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Non-Christian Sources for Jesus: An Interview with History.com

I have recently had a written interview about the historical Jesus with Christopher Klein, correspondent with History.com, the web site of the History Channel.  I’m not sure what the title of the article will be; it should be appearing relatively soon, as a lead up to Easter.

He has graciously allowed me to post the questions and answers from the interview.  They all deal with the non-Christian evidence we have for the life of Jesus.

 

QUESTION:

Can you say a few words about why it’s not surprising that there is no archaeological evidence of Jesus?

 

RESPONSE:

It makes sense that people today would think that we should have archaeological evidence of Jesus – after all, he’s the most important figure in the history of Western Civilization!  If he existed, surely we’d have some physical record of it, right?   The problems are that (a) we too quickly assume that someone who is important *after* his life must have been equally important *during* his life; but that’s absolutely not the case.  No one who has looked seriously into the matter thinks Jesus was “the talk of the empire,” of importance to anyone outside of his small circle of acquaintances in rural Palestine.  Even more important (b) the reality is that we don’t have archaeological records for virtually *anyone* who lived in Jesus’ time and place.

Who was the most important Jewish figure in Palestine for the entire first century (who wasn’t, say, the actual king)?  There’s no doubt.  Flavius Josephus.  Highly placed aristocrat, military leader, political figure, eventually made a court historian by the Roman emperor himself, and our principal source of information for the Jewish people and history at the time.  And how much archaeological evidence do we have of his existence?  None.

So too, who is (by far) the best known Jewish cultural figure *outside* of Palestine in the first century?   Again, not much competition: Philo of Alexandria, brilliant philosopher, massively prolific author, political activist, known even at the highest levels of government in Rome itself.  How  much archaeological evidence do we have of his existence?  Again, none.   The lack of evidence does not mean a person at the time didn’t exist.  It means that she or he, like 99.99% of the rest of the world at the time, made no impact on the archaeological record.  Evidence of existence has to be established, then, on other grounds.

 

QUESTION:

Can you talk about the importance of Flavius Josephus in describing the history of first-century Palestine and why he can be considered a reliable source?

 

RESPONSE:

Flavius Josephus is far and away our best source of information about first-century Palestine, without a rival.  That doesn’t mean he’s completely reliable – far from it.  But it does mean that anyone who wants to know about the history, politics, military activities, economy, society, and religion of Palestine is heavily indebted to Josephus more than any other source, by a large margin.

Josephus wrote a six-volume account of the Jewish uprising against Rome in 66-73 CE, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple.  He was a bona fide expert.  He was a general in the Jewish military at the beginning of the conflict and, after his surrender, a hostage used by the Romans as an interpreter/mediator.

He later wrote a massive 20-volume account of the history of the Jewish people from the beginning down to his own day, devoting most attention to events and persons nearest his own time  For both subjects we have very few other sources – scattered and remote.  But since he covered the same ground in these two separate works, his comments in one can be compared with those in another.  When that is done carefully, it is clear that Josephus slants his accounts according to the personal agenda he had in writing (there are discrepancies that are best accounted for this way).  So he was not writing a disinterested history.

But then again, who ever did?  Historians have to do with Josephus what they do with all other ancient sources (from Herodotus and Thucydides onward): carefully note what he says and just as carefully evaluate it, in light internal inconsistencies, discrepancies with other accounts, and general historical plausibilities.   Still, when all this is said and done, Josephus gives us remarkably valuable insights into the history of first century Palestine.

 

QUESTION:

Why is Tacitus a reliable source for his mention of Christus and his execution by Pontius Pilate?

 

RESPONSE:

As a Roman historian, Tacitus did not have any Christian biases in his discussion of the persecution of Christians by Nero in 64 CE, as recounted in his multi-volume work, the Annals of Rome (book 15).  He was reporting what was widely known, at least to those who knew anything about it.  It seems unlikely that he had Christian sources of information for his account (he almost certainly was not interviewing Christians for information); his account is as an outsider, who considers Christians to represent a foul and obnoxious superstition involving a crucified criminal.

In order to explain why Nero used Christians as a scapegoat for the fire that devasted much of Rome in 64 CE (Tacitus suspects that Nero himself had directed the arsonists to do his work), Tacitus had to explain why they were susceptible of the charge.  Everyone knew, he indicates, that they harbored a “hatred of the human race,” which, he asserts, is only natural for a nefarious and (in his view) fairly crazy religious superstition rooted in devotion to a leader who was recognized as subversive and executed, as such, by the Roman governor of his province of Judea.  Tacitus helpfully give us the name Pontius Pilate.

That means that just about everything he says coincides – from a completely different point of view, by a Roman author disdainful of Christians and their superstition – with what the New Testament itself says: Jesus was executed by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (who ruled 26-36 CE), for crimes against the state, and a religious movement of his followers sprang up in his wake.

 

QUESTION:

What is the value of these small non-Christian snippets written about Jesus (which you talk about in Chapter 2 of Did Jesus Exist?) compared to the much lengthier accounts in the New Testament?

 

RESPONSE:

One would certainly not expect any literary reference to Christians or Christianity or Jesus himself in Roman authors of the first century.  Christianity was simply a tiny (TINY) religious movement that no one had heard of.  Most Romans would not even have heard the name Christian until probably the middle or end of the second century, well over a century after the movement started.

The fact that we do have some Roman authors mentioning Jesus and/or the Christian already within eighty years of his death – Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius – shows that Roman intellectuals who were interested in such things (some of them) had no trouble understanding where this tiny, odd, religious superstition came from.  It originated with “Christ” (hence the name: Christian), in Judea, at the time of the emperor Tiberius.  These authors have no stake in saying this.  It was just information known from their own Roman sources of information.

This much information does not help us much at all (in fact, almost not at all) in knowing what Jesus said and did during his life.  But it is useful for realizing that Jesus was known by historians who had reason to look into the matter.  No one thought he was made up.   If you want to see what actually happened in his life, of course, you would not want to rely on these kinds of sources – who don’t give us much.  You would need to look at our much earlier and extensive sources.

These are all Christian and are obviously and understandably biased in what they report, and have to be evaluated very critically indeed to establish any historically reliable information.  But their central claims about Jesus as a historical figure – a Jew, with followers, executed on orders of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius – are borne out by these later sources with a completely different set of biases.   That and more is borne out even more fully by Josephus, a Jewish historian with yet other axes to grind, but who also knows that Jesus existed and that we can say something about his teaching, reputation, and death.

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A New Way of Looking at the Gospels
If the Quest for the Historical Jesus Failed… What Then?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  February 24, 2019

    While I knew most of this already, it is an admirable summation of both the evidence for Jesus’ existence, and why it is credible, and why we can’t decide if most people from that time existed or not based on whether there are any coins with their likeness on them. (There are, I would presume, coins with the likenesses of pagan gods on them, which just confuses the matter more.)

    What is still lacking is a full and fair summation of why so many people (though still a tiny minority) keep insisting there was no Jesus, though none of them can ever produce a single argument to that effect, and it seems to constitute, in effect, a religious belief of their own.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2019

      I deal with that in Did Jesus Exist (since I do have some theories about it).

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 26, 2019

        That is the second book of yours I read, several years after Misquoting Jesus (which I found in a pile of abandoned books on the sidewalk). It’s been a few years, and I do not have perfect recall. I do vaguely recollect your getting into that side-subject, but your main thrust was covering why these people are wrong, not why they insist on continuing to be wrong, when all the evidence points the other way.

        And the answer is–human. Not that we’re all equally like this. But to some extent, we’re all like this. We look for things to believe, and having found them, abandon them with only the greatest of reluctance.

        This was true before we had gods, and would continue to be true after we all abandoned them.

        An unavoidable side-effect of our more complex minds. That our animal brethren would pity us for, could they understand it.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  February 27, 2019

      I think the Jesus Myth Theory is picking up speed. The comments I see about mythicism on various websites, blogs, etc., used to be few and far between. Now they’re in the hundreds. For example, an article about Jesus posted on History.com last week generated over 2,800 comments with at least 550 being about mythicism. (Commenters’ threads have numerical counts attached to them)

      What’s really unfortunate is the massive amount of ignorance associated with it.

  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  February 24, 2019

    Very informative Bart, thank you.

  3. Avatar
    Jim  February 24, 2019

    Tacitus was responsible for the story that Nero started the great fire of Rome in 64 CE, and that the he played his violin while the city burned. But according to the Wiki article on the History of the Violin, “the history of bowed string instruments in Europe goes back to the 9th century with the Byzantine lira”, while the violin/fiddle was first made in the early 16th century, in Italy. Was Tacitus also a prophet? 🙂

    In any case, PBS premiered Secrets of the Dead: Nero Files this past week (Feb 20) where other origins for the Great Fire were explored under the assumption that “Tacitus was a member of the Roman elite, and whether there is a bias in his writing (including the fire) is difficult to know.”

    A few of the consultants seem to have the relevant historical studies credentials; Manfred Clauss (ancient historian), Rebecca Benefiel (historian) and Martin Zimmermann (ancient history) and Paul Schubert (classical scholar).

    Can the historical accuracy of Tacitus’ claim for Nero’s role (and actions(?)) in the Great Fire be reasonably challenged? (I ask this because if Tacitus’ account is based on his (and other elites) anti-Nero bias, maybe other associated stories, like the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome under Nero’s reign, well, ..…)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2019

      Ha! Yes, it wasn’t a violin. Actually Tacitus doesn’t mention a musical instrument. He says that Nero was singing about the fall of Troy (as known to us — and him? — principally from Virgil’s Aeneid). Tacitus himself does not come to a definitive conclusion about how the fire started, and only hints that he thinks probably, at the end of the day, it was because of Nero himself, not the Christians (or anything else)

      • Avatar
        Jim  February 25, 2019

        Thanks for your helpful overview … I gotta stop getting my pseudo-historical data from trivia quiz games.

        • Avatar
          Kirktrumb59  February 26, 2019

          And while you’re at it, cast a jaundiced eye at Wikipedia, from which I have discerned, as I’m confident have many others, numerous and sometimes egregious errors/inaccuracies

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 25, 2019

      Nero was a moderately accomplished amateur musician, who played the cithara, a type of lyre. He would give concerts (and if you were in the Roman court, you were well advised to both attend and loudly applaud, and not use phrases like ‘moderately accomplished’). He also fancied himself a great actor. The performing arts were a passion for him, and this was seen by many in Roman high society as improper for someone in his position.

      So not surprisingly, when the great fire occurred, and he seemed determined to blame the Christians for it, tongues wagged. He was not well-liked, nor was he known for his deep personal integrity. He had a tendency, as have other imperious personalities of more recent vintage, I name no names, to proactively blame others for his own failings, create imaginary enemies of Rome to distract from dissatisfaction with his reign, so rumors spread that he personally set the fire. There is no evidence this is the case. Or that it is not the case. For most of history, most major cities have had disastrous fires, without any need for arson.

      Christians were a tiny nonviolent sect then, and there’s zero reason to think they did it. They were scapegoated, as happens to many minorities, but Nero overplayed his hand, and created suspicion of himself where none need have existed. Of course, this is more documentary evidence that Christianity existed, and was growing, to the point where someone like Nero would feel he could use them in this fashion.

      The phrase ‘fiddled while Rome burned’ as Bart mentions, was not from Tacitus, and didn’t come about until much later. It’s intentionally anachronistic. It has no bearing on the reliability of Tacitus, and as has already been discussed, no modern historian worth his or her salt assumes ANY primary source (let alone one several thousand years old) is wholly reliable and unbiased.

      And while curiosity about the past is always commendable, I feel anyone with internet access can, with a bit of effort, learn all this without resort to asking a major scholarly authority to resolve the matter. And television documentaries of the type you mention (pace PBS) are not always the best place to start.

      http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CJ/42/4/Nero_Fiddled*.html

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 24, 2019

    How much of the Testimonium Flavianum do you think is original?

    Do you think as a non-native Greek speaker the word Χριστός might not have had the same emotional value to Josephus as say the transliteration Μεσσίας would have had. And so Josephus may have been more likely to use it?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2019

      Maybe I’ll post on this. I think everything except the blatantly Christian claims (including “he was the messiah” of course) is authentic.

  5. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 24, 2019

    Off topic question – what’s your opinion on what the numbers 12 and 7 are supposed to signify in Mark/Matthews stories of the feeding of the 5,000/4,000?

  6. Avatar
    Hon Wai  February 24, 2019

    What were Josephus’ written sources for his massive volumes? Nobody can possibly remember accurately so much historical, or even near contemporary, information from memory alone. Presumably much of the documents relating to Jewish history were kept in Jerusalem, and were destroyed by the Romans along with the city itself at end of the Jewish War.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2019

      He mentions a number of sources. But of course for the Antiquities much of it comes from retellings of the Hebrew Bible. His other sources no longer survive. For the Jewish War, he was an active participant and knew the ins and outs quite well from his personal involvement.

  7. Avatar
    Pattylt  February 24, 2019

    Am I correct that you had, at one time, a PHD student doing his thesis on Josephus? If I’m right, did he come to a conclusion on the Jesus passages as completely interpolated or only partially interpolated? Is it available for reading by us non scholars? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2019

      He argued it was a complete interpolation, written by Eusebius. Unfortunately, the thesis was never completely finished and he did not get a PhD.

  8. Avatar
    seahawk41  February 24, 2019

    This is not a comment on the above post, but a question. You have said many times in the blog and (I think) in your books that it is unlikely that Jesus was not buried, but more likely was left on the cross to be eaten by birds. And you stated that this was the Roman custom. I am reading Jane Schaberg’s book, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, and she has an interesting discussion of this point on pp 280-81. First, she quoted several Roman authors (Suetonius, Tacitus, Petronius, and Horace) to the effect that this was in fact the Roman custom. She then mentions the requirement in Deuteronomy that those hanged should not be left hanging after sunset and then cites Josephus and rabbinic tradition to the effect that was disgraceful to leave a corpse unburied. She then cites later tradition that the Sanhedrin maintained burial places for the bodies executed criminals to decay, and that after a year, the bones would be released to the family for transfer to an ossuary. My question is “What do you think of this line of argument?”

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2019

      It is hard to know whether these later rabbinic traditions reflect actual historical conditions or not; but the bigger problem is that there is no way of knowing if they apply to the 20s of the first century, since tehy were written, in their earliest form, a couple of hundred years later in a completely idfferent context. (Kind of like using late 20th century comments about American customs to figure out what life was like in the original colonies)

    • Avatar
      Matt2239  February 25, 2019

      Leaving a crucified person on the cross as an example was the likely way Romans would act, but Jesus is the most unlikely person ever. His ministry lasted only three years more than 2000 years ago, and yet today there are 2 billion people and 6 billion Bibles who all say he was removed from the cross and later rose from the dead.

      • Avatar
        Leovigild  February 27, 2019

        Almost as unlikely as Mohammed.

        • Avatar
          godspell  March 4, 2019

          Muhammad had an army, and lived to a ripe old age, surrounded by followers. It’s an amazing story, but I think even Muhammad found parts of Jesus’ story unbelievable which is why he changed it–said Jesus wasn’t crucified. Somebody else got killed in his place.

          Because honestly, how could a man crucified as a criminal, abandoned by his disciples, become the center of a religion that to this day is the largest and most influential on earth?

  9. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 25, 2019

    Makes you wonder how many amazing thinkers we know nothing about it. Just vanished to history. Certainly we would want to know more about the pre-Socratics.

  10. Avatar
    Hngerhman  February 25, 2019

    Dr Ehrman – apologies if there’s one of your posts or other works that touches on this (that I have missed): curious your thoughts on the Suetonius “Chrestus is Christ vs. Chresto” debate(s). Thanks!

  11. Avatar
    Matt2239  February 25, 2019

    Powerful read.

  12. Avatar
    Andrew  March 3, 2019

    Could Mark have utilised Pontius Pilate in his story of Jesus’ execution as a result of reading Tacitus?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2019

      Not possible, since Tacitus was clearly writing around 115 CE, and mark was in wide circulation by then.

  13. Avatar
    Blaircb  July 27, 2019

    I have always imagined that the Romans were meticulous record keepers. I can certainly understand why the impromptu crucifixion of a single troublemaker in an outlying province wouldn’t make it into the official Roman record. However, it seems odd that if Nero himself is going to blame the Christians for a fire in the capital city itself, there would be some contemporary record of it. Instead, we have to wait until the early second century for any Roman to mention Christians at all.

    Do we really have so few surviving day-to-day Roman records and correspondence?

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