During a discussion of William Shakespeare, a student asked the old professor about the en vogue theory that Shakespeare did not write the plays ascribed to him.
The professor growled, "Young man, if Shakespeare did not write those plays,then they were written by someone who lived at the same time and had the same name!"
It is a sure sign of desperation: In disbelieving circles, one of the most popular ideas to come to the fore recently is the "Jesus-myth" - the idea that Jesus did not even exist, much less conduct a ministry as described in the New Testament. It is an idea that one would suppose would be relegated to the pages of the Weekly World News - and it might even be funny, were it not for the fact that there are so many who take it seriously and are extremely vocal in their seriousness.
At first glance, the "Jesus-myth" seems to be a stroke of genius: To eliminate Christianity and any possibility of it being true, just eliminate the founder! The idea was first significantly publicized by a 19th-century German scholar named Bruno Bauer. Following Bauer, there were a few other supporters: Couchoud, Gurev, Augstein [Chars.JesJud 97-8] . Today the active believer is most likely to have waved in their faces one of two supporters of this thesis: The turn-of-the-century writer Arthur Drews, or the myth-thesis' most prominent and prolific supporter, G. A. Wells, who has published five books on the subject.
Does the "Jesus-myth" have any scholarly support? In this case, to simply say "no" would be an exaggeration! Support for the "Jesus-myth" comes not from historians, but from writers operating far out of their field. (G. A. Wells, for example, is a professor of German.) The greatest support for the "Jesus-myth" comes not from people who know the subject, but from popularizers and those who accept their work uncritically. It is this latter group that we are most likely to encounter - and sadly, arguments and evidence seldom faze them. In spite of the fact that relevant scholarly consenus is unanimous that the "Jesus-myth" is incorrect, it continues to be promulgated on a popular level as though it were absolutely proven.
Objection: Just because a consensus of historians say that the Jesus-myth is wrong does not mean that it is wrong. The historians could be wrong. They could also be biased. Since this subject is dominated by theological agendas and philosophical presuppositions, a scholarly consensus does not constitute evidence for the existence of Jesus.
As silly as this may sound, it is actually the core of many arguments made in favor of the "Jesus-myth"! Behind every historian there is a conspiracy, a bias, or some gross error of judgment - and sometimes even the ancient historians are in on the conspiracy, too! At the end of this chapter we will offer some counsel for dealing with those who advance this type of argument, but for now, let's deal with this objection and take it seriously.
Of course, it is quite possible that all of the professional historians (even those with no religious interest!) are biased or wrong, while proponents of the "Jesus-myth" are the objective ones. And yes, a consensus does not equate with evidence. But a consensus on any historical question is usually based on evidence which is analyzed by those who are recognized as authoritative in their field, and therefore may be taken at their word. If this were not the case, why should there be any criteria for someone being a historian at all? Why should we not just pick a vagrant at random off the street and let him/her compose an official history of 20th-century America for the Smithsonian archives?
Therefore, while scholarly consensus is not itself evidence, it does function as a "weighting" or "warning" sign: if one agrees with peers who are detailed-students of the same subject matter, then less evidence is needed than would be needed if we disagreed with their consensus (as a very small minority). We would require not just a "good argument" but we would also have to refute all of the consensus arguments first. In other words, evidence may be mediated through expert witness and consensus. Therefore, the argument that consensus does not count as evidence, while correct in its own way, cannot be allowed to stand as a dismissal of consensus, nor as a leveling of the playing field. It is almost like the criteria, "extraordinarily bizarre positions require extraordinary evidence," that operates in scholarly circles. Such a minority position as the "Jesus-myth" is not courageous, but foolhardy - unless one has considerably stronger evidence than the majority; and even then, speculation about alternate views of historical references, such as is commonly found in "Jesus-myth" circles, is not going to keep the sawed-off limb up in the air!
If proponents of the "Jesus-myth" were either qualified historians or had equivalent knowledge, then their counter-consenus position might deserve to be taken more seriously. However, the overwhelming prevalance of tortured explanations, inventive theories, arguments from silence, and outright misrepresentations to get around the evidence that Jesus existed mitigates strongly against offering the Jesus-mythers any scholastic solace. The argument is more than that writers like G. A. Wells are scholars out of their field; it is also that their being out of their field shows like a gaping wound! Drews, for example [Drew.WH, 16-17] , attempting to show that there were arguments that Jesus did not exist in early church history, cited these quotes from Justin's Dialogue with Trypho:
(Trypho speaking): Ye follow an empty rumor, and make a Christ for yourselves.
...If he was born and lived somewhere, he is entirely unknown.
Drews writes with the implication that these quotes refer to Jesus, and that it was Jesus who was "made" and who was "entirely unknown." But these quotes set in their original context - Chapter 8 of the dialogue - make it quite clear that Trypho is not referring to Jesus. Trypho takes Jesus' historicity for granted throughout the debate with Justin. What Trypho means is that the Messiah - which is to say, the office of the Messiah - has been created by the Christians: He is saying that the "Christ" has not come in Jesus, but that Christians have made Jesus a Christ for themselves; and if the true Messiah was born and lived somewhere, he is entirely unknown! This argument by Drews, depending as it does on taking Trypho's quotes badly out of their context, should be an extreme embarrassment to other mythicist advocates!
The modern defender of the "Jesus-myth" fares no better. G. A. Wells has also picked up on the "Trypho error" in his latest work. In another place, attempting to explain why Pilate was chosen as the person who authorized the death of his fictional Jesus, Wells says that he was selected because he was "particularly detested by the Jews, and is indeed the only one of the prefects who governed Judea between AD 6 and 41 who attracted sufficient attention to be discussed by the two principal Jewish writers of the first century," Philo and Josephus. [Hoff.JesH, 39-40] In other words, Pilate was chosen because he seemed like he would do something like the Gospels describe! One wonders how such fragile reasoning could possibly be taken seriously!
Quite simply, one must ignore a great deal of evidence, and treat what evidence is left most unfairly, in order to deny that Jesus existed. Greco-Roman historian Michael Grant, who certainly has no theological axe to grind, indicates that there is more evidence for the existence of Jesus than there is for a large number of famous pagan personages - yet no one would dare to argue their non-existence. Meier [Meie.MarJ, 23] notes that what we know about Alexander the Great could fit on only a few sheets of paper; yet no one doubts that Alexander existed. Charlesworth has written that "Jesus did exist; and we know more about him than about almost any Palestinian Jew before 70 C.E." [Chars.JesJud, 168-9] Sanders [Sand.HistF, xiv] echoes Grant, saying that "We know a lot about Jesus, vastly more than about John the Baptist, Theudas, Judas the Galilean, or any of the other figures whose names we have from approximately the same date and place." On the Crucifixion, Harvey writes: "It would be no exaggeration to say that this event is better attested, and supported by a more impressive array of evidence, than any other event of comparable importance of which we have knowledge from the ancient world." [Harv.JesC, 11] Dunn [Dunn.EvJ, 29] provides an anecdote similar to the one above regarding Shakespeare. Referring to Wells' thesis, he writes:
The alternative thesis is that within thirty years there had evolved such a coherent and consistent complex of traditions about a non-existent figure such as we have in the sources of the Gospels is just too implausible. It involves too many complex and speculative hypotheses, in contrast to the much simpler explanation that there was a Jesus who said and did more or less what the first three Gospels attribute to him. The fact of Christianity's beginnings and the character of its earliest tradition is such that we could only deny the existence of Jesus by hypothesizing the existence of some other figure who was a sufficient cause of Chrstianity's beginnings - another figure who on careful reflection would probably come out very like Jesus!
Finally, let's seal the coffin on consenus with these words from a hardened skeptic and an Emeritus Professor of History, Morton Smith [Hoff.JesH, 47-8] . Of Wells' work, this historian and skeptic of orthodox Christianity wrote:
"I don't think the arguments in (Wells') book deserve detailed refutation."
"...he argues mainly from silence."
"...many (of his arguments) are incorrect, far too many to discuss in this space."
"(Wells) presents us with a piece of private mythology that I find incredible beyond anything in the Gospels."
None of these scholars, we emphasize, is a friend of fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity. Contrary to the protestations of the "Jesus-myth" consortium, they make their statements based on evidence, not ideology. Conspiracy and bias exist only in their own imagination.
Objection: If Jesus existed and was so famous, we should have heard a lot more about him in historical sources outside the New Testament and the Church Fathers. The fact that so little was written about Jesus indicates that he was the creation of the church.
On the contrary, the fact that we have as much information as we do about Jesus from non-Christian sources is amazing in itself. John P. Meier [Meie.MarJ, 7-9] and Murray Harris [Harr.3Cruc, 24-27] have indicated several reasons why Jesus remained a "marginal Jew" about whom we have so little information:
A final consideration is that we have very little information from first-century sources to begin with. Not much has survived the test of time from A.D. 1 to today. Blaiklock has cataloged the non-Christian writings of the Roman Empire (other than those of Philo) which have survived from the first century and do not mention Jesus. These items are:
To this Meier adds [ibid., 23] that in general, knowledge of the vast majority of ancient peoples is "simply not accessible to us today by historical research and never will be." It is just as was said in his earlier comment on Alexander the Great: What we know of most ancient people as individuals could fit on just a few pieces of paper. Thus it is misguided for the skeptic to complain that we know so little about the historical Jesus, and have so little recorded about Him in ancient pagan sources. Compared to most ancient people, we know quite a lot about Jesus, and have quite a lot recorded about Him!
What About the Christians?
In this chapter we will only deal briefly with the question of whether the testimony of the New Testament and/or the Church Fathers offer sufficient evidence for the existence and life of Jesus. Most historians would agree that these sources are sufficient to testify to the existence of Jesus. Whether they are reliable reports of Jesus' life is another matter, one best taken up in other chapters.
On the more practical and popular level, using the New Testament and the Church Fathers as proof of the existence of Jesus is generally fruitless. As we might guess from the typical reaction to the opinion of professional historians, the Jesus-myth adherent will automatically say, "Well, the Bible and the Church Fathers are biased. Of course they assert that Jesus was real." Those words often bring the popular level of the argument to an end.
So, for our purposes, there is really no need to go much further into this facet of the subject, other than to quote Harris' illustrative anecdote, which although of a slightly different application, makes the point we seek [Harr.3Cruc, 25] :
Behind the call for additional non-Christian witnesses to the existence of Jesus is the refusal to accept the testimony of the four writers we do have. Should we reject the four because they are not forty? The silence of the imaginary majority cannot overthrow the clear testimony of the few. This demand for other witnesses reminds me of the anecdote about a man accused of theft. At his trial the prosecuting attorney brought forward four witnesses who saw him commit the crime, while the defense attorney introduced as evidence fourteen persons who did not see him do it. Needless to say, the man was found guilty!
To put it succinctly, the rule of parsimony, or simplest theory, applies here. It is used explicitly as a criterion for deciding between rival hypothesis of equal explanatory power, and the simplest theory wins. (Or, as one reader put it: "Not only does Hypothesis A have more items that beg experimental support than Hypothesis B has, some of them are bigger beggars than those in Hypothesis B." Occam's Razor is a logical fallacy and one that a scientist [like a physicist] ought to NOT use to eliminate theories; but historians may be able to use it in a form like this.) Even if we do grant the wildly outrageous view that the "Jesus-myth" has equal explanatory power, it would be rejected by the law of parsimony. But, since it fails to explain the vast majority of the details - passion of the few, triumph in closed locales, resistance to modification by subsequent cultures, uniformity in variegated sources, etc. - it never even makes it this far. Parsimony, we say in summary, is closely related to plausibility, and the most parsimonius and plausible explanation for the origin of Christianity in this regard is that Jesus actually existed.
With that, we now turn to non-Christian sources for the life and existence of Jesus. For each of these references, we will ask these questions, as applicable:
Is this a genuine reference, or are there doubts about its veracity? Does it really refer to Jesus?
Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?
What objections have been registered against this citataion?
What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?
We conclude that we find three levels of source material:
Cornelius Tacitus: Nero's Scapegoats
[Data and Quote] [Forged?] [Reliability] [Source-Critical Capability] [Bias] [Procurator/Prefect Issue] [Use of "Christus"] [Reference to a "Multitude"] [Conclusions]
Tacitus was a Roman historian writing early in the 2nd century A.D. His Annals provide us with a single reference to Jesus of considerable value. Rather frustratingly, much of his work has been lost, including a work which covers the years 29-32, where the trial of Jesus would have been had he recorded it. [Meie.MarJ, 89]
Here is a full quote of the cite of our concern, from Annals 15.44. Jesus and the Christians are mentioned in an account of how the Emperor Nero went after Christians in order to draw attention away from himself after Rome's fire of 64 AD:
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 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, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
A survey of the literature indicates that this citation by Tacitus has not been given enough regard, having often been overshadowed by the citations in Josephus (see next entry). Respected Christian scholar R. T. France, for example, does not believe that the Tacitus passage provides sufficient independent testimony for the existence of Jesus [Franc.EvJ, 23] and agrees with Jesus-mythicist G. A. Wells that the citation is of little value. It is unfortunate that France so readily agreed with Wells' assessment. An investigation into the methods and background of Tacitus, as reported by Tacitean scholars (whose works, incidentally, France does not consult), tells us that this is an extremely reliable reference to Jesus and for early Christianity.
Is this a genuine reference, or are there doubts about its veracity?
Very few would assert that this passage is a forgery [though see Cutn.JGMM, 111-2], for the evidence is strongly in favor of the genuineness of this passage. The passage is in perfect Tacitean style; it appears in every known copy of the Annals (although there are very few copies of it, and none dates earlier than the 11th century), and the anti-Christian tone is so strong that it is extremely unlikely that a Christian could have written it. (Indeed, the Tacitean polemic against Christianity is so strong that it was one of two things Tacitus was condemned for in the sixteenth century - the other being that he wrote in bad Latin! - [Dor.Tac, 149] , and it is even said that Spinoza liked Tacitus because of his anti-Jewish and anti-Christian bias! [Momig.CFou, 126] )
This is not to say that there are not those whom we may encounter who will suggest that this passage is an interpolation. Some will weakly suggest that because no church father quotes the passage early in church history, it must have been added later. No church father, however, would have willingly quoted such a negative reference to Jesus and the Christians; moreover, indications are that Tacitus wrote for a very limited audience of his peers. The Annals may not have gotten into the Church's hands at an early date. The idea that this passage is an interpolation is no more credible than the idea held in the 19th century that Tacitus' entire works are fifteenth-century forgeries!
Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?
The answer here is: Absolutely! The Tacitean literature is full of praise for the accuracy, care, critical capability, and trustworthiness of the work of Tacitus, and it is singularly unfortunate that many writers in this subject area have failed to appreciate this!
Let's look at a number of quotes from scholars in the Tacitean camp:
We therefore conclude that there is every reason to trust Tacitus as reliable.
Objection: Tacitus may have borrowed his information of Jesus from Christians or from Pliny the Younger, or from some other secondhand source. It may not be reliable.
Overall, Tacitus' reliability as a historian counts against his having borrowed information uncritically from any source. Moreover, and as further support:
More generally, let's look at how carefully Tacitus analyzed and sifted his sources, according to the Taciteans:
In short, Tacitus was a VERY careful historian - he would certainly not trust a source that he held in such disdain as he did Christians, and he would carefully check material that came to him, even from his friends.
Finally, let us add that there was no need for Tacitus to get his information from Pliny - he had plenty of Christians in his own province of Asia where he was governor, if not more Christians than Pliny, and he was probably aware of Trajan's edict concerning Christians, which we will discuss below.
Objection: Tacitus had no motive to investigate his information on Christ. He may have accepted information from Christians uncritically.
Wells suggests that Tacitus "was merely repeating what Christians were then saying" [Well.WhoW, 20] ; "was surely glad to accept from Christians their own view that Christianity was a recent religion, since the Roman authorities were prepared to tolerate only ancient cults," [Well.HistEv, 17; Well.JesL, 42] and "(t)he context of Tacitus' remarks itself suggests that he relied on Christian informants."
This, as we have noted above, would be completely out of character for Tacitus: Careful inquiry was indeed part of Tacitus' modus operandi. (Ironically, in reference to the fact that Tacitus does not even say in the passage where Pilate ruled, Wells says, "Tacitus cannot be expected to give the life history of every incidental character he mentions." - [Well.JEaC, 186] . Would that he applied that criteria to Jesus in such a way!) Moreover, we have clear evidence that Tacitus would not simply repeat what he was told by people whom he disliked: When reporting on the history and beliefs of the Jews, whom he despised as much as the Christians, it seems fairly obvious from the disparaging descriptions given that Tacitus was not inclined to consult the Jews' "own view" or even "Jewish informants." Certainly no Jew told Tacitus the horrible things he suggested about the origins of Judaism!
But in a more positive light, we can also find two possible additional reasons for Tacitus to have investigated Christianity carefully:
First, a likely cause for investigation erupted right in Tacitus' backyard, so to speak, in Rome c. 95 A.D. Emperor Domitian's niece Domatilla, and her husband Favius Clemens, were accused of "atheism," related to "being carried away into Jewish customs." Judaism of course was a recognized religion, so it is quite likely that the "Jewish custom" referred to is Christianity [Benk.PagRo, 15-16] . Here, then, was a perfect motive for Tacitus to investigate the movement historically: Some of Rome's highest-placed people seem to have joined the movement!
Second, Tacitus seems to have had an interest in "pretenders," notably those who claimed to have been risen from the dead! Bowersock [Luc.TacT, 5] notes that Tacitus offers an "exceptionally detailed account" of "an adventurer who claimed to be a resurrected Nero," and also offered two other similar stories. In light of this, Tacitus would probably have shown a rather strong interest in claims of some kind of "pretender" being raised from the dead, as was the case with Jesus. (As an added note, considering the trouble that Tacitus records was gone to in order to unmask these "pretenders," a persuasive case can be made for Roman investigation into the claims of Christianity. The fact that Tacitus does not report any sort of "debunking" of Christus is even more significant!)
Benko [Benk.PagRo, 16] summarizes by noting that Tacitus "was too good a historian not to look into the origin of the cult" once he had reason to look into it, and that reason is provided either by Domatilla (as Benko suggests), by Tacitus' special interest in "pretenders," or by the accusations of Nero concerning the fire. Tacitus would check his sources carefully, and this makes his reference to Jesus all the more valuable.
The issue now turns to the question: Where did Tacitus get his information of Jesus? Truthfully, there is no way to tell. Ancient historians generally felt no obligation to reveal their sources. (Dudley [Dud.Tac, 28] writes in this regard: "...an ancient historian was under no obligation to give his sources in detail, nor even to mention them at all," and Grant [Gran.Tac, 20] adds that "systematic, careful references are a modern invention.") Tacitus could have gotten his information from the work of historians whom he trusted, and whose work is now lost to us. His information may have come from common knowledge. Suggestions have also been made that Tacitus got his information from Josephus, but this is rejected by Tacitean scholars: Mendell, for example, says that Tacitus "clearly knew nothing" about Josephus [Mende.Tac, 217 - see also Hada.FJos, 223] ). A common suggestion is that Tacitus got his information from Rome's imperial archives - perhaps from a letter or account written by Pilate. This leads to our next issue:
Objection: Tacitus would not have had permission to consult the imperial archives, and even if he did, it was not his regular practice to consult written documents.
Wells and others object that it is unlikely that Tacitus accessed official documents or had access to the imperial archives. Evangelical scholar Murray Harris writes that these records "were secret so that even the senate needed special permission to consult them (Tacitus, Hist. 4.40)" [Harr.GosP5, 352] . Does this thereby eliminate the possibility that Tacitus found out his information through this important source?
Both facets of this objection can be answered simultaneously. The imperial archives were indeed jealously guarded: In the cite noted by Harris from Tacitus' Histories, the Senate asks the Emperor Domitian for permission to consult the imperial archives - and Tacitus indicates that permission was granted! But what of Tacitus himself? Nothing from Tacitus' own works tell us anything about whether Tacitus himself needed special permission to consult the imperial archives. He does not tell us how difficult it was to get permission, or that he himself received (or did not receive) such permission, or how often he did get or needed to get access. However, a look at Tacitus' background suggest that if anyone would be able to get that very special permission to consult the imperial archives, Tacitus would be an excellent candidate! Consider the qualifications Tacitus enjoyed, according to Hutchins [Hutch.Tac, v] , Benario [Benar.Tac, 12-4, 19] , Grant [Gran.Tac, 7] , Dorey [Dor.Tac, 5-7] , and Mellor [Mell.Tac, 8-9] :
So it is safe to say that if anyone had access to the imperial archives, or would easily be able to get permission to see them, Tacitus had all the credentials to suspect that he would be able to do so! But beyond that, we may ask about the second facet of this objection: Is there any actual evidence that Tacitus consulted original documents generally, and governmental records specifically? Again, the answer is, absolutely! Tacitean scholars agree that the historian did indeed access governmental and public records, and did indeed consult original documents:
So Wells is obviously not in agreement with Tacitean scholars on the matter of Tacitus' consultation of written documents, and thus it is worthwhile to ask where exactly he does get his information! His source, it turns out, is a scholar named Fabia. [Well.JEaC, 187] Who is Fabia? The Taciteans are familiar with the name: Mendell [Mende.Tac, 211] notes the work of Philippe Fabia from 1893, where he wrote of Tacitus: "Primary sources, documents, records, inscriptions, and the like...were rarely consulted." However, Mendell writes, "the conclusions (by Fabia) drawn are inconsistent with the reputation of Tacitus as evidenced by the letters of Pliny and with the impression given by Tacitus himself," who "not only states that he intends to compare various accounts, but constantly cites sources of information, even though he less frequently names the authority."
Syme notes further [Sym.Tac, 282] that the arguments of Fabia and those who agreed with him are based mostly on a single passage in Tacitus where he says that he was not able to give some information that should have been in the acta diurna. Hence, it was assumed by Fabia that he had no access to it! Syme points out that Tacitus gives an explanation for not being able to get the information, and "he deserves to be taken at his word." Wells has relied upon a badly outdated and highly incorrect source for his argument! It is salient to point out here again something that cannot be emphasized enough: This type of mistake is committed only by people working outside their field, as Wells is. Tacitean scholars have the breadth of judgment and background to know that Fabia is bogus; that Wells uses him as reliable source indicates Wells' radical unfamiliarity with the scholarship in Tacitean studies. Again, this cannot be overemphasized - the mark of a novice is their uncritical use of sources and methods within a discipline. Genuine scholars, with training and background in specialty, know how to use sources critically and keep the arguments and evidence in perspective!
Objection: Tacitus is a biased historian who often manipulated his data. His reference to Jesus may have been affected by this bias.
We note, of course, that all recorded history is biased and manipulated history, and we also note that there is no indication of any bias in the Jesus passage. Nevertheless, we consider it wise to explore this avenue. It shall be our aim to show that Tacitus' bias does not affect the reliability of the Jesus passage, nor indeed his reliability generally.
How is this matter to be formulated? Kraus and Woodman [KrWoo.LHn, 97, 100] serve as an example, charging Tacitus with bias and with both rhetorical and literary manipulation of material for his own purposes. (They do not, however, mention the Jesus passage at all.) Mellor [Mell.Tac, 7, 21] notes Tacitus' special contempt for the lower classes and his bias against Eastern religions, which he says "got the better of his judgement" causing him to think them "unworthy of the curiosity and research he lavished in court intrigues." Regarding Jews and Christians, Tacitus' bias was so great that he "accepted a hodge-podge of truth and falsehood with little critical analysis," including anti-Semitic cliches and a blending of Jewish beliefs. (ibid., 38)
Should this issue of bias be cause for concern? Not really, for two reasons. First, in spite of his bias, Tacitus is still sufficiently trustworthy. Second, there is no indication that Tacitus' bias had any effect on the Jesus reference. Indeed, if it would have had any influence, it would be the opposite of the sort required in order to devalue the reference! Let's look at some further relevant data:
Mellor (ibid., 39, 44) offers this counsel: "As we begin to analyze the distortions of Tacitus, we would do well to rein in our inclination to condemn the transparency of his political aims. All historians have prejudice and preconceptions; like a great forest or Mount Everest, it is simply easier to see them from afar." He adds that in spite of Tacitus' bias, "there is no evidence that he invented or suppressed the facts." He did not "change his details" to fit his reconstruction of the past, but rather engaged in selective interpretation - as indeed do all historical writers.
Benario [Benar.Tac, 148, 155, 157] , a more traditional scholar, likewise observes that bias is an inevitable part of any historical work. He notes Tacitus' bias against Tiberius, but also notes that Tacitus "is not being intentionally fraudulent; there is no instance of factual error in his works that can be ascribed to ulterior motives. In fact, most of the material available for rehabilitation of Tiberius's reputation in modern times comes from Tacitus's pages." Facts are still presented accurately, in spite of the bias. He adds that "(t)he information that Tacitus presents is almost invariably accurate," having been confirmed by archaeology, epigraphical evidence, and other authors.
Grant [Gran.Tac, 20] similarly records: "(Tacitus') interpretation of facts...whether unconsciously or through deliberate fervid intention, is often invidious, but the actual facts which he records are generally accurate - so accurate that they involuntarily contradict his sinister innuendoes." In other words, even when Tacitus was expressing bias, his inner scruples were such that he still would not report an inaccuracy!
Finally, we return to Mellor (ibid., 40) for this admonition: "(Tacitus') passionate opinions should not obscure the fact that he is the most accurate of all the Roman historians." If we throw out the Jesus reference on this basis, we must also throw out much else of what Tacitus has written, along with the works of all other Roman historians.
Our conclusions, then, are as follows: Tacitus' bias in general, and his bias against Eastern religions like Christianity particularly, is of the opposite sort that would be required to devalue the reference to Jesus. Again, when reporting on the history and beliefs of the Jews, Tacitus' bias led him to say things that were disparaging, which means that out of contempt for Christianity, he would have reported any rumor or indication that Jesus was a fiction, or had not really been sentenced to death. As it is, we have not even that much.
Tacitus' bias did not allow him to descend into wholesale fabrication. Even if it had, however, his biases would have led him, not to acknowledge Jesus' existence, but to deny it, or at the very least denigrate Jesus' importance. But this is not what we find in the Jesus passage in Annals.
Objection: Tacitus is in error because he refers to Pilate as a "procurator" when in reality Pilate was a prefect. This means that he is unreliable, or that he probably did not consult written docuements.
This objection is also favored by Wells [Well.DidJ, 10; Well.HistEv, 16; Well.JesL, 42] However, as Chilton and Evans remark, "(t)his 'error' should not be taken as evidence that Tacitus' information is faulty." [ChilEv.Stud, 465] . Two reasons may be cited for this:
We should first consider the difference between these two titles. A procurator, as the word implies, was a financial administrator who acted as the emperor's personal agent. A prefect was a military official.
All of the above, therefore - along with the fact that this is not cited by Tactiean scholars as a problem - shows that there is certainly no grounds for charging Tacitus with error or degrading the reference to Jesus because of the alleged procurator/prefect mixup.
Objection: Tacitus refers to Jesus as "Christ" and not by a proper name. This means that he probably did not consult official records.
Wells also offers this objection. [Well.HistEv, 16-17] Like the above objection, however, it is not considered at all problematic by any Tacitean or other historian. Rather than find some deficiency in Tacitus because of this, it is more plausible to recognize that Tacitus would use the name with which his readers would be most familiar - and that would not necessarily be the name that Jesus was executed under. Furthermore, simply referring to "Jesus" would not explain how it is that Jesus' followers were named Christians.
Objection: [Well.JEaC, 188; Cutn.JGMM, 112] Tacitus refers to a "great multitude" of Christians at Rome. There would not be this many Christians in Rome at this early time.
This is rather an empty objection that merely assumes what it sets out to prove! Even so, what does Tacitus mean here by a "great multitude"? 50? 100? 500? Is it a relative term for, "a great multitude, in respect to the crime committed"? (I.e., if we arrested 50 people for holding up a corner gas station, does that seem like a "great multitude" to arrest for such a relatively minor crime?) There is simply no force behind this objection, for it lacks specificity.
What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?
Tacitus turns out to be an extremely rich source of data that confirms important aspects of Christian history:
Josephus: A Double Dose of the Messiah
[Background Data] [Forged?] [The Shorter Reference] ["So-Called" Problem] [Top Billing Objection] [The Larger Reference] [Out-of-Context Objection] [Too Late?] [Why Not the Resurrection?] [Pilate Slam?] [Conclusions]
The works of the first-century historian Josephus have been held in high regard by Christians throughout history. The early church, Schreckenberg writes, saw Josephus as "a kind of fifth gospel" and a "little Bible" [Feld.JosJes, 317] , because his works "appeared to Christian theologians to be a commentary or a historic appendix to the New Testament." (ibid., 319) The church's love for Josephus "assured him an ongoing role in Western tradition." [Maso.JosNT, 8] Closer to modern times, households in France, Holland and England were known to present newborns with inscribed copies of Josephus, right along with the Bible. [Hada.FJos, 2] Thus it is that the particular references to Jesus have been held historically in the highest esteem - and perhaps, also why they have resulted in the most spilled ink!
We will not investigate the question of Josephus' reliability closely here, for there is little question that Josephus is a generally reliable historian. He had his biases, of course, and he was, unfortunately, something of a traitor to his people! However, questions as to his accuracy as a historian are not what turn up regarding his references to Jesus. Rather, they focus, almost to the point of obsession, on this question:
Are these genuine references, or are there doubts about their veracity?
There are two quotes that mention Jesus in Josephus' Antiquities: A smaller and a larger one. Both of these have been targeted by the Jesus-myth circle as interpolations made by later Christian scribes. Wells [Well.WhoW, 21; Well.DidJ, 14] , for example, rejects the small passage as a partial interpolation or marginal gloss, as did Drews [Drew.WH, 10] . Stretching the polemic a bit, Wells says that it is "widely admitted" that both this passage, and the larger one are interpolations. [Well.HistEv, 18] (Wells' "widely" estimation is quite a bit off. According to Feldman's discernible statistics [Feld.JosMod, 684-91] , 4 scholars regard the larger passage as completely genuine, 6 more as mostly genuine; 20 accept it with some interpolations, 9 with several interpolations; 13 regard it as being totally an interpolation as Wells does.) Twleftree [Twel.GosP5, 300] , offering an unusual view, rejects the smaller passage on rather thin terminological grounds, but strangely, accepts most of the larger passage as genuine! Needless to say, there is plenty of discussion about these passages, and we will only be able to touch the tip of the iceberg.
Let us begin in the natural place to start: By quoting the materials in question. Here is the first and smaller quote:
Antiquities 20.9.1But 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.
It is the words "the so-called Christ" that are thought to be interpolated here - assuming that this passage is even noticed; some writers, I have observed, seem to forget that it exists! But let us consider the arguments for and against regarding this as an interpolation.
The bulk of the evidence therefore favors highly the genuineness of this passage.
Objection: [Well.DidJ, 11] There is evidence of Christian influence here. In Greek the passage is the same as that in Matthew 1:16, where it is translated "him called Christ", without any expressed doubts.
France [Franc.EvJ] responds, however:
...Josephus' usage should be determined from Josephus, not from Matthew. The complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus translates legomenos as 'so-called' or 'alleged', and refers as an example to Josephus, Contra Apionen II 34, where he speaks of Alexandria as Apion's 'not birthplace, but alleged (birthplace)'. Even if legomenos does not necessarily carry this dismissive tone in our passage, it is hardly conceivable that a Christian interpolator could have been content with so non-committal a phrase.
Glenn Miller has further provided this information:
This J. ref seems to indicate the shift from title to name, as the standard Greek lexicon ABG indicates (s.v. "Christ"):
"the transition to sense 2 (personal name) is marked by certain passages in which Christos does not mean the Messiah in general (even when the ref. is to Jesus), but a very definite Messiah, Jesus, who now is called Christ not as a title but as a name"
This lexicon also points out that this form (as the passive of lego)is routinely understood in this sense, and actually cites a different passage from Josephus to illustrate this:
be called, named Mt 13:55; Hb 11:24. "ho legomenus" the so-called (Epict. 4, 1, 51: "so-called kings"; Socrat., Ep. 14, 7: "so-called Death") ...(Herm. Wr. 2, 14 the "so-called gods" in contrast to "the only God" Somewhat differently Josephus., Ant. 12, 125 ("Antiochus who is called 'god' by the Greeks")
Miller also provides indications from the Septuagint, Athanasius, and Eusebius of the use of this word in question. More important here is the usage within the NT, showing the term used in both a simple and a disparaging form:
First, some simple 'naming' ones:
Now, the disparaging:
Miller's key conclusions are as follows:
...in Josephus, it is either a non-committal record of what the public called Jesus (by that time), or a statement that reflects the transition from title to name (e.g. from "Jesus the Christ" to "Jesus Christ"), or a slightly disparaging reference (i.e. the 'so-called' Christ). [But note that the disparaging uses documented above ALWAYS occurred in an oppositional form--"a so-called X, not a REAL X".]
Matthew's use might reflect the simple naming aspect (i.e. identifying the Jesus of the genealogy) or maybe even making a point that a growing body of Jewry HAD recognized Jesus as the Christ. But it is more likely that Matthew is intending to actually assert more--that Jesus was REALLY the Christ, as he goes about to show in his gospel.
Objection: It is a sign of Christian interpolation that in the reference, Jesus is named first rather than James. A Christian scribe would have given Jesus the top mention.
One might ask in reply why Josephus could not also have given Jesus top billing, simply on the basis of Jesus being the more familiar of the two names! Furthermore, note who else Josephus refers to - not just James, but also "others". If the references were reversed, the result would be a bit clumsy: "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 James the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned." I cannot say whether sense would be made of this in Greek, but in our language at least this format would leave open the question as to whether Josephus meant that James was the "brother" of the others as well as Christ or James and the "others" were brought before the council. The passage as it now reads leaves no such possible ambiguity.
Objection: If Jesus did exist, we would expect Josephus to have mentioned Jesus more than once in his histories and to have said more about him.
Of course, this presumes that our second reference is itself a complete interpolation, which we will show to be an unwarranted position in a moment! However, even beyond that, it presumes motives for Josephus that the objector should have knowledge of BEFORE tendering this as an objection. We must ask what it is specifically about Josephus that would make him want to write more about Jesus! More generally, regarding the amount of space Josephus devotes to Jesus (even including the larger passage), we may note the observation of Williamson [Willm.WorJos, 120] that for the entire period of 10 years around which Jesus died, Josephus devotes only "one small page" in his War, and six pages in the Antiquities. Therefore, it is actually quite significant that Josephus devotes any attention to Jesus at all.
So now we turn to the second Josephus reference, the Testimonium Flavianum, as it is popularly called. The authenticity of the passage was first questioned in the 16th century; one of it's most significant detractors was the French skeptic Voltaire [Hada.FJos, 226] . The passage reads:
Antiquities 18.3.3 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 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.
That there are interpolations here is seldom questioned; very few scholars hold that the entirety of the passage is genuine, as we have noted in Feldman's statistics. On the other hand, we have the "total interpolation" view of G. A. Wells, who points out the many positive things that Josephus says about Jesus in the passage.
The middle ground here is certainly most reasonable. Charlesworth derides "scholars acting like formal logicians" who approach the text "with an either/or mentality." The same mentality keeps them from saying that Josephus could have said anything positive about Jesus without accepting His divinity and thus rejecting all of the nice things said about Jesus in the passage. This is clearly a wrong-headed approach which does not appreciate the possibility that while some Jews followed Jesus completely, others merely admired Him "for his honesty, charisma, integrity, and teachings." [Chars.JesJud, 92]
Elsewhere, Meier [Meie.MarJ2, 59] notes that the "total interpolation" position has its respectable defenders, but it is not a majority view. Among those he cites are Conzelmann, who sees the passage as totally an expression of Christian kerygma (though without substantiation), and Hermann, who regards the Testimonium, the short passage, AND the passage in Josephus about John the Baptist as Christian interpolations. Thackeray, whom Meier describes as the "former 'prince' of Jospehan scholars," formerly regarded the entire set of passages as a forgery, but later changed to the middle-ground view of partial interpolation. Mason [Maso.JosNT, 170-1] adds the comment that "Christian copyists were quite conservative in transmitting texts" and would have been committing "an act of unparalleled scribal audacity" by creating the Testimonium out of the whole cloth. Moreover, Christian copyists also handled the works of the Jewish historian Philo for hundreds of years; yet we have no Testimonium Philoum to wrangle over! (Wells in response notes that there are supposedly Christian interpolations in the Old Testament pseuduopigrapha. But this is far from established, and Wells does not even deal with the text-critical data and methods associated with identifying interpolations. [Well.JesL, 52] )
What are some of the reasons for accepting at least some part of this passage as genuine? We can suggest that some of it must be genuine, for it is identifiably in the style of Josephus [Meie.MarJ, 62-3] ; the opening phrase, "Now about this time..." is used regularly by Josephus to the point of nausea! Skeptics often counter by saying that someone could have simply imitated Josephus' writing style, an objection which, being unreasonable, has no reasonable answer. But for a complete answer, let's go down the passage a section at a time.
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man,
The description of Jesus as a "wise man" cannot be rejected out of hand, for Josephus and other Jews could have regarded Jesus as a wise man without accepting His divinity - just as is the case with many people today. Moreover, Josephus would have appreciated much of what Jesus said and did; he was not the same as the overzealous would-be militaristic Messiahs commonly opposed and defeated by the Romans. Though containing various subversive elements, Jesus' teachings of this sort were directed not against Josephus' Roman patrons, but against the Jewish establishment, and his miracles were never done with a "revolutionary" purpose in mind (like the pretender Theudas' promise to divide the Jordan do that his troops could pass, or the unnamed Egyptian's threat to knock down the walls of Jerusalem). Jesus never came close to this sort of activity (except in certain fantasy worlds attributed to the likes of Joel Carmichael), and even in his "threat" to the Temple a) was focussed on the Jewish establishment, not the Romans; and b) did not actually threaten the Temple himself - remember, the "threat" did not say WHO was going to knock the Temple down! So, as Charlesworth writes:
Jesus argued against the zealous revolutionaries and was not an apocalyptic fanatic; Jospehus would have admired this argument and position. Jesus uttered many wise and philosophical maxims and Josephus was fond of Jewish wisdom and of Greek philosophy. [Chars.JesJud, 97]
The second phrase, however, is questionable. It is sometimes rendered, "if indeed one ought to call him a man." Like the rest of the suspected interpolations, it is "parenthetically connected to the narrative" and "grammatically free and could easily have been inserted by a Christian." [ibid., 93] A Christian interpolator, moreover, would have considered the description of Jesus as merely "wise" to be insufficient, and so would want to add something else. [Meie.MarJ, 60] The passage is also not found in an Arabic citation of Josephus from the 10th century work Book of the Title, which was analyzed in 1971 by Hebrew University scholar Schlomo Pines [Cross.MedP, 373] and may represent a "more moderate attempt at Christianization of the original text."[Feld.JosJes, 340] . On another accounting, Twelftree [Twel.GosP5, 303] suggests that Josephus used the word "wise" in a suspicious or ironic manner.
The bottom line: The balance of the evidence points to authenticity for the first phrase, and gives moderate probability of inauthenticity to the second.
for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.
The first phrase has also been rendered, "For he was one who performed surprising works, (and) a teacher of people who with pleasure received the unusual." The first phrase would hardly be used by a Christian to describe Jesus' miracles. The difference in translation is owed to the Greek word paradoxos, which can mean strange, surprising, or wonderful. Christian translators would naturally assume that Josephus meant the latter, where he more likely meant the second or first.
The second phrase was perhaps the subject of a mistranslation or change, replacing taethe (unusual, strange) with talethe (truth), although Meier regards this as an indulgent thing to suppose [Meie.MarJ, 85] and Feldman notes that the new word is not used elsewhere by Josephus [Feld.JosMod, 698] - neither of which is a compelling enough reason to outright reject the proposed terminology, but nor is there really any compelling reason to accept it. Neither phrase is in the Arabic version, but the reconstruction has found wide acceptance.
In addition, Meier [Meie.MarJ2, 76] offers speculation that the last phrase may not be complimentary, but rather implying "simple-minded enthusiasm, even self-delusion." He also cites Pelletier as saying that as Josephus uses the phrase, it implies no more than the subjective good faith of the listeners, "not necessarily the objective truth of what the speaker propounds." (ibid., 84)
He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.
This is also rendered, "He stirred up..." Either way would be acceptable as describing what Jesus did without supposing Christian interpolation or belief by Josephus. Indeed, the phrase seems to contradict the Gospels, which do not portray Jesus as dealing with "many" Gentiles. Meier [ibid., 65] regards this as a retrojection of the Gentile mission of Christianity.He was the Christ,
Big obvious honking no-no on this one. We don't even need to discuss it.
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 our comments on this section, please see the article, "The Trial on Trial."
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.
Again, a very obvious boo-boo by the sneaky (?) interpolator.
And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.
The term "tribe" is a key here. Thackery saw this as a pejorative term for the Christians; Meier disagrees, for Josephus also uses it to describes the Jews, and Eusebius uses it to describe Christians. The phrase seems best regarded as an expression of surprise; i.e., "Those Christians are STILL here!" [ibid., 66] But it is no indication, either way, in favor of interpolation.
A worthwhile question, of course, is: how did these questionable phrases get into the body of the original text? Some suggest duplicity by Christian scribes, but it need not be so horrid. Much as certain people scribble "replies" in the margins of their books, so some scribe(s) perhaps added the questionable phrases as commentary - and then they were later carelessly incorporated into the text. [ibid., 79]
Objection: The passage is out of context. Josephus is discussing Jewish troubles, and the Testimonium is out of place. Without it the text of Josephus runs on in proper sequence. [Well.DidJ, 14; Well.JesL, 51; Drew.WH, 8-9]
This is a favorite objection, but it comes from people who obviously have not read very much of Josephus! As Thackery opined, Josephus was a "patchwork writer," one guilty of "inveterate sloppiness." [Meie.MarJ, 8] I can agree: As one with a background in language and literature, were I to give Josephus a grade for composition, it would be something around the level of a C-minus!
Even so, the "out of context" charge carries very little weight. An exposition by Mason will be helpful here. This is the outline of events under Pilate as given by Josephus [Maso.JosNT, 163-4 - using newer outline system for Josephus]:
As can be seen, this is by no means a set of connected events. Pilate has a role in all of them; but it is not even certain that Josephus is giving these events in chronological order.
Wells responds to the words of Thackery by noting that Josephus often uses phrases that indicate that he is aware that he is digressing:
"When a writer digresses, and confesses to doing so, this does not make him a 'patchwork' writer from whom we must expect any kind of irrelevancy."[Well.JesL, 51]
Wells is simply missing the point here. Confessions of digression indicate a "patchwork" writer who is conscious of his flaws in this regard. Nor may it be appropriately said that the reference to Jesus is "any kind of irrelevancy." If it was a significant event in the reign of Pilate, even in retrospect as it would be in this case, then it is quite relevant.
Objection: [Well.WhoW, 21; Well.JesL, 55] Even if the Josephus passages are genuine, they would be "too late to be of decisive importance."
This objection is senseless; it would cause us to have to trash a great deal of ancient history! As Harris points out [Harr.3Cruc, 26] our best references to the Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) come from historians who lived much later than he did (Tacitus, c. 115 AD; Suetonius, c. 120 AD; Dio Cassius, 230 AD), so this is hardly reason to dismiss Josephus' testimony concerning Jesus!
Objection: If this is an authentic reference, how is it that Josephus says nothing about the most important Christian belief about Jesus - his resurrection?
In fact, we may assert that Josephus does refer to this belief, albeit obliquely, when he indicates that those who loved Jesus at the first "did not forsake him" - indicating that they were in some way still devoted to Jesus himself, even after his death. Even so, this sort of objection presumes to know that there must have been a reason for Josephus to make a more direct mention, and no reason why he should not have, which is easy to assert but rather difficult to prove.
Objection: Josephus was writing to please the Roman establishment. Why would he make Pilate look like he had been duped or had done something incorrectly?
This is rather a silly objection! Elsewhere near this passage Josephus reports things that don't make Pilate smell very good, and he had no hesitation in reporting mistakes that the Romans made (i.e., the Roman soldier exposing his buttocks and making an "appropriate" sound to the crowd!). As long as he said nothing that made his CURRENT Roman patrons look goofy, I daresay he was going to be in good shape!
What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?
Josephus ends up being a rich source for confirmation of the Gospel record:
Thallus: Darkness Rules
We recommended here Glenn Miller's essay on this subject. Here is a miscellaneous objection:
Objection: This darkness was not recorded by the two greatest contemporary scientists of the time, Seneca and Pliny the Elder. These writers attempted to record all known contemporary geological and astronomical phenomenon, which makes their ommission of this event a serious deterrent to regarding it as historical.
This objection is sometimes tendered, and I really wonder if those who make it have actually read the works of Seneca and Pliny in question - rather than simply, say, parroting Edward Gibbon's remarks on the subject! Pliny's work is entitled Natural History [Plin.NH] , and it is a multi-volumed work covering a wide variety of subjects - georgraphy, meteorology, mineralogy, zoology, and botany. Volume 2 of this work is concerned with cosmology and astronomy, and is the place we might expect Pliny to have recorded this event - if he indeed did intend to record ALL such events! However, there is absolutely no indication that this was Pliny's intent - he offers examples, he makes descriptions, but NOWHERE is there any indication that his work is intended to be an exhaustive catalog of all possible relevant data!
More to the point, it is doubtful that Pliny would have recorded this event in any case, unless he had been there himself. The darkness at the crucifixion, as we see from Thallus, defied natural explanation, and had the character of a miracle; and this is precisely the sort of event that Pliny would pass over in disdain - for he was a skeptic and a rationalist of the highest order! Consider these words from Pliny's pen [ibid., 179, 183]:
I deem it a mark of human weakness to seek to discover the shape and form of God.
That that supreme being, whatever it be, pays heed to man's affairs is a ridiculous notion.
Given the above, what would this writer have made of reports of a miraculous and unexplained darkness? My guess is, he would turn up his nose and relegate the matter to the wastebasket! He would consider such reports unworthy of his attention and not worth recording.
What, then, of Seneca and his work, Naturales Questiones [Sen.NQ] ? There is even less cause to suppose mention of the darkness here. Seneca's work is mostly theoretical surveys of natural phenomena - by no means an attempt at an exhaustive catalog of events! - and Seneca is far more concerned with drawing morals from what he records that with listing events, of which he does very little.
Bottom line: For this objection to have any force, it must be shown WHY these writers should have included a reference to the darkness - but there is simply no evidence that they should have, or would have been interested in recording it.
Pliny to Trajan: Help!!!!
[Background Data] [Forged?] [Pliny: A Reliable Source] [The Matter of Martyrs] [Serapis and Apollo] [Conclusions]
Pliny the Younger (62?-c.113) was Governor of Bithynia. His correspondence in 106 AD with the emperor Trajan included a report on proceedings against Christians. In an extended explanation to his supervisor, Pliny explained that he forced Christians to "curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do." He also described their actions and practices thusly:
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.
Pliny then records how Christians received their punishment.
Is this a genuine reference, or are there doubts about its veracity?
Although a few critics in the previous centuries claimed otherwise, there is really no doubt about the genuineness of this reference. That it is some kind of Christian creation is a position that is not taken seriously today.
Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?
Pliny had certain unique qualifications that make this reference more valuable than we might suppose. Wilken, although saying that Pliny's knowledge of Christianity was "largely second-hand," also points out [Wilk.ChrRom, 6] that Pliny, prior to being a governor, held a position as a state priest - the same position held somewhat earlier by Cicero. His job as state priest included acting as an overseer in the state religion. As Wilken further notes in a quote from Cicero (ibid.), those who aspired to this position ought to be distinguished citizens who would "safeguard religion by the good administration of the state and safeguard the wise conduct of religion." A member of the priesthood, in order to "safeguard the wise conduct of religion," should be expected to be "in the know" about religion. In light of the fact that Christianity was recognized as a threat to public order, Pliny certainly had to know something about it in order to fulfill his duties! It is therefore likely that, while his knowledge of Christianity itself was largely second-hand, he also had firsthand knowledge of basic facts such as Jesus' existence.
More important here, however, is the testimony by Pliny that Christians died for their faith. This was extremely unlikely to have happened if Jesus had not existed.
Objection: The martyrdoms of second-century Christians does not support the historicity of Jesus. Pliny also wrote that many people had renounced Christianity years before his interrogations.
This may be granted to an extent. Wilken [ibid.] also writes:
Even in this early period of Christian history, not everyone who become a Christian remained a Christian for the rest of his or her life. Some people initially joined the Christian sect because they found the figure of Jesus attractive, others because they were persuaded of the superiority of the Christian way of life by the behavior of a friend, others because they had married Christians. But in an age when religious distinctions were often blurred, people changed allegiances often and sometimes belonged to more than one religious group in the course of a lifetime. Consequently, there was much movement in and out of religious associations and across organizational lines...
But ultimately, this objection misses the point. Even though some people left Christianity, there were also many who did not, and died because of it - and if there was any hint that Jesus was a mythical figure (and such arguments would certainly have been passed on by the Jewish and pagan enemies of Christianity) it is extremely unlikely that anyone at all would have suffered persecution or martyrdom for His sake. That some did deny Jesus is quite irrelevant, as is the movement between religious associations common in that time: As Wilken explains, those who found that Christianity did not meet their needs or expectations simply lost interest and left - such is the fickle side of human nature. And as Momigliano indicates [Momig.PagJC, 164] , in that time period, "to know to what religious group you belong to is not identical with knowing what you believe." In the syncretistic world of the Roman Empire, a "buffet table" approach to religion was not uncommon. There were undoubtedly those who, as happens today, walked into a church, liked the company, ate the delicious food, and settled in - until the going got rough; then the untough got going! But when a Christian professed Christ and would not recant, even in the face of persecution and execution, that indicated that a final choice had been made.
Objection: A mythical Jesus and a historical Jesus would be indistinguishable to those living in the second century. Arguments about the number of second-century believers and martyrs is therefore beside the point. Furthermore, Origen admits that there weren't that many martyrs in the first place.
This objection is rather an unfair one, and gives short shrift to the historical context of the martyrdom issue (as well as ignoring the fact that Tacitus indicates that mid-FIRST-century Christians ALSO died for their faith!). Yes, Origen "admits" that there were very few Christian martyrs; and this objection uses this "admission" to give the impression that few Christians of the time took a principled stand, and therefore, the Christian faith is in doubt, for it was probably only adhered to by a few masochistic nuts! But this objection fails on a number of accounts.
First, sheer numbers of martyrs lose their meaning, however, when we realize that Christians composed a small minority (as little as 2% as late as 250 AD; lower percentages prior to that!) of the Roman Empire's population of 60 million in the first two centuries after Christ.
Second, persecution did not automatically equal martyrdom. As Fox writes, "By reducing the history of Christian persecution to a history of legal hearings, we miss a large part of the victimization." [Fox.PagChr, 424] Some Christians, we may acknowledge, had their freedom bought by wealthy benefactors. But even then, Christians could expect social ostracization if they stuck by their faith, and that is where much of the persecution Fox refers to came from - rejection by family and society, relegation to outcast status. In the legal arena, the number of possible martyrs was reduced by Roman magistrates with softer hearts who would pass on executing Christians and instead sentence them to banishment, or to "work in mines and quarries, where they served, their heads half shaven, under constant threat of the lash." (ibid., 434) In all, it was not an easy time to be a Christian; and without surety of the existence of the Founder they followed, it is quite unlikely that anyone would have gone the distance suffering for the Christian faith. This objection simply ignores too many realities of human nature and of the historical moment.
Objection: Many people have died for a lie they thought was the truth. Sincerity of belief does not constitute evidence for that belief.
This objection, too, misses the point. We are, indeed, talking about people, as it is said, who think that what they are dying for is the truth and although it is fashionable in skeptical circles to assume the complete stupidity of ancient peoples (i.e., commit "chronological snobbery"), the fact is that the early Christians most assuredly would have been in a position to know - with the same moral certitude that we have - whether Jesus actually existed or not. Just as much as we living in modern times, ancient people kept records, wrote things down, and tracked information faithfully . They had libraries, which contained histories from earlier times. The governments of that time kept records. So did religious authorities. To make the sort of objection enlisted above demonstrates an incredible level of historical naiveté.
Objection: Many of these Christians wanted to be martyred. It was seen as a way to get on the road to glory. Why should what they did matter?
True, as testimonies from that time show, some of the martyrs concerned did rejoice in their portended deaths for the sake of Christ. However, "on closer inspection, the majority of known 'voluntary martyrs' turn out to be more understandable." [ibid., 442] As Fox puts it:
Almost all of then were secondary martyrdoms, sparked off by the sight of news of fellow Christians who were being tried, abused or sentenced...Elsewhere, the urge was more immediate. In the heat of the moment friends and spectators declared their common loyalty with the poor victims of injustice...Whole groups gave themselves away, in surges of indignation at unjust decisions...
In the heat of the moment, martyrdom proved infectious...
In short, these martyrdoms were similar in nature to the public protests of the modern civil rights movement. As with that movement, there were those who did seek persecution for their own glory and ego; but the majority were principled people standing up for their belief. In any event, the practice of voluntary martyrdom was warned against by some church leaders, including Origen and Clement of Alexandria. It was not the standard practice that some critics would imply. Indeed, Jesus had Himself given the general theme of "when they persecute you in this city, flee to another," as Paul did, and as the Jerusalem church did. It just got more difficult as the Church began to put down roots, and as urban merchants became outspoken for the faith.
In closing, we may acknowledge that the charge that martyrdom doesn't count as evidence is technically true - under the same assumption that scholarly consensus does not count as evidence. But, by the same token, it counts as historical data (not evidence) that also has to be explained by whatever theory we adopt. The wholesale endorsement of the Christian faith by intellectuals and intelligent merchants gives a prima facie credibility to their testimony. There are radical differences, too, between the Koresh-type martyrs and the apostles (e.g., constant interaction with the culture vs. exclusion; the considerable content-continuity with the Jewish mainstream; the radical growth thru conversion of a wide range of personality-profiles; the lack of heavy authority structures and punitive systems of hierarchy; etc.). The Christ mythicists, as we have demonstrated, would have an exceedingly difficult time accounting for this problem of martyrdoms on behalf of an allegedly non-existent personage!
Objection: "If Pliny had been interviewing the worshipers of Serapis or Apollo they might reasonably have confessed that they sang hymns to Serapis or Apollo, but surely this does not prove that these pagan gods existed as men." [Cutn.JGMM, 111]
True, but nor would Pliny say that Serapis and Apollo were sung to "as a god." Obviously, there would be no need for this distinction, since Serapis and Apollo were known as gods! The phrase here would indicate that someone who would not ordinarily be perceived as a god (in Roman eyes) was here being accorded the status of deity, and this points to someone who was (again, in Roman eyes) a known, supposedly mortal person.
And so, we have some valuable testimony from the hand of Pliny the Younger. He knew that Christianity was a "cult," for he refers to investigations in which "several forms of the mischief came to light" - and since he refers to it as such, he was already aware of its nature to a degree. He also knows that it is religious in nature because he takes the tactic of having the persons suspected of Christianity offer libations and worship to the statue of the emperor and the gods, and then curse Christ. Clearly Pliny shows that he knows HOW TO DISTINGUISH who is a Christian and who is not [Benk.PagRo, 10] - which would be impossible unless he had some previous idea what it was that they believed! There is a limitation to this, of course: We are not told when or where Pliny learned all of this; he COULD have just found out about all of this from his underlings a week before writing to Trajan! But a very plausible suggestion is that he had learned about Jesus and the Christians at an earlier time in his position as a state priest.
What do we learn about Jesus and/or Christianity from this historian/writer?
Lucian of Samosata: The Ancient Monty Python
[Background Data] [Lucian: A Reliable Source] [Too Late?] [Conclusions]
From this satirist and playwright of the second century, we have two quotes from a play entitled "The Passing of Peregrinus." The hero of the tale, Peregrinus, was a Cynic philosopher who became a Christian, rose in prominence in the Christian community, then returned to Cynicism. Lucian's attack is not so much on Christianity, but on the person of Peregrinus, who took advantage of the Christians' simplicity and gullibility. [Alli.Luc, 99]
The first quotes tells of Peregrinus, who learned "the wondrous lore of the Christians," became one of their leaders and was revered as a god, lawgiver, and protector, "next after that other, to be sure, whom they (the Christians) still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult to the world." [Harm.Luc, 13] The second quote, regarding these same Christians: "Then, too, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers...after they have thrown over and denied the gods of Greece and have done reverence to that crucifed sophist himself and live according to his laws."
Obviously Jesus is not mentioned by name in these citations, but there is no doubt that it is Jesus to whom Lucian is referring here. No one else was ever worshipped by the Christians!
Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?
We are of the opinion that this reference, like the Thallus reference, has been seriously undervalued. There is good reason to accept Lucian's testimony as solid evidence for the existence of Jesus and for historical data about Jesus' life.
One of Lucian's lesser-known works is a letter-formatted treatise entitled "The Way to Write History," addressed to Lucian's friend, Philo. Using this work, we can answer an important question about Lucian that significantly increase the value of his reference to Jesus: Was Lucian concerned with historical accuracy?
The answer from "The Way to Write History" is - absolutely yes! Lucian was very concerned with historical accuracy! Consider these quotes from that same work [Fowl.LucSam, 126, 128] :
History...abhors the intrusion of any least scruple of falsehood; it is like the windpipe, which the doctors tell us will not tolerate a morsel of stray food.
The historian's one task is to tell the thing as it happened.
(The historian) must sacrifice to no God but Truth; he must neglect all else; his sole rule and unerring guide is this - to think not of those who are listening to him now, but of the yet unborn who shall seek his converse.
On the other hand, Lucian also clearly disdains those who do not write good history, or who filled in the gaps of their histories with invented material. Consider one subject of his satire, Thucydides, who, following the ancient historical practice of "speech-in-character," (i.e., creating appropriate words for someone to say on a certain occassion, not knowing what it is that they actually said), formulated a funeral oratory for a centurion named Afranius. Of that oratory, Lucian writes (ibid., 122):
...the flood of rhetoric which follows is so copious and remarkable that it drew tears from me - ye Graces! - tears of laughter; most of all where the elegant Afranius, drawing to a close, makes mention, with weeping and distressful moans, of all those costly dinners and toasts. But he is a very Ajax in his conclusion. He draws his sword, gallantly as an Afranius should, and in sight of all cuts his throat over the grave - and God knows it was high time for an execution, if oratory can be a felony.
Lucian, then, clearly held historical accuracy in high esteem. This leads to our second point: Considering that Lucian:
- there is good reason to believe that he would not acknowledge the existence of Jesus if there were any doubt in his mind that Jesus actually existed. He would certainly have satirized Christian belief in a fictional or historically doubtful personage mercilessly, if any such arguments existed at the time. Finally, he was in a good position to have known of such issues, being that he moved in the most educated of circles and very likely corresponded and consulted with leading figures of his day. In short, Lucian was a person who was "in a position to know" whether or not Jesus had genuine historical roots, and was exactly the sort who would raise any relevant doubts in order to enhance the impact of his satire!
Objection: This passage is very late and probably was informed by Christian sources. Lucian could just be copying their errors, and even if he were not, this testimony is too late to be useful.
However, the "lateness" of this reference is more than made up for by Lucian's critical capabilities. Lateness therefore cannot be used to devalue this passage.
And what of relying on Christians for this information? Given Lucian's disdain for Christians, it is doubtful that he would have relied on them solely for information, assuming he actually consulted them at all. Meier [Meie.MarJ, 92] indicates common knowledge as the source. Allinson [Alli.Luc, 95] says that Lucian was "evidently acquainted, by hearsay at least, with some of the facts of the crucifixion of Christ." Evans [ChilEv.Stud, 461-2] does regard Lucian's use of an unusual word to describe crucifixion ("to impale") as evidence of derivation from a non-Christian source. The evidence thus points towards derivation of this knowledge from a non-Christian source.
What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?
We therefore conclude that Lucian's citation it is a more valuable testimony than has been generally recognized.
Suetonius: Riding the Chrest(us)
[Background Data] [Is It Jesus?] [Suetonius: A Reliable Source] [Conclusions]
We now move to the references to Jesus in secular sources that have little value - beginning with the testimony of the Roman historian and contemporary of Tacitus, Suetonius. Here is the first of the two relevant quotes:
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.
A second quote does not mention Jesus, but refers to Christians being persecuted under Nero.
Does this passage really refer to Jesus?
This is the key objection to using this passage. "Chrestus," as Suetonius spells it, is the correct Latin form of a true Greek name, so that some would say that it does not refer to Jesus Christ. Benko, for example, has suggested that "Chrestus" was some kind of Jewish agitator who had no association with Christianity, perhaps a semi-Zealot reacting to plans by Caligula to put a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple; as for the spelling issue, he points out that Suetonius spells "Christians" correctly, so it is unlikely that he misspelled "Christus." [see Benk.EC49, 410-3] . (On the other hand, one oddball author suggested that the reference was to Jesus Himself - still alive, and visiting Rome in the 40s AD!) Mason [Maso.JosNT, 166] , on the other hand, believes that the reference is to Jesus, but that Suetonius altered the name he heard to that of a common slave name. Harris [Harr.3Cruc, 22; see also Harr.GosP5, 354] notes that the substitution of an "e" for an "i" was "a common error in the spelling of proper names" at the time; he also says that because Suetonius did not say, "at the institution of a certain Chrestus," the historian expected that his readers would know the person that he was referring to - hence, this "Chrestus" could not have been merely a Jewish agitator, for there was only one possible "Chrestus" that Suetonius could have been referring to that would have been so well known at the time he was writing (120 AD). It may be that Suetonius wrongly presumed from one of his sources that Chrestus had at some time in the past personally delivered His message to Rome, and that is why he seems to indicate that Chrestus was directly behind the agitation. [ibid., 356] Harris also explains, in an amusing footnote, that to Greek ears, the name "Christos" would have sounded like something drawn from medical or building technology, meaning either "anointed" or "plastered"! (The Romans who heard these Jews talking about "Christus" assumed that, perhaps, another type of "plastering" was going on!) So, they switched it to the more comprehensible "Chrestus," which means "useful one." Harris further indicates, via a quote from the 4th-century Latin Christian Lactantius, that Jesus was commonly called "Chrestus" by those who were ignorant.
Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?
If this is indeed a reference to Jesus, then it is a good one, nearly as good as Tacitus'. Suetonius was known as "a painstaking researcher, interested in minute details," [Benk.PagRo, 14] as well as a prolific writer in matters of history and antiquities, including biographies of Julius Caesar and several Roman emperors - this was a man "in a position to know!" - see Harr.GosP5, 353)
The only way to completely devalue the Suetonius reference is to say that it has nothing to do with Jesus, or with Christians, at all. The issue is an open one, and since we have Tacitus (who both wrote earlier and gave far more information), this reference is not really that important.
What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?
At worst, the passage reflects Suetonius' confusion after hearing about Jews arguing over a "Chri/estus" who the Christian Jews would have spoken of as still alive. This, and the second passage referring to persecution of Christians, provides us with nothing that we do not find elsewhere or that can be substantially used. Perhaps more important is the possible historical connection with the expulsion of Jews from Rome referred to in Acts (which is commonly dated in 49 AD, though some prefer 41 AD - see Wlkn.JUF, 215, Benk.EC49, 407-415; and Harr.3Cruc, 23 for a nice sampling of opinions). If there were Christians in Rome in 41-49 AD, then that's a pretty strong indication that Jesus existed, since His life would have been well within the memories of those living at the time.
Mara Bar-Serpaion: Letter from a Near Eastern Jail
[Background Data] [Is It Jesus?] [Wrong Timeframe?] [Too Late?] [Alleged Errors] [Conclusions]
This letter contains the following passage:
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 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. Pythagoras 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.
This reference to Jesus is not particularly valuable. We have no idea what qualifications the writer of this letter held. We are not even sure when this letter was written, other than that it was after 73 AD. At best, it offers us a special insight into how one particular pagan viewed the person of Jesus.
Objection: Jesus is not mentioned by name. "Wise King" probably does not refer to Jesus. There were many messianic pretenders at the time; Mara Bar-Serapion could be referring to one of them.
How do we know that the Serapion letter does not refer to one of those pretenders? The letter sets out seven distinct criteria describing this Wise King, and none of those pretenders filled all seven descriptions of a person who:
And so we may ask: Who else could Mara Bar-Serapion be referring to, if not Jesus? One skeptic has suggested the Essene "Teacher of Righteousness" as a candidate. However, the actual identity of the "Teacher of Righteousness," who is referred to significantly in the Habakkuk Commentary (1QpHab), has never been ascertained, although specific guesses have included Onias III, Judah the Essene (who lived under John Hyrcanus) - and Jesus Himself! [Pfef.DSS 72-77] (It has also been supposed that the varied references, particularly outside the Habakkuk Commentary, actually refer to an office, not a specific person - Chars.JDSS, 39) Judah the Essene was the candidate of choice for the scholar Carmignac, but his choice is not considered viable. [ibid., 42n] At any rate, the Teacher of Righteous fits no more than #2 and #6 of the criteria above with any certainty. As for the rest -
1.Was executed - Although attempts have been made by scholars such as Allegro and Dupont-Summer (and even recently, O'Neill) to show that the Teacher of Righteousness was martyred, perhaps even crucified, there is simply nothing in the Dead Sea Scrolls that refers to the Teacher suffering anything more than general persecution and harassment. Any suggestion to the contrary is "forced onto the texts" and "derives from contorted historiography and exegesis." (ibid., 33, 274) Of course, since the Teacher does not fit criteria #1, this also lets him out for #3-5. In particular:
4.Was executed before the Jews were dispersed;
Obviously, the farther back we reach, the less likely it is that this is who the Serapion writer is referring to, since "just after" this person died, the Jews' kingdom was abolished. (If we pick Onias III - who seems to be the strongest exemplar - then the abolition of the Jewish kingdom occurred about 240 years later; if Judah the Essene, about 170 years later!) Whoever this Teacher personage was, he died in the middle of the 2nd century BC, which places him quite a distance more than "just after" from the 70 AD abolition of the Jewish kingdom!
And of course, there is no qualification for #7 whatsoever - the Teacher of Righteousness is nowhere regarded as a king. He is clearly identifiable in the Qumran literature as "an anti-Hasmonean priest of Zadokite lineage" [ibid., 1] - not a king.
Objection: The historical time-frame of the characters Bar-Serapion identifies by name suggests that the Jews' "wise King" also lived about the same time as Pythagoras and Socrates.
This is scant presupposition; Pythagoras and Socrates were barely contemporaries - Pythagoras was about 60 when Socrates was born, if he was alive then at all. To include Jesus in a list with these two would be no more odd than naming Newton, Einstein and Hawking in a list of great physics theorists.
Objection: This passage is late and therefore probably influenced by Christian tradition. Bar-Serapion blames 'the Jews' for 'executing their wise King'; and uses the title 'king of the Jews' itself, which indicates Christian influence.
It should be pointed out here that lateness is no indication, and offers no probability of, Christian influence - independent thinking was not invented yesterday! As for the specific charges, there is no reason why the terminology requires a late date. All four Gospels, written in the first century and no later than 70-100 AD by late-date standards, put partial blame on the Jews for the death of Jesus and use the title "king of the Jews" in their text. So these two factors permit a late first-century date for Serapion, though they do not require it.
Objection: The letter contains historical errors. Mara Bar-Serapion's information about Athens and Samos is inaccurate.
According to Bar-Serapion, the "men of Samos" had "burn[ed]" Pythagoras, an implication that he had been killed by his countrymen. In reality, Pythagoras left the island of Samos in 530 B. C. and emigrated to the Greek colony of Croton in Southern Italy. He later died what is now Metaponto, Italy. The men of Samos did not "burn" Pythagoras, so if Mara Bar-Serapion's letter was incorrect in such an important detail as this, how can it be considered reliable proof of the historicity of anything, much less the existence of a person who wasn't even mentioned by name in the document?
Of course, these "errors" in the other references do not mean that the references to Jesus are wrong in themselves; this is arguing guilt by association. Nevertheless, I have yet to see a clear exposition of why these statements by Bar-Serapion are in error. Perhaps Pythagoras was indeed killed by burning, and our other histories are incorrect; more likely he was tortured by burning, and then left Samos and died of his injuries later on. The intolerance shown to other Greek philosophers such as Socrates does not render this an impossibility.
And what of the other events alluded to, of which we have no knowledge? The "statue of Hera" reference may mean that Pythagoras built or funded the building of a statue of Hera that still stood at the time of Serapion's letter, or that the statue became a meeting place for Pythagoras' students. The island of Samos may have been hit by a storm that carried dust with it. The famine and plague in Athens may have been mercifully brief and quickly recovered from. At any rate, while many apologists are content to see these assertions by the Serapion author as "errors," they do so, I daresay, unwisely . Personally, I believe that we should remain open to the idea that these events did indeed happen as Mara Bar-Serapion records them, and that it is only our lack of understanding and knowledge that prevents us from saying so.
What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?
While we may agree that the Serapion letter is of marginal value, for it tells us little about the historical Jesus, it does suggest an evaluation of Jesus independent of Christian influence. No Christian would refer to Jesus only as a "wise king," nor say that He lived on in His teaching. [ChilEv.Stud, 450] It is also clear that the writer regarded Jesus as a "real" person like Socrates and Pythagoras - and not as a myth or an invention of Christianity, as the Christ-mythicists would argue.
The Rabbinic Writings: Polemia Overdose
We will not spend much time on the Talmud, for there is very little of value that it can offer. Some even doubt that Jesus is referred to at all: Meier writes that the rabbinic sources contain "no clear or even probable reference" to Jesus, and may be considered primarily as reactions to Christian claims. [Meie.MarJ, 96-7] Yamauchi cites Twelftree (see also Twel.GosP5) as saying that the Talmud references are "of almost no value to the historian in his search for the historical Jesus," although a contrary view is also offered by Wilcox, who recommends that the material may be used, albeit cautiously. [Wilk.JUF, 211]
In light of the above, there is no need for us to run over each of the Talmud citations here. The single point that may be derived from the Talmud is, again, that it provides no indication that Jesus was a mythical figure; inasmuch as it accepts Jesus' historicity, and does not doubt it, it provides positive evidence that Jesus did exist. Wilson [Wils.EvJ, 65] agrees with this assessment, saying that "From the fact that (the Talmudists) concentrated on smearing (Jesus') legitimacy (rather than focusing on the issue of Jesus' existence), we may deduce that they had no grounds whatever for doubting his historical existence." And France agrees that, "Such polemic, often using 'facts' quite distinct from what Christians believed, is hardly likely to have arisen within less than a century around a non-existent figure." [Franc.EvJ, 39] Some scholars do argue that the Talmud references also have value in what else they affirm, do not deny, and provide no contradictory tradition for: That Jesus had disciples, worked miracles, and was executed on the eve of Passover. (See particularly Harv.JesC, 30-1.) Aside from that, the Talmud and other Jewish references are of marginal value.
Objection: The Talmud authorities only had one source of information about Jesus: Christians. Being that much of the alleged references are polemical responses to Christian claims, there is no indication that the data was arrived at independently.
Actually, we have no clue about the souces for the Talmud - much less do we know that (1) the Talmudists had only one source; and (2) that is was Christian! There is not the slightest evidence to support this presumption [also contra ChilEv.Stud, 444] We simply do not have enough data to say one way or the other.
Further, we may point out again, as Wilson has, that if there were any hint that Jesus was a mythical figure, we would expect that the Talmuds would aim some polemics in that fertile direction. As it is, there are no such statements; and it strains credulity to say that the authors of the Talmud would have simply taken Christians' word for Jesus' existence if evidence existed to the contrary. The anger and distaste expressed in the Talmud for Christianity leads to a solid inference that any useful information against it would have been taken up as a weapon. Therefore, they may be taken as an independent and reliable witness for the mere fact of Jesus' existence, while not necessarily that for actions and sayings of Jesus. And of course, just because they are polemic, this does not automatically mean that they are not independent!
Conclusion: What To Do with this Information
The evidence is clear: The Jesus-myth is a groundless speculation, contrary to all evidence, and totally without basis. Here are our concluding thoughts on the matter:
I have personally come to the conclusion that adherence to the "Jesus-myth" is not the result of careful deliberation of the evidence, but rather, is the product and province of skeptical minds in the grips of an obsession. About a year ago, I presented the information on Tacitus above to a Jesus-mythicist - whose ONLY source of data was G. A. Wells. He replied with implications that Tacitus was secretly in league with the Christians of his time! Then, in reply to the opinions of professional and distinguished historians regarding Wells' work, he simply suggested that they had not read Wells carefully, or even at all!
Some may say that this is merely abberational, but it is not: It is the modus operandi of the Jesus-myth circle. One well-known skeptic cites as an authority on Josephus the works of Nathaniel Lardner - from the year 1838! There is no hint that this skeptic has consulted the works of modern Josephan scholars like Thackery and Feldman; there are no Taciteans, no cites from known experts in Greek and Roman history; instead, the bibliography of his report is bookended with works from G. A. Wells and Arthur Drews! Is this the work of a reasonable person, or someone in the grips of obsession?
The question remains: What on earth could possess otherwise intelligent and educated people to be so uncritical in their beliefs regarding the existence of Jesus? Here is my advice in the matter: If you have encountered people like this, I highly recommend that you provide a clear presentation of the Gospel, then leave them alone. It is a waste of time to deal with such people (except to the extent that they are deceiving others), we perform no service any time that we so much as imply that their views should be taken seriously. Their views are the result of a fallen and sinful human nature, and nothing more.