirmation if he had independent sources, the very point at issue. (Besides, there is no reason to believe that Christians had a choice in whether they were martyred. Thus, even if they were not willing to die, they would have died anyway. Note that Tacitus does not report whether any of them tried to escape by recanting. Moreover, initially only Christians who were “out of the closet” were seized; they were forced to reveal the others who were unknown or in hiding. Finally, from Pliny’s letters, we know that many Christians in 112 were ready to recant their beliefs in order to save their lives. And there is no evidence that Christians in 64 had any better evidence to base their faith on than Christians in 112.)[105]

In short, at best, McDowell and Wilson have presented an inconclusive case for believing that Tacitus provides independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. And contrary to what some apologists (not necessarily McDowell or Wilson) have suggested, it is not just ‘Christ-mythicists’ who deny that Tacitus provides independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus; indeed, there are numerous Christian scholars who do the same! For example, France writes, Annals XV.44 “cannot carry alone the weight of the role of ‘independent testimony’ with which it has often been invested.”[106] E.P. Sanders notes, “Roman sources that mention [Jesus] are all dependent on Christian reports.”[107] And William Lane Craig states that Tacitus’ statement is “no doubt dependent on Christian tradition.”[108]

3. It is unclear that Suetonius knew of Jesus. Suetonius, the Roman historian and biographer formerly known as Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, wrote several works, including his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which is an account of the lives of the first twelve Roman emperors. In his Life of Claudius, he writes:

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.[109]

In order to use this as a reference to Jesus, McDowell must assume that this ‘Chrestus’ was Jesus. Thus, in He Walked Among Us, we find McDowell and Wilson declaring that “Chrestus was probably a misspelling of ‘Christ’ (Greek ‘Christus’).”[110] Quoting France, McDowell and Wilson argue that ‘Chrestus’ is a misspelling of ‘Christus’ because (i) ‘Chrestus’ is a Greek name; and (ii) the meaning of ‘Christus’ would be unfamiliar to a Gentile audience. Furthermore, McDowell and Wilson argue (iii) that Christian witnessing to the Jews in AD 49 (similar to that recorded in Acts 18) “probably resulted in the hostilities which led to the expulsion of all Jews from Rome.” This, they argue, would have led to the writing of a Roman “police report” which in turn would have attributed the violence to ‘Chrestus’ (a familiar name).[111]

I find these arguments unconvincing. Indeed, while stating that it is possible that this passage is a misspelled reference to Jesus, France nevertheless dismisses (i) and (ii). According to France, the claim that ‘Chrestus’ is a misspelling of ‘Christus’ “can never be more than a guess, and the fact that Suetonius can elsewhere speak of ‘Christians’ as members of a new cult (without any reference to Jews) surely makes it rather unlikely that he could make such a mistake.”[112] McDowell and Wilson never offer any reasons for rejecting France’s argument on this point. As for (iii), this is so speculative as to be laughable. There is no evidence of such a police report and there is no evidence that Christian preaching to the Jews led to hostilities which in turn led to the Jews’ expulsion from Rome. In sum, then, McDowell and Wilson have been unable to show that this passage even refers to Jesus.

McDowell also quotes Lives of the Caesars–where Suetonius mentions Nero’s punishment of Christians–though his reference is incorrect. (McDowell lists the passage as originating in 26.2; the passage is actually found in 16.2.[113]) The passage reads as follows:

Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.

McDowell and Wilson think this “verifies” that Christians were “being put to death” for their Christian beliefs.[114]

However, Suetonius “verifies” nothing of the sort. Suetonius only says that Christians were punished, not that they were “put to death.” Moreover, Suetonius does not say that the Christians were punished simply for being Christians; indeed, Suetonius does not specify their crime at all. As the Christian New Testament scholar R.T. France, who McDowell quotes repeatedly in his 1988 work, notes

The great fire of AD 64 is not mentioned in this connection, and indeed the punishment of Christians is included in that part of the book (up to section 19) which deals with Nero’s good acts, before he turned to vice and crime. (The fire is not reported until section 38, where it is unconditionally blamed on Nero himself.) Nor does Suetonius even so much as mention the ‘Christus’ from whom their name derived.[115]

In short, this passage is not independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. As Wells argues, this passage “tells us nothing more than what we already know about this from Tacitus and nothing about Jesus himself.”[116]

4. There is no reason to believe that Thallus is a witness, much less an independent witness, to the historicity of Jesus. Although the works of Thallus are not extant, the Christian writer Julius Africanus refers to them in the following passage cited by McDowell:

Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun–unreasonably, as it seems to me.[117]

Dating of the Thallus material referenced by Africanus is problematic. Eusebius references a “brief compendium” of world history by this Thallus in three volumes from the fall of Troy (1184 BCE) to the 167th Olympiad (109 BCE). Yet virtually all scholars have conjectured that the latter date is in error and that the original date was either the 207th Olympiad (CE 49-52) or the 217th Olympiad (CE 89-92).[118] Thus, if one accepts that the book referenced by Eusebius is the same book in which Thallus mentioned an eclipse, one could date Thallus’ book between CE 49 and CE 180 (when Theophilus mentions Thallus).

However, ancient historian Richard Carrier argues persuasively that the work described by Eusebius

does not appear to be the same work quoted by everyone else. This is because it is described as a “brief compendium” (in three volumes, which is indeed exceedingly brief–equivalent to three chapters in a modern book) covering the years from the fall of Troy (1184 BC) to the 167th Olympiad (109 BC), but Thallus is often cited for events long preceding the Fall of Troy, and on one occasion appears to be cited regarding an event at the death of Christ, which comes long after 109 BC (leading several scholars to amend the text to give a later date). In all cases the nature of the facts being drawn from Thallus further suggests a rather detailed work, and not a “brief compendium.” It is most likely that the book referenced by Eusebius is one of at least two works by Thallus, and not the work in which he mentions the darkness associated with the death of Christ (if he mentioned this at all).[119]

Thus, it appears that Eusebius was probably correct in stating that Thallus’s compendium ended with the 167th Olympiad (109 BCE).

Some scholars have suggested that a reference to this same Thallus can be found in Josephus’s Antiquities (18.167). The relevant passage in Josephus refers to a Samaritan freedman of Tiberius, whose reign began in CE 14.[120] Yet, as Carrier notes, Josephus’s “reference” to Thallus was actually invented in the 18th century:

But most importantly, the name does not in fact appear in any extant text of Josephus. The passage in question (Antiquities of the Jews 18.167) does not have the word THALLOS in any extant manuscript or translation, but ALLOS. The addition of the letter theta (TH) was conjectured by a scholar named Hudson in 1720, on the argument that ALLOS didn’t make sense, and that Thallus was the attested name of an imperial freedman of Tiberius in inscriptions: in his own words, “I put ‘Thallos’ in place of ‘allos’ by conjecture, as he is attested to have been among the freedmen of Tiberius, going by the inscriptions of Gruter” (p. 810, translated from Hudson’s Latin). But there is no good basis for this conjecture. First, the Greek actually does make sense without the added letter (it means “another”), and all extant early translations confirm this very reading. Second, an epitome of this passage does not give a name but instead the generic “someone,” which suggests that no name was mentioned in the epitomizer’s copy.[121]

Thus, Josephus cannot help us date the material referenced by Africanus.

So when did Thallus write? We know that it could not have been later than CE 180, since that is the year Theophilus mentions Thallus. As for the earliest possible date for Thallus’s book, that depends on whether Thallus ever mentioned the darkness. As the Christian scholar R.T. France writes, Africanus does not give Thallus’ words, “so we do not know whether Thallus actually mentioned Jesus’ crucifixion, or whether this was Africanus’ interpretation of a period of darkness which Thallus had not specifically linked with Jesus.”[122] Even McDowell and Wilson acknowledge that post-apostolic writers like Africanus had a tendency to exaggerate details in their interpretations and to use “questionable sources.”[123] Thus, if Thallus did mention Jesus’ crucifixion, then Thallus could have written between CE 28 and 180. If he did not, then he could have written between 109 BCE and CE 180, a range of almost three entire centuries.

In He Walked Among Us, McDowell and Wilson argue that Africanus’s reference to Thallus provides evidence for the historicity of Jesus because Thallus

does not seek to explain away the existence and crucifixion as a definite historical event, though one which needed a naturalistic explanation for the darkness which covered the earth at the time of the event.[124]

I agree that there is no evidence Thallus ever questioned the historicity of Jesus. Moreover, it is certainly possible that Thallus referred to the crucifixion and even that he did so as an independent witness. But it also possible that Thallus did not mention Jesus’ crucifixion or even Jesus himself. Thallus may have written before the crucifixion; Africanus may have simply assumed that the darkness mentioned by Thallus was the darkness associated with Jesus’ crucifixion. Since we don’t possess any extant copies of the Thallus material, there is simply no way to know if Thallus was a witness to Jesus. Likewise, we don’t know what Thallus’s sources were. Again, it is certainly possible that Thallus had an independent source for his information, but it is equally possible that Thallus was dependent on Christian sources. Thus, even if Thallus were a witness to the historicity of Jesus, there is no reason to believe he was an independent witness. Therefore, given the present data (or the lack of it, depending on your perspective) Thallus cannot be used to provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

Moreover, the darkness itself is doubtful. As Carrier notes:

Such a story has obvious mythic overtones and can easily be doubted. That a solar eclipse should mark the death of a king was common lore among Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples (Herodotus 7.37, Plutarch Pelopidas 31.3 and Aemilius Paulus 17.7-11, Dio Cassius 55.29.3, John Lydus De Ostentis 70.a), and that such events corresponded with earthquakes was also a scientific superstition (Aristotle Meteorology 367.b.2, Pliny Natural History 2.195, Virgil Georgics 2.47.478-80). It was also typical to assimilate eclipses to major historic events, even when they did not originally correspond, or to invent eclipses for this purpose (Préaux claims to have counted 200 examples in extant literature; Boeuffle and Newton have also remarked on this tendency). The gospel stories also make a solar eclipse impossible: the crucifixion passover happened during a full moon, the darkness supposedly lasted three hours, and covered the whole earth. Such an impossible event would not fail to be recorded in the works of Seneca, Pliny, Josephus or other historians, yet it is not mentioned anywhere else outside of Christian rhetoric, so we can entirely dismiss the idea of this being a real event.[125]

Thus McDowell and Wilson, in an attempt to provide independent confirmation of Jesus, are appealing to an alleged astronomical event which itself needs independent confirmation but lacks it![126] But that entails that Africanus’s reference to Thallus does not provide independent confirmation of Jesus.

Finally, the passage does not even pass the bibliographical test, one of McDowell’s three standards for assessing historical documents. McDowell defines his bibliographical test as follows:

The bibliographical test is an examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us. In other words, since we do not have the original documents, how reliable are the copies we have in regard to the number of manuscripts (MSS) and the time interval between the original and extant copy?[127]

With McDowell’s definition in mind, does Thallus’ Histories pass the bibliographical test? Absolutely not! The original manuscripts of Thallus’ Histories are not extant and we do not possess any copies of the original. Carrier explains:

The only manuscript copies we have of this Thallus quotation date over 1600 years after the crucifixion itself. And this is not even a tradition of Thallus, but of George Syncellus, who wrote it down from his source over 800 years after Thallus would have written the original according to McDowell, and yet not even that: for Syncellus is copying not from Thallus, but from a late copy of Africanus, who was in turn writing well over 100 years after McDowell proposes that Thallus wrote. There could not be a tradition less reliable or more prone to disastrous errors and corruptions than this![128]

Thus it is utterly impossible to determine the transmission reliability of the passage. The passage fails miserably one of the same tests for historical reliability employed by McDowell to establish the historical reliability of the Bible. The Africanus passage therefore deserves to be discarded.[129]

5. References to Phlegon of Tralles provide inconclusive evidence for Jesus. Phlegon’s works are no longer extant, but they are referenced by Julius Africanus and Philopon. McDowell cites the following comment made by Africanus:

[Phlegon] records that in the time of Tiberius Caesar at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth.[130]

Although McDowell and Wilson assume without argument that this passage is authentic, Carrier has convincingly shown that the passage is an interpolation and he is by no means the only scholar to hold this view.[131] Some of the reasons for believing this passage to be an interpolation include (i) Eusebius’ quotation of Phlegon does not include a reference to a full moon or a three-hour eclipse;[132] and (ii) “we cannot accept that, having just found fault with Thallus for calling this darkness an eclipse of the sun, Africanus then went on to cite Phlegon, without any censure at all, as calling it just that, and as adding, what he has just stated to be an absurdity, that it occurred at full moon.”[133]

6. Mara Bar-Serapion is worthless as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. Mara Bar-Serapion, an imprisoned Syrian who wrote sometime after 73 CE, made the following statement in a letter to his son:

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their Kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.[134]

In a previous version of this essay, citing an essay by Farrell Till, I denied that ‘wise King’ was a reference to Jesus. Emphasizing that the other characters Bar-Serapion mentions by name lived long before Jesus, Till argues that “[m]essianic pretenders in Judea were a dime a dozen” and that the ‘wise King’ could have been the “Teacher of Righteousness” mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[135] However, it now seems to me that this is nothing more than a bare possibility. Just because Bar-Serapion discusses Pythagoras and Socrates in the same passage as he mentions this ‘wise King’ does not make it likely that this ‘wise King’ lived during roughly the same period as them. Moreover, given that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, not the Jews, Bar-Serapion’s choice of words is inexplicable unless we assume that he received his information about this ‘wise King’ from Christians. (Remember that the Christians held the Jews at least partially responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.) However, if Bar-Serapion received his information from Christians, two conclusions follow. First, it is highly likely that this ‘wise King’ was Jesus.[136] Second, Bar-Serapion does not provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

The value of Bar-Serapion’s letter as an independent witness to the historical Jesus is further decreased by our uncertainty concerning its date. McDowell quotes the conservative scholar F.F. Bruce as stating that the letter was “written some time later than A.D. 73, but how much later we cannot be sure.“[137] Indeed we cannot. Archibald Robertson–who accepted the historicity of Jesus–reported that “such authorities as Cureton and M’Lean date it in the second or even third” century.[138] Of course, as McDowell and Wilson point out, “the letter could be as early as the first century,” but possibility must not be confused with probability.[139] For this letter to have any value at all as a witness to the historicity of Jesus, it needs to have been written earlier rather than later, and there is simply no evidence that it was.

Yet another problem with Bar-Serapion’s letter is its historical inaccuracies. In addition to the bogus claim that the Jews executed Jesus, Bar-Serapion’s letter contains other errors. Till notes that the letter implies Pythagoras had been killed by his countrymen, yet “Pythagoras left the island of Samos in 530 B. C. and emigrated to the Greek colony of Croton in Southern Italy. He later died in Metapontum, which is now Metaponto, Italy.”[140] McDowell and Wilson admit that Mara Bar-Serapion’s “information about Athens and Samos is inaccurate.”[141]

In closing, it is interesting to note that even Holding is forced to admit that “[t]his reference to Jesus is not particularly valuable.”[142] However, that is an understatement. Bar-Serapion’s letter is virtually worthless as a witness to the historicity of Jesus: it does not provide independent confirmation.[143]

7. Lucian is not an independent witness to Jesus. Lucian of Samosata (c.125-180 CE), was a Greek satirist best known for his dialogues (Dialogues of the Gods, Dialogues of the Dead, The Sale of Lives) ridiculing Greek mythology and philosophy; he also authored a work entitled True History. McDowell cites the following statement by Lucian written around 170 CE:

… the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world…. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.[144]

In a previous version of this essay, quoting Michael Grant, I questioned whether Lucian was concerned with historical accuracy.[145] I misinterpreted Grant; elsewhere Grant makes it clear that Lucian was concerned with historical accuracy. According to Grant, Lucian felt it important to separate instruction from entertainment.[146] Grant notes that Lucian felt a historian should be “stateless;” in other words, Lucian thought the historian should try to remain impartial when recording events concerning the historian’s own nation.[147] Moreover, Lucian “denounced fraudulent biography” and said that “it was the sole duty of the historian to … say exactly how things happened.”[148]

Nevertheless, given that Lucian’s statement was written near the end of the second century, it seems rather unlikely that he had independent sources of information concerning the historicity of Jesus. Lucian may have relied upon Christian sources, common knowledge, or even an earlier pagan reference (e.g., Tacitus); since Lucian does not specify his sources, we will never know. Just as is the case with Tacitus, it is quite plausible that Lucian would have simply accepted the Christian claim that their founder had been crucified. There is simply no evidence that Lucian ever doubted the historicity of Jesus. Therefore, Lucian’s concern for historical accuracy is not even relevant as Lucian would have had no motive for investigating the matter.[149]


I think there is ample evidence to conclude there was a historical Jesus. To my mind, the New Testament alone provides sufficient evidence for the historicity of Jesus, but the writings of Josephus also provide two independent, authentic references to Jesus.

As for McDowell’s other sources for the historicity of Jesus, I think they are inconclusive. There is no evidence that the written works of the church fathers were based on independent sources. Tertullian’s reference to Tiberius is inconclusive, as is Africanus’ references to Thallus. Africanus’ reference to Phlegon is probably an interpolation. The Talmud is too late to be of any value in establishing the historicity of Jesus. Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Lucian are not independent witnesses to the historicity of Jesus. Suetonius did not refer to Jesus. And Mara Bar-Serapion’s letter is worthless as a witness to the historicity of Jesus.[150]

Appendix: Hadrian

There is one final reference I have not mentioned until this point because McDowell does not include it in ETDAV. However, I chose to discuss this reference in an appendix because McDowell and Wilson do quote the letter in their 1988 book, He Walked Among Us. The reference is the following letter preserved by Eusebius and purportedly written by Hadrian:

I do not wish, therefore, that the matter should be passed by without examination, so that these men may neither by harassed, nor opportunity of malicious proceedings be offered to informers. If, therefore, the provincials can clearly evince their charges against the Christians, so as to answer before the tribunal, let them pursue this course only, but not by mere petitions, and mere outcries against the Christians. For it is far more proper, if any one would bring an accusation, that you should examine it.[151]

McDowell and Wilson believe this letter is “indirect evidence confirming the same things Pliny had recorded.”

Unfortunately, just as Pliny’s letter does not provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus, the above letter preserved by Eusebius also does not provide evidence for the historicity of Jesus. The letter quoted by Eusebius simply states that there were Christians who were tried under Hadrian, which nobody denies. Furthermore, the above letter is found only in the writings of Eusebius. Given that Eusebius’ reliability is itself doubtful, we can’t even be sure that Hadrian ever actually wrote the letter Eusebius attributes to him!


[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979), pp. 81-87.

[2] Ibid., p. ix.

[3] In other words, the mere claim that “Jesus existed” is not an extraordinary claim and therefore does not require extraordinary evidence.

[4] See G.A. Wells, The Jesus Myth (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1999).

[5] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979), p. 81.

[6] Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us: Evidence for the Historical Jesus (San Benardino, CA: Here’s Life, 1988).

[7] Ibid., p. 88: “[The early writers] cited the existence of government records.” McDowell claims elsewhere (1979, p. 85) that Justin Martyr had access to “the imperial archives” of Pontius Pilate.

[8] Commenting on Paul’s claim that the Old Testament provided “advance, positive information about Jesus,” Grant writes that “Justin Martyr in the second century AD could once again furnish a long list of proof texts including some apparently fictitious examples asseverating that ‘we do this because with our own eyes we see these things having happened and happening as was prophesied.'” See Grant, p. 14.

[9] Felix Scheidweiler in New Testament Apocrypha (Revised edition, edited by Wilhem Scheemelcher, translated by R. McL. Wilson, Volume I, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, p. 501).

[10] McDowell and Wilson 198, pp. 24, 85.

[11] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[12] McDowell and Wilson, p. 89.

[13] Tertullian, Apology, V.2.

[14] Scott T. Carroll, “Tiberius” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, p. 550.

[15] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[16] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[17] Antiquities 20.9.1 §200-201. Cited by McDowell 1979, p. 83.

[18] Louis H. Feldman, “Josephus” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, pp. 990-1.

[19] Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), p. 39.

[20] Evans 1995, p. 106.

[21] Earl Doherty, “Josephus Unbound” (<URL:http://pages.ca.inter.net/~oblio/supp10.htm>, n.d.), section 4.

[22] G.A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? (London: Pemberton, 1973), p. 11.

[23] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 40.

[24] G.A. Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1982), p. 211.

[25] See G.A. Wells, Who Was Jesus? A Critique of the New Testament Record (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1989), p. 22; idem, The Jesus Legend (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1996), pp. 52-53, 225 n. 19; Wells 1999, pp. 217-21.

[26] McDowell 1979, p. 82.

[27] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 41.

[28] Doherty, n.d.

[29] Doherty quotes Guignebert as stating, “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter.” (In contrast, it is generally agreed that the style of Tacitus would have been much more difficult for an interpolator to imitate.) See Doherty, n.d.

[30] Concerning (iii), the reconstructed Testimonium probably would not have been very useful to the early church fathers. Consider the following reconstruction of the Testimonium:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a teacher. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us accused him, those who loved him from the first did not cease to do so. And to the present the tribe of Christians, named after this person, has not disappeared.

On the assumption that the above reconstruction resembles the authentic Testimonium, the text establishes nothing more than the historicity of Jesus and his crucifixion. Since we have no evidence that the historicity of Jesus or his crucifixion were questioned in the first three centuries, we should not be surprised that the passage was never quoted until the fourth century. Wells (1999, p. 201) notes that Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, 8, was probably not debating the existence of Jesus, but whether Jesus was important enough to have been the Messiah. Likewise, the fact that Origen simply expressed disappointment that Josephus “did not believe in Jesus as Christ” but never quoted the Testimonium is consistent with the view that the reconstructed Testimonium is authentic.

In direct response to my argument, Doherty argues that, nevertheless, the reconstructed Testimonium would have been useful to the early church fathers as it was “the sole example of a non-negative comment on Christianity by an outsider until Constantine’s conversion.” But what in the passage would have been useful? As it stands, absolutely nothing; again, there is no evidence that the historicity of Jesus and his crucifixion were in dispute at the time. Thus, Doherty is forced to conjecture that the church fathers would have “put a spin on” on the Testimonium. In other words, the passage would have been useful to the church fathers if and only if they distorted it! While that is certainly possible, such speculation hardly justifies rejecting the entire Testimonium as an interpolation. See Doherty, n.d.

[31] Gordon Stein, “The Jesus of History: A Reply to Josh McDowell” American Rationalist July/August 1982, p. 2. Republished electronically at <URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/gordon_stein/jesus.html>

[32] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 42.

[33] Wells 1973, p. 10.

[34] Michael Grant, Greek & Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 53.

[35] Josephus, “The Jewish Wars”. Translated by G.A. Williamson. Revised with introduction by E. Mary Smallwood. Penguin Books, 1981, pp. 20-21.

[36] France 1986, p. 28.

[37] Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), p. 164.

[38] Schlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Academic Press, 1971), p. 69. Quoted in McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 45.

[39] James H. Charlesworth, “Research on the Historical Jesus Today: Jesus and the Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Codices, Josephus, and Archaeology” Princeton Seminary Bulletin, vol. VI, no. 2, p. p. 110. Quoted in McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 45.

[40] Quoted in McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 45.

[41] Wells 1999, p. 214.

[42] Literally, “learning” or “instruction.”

[43] Literally, “oral teaching.”

[44] Literally, “completion.”

[45] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 63.

[46] McDowell 1979, p. 85.

[47] Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teachings (1922, New York: Block Publishing, 1989), p. 51.

[48] Klausner 1922, pp. 52-53.

[49] Sanhedrin 43a. Quoted in McDowell 1979, p. 85.

[50] Klausner 1922, p. 20.

[51] Morris Goldstein, Jesus in the Jewish Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1950), p. 101.

[52] McDowell 1979, p. 85.

[53] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (1978, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993), p. 47.

[54] Charles Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903, New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1975), p. 41.

[55] McDowell 1979, p. 85. The passage is from Babylonian Sanhedrin 43a.

[56] Goldstein 1950, p. 23.

[57] Goldstein 1950, p. 30.

[58] McDowell 1979, p. 86.

[59] McDowell 1979, p. 86 and Klausner 1922, p. 27-28.

[60] McDowell 1979, p. 86.

[61] Klausner 1922, p. 28.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Herford 1975, p. 94.

[64] Quoted in Herford 1975, p. 94.

[65] Herford 1975, p. 94.

[66] McDowell 1979, p. 86.

[67] Ibid.; McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 69.

[68] Herford 1975, p. 45.

[69] McDowell 1979, p. 86.

[70] Klausner 1922, p. 38, cites “Dikduke Sof’rim to Aboda Zara, edited by Dr. Rabinovitz from the Munich MS”.

[71] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), p. 97.

[72] Meier 1991, pp. 96-97.

[73] Quoted by Edwin Yamauchi 1995, p. 21..

[74] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 70.

[75] Goldstein 1950, p. 102.

[76] McDowell has the date as circa 112; Yamauchi states that the letter was written about 111; Robert L. Wilken dates the letter to 112. See McDowell and Wilson, p. 46; Yamauchi 1995, p. 216; and Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale, 1984), p. 15.

[77] Plinius Secundus, Epistles, X.96. The portion in italics is quoted in McDowell 1979, p. 83.

[78] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 48.

[79] Holding suggests that Pliny, as a former “state priest,” would have had firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus. However, there are two problems with that view. First, Pliny makes it clear in his letter to Trajan that he was quite ignorant of Christians. When Pliny needed to deal with the Christians, he did not know what to do; he turned to Trajan for advice. He wrote, “It is a rule, Sir, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance?” Furthermore, Pliny acknowledged that he did not have an understanding of Christians until he interrogated the deaconesses. (Holding objects that prior to torturing the deaconesses, Pliny “knew that Christianity was a ‘cult,’ for he refers to investigations in which ‘several forms of the mischief came to light.'” However, Pliny’s reference to ‘investigations’ is a reference to his interviews of Christians during the trials; Pliny had no knowledge of Christians prior to those trials.) Finally, consider Pliny’s off-hand reference to Christian belief: “For whatever the nature of [the Christians’] creed might be.” These are not the words of a man with prior knowledge of Christianity.

Second, if it were really true that priests would have investigated Christians, Holding should be able to provide multiple examples of Roman priests investigating Christianity. He has produced nothing of the sort. Twice I have asked Holding to produce any evidence that Roman priests investigated Christians; Holding has completely ignored my requests. (Indeed, in his rebuttal to me, Holding does not even acknowledge my request!) Furthermore, in private correspondence, ancient historian Richard Carrier provided the following counterexample to Holding’s unsupported claim:

Consider, for example, Plutarch, a prominent priest and elder contemporary of Pliny, whose voluminous writings almost entirely survive–and of those that don’t we still have all the titles: never once does Plutarch ever mention Christians, even though he went out of his way to write on many religious subjects, even to attack popular superstitions and foreign cults. On Superstition and Advice to Bride and Groom reveal a serious concern with superstitions and unsavory religions and a desire to elaborate and oppose them. On Isis and Osiris, On the E at Delphi, On the Oracles of the Pythia, On the Decline of Oracles, On the Slowness of Divinities to Anger, On the Demon of Socrates, etc., prove his interest in researching or discussing foreign or exotic religious views. Platonic Questions, On the Repugnant Beliefs of Stoics, Against the Stoics, Against Colotes, Table Talk, and so on, all show Plutarch to have had a keen concern to investigate and attack theological opinions opposed to his own. Also of note is the conspicuous absence of priests presenting evidence for Pliny’s prosecutions, even though Pliny mentions (and no doubt exaggerates) the decline of attention to local temples as a result of the Christian fad. Instead, Pliny has no accusers at all, only anonymous lists, and must investigate the matter himself, on the spot. Also worthy of note is the college of silversmiths in Acts: the priestesses of Artemis are again conspicuously absent, and it is only the smiths, who make her statues, that get all riled up (although even they make no effort to “investigate” Christians but simply seek to trump up charges against them).

In direct response to this point, Holding objects that “Plutarch never had a situation like Pliny’s to handle, where he had to make judgments upon Christians.” However, this is irrelevant to Holding’s claim that Pliny, as a former state priest, would have had prior knowledge of Christianity. This is only relevant to Pliny’s role as Governor which, as we’ve seen, provides no support for Holding’s conjecture.

In short, Holding has provided no evidence whatsoever that contemporary Roman priests (prior to the third century) investigated Christianity. In contrast, we’ve seen one example of a contemporary Roman priest (Plutarch) who did not investigate the Christians. As Carrier concludes, “Priests were NEVER involved in investigating Christians and would have had no interest in someone else’s cult. Only magistrates are involved.” See Holding, n.d.; idem, “A Slightly Shorter Concerto” (<URL:http://www.integrityonline15.com/jpholding/tekton/ajinod_05.html>, March 23, 2000), spotted April 19, 2000.

[80] Wilken 1984, p. 16.

[81] France 1986, p. 43.

[82] Tacitus, Annals XV.44.

[83] Gordon Stein denied the authenticity of this passage, arguing: (1) there is no corroborating evidence that Nero persecuted the Christians; (2) there was not a multitude of Christians in Rome at that date; (3) ‘Christian’ was not a common term in the first century; (4) Nero was indifferent to various religions in his city; (5) Nero did not start the fire in Rome; (6) Tacitus does not use the name Jesus; (7) Tacitus assumes his readers know Pontius Pilate; (8) the passage is present word-for-word in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus. However, Stein’s arguments are extremely weak. At best, (1), (2), and (5) only cast doubt on the reliability of the passage; these are not good reasons for rejecting the authenticity of the passage. (3) and (4) are likewise irrelevant. Contrary to what Stein claims, (6) and (7) suggest that Pontius Pilate might have been relatively unknown. Finally, (8) is irrelevant. The fact that a later author expanded the passage in no way makes it probable that the original passage was interpolated. Furthermore, there are good reasons for accepting the authenticity of this passage: the anti-Christian tone of the passage, the scapegoat motif, the Latin style, and the integration of the passage with the story. Stein’s argument for interpolation is completely unconvincing. See Stein 1982.

[84] Harris 1985, p. 351.

[85] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[86] Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction (Second ed., New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 407, quoted by Earl Doherty in private correspondence.

[87] See Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1996), p. 189; and McDowell and Wilson 1988, pp. 50-51.

[88] See Wells 1999, pp. 198-200; France 1986, p. 23; and E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 49.

[89] Holding 2000.

[90] McDowell and Wilson 1988, pp. 50-51.

[91] See Grant 1995, pp. 40-43 and Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome (Penguin Books, 1973), p. 18; Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, Studying the Historical Jesus (London: E.J. Brill, 1994), p. 24; Ronald Mellor, Tacitus (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 20, 44-45; Arnaldo Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1990), pp. 111-2; Donald Martin, Tacitus, (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1981), p. 211; and Ronald Syme, Tacitus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 281-282.

[92] Mellor 1993, p. 44 no. 56.

[93] Grant 1995, pp. 98-99.

[94] See K Wellesley, Greece and Rome (1954), pp. 13-26; D.R. Dudley, The World of Tacitus (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), p. 19.

[95] Mellor 1993, p. 44.

[96] Wilken 1984, p. 49.

[97] Mellor 1993, p. 32.

[98] Mellor 1993, pp. 33-34.

[99] Contrary to what Holding suggests, I am not claiming that “If Tacitus incorrectly reported something, that would not affect his prestige and honor.” Of course it would! Rather, my point was that if Tacitus correctly reported an uncontroversial, incidental detail (like the historicity of Jesus) without conducting an investigation to verify the truth of that detail, that would have been no strike against Tacitus’ reliability as a historian according to the standards of ancient historiography.

[100] In direct response to this objection, Holding counters that (1) Tacitus was “always” careful to identify when he was reporting rumors, yet the relevant passage does not contain such a qualification, and (2) since “nearly everything Tacitus reports has a moral context,” consistent application of my criteria would force the historian to discard nearly all of Tacitus’ work. Let’s consider these objections in order.

Turning to (1), Holding seems to assume that if Tacitus had not investigated the historicity of Jesus, Tacitus would have believed the historicity of Jesus was an unsubstantiated rumor. But why should anyone hold that assumption? Normally a person refers to a story as a “rumor” if and only if there is doubt concerning the truth of that story. Consider an analogy. No one refers to the historicity of the Prophet Mohammed as a “rumor” because no one denies the historicity of the Prophet Mohammed. Similarly, since there is no evidence of anyone doubting the historicity of Jesus at the time Tacitus wrote, Tacitus would have had literally no reason to believe that the mere existence of Jesus was a “rumor.” Indeed, at the time Tacitus wrote, the historicity of Jesus was such a non-issue that Tacitus did not even address the matter as such; rather, Tacitus simply referred to the crucifixion of ‘Christus,’ which implies the historicity of Jesus!

But suppose, for the sake of argument, Tacitus would have considered the historicity of Jesus a “rumor” unless he (Tacitus) personally investigated the matter. We would be engaging in an argument from silence if we argued that, because Tacitus never qualifies his reference to Christus as a “rumor,” Tacitus had researched the existence of Jesus. Of course, some arguments from silence are sound, so we cannot dismiss Holding’s objection (1) simply because it relies on an argument from silence. The crucial question is this: if Tacitus had considered the historicity of Jesus a rumor, would he have said so? Holding declares, “I have already noted in Tekton 1-1-1 that Tacitus’ scruples and concern for accuracy were such that he always indicated when he reported rumors as such” (my italics). Immediately we may note the ‘absolutism’ in Holding’s position. In order to rule out the possibility that Tacitus did not investigate the historicity of Jesus, Holding has to claim more than just that Tacitus usually or often identified rumors as such; Holding must claim that Tacitus always identified rumors as such. Yet, when we turn to Tekton 1-1-1, the only evidence which even specifically addresses rumor as such is a quotation of a single Tacitean scholar, Mellor. Mellor wrote that Tacitus “distinguishes fact from rumor with a scrupulosity rare in any ancient historian.” This does not support Holding’s assertion that Tacitus “always” identified a rumor as such. Indeed, as Carrier pointed out, Mellor’s statement is ambiguous: “scrupulosity” relative to other ancient historians can still mean much less than we would expect of a modern historian.

Holding also attempts to dodge his burden of proof, when he asks for a “direct proof that Tacitus reported a rumor as a fact knowing that it was merely a rumor.” Remember that Holding is the one making a claim; Holding asserted that Tacitus “always” identifies rumors as such. Moreover, a moment’s reflection will reveal the absurdity of Holding’s request: if “Tacitus reported a rumor as a fact knowing that it was merely a rumor,” we would have no way of knowing that. It is only when Tacitus identifies a rumor as such that we know a rumor was involved! Thus, at most we can only say that there are instances in which Tacitus identifies rumors as such. This tells us absolutely nothing about the number of instances in which Tacitus does not identify a rumor as such.

According to Ronald Martin (Tacitus, 1981, pp. 208-9), Tacitus claims that it is “my intention to follow my sources where they are unanimous but where they have given different reports I will record them under their names” (Ann. 13.20) yet he often does not uphold this “intention.” But assume for the sake of argument that Tacitus always fulfilled his “intention.” Since there is no evidence that anyone ever denied that ‘Christus’ was the founder of Christianity, this suggests that there would have been no contemporary reports which would have denied the historicity of Jesus. Thus, according to Tacitus’ own methodology, he would not have named his source(s).

Holding alleges that “it is debatable whether, and to what extent, [Tacitus] fulfilled his intentions” because “a good deal of his source material is lost to us.” Holding should compile a list of every source that Tacitus names in the Annals and Histories; if he did, he would discover that Tacitus almost never names his sources. According to Carrier, “We thus cannot know what he thought a ‘rumor’ was as opposed to a ‘reliable’ oral report.”

As Carrier told me in private correspondence, that Tacitus would not identify his statement as a rumor “would be so obvious to anyone widely familiar with ancient historiography in general that they would be astonished at the notion that one had to prove it!” Holding’s error is certainly understandable; Holding is a librarian, not an ancient historian. Yet, given this, it appears that many of Holding’s own words can be used against him. To paraphrase: “Holding is working outside of his field. Ancient historians have the breadth of judgment and background to know that Holding’s argument is bogus; that Holding uses such an argument indicates Holding’s radical unfamiliarity with ancient historiography in general.”

As for (2), I again can’t resist using Holding’s own words against him: his objection is not the product of careful thought, or of a genuine understanding of what I actually wrote. I did not write that Tacitus always repeated false information whenever he told a story in a moral context; rather, I stated that in such a situation Tacitus might be willing to do so. Therefore, Holding’s objection that a consistent application of my “criteria would mean having to ashcan almost all of Tacitus’ work” is false. Furthermore, Holding seems to have missed the point of the relevant Mellor quotation: relaying rumors, even when they are identified as such, “can be irresponsible history” when they are used to defame another person. In other words, Mellor is criticizing Tacitus on this point. Sometimes just the introduction of an allegation is all it takes to damage a person’s reputation. Even if the allegation ultimately turns out to be false, the damage will have already been done. Mellor writes, “Tacitus is content to use the rumors to besmirch by association Livia and Tiberius who, whatever their failings, never displayed the deranged malice of an Agrippina and a Nero.” That is to say, Tacitus identified a rumor as such in order to slander the reputations of Livia and Tiberius. If that is typical of the way in which Tacitus employs rumors, then that would be yet another reason why Tacitus had not qualified the historicity of Jesus as a rumor. Tacitus’ off-hand reference to the crucifixion of ‘Christus’ (which presupposes the historicity of that ‘Christus’) did not serve that rhetorical role.

Despite all of Holding’s hand waving about Tacitean scholars, Holding is simply unable to produce a single Tacitean scholar who directly states that Tacitus probably investigated the historicity of Jesus. Holding quibbles that Benko says Tacitus would have looked into the origin of Christianity, but that is not the same thing as investigating the historicity of Jesus. To make another analogy with Mormonism: I can investigate the claims of Joseph Smith without investigating whether Joseph Smith ever lived. In contrast, as we’ve seen, one Tacitean scholar, Mellor, has directly contradicted Holding’s speculation concerning Annals 15.44. Indeed, I’ve also shown that Wilken–an ancient historian and a Christian familiar with the relevant passage–also denies that Tacitus was interested in Christianity. If Tacitus was not interested in Christianity, he definitely would not have been interested in the then non-issue of the historicity of Jesus. And I’ve quoted Holding himself who admits that “truthfully, there is no way to tell” where Tacitus obtained his information about Jesus. But this entails that Tacitus’ general procedure as a historian provides us with no reason for believing that Tacitus had independent sources of information about the historicity of Jesus. See Holding 2000.

[101] Harris argues that the records “were secret so that even the senate needed special permission to consult them (Tacitus, Hist. 4.40)” Ibid., p. 352.

[102] Holding n.d.

[103] Grant 1995, pp. 39-40.

[104] F.R.D. Goodyear, Tacitus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 31f. Quoted in Grant 1995, p. 41.

[105] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[106] France 1986, p. 23.

[107] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 49.

[108] William Lane Craig, “John Dominic Crossan and the Resurrection” The Resurrection: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus (ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 252, n. 4.

[109] Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.4. Cited by McDowell, p. 83.

[110] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 52. Italics are mine.

[111] Ibid., p. 53.

[112] France 1986, p. 42.

[113] McDowell 1979, p. 83.

[114] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 53.

[115] France 1986, p. 40.

[116] Wells 1989, p. 20.

[117] McDowell 1979, p. 84.

[118] See Richard Carrier, “Jacoby and Müller on ‘Thallus'” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/jacoby.html>, 1999); cf. Murray J. Harris, “References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors” in Gospel Perspectives: The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels Volume 5 (ed. David Wenham, Birmingham: JSOT Press, 1985), p. 360 n. 4.

[119] Richard Carrier, “Thallus: An Analysis” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/thallus.html>, 1999).

[120] See Murray J. Harris, “References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors” in Gospel Perspectives: The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels Volume 5 (ed. David Wenham, Birmingham: JSOT Press, 1985), pp. 343-44; E. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi III. Das Judentum in der Zerstreuung und die jüdische Literatur (Hildesheim: Olm, 1964 reprint of 1909 edition) III, 495; R. Eisler, The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (Eng. tr. by A.H. Krappe, London: Methuen, 1931), p. 298; and Maurice Goguel, The Life of Jesus (Eng. tr. by O. Wyon, London: Allen & Unwin, 1933), p. 93. I should note that the Schürer, Eisler, and Goguel sources were referenced by Harris but are unavailable to me.

[121] Carrier 1999b.

[122] France 1986, p. 24. For a contrary view, see Harris 1985, pp. 343-44.

[123] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 73.

[124] Ibid., p. 35.

[125] Carrier 1999b.

[126] The more intrinsically improbable the historical claim, the greater the evidence we will need to accept that claim. In other words, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Since the intrinsic probability of the alleged darkness following Jesus’ crucifixion is almost nil, we are justified in requiring independent confirmation of this remarkable claim. Given that such confirmation is not available, we are justified in not accepting the claim.

[127] McDowell, p. 39.

[128] Private correspondence with Richard Carrier, January 30, 2000.

[129] Mysteriously, Holding claims that he “see[s] nothing that contradicts or overturns” what he and Glenn Miller have argued concerning Thallus. But Holding’s rebuttal to me simply refers readers to Glenn Miller’s essay on Thallus, which in turn is mainly concerned with matters of Thallus’ and Africanus’ general reliability as historians. Miller does not address the dating of Thallus’ reference. However, in my essay, I quote Carrier’s (1999b) cutting-edge scholarship which shows that there is no reason to assume that Thallus wrote in the first century, which severely undermines the evidential value of Thallus as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. If Holding wishes to defer to Miller’s work on the matter that is certainly his prerogative, but the fact remains that Miller has not yet refuted Carrier’s arguments. See Holding 2000.

[130] Quoted by McDowell 1979, p. 84.

[131] See Carrier 1999b; c.f. Martin Routh, Reliquiae Sacrae, 2nd ed. (vol. 2) 1846, quoted in Carrier 1999b; R.M. Grant, Eusebius as Church Historian (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), pp. 99-110, quoted approvingly in Wells 1996, p. 45.

[132] Ibid.

[133] Wells 1996, p. 45.

[134] Quoted by F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 114.

[135] Farrell Till, “The ‘Testimony’ of Mara Bar-Serapion” The Skeptical Review 1995 (4), p. ??. Republished electronically at <URL:https://infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1995/4/4mara95.html>. France 1986, p. 23 also questions whether ‘wise King’ refers to Jesus.

[136] Cf. France 1986, p. 24.

[137] Bruce 1972, p. 114, quoted by McDowell in McDowell 1979, p. 84. Emphasis is mine.

[138] Archibald Robertson, Jesus: Myth or History? (Second edition, London: Watts & Co, 1949), p. 87.

[139] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 54. Italics are mine.

[140] Till 1995.

[141] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 54.

[142] Holding n.d.

[143] McDowell, p. 82.

[144] Holding complains that my characterization of Mara Bar-Serapion’s witness to the historicity of Jesus as virtually worthless is “a much too extreme position.” This is completely misguided. A historical source either provides independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus or it does not. Given the uncertainty of the date of Bar-Serapion’s letter and its historical inaccuracies, the letter is not valuable as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. The letter is a valuable historical source–e.g., it provides important evidence of non-Christian knowledge of Christian claims–but it is not valuable as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. (In the latest version of his reply to this essay dated May 10, 2000 Holding complains that I treat this matter as a “black and white” issue, but Holding never explains how this issue could ever be anything but a black and white issue. I agree that some witnesses to the historicity of Jesus are more valuable than others, but that does not in any way contradict my original claim that Bar-Serapion’s letter “does not provide independent confirmation” of the historicity of Jesus.) See Holding, 2000.

[145] I quoted Grant’s remark that Lucian, as a satirist, believed that “a good historian must have ‘powers of expression.'” See Grant 1995, p. 99.

[146] Grant 1995, p. 27.

[147] Grant 1995, p. 70.

[148] Grant 1995, pp. 81,94.

[149] Holding denies this, arguing it is unlikely that Lucian would have relied on Christian sources for his information, given his “disdain” for Christians. However, this objection is multiply flawed. First, just because someone has “disdain” for Christians does not mean they are skeptical of literally everything they say. Again, I am extremely skeptical of Mormonism, but I’m willing to take the Mormon explanation for the origin of the term “Mormon” at face value! (Holding attempts to dismiss this analogy by arguing that Christian origins are tied to a public historical event of great significance, but one can be skeptical of that event without ever questioning the mere existence of Jesus. And Holding presents no evidence that Christianity was significant at the time that Lucian wrote.) In the absence of any evidence that Lucian or any other contemporary figure doubted the Christian explanation for the origin of the term “Christian,” there is simply no reason to believe that Lucian would have conducted an investigation into the matter.

Second, even if we suppose that Lucian had non-Christian sources, there is no evidence that those sources were independent. Yet for Lucian’s statement to count as independent confirmation for the historicity of Jesus, we need evidence that his knowledge of the historicity of Jesus was based upon independent sources. Given that Lucian never specifies his sources, Holding’s conjecture is nothing but speculation. Lucian’s “concern for accuracy” implies only that Lucian considered his source(s) reliable; it does not tell us that Lucian had independent sources. See Holding, n.d.

[150] I am grateful to Glenn Miller, Richard Carrier, Peter Kirby, and everyone who contributed to Jury for helpful suggestions on previous drafts of this essay.

[151] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p.

Related documents:

Historicity of Jesus Subject Index in the Secular Web’s Modern Library [ Index ]

Links to various essays which address the extrabiblical evidence for Jesus.

“Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable?” is copyright © 2000 by Jeffery Jay Lowder.

The electronic version is copyright © 2000 Internet Infidels with the written permission of Jeffery Jay Lowder.

all rights reserved