Historicity Of Jesus FAQ (1994)
This "FAQ", often referred to as the "Historicity of Jesus" FAQ, is neither exhaustive, nor does it attempt to answer the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth really lived or not. In fact, in writing it I have purposely tried not to take sides on this issue. In order to do this, one should consider not only these texts, but also the canonical and non-canonical Christian texts, Jewish texts, and archeological evidence. In fact, one can be a completely orthodox Christian, perhaps even a fundamentalist, and agree with virtually everything in this document. The purpose of this document is to partially answer the question, "To what extent are the events described in the New Testament corroborated by contemporary non-Christian texts?" I argue that the answer to this question is "not much"–at the very best, some of the texts I consider support the proposition that Jesus existed and perhaps was executed by the Romans. They do not prove that he performed any miracles, rose from the dead, or did anything else ascribed to him in the New Testament. At worst, ancient texts tell us nothing new, and provide no independent support for the New Testament accounts. The question of whether the Christian sources even need independent confirmation is beyond the purview of this document–I do not argue for or against the accuracy of the New Testament accounts here.
References to Jesus of Nazareth in Ancient Non-Christian Literature
Some Christian apologists commonly claim that the events described in the New Testament are independently attested to in writings by non-Christians, thereby supporting the accuracy of the New Testament. This FAQ contains a summary of alleged references to Jesus and to early Christianity, with special emphasis on the writings of Josephus and on pagan writers. I have omitted discussion of references to Jesus in the Talmud and other Jewish religious writings, as well as the gnostic Christian texts. While these writings are themselves important, they tend to contradict New Testament accounts, and so are seldom cited by Christian apologists.
Several problems confront a study such as this. For one, it is known that some texts have been corrupted over time, or have been changed by unscrupulous copyists. Thus, it is not always possible to separate later interpolations from the original writings. (See the section on Josephus for an example of this.) Second of all, some texts have been lost, and are only known through quotations in secondary sources. In addition, not only have some alleged references to Jesus been lost as primary sources, but some early criticisms of Christianity were suppressed by the early Church and no longer survive. Furthermore, of the surviving texts, both pro-Christian and otherwise, many texts cannot be dated with precision, or survive in more than one form. Thus, caution is warranted in interpreting material.
A reader of the ancient texts is struck by how little the literature has to say about events in the New Testament. For example, Herod’s infamous murder of the Innocents (in which he ordered the slaughter of hundreds of children), while playing a major role in the New Testament, is not mentioned by any other source, including the various accounts of Herod’s reign. Likewise, Josephus’ account of first century Palestine devotes much more attention to John the Baptist than to Jesus.
Finally, some comment must be made on the issue of "independent confirmation". Even if a reference to Jesus in a text is authentic, and not a later Christian insertion, that text may not provide any new information. For instance, if a writer is merely repeating what he was told by Christians, who in turn derive their information from the New Testament, then the text in question does not provide independent confirmation of the New Testament, as the claims involved are ultimately derived from the NT. An example of what might constitute independent confirmation would be an eyewitness account by a non-Christian author, or an entry in a Roman legal document. These sources would presumably not be mere repetitions of what Christians believed to have happened, but instead might offer actual independent confirmation.
I am indebted to Michael Martin’s "The Case Against Christianity" for much of the information presented here. While I disagree with some of Martin’s conclusions, his work presents a starting point for consideration of the sources. I am particularly thankful to the following alt.atheism readers, who contributed both information and criticism of this work: Geoff Arnold, Ray Ingles, Jeff Lowder, James Lippard, Jim Perry, email removed, email removed, email removed, and email removed. Any errors in this text are mine, not theirs.
Josephus and Jesus
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing during the second half of the first century CE, produced two major works: History of the Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews. Two apparent references to Jesus occur in the second of these works. The longer, and more famous passage, occurs in Book 18 of Antiquities and reads as follows (taken from the standard accepted Greek text of Antiquities 18:63-64 by L. H. Feldman in the Loeb Classical Library):
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and as a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
This passage is called the Testimonium Flavianum, and is sometimes cited by propagandists as independent confirmation of Jesus’ existence and resurrection. However, there is excellent reason to suppose that this passage was not written in its present form by Josephus, but was either inserted or amended by later Christians:
- The early Christian writer Origen claims that Josephus did NOT recognize Jesus as the Messiah, in direct contradiction to the above passage, where Josephus says, "He was the Messiah." Thus, we may conclude that this particular phrase at least was a later insertion. (The version given above was, however, known to Jerome and in the time of Eusebius. Jerome’s Latin version, however, renders "He was the Messiah" by "He was believed to be the Christ.") Furthermore, other early Christian writers fail to cite this passage, even though it would have suited their purposes to do so. There is thus firm evidence that this passage was tampered with at some point, even if parts of it do date back to Josephus.
- The passage is highly pro-Christian. It is hard to imagine that Josephus, a Pharisaic Jew, would write such a laudatory passage about a man supposedly killed for blasphemy. Indeed, the passage seems to make Josephus himself out to be a Christian, which was certainly not the case.
Many Biblical scholars reject the entire Testimonium Flavianum as a later Christian insertion. However, some maintain that Josephus’s work originally did refer to Jesus, but that Christian copyists later expanded and made the text more favorable to Jesus. These scholars cite such phrases as "tribe of Christians" and "wise man" as being atypical Christian usages, but plausible if coming from a first century Palestinian Jew. Of course, a suitably clever Christian wishing to "dress up" Josephus would not have much trouble imitating his style.
Philip Burns (email removed) has provided some of the following material on the following alternate versions or reconstructions of the Testimonium Flavianum.
One possible reconstruction of the Testimonium Flavianum, suggested by James Charlesworth, goes like this, with probably Christian interpolations enclosed in brackets:
About this time there was Jesus, a wise man, [if indeed one ought to call him a man]. For he was one who performed surprising works, and) a teacher of people who with pleasure received the unusual. He stirred up both many Jews and also many of the Greeks. [He was the Christ.] And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, since he was accused by the first-rate men among us, those who had been loving (him from) the first did not cease (to cause trouble), [for he appeared to them on the third day, having life again, as the prophets of God had foretold these and countless other marvelous things about him]. And until now the tribe of Christians, so named from him, is not (yet?) extinct.
In Charlesworth’s version, references to Jesus’ resurrection, Messiahship, and possible divinity ("if indeed one ought to call him a man") are removed. These elements are clearly unacceptable coming from a non-Christian Jew such as Josephus. If in fact Josephus’s original text mentioned Jesus at all, it was certainly much closer to this version than to the highly pro-Christian one which has survived. One possible problem with Charlesworth’s reconstruction is the use of the term "Christians"–it is not clear from the reconstructed text why "Christians" would be named after Jesus, unless Josephus had previously referred to him as "Christ". It seems inconsistent to delete the reference to Jesus being "Christ", but to keep the suggestion that this is how Christians got their name.
A reconstruction by F.F. Bruce sidesteps this particular problem by having Josephus take a more hostile stance towards Jesus:
"Now there arose about this time a source of further trouble in one Jesus, a wise man who performed surprising works, a teacher of men who gladly welcome strange things. He led away many Jews, and also many of the Gentiles. He was the so-called Christ. When Pilate, acting on information supplied by the chief men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had attached themselves to him at first did not cease to cause trouble, and the tribe of Christians, which has taken this name from him, is not extinct even today.
Bruce’s version also seems somewhat inconsistent, calling Jesus a "wise man" while also identifying him as a source of trouble and as someone who "led away many Jews". A further problem concerns the reference to Jesus’s ministry among the Gentiles. In Jesus: A Historian’s Review of the Gospels, Michael Grant argues that Jesus in fact avoided ministering to Gentiles, and that a Christian Gentile ministry arose only after his death. If Grant is right, then Josephus is confusing the actions of Jesus with the actions of the early Christian church.
A late Arabic recension of this passage in Josephus comes from Agapius’s Book of the Title, a history of the world from its beginning to 941/942 C.E. Agapius was a tenth century Christian Arab and Melkite bishop of Hierapolis. The following translation is by S. Pines:
"Similarly Josephus, the Hebrew. For he says in the treatises that he has written on the governance (?) of the Jews: "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. 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. But 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."
While some have argued that this passage may be close to the original, one should note especially that this version is from a much later text, and that Josephus at least admits the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah, which seems unlikely. These two facts make this version suspect. In fact, E. Bammel argues that the passage reflects the conflicts between Christianity and Islam in Agapius’s time, rather than being a genuine reflection of the original text.
The consensus, if there is such a thing, would seem to be that:
- The Testimonium Flavianium preserved in the extant Greek is not the original text. At best, certain phrases within it are later Christian insertions. At worst, the entire passage is a later insertion.
- In particular, Josephus probably did not claim that Jesus was the Messiah, or that he rose from the dead. At best, he only confirms that Jesus existed and perhaps was killed by Pilate.
Josephus apparently refers to Jesus in passing later in the "Antiquities", where we find this passage:
"so he [Ananus, son of Ananus the high priest] assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before him the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and someothers (or some of his companions) and when he had formed an accusation against them, he delivered them to be stoned." (Antiquities 20.9.1)
Opinion about this passage is mixed. Some scholars believe that it is a later Christian insertion, like the Testimonium Flavianium may be, but of course much less blatantly so. Others believe that the passage may in fact be genuine. No adequate means of deciding the issue exists at this time. However, those who argue for Jesus’s non-existence note that Josephus spends much more time discussing John the Baptist and various other supposed Messiahs than he does discussing Jesus. However, while there is some reason to believe that this second passage is a fabrication, there is not enough evidence to definitely conclude this.
On the whole, it seems at least plausible that Josephus made some references to Jesus in the original version of Antiquities of the Jews. However, the extent of these references is very uncertain, and clear evidence of textual corruption does exist. While Josephus may be the best non-Christian source on Jesus, that is not saying much.
More detailed information and references to other discussions on Josephus may be found in:
- Bruce, F. F. Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament. Eerdmans, 1974.
- Charlesworth, James H. Jesus Within Judaism. Doubleday (Anchor Books) 1988.
- France, Richard T. The Evidence for Jesus. Intervarsity Press, 1986.
Tacitus and Jesus
In his Annals, Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 CE) writes that Christians
"derived their name and origin from Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius, had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate" (Annals 15.44)
Two questions arise concerning this passage:
- Did Tacitus really write this, or is this a later Christian interpolation?
- Is this really an independent confirmation of Jesus’s story, or is Tacitus just repeating what some Christians told him?
Some scholars believe the passage may be a Christian interpolation into the text. However, this is not at all certain, and unlike Josephus’s Testimonium Flavianum, no clear evidence of textual tampering exists.
The second objection is much more serious. Conceivably, Tacitus may just be repeating what he was told by Christians about Jesus. If so, then this passage merely confirms that there were Christians in Tacitus’ time, and that they believed that Pilate killed Jesus during the reign of Tiberius. This would not be independent confirmation of Jesus’s existence. If, on the other hand, Tacitus found this information in Roman imperial records (to which he had access) then that could constitute independent confirmation. There are good reasons to doubt that Tacitus is working from Roman records here, however. For one, he refers to Pilate by the wrong title (Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator). Secondly, he refers to Jesus by the religious title "Christos". Roman records would not have referred to Jesus by a Christian title, but presumably by his given name. Thus, there is excellent reason to suppose that Tacitus is merely repeating what Christians said about Jesus, and so can tell us nothing new about Jesus’s historicity.
Suetonius and Jesus
In his The Lives of the Caesars, Suetonius, writing around 120 CE, states:
"Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Emperor Claudius in 49 CE] expelled them from Rome." (Claudius 5.25.4)
Occasionally this passage is cited as evidence for Jesus’s historicity. However, there are serious problems with this interpretation:
- "Chrestus" is the correct Latin form of an actual Greek name, and is not obviously a mispelling of "Christus", meaning Christ.
- The passage seems to imply that there was actually someone named Chrestus at Rome at the time. This rules out a reference to Jesus.
- Even if Suetonius is referring to Christians in Rome, this only confirms the existence of Christians, not the existence of Jesus. There is no doubt that there were Christians in Rome during the first century CE–this of course does NOT imply that Jesus actually lived during the first half of this century.
Thus, Suetonius fails to confirm the historicity of Jesus.
Thallus and Jesus
In a lost work referred to by Julius Africanus in the third century, the pagan writer Thallus reportedly claimed that Jesus’s death was accompanied by an earthquake and darkness. However, the original text is in fact lost, and we can confirm neither the contents of the text or its date. It is possible that Thallus was merely repeating what was told to him by Christians, or that the passage which Africanus cites is a later interpolation. Outside of the New Testament, no other references to earthquakes or unusual darkness occur in the contemporary literature. This is very surprising, given the effect these sorts of events would presumably have had on the populace.
Pliny the Younger and Jesus
Pliny the Younger, writing near 100 CE, corresponded regularly with the emperor Trajan. In these writings, Pliny specifically mentions and describes the beliefs and practices of Christians in Asia Minor, and asks Trajan’s advice about what action to take against them, if any. However, Pliny’s writings provide no independent confirmation of the events of the New Testament, but merely show that there were indeed Christians living in Asia Minor.