As Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus during Good Friday and Easter, I want to briefly deal with the claims of skeptics that Jesus never existed as a real person and was a mythical fiction by the early Christians. Of course, skeptics will not accept the New Testament documents as reliable witnesses to the historicity of Jesus. Fine, I can understand their logic that the New Testament documents are biased. Thankfully, there are non-Christian ancient documents that mentioned Jesus that we can turn to. There are, at least, seven ancient Classical or Greco-Roman authors who mentioned Jesus that scholars have attested as authentic. And there are various ancient Jewish writings as well, the most famous being the Jewish historian Flavious Josephus. Obviously I don’t have space to look at all of these documents in detail with you. For this blog post, I will look at Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities.
Before we do that, I just want to quickly talk about the claim of forgery. Skeptics have dismissed these non-Christian ancient sources as later forgeries, interpolations or additions by Christians. The reason why some scholars can make the claim of forgeries or additions is because there were some forged documents that scholars have found. This is evident in another book by Josephus, the Jewish War (ca. 66-70 CE).
An old Russian Slavic translation of Josephus’ Jewish War was found that described Jesus in this way: “his nature and form were human, but his appearance was superhuman and his works were divine. It is therefore impossible for me to call him a mere man; … I will not call him an angel.” (cited in Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 85) It also states that, “he did nothing shameful. He did nothing with his hands, but with his word alone.” (ibid., 85-86) This text also claims that Pilate did not crucify Jesus but surrendered him to the Jews who crucified Jesus themselves.
Almost all scholars and historians see this entire passage as forgery, a later addition by Christians into Josephus’ work because it is unlikely that the Jewish Josephus would say such glowing things about Jesus, especially in a language that suggests Jesus as not only human but not an angel either, which sounds like language from much later Christian theological debates about Jesus. Also, it contradicts Josephus himself in his other work, Antiquities, that Pilate and the Romans crucified Jesus. This addition was probably later by Christians who were anti-Semitic and blamed the Jews directly for crucifying Jesus.
I am being honest here about this even though it might weaken my argument but I want you to see how an actual forged or added passage looks like so that we can make a comparison with the other genuine Josephus document to see why they are genuine.
There are two passages in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (ca. 90 CE) that mention Jesus. The first shorter one is this:
He [Ananus the High Priest] assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Ant. 20.9.1 §200) (English translation from Jesus Outside the New Testament, 83)
The overwhelming majority of scholars hold this entire passage to be authentic. A Christian editor would have probably described James with a little more praise, and especially Jesus. Here, Josephus stated it in a neutral way: “Jesus called Christ”. An early Christian would probably have made it a more definitive statement like, “Jesus the Christ”. Anyways, the passage fits its context very well. So, here, we have a historical corroboration of the New Testament that Jesus and James existed, they were brothers and that early Christians were in trouble with the religious authorities of Judaism, and persecuted.
The second and more famous passage from Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities is here:
Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is right to call him a man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who accept the truth with pleasure. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. He was the Messiah. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, [but] those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. For on the third day he appeared to them alive again, because the divine prophets had prophesied these and myriad other things about him. To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared. (Ant. 18.3.3 §63-64) (English translation from Jesus Outside the New Testament, 85)
This second passage has been debated by scholars on whether it is genuine or not. The majority consensus is that this passage is overall authentic but has a few lines of additions, interpolations, by later Christians. The words or lines highlighted in bold are the lines that scholars suspect are added by Christians. It is unlikely that Josephus, a Jew, would write these things about Jesus. He would not suggest that Jesus was more than human. He would most certainly not call Jesus the Messiah. At best, he would say, “he was called the Messiah.” He would also not have known that the prophets had prophesied about Jesus’ resurrection! These lines were clearly additions.
But if we take the added lines out, we still have a neutral description of Jesus that the majority of scholars say is authentic and still corroborate the New Testament evidence:
Around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who accept the truth with pleasure. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, [but] those who had first loved him did not cease [doing so]. To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared.
Scholars say these remaining words are consistent with Josephus’ style in the rest of his book, and consistent with his neutral treatment of others, and elsewhere Josephus described John the Baptist as “a good man” and in neutral terms, so describing Jesus here as “a wise man” is consistent with Josephus’ style.
There are also other clues as to why this is authentic. First, Josephus said that Jesus won over both “many Jews and many Greeks”. But the New Testament says that Jesus only preached to Jews, and had only limited contact with Gentiles. So, this statement is actually inaccurate. But it is a logical mistake for a historian who saw many Gentile Christians in his time in 90 CE and assumed back into time that in 30 CE when Jesus lived that there were many Gentile or Greek Christians too. A Christian editor would probably not have made such a mistake.
A second clue is that Josephus called Christians a “tribe”, which is an odd way to describe Christians. A Christian editor would probably not use such phrasing. Only one ancient Christian writer ever used “tribe” to talk about Christians (Eusebius in the late 3rd century CE). So the conclusion is that this passage is authentic once we removed the obvious interpolations. As authentic, it describes Jesus as a historical person, and that he did some amazing deeds, was a good teacher, had a following, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that his followers, who continued even after he died, were called Christians. These corroborate the New Testament story. And Josephus was writing about 60 years after the death of Jesus.
Why No Contemporary Documents?
Now, the 60 years time lapse between Josephus and Jesus might be problematic to some. Why don’t we have any ancient historians more contemporary to Jesus mentioning Jesus in their writings? There are simple logical reasons for this. Firstly, Jesus would have been seen by contemporary historians as simply a failed wanna-be Messiah who was executed as a criminal. There was no immediate significance to Jesus to warrant any mention in the history books. Even the stories or claims of his resurrection would have been dismissed by ancient historians. Secondly, as Christianity grew into an actual movement that reached even Rome, that was when historians started taking notice and making mention of Christianity’s founder. Hence, it is perfectly logical that our earliest historical non-Christian mentions of Jesus would be 60 years after Jesus’ death when Christianity has grown into a movement of note.
Finally, a few more notes about Josephus’ historical mention of Jesus. At that point in history, Christianity and Judaism were religious rivals. If there were good materials for Jews to discredit Christianity, you would be sure that they would use it. Yet, Josephus here, and later by other rabbinic polemics on Christianity, did not even hint at the possibility that Jesus did not exist. Surely, if there was any evidence that Jesus was fiction, you would think that the Jewish rabbis and writers would have brought it up, as they did in attacking Jesus’ virgin birth (ancient rabbis claimed that Mary had an illegitimate child with a Roman soldier Pantera), for instance.
If Josephus, writing 60 years later, did not have any evidence to deny Jesus’ historicity, it is a hard claim to support that within 60 years, a group of Jews could have created a mythical figure named Jesus Christ and duped everyone into believing he’s real. And I haven’t even touched on other historical sources and issues of dating the various New Testament documents.
- The Historicity of Jesus: Ancient Pagan Sources (3dchristianity.wordpress.com)