In the first entry 0f this series we considered what historical information about Jesus was found in the Bible itself. In this posting, we’ll examine what the non-Biblical historical writings reveal about the historical Jesus. And, as we saw before, the answer is… not much.
That being said, we have to consider that any writings that have survived into the modern age have had significant challenges to their survival. First, they had to be hand copied and second they had to some how survive for 2,000 years in climates, that in many instances, were not conducive to their survival. At least we have some documents, and those documents are telling.
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who is most famous for his book Jewish Antiquities in which he wrote about the Jewish-Roman wars. In his writing from the year 78 c.e. (common era, formerly referred to as A.D.), he makes two references to Jesus one of which is is considered authentic, the second is questionable. Note that this is about 50 years after the crucifixion.
The first from Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1:
“but the younger Ananus who, as we have said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are serve in judgment and above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus as 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 lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.”
History records that Ananus was a high priest who unlawfully ordered the death of James, the brother of Jesus, “the so-called Christ.” That was in 62 c.e. This entry does indicate that Jesus as the Christ was known to Josephus.
Whether or not the second reference is authentic is debated by scholars because of its credal tone. Josephus was a Jew who did not join the Jesus movement; however, the languaging of this section makes it suspicious. Another bit of history is helpful here as well. During the Jewish-Roman war, Josephus was captured by the general Trajan. When brought before Trajan, Josephus claimed he had a vision that Trajan would become emperor. His life was spared, and Trajan did not forget the prophecy. When, in fact, Trajan did become emperor, he provided Josephus with a stipend and a job. To Jews he was considered a traitor, and his writings we not copied by Jews, but by pagans or Christians.
Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it can 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. hew as the Christ, and when Pilate, a the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him a 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 for him are not extinct at this day.”
Clearly the tone of this entry reads more like a statement of faith than a recounting of history. Many scholars argue this is the hand of a Christian believer, rather than a Jewish historian.
The oldest extant pagan reference to Christians comes from the Roman historian and governor Pliny the Younger. (His uncle is referred to as Pliny the Elder.) In his correspondence to the Roman emperor Trajan from the year 112 c.e. there is a question about the legality of putting to death Christians who do not recant their faith. Pliny asks the Emperor for direction. Jesus, as a person, is not specifically noted
Three years later in 115 c.e. the Roman historian Tacitus makes a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus in his writings. In his Annals, he mentions the blaming of Christians by the Emperor Nero for the burning of the city of Rome.
Tacitus Annals 15:44
“…Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius a the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…”
Note: the “superstiton” was the sighting of the post-resurrection risen Jesus.
In this recording, we find a Roman who seems to verify the story of the crucifixion under Pontius Pilate and that the stories of the risen Christ seemed to have been spreading. Tacitus does not record anything about what Christus (Jesus) taught, and we have to note that this document dates from roughly 85 years after the crucifixion.
Although these three authors are ancient by our standards, none of them was contemporary with Jesus. Paul, as we saw in the prior entry, wrote roughly 25 years after the crucifixion, but did not know Jesus the man.
What are we to do with this information? My answer: embrace it. Ultimately, faith is not a matter of history. It is much deeper than that. We sometimes say in Unity, quoting the great storytellers of indigenous peoples, “This story may not have really happened, but it is a True story.” So as we examine the teachings of Jesus, we must ask ourselves, what is the Truth that is being taught? How does it relate to my life?
Additionally, we have to ask ourselves who wrote the story? And why?
More on that next time…