Sunday, 14 June 2015

Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?

So, to recap a previous blog, Christ is mentioned in the first hundred years of Christianity by a Jewish historian, a Roman historian, and in the personal correspondence of a Roman lawyer. This is a little more on them.

Josephus, the Jewish historian

Josephus, who wrote in Greek, was a Jewish historian. He had good sources of information. Born in the 30s of the first century, and having lived in Jerusalem, he was fairly close to events. (During a war with the Romans in Judea, he switched sides to join the winning side – the Romans. He was not sympathetic to Jesus, calling him the so-called Christ who got Jews thinking his own way, which Josephus obviously didn’t like too much.) He was a contemporary of James, Jesus' brother. Josephus and James lived in Judea at the same time, and he knew of James' death in the 60s of the first century.
More: Did Josephus mention Jesus and was that quoted by Origen?

Tacitus, the Roman historian

Tacitus, who wrote in Latin, was a Roman historian, born in the 50s of the first century. With close ties to the Roman government, he was well placed to get information too. Early in the next century, he was an official of the Roman government in Asia and he wrote a long history of the Roman war with the Jews, which means he had spent time studying Roman records about what had happened in Palestine. He probably had access to the documents in the Imperial library in Rome. He was disdainful of Jews and Christians, calling the Jesus movement a nasty ‘superstition’.

More: What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?

Pliny, the Roman lawyer

Pliny was a Roman lawyer, born in the 60s of the first century. He tried to get Christians to curse Christ, and otherwise had the unpleasant job of putting Christians to death in 110 AD. He was out in Bithynia in Asia, and apart from information he may have got from Roman sources, he got his information by torturing Christians and forcing them to give up their faith. The fact that the Christians sang to Jesus ‘as if to a god’ obviously meant that Jesus was just a man as far as Pliny was concerned. They all obviously thought he had been a real person.

The reliability of what these authors say

Now I need to tell you something about whether we can trust what we read there. The first thing to say is that, whatever sources they were gleaning from, these authors were satisfied with the validity of the reports. (Whereas, wherever they do doubt the validity of some report, it's not unusual for such authors to indicate that one way or another.)


The Josephus texts: I’m referring to three. The one about John the Baptist is Ant. 18.116-119. The one telling about Jesus is Ant. 18:63-64. The one about James’ death is Ant. 20: 200-203, and scholars normally accept that the mention of Jesus in this is authentic.

The middle one, with more about Jesus, has to be handled with more caution. This is because the passage has in it some bits that weren’t written by Josephus but by later Christian scribes when making copies of Josephus. Anyone trained in evidence and analysis can tell you that this does not make the evidence of Josephus unusable. It just means it has to be used with more caution. That means using ancient evidence to strip out the bits added by Christians and only using the bits that are left, the bits by Josephus.[1]

That’s what I’ve done, to err on the side of caution, in the previous blog. We can be confident which bits they are. I don’t take heed of modern naysayers and mythicists who say the whole thing is unusable and was entirely made up by Christians: that sort of thing usually comes in a package of denying every bit of ancient evidence about Jesus, and that for ideological reasons (trying to debunk Christianity) rather than for the painstaking work of writing history professionally. In any case, the passage about the death of James, with the mention of Jesus being called Christ, is undisputed except by those naysayers who will deny any evidence of Christ owing to an ideological agenda.


Thus, it is the same people who would say the entire passage in Tacitus was made up by Christian scribes when they copied Tacitus' writings. It’s not just the obvious pattern of naysayers that should make us suspicious of those who say it is all unusable. Tacitus’ words themselves are obviously not written by Christians, poisonous words calling Christians and their religion a ‘disease’, a ‘pernicious superstition’, a people ‘loathed for their vices’ who have ‘hatred for the human race’. And Tacitus links all this back to their following Christ. This is just not the sort of publicity which Christians want Christ’s name to be associated with. Tacitus wrote all these words, none of it was written by Christians. Naysayers who say otherwise are just being tendentious.

But what was Tacitus’ source for his information? Some say he would have this information from Christians, but in contrast Tacitus never says he had any Christian source, and his material is too hostile towards Christians to be from any Christian source. He spent time out east, so was probably informed of this new Jewish group there, and he would have had access to the Roman Empire’s records because of his official position. He wrote lengthy histories about Rome and about the Jewish War. He wasn’t ignorant of these things.

So we have a measure of independent evidence for Jesus’ existence, and the existence of his early followers. Considering that Jerusalem’s contemporary first century records have not been seen since the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD – where they would have gone up in smoke - the work of these writers has filled in the gap for us.

A footnote on Josephus: should he have said more?

Although some have speculated that Josephus ought to have said more, this is mistaken, and shows little knowledge about Josephus' tendencies as a writer. If anyone wants to see how Josephus was capable of writing about some events, compare what he says about this terrible incident for the Jews in Egypt. He doesn’t say much, compared with the witness Philo. You see, Philo says that the Romans in Alexandria (in Egypt) were…
  • “destroying the synagogues”
  • "issued a notice… allowing any one who was inclined to proceed to exterminate the Jews as prisoners of war"
  • "drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one"
  • "slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures … wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks"
  • "the most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents”
  • "those who did these things, mimicked the sufferers”
Now, in contrast, and look closely, this is how Josephus describes the violence:

  • “There was now a tumult arisen at Alexandria, between the Jewish inhabitants and the Greeks” (Ant. xviii.8)

And that’s it. Blink and you’d miss it. Josephus had his own agendas, and only wrote what he wanted to write. Which was often to make the Romans look better than they really were. The fact that his comments on Jesus are brief is no more than can be expected of him.

[1] You can see how this is done in Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ, 48-9.

Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction
Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?
Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?
Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?
You are here - Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?
Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?
Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?
Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?
So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)
Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?
Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?
Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?

No comments:

Post a Comment