nativity scene

Chapter 18

Journalist Louis Cassels wrote in 1973:

You can count on it. Every few years, some "scholar" will stir up a short-lived sensation by publishing a book that says something outlandish about Jesus...

The amazing thing about all these debunk-Jesus books is that they accept as much of the recorded Gospels as they find convenient, then ignore or repudiate other parts of the same document which contradict their notions.

Why Not More First Century Non-Christian References to Christ?

Recently we received a letter from an individual who wrote, "I'm an almost believer, but I do not wish to believe on blind faith.... Can you document for me nonbiblical historical accounts of the resurrection of Christ?"

One correspondent with Professor F. F. Bruce, former Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, posed the question a little more broadly:

What collateral proof is there in existence of the historical fact of the life of Jesus Christ?

Should we in fact expect the secular history records of Jesus' day to have preserved any mention of the life of Jesus, and if so, what kind of references should we expect?

What About Reports from Pilate?

If the Bible accurately portrays the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, wouldn't Pontius Pilate, of all people, have made some reports about it? Bruce answers:

People frequently ask if any record has been preserved of the report which, it is presumed, Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, sent to Rome concerning the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The answer is none. But let it be added at once that no official record has been preserved of any report which Pontius Pilate, or any other Roman governor of Judea, sent to Rome about anything. And only rarely has an official report from any governor of any Roman province survived. They may have sent in their reports regularly, but for the most part these reports were ephemeral documents, and in due course they disappeared.

It is interesting that even though today we have no reports about anything from Pilate or any other Roman governor of Judea, the early Christians apparently knew about Pilate's records concerning Jesus. Justin Martyr, writing in approximately A.D. 150, informs emperor Antoninus Pius of the fulfillment of Psalm 22:16:

But the words, "They pierced my hands and feet," refer to the nails which were fixed in Jesus' hands and feet on the cross; and after He was crucified, His executioners cast lots for His garments, and divided them among themselves. That these things happened you may learn from the "Acts" which were recorded under Pontius Pilate.

Justin also says:

That He performed these miracles you may easily satisfy yourself from the "Acts" of Pontius Pilate..

Bruce continues:

Similarly both Justin and Tertullian, another Christian apologist of a generation or two later, were sure that the census which was held about the time of our Lord's birth was recorded in the official archives of the reign of Augustus, and that anyone who took the trouble to look these archives up would find the registration of Joseph and Mary there.

Justin's statement is a bold one if in fact no record existed. Can you imagine a respected scholar writing the President of the United States a letter, which he knows will be carefully scrutinized, and building his case on official federal documents which do not exist? It did, however, apparently bother fourth century Christians that this record was not available in their day. An obviously forged "Acts of Pilate" was manufactured at that time. One indication of its falsity: It was addressed to Claudius even though Tiberias was emperor when Pilate governed Judea.

But why would someone in the fourth century want to forge a document from the first century? Aside from a warped view of what the Scriptures taught about honesty, part of the reason lies in the fact that first century documents were quite rare.

Just how much survived?

How much nonbiblical material on any subject actually survived from the first century? And of that material, in what parts would we expect to find references to Jesus? Again, Bruce relates:

When we are asked what "collateral proof' exists of the life of Jesus Christ, would it be unfair to begin by asking another question? In which contemporary writers -in which writers who flourished, say, during the first fifty years after the death of Christ -would you expect to find the collateral evidence you are looking for? Well, perhaps it would be rather unfair, as the man in the street can hardly be expected to know who was writing in the Graeco-Roman world during those fifty years; the classical student himself has to scratch his head in an attempt to remember who they were. It is surprising how few writings, comparatively speaking, have survived from those years of a kind which might be even remotely expected to mention Christ. (I except, for the present, the letters of Paul and several other New Testament writings.)

One prolific writer and contemporary of Jesus was Philo. He was born circa 15 B.C. and lived in Alexandria, Egypt, until his death sometime after A.D. 40 His works consist primarily of philosophy and commentary on Jewish Scripture and religion as they relate to Greek culture and philosophy. His family was one of the wealthiest in Alexandria. A reading of the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Philo will readily confirm Daniel-Rop's conclusion: "It is not unduly surprising that such a person should not pay much attention to an agitator sprung from the humblest of the people, whose doctrine, if he had one, had no connection with philosophy."

E. M. Blaiklock has catalogued the non-Christian writings of the Roman Empire (other than those of Philo) which have survived the first century and which do not mention Jesus. As you will see from our summary of Blaiklock in the following paragraphs, there is very little.

From the decade of the thirties practically nothing has survived. Velleius Paterculus, a retired army officer of Tiberias, published what was considered an amateurish history of Rome in A.D. 30. Only part of it has survived. Jesus was just beginning His ministry. Considering the time of the writing, and especially the segregation between Jewish and Roman towns in Galilee, it is unlikely that Paterculus ever even heard of Jesus. The Gospel writers give no evidence that Jesus ever set foot in Tiberias or any other Roman town in Galilee. Also surviving from the thirties is an inscription of Caesarea bearing two-thirds of Pilate's name.

All that is left from the forties are the fables written by Phaedrus, a Macedonian freedman.

Of the fifties and sixties, Blaiklock says:

Bookends set a foot apart on this desk where I write would enclose the works from those significant years. Curiously, much of it comes from Spanish emigrants in Rome, a foretaste of what the Iberian peninsula was to give to her conqueror- senators, writers, and two important emperors, Trajan and Hadrian. Paul had foresight when he set a visit to Spain in his program.

The works of this period include the philosophical treatises and letters of Roman statesman, writer and tutor of Nero, Seneca; the long poem of his nephew Lucan on the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey; a book on agriculture by the retired soldier, Columella; and large fragments of the novel Satyricon by the voluptuary, Gaius Petronius. Also surviving from this period are a few hundred lines of Roman satirist, Persius; the Elder Pliny's Historia Naturalis ("a collection of odd facts about the world of nature"); some fragments of Asconius Pedianus' commentary on Cicero; and the history of Alexander the Great by the little known Quintus Curtius. Blaiklock asks:

Of this handful of writers, would any have been likely to mention Christ? Perhaps Seneca, if in fact he met and talked with Paul. But there is small likelihood that this pleasant medieval legend is true. Besides, in A.D. 64, in the summer of which year Nero took hostile note of Rome's Christians, Seneca was a distracted and tormented man. A year later he was dead, driven to suicide by the mad young tyrant whom he had sought in vain to tame.

Check the works of the seventies and eighties to see if they might be candidates for mentioning a Jewish religious rabble-rouser now dead for forty years: Tacitus, who would become a great historian, published a minor work on oratory in A.D. 81. Several hundred witty poems or epigrams written by Martial in Rome survive but do not clearly mention the Christians. After Nero's mass killing of Christians in A.D. 64, it is no wonder that few Christians wanted to remain in Rome.

Josephus wrote during this period, and we will look at his comments about Jesus shortly. Two of his works, for good reasons, do not mention Jesus: Against Apion, an apologetic work contrasting the Jewish faith with Greek thought, and Wars of the Jews, a general history of the Jewish Wars from the time of the Maccabees to A.D. 70. A reading of both works is enough to show that any reference to Jesus in either one would have been out of place.

In the nineties, the poet Statius published Silvae, Quintilian published twelve books on oratory and Tacitus published two small books, one a monograph of his father-in-law, Agricola, and the other a monograph about what is now Germany. The subject matter of none of these would be expected to include anything about Jesus. Juvenal began his writings of satire just prior to the turn of the century. He does not mention the Christians. This again is not surprising. They were outlawed in Rome and therefore had to keep out of sight. A writer always increases his popularity by poking fun at those in the limelight rather than at those whom nobody knows.

There were, in addition, some writings from Qumran in the first century. Again, it is no big surprise - but expected - that they fail to mention Jesus. F. F. Bruce observes:

The Qumran community withdrew as far as possible from public life and lived in its wilderness retreat; Jesus carried on His ministry in places where people lived and worked, mixing with all sorts and conditions, and by preference (it appears) with men and women whose society pious men like those of Qumran would rather avoid. And, more important still, practically all the Qumran texts dealing with religious topics (so far as they have been published to date) are assigned on paleographical grounds to the pre-Christian decades.

When you consider the quantity and content of first-century writings which have survived, you can understand why we do not possess more non-Christian references to Jesus. R. T. France puts it this way:

From the point of view of Roman history of the first century, Jesus was a nobody. A man of no social standing, who achieved brief local notice in a remote and little-loved province as a preacher and miracle-worker, and who was duly executed by order of a minor provincial governor, could hardly be expected to achieve mention in the Roman headlines.

Some first-century works which did not survive almost certainly did not contain any references to Jesus. The one work with the best opportunity of mentioning Jesus but which apparently did not was the Chronicle by Justus of Tiberias. He was born at about the time Jesus died. Photius, in the ninth century, comments that his silence was due to his non-Christian bias as a Jew. When a writer of antiquity sought to discredit someone, he often used the common device of not mentioning him. As a result, his memory would not be preserved. In some areas of the Middle East, especially in Egypt, new rulers commonly attempted to erase all evidence of a previous ruler's existence by destroying all inscriptions and writings about him. Whether Justus consciously chose to ignore Jesus of Nazareth is impossible to tell since his work can't be analyzed. Living in Tiberias may have colored what he viewed as important. He may also have ignored Jesus along with a host of other messianic pretenders common in that day.

So one reason it is surprising that we have any non-Christian references to Jesus in the first century at all is that not much about anything of that day has survived to the present time. What did survive indicates the writers would not have known about or been interested in the person of Jesus.

What News Was Hot?

If the biblical description of Jesus' activities is accurate, wouldn't Jesus have attracted sufficient attention to be mentioned in first century writings? Aside from what was said above, we can also agree with G. A. Wells when he says, "Today Christianity has been so important for so long that one is apt to assume that it must have appeared important to educated pagans who lived A.D. 50-150."

The journalists of the first century, at least those whose works have been preserved to the present day, indicated they were concerned about such things as the major political events of the day. Read through portions of the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, even Josephus and others of that time period, and you will notice very quickly that they concerned themselves almost completely with the major political and international events of the day. When it came to religious events, only those which had bearing on the 46 more important" national and international affairs were mentioned.

A perfect example is Acts 25:19 where Festus, one of the closest political figures to the events of first-century Christianity, says, in speaking of the Jews and Paul, "They simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive." What Luke preserves here is the relatively small degree of importance which ruling officials attached to the religious events in first-century Palestine, at least those which seemed to have no political consequences. As a result, we ought to expect that the secular press of the day in Rome concerned itself more with the Roman attempts to protect its borders than with what was considered to be minor disagreements about religion. As France puts it:

Galilee and Judaea were at the time two minor administrative areas under the large Roman province of Syria, itself on the far eastern frontier of the empire. The Jews, among whom Jesus lived and died, were a strange, remote people, little understood and little liked by most Europeans of the time, more often the butt of Roman humor than of serious interest. Major events of Jewish history find their echo in the histories of the period, but was the life of Jesus, from the Roman point of view, a major event? The death of a failed Jewish insurrectionary leader was a common enough occurrence, and religious preachers were two a penny in that part of the empire, a matter of curiosity, but hardly of real interest, to civilized Romans. 29/20

There is another factor which pushes Christianity even further down the list of priorities in terms of hot news items. More conflicts are recorded in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees than between Jesus and any other group of people, yet increasing discoveries reveal that Jesus' teaching was closer in content to at least one of the schools of the Pharisees than to any other group in Israel at that time. We may therefore reasonably conclude that even a major confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees probably was only a meaningless religious squabble to any first-century historian -including Josephus.

Was Christianity a hot news item in the first century? For Christians it was -but for those in government and for the press, not really.

Is Absence of Evidence Evidence of Absence?

No one denies that the Christian church existed in the first century. Scholars recognize that even though Christianity did not attract much attention from first-century writers, it still would be impossible to deny its existence. Some scholars, therefore, are inconsistent when they argue for the lack of historicity of Jesus. As France brings out:

Those who suspect the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels on the grounds that there are so few early non-Christian references to Him, must surely, by the same argument, be even more skeptical as to whether the Christian church existed in the first century. But not even George Wells wishes to deny this! As has so often been noted, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In view of what has been discussed in this chapter, consider two questions: (1) What kind of reference to Jesus by a non-Christian would need to exist to incontrovertibly prove His existence? (2) Is it likely that any such reference survives today?

An incontrovertible reference to Jesus would first of all have to be from an eyewitness. But outside of Christian testimony, no surviving historical literature could even be expected to contain eyewitness references to Him. So the modern historian must seek non-Christian evidence for Jesus the same way he does for every other person of antiquity who was considered insignificant by the authorities of his day. He must analyze the credibility of secondhand reports.

Combine secondhand reports of Jesus (both non-Christian and Christian) with the eyewitness accounts recorded in the Gospels, and you will find that Jesus compares extremely favorably with other people in history whose historicity is not doubted. Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Liberty University, Gary Habermas, states concerning Jesus:

We can perceive all the more how groundless the speculations are which deny His existence or which postulate only a minimal amount of facts concerning Him. Much of ancient history is based on many fewer sources which are much later than the events which they record.... While some believe that we know almost nothing about Jesus from ancient, non-New Testament sources, this plainly is not the case. Not only are there many such sources, but Jesus is one of the persons of ancient history concerning whom we have a significant amount of quality data. His is one of the most-mentioned and most-substantiated lives in ancient times.

Blaiklock adds:

Historians would be glad to have authentic, multiple, congruent evidence on more personalities and events of ancient history.

Early Non-Christian References to Jesus


The material below is considerably expanded in He Walked Among Us, pages 35-70. In addition, one should not overlook the fact that our most reliable historical sources on the life of Jesus are the four Gospel narratives of the New Testament. This fact is also thoroughly documented in He Walked Among Us.

Ancient Secular Writers


A Roman historian, in A.D. 112, Governor of Asia, son-in-law of Julius Agricola, who was Governor of Britain A.D. 80-84. Writing of the reign of Nero, Tacitus alludes to the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians at Rome:

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 with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called 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 (Annals, XV. 44).

Tacitus has a further reference to Christianity in a fragment of his Histories, dealing with the burning of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70, preserved by Sulpicius Severus (Chron. ii. 30. 6).


A satirist of the second century, who spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians. He connected them with the synagogues of Palestine and alluded to Christ as 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 (The Passing Peregrinus).

Lucian also mentions the Christians several times in his Alexander the False Prophet, sections 25 and 29.


A Jewish historian, became a Pharisee at age 19; in A.D. 66 he was the commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee. After being captured, he was attached to the Roman headquarters. He says in a hotly contested quotation:

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 in 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 (Antiquities, xviii. 33. [early second century]).

The Arabic text of this passage is 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.

The above passage is found in the Arabic manuscript entitled: "Kitab Al-Unwan Al-Mukallal Bi-Fadail Al-Hikma Al-Mutawwaj Bi-Anwa Al-Falsafa Al-Manduh Bi-Haqaq Al-Marifa." The approximate translation would be: "Book of History Guided by All the Virtues of Wisdom. Crowned with Various Philosophies and Blessed by the Truth of Knowledge."

The above manuscript composed by Bishop Agapius in the tenth century has a section commencing with: "We have found in many books of the philosophers that they refer to the day of the crucifixion of Christ." Then he gives a list and quotes portions of the ancient works. Some of the works are familiar to modern scholars and others are not.

We also find from Josephus a reference to James the brother of Jesus. In Antiquities XX 9:1 he describes the actions of the high priest Ananus:

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 before it 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.


Another Roman historian, a court official under Hadrian, annalist of the Imperial House, Suetonius says: "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [another spelling of Christus], he expelled them from Rome" (Life of Claudius, 25.4).

He also writes: "Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition" (Lives of the Caesars, 26. 2)


Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (A.D. 112), Pliny was writing the emperor Trajan seeking counsel as to how to treat the Christians.

He explained that he had been killing both men and women, boys and girls. There were so many being put to death that he wondered if he should continue killing anyone who was discovered to be a Christian, or if he should kill only certain ones. He explained that he had made the Christians bow down to the statues of Trajan. He goes on to say that he also "made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do." In the same letter he says of the people who were being tried:

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).

TERTULLIAN (Regarding Pilate and Tiberius)

Jurist-theologian of Carthage, in a defense of Christianity (A.D. 197) before the Roman authorities in Africa, mentions the exchange between Tiberius and Pontius Pilate:

Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from 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 (Apology, V. 2).

Some historians doubt the historicity of this passage. Also, cf. Justin Martyr (Apology, 1. 35).

THALLUS, the Samaritan-born historian

One of the first Gentile writers who mentions Christ is Thallus, who wrote in A.D. 52. However, his writings have disappeared and we only know of them from fragments cited by other writers. One such writer is Julius Africanus, a Christian writer about A.D. 221. One very interesting passage relates to a comment from Thallus. Julius Africanus writes:

"Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun -unreasonably, as it seems to me" (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died).

Thus, from this reference we see that the Gospel account of the darkness which fell upon the land during Christ's crucifixion was well known and required a naturalistic explanation from those non-believers who witnessed it. 10/113

PHLEGON, a first-century historian

His Chronicles have been lost, but a small fragment of that work, which confirms the darkness upon the earth at the crucifixion, is also mentioned by Julius Africanus. After his (Africanus') remarks about Thallus' unreasonable opinion of the darkness, he quotes Phlegon that "during the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon." 60/n.p.

Phlegon is also mentioned by Origen in Contra Celsum, Book 2, sections 14, 33, 59.

Philopon [De. opif mund. 11 211 says: "And about this darkness ... Phlegon recalls it in the Olyinpiads [the title of his history]." He says that "Phlegon mentioned the eclipse which took place during the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, and no other [eclipse], it is clear that he did not know from his sources about any [similar] eclipse in previous times ... and this is shown by the historical account itself of Tiberius Caesar."


F. F. Bruce records that there is in the British Museum an interesting manuscript preserving the text of a letter written some time later than A.D. 73, but how much later we cannot be sure. This letter was sent by a Syrian named Mara Bar-Serapion to his son Serapion. Mara Bar-Serapion was in prison at the time, but he wrote to encourage his son in the pursuit of wisdom, and pointed out that those who persecuted wise men were overtaken by misfortune. He instances the deaths of Socrates, Pythagoras and Christ.

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 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. PythagDras 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.

References From the Rabbis


See He Walked Among Us, pp. 55ff., for an explanation of the various kinds of rabbinic literature.

Comments in the Baraia are of great historical value:

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 in Him naught in His defence and hanged Him on the eve of Passover (Babylonia Sanhedrin 43a). -"Eve of Passover."

The Amoa "U1la " ("Ulla" was a disciple of R. Youchanan and lived in Palestine at the end of the third century) adds:

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.

The Jewish authorities did not deny that Jesus performed signs and miracles (Matthew 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22) but they attributed them to acts of sorcery.

"The Talmud, " writes the Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner, "speaks of hanging in place of crucifixion, since this horrible Roman form of death was only known to Jewish scholars from Roman trials, and not from the Jewish legal system. Even Paul the apostle (Galatians 3:13) expounds the passage 'for a curse of God is that which is hanged' (Deuteronomy 22:23) as applicable to Jesus."

Sanhedrin 43a also makes references to the disciples of Jesus (Yeb. IV 3. 49a):

R. Shimeon ben Azzai said [concerning Jesus]: "I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress."

Klausner adds to the above:

Current editions of the Mishnah add: "To support the words of R. Yehoshua" (who, in the same Mishnah, says: What is a bastard? Everyone whose parents are liable to death by the Beth Din). That Jesus is here referred to seems to be beyond doubt.

An early Baraita, in which R. Eliezer is the central figure, speaks of Jesus by name. The brackets are within the quote. Eliezer speaking:

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 her" -that is Minuth; "and come not nigh the door of her house" -that is the civil government.

The above brackets are found in Dikduke Sof'rim to Aboda Zara (Munich Manuscript, ed. Rabinovitz).

Klausner, commenting on the above passage, says:

There can be no doubt that the words, "one of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth," and, "thus Jesus of Nazareth taught me," are, in the present passage both early in date and fundamental in their bearing on the grounds of the slight variations in the parallel passages; their variants ("Yeshu ben Pantere" or "Yeshu ben Pandera," instead of "Yeshu of Nazareth") are merely due to the fact that, from an early date, the name "Pantere," or "Pandera," became current among the Jews as the name of the reputed father of Jesus.

Encyclopedia Britannica

The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica uses 20,000 words in describing this person, Jesus. His description took more space than was given to Aristotle, Cicero, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Buddha, Confucious, Mohammed or Napoleon Bonaparte.

Concerning the testimony of the many independent secular accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, it records:

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.

The Jewishness of Jesus

Just after World War II, a Scottish minister, R. A. Stewart, wrote: "A proper historical understanding of the New Testament is impossible without a detailed knowledge of Jewish literature and thought."

His words proved almost prophetic -many Jewish scholars today are in the forefront of affirming the historicity of Jesus. Geza Vermes, David Flusser, S. Safrai and Pinchas Lapide lead the way in reclaiming Jesus as a striking Jewish person of the first century. Vermes even asserts that "no objective and enlightened student of the Gospels can help but be struck by the incomparable superiority of Jesus."

Professor Donald A. Hagner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, has written a detailed analysis of the current reclamation of Jesus in Jewish scholarship. Concerning the contributions provided from the Hebrew perspective, he states:

It will be obvious that Jewish scholars are in a particularly advantageous position to understand the teaching of Jesus. Familiar with the Bible (Old Testament), the development of early Judaism, the Jewish background of the Gospels, and often learned in the difficult world of rabbinic literature, they are often able not only to place Jesus in historical context but also to enter the mental world of Jesus and to capture every Jewish nuance in His words.

The Jewishness of Jesus and the pervasive Hebraic quality of His surroundings repeatedly surface in the Gospel accounts. Yet much of past New Testament scholarship has failed to deal with this critical aspect of the life of the historical Jesus. If one is to see Jesus of Nazareth as He actually was when He traversed the land of Palestine, then one cannot ignore the evidence of His Jewishness.

Jewish scholarship has helped most to identify Jesus' Jewishness by showing the parallels between His teaching and rabbinic teaching. When you compare these teachings, you can begin to see how far-fetched the idea is that the life of Jesus was made up by zealous churchmen of the second and third centuries. As the leadership of the church shifted from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome between the first and fourth centuries, there also was a predominant shift from a Jewish Christianity to a Gentile Christianity. In fact, the history of the first two centuries of the church confirms that it was primarily Gentile in character by the beginning of the second century A.D. It would therefore be highly unlikely for a Gentile of the second century or later to mold an account of the life of Jesus which so thoroughly reflected the first-century Hebrew culture.

The Jews of Jesus' day were meticulous educators, as they have been throughout most of their history. A passage from the Mishnah (Aboth 5.15) demonstrates their active concern about what their students absorbed:

There are four types of people who sit in front of the sages: The sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sifter. The sponge -it soaks up everything; the funnel -it takes in at one end and lets out at the other; the strainer-it lets out the wine and retains the dregs; and the sifter-it lets out the bran dust and retains the fine flour.

In order to stimulate the student not to just "memorize the right answers," the teacher, or rabbi, would ask questions of his students. Not only were the students expected to be able to answer the questions, but they also were expected to answer them by phrasing equally good questions, showing that they had thought through the original questions thoroughly. Perhaps this is why Rabbi Hillel said, "A timid student does not learn." Aboth 2.6) David Bivin, the director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Studies, writes:

This pattern of answering questions with questions was so common that in the Hebrew of Jesus' day the word for "question" came to be a synonym for "answer."

Biven gives several examples which illustrate the deep Jewish roots of Jesus' learning and teaching styles:

Twelve-year-old Jesus was lost and finally discovered by His parents, "sitting in the Temple among the rabbis, listening to them and asking them questions" (Luke 2:46). The Gospel writer comments in the following verse, "And all those listening to Him were amazed at His wise answers." If Jesus was only asking questions, how is it that the listeners were impressed by His answers? This would seem very strange indeed if one did not know that in the rabbinic world in which Jesus lived, a student's answers were given in the form of questions....

Jesus answered a question with a question on other occasions as well. When He was asked by the Temple authorities what right He had to do "these things" (cleansing the Temple), He answered by saying, "I will also ask you something. Now tell me, was John's baptism of God or of men?" (Luke 20:3-4) ...

The best example in the teaching of Jesus of the kind of question a rabbi commonly would ask his students is found in Luke 20:41-44, in which he asked:

How can one say that the Messiah is the descendant (literally "son") of David? David himself says in the book of Psalms, "the LORD said to my lord, "Sit here at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool." David calls Him Lord, so how can He be His descendant?

This is a typical rabbinic riddle based on a seeming contradiction in a passage of Scripture.

The first of Hillel's rules of interpretation was called kal vachomer (simple and complex). This principle has to do with deducing something that is not very apparent from something that is apparent or already known. It often uses the words how much more as in "Silence becomes a scholar; how much more a fool" (Tosefta: Pesachim 9:2). Mishnah: Sanhedrin 6.5 is another example:

Rabbi Meir said, "While the man is in agony, what does the Tongue say? 'My head is hurting! My arm is hurting!' If the Scripture has thus spoken: 'I agonize over the blood of the wicked,' how much more over the blood of the righteous that is shed?"

Jesus used this same rabbinic device in His teaching. One example is found in Matthew 7:9-11 where He says:

Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!

In Matthew 6:28-30, Jesus says:

But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, 0 men of little faith?

Jesus, being Jewish and thoroughly acquainted with the teachings of the rabbis, makes a number of statements which have close parallels in the rabbinic literature. Professor Gustaf Dalman, founder of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity in the Holy Land, gives the following among many others:


And by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you (Matthew 7:2, Mark 4:24, Luke 6:38).


With the measure with which one measures, it will be measured unto him (Sot. 1. 7; Tos. Sot. 3.1,2; Siphre, 28b).


Therefore whatever you want others to do for you, do so for them; for this is the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31).


What is hateful to thee, do it not unto thy neighbor. This is the whole Law and the rest is the interpretation thereof (Hillel. b. Sab. 31a). [The "Golden Rule" has been taught in many different forms. Jesus' version is unique in that it is a positive rather than negative approach. He does not say "Don't do what you don't want others to do to you," like Hillel. This approach only keeps one from doing harmful actions. Rather, Jesus says, "Do what you would like others to do for you." This approach, while eliminating harmful actions, also adds the responsibility to do acts of kindness, benevolence, etc. to others.]


Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).


Whenever thou art merciful, God is merciful to thee (p. Bab. k. 60).

While the similarities of Jesus' teaching to that of the rabbis provides substantial evidence for the historicity of Jesus as a first-century teacher, some may wonder if there was anything at all unique about Jesus. Rabbi H. G. Enelow has observed the following tension between Jewish and Christian writers:

Jewish writers have tried to prove that anything taught by Jesus may be found in Jewish literature, and that therefore He could not be called original; while Christians have deemed it necessary to defend Jesus against the charge of borrowing or reproducing from Jewish sources, lest His originality be impugned.

Traditionally Jewish people have been taught that anything good in the Gospels is nothing new; anything new is nothing good. The truth is that there is much that flows out of the teaching of the rabbis, and there is much that is unique to Jesus. A good example is in Jesus' use of parables as a teaching device.

The two standard authoritative reference works on the parables of Jesus are C. H. Dodd's The Parables of the Kingdom and Göttingen professor of New Testament and late Jewish religion, Joachim Jeremias's The Parables of Jesus. Both affirm that readers must interpret Jesus' parables within their original life setting. They defend the parables as being authentically from Jesus, for the content of the parables emerges from the historical Jewish situation of Jesus as opposed to the situation of the early church.

Christians and non-Christians alike have almost universally appreciated the parables of Jesus as a supreme teaching device. But it is important to realize that this mode of instruction was not unique to Jesus. Jewish literature preserves more than four thousand rabbinic parables. Here is an example of one such parable:

A person in whom there are good deeds and who has studied the Torah extensively, what is he like? A man who builds first [of] stones and then afterwards [of] mud bricks. Even if a large quantity of water were to collect beside the stones, it would not destroy them. But a person in whom there are not good deeds, though he has studied Torah, what is he like? A man who builds first [of] mud and then afterwards [of] stones. Even if only a little water collects, it immediately undermines them.

Now, compare the above parable with the parable which Jesus gives in Matthew 7:24-27:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall.

So what makes Jesus so different? What was it that Jesus said that seems to have caught the attention of the world for nearly two thousand years? How was He different from the rabbis who preceded Him? David Bivin answers that question here:

It was not the way He taught or even the general content of His teaching that made Jesus unique among the rabbis. What was unique about Jesus was who He claimed to be, and He rarely ever taught without claiming to be not only God's Messiah, but more startlingly, Immanuel, "God with us."

It is just this claim that marks a difference between Jesus' parable of the house built on bedrock and all other rabbinic parables which deal with the same theme. All the other rabbis spoke of knowing and doing the words of Torah, but Jesus introduced His parable with the words, "A person who hears these words of mine and does them . . . " No other rabbi is recorded as ever having spoken like that or having made the claims inherent in Jesus' words. He was clearly speaking as only God would speak, and none of His contemporaries could have missed or ignored that fact.

The rabbinic parallels to sayings of Jesus confirm again that the Gospel accounts give us a reliable picture of the historical Jesus. The Jesus of the Gospels was not a Jesus made up by the early church, but a thoroughly Jewish teacher from within the Jewish culture, yet one who spoke out in a uniquely prophetic fashion.

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