The historical Jesus: The testimony of history

I have taken some time in previous posts to introduce the question of whether there is historical evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, and to deal with the question of first-century evidence (or the lack thereof) for his life.

In short, mention of Jesus would have been out of place in first century documents—at least those that have survived to our day. Since Jesus’ ministry was hardly international news, there is very little that would warrant mention of him by prolific first-century writers.

If we lack any extrabiblical reference to Jesus from first century sources (for various, understandable reasons), our next recourse is to secondhand accounts of Jesus. That is, are there any other ancient secular writers who spoke of Jesus, but who were not themselves eyewitnesses of his ministry? The answer is a resounding yes.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who was born around the middle of the first century. He wrote of “Christus, the founder of the name” Christian, who “was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” (Annals, XV. 44.)

Lucian of Samosata, a second-century satirist, spoke scornfully of Christianity. He wrote of “the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world, and of his followers “denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.” (The Passing Peregrinus)

Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian and a Pharisee. In 66 he acted as a commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee, but when he was captured he became loyal to Rome. In his Antiquities (XVIII. 33), he writes,

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 received 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 in the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.

Josephus elsewhere speaks of “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James.”1

A philosopher named  Ursinus wrote of a time when “the sun was darkened and the earth shook.” He adds, “We learned that extraordinary and terrifying things were happening in the country of the Hebrews, and we know the cause of this from the letters which the Governor Pilate wrote from Palestine to Tiberius Caesar, when he said that from the death of a man whom the Jews had crucified, these things happened.”2

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a Roman historian and court official under Hadrian, who wrote of “Chrestus” (The Life of Claudius, 25.4) and of “the Christians” as “a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” (Lives of the Caesars, 26.2)

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus was Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In seeking counsel from Emperor Trajan on how to deal with the Christians, he told the emperor that he “made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do.” While he accused Christians of insubordination and martyred many of them, he explained their defence:

They affirmed, however, that 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 verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. (Epistles, X. 96)

Mara Bar-Serapion, who wrote sometime after 73 AD (though how long after that we do not know) speaks of the death of Christ. He wrote of the Jews “executing their wise King” but that “He lived on in the teaching which He had given.”

The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that “these independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds by several authors at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.”

Simply put, the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is well-attested, and can surely only be denied by those who are intellectually dishonest and unwilling to consider the evidence.

Of course, believing that Jesus existed, while necessary to biblical Christianity, is not in and of itself sufficient. If we acknowledge Jesus’ existence while denying the truth of his claims, we are little better off than if we had denied his existence in the first place. Nevertheless, those who acknowledge his existence must at the very least wrestle with the claims he made.

Those claims, and the most accurate biographical data we have, are located in the biblical Gospels. Sceptics tend to dismiss the Gospel accounts out of hand and demand extrabiblical evidence for the existence of Jesus. Is such dismissal of the four Gospels intellectually fair and honest? I think not. As Jackson has asked,

Why is it that liberal scholars are anxious to bend over backwards in granting credibility to numerous events of ancient history (many of which are undergirded by the scantest of evidence) yet they obstinately resist granting virtually any audience to the New Testament writings? There can be but one answer: they are militantly biased against the biblical records, hence, reject their veracity—no matter how compelling the evidence!3

Indeed, the reliability of the Gospel accounts is front and centre in this debate. Can they be trusted? Ought they to be accepted, dismissed or at least given the benefit of the doubt? These are vital questions, because “the Christian faith requires belief in the Bible.”4 But they are questions for another time.

  1. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972), 107.
  2. Agapius, Universal History, http://goo.gl/OPd3A, retrieved 18 September 2012.
  3. Jackson, “Jesus Christ: Myth or Genuine History?” http://goo.gl/7aGJU, retrieved 18 September 2012.
  4. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 102.

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