Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Christian Origins: 2. Contemporary Evidence

2. Contemporary Evidence

Critical scholarship views Jesus to be a obscure but historical person. They know for sure very little about Jesus. In their view Jesus was a small time preacher who got on the wrong side of the law and got executed. While we may speculate about what he taught and why he was killed, we in fact have very little hard historical evidence for Jesus and his ministry.

Jesus left us no writings. We actually do have some works claiming to be from the hand of Jesus. But scholars unanimously consider them forgeries.

There are simply no contemporary writers/historians who write about Jesus. Philo of Alexandria, Justus of Tiberias, Pliny the Elder and Seneca are all unaware of Jesus of Nazareth. The earth shattering events that lead to the birth of Christianity seem to have remained unknown to these historians, even though they lived in that very neighborhood.

Outside of the Gospels, the earliest reference to Jesus that we have is by a Jewish Roman historian called Josephus Flavius. In his book the Antiquities of the Jews published around AD 93/94, there are a couple of mentions of Jesus. But, these references were either added or edited later by Christian interpolators. What is hotly debated is whether all of the supposed references by Josephus are from later Christian hands or if there really was an original reference or two by Josephus himself, which were embellished later. We do not know for sure.[1] [2]

Tacitus a Roman historian, in his book Annals (around AD 109), makes a brief mention of Jesus (Christus to be precise). The mention is very brief and seems to be derived from Christians themselves. There is no independent attestation there.

Suetonius in his work 'The Lives of the Caesars' briefly mentions that around 49 AD, Jews were expelled from Rome as they were causing disturbances at the instigation of “Chrestus”. This is far too late to be Jesus of the Gospels and the location is also wrong.

Pliny the Younger in his letter to Trajan describes his crackdown on the Christians in what is now Turkey. This is from around 112 AD.

It is also sometimes claimed that a chronologer named Thallus, supposedly writing shortly after 52 AD, mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus and the noontime darkness surrounding it . But this is not credible as the report that we have is third hand. Also, from the patchy evidence that we have, it is simply not possible to accurately date this writing to 52 AD. Thallus could have been writing anytime during the first two centuries of the Christian era (and possibly even earlier). [3] [4]

These are our earliest and best non-Christian references (or the ones that come close) to Christians and Jesus. Of these Josephus is our best non-Christian reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately, the reference has been tampered with by later Christian interpolators leaving us speculating if Josephus did have knowledge about Jesus of Nazereth that was independent of the Gospels.

The Jews produced derogatory references to Jesus in the Talmuds. But these are from the 4th century and later. There is a deafening silence about Jesus of Nazareth in the contemporary Jewish literature.

Our quick survey of the non-Christian literature tells us that we have no attestation of Jesus from the first century, none except for an interpolated account in the Antiquities of the Jews.

But what about the Christian literature? We do have the Gospels and the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles to tell us what Jesus did here on earth, don't we? So, next we turn to the Gospels.


[1] Richard Carrier, "Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200," Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 [Winter 2012].

[2] G.J. Goldberg, "The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke," The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 13 [1995]: 59-77

[3] Richard Carrier, "Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death," Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 8 (2011-2012): 185-91.

[4], "Thallus: An Analysis", Richard Carrier (1999)

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