The next group of writers to be considered are set apart from the earlier ones by the fact that they were all born too late to offer compelling testimony for or against the existance of Jesus. Even if every reference considered here were valid and reliable beyond question, which they are not, they would still constitute no more than second-hand hearsay. The truth is, we do not have a single non-christian written source, from Jesus' day, which attests to his existance. Every single writer considered here was born after Jesus had allegedly died.
For the most
part, these writers do not make mention of Jesus at all, but
rather of the existence of christian groups. But the matter of
the existance of Christians is irrelevant for our search for the
Jesus of history. At any rate, insofar as apologists usually, and
for the most part naively I might add, cite these passages as
"evidence" for the existance of Jesus, it behooves us
to look at them closely and see what it is, exactly, that they
JOSEPHUS (37- ~101CE)
Firstly we will consider the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. As far as our historical quest goes, Josephus can only be the bearer of second-hand news-- he was not even born until several years after the historical Jesus, if indeed he did exist, is said to have died. Josephus' two main works, Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War, are a main source of our present-day understanding of first century Palestine, and the Roman-Jewish revolts during that period.
was born in 37 AD, of priestly class tracing back to the
Hasmonean family. Known for most of his life as Joseph ben
Matthias, he trained in the Rabbinic school in Jerusalem to
become a priest. At the age of 14 he was an expert on the
scriptures of Jewish law, and at the age of 16 he studied the
Pharisees, Saducees and Essenes in order to decide which to join.
He then lived for three years with an ascetic hermit in the
desert. He returned as a Pharisee in 56 AD. As the war
progressed, his role became increasingly important as a good
communicator with the Roman officials; he was then given the
governorship of Galilee. However, when he was called upon to
defend his people, he deserted them, and after predicting the
Emperorship of Vespasian was awarded the title Flavius Josephus.
Josephus died approximately 101CE.
though Jospehus was born far too late to have had any direct
knowledge of Jesus, his works are usually cited by apologists as
a definitive, historical confirmation for the existence of Jesus.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, that bedrock of infallible truth, says
"'Antiquities' testifies to the
truth of Divine Revelation... and confirms the historical
facts related in the Bible by the incontrovertible
testimony of pagan authors, renders this work of Josephus
of extreme value"
we shall see, this view is extremely tenuous and doubtful. First
we will start with the first reference to Jesus, the so-called Flavinium
"Now there was about this time,
Jesus, a wise man ... a doer of wonderful works - a
teacher .... He drew over to him both many of the Jews,
and many of the Gentiles. He was 'Christ'; and when
Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst
us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him
at first did not forsake him, ... and the tribe of
'Christians' so named after him, are not extinct at this
day" Antiquities XVIII 63f).
Most conservative writers will mention this passage, and present it as either authentic or semi-authentic, without also mentioning the mountain of evidence that this entire passage is an outright forgery by a much later Christian hand. Following are a few of the most obvious facts which suggest that this passage is a forged interpolation.
1) Although Antquities was published in 95CE, this passage apparently did not exist until the fourth century. L. H. Feldman, in his "Josephus and Modern Scholarship" (p. 695), lists 11 church fathers from the 2nd to the 4th century who quote Josephus but make no mention of the Testimonium! Even after Eusebius, who first cites it [in the 4th century], it is a century before it is cited again, even though, Feldman adds, at least 8 more church fathers continued to cite Josephus between the 4th and 5th centuries without mentioning the Testimonium, seemingly indicating that it took as long for most or all extant copies of Antiquities to include the passage. Every one of these church fathers were deeply interested in establishing the historical validity of their church-- had the Testimonium been in existence before the fourth century, they would have, without doubt, quoted it quite frequently. Many of these writers, such as Tertullian, Chrysostom, Justin Martyr, and Origin, had been in active debate with pagan intelligensia who claimed that the Christians believed an "extravagent superstition"; yet the Testimonium is never cited by them.
2)Origin of Alexandria (Contra Celsum, I, 47). expressly stated that Josephus DID NOT accept Jesus as the Messiah; this clearly contradicts the Testimonium's assertion that "He was 'Christ.'"
3) It is not quoted at all until the 4th century, when Bishop Eusebius miraculously "discovers" this passage, which evidently had gone unnoticed by Christian writers searching Josephus for the previous three centuries! Even after Eusebius, all the way up to and including Augustine, church fathers are citing Josephus but not the Testimonium. Even in the early 5th century, only Jerome cites it! Either we have several centuries of incredibly dense and blind church fathers, or we have an interpolated forgery.
3b) This Eusebius seemed just like the man for the job when it came to 'uncovering' the Testimonium. This very same Bishop writes elsewhere:
"I have repeated whatever may
rebound to the glory, and suppressed all that could tend
to the disgrace of our religion" (Chp. 31, Book 12
of Prae Paratio Evangelica).
We know for a fact that Christian hands have made extensive
alterations to the works of Josephus in order to substantiate
their historical story of Jesus. About 100 years ago, several
15th century Russian manuscripts of Josephus' "Jewish
War" were found. All sorts of references to John
the Baptist, Jesus and the Apostles had been inserted into the
text (Wells, 49). It is also known that there were extensive
christian interpolations made in earlier Jewish writers; many of
these are now part of the OT pseudoepigrapha.
5) The works of Josephus are tedious and exhaustive. They comprise nearly 20 books. Whole pages are devoted to petty robbers and obscureseditious leaders. Nearly 40 chapters are devoted to a single king. Yet, Jesus is dismissed with merely a few lines.
6) The word "Christ" appears only twice throughout all the writings of Josephus, in the two suspect passages; never is the word explained. Given that he was himself a Jew, and was writng for a pagan audience who would not understand the meaning of the word, this is rather suspicious. He "describes all sorts of historical figures (prophets, would-be kings, priests, agitators) in the first century AD, but he never calls one of them Messiah [or christ]" (Wells, 54). That he habitually avoids the use of the term throughout his writings, except in the Jesus passages, makes those passages all the more suspect. The appearance of the word "Christ" at all is curious in itself, the failure to explain it at all is even more dumbfounding.
7) While this point has been debated, it appears that the Testimonium breaks the narrative thread in the place where it occurs. Josephus does occasionally digress into tangential matters, but he usually introduces such things with an indication that he is making a digression with a statement such as, "I will now return to relating.. ," but the Testimonium does not introduce nor conclude itself as such a digression. Mason observes that:
"Josephus is speaking of
upheavals, but there is no upheaval here. He is pointing
out the folly of the Jewish rebels, governers and
troublemakers in general, but this passage is completely
supportive of both Jesus and his
followers. Logically, what should appear in this context
ought to imply some criticism of the Jewish leaders
and/or Pilate, but Josephus does not make any such
criticism explicit... So unlike the other episodes, this
one has no moral, no lesson. Although Josephus begins the
next paragraph by speaking of 'another outrage' that
caused an uproar among the Jews at the same time, there
is nothing in this paragraph [the Testimonium] that
depicts any sort of outrage" (Josephus, p. 165).
Our earliest manuscripts containing the Testimonium date from the
11th century, and it is known that the scribal recopying and
transmision of Josephus' works were almost exclusively in the
hands of the Church for over a thousand years. This in itself
certainly does not prove anything, but it definitely suggests
that it would be uniquely easy for a christian copyist to insert
a few lines here and there.
The evidence of the Testimonium is indeed weak. It is inconceivable that this passage, surely the most valuable from the standpoint of early christian apologists, could have gone unnoticed for three centuries. Equally absurd is the idea that an orthodox Jew would say of Jesus, "He was the Messiah [Christ," and then relegate it to a few lines wedged, out of place, into an irrelevant chapter.
Some apologists cite the second-century Roman historian Suetonius as a reference to Jesus. It is doubtful that the passage in question refers to Jesus at all:
"Since the Jews constantly made
disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled
them from Rome" (Life of Claudius, XXv.4).
This passage by Suetonius, written between 112-120CE, is full of
problems if taken as referring to the Jesus of the Gospels. For
one, Claudius reign occurred several years after Jesus is alleged
to have died. Does anyone really maintain that Jesus was in Rome,
inciting riots, around 50CE? Even if Chrestus is taken as
referring to 'Christus,' this passage is still not clearly
referring to Jesus. Christus, or 'Messias,' is simply a messianic
title, not a personal name at all. We know from the work of
Josephus and others that there were a plethora of messianic
claimants who existed in Palestine in the first century, and who
were in fact provoking rebellion amongst the Jews in the period
before the Fall of Jerusalem in 70CE. Chrestus, on the other
hand, was a familiar personal name,
especially among Roman freedman. It means the 'Good' or
'excellent.' Either as 'Christus,' or as 'Christus,' the
identification of this passage with Jesus is doubtful. However,
even if it did indeed refer to Jesus, it would be about a century
too late to constitute any direct evidence.
Tacitus, in his Annals, relates that Nero blamed the great fire of Rome, around 64CE, on a class of men, "hated for there crimes, whom the people called christians." First, it must be reiterated that, even if the passage is authentic, Tacitus wrote far too late to have anything other than second-hand information about the existence of Jesus. The question must be, 'Did Tacitus derive his information from Christians?' The passage says that:
"[Nothing] succeeded in
destroying the belief that the fire had been purposely
lit. In order to put an end to this rumour, therefore,
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite
tortures on a class of men hated for their crimes, Called
Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name
had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the
reign of Tiberias at the hands of the procurator Pontius
Pilatus, but the pernicious superstition, thus checked
for a moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the
native land of the monstrosity, but also in Rome, to
which all conceivable horrors and abominations flow from
every side" (Annals, XV.44.2-8).
Several problems immediately present themselves. Firstly,
Tacitus' use of the word procurator in reference to Pilate
sproves that the author of this passage wrote in reliance on
Christian, rather than Roman, sources; Pilate was not a
'procurator' at all, he was a 'prefect'; the use of the word
'procurator' in reference to Pilate is a distinctly christian
error. There was no such thing as a 'procurator' until provincial
governors, under Emporer Claudius, were given the title 'procurator
Augusti.' That the passage uses this word shows that the
author was merely parroting what he had derived from christian
2) Like the other sources, this reference seems to have been curiously overlooked for centuries. Not a single one of the early church fathers mentions this passage. Tertullian quoted Tacitus, but never mentioned the passage, even though his arguments make clear that, if it had existed, he would have cited it. Eusebius, in the fourth century, made a search of all the Jewish and Pagan evidence for Christian origins, but makes no mention of the passage. Clement of Alexandria, at the beginning of the third century, set himself to the task of bringing together all the admissions and recognitions of Jesus made by Pagan and Jewish authors, but does not mention it. Origin, in his voluminous defenses of the authenticity of christianity against the likes of Celsus and others, never mentioned the passage, although it would have served his purposes quite well.
3) The passage is not cited at all until the fifteenth century, thirteen-hundred years after it was first published! The fidelity of the passage rests upon the fidelity of one man, who, in 1468, made the first printed copy of Tacitus from a single manuscript. The insertion of such an interpolation could have been easily accomplished.
THE YOUNGER [113CE]
Pliny the Younger, Proconsul of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), in a letter to Emporer Trajan, asks what he is to do with Christians. The letter reads:
"I have laid down this rule in
dealing with those who were brought before me for being
Christians. I asked whether they were Christians; if they
confessed, I asked them a second and a third time,
threatening them with punishment; if they persevered, I
ordered them to be executed.... They assured me that
their only crime or error was this, that they were wont
to come together on a certain day before it was light,
and to sing in turn, among themselves, a hymn to Christ,
as to a god, and to bindthemselves by an oath--not to do
anything that was wicked, that they would commit no
theft, robbery, or adultery, nor break their word, nor
deny that anything had been entrusted to them when called
upon to restore it.... I therefore deemed it the more
necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave
women whom they call deaconesses. But I found it was
nothing but a bad and excessive superstition.... the
sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being
performed again, and flesh of sacrificed victims is on
sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone
could be found to buy it."
though this passage offers no insight into the existence or
non-existence of Jesus, it is rather interesting for what it
tells us about the diversity of Christianity in the early second
century. The fact that "deaconesses"
are questioned means that the group in question is of a gnostic
or pseudo-gnostic persuasion; There were no deaconesses in the
christian groups who wrote the New Testament. Paul and
"Peter" both go quite a bit out of their way to clarify
women's role in the church; Paul says "let your
women keep silent in the churches, for it is not permitted unto
them to speak" (1 Cor 14:34). Again, in Timothy, he
I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the
man, but to be in silence."
Also, what are we to make of this last sentence, this assertion that the "flesh of sacrificed victims is on sale everywhere"? Is Pliny saying that the Christians were involved in the sale of the flesh of sacrificial victims? At any rate, the quote is interesting in itself, but not worth much on our quest for the historical Jesus.
A CRITICAL INQUIRY