Jesus in Extra-Biblical Sources

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Jesus of Nazareth never existed.

As absurd as it may seem, some skeptics will make this assertion with all seriousness. These skeptics hold to what is commonly referred to as the Christ Myth Theory. Since its beginning in the late 1700s in the writings of Constantin Françcois Volney and Charles Dupuis, the Christ Myth Theory has virtually become a dead subject in the academia today. Still, it enjoys marginal acceptance among popular circles.

When it comes to the historical Jesus of Nazareth, the four Gospels provide us with the best sources. Now, skeptics are quick to raise the objections that the New Testament documents are unreliable, and that “you can’t prove the Bible with the Bible.” Here, they fail to understand that we have early and independent eyewitness accounts in the Gospels, 1F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981), 43. but let’s humor their objections for now. Do we really have nothing but forged references of Jesus outside the Bible as claimed by the proponents of the Christ Myth Theory? Let us consider three ancient historians: Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus.

 

Suetonius (ca. 70 AD-ca. 140 AD)

Suetonius was a Roman historian who also served briefly as Emperor Hadrian’s secretary. He is known primarily for his Lives of the Caesars (published ca. 120 AD), which describes the lives of the first twelve Roman emperors. In 25.4 of said volumes, he makes this passing comment on Christians: “He [Claudius] expelled the Jews from Rome, since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.” 2Suetonius Lives of the Caesars 25.4. This immediately raises an obvious question: Who was Chrestus? Is this a reference to the Christ of Christianity? The short answer is yes. According to Van Voorst, the identification of this Chrestus with Christ is “near-unanimous” among scholars. 3Ibid., location 522-523. However, as with almost everything, things are not that simple.

Classicist Stephen Benko has argued that Suetonius wouldn’t confuse “Christus” with “Chrestus” because the name Chrestus—meaning “good” or “useful”—was commonly used in Rome, particularly by slaves and freedmen. Also, Suetonius mentions the Christiani (“Christians”) elsewhere in his works, and spells the name correctly. Therefore, Benko concludes, Chrestus was probably an unknown Jewish radical, not Jesus. 4Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 18-20. 

However, Benko’s argument is only successful if the distinction between “Christus” and “Chrestus” is clear. In Hellenistic Greek, the pronunciation of the e and the i were very close. This similarity had an impact on Latin as well, making Christus and Chrestus not as clearly distinguishable. Not only that, the primary meaning of the Greek root word christos (which translates to “Christ” in English) was related to medicine and construction. For non-Christians, the word didn’t have the kind of religious connotation a Christian would have found in it, and they would have wanted to move to a more recognizable term. Moreover, when you place Suetonius behind the writing, who is known to have repeated minor spelling mistakes, it is reasonable to think that this “Chrestus” was indeed meant to be “Christus.” 5Robert E. van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000) location 537-569 and 617-621. 

 

Tacitus (ca. 56 AD-ca. 120 AD)

Like Suetonius, Tacitus was also a Roman historian. He is best known for his Annals which records events from the death of Roman emperors Augustus to Nero in 14-68 AD. 6Ibid., location 637-641. In Annals 15.44, Tacitus makes a reference to Jesus:

 

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. 7Tacitus The Annals 15.44.

 

This reference reveals many things about this Christus (Latin for “Christ”): he was executed under Pontius Pilate while Tiberius was emperor (14-37 AD), and a group of people—who were named after him—formed a following based on “a most mischievous superstition” surrounding this figure. This corroborates what the New Testament records about Jesus of Nazareth.

However, this passage has its own challenges. For one, skeptics often charge that this passage was a later Christian insertion. Early Christian apologists would have certainly mentioned such a helpful passage, yet it isn’t quoted until the 4th century by Sulpicius Severus. 8Kenneth Humphrey, “Jesus never existed,” http://www.jesusneverexisted.com (accessed October 2, 2013). Furthermore, even if this passage is genuine, its accuracy is questionable. Tacitus refers to Pontius Pilate as a “procurator.” However, his actual title was “prefect,” and Tacitus would have known this. 9D.M. Murdock, “Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius: No Proof of Jesus,” http://www.truthbeknown.com. (accessed October 2, 2013). 

Still, the first charge is unlikely. If this passage were a later Christian insertion, we should expect to see Christianity presented in a more glowing way. Tacitus does nothing like it. Instead, Christ is executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate for what the readers would have understood to be a crime against Rome. 10Van Voorst, location 741-742. Also, Christianity is said to be an “evil” based on “a most mischievous superstition,” which only adds to the already shameful state of Rome. Moreover, Tacitus calls Christians chrestianoi, which may be derogatory given his occasionally belittling use of the –ianoi suffix. 11Ibid., location 726-727. In today’s language, it would be like calling Christians “Jesus freaks.” Such a negative view of Christianity makes the first charge weak.

As for Pilate’s title, Tacitus was probably just reading the political environment of his own time into the event he was describing: “Until Claudius in 41 C.E. gave each provincial governor from the equestrian class the title “procurator of the emperor” (procurator augusti), the Roman governor was called a “prefect” (praefectus).” 12Ibid., location 746-750. Regardless, this minor mistake doesn’t change the historical core that someone named Christ was executed under Pontius Pilate. 13In Zeitgeist, Peter Joseph claims that “Christ” was a title, not a personal name. However, Van Voorst would disagree. According to him, even the authors of the books of the New Testament had already begun to use “Christ” as a proper name separately from the name “Jesus.” Thus, the second charge ultimately amounts to nothing.

 

Josephus (37-ca. 100 AD)

Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who once fought in the Jewish revolt against the Romans. In the end, he abandoned the Jewish cause and instead served the Roman army as an interpreter. After the war, he spent the rest of his days enjoying his status as a privileged guest serving Roman emperors, during which time he wrote volumes on the history of his own people, the Jews. One of these is called the Jewish Antiquities. This work contains what is known as the Testimonium Flavianum (or, simply, the Testimonium) which mentions Jesus by name:

 

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 amongst 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. 14Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, trans. William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: New Updated Version. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987). Emphasis mine. 

 

Discerning readers will see that this passage is Christianized. After all, this short passage basically confirms all the important details about Christianity. 15Kenneth Humphrey, “Non-Christian Testimony for Jesus?: From the Authentic Pen of Lying Christian Scribes!” http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/josephus-etal.html (accessed October 3, 2013). What’s even more noticeable is that this passage would have an orthodox Jew profess that Jesus was the Messiah. In his other work, Jewish War, Josephus expresses his belief that the biblical prophecies actually pointed to Roman-general-turned-emperor Vespasian, whom he served. Why would he, then, profess Jesus to be the Messiah and insult his patron? 16Van Voorst, location 1449-1452. Moreover, early Christian apologists made no mention of the Testimonium in their writings. The first reference comes to us from the great Church historian, Eusebius, in the early 4th century. That this valuable passage was not used by early apologists points to this entire passage being a later Christian forgery, doesn’t it? 17Humphrey, “Non-Christian Testimony for Jesus?” 

Not so fast. While there are elements in the Testimonium that certainly seem to have come from the pen of Christian scribes, there are also things that Christian scribes wouldn’t have said, which shows that these portions are likely authentic. Here are several examples: (1) Christians wouldn’t have called Jesus a “wise man”; that’s too modest of a description of their Lord and Saviour. (2) Christians wouldn’t have stated that Jesus “drew over to him… many of the Gentiles.” In the gospels, Jesus almost never ministered to the Gentiles. (3) Had this whole passage been a Christian invention, we should expect to see much more of the details from the Gospels for a fuller description of Jesus. 18John Barclay, “Josephus: The Man and the Myths, Centre for Public Christianity, 4:08, https://publicchristianity.org/library/josephus-the-man-and-the-myths#.UjaKgsakopk (accessed October 3, 2013). Points (1) to (3) are drawn from this source. (4) Christians would have portrayed Jewish leaders as villains who committed a judicial murder of the Son of God. However, the Testimonium portrays them in too neutral of a light. 19Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 43. This and many other observations have led to a more balanced reading of the passage that has “shed” the Christian insertions, which most scholars now agree upon:

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 amongst 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.

 

This balanced—and likely authentic—reading not only reflects Josephus’ style, but also fits better in the surrounding passages. The Testimonium “reads the way we should expect it to, if it were authored by a Jew before the emergence of Jewish-Christian animosities.” 20Evans, 43. Josephus, then, gives us very strong extra-Biblical evidence for a historical Jesus.

 

Conclusion

These days, it is cool to rebel against Christianity and make sensational claims like “Jesus never existed.” It might even give you a sense of superiority as you compare yourself to that “Jesus freak” in your class, at your work, or in other social circles. You may feel more intelligent because you’ve done your “research” and that nerd believes blindly what he’s been spoon-fed. However, considering the three ancient historians alone strongly points to the existence of a historical Jesus of Nazareth – and all of this without using the four Gospels which are the earliest and most reliable sources! Whatever else one may say about Jesus of Nazareth, historically speaking, he certainly existed. It’s intellectually irresponsible to say otherwise.

Notes   [ + ]

1. F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981), 43.
2. Suetonius Lives of the Caesars 25.4.
3. Ibid., location 522-523.
4. Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 18-20.
5. Robert E. van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000) location 537-569 and 617-621.
6. Ibid., location 637-641.
7. Tacitus The Annals 15.44.
8. Kenneth Humphrey, “Jesus never existed,” http://www.jesusneverexisted.com (accessed October 2, 2013).
9. D.M. Murdock, “Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius: No Proof of Jesus,” http://www.truthbeknown.com. (accessed October 2, 2013).
10. Van Voorst, location 741-742.
11. Ibid., location 726-727.
12. Ibid., location 746-750.
13. In Zeitgeist, Peter Joseph claims that “Christ” was a title, not a personal name. However, Van Voorst would disagree. According to him, even the authors of the books of the New Testament had already begun to use “Christ” as a proper name separately from the name “Jesus.”
14. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, trans. William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: New Updated Version. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987). Emphasis mine.
15. Kenneth Humphrey, “Non-Christian Testimony for Jesus?: From the Authentic Pen of Lying Christian Scribes!” http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/josephus-etal.html (accessed October 3, 2013).
16. Van Voorst, location 1449-1452.
17. Humphrey, “Non-Christian Testimony for Jesus?”
18. John Barclay, “Josephus: The Man and the Myths, Centre for Public Christianity, 4:08, https://publicchristianity.org/library/josephus-the-man-and-the-myths#.UjaKgsakopk (accessed October 3, 2013). Points (1) to (3) are drawn from this source.
19. Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 43.
20. Evans, 43.

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