How Do We Know About Jesus?

The four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, have given us a remarkable record of the life and work of Jesus Christ. But some people discount them as biased. They want to see evidence of Jesus from historians who were not themselves part of the Christian community.

It seems that such independent corroboration does, indeed, exist. Tantalizing scraps of evidence have come down to us in the writings of ancient historians like Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius.

But can we trust them? Do they really reinforce the Gospels with independent, unbiased evidence of Jesus?

Christians must “fight fair.” Before we set too much store by these ancient records as sources, we must ask if they are reliable. Perhaps these historians were not really saying what some Christian writers want to make them say. But does it really matter? Let’s take a closer look.

The Greco-Roman sources

1) Tacitus

The first Roman historian to mention Christ is Tacitus, who wrote his last significant work, the Annals, around A.D. 115. In this treatise, Tacitus describes the great fire of Rome during the reign of Nero and the emperor’s subsequent persecution of the Christians there. He states:

“Nero created scapegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people called ‘Christians’….Their name comes from Christ, who, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate” (Annals 15:44).

At first glance, this is an impressive passage for the Christian apologist. But let’s dig a little deeper. Where did Tacitus get his information about Jesus’ execution? It is doubtful that he was quoting an official Roman document from the period because, as scholars are quick to point out, he mistakenly calls Pilate a procurator when he was actually a prefect.

Perhaps Tacitus received it from his close friend Pliny the Younger, who may well have shared the knowledge he had acquired from contact with Christians in Asia Minor. But even if this is the case, the most we can say is that Tacitus is simply repeating what Christians of his day were saying about their origins. There is not much basis here for concluding that he was presenting independent testimony about the historical figure of Jesus.

2) Suetonius

In his biography of the emperor Claudius, written around A.D. 120, Suetonius writes about the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49. He states: “Since the Jews were constantly causing disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome” (Claudius 25:4).

Chrestus was a popular misspelling of the Greek Christos (Christ). Some scholars believe that Suetonius may have used a source that understood “Chrestus” to be Jesus. But he obviously misunderstood the police records, thinking that “Chrestus” was the name of some Jewish slave who became a ringleader during the riots of A.D. 49. Suetonius’ account makes for interesting reading. But, again, it is far from being an independent witness to the historical Jesus.

 3) Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger was proconsul of Bythinia, in Asia Minor, between A.D. 111 and 113. Pliny wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with the rapid growth of the Christian community in his area. Among other things, he describes the Christian custom of holding weekly meetings to sing praises “to Christ as to a god” (Letter 10. 96).

This passage is significant, because it is the only non-Christian source that tells us that Christians treated Christ as a “god.” But Pliny is merely describing an element of Christian worship. His comments say nothing about the historicity of Jesus.

 4) Lucian

The Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata lived from A.D. 115-200. In The Passing of Perigrinus, Lucian mocks the Christian life, describing Christians as those who worship “that crucified sophist [Jesus] himself,” and live “under his laws.” Again, we learn only what some educated people from the second century may have heard about Jesus. Lucian is definitely not an independent source of historical knowledge concerning Jesus of Nazareth.

5) Josephus

Perhaps the most significant “witness” to the life of Jesus in ancient literature is in the writings of Joseph ben Matthias, better known as Flavius Josephus (named after his patrons, the Flavian emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian). Josephus lived from A.D. 37 to 100, and wrote two famous works: The Jewish War, which was initially drafted in Aramaic, and then translated into Greek five to ten years after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. His second work, Jewish Antiquities, was completed more than a decade later. This work was much longer, and recounts Jewish history from creation to the Jewish revolt against Rome (A.D. 66-70).

Contrary to what many Christians may think, Josephus does not give us much information about Jesus. In his 28 volumes of Jewish history, there are only two passages that mention Jesus. And even these references are difficult to assess. The trouble is that Josephus’ writings were preserved for posterity by Christians (the Jews disowned him as a traitor). The texts available to us today contain statements that were added later by Christian editors. This is clearly seen in the famous Testimonium Flavianum, “the testimony of Josephus,” found in Antiquities 18:63-64. It reads as follows:

At that time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed someone should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.

Scholars of Josephus have been divided over the authenticity of this entire passage, although both sides acknowledge the obvious Christian additions (marked  in italics above).

On one hand, some scholars argue for the genuineness of the passage (without the italicized parts). They stress that the language and grammar are typical of Josephus’ style and language.

The other school of thought argues that the passage is bogus. They point to the clear Christian redaction. But they also emphasize that there are only three Greek manuscripts of Book 18 of The Antiquities – the earliest dating only to the 11th century – and the text of these is often in doubt.

The other well-known passage in Antiquities is the reference to “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” (Antiquities 20:200). Scholars generally agree that this is authentic Josephus. They do so for several reasons: First, this narrative is found in the major Greek manuscript tradition of Antiquities without variation. Second, Christian editors would not refer to James as “the brother of Jesus.” Instead, they would use the reverential phrase, “the brother of the Lord” (see, for example, Paul’s description of James in Galatians 1:19).

Third, the famous fourth-century church historian Eusebius also quotes this passage in his Ecclesiastical History (2.23.22). Interestingly, Eusebius does not quote the Testimonium Flavianum.

How do we know about Jesus?

The most we can say, then, is that Josephus is our only independent source of information about the historical Jesus. And, as we have seen, only one of his brief references to Jesus is generally recognized by the scholarly community.

So let’s ask again the questions we posed at the beginning. Do these passages provide any real basis for a knowledge of Jesus as a historical figure? I think you will agree that the answer is “No.” More importantly, should we use these passages as a primary means by which we bolster our faith in Jesus of Nazareth? Again, I hope you would agree that the answer is an emphatic “No!”

Our faith in Jesus Christ is not based on a few brief texts in the writings of Jewish and Greco-Roman historians – however fascinating they may be. How do we know about Jesus? Primarily through the most reliable witnesses, the Gospels – the great theological histories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Some Christians may be disappointed that all the substantial evidence for Jesus comes from Christian sources. If you are disappointed, here are a couple of questions you might want to consider:

First, why would Jesus leave any traces on the pages of secular history? He was virtually unknown – an traveling teacher who enjoyed limited popularity within a small community in a remote province on the eastern edge of the Roman empire. In the words of John P. Meier, professor of New Testament at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.: “Jesus was a marginal Jew leading a marginal movement in a marginal province of a vast Roman empire. The wonder is that any learned Jew or pagan would have known or referred to him at all in the first or second centuries” (A Marginal Jew, p. 56).

Second, does the fact that our evidence for Jesus comes from Christian sources mean that the evidence is too biased to be trusted? New Testament scholar Dr. R.T. France, former principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, gives us an excellent answer:

The Gospel writers tell us about Jesus because they think he is worth telling about, and they want others to follow him as well. But what worthwhile history or biography has ever been written by people who have no personal interest in what they write? Why should a ‘bias’ in favor of the subject render the history unreliable? Surely those who had been captivated by Jesus might be expected to take pains to pass on truth about him (Jesus 2000, p. 15).

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John certainly passed on the truth about Jesus. But each did so in his own unique way.

Jim Herst, 1997

Jim Herst
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